Thursday, May 14, 2015

For a Smarter America

If you were asked to name different types of taxes, you would offer some types very quickly, such as sales, income, real estate, inheritance, and value-added. But you would probably not answer “bandwidth tax.” Unlike the other taxes, the bandwidth tax does not diminish one's bankroll. Rather, it's a tax that diminishes a person's ability to focus on several different areas of concern.

When faced with a condition of scarcity—of time, food, or money, for example—a person's bandwidth narrows to finding a solution to the immediate problem. Cara Feinberg, in an article in Harvard Magazine,* tells of a World War II experiment at the University of Minnesota in which the volunteers agreed to starve themselves. What caught the attention of Sendhil Mullainathan many decades later when he studied the report of the experiment was not the expected decline in the men's physical condition but how “scarcity had stolen more than flesh and muscle. It had captured the starving men’s minds.” One participant reported, “Food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life.”

Mullainathan is co-author with Eldar Shafir of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. As a result on their research, they argue, according to Feinberg, that “scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs.” In one of the authors' experiments, “poor” and “rich” subjects (determined by their reported household income) were given an IQ test after being presented with a hypothetical problem that would require spending either $300 or $3,000 on auto repairs. The authors discovered that
when presented with the higher cost scenario, the poor people’s scores dropped the equivalent of about 14 IQ points: the difference between the categories of “superior” and “average” intelligence—or more pointedly, from “average” to “borderline deficient.”
But there was no significant change for the rich people.

Poverty, as Mullainathan puts it, “—no matter who you are—can make you dumber” (because the feeling of scarcity limits your bandwidth).**
Thinking about the outcome of Mullainathan and Shafir's study, I have discerned a way to raise the intelligence level of our country (and what patriotic American would not wish to do so?): Make the poor un-poor.

Now I know that some of you may have choked when you read the above sentence. After all, you probably will argue, the poor are poor because they make bad decisions—that their personal failure makes the poor morally deserving, therefore, of their poverty. However, Feinberg quotes Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who turns the statement around, claiming that “people make bad decisions because they are poor.”

Moreover, many people will argue that it's not in the American grain to give those who they perceive (wrongly, as it turns out) as responsible for their distressed state any handouts—even if designed to improve the lot of the miserable. However, while they may gag at alleviating the plight of those who are not poor because of personal failures, it is precisely in the American grain to give relief to those who are responsible for their failures. I'm talking about professional sports leagues, which every year grant the worst performing teams the choicest pickings of eligible newcomers. So much for suffering for one's personal incompetence!
So, in conclusion, I have identified in principle what should be done to make the country smarter; I leave it to others to figure out how in practice to bring the desired result about— by making the poor un-poor. Maybe the poor could band together and kick some balls around. Then the truly incompetent poor might be granted a boon. It's the American Way!

**In an interview in the Washington PostMullainathan uses the analogy of having to fight a fire to explain how people short on money get ensnared by payday loans. They have to focus their attention on meeting the needs of the here and now.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Necrophilia and Migrating Hairs

Medieval justice was scrupulous about holding proper trials and careful not to sentence without proof of guilt, but it achieved proof by confession rather than evidence, and confession was routinely obtained by torture.
Barbara W. Tuchman
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Tukhachevsky was tortured. . . .
Tuchachevsky's confession . . . is dappled with a brown spray that was found to be blood spattered by a body in motion.
Stalin had to convince the Politburo of the soldiers' guilt. . . .
It's incredible, admitted Stalin, “but it's a fact, they admit it.” They even signed on each page to avoid “falsification.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

In the April 13, 2015 issue of The New Yorker Ariel Levy in an article subtitled “What’s the right way to compensate someone for decades of lost freedom?”(1) writes about men and women who, in miscarriages of justice, were incarcerated for decades in prisons across the country.

Prison was “like a war zone,” according to John Restivo, whose miscarriage of justice is the central story of Levy's article. And prison was where he spent almost two decades—which should have been the prime years of his life, from his middle twenties to his middle forties—because of fabricated evidence, unfollowed leads, and, perhaps most crucially, the coerced confession of one of his two co-defendants, John Kogut. For a rape and murder none of them committed.

After having been told (falsely) that he had failed a polygraph test and having been grilled for eighteen hours, Kogut signed a confession, according to Levy, “handwritten by one of the detectives.” Kogut then went before a video camera and “confessed to the crime, hewing to the police's version of the events.”

It didn't matter that
(a) “Kogut recanted his confession immediately”;
(b) “Restivo's van [in which the crime allegedly took place] had been up on blocks at his mother's house on the night of the crime”;
(c) “the three men had never ridden in it together”
(d) the owner of a stolen Oldsmobile reported to the police after the car was found that “he had noticed a pair of unfamiliar striped jeans [like those the victim had been wearing] wadded under the passenger seat, and that a length of rope was missing from the vehicle.”

It didn't matter because, as Restivo was told by one of the police officers when first brought in for questioning (he was kept for twenty hours), “This is un-America: you have no rights here.”
[C]oercion, intimidation, deceit and trickery”--that was how H. Lee Sarokin, a retired federal judge, answered the title question “Why Do Innocent People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit?”(2) of a Huffington Post blog entry. And, of course, we might add, plain old torture (which is a bit more than coercion and intimidation). For too many police, prosecutors, and judges, from the scrupulous (according to the values of the time) medieval judges to the unscrupulous Soviets--or Chicago police(3)--the determination to convict a defendant by his own words has been single-minded pursuit. As Judge Sarokin put it:
There is no more powerful evidence in a criminal trial than a confession by the defendant himself.
But equally, again in the words of Judge Sarokin:
There is no greater injustice than when those confessions are obtained through threats and intimidation and result in the conviction of innocent persons.
Doing justice may require conceding wrongdoing rather than clinging to convictions . . . fraught with injustice” (again Sarokin). But there seems to be something in the make-up of prosecutors that they cannot admit to error.

Consider Cook County [Illinois] State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in this excerpt from CBS Sixty Minutes:
Narration: In the case of Robert Taylor, Jonathan Barr and James Harden, DNA found inside the 14-year-old victim Catteresa Matthews was also retested, and a match was made to Willie Randolph, a 34-year-old convicted rapist, with 39 arrests. (Innocence Project Defense attorney) Peter Neufeld says prosecutors rejected the DNA evidence and instead came up with an unusual theory to explain it all away.Peter Neufeld: They suggest perhaps after the kids killed her this man wandered by and committed an act of necrophilia.Byron Pitts: Necrophilia. A lot of our viewers won’t know what that means.Peter Neufeld: Having sex with a dead person.Anita Alvarez: It’s possible. We have seen cases like that.Byron Pitts: Possible?Anita Alvarez: It is. We’ve seen it in other cases.Byron Pitts: It’s possible that this convicted rapist, wandered past an open field, and had sex with a 14-year-old girl who was dead?Anita Alvarez: Well, there’s all kinds of possibilities out there, and what I’m saying is that I don’t know what happened.(4)
We have not uncovered any evidence of any misconduct by the police officers or the State’s Attorneys that took the statements in these cases” is her declaration.
In the past year alone,” according to the New York Times,
nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role.(5)
Fred Klein, the assistant district attorney assigned to the Restivo case, told Ariel Levy that
prosecutors in many states are . . . bound by ethics statutes. But, he added, “practically speaking, most prosecutors don’t spend too much time worrying about that. They assume that the police did their job.”
And for him,
the idea that the police had manipulated the evidence “intentionally would just be beyond my comprehension.”
Klein also asserted that Joseph Volpe, the lead detective, who arrested Restivo, Kogut, and Dennis Halstead (the third defendant), was “a wonderful detective—one of the most tenacious, professional people I have ever worked with.” Volpe's report, claiming that two strands of hair from the victim's head had been found on the floor of Restivo's van, was the major element of the prosecution's case against the three men on trial.

At a retrial of John Kogut, the judge, after examining new forensic evidence, destroyed the prosecution's claim:
The judge concluded that [the hairs of the victim] must have come from elsewhere [other than the van], perhaps from the autopsy; apparently the police had commingled them—accidentally or deliberately—with hairs from the van.
And in 2014, a federal jury declared that Klein's “wonderful detective”
had engaged in official misconduct, including fabrication of hair evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence in the case.(6)
Which should have been no surprise to Klein, because prior to Volpe's retirement from the police, Levy informs us, “the state had settled another case, in which he was accused of soliciting a false confession.”

But what really surprises me is that today this same Fred Klein is a professor at Hofstra Law School. I can only surmise that his speciality is the Ostrich Theory of Lawyering.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The "Active Bottom" and the Bottom Line

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey. 
John Ruskin 
(As a child, sitting in the dentist's chair, I would read this quotation framed on the office wall.)
Knocking things about in the closet looking for something which, of course, I never found, I recently came upon a restaurant matchbook (remember them?) from the eatery that introduced me to fajitas (actually, I've never eaten them since, but that's neither here nor there). That dining occasion was around three decades ago, I'm sure. The dish itself had apparently sneaked its way up from the Southwest only a few years earlier; the New York Times first mentioned it in 1983.

It was barely a half-dozen years later that I myself first came across a mention of fajitas in the Times. What caught my eye was the title of the article: “How a Humble Cut Got a Fancy Price.”* In the piece, Florence Fabricant reported the staggering price rise of skirt steak, the cut of beef for fajitas, making it, because of the new food craze, “the second most expensive cut of beef, wholesale, with only the tenderloin costing more.” That was the “Fancy Price” part.

Fajitas were not a new food craze, however, among Mexicans living in Texas. A cheap cut of beef, it “used to cost about the same as ground beef and was the only cut of beef that Mexican immigrants in Texas could afford.” That was the “Humble Cut” part.

And so, they were priced out of their own cuisine:
''We were fine until the fajita craze went beyond Texas,'' said Dr. Jeff Savell, a professor of animal science at Texas A & M. ''The price is through the roof because demand for skirt steak is now exceeding the supply.''
As I write this on my MacBook, I am sitting here in a pair of sweatpants that cost me about 8 dollars. So I was amazed to read the other day that some folks are trying to flog their own sweats for 100 times as much. Indeed, as Marc Bain at points out:
A decade ago it would’ve been unimaginable for a pair of sweatpants to be as expensive as an iPod, let alone rival a MacBook.**
Previously, of course, the fashionistas had run up the price of the hard-working blue jean. Bain quotes a “fashion industry analyst” on the recent emergence of sweatpants as a fashion darling:
Because of the ability now to wear them as everyday attire, they’ve replaced the high-end jean market. . . .That same customer has migrated over to the active bottom.”***
Fajitas, jeans, sweatpants—with the turning of these three humble items of perfect practicality into examples of Veblenian show-offing by the dedicated followers of fashion, I think we see a kind of reverse Ruskinism at work. Instead of cheapening a product to attract those who only look at the bottom line (think of some of the infamous sardine-can airlines and what they've done to the overall experience of flying), the new con is to add a smidgeon here and little dab there and jack up the prices to appeal to the vacuous vain.

And if perchance some of those v-v's catch on to the hollowness of fashionistadom and decide to retreat, like Candide, to cultivate their own garden, they will discover, unfortunately, that they don't have the clothes for the job.


***You have to love that “active bottom” part. I leave that to your imagination.

Monday, February 9, 2015

All in the Family

Just because one's thoughts are banal doesn't mean they're true. Ideas that have been run round the block and back a dozen or more times are exhausted, but not necessarily toned in their intellectual muscularity. Take for example the proclamation by a number of anti-vaccination zealots that parents know what's best for their children. Rand Paul, United States Senator from Kentucky and alleged presidential aspirant, has gone even further down the road: “Parents own the children.” And, therefore, one presumes, can do whatever they wish to do to their little ones. 

And they have.

Bash, smash, shoot, stab, strangle, starve, poison, torture, crush, suffocate, drown, and drop from high places--what parents have done a lot is filicide, the murder of their offspring--so much so that it is the third-leading cause of death of children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the United States. According to Dr. Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University,
one out of every 33 homicides in the United States is the killing of a child under 18 by their parent, or between 250 and 300 of the country's killings each year.*
USA Today has come up with an even higher number of filicides: 
three decades of FBI homicide data shows that on average, 450 children are killed every year by their parents.**
So, perhaps, offering one's child the opportunity to contract measles is, in comparison, an act of loving-kindness.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

No Soap

It's like nagging your parents to let you go skiing when you hate the cold and the snow: urging voters to elect you to a government office when you hate government. Needless to say, there are voters dumb enough to do so, and thus we have the likes of Thom Tillis, senator from North Carolina.
This week Tillis opined that (as paraphrased by “restaurants should not have to make their employees wash their hands after toilet visits.” “Let them decide,” said Tillis, referring to the regulated businesses.
Tillis has a problem with government regulations and thinks that market forces should rule the world and would set everything right. He thinks that people would avoid non-washing establishments, which would quickly go out of business.* Until those disease-spreading eateries go under, of course, patrons will be in danger of becoming ill (and some may even die). But, even so, germs are better than government.
The next logical step would be for surgeons to be allowed to decide whether to free themselves from regulatory procedures prescribing scrubbing-up before operating. (Certainly from an economic point of view it would make sense to do so: they would free up time to perform more procedures, and more procedures=more money.) Of course, we would then be plunged back into the dark ages of surgery, before Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that hand disinfecting would reduce mortality rates in maternity hospitals. In an unregulated surgical marketplace, Tillis would undoubtedly argue, patients would vote with their feet, putting the unsterilized practitioners out of business—that is, except for those patients who were wheeled out feet first to the morgue.
But why stop there? How about letting all other businesses decide what regulations to follow? Like construction companies, for example. So what if a shoddily-constructed apartment building went up in flames, or a bridge of inferior design collapsed? It's all good for the marketplace (and the morticians). And if the plagues of Egypt were resurrected in this country because government regulatory agencies were toothless? Well, it would be OK, I guess; after all, we would be free to choose between boils and the death of our first born.
*How would patrons know that a restaurant doesn't require staff to wash? Tillis, in the words of, “suggested that restaurants that did not require hand washing would have to alert customers with prominently displayed signs” (itself a regulation, as pointedly noted).
We could invent a new parlor game: create a Tillis sign. Just off the top of my head, how about:
Sources and Suggested Reading:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Don't Bother Me

A recent full-page ad in the New Yorker promoted a new book called 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die. One of the blurbs in the ad exclaimed that these are foods we “need to try, urgently.” I will admit to loving bialys (one of the foods mentioned on the depicted book cover), but since the the book also promotes something called “stinking bishop,” I'm not sure I'll venture into sampling the other 999 foodstuffs. 

1,000 Foods is only the latest of formulaic books that have emerged in recent years ordering us to do this or that before we croak. A hundred of this to visit or read, a thousand of that to listen to or see. Besides the inherent bossiness of the authors (who the hell are they to tell me what to do with my life?), what gets my goat is their smug (pretense of) superiority: “I have done all these things, and you haven't. But the best that you can do is to match my achievement—never to surpass it.”

I can't say for certain when this “must do” phenomenon originated, but I do believe that a major spiritual godfather of the movement was E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who, in 1987, on the heels of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (alleged by some to be the opening salvo of the so-called “culture wars”), published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know. A bestseller (like Bloom's screed), Cultural Literacy contained--according to the book's cover--“5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts.”

Since Hirsch put together his 5,000 “essentials,” he obviously knew them all. And you didn't! So who's the smart guy? As mentioned above, the best the reader could do was to match Hirsch's knowledge, not surpass it (even if he did have all 5,000 memorized).

This “no one can know more than me” business is really the opposite of the statement of Socrates (I know one name; only 4,999 to go) that the Oracle of Delphi (only 4,998 to go) claimed that “no man is wiser than Socrates.” For, said Socrates, he knows that he knows nothing, while other men brag of their knowledge of justice, piety, etc.

So, I'll sit here on my own little chair not traipsing off to Timbuktu--reading what I want to read, listening to what I want to listen to, and knowing that if I strained my mind a bit, I might come up with 5 or 10 “essential” bits of knowledge that those “must do” guys don't have a clue about.

And nosh on a bialy.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Neither Pangloss Nor Pollyanna

As a German citizen who came to the United States relatively late in life, I was initially struck by how much more positive thinking was valued in the United States than back in Europe. In Germany, if you asked how someone was doing, you would usually get a frank answer, such as “I didn’t sleep well last night,” or “My puppy got sick and it’s bothering me.” In America, I noticed how people would say, “I’m fine”—even if something was bothering them. I also noticed that people found it jarring when someone violated the unwritten rule of positivity.
Gabriele Oettingen*
Now, the United States may (or may not) be a hotbed of “positive thinking,” but Professor Oettingen's take on “I'm fine” as evidence of “widespread optimism” is foolish.**
First, let's examine the questions that elicit the answer “I'm fine.” They are the first things asked when we encounter someone (after, perhaps, “Hi” or “Hello”): “How are you?” or “How are things?” or “How are you doing?”*** These questions are not meant to be soul (or medical) searching probes; they are a conventional way of leading into the encounter ritual (we could just as well use bows or curtsies). The words are offered as a gesture of recognition of others, and receive a ritualized recognition response in return. After an initial exchange of “I'm fine”s, we can either go our separate ways (knowing that we have paid due respect to the other person) or continue the conversation in this direction or that.
When I answer “I'm fine” to the question “How are you?” I may do so for any of a number of reasons. Here are a few:
1--“I'm fine.”
2--”I'm not fine.” (see footnote 2)
3--“It's none of your business.”
4--“I'm not going to burden you with my problems.”
5--“If I tell you, then the conversation comes to a stop.”
6--“I don't want to talk about it.”
7--“If I tell you, then you'll tell me—and I don't really want to hear about it.”
8--“I'm in a hurry.”
9--“I don't like you.”
10--And most likely of all, it is, as noted above, just my conventional response to a conventional question.
Whatever the reason for the answer, it undoubtedly does not come from a deep wellspring of positivity and therefore to be taken as an indication of “widespread optimism.” (And, pace Professor Oettingen, “positivity” and “optimism” are not identical.)
Then again, perhaps we Americans should go all Teutonic in our responses to “How are you?” (“Wie geht es Ihnen?”**** if I remember my lessons correctly). I would just love to see my interlocutor's face when I reply, “I've got a fever in my left leg, and mange on my right.”
But, summing up, I have to think that the most honest reply to questions like “How are you doing?” is the standard one an uncle of mine would offer in advanced old age:
I'm doing the best I can.”
**And how about the gloomy Swedes? In a recent episode of a Swedish detective series that I saw, the chief detective, who had been showing lapses of concentration, responded with a defiant “I'm fine” to the question “How are you?” His reason: to hide a diagnosis of early Alzheimer's disease from the interlocutor, his boss.
***Cashiers at my favorite supermarket always ritually ask, “How are you?” Clearly, the expected response is “I'm fine” with no further elaboration.
I had a neighbor who gave tennis lessons; he'd greet you, “How're you hittin' 'em?” I suspect that a really optimistic answer would be “I'll be whipping Roger Federer's ass any day now.” Although more likely the response would be a middling “Not bad”--an example of the rhetorical device known as litotes, which achieves a positive by negating its opposite (though hardly as definitively strong as directly stating the positive).
****Literally, "How goes it with you?"