Friday, July 31, 2009

A meme that drives me crazy

There's this idea going around that officer Crowley, who arrested professor Gates, couldn't be racist. "He taught a class on avoiding racial profiling, so he can't be racist!" goes the idea.

Well, let me emphasize this: I don't have any reason to believe that he is a racist. However, teaching a class on avoiding profiling is not evidence that he's not.

You have to understand what racial profiling actually is, and what it isn't. Racial profiling is not a case of an officer who hates (FITB) deciding to hunt down (FITB) criminals. Profiling is trying to determine a set of criteria - a profile - for a particular criminal. So it might mean determining that a black man driving a flashy, late model car could be a drug dealer; drug dealers drive flashy, late model cars, after all. Using profiling, an officer might stop that driver, and try to find some excuse to search the car, looking for evidence of any criminal activity.

Well, if you arrest someone based upon such weak evidence, you'd expect to have the arrest thrown out as unconstitutional, and if the arrest is thrown out, the evidence gathered might also be thrown out, as the fruit from a poisoned tree.

Teaching an officer to avoid profiling might, or might not, teach the officer not to harass a black man driving a flashy, late model car. The only thing it's guaranteed to teach the officer is not to use that as the reason for the stop. So a bad officer who has learned to "avoid racial profiling" might still decide that the black man in the flashy car is a criminal... but he'll have learned to come up with a better, more defensible reason for making the stop.

So, you might ask, why does this meme drive me crazy? Well, because it's sloppy thinking. People see he taught a case on racial profiling and say "There! See! He can't be racist!"

But that doesn't follow. A racist can learn what will, and won't, be considered a lawful reason for stopping, investigating, and arresting someone, just as easily as a non-racist. Similarly, a hot-tempered officer can teach other officers about appropriate use of force just as well as an officer who is in a constant state of zen-like calm.

The only additional knowledge we have about Crowley, when we learn that he taught officers to avoid racial profiling, is that he knows police procedures, and what needs to be in an arrest report. And we already knew that, since his arrest report has already been made public.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Explaining part of the health care reform issue

The lousy coverage of the health care reform debate has been bugging me, to the point that I don't know where to start criticizing. I finally decided I'd start small.

One of the reforms we need is to stop letting insurance companies find ways to drop people's coverage as soon as they get sick. If insurance companies are allowed to only provide health insurance for healthy people, then they're not really providing insurance at all.

On the other hand, if you force all insurance companies to accept any patient, you'll have people who will game the system... they'll skip buying health insurance as long as they can get their routine care cheaper than the cost of the premiums, and only buy insurance if they find themselves facing a long term illness. As little sympathy as I have for insurance companies, that's not fair for them. And further, it will mean that if the insurance companies are trying to keep premiums down, then everyone else will have to pay higher premiums to provide enough funding to cover those who buy insurance only when they need it.

Fortunately, the answer to both problems is relatively easy... universal coverage.

If everyone is covered, then no one is getting dumped for pre-existing conditions, or for forgetting to mention they had an ingrown toenail on their application form. And, if everyone is covered, no one is gaming the system by waiting to get coverage.

With universal coverage, there's plenty of money flowing into the system - someone is paying premiums (or their equivalent) for everyone, and the financial burden is spread out evenly. Sure, some people will complain that the healthy are subsidizing the health care costs of the sick, but that's kind of like saying that the long-living people are subsidizing the life insurance of folks who die young... that's the whole point of insurance! You pay to fund the unfortunate, hoping you won't be one of them.

Getting universal coverage isn't easy. Right now, it's looking like we're going to maintain private health insurance companies (hopefully, with an additional public insurance company run by the government). We'll need regulations to make sure that they cover everyone. But then we're going to have to fund coverage for everyone. That can either be through taxes - yeah, right, like that's going to happen! - or through a set of mandates.

It's not very pretty; no one likes to be told what to do. But if you don't want people gaming the system, you need to make sure they're paying into the fund (or that someone else is on their behalf), one way or another.

So it's looking like that's what we'll end up with... assuming we want effective health care reform.

If we'd rather remain the last industrialized nation that doesn't care about the health care of its citizenry, we could use the Republican plan, or just make some cosmetic tweaks.

Wait, I'm repeating myself, aren't I?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Protesting too much?

I've seen a lot of Republicans claiming that the government can't provide good services. Today, for example, Bobby Jindal suggests that this is the case because the Bush administration's FEMA couldn't respond well to Katrina.

You know, I think this is exactly what Republicans fear about government involvement in health care. Just imagine if your health care was denied for spurious reasons, and you were in the public plan... you'd call up your Senator or Representative and tell them to do something about it. You'd be on all over them, right? You'd have something that focused your mind on whether or not the government worked, whether it did the job you were paying for.

For a good many years, since Reagan, that's been the Republican mantra - "Government is the problem". They want to cut regulations (remember the peanut recall? sensible regulations could have prevented the salmonella infection, and made it easy to trace if it had happened) and taxes, because that makes their interest groups (read as: the wealthy and big business) happy.

But what if people had a reason to pay attention to governance? What if they had a vested interest, a direct interest, in a branch of the government?

You'd have an awfully hard time telling people that government is the Big Bad, then. You'd have to make certain parts of the government (such as the public plan) work well. And suddenly, you couldn't claim the government was always inefficient and always a problem, and suddenly, you'd have to come up with actual ideas, and real arguments, about why any given problem should, or shouldn't, be owned by the government.

I don't blame them for being scared.

But that's not a good reason to try to scuttle health care reform.

And let's face it; in the long run, it'll be good for them as a party to have to confront new ideas and create new arguments.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates

So, the arrest of Henry Gates is causing a bit of a stir. These kinds of things are like word problems (or "story problems" as I've heard them called) in mathematics, though. The first thing you need to do is figure out what matters, and toss out the rest of the information as irrelevant.

There are always competing narratives in these cases. The police officer will have you believe that he was honestly concerned and polite and deeply respectful of Mr. Gates, and yet, for no reason, Mr. Gates became belligerent.

And Mr. Gates would undoubtedly like you to believe that he was cooperative and friendly, but the officer was rudely aggressive and harassing a man he knew was innocent.

And here's the thing: none of that matters. That's the part of the word problem where they tell you a red car leaves Los Angeles; it doesn't matter that the car is red, and it doesn't matter that the place it left was LA.

Look, I don't care how Gates or the officer acted. The officer was going in to a possibly threatening situation, and was probably hyped up, and Gates, sitting at home, having had a long, frustrating day, had reason to be pissed off at any intrusion. People have been rude with less provocation, and the rudeness shouldn't enter into it.

What matters is this: the police report tells us that, in the face of a hostile situation, the police officer specifically tried to draw Mr. Gates outside. And, surprise, surprise, once he had him outside, he could claim he was creating a disturbance, and arrest him.

This, by itself, is an abuse of power.

Now, there are a lot of people out there acting shocked - shocked! - that, if the officer is to be believed, Gates was argumentative. "You should always be calm and cooperative when dealing with the police!"

Well, in general, you should. Police are fully aware that cops have been killed in routine situations all the time. They've been killed investigating breakins, they've been killed at traffic stops, they've probably been killed helping young children get kittens out of trees.

And it doesn't matter how wrong or unfair it is if a cop makes a horrible mistake, and thinks you're going for a weapon, and tries to defend himself from a potentially deadly situation. It's still going to ruin the rest of the day for both of you.

So, yes, it's wise to be calm and cooperative. And let's throw in how you should try to be friendly, because even a bad cop can be the one who ends up taking a bullet trying to protect others.

But there's a whole bunch of folks who seem to be okay with a police officer making a pointless arrest, or even hurting someone needlessly, if the victim was rude or nasty to the cop. Those folks seem to have forgotten that we live in a free society, and the first rule of living in a free society is that the government, and its agents, must leave you alone unless you're doing something that hurts others.

When a cop can smack someone around, or use a Taser on them, or even arrest them just to waste a few hours of their time, without a compelling reason, that's a violation of civil liberties. Allowing that behavior is a violation of the very notion of freedom.

And that's all we need to know about the arrest of Mr. Gates. A police officer provoked Mr. Gates into coming to the door of his residence so that he could arrest Mr. Gates, when there was no need to do so.

Don't think I don't sympathize with the officer to some extent. I'll give the officer the benefit of the doubt and assume that Mr. Gates was quite rude to him. And when you're confronted with rudeness when you're trying to do your job, and when you're already hyped up because you're going into a potentially dangerous situation, it can be really upsetting.

But that's all the more reason that he should have kept his head, and either de-escalated the situation himself, or called in one of the other officers who were present to assist him. He could have let the pressure out of the situation, and maybe even turned it positive.

Instead, he got to make a pointless arrest, and a few headlines that he and his fellow officers will long have cause to regret.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What is racism?

We've been seeing an interesting example of racially charged narrative in the news recently.

Sonia Sotomayor is being harassed for having said that she didn't quite agree that a wise man and a wise woman will necessarily come to the same decision; she cited some famous instances in which the Supreme Court upheld discrimination, and said she felt that a wise Latina would more often than not come to a better decision than a man who hadn't had the experiences of such a woman.

Many white men angrily said that this was unfair, that if *they* said that a white man was a better judge than a Latina, they'd be ridden out of town on a rail, and, oh, by the way, Sotomayor was WRONG WRONG WRONG on the Ricci case, where she obviously demonstrated prejudice due to her ethnic background.

No rail-riding so far.

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