Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Schools Implement Explicit Racial Bias in Suspensions"

Reason reports:

The good: Minneapolis Public Schools want to decrease total suspensions for non-violent infractions of school rules.

The bad: The district has pledged to do this by implementing a special review system for cases where a black or Latino student is disciplined. Only minority students will enjoy this special privilege. . . .

[P]ublic schools have gone discipline-crazy over the years, punishing students all-too-harshly for silly reasons every day. Any respite from overcriminalization is welcome. Any respite, except this one. . . .

[D]on't all students, regardless of skin color, deserve to have their disciplinary issues adjudicated under the same standards? And yet [Superintendent Bernadeia] Johnson is committed to reducing suspensions for minority students by a specific percentage, irrespective of the facts of the individual cases.
Some will defend this policy on the ground that minority students are probably more likely to be suspended without good reason. But if that's true, then reviewing all students' suspensions should be especially good for minorities. And wouldn't it be nice to have evidence of whether it's really true that suspensions of minorities are more likely to be unfounded? And wouldn't reviewing suspensions of all students be a good way to collect such evidence?

Monday, November 17, 2014

"We protect women and children, but these are dark-skinned men"

TNR reports on human trafficking in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid for by US tax dollars:

It is not surprising that labor trafficking is seen as a lesser evil than sex trafficking. The argument often goes: Is it really so bad to charge a worker in India a one-time fee in exchange for a job overseas with higher wages than he could find in his own country? But recruitment fees essentially create a system of indentured servitude. Workers usually take out high-interest loans in their home country to pay the fee, and the payments can trap them in their new jobs. Recruiters often mislead workers about their salary and the location of their job—promises of high-paying jobs in Jordanian hotels turn into custodial positions on U.S. military bases in warzones.

"The government says it has a zero tolerance policy, and yet there’s fairly credible allegations that these guys have been involved in trafficking and they continue to win government contracts,” says Steven Watt, a human rights attorney at the ACLU. “It’s pretty far from a zero tolerance policy.”

McCahon is more blunt: “This is the only situation in which the government uses U.S. tax dollars to fund human trafficking,” he says. “It’s not that we’re idly sitting by; we’re actively paying for it. It’s like the U.S. government is the John, telling the pimp, ‘We need bodies here, but we aren’t going to look at how you got them, or if they are even getting paid.’” . . .

He cited one case where an Indian college graduate named Ramesh paid $5,000 upfront to an agent who promised an $800 per month salary to work for a U.S. contractor in Iraq. Once in Iraq, he was only offered $150 per month, but took the job because he felt he had no other choice. When the loan shark became dissatisfied with the repayment rate, he sexually assaulted Ramesh’s sister. His sister hung herself and his mother fell into a state of shock. When Ramesh returned home to India, he and his surviving family members poisoned themselves.

While labor trafficking is clearly a human rights issue, McCahon is quick to point out that recruitment fees are also procurement fraud. Under the current contract, Dyncorp and Fluor pay Ecolog to bring them a specified number of workers. The contractors assume responsibility for transporting and housing their workers and are reimbursed by the government for the associated costs. “So if a subcontractor brings over 8,000 workers, and each worker comes with a $2,500 recruitment fee, that’s a $20 million black money kickback,” explained McCahon. “This is the largest contract fraud in the history of reconstruction.” The Army reimburses Dyncorp and Fluor for all of their allowable costs, plus 3 to 6 percent of their costs as profit—so the higher the costs, the higher the profit . . .

No contractor has ever been disciplined for a trafficking violation under the current Federal Acquisition Regulation, the set of rules for government purchases of goods and services. This means that even though there has been evidence of contractors violating anti-trafficking rules, there is no official negative past performance record, so they continue to be eligible to receive top-dollar government contracts.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The author of the Choose Your Own Adventure books has died

R.A. Montgomery died in his Vermont home at the age of 78, a few days ago.

This website collects the unhappy endings to your adventures.

A commenter on Metafilter says:

I remember as a child being aghast at a The Cave Of Time ending where you were enslaved for the rest of your life building The Great Wall. Certainly made a 9 year old me stop to think what things were like for others.

Friday, November 14, 2014

OK Go — "I Won't Let You Down"

You have to watch this to the end — amazing. (I recommend watching it in "full screen" by clicking the button in the lower-right corner.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about"

Next time you hear someone say that cliche about surveillance, remember . . . Martin Luther King had "something to hide." He did some wrong things in his life.

Now, even if you happen to be a perfect saint who has "nothing to hide," do you want to live in a society where your money is used to spy on someone like Martin Luther King? Our government spied on him to try to destroy him.

4 takes on Jonathan Gruber's remarks on Obamacare

Gruber, an MIT economics professor who's considered a key architect of Obamacare (and Romneycare), infamously said:

Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical in getting the thing to pass . . . . And I wish Mark was right, we could make it all transparent, but I'd rather have this law than not.
Howard Dean:
The problem is not that he said it. The problem is that he thinks it. The core problem with the damn law is it was put together by a bunch of elitists who don’t really, fundamentally understand the American people. That’s what the problem is.
(That's my own transcription of Dean; the quote at that link is incorrect.)

Ann Althouse (my mom):
MIT prof Jonathan Gruber is sorry he was transparent about the lack of transparency in getting Obamacare passed. . . . He wants his old lack of transparency back. He revealed what he liked so much about it. Now, why can't he have it back? Well, Professor Gruber, it just doesn't work that way. Once you've let us see that you mean to deceive us, we won't get fooled again . . . unless you're right, and we really are stupid.
Tyler Cowen:
It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight. . . . I’m simply not very interested in his proclamations on tape, which as far as I can tell are mostly correct albeit overly cynical. (If anything he is overrating the American voter — most people weren’t even paying close enough attention to be tricked.) Criticisms of Gruber are not criticisms of a policy, and it is policy we should focus upon and indeed there is still a great deal of health care policy we need to figure out. It’s hardly news that intellectuals who hold political power, even as advisors, very often do not speak the truth. If anything, I feel sorry for Gruber that he has subsequently felt the need to so overcompensate by actively voicing such ex post cynicism, it is perhaps the sign of a soul not at rest.

In the meantime, I’d like to see more open discourse, not less. Perhaps we should subsidize people who end up looking foolish, rather than taxing them.
Bryan Caplan responds to Tyler Cowen:
Tyler and I start at the same place yet end continents apart. We see the same facts: Lying politicians and the elite intellectuals who craftily decorate their masters' lies. But Tyler starts with a strong moral presumption that Whatever People in Our Society Routine Do is morally acceptable. Indeed, he bends over backwards to see the world from their point of view.

I, in contrast, start with a strong moral presumption in favor of scrupulous honesty. Unless you have strong reason to believe that lying will have awesome consequences, you shouldn't lie. Instead of bending over backwards to make excuses for liars, we should bend over backwards to tell the truth. The fact that most people fall short of this puritanical standard shows that most people ought to shape up and fly right.

And when people fleetingly realize that every society is ruled by liars, they are right to shudder.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In defense of reason and arguments

Over at The New Republic, where they're celebrating their 100th anniversary, Leon Wiesltier defends reason itself (which is sadly necessary):

There are people who prefer ardent thought to clear thought, and loyal thought to strict thought. There are people who mistrust thought altogether and prefer the unarguable authenticities of the heart—the individual heart and the collective heart. There are people who regard thought . . . as an activity of an elite; and there is some sociological truth to their misgiving, though the social provenance of an idea says nothing about its value. (Hardship may make one wise, but it does not make one smart.) Yet the ideal of “clear and intelligent thought,” stripped of its condescension and its indifference to the non-rational dimensions of human life, deserves to be defended. We need not be a nation of intellectuals, but we must not be a nation of idiots. . . .

[T]he cultural reputation of reason needs to be revised. Reason is an intensely romantic pursuit, especially if one finds romance in struggle. Reason’s victories are almost never final. It is always surrounded by unreason, which is always more popular. Reason is the stout resistance, the flickering lamp in the darkness, the perpetual underdog, the stoic connoisseur of defeat, the loser that dusts itself off and fights another day. If, as some of its enemies claim, reason aspires to control, it is a futile aspiration. The anti-rationalist mob in contemporary thought can relax: reason will never come to rule. Not a chance. Thomas Mann once remarked, against Nietzsche, that the world never suffers from a surfeit of reason. And he never went online! . . .

The application of reason to public affairs is sometimes confused with technocracy. Yet there are no technocrats of first principles, no specialists in what to believe. Some people regard themselves as such experts, of course; but too much authority is conceded to them. Good judgment cannot be prescribed or outsourced. There are no blue-ribbon panels on truth and goodness. The responsibility for belief falls equally on all of us. The search for values, and for the grounds of values, is catch-as-catch-can: it may lead the thoughtful individual to books, to films, to travel, to participation, to conversation, to friendship and love . . .

There are many questions that call for expertise, but this does not settle the matter: there arise warring experts. Sometimes the disagreement is honest, sometimes it is not. The dissent from a scientific or scholarly consensus is sometimes nothing more than the doubt that powerful interests cunningly sow for their own purposes. (Where there are experts there are pseudo-experts.) But the work of natural scientists and social scientists will never relieve the ordinary citizen of his obligation to arrive at some basis for a view. It falls to us, who are not economists or biologists or climatologists, to support a position. We must support what we cannot ourselves verify.

By what authority do we choose between authorities? And yet an open society is founded upon the faith in precisely such a choice. The confidence of an open society in the intellects of its citizens is astounding. Has it ever been completely vindicated? . . .

A democracy imposes an extraordinary intellectual responsibility upon ordinary people. Our system is finally determined by what our citizenry thinks. This is thrilling and this is terrifying.

A thoughtless member of a democracy is a delinquent member of a democracy. Anti-intellectualism has been one of the regular features of populism, but in this respect populism is an offense against the people, because it denies their mental capability and scants their mental agency. Anti-intellectualism is always pseudo-democratic. In enshrining prejudices and dogmas, it robs the citizen of his exacting and proper role.

What was the democratic breakthrough? Among other things, it was the triumph of opinion. We are governed by what we think. What is wrong with being opinionated? Opinionation is an expectation of democracy. But the triumph of opinion was a mixed blessing, or at least a tremendous gamble. Opinion, after all, is fantastically manipulable. In 1920, Walter Lippmann wrote glowingly of “the manufacture of consent”—the phrase was made famous in his book Public Opinion two years later—but for us the phrase is infamous, and more than a little sinister. For this reason, there is nothing more consequential for the workings of a democratic order than its methods of opinion-formation. Lippmann, again: “The protection of the sources of its opinion is the basic problem of democracy. Everything else depends upon it. Without protection against propaganda, without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation.” . . .

“It’s just my opinion”: this bizarre American locution, which is supposed to provide an avenue of escape in a disputation, suggests that there is something illegitimate, even disrespectful, about insisting upon the defense of a proposition. Yet the respect we owe persons we do not owe their opinions. Political respect is axiomatic, but intellectual respect must be earned. . . .

The refinement of opinion cannot be accomplished except in a spirit of criticism. Describing and explaining will not suffice (though they may account for whole genres of journalism); the moment must come for judging. It was a dark day in America when “judgmental” became a term of opprobrium. In a universe without judgment, what is admiration worth?

Long live negativity! We must learn again to think negatively. Negations may be emancipations. Negations may operate in the service of affirmations. But happy talk, the uplift of pure positivity, is the rhetoric of the status quo.

The polemical temperament advances the aims of an honest and decent society more than the blurbing temperament.

An aversion to controversy is an aversion to democracy. Since all the views do not go together, and since the stakes in the validity of the respective views are very high, a free people should be a quarrelsome people. The quarrels of an open society are evidence of extraordinary philosophical and political development. They are the proof of our progress. The quarrels are not the problem, they are the solution.

Are our fights nasty? Not as nasty as their absence would be. . . . Ferocity is as essential to our system as civility. It is easy to be tolerant of ideas about which one is indifferent. . . .

Dictators employ intellectuals, but finally they fear intellectuals. They live in dread that their liars will one day decide to tell the truth. Sooner or later, therefore, they destroy them.

A just order is an order in which truth has no need of courage.