Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
did bill clinton accelerate black mass incarceration? yes, but he did put a bunch of white people in prison to even it out
Pam Oliver has a fascinating post that empirically investigates incarceration trends during Clinton 1 era (1993-2001). It’s an impressive post. Professor Oliver pulls up a lot of data on overall incarceration rates and breaks it down by race. You should read it yourself, but here is my summary, diagrams are from her article:
- Imprisonment rates, overall, kept on increasing during the entire Clinton 1 presidency.
- By race, Black imprisonment rates increased till about 2000 and then plateaued. It started at 75/100,000 and then peaked around 200 per 100,000 and then stabilized. There are huge increases, in rates, for Whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Asian rates seem to be stable.
- The story of racial disparity is a bit more complex. Roughly speaking, the Blackness of the prison population peaked around 1995 (see below). Then the Black/White ratio in prisons began to decline.
My interpretation. First, you have to distinguish between between absolute and relative effects. To be blunt, Black mass incarceration in absolute terms unequivocally increased during the Clinton 1 years. Period. Perhaps the only qualifier is that it eventually stabilized, but the Black imprisonment rate never declined or even remotely went back to the levels of the 1980s or early 1990s. Mass incarceration was built in the 1980s and 1990s and it was here to stay.
The real question is why it stabilized. One hypothesis is that it was a policy effect. Perhaps in the late-1990s, there were policy changed that took effect circa 2000. A second hypothesis is that the prison system became saturated and there weren’t any more people to imprison from that population. Professor Oliver’s data are not enough to settle the question.
Second, the real story is in relative rates. Imprisonment became a much more equal system in the 1990s. In other words, prison shifted from being a Black institution to more of an all American institution. My hypothesis is that the drug war machine simply reached its limit in imprisoning Black and expanded by targeted low income white.
In this data, the American prison system appears as a hungry beast, ruthlessly scooping up low SES populations one at a time. After being built in the 1950s and 1960s by liberal reformers, the American justice system now had the power to quickly and swiftly punish people. In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican and Democratic administrations turned this machine on urban blacks and went unstopped until the early 2000s. The machine then turned to poor whites in the 1990s and a similar machine was built to imprison and deport Mexican and Central American migrants.
Francis Fukuyama wrote that we reached the end of history because liberal capitalism won over its socialist and fascist competitors. The sad truth is that the history must continue and the next chapter will be the struggle to liberate the world’s people from predatory prison states.
Over at National Review, I’ve seen some puzzling articles about Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate for president. First, there was an article that argued that Johnson was not truly libertarian. This strikes me as odd since politicians, especially successful ones like Johnson, are usually pragmatists, not college professors and it is strange for a conservative magazine to judge who is libertarian enough. Second, there was an article urging Johnson to court the right. This is also odd in that, aside from taxes and gun rights, libertarians have opposite beliefs from conservatives on issues ranging from migration, war, and cultural issues. These aren’t small differences. They’re YUGE.
Ultimately, though, libertarians should not court the right for practical and moral reasons. In practical terms, the libertarian-conservative alliance has been a complete failure. When libertarian candidates run for office within the GOP, they rarely get any support. In the last three presidential primaries, we’ve seen libertarian candidates run in the GOP and they have all failed miserably. Simply put, Republican voters have consistently rejected libertarians at almost every opportunity.
There is also policy. Except for the economic deregulation of the late 70s and early 80s, the conservative movement has sided against libertarians. Conservatives have supported nearly every single war in decades, they have sided with the expansion of police powers, they have sided with the war on drugs, they have stood for deportations of non-violent migrants, they have sided against women, minorities, and queer people when they have asked for civility and enforcement of rights, and they have sided with the massive expansion of the surveillance state after 9/11. How these stances emerge from a deep respect for individual people is beyond my ken. Whatever has been gained by the alliance of conservatives and libertarian is so paltry in stature that it requires a magnifying lens to observe.
Does this mean that libertarians should flock to liberals or the Democratic party? I don’t think so. One could easily write an equally long article about the incompatible aspects of modern liberalism. Libertarians, for example, are comfortable with wealth that is earned through the production of value, while liberals see economic inequality as inherently unfair or corrosive.
Instead, I suggest that libertarians approach politics through openness and bridge building. First, libertarians should stand their ground just as much as liberals or conservatives, but be open to interacting and cooperating with all manner of people. Not only is it smart for a movement that is a very small numerical minority, it is also consistent with the view that freedom of speech, diversity, and respect for others is part of the libertarian ethos. Second, libertarians should be a bridge. There are many issues where libertarians can maintain integrity while bringing things together instead of contributing to a polarized political environment. For example, libertarians can be part of the conversation on police powers that draws together concerned people on the left and right. In the end, what I want is a movement that makes the world a better place. That will happen with engagement and civility, not partisanship or pandering.
Philosophers are famous for thought experiments. You concoct a hypothetical situation in order to test a claim. Thought experiments are crucial because they force you think clearly about the limits of your claim. However, in practice, thought experiments leave people cold. They seem contrived and counter-intuitive. This post is about one way to help you evaluate whether a thought experiment is useful. I make no claims to originality, only usefulness.
Ethics motivates this discussion because ethicists are constantly cooking up thought experiments to test the limits of ethical theories. Let’s start with two examples:
- Trolley car problems (see the wiki for a history): In this situation, there is a runaway car. It is about to run over five people. If you pull a switch, it will run over one person. People die either way. Should you pull the switch?
- Wilt Chamberlain (from Nozick): Imagine that you live in a society with 100 people. Each person pays $1 to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Inequality is increased as Wilt becomes $100 wealthier and every one becomes $1 less wealthy. Is this a just state of affairs?
Independent of my ethical priors, I have always found trolley car problems to be bizarre and Wilt Chamberlain to be intuitive. It was only recently that I was able to articulate the difference. Trolley car problems, in my view, are rare, artificially constructed situations. Wilt Chamberlain is a crisp form of a common situation.
At the Washington Post blog, Ilya Somin has a column on why people who favor color blindness should also favor open borders. He starts off with a great quote from Abraham Lincoln:
In a famous 1855 letter, Abraham Lincoln drew a connection between racism and hostility towards immigrants, then epitomized by the nativist Know-Nothing movement:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
Lincoln understood the similarity between racial prejudice against blacks and xenophobic hostility to immigrants. That is one of the reasons why he took a favorable view of immigration throughout his career, and opposed efforts to exclude potential immigrants from the US or otherwise discriminate against them. So too did a good many other prominent 19th century opponents of slavery and racial discrimination, such as Frederick Douglass.
Republicans: if the founder, and possibly greatest president, of your party favored migration, maybe it’s time to soften up and mellow out about immigrants. Just sayin’.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about open borders at Wellesley College as a guest of the Freedom Project. My talk summarized the view that open borders is a “common grounds” position. People who are liberal and conservative should support it. It is trans-ideological and bipartisan in nature. The liberal argument for open borders is very easy to defend. The best way to end poverty and lessen inequality is simply letting people move to places where they are more economically productive. For libertarians, the issue is equally straightforward. Migration restriction is nothing but a barrier to trade and personal freedom.
The case for conservatives is a little more subtle because there is no single intuition that motivates conservative critiques of migration. In my talk at Wellesley, I broke it down this way. Each bullet point merits a longer discussion, but I present the summary here:
- “Retail conservatives:” The rank and file conservative might oppose migration because immigrants reduce employment for natives, increase crime, or create undue stress on social services. In these cases, research either shows that there is simply no evidence to back it up or that negative effects are way, way overblown. Additionally, retail conservatives who promote family values and self-reliance should applaud immigrants because they improve their economic situation through hard work, not hand outs.
- “Philosophical conservatives:” There is a strand of more sophisticated, philosophical conservatives that are motivated by the writings of folks like Burke and Oakeshott. One might summarize their view as a suspicion of radical change and social engineering. If so, the they should vehemently oppose closed borders. What is more radical than drawing a line and proclaiming that people on one side can’t move to the other? Aren’t migration controls an attempt at social engineering by legislators? Don’t borders violate the organic social order of communities?
- “Cultural conservatives:” Some conservative migration critics are worried that migration might undermine the valuable things about Western culture. I think there are a few sensible responses. First, Western culture has survived socialism, fascism, communism and a whole lot more. America is much tougher than waves of low skilled labor. Second, in public opinion research, one often finds that migrants aren’t terribly different than natives in terms of political opinion. Third, Western societies tend to “chill out” migrants. If you want to decrease the anti-Western sentiment in the world, let people migrate to the West and their kids will be much less hostile than those back in the home country.
To sum up, there are a number of conservative criticisms of open borders and there are a lot of very intuitive and strong responses.
My view of the Obama administration is that immigration reform is a second tier issue and they have little interest in pushing hard for change. For six years, Obama’s administration did little, or might have even encouraged, the massive increase in deportations, including those without criminal records. Obama proposed some extremely modest reforms which have had almost no effect on making it easier to lawfully move between nations. In some cases, he has been blocked in the courts. In other cases, the administration has been unable to properly implement its own very modest reforms.
For example, one reform was that children escaping from gang violence in Latin America could apply for asylum. Seems reasonable, but not when you learn that 0 children out of 5,400 applicants have actually moved to the United States from crime ridden nations. From The New York Times:
“Really, it’s pathetic that no child has come through this program,” said Lavinia Limón, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit organization. Pointing to administration officials, she added, “I wonder if it were their child living in the murder capital of the world, whether they would have more sense of urgency.”
When you read the details of the policy, you quickly realize that the policy was never intended to actually let anyone in. Like most immigration policy, the rules are designed to prevent migration, not make it legal:
State Department officials said the program was also slowed by the requirement of DNA tests for parents in the United States and their children in Central America before the children could be granted entry. The officials said some parents had taken a long time to have those tests performed, further extending the delays. The process also includes security checks, medical screenings, payments for airline flights, and other paperwork.
It should be no surprise that people in impoverished areas would have problems with paying for medical tests, paternity tests, airline tickets, and endless paperwork. Most native born Americans would be hard pressed to produce this amount of materials.
In my book, Obama will go down as the deporter of children, many to their deaths. May his successor see the world as a place for free people.
Chandran Kukathas is the chair of the government department at the LSE. On the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, he discusses why we should see border restrictions and apartheid in the same light. A few key clips:
Here’s where immigration controls in liberal democracies and apartheid in South Africa after 1948 share some similarities. In both cases the effectiveness of the policies depends in the end on controlling not just outsiders but also insiders – citizens and residents. It is widely assumed that immigration control is a matter of keeping people from entering a country, and the rhetoric of control encourages this impression. Cities, public facilities, and social services are routinely described as bursting at the seams or stretched to the limit, unable to cope with sudden influxes of large numbers of foreigners, or the growth of a population swelling steadily because of a positive rate of net migration.
This was the logic of Apartheid. Controlling who could enter from the bantustans required controlling the movement of black people within white society. The so-called ‘pass laws’ that first appeared in the nineteenth century to limit and control the movement of black labour, were extended to require both male and female Africans to carry ‘reference books’ detailing among other things, employment record, marital status, taxes paid, and official place of residence—and failure to carry the ‘dompas’ eventually became a criminal offence punishable by a prison sentence. By 1970 not only Blacks but also Whites, Coloureds and Asians were issued with (though not all were obliged to carry) similar documents under the Population Registration Amendment Act. Even when it is possible to identify some people readily, by skin colour or other other visible characteristics, it is not easy to control them without controlling others.
Indeed. A classic case of how a perverse policy corrupts all that is around it. Once you criminalize movement, you criminalize employers, landlords, and schools who might wish to interact with immigrants. But Kukathas holds back from a more fundamental comparison. Both apartheid and border controls are essentially forms of social control aimed at outsiders. In apartheid, the division is racial. For border controls, it is both national and racial, in that the harshest regulations are aimed at low status ethnic groups (e.g., Mexican laborers are more likely to be raided than college students whose visas are expired).