Thursday, November 12, 2015

On the Uses of Political Leadership, a Critique of Division on the Left

You're out of power, you're being treated horribly, you're angry, and you can't reach your real enemies. So you attack the allies that are in easy reach.

It is cowardly. It makes it easy for your enemies to divide and destroy you.

The conservatives are right. We are undisciplined. Faced with a challenge, we turn to fighting among ourselves.

This election looks like it is the Democrats and the progressives to lose, and we may lose it because we can't direct our anger at our real enemies.

Book Review: Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

Benforado, Adam. Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. New York: Crown, 2015. 379 pages.
Unfair is a broad survey of current psychological research relevant to the US criminal justice system. Underpinning it is a terrifying reality: the criminal justice system, as it has grown since the foundation of the USA, is not founded in reality, but rather in a series of guesses about human thought and behavior. Life and death issues are being decided by unchecked, often invalid, methods. I have read other books that cover some of this material, but I have not seen any other book that brings together so much of it.
The book is twelve chapters grouped into four major sections: Investigation, with chapters on victims, detectives, and suspects; Adjudication, on lawyers, juries, eyewitnesses, experts, and judges; Punishment, on public attitudes and prisons; and Reform, broken into “The Challenge” and “The Future.” Each chapter is a monograph, addressing a single aspect of the problem.
The chapters are written more-or-less as legal arguments addressed to the court of public opinion, and therefore in plain, easily accessible English, with striking examples — I bet Professor Benforado is a kickass trial lawyer — but there is a huge amount of research behind them. The printed bibliography, which is abbreviated, is 75 pages long, and the full bibliography, available online, runs 304 PDF pages.
The book goes from evaluation of victims, through interrogation and the idea of criminality, and on through the system of trials and sentencing, giving horrifying examples of failure at each stage. For instance, we have this on parole board judging:
An analysis of more than a thousand rulings [of two Israeli parole boards] showed that the judges were significantly more likely to grant prisoners parole at the beginning of the workday or after one of the two food breaks — ruling in favor of prisoners about 65% of the time — than they were at the end of the day or right before a break, when favorable rulings dropped almost to zero. Moreover, factors like the severity of the crime and the amount of time the prisoner had already served — which should influence the judges’ decisions — tended not to have an impact on rulings. The time of day seemed to be the important thing.
I have only two quibbles with the book: (1) the very accessibility of the language and the design of the book conceals the erudition behind it and (2) the reform suggestions are very thin. There are no footnotes for the reader who wants to follow up on particular examples, though a search of the online bibliography will bring them up. There are not even running chapter heads, which makes it more difficult to refer back to particular arguments. This probably explains why the book has gotten few editorial reviews; it is not taken seriously enough.
The final chapter of suggestions for reform is a scant 29 pages, and very thin. Problems without solutions make many readers uncomfortable, and any courtroom case wraps up with an argument for action, but I wish, nonetheless, for a different conclusion. That chapter could easily be another book, and perhaps it should be.
These quibbles notwithstanding, this is an important and well-researched book: go read it.

·      Buy the book at, which treats its workers decently.
·      NPR interview with Benforado
·      Book page at Benforado’s own site

Monday, November 9, 2015

Grebacle, Three Months On: Failing at Court Politics

Grebacle = Greek debacle

So Syriza caved in, the Eurocrats are looting Greece, and the Greeks are in a for a generation of poverty.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greek Finance Minister at the time, “I was warning the Cabinet this was going to happen [the ECB shut our banks] for a month, in order to drag us into a humiliating agreement. When it happened – and many of my colleagues couldn’t believe it happened – my recommendation for responding ‘energetically,’ let’s say, was voted down. […] out of six people we were in a minority of two.”

Looks to me like the Syriza leadership got cold feet. They also seem to me to have lacked imagination: they couldn’t imagine that the Germans would cut them off, even after it happened. I also think Syriza didn’t understand what a high-stakes negotiation would be like, and the ways the party with the upper hand acts to wear down the opposing side. Rulers need courtiers, so that they can maintain their energy and self-confidence in hard dealings. Even with good friends around me and adequate sleep, I would have trouble staying on track when faced with 14 hostile opponents. There apparently were only six members of the Greek negotiating team, which wasn’t enough. Add to that, the Eurocrats set a grueling schedule. Varoufakis comments: “I no longer have to live through this hectic timetable, which was absolutely inhuman, just unbelievable. I was on 2 hours sleep every day for five months.” After a few days of that the Greek team must have been negotiating like a crew of drunks—it is no wonder they brought back a poor agreement.

As to future Euro exits, I think that unless the Eurocrats adopt Keynesian policies, they are inevitable. Other countries will study the Greek debacle and learn from it.

The Greeks lost to their own failed leadership. We have the Greek public both wanting to stay in the Eurozone and wanting the austerity eased, and there was no way Germnay would every accede to that, but apparently no-one bothered to tell the Greek public, to present the choice and say, "We can have the Euro or control of our own economy, not both." And so Greece was sold.

Months down the road: in Portugal a coalition with a 62% majority has not been allowed to form a government. Who is in charge in the Eurozone? Apparently German bankers.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Politics and Science: Hard to Be a Moderate

It used to be that anti-science blither mostly came from the right. Now we've got anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO'ers, back-to-the-landers, and gods-know-what-else. It makes it hard to adopt positions critical of the pharmaceutical industry, agribusiness, or some of the more righteous environmentalists without accusations.

Why is moderation so hard? Saying "Both sides are wrong" gets you slammed by fanatics faster than anything. "Yes, the pharmaceutical industry commits many abuses, and vaccination saves lives?" "Yes, the seed sellers are greedy and manipulative and want to own your seed corn and most GMOs are not a hazard to human health, nor is glyphosate (Round-Up) toxic to humans, though it may be an ecological problem." "Climate change is a real and alarming problem and we do not know how to sustain our current population with alternative energy yet." "No, there is no radiation danger to the North American west coast from the Fukushima disaster and there is a very serious danger to the land around Fukushima, which may be arriving in that half-alive state of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone where half the leaves do not rot."

To ask the question is to know the answer: people are in fear of their lives, which breeds madness, and people are attached to their fears. I suppose also there is a difference between a fantasy fear, which can be comforting (consider horror novels) and a well-documented real fear: people would so very much like to believe that these very real dangers are fantasies.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Failure of the Right and Questions for the Left

(Mostly to a conservative on hard questions asked during the Republican debate.)

Hard questions are part of the job of moderators. And, frankly, crazy ideas deserve hard questions. We want those exploded, because otherwise they become crazy policies.

And my side needs hard questions, too. If one wants to select good leaders, it is necessary to, as economist Brad Delong says, "Mark your beliefs to market" — find out if the results were as claimed and get explanations of why one thinks a policy might produce a given result.

As a young man I was much more conservative and sympathetic to libertarian views. But since Reagan we had 30 years of increasing conservatism and policies called libertarian. Nothing has worked out as promised, nothing. The tax cuts blew up the national debt. The wars and militarism made enemies without promoting democracy. The freedom libertarian economics promised turned out to be freedom for the rich only, and subservience to corporations for everyone else. Deregulation enabled extensive corruption, rather than releasing creativity and economic growth. Even neo-liberal economics, with an impeccable intellectual pedigree, failed the acid test of the collapse of 2007-8.

The hard questions I'd like to see my side asked?
1. What are you doing about the environment?
2. No, really, what are you doing about the environment?
3. We told the world that protest by people of good will would be enough to secure freedom and democracy. This has failed. What are you going to put in its place?
4. Why did you wait so long to act on these matters?
5. Why is institutionalized racism still an issue in the USA, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act and 150 years after the Civil War?

There are times when I feel like we are governed by Wile E. Coyote, or perhaps Sylvester the cat.

One answer, I think, may be found in LBJ's famous remark on racism:
If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.
We are much to wedded to supremacism — the idea that humans can be ranked, top to bottom, and people will fight, rightly so, not to be on the bottom. So people who realized they were not at the top of the pyramid are plotting to overturn the whole thing. These, surely, are Donald Trump's followers. Perhaps, as feminists have suggested, we would be better off to think about centrality rather than verticality. If people on the fringes struggle to move towards the center, this is better than people who struggle to put other people below themselves.

I also want to expand on my point (3) above: the popular idea that getting out in the street will be enough has, got a lot of people killed. We need to stop that. You need to go somewhere once you get out there. You need to organize and take power. Or...look at how Occupy was dissolved from within by its rigorous anarchism. Or the brutal treatment of the democratic movements of the Arab Spring. People ought to study Gandhi more: he was stern and shrewd, a lawgiver willing to die but not kill for his cause. If Westerners knew his thought better (I have only read a little) he would be less popular, but perhaps we would have more victories and more peace.