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Heroes of the day

[ 30 ] October 31, 2014 |

Kaci Hickox and Judge Charles LaVerdiere. LaVerdiere:

“We would not be here today unless Respondent generously, kindly and with compassion lent her skills to aid, comfort and care for individuals stricken with a terrible disease. We need to remember as we go through this matter that we owe her and all professionals who give of themselves in this way a debt of gratitude.”

I know that after decades of the wars on terror and (some people who use some) drugs, the notion that the evidence used to justify restricting basic rights should actually have to meet some kind of quality standards might seem rather quaint. But it’s not quite dead yet, despite the mendacious, lazy, and casually racist stupidity of ebolanoia and those who pander to it.

Non-citizens voting

[ 39 ] October 28, 2014 |

A good post here from John Ahlquist and Scott Gehlbach, and another from Michael Tesler here, responding to a rather sensational, oversold post from David Earnest and Jesse Richman, which was greeted with much enthusiasm by those who’ll take their justification for voter suppression wherever they happen to find it. The Earnest/Richman post was frustrating in its eagerness to over-extrapolate from some really small numbers to get a splashy headline. I haven’t read the paper (gated) they were discussing; but there’s reason to hope it might be better with the data than the blog post suggests. Earnest has done good work before; I’ve learned a great deal from his earlier work on patterns and practices of enfranchizing non-citizens, which are considerably more common than most people realize (mostly, but not exclusively, in local elections). 

The Stanford Political Science Experiment

[ 97 ] October 27, 2014 |

Admittedly, the allusion in my title oversells the story a bit, but this isn’t good.

It seems to me there are two issues here worth disentangling.

1) Is it ethical for researchers to interact with voters in a way that might change the outcome of an election (but with no intent to do so, and no partisan valence)?

2) Is it ethical for for researchers to do (1) while misrepresenting themselves as agents of the state?

I’m inclined to answer the first question with a ‘no’ but am willing to listen to arguments to the contrary. An anonymous political scientist in the TPM piece makes the case for a yes answer:

“I would say, just looking at the country at large, is the great threat to the integrity of our process good social science or is it the Koch brothers?” the source, who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said. “You’ve got to be courageous about this. We need to know how to improve our politics and how to renovate it. We can’t just be playing Mickey Mouse games in the classrooms. We’ve got to be out there in the political world trying stuff.”

The Koch brothers thing is risible misdirection; whatever one thinks of the Koch brothers political activity in a post-Citizens United world, this is an entirely separate issue. The implied argument here is that the current trend in cutting edge political science research to eschew observational studies in favor of ‘experiments’ is, inevitably going to lead to manipulation of actual political events if it’s going to be done well. There’s some truth to this; ‘experiments’ conducted in artificial scenarios with a bunch of undergraduate volunteers will lead us to replicate the WEIRD problem in a good deal of psychological research (and only answer a very limited number of kinds of research questions).  That said, as someone with no professional attachment (and a skeptical attitude toward) to the experiments trend, my inclination is to say ‘so much the worse for experiments’; as with all social science methodologies it has real limits, in this case ethical ones, that need to be acknowledged. But I suppose it’s possible that there’s a conversation worth having about minor, random influence as potentially acceptable in some circumstances.

As for (2), though, I don’t see how there can be any debate at all. I can’t imagine what they were thinking if this was their intention (and it’s hard to account for their use of the state seal in the mailing in any other way). I would guess it was an effort to get more people to take their flyer seriously, but I can’t fathom what would cause someone to think that misrepresentation is in any way ethical.

 

Campaigning, Alaska-style

[ 42 ] October 22, 2014 |

Yes, the town of Wasilla will forever have to live with the shame of launching Sarah Palin’s political career, but it’s not their children’s fault, and they didn’t deserve this:

The Alaska Dispatch News reported that students and staff at Wasilla High School said U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) “acted in a disrespectful and sometimes offensive manner to some students, used profanity and started talking about bull sex when confronted with a question about same-sex marriage” during his 60-minute appearance.

When one student asked Young why he thought same-sex marriage was so bad, the congressman responded: “You can’t have marriage with two men. What do you get with two bulls?” according to Wasilla Principal Amy Spargo.

Witnesses told the Dispatch News that Young’s comments on suicide also stunned the assembly, as students and staff were mourning the loss of a Wasilla student who took his own life last week. Young mentioned alcohol and depression and said that suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family, according to the witnesses.

This, of course, is coming right on the heels of Young implying that he may have murdered someone in retaliation for violating his personal space.

I’m sure the good people of Alaska will return him to congress to serve is 73rd term.

Changes in VMT forecasting

[ 18 ] October 22, 2014 |

Earlier this year, in a lengthy post about the disastrously stupid plan to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct with a risky, costly deep bore tunnel with no access to downtown Seattle (update: still not looking good!), I expanded my complaint to WSDOT’s planning process, mirrored by DOTs around the country. They exhibited a stubborn refusal to adjust their future projections about vehicle miles traveled based on a new information; up through the 2013 projection, they were insisting that the steady increase in VMT that characterized the second half of the 20th century is likely to return immediately.  The September 2014 WSDOT projections are now available, and something appeared to get through to them this time:

Washington State Transportation Revenue Forecast Council - Peak Traffic

Looking at the data, the change here is really striking: they went from assuming the 80′s are coming back immediately to assuming the modest declines in VMT per capita will not just continue but accelerate, such that VMT per capita is now projected to drop by over 1% per year, at a slightly increasing rate, throughout the 2020′s and 2030′s, resulting in a 2041 VMT per capita a full 33% below the peak rate (see pg 28 here). I would have expected formulas and assumptions to be tweaked and nudged, not radically revised. I think these projections are more sensible, and I obviously certainly hope they’re correct, but it’s striking to see such a dramatic change. One possible reason might be political–forecasts like this make extravagant highway projects funded by assumptions about the future more politically difficult. (That WSDOT might now recognize this is a good thing is a happy possibility to contemplate). Whatever the reason, this shift in forecasting is good political news regardless of whether it’s accurate or not, as Clark Williams-Derry explains:

Second, even if the forecast is wrong, assuming that traffic won’t grow much is the most fiscally prudent way to plan a transportation budget.

For far too long, “build now, pay later” has been the transportation budgeter’s mantra. In the 2000s, for example, Washington committed itself to massive road projects that it didn’t have the money to build. So the state floated bonds, assuming that revenue from gas taxes would show up to pay them off.

That hasn’t worked out so well. Traffic didn’t grow as expected, and gasoline and tolling revenue has gone AWOL as a result. Gradually, planners have come to realize that debt service will swallow up most of the state’s gas tax receipts, crowding out everything else. As the chart below shows, WSDOT predicts that within a few years three-quarters of the state’s gas tax receipts will pay for old projects.

And because so much of the state’s gas revenue is going to pay off old debts, state and local governments simply don’t have the money to keep existing streets and roads in good repair—let alone complete projects, such as the SR-520 bridge, that we’ve already started. And there’s even less money left for the transportation priorities where demand is actually growing, such as walking, transit, and biking.

The irony here is that one reason we might see future VMT decline is declining investment in transportation infrastructure maintenance, caused by foolishly overspending in the 00′s based on budgeting on future VMT increases. It will be interesting to see (and when I have more time I may do some digging) if this is part of a national trend. USDOT’s last VMT forecast appeared to be straight from the late 20th century, even as the US Energy Information Agency projected little to no growth. It’ll be interesting to see what they’ll do with the 2014 report.

 

Rick Scott’s fascinating new strategy

[ 100 ] October 15, 2014 |

You’re an unpopular governor running for re-election, burdened by a terrible record and an image and appearance more appropriate for a B-rate supervillian. You’re struggling to keep up in the polls with your opponent, a former governor of the state, who despite a record of mediocrity and rank political opportunism, is starting to look pretty good compared to you. With a few precious weeks to go before the election, what do you do? This, apparently.

Is there a constituency that isn’t quite ready to vote for Scott, but might be convinced to do so if acts even more like a petulant seven year old child? Seems implausible, but it’s Florida, so…

The cause of traffic fatalities is driving

[ 109 ] October 14, 2014 |

Good post by Philip Cohen on the absurd misdirection and dubious statistics surrounding the texting-while-driving panic. The parallel with making the famous crying Indian commercial about littering, rather than pollution/deforestation is apt. Driving, of course, is what’s deadly here, and texting-while-driving, like anything that takes your focus away from such a dangerous, high-stakes activity, is obviously a terrible idea, the effort to focus on this one distracting activity misdiagnoses the fundamental problem. A serious approach to reducing traffic fatalities would recognize that humans being what they are, there are real limits to the use of social norms and laws to make humans better driving machines (and for many reasons not immediately solvable via public policy, modern life isn’t really geared toward only driving cars when you’re well-rested, not distracted or angry, incommunicado with the outside world, etc). Getting drivers to take seriously the danger associated with the activity itself is key. Stigmatizing texting-while-driving is fine, but if we’re serious about continuing to push the fatality figures down, the most important thing we can do is make the kind of transit investments and change the regulatory environment to encourage the construction and development of neighborhoods and cities that facilitate low-car lifestyles. (To mount a hobby-horse of mine, down with parking requirements!) The good news is the kids want it, if we’ll let them have it.

Congratulations to Microsoft’s Satya Nadella

[ 35 ] October 9, 2014 |

The latest graduate of the Larry Summers school of leadership.

Things that probably shouldn’t have been put in writing

[ 78 ] October 1, 2014 |

Speaking of slow motion crashes suddenly accelerating, the latest from the flaming train wreck that is Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. Back in July leaders of Mars Hill admitted that non-trivial portions of the millions donated to their “global fund,” ostensibly to aid in missions in Ethiopia and India, was in fact being pumped into the Church’s general fund, and whatever undisclosed salaries it supports. Today we learn, via Brendan Kiley, that Warren Throckmorton has got his hands on some internal memos suggesting that was the plan all along. From the memo:

The Global Fund could be beneficial in a number of ways, besides the obvious gain of increased funding:
• For a relatively low cost (e.g. $10K/month), supporting a few missionaries and benevolence projects would serve to deflect criticism, increase goodwill, and create opportunities to influence and learn from other ministries.

• Many small churches who may consider joining Mars Hill hesitate because they do not believe we support “missions.” While we need to continue to challenge the assumptions underlying a claim, the Global Fund would serve as a simple, easy way to deflate such criticism and help lead change in these congregations.

• The ability to communicate and interact with supporters of Mars Hill Global provides an avenue for promoting events, recruiting leaders, and developing Mars Hill core groups in strategic cities

Here’s at LGM we’ve managed to obtain an image of the meeting where the plan for the global fund was constructed. Context for the “low cost” estimate of 10K a month: as of May, the fund was taking in 300K a month. What’s most striking to about this memo isn’t the plan it reveals, which is more or less what I’ve come to expect from that organization. It’s that it was actually written down in some sort of formal memo. I’m legitimately curious about the intended audience for this memo. It was a group of people that, on the one hand, must have been assumed to be sufficiently cynical about the nature of the Church that such frank admissions wouldn’t be jarring or alarming, but at the same time, be deemed to be sufficiently trustworthy that they could be trusted with such a potentially damning document. How big was that group?  If I were running this scam, my concern would be that people who meet the first criteria were unlikely to meet the second, and vice versa, such that the number of people I would trust to have their hands on such a document must be very small, and the risks associated with putting something this in writing couldn’t possibly be worth it. The memo doesn’t appear to be dated, but it must have been sometime prior to the launch of Mars Hill global fund, which I believe was sometime in 2012. That would place this document most likely in 2011 or early 2012, well after Driscoll’s consolidation of power, but before ex-members and pastors started speaking publicly and critically about the Church in significant numbers, which makes this memo a striking artifact from the high water mark of an extraordinarily successful long con, just before the fall.

The predatory, broken municipal governments of St. Louis County

[ 82 ] September 5, 2014 |

Balko is doing some extraordinary and important work here:

“She was crying as I explained the situation to her,” Voss says. “So then started to cry as I explained it her. One of the really frustrating things about what’s happening here is that this system is breaking good people. These are people just trying to get by, just trying to take care of their families.” Voss’s eyes well up as he talks about Bolden. This isn’t just an attorney defending his client. It’s a guy who is concerned about what’s happening to another human being. Bolden is a single black woman with four kids. She has several tattoos. It’s easy to see how cops might target her, or court officials might dismiss her. But Voss points out that she had already earned an associate’s degree in medical assistance. And while dealing with all of the arrests and the harassment, she earned another in paralegal studies.

The Foristell warrant stemmed from a speeding ticket in 2011. As mentioned before, Bolden didn’t show up in court because she didn’t have the money to pay it and feared they’d put her jail. It’s a common and unfortunate misconception among St. Louis County residents, especially those who don’t have an attorney to tell them otherwise. A town can’t put you in jail for lacking the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed not appearing in court to tell the judge you can’t pay — and fined again for not showing up. After twice failing to appear for the Foristell ticket, Bolden showed up, was able to get the warrant removed and set up a payment plan with the court. But she says that a few months later, she was a couple days late with her payment. She says she called to notify the clerk, who told her not to worry. Instead, the town hit her with another warrant — the same warrant for which she was jailed in March.

Bolden’s bond was set at $1,700. No one she knew had that kind of money. Bolden broke down; she cried, she screamed, and she swore. She was given a psychological evaluation, and then put on suicide watch. She finds that memory particularly humiliating. Bolden would remain in jail for two weeks, until Foristell’s next municipal court session. She wouldn’t let her children come visit her. “I didn’t want them to see me like that,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think it was normal, that it was okay for one of us to be in jail. I missed them so much. But I wasn’t going to let them see me like that.”

While in jail, she missed a job interview. She fell behind in her paralegal studies. When she finally got her day in court, she was told to change out of her jail jumpsuit into the same clothes she had worn for three days straight, and that had been sitting in a bag for the previous two weeks. She was brought into the courtroom to face the judge, handcuffed, in dirty clothes that had been marinated in her own filth. “I was funky, I was sad, and I was mad,” she says. “I smelled bad. I was handcuffed. I missed my kids. I didn’t feel like a person anymore.”

It’s long, but read the whole thing. I confess I was actually surprised when the “three outstanding warrants per household” in Ferguson fact first came to light; it’s now clear in St. Louis County, this is par for the course, and there are far worse examples–the extremely misleadingly named “Country Club Hills” has 26 outstanding warrants per resident. In a long piece filled with rage-inducing anecdotes, one stood out for me:

But perhaps the most gaping divide between having and not having an attorney is that many people think that if they can’t pay their fines, they’ll be arrested and jailed the moment they show up in court. So they don’t show up. In truth, you can’t be jailed if you don’t have the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed for not showing up in court to answer a charge. So under the mistaken belief that showing up in court broke will land them in jail, people chose not to show up . . . which then lands them in jail.

“That’s probably the single biggest misunderstanding out there,” says Vatterott, the former municipal judge. “We have to do a better job of informing people. I think it should say on the notice that even if you have no money, you need to show up, and it should be made clear that you won’t be sent to jail. But when I bring that up, the prosecutors don’t like it. The arrest warrants bring more fines and make the towns more money.”

In the short run, a democratic revival is clearly and badly needed, and one simply has to hope that perhaps this moment of sunshine on these governments will produce something of that sort. One possible goal to organize around:

Just last week, the ArchCity Defenders petitioned Ferguson Mayor James Knowles to grant a mass clemency for the town’s 40,000+ outstanding warrants for traffic and other nonviolent offenses. That isn’t a structural change so much as a plea for a sign of goodwill. And it’s far from certain it will happen. Vatterott says he’s also organizing talks to push for reforms on other points of agreement, like a uniform set of rules for the courts, making notices easier to understand, and making sure defendants know that they can’t be jailed for lacking the funds to pay a fine.

I’d love to see outsiders run for office in these communities with such a mass clemency as  a central campaign promise. Of course, the municipal budgets would take a huge hit, and given how tiny and hollowed out the tax bases of these towns are, there aren’t many clear options to replace the lost funds. Which leads to another obvious conclusion:

“There are too many towns,” says Vatterott. There are too many towns, and not enough taxpayers to sustain them. How to fix that problem is another matter. There has long been a movement in St. Louis to merge the county with the city. That movement has picked up steam recent years as advocacy groups like Better Together have pushed proposals to merge a number of public services. But real change would require a good portion of these towns to merge with other towns, or to dissolve themselves entirely. That would require the town councils or boards of aldermen to vote themselves out of a job.

 

“You have these fiefdoms across the county where a small percentage of people hold power over a small bit of territory,” Kirkland says. “They aren’t going to let go of that easily.” Some towns have begun to share police services, or to contract police services out to St. Louis County. That at least means there are fewer cops per resident to hand out fines. But the cops and courts are still geared more toward generating revenue than promoting public safety.

Here in Dayton, it’s hard to imagine city-county consolidation, given the present political dynamics (racial and otherwise). But it does manage to happen, and happen in places I would imagine it would be impossible, such as Louisville. It’s obviously not sufficient to fix this nightmare, but I wonder if it might not be necessary.

 

Super Bowl odds

[ 141 ] September 4, 2014 |

I’m a lifelong Seahawks fan, but a fairly casual and not particularly analytical NFL fan. So perhaps someone who knows the league better than I would care to explain why the Seahawks are longer shots for the title than the Broncos?

Three possibilities:

1) Path to Super Bowl in AFC easier than NFC

2) Events of February 2, 2014 were an outlier, not indicative of likely future outcomes in matchups between the two teams.

3) Off season personnel changes improved the Broncos’ roster relative to the Seahawks.

I assume (1) is doing the most work here. It’s not clear the NFC’s greater strength was all that significant in 2013, but of course perceptions matter as much as reality in setting the line. Am I missing something?

Christianity and Same Sex Marriage

[ 207 ] September 3, 2014 |

Horning in on Damon Linker’s turf, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry offers another defense of the “this time is different” argument regarding Christianity and mainstream american social and political norms. He first presents the erroneous view, based on a “misreading of history”:

The false premise goes something like this: Christianity, as a historical social phenomenon, basically adjusts its moral doctrines depending on the prevailing social conditions. Christianity, after all, gets its doctrines from “the Bible,” a self-contradictory grab bag of miscellany. When some readings from the Bible fall into social disfavor, Christianity adjusts them accordingly. There are verses in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but there are also verses that condemn wearing clothes made of two threads, and verses that allow slavery. Christians today find ways to lawyer their way out of those. Therefore, the implicit argument seems to go, if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality, and all will be well. After all, except for a few shut-ins in the Vatican, most Christians today are fine with sexual revolution innovations such as contraception and easy divorce.

If this is mistaken, how should we understand Christianity?

Christian opposition to homosexual acts is of a piece with a much broader vision of what it means to be a human being that Christianity will never part with. The story Christians have been telling for 2,000 years goes something like this: The God who made the Universe is also, by his very nature, Love, and he made human beings with a very lofty vocation. Humans are meant to reflect His glory in the world; to be like God, that is to say, to be lovers and creators. Everything in the Universe has been put here to be used by God’s children to reflect his loving glory — and to teach them about God’s love. This is particularly true, or so the story goes, of the unique sexual complementarity between men and women. The sexual act is meant to reflect God’s love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual — and creates new life.

The best we could do for Gobry is to grant that both narratives presented here are just so stories imposed on a far messier and more complicated reality. (His focus on the formal teachings of Christianity regarding men’s and women’s sexuality glosses over the different actual treatments they received at the hands of Christianity as practiced, which poured its energy into social control of one gender’s sexual activity to a far greater degree than the other’s). But even if we grant his historical story, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Setting aside concerns about the empirical claims Gobry makes for the moment, let’s grant that American Christianity’s “homosexual is sinful” view is properly understood as unchanging for 2000 years, while the previously widely held “the bible justifies American slavery” view was only a few generations old, a theology of convenience ginned up to justify and bolster that particular institution. From an anthropological perspective, I’m not at all sure why the age of the dogma is all that relevant to the hold it is likely to have on the individual believer. That historical difference is unlikely to be felt deeply be the believer, who’s been taught to believe it’s old as dirt by his parents and grandparents, the community he lives in, and the institutional church of which he is a part. He is not a historian of religion. The newer vintage of that particular commitment may, in some way, make it more vulnerable to social change. But merely gesturing toward an age difference doesn’t come anywhere near doing the work necessary to explain why.

One question worth asking, if we’re trying to choose between the two narratives presented above: which narrative better explains the changes of the last 20 years? What’s happening, of course, is that Christians–as individuals and, with a lag, as institutions, are changing their views to match mainstream American views on same sex marriage. I would put it even more strongly: Christianity isn’t just catching up, it is driving the change in the content of mainstream views. Even with 100% support from non-religious people and religious minorities, same sex marriage would have gone exactly nowhere without substantial Christian support.

The only way people taking Gobry’s position can dodge this completely obvious fact is to play a bit of no true Scotsman: we’re talking about evangelicals, or traditionalists, or some other label that carves out a slice of American Christendom as fundamentally different from the rest of it. But this doesn’t work, either, as the narrative he rejects can explain this just as easily. Like America itself, some Christians are liberal and some conservative. It’s extremely normal for liberals to accept social change with greater rapidity and ease than conservatives, and same sex marriage fits this general pattern very well. liberal Christianity changed first, now it’s conservative Christianity’s turn. And, low and behold, nearly half of self-identified evangelicals under 30 support same sex marriage.

I grew up attending church, and one of the very first ideas presented there that struck me as strange and implausible was the notion that Christianity is in some sense counter-cultural and oppositional to mainstream values and lifestyle of ‘the world’. By even by the age of 10 or so, I could see this notion was utterly farcical. Everyone I knew seemed to identify as Christian, and have no problem integrating that identity into an utterly normal mainstream American lifestyle. The position Gobry tries to stake out here requires treating that attitude as uncontested dogma, rather than a contingent empirical claim.

As a concluding note, let me just note how insulting the argument here is to conservative Christians themselves, when coming from people who do, in fact, view gay and lesbian people as full and complete human beings, deserving of the rights that come with that status. It’s essentially a demand for a kind of moral affirmative action, suggesting we should treat anti-gay Christians as permanently morally disabled by their religion, and make exemptions to anti-discrimination laws and norms we would never contemplate for religious racists. But a cursory glance at the social change surrounding this issue makes it perfectly obvious Christians as a group suffer no such disability. It’s extremely condescending to pretend that they do.

….Richard Hershberger with a comment the content of which should have been in the original post, in support of the “age of doctrine/practice not predictive of successful resistance to change” argument:

The argument that the antiquity of the doctrine makes it stronger does not stand up to examination. The prohibition of divorce is just as old, and with a really bitchin’ proof text, for those who think proof texting is the pinnacle of theological debate. Yet supposedly conservative American Evangelical churches have largely thrown in the towel on this one, few making more than token gestures against divorce.

Another one is Sabbatarianism, which has an even more bitchin’ proof text. For some four centuries following the Reformation, this was a bulwark of Protestant respectability. Boys playing baseball on Sunday was considered in all seriousness a police matter, accompanied by denunciations of these sinful days. The churches threw in the towel on this one about a century ago. There is a joke that Yankee Stadium wasn’t the House that Ruth Built: it was the House that Sunday Baseball built. Nowadays Sunday football is practically a sacred rite among Evangelicals, whose churches might quietly wish their members were in church that day rather than in front of the TV, but who are not so foolish as to push the matter, knowing they would lose. The shift is so thorough that it is hard to convince people that this ever really was a big deal.

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