CRF Blog

Vox: This photo almost started a nuclear war

by David De La Torre

In This photo almost started a nuclear war, Vox discusses the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For a related free classroom lesson, see “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” It is available from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Politico’s Cartoons for This Week

by Bill Hayes

See Politico’s selection of this week’s political cartoons from across the country and the political spectrum.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

The American Past: A History of Contradictions

by Bill Hayes

In The American Past: A History of Contradictions for the New York Times Book Review, Andrew Sullivan reviews These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore.

It isn’t until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment. “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore — a professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker — is a one-volume history of the United States, constructed around a traditional narrative, that takes you from the 16th to the 21st century. It tries to take in almost everything, an impossible task, but I’d be hard-pressed to think she could have crammed more into these 932 highly readable pages. It covers the history of political thought, the fabric of American social life over the centuries, classic “great man” accounts of contingencies, surprises, decisions, ironies and character, and the vivid experiences of those previously marginalized: women, African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals. It encompasses interesting takes on democracy and technology, shifts in demographics, revolutions in economics and the very nature of modernity. It’s a big sweeping book, a way for us to take stock at this point in the journey, to look back, to remind us who we are and to point to where we’re headed.

This is not an account of relentless progress. It’s much subtler and darker than that. [more]

Is Prison Necessary?

by Bill Hayes

In Is Prison Necessary?, New York Times Magazine profiles prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson, who questions many “truths” held by both liberals and conservatives.

Gilmore has come to understand that there are certain narratives people cling to that are not only false but that allow for policy positions aimed at minor or misdirected — rather than fundamental and meaningful — reforms. Gilmore takes apart these narratives: that a significant number of people are in prison for nonviolent drug convictions; that prison is a modified continuation of slavery, and, by extension, that most everyone in prison is black; and, as she explained in Chicago, that corporate profit motive is the primary engine of incarceration.

For Gilmore, and for a growing number of scholars and activists, the idea that prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders is particularly problematic. Less than one in five nationally are in prisons or jail for drug offenses, but this notion proliferated in the wake of the overwhelming popularity of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which focuses on the devastating effects of the war on drugs, cases that are primarily handled by the (relatively small) federal prison system. It’s easy to feel outrage about draconian laws that punish nonviolent drug offenders, and about racial bias, each of which Alexander catalogs in a riveting and persuasive manner. But a majority of people in state and federal prisons have been convicted of what are defined as violent offenses, which can include everything from possession of a gun to murder. This statistical reality can be uncomfortable for some people, but instead of grappling with it, many focus on the “relatively innocent,” as Gilmore calls them, the addicts or the falsely accused — never mind that they can only ever represent a small percentage of those in prison. When I asked Michelle Alexander about this, she responded: “I think the failure of some academics like myself to squarely respond to the question of violence in our work has created a situation in which it almost seems like we’re approving of mass incarceration for violent people. Those of us who are committed to ending the system of mass criminalization have to begin talking more about violence. Not only the harm it causes, but the fact that building more cages will never solve it.”

But in the United States, it’s difficult for people to talk about prison without assuming there is a population that must stay there. “When people are looking for the relative innocence line,” Gilmore told me, “in order to show how sad it is that the relatively innocent are being subjected to the forces of state-organized violence as though they were criminals, they are missing something that they could see. It isn’t that hard. They could be asking whether people who have been criminalized should be subjected to the forces of organized violence. They could ask if we need organized violence.”

Another widely held misconception Gilmore points to is that prison is majority black. Not only is it a false and harmful stereotype to overassociate black people with prison, she argues, but by not acknowledging racial demographics and how they shift from one state to another, and over time, the scope and crisis of mass incarceration can’t be fully comprehended. In terms of racial demographics, black people are the population most affected by mass incarceration — roughly 33 percent of those in prison are black, while only 12 percent of the United States population is — but Latinos still make up 23 percent of the prison population and white people 30 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Gilmore has heard people argue that drug laws will change because the opioid epidemic hurts rural whites, a myth that drives her crazy. “People say, ‘God knows they’re not going to lock up white people,’ ” she told me, “and it’s like, Yes, they do lock up white people.”) Once you believe prisons are predominately black, it’s also easier to believe that prisons are a conspiracy to re-enslave black people — a narrative, Gilmore acknowledges, that offers two crucial truths: that the struggles and suffering of black people are central to the story of mass incarceration, and that prison, like slavery, is a human rights catastrophe. But prison as a modern version of Jim Crow mostly serves to allow people to worry about a population they might otherwise ignore. “The guilty are worthy of being ignored, and yet mass incarceration is so phenomenal that people are trying to find a way to care about those who are guilty of crimes. So, in order to care about them, they have to have some category to which they become worthy of worry. And the category is slavery.”

A person who eventually either steals something or assaults someone goes to prison, where he is offered no job training, no redress of his own traumas and issues, no rehabilitation. “The reality of prison, and of black suffering, is just as harrowing as the myth of slave labor,” Gilmore says. “Why do we need that misconception to see the horror of it?” Slaves were compelled to work in order to make profits for plantation owners. The business of slavery was cotton, sugar and rice. Prison, Gilmore notes, is a government institution. It is not a business and does not function on a profit motive. This may seem technical, but the technical distinction matters, because you can’t resist prisons by arguing against slavery if prisons don’t engage in slavery. The activist and researcher James Kilgore, himself formerly incarcerated, has said, “The overwhelming problem for people inside prison is not that their labor is super exploited; it’s that they’re being warehoused with very little to do and not being given any kind of programs or resources that enable them to succeed once they do get out of prison.”

The National Employment Law Project estimates that about 70 million people have a record of arrest or conviction, which often makes employment difficult. Many end up in the informal economy, which has been absorbing a huge share of labor over the last 20 years. “Gardener, home health care, sweatshops, you name it,” Gilmore told me. “These people have a place in the economy, but they have no control over that place.” She continued: “The key point here, about half of the work force, is to think not only about the enormity of the problem, but the enormity of the possibilities! That so many people could benefit from being organized into solid formations, could make certain kinds of demands, on the people who pay their wages, on the communities where they live. On the schools their children go to. This is part of what abolitionist thinking should lead us to.” [more]

Lessons from the Election of 1968

by Bill Hayes

In Lessons from the Election of 1968 for the New Yorker, Louis Menand reflects on what that election tells about today.

The Convention left the Party fractured. McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey, who began the fall campaign far behind in the polls. “Right now, you’re dead,” his campaign manager, Lawrence O’Brien, told him. He did come back, and nearly made up the difference. At the end of September, he at last broke with Johnson and announced that he would halt the bombing. At the end of October, McCarthy finally endorsed Humphrey. It was not quite enough. On November 5th, something happened that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier: Richard Nixon was elected President.

The story of this election has been told in many books, from Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President 1968” and Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page’s mammoth “An American Melodrama,” both published in 1969, to Michael A. Cohen’s “American Maelstrom,” which came out in 2016. It is featured in classic histories of the postwar period, including Hodgson’s “America in Our Time,” Allen J. Matusow’s “The Unraveling of America,” G. Calvin MacKenzie and Robert Weisbrot’s “The Liberal Hour,” and Todd Gitlin’s “The Sixties.” The story of the 1968 Presidential election is like oral poetry, a saga passed down from bard to bard that no one (or no one of a certain age, maybe) seems to tire of hearing.

Lawrence O’Donnell’s “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” (Penguin) is the latest in this string of recitations. O’Donnell is the host of “The Last Word,” on MSNBC; he has worked on Capitol Hill, and he was a writer and producer for “The West Wing.” His book relies almost entirely on published sources, and so it adds little to what we know. But he is a talented storyteller, and his analysis of campaign tactics is sharp.

And the story of that election still matters. In 1968, Americans elected a man with some savvy and no principles. In 2016, they elected a man with neither. O’Donnell’s book makes it a little easier to understand how we got from there to here. It turns out that the distance is not all that great.

Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).

In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on. [more]

‘Sin’ taxes — eg, on tobacco — are less efficient than they look

by David De La Torre

The Economist reports that “Sin” taxes — eg, on tobacco — are less efficient than they look, but “they do help improve public health.”

Governments hope that just as taxes on alcohol and tobacco both generate revenue and reduce smoking and drinking, so sugar taxes will help curb obesity. Hungary, which has the highest rate of obesity in Europe, imposed a tax on food with high levels of sugar and salt in 2011. France did the same for sugary drinks in 2012. Several American cities, Thailand, Britain, Ireland, South Africa and other countries have since followed suit.

Sin taxes do change behaviour. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive, so demand for them is not as responsive to price changes as, say, the demand for airline tickets to fly abroad. But it is still more responsive than for many common household goods. Estimates vary from study to study, but economists find that on average, a 1% increase in prices is associated with a decline of around 0.5% in sales of both alcohol and tobacco ….

Data on the efficacy of sugar taxes are scantier, but the available evidence shows that they, too, lower consumption. [more]

Pakistan is betrayed by its blasphemy laws

by Bill Hayes

In Pakistan is betrayed by its blasphemy laws for Unherd, Farzana Shaikh reports on the deep division with Pakistan over blasphemy and vigilantism to punish blasphemers.

On 6 January, 2011, the world watched aghast as sections of Pakistan’s modern legal fraternity took to the streets of the country’s capital, Islamabad, to shower petals on the self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri. He had arrived in court to hear charges against him for the murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who had campaigned for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the release of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy.

In his confession Qadri, a member of Taseer’s security team, justified his actions saying they were required to defend Islam. He was found guilty of ‘terrorism’ and handed the death penalty.  At his appeal hearing before the Islamabad High Court in 2015, Qadri was again feted by hundreds of lawyers who declared they were acting to meet their ‘Islamic obligations’.  His defence team which included two retired Justices – one of them the former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court – also claimed to be doing their ‘religious duty’.

Qadri was finally executed in 2016 after Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. He has since been canonised by his followers and his grave in Lahore transformed into a shrine. The 700-strong lawyers’ forum which rose to his defence has vowed to continue his struggle against blasphemy. [more]

For a free, related classroom lesson, see Blasphemy! Salman Rushdie and Freedom of Expression from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

The Afghan War: Is it Vietnam’s playbook?

by Bill Hayes

GZERO Media asks: The Afghan War: Is it Vietnam’s playbook?

People Kill People. But the Bullets Seem to Matter

by Bill Hayes

Margot Sanger-Katz and Quoctrung Bui, writing in The Upshot section of the New York Times, report that People Kill People. But the Bullets Seem to Matter.

In Boston from 2010 to 2015, there were 221 gun homicides.

Research suggests that one change could have lowered that number by 40 percent: smaller bullets.

A study last year, published in JAMA Network Open, examined the type of weapon used in every fatal and nonfatal shooting in the city. It found that — regardless of the time of day, the number of wounds or the circumstances of the crime — the size of the bullet affected which gunshot victims lived and which ones died. [more]

How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus

by Bill Hayes

As part of its ongoing series titled Blood Will Tell: Investigating the Science Behind Forensic Science, ProPublica looks at How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread Like a Virus.

The prosecution’s star witness — a forensics specialist named Herbert MacDonell — set out an array of props before the jury: a medicine dropper, a mirror hastily yanked from the wall of the courthouse bathroom and a vial of his own blood, drawn that day at a nearby hospital.

It was a strange sight in the 1985 Texas courtroom, and the jurors, the judge and even the defense attorneys watched, rapt, as MacDonell laid the mirror flat and then climbed up on a chair, holding the vial and dropper.

MacDonell’s expertise lay in an obscure discipline known as bloodstain-pattern analysis. He claimed he could reconstruct the events of a crime by reading the bloodstains left behind.

Like a professor performing a classroom demonstration, he dipped the dropper’s tip into the blood and, with a practiced hand, released a single drop onto the mirror. It landed with a muted thud, forming a perfect crimson circle.

Blood landing on a flat surface should not spatter, MacDonell told the jurors with satisfaction. He let another drop fall onto the white shirt he was wearing. Blood lands differently on fabric, he showed them.

A defense attorney shot up from his chair in protest. This was a murder trial. There was no mirror at the crime scene. No medicine dropper. The demonstration was not reliable science, he argued. The judge disagreed.

MacDonell’s testimony would be pivotal to proving the Fort Bend County prosecutor’s theory that 21-year-old Reginald Lewis had murdered his family, shooting his mother and two brothers, and setting his father on fire. MacDonell had identified dozens of minuscule blood spots on Lewis’ clothing, and he said they placed Lewis at the scene during the crime

The jurors gave Lewis four 99-year sentences.

“MacDonell kind of took over the courtroom,” Lewis’ attorney, Donald Bankston, recalled, his disbelief still fresh. “It was almost like having Mr. Wizard.”

But MacDonell’s testimony that day did more than mesmerize the jury. It gave bloodstain-pattern analysis its first toehold of legitimacy in Texas courts, spreading it quietly, but surely, further into the justice system.

Two years later, Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals ordered a retrial because of evidentiary flaws (two retrials ended in hung juries), but it expressly rejected Lewis’ argument that bloodstain-pattern analysis was a “novel technique” that should never have been admitted and was not “scientifically recognized” or reliable.

“MacDonell’s studies are based on general principles of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and his methods use tools as widely recognized as the microscope; his techniques are neither untested nor unreliable,” Judge James F. Warren wrote for the court. To support his decision, Warren cited four other states — Tennessee, California, Illinois and Maine — that had already affirmed bloodstain-pattern analysis’ use at trial. Two of those states had based their decisions on court testimony by MacDonell. [more]

This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

In This Is Your Brain on Nationalism for Foreign Affairs magazine, Robert Sapolsky examines the biology of “us and them.”

The human mind’s propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep. Numerous careful studies have shown that the brain makes such distinctions automatically and with mind-boggling speed. Stick a volunteer in a brain scanner and quickly flash pictures of faces. Among typical white subjects in the scanner, the sight of a black man’s face activates the amygdala, a brain region central to emotions of fear and aggression, in under one-tenth of a second. In most cases, the prefrontal cortex, a region crucial for impulse control and emotional regulation, springs into action a second or two later and silences the amygdala: “Don’t think that way, that’s not who I am.” Still, the initial reaction is usually one of fear, even among those who know better.

This finding is no outlier. Looking at the face of someone of the same race activates a specialized part of the primate brain called the fusiform cortex, which recognizes faces, but it is activated less so when the face in question is that of someone of another race. Watching the hand of someone of the same race being poked with a needle activates the anterior cingulate cortex, a region implicated in feelings of empathy; being shown the same with the hand of a person of another race produces less activation. Not everyone’s face or pain counts equally. [more]

This Month’s Harper’s Index

Each issue of Harper’s contains Harper’s Index, a collection of interesting statistics. Excerpts from this month’s Harper’s Index:

Factor by which Facebook users over 65 are more likely to share stories from fake news sites than users between 18 and 29: 7

Percentage of US adult Facebook users who are unaware the company categorizes them according to their interests: 74

Of users who feel their assigned categories do not accurately describe them: 27 [more]

The Man from Red Vienna

by Bill Hayes

In The Man from Red Vienna for the New York Review of Books, Robert Kuttner reviews Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left by Gareth Dale.

The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.

As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “disembedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society — “the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”

Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi emphasized that the core imperatives of nineteenth-century classical liberalism were free trade, the idea that labor had to “find its price on the market,” and enforcement of the gold standard. Today’s equivalents are uncannily similar. We have an ever more intense push for deregulated trade, the better to destroy the remnants of managed capitalism; and the dismantling of what remains of labor market safeguards to increase profits for multinational corporations. In place of the gold standard — whose nineteenth-century function was to force nations to put “sound money” and the interests of bondholders ahead of real economic well-being — we have austerity policies enforced by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the American Federal Reserve tightening credit at the first signs of inflation. [more]

The Digital Republic

by Bill Hayes

In The Digital Republic for the New Yorker, Nathan Heller looks at how Estonia has gone fully digital.

It was during [Taavi] Kotka’s tenure [as the country’s chief information officer] that the e-Estonian goal reached its fruition. Today, citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home. They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data — income, debt, savings — pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip-I.D. card that reduces typically onerous, integrative processes — such as doing taxes — to quick work. “If a couple in love would like to marry, they still have to visit the government location and express their will,” Andrus Kaarelson, a director at the Estonian Information Systems Authority, says. But, apart from transfers of physical property, such as buying a house, all bureaucratic processes can be done online.

Estonia is a Baltic country of 1.3 million people and four million hectares, half of which is forest. Its government presents this digitization as a cost-saving efficiency and an equalizing force. Digitizing processes reportedly saves the state two per cent of its G.D.P. a year in salaries and expenses. Since that’s the same amount it pays to meet the NATO threshold for protection (Estonia — which has a notably vexed relationship with Russia — has a comparatively small military), its former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves liked to joke that the country got its national security for free.

Other benefits have followed. “If everything is digital, and location-independent, you can run a borderless country,” Kotka said. In 2014, the government launched a digital “residency” program, which allows logged-in foreigners to partake of some Estonian services, such as banking, as if they were living in the country. Other measures encourage international startups to put down virtual roots; Estonia has the lowest business-tax rates in the European Union, and has become known for liberal regulations around tech research. It is legal to test Level 3 driverless cars (in which a human driver can take control) on all Estonian roads, and the country is planning ahead for Level 5 (cars that take off on their own). “We believe that innovation happens anyway,” Viljar Lubi, Estonia’s deputy secretary for economic development, says. “If we close ourselves off, the innovation happens somewhere else.”

“It makes it so that, if one country is not performing as well as another country, people are going to the one that is performing better — competitive governance is what I’m calling it,” Tim Draper, a venture capitalist at the Silicon Valley firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and one of Estonia’s leading tech boosters, says. “We’re about to go into a very interesting time where a lot of governments can become virtual.”

Previously, Estonia’s best-known industry was logging, but Skype was built there using mostly local engineers, and countless other startups have sprung from its soil. “It’s not an offshore paradise, but you can capitalize a lot of money,” Thomas Padovani, a Frenchman who co-founded the digital-ad startup Adcash in Estonia, explains. “And the administration is light, all the way.” A light touch does not mean a restricted one, however, and the guiding influence of government is everywhere.

As an engineer, Kotka said, he found the challenge of helping to construct a digital nation too much to resist. “Imagine that it’s your task to build the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said excitedly. “You have to change the whole way of thinking about society.” So far, Estonia is past halfway there.

One afternoon, I met a woman named Anna Piperal at the e-Estonia Showroom. Piperal is the “e-Estonia ambassador”; the showroom is a permanent exhibit on the glories of digitized Estonia, from Skype to Timbeter, an app designed to count big piles of logs. (Its founder told me that she’d struggled to win over the wary titans of Big Log, who preferred to count the inefficient way.) Piperal has blond hair and an air of brisk, Northern European professionalism. She pulled out her I.D. card; slid it into her laptop, which, like the walls of the room, was faced with blond wood; and typed in her secret code, one of two that went with her I.D. The other code issues her digital signature — a seal that, Estonians point out, is much harder to forge than a scribble.

“This PIN code just starts the whole decryption process,” Piperal explained. “I’ll start with my personal data from the population registry.” She gestured toward a box on the screen. “It has my document numbers, my phone number, my e-mail account. Then there’s real estate, the land registry.” Elsewhere, a box included all of her employment information; another contained her traffic records and her car insurance. She pointed at the tax box. “I have no tax debts; otherwise, that would be there. And I’m finishing a master’s at the Tallinn University of Technology, so here” — she pointed to the education box — “I have my student information. If I buy a ticket, the system can verify, automatically, that I’m a student.” She clicked into the education box, and a detailed view came up, listing her previous degrees.

“My cat is in the pet registry,” Piperal said proudly, pointing again. “We are done with the vaccines.”

Data aren’t centrally held, thus reducing the chance of Equifax-level breaches. Instead, the government’s data platform, X-Road, links individual servers through end-to-end encrypted pathways, letting information live locally. Your dentist’s practice holds its own data; so does your high school and your bank. When a user requests a piece of information, it is delivered like a boat crossing a canal via locks. [more]

Rescuing Adam Smith from myth and misrepresentation

by David De La Torre

In Rescuing Adam Smith from myth and misrepresentation, The Economist reviews Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman.

Some readers will find Mr Norman’s busting of Smith-related myths to be the book’s most satisfying theme. Contrary to what is often assumed, the Scot did not advocate ruthless self-interest. The very first sentence of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” reads: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” is also misunderstood. [more]

For a free lesson on Adam Smith, see Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations (23:1:07). It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

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