Friday, April 17, 2015

Of Windows and Bricks

One time, I brought home the wrong brand of diapers. Though displeased at my error, my wife expressed no desire to hurl a brick through a window of the Pampers factory.

Not everyone shares her temperament.

Maintaining analytic composure in the face of infidelity is probably challenging. Seeking to ruin the lives of others over it compounds tragedy with injustice. Temperance is a virtue.

Spouses are indeed affected third parties to prostitution transactions. Think carefully upon what precisely this entails.

Comfort the Afflicted; Afflict the Comfortable

Via MM & Laura Agustin, Gay Kiwi advocacy group GayNZ promotes anti-trafficking organization SweatsHope, aimed at ending prostitution in Kolkata (nee Calcutta if you're my age). Find the EE-relevant remark in the following quote:
Sonagachi, a suburb of Kolkata, is one of the most infamous red-light/sex districts. Several hundred poorly maintained, multi-story brothels and an estimated 11,000+ sex workers line the streets daily. Poverty has left them without options; the cries of their hungry children, mothers and brothers drive them to sell their bodies. 1 in 18 Sonagachi women involved in the sex trade industry have HIV.
Poverty has left them without options, indeed.

The founders wish to open a factory there to offer sex workers alternative employment, combined with education and health care.

That sounds awfully nice. In fact, it almost sounds like the sort of thing you'd hear from someone who's never tried to open a business in India, let alone Kolkata. I hope these young gentlemen have plenty of contacts in the Raj lest they be in for a very rude awakening.

Employment under the Kafkaesque administration in immiserated areas like Kolkata is far from euvoluntary. But asking what institutional barriers exist preventing the region from developing is an important first step to solving the problem. An even more important second step is to ask what a couple of bright-minded foreign youngsters can do to eliminate or bypass the well-entrenched special interests that extract rents and erect entry barriers in one of the world's most chronically underdeveloped cities.

Best of luck though, gentlemen. If you do get your factory up and running, I sure hope you produce something of value. Do try to remember that this is the point of operating a business. If you can't produce value for your customers, you're just running a charity house. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course.

Do reconsider your anti-whore rhetoric though. Selling sex might strike you as icky, but it's probably better than starving in a gutter.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Heraclitus v. California

Via the Kenwhite, a couple-years-old piece by M-Ben on using existing obscenity standards to prosecute "revenge porn." Slap on your old checkered polyester bell-bottomed dungarees and travel back with me to the lurid days of 1973, deep in the ass-end of Nixon's domestic and foreign travails.

U.S. Supreme Court

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)

Miller v. California

No. 70-73

Argued January 18-19, 1972

Reargued November 7, 1972

Decided June 21, 1973

413 U.S. 15

Witness, gentlefolk, the mewling birth-cries of the so-called Miller Test. Obscenity has been unprotected since at least Roth v. US (1957). The underlying statute here is 18 USC§ 1461 - Mailing obscene or crime-inciting matter. Here's the full text of the statute (I think it's current, but IANAL, so consult an actual attorney if you plan to violate any of the following):
Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance; and—
Every article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use; and
Every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and
Every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or from whom, or by what means any of such mentioned matters,
articles, or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed, or how or by what means abortion may be produced, whether sealed or unsealed; and
Every paper, writing, advertisement, or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can, be used or applied for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and
Every description calculated to induce or incite a person to so use or apply any such article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing—
Is declared to be nonmailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier.
Whoever knowingly uses the mails for the mailing, carriage in the mails, or delivery of anything declared by this section or section 3001 (e) of title 39 to be nonmailable, or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addressed, or knowingly takes any such thing from the mails for the purpose of circulating or disposing thereof, or of aiding in the circulation or disposition thereof, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, for the first such offense, and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both, for each such offense thereafter.
The term “indecent”, as used in this section includes matter of a character tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination.
It's the first little bit here of interest to the topic at hand, but it's worth noting the remainder of the statute for its specificity. You can't use the post office to send useful information about abortion, nor anything that might tend to incite arson, murder, or assassination. Of great interest indeed to anyone who claims that we might need to "BTFSTTG" or something.

At any rate, the Miller case cleared up, or at least attempted to clear up some fuzziness left over from Roth. Here's the test to determine whether or not a piece of work is "obscene":

(a) whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and
(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

At least at the University of Michigan, the popular Hollywood film "American Sniper" failed the local Miller test. The tender community standards on campus were so easily bruised that school officials decided, I swear to God Above I am not making this up, to run a big screen adaptation of old-timey British children's fare Paddington instead. Well, at least it fails to meet one of the three AND criteria. In a court challenge, it'd pass the "serious literary" test easily enough.

Revenge porn wouldn't. It wouldn't pass the second criterion either. It's patently offensive to share footage of sexual acts without the consent of all parties. I don't want to put words in Mark's mouth (and please sound off in the comments if I'm off base, good sir), but I think he prefers using something like the Miller test over the rubbish revenge porn statutes proposed (and passed!) in several states is that it a) preserves existing 1A jurisprudence, b) won't result in Pyrrhic SCOTUS challenges to clearly unconstitutional state statutes, and c) ought to be reasonably clear to citizens and jurors alike.

On these points I agree. The anti-revenge-porn Valkyries busy shrieking down from Valhalla to deliver model statutes to the battlefields of the two-and-a-half score state legislatures propose language that would torch not only well-established, robust 1A protections but would make criminal virtually every parent to ever walk the earth bearing a camera. Where I disagree with Mark is that the Miller test is bullshit. And it's bullshit because Heraclitus.

Campus sentiment is an imperfect bellwether for future public sentiment, but it's about the best we've got. And if the shrinking violets on the many college campuses of America are any suggestion, even slight deviations from the modern secular orthodoxy will fail to meet the "whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest" test. Here, "contemporary" is the problem. Overly-sensitive Gertrudes who need their fur stroked incessantly will almost certainly find in favor of punishing, say, yoga pants supermarket creep shots. Sure, such things may be in bad taste, but I fret about allowing myopic, excessively sensitive community standards decide what is and is not obscene, given the highly heterogeneous and rapidly-changing nature of community standards. If Chesterton's fences were all intact, I'd say go for it. But they aren't, so I urge greater caution.

So what would I propose in lieu of Bennett's statute? Nothing. I have to agree with Ken that it's the best I've seen. The problem, so they say, lies in the stars. We have met the enemy and he is us. The great task is to reconsider whether or not the large project of re-ordering society on incoherent, mutually-contradictory principles is ultimately wise. Revenge porn is a symptom, not a larger ailment.

The law is not euvoluntary, but not as not euvoluntary as recklessly knocking over Chesterton's fences all willy-nilly.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

God Bless Texas, A State With Whom Thou Shall Not Mess

Courtesy of Randy Andy G, a heartwarming tale of a Texas judge with the courage to take a stand against the dominion of the state.


Short story even shorter: honor student keeps up with her AP work, gets straight As, is in the running for graduating at the top of her class, but misses more than the maximum ten days' unexcused absence thanks to the demands of working two jobs to help feed her family and ends up truant. Judge Lanny Moriarty (can't wait till Ryan North hears of this) throws her in the slammer overnight to teach her a lesson in practical civics.

Some possibilities:

  1. Diane Tran is a genuine menace to the order and safety of Texas educational institutions and must be jailed to help ensure the domestic tranquility.
  2. Judge Moriarty (seriously, I can't get over that ha ha) is a thug in a black robe who likes to pick on little kids. He's nicely insulated from his bullying thanks to the unwarranted reputation of the juvenile courts as society's fount of celerious wisdom and swift justice.
  3. Judge Moriarty (oh God, my sides. I think I'm gonna be sick over here you guys) rightly recognizes that the law as she is written is an ass in desperate need of kicking.
  4. It was an honest mistake. "Oops, sorry guys. I got this honor student mixed up with the local crank kingpin. My bad."
If I'm reading the quotes from the news articles right, and if the hermeneutical interpretation of the editorial choice to run the story is on point, interpretation #2 is what most folks reach for. But consider the possibility that #3 is really what's going on. Despite cockamamie stereotypes, judges, even podunk Texas judges (Houston is not podunk, btw) are no fools. Sitting judges with good consciences can expose febrile imbecility in the legislative code simply by enforcing statutes exactly as written.

It's bad enough that the US has such widespread provision of primary education. It's far worse that legislatures so sanguinely seek to bedevil, torment, niggle, beleaguer and harass educators and parents with tittling patchwork legislation passed to indulge clamorous constituents. Sometimes it takes the courage of a judge to hike up his big girl panties, point to a draconian criminal code and holler "look upon thy works and weep, ye impenitant." Consider the possibility that that's exactly what Judge (snicker) Moriarty has done with young Ms. Tran.

Perhaps the public outcry against this bovine injustice will urge voters to storm the legislature and demand repeal of asinine truancy codes. I won't hold out much hope that they'll attack the source of the problem rather than just one petty symptom though. I'm an optimist, but not that much of an optimist.

Constituents trade the use of force in society with the state that we might live harmoniously. Sometimes it takes a special sort of person to take a highlighter to the fine print in the contract governing this exchange. This dismal task is why everyone hates lawyers and economists. 

Yes, I totally made up the word "celerious." Well, not totally as in totally totally. It's from the Latin for "fast." We get the word "celerity" (and maybe "celebrity?") from the same root. I wanted an adjective though, so there you have it. If you must employ it, employ it responsibly.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Rhetoric in the New Commanding Heights

If you don't get at least a little nervous hearing the word "epidemic," consider the possibility that you conform to one of the following descriptions:

  1. You are wealthy and comfortable enough to adequately insulate yourself from a contagious outbreak. You have the foresight and planning to make sure that you can enter self-imposed quarantine lasting 90 days.
  2. You are an ignoramus. You don't believe in germ theory, instead subscribing to medieval fancies like vapours or angry spirits or something. Or maybe you think that the marginal benefits of vaccines do not exceed the marginal costs.
  3. You have faith in modern medicine. Sure, contagious disease killed off untold hordes of our grubby ancestors, but we've got microscopes now! In the secular West, laboratory analysis has meant the end of a great many of the terrors of our dim past.
  4. You have faith in the benevolence of the divine. We are strong in our love of the Lord, and His might shall see us safely to the other side. If this describes you, bless your heart. If it doesn't, I'd wager you probably know someone it does describe.
  5. You are weary. You may dimly recall the first time you heard the word "epidemic" applied to obesity, or to smoking, or to trans fats, to to whatever choice-related bugbear happened to catch a scold's eye. Maybe you held a little funeral for the deceased word, scattered its ashes into the ocean. Probably not. But surely you're past lamenting its demise. 
According to the BLS, health care's share of total labor employment is 11.7%, up from 9.5% in 2002. They project that in 2022, it'll be 13.6%. The only rival for that kind of share is "state and local government." Heath care is big business and it appears to be getting bigger. When a sector of human activity repurposes an important bit of language as has happened to "epidemic," alert citizens might be wary of grabs for dominion. 

If it is true that the long conflicts in the culture war are waged with words, with rhetoric, then gaining the higher ground with plastic definitions of scary things is a strategy tailor-made for those that seek dominion over the teeming masses of their fellows.

Smoking isn't particularly euvoluntary. Neither is poor diet, lack of exercise, high fructose corn syrup, or any randomly selected hobgoblin of the medical elite. But if you're making a case for state-sponsored intervention in a non-euvoluntary transaction, just imagine how much easier your task is if you can couch your appeal in the same language used to describe an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Public Principles of Public Philosophy

Via the Peej, K.M. Parsons offers an op-ed defense of public funding for philosophers. Philosophy provides critical thinking, you see, and if citizens were unable to think critically, they'd be nothing but a mob of indoctrinated partisans, you see.

Let's assume that professor Parsons is correct and that the discipline of philosophy does indeed grant students durable, robust critical thinking skills. Let's assume further that the marginal philosopher (extend this to all of the social sciences and humanities if you like: political science, sociology, economics, take your pick) contributes meaningfully to students' ability to question and revise their unexamined beliefs. Assume, if you will, that the exchange between professors and students is euvoluntary.

Even if all of that is true, even if "philosophy is valuable" isn't just a naked assertion, even if the Republic Herself were at stake, a more convincing argument would include at least some mention of how peaceful exchange is insufficient to the task of making sure the next (and by "next" I don't mean Aristotle or Hume or even Sandel or Searle; I mean the third-string just-barely-made-tenure assistant professor at an unranked department) philosopher earns employment. A complete argument, in other words, includes at least some mention of public goods, in the rigorous sense, in that I benefit from your ability to think critically, or that anyone at all benefits from Peppy Not-Quite-Good-Enough-For-Tenure Professor's latest desk rejection. If public funds were supporting the next Summa Theologica, you'd probably be able to get away with hand-waving market failure rebuttals. But that's not what's being argued.

I tend to agree that education is among the new commanding heights. It would be churlish of me to assume that this didn't imply that a great deal of rack and ruin in the editorial pages were sure to follow. But if you must defend your discipline against reasonable objections to outrageous relative price increases, do yourself and your readers a favor and write as if you respected their intelligence.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Of Compliance

I'm too young to remember May 4, 1970 at Kent State. But I am old enough to remember Rodney King. The acquittal of Stacey Koon, Laurence Michael Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno occurred near the end of April 1992, leading to a nearly week-long riot in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula. Whatever your age, it's likely that you're familiar with some sort of miscarriage of criminal justice.

Something interesting is happening. In 1970, armed agents of state violence could risk getting away with murdering four college students in cold blood because the probability of detection was low: maybe someone had a Polaroid handy, or even a lovely old SLR. But these things were bulky and expensive, and few students had room in their thigh-hugger bell bottom dungarees to tote around something as cumbersome as a camera. In 1992, cameras had shrunk, but personal video still required the Volvo of digital storage media: the boxy (but good) VHS or super 8 tape. If you're under 30, have you ever used an old VHS recorder? If you're under 20, have you ever seen one? They aren't what you might call inconspicuous. But today? Today everyone has a phone roughly the size of a gentleman's wallet that comes fully equipped with the ability to discreetly record events at the swipe of a finger. The glorious future we dreamed for is here.

But this also implies that the costs of detecting police misconduct have dropped.

Think strategically on this for a moment (if you're so inclined, write the game out formally and solve for the first derivative of the probability of detection). The blue code of silence that protects officers against civilian oversight is an institution that serves an important organizational function: officers that cannot trust each other in the precinct cannot trust each other in the field, and trust, once lost, is not easily regained. If constituents wish to employ a professional police force to maintain law and order in the community, making them second-guess their fellow officers erodes their capacity to respond to incidents in a timely and effective manner.

However, the tacit conspiracy that serves a useful purpose for unit cohesion carries with it the risk of harboring rogue cops like North Charleston, SC officer Michael T. Slager who shot Walter Scott in the back eight times then planted evidence at the scene and filed a false report that Scott had attempted to take his taser.

Oops, Allegedly. That's what he allegedly did. Allegedly. Dead men tell no tales, but this time there's video. You can find it elsewhere. This is (mostly) a family blog, so I won't include it here, but if you haven't already seen it, know that it's pretty graphic. Fair warning.

The ubiquity of video is the slow knife piercing the cone of silence. You know, like wtih Jean Luc Picard and Dale Cooper.

If you're a sex worker, stories of rapist cops will come as no great surprise. If you live in a predominantly minority neighborhood, stories of lethal no-knock 3 AM SWAT drug raids will be old hat. If you've ever had the wrong complexion or the wrong clothes in the wrong part of town at the wrong time of day, you won't be shocked to discover that "to protect and serve" often carries with it an unspoken clause of "the interests of police first, favored constituents second." However, disfavored minorities speak with weak voices, so I can easily forgive you if the increased frequency of reports of police abuse startle you. You might think, if like me you are a NORP, that there is some sort of rash of police misconduct happening, that the shocking footage of Eric Garner or the stories of Justus Howell, or Michael Brown, or... well, pick your poison; it's not like there's any shortage these days, that these incidents are something new under the weird sun in America. But I urge you to consider that the parameters of the game have changed. The probability that there will be a camera on a police encounter in 2015 are far greater than they were in 1992. The problem isn't with the footage that you've seen. The problem is with the footage that was never recorded.

From the point of view of police unions, it might be time to reconsider the costs and benefits of institutional silence. If the public wishes to deter unconscionable police brutality, and is stymied by the collusion within and between law enforcement and criminal justice organizations, there is a final resort that includes the liberal application of fire and gallows-rope. Justice slumbers only so long.

Fortunately, institutions can indeed be reformed. I mentioned above that I'm old enough to remember the Rodney King beating verdict clearly. 1992 was the year I joined the Navy. It was also around the time the Tailhook scandal broke, and the Navy scrapped the old core values that included a nod to tradition and instead adopted "honor, commitment, and courage" as the Sailors' motto. I can't speak for the rest of the fleet, but in each of the commands I served under, involuntary hazing, to include sexual harassment, was absolutely no longer a part of the Navy experience. Reform is possible. 

I shall leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether or not such reform is likely.