Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 August 2014

Racism and Excessive Force

[For a way to combat racism here at home, click here. For a recent post on global threats to democracy, click here.]

Do Those Big White Trucks Mean War?

By now it’s abundantly clear what Putin’s big white trucks—some of which are half-empty—are doing. They are gathering intelligence or military reconnaissance for Putin.

The fact that they rolled without even a fig leaf of authorization from Kiev is the tipoff. If the mission were truly humanitarian, Moscow could have waited for permission. No one, apparently, is starving in Donyetsk or Luhansk right at the moment.

Which kind of information Putin seeks makes a big difference. If my recent speculation is correct, Putin is now aware that the rebels and/or the Russian military faction that has been supplying and supporting them has been lying to him. He’s a smart guy, and he doesn’t want to do anything rash without good information.

The big question is whether he wants intelligence to recalibrate his Ukraine policy or military reconnaissance to plan an invasion, using the 45,000 troops now massed at the border. Putin is a good tactician. He may use the mess in Iraq, and our Yankee and European preoccupation with it, as a diversion and “cover” for a blitzkrieg invasion and annexation of the provinces of Donyetsk and Luhansk, or (depending upon the intelligence he gets) only the most Russian-leaning parts of them.

Kiev’s options are limited. It can’t fire on the trucks, any more than the Soviets could fire on our Yankee Berlin Airlift. That would start a major war and provide a pretext for an immediate invasion. But Kiev can do its best to make sure that what the observers, aka truck drivers and aid workers, see is accurate and useful to Kiev’s cause.

Two points should be obvious. First, Kiev should take every possible step to hide its checkpoints, military installations and military assets from the trucks and everyone in them. Second, it should make every effort to demonstrate how much the local population supports Kiev, and how much even the Russian-speaking civilians fear a civil war.

Now would be the time to get the terrified and cowed general population out on the streets, in full sight of the white trucks, demonstrating for peace, calm and the integrity of Ukraine’s territory. Except for its military positions and assets, Kiev should make sure what the observers see is complete and accurate, as much as is possible in a few days. What they see may determine when and whether those Russian tanks and troops roll across the border.

It goes without saying that, if the US and EU have any further sanctions left, now is the time to bring them to Putin’s attention. Sanctions are useless as punishment but may be useful as a deterrent. It also might be a good time to start arming Kiev’s forces with accurate weapons. Without them, a Russian invasion might be as quick and as painless for Russia as the one in Georgia. If Putin is planning an invasion, it might be just days away.

    “Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    Step outta line, the Man come and take you away.”
      —Stephen Stills, for Buffalo Springfield (1967)
The results of the private autopsy that Michael Brown’s parents commissioned make you wonder. There were four or five shots tracing their way up Brown’s right arm. Then there were two to the head. The official police autopsy confirmed the placement of shots and their number, within one.

The private-autopsy doctors opined, but couldn’t be sure, that the head shots came last. But how could it be otherwise? Would a rational, trained police officer continue to fire carefully and methodically at an arm after putting two shots in the victim’s head, killing him?

No, those shots tell a story, clearer than any eyewitness’. Apparently the officer was a good shot. He put at least four bullets right through the victim’s right arm, splattering flesh and splintering bone. Since the victim and his clothing had no powder residue, the consequently one-armed victim must have been more than two feet from the officer at that point.

For some inexplicable reason, the officer then decided to kill him.

Up to that point, there might have been a rational excuse. Maybe the officer thought he had seen a weapon in the victim’s right hand. But now the arm was disabled, and nothing had dropped.

Maybe the victim, although over two feet away, was still advancing. Maybe the much older officer was afraid of the younger man, even with a shot-up right arm. Maybe he didn’t want any witnesses to his tragic mistake. Maybe the hard logic of shooting just led to its tragic conclusion.

Police tout the need to make fatal decisions in a split second, at great personal risk. That’s often true.

But whatever was actually in the officer’s mind at the time will remain a mystery. Whatever he tells us now will be coached by lawyers and his own conscience, and the knowledge that what he did may put him in jail for a long time. His own mind may play tricks on him.

Yet the question raised by the autopsy still burns. Why kill the victim?

There were other options, at least for a lean officer well trained and in good shape. He could have backed up or rolled to the side, putting distance between himself and the victim, and giving himself more time to think and aim. He could have shot out a leg, making it hard for the victim to keep coming. He might even have said something. But the killing shots came instead.

Was all this necessary? Was the force excessive, even if the officer’s claim of some kind of altercation holds up?

The same questions arise with respect to this week’s St. Louis killing of an apparently deranged African-American man brandishing a knife and some convenience-store sundries. How much threat does a deranged man holding groceries and a knife really present to a trained officer with a firearm?

And what about the man in New York—also an African-American—recently killed with a choke hold after being arrested for selling cigarettes without a license? Do you have to be African-American to consider that use of force excessive?

Of course there are two problems. The first is excessive force. The second is profiling, which often motivates excessive force. Which should we tackle first? Which is easiest to correct?

Police profile the public. They do so unconsciously, ever hour of every day. How could they do otherwise? Their work and lives are on the line, all day every day. People don’t come with labels saying “criminal” or “honest citizen” tattooed on their foreheads. So police have to make snap judgments, sometimes in milliseconds, on which their careers, their health and their very lives may depend.

You can order them not to profile all you want. You can give them sensitivity and diversity training. But when push comes to shove and they stand alone in the field, they are going to rely on their instincts, all instruction and training notwithstanding.

When questioned later, they are going to make up some story to justify their profiling rationally. When they must act in split seconds at risk to themselves, they are going to use every clue that their senses give them, filtered by their own prejudices. That’s human nature.

So the best way to avoid incidents like the killings in Ferguson, St. Louis and New York is not, in my opinion, to try to stamp out racism, even among the police. That’s a laudable goal, but it will take another two generations at least.

The best way is to train police hard to use a minimum of absolutely necessary force always, no matter whom they are facing. We must give them non-lethal weapons like Tasers and train them to prefer them over lethal ones. In short, we must train them to preserve the lives and health of all citizens at all times, including suspects.

And we must hold them strictly accountable when they use excessive force, regardless of the provocation. If complete accountability drives otherwise good and courageous police from our streets, that will only improve community policing and bring civil peace more quickly.

I find it astonishing how many people still fantasize that we live in a “post-racial” society, just because we have a “black” President. Where have they been the last six years?

Bill Clinton infuriated his political enemies because, as a Rhodes Scholar, he was soooo smart, and he let people know it. He also had his little affair with a White House intern and then lied about it. So at least some of the mindless opposition to him had a rational explanation.

But Barack Obama is and did nothing of the kind. He’s infinitely patient, thoughtful and courteous. He never rubs his intelligence in anyone’s face. He never raises his voice. And his family life and personal behavior are exemplary.

Yet from the day he took office, a whole bunch of people have been dead set against him and his policies, no matter what he says. And the GOP, having absolutely no program of its own, has made significant political gains by bashing everything he does, unabashedly and relentlessly. (Hint: trying fifty-plus times—all unsuccessfully—to repeal someone else’s law, and criticizing his executive orders is not a program.)

I voted for the President every time because I believed (and still believe) he was the best candidate in the entire field, in both parties. But I also voted for him because I thought he could teach us something about race.

Little did I know. With his extraordinary thoughtfulness, empathy and restraint, and in the face of mindlessly adamant opposition, he has taught us how racist our nation still is, and how far we have to go to realize Dr. King’s Dream. The recent killings in Missouri are but a brief refresher lesson.

We will get there some day, I’m sure, but probably after I’m dead. In the meantime, the President and Attorney General Holder will maintain their infinite patience and professionalism, showing us all how much better off we could be if we could just put aside our prejudices and look at facts. In the process, these two consummately moderate men will show us just how much race still matters here at home.

Excessive force is a fact of life in many, but not all, of our cities. It’s a matter of training, police culture and style. It can be fixed with legal and administrative changes, plus some judicious culling of personnel. Fixing racism is a matter of national culture that will take a lot longer.

While we try as hard as we can to fix both, let’s not confuse the two. It’s true, of course, that victims of racism are most often victims of excessive force. But you can cure the excessive force much more easily than the racism. Fixing racism and other forms of dangerous tribalism is a long-term project for our entire species, and not just here at home. Take a quick look at Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.

Curing Racism by Teaching Tolerance in our Schools

Eradicating racism in this country is not impossible. It’s just a work in progress. Far too many have assumed the job to be easy and near completion. It’s neither.

It’s a long-term project, and it begins with early education. The Catholic Church has long known how important early education is. Give me a child for the first five years, it reasoned, and the Church will have him forever.

That’s what we need to do with racism. We must inoculate our children against it from an early age. In spite of their parents’ prejudices, we must imbue them with our nation’s fundamental values.

Those values are not hard to find. “All men are created equal” is in our first Founding document. “E pluribus unum”—from many, one—is on our Great Seal and the back of every dollar bill. (It’s on the right side, in the standard around the eagle’s head.) Every time you pull out a buck, you can see our Melting Pot expressed in Latin.

How can we make sure our kids learn those values before their minds can be poisoned by bitter elders?

One organization has had an answer for years. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, has a complete curriculum entitled “Teaching Tolerance.” It’s designed by experts and has been tested in real schools, on a voluntary basis, for years. We ought to make it a mandatory part of every kid’s grammar school experience.

SPLC is better known for fighting hate in the courts. It has closed down hate groups and taken their property by bringing civil suits against them.

In so doing so, SPLC has exploited the obscure but vitally important difference between the standard of proof in civil and criminal cases: “preponderance of the evidence,” or more likely than not, versus “beyond a reasonable doubt.” When criminal prosecutions of violent haters have failed for lack of evidence, or as a result of juries’ close calls, SPLC has put hate groups out of business and found compensation for their victims and families through civil suits.

So SPLC fights racism on two levels. It crushes hate groups economically, and it has a school curriculum to root out hate long term. If you want to help, don’t just wring your hands. Send SPLC a check. (I’ve been doing so for over thirty years.) They will use your money wisely and well. And some day maybe every grammar school will be “Teaching Tolerance.”



  • At Fri Aug 29, 08:22:00 AM EDT, Blogger George Carty said…

    Can racism really be ended only by education and/or activism against hate groups, given that anti-black racism at least is economically rational?

    Is it not also necessary to reduce the NAIRU (the linked article suggests doing this by transferring the tax burden away from wages and transactions and onto land-like assets) so that white people have more to gain from self-improvement than from anti-black discrimination?

  • At Sat Aug 30, 11:08:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear George,

    Your wide knowledge of languages amazes me, but your penchant for swallowing simplistic economic theories whole amuses me.

    I have skimmed the linked article, which is well and amusingly written but mostly derivative. And nothing in it even comes close to proving one of its (and your) thesis: that racism is economically rational.

    Racism is economically irrational because: (1) it devalues human beings and makes them angry, sullen, aggressive and sometimes irrational; (2) it thereby “devalues human capital” in the current business-speak (which I hate); (3) it creates totally gratuitous and unnecessary conflict, which drains the resources of all of society and fosters fear and uncertainty, including among the majority; and (4) it wastes or degrades the native talent of a whole class of people. The larger the minority affected, the bigger all these effects.

    The effect that the article cites as economically rational is maintaining “optimal” unemployment and concentrating it within a marginalized group. There are three gaping holes in this theory. First, the notion of “optimal” unemployment is economically controversial. The concept in general, let alone any precise number, is by no means well established. There are nations today, and states of these United States, that have unemployment in the range of two to three percent, basically economic noise. They work quite well and are the economic envy of their neighbors.

    Second, even if there is an “optimal” level of unemployment that must be maintained despite human suffering, it would be much better to “hide” it among the general population than to concentrate it in an identifiable ethnic group. Doing the latter only causes unnecessary conflict, with all the resulting economic dead losses, as in Ferguson recently. In severe cases, as in Indonesia and Burma, this concentration can cause repeated pogroms. In other nations, like Syria and Iraq, marginalization can cause prolonged and devastating civil wars. And lest we forget, Nazi theories of racial superiority caused the most devastating war in human history. Are all these things economically rational?

    But the clincher is the third point. If racism were economically rational, it would strengthen and deepen with advancing human social evolution. But precisely the opposite is happening. Racism is declining (slowly but everywhere) with human social evolution because of its inevitably and unquestionably deleterious effects. The fact that it is declining too slowly for the comfort of many of us (including me) does not belie the general trend.

    The article you link does have some interesting ideas on taxing nonproductive rather than productive assets and activities. None of this, however, is original or particularly well thought out. I myself have addressed the subject twice within the context of our Yankee tax system. (See 1 and 2).

    The problem with these theories is not that they are incorrect. They are impractical. Throughout history, powerful people have always preferred sources of income that don't require effort. The paradigm is land. As Thomas Piketty's recent path-breaking book demonstrated, the dominant share of exploding inequality in the global economy comes from such income and related assets, which pass by inheritance without particular effort. (That’s why GOP efforts in the US to repeal the “death tax” are so retrograde.)

    So if we wish to address that problem in reality, we must find some way besides bloody revolution to pry nonproductive assets away from the greedy hands of the super-rich and put them to better and more productive use. That will take more than a simplistic economic theory. It will take another giant step in human social evolution.


  • At Tue Sep 02, 08:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger George Carty said…

    I wouldn't argue that Georgist economics is "simplistic" (although I'm not convinced it has a decent model for stock markets). Rather I'd argue that neoclassical economics (which conflates land with tangible capital even though they behave in fundamentally different ways) is overly simplistic. Not all rentiers make their money from land of course -- some make their money from bonds (which resemble land in that it is their rental value which is fundamental, not their capitalized value), from government connections (such as the military-industrial complex) or from coercive monopolies, such as electronics or pharmaceutical companies (dependent on patents) or entertainment or software companies (dependent on copyrights). You were wrong to make the distinction between "productive" and "non-productive" assets -- the actual distinction which matters is "can be produced by competing producers" versus "cannot be produced by competing producers".

    I strongly suspect that those countries with only 2-3% unemployed of which you speak are running a current account surplus, which effectively means they are stealing jobs from other countries. Often this involves an inflow of economic rent, such as in countries which export oil or other valuable natural resources, or as with Hong Kong, which profited during the 20th century essentially as a tollbooth standing between Mainland China and the rest of the world. Other countries run current account surpluses by way of mercantilist economic policies, as is the case for most East Asian countries. Germany also exploited the Euro (in conjunction with the wage repression of the Hartz reforms) for mercantilist purposes, largely at the expense of Southern Europe (the Euro is too weak for Germany but too strong for Southern Europe).

    On a global level, relatively few ethnic minorities are suitable for having unemployment dumped on them in the manner that the article I linked suggested -- black people living in the Americas are probably the main example (because their ancestors were brought there in chains as slaves). Even black people in Britain and Europe aren't really comparable as they were voluntary immigrants there, even if their ancestors had been slaves in those countries' (usually-Caribbean) former colonies. And minorities that are economically superior to the majority (such as Jews and overseas Chinese) certainly aren't suitable for unemployment dumping!

    Most ethnic conflicts are fought not over jobs, but more directly over natural resources -- the Iraqi civil war is fought over oil revenue (the Sunni Arabs have minimal oil compared to the Shi'as and Kurds), the Syrian civil war is fought over water, and the Nazis were driven by hunger for farmland. This makes me less optimistic than you are regarding racism -- the passing of the generation who lived through World War II (which showed the logical genocidal conclusion of racism, along with the fact that white supremacy can "turn on its own") may well combine with increasing conflicts over resources to produce a bloody resurgence of racism (look at the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece!). Perhaps that's why I so passionately support nuclear energy, as cheap abundant energy can also mitigate many other resource conflicts (by desalinating seawater for example).

  • At Tue Sep 02, 08:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger George Carty said…

    (continuing from previous post)

    Am I right in thinking that your main objection to Georgism is that it is bad politics rather than bad economics? You probably have a good point here, because since the 1980s FIRE interests in the USA and UK have been highly successful in conning ordinary homeowners into believing that higher house prices are in their interest. (Actually they only benefit owners of multiple properties, or retirees seeking to downsize.) One of the most powerful weapons they have used to this end is the lure of funding consumption by borrowing against rising house prices (usually known as Mortgage Equity Withdrawal or "MEWing", or sometimes in the United States as "HELOCing"). It is estimated that both the USA and UK were actually in recession for most of the 2000s once the MEWing component of GDP was subtracted out, and the rising household debts from MEWing (not the ineptitude of bankers) were the real cause of the Crash of 2008.

    I would regard the 2000s house price bubble as a symptom of a larger problem -- it seems to me like developed-world economies have had extreme difficulty in generating real growth ever since the 1970s -- and as per Piketty, this low growth combined with good returns on investment (which politicians delivered to lure in foreign investment, and to appease Boomer voters anxious about their future pensions) to produce surging inequality. I don't know what's behind the slowing of growth though: was it because Peak American Oil in the early '70s led to increasing amounts of money being drained away into Middle Eastern oil exporters? Was it because the post-war boom depended on an increase in the work force (from the Baby Boom, plus women entering the workforce) which could not be repeated? Or was it simply because of increasing competition from emerging economies?

    Unable to generate sufficient real growth, developed economies have used various means to generate phony growth: either vendor-financed exports (trade-surplus countries such as Germany and the East Asian countries), profligate government spending (Italy and Greece) or consumer booms funded by borrowing against rising house prices (USA, UK, Ireland and Spain).

  • At Fri Sep 05, 07:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear George,

    Your thoughtful comment is long and full of ideas, only a few of which belong under this post, entitled "Racism and Excessive Force." Many go back to an earlier exchange we had some time ago about Georgist economics. I agree with some of your points and disagree with others. Since most are not apropos to this post, I'll be as brief as I can, focusing mainly on areas of disagreement, despite the negativity that entails.

    After pondering further, I think neither you nor I got the distinction quite right. My attempt is inapt because all valuable assets are productive in some sense, even if only in interest paid by a bond issuer or rent paid by a tenant. Your attempt is inapt because even something as unique as land doesn't preclude competition; there is always adjacent land, or similar land elsewhere. So no asset, however unique or bound up with legal monopoly (such as intellectual property, or IP) really precludes competing production, except using that particular asset. And if the distinction is reduced that far, isn't it a tautology?

    Your distinction also fails to consider the differences between an economic and a legal monopoly, such as IP. As our Supreme Court has recognized, even a strong patent provides only a legal monopoly, not an economic one. For example, the patented product might have unpatented but commercially viable substitutes, as is often the case.

    I think the distinction that you and I (and maybe George) are groping for is one between assets that produce without effort besides ownership and those that require something more than mere ownership to produce. In short, it's the distinction between active and passive investment.

    Land is an active investment in this sense if the owner farms it himself or builds and manages a hotel or shopping center on it. If he leases it to others for those purposes and just collects rent, his investment is passive.

    Law and public policy ought to encourage active investment and discourage passive investment. No rational person, I think, would deny Warren Buffet his riches after he put so much effort into managing his investments, with such stunning success. But many rich people prefer to sit back and clip coupons, collect rent, or profit from similar passive activities.

    And so we have the phenomenon that Piketty describes---rich people getting richer, in both absolute and relative terms, by using passive investment without much effort. As repulsive as Donald Trump is personally, he's not the main problem. He's a big blowhard, but he also works hard. I have seen his ostentatiously labeled buildings; they are hideous, but people live and work in them, where earlier there was only bare land or urban wasteland.

    As for the rest of the first part of your comment, I don't agree that trade imbalances are the invariable source of unemployment, far less that they involve "stealing jobs from other countries."

    Those conclusions neglect two important points. First and foremost, they neglect services. A country with a trade imbalance in goods could easily maintain full employment in services, although deflation of its currency might eventually hurt it. (This appears to be precisely what we Yanks are doing, or trying to do, as services now account for 70% of our economy.)

    Second, a prime justification for trade is that different people are better or more efficient at producing different things. Depending upon labor intensity, it should be possible for one country to maintain a consistent manufacturing trade deficit with another and still maintain full employment, even without regard to employment in services. This might happen, for example, if the goods it sold were more labor intensive but less expensive than the ones it bought.

    (reply continues below)

  • At Fri Sep 05, 07:46:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    (Reply above continues)

    As for unemployment and race, I just don't see the connection. I see no advantage to society, an economy or even to the bosses in confining unemployment to a particular race or ethnic group. There is only the short-sighted Caesarian tactic of dividing and conquering the working class, which usually fails in the long run and creates social tension and lower productivity on the way. And I think your last paragraph (of your first part) grossly underemphasizes the significance of territory as distinguished from other resources.

    So I'm not sure I agree with your fear that racism will increase. It might, as overpopulation, pollution, and the dislocations caused by global warming increase conflict generally, regardless of race and ethnicity.

    But that would be no more than the "rats squeezed into a smaller box" effect. If our species can avoid overcrowding, over polluting and exhausting our resources, I see continued social evolution reducing racism, slowly but steadily, in a sort of forward-leaning random walk.

    There will be backsliding, as in Syria and Eastern Ukraine today, and in the nearly universal backlash in developed countries against economic migrants. But I think the general trend will be up everywhere, as unfamiliar ethnic groups everywhere create advances in science, technology, the arts and even politics, and so earn their peers' respect.

    As for my general views on Georgist economics, I'm not sure what you mean by that term. If you mean arranging laws and politics so that everyone has to work for a living and people can't coast on unearned wealth, I agree wholeheartedly. (And so, incidentally, do many enlightened rich people, who try not to corrupt their kids by spoiling them with enormous legacies.)

    But how do we get there from here? Ay, there's the rub. We Yanks have been trying to reduce the "dead hand" of inheritance for several decades. If memory serves, we've got the exemption from estate taxation down to US$ 5 million. But we're right in the midst of a GOP counter-revolution that could succeed. (Ever the masters of philology and propaganda, the GOP is calling the estate tax a "death tax.")

    Prying unearned and passive wealth from the hands of the rich is hard work. That's especially so in a society like ours, where the Supreme Court equates money with speech and thereby gives the rich disproportionate political influence and power.

    But I'm not ready to surrender yet. A more equal and equitable society can be had, as long as ordinary people are willing to endure a long and hard twilight struggle for it. That's what I had in mind when I said that Georgist economics is impractical.

    As for the causes of slowing economic growth in developed nations, I think the answer is all of the above. Contributing factors are: (1) slowing population growth, (2) aging of the population with increasing longevity, (3) the decreasing ability of developed nations to exploit others transparently (as through colonialism and mercantilism), and (4) the slowing and eventual end of the huge productivity boosts that came from (a) the civil rights revolution, (b) the integration of minorities, women and now gays into the workforce, and (c) computers and automation.

    The problem is that all of these causes except (4) are, in the long run, good for our species. We self-evidently can't keep growing in population, resource use and pollution forever. So we're going to have to get used to a permanently lower rate of economic growth (after the BRICs and African become "developed"), unless we can pull a rabbit out of the hat with some great new technology, such as robots, nanotechnology, personalized medicine, radical life extension, or faster-than-light drive. I hope we'll be basking in the glow of complete racial, religious and ethnic equality long before that.




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