Kevin Drum - August 2013

Did Stop-and-Frisk Reduce Crime in New York City?

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 5:06 PM EDT

Jack Dunphy, a pseudonymous LAPD police officer, writes today about a judge's decision to halt New York City's "stop and frisk" program:

Today’s Fox Butterfield Award goes to the New York Times, whose story on the ruling includes this: “These stop-and-frisk episodes, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline . . .”

I do not endorse, nor should any police officer endorse, extra-constitutional means to achieve law-enforcement ends, no matter how noble. But in the Bronx, a week ago Sunday, an NYPD officer shot and killed 14-year-old Shaaliver Douse as he, Douse, was attempting to shoot some rival gang member. Would it not be preferable that the police had stopped and frisked Douse before his crime than shot him after?

....Liberals, especially those who would never dare set foot in the Bronx, can rejoice at Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, then watch the bodies begin to pile up.

Dunphy obviously thinks the Times is being ridiculous: Crime is going down because of stop-and-frisk, so it takes some serious chutzpah to suggest that this is a good reason to end it. It's similar to liberal complaints about the Supreme Court's decision gutting the Voting Rights Act: How can you cite reduced voting discrimination as a reason that we no longer need the VRA when it's the VRA itself that was responsible for reduced voting discrimination?

Now, as it happens, Judge Scheindlin didn't ban stop-and-frisk. Pretty much every police department in the country does it in one form or another. She merely concluded that New York City had gone too far and turned it into de facto racial profiling. But Dunphy's comment illustrates why evidence is so important here, and in particular why I think the lead-crime link is worth further study even if most environmental lead is already gone and there's little chance of getting funding to clean up the rest.

If stop-and-frisk really is the reason crime has dropped so dramatically in the Bronx, then a judge would be justified in weighing this against the legal issues on the other side. Even decisions based on fundamental constitutional rights aren't rendered in a vacuum. But if reductions in atmospheric lead are the primary reason for the drop in crime, then stop-and-frisk really has no justification at all, and the judge's decision becomes an easy one. That's why it's worth getting a more definitive answer about this. Other cities have seen dramatic crime drops without expanding their stop-and-frisk programs as aggressively as New York, and it would sure be worthwhile to find out how and why that happened.

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Texas AG: We Don't Hate Blacks, Only Black Democrats

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 2:32 PM EDT

Ever since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Texas has been required to preclear any changes to its voting laws to ensure that they don't discriminate against blacks or other ethnic minorities. That ended in June when the Supreme Court voided the preclearance formula of the VRA, so Eric Holder has gone to court to ask that Texas be required once again to get preclearance. The current leaders of Texas, naturally, object. So in the face of mountains of evidence of discriminatory practices lasting all the way to the present day, what are their arguments?

Aside from some technical issues, there are two. And they're great! The first, according to Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, is that, sure, Texas has tried to discriminate as recently as 2011, but their efforts were overturned by a court. So that means there are no current violations, and thus no reason to grant any kind of "equitable relief." Second, there was never any racial intent to begin with:

DOJ’s accusations of racial discrimination are baseless. In 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats....The redistricting decisions of which DOJ complains were motivated by partisan rather than racial considerations, and the plaintiffs and DOJ have zero evidence to prove the contrary.

There's much more where that came from, including pages and pages of detailed defenses of various districting decisions and how they hurt white Democrats too. Will this argument pass judicial muster? You never know. The Supreme Court has indeed taken a pretty casual attitude recently toward voting laws in which states argue that blacks are just a kind of collateral damage. Mainly, though, Abbott's brief is notable for the gusto he brings to his defense of gerrymandering. As Jon Fasman notes, "Rarely does one see political gamesmanship admitted so openly, and I have to admit it's kind of refreshing to hear a politician decline to even pay lip-service to fairness. Mr Abbott seems to think that the VRA allows him to abrogate minority voting rights as long as he does so for partisan rather than overtly, provably racial reasons."

Abbott's arguments are pretty strained, as Fasman notes. Whether a court will strain to accept them is anyone's guess. They sure seem to be in a pretty straining mood these days, though.

California Bullet Train Update

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 12:25 PM EDT

Just thought you might like to know the latest:

In early 2012, state officials said construction would begin that year. Early this year, officials adjusted their sights, saying they would begin building the massive new transportation network in the spring, later announcing the groundbreaking would take place in July.

Now, it appears that serious construction may not begin this year, and could be delayed into 2014...."It is not as shovel-ready as they thought it was," said Bill Ibbs, a civil engineering professor at UC Berkeley who consults on major construction projects.

For the record, this is just for a single 29-mile segment from Fresno to....29 miles north of Fresno. It's pretty much the easiest section of track on the entire route. I can't wait to see what happens when they start trying to build some of the hard stuff.

On Friday, the President Treated Us Like 5-Year-Olds

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 10:15 AM EDT

This is ancient news by blog standards, but I still feel the need to comment on President Obama's singularly disingenuous remarks on Friday about Edward Snowden and the surveillance state. The fact that Obama doesn't consider Snowden a patriot comes as no surprise. Presidents don't generally approve of people who release large volumes of national secrets. But this was really too much:

Back in May...I called for a review of our surveillance programs....My preference — and I think the American people’s preference — would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws, a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place. Because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn't require potentially some additional reforms. That's exactly what I called for.

....There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board to go through, and I had sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through. It would have been less exciting. It would not have generated as much press. I actually think we would have gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country.

Please. Only a five-year-old would read that May speech and believe that Obama had any intention of either releasing significant information about our surveillance state or proposing any kind of serious reforms. That speech was mostly about drones—because, tellingly, Obama had been forced into it by recent news stories. In a 7,000-word speech, he devoted approximately three sentences to surveillance. It was little more than an afterthought, and his only concrete proposal, after four years in office, was a laughably buck-passing decision to set up a commission and then hope everyone would forget about the whole thing. Roger McShane called Obama's Friday press conference "surreal, in a Kafkaesque sort of way," but it was worse than that. It was a president treating us all like idiots. Does anyone seriously believe that even the very moderate reforms Obama has proposed so far would have seen the light of day if he hadn't been forced into it?

On a related note, Andrew Liepman, a former career CIA officer, says the NSA's surveillance programs are both useful and highly constrained:

Let me break this to you gently. The government is not interested in your conversations with your aunt, unless, of course, she is a key terrorist leader. More than 100 billion emails were sent every day last year—100 billion, every day. In that vast mass of data lurk a few bits that are of urgent interest and vast terabytes of tedium that are not. Unfortunately, the metadata (the phone numbers, length of contact, and so forth, but not the content of the conversations) that sketch the contours of a call to your family member may fall into the same enormous bucket of information that includes information on the next terrorist threat. As Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff of the CIA, memorably put it, "If you're looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack."

Unfortunately, during the Snowden affair, many news outlets have spent more time examining ways the government could abuse the information it has access to while giving scant mention to the lengths to which the intelligence community goes to protect privacy. We have spent enormous amounts of time and effort figuring out how to disaggregate the important specks from the overwhelming bulk of irrelevant data.

This misses the point entirely. Speaking for myself, I believe Liepman. There are probably abuses here and there, but basically the intelligence community really isn't interested in you unless you're a likely terrorist.

But someday there will be another attack. Maybe something homegrown. And Liepman won't be in charge. Some future administration will be in power at the time, and in the midst of national panic they might decide, in secret, to vastly expand the scope of how we make use of all this surveillance and who we decide to spy on domestically. That happened as recently as 2001, so it's not as though it's some kind of paranoid leap to think it could happen again if the capabilities exist. This is why I'd prefer to keep our capabilities constrained, and it's why I'd like rules set in public by Congress and the courts. That's no guarantee that we won't go crazy, but at least it forces us to take some time and deliberate over things. It's a thin reed, but at least it's a reed. Right now we've got nothing to rely on except the political courage of a single person we don't even know yet, and that's worth almost nothing at all.

We Need Better Painkillers

| Sun Aug. 11, 2013 6:19 PM EDT

One of the interesting things I've learned from various injuries and painful medical procedures over the past couple of decades is that my body apparently doesn't react at all to Vicodin and related painkillers. Every time I've broken something or had a minor surgical procedure the doctor always writes me a scrip for some kind of opioid painkiller, and I always fill the prescription and give it a try. This time I had some Vicodin still left over and unexpired from my last little accident, so I took one last night. No dice. If anything, I think it might have amplified the pain a little. Plain old Tylenol works better, though even that barely has any effect.

I wonder how common this is? It's kind of a drag that there doesn't seem to be any non-exotic way for me to relieve pain. I guess I can always try the supposed healing effects of having  a cat sit on my elbow and purr at it.

Personal Injury Report

| Sat Aug. 10, 2013 2:50 PM EDT

So I had an interesting morning. I went out frisbee golfing and I was doing great. I birdied #4 for the first time ever, and then threw a couple of perfect birdies on #5 and #6. What a great start! Then I took a step back to make room for my partner to throw, stepped on a rock, twisted my right ankle, and came crashing down on my left elbow. Seven X-rays later I learned that I had a bone chip in my ankle and a small fracture in my elbow. I can't use crutches to get around because my left arm is in a splint and a sling, and a wheelchair is no good because my house has steps and stairs all over the place. For now I'm hopping around on one foot with the aid of a cane and typing this blog post one-handed.

I think it's safe to say that blogging will be a little lighter than usual for a while. On the bright side, at least it's August, when nothing interesting happens anyway.

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Guns, Freedom, and Coal!

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 5:03 PM EDT

From an unnamed but enthusiastic supporter at a Kentucky political rally:

I'm here to support Senator McConnell because he's for guns, freedom and coal!

Um, OK. Are T-shirts available yet?

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 August 2013

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 2:01 PM EDT

Domino was supervising my blogging-related program activities earlier this week, which mostly consisted of making it hard to use the mouse so that I had no choice but to pay more attention to her. As usual, it worked. The gimlet-eyed among you will notice on the far left a notepad that's fallen over, a sure sign that Domino has been around. That little yellow pad is her absolute favorite place on my desk to scratch her chin.

This is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and my sister informs me that it's also Shark Cat Week on YouTube. As near as I can tell, this is traditionally celebrated by dressing your cat in a shark costume and then letting it ride around the kitchen on a Roomba. Go figure. As it happens, I need to buy a new vacuum cleaner, and until now I hadn't been considering a Roomba. But maybe I should.

The Odds of a Budget Deal in September Just Keep Getting Worse and Worse

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 1:12 PM EDT

Lori Montgomery reports that the folks who actually get down in the trenches and negotiate budget deals for Republicans are fleeing the capital:

With another showdown looming over the national debt, Washington insiders last month received some unsettling news: Rohit Kumar, a Republican aide who has played a key role in warding off disaster, is leaving Capitol Hill.

Kumar is the guy who came up with a way to sell a $700 billion bank bailout to anxious lawmakers in 2008 when the financial system was collapsing. And he’s the guy who figured out how to let conservatives raise the debt limit while voting against it in 2011 when the nation was days away from default.

....In addition to losing Kumar, McConnell has lost his longtime floor general, Dave Schiappa, who left after nearly three decades to take a job as vice president at the Duberstein Group, a downtown lobbying firm. And House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has lost his chief negotiator, Brett Loper, a policy expert who came close to hammering out a grand bargain with the White House in 2011. Loper left in June to become a lobbyist for American Express.

Democrats are disturbed by Kumar's departure in particular: "If you have to do business with the dark side, it’s better to negotiate with an evil genius than with someone who only knows how to say no and doesn’t understand the details," said one Obama aide who, for obvious reasons, declined to say this on the record.

So how are things going to go in September? Will budget and debt ceiling deals get made? Here are the reasons for optimism:

  • A fair number of Republicans think it would be suicidal to shut down the government.

And here are the reasons for pessimism:

  • The tea party has gotten tired of constant betrayal by Republican leaders and is more hunkered down than ever.
  • Mitch McConnell, who cut several of the most recent deals, is in a tough primary fight and can't afford to be seen as a compromiser this year.
  • John Boehner doesn't have even a pretense of control over his caucus anymore.
  • The exodus of top aides who actually did the spadework makes negotiations more polarizing than ever.
  • An awful lot of Republicans seem dead serious about this business of passing a budget only if it repeals Obamacare.
  • House Republicans have already demonstrated an inability to get agreement within their own caucus for even a fairly simple appropriations bill.

OK, I'll stop now. Let's just say that things look grim. The tea party lunatics are madder than ever, the guys in the trenches have given up, and the Republican leadership is MIA. Against that we have a few columnists bringing up the specter of 1995. But that was 18 years ago. For the modern conservative crowd, that might as well have been the Middle Ages. They're eager for a showdown, and I have a feeling they're going to get one.

Immigration Picture Exactly the Same Today as It's Always Been

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 12:06 PM EDT

I need some help with Drudge-ology. He's currently blaring the headline on the right, based on this story in The Hill:

Forty to 50 House Republicans will support immigration reform, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) predicted Thursday. Gutiérrez said many of the Republicans supportive of immigration reform don’t want to be identified, but he insisted they would support comprehensive immigration reform.

Um, who cares? Everyone either already knows or already suspects this is true. The key line in this story is the very last one:

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he will only bring an immigration bill to the House floor if it is supported by a majority of his conference.

Last I checked, 40 or 50 is not a majority of 240. So why is Drudge so excited about this? Is there something going on in conservo-land that I haven't kept up with? What's the deal?