Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Three (No, two, um, make that three again) Commentaries on 2017

Commentary 1.

I was bouncing around twitter and landed on the following tweet. It may be the best commentary on where we are that I have read.

Obligatory comment: I know nothing about the individual who left the tweet. To the best of my knowledge I have never seen a tweet by that person before. I haven’t checked his (her? zir?) other tweets to know whether I should endorse or denounce him (her? zir?).  But I thought the tweet was clever.

 

Commentary 2.

From The Hill:

The Republican National Committee (RNC) expanded its massive fundraising lead over the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in July as the Democrats posted their worst July haul in a decade.

The DNC raised just $3.8 million in July, compared to the $10.2 million raised by the RNC in the same month. While the GOP has no debt, the DNC added slightly to its debt in July, which now sits at $3.4 million.

The Democrats haven’t raised that little money in a July since 2007, when the party raised $3.4 million.

The dynamics that have caused this are perfectly clear to me.

 

Commentary 3.

This weekend, for the third time in five weeks, I spent around four hours writing a post… and then I simply erased the final product. Each of the three posts dealt with the same topic: how to substantially reduce the homicide rate in the US, particularly in the most beleaguered communities. Each post was supported by a different analysis, which in turn was based on a different set of data. This is, after all, 2017 America.  I almost deleted this paragraph too.

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Evolution of the Trump Administration: An Op Ed

Donald Trump seems to be missing some sort of a regulator that prevents him from simply saying what temporarily happens to be on his mind. That made it inevitable that he would treat his audience to a regular stream of faux pas. However, I think both the degree and severity of the mess may be diminished going forward.

The reason has to do with how the Trump administration came into being. Simply put, unlike most candidates, he actually beat both major political parties in the US, not just the Democrats. He took the Republican nomination by beating the presumptive heir – Jeb Bush. Then he beat the back-ups who were viewed as acceptable to most establishment Republicans: Rubio and Cruz.

Now, when a new President takes office, he can usually stock his administration from think tanks and members of the political intelligentsia. Trump couldn’t. As the Republican nominee, he was never going to use left-leaning people. But he wasn’t about to bring in people from the Bush/Rubio/Cruz camps, nor were many of them willing to serve under him either. That pretty much ruled out the vast majority people with any experience in how Washington works.

So who was left? Well, there were disaffected members of the Republican establishment (those who had pissed off the neocons during the last Republican administration), some elements in the military, and people on the right who had been criticizing the Republican party for a long time. The latter group tend to be the most numerous. They also live on the fringes. And like most people on the fringes, they have no idea how the world works. Many are bombastic, like Trump himself.

So that was the well from which Trump could draw. A clown show was inevitable. And since many of the clowns were actually advising Trump himself, it was also predictable that Trump would be repeating some of their nonsense, sprinkled in with some that was homegrown.

But it seems that Trump can learn, after all. He may brag that he is the bestest Presidentiest President ever, but under it all, people he trusts remind him that he isn’t actually getting anything done. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to him to get rid of Priebus and replace him with Kelly. What Kelly himself believes – politically – isn’t entirely clear, but he is a four star general, and it seems clear he understands how organizations work. He quickly unloaded a couple of the more clown-ish actors, the Mooch and Steve Bannon, and perhaps his own predecessor.

Assuming Trump and Kelly remain in place, this should lead to something resembling professionalism in some of the corners of the administration that haven’t had such a thing in a while. That professionalism should even manifest itself in advice given to the President, reducing the amount of crazy-talk taking up valuable shelf-space in his head. That in turn might cut down on some of the more soap opera-ish activity coming from both Trump and the rest of the administration.

Is that a good thing? Well, there’s a yes and a no to that question. The yes piece is obvious, so I won’t elaborate. But as to the no… year to date, Trump was busy proposing ideas that had no support from anyone except the fringes and peddling them in ways that couldn’t possibly gain traction. As a result, those ideas went nowhere. But what happens if he starts running with garden-variety Republican tropes? Those tropes can gain the support they need to be enacted. They also didn’t generate positive outcomes the last few times we’ve seen them applied. Nor is there any real reason to expect that things will be turn out differently the next time the are tried.

I have to say, I was naive. I didn’t even think that Caligula might have an effective chief of staff.

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Symbols of Oppression Being Ignored

The Confederacy stood for the forcible subjugation of other people. If there is a benefit to honoring the concept of or symbols for the Confederacy I don’t see it. Taking these symbols out of the public sphere is a net positive, even if some people are able to simultaneously a) disassociate those symbols from the oppression they represent and b) venerate those symbols.

To be consistent, note that the radical Islamic ideology also calls for the forcible subjugation of other people. Furthermore, it seems clear that in the last few decades a heck of a lot more people have been killed or enslaved by those following a radical Islamist ideology than a Confederate (or similar fellow traveler) ideology.

So… are there symbols that matter to the radical Islamists that should get the Confederate statue treatment?

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Reducing the Gender Disparity in Incarceration: A Thought Experiment

According to the latest figures, 93.3% of federal prisoners are men. The male to female incarceration rate is also wildly lopsided in state and county facilities, and to my knowledge, pretty much everywhere else in the world. I also am unable to think of a single example where there is reason to believe that women outnumber men in jails and prisons. Furthermore, I don’t see any particular reason why incarcerated men will not continue to outnumber incarcerated women as long as there are prisons or people.

Before I go on with this thought experiment, allow me to provide full disclosure. I was born and raised and continue to be a male. My parents and my wife are willing to corroborate the details should anyone wish to delve more deeply. It is also relevant to note that the only incarceration facility whose inside I have seen in real life is the Alcatraz, but it was decommissioned as a prison well before I was born.

Now, despite my male identification and my desire to remain unincarcerated, I have no problems whatsoever with the lopsided ratio of men v. women in our prisons and jails. I think there’s a good reason for the ratio to be what it is. (If you want to argue that there are too many, or too few guests of the state, that’s a different issue outside the scope of this post.) I suspect most of us are better off with the male to female incarceration ratio being in the ballpark of what it is. See, it turns out that men commit more crime than women. A lot more crime. And a lot more violent crime. That not only is true today, it has been true for as long as there is has been a concept of crime.

Does it diminish me as a guy to state that fact – that men are far more likely to be criminals than women – baldly? Not as far as I can see. How am I being hurt by the fact that men are incarcerated more frequently than women? Well, provided I am not one of those men engaging in crime, not much, if at all.  I am more likely to get the  jaundiced eye from any random law enforcement officer, which in turn may mean less I am more likely to be searched, and possibly even falsely suspected of crimes than a randomly selected woman.  I note that I also benefit, to some extent, from the fact that men like me are watched more carefully than women like my wife.  After all, men are not just disproportionately the perpetrators of most crimes.  They are also disproportionately represented among the victims of many crimes, particularly most violent crimes such as murder.  But I suspect that the effect of men being subject to extra scrutiny (or worse) is not large enough to put a dent in the ratio of crimes committed by men v. the crimes committed by women.

The converse is also true –  I don’t see much gain to the women from the fact that men are more likely to be more incarcerated than women.   Nor does the gender difference in incarceration affect the likelihood of any single individual ending up in jail.

But the fact that men are more likely to commit crimes does have real world effects. Anecdotally (and autoethnographically?), every time I share an elevator with a woman I don’t know, I make an effort to stay glued to the wall, and I do my best to look non-threatening. Why? Well, common courtesy. Because women do have something to fear from being in an enclosed space with a guy they don’t know. And I would hope that if enough people behave with common courtesy, the women in my life will also get the benefit of such courtesy from men they don’t know when they find themselves on an elevator.

Note that threats can appear from everywhere.  Men also can be attacked by women, but crime statistics indicate that a man has less to fear from a woman he doesn’t know than vice versa. That said, while I have noticed the “unthreatening” look on many men’s faces and posture on an elevator, I don’t believe I have ever seen it on a woman. Perhaps if a woman were to do so it might come across, to the wrong man, as a show of weakness and invite violence.  There are, after all, a not insignificant number of dangerous men out there.

Beyond the elevator situation, there are also some other courtesies I extend to women that I don’t extend to men. As one example, if I am walking behind a woman who is wearing a skirt and she begins walking up stairs, I will hang back until she is well up the stairs before continuing up myself. Alternatively, I will move quickly, taking the stairs three at a tie to get around her. As far as I know, it isn’t illegal for a guy to walk up a flight or two of stairs with his eyes staring straight ahead buttocks-level. But it also isn’t hard to noodle out that doing so would make many women uncomfortable. So once again, a small change of behavior qualifies as common courtesy.

But let’s get back to incarceration rates. Let us say it became perceived as unfair that more men are incarcerated than women. Perhaps a situation arises where people would insist there is no real difference between female and male behavior, and if there is a difference in incarceration outcomes, it must be due to society imposing an extra burden on males. That might lead to society seeking to arrive at a 50-50 incarceration ratio between men and women.

Of course, that would be a commendable social goal if the commission of the types of crimes that lead to incarceration were equal among men and women. But what if the crime ratio was still lopsided as the one we observe today? In that case, to achieve incarceration parity, we would have two options. One would be to release 86 male prisoners for every 93 men that are currently incarcerated. Another would be to incarcerate an extra 86 female prisoners for every 7 women who are currently incarcerated. (Technically, we could do something between the two scenarios, but I will ignore that option for that essay.)

Neither of those ways of achieving a 50-50 balance is healthy. The first will lead to letting out a lot of people who probably belong in jail, which will result in more crime against innocent victims. The second option leads to incarcerating a lot of people who shouldn’t be in jail. Leaving aside how we collectively decide which innocent women should be incarcerated in order to achieve the desired balance, there will be a huge personal cost on many women (and their families). It will also hurt the economy in the process.

If there is no observed change in the Male to Female ratio of criminality, a substantial change in the incarceration ratio is more likely to cause quite a bit harm than good. To change the male incarceration rate without causing harm, the male criminality rate must also be reduced.

But there is also one other fact to consider.  A world in which a) serious crimes are committed by males in wildly disproportionate rates, and b) society was seeking to achieve a 50-50 incarceration rate  will have little or no serious discussion about point a.  After all, admitting that criminals are disproportionately male (which is a very different thing than stating that all or even most males are criminals) is also an admission that the desired incarceration rate is hard to achieve.  Worse, looking into why the crime rate is so much higher among men and women could lead to the unfortunate conclusion that the only way to achieve social goals is for the justice system to come down on women much harder than it comes down on men.  This is a hard conclusion to stomach, and it leads to cognitive dissonance since the whole point of 50-50 incarceration is, presumably, to make society more fair.  And really, there is only one way to deal with cognitive dissonance:  a mountain of self-righteous outrage would be heaped on anyone who pointed out the mutual contradictions or why they exist.  It is hard to imagine a world where points a and b are simultaneously true, but with a bit of effort most of us could probably come up with its broad outlines.

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Random Thoughts on the Google Memo

I haven’t been following the Google Memo saga all that closely, but I do have some random thoughts about the whole brouhaha:

1. If the distribution of skillsets, interests and temperament is the same between men and women, why do the latest figures (June 24, 2017) from the Bureau of Prisons indicate that 93.3% of federal prisoners are men?
2. Would a rational person, upon learning that 93.3% of federal prisoners are men, jump to the conclusion that our legal system won’t punish women for crimes?
3. If the distribution of skillsets, interests, and temperament is the same between men and women, why does Google give advertisers an option to target customers by gender? Shouldn’t they stop?

I note… this post was suggested by my wife. She asked my opinion about the topic, I made the three points above, and she said: “This sounds like it should be a post.” So here it is.

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Meanwhile, In Australia

Meanwhile, in Australia:

A LOCAL council has banned the construction of a synagogue in Bondi because it could be a terrorist target, in a shock move that religious leaders say has caved in to Islamic extremism and created a dangerous precedent.
The decision, which has rocked the longstanding Jewish community in the iconic suburb, was upheld in court this week as the nation reeled from the alleged airline terror threat and debate raged over increased security measures at airports and other public places.
The Land and Environment Court backed the decision by Waverley Council to prohibit the construction of the synagogue in Wellington St, Bondi — just a few hundred metres from Australia’s most famous beach — because it was too much of a security risk for users and local residents. Jewish leaders are shocked the decision appears to suggest they cannot freely practice their religion because they are the target of hate by Islamist extremists — and that the council has used their own risk assessment of the threat posed by IS against it.

William Gibson once said something along the lines of the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed. Given the path followed by the West since 9/11, this was inevitable sooner or later. And the social consequences of the path we’ve followed has economic implications as well. A lot of them could have been forecasted reasonably well in Sept 2011. Following Gibson’s comment, there are other things that would piss off Islamist extremists too: churches, strip clubs, gay bars, banks that charge interest, anyplace where women walk around uncovered and unescorted, etc. There is also an older dictum than Gibson’s: the pendulum swings. Between Gibson and the pendulum, where do you see society in 16 years?

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The Homicide Rate, Race and Poverty

In my last post, I noted a positive correlation between the homicide rate in a state and killings by the police in the same state. In states where the risk of homicide is higher, police killings also tend to be higher. But there is a mitigating race component, and one which (not surprisingly for those who care about data) goes against conventional wisdom:

for the same state homicide rate, people are less likely to be shot by cops in states where Black people make up 10% or more of the population than in states where people make less than 10% of the population.

Looking at homicides, and accounting for race, it seems there are different dynamics at play among different population groups:

Figure 1
(Click to embiggen.)

I can’t find murder rates (whether victimization or offender) by race at the state level, but I do note that the data appears to show a clear relationship between the overall murder rate and the ethnic makeup of a given state:

Figures 2a and 2b

 

Relative to the rest of the population, there is an elevated homicide rate (both offense and victimization) in our Black population. Thus, if we want to reduce the homicide rate, perhaps the opportunity is greatest in understanding why the homicide rate is as high as it is in the Black community.

Poverty is often mentioned as a factor driving crimes in general, and sometimes homicides in particular. To examine whether that is the case here, the next graph shows the percentage of a state’s population that is Black on one axis, and the homicide (victimization) rate on the other axis. States with fewer than 3 million than people are omitted. Additionally, states with a Black poverty rate in excess of 22% (which is approximately the median poverty rate for the Black population, measured by state) are colored orange:

Figure 3 - header changed

While the homicide rate is lower in states with less poverty (median of 42 murders per million v. 58), there is no clear pattern that would indicate that poverty rates the Black community are a primary driver of the murder rates according to the above graph. If that isn’t clear to you, the graph below includes the same information but from a different perspective.

Figure 4

 

So the data seems to indicate that reducing poverty in the Black community, while a laudable goal for any number of reasons, is probably not going to have a strong influence on the homicide rate.

This post is getting long so it’s time to wrap it up. I note, however, that I have collected other data (e.g., pop density, measures of segregation, education levels, single parenthood, etc.) which hopefully I can put into similar graphs in later posts. Perhaps among these variables will be an indication as to what can be done to reduce the homicide rate and reduce the number of victims, particularly in the Black community.

One final note… if anyone knows where I can get data on the homicide rate by different population groups by state please let me know.

Update, 7/31/2017, 5:21 PM PST

As should be obvious from the wording of the post, I was concerned that someone might misconstrue the second to the last graph.  To make the homicide relationship more obvious, I included the last graph as a companion piece. However, a habitually rude offender claims to believe that the states with a relatively low level of Black poverty (i.e., the blue points on the second to the last graph) have a different relationship between Black poverty and homicide rates than the states with relatively high levels of Black poverty, and all of that is being somehow masked by the existence of Maryland. So… below please find the same graph, redone, including only the states with low levels of Black poverty, but leaving out Maryland. (Note that the slope of the graph below is actually steeper than the slope of the graph with a broader set of data though the fit isn’t as high.)

Figure 5 - for update

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More on Police Shootings and Race

In my last post, I linked to a post by Peter Moskos noting that:

People, all people, are 1.6 times more likely, per capita, to be shot and killed by police in states that are less than 10 percent black compared to states more than 10 percent African American. Blacks are still more likely than whites, per capita to be shot overall. But this ratio (2.6:1) doesn’t change significantly based on how black a state is.
For both whites and blacks, the likelihood of being shot by police is greater in states with fewer blacks. And the difference is rather large. There are seven states less than two percent black. In 2015 and 2016, zero blacks were shot and killed in Maine, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. But if you think cops don’t shoot people in these states, you’re wrong. Compared to the four states with the highest percentage of African-American (Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Maryland are more than 30 percent black), the overall rate of police-involved killings in states with few blacks is higher. And this is despite a lower rate of overall violence.

It seems an odd result, so I have given it a bit of thought. I think I know what is happening and will try to provide a bit of an explanation over a few posts. I will start by noting that this is what the homicide rate looks like by state when put against the rate of killings by police:

Homicides v killings by police, figure 1
(Click to embiggen. Note that data sources are shown on the chart.)

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