Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh the Horrors of Knowledge About a Specific Community

New York City is putting some effort into getting to know its Moroccan Muslim community. The NYPD Demographics unit is gathering basic intelligence about the social netowrk in the community. Whcih stores, mosques, and services are frequented by the New York Moroccan population. Juan Cole notes that the 'targeting' of Moroccans is odd as a group to surveil. It would only make sense if it were part of a larger effort to map the social networks of a large number of immigrant communities. The NYPD can easily gain insight into groups' social patterns through recruitment of officers from those communities, but it's possible that immigrant groups pose a greater challenge for some reason.

You would think that this research and study of communities that the NYPD serves would be seen as a positve development. The more information about how a community operates, the better the NYPD would be able to recruit effective allies. Lev Levitt is determined to see this move as purely sinister. In his defense, the NYPD says that the social mapping is in service of counterterrorism goals. It may be a waste of resources, but there's nothing particularly sinister about it. NB: the entire islamophobic direction of law enforcement resources has been sinister and problematic, but this instance is probably one of its least problematic expressions.

Len Levitt wonders
Where's the outrage? Where's the concern? Where's the lawsuit?
Len Levitt is a police reporter, so he can be forgiven for not knowing the first thing about civil litigation. The missing lawsuit would require that the police action has caused an injury (or is likely to cause an injury) to a specific individual. It appears that police studying population-level details of a specific immigrant group is actually harmless. Levitt is crying fire, but there's no smoke.

Here comes the real doozy of Levitt's article: the lack of harms to specific individuals (i.e. brutality, unwarranted arrests, harassment) proves that the program is illegal. Here is how Levitt puts it:
Browne also said that officers only follow criminal leads when investigating terrorism, a claim belied by the NYPD's own documents, which detail the sweeping nature of its spying despite no indication of criminality.
There are no active terrorism investigations ongoing in the community. No one has faced (or will face) criminal prosecutions for actions that have been observed over the course of the intelligence-gathering operation. And as to the "spying" that Levitt reports, he cites examples of the NYPD Demographics unit creating a list of Moroccan cab drivers and designating locations that are important to the Moroccan community.
The Intelligence Division's Demographics Unit assembled all this information so that if police received a tip about a Moroccan terrorist, officers would know details of the community, the AP said.
Despite using the word "spy" and its derivations 15 times in the article, there doesn't appear to be any allegation that the NYPD has even approached a 4th Amendment barrier. Taxi operaters apply for licenses from the city, and that is publicly available knowledge. People using public streets have since the dawn of time been subjected to public (including police) scrutiny. Levitt seems to understand "spying" to entail any information about the city that the government collects outside of an active investigation. To eliminate "Spying" for Levitt, police would have to begin each investigation from a blank slate, arriving on the scene with no information backed by empirical observation or prior knowledge of the community in which a crime happens.

I hope that NYPD is using the Demographics unit to create social network maps of all communities, and that the information will be used to create smart policing strategies that build alliances and place the police on the side of the communities they are supposed to serve. That's a leap of faith, and we need to pay attention to how this information is used, and whether the resources invested into the program are worthwhile. I think Juan Cole is right that the funds would better be spent mapping social networks of immigrants from more volatile areas (or from rural Michigan for that matter). That's a matter of whether police are using resources intelligently. Levitt, on the other hand, wants police to not only be dumb, but blind.

100% racist

The missing bit of explanation for Army demographics is that Asians and Pacific Islanders, which make up the fastest-growing American demographic, are underrepresented in the Army, as are Hispanics. The explanation for the former is probably cultural, while for the latter it is a matter of difficulty speaking English. Only 12% of Army enlisted personnel are Hispanic, as opposed to 21% in the 18-39 year old population with a high school degree.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

President Obama, please stop cutting taxes!

President Obama's administration has overturned decades of conventional political narratives about Democrats and taxes. The President has cut taxes for 95% of Americans, and made tax cuts centerpieces of the 2009 Stimulus bill and the 2011 tax cut package (the one that Republicans threatened to block unless they added an additional tax cut on income over $250,000 per year).

So when will Americans notice? Low information voters are likely to pick up on a very small set of signals from the politically active universe, and largely the perception of 'democrats' in general and Obama in particular as associated with higher taxes hasn't changed:
For example, as the President likes to say all the time, during his first two years in office he cut taxes for 95% of Americans . . . and yet poll results showed that less than 10 percent of Americans knew their taxes had gone down, while a third think they went up. (The rest think their taxes stayed the same). In addition, six in ten Americans think the country is over-taxed . . . even though taxes are at their lowest level since the 1950s. Part of this is no doubt a result of low-information voters being low-information voters – but it’s also a result of Democrats being generally perceived as the party of higher taxes.
Positive arguments (e.g. Barack Obama will cut your taxes- that's a positive) have not broken the low-information perceptual barrier. Protests and complaints may send a stronger signal that is more likely to make it into public consciousness.

Let's give the White House some hippies to punch and make them defend their record of cutting taxes in two huge rounds over the last three years and make them defend additional payroll tax cuts and income tax cuts on 95% of Americans. Come on, professional Left! This is our time!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

11th Circuit En Banc

The 'Will they or won't they' question for Affordable Care Act court action this week is whether the government will appeal the 11th circuit's ruling to the Supreme Court or to the full 11th circuit. The government's appeal is due on Monday.

First, let's review the basic history. The appellees are 26 states, headed by the Attorney General of Florida, who lost at the district court level. A 3 judge panel on the 11th circuit court reversed that decision, declaring that individual mandate is not supported by the commerce clause or the federal government's taxation power, but ruling that the rest of the law could stand without the mandate, possibly inviting Congress to use a different enforcement regime in the market to ensure universally affordable coverage without compulsion (e.g. a public option). The decision is here (pdf).

The first question that the government will answer in the question of where to turn for the appeal is 'who is the 11th circuit?' On the most basic level, the 11th circuit consists of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. It's a fairly conservative region, but not quite as conservative as the 4th circuit traditionally. Of the active judges on the 11th circuit, one was appointed by Gerald Ford, one was appointed by Ronald Reagan, three were appointed by George Herbert Walker Bush, four were appointed by Bill Clinton, one was appointed by George Walker Bush, and 1 was appointed by President Obama. The decisions on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act have proceeded upon startlingly partisan lines, so the 6-5 Republican to Democrat split in a potential en banc hearing doesn't augur particularly well for the government.

A couple caveats apply. Judges appointed by Ford or the first President Bush may be more ideologically diverse than ones appointed by the second President Bush or Ronald Regan. cf: Souter versus Alito and Roberts. More traditional conservative values in judging philosophy, such as respect for precedent, might tend to be more present in older judges. Those factors may tilt more towards the government than the partisan split suggests.

On the other hand, they are completely outweighed by the particular history with this case: Judge Hull, a Clinton appointee, voted against the constitutionality of the individual mandate. The numbers don't look good for the government's legal team to turn to the 11th circuit.

If the government's goal in the litigation is to maximize the number of provisions which are left standing, letting the 11th circuit en banc weigh in could do more harm than good. It would be seriously surprising if the Supreme Court eventually refused to grant certiorari to this case. It is the most watched question before the federal courts at the moment. Even if the 11th circuit en banc reverse the 3 judge's panel ruling, the Supreme Court's inevitable say-so would moot the early reversal. Recent court watchers also have little belief that the conservative wing of the court would actually follow any of the doctrines that 'judicial deference' entail. If the Supreme Court conservatives prove to be partisan hacks as well, there is no reason to believe they will stick to the live issue before them. Even if all the circuit decisions pointed in the direction of "the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate is well within established commerce clause powers to regulate national affairs that the states separately are incompetent to confront," the Supreme Court's arrogant say-so could not be prevented.

However, allowing the current 11th circuit court ruling to stand does have on positive that a referral to the en banc court may wipe out. Liberals (or judicial restraint practitioners) on the Supreme Court may be able to extract a concession from Justice Kennedy, who could vote with the conservative majority invalidating the individual mandate, but could still exercise some restraint by forging a majority of judges who find that the individual mandate is severable from the broader Affordable Care Act. 5 judges can strike down the individual mandate, and another 5 can preserve the existing segments of the Affordable Care Act. If the en banc 11th circuit overturns the severability side of the panel's opinion and strikes down the entire law, there would be less pressure on Kennedy to maintain some restraint.

This is a highly superficial analysis- I'm sure the Department of Justice has looked in depth at each judge's voting history on the 11th circuit. The goal is to come out from the circuits either with opinions from the circuit level that agree with the government and are persuasive to a majority of the Supreme Court or opinons from the circuit level that find for the states but are utterly repugnant to the court. And then, of course, you have to hope that the Supreme Court actually cares about the constitution more than they do a partisan or narrow view of America.

On the bright side: there's been some personnel turnover since Bush v. Gore.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Counterfactual Analysis

Ross Douthat engages in some counter-factual analysis in his piece today on the death of "The Grand Bargain:"
I wrote that the president seemed poised to campaign for re-election on an essentially centrist policy agenda: A short-term payroll tax stimulus, a plan for tax reform that would close loopholes while lowering corporate rates, and a long-term plan for deficit reduction modeled on the grand bargain that the White House and John Boehner were supposedly close to striking during the debt ceiling negotiations. The president’s goal in 2012, I suggested, would be to try to paint himself as the moderate bipartisan grownup, and dismiss the Republicans as extreme, intransigent, and hyper-ideological.
But the thing is that the Grand Bargain was not close to being struck. John Boehner may even have wanted to strike such a bargain, and in that case, Douthat may not be a roaring idiot, but that's not what matters in a constitutional democracy. The Congress was not going to pass that plan, and that's why Boehner's 'grand bargain' entreaties failed. He couldn't bring a grand bargain without being ousted from leadership.

Is there a value to this type of 'analysis?' It seems lazy to me, and stupid to boot. The burden of defense clearly lies on Douthat to prove anyone wrong here.

New rule of thumb: whenever you read a piece that mentions that a 'grand bargain' was 'close' this summer, just throw it out. It's trash, and very unlikely to engaged in meaningful, useful analysis anywhere else. The author is just too estranged from the realities of modern American politics.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Most Unehtical Congressman

A public interest group filed an ethics complaint against Representative Darrel Issa, of "Step away from the vehicle" fame. The complaint alledges that the congressman illegally comingles his personal business interests and political power, using his position as chairmen of the House Committee on Government Oversight (and hsi previous committee work), for personal gain. Let's see what the Congressman's response was:
The five-page complaint, which was obtained by The Hill, accuses Issa of using his position as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to add to his multimillion-dollar fortune.

An Issa spokesman on Monday said the allegations have absolutely no merit and are part of a smear campaign spearheaded by the White House.
Accuse the complainants of conspiracy? Check. Projecting Issa's alleged wrongs onto the accurser- of comingling personal and government business? Check.

Early reports indicate Issa is guilty.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Failures in Localism

I'm currently looking for housing in Detroit. Since I'm largely unfamiliar with the city, one of the main tools that I've used is a map of crime data reported by the Detroit Police Department. It can be a hard dataset to sift through. After all, not all assaults are the same, but they are represented the map by the same red fist. Descriptions range from "Telephone used to make threatening statements" to "Agg/Felony Assault - gun- police officer involved." There are certainly pockets where gun crime becomes almost common.

But it's not a good tool to show your friends and family who may be concerned about your safety. Even neighborhoods with less violent crime reports have high incidences of some burglaries (Not many major cities provide the raw data on the same site, so finding calibration points relative to places I've lived or seen was difficult. I don't know how specific crime rates compare). It's enough to concern your friends.

I grew up in a city, and I'm used to a certain amount of crime in my neighborhood. The some of the current crew of drug dealers on my block are kids that I used to play with. We had annual shootings within a couple blocks of my house, and a large scale drug bust just down the street (a marijuana grower called the White House switchboard and threatened the President's life at 4 am. When my school bus came at 7, DEA agents were hauling trashbags of plants out of the house. My friend grew up in a rural area, and aren't used to the concept of assault a couple of blocks away.

So I showed her a map of crime in our area from a local crime blog, only to find out that there had been two armed robberies (one at gun point) two blocks away. That kind of shattered the idea that "my neighborhood is safe- yours isn't." It also shattered the concept that we really know what's happening in our little corner of the city. Two good things to clear up in my opinion.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This is Right and That Is Wrong

Former GOP Hill staffer Lofgren explains the modern Republican Party. His observations mostly strike me as correct. The implications are unbelievably negative if you think informed democracratic political processes are 'good.'
It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult...
The GOP has launched a decades long attack on the institutions of American Democracy. Greatest hits include Reagan's "The Government is the problem" speech, George W. Bush's push to privatize social security (a scheme that would have pushed the average American retiree to lose their entire income source from 2007-2009), and arguably Katrina. The sustained attacks on democratic institutions through political discourse and mass misinformation are wildly outside accepted modes of politics.
John P. Judis sums up the modern GOP this way:

"Over the last four decades, the Republican Party has transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority. It is the party of Watergate and Iran-Contra, but also of the government shutdown in 1995 and the impeachment trial of 1999. If there is an earlier American precedent for today's Republican Party, it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery."
It seems like histrionics. It's hard to provide direct evidence that this is the goal of the modern Republican party. Unless, of course, you take their word for it:
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
Mitch McConnell named his number one priority of the last three years: making Barack Obama a one-term president. Not dealing with the debt, not putting an end to the recession, not putting Americans back to work or propping up sagging home prices. Not even pursuing an ideologicaly coherent (if massively unpopular) agenda. When John Boehner walks out of a manufactured crisis in which his party roiled global markets and almost forced a default on American fiscal obligations, he agrees that he "got 98% of what [he] wanted." It's not about deficit reduction or policy. He just wanted President Obama to be massively unpopular.

Are there any modern Republicans who are actually concerned in any meaningful sense with preserving demcoratic government and American political institutions? How can intelligent, informed Republicans abide by this. Are there any of you out there? What further evidence could possibly be needed to prove that your party has abandonned you, and that it is time to build from the ground up a partner with the American people, a new party that actually represents mainstream conservatism?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Perry Giving Up the (Holy) Ghost

Governor Perry is knocking off campaign events today to attend to the wildfires that have ravaged Texas. The fires have claimed two lives and hundreds of homes since they were spread by wind gusts connected to Tropical Storm Lee this weekend. Lee dumped roughly 12 inches of rain on New Orleans but delivered only driving wind into Texas.

The winds come after a year-long drought in Texas that has caused huge economic woes for farmers. Now the tinder-dry brush across the state is becoming fuel for uncontained fires. As Lee turned North East away from Texas, the drought-stricken Texas has to wonder about their bad luck.

The Texas drought last attracted national attention when Rick Perry proclaimed a day of prayer for rain in April. Since then, rainfall in the lonestar state has remained anemic. In a normal year, San Antonio area gets roughly 14.5 inches of rain between April 21st and September 5th; this year, only 3.53 inches. The lack of rain even after Perry's proclamation for prayer should be a spiritual embarrassment for the Governor. Tropical Storm Lee even veered North East away from Texas, keeping the Texan plains dry.

Droughts are becoming more common along Texas's latitude, a process of desertification that is consistent with models of global climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon increases. Perry, of course, denies that climate science has anything to do with reality. So meeting Perry on his own terms is tempting: Is God punishing Texas with severe drought?

Perry's lack of religious sincerity and political stances against social welfare for God's children are possible targets of God's wrath. But many states have had 'Christian right' anti-worker and anti-poor governors for a decade. Texas uniquely endures the taunting spectale of a tropical storm bringing fire instead of rain.

The most plausible theological account is that the fires are divine punishment for Perry's wanton execution of innocents. Cameron Todd Willingham's execution at the hands of Gov Perry is a particularly haunting case. Not only was the condemned almost certainly innocent, but he was wrongly convicted for arson and refused clemency because of Perry's lack of belief in the scientific method that had thrown considerable doubt upon the jury's verdict.

It's terrible that 2 people would have to die and hundreds of homes burn to get Perry to atone for his sins. Let's pray that Perry does reform, and that the plagues on Texas will stop.