Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Christian Militia Group" or Terrorists?

Group Charges with Plotting to Murder Law Officers:

In an indictment against the nine [defendants] unsealed on Monday, the Justice Department said they were part of a group of apocalyptic Christian militants who were plotting to kill law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment uprising, the latest in a recent surge in right-wing militia activity.

The court filing said the group, which called itself the Hutaree, planned to kill an unidentified law enforcement officer and then bomb the funeral caravan using improvised explosive devices based on designs used against American troops by insurgents in Iraq.

“This is an example of radical and extremist fringe groups which can be found throughout our society,” Andrew Arena, the F.B.I. special agent in charge in Detroit, said in a statement. “The F.B.I. takes such extremist groups seriously, especially those who would target innocent citizens and the law enforcement officers who protect the citizens of the United States.”
Thus, they are not an "extremist group" or a "militia", they're a terrorist organization. As my friend Chris put it, they are not a "Christian Militia Group" any more than al-Qaeda is a "Muslim Militia Group." Take a look at these guys, with their training and recruitment videos (I really would like to ask potential terrorists: how does going across monkey bars prepare you for Armageddon?) and armor. Do they look like "Christian Warriors" to you?

They're insurgents who, according to the indictment, planned on using "trip-wired improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, for what they expected would become a violent standoff with law enforcement personnel."

So why the different labels? As I opined back in February, we seem to be hung up on the idea that "terrorists" can't be doughy white guys who rant against the government. If you look at the picture from the link above and imagine all of those guys being Arabic-descent young males, we'd be "hunkering down, buying duct tape, and gearing up for another surge somewhere."

I'll say it again: whether a "lone wolf" flying his plane into the I.R.S. or a "crazed gunman" shooting at the Pentagon, we don't seem to want to acknowledge what is most obvious: terrorism is coming from within, not from outside the country. And until we do, the "war on terror" is only so much meaningless, political pablum.

Bullying and Suicide

Nine Teenagers Charged After Classmate's Suicide:

Prosecutor[s] brought charges Monday against nine teenagers, saying their taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale and led the freshman, Phoebe Prince, to hang herself from a stairwell in January.

The charges were an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying, which is increasingly conducted in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard and has drawn growing concern from parents, educators and lawmakers.

Two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney, said at a news conference in Northampton, Mass.

Appearing with state and local police officials on Monday, Ms. Scheibel said that Ms. Prince’s suicide came after nearly three months of severe taunting and physical threats by a cluster of fellow students.

It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome,” Ms. Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.
Not just the adults at school, but the parents of the nine arrested. Where were they?

The retributive side of me would argue the parents of the bullies should be hauled into court and charged as well. It would be difficult to prosecute them, but in cases of bullying, the research has shown for years that the nut doesn't fall far from the tree. Households where you find extreme authoritarianism, prejudice, scapegoating and violence are likely to produce bullies. To put it another way, you would probably find bullies in either their fathers, their mothers, or both.

Nevertheless, it does seem to be a groundbreaking case in the use of charges to respond to bullying and suicide. And I don't see this on the same continuum of criminalizing childhood, which we've talked about before. Fighting at school or skipping school should not lead to an arrest and conviction.

But tormenting someone to the point where you drive the person to kill themselves? A criminal prosecution of these adolescents (and their parents) seems perfectly warranted to me.

UPDATE: Apparently, the school officials knew way more about the torment this girl was going through than they first admitted. Could their own inaction be subject to criminal or civil liability?

Darby O’Brien, a friend of the Prince family, said Thursday that Ms. Prince’s parents had told him that they had twice tried to alert the school and protect their daughter. Anne Prince, the mother, told him that in one case she had contacted a school official in November asking “whether this gang of girls was a threat to her daughter,” and was told not to worry. The mother said she had contacted the school again in the first week of January as the taunting continued, Mr. O’Brien said.

The parents, who are discussing a possible civil suit, have refused to speak to reporters. Mr. O’Brien, a parent and head of an advertising agency here, called for the superintendent, board chairman and principal to resign. “I can’t buy the story that they were unaware,” he said. “They are running for cover.”

Interesting. It's easy to point the finger at the school and their bungling of the incidents leading up to the suicide, but I would again ask: where are the parents of the bullies in this? And why haven't they been frog-marched before the cameras?

UPDATE II: Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind (two sociologists I cite frequently in class) have a great op-ed in today's NYT on the "myth of mean girls" and why we shouldn't misinterpret this episode of bullying in terms of gender.

Tip of the propeller beanie to Jay at Montclair, who also has a good post on this.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Texas Toast

Back when Texas used the electric chair, the executed were often referred to as "Texas Toast" in a sort of gallows humor fashion. For some reason (talking about the death penalty in class today) that phrase when through my mind when I saw the title and review of this new book on mass incarceration in the U.S., "Texas Tough."

In “Texas Tough,” Robert Perkinson, a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, delivers an important reckoning with this societal responsibility. Though his loud, machismo-laden title might better serve for a reality show about life behind bars, Perkinson offers a searching history of American incarceration, tracing the failures of our prisons to the approach that Texas and other Southern states have long taken ­toward their criminals and denouncing the fact that, with about 1.6 million people in our penitentiaries and an additional 800,000 in our jails, the United States locks up its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.
Not to quibble, but we actually have more people in real numbers, not just proportional, locked up than any other country, including China.
As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America’s movement from, in his words, “the age of slavery to the age of incarceration,” with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars.

And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology — an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation — that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson’s eyes, has provided a “template for a more fearful and vengeful society,” for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, “to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens.”
The review goes on to note such historical ignominies such as Reconstruction-era convict leasing, government-run plantations, and 20th century chain gangs, before getting to today.
It is the Southern tradition that has proved, in Perkinson’s telling, to have the lasting nationwide legacy, both in the current warehousing of inmates and in the racism now powerfully embedded in American penology. Much as emancipation brought on a penal backlash against Southern blacks, so did the civil rights movement — except that this later reaction was national. Equal protection, desegregation and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty were quickly followed by tougher drug laws and crackdowns on crime that, with conscious intention or not, made blacks a target. Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.
Critical theorists have been arguing this point for decades now: mass incarceration in this country began in earnest following the Civil Rights movements of the 1960's. First by re-conceptualizing of crime as political capital in the 1960's and militarizing law enforcement, the move to mass incarcerate blacks would collide with the Great Recession of the early 1980's and launch us on a 20 year drunken binge of mass incarceration. Intentional or coincidental, African-Americans were the primary target of this binge, with the hangover kicking in, and tab coming due, only just recently.

I'm not familiar with Perkinson, but I like that a historical sweep has been written about this mess. In penology and criminology we often get bogged down in the day to day madness and fail to consider the present in context.

It's important to recognize that the prison policies of today, born of a "southern strategy," now dominate the entire country (see Prison Proliferation below). And to tie this in with a post from yesterday, it's a a sobering reminder that those who try and reform the way we are currently doing business in corrections (and it is Big Business) are going to face stiff, possibly violent, resistance.

Prison Proliferation in the U.S.

Via Global Sociology and Chris Uggen. I agree with GS's take, a timeline would have been nice and it could have been a bit shorter, but if you have ten minutes, watch this. It gets more powerful towards the end.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health Care Hate Crimes

After Health Vote, Threats on Democrats Lives:

Democratic lawmakers have received death threats and been the victims of vandalism because of their votes in favor of the health care bill, lawmakers and law enforcement officials said Wednesday, as the Congressional debate over the issue headed toward a bitter and divisive conclusion.

At least two Congressional district offices were vandalized and Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a senior Democrat from New York, received a phone message threatening sniper attacks against lawmakers and their families.

Because nothing says "I'm for health care" quite like threatening to kill someone. Those must be the "death panels" I kept hearing about.

Ms. Slaughter also reported that a brick was thrown through a window of her office in Niagara Falls, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona, said Monday that her Tucson office was vandalized after the vote.

The Associated Press reported that the authorities in Virginia were investigating a cut propane line to an outdoor grill at the home of a brother of Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia, after the address was mistakenly listed on a Tea Party Web site as the residence of the congressman. Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan and a central figure in the measure’s abortion provisions, reported receiving threatening phone calls.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black lawmaker in the House, said he received an anonymous fax showing the image of a noose.

The reports of threats, coming after a tense weekend when protesters hurled racial and homophobic slurs at Democrats and spit on one congressman, left many Democrats shaken.
The latter incidents are documented in this article.

You know we've reached a new low when dropping N-bombs, calling people "fags," and spitting on them because they want to change health care become seen as acceptable forms of protest.

And what's even funnier, is that for all the vaunted rhetoric, the bill will probably change nothing in the end anyway.

This blog shies away from the overtly political, mainly because writing about partisan politics, particularly the extremes of either party, is a lot like writing about sex offenders. Actually, writing about sex offenders is preferable.

However, when partisanship drifts into criminal activity, then we will take note. It's unfortunate that what started out as a chance to have a high-minded debate over fixing the dysfunctional health care system in this country, degenerated into name calling, fisticuffs and death threats.

But as John Mellencamp sang in Pink Houses: "Oh, but ain't that America, we're something to see, baby."

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Biggest Losers

Paging Stanley Milgram: Please Report to French TV.

Is a crusading French documentary maker striking a blow at the abusive powers of television — or simply taking reality TV to a new low of cynicism and bad taste? That's the question viewers across France are asking in light of Christophe Nick's new film, The Game of Death, which airs on French television on Wednesday night. The documentary has generated a massive amount of attention — and naturally, courted controversy — because of the dilemma that the film's contestants face on a fake game show: Will they allow themselves to be cajoled into delivering near lethal electrical charges to fellow players, or follow their better instincts and refuse?

The Game of Death is an adaptation of an infamous experiment conducted by a team led by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. In order to test people's obedience to authority figures, the scientists demanded that subjects administer increasingly strong electric shocks to other participants if they answered questions incorrectly. The people delivering the shocks, however, didn't know that the charges were fake — the volunteers on the other end of the room were actors pretending to suffer agonizing pain. The point was to see how many people would continue following orders to mete out torture.

Milgram found that 62.5% of his subjects could be encouraged, browbeaten or intimidated into seeing the test through to its conclusion by delivering scores of shocks of increasing intensity to the maximum of 450 volts. In The Game of Death, 81% of contestants go all the way by administering more than 20 shocks of up to a maximum of 460 volts. Only 16 of the 80 subjects recruited for the fake game show refuse the verbal prodding from the host — and pressure from the audience to keep dishing out the torture like a good sport — though most express misgivings or try to pull out before being persuaded otherwise.
I first read about his over at Global Sociology and my first reaction was, of course, to laugh at the idiots who fell for it. Could you get 80% of the contestants to go all the way on the electric shocks just for the chance to be on television? Would they suspend their better judgment in the experiment/documentary for the reward of a reality t.v. appearance? Is Milgram dead?

Predictably, critics of the documentary claim Nick's methods are suspicious, over-dramatized and not representative of "real reality t.v. contestants" (whatever that means). Also, unlike Milgram's subjects, who sat alone in a room with the experimenter and weren't aware they were being observed, these contestants knew they were being filmed and, worse, were being egged on by a live audience who didn't know anything about the experiment either.
Milgram’s subjects were alone with a disinterested professor as they wrestled with their consciences, and believed that they were unobserved. But in Le Jeu de la Mort, the contestants were undeterred by the knowledge that millions would witness their brutality. And an enthusiastic audience, as ignorant as the contestants that it was all a spoof, roared “Punish! Punish!” as the electric shocks intensified. If they’d been wearing togas, you could have imagined them enjoying a few Christians torn apart by lions. The French experiment suggests not only that most of us might have obeyed Nazi Gauleiters, but that 2,000 years of civilisation can fall away in an instant.
In that sense, Nick's findings are even more ominous than Milgram's: people will publicly and openly torture, harm or mutilate another person for the chance of being on television; and a live audience of dopes will get off on the spectacle.
Television brings with it two dangerous hazards: the worship of celebrity, and the blurring of reality and fantasy. As director Christophe Nick commented: “On a game-show set, you can get people to do absolutely anything. The boundary between reality and fiction disappears.”
I suppose this is nothing new to those of us who have criticized the fantasy of "reality t.v." for a decade now, but something about this is still unsettling, because the logical conclusion is: could this be done for real? And will we do it eventually?

Sexting and Cultural Lag

This morning in Juvenile Delinquency we discussed this very phenomenon: how sexting, in addition to being another behavior in a long line of moral panics, is also a great examples of cultural lag: when the material technology outpaces our nonmaterial norms and values regarding how to deal with it.

Rethinking Sex Offender Laws for Youth:

In most states, teenagers who send or receive sexually explicit photographs by cellphone or computer — known as “sexting” — have risked felony child pornography charges and being listed on a sex offender registry for decades to come.

But there is growing consensus among lawyers and legislators that the child pornography laws are too blunt an instrument to deal with an adolescent cyberculture in which all kinds of sexual pictures circulate on sites like MySpace and Facebook.

“There’s a lot of confusion about how to regulate cellphones and sex and 16-year-olds,” said Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University. “We’re at this cultural shift, not only because of the technology, but because of what’s happening in terms of the representation of teen sexuality as you can see on ‘Gossip Girl.’ ”
And the default reaction amongst adults (particularly over the past 15 years or so) is to criminalize whatever it is kids are doing that we don't understand. Our zero-tolerance response to everything adolescent has led to prosecutions not only for such idiotic behavior like sexting, but traditional adolescent behavior like fighting at school or dissing a teacher or principal. If it can be criminalized, it will be criminalized.

Certainly your kids should be discouraged from taking pictures of themselves in various states of undress and sending them to other people, but to attach felony-level criminal sanctions to it makes a mockery of the law and law enforcement, along the lines of Prohibition.

Thankfully, saner heads are now speaking up.
Some of the 14 states considering legislation would make sexting a misdemeanor, while others would treat it like juvenile offenses like truancy or running away.

There are [also] those who favor decriminalization.

“Generally this should be an education issue,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. “No one disputes that sexting can have very bad consequences, and no parent wants kids sending out naked images. But if you’ve got thousands of kids engaging in this, are you going to criminalize all of them?”

But it's not even "thousands of kids"; it's less than 4% of teens according to a Pew research poll published a few months ago.

What it boils down to is: this is a parenting issue (or lack thereof), not a criminal justice issue. The faster we get it out of the hands of prosecutors, who as a rule of thumb are clueless when it comes to youth and cultural lag, the better.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lamebook

This may be one of the funniest sites I've ever come across. Apparently the web owners capture images of really lame postings, musings, photos and other nonsense from Facebook's 400 million users. Below are two of my favorites so far (click on the image to enlarge).































LOL. Fights over a significant other, spelling disses, and one dope proud to be "Kickin it" with his dead grandma.

What was that quote again? "Facebook is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone's drunk and ugly and they're going to pass out in a few minutes."

How Millennial Are You?

You should take this quiz. I scored 48, a solid Gen Xer who relates to today's students somewhat better than my Boomer brethren.

I'm still suspicious of some of the methodology (the "have you contacted a government official" question is puzzling), but wev.

Not quite "gramps," but bordering on "older dude."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reefer Madness: Medical Marijuana Edition

You may remember my post back in January on Big Pharma's resistance to studying the effects of medical marijuana. Looks like law enforcement is also giving the cold shoulder to the legal pot growers in states where medical mary jane is legal. How?

By Ignoring Criminal Assaults Against Growers:

SEATTLE — A shooting and a beating death linked to medical marijuana have prompted new calls by law enforcement officials and marijuana advocates for Washington State to change how it regulates the drug and protects those who grow and use it.

In the past week, a man in Orting, Wash., near Tacoma, died after he reportedly was beaten while confronting people trying to steal marijuana plants from his property. On Monday, a prominent medical-marijuana activist shot an armed man who is accused of breaking into his home in a suburban area near Seattle where he grows and distributes marijuana plants.
Apparently, the states that allow growers to harvest marijuana plants for medical use aren't doing anything to protect them from drug dealers and other thugs who want to steal, mug or maim their way into the stash. And law enforcement, while making some arrests, seems indifferent to the growers plight.

Even before he was robbed on Monday, Mr. Sarich had complained that the police were not doing enough to protect him, including after what he said was a robbery attempt in January. He told The Seattle Times on Monday that he and his girlfriend were authorized to have up to 50 plants each and had less than 100 plants in the house they shared.

“Any person making medical marijuana is going to be a target because they have a valuable commodity,” Sgt. John Urquhart of the King County Sheriff’s Department said in an interview Tuesday. Sergeant Urquhart said that there was “nothing to investigate” in January because Mr. Sarich had provided little information. Mr. Urquhart also said investigators had found 385 plants in Mr. Sarich’s house after the shooting on Monday.

“He had baked goods with marijuana in them, frozen goods with marijuana in them, chocolate goods with marijuana in them,” Mr. Urquhart said. “He had green butter, which we believe is laced with marijuana. As we interpret state law, he was not in compliance.”

So? Does that mean a law enforcement officer can just ignore the crime perpetrated because he doesn't think the victim was "in compliance" with state regulations and thus, had it coming? And is that really a law enforcement, as opposed to prosecutorial, decision to make?

The cavalier attitude expressed by state and law enforcement authorities in the article is disappointing. There is an almost blame-the-victim mentality: if you don't want to be shot or mugged or burglarized, stop growing state-sanctioned spliff.

More Reefer Madness (green butter...can you imagine? "Dude, that bagel this morning was awesome!").

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chief Justice Roberts: SOTU Just a "Political Pep Rally"

I was out of town last week and missed this.

Chief Justice Fires Back for State of the Union Snub:

Simmering tension between the White House and U.S. Supreme Court spilled into public this week when Chief Justice John Roberts labeled the political atmosphere at the State of the Union address "very troubling."

With six members of the court a few feet away in the audience, President Obama used the occasion to criticize the conservative majority's ruling in a campaign finance case.

Roberts on Tuesday told students at the University of Alabama that such partisanship at the annual address in Congress leaves him questioning whether the justices should continue to attend, as most do, in accord with tradition.

"It does cause me to think whether or not it makes sense for us to be there," Roberts said. "To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there."

Er, "has degenerated?" I'd say the State of the Union has been nothing more than a "political pep rally" for the past 30 years, maybe longer. But more importantly you are "there" because you were invited and agreed to attend. There is nothing in the Constitution requiring their attendance. Roberts goes on to note:
"Some people, I think, have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we've done something [wrong]," he said in response to a student's question. "So I have no problems with that. On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering, while the court, according to the requirements of protocol, has to sit there, expressionless, I think is very troubling."
Don't you love the phrase "literally surrounding the Supreme Court," as if it were some sort of coupe de grace engineered by Obama and the Congress to take out the court itself? It's not like Obama shouted from the podium "bring it!" or challenged them to a duel. Talk about "troubling."

Nevertheless, Roberts' salvo has led many in the media: to declare this a "battle raging on" between Obama and Roberts, to harken back to Roosevelt's attempt to pack the Court in the 1930's, and to bloviate about [gasp] the court not showing up at next year's SOTU.

Meanwhile, there have already been years when the Court dissed the president completely. They skipped en banc Clinton's farewell SOTU in 2000, and blew off Reagan's 1986 post-Challenger address. The notion that it would be "new" or "show Obama a lesson" is laughable.

Me thinks this is much to do about nothing, ultimately. If you want to read about the Court and its importance, check out Jeff Toobin's excellent "After Stevens" in the latest New Yorker about the pending retirement of Justice Stevens, or Linda Greenhouse's analysis in the NYT of Justice Thomas and the 8th amendment. Much more important, those.

Beware the Ides of March

Wall Street Grifters Set Stage for Another Crash:

To appreciate how all of these (sometimes brilliant) schemes work is to understand the difference between earning money and taking scores, and to realize that the profits these banks are posting don't so much represent national growth and recovery, but something closer to the losses one would report after a theft or a car crash. Many Americans instinctively understand this to be true — but, much like when your wife does it with your 300-pound plumber in the kids' playroom, knowing it and actually watching the whole scene from start to finish are two very different things. In that spirit, a brief history of the best 18 months of grifting this country has ever seen:
Readers know how much I enjoy Matt Taibbi's insightful musings at Rolling Stone. Last week Taibbi confirmed what others, such as yours truly, have been saying for two years now: the "Great Recession" was the product of white-collar crime. In fact, Wall Street didn't even engage in traditional kinds of white-collar crime so much as they took good old fashioned street crimes (or "Street crimes"), hustles, pinches and scams, and turned them into a trillion dollar racket that brought down the economy and put millions in the unemployment line.
What is less understood is that the bailout of AIG counter-parties like Goldman and Société Générale, a French bank, actually began before the collapse of AIG, before the Federal Reserve paid them so much as a dollar. Nor is it understood that these counterparties actually accelerated the wreck of AIG in what was, ironically, something very like the old insurance scam known as "Swoop and Squat," in which a target car is trapped between two perpetrator vehicles and wrecked, with the mark in the game being the target's insurance company — in this case, the government.

This may sound far-fetched, but the financial crisis of 2008 was very much caused by a perverse series of legal incentives that often made failed investments worth more than thriving ones. Our economy was like a town where everyone has juicy insurance policies on their neighbors' cars and houses. In such a town, the driving will be suspiciously bad, and there will be a lot of fires.

AIG was the ultimate example of this dynamic. At the height of the housing boom, Goldman was selling billions in bundled mortgage-backed securities — often toxic crap of the no-money-down, no-identification-needed variety of home loan — to various institutional suckers like pensions and insurance companies, who frequently thought they were buying investment-grade instruments. At the same time, in a glaring example of the perverse incentives that existed and still exist, Goldman was also betting against those same sorts of securities — a practice that one government investigator compared to "selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars."
Taibbi goes on to illustrate how old confidence cons such as The Big Store ("popularized in movies such The Sting"), The Pig in the Poke (bait and swtich, and its attendant "letting the cat out of the bag"), The Rumanian Box (counterfeiting money), The Big Mitt (rigged poker games), and The Reload (repeatedly scamming the same victim over and over until the victim is sucked dry) all resurfaced in the investment banking and mortgage industries during the go-go 00's and directly led to the misery of today.

On the street, of course, scams such as Shell Games are illegal and will bring a quick law enforcement response. But on the Street, these scams are perfectly legal. It's ironic that following the great crash in '08, so many "experts" were saying that no one will ever understand these "brilliant" designs, such as credit default swaps and derivatives, because they were cooked up by so many "brilliant mathematicians" and the average person could never understand. Yet in reality, this wasn't so much "brilliance" as it was good old fashion grifting...con men in the suites instead of con men on the streets.

Worse, Taibbi argues the stage is being set for another bubble to burst since Washington dropped the ball on regulatory reform and failed to prosecute anyone for these crimes.
But by the end of 2009, the unimaginable was happening: The bubble was re-inflating. A bailout policy that was designed to help us get out from under the bursting of the largest asset bubble in history inadvertently produced exactly the opposite result, as all that government-fueled capital suddenly began flowing into the most dangerous and destructive investments all over again. Wall Street was going for the reload.
I wouldn't exactly call Taibbi a prophet, but as the Seer warned Caesar on his way to the theater that evening of the 15th, "beware the ides of March." It could happen again and this time it could be much, much worse.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Suicide Prevention Measures on Death Row

Yes, you read that correctly:

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland on Monday postponed until March 16 the execution of a killer who took an overdose of pills in his cell and was found unconscious just hours before he was to be driven to his execution. The man, Lawrence Reynolds Jr., 43, who was sentenced to die for killing his neighbor in 1994, was found unconscious around 11:30 p.m. Sunday at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.
Ah, one of the little ironies of capital punishment. An inmate violates the suicide prevention protocols so the staff then engages in life-saving measures, reviving the inmate and transporting him to the local hospital. Why?

So he'll be alive when the date comes around to kill him. Certainly you don't think we'd allow the inmate to short-circuit the process, do you?

I love Ohio.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Chump Generation

Will Millennials Become the Chump Generation?

In a 1969 Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans believed in the generation gap. A poll last year found that 79 percent now do. Between then and now, of course, generations have shifted. Then, it was baby boomers (those now 46-64) arrayed against the World War II and Depression generations. Now it's "Millennials" (those 29 or younger) and Gen Xers (30 to 45) vying with boomers and Americans 65 and over.

Consider a study of the 50 million Millennials 18 and over by the Pew Research Center. The report found some surprising and some not-so-surprising developments. Surprising (to me): Almost two-fifths of Millennials have tattoos, up from a third among Gen Xers and from a seventh (15 percent) among boomers. Not surprising: Millennials are the first truly digital generation. Three-quarters have created a profile on Facebook or some other social networking site. Only half of Gen Xers and 30 percent of boomers have done so. A fifth of Millennials have posted videos of themselves online, far more than Gen Xers (6 percent) or boomers (2 percent).
I'm trying to imagine the 2% of Boomers who have posted video of themselves online. Actually, no I'm not.

But I am a proud member of the half of Gen Xers who have not created a profile on Facebook or some other social networking site, thank you very much. As I pointed out in my Intro class last week, I prefer the narcissism of Twitter over the others. I'm not so much interested in becoming your "friend," but if you'd like to "follow me," (or you'd like me to follow you) by all means c'mon along.

But I digress. Why the Chump Generation?
The deep slump has hit Millennials hard. According to Pew, almost two-fifths of 18- to 29-year-olds (37 percent) are unemployed or out of the labor force, "the highest share . . . in more than three decades." Only 41 percent have a full-time job, down from 50 percent in 2006. Proportionately, more Millennials have recently lost jobs (10 percent) than those over 30 (6 percent). About a third say they're receiving financial help from their families, and 13 percent of 22- to 29-year-olds have moved in with parents after living on their own.

More bad news may lie ahead. As baby boomers retire, higher federal spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid may boost Millennials' taxes and squeeze other government programs. It will be harder to start and raise families.

Millennials could become the chump generation. They could suffer for their elders' economic sins, particularly the failure to confront the predictable costs of baby boomers' retirement. This poses a question. In 2008, Millennials voted 2 to 1 for Barack Obama; in surveys, they say they're more disposed than older Americans to big and activist government. Their ardor for Obama is already cooling. Will higher taxes dim their enthusiasm for government?

Time will tell, but the squeeze on both of our generations will be enormous as the Baby Boomers begin exiting, stage right, in the next decade or so. And one thing is certain: the Boomer politicians, who now control all aspects of government in both parties, aren't going to do anything but stick us with a tab they don't want to pay themselves.

And unless you plan on walking the check, we're in for one rude surprise.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Presidential Reunion

Fake Former Presidents Use Comedy for Cause:

Five former presidential impersonators from “Saturday Night Live” joined Jim Carrey and the show’s current mock president, Fred Armisen, in a White House bedroom set for a sketch that immediately achieved viral video fame. The experience, Mr. Armisen said, felt like “walking into my television set.”

In the almost-six-minute-long video, Mr. Armisen gets ready for bed, with Maya Rudolph playing Michelle Obama. In a dream sequence he is joined by Will Ferrell as George W. Bush, Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton, Dana Carvey as George H. W. Bush and Dan Aykroyd as Jimmy Carter. Eventually two deceased presidents, Mr. Carrey as Ronald Reagan and Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford, walk into the suddenly crowded bedroom.
You have to visit Funny or Die to see the clip, so if you have six minutes, go to their website and watch it. Ron Howard directed, ostensibly to encourage viewers to contact their Senators about banking reform, but regardless, it's absolutely hilarious.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Recessions, Inmates, and the Politics of Fear

Safety is the Issue as Budget Cuts Free Prisoners:

In the rush to save money in grim budgetary times, states nationwide have trimmed their prison populations by expanding parole programs and early releases. But the result — more convicted felons on the streets, not behind bars — has unleashed a backlash, and state officials now find themselves trying to maneuver between saving money and maintaining the public’s sense of safety.

In February, lawmakers in Oregon temporarily suspended a program they had expanded last year to let prisoners, for good behavior, shorten their sentences (and to save $6 million) after an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. “A woman’s asleep in her own apartment,” a narrator said. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar.”
Lord. I'm sure the radio advertisement didn't say, "a registered sex offender and convicted burglar who happens to be her ex-husband or boyfriend," since these kinds of attacks almost always happen between intimates.

Remember Rule #1 about the Politics of Fear: facts are irrelevant.

Rule #2: Don't be caught looking as though you support the early release of inmates, even if it's your job to do so.
Among the 13,541 inmates released on parole in Michigan in 2009 was Scott W. Hankins, who had twice been convicted in sex cases and who had been accused by prosecutors of molesting other girls he had met at church, some of whom were developmentally disabled. The youngest girl, prosecutors say, was 7.

In one measure of how tangled the fight in Michigan has become, Mike Cox, the attorney general and a Republican candidate for governor, whose job includes defending the State Department of Corrections and its Parole and Commutation Board in their parole decisions, has also filed separate amicus briefs in eight of the cases, including Mr. Hankins’s, opposing parole.

Natch. He is, after all, a candidate for governor, trying to head off the inevitable "he's defendin' molesters gettin' out of prison early" political attack of his opponents.

I'd say Rule #3 usually goes something like: it takes just one case, one sex offender out on parole who screws up, to torpedo an entire state's program. But in the case above, it's better to take a preemptive strike and put this Hankins guy back in prison before he does something.

Mr. Hankins, 53, was released on parole in November under strict rules. He moved to a community facility and wore a tether tracking his movement. He was barred from living with anyone 17 or younger, being near playgrounds, using the Internet or going to a topless bar.

On Dec. 30, Ms. Cooper’s appeal led a judge to send Mr. Hankins back to prison; a hearing on his case is scheduled for Wednesday.

“He wasn’t causing any problem,” said Michael J. McCarthy, Mr. Hankins’s lawyer. “He was trying to find a job.”

The irony. The recession caused his early release from prison and the recession (by virtue of not being employed, often a condition of parole) caused his early return.

[Bonus irony: the recession itself was caused by white-collar criminals, none of whom have ever been properly punished. So the street thugs end up paying the price for the Wall Street thugs and their malfeasance. Ain't it grand?]

Not to be too flip here: of course, great care should be made when releasing any inmate back into society, early or otherwise, and there is nothing wrong with prosecutors or victims being allowed to object to said early releases.

But let's remember too that this is the political season for 2010, and nothing sells soap (or disciplines the populace) quite like the fear of crime.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Suicide and Celebrity

Michael Gerson of WaPo:

Americans, always fascinated by celebrity suicides, have a number of recent excuses for sympathetic voyeurism. Andrew Koenig, 41-year-old son of actor Walter Koenig, hanged himself in a Vancouver park after leaving a despondent note. Days later, Michael Blosil, the 18-year-old son of singer Marie Osmond, jumped from his eighth-floor apartment after writing that his depression had left him feeling friendless.

A few years ago, Brad Delp, lead singer for the band Boston, killed himself after writing, "I am a lonely soul." South Korean supermodel Daul Kim wrote before her suicide last year, "The more I gain, the more lonely it is. . . . I know I'm like a ghost."

But it is the peculiar cruelty of hopelessness and severe depression that they attack insight and perspective. People can experience themselves as someone they hate and cannot escape, except by shedding the self. In "The Savage God: A Study of Suicide," A. Alvarez argues, "The logic of suicide is different. It is like the unanswerable logic of a nightmare, or like the science-fiction fantasy of being projected suddenly into another dimension: Everything makes sense and follows its own strict rules; yet, at the same time, everything is also different, perverted, upside down. Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident reinforces his decision."
Students (most of us, really) have a hard time understanding this because of the seeming irrationality of the act, but to the despondent person, in the throes of suicidal ideation, taking your life seems 100% rational. And once viewed as such, virtually impossible to stop.

But we can certainly try.
Walter Koenig's message following his son's death is apt: "For those families who have members who they fear are susceptible to this kind of behavior, don't ignore it, don't rationalize it, extend a hand."
UPDATE: I forgot to mention yesterday, but on the topic of suicide, if you did not catch the Tuesday edition of Frontline, "The Suicide Tourist," you need to. A few weeks ago in 1101 I showed students a short clip on Jack Kevorkian and assisted suicide, but this one-hour documentary, from Academy-Award winning director John Ziritsky ("Just Another Missing Kid"), is one of the most powerful films I've ever seen on the subject.

Given our aging population, the millions of retiring Baby Boomers, and the entire health care debate raging in the country at the moment, the film addresses the one substantial question we never get around to debating: at what point does life become unlivable? And a corollary might be, should the terminally ill have the right to end their lives in a dignified manner?

UPDATE II: In response to the question, how much does assisted suicide occur in the U.S.: Washington State and Oregon, both of whom allow physician-assisted suicide, released their annual reports yesterday. Washington claims 36 persons died of assisted suicide in 2009 while Oregon reported 59 persons.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Standardized Testing Gone Wild

Washington, D.C. Edition:

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Monday that he favored federal rewards for local school districts that fire underperforming teachers and close failing schools, saying educators needed to be held accountable when they failed to fix chronically troubled classrooms and curb the student dropout rate.

The president’s proposal, which was included in his 2011 budget request to Congress, is his latest criticism of America’s failing public schools. In a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Obama said federal aid would be available for the districts that are home to the 2,000 schools that produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts.

“If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year,” Mr. Obama said, “if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”
Lost on our "Professor-in-Chief," apparently, is the relationship between "failing schools" and rat-psychology standardized testing. Holding "teachers accountable" is the same kind if rhetoric that has saddled us with No Child Left Behind, a blizzard of standardized tests, and enough cheating scandals to warrant their own section of the newspaper.

Mr. Obama said he was particularly troubled by the dropout rate. He said 1.2 million students left school each year before graduating from high school, at a cost to the nation of $319 billion annually in potential earning losses.

“Now it’s true that not long ago you could drop out of high school and reasonably expect to find a blue-collar job that would pay the bills and help support your family,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s just not the case anymore.”

I'm not sure it's been the "case" in over 30 years, but regardless: yes, the dropout rate needs to be lowered, everyone agrees with that. And the best way to lower the dropout rate would be to scrap rote memorized curriculum and standardized tests.

I wonder how long it will be before the education bureaucracy (which has obviously consumed the president and his Education Secretary) realizes that the much-vaunted standardized test is the very screening device being used to push kids out of schools by teachers and administrators: the lower the scores, the higher the dropout rate.

But that's not quite as sexy as "policing our failing schools" is it?

UPDATE: Please welcome renowned education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch to the fold of scholars, authors and agitators who recognize the futility of standardized testing gone wild.

Testing had become not just a way to measure student learning, but an end in itself. “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools,” she writes. “The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something that was market-based began to feel too radical for me.”
And the fact that she has the education bureaucracy on its heels and angry is even better.
“She has done more than any one I can think of in America to drive home the message of accountability and charters and testing,” said Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, where Dr. Ravitch got her doctorate and began her teaching career in the 1970s. “Now for her to suddenly conclude that she’s been all wrong is extraordinary — and not very helpful.”
Au contraire. Extraordinarily helpful.

Shacking Up

Living Together First Doesn't Make Marriage Last:

Couples who live together before they get married are less likely to stay married, a new study has found. But their chances improve if they were already engaged when they began living together.

The likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had cohabited first, the study found.

The study of men and women ages 15 to 44 was done by the National Center for Health Statistics using data from the National Survey of Family Growth conducted in 2002. The authors define cohabitation as people who live with a sexual partner of the opposite sex.

I'm not sure why this is a "new study" since we have talked about this example (Cohabitation=Divorce) in my Intro classes for years now. And the reason we talk about it is because it's the classic spurious correlation. The act of "living in sin" itself doesn't cause this, but if we introduce other independent variables into the mix (say, religiosity), then the relationship becomes more clear.

One thing that is interesting, however, is the relationship between education, age, cohabitation and divorce.

Half of couples who cohabit marry within three years, the study found. If both partners are college graduates, the chances improve that they will marry and that their marriage will last at least 10 years.

“The figures suggest to me that cohabitation is still a pathway to marriage for many college graduates, while it may be an end in itself for many less educated women,” said Kelly A. Musick, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell.

Couples who marry after age 26 or have a baby eight months or more after marrying are also more likely to stay married for more than a decade.
It's also that way when studying marriage and divorce rates in general (w/out cohabitation as a variable). Generally, the older and more educated you are when you marry, the longer the marriage will last.

The study also offers new racial and ethnic data to throw into the mix.
In general, one in five marriages will dissolve within five years. One in three will last less than 10 years. Those figures varied by race, ethnicity and gender. The likelihood of black men and women remaining married for 10 years or more was 50 percent. The probability for Hispanic men was the highest, 75 percent. Among women, the odds are 50-50 that their marriage will last less than 20 years.

By their early 40s, most white and Hispanic men and women were married, but only 44 percent of black women were.
The power of sociology, next time on "Sociological Perspective".