Dealing with politics as a function of contexts rather than individual personalities

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Stop acting like Hillary Clinton is the wicked witch of the west and start seeing her as the product of four decades of backlash.

This is going to be a long post, and I am sorry, but the type of stuff that I am thinking about this morning really is complicated.

I’ve rather had it with the grumpiness around the “Bernie or Bust” people as well was the “Bernie or Bust” people, and it’s because I think it shows an illiteracy about policy and governance really does stand the chance of derailing the considerable good that Sanders has done, but not in the way that most people think.

For one, the “bust” folks are just getting madder and madder. The DNC email leak is being overblown–those aren’t nice emails, but for all the suggestions that were slimy, I don’t really remember any of the suggestions really being used. Were they? In addition to being biased, the suggestions were also…dumb. I thought Clinton handled Sanders with kid gloves, and I am glad she did so, and I think she did for good reasons: she didn’t want him discredited.

So the shrieking surrounding this supposed scandal “THEY RUINED DEMOCRACY” just kind of makes me sad about the state of political literacy. I’ve lamented the loss of government classes in American high schools for years, but one of the major reasons is simply that by getting the “who does what” aspects of civics figured out in high school, you can then teach classes in American politics in college and then cover parties, their histories, what parties do, what they don’t do. You bet there are better ways to conduct democratic elections than with two dominant parties and winner-take-all elections (which reinforce two parties), but as long as there are parties, they are going to be strategizing within the primary system long before they get to the generals.

I’m also fed up with the Sarah Silverman stuff of telling Bernie or Bust supporters that they are being ridiculous. It is rude. You can’t blame a person for being offended at that. Moreover, people with reservations about Clinton aren’t being ridiculous. Well some are: some seem to be a bunch of whiney misogynists who have fallen into a cult of personality around Sanders that he frankly doesn’t want, either, and to his credit, Sanders has never appeared to me to be on an ego trip of “they love me! They love me!” even though many people, including me, love him.

But there those who with good reasons to deplore Hillary Clinton’s record. In addition to Bill’s disastrous concessions to the Republicans in Congress on welfare reform, which you might be able to hold against her, she has been hawkish, a lot like Barack Obama. Where the misogyny shows up is when people ohh and ahh over the greatness of President Obama and then act like Clinton is the whore of Babylon. She at least tried to Obama to intervene in Syria and his hardcore political pragmatism kept him out. But lots of people deplore BOTH Obama and Clinton’s hawkishness, and they have legitimate worries about how she will wield power granted how she did so in the past.

And if you want fewer people to protest, then craft a less horrible set of policies on Israel and Palestine in your platform.

That said, I’m worried that the “bust” people don’t see what Sanders has done here: their best opportunity for continuing the revolution is Hillary Clinton and not bust–Donald Trump. If that wasn’t clear two weeks ago, it’s clear now. Donald Trump won’t “ruin” this country. There will be no political revolution with him in charge. He picked Michael Pence for his running mate. It’s a straight signaling that Trump is going to be a figurehead and the neocons are going to run the show.

It’ll be, instead, 4 and likely 8 years of Donald Trump stomping around and acting important and the GOP, God forbid, potentially having both the presidency and the Congress. That is, indeed, bust, but it will simply involve more of what we saw under President Bush (II). We’ve seen it already, and it’s not political revolution. It’s tax breaks for people like me and appointing more Alitos and Scalias. We’ve seen puh-lenty of this before.

Oh, and it’s Bernie Sanders going on home to become a senator from a small state as a man who once ran a campaign that made people feel good. Now THAT strikes me as a bust.

It’s hard to have a lot of hope and then have those hopes dashed in an election, but campaigns and elections are not governing; they are the build up to being able to govern.

And while I understand Sanders supporters legitimate ire, for those of us who have been progressives for a really long time, it’s just as insulting and irritating to have people who are 20 year olds who have been interested in politics for roughly a year and a half lecture me on how Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are “just as bad” as President Bush.

They aren’t and they weren’t. They might not have been great, but they were not President Bush, who thoughtlessly charged into a poorly planned military entanglement that killed thousands and immiserated millions and picked his nose when Americans were dying by the thousands in New Orleans buh buh buh-cuz “small government.” (Yes, Senator Clinton voted for the war, and she was wrong to do so, but there were some good reasons for wanting to intervene in Iraq…but it didn’t have to be the shitshow it was had the president or any of his appointees possessed a scrap of coalition-building capability. Nor, by the way, did she vote to expand a an illegal torture program. That line goes straight to the neocons, and btw all the GOP candidates competed during their debates to be the torturiest of the torturers despite evidence that the program didn’t really work and IT’S ILLEGAL BY OUR OWN LAWS. Like, not like, some sissy international laws, but OUR OWN LAWS.

oh, but BENGHAZI!!!!

And President Bush put Sam Alito on SCOTUS for the next 800 years. That alone should have us calling The Hague.

Now, Obama and Clinton are further to right than what many Sanders supporters want. But here’s the deal: for those of you who didn’t experience what Ronald Reagan did to politics in the US, go out and learn it, because in the post-Reagan years, elections in this country swung so far to the right that only Democrats that walk and look and act Obama and Clinton were going to get elected post Reagan.


And before you say “BS”…go look at this graphic.

The GOP has been dominating elections since 1985 after decades of Democratic control.

Yeah, we used to have a strongish left in the United States, but the backlash against the 1960s embodied in Nixon and carried forward in full expression into the Reagan years dragged the Democrats into political centrism that would have been, fifty years prior, a position occupied by moderate Republicans. Reagan crushed his political opponents. Crushed. Between the cult of personality and his campaign organization, which was impressive, Reagan–and more importantly, his people–owned politics for nearly two decades even after Reagan himself had to ride off into the sunset.

Remember Jack Kemp? No, lots of today’s voters do not remember Jack Kemp or Bob Dole because the voters are too young. They ran against Clinton in 1996, and they lost. Badly. You want to talk about two utterly indistinguishable politicians? Jack Kemp and Bill Clinton. Kemp was supposed to be the future of the Republican Party. Moderate. Young. Good-looking. Smart. Kemp was the whole package.

Gone. Why? Too moderate. The Mitch McConnells and the Lindsey Grahams and the Newt Gingerichs were everywhere. Still are. And the last 5 years, those guys haven’t been far enough right for TEA party types. Ahem. Let me repeat: THOSE GUYS have not been far enough right.

The only Democrats likely to get elected in the 1990s in the post-Reagan environment were the Clintons, and while we can blame money in politics, the bottom line is that if you can only elect relatively conservative people for decades at a time, they are going to be the people who are going to be on deck as experienced politicians when and if you ever hope to carry an election where we get to swing left again.

In other words, the Clintons are and were functions of contexts rather than, simply, bad individuals. Now maybe they are bad individuals. And I do think individual character and positions matter in politics and history. I think the way Bill Clinton treated the women around him is scummy. But those individual traits aren’t the whole story. Individuals step into contexts, and the Clintons’ combination of center-rightism meshed with what just about everybody thought was electable in the 1990s.

See, if you haven’t listened to the Republicans–and whole lot of other people–deride Jimmy Carter for 40 years, you don’t get this.

Sanders reinvigorated with his primary run something that I had seen die in my lifetime: a genuinely progressive Democratic base. Sanders demonstrated that there is a thirst for leftist politics and policy in the United States. He has shown that lefties can be credible, serious candidates for public office. He has shown the Democratic Party the states where it might be possible to get much more progressive people than the Clintons into Congress and into the Governor’s mansion.

Sanders ran as a Democrat because he knew all these things. If I’m tired and pissed off after years and years of neoliberal horse poop, he’s got to be 100 times more so. But I’d rather keep his vision alive by keeping him there, as Clinton’s stalking horse, rather than sending BOTH Sanders and Clinton to the bench and letting Trump and Mike Pence control the court. If that happens, it’ll be all to easy to make it seem like Sanders successes in the primary was the stuff of a cult of personality–a combination of his appealing old Jewish G-Pa personality and her Wicked Witchiness—instead of a genuine ground-swelling of progressive sentiment in US politics that signals to Clinton and subsequent Democrats where the party should go.

It’s very likely that if a Democrat is elected, they will be a one-term president. I would, quite frankly, have that person be Clinton rather than Sanders. She’ll make the SCOTUS appointments I need her to–and more importantly, prevent Trump from making the ones Pence and Co want him to–and exit to her own sunset. A one-term Bernie Sanders sally would be Jimmy Carter and another death of genuine progressivism all over again, and screw that.

Why I don’t sit by you on the bus/train

We have a podcast up at Bedrosian for Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric where I mostly am the clueless white lady. But that does give Raphael and Donnajean the opportunity to expand the discussion, so here it is. Mostly, what I learned doing the podcast is how in denial I am. Not that we are post-racial. But that these precious people, like Raph and Donnajean, suffer so and risk death just being out in the world. I just don’t want that to be true. These are cherished people. I’ve been hoping for years that we could get to the point where we are paying reparations, fixing mass incarceration, and the other policies and institutions. But we are still killing people on the street.

So anyway, one thing I did want to discuss was he public space problems of sitting on the bus. Rankine uses the white unwillingness to sit next to her on the bus as another peg on the board of how white people let black people know they are not ok. The whole book is so powerful: it shows you so clearly how micro aggressions fit as small signals and reminders with the big signals–and the ultimate enforcer, violence–in the lives of black Americans. (And people of color internationally.)

There is something I do want people to know: I don’t sit by you on the bus because of who you are. I don’t sit by you because of who I am. My size. I’m a big lady, and I don’t want anybody to be uncomfortable. I’ve always been lucky enough to live close to my work and to have relatively good health despite my size, and so standing for me for the trip is no problem. My train ride is two stops. Ten minutes, max.

I want people to be comfortable and happy on the bus or train. So I stand because I take up space, and if somebody smaller or nobody at all sits next to you, then you will be more comfortable than if I sit by you.

And today I am wearing white pants. So there’s that.

David McCullough on Reading Up

I am a great fan of escapist literature, but I also routinely get myself booed for being a snotty elitist when I tell people they really shouldn’t just read for escape. They should read to be challenged in addition.

Think of this way: you don’t run a marathon every day to train for a marathon. You do bits, big bits and small bits, and sometimes you just run around waving your hands in the airs chasing a little one in a game. The latter, taken alone, doesn’t train you for the marathon, but life would be terribly, terribly sad without it.

Or, you can’t eat chocolate all day every day. Gotta have some salad in there, too. But a life of salads, though many are delicious, is a lot less fun if there is never any chocolate.

So for those of us who write, we should be reading to understand our craft better, and we should be reading to understand how thinking occurs on the page and with the page.

This conversation with David McCullough is, like just about all conversations with him, delightful, and here he talks about “reading up, reading something that is just a little past your grasp.” You should. You’ll be surprised at how much you will grow doing that. Those stretch goals help a lot.

I was recently reminded of this with my foray in Thucydides in Greek. GOD THAT WAS HARD and it took me FOREVER. I’m translating Julius Caesar now and GOD THAT IS HARD. But I’ve learned a lot. I shall have to go back again and again. But those stretches have been so good.

Committing plagiarism is easier to do than people think

I work with plagiarism all the time as a college professor, and I send my *own* papers through Turnitin.com because I think it’s far easier to plagiarize by accident than people realize. Now, I am not a fan of Melania Trump. As I said on Fboo, I’ve always seen her as the mean girl at Durmstrang who joined the Death Eaters as soon as she possibly could, and this little teapot tempest is especially delicious granted that Mrs. Trump got her similar material from Michelle Obama and gave the speech, to yells and cheers, to a group of people who have treated Michelle Obama with so much unmitigated, unwarranted, and blind hate they should be ashamed of themselves.

The fact that all “First Lady” convention speeches are always the same “family valooos, my man is a Good Man, Daddy loves the Kiddies” blah blah means that I have to take my hat off to whoever first recognized the similarities.

Obviously, computers have done quite a bit to change plagiarism. Of course, detecting it is a million times easier. When people were just typing out of books or articles, it was harder to find. Now it’s easy to find.

But even easier to do, I think.

I still take notes by hand on notecards. My students think I am insane. Why would you do that when you can just type notes or cut and copy those notes from the original. That just strikes me as really dangerous on multiple levels. The first is that unless you really force yourself to put the concepts from the original piece in your own words, you may not really move much beyond the authors’ ideas and into your own ideas. You want to fairly represent what they author says, but for me, it’s important that I summarize the ideas in my own words so that I get a stronger grasp of how those ideas fit in with my own and others that are floating around. The second is simply making a mistake by not flagging what you have typed as a direct quote if it is a direct quote, you might forget and use it later in the writing.

Now, I think it’s possible to do notes and summarizing by typing. I just don’t do it that way, and these reasons are why.

The other reason I work by hand is to slow down and really think about the words and the concepts. I type so fast that I am not thinking much when I am typing.

I also have to watch myself. I have a good memory and I love bon mots. I’m also conceited enough to think I came up with a clever turn of phrase when actually I didn’t. I still check Turnitin even though I also try to plagiarism-proof my notes.

Slow scholarship….

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On police legitimacy regardless of social science findings

On Wednesday I wrote about how statistical innumeracy has led to way too much being read into Roland Fryer’s recently released NBER study. Despite my appalling lack of talent ;^), I feel a little like it’s my job to write those kinds of posts in order to help people understand the mechanics of social science. I’m a somewhat unusual planner in that I have spent most of my career in economics before heading into planning and urban studies, and I was fortunate to wind up at USC Price where, though they drive me to drink on a daily basis, I am surrounded by excellent social scientists from both economics and political science. So I’m still learning every day.

That said, I don’t think the answer to #BLM advocacy is going to come from social science. Social science is good for many, many things, but with #BLM and the individual cases like Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, there are two things going on which really have nothing to do with things that social science can detect.

The first are individual injustices: even if we did show, for example, that there were no disparities in police violence by race (which is not the case, but let’s say it was), any person unjustly harmed by representatives of the state–police–is a wrong that should be addressed if the system we have set up is functioning in a manner that people consider broadly just. Each individual case, from Freddie Grey to Sandra Bland, has to be correctly adjudicated even if there are no broad social trends that might be detectable with social science.

Fumbling on the adjudication of one wrong now and then does not mean the entire system is terrible; most people who aren’t Frederich Hayek understand that there is no perfect justice. A mistake here and there might be the best we can do.

But with Black Lives Matter and the issues they highlight, we aren’t talking about a few isolated incidents here and there.That’s the second issue. We are talking about multiple wrongs (or harms at the very least) that, over time, have accumulated so that a subgroup within the political community has lost faith in both policing and courts as public institutions. To some degree, we might be able to use social science to inform experiential knowledge of being subjected to policing. Experience matters, however, in how people know and learn, and it is itself a very important component to public policy formation, as well as institutional conduct.

The lack of legitimacy among police in black communities has been a forever problem in the US. What BLM seeks to do is get other parts of the political community to see and experience what they see: That trust is gone, the way they are treated is vastly different than the way others are treated, and that this policing is done under the tacit consent of all of us in the political community. When that trust is broken, then it’s gone, and it doesn’t come back because of social science. It comes back through governance: by demonstrating trustworthiness through changing behavior and practices.

#BLM advocates are not getting rich doing this. They are not looking for “special rights”, whatever that means. They are going to a great deal of trouble–I strongly suspect they would rather be playing Pokemon Go or watching television or painting or gardening or going for a hike than getting arrested and shoved around, don’t you? But they don’t have that privilege. They are protesting, like all those who protest in majoritarian or elite-dominated systems, because they have, through experience, listening, and observing, identified change they need and they do not have influence through lobbying or other back-door means.

Social science does not really have an answer to any of it, and it’s wrong to ask it to, just as it is wrong to try to use social science to undermine the calls for change.

About that Roland Fryer study and conceptual-level differences in statistical probabilities

(I swear I have corrected and corrected this post, darn it, and I keep finding typos and skipped words. Sorry.)

Roland Fryer, Jr. is a brilliant economist–I’ve always enjoyed reading his work on education, and thus when he produced a study on police shootings, the combination of Roland Fryer/Harvard/New York Times coverage has resulted in a ton of press for it. Here is the paper at NBER. Here is the original NYT piece, which I thought did a nice job writing up the study. It’s super irritating to me that what people have highlighted about the study is that he finds no statistically significant differences in shooting deaths between white and black suspects. For some reason, THAT is getting the headlines. But he finds disparities in _every_other_aspect of police treatment.

Taser use (ow) and rough treatment consistently show disparities. These conclusions are drawn from Stop and Frisk data from NYC and the Police Contact Survey (national data). The data on officer-involved shootings come from data solicited by the author from Boston, Camden, NYC, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, six Florida counties, and Tacoma, Washington.

There is a very detailed discussion of their data collection process from police narratives, where they coded and back-coded nearly 200 variables from these cities. They then do a separate set of codings on Houston, and I’m not sure why, other than what Fryer reports: the Houston data has more detail than the others. I guess the differences in the data were enough to make Fryer think they might find something different in Houston than from the other 10 cities, so they analyzed them separately. I probably wouldn’t have done that; I probably would have kept the coding the same for all the cities and simply had empty cells for concepts missing in the other cities. It’s not clear, to me anyway, what he gets out of the second coding around Houston.

Like any good economist, he beats on the data pretty hard; he does robustness check after robustness check and finds really no evidence in the data that in individual interactions with police, there is a difference by race or ethnicity in the odds that deadly force will be used.

Now, that’s an interesting and important finding, but it’s limited, and people are not listening overmuch to Fryer as he points this out. Fryer’s data are used to model an interaction game among individuals. He’s not able to answer some of the questions that BLM has raised. There is a substantive difference between these two statistical propositions:

1) that, when a policeman has encountered an individual, they use deadly force. This is modeled as an odds ratio that examines the difference by officer demographics, some context variables and the race of the suspect. (if f is force and e is an encounter, we have the posterior probability (P(f|e))

2) that a police encounters an individual and then uses deadly force: the union of two probabilities (I’m too lazy to present the formula as it’s not straight up on my keyboard. Maths types who care about such things know what I am talking about anyway.)

It’s the second he doesn’t have, and that’s important. The first can tell us whether or not, in the statistical sense, individual policemen make racist choices when they have encounters with suspects in various situations. You can envision Fryer’s data as he does: as a series of conditional probabilities that begin to unfold at e. That’s a good thing to know. Whether an individual officer is a member of the Aryan Nation or not–that is, whether the individual police officer is explicitly racist and making explicitly racist choices in individual interactions–does not seem to be moving Fryer’s findings. (It still makes such an individual officer somebody I really, truly do not want having state-sanctioned capability to use deadly force, but the “bad apple making bad choices” idea does not seem to be driving the numbers).

Fryer does not really have P(e)–but his precinct data are suggestive–and that’s a problem. He discusses it over and over in the paper, and then again in his discussion with readers in this very nice NYT follow up. Disproportionality–the idea that relative to their population percentages, African Americans are disproportionately represented in police encounters/arrests/violence–could enter into the probability in proposition #1 at either point (e) or (f), and with out (e), we can’t use Fryer’s study except as a partial answer to BLM critiques of US policing. What we can conclude from Fryer’s study is that the disproportionality in the aggregate statistics are not likely due to P(f).* And that’s important–it’s way more than I’ve accomplished lately.

But anyway:

Fryer argues in the follow up that we should be able to understand whether P(e) is an issue somewhat in instances where police are called to a specific situation. I think that’s a good argument, but not a great one, because I don’t think we can treat race as exogenous in police calls or in police responses to calls. Who gets called on, what types of behaviors prompts calls, how quickly police are able to access the scene of the report (and thus, encounter a suspect), etc–those are all factors where race and place may factor into whether there is a suspect encountered. For instance, one reason his rates on deadly force use among whites may be relatively high compared to those of African Americans might be that white behaviors have to be extreme in some way before the police are called in the first place, and that extremeness, or interpretations of it–could prompt use of deadly force once police arrive. Police are likely to cluster geographically, and so is crime, and so are background populations–race and ethnicity are not geographically random.

* Well, back up. We can’t use one social science study, no matter how good (and this is a good study), as the answer. Social science evidence has to accrue across many, many high-quality studies before we should start deciding we know what’s going on. Here’s another good study that finds significant bias, but the data are aggregate.

Augustine on Grief

“My heart grew dark with grief, and where I looked, I saw only death. My own town became a torment to me and my own home a grotesque abode of misery. All we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him. My eyes searched everywhere for him, but he was not be seen. I hated all the places we had been together, because he was not in them, and they could no longer whisper to me “Here he comes!”

(Confessions,IV, iv, 9).