Kevin Drum

The Runaway Jury (Selection Process)

Just get rid of voir dire entirely and we'd all be better off.

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

In a study that should surprise no one, the Equal Justice Institute reports that jury selection in the South is far from colorblind:

Today, the practice of excluding blacks and other minorities from Southern juries remains widespread and, according to defense lawyers and a new study by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit human rights and legal services organization in Montgomery, Ala., largely unchecked.

....While jury makeup varies widely by jurisdiction, the organization, which studied eight Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee — found areas in all of them where significant problems persist. In Alabama, courts have found racially discriminatory jury selection in 25 death penalty cases since 1987, and there are counties where more than 75 percent of black jury pool members have been struck in death penalty cases.

....“There’s just this tolerance, there’s indifference to excluding people on the basis of race, and prosecutors are doing it with impunity,” [Bryan] Stevenson said. “Unless you’re in the courtroom, unless you’re a lawyer working on these issues, you’re not going to know whether your local prosecutor consistently bars people of color.”

Most racially-inspired problems are hard to solve, but in this case there's a pretty easy solution: just eliminate the voir dire process entirely. Pick 12 people at random, let the judge interview them and eliminate anyone who's obviously unqualified or has a conflict of interest, and that's that. You have your jury. Not only would this eliminate the most obvious source of racial bias, but it would have plenty of other positive effects too. It would reduce the number of jurors that courts need to summon, for example. And it would speed up trials. I sat on a drunk driving case once where the jury selection process took nearly as long as the trial itself because the defense attorney was desperately trying to eliminate anyone who might not be entirely sympathetic to a middle-aged guy who got behind the wheel after he'd had a few too many and started weaving around the road. It was a waste of our time, a waste of the judge's time, and a waste of taxpayer money. (And we convicted the guy anyway.)

This is the way jury selection works in Britain, and guess what? Justice seems to be served just fine. The only downside, I think, is that John Grisham wouldn't have been able to write his best book. I can live with that.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

What Tea Partiers Think

Surprise, surprise, they're socially reactionary.

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 10:52 AM EDT

Bruce Bartlett passes along the results of a recent poll in Washington state that asks for the views of hardcore tea party members, not just those who are generally sympathetic toward tea party goals:

What I think this poll shows is that taxes and spending are not by any means the only issues that define TPM members; they are largely united in being unsympathetic to African Americans, militant in their hostility toward illegal immigrants, and very conservative socially. At a minimum, these data throw cold water on the view that the TPM is essentially libertarian. Based on these data, I would say that TPM members have much more in common with social conservatives that welcome government intervention as long as it’s in support of their agenda.

The serious tea partiers don't think it's the government's job to guarantee equality of opportunity, strongly approve of Arizona's new immigration law, don't like Obama's outreach to Muslims, and believe that gay and lesbian groups have too much political power.

Transparency in Politics

Corporations want free speech, but they don't want anyone to know who's speaking.

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

Carol Leonnig writes in the Washington Post today that many corporations are eager to start funding political ads now that the Supreme Court has ruled that this is legal:

These companies include firms on Wall Street and in the energy sector opposed to stricter regulations as well as fast-food franchise owners fearful of being forced to unionize their shops. They just don't want to be singled out — or have their corporate logo attached.

Some fear the rules on corporate election activities could change, leaving their company exposed; a White House-supported bill likely to be voted on by the House after the Memorial Day recess would require calling out by name the corporations that fund campaign ads. Republicans, who generally rely more heavily on donations from big-business executives, say that Democrats are trying to silence the political speech of corporations with the bill.

....Big corporations are the new whipping boys in the wake of taxpayer-financed bailouts, Republican operatives argue. They say chief executives can't take to the public square to share their unpopular views on legislation without being personally attacked or — worse — dismissed. "You want to speak your peace without political retribution," said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, whose fight to air its video critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton led to the Supreme Court's ruling.

This is ridiculous. If you're in the arena, you're in the arena — and that means your opponents get to fight back. If you're afraid of that, then you'd better stay out of politics. We already have too little transparency when it comes to political advertising, and the last thing we need is to allow even less.

Healthcare Reform Warms Up

Slowly but steadily, healthcare reform is gaining public support.

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 1:22 PM EDT

Igor Volsky reports that public opinion toward healthcare reform is starting to thaw a bit:

Just days after Republicans released their third "bill" to repeal the health care law, a new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll finds that "given the option to name the sections of the healthcare law they would most like to see the GOP repeal, 42 percent [of Americans] said they would leave the bill alone and repeal no parts." 

....Polling for the new health care law doesn’t show the kind of "bump" Democrats had expected, but the numbers are slowly improving. For instance, according to a May 2010 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 55% of Americans said health reform should have a chance to work, versus 42% who said repeal and start over.

Stay tuned. I expect these numbers to get slowly better over time. They might or might not shift enough to make a difference in November's election, but they're going to shift.

How Does It End?

Is there even a glimmer of hope left in the Middle East?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 12:47 PM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg on the Israeli flotilla raid:

What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today?

This is a subject I don't write about often, but I pretty much feel the same way. I guess the difference between Goldberg and me is that I've felt this way for quite some time. Several years, at the least; maybe a decade, ever since the Camp David accords broke down; and maybe ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It's a little hard to say at this point.

It's also a little hard to write about since I don't have anything original to say. A million people have already said it. Fanatics on both sides have been in control of the region for years — the hardline Orthodox population relentlessly gaining influence in Israel and Hamas terrorists among the Palestinians — both convinced that they can win if they can only provoke enough insane overreactions from the other side. Which they do with depressing regularity. Hamas's rocket attacks are indefensible, the Gaza embargo in return is indefensible, the blockade runners in their turn were plainly hoping to provoke an overreaction that would force Israel's hand, and the Israelis then went insanely beyond anyone's expectations by landing commandos on one of the ships and killing nine people while it was still far off in international waters. And now, there are rumors that the Turkish navy might escort the next ship that tries to run the blockade.

In David Petraeus's famous phrase, How does this end? Unless something dramatic happens, it ends with Israel as a nuclear-armed pariah state. Where else can it go? Hamas and Hezbollah are never going to stop attacking, Israel's responses will continue to get deadlier and more hysterical, the West Bank will never be freed because no Israeli government can any longer cobble together the public support it would require to take on the most extremist elements among the settlers, and like it or not, Israel eventually becomes a permanently armed camp and an apartheid state. Israelis may have hated it when that's what Jimmy Carter called it, but even if it's arguably not quite accurate today there's very little question that it will be before long.

Unless something changes. But what? I guess it's possible that a crisis like this can prompt both sides to get serious in a way they haven't been for a long time, but there have been crises like this before and they haven't prompted anything of the sort.

So help me out here. Is there any glimmer of hope on the horizon at all? Or is despair the only rational response to all this?

Turkey and the Flotilla

What was Turkey's motivation?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

Here's a couple of paragraphs from a New York Times story about the Turkish reaction to Israel's raid yesterday on the flotilla attempting to run its blockade on Gaza:

A senior Israeli official said that Israel had tried for two weeks to persuade Turkey to stop the flotilla’s voyage, but that Turkey said it was a nongovernmental action that it was powerless to stop. Israel’s ambassador in Turkey, Gabi Levy, did not return a call for comment.

One wild card is Mr. Erdogan, a strong-willed former Islamist who is the driving force behind Turkey’s criticism of Israel and its policy toward the Palestinians. He has pushed a foreign policy that has taken a more active role in the region, serving as mediator between Israel and Syria. But the United States has not appreciated all his efforts, like his recent attempt with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran.

....Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist at the Turkish daily Milliyet, argues that the episode was a striking failure in diplomacy, for both the United States and Turkey. The new foreign policy pursued by Turkey’s government has given it a confidence that sometimes results in overreaching. For example, Turkey believed it could change Israeli policies toward Gaza.

More here. I haven't seen very much that tries to dive deeper into this part of the story, but at first glance it almost seems as if Turkey was deliberately trying to provoke an incident that would justify cutting off relations with Israel. After all, the Israeli commando raid may have turned out more deadly than anyone expected, but something like it was always probable and the Turkish government surely knew it. Alternatively, maybe Aydintasbas is right: it was just a massive miscalculation by Erdogan, who quixotically thought that Israel would soften the blockade if it knew that Turkey stood behind the blockade runners. Or maybe Turkey really was powerless to do anything about the flotilla.

I'm sure there are a thousand layers upon layers that could be said about this, and I can't even comment sensibly on the top one. But if anyone can point to some really knowledgable commentary on this particular aspect of yesterday's incident, let us know in comments.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

California Propositions

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 10:00 AM EDT

[Update: Looking for a guide to the California Propositions on November's ballot? Click the link!]

This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely ignore it.

There are five initiatives on the California ballot next Tuesday. As longtime readers know, my default position is to very strongly oppose all initiatives (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you read this. For what it's worth, though, the only ballot measure this bias might affect even slightly this year is Prop 14. The other two NO votes are completely solid regardless of what you think about initiatives in general.

  1. Seismic retrofits: YES. The original Proposition 13, passed in 1978, froze annual property reassessments for existing buildings. New construction was supposed to be assessed at the time it was finished, but in 1984 Proposition 23 created a 15-year exemption for seismic retrofits of "unreinforced masonry buildings." In 1990, Proposition 127 exempted seismic retrofits entirely but didn't remove the 15-year limit for unreinforced masonry buildings. I have no idea why, and the five minutes of googling I was willing to apply to this question didn't provide an answer.

    This year's Proposition 13 (it's just a coincidence that it has the same number as the original) would exempt all seismic retrofits completely. It was approved unanimously by one of the most famously partisan legislatures in the country and the voter guide doesn't even have an argument against it — which is pretty remarkable given that even the most innocuous initiatives usually prompt an argument from at least one wingnut group or another. So go ahead and vote for this. It seems harmless.

  2. Open Primaries: NO. This initiative would create an open primary system: instead of separate primaries for Republicans and Democrats, there would be only a single comprehensive primary and the top two vote getters would proceed to the general election even if they're from the same party. Supposedly this would produce more moderate candidates — though the evidence for this is pretty slim — but even if it did, I've always been pretty uneasy about open primaries. If political parties are to have any meaning at all, they have to be allowed to pick their own candidates and they have to be allowed to contest general elections. This is especially true for third parties, which would be shut out of general elections almost entirely by Prop 14. It should also be clear at all times which party a candidate belongs to, something Prop 14 obscures by allowing candidates not to declare a party. For all its flaws, the current system strikes me as fairer and more transparent than Prop 14's pseudo-runoff system.

  3. Fair Elections Act: YES. This is sort of an interesting little initiative. Basically it's an experiment in public financing of political campaigns: it applies only to one office — Secretary of State — and only to the elections in 2014 and 2018. On January 1st of the following year it automatically disappears for good unless voters decide they like it and want to extend it. It's funded by a tax on lobbyists and requires candidates to raise $5 from 7,500 registered voters in order to qualify for public funding. This might or might not be a good idea, but Prop 15 is the kind of thing we should do more often: experiment. If Prop 15 fails, not much harm is done. If it works, it will have proven itself in the toughest arena of all: real life. It’s a small bore way of allowing voters to find out if they like the idea before committing themselves to a sweeping and permanent change. We could use more initiatives like this.

  4. Municipal Power: NO. This is one of the sleaziest initiatives I've seen in a long time. Here it is in a nutshell: PG&E doesn't like having to compete against municipal power companies, so they're sponsoring an initiative that would prohibit the creation or expansion of any municipal power system without a two-thirds approval from voters. Which, of course, is essentially impossible. And the best part? Municipal agencies aren't allowed to spend public money on political campaigns, so PG&E, which has spent nearly $50 million so far promoting Prop 16, is basically running unopposed.

    Prop 16 is a poster child for everything that's wrong with the initiative process in California, and it's as pure an example as you'll ever find of a big corporation using the ballot box to cynically undercut its competition. Even if there's nothing else on the June ballot you care about, you should make sure to get to your polling place just to vote against Prop 16. Ditto for your family and friends. Your enemies too. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, it doesn't matter: everyone should vote against Prop 16.

  5. Auto Insurance: NO. Most auto insurance companies give you a loyalty discount if you stick with them for several years in a row. Proposition 17 is framed as fixing a "flaw" in California law that prevents you from taking this discount with you when you switch insurers, but that masks the real issue at stake here: should insurance companies be allowed to give you a discount merely for being insured continuously? Or, put another way: Should insurance companies be allowed to penalize you if you drop your insurance for a period of time (perhaps because you sell your car, or sign up for hitch in the Army, for example) and then later re-apply?

    Proposition 103, passed in 1988, was designed to stop insurers from basing their rates on factors unrelated to the likelihood of filing a claim (where you live, for example, or your income). To accomplish this, Prop 103 mandates that insurers consider only three factors: your driving record, the number of miles you drive, and the number of years of driving experience you have. The insurance commissioner can approve other factors as well, but only if they bear a substantial relationship to the risk of loss.

    Continuous coverage doesn't qualify on that score. This isn't a flaw in the law, it's the whole point of the law. (Loyalty discounts are a little questionable on this score too, but it turns out that they do correlate with driving safety, so they're allowed.) Mercury Insurance, which has been fighting this battle for years, is pretty much the sole sponsor of Proposition 17, and their motivation is simple: they think it would help them poach more business from other insurers. And it might! But it would do so by lowering rates for some and raising them for others based on a factor that has nothing to do with the likelihood of filing a claim. We decided to put a stop to that two decades ago, and I don't see any reason to change it now.

Shaking the Federal Money Tree

Should Obama be fighting for a second stimulus?

| Mon May 31, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

Lots of lefty econ bloggers have suggested that the answer to our financial woes is a walloping big second stimulus. But we aren't getting one. Tyler Cowen thinks that should tell us something:

Reading the Keynesian bloggers, one gets the feeling that it is only an inexplicable weakness, cowardice, stupidity, whatever, that stops policies to drive a more robust recovery. The Keynesians have no good theory of why their advice isn't being followed, except perhaps that the Democrats are struck with some kind of "Republican stupidity" virus. [...] The thing is, that same virus seems to be sweeping the world, including a lot of parties on the Left.

Romer, Geithner, Summers, et.al. know all the same economics that Krugman and DeLong and Thoma do. If a bigger [aggregate demand] stimulus would set so many things right, they'd gladly lay tons of political capital on the line to see it through and proclaim triumph at the end of the road.

Except they expect it would bring only a marginal improvement.

Now, there are a few things to say about this. First, Tyler's definition of "marginal" might be different than, say, Krugman's. Would a two-point drop in unemployment be marginal? Or dramatic? Second, it doesn't have to be weakness or cowardice driving the Obama team's actions. If, for whatever reason, they've concluded that a second stimulus is simply politically impossible, then they're going to turn their attention elsewhere no matter what they think about it. That's just common sense. Third, even if a ton of political persuasion might (barely) push a second stimulus bill through, it might be too late. They might disagree with Krugman et. al. not on fundamental grounds, but simply on timing.

But despite all this, there's one pretty good reason to think that Tyler is basically right: tax cuts. Lefty economists might generally believe that increasing spending is a more efficient way of stimulating consumption than reducing taxes, but they'd almost certainly accept a big tax cut as an almost-as-good substitute. And tax cuts have two big advantages over spending. On the substantive side, they work faster. Spending takes time to work its way through the economy, but a tax cut (for example, a payroll tax holiday) boosts the economy almost immediately. And on the political side it's quite doable. Republicans would be persuadable because they love tax cuts and Democrats would be persuadable because it would help the economy. For Obama, then, it would be the best of all worlds: a fast stimulus that gets bipartisan support, something that boosts the economy while dampening the inevitable criticism he'd get for blowing up the deficit.

But he's not pushing for this. Not even quietly. And this suggests that Tyler is right: Obama's advisors might be in favor of further fiscal stimulus, but not by much. And the best explanation for this is that lefty or not, they're genuinely afraid, as Tyler says, that it would bring only marginal improvements at the cost of significant problems down the road.

But would it? I'd like to hear more about this. I feel like the liberal economic community is largely getting a free pass on this because the opposition has been so stupid: if you're arguing that inflation (or hyperinflation!) is a near-term threat that needs to be vigilantly opposed, it's pretty easy to explain why this is wrong. But the better argument is that inflation is a long-term threat that has to be contained early, because once the genie pokes its head out of the bottle it's very, very hard to stuff it back in. And the medicine it takes to do the stuffing is painful indeed.

Now, that argument might be wrong too. But because conservatives mostly aren't making it, liberals mostly aren't taking it on. But they should. Political realities being what they are, reining in the federal deficit will be hard even under the best of circumstances, and if we decide to make it worse now it's going to become even harder to rein in down the road. That's not a problem for today or tomorrow, but it might well be a problem in 2015. Right?

Griping About Obama

Can we please stop obsessing about Obama's acting abilities?

| Mon May 31, 2010 12:18 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass reins in his temper better than me today and writes lucidly about the moronic critiques of Barack Obama's emotional response to the BP oil spill, culminating in Maureen Dowd's angst this weekend over Obama's "inability to encapsulate Americans' feelings":

Ms Dowd's involvement is fitting, as this may be the sorriest spectacle of content-free public hyperventilation since Al Gore's earth tones. The difference is that in this case the issue is deadly serious; it's the public discourse that is puerile. There is plenty of room for substantive critique of the flaws in governance and policy uncovered by the Deepwater Horizon blowout. You could talk about regulatory failure. You could talk about corporate impunity. You could talk about blithely ignoring the tail-end risk of going ahead with deepwater drilling without any capacity to cope with catastrophic blowouts. Precisely none of these subjects are evident in the arguments our pundit class is having. Instead we have empty-headed squawking over what the catastrophe is doing to Barack Obama's image.

Look: no one knows how to stop this spill. It's not a matter of effort, it's a matter of the current state of human knowledge. As Matt says, the substantive critiques are fine (Obama should shut down all offshore drilling, he should send more workers to clean up the shore, he should use this as an opportunity to talk about clean energy, etc.), but witless griping about Obama's emotion level or his need to "take charge" is just dumb. Knock it off, everyone.

Nonfiction on the iPad

Does the iPad do a good job of rendering nonfiction on the screen?

| Sat May 29, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

I asked this once a while back, but now that the iPad has been out for a while I want to ask again: how good is it for reading nonfiction books? Specifically, I have two questions for iPad users who read a fair amount of nonfiction:

  • How good is the selection of nonfiction? (Obviously this will vary from person to person depending on what kind of nonfiction they read.)
  • How well is nonfiction rendered? That is, is the layout of tables, charts, images and so forth similar to a paper book?

I've read a ton of commentary about the iPad, but oddly little about how good it is as a book reader. But in my case, that would be its primary function, with all its computerish functions secondary. So what's the verdict, nonfiction fans?