Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Preventing Teen Violence Before it Starts

In Specific Facts on April 30, 2010 at 6:33 pm

by Murray BarnesFor years, gun, gang, and youth violence have plagued Chicago, but the city has been particularly hit hard this spring. Last week, Chicago experienced more than 30 shootings and seven Chicagoans were shot to death in one night. Many of those killed were teenagers.  This comes on the heels of Chicago teen Derrion Albert’s brutal killing last fall where Albert was beaten to death by peers while walking home from school. The incident was captured on cell phone video by witnesses and garnered national attention.  Overall crime and homicide rates have gone down in Chicago over the past several years, but teen murder rates are still high. A record 36 Chicago Public School students were killed in 2009, up from 31 in 2008.

In trying to understand the myriad reasons behind Chicago’s violence, I came across Heather MacDonald’s controversial article on why community organizing and government intervention have been ineffective in curbing the violence. Her argument is that Chicago youth crime is an issue tied to family structure. She suggests that the lack of two-parent homes has lead to a “culture of illegitimacy” in which individuals – not society or its institutions – are responsible. She writes:

 … 75% of Chicago’s black children were being born out of wedlock. The sky-high illegitimacy rate meant that black boys were growing up in a world in which it was normal to impregnate a girl and then take off. When a boy is raised without any social expectation that he will support his children and marry his children’s mother, he fails to learn the most fundamental lesson of personal responsibility. The high black crime rate was one result of a culture that fails to civilize men through marriage.

MacDonald’s approach is misguided because it assumes unproved facts, it does not provide solutions, and it uses language that perpetuates racial inequalities.

MacDonald’s article contains a flaw of assumption: there is no evidence that being born to a single parent causes a child to commit violent acts. Single-parent homes and youth violence may be related, but there is no proven causal relationship. Instead, research shows a causal link between youth development and parenting style. A traditional two-parent family structure is less important than having at least one parent who exhibits positive parental behavior. In his extensive study on youth violence and the role of parents/families, Laurence Steinberg concludes:

Children from homes characterized by negative parenting were at risk for problems regardless of their ethnicity or income and regardless of whether their parents were married, divorced, single, or remarried. In other words, the quality of the parent-child relationship matters much more than the social demographics of the household.

I sympathize with MacDonald’s attempt to use her intuition to draw conclusions. We can’t always trust research or assume that it’s up to date given how long it takes to conduct and publish studies, so it makes sense to rationalize based on what we know: in this case, that fatherless teens killed Derrion Albert, so there is a natural connection between their single-parent situations and their violent behavior. Let’s assume for a moment that she’s right. What, then, is the solution? She does not present one, and instead implies the issue’s perpetual intractability:

In autumn 2009, one in seven girls at Chicago’s Paul Robeson High School was either expecting or had already given birth to a child. It’s not hard to predict where Chicago’s future killers are coming from.

Her language not only exhibits a lack of regard for teen pregnancy and youth violence, but also fails to recognize or suggest programs that address and solve these problems. I would bring to her attention CeaseFire, a successful University of Illinois-based non-profit that exhibits exactly the characteristics that MacDonald calls ineffective: CeaseFire works with the community and the government to curb gun violence. Amongst CeaseFire’s community outreach members are former gang members and faith leaders, and it has an active partnership with the Chicago Police Department. The U.S. Department of Justice recently evaluated CeaseFire’s programs and found that the organization is directly responsible for a 16-35% decrease in shooting in CeaseFire zones. (The statistics are even more impressive if you look at overall change in these areas.)

If CeaseFire is an example of established success, Chicago is also home to innovative new efforts to decrease school violence. Perhaps the most ambitious example is CEO of Chicago Public Schools Ron Huberman’s initiative, which will begin with $60 million of federal stimulus money over the next two years to target 10,000 Chicago youth deemed most vulnerable to become involved in violent behavior. Huberman has identified these students through a careful analysis of past violent perpetrators’ common characteristics including low school attendance, poor academic performance, and unstable family situations. These students will be provided with a one-on-one adult advocate and a paid after-school job. The program is particularly unique in its attempt to target potential violent youth instead of the traditional preventative approach of working with already violent youth.

So we’ve identified a community effort and a groundbreaking in-school effort. I would propose going a step further, and by that I really mean a step further back, targeting the problem of violence at its roots, early on. CeaseFire is admirably trying to reverse a trend, while Huberman is fighting the in-school fight. Why not address the problem before violent-prone kids are even born? Geoffrey Canada, education pioneer and founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, is doing exactly that. He is trying to transform the destructive behavior of an entire neighborhood through programming that starts before children are born and sees them all the way to college. Baby College, a set of workshops for expectant parents, teaches positive parenting techniques, from infant nutrition to the simple act of talking to one’s child to aid in their development. Baby College graduates are giving their kids a leg up. At an early age, if children do not grow up in a positive parenting environment, they tend to fall behind in school and exhibit poor behavior. It’s a problem that builds: the farther a child lags behind, the harder it is to make up the gap. Baby College creates a positive path for children from the day they are born. Baby College graduates’ children are guaranteed enrollment in Harlem Children Zone’s successful primary and high schools. If MacDonald were thinking with a critical, solutions-based mindset, she would encourage Baby College-esque programming in Chicago as a way to prevent the “social breakdown” of the city’s south side. Instead, she has no hope.

I will keep my last qualm with MacDonald’s perspective brief, as it lies in my personal distaste with the language she uses. She implies that black children born out of wedlock are creating a culture that is illegitimate, uncivilized, and without a moral compass. The claims are vacant without taking into consideration structural issues such the fact that college-educated blacks have a harder time getting employed than their white counterparts. My belief is that MacDonald’s demeaning language will only further deepen our country’s angry racial divisions.

At the end of the day, though, my moral finger-wagging is as pointless as hers. Let’s instead devote our time to solving problems and diminishing racial “us” versus “them” lines from every direction.  On that note, I’ll end with a video produced by high-school students at Free Spirit Media, a media education organization targeting underserved youth on Chicago’s south and west sides (disclaimer: I worked at Free Spirit Media from 2007-2008). I know articles like this one get muddled with research, statistics, and politics, but this video gets to the heart of the issue. Produced in 2009, the year that the Chicago Public School system experienced an all-time high of 36 teen deaths, “Will I Be Next” explores gun violence from the perspective of those who face it every day, in their school hallways and on their front porches.


Even More on The Cove

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 30, 2010 at 4:45 pm

The Cove continues to take the western world by storm.This post was inspired by the conversation on about the merits of eating dolphins and the arguments used against this by the documentary film “The Cove”, a film which I excoriated in my review for this website.

The proprietor of, Dyske Suematsu, suggests that the film’s argument that the Japanese must not be allowed to eat dolphin meat comes from a primarily ethnocentric worldview, and is ignorant of Japanese cultural norms.  In particular to this is the view on species of the Shinto religion/philosophy, that there is no hierarchy of species and that all life must be equally respected. 

However, I feel that there are arguments from religion (both of Japan and elsewhere), self-interest, humanism, mathematics, and postmodernism that suggest we should not eat dolphins.  This debate is of course guided in the simple fact that in the state of nature, life consumes life to survive.    

I initially posted the following:

I’m going to attempt to organize everything that’s been said about this topic anywhere for a meta-analysis of the issue and see if any conclusions can be drawn.

For there to be a problem with the consumption of dolphins in Taiji, one of three necessary conditions must be true: (1) there is a problem with the way dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji; (2) there is a problem with the effect of slaughtering dolphins (in Taiji or elsewhere); or (3) there is a problem with the slaughter of dolphins anywhere.

For the first hypothetical, that there is a problem with the way dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji, this problem would necessarily have to do with minimizing pain and suffering of the creatures. Apparently, the Taiji fishermen drive a stake through the brain stem of the dolphins, killing them instantly, yet they also occasionally make mistakes, leading to slow, painful death. The Cove also seemed to expose evidence to the contrary, that the Taiji fishermen make no efforts to minimize pain and suffering in dolphins marked for consumption. The idea that the suffering of livestock must be reduced as much as possible is popular in America and elsewhere, particularly in places where food is processed and animals are marked for death from birth. Nevertheless, for food captured from the wild, there is generally no standard to ensure that animal’s suffering is minimized. Hunters are under no obligation to provide a quick, relatively painless death for their prey, and researchers who perform medical experiments on animals regularly perform gruesome procedures, such as the removal of an eye or infection with painful viruses, to study neuroanatomy or immunology. It would seem that minimizing the harm of animals to be consumed as food is perhaps morally praiseworthy, but not morally requisite.

For the second hypothetical, that there is a problem with the effect of slaughtering
dolphins (in Taiji or elsewhere), it seems like ecological studies are fairly inconclusive as to what effect eliminating a species will have on humanity. We seem to believe that eliminating rats, or roaches, or smallpox would be beneficial for us and proceed in their elimination with relative freedom. There are no protestors exposing the evil CDC workers’s genocide of H1N1 influenza, so I feel that Tea’s supercomputer metaphor was appropriate, but with two necessary qualifications: (1) we can be relatively certain that some species’s elimination will benefit us, i.e. polio, and that others’s elimination will harm us, i.e. tomatoes; and (2) that this supercomputer is organic, that is, it can regenerate and repair itself in times of great stress, and we as humans can fill gaps: if we remove or cause stress to the Siberian Tiger network, we can direct special attention towards rejuvenating it and/or take the place of it ourselves. All this is a roundabout way to say that there are many ways to mitigate the potential unknown unknowns of a mass dolphin extinction, but dolphins are not at all in danger of going extinct, so this isn’t even a topic worth mentioning.

For the third hypothetical, that there is a problem with the slaughter of dolphins anywhere, we must have good reasons to think dolphins are special. A commenter mentioned that he agrees that dolphins should be protected because dolphins are cute. I think that’s a fine reason to protect dolphins. We should trust our instincts and emotions, while not letting them control us. There is (probably) a scientific reason our emotions are so overwhelmingly powerful: throughout our evolutionary history, they (probably) caused us to make the decisions that ultimately ensured our survival. I say probably, because we can’t really know cause/effect relationships, but for something as complex as human emotions to develop by mere coincidence is fairly improbable, and so I think we can proceed under the assumption that emotions at one time ensured our survival. Anyways, the idea that we should not eat dolphins because dolphins are cute is tempered by the fact that we don’t need to eat dolphins. We can choose to eat something less cute, like asparagus, and feel better about ourselves. And so, we’re getting into the whole debate on vegetarianism. I know that all life forms kill and eat other life forms, and many animals kill and eat other animals, and killing and eating other animals doesn’t make some animals good and some animals bad. I think, therefore, that it is okay for me to eat animals, although I will admit that someone who chooses, because they can, to eat asparagus instead of dolphin is probably making an attempt at living a life morally superior to the average human being, I would not suggest that this person, who clearly has the time, money, and access to resources to make this an easy choice, is morally superior to an Eskimo who eats whale because it’s the only thing around.

And here is another deep problem I see with this film: for the filmmakers, Americans who live in Hollywood and get to film themselves scuba-diving for a living, making the choice to eat parsnips instead of whale is really, really easy! It’s not so easy for the 50-year old fishermen to give up their livelihoods, and so the disrespect that these entitled, spoiled filmmakers show for the traditional activities of another culture frankly sickens me considerably. Anyways, a digression for which I apologize. Back to the analysis:

From the perspective of human self-interest and preservation, it first makes sense to eat whatever we can, but sustainably. I don’t want to go into whales and tuna here, but am forced to digress briefly into analysis of the consumption of those species: whales and certain varieties of tuna are getting rarer and rarer worldwide. For our own self-interest, it makes sense to preserve them in healthy, sustainable numbers. This was the original justification for measures aimed at protecting endangered species, specifically the recommendations of the International Whaling Commission in 1986. Dolphins are not endangered species, and so the ecological argument disappears. Dolphins are not at all in danger of being hunted to extinction by a small group of fishermen in Taiji, and so any ecological arguments are immediately suspect. As descriptive and eloquent as Tea’s ecological supercomputer metaphor was, this cannot be applied to dolphins in Taiji (nevertheless, a mathematical corollary to the ecological argument may shed more light on this later.) Arguments out of self-interest and humanism disappear here, because the Taiji fishermen are not threatening any people, not even indirectly. However, the mercury issue does bare on this. For the purposes of the film, it was ignored and presented with misinformation. Commenter Jolyon seems to praise the fact that the film was unabashed propaganda. This is unfortunate. Providing people with false information and then giving them the rights to make decisions is an unfortunate consequence of human stupidity.

The idea that we cannot eat dolphins relies on according dolphins some special privilege at the top of a hierarchy of animals/food. On what this hierarchy is based is a question most people don’t consider, but traditional hierarchies of life have been based heavily on religion, and modern hierarchies, increasingly on neuroscience and parsimony.

Dyske continues to mention that Shinto, the animist religion/philosophy which forms the underpinnings of Japanese society, has no hierarchy of species, yet I would add that both Indic and Abrahamic religion have well-articulated hierarchies (The Japanese generally became vegetarians after Buddhism was introduced from India through China.): generally, species which we perceive as most similar to ourselves are considered more special than species which we consider less similar to ourselves. The historical process whereby these species were determined and arranged in this particular hierarchy is something which we will probably never understand, yet parsimony suggests this hierarchy was created by a combination of inductive health effects: i.e. bans on eating pork (because it often causes food poisoning and death and tends to carry a lot of diseases which also affect humans.) were both empirically observed and emulated and tended to select against societies which ate pork; the appearance of “suffering” in animals killed tended to be most pronounced in animals which moved the most and in complex fashion, i.e. mammals, which have developed motor cortices, allowing for the observation of planned, as opposed to simply reflex-based, effort to avoid hunters. Clams and wheat, on the other hand, don’t avoid us.

Essentially, this is what we call “anthropomorphism” which is the foisting of human values and characteristics onto other life forms. It is inescapable that we think of other life forms, especially those that seem to resemble us most, in anything but human terms, and so, we can try to devise our hierarchy with this in mind, but ultimately, we’re going to continue to identify the most “intelligent” animals as the ones most like us.

There is also the outlier effect, which is the primary basis for kosher: since most animals that live in the sea have fins, there must be something special about those animals that don’t have fins, such as octopi. We should therefore not eat those special animals, and since we don’t have to in order to survive, abiding by the rules of kosher was relatively easy. Whereas kosher appears to most modern humans to be an arbitrary collection of controlling mechanisms, it was not only that but also the most mature expression of all the aforementioned forces: disease-avoidance, anthropomorphism, empirical observation of nature, and respect for outliers. Given the fact that dolphins score high on all these categories, it is not surprising that the Greeks punished the consumption of dolphin by death, or that many of us sympathize with the premise of The Cove today, even though the film possesses not a shred of logic, and we cannot precisely articulate why we feel the way we do.

Modern science has given us some tools to help answer the question of whether or not we should eat dolphin. The first I am aware of and would like to mention is modern neuroscience. We are exceedingly confident that the brain is the center of all that any species experiences. As an artifact of evolution, the brain precedes humans: the human brain is extremely complex when compared to the brains of other species, and it is from this complexity that we generally draw our own concept of human superiority. In fact, the human brain is so complex that it is likely we will never fully understand it. Countless specialized nerves wire every part of our body, and chemical-electrical signals are constantly being relayed between every part of our bodies and our brains, interacting in aufhebung inside our skulls to produce reflex reactions that ensure continuing existence. This complexity is at least shared by all brained creatures, i.e. animals, and the taking of an animal’s life for food necessarily involves the destruction of such elegant complexity as the brain. For at least the human brain, we must add feelings, logic, music, language, etc. as further complexities, or at least elaborations of reflex reactions, and just as the entire nervous system consists of countless connections all leading to one central brain, so does each brain cell contain countless connections to each other brain cell all leading to the cell’s chemical-electrical core. The brain is an absolute wonder of evolution, so complex that we could never hope to really understand it, since we are automatically operating within its limits. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t answer the question of whether or not we should eat dolphins, or answer any other complex question.

There is a concept in mathematics called “fractal randomness” wherein the unlikelihood or specialness of a particular event can be evaluated based on the principle that the unknown has a general affinity to the known and that events within the same system generally follow mathematical patterns. For example, if I need to build a new elementary school, and must choose where to build it, I could choose a non-descript parcel of average flat land, or I could choose to build the school amidst the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. It probably behooves me to choose the non-descript parcel of land for practical reasons, but even if it didn’t, the uniqueness or specialness of Yellowstone National Park compels respect: there is no place like it, and I can more easily clear a plot of common land for my school. We can use this same principle to cast light on this debate about whether or not we should eat dolphins in a non-ethnocentric, non-anthropomorphic way.

The brain is something that is common to many, many life-forms, and even more life-forms don’t have brains. So, if we examine a life form like yeast, which is a single-cell fungus, we can conclude that, relative to other species, there is not a striking level of unusualness, complexity, or unusual complexity to make efforts to prevent its consumption. Please go ahead and eat yeast guilt-free. We can compare the ordinariness of yeast against its relative abundance: yeast is versatile, easy to grow, and not in danger of extinction. Multi-cellular organisms take on a new level of complexity, wherein new dimensions for potential calculations are added by the interactions between cells. Therefore, a carrot can be considered as more complex than yeast; nevertheless, a carrot still is fairly ordinary in comparison with other species, as well as abundant, and so, we can also consume carrots guilt-free I think.

There is a famous hypothetical argument between computer programmers and geneticists about Madonna. A computer programmer would say that a Madonna concert DVD contains more information than Madonna the person, since her DNA can be encoded with fewer bits of information than her concert DVD can. Yet these computer programmers forget that DNA is only the starting point for the various life-forms, and that DNA does nothing but code for RNA, which does nothing but code for proteins. DNA, RNA, and proteins ultimately interact in ways sufficiently complex to produce schools of fish, beehives, cities, music, etc. countless iterations of environmental stimuli later. A new dimension must be added for each interaction that occurs.

And so, when we move on to creatures with significant environmental impacts on development, we’re dealing with a different order of magnitude entirely. The brain adds another order of magnitude, the motor cortex (where animals “plan” actions) another order of magnitude, and the neo-cortex another order of magnitude, social animals possess another order of magnitude. As we progress “up” this phylogenetic tree we must appreciate the increasing complexity that we destroy to simply satiate ourselves. And so, when we reach the level of dolphins, which are extremely complex animals, with extremely complex brains, complex social networks, and complex environmental reactions, we should at least recognize that dolphins are special animals, in the sense that their existence is rare (when compared to grasshoppers or wheat). Killing dolphins ultimately disturbs us because it is the destruction of great, uncommon beauty; it is like bulldozing Mt. Fuji to build a shopping center.

I posted a follow-up:

I am saying that the more complex and rare a creature is, the more valuable its existence generally is. I think rarity provides a universal framework on which we can generally attach value in a non-ethnocentric, non-anthropocentric, universal way, which is really what I was trying to do with that post; for instance a diamond is a more rare event than sandstone, and so we can attach relative value to a diamond in a way that is non-ethnocentric, non-anthropocentric, and universal as far as we know.

I’m not suggesting that there is an evolutionary purpose to create rare creatures; on the contrary, it is precisely because evolution only necessitates survival and reproduction, that rare creatures and complex life-forms are so particularly special. I agree with your analyses of evolution and entropy as forces which may break down complex life forms in the long run, but this only makes those complex life forms even more special in the sense which I describe.

When I wrote that “Killing dolphins ultimately disturbs us because it is the destruction of great, uncommon beauty; it is like bulldozing Mt. Fuji to build a shopping center.” I was thinking of people who did respond emotionally to The Cove, and trying to extrapolate a forum where disagreement is rooted in an honest differences of values as opposed to a more common chauvinism and cultural ignorance.

But I think there is something universal about the complexity of dolphins, something which traditional morality, both Japanese and non-Japanese, as well as modern science, can comment on, that is independent of human existence as far as we can tell.

I think it’s easy to extrapolate Social Darwinism from my argument, although unnecessary, unfair, and incorrect. Differences between human beings will always be small differences in kind and not large differences of degree, and so our margin for error is likely high enough to make any fundamental, objective differences that may exist between us insignificant. In other words, I think some people are objectively “better” than others, but this is impossible to evaluate with enough certainty to justify taking any sort of action, i.e. Social Darwinism.

Please keep in mind that my framework is not any attempt at a universal field theory of life, but simply an attempt at a non-ethnocentric, non-anthropocentric, objective means whereby we can evaluate the morality of eating various kinds of food.

However, thinking about it now, I’ve lost confidence in my own argument and hit a wall.  Suematsu suggests that even this argument based in complexity is anthropocentric and ethnocentric, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  But does that invalidate it?

The Prison Audit

In Specific Facts on April 27, 2010 at 6:05 pm

By Rickles

By Joseph Cox

California announced last month that in order to close a massive $20 billion budget deficit, it plans to decrease the size of its prison population by 6,500 by the end of the year.  As a strong advocate for prison reform, I should be enthusiastic, but instead I find the proposal a lukewarm response to a golden opportunity.  California has the nation’s most expensive prison system, on both a per prisoner and total expenditure level; a massive budget shortfall it must close, providing it will political cover for unpopular “soft on crime” policies; the nation’s highest rate of recidivism for released inmates and decades of harsh sentencing and falling crime ripening the low hanging fruit of tens of thousands of low risk prisoners who could be released.  The ideal solution would be to invest in a new system of aggressive rehabilitation and societal reintegration, especially for prisoners who have served long sentences already, to lower the rate of recidivism, provide massive savings for the state and allow thousands of people to move on with their lives.  California’s alternative is arbitrary in who it releases and negligent after release.  Further, the same recession that necessitates the prisoner release will exacerbate the situation because finding employment for released convicts in this labor climate will prove nearly impossible and drive many back to crime.  California’s plan demonstrates a lack of seriousness stemming from a guilty conscience; they don’t want to release prisoners in California, so they are making hash of it now that they have to.

A National Problem  

The U.S. incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  For a freedom loving country, we are not squeamish about taking away a person’s freedom.  This is a recent phenomenon; the U.S. prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2000.  This explosion in imprisonment was not an random occurrence, however, it was a direct consequence of increased criminal activity.  Without a doubt, getting tough on crime played a role in the dramatic reduction in crime since the early 1990’s.  Crime rates went up 315% from 1960 to 1980, triggering harsh anti-crime measures that spiked the rate of incarceration.  While the overall crime rate stabilized in 1980, violent crime increased another 27% by 1992, a year which plausibly could be called the most criminal year in U.S. history.  Since then crime has dramatically decreased, even as the rate of incarceration has continued to grow faster than the population at large.  Those with memories of the “epidemic of crime” era when crack cocaine was in its foulest bloom are understandably loathe to tinker with the U.S. criminal justice system in the wake of the staggering successes against crime over the last two decades.

Crime and Prison are inversely related. From Criminal Justice Legal FoundationThus, honest prison reformers must face the undeniable truth that tough crime policy works.  In a 1996 study, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt estimated that violent crime would have been 70% higher without the 272% increase in the prison population and that for every person incarcerated 15 crimes annually are prevented.  That imprisonment prevents criminal activity makes sense, people in prison can not criminalize society at large- though they are free to terrorize fellow inmates.  However, the efficacy of imprisonment does not alone justify our current rate of incarceration.  Preventing crime is not the ultimate goal of society, or we would imprison all men under the age of 30 or drop nuclear bombs on urban areas instantly drop crime to zero.  Finding an anti-crime strategy that appropriately balances the human and fiscal costs against the societal benefits of safer society means that crime might be marginally higher than now, but the marginal savings will outweigh the costs.

Incarceration: Justice versus Crime Prevention

Most discussions of incarceration center on justice.  We “bring a criminal to justice” or the incredible demographic disparity in prison is described as unjust.  There is much hay to be made about what constitutes a just system of imprisonment, however, this should not be the primary concern of the state.  Justice of outcome, prisons full of people guilty of crimes and not wrongly accused, is a prerequisite of efficient corrections, but the primary concern of the state should be a utility maximizing corrections system, not appropriate punishment for criminal wrongdoing.  That second question is ultimately unknowable; whether a person deserves to lose a hand for theft or execution for child molestation is a matter of personal conscience and morality.  I am sympathetic to those who feel deep indignant rage at those who break the social contract and advocate for harsh state retribution, however, a thought experiment demonstrates why a corrections system rooted in that impulse fails scrutiny.  Would anyone advocate for harsher, “more just” punishment if it meant an increase in crime?  If not, then clearly the prevention of crime is more important than doling out justice.  Reducing crime is the ultimate point of incarceration and justice is a benefit of a well functioning system, rather than its goal.

Since we know that the goal of incarceration is the prevention of crime, but that the prevention of crime is not the highest principle of society at large a fresh accounting of state incarceration strategy proves illuminating.  For a moment let’s ignore the human cost of imprisonment and simply examine it from the perspective of state efficiency.  Every prisoner represents an investment on the part of the state, and the cost of this investment is relatively fixed: California spends $47,000 a year per inmate.  In return, the state receives the dividend of the inmate’s forgone criminal activity due to incarceration.  This analysis ignores that some prisoners run criminal organizations from prison and the deterrent benefit of harsh sentencing, but both cases are negligible compared to the direct result of imprisonment.  The problem from the state’s perspective is that the assets under management are difficult to appraise: no one can be sure who will turn their life around after release and who will immediately return to crime.  For this reason, I actually support extremely tough sentencing for some crimes: people who commit sexual or violent crimes pose such a preponderant risk to society that incarceration no doubt offers a staggering discount over allowing them to further harm innocents  However, reasonably there must be a significant percentage of the incarcerated that would never commit another crime and thus represent a complete loss of the state’s investment.  The ideal investment strategy in corrections is not to let mass amounts of potentially dangerous people onto the streets, or to incarcerate many harmless others, but to devise a system that filters out bad incarceration investments and allow them to return to normalcy.

Risk Pools and Breaking Even

When faced with an large pool of investments that are difficult to value individually, a good strategy is to group similar investment opportunities into “risk pools” which have predictable aggregate rates of return.  Grouping inmates by four factors, criminal history, age, time served and prison behavior, will produce pools that range from investment grade, which means further allocation of state resources will provide a net return over release, to junk bonds, which should be rotated out of the state’s portfolio.  Non-violent, mature prisoners with a long record of untroubled prison time should be placed on a path to freedom, while young, violent prisoners who are uncooperative behind bars deserve further seasoning.

Simply releasing low-risk prisoners, as California plans to do, is not an ideal strategy.  Instead the state should force prisoners to earn their freedom and in the process set themselves up for success after incarceration.  Time off for good behavior is the beginning of an earned release mechanism, but it only accounts for negative activity and not active participation in societal reintegration.  In order to gain early release a prisoner should have to participate constructively in therapy, take vocational classes and, here is the keystone, find an employer to sponsor his (or her) release.

 A trenchant criticism of requiring a sponsor for release is that it would further disadvantage poor and minority inmates who lack a support structure to work for their release.  Undoubtedly this is true.  However, a rising tide lifts all boats; allowing greater opportunities for disadvantaged prison populations is superior to the status quo, even if it exacerbates relative demographic outcomes.  The deep unemployment due to the current recession will complicate this system, but the free market should be able to overcome this obstacle.  Ex-convict labor, especially equipped with vocational training, offers a significant discount over their counterparts on the outside.  Providing opportunities for inmate education, rather than the blunt instrument of tax incentives for employers willing to hire recent criminals, should be enough to lubricate the labor market for inmates.  Cheap, skilled labor will find work and turn costly prisoners into tax payers.  Forcing a prisoner to complete significant hurdles to gain early release provides incentives against recidivism and invests the prisoner in their own outcome.  By giving them clear guidelines and opportunities for forward momentum, the helpless, locked up human is given a feeling that they are still ultimately in control of their destiny. 

Criticism that such a policy coddles criminals can be addressed by requiring stringent guidelines for an inmate’s initial foray into free society.  The Hawaii HOPE program is a good example of how highly involved rehabilitation can provide troubled individuals with the structure necessary to avoid re-offending.  From an American Enterprise Institute report on the program compared to standard probation:

[In probation] most detections of drug use draw no sanctions at all, but after a string of such violations a probationer may be sent to prison to serve his long original sentence. Or he may simply continue to use drugs and commit crimes to buy them until he is caught and imprisoned for a new offense. As a result, too many drug using offenders wind up doing “life in prison on the installment plan.

HOPE, rather than the traditional parole of weekly meetings and occasional drug tests, employs daily check ins with parole officers, weekly random drug tests and predictable and swift consequences for mistakes.  Failing to check in, for example, earns a couple of days or weeks in jail, meted out by an advisory board capable of quickly deciding on appropriate punishment.  

I envision California building a series of halfway houses with strict curfews, room inspections and on site security and drug testing as the first step after prison.  A six week minimum stay in this restrictive environment provides a “stress test” for the newly not incarcerated.  Further, parolees will pay rent at a fixed percentage, ideally 25%, of their income to the state for their lodging.  Any drug treatment, anger management or therapy offered during this period will similarly be subsidized by the parolee to create an investment in the success of the program.  If an ex-convict can manage six weeks without incident, maintain perfect attendance at a job and find a place to stay then they can be released into their own reconnaissance.  For six months after release the parolee will continue in the high frequency contact program, until finally they can graduate to infrequent meetings, though random drug tests remain a possibility.  The rigorous nature of this program, requirement of significant personal investment and graduated levels of personal freedom provide a filter that determines whether a person has really made a break with their past.  It is possible to fake it through the program, but for most people who find themselves free and in possession of a job and a place to live, the cost fresh transgression will be to much to pay.

It might seem cheaper to just dump low risk prisoners back into society unsupervised.  However, currently 70% of California’s released prisoners return to incarceration within three years.  Since repeat offenders earn much tougher sentences, the effect of early release often is a net negative for the state: $47,000 saved for a year or two and then immediately spent many times over a decade.  Strict rehabilitation that costs $10,000 for the first year would pay for itself if it could reduce the rate of recidivism by 8%, above and beyond the benefits of crime reduction and the production of new taxpaying citizens.  Plus, this is a system that would be much better to scale up.  Releasing most prisoners unsupervised would be an extremely bad idea, but the structure inherent in this proposal would allow a larger pool of prisoners to work towards release.  Rather than working around the edges, California could attempt real overhaul that could save billions and provide long term benefits.

Bringing it All Back Home

This program will only affect the supply side of incarceration; significant work will eventually be required to also reduce the number of convicts and the length of sentences.  Significantly altering the way we approach drug policy will help; narcotics are an imperfection of society, not a menace necessitating Draconian correction.  Mandatory sentencing and repeat offender laws similarly create a disproportionate response to a real problem.  While repeat offenders clearly have demonstrated a propensity towards criminality that deserves special scrutiny, one size fits all punishment costs the state more than its worth.  Take for example, the relatively modest 3,629 inmates sentenced to 25-to-life under California’s third strike law for committing nonviolent crimes.  This tiny cohort, 2% of California’s total prison population and less than one ten-thousandth of the total population of the state, cost over $170 million a year to detain and at least $4.2 billion over the course of their sentence.  That every person in California pays $4.75 every year towards the care for these petty criminals should be a source of public outrage, but the status quo persists because because these costs go unreported and the alternatives are caricatured as soft crime policy.  Improving our prisons will not end crime in California or America, but it can reduce the price we pay for crime reduction and give many people another chance at life.

While ultimately improvements in immigration, drug and education policy will be necessary to completely restore balance to our corrections system, starting by making prisons less onerous for those who inhabit them and those who pay for them makes sense.  The high cost of incarceration to society provides an opportunity to build alternatives that would struggle to justify investment otherwise and the low personal utility of a prisoner creates incentives to participate in stringent rehabilitation that would be onerous to free citizens.  In other words, California’s prison system is terrible, but that just means that there is plenty of room for improvement.

The Two Tightropes, Japanese Hyperlexia, and “I Will Work Harder!”

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 22, 2010 at 3:11 am

I mentioned in a previous post that there are two tightropes English teachers in Japan must walk.  The first balancing act is to satisfy superiors while effectively teaching English.  This is largely because the nationally standardized text and and proscribed methods of teaching are ineffective, yet, due to bureaucratic impasse, largely unchangeable.  Foreign English teachers in Japan must work within the prescribed methods, which encourage self-doubt and the avoidance of mistakes.

Self-doubt, like skepticism, is often a virtue; however, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, it’s not helpful to be skeptical when learning the ABC’s.  Furthermore, trial and error is discouraged, as making a mistake is considered an outward manifestation of stupidity.  As trial and error is requisite for learning a foreign language, many Japanese students of English remain stranded at the starting gate.  

The prescribed methods of teaching facilitate and even encourage this.  Students are directed to repeat as a group lines of written English from the textbook.  The fact that they do this as a large group and not individually with comprehension checks leads to most students simply mumbling the words, and pretending to understand, so that they can avoid the ire of the teacher and progress to the next level, where they remain hopelessly lost.  Students who have spent time abroad and who have acquired certain proficiency in English must repeat the same lines as everyone else, and are punished with failing grades for “showing off”.  Many Japanese teachers of English have spent some time learning English abroad and can appreciate the organic nature of language learning, but these teachers, like native speakers of English, remain hopelessly swimming against the current of standardized education and the bureaucratic state.  

For the foreign teacher required to work within the confines of this system, real progress in language learning is a lost cause, yet students must pass difficult standardized tests and teachers are evaluated based on their students’s standardized test scores, and so the foreign teacher must defer to the Japanese teacher to teach test shortcuts instead of English.  In such a system, having a native speaker who remains nothing but a sounding board is an absurd waste of an opportunity for organic learning and cultural exchange.  Shame on the Japanese bureaucracy for mandating the teaching of English at all.  

It would be more effective if the speed at which material is covered were reduced for junior high school curricula, and then English became an elective in high school.  Students who choose to learn English would presumably do so because they have an interest in English or because they see it as indispensable for a career in medicine, international business, or media.  For such students, English could be taught quicker and more effectively.  

 The second tightrope for English teachers in Japan mostly affects teachers at private firms; this balancing act is to meet the needs of the student yet satisfy the desires of the paying customer.  Parents often sign children up for English classes with the hope of collecting qualifications, such as a high EIKEN score, so their child can enter a high-level junior high school, high school, or university.  Businesspeople have their equivalent in TOEIC, and promotions to management at many Japanese corporations are often based on high TOEIC scores.  In both cases, the person learning and the person paying are usually different.  Those who are paying want quantifiable results quickly, which usually means teaching to tests.  

These tests usually traffic in repetitive formalities that are only loosely related to English ability, and with which the foreign teacher of English is expected to be familiar.  Foreign teachers may be native speakers of English and so grasp test answers intuitively, yet their unfamiliarity with the test content and format makes them less qualified to teach than Japanese instructors.  

It is an inability to walk these two tightropes and teach to tests with which they are unfamiliar that cause many foreign English teachers in Japan to fail and go home with misconstrued distaste for all that is Japanese.  “Successful” ALTs (assistant language teachers) acquiesce to this system of juking the stats and become mere sounding boards.  The true philologist is lost in Japan, where increasing pressures for high standardized test scores render moot the love of learning from an early age.    

As a consequence of the overemphasis on universal standardized testing, many Japanese students see English as a chore, the best Japanese speakers of English often have no jobs, and Japanese students remain actors in a great English performance.  The slow bottom-up process of learning English structurally first through letters, then through sounds, then through syllables, then through roots, then through words, then through grammar, then through syntax, then through causal relationships as connoted by conjunctions of increasing complexity, then through the form of the paragraph, then through the form of the essay or story is completely neglected, as it is too slow, and instead students learn only shortcuts that help them get immediate returns in the form of relatively high test scores.  As a result, gifted students can learn the basics quickly, but usually hit a wall when katakana pronunciation and whole language learning prove inadequate for advanced materials.  These students can decode and describe incredibly complicated sentences, yet fail to recognize that those sentences are stylistically poor and will never be encountered in the real English-speaking world.    

There is a scientific term that describes the state of most Japanese English students: hyperlexia.  Hyperlexia is a condition where students exhibit great ability at decoding, yet suffer from poor comprehension and application.  In a sense it is appearing to have proficiency in something while actually having limited ability.  Foreign English teachers in Japan will often note the incredible spelling accuracy of Japanese students and their ability to describe incredibly complex grammar, yet when the same material is tested for comprehension or application, students lag far behind.  Many high school graduates are incapable of introducing themselves.  The Japanese system specifically encourages hyperlexia by emphasizing repetition of proscribed forms, and underemphasizing learning from example or trial and error.    

Recently, the Japanese government has recognized this problem and moved to instill mandatory English learning from an earlier age.  Now, Japanese students will begin learning English formally from elementary school.  Up to now, elementary schools in Japan have been a bastion of decentralized, free English learning.  The Japanese Ministry of Education’s solution finds fault with students and teachers instead of attempting to address obvious systemic flaws.  Like Boxer from Animal Farm, the Japanese Ministry of Education’s solution is to simply say, “I will work harder!” and continue doing what it’s doing, only more invasively.  Extending a deeply flawed system to elementary schools is a bad idea destined to fail in spectacular fashion.

The solution is an experimental program in decentralization.  Currently every prefecture in Japan has the exact same program in English, and this program is unarguably poor: after six years of formal English learning, most high school graduates can spell words like “ineffective”, but fail to introduce themselves or talk about their hobbies and interests.  Allow each prefecture to design its own English curriculum, observe carefully for five years, and spread best practices nationwide.  As a corollary, English must be seen as more like learning to ski than as a lecture-friendly subject like history.  Without practice, no one can learn a foreign language.  Japan should encourage decentralization so that prefectures, school districts, and towns are free to use their native speakers in ways they see as most conducive to individual learning, and potentially become outliers in a nation of universal English mediocrity.

Going There – Part II

In Specific Facts on April 16, 2010 at 5:36 pm

An intractable disagreement? A friend of mine observed that the abortion debate mirrors the fundamental differences between the left and the right.  In his words: “the left is often vague for fear of being too restrictive, or to provide flexibility. the right seems more comfortable with absolutes. left = life begins at some point…not sure when to exactly define it, but the mother’s health and choice in the matter is important. the right = life begins at conception…don’t kill babies.”  I agree with his analysis of the issue.  

What we call the “left” and the “right” have very different positions on abortion, but even more revealing is the fact that we pay attention to these positions and discuss the issue of abortion in terms of these positions, which each define themselves as victims of the evil actions of the other side.

The point of my last post on this topic, which I don’t think is controversial in any way, was that turning abortion into a political issue privileges winning the debate over the decision to get an abortion itself: rhetoric takes center stage, and real, soul-searching analysis of the individual moral conundrum is forgotten.

Case in point: Salon recently published an anonymous account of an abortion.  Here I have quoted extensively:

Last month, while President Obama quietly signed an executive order reaffirming that no federal funds can be used for abortion, I was alone in bed, waking from a fitful, 18-hour sleep, if you can even call it that. There were dried and fresh tears on my face. I was wearing a Maxi-pad that felt like a diaper and was spotted with blood. My breasts were swollen, painful to the touch. The sharp cramps in my uterus were crippling and unrelenting. I was nauseated, dry-heaving despite an empty stomach, nearly incapable of taking the medication and antibiotics necessary to quell the pain and stave off infection.

The day before, on Tuesday, March 23, I had an abortion.

The procedure was not cheap, $450. A financially devastating sum for a freelance writer whose earning potential has been decimated by bloggers and budget cuts. I have health insurance. It’s egregiously expensive, all that I can afford, with a high deductible that renders the plan useless unless I get hit by a bus. Filing for reimbursement was not an option.

If this was just about money then perhaps I could set aside my frustration, anger, sadness and resentment over the ban in the name of compromise and a long-overdue, desperately needed overhaul of our nation’s healthcare system. I imagine this is how President Obama, who campaigned as a pro-choice president, rationalized his signature. But this is not just about money. It’s about becoming a concession in a public and political debate that was, and continues to be, devoid of the inherently private physical and emotional realities of having an abortion.

Not long ago, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced that April was “Abortion Recovery” month. Abortion recovery: What the hell does he know about that?…

…Now, weeks into my recovery process — I’m still bleeding, cramping, underweight, emotional, grappling with my need for children and a partner with whom to raise them — I see my experience grossly manipulated by Pawlenty, a man who doesn’t, can’t, know how I feel. But it’s always like this, the moralists and proselytizers stealing the microphone because I, and millions of other women, didn’t make the choice they prescribed.

Just as no one wants to get the flu, diabetes or even cancer — though people still leave their homes, eat junk food, and smoke — no woman wants to experience an unplanned pregnancy. But it happens. Each year, almost half of all pregnancies among American women are unintended. When I was pregnant, I’d never before so desperately needed affordable healthcare and services, often two very different things. And I’d never felt more like I didn’t deserve them. But when it comes to our health, who deserves what isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, the point.

But who deserves what is almost never the point: doctors see disease as an effect to be eliminated regardless of its source: HIV patients are treated the same whether they contracted the disease through an involuntary blood transfusion or a cocktail of anal sex and intravenous drug use.  (I guess one exception to this generalized neutrality of care may be the fact that we don’t give liver transplants to alcoholics, but that’s another post.)  Nevertheless, pregnancy is not disease.  The idea that abortion is just like any other medical procedure is disingenuous and incoherent.

Like most anonymous editorials, this one traffics in sensationalism, straw-man arguments, grand generalizations. and baseless rhetoric.  The author creates imaginary enemies, blaming “society” for the consequences of her personal decision to engage in casual sex with a friend.  She demands that her personal right to get an abortion be respected, but she fails to take seriously the responsibilities that come with those very rights.  She fails to see the decision to get an abortion as a burden.  She exploits it for political points.

Anonymous attributes the cold disgust shown by her friends to their being either brainwashed by motherhood or barren and jealous.  She whines that Texas’s “Right to Know” laws make her decision more difficult, when it should be easy.  The author’s enmity is focused on the twisted mechanisms of Fate that have bequeathed her myriad manifestations of physical pain and verbal antagonists of the parking lot protester variety.  She represses any feelings of guilt by foisting blame onto the shoulders of second-rate, misogynist politicians psychologically torturing her from thousands of miles away.  

Legally, we have been very libertarian with abortion; in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court transfered the right of choice from state legislatures to individuals.  With the new healthcare bill, the Obama Administration is merely not mandating that those opposed to what they see as murder pay for it with their tax-dollars; the administration’s stance is totally consistent with the libertarian understanding of abortion articulated in Roe v. Wade: your choice, your responsibility.

Nevertheless, morally, it may behoove us to be more prudent.  Joe discussed in a previous post how future generations may judge us barbaric for eating meat.  I think the same applies to our allowing so many poorly-justified abortions to get through because we were too busy playing political games to really examine the issue deeply.  I think at the very least, some national restrictions on abortion are warranted.  Is it reasonable that someone cannot make a decision before 28 weeks, when the fetus becomes viable?  Is there not enough time in the first trimester to conclude whether or not one can raise a child?  And shouldn’t we encourage educated decision-making by informing patients of all the details of prenatal development?

We may not be able to be “pro-choice” and “pro-life” at the same time, but we can probably be more “pro-life” without being any less “pro-choice”.  We can be open, honest, and non-judgmental; we can allow for individual choice and promote safety, while simultaneously striving towards a society where doing the right thing is all that matters.  

Those who are “pro-choice” must realize that abortion rights are protected by the U.S. government, protesters and moralizing politicians do not legally threaten a woman’s right to choose, laws mandating informed decision-making are not to be disparaged, but praised, and an abortion is not a simple medical procedure, but an agonizing moral conundrum.

Those who are “pro-life” must acknowledge that a lack of access to safe facilities means back-alley, coat-hanger abortions, and no one wants that.  If life truly begins at conception, each abortion counts.  Those two realities mean that pro-lifers need to switch focus from trying to stop all abortions to trying to significantly reduce the overall number of abortions.  The clear way to do this is through widespread use of multiple forms of birth control and telling kids the cold, hard truth about life and sex.

American Education for America

In Specific Facts on April 15, 2010 at 5:00 pm


For years, we’ve been mulling over the fact that American students rank lower than expected in math and science. What we often ignore, however, is a harder, murkier question: how do students fare on less test-friendly subjects such as creativity and problem solving?

I spent the last year working in the education sector in Bangalore, a city often called “India’s Silicon Valley.” One striking difference I observed between Bangalore and the Bay Area is that Bangalore generally lacks a culture of innovative entrepreneurship. India is home to some of the most successful information technology service companies like Infosys and Wipro, but the country hasn’t yet produced a Google or a Facebook, the type of company that fundamentally changes the way we communicate, advertise, share knowledge, and construct our world. The envelope-pushers start in America.

A few months ago, on the plane ride home from India, I chatted about these differences with the gentleman seated next to me. He runs an American laboratory-device production company. His company’s device testing has been outsourced to Bangalore. I wasn’t shocked when he raved that his team in Bangalore is fantastic at running the numbers accurately, quickly, and with ease. However, he explained that trouble arises if the numbers don’t add up as they are supposed to. Faced with problem solving requiring innovation, his team struggles to suggest new solutions to fix the glitch. He ends up communicating the problems and mistakes to his American team, a group that brainstorms, innovates, and experiments to create new solutions.

I feel lucky to live in a country that prizes the ability to think outside of the box. If creativity is indeed an American value, then the blueprint for education reform created by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan makes progress towards a more American education system.  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had an admirable goal of achieving academic proficiency. That said, it placed too much emphasis on achieving a blanket standard, termed Adequate Yearly Progress, which was determined heavily by standardized testing. NCLB has been criticized for driving educators to teach too closely to the test. Further, it has pushed districts to lower their standards so that students pass easily. Standardized tests have been useful in that they determine whether a student is reaching a mark; however, they are not measuring a student’s ability to build upon her existing knowledge. Building upon knowledge is an act of growth and, in my opinion, creativity. That American laboratory-device team was able to develop new solutions based upon what they knew and what they were capable of innovating.

Obama’s education reform aims to measure this kind of growth. For example, a fourth-grade student who reads at a second-grade level will not be penalized if he does not reach fourth-grade reading proficiency. Under Obama’s new plan, if this student progresses from a second-grade level to a third-grade level, he will not fail (and neither will his teacher, his school or his district). Teachers and students will thus have the liberty to focus on development and progress instead of achieving a “right” or “wrong” standard.

Obama’s education reform blueprint brings us full circle, as it itself is an innovation built upon knowledge gained during NCLB (in fact, growth-model testing was piloted during NCLB after the Bush administration observed the negative effects of over-emphasis on standardized testing). That sort of wisdom learned the hard way is intrinsic to American resiliency: it began as a “great experiment” and it continues towards “a more perfect union.”  We experiment with new policies, and the content of those new policies remembers the value of our innovative, creative spirit.


Going There – Part I

In Specific Facts on April 14, 2010 at 1:12 am

abortion laws in the U.S.I always try to follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice to “write what you know.”  And I know very little about abortion: I will never know what it is like to have a human growing inside me; I will never have to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy; I will never have to choose between bringing a child into the world in unfavorable circumstances and not allowing that child to exist.  But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t have a position on abortion.  It doesn’t mean Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, and Tim Pawlenty all can’t have positions on abortion.  Just because I’m not a soldier doesn’t make my position on the Iraq War less valid.  Just because I’m not a medical researcher doesn’t nullify my opinion on stem-cell research.  And just because I’m not a woman doesn’t mean I have nothing to say on the topic of abortion, which I’m going to attempt to tackle as neutrally and fairly as possible:  

Let’s get the objective analysis out of the way first: the issue at the heart of the abortion debate is ultimately the question of when human life begins.  Anti-abortion advocates believe that life begins at conception.  Pro-abortion advocates believe human life begins sometime after conception.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court concluded based on an inferred right to privacy that the states may not restrict the right of abortion in any way up until the fetus becomes capable of living outside the womb, usually between 24 and 28 weeks.  From the point where the fetus becomes viable up until the start of the third trimester, states may regulate the right of abortion only “in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health”.  In the third trimester, the states may choose to regulate abortion in any way, except in cases when an abortion may be necessary to save the life of the mother.  

In this way, Roe v. Wade has made abortion a matter of personal choice up until a child is born.  Legally speaking, human life definitely begins at birth.  Whether life begins between viability and birth is up to each individual state to determine in conjunction with individuals in a way to be determined by that state’s legislature; and whether life begins between conception and viability is up to the individual to determine.  In this way, the Supreme Court has transfered the burden/right of choice from states to individuals and mandated that there be no criminal consequences for choosing to have an abortion.  

Justices Byron White and Willian Rehnquist wrote notable dissents to Roe.  From White:

I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand. As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.   

Due to such dubious legal justification, and the inability of medicine to answer the question of when life begins, abortion rights remains one of the most intractable issues in America today; and for that reason it is often the subject of heated debate and passionate argument from advocates on both sides.  

Those who see life as beginning at conception style themselves “pro-life” as though abortion rights advocates lack any and all respect for human life, as though to get an abortion is definitely tantamount to murder.  Anything besides the legal establishment of life’s beginning at conception is considered government-sanctioned murder, and we can’t have civil society if we permit a holocaust of the unborn.  

Those whom these pro-lifers oppose style themselves “pro-choice” as if those who believe life begins at conception hate freedom and want to control the bodies of women.  They imagine any attempts to discourage or restrict abortion as authoritarian manifestations of aggressive hatred.

All in all, these terms of debate are dishonest and distracting, privileging rhetoric over reason, and attempts to discredit the honest opinions of the other side.  It’s time America had a serious conversation about abortion.  Pro-lifers must realize that the best ways to reduce the number of abortions are to encourage sex-education, condom use, contraceptives, and adoption as an alternative to abortion.  Pro-choicers need to realize that Roe is the best they could ever hope for, and instead of complaining about protesters, “guilt-tripping”, and high costs for medical procedures, support measures aimed to inform women about the details of prenatal development and encourage informed, ethical decision making.

Don’t Drop the Soap: Clean Out Prison Rape

In Specific Facts on April 13, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Jack Chick on PrisonYou probably won’t be surprised to learn that people get raped in prison.  It might actually be the first thing that you think of about prison: men rape other men there.  Well, if everyone knows that sexual assault occurs frequently behind bars, then why don’t we do something about it?  The problem is that people fail to consider that behind humorous clichés like “don’t drop the soap” lies a brutal reality: every year over a hundred thousand human beings are graphically abused, molested and penetrated forcibly and violently and this reality is paid for by your tax dollars, all too frequently supported or perpetrated by prison staff and institutionalized by our disregard.  If we cared enough to stop prison rape it could driven to the brink of extinction, as a new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics commissioned by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act demonstrates.

A recent two part story on prison rape in the New York Review of Books lays out the tragic preventability of prison sexual assault:

One of the most pernicious myths about prisoner rape is that it is an inevitable part of life behind bars. This is simply wrong. As the variance in the BJS findings shows, it can be prevented. In well-run facilities across the country it is being prevented—and this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the government has extraordinary control over the lives of those it locks up. Stopping sexual abuse in detention is a matter of using sound policies and practices, and passing laws that require them.

 The variance mentioned is that six prisons in this country have no reported sexual assault in the past year, while another seven report over ten percent of prisoners as sexual victims.  One group of facilities conclusively proves that prisons do not have to entail rape, the other shows that even when a prison becomes demonstrably cruel beyond comprehension there is no accountability.  That prisons exist where over ten percent of prisoners are annual rape victims should be a national scandal.  Reporters should stand in front of these institutions with pictures of the wardens and decry that we grossly fail to protect people who are entirely in our charge.  Instead we shrug as though it is an intractable a problem as cold in the winter.

Another post by the NY Book Review highlights that many of the victims are children, usually physically smaller or mentally handicapped and rarely guilty of violent crimes (only 34% of incarcerated juveniles are violent offenders).  If anything the abuse of minors in the detention system is even more widespread than among adults: “12.1 percent of kids taking the BJS survey across the country said they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s approximately 3,220 out of the 26,550 who were eligible to take it.”  If that wasn’t horrible enough, the perpetrators of the abuse usually aren’t fellow inmates: “A full 80 percent of the abuse reported in the study was perpetrated not by other inmates but by staff.”  

This is clearly an unacceptable status quo, and the measures required to correct it are hardly beyond the pale:


  • A written policy mandating zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse.” Staff and inmates must “understand what constitutes sexual abuse, know penalties exist for perpetration by prisoners or staff, and believe management will treat all incidents seriously…
  • One of the commission’s most important standards requires that all inmates be screened in order “to assess their risk of being sexually abused by other inmates or sexually abusive toward other inmates.” These screenings must rely on specific criteria that have been shown to be relevant to sexual violence. The results must then be taken into account when deciding where inmates will be lodged…
  • Supervision is the core practice of any correctional agency, and it must be carried out in ways that protect individuals from sexual abuse. The Commission believes it is possible to meet this standard in any facility, regardless of design, through appropriate deployment of staff.


These three elements, accountability, planning and supervision should a given of effective prison management.  They have also proven effective in reducing prison homicide: “Since 1980 the murder rate inside prisons has fallen more than 90 percent, which should give pause to those inclined to think that prisons are impossible to reform.”  

Yet, despite the moral urgency of the issue and the clear method of correction, the authors of the article believe that prison administrators have banded together to convince Attorney General Holder to water down the commission’s recommendations to reduce the cost and accountability.  This is morally unacceptable.  I believe strongly in comprehensive prison and criminal justice reforms that I know are not widely popular, however rape reform should not attract controversy.  Whatever you think of criminals, surely they do not deserve to be brutalized under our supervision.  Some policy issues are simply not conducive to splitting the difference.  You can’t be halfway pregnant and you can’t halfway prevent rape.  Any compromises that place more defenseless individuals in harm’s way should be reason for public outrage until prison rape is eradicated like the preventable disease it is.  

Liberalism After Liberalism

In General Principles on April 12, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Tom Friedman thinks that both political parties have succeeded at their historical goals:

If you step back far enough, you could argue that George W. Bush brought the Reagan Revolution — with its emphasis on tax cuts, deregulation and government-as-the-problem-not-the-solution — to its logical conclusion and then some. But with a soaring deficit and a banking crisis caused by an excess of deregulation, Reaganism has met its limit. Meanwhile, President Obama’s passage of health care reform has brought the New Deal-Franklin Roosevelt Revolution to its logical conclusion. There will be no more major entitlements for Americans. The bond market will make sure of that.

In other words, both major parties have now completed their primary 20th-century missions, first laid down by their iconic standard-bearers. The real question is which party is going to build America’s bridge to the 21st century — one that will strengthen our ability to compete in the global economy, while practicing much more fiscal discipline.

 I am a liberal, so it will not surprise what party I think is more likely to realize this new direction.  The fact is, the left has already absorbed the lessons of the right, while the right seems unable or unwilling to declare victory.  The sharpest minds on the left, Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias for example, all fervently believe in the free market and advocate for taxes that minimize distortions of market efficiency; meanwhile, even next generation conservatives like Patrick Ruffini return to the well of Reaganism as a panacea:

On economics, you always know what the conservative answer is: tax cuts and generally hands-off regulatory policies to spur economic growth. No matter how good the Democrats’ promises sound, we return to these simple, pro-growth touchtones that resonate with a majority of Americans who intuitively get that you can’t micromanage your way to a better future. 

Put simply, to diagnose lower taxes and deregulation as the solution to what ails America is to demonstrate delusion.  The top marginal income tax rate is at the lowest level since Reagan and before that Hoover, 50% of American families pay no income taxes and, not coincidentally, America is about to go broke.  “Hands off regulatory policies,” meanwhile, ignores that a deregulated financial industry just caused the enormous global financial crisis that we’re still living through.  Even if conservatives are simply unwilling to embrace new regulation, surely advocating even more deregulation seems a suspect solution.  Liberals have a reputation as Pollyannas who imagine a better world than the one that exists, but willfully ignoring that their signature policies have overreached proves movement Conservatives are the real starry eyed dreamers.  Any moment now all these tax cuts are going to magically increase government revenues and the invisible hand is going to solve the systemic crisis of “too big to fail.”

Perhaps framing the debate about building America for a new century fundamentally disadvantages conservatism from the start; liberalism starts with a belief that a belief that collective action can build a better world, conservativism rests on a desire to protect the heritage and individualism presently enjoyed.  Conservative progress would be to rollback the intrusions of liberalism, but liberalism can progress pretty much anywhere it’s heart desires.  Thus the history of liberalism is one of causes achieved and then taken for granted – emancipation, suffrage, civil rights, Social Security, Medicare – while conservativism’s role is to fight bitterly for compromises and correct overreach.  

In the wake of a half century of ascendant liberalism – from FDR to Carter – conservatism had lots of overreach to work with.  Now that they have succeeded in so many ways, Conservatives have to find their policy identity in opposition: Conservatives are not liberals, conservativism is the opposite of liberalism.  In the right’s strident opposition to global warming the dangers of this approach become apparent.  Rather than see an opportunity to strengthen many of their signature positions- American energy independence, market solutions and efficient taxation- by incorporating an important issue into their platform, conservatives chose to engage in wishful thinking: the problem does not need to be addressed because the left was making it up!  If the right will oppose anything embraced by the left, then the left can outflank them by stealing their good ideas and forcing them to oppose what they once supported.  That’s the bitter medicine the Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney swallowed on health care reform, and why Obama announced support for nuclear power and off-shore drilling in advance of Cap and Trade.  If your opponent is predictable, then it’s easy to come up with a counter strategy.  Even better, this means that the left gets to bogart most of the good ideas.

 This ultimately is why I am a liberal: my principal goal from government is efficiency. I want my government to be good at maximizing human utility.  If that means the market should be brought to bear in many cases, then by all means let the market set prices.  When in other issues the market fails, I want the government to step in and nudge things in the right direction.  Draconian taxes hurt the economy, but defaults on debt or huge inflation would hurt a lot worse, so lets find a way to raise taxes that hamper economic growth as little as possible.  Political dogmatism doesn’t interest me, I just want to be right.  It’s heartening that liberals learned lessons from the War in Iraq and now point to it as a cautionary tale of how unnecessary wars don’t make sense from the standpoint of maximizing fiscal and security policy, rather than simply because wars are inherently immoral.  I want liberalism to explain all of its policies in ways that demonstrate why it makes sense to support a more cooperative foreign policy, less active social policy and some basic floor to the welfare state and regulation of industry.  I see a future where liberalism is content to tinker with the dials to improve the daily lives of Americans, rather than enact sweeping changes.  That might not seem all that exciting, until you remember what the other side will call it: Communist, anti-American and sinful.

Japanese Corporate Hazing Documentary

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on April 11, 2010 at 3:03 pm

All this for gyouza?It’s April in Japan, which is like our September: spring vacation is over, kids go back to school, and millions of recent college graduates across the nation go through rigorous corporate hazing regimens.  

Sagawa Kyuubin, a trucking company, recently made national news for making its 22-year-old recruits and veteran employees run a 5K in the buff.  A forty-year-old employee jumped off the roof of a supermarket and killed himself following two “unsuccessful” trials.  The matter is pending official investigation.  

Here is a ten-minute documentary which aired a few hours ago on Nihon Terebi showing the trials and tribulations of future waiters at a restaurant specializing in gyoza (fried wantons).  Umm…this is crazy:  

Part I: a recruit goes insane and begins punching himself in the head.

Part II: after passing the final exam, a recruit forgets some paperwork and is fired.  He then begs for forgiveness and is allowed to continue training.    

Part III: trainees are taught the proper ways to communicate with customers, undergo group exercises, and snap room inspections.

Part IV: a recruit arrives late for morning exercises and apologizes for being unable to sleep the previous night due to overconsumption of ice cream.  An 18-year-old recruit with no father (You’ll see why that’s relevant in a minute.) then undergoes room inspection, where he is berated for untidiness, improper slipper placement, and finally docked five points on his final exam for failing to take notes.

At the end of the documentary, which I am unfortunately unable to show (can anyone find it?), the head trainer continues to abuse the 18-year-old recruit from Part IV.  In extremely rude Japanese (a faithful approximation):

omae ni wa otousan ga inai.  gyouza no oushou ga omae no otousan ni naru, nazenara omae wa kono kenshuu no naka de ichiban kawaii kara… dakara gyouza no oushou isshou de hataraite okane o kasei de okaasan ni ongaeshi shiro.”  

Which I’ll do my best to translate as:

You have no father.  Gyouza no Oushou will become your father, because you’re the cutest of all the recruits.  So, work for Gyouza no Oushou for your entire life, collect your salary, and give your mother what she deserves.  

The response on ni chaneru, the Japanese equivalent of Twitter, has been a mixture of amusement and disgust.  People are shocked at the ridiculousness of, for example, a pudgy recruit failing to be on time because he ate too much ice cream. (His voice cracked during his very formal apology.)  But many people have resolved never to eat at Gyouza no Oushou again.  

Gyoza may have poisoned people’s bodies a few years ago, but now it’s poisoning people’s souls: at the end of the documentary, the 18-year old fatherless recruit in Part IV burst into tears, hugged the trainer, and thanked him earnestly.