Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Unethical Tweet Of The Month: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)'”

Humble Talent has issued an excellent and provocative post on one of the Great Ethics Controversies: what is fair, ethical and effective criminal justice punishment in a nation with the values of the United States?

I admit that this is an ethical blind spot for me, perhaps because I worked as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor. My natural inclination is toward the Baretta theme song: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Or, for that matter, if you can’t pay the fine. I also believe, as Humble alludes to skeptically  in his final paragraph, that the culture of the United States, emphasizing individual freedom and encouraging self-worth measured by success, does make criminal activity more common, and its history and culture also increase the frequency of  violent crimes. I don’t trust cross cultural comparisons; I think they are all misleading, and often intentionally so. The United States is unique.

Nonetheless, all of the issues brought up in the post are complex and important to examine, carefully, seriously. I have not forgotten this post, though I needed  Humble Talent’s comment to make me track it down,  and I hereby pledge to make criminal justice issues, and especially prison,  a higher priority here.

This is Humble Talent’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Comment Of The Day: ‘Unethical Tweet Of The Month: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)’”

We’ve talked about this issue before, tangentially… And it’s something of a hot topic for me. It’s something that differentiates me from the group, I think, because it’s something I think America could do better, and it seems to be something that other right-leaning commentators are somewhere between apathetic to and actually proud of.

I think, and I could be wrong, but I think that this reaction is more of a rejection of the other side than a legitimate statement of belief. Progressives seem to no longer be content with the steady beat of “normal” progress, instead seeming to be approaching everything from politics to the personal with a militant quasi-religious fervour.

And to a point, who can blame them? If I listened and believed half of what their thought-leaders are telling them, I might be right there beside them. I’m of the opinion that people on the right feel like (and I agree with them, to an extent) they are perpetually under siege; their values, their way of life, their livelihoods, their basic understanding of the rules of the game of life. They’re given no rest, having the steady grind of not only the overt political messaging, but cultural and familial shifts happening around them in real time. And that’s worn away the dermis a little, they’re on their last nerves, and not picking their battles very well, instead opting to fight everything. Because otherwise…. The wholesale rejection of criticisms of the penal system seems… kinda shitty when you think about it. Continue reading

Policing Ethics, Part Two: When Those Expected To Stand Up For The Law Can’t Stand Up For Themselves

Cellphone videos of New York City police officers being doused with water while trying to do their jobs became an internet sensation this week, and an unsettling (but inevitable) controversy for New York City.  The officers were trying to disperse rowdy groups at fire hydrants during a three-day heat wave, and allowed themselves to be assaulted and humiliated while  crowds cheered the attackers on.

The police arrested three men who were caught on video hurling water at police in two incidents. This also caused controversy. “Why is a man facing more severe punishment for dousing a police officer than Officer Daniel Pantaleo is for choking Eric Garner?” asked a Times article. That shouldn’t be a difficult question, but you know—the Times. Eric Garner was a petty criminal resisting arrest. The officers were doing their jobs, and Garner died as the result of an accident, in great part because of his own actions in defying the police. The police were also trying to do their jobs when they were doused with water, in an act that threatens the peace and order of the community.

The Police Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Terence Monahan, the police chief, lit the fuse on a larger controversy, saying,

“Any cop who thinks that’s all right, that they can walk away from something like that, maybe should reconsider whether or not this is the profession for them.We don’t take that.”

But they did take that, and the Mayor of New York wants them to take that, because the whole idea of law enforcement is now, and has often been, anathema to progressive ideology. Continue reading

Sunday Ethics Warm-Up, 5/12/2019: The Tricky Edition

Well, the news from Harvard has me half-headed and depressed, so I think I need to hear Winston Churchill’s favorite hymn…and my Dad’s, too.

1. I think this is known as “a drop in the bucket.”James Bennet, the editorial page editor of The New York Times, announced that he would recuse himself from any involvement in opinion coverage of the 2020 presidential election, after his brother, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. I suppose this is admirable, as it is a standard conflicts of interest move, but I’m sorely tempted to call it grandstanding, and maybe even a diversion. Bennet’s brother candidacy is hardly the only blatant conflict of interest on the times staff that makes its news coverage and punditry suspect. Virtually all of them are Democrats, for example, and progressives. What’s so special about an editor’s brother making a completely futile run for the Presidency? (Quick: if you’re not in Colorado, can you picture his face? Name anything he has accomplished?)

This note from 2017 (in RealClearPolitics) puts the Times editor’s decision in proper perspective:

There is a pretty substantial symbiotic relationship between the political left in Washington and the media. While a few people went from the media to the Bush Administration, it was never like it was with Obama.

Jay Carney went from Time to the White House press secretary’s office. Shailagh Murray went from the Washington Post to the Veep’s office while married to Neil King at the Wall Street Journal. Neil King has left the Wall Street Journal to work for Fusion GPS. Linda Douglass went from ABC News to the White House and then the Atlantic. Jill Zuckman went from the Chicago Tribune to the Obama Administration’s Transportation Department. Douglas Frantz went from the Washington Post to the State Department and Stephen Barr went from the Post to the Labor Department.

Ruth Marcus, who heads the Washington Post Editorial Board, is married to the Obama Administration’s former Federal Trade Commission Chairman. Jonathan Allen had been at the Politico before going to work for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then back to Politico before going to the left leaning Vox. Now he is at NBC News. Andy Barr worked for the Politico before leaving for Democrat politics. Michael Scherer was at both Salon and Mother Jones before going to Time. Laura Rozen was at Mother Jones and the American Prospect before Foreign Policy magazine. Even Nate Silver had started out at Daily Kos. Then, of course, there is Matthew Dowd, who worked for scores of Democrats before working for George Bush. That, though he later washed his hands of Bush, bought him street credibility with ABC News to become its senior politically analyst alongside George Stephanopoulos, formerly of the Clinton Administration.

It goes on and on in a feedback loop of incestuous politics and worldview shaping. In the Obama Era, it was all about protecting their precious. Now it is about undermining the President.

2.  Puerto Rico Ethics. OK, explain to me, if you can,  why this isn’t incredibly unethical:

From the Times:

The government oversight board leading Puerto Rico through its $123 billion debt crisis sued dozens of banks and financial firms on Thursday, saying that they had helped the island issue $9 billion of debt illegally, and that the people of Puerto Rico should not have to repay it.

The board said the debt should be voided because it exceeded the territory’s constitutional debt limit, and it added that Puerto Rico would try to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and principal payments that it has already made.

The board was joined in the litigation by the official committee representing Puerto Rico’s unsecured creditors in the territory’s bankruptcy-like legal proceedings. Both plaintiffs said they understood they were making an unusual request, but asserted that no other approach would be legal or fair.

“The laws of Puerto Rico limit government borrowing authority for a reason: to prevent the government and its financiers from hitching the Commonwealth and its instrumentalities, as well as taxpayers and legitimate creditors, to a level of debt that cannot be repaid without sacrificing services necessary to maintain the health, safety and welfare of Puerto Rico and its people,” the plaintiffs said in one of several complaints…

What a great theory! The government of Puerto Rico has managed its finances irresponsibly and needs more money. “Hey!” says a brilliant staffer. “There’s a law that limits how much debt we can run up. Let’s borrow billions from banks illegally, then later sue them saying that the debt is invalid because they abetted our illegal act!”

3.  Candidate for the Rationalization #22 Hall of Fame. Rationalization #22 is one of the most cited entries on the Rationalization List, and in my opinion, the worst of them all:

22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.

Now outgoing Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel has boasted in the  New York Times about his success at  introducing  police reform and reducing crime.Emanuel  makes his case in part by comparing Chicago’s crime numbers over the last two years with those of  Baltimore, one of America’s most dangerous, murder-prone, mismanaged cities. He omitted mentioning New York orLos Angeles, perhaps because his city had more murders in 2018 than New York and L.A. combined, though Chicago is smaller then either.

I wonder if the Chamber of Commerce is considering “Less dangerous than Baltimore!” as a promotional slogan. [Pointer: City-journal]

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/19/18: Unethical Wedding Gifts, The Fairness Conundrum, What Really Makes Students Unsafe, And More

Good Morning!

1 A Not Exactly Hypothetical… A family member is getting married, and the social justice warrior spouse has decreed that no gifts should be sent, just contributions in the happy couples’ name to designated charities and causes, all political, partisan, and ideological. Does this obligate guests to give money to causes and organizations they object to or disagree with? One might be tempted to teach a life-lesson in abuse of power, and pointedly give a contribution to, say, The Family Research Counsel, the NRA, or Paul Ryan’s re-election campaign, but that would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

2. “Progressive fines” poll update. The percentage of readers who regard so-called “progressive fines” as fairer than fining all law violators the same amount regardless of resources is about 6%, in contracts to 40% who think this is less fair. As I suspected, the schism is driven by the long-standing (and resolvable) arguments over what constitutes “fair” government policies, and whether it is the government’s job to try to make life less unfair. Is it “fair” to treat everyone the same, when we know that life doesn’t treat everyone the same? Are those who argue that life’s unfairness should be addressed by individuals, not society, taking that position because they are winners in life’s chaotic lottery? Can society and governments be trusted to address “unfairness” and inequality without being influenced by the conflicts and biases of the human beings making and carrying out laws and policies. I don’t generally care to spend a lot of Ethics Alarms time or space on abstract ethics questions, but some of them can’t be avoided. You can take the poll, if you haven’t already, here.

3. On the topic of fairness, here is a study that will make you bang your head against the wall: Following on the heels of this discouraging study I posted about on March 3 is this report by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau, as described here by the New York Times. A taste sufficient to ruin your day: Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “NOW What? The Most Discouraging News Of All”

The post a week ago regarding the depressing stats tracing black economic progress over the last 50 years deserves examination indefinitely, until some answers besides “It’s all discrimination!”  are identified and confronted. I remain puzzled that the EPI study received such paltry coverage and discussion in the mainstream media, but to be fair,  there were more important stories, like a porn star suing the President.

Chris Marschner opened the topic for focus here, starting out with one area only, home ownership. I said I would post his comment as aq Comment of the Day to prompt similar exploration by the brain-trust here. Chris starts with home ownership. Other categories African Americans still lag in: health, wages,  educational achievement, wealth, employment, and staying out of prison. As Chris says,

“Each one of these issues must be examined individually and the solutions must be integrative.”

This should be a beginning of a discourse, not the end. (I apologize to Chris for taking so long to post it.)

Here is his  Comment of the Day on the post, NOW What? The Most Discouraging News Of All

On home ownership.

I once suggested that certain select section 8 housing voucher recipients be allowed to use the subsidy to offset mortgage payments. Currently, we are transferring wealth from taxpayers to landlords. Why should existing owners of capital be subsidized? Create an approximation of a reverse mortgage in which taxpayers buy a property and the housing voucher is used to amortize the equivalent of a mortgage back to the taxpayer. In this manner we put up the money upfront and the reciepient retires a mortgage equivalent using the voucher, their contributions, and behavioral requirements not much different than what currently exists for section 8 vouchers. Over time this would increase the rate of ownership, increase vesting in all neighborhoods, and at some point the total subsidy is ended for an individual when the mortgage is fully amortized.

Establishing effective criteria regarding eligibility is key. Criteria could include:

  • Must be a married couple,
  • Children, if any must attend school regularly
  • No illicit drug use
  • Recipients must be employed, with at least one full time.

Planning and execution of such a plan requires more than I can develop here.

NOW What? The Most Discouraging News Of All

From the Washington Post:

Fifty years after the historic Kerner Commission identified “white racism” as the key cause of “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing,” there has been no progress in how African-Americans fare in comparison to whites when it comes to homeownership, unemployment and incarceration, according to a report released Monday by the Economic Policy Institute.

In some cases, African-Americans are worse off today than they were before the civil rights movement culminated in laws barring housing and voter discrimination, as well as racial segregation....

Among the study’s shattering findings…

…7.5 percent of African-Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared with 6.7 percent in 1968 — still roughly twice the white unemployment rate.

…The rate of home ownership, one of the most important ways for working- and middle-class families to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African-Americans in the past 50 years. Black home ownership remains just over 40 percent, trailing 30 points behind the rate for whites, who have seen modest gains during that time.

…The share of incarcerated African-Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — one of the largest and most depressing developments in the past 50 years, especially for black men, researchers said. African-Americans are 6.4 times as likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned, compared with 5.4 times as likely in 1968.

…The wealth gap between white and black Americans has more than tripled in the past 50 years…The typical black family had zero wealth in 1968. Today the median net worth of white families — $171,000 — is 10 times that of black families.

After all the rhetoric, all the safety nets, The Great Society, the Civil Rights Act, nothing. After busing, 50 years of affirmative action and diversity training in employment and educational institution admissions, nothing. After an explosion in the numbers of African American House members, police commissioners, judges, lawyers, doctors, big city mayors, and governors; after home rule in the District of Columbia, after Barack Obama…no progress. After 50 years that saw attitudes on mixed race marriages, cultural representation in academia,  media and entertainment, broadcasting and sports; after Barbara Jordan, Michael Jordan, Bernie Shaw, “The Cosby Show,” Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Serena Williams, Flip Wilson, Johnnie Cochran, Spike Lee, Oprah, Michael Jackson, “Hamilton,” “Scandal,” “The Butler,” “Hallelujah Baby!”, Rhianna, Beyonce, Jay-Z…how can this be possible?

Naturally, the Post article on the report’s first answer is simple: it’s racism, that’s all:

“We have not seen progress because we still have not addressed the issue of racial inequality in this country,” said John Schmitt, an economist and vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, citing the racial wealth gap and continuing racial discrimination in the labor and housing markets. “One of the key issues is the disadvantages so many African-Americans face, right from the very beginning as children.”

If that’s going to be the reflex response to this disaster, then the next 50 years will bring minimal progress as well. There is more, much more, to this multi-level failure of policy, planning, education, leadership and culture. I have mentioned before that just about 50 years ago I took an excellent course on the problems facing African-Americans in the United States. The Professor was a renowned expert in the field, Thomas Pettigrew. It was also the most depressing course I ever took. We studied how poverty and the lack of leadership and positive role models led to crime and destructive cultural norms; how this led in turn to prison and single parent, female-headed families, which encouraged single women to have children, which fed the cycle. We studied various innovative policy initiatives, and why they seemed doomed to failure. Continue reading

Ethics Alarms Encore: “The Inconvenient Truth About The Second Amendment and Freedom: The Deaths Are Worth It”

[ I wrote this piece in 2012, in response to the reaction at the time from the Second Amendment-hating Left to the shocking murder-suicide of of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher. Jason Whitlock, then a thoughtful sports columnist iin KC, wrote a much linked and publicized column calling for private ownership of guns to be banned. I was going to update my post, but decided to just put it up again. Some of it is obviously dated (the reference to juvenile Carl in “The Walking Dead,” for example), but I have re-read it, and would not change a word of its substance.]

The shocking murder-suicide of of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher has once again unleashed the predictable rants against America’s “culture of guns” and renewed calls for tougher firearms laws. Yes, reasonable restrictions on firearms sales make sense, and the ready availability of guns to the unhinged, criminal and crazy in so many communities is indefensible. Nevertheless, the cries for the banning of hand-guns that follow these periodic and inevitable tragedies are essentially attacks on core national values, and they need to be recognized as such, because the day America decides that its citizens should not have access to guns will also be the day that its core liberties will be in serious peril.

Here is Kansas City sportswriter Jason Whitlock, in the wake of Belcher’s demise:

“Our current gun culture ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it… If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

I don’t disagree with a single word of this. Yet everything Whitlock writes about guns can be also said about individual freedom itself. The importance of the U.S. “gun culture” is that it is really individual freedom culture, the conviction, rooted in the nation’s founding, traditions, history and values, that each citizen can and should have the freedom, ability and power to protect himself and his family, to solve his or her problems, and to determine his or her fate, without requiring the permission, leave or assistance of the government. Guns are among the most powerful symbols of that freedom. You can object to it, fight it or hate it, but you cannot deny it. Guns are symbols of individual initiative, self-sufficiency and independence, and a culture that values those things will also value guns, and access to guns.

Whitlock’s statement argues for building a counter-America in which safety, security and risk aversion is valued more than individual freedom. There is no doubt in my mind, and the results of the last election confirm this, that public support for such a counter-America is growing. The government, this segment believes, should be the resource for safety, health, financial well-being, food and shelter. It follows that the government alone should have access to firearms. This requires that we have great trust in central government, a trust that the Founders of the nation clearly did not have, but one that a lot of Americans seem ready to embrace. Giving up the right to own guns and entrusting government, through the police and the military, with the sole power to carry firearms represents a symbolic, core abandonment of the nation’s traditional commitment to personal liberty as more essential than security and safety. I would like to see the advocates of banning firearms admit this, to themselves as well as gun advocates, so the debate over firearms can be transparent and honest. Maybe, as a culture, we are now willing to make that choice. If so, we should make it with our eyes open. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Prosecuting Juliet In “Romeo And Juliet 2017”

Last month, on March 14, 11-year old Tysen Benz  read text messages saying that his 13-year-old girl friend had committed suicide. In apparent grief, the 11-year-old boy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hanged himself.  In reality, the girl had sent the fake news as a joke. Or as a cruel trick. Or because she was 13.

In the Shakespeare play, to fake her death Juliet took a sleeping potion that made her seem dead. (They didn’t have text messaging then.)

Now, if this was really “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet would have killed herself too after learning that her boyfriend was dead. Instead,  she is facing criminal charges. Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Wiese says that she is responsible for Tysen’s death, so he is charging her with malicious use of telecommunication service, punishable by up to six months in juvenile detention. He is also charging “Juliet” with using a computer to commit a crime, which carries a sentence of up to a year.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is this a fair, just and ethical prosecution?

Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms “Blathering Makes You Incoherent So That Those Who Bias Has Made Stupid Think You Are Stupid, Making Them Look Stupid” Files: The Sweden Affair

Here is something apparently nobody noticed from the past two years: Donald Trump doesn’t speak in linear fashion, use words with precision, or think about what he’s saying until it has already left his mouth. Did you not know that? I’ve been complaining about it here for, oh, about five years. (That YouTube video above is Exhibit A) Yet every time he says something garbled and seemingly confused,  journalists and bloggers instantly take what he said literally, and go on a spree. Now, when most politicians say something that makes no sense, as when President Obama’s tongue slipped and he said there were 57 states or Joe Biden, who makes head-scratching comments almost every day, announced at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner on March 17, 2010, “Barack Obama is the first African-American in the history of the United States of America!” ( Joe forgot that key word, “President”)  it prompts a brief mention, if at all. With politicians whom the news media has decided to take down, however, like Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin, and now the President, there is no such break. Of course these conservative fools meant what they said to express the most senseless thought imaginable.

Now Trump is President, so he is obliged to choose his words especially carefully, and be clear in his meaning. Well, he can’t. He’s communicated in this slovenly, stream-of-consciousness word cloud all his life, and its made him rich, famous, and President. He’s not going to stop. Now, by all means criticize him for this, but not for alleged statements that are bad guesses at what he might be trying to say.

This brings us to The Sweden Affair. Continue reading

More Fact-Check Ethics, And What It Tells Us About PolitiFact And How Fairly The News Media Will Treat Donald Trump

Just imagine how frustrating it must be to be a stopped clock and have people stiff claim you are wrong one of the few times you are right!

Just imagine how frustrating it must be to be a stopped clock and have people stillclaim you are wrong one of the few times you are right!

Constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh was intrigued when the infamously left-biased “non-partisan fact checking source” Politifact “fact-checked” Donald Trump’s recent assertion that “crime is rising.” The professor did his own fact-checking on the Tampa Bay Times’ verdict that…

“If you look at overall violent and property crimes — the only categories that would seem inclusive enough to qualify as “crime,” as Trump put it — he is flat wrong. In fact, crime rates have been falling almost without fail for roughly a quarter-century. We rate his claim Pants on Fire.”

Volokh’s conclusion? Trump’s statement can not be fairly called “Pants on Fire,” because in regard to violent crime, it’s true. Aggregate crime is not rising, but PolitFact’s statement—“If you look at overall violent and property crime”—is deceptive, and suggests that both violent crime and property crime are falling. (Uh-uh-uh! Bad Fact-Checker! Fact-Checker must not be misleading and deceptive!) Notes the professor: Continue reading