Prison in Paradise

There's no political spin to this story at all, but I'm putting it up anyway just for its entertainment value:

The tiny jail on Catalina Island is hardly Alcatraz. Just ask Frank Carrillo. The pro golfer turned jewel thief couldn't believe his luck when he was moved out of his bleak Men's Central Jail cell in downtown L.A. and allowed to do his time on the sunny tourist isle.

But things got even cushier when he met a Los Angeles County sheriff's captain interested in shaving a few strokes off his golf game. Carrillo said Capt. Jeff Donahue escorted him in a patrol Jeep to a hilltop golf course last summer. There, dressed in his yellow inmate jumpsuit, Carrillo said, he gave the captain pointers on how to improve his swing and reduce a double-digit handicap.

....Carrillo, who compared his time in jail for multiple felonies to "hitting the lotto," thought Donahue should be emulated, not investigated. "He was amazing to me," said Carrillo, who believes the captain benefited from his lesson.

"He kind of has this swing that's old school and risky, but he hits it every time," Carrillo said in a phone interview. "I would probably say he's a 14 or 15 handicap. Not too bad."

No need to say more. You had me at "pro golfer turned jewel thief." I smell quirky buddy movie here — maybe with Owen Wilson as the roguish golfer/jewel thief and Morgan Freeman as the gruff but likeable sheriff. Let's do lunch.

Are conservatives more anti-science than liberals? In The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney says they are, and he says this is due to innate temperamental differences between left and right. On Friday I wrote a short post saying I was skeptical about this, and today I'm going to spell out my objections in a little more detail. Tomorrow Chris will reply.

I should make clear at the start that I'm not skeptical of the idea that there are fundamental differences in worldview that drive people to become political liberals or conservatives. Far from it. In fact, I'm on board with this idea completely. I'm quite persuaded that there are a small number of basic cognitive traits that drive a lot of our political differences, and that most of the time we're not even aware they exist. These traits developed via interactions of both biological evolution and cultural evolution, and they've been confirmed by a wide body of research (anthropology, MRI scans, psychological testing, etc.).

So why am I skeptical in particular about the idea that conservative attitudes toward science as a discipline arise from one or more of these innate cognitive traits? I have three reasons.

Reason the first: When you read arguments that conservatives are anti-science, the bill of particulars is often fairly long. But really, there are only two big-ticket items: evolution and climate change. The rest is either small beer or highly arguable. But really, how central to conservative thought can these two things be? After all, mainstream conservative Europeans don't deny climate science and conservative Catholics don't deny evolution. 

What's more, conservative suspicion toward both evolution and climate science is pretty easy to explain. Doubt about evolution is obviously bound up with religious belief, which makes it little more than a subset of the fact that conservatives tend to be more literally religious than liberals and American conservatives tend toward the evangelical Protestant strain of literalism.1 And doubt about climate change is obviously motivated by a dislike of the business regulation that would be necessary if we took climate change seriously. So that's just pure self interest. I really don't think you need the sledgehammer of innate cognitive traits to explain either of these beliefs. Simpler explanations will do.

Reason the second: There are too many steps involved. If you tell me, say, that conservatives tend to value in-group loyalty more than liberals and are more sensitive to outside threats, I don't have a hard time buying the idea that this produces high levels of nationalism and support for the military. That's a pretty simple extrapolation. But what's the cognitive trait that makes you anti-science? Not just skeptical of one or two particular results, but skeptical of science in general. You can probably invent a just-so story with two or three steps to get there, but I'd take it with a big grain of salt.

Reason the third: Liberals do it too. Anyone remember the science wars of the '80s and '90s? That brawl didn't get the headlines that climate change and evolution do today, but it was just as big and just as important. And in this case, it was the academic left that was vitriolically opposed to a new and emerging science. In particular, they were opposed to the emerging science of—ta-da!—innate cognitive traits and their effect on human behavior. And the reason the left was opposed to this science (and still is, to some extent) is because they didn't like some of the conclusions you get when you acknowledge that human cognition is partly determined by biology. This isn't a perfect analogy to climate skepticism, which has grown even as the science has become more certain, but it shares a lot of the same features.

Movement conservatives are interested in building institutions that provide their followers with reliably conservative answers to social and political problems. That's hardly a surprise. Likewise, they're interested in delegitimizing institutions that are either liberal or neutral and therefore don't provide their followers with reliably conservative answers. That's also no surprise, and it explains why they attack the institutions of science, mainstream journalism, entertainment, and academia in general.

There's a complex interplay of biology and culture that produces liberals and conservatives in the first place. But once a conservative movement is in place, it's inevitable that it will attack conclusions it doesn't like and institutions that aren't on board with the conservative agenda. That includes the institutions of science to some extent and a few specific scientific results to a very large extent. But that's just common sense. I don't think you need evolutionary psychology to explain it.

1The deeper religiosity of conservatives is probably due in part to some innate cognitive trait. But that's a separate thing. Skepticism of evolution is just a subset of that cognitive trait, combined with a healthy dose of path dependence within American Protestantism, not the result of some kind of generalized anti-science trait.

Did you know that the richest 1% of Americans pay 21% of all taxes? That's a lot! But do you know why they pay 21% of all taxes? It's because they make 21% of all the income.

Suddenly that doesn't seem all that unfair, does it? In fact, the rich are doing mighty well for themselves if we basically have a flat tax in America. And as it turns out, they are, and we do: the federal tax system is modestly progressive, but state and local taxes are modestly regressive. Add 'em all up and you end up with a pretty flat tax system. Here are the numbers for 2011 from Citizens for Tax Justice:

Click the link for information about tax rates. All told, Americans pay about 28% of their income in taxes.1 The poor and working class pay a bit less, but the entire top half of the income spectrum, from middle class to super rich, pays almost exactly the same rate, around 29-30% of their income. Not a bad deal for the wealthy.

1In case you're curious, that's about 24% of GDP. Roughly speaking, we pay about 15% of GDP in federal taxes and 9% of GDP in state and local taxes.

Yesterday, referring to the Trayvon Martin case, I asked whether "wrestling someone to the ground and throwing some punches" was enough to count as a reasonable fear of great bodily harm, the standard in Florida for defending yourself with lethal force. Today, a reader sent me a link to a Sunday piece in the Tampa Bay Times, and the answer sure seems to be yes. The detailed tick-tock of exactly who did what that night is interesting in the court of public opinion, but apparently it matters not a whit as far as the law is concerned:

"The real issue is what happens around the 60 seconds prior to the shooting," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which brought the charges against Greyston Garcia. "Everything else has emotional content, but from a legal perspective, it all comes down to the 60 seconds before the incident."

It doesn't matter if you're the one who initiated the confrontation. It doesn't matter where you are, as long as you have a right to be there. It doesn't even matter if you shoot someone who's fleeing. All that seems to matter is whether you have any kind of plausible claim to have feared great bodily harm. Here's a recent case:

Nine days after Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Sanford, Brandon Baker, 30, and his twin brother were driving separate cars toward the apartment they shared in Palm Harbor. Seth Browning, a 23-year-old security guard who later told deputies he was concerned with Baker's erratic driving, pulled in close behind Baker to get his license tag number.

Baker turned off East Lake Road, then onto an access road and came to a stop....Browning followed and stopped....Baker climbed out of his truck and walked to Browning's window. His brother [] said Baker was trying to figure out why Browning was tailgating him.....Browning sprayed Baker with pepper spray, then shot him in the chest. He told deputies that Baker had punched him and he was in fear for his life.

....More than 500 people have signed their online petition to get "stand your ground" repealed. "This case is being considered a 'stand your ground' case and should not be since Seth Browning was the sole 'AGGRESSOR' and 'CHOSE' to tailgate, pull over, pepper spray, and shoot and kill Brandon Baker," it says. "Seth Browning did NOT act out of self defense and should be prosecuted for killing Brandon Baker."

But if history serves, the pursuit may not matter. The case will hinge on what happened in the moments before Browning pulled the trigger, and whether he feared for his life. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri said this week that the case is still under investigation.

The whole story is fascinating and well worth a read. And while I'm no lawyer, it certainly seems to suggest that if George Zimmerman ever goes to trial, prosecutors will have a tough time winning a conviction.

UPDATE: In the third paragraph I originally said, "It doesn't matter if you're the one who started the fight." That was sloppy. The story itself suggests that it doesn't matter who "initiated the confrontation." That's legally a different thing. I've corrected the text.

Is there an easy solution to the problems of Europe's south? Well, one of the eurozone's fundamental problems is that (a) workers in the GIPSI countries are uncompetitive and (b) the GIPSI countries are running persistent trade deficits. They need to import less while Europe's core (especially Germany) needs to export less.

So how do you make workers more competitive? One way is to simply cut their pay, but that's hard. Another way is to substantially reduce payroll taxes, which reduces labor costs without cutting take-home pay.

And how do you discourage imports? One way is to devalue your currency, but countries in the eurozone can't do that. Another way is to raise your VAT, which makes goods more expensive.

Put those together, mix in some more sensible monetary policy, and you get "fiscal devaluation" plus higher inflation. That's the recommendation of Georgetown's Jay Shambaugh, glossed here by Matt Yglesias:

  1. A pro-exports tax swap in peripheral countries where payroll taxes are slashed and the money is made up with higher VAT.
  2. A pro-consumer tax swap in the core countries, where VATs are slashed and the lost revenue is made up with a combination of bigger deficits and higher payroll taxes.
  3. A higher inflation target from the European Central Bank.

Shambaugh also recommends increased ECB purchases of sovereign debt; capital injections into stressed banks; and bigger budget deficits in "non-stressed" countries. This all sounds surprisingly....reasonable. And even doable. It still wouldn't be easy, since there would very definitely be some losers from this kind of policy, but it's not flatly impossible. That's a start.

As long as we're obsessing about the Supreme Court this morning, I might as well make another point that's been on my mind lately: If the Supreme Court overturns Obamacare, it would be their third major anti-Democratic decision in the past dozen years. That's capital-D Democratic. As in the political party.

When it comes to judicial activism, conservatives claim that we liberals have nothing to complain about. The Warren Court was famously activist in a liberal direction, after all, and we lefties thought that was just fine. But there's a real difference here. The famous Warren Court decisions — ending school segregation, expanding the right to counsel, enforcing one-man-one vote, banning organized school prayer — were obviously decisions that conservatives didn't like. But there was nothing in them that was especially damaging to the interests of the Republican Party.

But things are different this time around. In 2000, Bush v. Gore sent the Democratic Party's candidate for president packing and installed George W. Bush in the Oval Office. In 2010, Citizens United opened the floodgates of corporate campaign money, a ruling that very plainly disfavored the Democratic Party on a purely operational basis. And if Obamacare is overturned, it will be a decision that kills off the Democratic Party's biggest legislative achievement in decades.

The current Supreme Court is obviously more conservative than we liberals would like, but that's what happens when the other guys win elections. To some extent, them's the breaks. But to hand down decision after decision that very plainly opposes the agenda of one party over another is quite another. If there's an argument to be made that the court is endangering its legitimacy, this is it. It's not just that overturning Obamacare would be a prodigious repudiation of major legislation based on a very small and questionable point of constitutional law, it's that it would hammer home the point that this court just doesn't like the Democratic Party much. That's not something that either Democrats or Republicans really ought to be comfortable with.

Speaking of constitutional history, Andrew Koppelman has an interesting piece today in the New Republic about a 1918 case that's surprisingly apropos of today's fight over Obamacare — and the conservative fear that upholding it would mean that Congress has been fully unleashed and can now do anything it damn well pleases. Back then, it was about a new federal law that banned the interstate shipment of the products of child labor:

The parallels between the child labor issue and the health care issue are remarkable. In both cases, the legislation in question was the product of a decades-long struggle....Only the federal government could address the issue, since no state would act on its own....Both then and now, challengers to the statutes had to propose that the Supreme Court invent new constitutional rules in order to strike them down. At the time it considered the issue in 1918, there was nothing in the Supreme Court’s case law that suggested any limit on Congress’s authority over what crossed state lines. On the contrary, the Court had upheld bans on interstate transportation of lottery tickets, contaminated food and drugs, prostitutes, and alcoholic beverages.

That’s why the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the law in 1918 astounded even those who had most strenuously opposed enactment. Hammer v. Dagenhart declared — in tones reminiscent of the Broccoli Objection to Obamacare — that if it upheld the law “all freedom of commerce will be at an end, and the power of the States over local matters may be eliminated, and, thus, our system of government be practically destroyed.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, dissenting, wondered how it could make sense for congressional regulation to be “permissible as against strong drink but not as against the product of ruined lives.” The Court responded that unlike all the contraband that it had permitted Congress to block, the products of child labor “are of themselves harmless.” This meant a completely novel constitutional doctrine: The Court took unto itself the power to decide which harms Congress was permitted to consider when it regulated commerce.

If Obama is going to delve into Supreme Court history to defend healthcare reform, maybe he should skip Lochner and Schechter and instead talk about the Supreme Court's overreach in Dagenhart. Reminding the country that a conservative court once overruled Congress and stood up for the right of 9-year-olds to operate power looms twelve hours a day might bring a little perspective to things.

Speaking to reporters yesterday about his healthcare reform legislation, President Obama suggested that "a law like that" — i.e., one that clearly regulates interstate commerce — "has not been overturned at least since Lochner, right? So we're going back to the '30s, pre-New Deal." James Taranto is simply outraged:

In fact, Lochner — about which more in a moment — was decided in 1905. Thirty years later, after the New Deal had begun, the high court unanimously struck down one of its main components, the National Industrial Recovery Act, as exceeding Congress's authority under the Interstate Commerce Clause. The case was A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S.  (1935).

....In citing Lochner, the president showed himself to be in over his head. The full name of the case, Lochner v. New York, should be a sufficient tip-off. In Lochner the court invalidated a state labor regulation on the ground that it violated the "liberty of contract"....Lochner, which was effectively reversed in a series of post-New Deal decisions, did not involve a federal law — contrary to the president's claim — and thus had nothing to do with the Commerce Clause, which concerns only the powers of Congress.

This cracks me up. It's true that Obama got this wrong. Clearly he hasn't been brushing up on his con law cases lately. But I'd be surprised if a single person in the original Republican primary field had even heard of Lochner or Schechter. As I recall, in 2008 Sarah Palin couldn't even name a single Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade.

Conservatives have long been desperate to paint Obama as an idiot — when they're not busy painting him as a Harvard elitist, that is — but if the best they can do is to feign outrage over the fact that Obama mis-cited a century-old Supreme Court case, they're digging pretty deep. If that represents the outside boundaries of Obama's ignorance, I'd say we have a pretty well-briefed president.

UPDATE: Okay, two things. First, it was a wee bit hyperbolic to suggest that none of the Republican primary candidates had heard of Lochner or Schechter. Several of them are law school grads, and those are famous cases. They've probably heard of them.

Second, one of the common defenses of Obama is that he meant to say "Lochner Era," which is just shorthand for the era from 1905 to the mid-30s, during which the Supreme Court routinely struck down laws that regulated commercial interests. Maybe so. But he specifically mentioned "pre New Deal," and the Lochner Era goes at least until 1935, when Schechter was handed down. That was very famously a New Deal case (it overturned the NIRA), not pre-New Deal. So that doesn't really fit.

Generally speaking, I've been a little surprised at how careless Obama has been on all this. His original statement that overturning ACA would be "unprecedented" was pretty sloppy. As it happens, I think it would be unprecedented in recent history, but you need to say that, and then say at least a few words about why it would be unprecedented. And the Lochner stuff was sloppy too. I'm not sure why he hasn't been a little more careful in his choice of words.

Nonetheless, listening to conservatives wail about a minor bit of imprecision in a small corner of con law history is a little hard to take, as is their frenzied suggestion that Obama was repudiating the whole concept of judicial review. Coming from a party that makes ridicule of pointy-headed, book-learnin' elites practically a litmus test for the presidency, it's a bit much.

This is mostly in the pointless frivolity category, but the chart below from Matt Glassman shows total annual volume of email received by Congress since 1996. Matt has a few observations about what this all means, which you should read, but what I'm curious about is the huge drop in 2008-09. What happened? Matt says it's a technical artifact: "The large peak in 2007 and the drop-off following it are almost certainly due to the explosion of more intelligent spam and the corresponding adoption of powerful new and improved spam filters in both chambers that year."

If that's true — and corroboration would be welcome from anyone with working knowledge of this stuff — it's an object lesson in statistical analysis. Land mines are everywhere! If you saw this chart and concluded, say, that the financial crisis had somehow wiped out people's desire to email their congresscritters, and then built an elaborate theory around that guess, you'd be totally wrong. It would be a perfectly reasonable theory, but it would be wrong. In reality, nothing interesting happened at all. Caveat emptor.

For the last year or two, the standard MO in Europe has been pretty straightforward: a crisis of some kind every five or six months, followed by a solution that everyone claims will finally fix things, followed by yet another crisis. It's about time for the next one, and Spain appears to be the most likely source this time around:

Spain has set off further alarm bells among bond investors and its crisis-hit eurozone neighbours by conceding that its debts will balloon this year to their highest level for two decades....Despite announcing its most austere budget for more than 30 years last week, Spain's government admitted on Tuesday that the debt-to-GDP ratio will jump to 79.8% in 2012 from 68.5% last year.

....Nerves around Spain's creditworthiness — whose economy is twice the size of that of Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined — had settled somewhat since the depths of the eurozone debt crisis last year. But recent days have brought renewed fears in financial markets and among fellow eurozone members that Spain could be the biggest threat to their future.

Yep, that's a shocker. Spain's most austere budget in three decades has produced a terrible economy, which in turn is producing even bigger deficits. Who could have predicted it?

As usual, it's not as if there are any easy solutions here, so I suppose excessive snark isn't really justified. Still, it's not as if no one saw this coming. And it's inevitable that these crises will continue popping up every few months until, one way or another, Europe solves its fundamental problems. That still doesn't seem to be anywhere on the horizon. In the meantime, keep your seatbelts fastened.