July 24, 2013

Thoughts on Crime, Racial Profiling and Trayvon

During the President's heartfelt and thoughtful comments on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case last Friday, he said:

There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.  There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.

I imagine that it is hard not to take this personally.  If you had white skin, wearing the  same clothes, would you get the same reactions?  Probably not: therefore African Americans conclude that most white Americans are, at essence, racist.

But is the driver in the next car a racist, in spite of the Obama/Biden sticker on their bumper?  Is that woman clutching her purse?  The Rev. Jesse Jackson reportedly once said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.... After all we have been through. Just to think we can't walk down our own streets, how humiliating.” Obviously, the Reverend is not a racist. But is there some rational, emperical basis for this common reaction to the sight of young black males?

The President even suggested as much:

Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.  It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  

The question of whether racial profiling can ever be justified is one of the unexamined issues that arise from the recent trial of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin.  The prosecution based its case on the claim that Zimmerman unjustly “profiled” Martin as a potential criminal based upon his race, setting off a tragic chain of events that ended in the death of the teenager.  Zimmerman may have been a poor choice for a case to highlight racial profiling -- all the evidence suggests that he was not motivated by racial animus and, in spite of the media and his Jewish last name, he is himself multiracial -- the black community has focused upon the apparent fact that Martin was targeted for additional scrutiny because of his race.  But while it may be painful for black males to be viewed with suspicion solely because of the color of their skin, is it really "racist?"  Or is there hard, objective evidence to justify viewing race (along with age and sex) as an indicator of potential criminality?

 Black men and crime

 We’ve all seen the sorry statistics (from the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet):

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.

But none of these facts says anything about black men’s propensity to commit crimes.  If our criminal justice system is biased against African Americans, that could account for the disproportionate incarceration of black men.

However, there is data available from the US Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) on the perceived race of violent offenders.  This data is collected from a nationally representative sample of about 40,000 households comprising nearly 75,000 persons who are interviewed twice a year on their personal experiences as the victims of crime.  One of the questions asked of respondents who report that they have been victimized during the last 6 months is “Was the offender white, black, or some other race?”  If these first-hand reports by crime victims show that black offenders account for a larger percentage of the crimes than their share of the overall population, then “profiling” blacks may be  entirely rational. 

The latest detailed NCVS results available are for 2008, and the following data are taken from Table 40. Personal crimes of violence, 2008: Percent distribution of single-offender victimizations, by type of crime and perceived race of offender.

  Crimes by race of perp.xls#Table 40 Exhibit!A30_H42

The table above shows that there were more than a million “acts of completed violence” in the US during 2008.  (The DoJ researchers “scaled up” the survey results from their stratified sample to estimate the number of victimizations for the nation as a whole.) The NCVS defines these acts as “the sum of all completed rapes, sexual assaults, robberies and assaults.”  According to the victims of these attacks, the attackers were white in 56% of the cases, black in 28%, other race in 6% and unknown or not provided in 9% of the incidents.

Of course, it is possible that the victim’s perceptions of the offender’s race are inaccurate.  We all remember the infamous cases where non-existent black men were accused of crimes to deflect attention away from the real guilty parties.  But Table 42 of the NCVS shows that most victims of completed acts of violence identify a member of their own race as the offender.  This suggests that the data may not be racially biased.

  Table 42 exhibit Chart 1

The chart above shows that white crime victims identified their attackers as white in 67.8% of the acts of completed violence.  Similarly, black crime victims characterized their attackers as black in 66.5% of the cases.

We also know from the NCVS that more than 80% of completed acts of violence are perpetrated by men.  The results from Table 38 are shown below:

Table 38 Exhibit

If we assume that the share of violent crime between men and woman is the same for blacks and whites, we can calculate the number of victimizations perpetrated by male offenders of each race.  Leaving out incidents when the race of the offender is other or unknown, we can calculate the number of single-offender victimizations committed by perpetrators perceived (by their victims) as being black or white males. (The total number of victimizations multiplied by percent committed by males multiplied by the percent committed by black or white offenders.)  The results of these calculations are shown below:

Number of Single offender victimizations by preceived race of offender 2008

During 2008, we see that an estimated 456,542 individual acts of completed violence were conducted by perpetrators identified as white men in the U.S. as a whole. (Note that the NCVS data excludes homicides from its definition of violence because of the impossibility of interviewing the victims.) Based on estimates prepared by the Census Bureau, there were 120.3 million white males living in the U.S. in 2008.  During the same year, 229,487 violent attacks were conducted by offenders perceived to be black men while there were a total of 18.6 million black men living in the United States. This same information is presented graphically below:

Share of Completed Violence and population by race graph 2008
From this data, we can then calculate the propensity to commit violent offenses for white and black males based upon their proportion of the total population in the U.S. during 2008.  These figures are shown in the table below:

Single offender victimizations per 100k members of offenders race 2008

We can see that 3.8 acts of completed violence were committed by white males for every 100,000 white males in the U.S. during 2008.  For black males, the corresponding figure was 12.3 acts of completed violence for every 100,000 black men in the population.  In relative terms, the propensity of black males to commit acts of completed violence was 3.2 times that of white males.

Looking at these numbers, where the relative propensity of black males to commit an act of violence is from 3 to 7 times the rate for white males, perhaps Rev. Jackson can be excused for feeling relieved in seeing white faces in the night behind him.

More seriously, these figures support the conclusion that there is a rational basis for using race as a risk factor in evaluating the threat of potential violent attack.  Similarly, men (of either race) should be regarded as 4 times as likely to commit a violent act as females.  People living in urban environments where street crime is an unfortunate reality can’t stop themselves from internalizing these indicators of potential threat.  Similarly, other factors are used to fine-tune these threat assessments; for example, age (older people commit less crimes), dress, location, posture, etc.

It is unrealistic to expect that black men won’t resent being perceived as a threat when they are peacefully going about their business.  Clearly, they are being judged solely on the color of their skin, which is the classic definition of racial prejudice.  As a human being, seeing other people react to you in a negative way because of your race has got to hurt.

However, at the same time, it’s unreasonable to expect people not to be aware of the unfortunate fact that black men are several times more likely than other groups to pose a threat to their personal safety.  There may be historical and cultural context to explain why this is this case, but it cannot be disputed that it is true.  As Reverend Jackson's comments illustrate, whites are not the only people who come to these conclusions and have these fears.

As the late Rodney King once said, in response to another media-fueled racial eruption, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" Maybe, instead of focusing upon the jury's decision in the Trayvon Martin case or the prevalence of racial profiling, we should think about ways to prevent these types of tragedies from recurring.  As President Obama said:

... and this is a long-term project -- we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.  ...There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.  And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

July 24, 2013 at 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 05, 2006

A Democracy Tariff?

Thinking about the latest Muslim uproar against freedom of expression in the West (the 'toon tantrums) prompted thoughts about energy dependence, oil addiction, and our important security interest in promoting freedom and democracy throughout the world. Wouldn't it be nice if we could use our economic influence to promote democracy and tolerance, as well as discourage our reliance on energy supplies from unstable parts of the world? Well, here is one idea how we might actually do this: renounce our membership in the World Trade Organization (which negotiates "most favored nation" agreements among participants) and institute a tariff regime that allows free trade with democratic nations and taxes imports from less free states.

How Might It Work?

We could establish a list of semi-objective characteristics that would define a democratic government. For example, countries might be required to have each of the following features:

  • Free and fair elections with universal suffrage,

  • A press free of government pressure and control, and

  • A legal system that ensured due process and protected the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

Countries meeting these standards would be allowed free access to US markets, with no import duties on their goods. Countries that did not meet these standards could also export to the US, but their products would be subject to a "Democracy Duty" of, say, 30%. This would provide powerful economic incentives for governments to implement pro-democracy policies, and would also create disincentives for American firms to establishing economic ties with undemocratic regimes.

Who Would Be Affected?

During the first 11 months of 2005, the fifteen largest exporters to the US accounted for 75.8% of all goods imported. (These figures exclude imports of services.) Of these countries, all except China (#2 supplier of imports) and Saudi Arabia (#14) would be considered democracies based on the criterion above, with the possible exception of Venezuela (#9).

Graph of Top 15 Source of US Imports

What Would Be The Economic Impact?

For the US, this policy would certainly increase the domestic price of petroleum products and create incentives for refiners to switch to democratic suppliers (Britain, Canada, Iraq, Mexico, etc.), domestic production and alternative energy sources. The prices realized on world markets for non-democratic oil exporters would probably also decline somewhat, but to the extent oil supplies are fungible (and they are not entirely so because downstream infrastructure (mainly refineries) are optimized for certain types of crude and cannot quickly and efficiently switch to other grades and types of crude), this effect would be modest as other consumers switched to these undemocratic suppliers.

A bigger impact would be felt by China, as American buyers shifted purchases to other low wage economies like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. Prices of US manufactured imports would also rise, at least in the short term, which would also be popular with labor unions and domestic manufacturers.

What About The Domestic Politics of This Policy?

Interestingly, a Democracy Duty might appeal to groups across the ideological spectrum. On the left, labor unions and environmentalist would like the restrictions it would place on Chinese imports and the increased cost of imported oil. On the right, the notion of using our economic power to promote and reward democrat regimes throughout the world would also be appealing.

Of course, successful American export industries like aerospace and intellectual property might be hurt, because the US would be unilaterally renouncing the use of its own trade policy to advance the interests of its own export industries. Similarly, the State Department and multilateral bureacracies that are heavily invested the WTO and the endless rounds of GATT negotiations, would be mortified.

*                 *                 *

I'm sure that I have only scratched the surface in terms of the implications of this sort of trade policy, but it is an interesting idea. Comments, anyone?

February 5, 2006 at 02:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 02, 2006

A Munich Moment?

Starting a war is a terrible thing. To be a President, or a King, or an Emir, and decide to send scores of thousands of young people to their possible deaths must be a terrible burden. President Bush has already faced this choice twice; once in Afghanistan, and once in Iraq. Is it any wonder that he is looking older and grayer on the small screen than he did even a couple of years ago?

But history is not always kind to the peacemakers. In 1936, when Hitler's Germany "re-militarized" the Rhine (which had been designated as a demilitarized zone under the Treaty of Versaille), France and England did nothing, even though they had armies more than powerful enough to quickly force Germany to adhere to its treaty comittments. In 1938, when Hitler decided to "liberate" the German minority living in the western part of Czechoslovakia, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously achieved "peace for our time" by negotiating an exchange of Czech territory for an end to German territorial ambitions. Of course, we all know how that "peace process" ended.

But was Chamberlain wrong to try to avoid war, even if it meant clutching at straws? After all, it had been only twenty years earlier when an entire generation of European young men were destroyed, seemingly for no reason other than the bungling of a group of old white men wearing striped pants and top hats. To hope, perhaps against reason, for something, anything, to prevent a cataclysm is surely part of human nature.

After all, starting a war is easy and certain: you order your troops to attack, and the deed is done. But even though a potential enemy may be acting in a provocative manner, who can be certain what the future will bring? For example, what if Hitler had been assassinated after that meeting in Munich. Would Göring or Hess have invaded Poland and touched off the conflagration that destroyed Europe and killed, perhaps, 50 million people? Maybe, but maybe not.

Our generation of world leaders is facing a similar dilemma with Iran and it's apparent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Once again, there are no easy solutions, and the issue is weighing the least dangerous course.

Diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Iran to force compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treary are a long-shot, at best. Even if they can be agreed (and China's support in the UNSC is far from certain), the world's appetite for oil will limit their effectiveness. Military action -- primarily bombing likely nuclear sites -- would likely succeed in delaying Iran's weapons program, but would almost certainly also produce significant civilian casualties. Worse, an external attack on Iran would likely strengthen the Mullah's hold on political power and unite the populace against the military threat from the US.

On the other hand, punting and hoping for the best is also risky. Iran has been one of the world's foremost supporters of international terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Queda (a significant number of AQ members are believed to have been granted sanctuary in Iran after the fall of the Taliban and are known to be living freely in that country). Iran's fundamentalist President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is on record calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

In the past, Western leaders have tended to downplay the stated aims of potential adversaries, perhaps seeing these public declarations as more domestic politics than sincere belief. Hitler's 1924 autobiography cum political treatise, Mein Kampf, which called for the creation of a racially pure Aryian state that would rule Europe, was ignored by Western diplomats in trying to predict Germany's true goals. Similarly, there is a tendency to believe that extremist statements calling for the destruction of Israel, whether coming from Hamas or from Iran, are mere hyperbole. Surely they can't be serious... After all, Israel is a nuclear power, and cannot be expected to endure its own destruction without striking back. But do people carrying out what they see as the will of god think in these terms? Is deterrence a valid concept in facing regimes willing to employ suicide bombers and embrace martyrdom?

Niall Ferguson thinks not. I fear he may be right. Joe Katzman is also pessimistic.

February 2, 2006 at 09:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 19, 2005

Time to Cut and Run in Iraq?

Congressman John Murtha, a senior Democrat well-respected on defense matters and himself a decorated Marine Vietnam veteran, touched of a renewed debate about the war in Iraq this week by calling for an immediate withdrawal of US forces.

Leaving aside the politics (were such a thing possible) and leaving aside whether or not we made a mistake by invading Iraq, let's consider our current options.

  • We can withdraw immediately (as the Moore/Murtha faction advocates). (Presumably this is what Murtha intended when he spoke of a six month withdrawal process. It took six months or so to get the troops into the theater with no armed opposition, it will take at least that long to pull them and their equipment out in an orderly fashion in the face of potential guerrilla attacks.)

  • We can establish a timetable for withdrawal, with clearly defined dates (the mainstream Democratic party position).

  • We can continue the Administration's current policy committing US troops to stay in Iraq until Iraqi forces are able to take over responsibility for maintaining (or establishing) civil order.

There are many critics on the right who view the Murtha/Moore position as irresponsible. While I think adopting this policy would be a mistake, I don't agree that there is any impropriety in advancing this view. As Tigerhawk wrote in his essay on "dissent and limited war," the right to dissent is one of the things we are fighting to defend in Iraq, even if there is a price to be paid in providing aid and comfort to the enemy by encouraging them to believe that a US withdrawal is imminent. But make no mistake, there is a price to be paid -- in American lives and treasure, not to mention Iraqi lives -- for giving the Iraqi insurgents hope that their jihad against occupation is making progress towards precipitating a unilateral US withdrawal.

Nearly a year and half ago, critics of the Iraq war on what might be called the "isolationist right" called for a prompt withdrawal of US troops in Iraq, arguing that there were no vital US security interests at stake in Iraq after the fall of the Baathist regime. The Cato Institute's Special Task Force on Iraq published a short monograph (click here to buy a copy at Amazon) advancing this view in June of last year. I wrote a brief summary of their argument last July. Essentially, they argued that long term US self-interests would be best served by a prompt troop withdrawal, even if this resulted in a civil war or a less then democratic government in Iraq.

I disagreed with this view then and continue to believe it would be a mistake for the US to commit to a troop withdrawal on any fixed timetable.

  1. A premature US withdrawal might well result in a bloody civil war between Shia and Sunni in Iraq. There is also the risk that this civil war would expand to become a regional conflict if Syria or Iran were to enter the conflict to prevent the defeat of the Sunnis or Shiites, respectively. The most likely outcome, however, is that Iraq's Shia majority would crush the Sunni insurgents. While this may not be a bad thing in itself, my fear is that radical militias affiliated with Iraq's Shia parties would assume control of the Iraqi government. Since many of these militias are believed to be supported and influenced by the Iranian government, this would result in Iran becoming the dominant military and economic power in the region. (The combined oil reserves of Iran and Iraq would be nearly equal to those of Saudi Arabia.)

  2. A nuclear armed Iran in tacit control of Iraq would be a strategic nightmare for the US and the west in general. Iran has been the preeminent state supporter of global terrorism since Libya decided to get out of that business. With nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of reaching most of continental Europe and all of the Mideast, the religious fanatics controlling Iran's government could try to make good on their recently renewed pledge to "wipe Israel off the map." Since Israel is widely believed to be a nuclear power, there would be the very real possibility of a war using nuclear weapons being fought in this economically vital region. Were this to occur, the potential loss of human life and economic damage to the global economy might well rival that of WWII.

  3. More worryingly for the US, religious fanatics in Iran might supply Al Queda, Hamas, or Hezbollah with nuclear weapons for use in terrorist attacks.

If we can prevent any of these outcomes by continuing our efforts to support the Iraqi government, we would fools not to do so. While we all love peace and want to see our troops return home safely to their families, closing our eyes to the possibility of Islamist radicals armed with nuclear weapons is not an alternative. If we learned anything from 9/11 it is that you cannot ignore religious fanatics seeking world domination in the hope they will go away. Perhaps, as Nofit Amir wrote in yesterday's NY Sun, this may be too simple a concept for us to understand:

It might be the sheer simplicity of Islamic fundamentalism that confounds journalists. To the refined Western intellect it seems unbelievably crude to think that anyone would truly seek to dominate the world. . .

Unfortunately, the price of our lack of imagination and understanding may prove to be truly staggering.

November 19, 2005 at 11:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 26, 2005

Time for a US Foreign Legion?

One of the less pleasant realities of the modern world is that the US is -- whether we like it or not -- the world's policeman. From Kosovo to Liberia, from Somalia to the Sudan, if the "international community" (whatever that is), needs to intervene militarily to stop bad people from doing bad things to other people, the US will be required to do the lion's share of the heavy lifting.

The most conspicuous current example of US foreign policing responsibility is, of course, Iraq. Whether or not you agreed with the decision to invade (or liberate) Iraq, most Americans continue to believe in our obligation to support the new democratic government and prevent a bloody civil war. But, as the war's opponents celebrate the macabre milestone of the 2,000th dead US soldier, public support for the war continues to erode. And with the steady drum beat of Democratic calls for a "timetable" for pulling out US troops, how long can the Administration continue to hang tough in support of the Iraqi democratic experiment?

As Vietnam demonstrated, it is very hard for democracies to wage foreign wars. This is particularly true when a large portion of the population does not believe that vital national interests are at stake. Even with an all-volunteer, professional army (as we currently have), the sight of America's sons and daughters dying on television news is extremely unpopular.

Given the public's limited tolerance for US casualties, is it realistic to expect that America can meet it's responsibilities as the world's policeman? (Of course, isolationists and critics on the left would argue that it's not our problem. Instead, the UN or other international organizations should be responsible for maintaining order and protecting basic human rights throughout the world. I don't have time here to explain why this is wishful thinking rather than a realistic alternative, but trust me, it is.)

In Kosovo, Bill Clinton limited US intervention to medium altitude bombing in a (successful) effort to avoid US casualties. But this approach traded off increased civilian casualties to prevent US military deaths, which hardly seems terribly moral.

On the other hand, perhaps we can learn from our friends the French. I refer, of course, to that estimable institution the French Foreign Legion. Don't think Beau Geste. The Legion is still going strong and today consists of 10 battalions of elite infantry (with a strength of 7,700 men), serving in bases in France, Africa and Latin America. Legionnaires enlist for initial terms of five years, which can subsequently extended. After three years of satisfactory service, Legionnaires have the option of applying for French citizenship and residency rights.

A US foreign legion, organized along similar lines, would be a very attractive prospect for thousands of ambitious, aggressive young men seeking US citizenship and residency. In France, 10,000 applicants a year apply to join the Legion. This in spite of the requirement that candidates travel to France at their own expense (including obtaining a visa on their own) before they can apply. If the US accepted applicants at its embassies abroad, the number of potential recruits who would be eager to exchange, say, ten years of paid service for US citizenship would be enormous.

Of course, recruiting a mercenary army largely comprised of foreigners would be a vast departure from American practice and tradition. It would also be a very dangerous tool to give to any government: a politically painless (or less painful) means by which to wage war.

But if the alternative is failure to protect vital US strategic interests (like defeating radical Islamists in the Mideast) because of a lack of political will, maybe it is time to consider some different approaches.

October 26, 2005 at 07:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 08, 2005

Outsourcing Disaster Relief?

Reading David Leonhardt's piece on the instantly adaptive nature of today's transportation and business systems in today's NYT reminded me of an excellent idea a neighbor suggested for dealing with Katrina-type natural disasters: outsource it to the private sector. He meant, of course, having FEMA contract with large national firms like Walmart, UPS and FedEx to stockpile and distribute relief supplies.

The advantages are obvious. These firms already have the transportation and logistical support assets needed to deliver huge volumes of supplies throughout the US. Even more important, they train and practice using these assets in a timely and cost-effective manner every day of the year. What is more, they already own (at their own expense) substantial inventories of the supplies most likely to be needed during the early phases of mass disaster relief: food, drinking water and first aid supplies.

The major advantage of using the private sector to handle this type of vital humanitarian aid, however, is the effectiveness of their management and control systems. Unlike FEMA, bound by the iron shackles of government bureacracy, private sector managers are daily held accountable for results. Is the inventory there or not? Were the percentage of ontime deliveries above or below target?

There is also precedent for this type of arrangement. For many years, the Air Force's Military Airlift Command has contracted with major airlines to participate in the Civil Reserver Air Fleet (CRAF). This program pays airlines (largely through guaranteed annual volumes of traditional freight and passenger business) to contracturally commit specific aircraft and their crews to the military within 48 hours.

Given the demonstrated lack of proficiency of our governmental systems (at the local, state and federal level), maybe it's time to think outside the box -- particularly when lives are at stake.

October 8, 2005 at 09:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 19, 2005

They just don't get it. . .

After three days of watching Judge Robert's Senate confirmation hearings (at least from time to time), I've come to the conclusion that the Senate Democrats just don't understand (or believe) what Roberts was trying to tell them.

Watching senators tie themselves in knots trying to get Roberts to tell them how he really felt about some issue or another, it became obvious that they didn't believe Roberts was sincere in asserting that it didn't matter what he personally thought about substantive issues. They assumed he was just stonewalling them with his view that a judge's job was to decide cases based upon the constitution, law, precedent, and the arguments presented by the parties, not on his or her personals beliefs or preferences.

Why couldn't they believe him? Perhaps because they are all politicians: people who have a strong sense of the rightness of their own opinions and an even stronger desire for the power to turn those opinions into law. Perhaps, like most folks, they just assume that everyone else is just like them.

What most impressed me about Roberts, other than his intellect, of course, was his humble attitude towards the power of the judiciary. As he said, "nobody comes to the ball park to see the umpire." To me, this willingness to embrace the concept of a limited role for the judiciary was the clearest argument for putting him on the bench.

As Plato wrote in The Republic, explaining the role of his ideal philosopher-kings:

 . .  then let those who still survive and have distinguished themselves in every action of their lives and in every branch of knowledge come at last to their consummation; the time has now arrived at which they must raise the eye of the soul to the universal light which lightens all things, and behold the absolute good; for that is the, pattern according to which they are to order the State and the lives of individuals, and the remainder of their own lives also; making philosophy their chief pursuit, but, when their turn comes, toiling also at politics and ruling for the public good, not as though they were performing some heroic action, but simply as a matter of duty . . . [Emphasis added]

Plato meant that ideal leaders do not seek public office to obtain power or glory, but rather reluctantly accept their responsibility out of a sense of duty. This disinclination to exercise power, to refrain from putting your judicial thumb on the scale of justice to tilt in favor of what you personally feel is morally correct -- rather than what the Constitution, law and precedent require -- is completely foreign to most politicians. If this attitude were made a requirement for membership in the US Senate, I doubt it would be possible to fill a committee table, let alone obtain a quorum.

Since Roe v. Wade, if not before, our Supreme Court justices have allowed themselves to become a super legislature, with the power to create new laws out of whole cloth. As Justice Rehnquist wrote in his dissenting opinion in Roe:

 . .  If the Texas statute were to prohibit an abortion even where the mother's life is in jeopardy, I have little doubt that such a statute would lack a rational relation to a valid state objective under the test stated in Williamson, supra. [and would therefore be unconstitutional under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment] But the Court's sweeping invalidation of any restrictions on abortion during the first trimester is impossible to justify under that standard, and the conscious weighing of competing factors that the Court's opinion apparently substitutes for the established test is far more appropriate to a legislative judgment than to a judicial one.

Deferring to the judgment of others on issues where you have the power to act unilaterally is not easy. It is particularly difficult for brilliant, ambitious lawyers at the pinnacle of their profession who also feel strongly about the questions that come before them. The temptation to "do the right thing" in a given case, regardless of law or precedent, must be immense.

But by failing to restrain their collective impulse to advance what they saw as justice into an ill-defined area of the law, Justice Blackmun and his colleagues did the Court and our country a grave disservice. While I personally believe that their decision to allow abortion during the first trimester and to prohibit it after the fetus becomes viable was good public policy, this view remains highly controversial, even 30+ years after Roe. More seriously, controversy over abortion rights has helped to politicize the Court and reduce the level of civility in our political system. Even worse, by providing ideological cover for other activist judges, the Court helped precipitate rulings like the recent Massachusetts Supreme Court's decisions on the "right" to legalized gay marriage.

Our courts, with judges appointed for life and their reliance on precedent, are not a good place to work through controversial social issues. Far better to leave the social engineering to the legislatures, who can later go back and repeal their mistakes. Hopefully, with a few more judges who have the self discipline to restrain the impulse to legislate from the bench, the Court can return to its traditional role of calling balls and strikes rather than stepping up as the designated hitter for the natural justice team.

After all, if we had wanted to adopt a system of government where people with lifetime appointments decide all controversies according to what they believe is right, we would never have rebelled against the monarchy.

September 19, 2005 at 05:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 15, 2005

Steven Vincent's In the Red Zone

There are two schools of thought on the morality of the US-led coalition's 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the left, there is the widely held view that this war was unjust and immoral. The leading justification for war -- the infamous weapons of mass destruction -- were never found, and the invasion and subsequent occupation have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi people and untold suffering among millions of others. While the left (when pressed) will acknowledge that removing the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, it was not the responsibility of the US government to do so and, in any case, life in Iraq after Saddam was just as bad (if not worse) than it had been before the war.

in the Red Zone cover art

On the right, defenders of the invasion believe that it was legally and morally justified to act against a long term supporter of international terrorism whose regime had developed (and used) weapons of mass destruction in the past against both its neighbors and their own people. More worryingly, Saddam also appeared to be trying to retain his WMD capabilities for future use. Finally, deposing Saddam and helping the Iraqi people establish a democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious government was expected to improve the life of all Iraqis and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the troubled Arab world, thereby undermining the repression that fostered the growth of Islamist terrorism.

Ultimately, history will decide whether the war was a humane war of liberation or an unwarranted attack. However, it was, in part, to answer this question for himself that Steven Vincent decided to travel to Iraq and write In The Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq.

In those heady days and months after the fall of Saddam's statue in Firdus Square in April of 2003, there was a lively debate in the West about the Iraqi people's reaction to the war and the occupation. Polls were commissioned by western press organizations to assess Iraqi public opinion. Spreadsheets were published comparing pre and post-war levels of electricity production, unemployment, telephone usage and other measures of well being.

After foreign journalists became favorite targets for Jihadist murderers, the mainstream press largely stopped trying to assess the mood of the Iraqi public. (And who can blame them when traveling alone among ordinary Iraqis can lead to a short run in a starring role in one of Zarqawi's gruesome videos?) These days, most journalists stay inside their sandbagged offices or hotel rooms, reporting on the press conferences held within Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The only glimpse we get of day-to-day life in Iraq is video footage of the aftermath of the latest suicide bombing. It is this information vacuum that makes Vincent's first hand account of his months traveling with and among the Iraqi people particularly valuable.

Before 9/11, Vincent was an art critic living on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Radicalized by watching mass murder from the vantage point of his own rooftop, Vincent came to see the effort to bring democracy to Iraq as a noble experiment, one he wanted to personally participate in the only way he knew how, as a writer. When he learned that New York artist Steve Mumford was going to Iraq as a freelancer to document the war, he was hooked. On Mumford's return to NYC in the summer of 2003, Vincent began planning to go to Iraq that fall.

In the Red Zone is the story of Vincent's first trip to Iraq, during the fall of 2003. During that period, he traveled widely in the country, talking to Iraqis in all walks of life. His book is part travelogue and part internal debate over the meaning of what he sees and whether or not the "noble experiment" of democracy in Iraq is working (or can ever work). A masterful writer and a keen observer, he brings to life some of the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Iraqi society as well as some of the history of this ancient region.

His book is organized thematically with each of the chapters addressing one of the questions that illuminated his travels. Like most good pieces of non-fiction, he asks (and seeks to answer) all the questions an informed reader hopes the book will address. In this case:

  • Why did he go to Iraq and what were the preconceptions and prejudices that shaped his experience?

  • What is day-to-day life in Baghdad like for the various social classes, and what do they think about the invasion and the fall of Saddam?

  • What is it like to live in Baghdad's expatriate community and interact with the largely middle class Iraqis who work with them in the interim government? (Including some great vignettes about what the Iraqis really think about the "People of the Slogans" who came to Iraq before and after the war on their anti-western pity tours as well as the anti-American bias of most of journalists and NGOs.)

  • Who are the groups supporting the "Resistance" and what motivates them?

  • What is life like among the Shia majority and what is it like to be in Karbala during Ashura?

  • Finally, knowing what he does now, having lived among the Iraqi people and seen at first hand the blunders and triumphs marking the post-invasion period, was it all just a huge mistake?

The last part of the book describes his evolving relationship with "Nour", a beautiful Iraqi woman in her late 20's or early 30's who became his colleague and translator in Basra. Nour was a poet, a university graduate in English literature, single, who was employed doing press relations by an American NGO. Her real name was Nour Weidi, and Vincent only referred to her by her first name to protect her from the religious extremists who would ultimately shoot her four times and murder him. The foreknowledge that Vincent would be killed months after the publication of the book makes his discussion of the plight of Iraqi women and the rise of Shia religious extremists in Basra even more poignant.

*             *             *

I would be remiss if I did not address the ugly controversy that has arisen since Vincent's death over the cause of his murder and the motivation of his killers. Vincent was abducted and killed two days after the Sunday NYT published his OpEd criticizing British authorities for allowing extremists affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shia religious parties to dominate Basra's police and security forces. Less than a week later, the UK Telegraph's Colin Freeman wrote an article quoting a police investigator's theory that Vincent may have been the victim of an "honor killing" because he planned to marry Nour in order to get her a visa to leave Iraq and move to the USA. The following day, University of Michigan historian, blogger and noted critic of the war in Iraq, Juan Cole, cited Freeman's article and commented:

 . . Vincent did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface, and if he was behaving in the way the Telegraph article describes, he was acting in an extremely dangerous manner.

This gratuitous slap at Vincent's alleged lack of "serious" knowledge of Arab culture infuriated Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, who posted a letter tearing into Cole on the blog Murdoc Online. She argued (in my view persuasively) that her husband and Nour were not having an affair, and that therefore the "honor killing" theory was entirely bogus.

I don't know why Steven Vincent was murdered, but I do know that we lost a talented writer and a brave and honorable man. I never had the chance to meet him, but through his writing, I feel as though I have lost a friend. If, like me, you continue to debate the wisdom of having intervened in Iraq and its centrality (or lack thereof) to the efforts to protect ourselves from Al Queda and its Islamist allies, I can't think of better place to start than with this book.

You can buy the book on line at Amazon or directly from the publisher, Spence Publishing. I also recommend reading Steven's blog.

Finally, I was moved by this epitaph for Steven Vincent, written by Greyhawk of the Mudville Gazette. The title, And Then There were None, refers to the fact that Vincent was the only American journalist working in Iraq outside of the "Green Zone, away from the protection of US forces." And now he is gone.

September 15, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 04, 2005

Katrina and Magical Thinking About the Presidency

Our system of government in this country is a federal one. Each of the fifty states are sovereign entities, with their own constitutions, laws, courts, police agencies and armed forces (National Guard units are under the command of the state's governor until they are "federalized" and called to active duty in the Army or other service¹). Like the EU's ill-fated proposed constitution, with its principle of subsidiarity, the concept is simple: government decisionmaking should be pushed down to the lowest level, closest to the people directly affected, whenever possible. While the DHS and its subsidiary agency FEMA have responsibility for coordinating federal assistance to local governments, the primary responsibility (and decisionmaking authority) for responding to emergencies rests with state and local officials.

In spite of the clear evidence that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had responsibility for making the key decisions about responding to Hurricane Katrina, the usual suspects are blaming the disaster on President Bush. (To be fair, Blanco and Nagin have only been in office a couple of years and the legacy of corruption and incompetence which surround local government in the state of Louisiana can hardly be laid at their doorsteps.)

It is traditional to blame the President for anything bad that happens during his watch or, conversely, to give him or her credit for good things that happen even if their policies had nothing to do with bringing them about. During the Clinton years, it was impossible to hear a speech by a Democrat that failed to mention the millions of jobs "created" by the administration during the internet bubble. (Created how, exactly?) But blaming one's opponents for anything bad that happens while claiming credit for anything good is just normal partisan politics.

In primitive societies, people used to explain natural disasters in terms of the gods expressing their anger at human behavior. In the modern world, we seem to have defaulted into the view that everything happens because of the President. Is the stock market going up? The President must be doing a good job. If the price of oil is rising, it's the President's fault. If food prices are rising, again, the President must have fallen down somewhere.

Is such widespread stupidity the media's fault? Perhaps. Surely this trend is exacerbated by the media's mania for interpreting every event in terms of winners and losers. But part of it is due to our collective desire for simple explanations. If anything bad happens, we need to find someone to blame. Most of the time, however, it's a little bit more complicated than that.

The role of a responsible press in a democracy is to help our citizens see that the simplest explanation is rarely correct and never complete. Will the press play that role in the wake of Katrina? We shall see.


¹   For some discussion of the legal status of the National Guard and the legal restrictions on the use of active duty federal troops in the US, see Appendix B: Operations and Legal Considerations in the Continental United States of Army field manual FM 3-19.15 Civil Disturbance Operations, dated 18 April 2005 and for a recent analysis of the history of the National Guard and its dual responsibilities to both federal and state officials, see pages 6 to 14 of this 26 August 2005 opinion and order by U.S. District Judge John Padova in the case of Rendell et al. v. Rumsfeld, challenging the legality of proposed National Guard base closures under the Base Realignment and Closure commission.

September 4, 2005 at 09:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 13, 2005

Conservatives Don't Want to be Professors?

At Harvard this past weekend, I had the chance to ask President Summers (yet again) what he was doing at Harvard to increase faculty ideological diversity in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately -- and in spite of his recent abuse at the hands of Harvard's politically correct faculty -- his answer was the same as it had been the last time I asked him. Here is my attempt at a precis of his response (and apologies if I fail to give his arguments their due):

  1. He believes that there is no discrimination against conservative academics and does not think that faculty committees in the humanities and social sciences only hire people who share their ideological views. He comes to this conclusion because he believes that the ideological composition of apolitical faculties (like mathematics, for example) are similar to those in other fields. ("You don't see our mathematics faculty giving preference in hiring to, say, topologists with left-wing views over other similarly qualified topologists." [Not a verbatim quote.])

  2. He agrees that the large majority of Harvard faculty members are liberal, and probably more liberal than they have been in the past. However, he believes this is caused by conservatives, who are more interested in the world of business and making money, self-selecting out of the non-profit sector. Conversely, left-leaning intellectuals, who dislike free enterprise and the profit motive, tend to disproportionately choose careers in not-for-profit fields like academia or government. (He also observed that Harvard students, who had tended to be on the left of most faculty members during the 1970s, are now well to the right of the faculty in terms of their political views.)

  3. Finally, he agrees that it is important to have all elements of the ideological spectrum represented on the faculty and thinks that this is currently the case. For example, he cited the fact that several members of Harvard's economics department had recently been appointed to positions in the Bush administration.

The forum did not lend itself it to debate, or I would have challenged his assertion that faculty members are equally liberal across disciplines. The chart below shows the ratio of professors characterizing themselves politically as either Liberal or Moderately Liberal versus Moderately Conservative or Conservative by academic department. The data are from the 1989 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching sponsored survey of US college faculties, which used a two-stage, stratified random sample consisting of 5,450 completed surveys from 306 US campuses. (See The Condition of the Professoriate: Attitudes and Trends, 1989, which is available for purchase from CFAT. )

Ratio of Liberals to Conservatives by Department: 1989

While the data for Harvard may be different, the national data clearly show that although most university professors tend to be more liberal than the American public, there are relatively more conservative teachers in the "hard sciences" than in the humanities or social sciences.

Even if there is no overt discrimination against conservative candidates for academic positions in the humanities or social sciences (which I frankly tend to doubt), there is the larger problem of a hostile campus environment towards people who don't share the dominant leftist PC Weltanschauung. Conservative students are not encouraged to consider a teaching career. Conservative doctoral candidates have difficulty finding thesis advisers. Even at the undergraduate level, there is tremendous social pressure to conform.

Last Fall, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a survey among students at the top 25 US universities and liberal arts colleges. The findings were disturbing, and confirm the one-sided ideological environment existing on most elite US campuses. Here is the beginning of the ACTA's December press release:

49% of the students at the top 50 colleges and universities say professors frequently inject political comments into their courses, even if they have nothing to do with the subject. Almost one-third—29%—feel they have to agree with the professor’s political views to get a good grade.

A survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reveals the politicization of the classroom and the intellectual intolerance of faculty.

According to the survey:

  • 48% report campus presentations on political issues that “seem totally one-sided.”

  • 46% say professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views.”

  • 42% of students fault reading assignments for presenting only one side of a controversial issue.

The survey also indicates that political comments are consistently partisan. The survey, which was conducted just before and after the American presidential election, found that 68% of the students reported negative remarks in class about Pres. George Bush while 62% said professors praised Sen. John Kerry.

If colleges and universities want to continue receiving financial support from alumni and the broader public (i.e. tax exemptions, research grants, and subsidized student loans and grants), their leaders should take seriously the issue of political and ideological diversity among their faculties. Unfortunately, most university presidents (including Larry Summers) don't recognize that they have a problem, which suggests that they may be part of said problem.

June 13, 2005 at 12:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack