Political Stuff

The American Revolutionaries might have been Thugs

It’s really odd, actually, how the myth of the American founding that I learned in elementary school is reasonably transparent about the fact that this country was founded by thugs who had no respect for the rule of law or other people’s property.

The canonical example is the Boston Tea Party — Americans (disguised as Native Americans as they were too cowardly to show their faces) boarded British ships in the dead of night and threw their cargo into the harbor. In other words, rioting thugs destroyed an innocent capitalist’s property to advance their radical (maybe even revolutionary!) political agenda.

But turns out that’s not the only example. There’s also this lovely case of Americans literally burning a merchant’s ship in Maryland for trying to bring British Tea to shore (“The Annapolis Tea Party”).

Here’s a list of about ten other such incidents in which American rioters  vandalized tea merchants. From Charleston to Maine to Maryland to  New York City, the American way was to disobey the law and smuggle tea from the Dutch and loot and burn the British boats.

Also, there’s the whole, George Washington and the Continental Army crossing the Delaware to kill British soldiers while they celebrated Christmas. I remember learning this fact more or less as a testament to the cunning and bravery of Washington. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a person who really believed that Jesus’s Birth was the transformative moment in human history could disrespect Christmas so much.

(Godless thugs, I reckon.)

There’s a Facebook meme going around about white people’s attitudes towards destruction of property in reference to the Boston Tea Party, which of course prompted me to write this. I’m not really sure what the political ramifications of this are. I think riots are scary as hell, but they are also a foreign language to me. I don’t want anyone’s boats or CVS’s to be burned. But God damn, surely Black Bodies are worth some tea.

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Nashville’s Policing Data Show Uneven Racial Burden from Operation Safer Streets

Operation Safer Streets (or OSS for short) has become the epicenter of Nashville’s debates over policing and racial justice. Every weekend, the MNPD funnels police officers to hotspots for gangs or crime, arguing that a visible police-presence deters crime. Since 2011, OSS has resulted in more than 5,000 arrests and 50,000 vehicle stops, according to WKLN.

Racial justice activists have criticized the program as disproportionately targeting black, immigrant, and low-income neighborhoods. As Nashville Black Lives Matter has said, Safer Streets “mostly targets innocent people for doing the same things that people in Green Hills do without punishment.”

MNPD touts OSS in regular press releases reporting the number of vehicle stops, arrests, and drug seizures they (in their words) “netted” each week. After extracting the text from these articles with some code, I identified which streets, blocks, and intersections have been targeted. [1]

And after looking at the numbers, what BLM and others have been saying is right: Nashville Safer Streets is not color-blind. Its burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.

In total, seventy-percent of Census Block Groups in Nashville are majority-white, according to the 5-year estimate of the American Community Survey. Yet 60% of areas targeted by Nashville Safer Streets were mostly non-white, and 25% of targeted areas were more than 90% non-white.

Plotting OSS actions alongside the racial composition of Nashville’s neighborhoods is striking. They are concentrated in three mostly black areas (North Nashville, the remaining black neighborhoods of East Nashville, and the Chestnut-Hill Area of South Nashville) and one mostly immigrant community (Antioch along Nolensville Pike).

Racial Burden of OSS

This matters. As Michelle Alexander notes, America’s syndrome of mass incarceration begins with overpolicing and ends with the economic and familial disruption of communities of color. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be arrested for drug-crimes despite lower drug use, and more likely to get jail time. They are more likely to be stopped in part because of policies like OSS.

My experiences as a Vanderbilt student highlight this disparity. On the weekends, I saw plenty of drug use. But the police didn’t regularly stop our vehicles and search us on the weekends, like they do in low-income, predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

And I’m glad they didn’t. Because plenty of us, who are now going to graduate school or law school or working good jobs, would have had our future prospects shattered if drug use was treated the same way on Greek Row as Lafayette Street, which has been targeted 77 times in the last few years by OSS.

The traditional response from the Police is that they target these predominantly black and low-income areas because they are known to be hubs of “gang-activity.”  But this is self-fulfilling. If police systematically stop cars in poor neighborhoods, that is where they will find cars with drugs.

At the end of the day, the question is, does Operation Safer Streets actually make us safer? I don’t think it does. OSS neglects the root causes of gang violence. It extracts tax revenue from the poorest neighborhoods in the form of citations and court fees. And it subjects tens of thousands of Nashvillians to arbitrary stops, undermining trust in law enforcement and, as recent events have shown, opening the door to a potentially violent encounter with law enforcement.

After all, what starts with a traffic stop ends too-often with a dead black man.


[1] I converted each street to a latitude-longitude coordinate that represents its central location, using the Google Maps API. (I deleted from this data some streets like Old Hickory Boulevard and Dickerson Pike that were too vague to make any real inferences about where police activity occurred.) Next I matched each of these areas with its Census Block Group (the smallest Census area with data, comprising, on average, about 2000 people) to see whether non-white communities were disproportionately affected.

When Knowledge Becomes Power—Academics who became politicians

Since I’m studying (or, really, am about to start studying) academic political science towards a PhD in Government, I get asked a lot if I want to become a politician, which seems like a strange question to me. Anyhow, it raises the interesting question of how often academics become politicians. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find other pre-compiled lists, so I made my own (obviously-incomplete) one.

Short answer: probably not that often, at least in electoral politics; there are tons of academics appointed to technocratic positions in government. As the Harvard Crimson writes in a piece about Elizabeth Warren:

As advisers and appointed officials, professors often lend expertise to a perpetually fluctuating brain trust that waxes and wanes with the fate of each party. They are the force behind many of the commissions and agencies that make the government run.

Very few, however, actually run for office. In the past 100 years, the list of prominent professors who ran and won national office is brief, and the list of those who ran and lost is not much longer.

For certain offices, it’s not hard to find academics; Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleeza Rice, for examples, were political science academics, or Solicitor Generals like Elena Kagan who were law Professors (or Federal Reserve Bankers like Bernanke who were Economics Professors). According to this Economist article, academics comprise a fair-share of politicians, especially in Egypt (though the article doesn’t detail how it defines politician, such as whether high-level bureaucrats are counted).

Powered by some vigorous, if not terribly systematic, searching of the internet, I made the following list of academic-politicians.  Here are some academics who tried electoral politics:

  1. Elizabeth Warren – The liberal Senator from Massachusetts and a well-known brand, Warren was a prestigious Harvard Law Professor before entering politics. She was head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her election as Senator.
  2. Barack Obama – Speaking of law Professors who became Senators, the President comes to mind.
  3. Pablo Iglesias – He was a political science lecturer at the University of Madrid, before becoming a member of the European Parliament and leader of the nascent leftist, anti-establishment party Podemos in 2014.
  4. Alexander Van der Bellen, the President-elect of Austria from the Green Party after winning a run-off election in May 2016, is a retired Economics Professor at the University of Vienna.
  5. Woodrow Wilson (American President in from 1913-1921) was a Professor of Political Science before entering politics.
  6. Harold Laski – A bit less impressive than the people so-far; Laski was an economist at LSE and chaired the British Labour Party in 1945-1946.
  7. Robert Reich, the liberal economist (affiliated with Brandeis and UC Berkley) and author, ran (and lost, placing second in a crowded field) in the Democratic-primary for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. (Reich was also Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton).
  8. H. Stuart Hughes, a liberal academic, ran and lost an election for Massachusetts senate seat in 1962.
  9. Phil Gramm, once a Professor of Economics, served as a Democratic Congressman (1979–1983), a Republican Congressman (1983–1985) and a Republican Senator (1985–2002) from Texas.
  10. Enrique Márquez Jaramillo – I don’t think he falls into the “boring academic technocratic appointees” category but neither was he elected. Jaramillo, a Mexican politician, poet, and academic, was involved in municipal government in San Luis Potosi and a professor of sociology, among other political projects. Seems pretty left of center.
  11. Greg Rabidoux, a political science Professor at Austin Peay State University, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) in 2010.

Many of these people are quite new, which is probably a recency bias of some kind. Or we academics are only beginning to flex our muscles in the realm of state power, haha.

Is there systematic gender discrimination in Metro Nashville Employment? Part 1

Using the same municipal employee data from data.nashville.gov as the previous post, here I am looking at whether there is evidence of gender discrimination in the salaries of Metro Nashville government employees. Obviously this is a pretty complicated issue, and I am only really going to scratch the surface of it. Mostly this is just a fun exercise for me.

Okay, so where to begin: First, I think, it makes sense to begin by just comparing mean salaries by gender. If this doesn’t show evidence of discrimination, then there isn’t much merit it going further.

In fact, as the next two figures show, there’s a pretty big difference in mean salaries between men and women.

salary v gender

t test salaries

The mean salary of men among municipal employees is $7,487 higher than for women. Not surprisingly, this is statistically significant, so the observed gap is more than what we would expect due to chance if mean salaries were equal. (It’s not shown but an f-test showed unequal variances between the two groups of salaries, which is why I assumed unequal variances for the t-test).

But wait – maybe men tend to be over-represented in full-time work while women tend to be overrepresented in part-time work. That could explain the observed difference, not discrimination (although I think that could still show evidence of systematic disadvantages [or at least disincentives] for women in employment).

And, indeed, it is the case that there is this kind of difference employment status between these two groups.

women in part time

chisq emply status gender

However, this doesn’t fully explain the difference in salaries. Even within these categories, men are paid more than women.more emply gender

A difference remains. Mean salary is $46,000 for full-time women vs $52,000 for full-time men – a difference of $6,000 or about 80% of the difference we observed without any adjustment. Tangent: why part time wages for women are slightly higher is a puzzle – when I looked at median instead of mean, this went away, and so the median part-time man earns more. This probably means there are outliers distorting the picture for part-time (some part-time women is getting paid much higher than average, perhaps??).

Another important check is difference in job. Using EEOC reported job categories, I can look at whether women and men tend to be working different sorts of jobs, thus explaining the different salaries.eeoc

And indeed, there’s a visually apparent (and statistically significant; Pearson’s X^2 < 0.0001) difference in the frequencies of jobs by gender. A much larger percentage of women are doing “administrative support” ($35,000 annually) and “para-professional” ($26,000) work. A larger percentage of men are doing “Professional work” ($53,000) or “technicians” ($58,000).

So this is another thing to account for, since it could be driving differences in salaries. I think the differential prevalence of women in the professionals category could signal some important inequities but is not per se discrimination in the sense of unequal pay for the same work. To try to give a more comprehensive account of what’s driving salary, I can do a multivariate regression.

I will do this tomorrow! Oh, the suspense.

Playing around with Nashville Open Data – $400 million on government salaries!

I found that the government of Nashville has some open data at https://data.nashville.gov. I messed around with a couple of employment datasheets and made some graphs.

Mean Salary vs Ethnicity

Mean annual salary by ethnicity

Mean Annual Salary by Job Category

mean annual salary by job category

Interestingly, elected officials are not the highest paid category.

Metro Nashville Salaries

metro nashville salaries

In total, annual salaries for Metro Nashville government employees is more than $400 million.

[Featured Image Credit: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/nashville-skyline-dan-holland.jpg]

Two odd side-effects of drug prevention campaigns

A Washington Post article today reveals a new cannabis prevention campaign targeting teenagers in Colorado. Unfortunately, the state which has shown the freethinking boldness to legalize marijuana for adults is implementing some of the same, long-debunked nonsense typical of drug prevention efforts. The campaign uses human-sized rat cages, adopting the mantra that teenagers using marijuana are lab rats for the study of how weed corrupts the vulnerable teenage brain. The campaign will rear its ugly head basically everywhere a teen might go: school, malls, movie theaters, concert venues, skate parks, and Rockies games.

Unfortunately, the campaigners haven’t been keeping up with the research documenting that such media campaigns not only fail to curb teenage drug use; they actually come with a variety of negative side effects.

1. Drug prevention campaigns normalize drug use

As an article in the Journal of Epidemiological Health explains:

Since 1998, the National Youth Anti‐Drug Media Campaign in the USA has received more than US$1.2 billion of government funds to develop and deliver interventions designed to prevent primarily cannabis use in young people. Through a variety of media resources, it has tried to foster antidrugs attitudes by portraying the negative consequences (eg poor academic achievement) and by using positive peer support, role models and developing drug‐refusal skills. However, comprehensive evaluation of the campaign (validated by the US government2) found no evidence that exposure to it affected initiation or cessation of cannabis use or antidrugs attitudes. Given previous research on such didactic techniques, it is perhaps not surprising that the campaign failed to achieve positive health changes.3,4 However, this does not mean that such well‐targeted and easily recalled social marketing campaigns achieved no change at all. Importantly, greater exposure to the US anti‐drug advertisements was associated with an increase in the belief among young people that their peers used cannabis regularly (ie descriptive normalisation); individual misperceptions of higher drug use prevalence in general and peer populations are strong predictors of intention to use.5,6

In other words, teenagers will interpret the signs and messages about cannabis use – at schools, malls, skate parks, movies, public libraries, baseball games, concert theaters, and elsewhere – as indicating that many of their peers smoke weed. Basically, whenever they go out in public, they will be reminded (by the drug prevention efforts) that teenagers smoke marijuana. And, as the article says, it is well known that thinking your peers use drugs predicts an intention to start using drugs.

2. Iatrogenic Effects of drug prevention campaigns

Basically, media campaigns to reduce cannabis use among teenagers purports uncertain medical claims (e.g., cannabis causes schizophrenia; cannabis reduces motivation) as fact. This could have self-fulfilling effects through the psychological mechanisms of stereotype-threat, a kind of negative twist to the placebo effect. The Journal of Epidemiological Health article continues:

By routinely purporting mental dysfunction as a consequence of cannabis (in itself controversial), users (and even ex‐users) may begin to believe they are experiencing such effects.7 Consequently, cannabis users in the UK may suffer amotivation, memory loss or even paranoia, not as a direct result of the drug, but through psychological mechanisms induced through high‐profile social‐marketing campaigns that effectively “sell” such negative effects. Through causal attribution, primary healthcare professionals may also be less likely to explore alternative aetiologies in known substance users. Of course, real adverse phenomena associated with substance use is well documented, but research has shown that exposure of ecstasy users to suggestions of drug‐induced brain damage and memory loss is related to their performing worse in psychological tests.8 Thus, belief can be a significant component in developing ill health (akin to “worried well” effects) much as it can be in generating feelings of health through placebo effects.9 Given that over eight million people in the UK alone have used cannabis, any iatrogenic effects of campaigns in this area alone could have major repercussions for public health.

The article concludes by pointing out that governments would never consider approving a pharmaceutical without rigorous evidence of its efficacy and safety. Meanwhile, we have ample evidence that these kinds of campaigns not only fail to decrease drug use – they often increase it – but also that there are multiple reasons to worry about iatrogenic side-effects. Yet we continue to spend money on cannabis campaigns that could be spent on, say, testing rape kits.

[image source: http://img.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/files/2014/08/CGO-CageSignLarge-B.jpg%5D

Planned remarks before Houston City Council

Below are my planned remarks for the speech I gave at Houston City Hall on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Unfortunately, due to the number of speakers, I was only allowed one minute instead of the three that I had planned, so I said something a bit different than planned. My remarks are inspired by a transportation ordinance to be issued regulating Uber and Lyft that affects people with disabilities (as ride-sharing companies tend not to provide accessible service to people in wheelchairs).

The whole hearing is online: I am in part three of four beginning around 23:45.

Before I begin, let me just take a few moments to introduce myself. My name is Michael Zoorob, and I am a student at Vanderbilt University. The views I am expressing today are my own.

This summer I had the opportunity to work at the Southwest ADA Center, a disability non-profit organization. Through my work at the Center, and also through the conversations I have had with many who work there, I think I’ve learned a lot about disability. Today I’d just like to share some of what I’ve learned.

The first thing I learned is that disability is real and prevalent
I’m 20 years old, I like to lift weights a few times a week, and disability is not something I think about as affecting me. But consider this: In Oct 2012, the NYT wrote that a 20 year old has a 30% chance of becoming disabled for more than six months before he retires. Cancer is the second biggest cause of disability – and consider how often – and how randomly – it strikes.

In fact, more than 50 million people have a disability – a number that will increase as the population ages. This isn’t something which just affects somebody else. It affects our parents and grandparents. It affects all of us. And it matters.

Disability is, like race or sex or sexual orientation, a characteristic which you cannot wake up one morning and decide to change. It is also, unfortunately, a characteristic which is often used to deny a person work or service or respect. But discrimination is just as wrong when it is done because a person is blind and uses a guide dog or paraplegic and uses wheelchair as when it is done because of a person’s skin color.

This is a civil rights issue. But it is also an invisible civil rights issue. People with disabilities are much more likely to have difficulty leaving the home – to have difficulty accessing transportation. It can be hard to realize that discrimination is happening when it traps a person within his home. But when buildings or sidewalks or cars are designed in a way which excludes some people from using them, that’s discrimination too.

The city council is to vote tomorrow on a new transportation ordinance. I hope they send the message that while equality isn’t free, civil rights are priceless.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today.

Incoherent or Masterfully Erratic? Putin’s Six Contradictions in Ukraine

Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been riddled with contradictions, including statements, actions, alleged motivations, and poll results that jar with one another. For example, officials first denied involvement in Crimea while justifying involvement in Crimea; then Putin admitted troops were involved. Putin said Russian troops would withdraw from Ukraine’s border but had until then denied there was a troop buildup at the border. And so on. It’s difficult to make sense of these things. Maybe it is part of Putin’s strategy to be unpredictable; or maybe the Russian strategy really isn’t as coherent as it appears (viewed this way, Russia’s success would have more to do with Ukrainian weakness than Russian aptitude).

Anyhow, here are Six Contradictions regarding Russian intervention in Ukraine:

  1. Celebrations in Sochi and Soldiers in Crimea: The juxtaposition between an international ceremony celebrating peaceful competition among states and an invasion upending the international order as we know it could hardly be more striking. As Henry Kissinger points out in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, “He [Putin] spent $60 billion on the Olympics. They had opening and closing ceremonies, trying to show Russia as a normal progressive state. So it isn’t possible that he, three days later, would voluntarily start an assault on Ukraine.” Rather than being a long-conceived assault, the Crimean takeover was much more likely to have been an “emergency response” to events in Ukraine pushing it away from Russian orbit.
  2. Why intervene? In the 1990s Russia signed a treaty affirming the integrity of Ukrainian sovereignty throughout its borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. To justify breaking this promise, Russian officials have pointed to two things: 1) Protecting Russian speakers from “ultra-nationalist” violence, a problem deemed “overblown” by Putin’s own human rights advisory council, which urged against the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine. 2) A letter written to the Russian minister to the UN by deposed Ukrainian President Yanukovych, who was recommended to the ICC by the Ukrainian Parliament on charges of mass murder and crimes against humanity. A day before writing the letter, on Feb 28 2014, Yanukovych told reporters he had no intention of inviting Russia to intervene. In April, he told reporters that he regrets that decision and will press Putin to return Crimea to Russia.
  3. Whose troops? On March 5, Russia’s foreign minister and defense minister called various reports and evidence of Russian troops in Crimea “complete nonsense” and “provocation.” Russia’s state-owned RT network blamed the mainstream media for fabrication and maintained that gunmen in Crimea were local self-defense forces. Putin contended the same. Then, on April 17th, he admitted that Russian troops had deployed to Crimea after all. (What I think is really odd about this is that Russia was simultaneously providing reasons for why it was right to intervene while denying it had intervened).
  4. Pull back of non-existent troops on border? In early May, Putin announced that the 40,000 Russian troops deployed to the border with Ukraine would pull back, though a NATO official said nothing had changed. Until then, Russia had denied any buildup was occurring, even in the face of satellite images provided by NATO showing helicopters, troops, tanks, and artillery on the border.
  5. Crimea poll numbers fudged: Business Insider puts it succinctly: “Official Kremlin results: 97% for annexation, turnout of 83%, and 82% of all Crimeans voting in favor. Putin’s Human Rights Council Report: 50-60% for annexation, turnout 30-50%, and 15-30% of all Crimeans voting in favor.”
  6. Donetsk and Luhansk polls: Separatists report that 80% of voters in Donetsk and 96% in Luhansk supported independence. There are a variety of reasons to think these numbers are bogus. Here is one of them: Independent polls paint a far different picture of opinion in these regions: According to the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, about 60% of those in Luhansk and 70% in Donetsk disagreed with the statement that Ukraine violated the rights of Russian speakers. Less than 30% wanted their country to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, and less than 20% in these regions supported Russian troops in Ukraine. Most people in Donetsk and Luhansk wanted greater decentralization or a federation within the Ukrainian state. Very few said they supported armed groups seizing buildings or endorsed taking up arms to fight for unification with Russia. Other independent polls echo these results – for example, just 37% of Ukrainians in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions support an alliance with Russia, compared to 49% who supported an alliance with the EU, according to a CNN poll. According to Pew, “A majority of east Ukraine also wants to be one country (70%), including nearly six-in-ten Russian-only speakers (58%).” Meanwhile, Russian-backed separatists push for joining Russia, in clear contrast to all the evidence of independent pollsters.