Archive for the ‘Things that actually matter’ category

They Are Who We Thought They Were, Part Deux

May 16, 2016

The CIA really, really doesn’t want us to know just how badly it can f**k up:

The CIA inspector general’s office — the spy agency’s internal watchdog — has acknowledged it “mistakenly” destroyed its only copy of a mammoth Senate torture report at the same time lawyers for the Justice Department were assuring a federal judge that copies of the document were being preserved, Yahoo News has learned.

Das_Geheimnis_-_Le_secret

Although other copies of the report exist, the erasure of the controversial document by the CIA office charged with policing agency conduct has alarmed the U.S. senator who oversaw the torture investigation and reignited a behind-the-scenes battle over whether the full unabridged report should ever be released, according to multiple intelligence community sources familiar with the incident. [Via the esteemable Charles Pierce.]

As the aforementioned Mr. Pierce writes

A democracy cannot survive if its people believe they are being played for marks. It can survive for even less time if they turn out to have been right.

Shitty cops are bad enough.  Shitty secret police…

Feh.

Image: Felix Nussbaum, The Secret, 1939

How’s This For A Solution For Mass Incarceration?

April 26, 2016

Pay folks decently?

Here’s a new report that concludes, as The Washington Post reports, that:

..raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour could prevent as many as half a million crimes annually, according to a new report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, a group of economists and researchers charged with providing the president with analysis and advice on economic questions. (h/t Washington Monthly)

On the other hand:

…spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent, according to the report.

William_Hogarth_018

More (and, dear FSM, better) police would help too, the report suggests.  Here’s a fact I didn’t know:

Research consistently shows that departments with more manpower and technology do a better job of protecting the public, and the United States has 35 percent fewer officers relative to the population than do other countries on average….

Spending an additional $10 billion to expand police forces could reduce crime by as much as 16 percent, they project, preventing 1.5 million crimes a year.

Ultimately, the point being made through the data is that locking lots of folks up is — my gloss here — the mark of prior failures.  Or, if you’ve got the Obama gift for seeing the policy opportunity as well as the yawning need, you’d look at it this way:

In the report, the CEA argues for a broader analysis of the problems of crime and incarceration, touching on subjects that seem unrelated to criminal justice, such as early childhood education and health care. The authors of the report contend that by helping people get by legally, those other elements of the president’s agenda would be more effective in reducing crime than incarceration.

Ya think?

Image: William Hogarth, Prison Scene from A Rake’s Progress, 1732-35

Roberts, Race and Physics

December 23, 2015

I’ve been stewing for a couple of weeks about what was said by Fat Tony and Chief Justice Roberts during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action.

Scalia’s hankering after the good old jurisprudence of Plessey v. Ferguson receive much notice, but I was (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my day job) at least as troubled by Roberts’ musing on the importance of diversity to a physics classroom.

Much of Roberts’ train of thought was no doubt shaped by prior jurisprudence on the criteria by which preferences could be accepted, but his specific choice of the physics classroom as a presumed space in which diversity would not show a particular benefit to the assembled students seemed to me to reflect a common and pernicious mistake, and error about both the practice of science and the ways diversity actually produces its effects.

So I wrote about it — and The Atlantic put it up on their site today.  Here’s a taste:

Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view. Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them. Actually doing science involves everything about the person doing the work—as, for example, the way Einstein turned his anger and pity for his father, a casualty of the rat race, into the goad that led him to so much of modern physics.

The piece turns on two stories: that told by Einstein in what he called “Notes for an Autobiography” and another, by the physicist Kaća Bradonjić, whose history I learned last week at a Story Collider performance.  She talked about childhood, war, exile and general relativity — and it was both wonderful, and the crystallizing narrative that captured, for me, the difference between thinking about physics (any inquiry) as a body of results, and physics (any inquiry) as it’s being done, contingent in time, space, and the individual minds and lives of the people doing it.

Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery

Anyway — y’all might enjoy, and if you’re interested, now you know where to go.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

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Pick Up The Damn Phone

August 11, 2015

I just got off the phone to my Congresscritturs:  Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and Joe Kennedy.  I spoke to aides at each place, thanking Senator Warren for her support for the Iran deal, and urging in the strongest possible terms that Senator Markey and Rep. Kennedy pull their fingers out and do the same.

The bad guys are hitting the airwaves, the junkets, the phones hard on this one.  President Obama got this one right: the anti-deal folks include all those who screwed up the Iraq call.  We shouldn’t — we must not — let the nation listen to them again.

Joseph_Hauber_(attr)_Falter_Pilz_Schlange

To that end: aeons ago I did a summer’s worth of answering the phone on Capitol Hill for a congressman.  I’ve asked, and what was true then is still true: phone calls make a difference to these people — and you’d be surprised how few calls can make a difference.

So get on the phone.  Call your representatives.

House of Representatives numbers.

Senate numbers.

Thank your peeps if they’ve already got this one right:  affirmation matters a lot to them.  If they are still thinking, urge them POLITELY to come out in favor of the deal.  Tell them how disappointed you are, how angry, how motivated for change you have become if they tell you that they’re going to try to block the deal.  (Again — do so politely, but firmly.  That’s vastly more scary to them than bluster.)

If you want a great quick review of the arguments for the deal, there’s no better place to start that James Fallows. This post and this one will put you ahead of the entire neo-con policy apparat.*

In any event.  Call. Call now. Get your friends to get on the horn. It matters.

*This one opens with a longer list of Fallows’ arguments for the deal in the context of an opponents view.  The asymmetry of intellectual power will, I think, speak for itself.

Image:  attibuted to Joseph Hauber, Unsterblichkeit – Falter, Knollenblätterpilz und Schlange,** before 1834.

**translation help, anyone?

 

Some Damn Foolish Thing In The Balkans

June 4, 2015

It’s getting interesting* down Athens’ way:

ATHENS — Greece on Thursday told the International Monetary Fund it would not make a $335 million payment due Friday, taking a little-used option to defer that payment and three others until the end of the month.

Coming amid tense debt negotiations with the I.M.F. and European creditors, Greece’s decision holds political and financial-market implications that are hard to predict.

There’s a historical resonance sounding in the brinksmanship going on here.  This isn’t just a matter of debt and punishment.  What’s at stake may extend as far as the post-war and then the post-Cold War idea of Europe.  That would be the one intended to prevent even catastrophically incompetent or indifferent rulers from lurching into any replay of the summer of 1914.

Ludwig_Koch_Die_verbündeten_Monarchen_1915

Here’s Krugthulu, just as worried as I am — and way better informed:**

There’s an odd summer-of-1914 feel to the current state of the Greek crisis. While some of the main players are, rightly, desperate to find a way to head off Grexit and all it entails, others – on the creditor as well as the debtor side — seem not just resigned to collapse but almost as if they’re welcoming the prospect, the way, a century ago, far too many Europeans actually seemed to welcome the end of messy, frustrating diplomacy and the coming of open war.

The most troubling sign to me is the persistence of the disbelief on the part of international elites/opinion shapers that the Greeks might actually bolt from the Euro.  Never mind the risk to  the various institutional ties that are supposed to hold Europe together in a way that bars future conflict, armed and otherwise.  The idea that someone in a dispute might do something you don’t like seems just too difficult to accept on the part of Greece’s negotiating adversaries.

But there is real hardship in Greece right now, and there has been for years.  Political imperatives matter too:  the Greek government is new, left-leaning, and in power because they explicitly promised not to make deals that would satisfy Germany at the expense of the Hellene in the street.  There really is no guarantee — and lots of reasons to believe the reverse — that this one little, broke country will actually do the bidding of its would be financial masters — and yet even the slightest sign that such resistance is real evokes a kind of bemused wonder.

You can see something of the cognitive dissonance even in the brief “breaking” story in the Times linked above:

Although the practice of bundling I.M.F. loan payments into a single sum during a calendar month is allowed under the fund’s rules, the last time that option was taken was by Zambia in the 1970s.

I’m sure there’s a kinder way of reading that sentence, but it hits my ear as “Greece has the right to do this, but they shouldn’t.”  Unwritten rules, old boy.  Unwritten rules.

I’m with Krugman:  whether or not Greece would be better off or not dumping the Euro, Europe and the world gain an enormous amount from financial stability — which would be badly shaken if it looked like Euro-troubles were about to overtake the currency union.  In other words, it looks to me like Europe (even Germany!) needs Greece at this moment at least as much as Athens needs Brussels.

But what do I know:  I once vowed as a blogger not to behave like a pundit, which is to say, to bloviate about stuff I know only superficially and at second hand.  One thing I do know about, though, and have written on, is World War One.  No one’s mobilizing at this moment, and historical analogies are always fraught on so many levels.  But still, the insouciance, the lack of imagination about consequences — that was overwhelming then.  I smell it thickening in the air now.  That’s not good.

*As in, “May you live in interesting times.”

**This was written last Friday, which is to say before this latest news dropped.

Image:  Ludwig Koch, The allied monarchs and their field-marshals in the First World War (Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire with Austria’s Franz Joseph)  c. 1915

Life Without Parole

April 8, 2015

So. Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted on all thirty counts in the Boston Marathon Bombing and (closer still to home), the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier.

Good.

Now for sentencing, in which the grotesquely termed “Death Qualified Jury”™ will decide between execution and life without parole.

Like an overwhelming majority of my Boston neighbors, I am opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in all cases.  Three reasons:

1.  Error or malice.  It is hardly news to anyone reading this that police and prosecutors f**k up.  Death at the hands of the state not only renders those errors permanently uncorrectable.  As a citizen in whose name the state kills, I can’t accept that moral burden.

CaravaggioSalomeLondon

That some cases, like Tsarnaev’s, are open and shut doesn’t alter the moral and practical force of the argument above, I think. The moment you introduce discretion into death penalty jurisprudence, you re-open the opportunity for error or malice to kick in..  If the standard is overwhelming obviousness, then who decides; who processes the evidence in support of that definition, and so on.  The only way to be certain you’re not killing innocents is not to kill anyone under the cover of state-imposed penalties.

If that makes me soft, so be it.

2.  Soft or not, I’m vengeful, too.   To my mind, LWOP is a fate worse than death.  Because I do not believe in an afterlife, the only punishments that matter, like the only rewards, are those we receive in this life.  Fifty years in a maximum or super-max prison is, to me, a much more thorough and exemplary penalty than oblivion.

3.  I’m practical.  See reason one.  Cops and government lawyers f**k up.  We kill their errors and the urgency of addressing particular patterns of incompetence, indifference, and outright viciousness diminishes.  Patterns of bad behavior and unjust outcomes become much harder to discern.  Any hope, slim as it may be, of creating a better, more justice-driven law-enforcement system, evaporates when the living reasons to address current injustices disappear.  If we want to make things better, we need not to kill the people whom the system failed.  Simple as that.

One more thing:  I’m not non-violent.  But I’m anti-violence.  The fact that we (in theory) surrender to the state a monopoly on violence means that we need to hedge that power around with a mighty wall.  Not killing those in our power, even the most evil, is part of that wall.  Whether the more pragmatic arguments above carry greater weight some days than others, at bottom there is a moral imperative that I can’t find a way to avoid:  when we, or I, don’t need to kill, choosing to do so anyway is wrong.

Me being me, I could go on, but that there’s the gist.

What do y’all think?

Image:  Caravaggio, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, before 1610.

Brrrraaaaaiiiiiiinnnnssss…

February 6, 2015

Or rather…

MMMMMorrrrrronnnnns:

The reanimated corpse of Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, rose from the grave Friday morning on what authorities believe is a mission to hunt down idiots.

Wiertz_burial

The usual suspects beware.

Another drive-by post, but go read the whole of Andy Borowitz’s update to his eponymous report.*  It’ll help your mood.

You’re welcome.

*Yes.  I did put this post up solely for the purpose of getting to type “eponymous.” It’s the little pleasures…

Image:  Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.