Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The cycle of cause célèbres

This is the second time in as many years that something remarkably similar has happened, and it's starting to feel like a bad rerun. There's a national outcry over a young black man being killed by a "white man" (as he's almost invariably described). Of course, killing a person isn't always a crime; there are defenses to murder. Yet it seems as if the nation just needs to see him convicted and sent to prison. But that can only happen through a legal process. And when the case is commenced not under the usual standards, but under political pressure, it turns out to be a weak case, and there's no conviction.

All good people are supposed to understand that this is not just a tragedy, but a national tragedy. Somehow, it's supposed to be particularly tragic when a black man is killed by a white man. And many look to the legal system as if it existed to provide therapeutic relief to the whole country. When that doesn't happen, after all the talk about how the defendant symbolizes this country's problems with race, the legal result strikes some people as so outrageous that they riot, harming innocent people and casting whatever political movement they might represent in the worst possible light.

We need to think more carefully about the way we elevate a single criminal case into something that's supposed to take on larger meaning, resonate throughout the country, and resolve lingering, longstanding national wounds. This approach is highly likely not to work out, and to backfire.

I work on a lot of felony cases; many are murder cases. I regularly see cases that feel just as important to me as any case I see in the news. They feel anything but routine. They contain so much vivid detail and emotion and meaning, that it can be jarring to stop and think that this was an everyday occurrence. Only a few people paid any attention to it, and everyone else went about their business. I don't understand why the 1-in-a-million case becomes a cause célèbre, when other cases of horrible crimes don't. The fact that the alleged perpetrator was white and the alleged victim was black in the cases we care about, and there was a different racial configuration in most of the cases we don't care about, would seem to be a very poor criterion. It's certainly not a reason to reach a national consensus that a man is guilty before we've afforded him due process.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Do you need to go college?

Peter Thiel writes:

Perhaps the least controversial thing that President Obama ever said was that “in the coming decades, a high school diploma is not going to be enough. Folks need a college degree.” This vision is commonplace, but it implies a bleak future where everyone must work harder just to stay in place, and it’s just not true. Nothing forces us to funnel students into a tournament that bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists. But that’s what will happen until we start questioning whether college is our only option. . . .

If a college degree always means higher wages, then everyone should get a college degree: That’s the conventional wisdom encapsulated by Obama. But how can everyone win a zero-sum tournament? No single path can work for everyone, and the promise of such an easy path is a sign of a bubble.

Of course, you can’t become successful just by dropping out of college. But you can’t become successful just by going to college, either, or by following any formula. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t famous because of the similar ways in which they left school. We know their names because of what each of them did differently from everybody else.

Learning from dropouts doesn’t require closing colleges but rather questioning them carefully. Higher education holds itself out as a kind of universal church, outside of which there is no salvation. Critics are cast as heretics or schismatics endangering the flock. But our greatest danger comes from the herd instinct that drives us to competition and crowds out difference.

A Reformation is coming, and its message will be the same as it was 500 years ago: Don’t outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.
The whole article is worth reading.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Why Democrats Can’t Win Over White Working-Class Voters"

This is a pretty good Slate article, though I could have done without the accusations that people who prefer Bill Clinton's welfare reform to the previously open-ended welfare are "racist."

Also, this part of the article doesn't make sense:

in the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney ran a series of ads—concentrated in the white working-class areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania—attacking President Obama for “gutting welfare” and “cutting checks” to people who wouldn’t work.
According to that link, Romney ran ads attacking Obama for "gutting welfare reform" — not "gutting welfare," but expanding welfare.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Twitter

The illusion that you're hanging out with celebrities.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Schools Implement Explicit Racial Bias in Suspensions"

Reason reports:

The good: Minneapolis Public Schools want to decrease total suspensions for non-violent infractions of school rules.

The bad: The district has pledged to do this by implementing a special review system for cases where a black or Latino student is disciplined. Only minority students will enjoy this special privilege. . . .

[P]ublic schools have gone discipline-crazy over the years, punishing students all-too-harshly for silly reasons every day. Any respite from overcriminalization is welcome. Any respite, except this one. . . .

[D]on't all students, regardless of skin color, deserve to have their disciplinary issues adjudicated under the same standards? And yet [Superintendent Bernadeia] Johnson is committed to reducing suspensions for minority students by a specific percentage, irrespective of the facts of the individual cases.
Some will defend this policy on the ground that minority students are probably more likely to be suspended without good reason. But if that's true, then reviewing all students' suspensions should be especially good for minorities. And wouldn't it be nice to have evidence of whether it's really true that suspensions of minorities are more likely to be unfounded? And wouldn't reviewing suspensions of all students be a good way to collect such evidence?

Monday, November 17, 2014

"We protect women and children, but these are dark-skinned men"

TNR reports on human trafficking in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid for by US tax dollars:

It is not surprising that labor trafficking is seen as a lesser evil than sex trafficking. The argument often goes: Is it really so bad to charge a worker in India a one-time fee in exchange for a job overseas with higher wages than he could find in his own country? But recruitment fees essentially create a system of indentured servitude. Workers usually take out high-interest loans in their home country to pay the fee, and the payments can trap them in their new jobs. Recruiters often mislead workers about their salary and the location of their job—promises of high-paying jobs in Jordanian hotels turn into custodial positions on U.S. military bases in warzones.

"The government says it has a zero tolerance policy, and yet there’s fairly credible allegations that these guys have been involved in trafficking and they continue to win government contracts,” says Steven Watt, a human rights attorney at the ACLU. “It’s pretty far from a zero tolerance policy.”

McCahon is more blunt: “This is the only situation in which the government uses U.S. tax dollars to fund human trafficking,” he says. “It’s not that we’re idly sitting by; we’re actively paying for it. It’s like the U.S. government is the John, telling the pimp, ‘We need bodies here, but we aren’t going to look at how you got them, or if they are even getting paid.’” . . .

He cited one case where an Indian college graduate named Ramesh paid $5,000 upfront to an agent who promised an $800 per month salary to work for a U.S. contractor in Iraq. Once in Iraq, he was only offered $150 per month, but took the job because he felt he had no other choice. When the loan shark became dissatisfied with the repayment rate, he sexually assaulted Ramesh’s sister. His sister hung herself and his mother fell into a state of shock. When Ramesh returned home to India, he and his surviving family members poisoned themselves.

While labor trafficking is clearly a human rights issue, McCahon is quick to point out that recruitment fees are also procurement fraud. Under the current contract, Dyncorp and Fluor pay Ecolog to bring them a specified number of workers. The contractors assume responsibility for transporting and housing their workers and are reimbursed by the government for the associated costs. “So if a subcontractor brings over 8,000 workers, and each worker comes with a $2,500 recruitment fee, that’s a $20 million black money kickback,” explained McCahon. “This is the largest contract fraud in the history of reconstruction.” The Army reimburses Dyncorp and Fluor for all of their allowable costs, plus 3 to 6 percent of their costs as profit—so the higher the costs, the higher the profit . . .

No contractor has ever been disciplined for a trafficking violation under the current Federal Acquisition Regulation, the set of rules for government purchases of goods and services. This means that even though there has been evidence of contractors violating anti-trafficking rules, there is no official negative past performance record, so they continue to be eligible to receive top-dollar government contracts.