Archive for September, 2014

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Who Can You Trust?

September 25, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

“Only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted,” according to a 2013 poll. “Half felt that way in 1972.”  These days, “a record high of nearly two-thirds say ‘you can’t be too careful’ in dealing with people.” An AP-GfK poll conducted a year ago “found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road or people they meet when traveling.”

News outlets love this sort of poll. It’s a filler thrill: a sip of adrenaline that can draw readers to notice ads that pay for the news. It says something, but what?  In a way this item is part of the problem: chances are, you don’t really trust the advertisers and journalists, but you sift the evidence and decide to read on. Or not.

Trust is at least two problems. One is that society needs enough trust to cohere. The other is that people need trust and mistrust—and to sort them out wisely. Too much trust makes you somebody’s slave or entrée. Too much suspicion saps morale, stalemates things, makes lawyers rich, and sabotages investment in the future. Think of all the Americans whose mistrust of politics tells them voting is a waste of time.

For society, the deep threat is civil war, as in battle cries about “big government” and sly “militia” threats of revolution. When police shoot unarmed black males, the bullets express white society’s mistrust of all blacks as a separate camp—an army—of parasites and criminals.

Economic war is here already, since most incomes have been stagnant for three decades, and the veiled guerrilla war against the poor is chronic. During the opening salvos of “lean and mean” business ideology, the New York Times featured a dispatch titled “Casualties on the Battlefield of Business.” In the new climate of insecurity, powerless employees were suffering. Meanwhile business has routed labor unions and won the weakest labor laws of any advanced country—the US is the only one with no guaranteed paid days off. When bankers crash the economy and get bonuses instead of prosecution, you know who’s winning.

“Fear is motivating people to not be away from the workplace, even though concerns about layoffs have mitigated since the recession, said Rusty Rueff, a career and workplace expert at employment site Glassdoor. American workers only used half of their eligible vacation time during the past 12 months, a Glassdoor survey found. The top reason for not taking vacation time was the concern that no other employee could do the job, followed by a fear of getting behind. Seventeen percent of respondents said they were afraid of losing their job.” Keep marching or die.

Since people spend half their waking lives at work (if they can find a fulltime job), mistrust on the job is painful. When Market Basket’s board ousted its worker-friendly CEO, you can see why employees rallied for his reinstatement—though the supermarket chain fired some to silence them. The workers used social media to organize, giving themselves an informal union and a voice.

This “union” is significant partly because theories about the decline of trust often focus on our increasing isolation: what Robert Putnam called “bowling alone.” More television time and more isolation produces what media researcher George Gerbner called “mean world syndrome.” His studies showed that the more TV you watch, the more likely you are to exaggerate the dangers in your neighborhood. The “mean world” of media violence is a marketing strategy. In effect, entertainment is stimulating mistrust as a pick-me-up, turning flight into fight and giving you a mood massage. The drawback is that massages don’t give you confidence on the job or on your street.

The poor of course do live in a meaner world and have to be more suspicious than the rich, who enjoy a gated community and a generous bank balance. TV’s mean world can be a tonic for the rich, since it proves how virtuously successful they are. It’s a tonic. For people dating, mean world vibes can be poisonous. In such a world even fantasies of bondage contracts in Fifty Shades of Grey look reassuring.

“In God we trust,” says the dollar bill. Assuming you trust dollar bills.

Psychologist Erik Erikson saw “basic trust” as the foundation ofpersonality. Mistrust, he concluded, can lead to kids beset by frustration, suspicion, withdrawal and a lack of confidence.

Since parents foster trust in infants, you might wonder how they’re doing. Among 35 developed countries, only Romanian kids face more poverty than American kids. “The U.S. economy is one of the most unequal in the developed world. This would explain why the United States, on child poverty, is ranked between Bulgaria and Romania, [34th of 35], though Americans are on average six times richer than Bulgarians and Romanians.” (1)

Despite the poverty and hunger, hot-button politicians want to force more women to bear unwanted children, at a time when “Roughly one live birth in seven was unwanted at conception.”(3) Not a prescription for trust. Maybe schools can even out kids’ chances.

Nah.

In the US, says Robert Reich, “The wealthiest highest-spending districts are now providing about twice as much funding per student as are the lowest-spending districts, according to a federal advisory commission report. What are called a “public schools” in many of America’s wealthy communities aren’t really “public” at all. In effect, they’re private schools, whose tuition is hidden away in the purchase price of upscale homes there, and in the corresponding property taxes.”

And get this. “Rather than pay extra taxes that would go to poorer districts, many parents in upscale communities have quietly shifted their financial support to tax-deductible ‘parent’s foundations’ designed to enhance their own schools.” (4) The rich, you see, are cleverer than you and me. They can afford to be clever.

Politicians should have to consider whether a particular policy fosters wisedecisions about trust and mistrust. They’d BS about it no doubt, but at least trust would be a public issue. Think of the official insanity in Utah, where an elementary school teacher who was carrying a concealed firearm at school accidentally shot herself in the leg when the weapon discharged in a faculty bathroom shortly before classes started Thursday morning, officials said. The teacher at Westbrook Elementary School, in the Salt Lake City suburb of Taylorsville, was severely injured when the bullet entered and exited her leg.

The school gun is legal and encouraged in Utah. The official babble rationalized the leg wound. How many of the kids, you wonder, drew the right lesson: the toilets are dangerous on the ship of fools.

 

 Resources used in this essay:

1. Max Fisher, “Map: How 35 countries compare on child poverty (the US is ranked 34th),” Washington Post, April 15, 2013.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/04/15/map-…

2. Aimee Picchi, “Why Americans take only half their vacation time,” CBS Moneywatch, April 4, 2014.

3. Joel E. Cohn reports on a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2008) in “The Case for More Babies,” New York Review (April 24, 2014), 58.

4. Robert Reich’s Blog, “Back to School ad Widening Inequality,” August 26, 2014.

5. Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon: Berserk Style in American Culture, available this winter in a new paperback edition from Leveller Press.

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Antonin Scalia and the Sleep of Reason

September 17, 2014
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

“…the gallows is not merely a machine of death, but the oldest and most obscene symbol of that tendency in mankind which drives it towards moral self-destruction.”

Arthur Koestler, Reflections on Hanging

By now most of you have heard that two mentally disabled half-brothers from North Carolina, convicted of a brutal murder of an 11-year old girl, have been exonerated and released. Both Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown spent 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit; McCollum spent it on death row. This is nothing new, you say. After all, 144 defendants on death row had already been exonerated and released for reasons of innocence. But this case is different in one significant respect.

In 1994, using the McCollum case as an example, Justice Antonin Scalia dismissively (does he have another way of communicating?) rejected then-justice Harry Blackmun’s claim that the death penalty is unconstitutional. But instead of proving Scalia’s point, it turns out that the McCollum case is the perfect example of why the death penalty should be abolished. If Scalia were a reflective thinker rather than a reactive ideologue, he would acknowledge that he was dead wrong on this case, and perhaps consider the possibility that he is wrong about capital punishment in general. Don’t hold your breath.

Justice Scalia refuses to acknowledge that our criminal justice system is fatally flawed in its application of capital punishment. His mind-numbing obstinacy appears to arise primarily from his rejection of incontrovertible facts, but also through his distortion of data. It is truly unfortunate that the longest serving justice on the current Supreme Court is no more capable of rational thought than your raving crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. (I realize that I am venturing into ad hominem territory here, but there are rare times when it seems almost required.)

So how Justice Scalia demonstrate his inability to apply reason to capital punishment? Let us count the ways.

First, Scalia denies that we have a serious problem of putting innocent people on death row. A rational person would look at the now 145 people exonerated and released from death row, and admit that our criminal justice system—one that metes out an irreversible punishment—is badly broken. But Scalia dismisses or ignores the simple fact that we regularly convict the innocent in capital cases.

Secondly, Scalia rants about the failure of death penalty opponents to show him a single case of an innocent person who has been executed. Scalia’s demand is irrational and disingenuous, however, because once a person is executed, efforts to prove his innocence basically stop. There are so many potentially innocent people still alive on death row, that the efforts are focused on them. Moreover there are many cases where the evidence does in fact suggest that the executed person was probably innocent, such as Cameron Todd Willingham, who almost certainly was innocent of setting the fire that killed his 3 children. Rick Perry, the oligosynaptic “hang-‘em-high” governor of Texas, ensured that Willingham would be executed by replacing key members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just days before they were to hear from a forensic expert who would testify that the evidence in the Willingham case was invalid. Rick Perry… tough on crime… soft on the truth.

Third, Scalia has resorted to an unconscionable distortion of data. In 2007, Scalia wrote in a concurring Supreme Court opinion that the error rate in the American criminal justice system is a paltry 0.027 percent. Nonetheless, as Samuel Gross and colleagues pointed out in their scholarly 2014 paper in the normally staid Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, Scalia’s claim is “silly.” Actually, “silly” is a charitable characterization given Scalia’s egregious distortion of the facts. As Gross, et al point out, Scalia committed the flagrant error of taking the exonerations known at the time for murder and rape (which what almost certainly a very small subset of the actual false convictions) and divided that number by all felonies for any crime, including things like income tax evasion. It is a sad day when a Justice of the highest court in the land makes a claim that would earn an “F” on a paper if he submitted it as freshman in a criminal justice class.

Finally, Antonin Scalia has now become famous for claiming that executing the innocent is not unconstitutional. Is Scalia actually saying that we can commit any repugnant and outrageous act as long as it is not against the constitution? Moreover, we do have the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishments. If executing the innocent is not cruel, I’m not sure what could be possibly be classified as cruel. Vincent Rossmeier stated in Solon, in an understatement of Olympic proportions, that Scalia’s views on the constitutionality of executing the innocent “…suggested a certain callousness…” I would take it a step further: If you are actually arguing that it is okay to execute innocent people, you need some serious therapy, not a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

Plato knew about people like Justice Scalia, and would have called him a “philodoxer”—defined as a person who is especially fond of his or her own opinions, without having objectively investigated the facts of the situation. We all encounter people like this in our daily lives, and we are all guilty of this failing to one degree or another. We do not deserve, however, to have a flagrant and unrepentant philodoxer on the Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, one does not have to focus on the irrationality of a Supreme Court Justice to decide whether or not we should have the death penalty. If one considers the empirical evidence objectively, an astonishing conclusion appears: A rational person looking at the data on capital punishment in the US would necessarily come to the conclusion that the death penalty almost certainly results in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. You heard that right. Capital punishment most likely increases the deaths of innocents and the reasoning is very simple.

First, there is no credible evidence that capital punishment reduces future murders. Deterrence was debunked in the 1950s by Arthur Koestler (whom I quoted above) in perhaps the most eloquent and penetrating essay ever written on the death penalty, entitled “Reflections on Hanging.” Moreover, a panel of the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council concluded in a 2012 report that the evidence for the death penalty acting as a deterrent has no basis in fact.

Indeed, the available evidence actually points to a “brutalizing effect” which is the term criminologists use to describe an increase in the murder rate in the presence of the death penalty. A poll of leading criminologists found that while only 2.6 percent of criminologists think that capital punishment is a deterrent to future murders, 18.8 percent feel that the death penalty increases the murder rate. These are only educated opinions, of course, but they certainly show that the experts in the field do not support the deterrence effect.

Other evidence adds more embarrassment to the death penalty proponent. It is uncontested that the murder rate is substantially higher in states that have the death penalty than in those without it. And it is also true (as pointed out by Koestler) that the murder rate usually decreases when countries abolish the death penalty. If the data were reversed, we can be sure that death penalty advocates would be citing the figures incessantly. Death penalty opponents, however, are generally willing to admit that these data do not prove that the death penalty increases murders, even though the data suggest it.

Secondly, the evidence that innocent people are regularly condemned to death row is overwhelming. The fact that 145 people on death row have been exonerated cannot be ignored. Moreover, Samuel Gross and colleagues calculated in their recent publication (mentioned above) at least one in 25 people sentenced to death in the US is innocent of the crime for which they are condemned. The conclusion is clear: If the death penalty does not prevent murders but does result in the execution of innocent defendants, capital punishment results in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. There is no other rational way to interpret the data.

I am optimistic that when these uncomfortable facts become common knowledge, the obscene and dehumanizing spectacle that is the death penalty will be no more.