17 September 2014

Police, Heroism, and the Consequences of Mistaken Attitudes

Stephen Kershnar
The Consequences of Mistaken Attitudes about the Police
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 15. 2014

There are a trio of mistaken ideas about the police in the U.S. and these ideas result in bad policies.

Two mistaken ideas about the police are that it is an especially dangerous job and that there are far too few officers. As a result of the perceived danger and perilously thin blue line, the Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches without probable cause or a warrant has to be cut back. Also, because the police are outgunned and undermanned, there has to be an increasingly aggressive style of policing, the most extreme being military-style SWAT teams and no-knock raids. A third mistaken idea is that police officers are heroes in a way that truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers are not. As a result, any attempt to cut their benefits to the level of teachers and other government workers or their numbers is beyond the pale.  

First, the notion that a police officer is an especially dangerous job in part explains why police officers are, in some circumstances, allowed to search the cab of a car, an arrestee, pedestrians thought to have weapons, and so on without probable cause or a warrant. Officer safety was cited as a reason that police should be able to search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant. Fortunately, the Supreme Court didn’t buy it.  

Concern for officer safety also, in part, explains the growing militarization of the police. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Radley Balko points out that that Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were relatively rare in the 1970’s and have become distressingly common. In 1975, he notes, there were only 500 such units. By the early 1980’s, 13% of mid-sized towns (between 25,000 and 50,000) had such teams, by 2005 80% did. Similarly, in the early 1980’s, SWAT teams conducted 3,000 raids a year, by 2005, they were doing 50,000 raids per year. Balko reports that over recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants to police departments, much of it to purchase military gear. The Pentagon has also been doling out military equipment by the hundreds of millions.

It is hard to see what justifies this fast-growing militarization and related military tactics such as no-knock raids. The crime rate (including violent crime) is significantly lower than it was in the 1970’s. Nor are police outgunned. For example, only a tiny fraction of homicides in the U.S. are committed with military-grade weapons.

Contrary to one of the underlying justifications of these searches and militarization, being a police officer is not an especially dangerous job. According to 2013 Bureau of Labor statistics, farmers, truck drivers, pilots, roofers, construction workers, and power line workers face a greater chance of death at work and yet they don’t have a reputation for facing down death. When police officers do get killed, it is more often in a traffic-related accident than by a gun.  

Nor are the police undermanned. The rate of police officers per citizen is on the low side by worldwide standards. However, writing in The New York Times, Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev point out that the U.S. leads the world in protective service employees (police officers, private security guards, correction officers, members of the military, and so on). Many of these jobs supplement officers’ services.

This issue matters because protecting officers’ jobs in part explains why civil forfeiture proceedings (the lion’s share goes to local cops and prosecutors) against allegedly dirty money (not dirty people) have become big business. This also explains in part why traffic tickets and warrants related to them have become shockingly common in some parts of the country (for example, around Saint Louis, Missouri).

A related notion is that police are heroes in a way in which farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers are not and hence their numbers and benefits dare not be cut. A hero is someone who makes a great sacrifice to benefit others and whose effort is reasonable.

It is unclear that police officers make sacrifices that farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers don’t make. As mentioned above, those other jobs face a greater risk of death. Farmers make more money than do the police, truck drivers and construction workers make less, but the comparisons are hard to make because the police get generous retirement benefits that the others don’t. For example, writing in The New York Times, Joseph Berger points out that a New York City police officer is eligible to retire after 20 years and most do retire upon hitting that milestone. The retirement benefits start up right away and are paid out even when a former officer gets another full-time job. Farmers and construction workers can only dream of such a deal.   

Nor is it obvious that police officers are more motivated by altruism than are other workers. People tend to take jobs that fit their preferences. Being a police officer might involve higher pay and fewer hours than being a farmer, but more conflict and distasteful tasks (for example, handing out tickets). There is no one answer as to whether one set of job features is better than another, instead, this differs between people. Different preferences are what lead people to sort themselves out into different jobs.

Even the reasonable benefit condition is not obvious. While it is clear that deterring violence and property crime is good for society, locking up large numbers of people for victimless crimes such as drugs likely makes the American people worse off. For example, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rate and total number of people incarcerated (it has 25% of the world’s prisoners). This is not good for a free people.   

The hero status has led in part to a hesitation to cut the number of positions or compensation for first responders (police and firefighters) in a way similar to how other government employees’ numbers and pay has been cut. Contaminating the discussion of these issues with the “hero” label certainly does not help.   

Like farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers, the police perform a valuable service. I doubt they want their job mythologized any more than they want their children to lose liberty because of the mythologies.

03 September 2014

Against Mideast Interventionism

Stephen Kershnar
Against the Current U.S. War on ISIS
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 1, 2014

As the U.S. goes to war yet again, this time bombing its latest jihadist enemy, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (hereinafter ISIS), it appears the foreign policy elite have learned nothing from the past.  

In 2002, chicken littles President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), then Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Biden (D-DE), and the rest of the establishment Republicans and Democrats pushed for a war on Iraq to protect the U.S. from jihadist attack from al Qaeda and to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. The war cost at least a trillion dollars (and probably more) and the lives of 4,500 American soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqis (over 600,000 according to a Lancet study). As we now know, there was no link to al Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction and, arguably, the administration knew this. Because American forces smashed Iraq, it is now greatly weakened, which has led to ISIS’s insurgency.  

The chicken littles are at it again, making outlandish claims about ISIS. Quoted by Pat Buchanan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warns that ISIS is “an existential threat … I think of an American city in Flames.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel equally terrified, states that the ISIS “is beyond everything we’ve seen … an imminent threat to every interest we have.” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) worries that ISIS is “a direct threat to our homeland.”

In 2011, President Obama had the U.S. wage an unconstitutional war against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Gaddafi was previously an ally in the U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but after he was overthrown in large part due to U.S. bombing. After he was overthrown, he was shot in the head. Clinton joyously celebrated his death. As a result, there is now a bloody civil war in Libya and Islamic radicals are gaining ground. Writing in National Review, Andrew McCarthy notes that the weapons stockpile in Libya fell into the hands of al Qaeda and ISIS forces, which made them more powerful.  

Also, in 2011, these elites (and especially Clinton and McCain) backed elections that led to the Muslim Brotherhood (including President Morsi) taking control of Egypt. As McCarthy points out, this group, instituted a Sharia constitution and aided terrorists (for example, Hamas in Palestine) and other Jihadist groups. The President also jailed journalists and made the Presidency unaccountable to the judiciary.

Roughly a year ago, the Obama administration, McCain, and fellow elites pushed to bomb Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Since then the administration has been funneling arms to rebels, which has weakened the regime and strengthened its enemies, including, of course, ISIS. Assad’s regime is now engaged in a death struggle against ISIS and other rebel groups. The chicken littles have now reversed course and are bombing ISIS, thereby benefitting Assad. Middle school girls have more stable alliances.  

Particularly, troubling are the two children in the senate, John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They have supported war at every turn, no matter how crazy. One or both has called for or supported the Serbian war, Iraqi Wars I and II, bombing Libya, arming Syrian rebels against Assad and instituting a no-fly zone to help bring him down, bombing Assad’s enemy ISIS, authorizing an attack on Iran, threatening to bomb North Korea, arming the Ukrainians against the Russians, bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO so that if they go to war against Russia (including ones they started) the U.S. would get sucked into it, and so on. They should be ignored. 

The current war on ISIS is a bad idea. As George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan points out, when you do not know whether a war will have good or bad effects, it is wise to avoid it. Given recent history in our involvement in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, the U.S. clearly has no idea what effects its wars will have. Given the incredible destruction involved in war, specifically hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions) spent, tens of thousands of lives lost, vast displacement of people, and destabilization of neighboring countries, the U.S. should have little confidence in its judgment that a war is worthwhile. Nor is this poor judgment a new thing. World War I and the Vietnam War were costly in terms of blood and treasure. Worse, these wars produced incredible collateral damage in bringing about such disasters as World War II, monstrous Soviet bloc, and murderous Pol Pot regime.   

Along these same lines, as Pat Buchanan points out, ISIS has serious enemies, including the Turks, Syrians, Kurds, and Iraqis. On the other hand, they have been funded by the Turks (previously), Saudis, Qataris, and Kuwaitis. The funding has taken place to counterbalance Shiite nations and their allies including Iran, Iraq (now Shiite controlled), Syria, and Hezbollah. It is not clear whether the U.S. is better off with the Sunni or the Shiite alliances. Given the repressive nature of the people involved, it is not even especially clear which alliance will do more to crush freedom and subordinate women. In any case, there is little reason to believe that ISIS poses a threat to the U.S. greater than the threat of a strengthened Shiite bloc.

Even if the U.S. could predict whether the war on ISIS would have good effects, it is hard to see how why it is the U.S.’s business. The current attacks on ISIS are not defensive on any reasonable use of the term. ISIS has neither attacked the U.S. nor aided others in doing so. Even if there were such an attack, it would be far less costly in terms of money, lives, and freedom to eat the loss or spend money preventing future attacks than to spend it on a new war. It is worth noting that the Iraq War II was not only costly in terms of blood and treasure, but also in terms of liberty as the war was a pretext for the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and so on.  

The current war on ISIS assumes we know that the war will benefit the U.S., which we don’t, and involves us in a regional conflict that is none of our business. Let’s sit this one out. 

For Demographic Homogeity

Stephen Kershnar
Diversity and Race Preferences
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 27, 2014

A recent Supreme Court case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action 572 U.S. ____ (2014), upheld a 2006 Michigan ballot initiative that banned sex and race preferences at public universities and schools. Proponents of such programs often argue that diversity justifies these preferences. What’s more, diversity is all the rage in academia. The interesting thing here is that the case for the value of diversity is weakening, whether in Academia or outside it. I should note that this column includes ideas from philosopher extraordinaire Neil Feit.

The issue is whether diversity makes students better off than they would have been without it. Consider first those who are not preferred: white and Asian-American students. There is no clear evidence that more-diverse campuses better educate them. Evidence on improved test scores for whites in diverse settings is mixed. Whites benefit in math from more diverse settings, but in other areas it is less clear. Informational (idea) diversity can improve group performance, but this diversity is distinct from racial diversity and the interest here is on individual, not group, performance.   

The mixed outcome is in line with common sense. Imagine that a random 10% of students in a classroom are replaced with students who are, on average, much weaker than everyone else. It is unsurprising that in some cases this would worsen the performance of better students who remain in the class. Less talented peers could well likely drag down the discussion and the speed at which the class moves.

Outside of academia, there is evidence that diversity is inversely correlated with many of the things that we value in a community. Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam argues that people in diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, distrust their neighbors (regardless of the color of their skin), withdraw from even close friends, expect the worst from their community and its leaders, volunteer less, give less to charity, and work on community projects less often. In his words, they tend to “huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

A similar pattern is true of marriage. David Poponue of The National Marriage Project points out that marriages are more likely to be successful when the couple is similar. Specifically, they are more likely successful when couples have similar values, backgrounds, life goals, and social networks. For both communal life and marriage, then, homogeneity tends to make things go better.

A similar pattern holds in K-12 schools. Some parents value diversity in schools as a way of teaching their children how to interact with people from different racial and ethnic groups. In Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children, P. O. Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out that the more diverse the high school, the more students self-segregate by race within the school and the fewer interracial friends they have. In schools, diversity leads to division.

Consider the effects of race preferences on minorities. UCLA law professor Richard Sander argues that in law schools, dropping standards for black students creates a mismatch between minorities who receive preferential admission and their peers. Like a river that cascades downward, minority students are mismatched down the line from more selective to less selective colleges. This, he argues, damages black students at almost every level. On Sander’s analysis, about half of black students end up in the bottom 10% of their class and this increases their drop-out rates. He argues that if affirmative action were abolished, the number of black attorneys emerging from the class of 2004 would be larger.

Linda Chavez, Chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, points out that after California banned race preferences, black and Hispanic students’ enrollment at top state schools dropped, but their overall enrollment increased and they are far more likely to graduate. This is exactly what you would expect. Imagine trying to compete at a top school, when you are outgunned by your peers and both you and your peers know it. Imagine how frustrating it would be to compete against others in marathon running or ballroom dancing if everyone around is much better.   

Even the quickest observation of a lunch room or church indicates that people prefer to be around those like them. Similar preferences make coordination easier, whether at work or play. Consider, for example, the different norms about dating, humor, and music between Orthodox Jews and Dominican-Americans in New York City. Homogeneity in a community allows for clearer expectations and more effective social rewards for those who behave well and sanctions for those who don’t. It’s time to call into question the notion that diversity is good or that it justifies preferences.