Thursday, September 3, 2015

When We Meet Again, It Won't Be Me.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urges law-abiding Texans to pay for his gendarmes' coffee and pie when they see them out and about enjoying Dale Cooper's preferred repast.

The relevant text (link):

I challenge all Texans to think about how underappreciated our officers must feel, how dangerous their jobs are, how they leave their families everyday not knowing if they are coming home and more importantly, if there is anything you can do to help make their job a little easier. 
Join me in changing this negative attitude toward those that protect us, by practicing the following:
  • Start calling our officers sir and ma’am all of the time. It’s a show of respect they deserve.
  • Every time you see an officer anywhere, let them know you appreciate their service to our community and you stand with them.
  • If you are financially able, when you see them in a restaurant on duty pick up their lunch check, send over a dessert, or simply stop by their table briefly and say thank you for their service.
  • Put their charities on your giving list.
  • If your local law enforcement has volunteer-citizen job opportunities, sign up.
For more on the opportunistic politics of the press release, read Mark Bennett here. For remarks on how the sentiments behind the statement obfuscate the central issues of excessively expansive criminal codes and police incompetence, read Scott Greenfield here. For a great deal of heat and very little light, you can scroll through my twitter timeline a day prior to the publication of this post. You can follow me here.

I have nothing to add on the moral, legal, or social aspects of Lt. Gov. Patrick's call for obeisance. Well, apart from snickering at the fact that he's asking constituents to commit what might in other circumstances be considered bribery (if you've ever worked DoD procurement, you'll know what I mean). I will however comment on the economics.

Patrick is calling for side payments, what economists might call "non-pecuniary benefits" paid directly to his praetorians by citizens. He's asking for a compensating differential, in other words. The converse of the "employees with hazardous duties must receive additional pay to induce them to accept the job" is that employees with marginally more pleasant work environments will not so vigorously insist on higher salaries. Rational taxpayers should welcome any opportunity to reduce their annual share of tribute to the constabulary, and for people like me, middle-aged white parents who might also be veterans, the marginal cost of using the sort of language that was drilled into us in boot camp is negligible. I fancy myself to be a fairly affable sort, even if that might not extend to paying for a cop's dessert.

But willingness-to-pay is linked to value, which is subjective. My subjective cost to greet a police officer with a smile and a polite, "how may I help you today, sir?" is considerably lower than someone at greater risk of being the target of a no-knock raid or a spurious traffic stop. Patrick's request is, to use a technical term, regressive. Regressive not in the sense that it's barbaric or reactionary, but regressive in the sense that lower income citizens pay a larger share of their income or wealth than do higher income citizens. Of course, since we're talking about non-cash payment, you have to squint your eyes a little and picture "income" as including things like peace of mind, patience, forbearance, tolerance, and the like. Imagine some sort of mental budget where you have a limited capacity to treat with kindness a class of people who can slaughter your pets and murder your kin in the streets with impunity.

So Mark's mostly right when he says that the list of demands is a dog whistle from the ruling class to the praetorian guard, but there's also a wink and a nod to the comfortable, middle-class, law-abiding citizens not at risk of falling into the "undesirables" category. NORPs like me aren't being asked to much change our behavior. Dusky complexioned Texans from the wrong side of the tracks are.

As for the moral intuition here, I think reasonable people can disagree. It is certainly individually prudent to defer to people who carry guns as part of their official duties. However, it is institutionally bonkers to maintain policies and legislation that grant these people unfettered, extensive authority to intervene into private, otherwise peaceful affairs. Consider the possibility that it might be easier for members of the black community to speak respectfully to an officer if they knew they were at lower risk for being pulled over on a DWB or if they didn't have to fear SWAT busting in at 2am to the wrong address because some dyslexic clerk botched the house number on the warrant application.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?