See the New Mad Sociologist at http://madsociologistblog.wordpress.com

Sociological Imagination

Implicit Bias, the Thomas Theorem and Police Violence

Fear and Prejudice in Police Decision Making

Two articles that appeared in Vox, taken together, were very revealing with regard to the ongoing debate and protest on police violence. The first had to do with explaining the violent responses of police in the field. The second elaborated on a psychological phenomenon referred to as implicit bias. Both were revealing and, as is typical of Vox, not very radical in their approach. Read together against the context of contemporary concern about police over-reach, however, they could be very helpful in understanding police behavior without resorting to finger pointing and vilification.

The first article is, Why Police Officers Often Resort to Lethal Force as a First Response. The author, Dara Lind, attempts to help us understand police responses. After all, police have multiple, non-lethal tools at their disposal, including Tasers, pepper spray and batons. Why resort immediately to the gun? The answer is non-controversial. Police use their guns because they are afraid for their lives. Psychologists might suggest that there are few levels of fear registered by the human mind. To our psyches, those things that make us afraid are perceived, perhaps unconsciously, as threats to our lives. So psychologically, an offender with a gun, or an offender with a knife, may elicit a similar response. And certainly we can’t blame police officers for being afraid. Someone coming at you with a knife or gun or baseball bat is scary and, in a very real sense, life threatening.

According to police experts, though I haven’t seen the actual research on this, an officer or deputy has about two seconds to decide upon a response. Assuming this is true…though I hypothesize that it is not…then resorting to the gun over the Taser is the right decision. After all, you don’t want to be underprepared for a potentially life threatening situation. If more than a Taser is required, and all the officer has is two seconds to respond, then the gun is and should be the default weapon.

So why carry a Taser at all? Well, the article is not clear on this. Lind points out that the Taser was intended to reduce the probability of lethal force being used. However, according to this article, that has not happened. What has happened is an increase in non-lethal force being used. This seems counterproductive, but that is another issue.

The second article is called, Understanding the Racial Bias You Didn’t Know You Had, by Jenée Desmond-Harris. In this article, Desmond-Harris points out that we are all imbued with what psychologists refer to as implicit bias. Despite the psycho-speak, this is a sociological phenomenon. In short, our cultural understanding of subordinate groups in society (those who are not of the dominant group) imbues our assumptions about those groups. In the United States, this includes racial minorities, women, old people and the poor. Since these assumptions are intrinsic to our socialization, we don’t even realize that we are influenced by these biases. People may be convinced that they, “don’t even see color,” but they do. In the United States, they do.

Some questions then arise. Does a police officer’s implicit bias influence how he interacts with black suspects? Do police perceive black suspects as inherently more dangerous and threatening than they do white suspects and, therefore, more likely to use force, specifically lethal force, against them? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the answer to both questions is yes.

We can then address the interactive component of this issue. One should be able to predict that in communities with a history of racial disparities, poverty and adversarial interactions with police that negative perceptions will be mutually reinforcing. Police officers’ perceptions of black males in the community increase the likelihood of violence, which in turn influences how black males in the community perceive police officers. Black males who perceive police officers as motivated by racism or the abuse of power are more likely to resist arrest or to act belligerently toward the police, thus reinforcing the implicit bias of the officer.

This is where the Thomas Theorem, what people perceive as real becomes real in its consequences, comes it. Both sides perceive the other as dangerous, thus responding to each other in such a way to promote these preconceptions. As a counselor, when this happened between individuals, I referred to it as a conflict cycle. I see no reason why the same term cannot be applied to this problem.

So how does one end a conflict cycle? Ideally, both parties should come together and openly decide to end it. However, ending a conflict only requires one side to cease its part and the cycle must end. My rule of thumb is that the agent with the most power has the responsibility to end its part of the conflict cycle. In this case, that means the responsibility is on the police, as the legitimized representative of state power, the agent authorized to use violence, to end the conflict cycle. Policies must be negotiated between the police and the community, with the police taking the lead, that re-establishes the legitimacy of policing while protecting the rights, autonomy and dignity of those subject to police authority.

To that effect, whiny actions like the police turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio just recently, only further de-legitimizes the police in the eyes of those whom they are expected to serve. It is my experience that crybabies don’t take it upon themselves to resolve problems. They only make them worse.


Discriminatory or Wanton Police Violence is Dangerous

To the Police

Note: I was planning this post for a few days, but in light of the despicable murder of two police officers in New York I feel that a caveat is in order. Violence is only justified in terms of self-preservation or protection of the innocent. And this only if no other options are available. Anger. Revenge. The target had it coming. Or, as a friend of mine once commented on social media, “it’s better to be tried by nine than carried by six.” These are not legitimate excuses for violence any more than is “he reminded me of Hulk Hogan and I was scared” or “a black teen in a hoodie must be up to no good”. The man who killed two police officers in New York yesterday, a man whom I speculate will be revealed as deeply troubled, is not in any way justified in his actions. Any future assaults on police, and I fear that there will be, are criminal acts. Period. They are not a legitimate form of resistance to police exploitation or discrimination. The following post should be read as a sociological analysis and a reason to solve the dissonance and anomie that exists between many police departments around the country and the communities that they serve. It is not a call to justify violence.

Max Weber defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against a defined group of people. The police are the ultimate manifestation of this monopoly. It is the police who are assigned the task to actually perform the violence required by the state to assert external social control. For instance, if an average guy on the street approaches you, tells you to lean against a wall and then attempts to put you in hand-cuffs, you are probably going to resist. You are going to defend yourself. Whoever this person is, if you do not perceive that they have a legitimate claim to assert force over you, you are justified in defending yourself.

However, if that person has a badge, identifies himself as a police officer, even if you believe that you have done nothing wrong, you will probably submit and allow the officer to cuff you. In most cases, if you feel that there has been some mistake, you know that there are protections for you, so your life is not in danger. There are in place legitimate protections for your rights and a means of redressing any errors that might have been made. We are, for the most part, not in a Kafkaesque world in which one is guilty just by virtue of being arrested.

This legitimacy, in modern society, is predicated on a concept of the social contract that was born three hundred years ago and elaborated by highly regarded founders of modern thought, like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. We no longer talk much about this social contract and what it means, but it is implicit in our understanding of state legitimacy, and consequently in the legitimacy of state actions.

It is clear from the description above that this legitimacy is pretty tenuous. After all, what is the real difference between someone with a badge and someone without? Why is one perceived as a threat which must be fended off, while the other is seen as a valid agent of power, even violent power? That shroud of legitimacy isn’t very thick, and in many communities it is tattered and gossamer thin.

There is a certain amount of flexibility in the system. Communities do account for human error. We recognize that there will be times when violence, even deadly violence will be used inappropriately, be it maliciously or unintentionally. After all, the actors of the state are humans, subject to human error, misjudgment and frailty. When such incidents occur, there is outrage, but that outrage can be addressed and the social contract renegotiated.

However, when there is a clear pattern of long term and systemic exploitation of this social contract, when it is clear that power has corrupted the very agents responsible for its exercise, the legitimacy of the state as an institution is called into question. Racially segregated systems, such as the police force in Ferguson, or inherently exploitative policies such as ‘stop-and-frisk’ in New York will, without redress, undermine the understood legitimacy between the state and people. Patterns of abuse will manifest in the citizen as an expectation of abuse. Then, when asked to lean against the wall and put my hands on my head, I may feel that I am threatened, that my life is in danger. That this exercise of power is not legitimate. I may be inclined to fight, to defend myself or my family as is my right. The authority invested in the badge is validated by the legitimate exercise of state power. Once that legitimacy falls, the badge is nothing more than a thin piece of metal, and the holder is no more subject to deference than anyone else on the street.

That’s why it’s incumbent on the police and on the state to protect that legitimacy. Being a police officer is difficult enough. Without this shroud of legitimacy, policing becomes impossible regardless of how devoted and altruistic the motives of the officer. We must understand that the relationship between the community and the police is an ongoing negotiation. Without open negotiation and a fair and just process for redressing grievances, this negotiation must become adversarial. Adversarial interactions ultimately take on an in-group/out-group manifestation. Each side becomes socialized to believe that it is “us against them,” and consequently, each side entrenches itself for conflict. Interactions become increasingly adversarial, and, consistent with the Thomas Theorem, this contentious relationship shapes and reproduces future conflicts. This is known as a conflict cycle.

We see this in black families who feel obligated to teach their children, especially their boys, how to “survive” an encounter with the police. Clearly the social contract has broken down. Re-establishing that social contract must be the priority of activists and police forces alike. That being said, police, being the representatives of the state and state power, are charged with the responsibility to take the lead in these negotiations. The police represent the state when they pick up their badges and don their uniforms. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the police to serve the community, not to oppress it, regardless of the circumstances, to preserve the validity of the relationship. If that shroud is torn, it is the state’s responsibility to start the mending process.

Added: That’s why I was deeply disturbed when I read the response from the head of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, in response to the shooting. “There’s blood on many hands tonight—those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Comments like this only build walls between the police and the community. More walls are not needed. More doors are needed.

The community counts on the police for protection. The police require the legitimacy of their station as public servants licensed to do violence under very specific circumstances. When that relationship breaks down, as it has in communities all over the country, then both the community and the police are in danger. A state of anomie exists that can be exploited by the unscrupulous both at the community level, the police level and the level of the state. This is the nature of the protests (there is no “guise.” There is legitimate outcry against abuse). Those who believe that this crisis is over Mike Brown or Eric Garner or any of the hundreds, even thousands of victims (not all of whom have died) of police exploitation and abuse, misunderstand the nature of this issue. This is about delegitimizing patterns of systemic exploitation and corruption.

The fact is that the tenuous legitimacy of the police as a valid representation of state authority has been undermined by years, sometimes generations, of abuse. The killings of unarmed black suspects are only the clearest manifestations of that abuse. The increasingly militarized precincts throughout the nation represent further entrenchment and greater dissonance between the police and the communities they serve. Added: If there’s blood on anyone’s hands, it’s on the hands of those like Patrick Lynch who perpetuate an ongoing conflict cycle. It’s on the hands of those who profit from and exploit this dissonance, be it looters or weapons dealers.

It is clear that this breakdown of the social contract is dangerous to members of the community. However, it is also dangerous to the police—even to the great majority of officers who conscientiously serve.

_________________________________________

Addendum: Condolences to the family and loved ones of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.


Ferguson and the Thomas Theorem

On Predefining the Ferguson Protests

 

In 1928, sociologist W. I. Thomas (left) wrote, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This has come to be known as The Thomas Theorem. It is an invaluable maxim for understanding social forces and interactions.

I fear that the Thomas Theorem may prove prophetic with regard to the Ferguson response to the coming grand jury verdict.

In this case, the planned protests are presumed to become a replay of the LA riots after the Rodney King trial. Police are planning on planning on meeting this challenge with their usual strategy, threatening overwhelming force. The National Guard is on stand-by. What happens when people are surrounded by paramilitary forces equipped with shields and batons? Lessons from the last time this tactic was used in Ferguson suggests that the consequent stress and uncertainty actually increases the possibility of violence. If the Ferguson police define the situation as meriting a paramilitary response going in, then it is very likely that a paramilitary response will be necessary.

One statement that I read caught my attention (the source is not linked as I never had an opportunity to save it). It was a bartender who had heard many people talk about expectations of the coming protest. He said that everyone was predicting that there will be violence; however, nobody was claiming that they would participate in violence. However, many people who are anticipating violence without having an interest in participating may choose to avoid the scene. This will increase the ratio of protestors who are willing to participate in violence. Again, the probability for violence increases by pre-defining the situation as violent.

Of course, there is hope. The relevant groups can prepare their active participants to avoid violence. Police can be trained to de-escalate potentially volatile situations. Activists can pre-empt potential hazards, train their core in peaceful resistance, and police themselves. One helpful possibility is for the police and activists to liaison and keep then networks of communication open. Activists can alert the police to those who may try to escalate the protest strategy, while the police can let the activists know when a segment is crossing the line. Of course, the communication between activists and police has not been the best, to say the least. Also, civil disobedience is intended to be inconvenient to the power structure.

Let’s hope that the stakeholders have planned for the worst and can pre-empt any potential violence. Either way, by defining the protests as almost inherently violent, we are setting the stage for the very violence we are trying to avoid.


Cass Sunstein and Ezra Klein on Conspiracy Theories

Why People Embrace Conspiracy Theories

I’m of the belief that a big part of conspriacy theories is gaps in our information base, be it through secrecy or less devious means. The Kennedy Assassination comes to mind. Clearly, there is information that is missing from the history on that event. Human beings simply must try to make sense of our history, especially the most traumatic of events. When crucial information is missing, we are left to fill in the blanks. Conspiracy Theory allows for an easy way to do so.

 


Your Home Town

And its racial composition

 

I am a map geek! So I was beside myself with joy when I happened upon this fantastic website produced by Dustin Cable at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. It is an awesome tool. Every person in America is represented by a dot, color coded by race. It allows the user to get a really intimate racial profile of the country, with purple areas representing the most racially diverse regions. Below, I focused on the profile of my hometown. What does yours look like.

What a powerful tool for social science teachers!

It looks like we still have a ways to go with regard to integration. An overlay map indicating poverty, functional schools, infrastructure quality, pollution, etc., would be of utmost value.

 


The Not So Secret Rise of the Intelligence-Industrial Complex

Why we are complicit in the domestic spying scandal

 

The most noteworthy observation that I have about the great brouhaha over Glen Greenwald’s expose of US domestic spying in The Guardian is how absolutely shocked everybody seems. The press and the social media act as if this is some sudden revelation. We had no idea this was going on. How could we possibly have known?

Frankly, if you didn’t know, then you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been paying attention to the news for at least eleven years, and you are certainly no student of history or sociology. After all, governments spy on their citizens. This is no secret. And 9/11 was the ultimate excuse for legitimizing and expanding this practice beyond anything that even J. Edgar Hoover could have imagined. There is nothing shocking or surprising at all.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be outraged by this trespass against our privacy, but part of that anger must be reserved for ourselves. We should have been outraged upon passage of The Patriot Act, which took place out in the open in front of all of us. If we had been paying attention when the final constructs were put in place to create what is in a very real sense an Intelligence-Industrial Complex (IIC), then it would be much easier to do something about it now. Instead, we were cowed by fear and Big Brotherly assurance that the government would take care of us. We never bothered to ask about the costs this false sense of security requires. As it stands, we are facing an entrenched, institutionalized system of domestic spying, which we literally buy into every time we sign up for cell phone service or internet access, or “like” this post on Facebook or purchase Stone is not Forever
and The Revelation of Herman Smiley on-line. (Hey, a guy has to make a living!)

Clearly, we weren’t paying attention when Senator Russ Feingold took a lonely stand against the Patriot Act. In 2001, Feingold made the following statement for the public record for everyone who cared to see:

“Under this new provision all business records can be compelled, including those containing sensitive personal information like medical records from hospitals or doctors, or educational records, or records of what books someone has taken out of the library. This is an enormous expansion of authority, under a law that provides only minimal judicial supervision.”

Hmmm. I wonder what he was thinking. Too bad Senator Feingold was one of the victims of the Tea Party uprising in 2010, or he would still be in office. He did respond to the Greenwald piece, quoted in the Huffington Post, “In 2001, I first voted against the Patriot Act because much of it was simply an FBI wish list that included provisions allowing our government to go on fishing expeditions that collect information on virtually anyone.” In other words, “I hate to say I told you so, but…” He wasn’t alone.

In 2008, James Bamford’s brilliant book, The Shadow Factory revealed with shocking detail the depth of the collusion between US intelligence agencies, specifically the NSA, and the telecommunications industry in spying on American citizens. Though Greenwald’s original piece focused on Verizon (who happens to be my cell phone provider), Bamford pointed out, “By the fall of 2001, Hayden [then director of the National Security Agency (NSA)] succeeded in gaining the secret cooperation of nearly all of the nation’s telecommunications giants for his warrantless eavesdropping program. Within a year, engineers were busy installing highly secret, heavily locked rooms in key AT&T switches…From then on the data—including both address information and content—would flow through PacketScopes directly to the NSA.” PacketScope is an NSA computer system that pulls information from the relay stations. Remember, this was in the fall of 2001, so though 9/11 provided a pretext, the actual technology did not just appear when the Twin Towers fell. It was in the works for quite some time.

Another facet of The Shadow Factory betrays Feingold’s concern that businesses such as the telecommunications industry is being “compelled” to cooperate with the government. In fact, according to Bamford’s research, the relationship between US intelligence and the private sector is much more chummy than that. The intelligence sector contracts for services, purchases products, contracts for high tech systems like the infamous Trailblazer program when cheaper, more effective, in-house products like Thinthread are available. Telecoms even charge fees for wiretapping, a service used by the private sector and by government agencies at the local, state and potentially the federal level. The relationship between the intelligence sector and the private sector that supports it is far from coercive.

In fact, it’s a patronage relationship. In 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act which, among other things, legislated immunity from prosecution for any private company participating in domestic spying (not the exact words of the legislation, but the very real context). Furthermore, this immunity was made retroactive to September 11, 2001. This act was meant to sunset in 2012, but guess what, it was reauthorized by Congress quite publicly. According to Bamford, “The new law [FISA Amendments Act 2008] provides what amounts to legal immunity to the telecoms, weakens the authority of the FISA court, and gives freer range to NSA in targeting suspected terrorists abroard.”

So, what is this FISA, thing? Well, that requires a bit of a history lesson.

Well, in case you thought that domestic spying was some new innovation masterminded by George W. Bush and his secret sidekick Barack Obama, it turns out that the United States has a much longer history in spying on citizens. It is not a specific construct of the so called “post 9/11 era” as many commentators are suggesting. Investment in intelligence goes all the way back to President Washington, but the real evolution of American intelligence took place in the twentieth century with the foundation of the Bureau of Investigation (Later the Federal Bureau of Investigation). The Bureau was involved in extensive domestic surveillance against those considered to be enemies of the state, namely socialists, communists, anarchists and other radicals. The power of the FBI expanded dramatically during the half century tenure of the notorious J. Edgar Hoover, whose abuses of power are legendary.

The next great expansion of American Intelligence came in 1947 when President Truman signed the National Security Act. This crucial law established the legal and bureaucratic framework for the modern intelligence community. This was the law that created the National Security Council (NSC), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Truman later added The National Security Agency, so central to today’s story, in a secret memo shortly before he left office. As written, the National Security Act of 1947 specifically prohibited these agencies from engaging in domestic intelligence for fear that such power would be abused. This fear existed because, well, this power had already been abused most dramatically with the Palmer Raids of the 1920’s and the Espionage Act of World War I.

There was good reason to be afraid of abuse. In the 1970’s a domestic spying scandal erupted over a program called COINTELPRO. This secret program was revealed by a Senate committee chaired by Frank Church. The Church Report exposed the efforts of the intelligence community, most notably the FBI in using surveillance, infiltration, burglary and intimidation against such enemies of the state as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP among others. According to the report, “…our investigation has established that the targets of intelligence activity have ranged far beyond persons who could properly be characterized as enemies of freedom and have extended to a wide array of citizens engaging in lawful activity.” This revelation, and the ensuing scandal led to the passage of, among other laws, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 1978 (FISA).

FISA requires intelligence agencies to seek a warrant from a special, secret court before it could engage in electronic surveillance. As it turned out, the FISA court was hardly ever a protection of Constitutional rights. It was largely a rubber stamp process. Much of which is largely irrelevant here since the Supreme Court has ruled that your e-mails, once sent through a server or third party, are not subject to expectations of privacy and, therefore, a warrant is not required. In fact, much of this information is proprietary of the company providing the service. As property, it can be sold, even to the government.

This collaboration between the private sector and the government intelligence community is nothing new. It is embodied in former President George H. W. Bush. Bush was a successful businessman, though a somewhat less successful politician. His access to politics led to a UN ambassadorship and an appointment special envoy to China. Later, he was made Director of Central Intelligence. The connections between Bush’s business interests, political experience and intelligence service were overlapping rather than linear. This is true for the intelligence sector as a whole. The Central Intelligence Agency has a long history of recruiting from the same pool as major corporations seeking high level executives, namely the Ivy League (Bush was a Yale man). A stint in the intelligence sector looks really good on the resume.

In 1956, as the intelligence sector was just getting started, sociologist C. Wright Mills published his most influential work, The Power Elite. In this book, Mills offers a detailed description of the American Power Elite, who they are and how they stay at the top. According to Mills, the power elite is comprised of the leaders of major corporations, high level officials of the executive branch and the brass stars of the Pentagon. These three institutions reinforce and support each other. Presidential cabinets are often comprised of industry executives. Military contracts go to top corporations. Major corporations provide financial support to presidential candidates and their allies in Congress. White House and Pentagon officials often enjoy their retirements by serving on corporate boards or being paid as consultants. President H. W. Bush, for example, spent much of his post presidential years as an advisor to the Carlyle Group. Even President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, expressed his concern over the growing power of what he referred to as the Military-Industrial Complex.

Mills recognized that the overlapping interests of what he referred to as the corporate rich, the chief executives and the warlords, their mutuality in perpetuating their interests and the interchange of individual actors between these institutional sectors as constituting a unified elite. I think if Mills were to re-write his master work today he would include the intelligence sector in his analysis. At the time of his research the intelligence sector had just begun its ascendancy, though Mills does mention the NSC with an admonition on government secrecy.

This mutuality is evident between the telecom companies and government. According to opensecrets.org, Verizon (the focus of Greenwald’s piece) provided over $4 million in campaign contributions. Over a quarter of a million dollars went to President Obama’s campaign coffers, but almost $150 thousand went to Mitt Romney (just in case). Verizon spent $15 million lobbying and of 123 lobbyists working for the company, 98 had previously held positions in the federal government. The telecommunications industry as a whole spent over $50 million lobbying and over 71% of their lobbyists had government experience.

In return for their investment, (and make no mistakes, this is investment, not political speech) telecommunications companies received over $30 billion in tax subsidies alone. This constitutes over 13% of all tax subsidies. That’s just telecommunications. This does not include software or IT or any other ancillary services that the intelligence sector might need. This does not include the potential billions in government contracts that may be doled out, much of which comes from a top secret budget.

The symbiotic nature between the intelligence sector and the private sector constitutes what could be considered a “complex.” In an uncomfortable play on words, such symbiosis makes confronting this system even more complex than railing against the bare injustice of knowing that your personal information is not so private.

It does not help, however, to feign shock and ignorance over a program that came at us from out in the open. This is exactly the system that we signed on to when we were told to be afraid of the communists in the fifties. The abuses of this system are exactly the abuses we admonished in the seventies. So long as we let the government run unchecked in order to protect us from the terrorist boogeymen, then we have only ourselves to blame when that power is abused. We watched the government pass the Patriot Act and said nothing. We watched the government pass the FISA Amendments and said nothing. We’ve already given our tacit approval.

Bush and Obama may have played the scoundrel, but we have been willing victims. If anything, the lesson is ours to learn.

PS: Project Censored has a great database on related stories that we really should have been paying attention to. Click Here


Krugman Weeps!

Why Austerian Economic Policies are not “mistaken.” They are strategic!

 

Contemporary Keynesian economists are beside themselves. I have an image of Paul Krugman and Dean Baker et al. trying to cover the bald spots from where they’ve pulled the hair out of their heads. They just can’t understand why, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, austerity measures and debt reduction are the dominant paradigms of the day as opposed to public investment and stimulus (or, as Krugman argues, Economics 101). Krugman astutely refers to austerity and deficit hawkishness as “Zombie ideas,” or theories that are constantly being shot down by the evidence, but refuse to die. He and his popular contemporaries inundate us with clear data and sensible explanations of otherwise complex theory proving what our experience already demonstrates. Austerity is the wrong approach to our current economic crisis, and the “Confidence Fairy” is never going to come.

Their economic thinking is, of course, sound. The Keynesians are right. We are in a liquidity trap in which central banks, in our case the Fed, can’t decrease interest rates any more to encourage investment and spending. Families that are lucky enough to have semi-stable jobs are overleveraged or unwilling to spend in uncertain times. Business owners, without a demand base, are unwilling to invest in product or hire employees. No amount of tax breaks or deregulation, or spending cuts for that matter, will change this fact. It is clear that the Lesser Depression is driven by stagnant demand, and if consumers are unwilling to spend, then the government must. Period.

Yes, this would mean deficit spending, but with record low interest now is the time to invest in needed projects and programs. This is not new age radical thought. It is well established and confirmed theory straight out the standard text. We know what caused the Great Recession and we know how to fix it. Now!

“Well that’s great!”

“So why aren’t we doing it?”

Ah, that is the question.

This is one question that Keynesians are ill prepared to answer. They shake their heads and bemoan the fact that we are repeating the “mistakes” of the Hoover Administration. They point out that the austerity paradigm has failed everywhere it’s been tried, from Japan to England, to Ireland (the poster child for austerity). The policies are definitively wrong-headed.

From an economic perspective they are right to be flummoxed. It defies scientific logic to single-mindedly pursue patently inadequate policies if the goal is to turn the economy around. That is where the impeccable logic of the economists leads them astray. To understand the irrational magic that keeps the Zombies stumbling along, one needs a bit of the madness that is the sociological imagination.

The economists, and many others, make three incorrect assumptions in their analysis.

First, economists assume that the so-called Austerians are making a mistake and the government, in following along, is promoting bad policy. Those in authority are not blind to history. They know the consequences of their small government, Hayak/Rand inspired dogma. They are not stupid or ill informed. So why are they pursuing these obviously failed policies? They promote them because they effectively achieve the goals of the corporate elite whom they serve. Their thinking is not mistaken—it’s strategic.

In a strategic sense, austerity policies make perfect sense on the part of the elite. Pounding the drum of fiscal “responsibility” and deficit reduction during a time of economic contraction is advocating freedom from regulation, consolidation of power, and the disempowerment of working people. For the economic elite, taxes, regulations and social safety nets are costs from which they derive no benefit. They are, in other words, bad investments. Especially when the truth is that the corporate elite can get everything that they want and more without these impediments.

The existence of a social safety net rankles the elite. Their own social safety is, of course, assured. They don’t need any stinking laws or programs. They just need to make obnoxious profits, collapse the economy of the entire world, and wait for the taxpayer bailout—from which they will give themselves huge bonuses in the name of quality retention. They don’t need Social Security, or Medicare, or the like, so these things are not only bad investments, they are counterproductive.

Social safety nets, by providing security for working people, are empowering and freeing, decreasing their dependence on employers (arguably increasing dependence on the government, but that’s another matter). A working man who can quit his job without worrying about losing his health care, or who knows he will be able to retire at a certain age, or has an economic cushion in the event that he loses his job, is a liability. On the other hand, an employer who fears for his future if he should step out of line at the workplace is nice and docile, a great investment. People who are free to make use of public investments to improve their social standing are potential competitors. Strategically, it makes no sense for the powerful to empower others. The key is to keep working people as low, as pathetic, as dependent as possible.

Um…without them killing you.

That’s where the government comes in. The only social safety net of value to the corporate elite is a strong police force, a powerful military and an expansive prison system. All the better if they can get working men and women to pay for these things. After all, corporations profit from the expenditures in the form of military defense contracts, weapons and body armor sales to the state, and privately run prisons. It’s quite the set-up.

Currently, only about eight percent of people born in the lowest wealth quintile will work their way up to the top quintile. For the power elite, who reside within the top percentile…or even the top percentile of the top percentile, this minimal social mobility is too close for comfort. They must defend their social position.

The next misconception that economists assume is that the economy is a monolithic whole. Granted, I’m not an economist, so I’m sure I can be taken to task for this statement. Surely, economists in their studies may break the economy down into component parts, but they still refer to “the economy” in the singular when they address a lay audience. We rely on popular intellectuals like Krugman etal. to educate us. For the most part, they do a fantastic job. Presenting the economy as a unified whole may be an effective way of breaking down otherwise complex economic theory, but it neglects a big part of the story. In fact, the market structure can be best described as having at least two distinct “economies” if not more.

The most influential economy is that within which the wealthy live and do business and move their respective politicians around the economic chessboard. This economy is doing just fine. In fact, it’s thriving in this recession. The stock market continues to grow. Profits are up, many at record levels. Effective tax rates remain low for the Koch class. Workers are nice and desperate for jobs and are less inclined to rock the boat with their pesky unions and demands for higher wages and benefits. They are willing to work for less so long as they have jobs. Unions, the only check against corporate abuse, are going the way of the dodo. All corporate misdeeds are federally guaranteed. Yes, the government has sworn upside down and backwards that they will not give any more bailouts, but we know how robust political promises are. Corporate elites and their lobbyists laugh at the unassembled erector set known to us as Dodd-Frank. The government has demonstrated time and again that they will bail out the 1% and pass the costs down to working people, school children and pre-schoolers without asking a single dime from the wealthy.

Why on Earth would the elite and those “very serious people” who work for the elite want to change the status quo? It works so well for them.

The second “economy” is the productive sector of the economy—working men and women. This is the sector that bears the brunt and ultimately pays for the inevitable economic calamities caused by the elite. The dirty little secret that the elite do not want known, however, is that they are entirely dependent upon the labors of the productive economy. The wealthy do not drive the economy, they respond to it. It’s the labors of every day men and women that drives the economy. Instead, the productive class is held hostage to the so called “job destroyers creators” in both body and mind. The resulting alienation, hopelessness and irrational divisiveness among common people plays into the hands of the elite.

Finally, economists assume that it is the government’s function to promote the general welfare of all of its citizens. After all, it is in the job description. From this perspective, the government is blatantly derelict in its duty in pursuing contractionary polices when they know full well that expansionary policies are necessary. It is malpractice most cruel.

The function of government, however, is never to promote the general welfare, certainly not to consider the needs of its common citizens. The function of government is, rather, to promote the interests of the elite and to protect them from the consequences of their own avarice. Occasionally, it becomes contingent upon the government to negotiate between the two economic sectors. This happens when the productive sector takes arms against the elite sector and determines to tear it down. Sometimes the government uses force against such trespass, as in 1877; sometimes when the common man becomes too extensive for slaughter, the government institutes equalizing reforms, such as during the New Deal.

Regardless, the government is always the representative of the elite. Government of the people is a useful fiction pulled out for inaugural addresses and parades. Austerity is the American economic policy, with few minor adjustments made for the sake of campaign cosmetics, because the corporate elite want austerity. Their representatives, bought and paid for, will do as they’re told. What’s more, they will make sure that nothing even close to the New Deal ever happens again. It took them sixty years to tear down the hard fought reforms of the thirties. They are not about to go back now.

Austerity has little to do with economics outside of the devastating effects it has on most Americans. Those promoting austerity are not just pushing a wrong-headed agenda based on an almost religious faith in Randian dogma. They are pursuing an agenda in which the economic elite have invested a great deal and for which they reward their spokespeople handsomely. It is not an economic policy. If it were, austerity zombies would remain in the grave where they were buried with the publication of the General Theory. Austerity is a power strategy…and, so far, a successful one at that.

________________________________________

Note: Just as I was about to publish this blog I noticed a couple of posts from Paul Krugman. Since I used his name in the title and referenced his work quite often it’s only fair that I point out that he has recently offered some institutional analysis of austerity, here and here. Damn you, Krugman, for stealing my thunder! Well, to a certain extent. His analysis is not quite so radical as mine.


What is Happening to the World?

Well, here’s a brief answer.

 

I’m actually working on a different blog post, but I’ve heard this question quite a bit, lately. I mostly overhear it in conversations between people who do not know I can hear them. However, people who know that I’m a sociologist, including many students, have approached me directly and asked what is happening with the world today.

The answer[s] are not simple, and I don’t really have time to elaborate. Nor am I so arrogant as to believe that I have “the answers.”

There are, however, some things that I and other sociologists know. First, and foremost, the simplistic answers, encouraging equally simplistic solutions, are largely wrong. Violent video games, television shows and horror films are not to blame. Our kids are not becoming increasingly violent. The availability of guns may have some comparative regional consequences, but are not the cause of our current social pathology.

If that is, in fact, what it is. In 2012, we as a society were witness to a stunning and heartbreaking seven mass shootings. This is a thirty year record. It certainly seems, based on this evidence, that our society has a nihilistic trend. But determining the state of society based on the number of mass shootings is questionable logic. A maximum of seven mass shootings out of a population of over three-hundred million people is statistically not much different than the many years in which there were only one mass shooting. As is evidenced by the graph at left, the last thirty years have seen spikes and peaks of mass murders and their associated troughs.

While researching the incidence and trend of mass shootings, and hoping that someone had done the math for me so that I wouldn’t have to, I stumbled upon a blog in which the author did the math so that I wouldn’t have to. Rutgers grad student Aatish Bhatia and his marvelously geeky blog, Empirical Zeal ran the numbers against a Poison Curve suggesting that the distribution of mass shootings is largely random.

Hmmm. Sociologists are not entirely comfortable with random. We do suggest that there are often so many variables that events seem random. There are influences that can be understood and can inform how we interact in our society. So when we look at phenomena such as mass shootings, we look for commonalities. So what can mass shootings tell us about the state of our society as a whole?

Researchers have identified mental illness as a component part of mass shootings. Indeed, this is a good point, but mental illness is a combination social construct and social disease. What aspects of society contribute to mental illness? We know that mental illness, from a sociological context, is influenced by social pathologies associated with social change and the integration of the members into society. Related to integration, a sociologist might identify as common among mass shooters are social isolation, an extremist zeal for transcendent ideologies and, ultimately, suicide. These often go hand in hand.

The question above is, however, “what is happening to the world?” The answer could very well be nothing, at least on the individual level. Bombings, terrorist attacks, mass shootings; these are all very rare occurrences in the United States (though fairly common in other nations) and could simply be the result of random or random-like variables. For instance, what was the difference between the year 2012 and the year 1999, a year with one fewer mass shootings? In what ways were 1993, 2007 and 2009 similar? Or how is it that in four of the last thirty years there were no mass shootings? Economic conditions do not seem to explain it; cultural variables haven’t changed that much. Violent video games? Hollywood movies? Lead pollution?

Despite almost endless media coverage, as well as the intense level of tragedy associated with such extreme events, it’s difficult to glean anything useful, sociologically. However, there is something to be said about how we interpret these events.

Let’s face it, we know that there is something wrong with our society, and we have a visceral certainty that events like Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon Bombing are, in some small way, related. This may say more about us than about the perpetrators of tragedy. It’s a disturbing testament that, in some dark way, we have certain sympathies (not to be confused with empathy) for those who commit such atrocities. In them, we see individuals who are isolated from the larger society, or in sociological speak, lacking appropriate integration. Perhaps they have suffered a loss, been laid off, like Andrew Engeldinger. In Columbine, Klebold and Harris were socially isolated by exclusive peers. Kipland Kinkel, a year before Columbine had been expelled before he went on his killing spree.

When we look into the lives of these individuals we see severe mental illness, indeed, but also the refuse of social exclusion. Despite the fact that almost none of us will pursue such a deadly response to our own social exclusion, we nonetheless experience it.

The role of social institutions is to integrate people into the larger society, and yet what is left of these social mechanisms? The family unit has been invaded by the demands of the marketplace in which parents are coerced into being producers for fear of losing their jobs without regard to the needs of their children. The costs of keeping a family rise while wages stagnate and benefits wither. The primary stressor on marriages is money, and ours is a nation in which the market has failed almost half of us. Media has become the role model that many parents simply don’t have time or energy to be.

Our schools? Well, if you want to create a dysfunctional society, simply create the current American educational system. Cultivating students has been replaced by the goal of raising test scores. Kids are convinced that their schools and teachers have turned their backs on them as they perform an endless regimen of meaningless tests. To guarantee that teachers and students cooperate in what they know to be balderdash politicians make sure to use threats and coercion. Students will fail and never go to college…unless they do well on a test. Teachers will lose their jobs if their students don’t do well on the tests. Education has become an institution of fear rather than one of nurturing character and knowledge.

As for our government, forget it. Congress has an approval rating of 9%, just slightly better than Fidel Castro. The nation understands that ours is not a government that represents us unless our yachts are larger than fifty feet long. We don’t need much data to confirm this. All we need is to read the newspaper. Our government has abandoned most of us who are not too big to fail.

The market is clearly not working for us and is mostly a destructive influence in our lives as our wages are depressed and our costs increase. The market can take what it wants—our homes, our time, our livelihoods, our lives—and there’s no way to get anything substantial in return. Americans go to work every day knowing that they are nothing more to their employers than a figure on a spreadsheet. At any moment their jobs can be deleted with no more sentiment than one has for clearing a cell on an Exel sheet. Job security, loyalty and investment are gone as are any delusions on the part of working Americans.

We don’t even dare get sick because our health system will leave us choosing between everything we’ve ever worked for…or our lives. Those tasked with caring for those in need have abandoned medicine and nurturance and even health in their drive for higher profits. Our very health is subject to commodity status.

Even our religions are suspect. More of us are leaving mainstream religions and are becoming unaffiliated, or choosing to affiliate with smaller, less traditional beliefs.

Great swaths of our culture and society have lost their legitimacy. During this time, we have swallowed an exclusive version of individualism positing that we are on our own. More and more it seems that that is true, be it through self-fulfilling prophecy or social contingency. Human beings are not good at being on our own. Isolation and lack of integration are destructive to the human soul. It has certainly been destructive to these specific human beings holding the guns, and most destructive to their victims. It’s also destructive to us, and we know it. Yet we fear that we can do nothing about it. To what extent does hopelessness drive the likes of Adam Lanza to commit horrors?

When a society fails to integrate its members, individuals become easy prey to those who do offer meaning, a place, no matter how distorted. It appears that this is what happened to at least one of the alleged Boston Marathon Bombers. Unable to integrate in the larger American society, Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned to religious fundamentalism and radical nationalism to give his life meaning. This may also be true for Wade Michael Page and his embrace of fascism before he opened fire on a Sikh Temple, or Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, or even Timothy McVeigh. Weak social integration leaves the field open for extremist visionaries.

In 1897, Emil Durkheim wrote his seminal work, Suicide in which he demonstrated that anomic social change and lack of integration has devastating impacts on people. Indeed, suicide is a common component of many mass shootings. Suicide is also becoming more common in the nation as a whole. This is especially true for some of our least effectively integrated members, our combat veterans. Suicide is a powerful indicator of the health of a society. It is clear that something is terribly awry in ours.

We know that there is something wrong with our society. We’ve all been abandoned to greater or lesser extents. That some of us have resorted to horrific violence has inspired most of us to ask not what is wrong with them, but what is wrong with our society. This is an appropriate question.


The Sociology of Gay Marriage and Children

A Response to Justice Antonin Scalia

 

I was camping for a few days and unable to blog, but upon returning from vacation and getting caught up on current events the first thing to really catch my attention was Justice Scalia’s claim that there was “considerable disagreement” among sociologists with regard to the harm done to the children of same-sex couples.

If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must — you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s -there’s considerable disagreement among – among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.

 

Perhaps Justice Scalia should have read the amicus brief filed by the American Sociological Association for the very case he was hearing, Hollingsworth v. Perry. The brief states clearly and unambiguously, “When the social science evidence is exhaustively examined—which the ASA has done—the facts demonstrate that children fare just as well when raised by same-sex parents.” The brief declared that this is the “the clear and consistent consensus in the social science profession.”

 

This statement is a confirmation of the same position taken by the American Psychological Association in 2004. “There is no scientific basis for concluding that lesbian mothers or gay fathers are unfit parents on the basis of their sexual orientation (Armesto, 2002; Patterson, 2000; Tasker & Golombok, 1997). On the contrary, results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.”

 

That’s not to claim that there are no differential effects of same-sex parenting as compared to heterosexual parenting. Research published in the American Sociological Review by Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz indicates that there are differences between children of same-sex couples distinct from children of traditional marriages. Such differences include a greater lesser likelihood to embrace sex and gender stereotypes, and higher toleration of sex and gender differences. These differences include “greater capacity to express feelings [and] more empathy for social diversity. Hardly harmful side effects in themselves.

 

Any negative consequences of same-sex parenting, are mostly related to the stigma associated with homosexuality rather than the real nature of same-sex marriages in and of themselves. “Because lesbigay parents do not enjoy the same rights, respect, and recognition as heterosexual parents, their children contend with the burdens of vicarious social stigma.” The research predicts that, with greater acceptance of same-sex relationships, this stigma should “wither away.”

 

Intriguingly, Stacey and Biblarz predict that “Granting legal rights and respect to gay parents and their children should lessen the stigma that they now suffer and might reduce the high rates of depression and suicide reported among closeted gay youth living with heterosexual parents.”

 

Every day I read or watch examples of people like Justice Scalia making completely false social science claims to validate their own prejudices. When public officials do this, they make the assumption that the general public, or perhaps “their” public, will not fact check them.

 

 

 


A Note on Serving on Jury

And how the revolving door to the criminal justice system is greased

 

Yesterday, I had the privilege of performing my civic duty by serving on a jury. I’d always wanted to serve on a jury, but, despite being called almost every year, I never actually got on one—until yesterday, that is. It’s a good thing. I was beginning to take it personally.

I more than made up for my many years of exclusion. I took careful notes. I was appointed foreman and, I believe, the jury came to a just and right decision…with some prompting.

The experience was, however, an up-close look at how our criminal justice system perpetuates criminal stigma in individuals. The institutional norms of the criminal justice system tend to reinforce assumptions about criminal deviance. This often results in people trapped “in the system” in a destructive cycle of recidivism.

In this case, a young man was accused of “resisting and obstructing a police officer without violence.” This is an interesting law with some subtle implications with regard to what constitutes “resistance” if that resistance is not physically manifest How might such a law be used to reproduce “the criminal” and perpetuate criminal status and stigma?

Here’s what happened, according to the police: While responding to a noise violation the police found the defendant and two other people sitting on a lanai, listening to excessively loud music. Most of the police claimed that they could hear the music over a thousand feet away. The police claim that they smelled marijuana, but no evidence of the drug was collected at the scene.

When the police approached the lanai they discovered that one of the people, not the defendant, was armed with a pistol and very intoxicated. This prompted the police to secure the area. According to the police, the defendant was on the lanai and moving into the house. He was given a clear and direct order to stop, but instead continued into the house. He later emerged from a bedroom with his hands up and was arrested for the above charge. That was the nature of crime.

According to the defendant: He was in the kitchen mixing a drink (it was 6:30 in the morning, and he and his friends were up all night drinking) when he noticed the police officers’ flashlights. The music was really blaring. The source of the music was two-fold, a small, but powerful Bose stereo on the lanai and an even louder stereo in the home-owner’s bedroom. The defendant figured that he should wake the home-owner, tell him the police were there, and turn down the radio. He turned around, entered the house and proceeded to the home-owner’s bedroom, where he was sleeping. The defendant claims that he did not hear the police order him to stop.

This case really bothered us jurors. We were guided through the minutia of the second by second decisions that were being made by the police officers and by the defendant. Everyone agreed that the entire incident, with all of its variables among at least half a dozen participants, music blaring, and the emotional intensity of facing an armed and very intoxicated man, spanned less than one minute. No physical evidence was presented by the state, so all we had to go on was witness testimony. Both lawyers, especially the defense, made it a point to walk us through this testimony in detail.

The police did not have a consistent story with regard to where the defendant was at the time he was ordered to stop. Understandably, they were more focused on the man with the gun (a legal gun owner, for the record, who never drew his pistol). They all knew his location and disposition. As for the defendant, four police officers gave four different testimonials. Different still was the defendant’s testimony. He claimed that he was in the house about to step onto the lanai.

So whose testimony was “the truth”? It was impossible to say. In fact, it’s very likely that all of the eyewitnesses were wrong to varying degrees. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification accounts for 75% of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. This truth is even recognized by the American Bar Association. What we see is predicated on where we are, what we are doing, what is going on around us. Despite the fact that we have over 180 degree field of vision, our focus is actually rather small. What we see is also subject to distortions in our recollection. When we are witness to something happening so quickly we miss many details. We then fill in the details later based on what we think might have happened.

With nothing to prosecute this case except eye-witness testimony, the state was burdened with ensuring that its witnesses were more believable than the defendant. This was not difficult. The five police officers, four of whom directly witnessed the event, were well spoken, thoughtful, professional and most likely honest. The status of the police officers gave their testimony weight. The prosecutor made sure that the jury was well aware of the officer’s qualifications and training. One juror stated flatly that police testimony in general weighs more significantly than the testimony of a defendant.¹

The defense attempted to insinuate that the police “got their stories straight” before the trial. Indeed, that probably happened to a certain extent. Perceptions of reality are social events as well as individual events. People, be they police officers or concert goers, will later collaborate on what they “saw” and develop a consensus as to the reality. They will know this collaborative reality to be true and valid. This is not dishonest, as the defense was inferring, but rather a human response to events, especially stressful events. It is, however, yet another reason why eye-witness testimony is so unreliable.

The prosecution used one other tactic to reinforce the validity of his witnesses over the defense. He “accidentally” let it slip that the defendant was a convicted felon. Ooops! Of course, the defense objected and we were instructed to disregard. Yeah, right! This little slip of the tongue on the part of the prosecutor could easily have won him the case. One juror admitted to defining the incident as a simple party gone bad before being informed that the defendant was a convict. Knowing the defendant’s past changed how the event was defined, or made real, for this juror.

We are our past, and our reputations shape the meanings ascribed to our actions. In this case, all we knew of the defendant was that he was a young, black male with a felony record. Did race play an issue? Perhaps, though nobody admitted to it. One juror did ask the question, “If this was a clean cut white man sitting in front of us would we even be here today?” Hmmmm. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this is a legitimate question. Race shapes our perceptions of individuals even if we don’t define ourselves as “racist.” For the purposes of this post, however, it’s impossible to infer the extent to which race played a part.

The young man’s future hung on the reasonable doubt that many of us had that he heard the order to stop. The state had to prove, in part, that the defended “refused” to follow the officer’s order. With the blaring music and the dynamics of the scene, all happening within the span of less than a minute, it was conceivable that he did not. None of the police agreed as to the disposition of the defendant at that time. There was no way for the state to prove the intent inferred by the term “refuse.”

This baffled us even more. The prosecution had to know that this was a weakness. Indeed, the prosecution constantly pointed out that all of the officers heard the order to stop. With this complication, why did the state even bother to bring this case to trial? After the verdict of not guilty was read to the court, the judge admitted that such charges were unusual, and rarely brought to trial under these circumstances. So what made this case special?

After the verdict, the judge explained that the young man in question was on probation. If he had been found guilty he would have gone to prison, quite possibly for a long time. Prison? For walking into a bedroom against orders? A quick Google search revealed that, five years ago, the nineteen year old defendant faced some drug possession charges and one count of home invasion. Aside from some minor traffic violations, there was no record of criminal activity on his part in the last five years. Prime criminal years for an individual are between ages fifteen and twenty-five. It’s likely that the young man in question, despite demonstrating some bad judgment, was entering a less tempestuous stage in his life. Could a prison sentence be justified under these circumstances?

What struck me, however, was the fact that we the jury never really knew what was at stake for this young man. By error or design we knew that he was a convicted felon. We did not know the nature of his conviction, nor did we know when he committed his crimes. The jurors could not be blamed for assuming the worst, and some speculated on these earlier convictions. On the other hand, we knew that a guilty verdict came with consequences, but this was a misdemeanor charge. My heart sank when the judge mentioned prison time. I was thankful that we reached a verdict of not guilty.

This verdict of “not guilty” was not a given. As far as I could tell, only two of the jurors, me and one other person, had a strong reasonable doubt. One juror quickly came around to our way of thinking. Another was concerned about the defendant’s felon status, but upon hearing our reasoning was convinced that the state did not make its case. I wonder about these last two jurors. We, with the strong reasonable doubt, were the first to speak about the case in the jury room. What if certainty of guilt, rather than reasonable doubt, first view expressed? One juror was convinced of his guilt through most of the deliberation. Could that juror have swayed the two less certain jurors to decide differently?

Often, once we define our realities, we defend those realities, even in the face of evidence to the contrary (and yes, that is just as true for me as it is for anyone else, though I’d like to think my sociological training tempers this tendency somewhat). Another juror, I suspect, really didn’t care one way or another and expressed that he would sleep just as well if the “kid was found guilty or not guilty.” Might that juror have jumped onto the most immediate discourse?

Upon facing a majority opinion, there were practical contingencies to consider. It was late at night before we entered the jury room for deliberation. It was not uncommon to hear complaints about the possibility of “being here all night.” Might a juror who would sleep just as well regardless of the outcome, especially knowing that the defended was a convict, simply have reinforced the majority opinion out of expediency rather than civic duty?

If a majority of the jurors decided upon guilty, for whatever reason, faith in police testimony, disdain for a convicted felon, fatigue or apathy, they assert significant pressure on the majority to conform. This is a classic example of research done by Solomon Asch. In this experiment, subjects consistently answered questions based on the answers of the group, even if they knew the answers to be wrong. We, as human beings, are often more interested in finding acceptance from the group than we are with upholding the truth. Few of us have the intestinal fortitude of Juror 8 from Twelve Angry Men. What does this say about tenuous structure of the entire jury process?

We had everything that we needed to convict this young man and to do unalterable damage to the potential of his future. We had our prejudices, our pre-conceived notions, our stereotypes, our herd mentality. We were placed within an institutional structure that plays on these human frailties despite manifest rules to the contrary. Instead, we returned a verdict of not guilty.

I’m convinced that this verdict was valid in accordance with the law. I also happen to think that the verdict was right and just. It is my hope that this young man will take positive advantage of this chance he received and stay out of trouble. However, it’s very likely that he could find himself before a judge again for equally nebulous misdemeanor charges. The criminal justice system just doesn’t like to let go.

__________________________

¹On the other hand, there was question as to nature of police ethics. One juror suggested that the police “screwed up” and made the arrest because they needed to have something to show for the fact that five police officers were dispatched to a noise violation and ended up with three people in hand-cuffs. This juror was asked why he had such animosity for the police. The juror denied any such animosity but was convinced that this was the result of police incompetence. Not a fair assessment in my mind. No evidence suggests that the police were anything less than professional.

 


 


The NRA Just Doesn’t Get It!

There’s no reason to let this group steer the debate and silence alternative voices

 

According to the New York Times, the NRA has a plan for preventing gun violence. “The N.R.A.’s main answer to school violence was a model program it unveiled called National School Shield, which would train and arm security guards at schools in those local districts that want to use it.” That’s the answer. Simply have armed guards patrol our schools. Never mind that many schools today are having a hard enough time getting up to date textbooks or a sufficient number of computers, or even adequate supplies of pencils and paper. According the NRA, we should reinforce the fortress society we are constructing by adding armed guards to the staff.

The NRA just doesn’t get it. The very fact that we live in a society in which we feel that we need armed guards in our schools to protect our children is not a solution. Indeed, it is the very manifestation of the problem. Our society is devolving into collective of insular fortresses that need to be protected from the psychopaths that pervade our streets. If the NRA had its way, each of these mini-citadels would be defended by well-armed denizens. It doesn’t occur to them that this very mindset is, in and of itself, pathological.

I shudder for a society paranoid of itself.

Considering that the United States has almost as many guns as it does people…


The Third Economic Revolution: Challenges of the Ongoing Information/Globalization Era

A Commentary by Sociologist Richard Appelbaum

 

Figure 1: Click to View the Source and the Video

Some interesting questions. Of course, I would like more commentary on the changing nature of power relations in this transitory stage.


What are the Political Consequences Should Romney Win on November 6th

The 2012 Election and the Laws of Institutions

 

Two years ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a surprisingly forthcoming and honest statement. He stated outright, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This statement has, on and off, been a centerpiece of Democratic criticism of the Republican Party. After all, shouldn’t service to the nation, making responsible decisions in the best interest of the country and faithfully executing one’s duties in the best interests of the constituency be primary for any elected official? One might even forgive McConnell if he said, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is the promotion of Republican values.” To state that mission one is to take down the President, however, is way out of bounds, or at least should be.

Well, perhaps, but it is not surprising from a sociological interpretation. As a leading member of a powerful institution, McConnell was expressing nothing more than what I call the Second Law of Institutions. Institutions, like the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, can be looked at as singular actors within a social matrix of power relations. As such, it is the primary function of any institution to perpetuate itself (The first law) and to expand its power (the second law).¹ An institution expands it power by increasing its control and access to the productivity of individuals, hence government institutions, among the most powerful in any given society, are locked in perpetual conflict with each other to maximize their own power. Party control of the executive institutional apparatus of the American government is one of the most powerful positions in the world. So it comes as no surprise that McConnell, with the backing of the Republican Party, wants to unseat President Obama. As it stands, doing so would vouch this vast power conveyance to the Republican Party, as no other institution is in a position to fulfill that role.

It has nothing to do with ethics. This is a purely rational, institutional strategy. It must also be pointed out that the Laws of Institutions holds true for all institutions. They are equally true for Republicans and Democrats, governments and religions, families and businesses, etc.

To accomplish this goal, the Republican Party developed a strategy of complete obstructionism. The gist of this strategy is that all failings of government are attributed to the President, the head of the institution. Shutting down congress, specifically the Senate, may result in the lowest popularity ratings for Congress in history, but the reality is that there is only one Congress. Barring a revolutionary movement that destroys Congress and establishes a new legislative authority, Congress, as an institution, is secure—so far! The President, unlike the presidency, however, is fungible. It’s impossible to replace every member of Congress. It’s relatively easy to replace the President. So the President bears the brunt of responsibility for the state of the government.

So Republicans could, with relatively little sacrifice (though there will be some associated costs), gridlock the national government with the hope of unseating the incumbent president. The best data to demonstrate the existence of the Gridlock Strategy is in the number of filibusters in this congress as compared to past congresses. (Click the graph for the source). What we see here is an institutional strategy of gridlock. Because of the filibuster and Republican intransigence the Senate is where ideas go to die. It has gotten to the point that it is understood that a bill must have sixty votes to even be considered in the Senate. And Republicans guarantee that no bills supported by the President or Democrats fulfill that requirement.

Based on the latest polling results, this strategy might just work. Granted, based on Electoral College projections, Obama will likely win on November 6th; it’s a coin toss, however, for him to win the popular vote. A slight nudge one way or another in some key states—indeed in some key counties—could change the course of the election and hand it Gov. Mitt Romney.

My biggest fear, should this happen, is that a Romney win would be the end of effective governance in the United States. Given the laws of institutions, if the Gridlock Strategy works, Democrats would be foolish not to use it for their own advancement. If Democrats lose the Senate, which will almost certainly not happen (a cost to Republicans for the Gridlock Strategy) they could use the filibuster just as effectively as Republicans. Republicans would be foolish to allow the filibuster to continue into the 112th congress under such conditions. With Republicans in control of the House and White House, Democratic proposals go nowhere. So the United States reaches an impasse in which the federal government is incapable of action. How long can such a destabilizing culture last before the nation faces a severe political crisis?

Government, as an institution in the modern world, perpetuates itself through a veneer of legitimacy. Once this veneer is torn away, the results can be profoundly destabilizing as citizens feel that they are on their own facing an uncertain future. Republicans embraced a strategy for institutional empowerment, but may well have torn the very fabric of legitimacy which they need to exercise the power that they win.

________________________________________________

¹ I am currently working on a project called “Democracy is of the Streets” in which I elaborate the Laws of Institutions. I might even finish it. For now, the Laws of Institutions are as follows: 1. The Primary Function of an Institution is the perpetuation of the institution. 2. The Secondary Function of an Institution is to empower itself. 3. All other goals, including the expressed manifest function of the institutions (eg. Good governance) is tertiary.

 


On Supporting the Troops While Opposing War

A Complex Position

 

I was caught in a difficult paradox for many years. This paradox was, I believe, an intentional and ingenious discursive formation concocted during the first Persian Gulf War. It was the paradox of supporting our troops while opposing war. Exactly how could I, as a peace advocate and activist, claim that I support our soldiers while at the same time oppose their actions? How did I resolve this seeming contradiction? I’m afraid I’ve never had a particularly good answer. I may not have one still.

I felt compelled to address this paradox, however, after reading an article from Truthout. The author, Camillo Mac Bica, suggested that, from his perspective as a former marine with combat experience, being thanked for his service is “inappropriate.” Among his many reasons for this conclusion was, “it reminds me that many of those who feel the need to offer thanks were apathetic about – or even supportive of – the war, while they refused to participate themselves or did little or nothing to end it.”

Reading this article reminded me of Howard Zinn’s famous essay, The Greatest Generation, written for The Progressive Magazine in 2001. Zinn was responding to Tom Brokaw’s claim that those who fought World War II were, by virtue of their service, the Greatest Generation. In the essay, Zinn gave his own nominations for that honor, none of which supported the aims of war.

That these authors, Zinn and Bica, were combat veterans lends legitimacy to their claims. Their battlefield experiences tempered their peace activism. They were there. They knew what it was like. They earned the right to their position.

Folks like myself, or recently Chris Hayes, must tread more lightly on the subject of war. We’ve not born the burden of combat. It is incumbent upon us to qualify our anti-war positions with a sincere exultation of the troops who serve. This qualification complicates, one might even say “negates,” the anti-war/pro-peace position. When I rail against bombings, civilian casualties, even massacres such as Haditha, or other human rights violations such as those of Abu Ghraib, these events are conducted by our troops, the very soldiers I’m expected to laud as heroes. Yet how can I not stand against any perpetration of inhumanity?

I experienced this paradigm for the first time during protests and anti-war forums in which I participated during the First Gulf War. President H. W. Bush itched to be a wartime president, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq provided the opportunity. Bush in the late eighties and early nineties, however, still faced what was known as the Vietnam Syndrome, the unwillingness of Americans during the post-Vietnam Era to commit to a formal war. President Reagan before him, according to the book Drift, by Rachel Maddow, tried desperately to engage a war in Nicaragua, but met resistance in Congress due to this national “syndrome.”

President Bush, on the other hand, developed a brilliant propaganda machine justifying his war. Saddam Hussein was the contemporary equivalent to Hitler, and Kuwait was falsely presented as an ill-fated democracy and the victim of Iraqi atrocities. The Bush propaganda machine was well greased. In July of 1990 Saddam Hussein was assured by the US Ambassador, April Glaspie, that the United States had “no opinion” with regard to Iraq’s “border dispute with Kuwait.” She claimed that Secretary of State James Baker affirmed this “no opinion” policy. Thus, the door was open for the invasion of Kuwait. This story was hardly elaborated by the press. The Pentagon reported that Iraqi forces were amassed at the Saudi border, presenting an imminent threat to US interests. The St. Petersburg Times uncovered that this was a lie. General Colin Powell himself later confirmed this report, yet this duplicity never became the national scandal that it should have been. After all, the United States was at war, and one should never question a war-time president.

The propaganda machine insisted on “support your troops.” You don’t have to support the war, for that is your right, but you must support your troops. Any attempt to highlight the above-mentioned lies, or to point out that the Iraqi military at that time was largely supplied by US weapons, or to deny the merits of the nature of war itself, might destroy the resolve of our soldiers in the field. Protesting was equated with stories of Vietnam protestors spitting on returning veterans. Supporting the troops meant keeping one’s mouth shut regardless of legitimate arguments against US military intervention in Iraq.

It was a spectacularly successful discursive arrangement. There was relatively little protest against the Persian Gulf War. The protests that I took part in were often shouted down by “patriots” and presented by the media as disloyal. That being said, the prospect of protest was still a motivating factor for the Bush Administration. The fear of growing peace protests predicated a policy of a quick, well-defined war. Under the military leadership of General Colin Powell, the war ended within seven months. Once the Iraqi military was pushed from Kuwait, the Bush Administration declared victory and started the parades. A significant protest movement had no time momentum. Consequently, the Vietnam Syndrome was over.

The great American dissident, Noam Chomsky, once said, “…the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support Our Troops’ is that they don’t mean anything […] that’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is going to be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something, do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.” And we weren’t allowed in any real way to debate the merits of war on a national stage.

This orthodoxy remains, even after our disastrous military experiences of the last decade. Indeed, the insinuations of the propaganda machine are even more insidious. After 9/11, and the consequent fear and doubt instilled by the attack, our leadership engaged in medieval definitions of good vs. evil, with-us-or-against-us, rhetoric feeding on and reinforcing a state of national paranoia. Fear is the default paradigm of tyranny. Fearful subjects are not thinking subjects, are not independent subjects. Fearful subjects hate and are willing to abandon their own interests to the fulfillment of their hate.

According to the new machinations, the only thing protecting us from evil and securing our liberties is our troops. To suggest otherwise, or to suggest that there might be other factors involved, is not only un-American, but it is aid and comfort to the terrorists. Because of this, we must support our troops at all cost lest our very freedoms be lost to terrorism.

On March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew were flying over My Lai hamlet in Vietnam. There they witnessed US soldiers of Charlie Company, under the command of Lt. William Calley, slaughtering unarmed peasants. Thompson intervened in the massacre, even to the point of ordering his crew to fire on Charlie Company if necessary. He saved over fifteen Vietnamese that day.¹

How does the juxtaposition of Calley’s and Thompson’s stories as soldiers complicate the “support the troops” paradigm? On one hand we have Lt. Calley’s actions. Certainly, Calley is far from a hero, but sociologically his actions cannot be isolated from the insane realities in which he and Charlie Company acted. On the ground, they suffered casualties from a virtually invisible enemy. They lived in constant fear and stress from combat. Charlie Company developed cohesion within a matrix of the inhuman complexities of war. Under any other circumstances, Calley and the soldiers of Charlie Company would have been our neighbors, perhaps not heroes, but certainly not villains. Many of the same constructs that shaped the lives and influenced the actions of Charlie Company, however, also shaped WO. Thompson and his crew. Yet Charlie Company committed atrocities, while Thompson’s crew demonstrated profound valor. It’s impossible to understand the subtle variables at play that manifest such different outcomes. Yet, it is impossible to explore such stories when the only acceptable avenue is “support your troops.”

This is further complicated by the stories of Haditha, or Corporal Bradley Manning or any of a number of Medal of Honor winners? Are they all worthy of support? The same support? What do we mean by support? Should “support” imply blanket approval of Calley and Thompson? Do we support all of the troops by default under the assumption that all soldiers are potential Thompsons, only to withdraw our support from the inevitable Calleys who arise from any combat experience?

How do we demonstrate that support? Is it “support” to sit back silently while our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives are put in harm’s way for a cause that we don’t believe in; or worse, for a cause that we know to be a lie? This is, of course, what our elite establishment means by the phrase. On the other hand, might those of us in the peace movement make the claim that true support for our troops means honoring them enough to ensure that their lives are only put on the line when it is absolutely necessary?

“Support our troops” is, as expressed by Chomsky, a meaningless phrase with horribly meaningful consequences. Refrain from dissent is not “supporting the troops” any more than is silently allowing our troops to die or to kill for a lie. Of course we support “the troops”, our friends and family, even if we disdain the work for which they are tasked. We support the troops as we support any man or woman who endeavors to uphold their humanity in the face of inhuman conditions. At the same time, we abhor the conditions that task their humanity. There is no contradiction. Also, there is no contradiction in abhorring the atrocities committed by those who lose hold of their humanity while at the same time holding out our hands to those same people in order help them regain their human consciousness.

Our feelings regarding war and those who serve are impossibly complex. Any attempt to simplify the discourse is a limitation on our ability to comprehend the reality of what is being done in our name. In short, it is the perpetuation of a lie. That is the point of propaganda. The best propaganda minimizes the complexity of the human drama and packages it in such a way that the intricacies become invisible, imponderable. That way, we no longer have to think. All we have to do is blindly support the whims of the elite…to our own destruction.

_____________________________

¹For his efforts, Thompson received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, the citation for this medal included a lie about saving a girl in the midst of “crossfire,” thus falsely insinuating that the victims of Mai Ly were armed. Because of this lie, Thompson threw his medal away.


Tricky Tricks with Statistics

Don’t Be Fooled by Conservative Hocus Pocus Calling Itself Statistics

 

I have theory that I call the Reflective Attribution theory. This theory stipulates that people tend to impute their own motives and attributions onto others. For instance, according to this theory one might predict that those people who are inclined to lie are also people who are do not trust others, because they assume that “because I lie, others lie.” The opposite is also the case. Honest People tend to be trusting of others.

So, I can’t help but apply this theory in my everyday life. The other day I posted the following data on my Facebook (click the image for the source).


This is an answer to the claim that President Obama is overseeing an unprecedented growth in the federal government. The underlying claim is, of course, that if Obama is allowed to continue this massive federal government increase we will soon be under the thumb of a monolithic and oppressive institution. The data above, showing the growth of government as a percentage of GDP compared to the growth of the private sector, belies this claim. Yes, when you control for state and local governments there is some growth in at the federal level. But unprecedented? If you want precedent just look at the preceding president (yes, I did that on purpose).

Which brings me to my theory. A friend of mine responded with a gotcha. An article that shows, beyond a conservative doubt, that President Obama has, in fact, grown the government. Over the years I’ve noticed that conservatives are very leery of statistics. For someone like me, who lives on statistics, this strikes me as odd. One person, years ago, told me that she does not trust statistics because “statistics lie.” Actually, statistics don’t lie. People lie. Sometimes they use statistics to do it. This is something that I see from both sides of the political spectrum, but if I am to be honest, I notice that the right side is the overwhelming leader in the quantity of “damn lies and statistics.”

The data presented by the article can be summed up in the following graph.


Yep. That’s a bigger government all right. It’s simple. It’s succinct. A nice straight line. I think conservatives like straight lines. However, it is not descriptive of the Obama Administration. In short, it’s a deceptive use of statistics. It’s true, mind you. This stat is not, technically, a lie. But the intent behind the stat is certainly to deceive.

The article cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics as its source. So went to the BLS website, looked up the data, and put together the same chart. Only this time I filled in the gaps between January of 2009 and April of 2012. I got the following (program glitch. I used January of 2009 and then the succeeding Aprils of Obama’s administration. The computer added the intermediary months on its own.):


As you can see, the overall data is the same, but filling in a few missing dates paints a very different picture. Yes, the Obama Administration has overseen a net increase in the size of government as measured by the number of employees. The bulk of that increase, however, peaked two years ago. Since then, President Obama has overseen a reduction in government employment. Embarrassing.

This is a common technique in claims making—showing only the statistics that proves your point. A pundit can be technically honest about this and still lie. Another technique is to offer a stat by itself with no comparative data against which to measure it. Notice that the New York Times data above offers a comparison to other presidents. That’s called responsible reporting. Could the Times have been more comprehensive? Every work of research can be more comprehensive. Let’s assume that the New York Times was under practical constraints to do so.

To remedy this with regard to federal employment, I decided to offer a comparison between President Obama and President W. Bush. Now I recognize that my more extreme conservatives consider President Bush to be a Manchurian Progressive (in retrospect, of course. During his presidency he was practically the second coming). Regardless, I would wager that, given a choice between Presidents Bush and Obama, these same people would vote for Bush. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I have no data to support this claim. Regardless, the claim is that Obama’s expansion of government is “unprecedented” and employment is the variable offered to prove this.

Alas, it appears that comparative data also refutes the unprecedented growth claim.


Then, just for fun, I thought, ‘let’s compare Obama to the Conservative God’s right hand.’ Yep. That’s right. Ronald Freakin’ Reagan. How does President Obama’s expansion of Government compare to President Reagan’s during the same time period. This was a little trickier. The best stats I could find that was relatively easy to access was a measure of end of year civilian federal employment for President Reagan, so that is what I used for President Obama. I used December of the year preceding each administration as an estimate of where each president started. To wit, I compiled the following graph:


Well what do you know? Three years into his administration, the Gipper had the bigger government. True, he did oversee a decline in his first two years, but more than made up for it in his third. And this growth in government continued for Reagan right up to his farewell address.

Truth be told, this data can be looked at in a different way. One could suggest that if you look at the net rate of growth between President Reagan’s and President Obama in their first three years, Obama’s was larger. Well, yeah, but bigger is bigger in this issue and Reagan had the bigger government. Again, the growth of Obama’s government is far from unprecedented.


Of course, looking at employment and change as a percentage of GDP are only two of many ways to analyze the size of government. It so happens that this morning I was reading the Krugman blog and noticed this graph, which speaks to my topic. So I stole it.

So back to my original thesis about the Reflective Attribution. It’s no wonder that conservatives are so leery about statistics. Either they don’t understand statistics, and therefor assume that nobody understands them, or they assume that all claims makers are equally disingenuous with their use of data. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, for understanding data, regardless of the nature of that data, is crucial to developing an objective and rational understanding of the issues. As a sociologist, I know that very often what we believe to be true is, in fact, false. If we base our decisions on nothing more substantial than what we believe to be true…well…the road we are paving can only have one destination.


The Persistence of Memes

The Long Life and Career of Reagan’s Welfare Queen

 

A colleague of mine, responsible for selling items at my high school, explained to me that some students try to con her out of her wares. They will use such gimmicks as claiming that they already paid, but did not receive the item, or maintaining that their parents or another party purchased the item and they are there to pick it up for them.

She was not clear about just how many students attempted this, but she was adamant about the nature of the problem. “It’s all of those kids who have spent their lives getting handouts. They think they are entitled to getting everything for free.” She leaned in close to me and astutely pointed out that “they can afford two hundred dollar cell-phones, though.”

She must have been especially astute, as I’m not sure how she knew that the students who were trying to get free stuff, in fact, received welfare at all, let alone all of their lives. Did she really keep track of the cell phones of such students? If so, how did she know that the students, themselves, or the parents, purchased the two hundred dollar phones? Perhaps, the phones were gifts, or provided by other family members? In other words, where did she get the data from which she drew the conclusion that those students who tried to con her were the children of welfare abusers?

Of course, she had no such data. What she had was a meme, a basic explanatory idea that has spread through American culture and often is taken as unquestionably true. The meme is not true. It is nothing more than an incarnation of Ronald Reagan’s famous “welfare queen,” presumably based on the story of a real welfare recipient who ingeniously ripped off the taxpayers to the tune of $150,000 a year. The welfare queen, however, is more a model than an actual person. She is a woman of color, often black, but increasingly Hispanic. She has multiple kids. She drives to the welfare office in her Cadillac to pick up her entitlement check.¹ She has been living like this all her life and has little incentive to work.

Reagan gave his famous “welfare queen” speech in 1976. A study published in 1979 by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed the so-called Welfare Queen was largely a myth. Welfare was not the easy route to the high life, as state disbursements were still below poverty level. Hardly an incentive to remain idle. Most welfare recipients in the 1979 study (USDHHS Aid to Families with Dependent Children: A Chartbook) had been receiving benefits for less than two years and almost seventy percent had been on the rolls for less than three years. The lifetime welfare recipient was a rarity. Welfare recipients had only about two children. They were not pumping out the babies to increase their check, as the additional welfare income was insufficient for covering the costs of added children.

As for creating a cycle of dependence and a loss of incentive to work, research around that time was clear. There was no difference in the work ethic between poor people and middle class people. Even during the 70’s and 80’s, most poor families had a history of work, and were often cast into poverty as a result of job loss, disability or desertion of a spouse.

Were there people who abused the welfare system? Of course. An intrepid enough scammer can game or rig any system created by man. Perhaps there were some who may have deserved the title of Welfare Queen, though at the time most poor families were male headed, but they were a significant minority. Less than .5% of welfare cases were referred for fraud prosecution. The study was not clear as to how many of the defendants were found to be guilty.

In 1996 the Welfare Queen took a significant hit in her ability to milk the taxpayer and spend her life on the dole. Since 1996 states have been committed to reducing their caseloads, often without regard to economic contingency such as, oh, a collapse of the global economy. The poor were expected to find jobs even if there were no jobs to find. In Florida, the maximum allowable time receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is forty-eight months, at which point the family is no longer eligible, regardless of work status. Currently, 92% of welfare recipients in Florida have been on the rolls for two years or less.

In four years the Welfare Queen can look forward to receiving a whopping $303 a month to satisfy her lavish lifestyle. How will she ever spend all of that money? Of course, she can always drive her Cadillac to the welfare office. If it’s a 1995 Cadillac. In the state of Florida vehicle assets can be worth no more than $8,500.

Yes, Mike, but you are forgetting that there is no limit for children. The Welfare Queen simply pops out the kids every time her eligibility is up and she gets to extend her time on the dole. Well, perhaps someone should tell her that, because the average welfare household in Florida, as well as in the has less than two children and less than three household members.

Memes, or what we sociologists like to call Social Constructs, often take on a life of their own. Ronald Reagan’s construction of the Welfare Queen has been shaping our understanding of the poor in America for the last thirty-seven years, and we thought she was unemployed. Unfortunately, the constructed meme was based on a faulty premise…a lie. When we accept, without question, a flawed or distorted meme, that construct shapes our perceptions of the world. In the case of my colleague, her acceptance of the Welfare Queen myth, whether she knew it or not, had a reflexive impact on her own understanding of reality. The construct influenced her into accepting as fact a distortion of reality that reinforced the original construct.

Too often, such constructions become the premise for policy that has negative implications for real people.

_________________

¹ Indeed, the “driving the Cadillac to the welfare office” meme has taken on a life of its own. Many people whom I’ve spoken to claimed to have seen this phenomenon themselves.


Trayvon and the Law

On Learning from Tragedy

 

If we are to gain anything positive from the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin it must be not only in the re-evaluation of the infamous Stand Your Ground laws (SYGs) that are spreading throughout the country, but rather in an assessment of law in general. The Trayvon Martin case highlights the inherent flaw in this and many other popular laws.

The nexus of this flaw is the assumption that in all criminal interactions there is a clear good-guy (victim) and a clear bad-guy (victimizer). The victim is righteous in his actions, while the victimizer is intent on villainy. Those who wrote, sponsored and voted for the Stand Your Ground law in Florida were intent on leveling the obvious injustice in requiring the good-guy to run away from the bad-guy. Clint Eastwood never ran. John Wayne never ran. If I’m in my home, watching television, when suddenly the door bursts open and a thief/murderer/rapist enters, I should be within my rights to shoot him without question.

It’s easy, especially by virtue of American culture, to embrace such an idea. However, human interaction is rarely ever that clear and the roles taken on by people are, more often than not, not so dichotomous as the victim/victimizer roles seen on television. Human interaction is wrought with complexity, emotion, pre-conceived notions, personal history, biological imperatives, socialization, cultural lensing, faith and a myriad other variables. The sinner oft justifies his iniquity, and the villain is never evil in her own eyes.

Such was the case with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It’s likely that the victim/victimizer roles in this interaction were hopelessly confused. It’s impossible to know exactly what transpired between these two actors, but let’s assume that neither Trayvon nor Zimmerman are evil.

Zimmerman is described as a self-appointed neighborhood watch. Apparently, his neighborhood was subject to break-ins and theft, so Zimmerman took it upon himself to help. In any other context we might define this behavior as community oriented, even altruistic. He wanted to be a police officer, revealing a protective “instinct” if you will. Perhaps there are more selfish motives, an overblow sense of authority and the pursuit of status. Indeed, it is likely that Zimmerman held culturally reinforced ideals of manhood.

He sees Trayvon, an unfamiliar face, walking through the neighborhood. And let’s not pander and mince our words. He saw an unfamiliar black face in the neighborhood. Trayvon was a young black man who did not belong. Perhaps Zimmerman is not a racist, but the society in which he was socialized is racist. We cannot separate paradigms of race from our understanding of events.

Regardless, Zimmerman assumes that Trayvon is up to no good and calls the police. He knows, however, that the police will not respond in time. Trayvon is getting away. Maybe there is history of slow response time among the police. So, Zimmerman takes it upon himself to follow Trayvon and ensure that he is caught, guarantee that justice is done. From his perspective he is being a responsible neighbor, citizen and man.

Trayvon had his own perspective, however. This is often neglected in reporting this story, mostly because Trayvon is incapable of offering his perspective. Trayvon is a young man imbued with societal paradigms of manhood, right and race. He notices that an unknown man is following him. Interestingly, by virtue of the Stand Your Ground law, Trayvon was in his rights to stand his ground in the face of threat. How might this story have been different if Trayvon had a gun and used the Stand Your Ground law to justify shooting Zimmerman? Can we say that Trayvon had less of a right to stand his ground than Zimmerman?

Here’s where the details are lost to public knowledge, at least for now. We do not know the transaction between the two principles. It is not, however, a stretch to assume that a confrontation ensued. Trayvon’s girlfriend stated that he asked Zimmerman, “why are you following me?” Not an unreasonable question. Both men were hyped up on adrenaline, perhaps unwilling to back down. Zimmerman believed he had every right to protect his neighborhood; Trayvon was convinced that he had a right to walk down the street unmolested. Matters escalate. Perhaps they push each other, grab at each other. It’s dark. Each man is alone against a possible assailant. One man has a gun. The gun comes out. Anger. A shot. Tragedy.

Who is the good-guy? Who is the bad-guy? What are the parameters of the law in this case? Who had the right to stand his ground? How does the presence of a gun change the calculus of rights? The law was not drafted with such a complex interaction in mind. Yet most violent interactions align closer to this more complex story than to the storied victim/victimizer interaction. This story is that of two people acting within a matrix of decisions, actions and reactions that ended tragically.

Effective laws must take the complexity of human interaction into account. If they do not then the application of such laws can only compound tragic episodes.


Pop Culture, Politics and the American Mythos

Bill Moyers talks to film historian Neal Gabler about our entertainment politics.


Feral…Houses?

Alternate Title: Ruins of the American Empire

 

There’s a very interesting blog on the website, Sweet Juniper called Feral Houses. It is, in essence, a visual sociology on social decay. The images are those of houses and buildings “reverting to the wild.” As is true with feral animals, these are erstwhile domestic dwellings once cared for and loved by their owners, but abandoned to the elements. These houses tell the story of decay, but not just their own decay. Tangled in the reaching roots and crawling vines is a buried story of personal decay—the human story of American families turning their backs on beloved homes. Every story of abandonment is a tragedy of sorts, a tale of personal loss. What stories might the walls of these sad homes tell? Tears? Desperation? Anger? Surrender?

Crumbling homes are also the manifestation of another tale. It’s a grander tragedy in which a society turns its back on the people. Working people turned away from their jobs. A rigged banking system. Corrupt and/or incompetent government. Corporate greed. Failed finance schemes.

When we look at these houses, we should see them as they once were. We should see the fresh faced groom carrying his bride over the threshold. Children once played on the lawns, and lovers once stole kisses on the porches. There were nurseries for kicking babies, and rooms where ailing loved ones whispered their final good-byes. In the back yards were gardens and swing sets and graduation pictures. Do you see the ghosts of what used to be?

Once upon a time, the ruins below were vibrant life, human life and social life. Now what’s left of them are quaint tourist attractions and historical curiosities. What sites will attract future tourists, archeologists and historians?





Why the Power Elite Love Unemployment

So we can expect Congress and the White House to do nothing about it!

 

Where are the jobs? The citizens want to know, where are the jobs? If you listen to the puniditocracy on either side of the great and expanding political divide you hear the same resounding question. Where are the jobs? The conservative critics of the Obama administration blame the socialism mirage, which is only visible from the right, for killing the natural desire of corporations to hire, hire, hire to their hearts’ content. If only the taxes were lower…or even better, nonexistent…then the hiring frenzy would be on. From the left we see a government too bogged down under the weight of corporate lobbyists to dare stand up and provide a real jobs bill. Yes, we blame Obama, but mostly for refusing to engage the Republicans in meaningful political combat.

Economists like Paul Krugman have, by now, lost their discernable fingerprints due to the amount of time and energy expended hammering their keyboards in vain attempts to inject some reason, science or sanity into the debate. The recession slammed homeowners and workers who were unable or unwilling to spend, thus driving down demand. Low demand meant little investment in job creating capital (but not in capital generating investment schemes, which continue to flower). The obvious solution, according to Keynesian economists is to prime demand through job creating stimulus, mortgage restructuring, and an overhaul of our ridiculous health care system.

Wow! That sounds pretty rational. It sounds like a reasonable solution that would require some deficit spending, but leading ultimately to a reinvigorated economy. It’s so rational that I feel bad for Krugman and his peers. They probably cover their heads to hide the fist-size clumps of hair pulled from their scalps as reasonable solutions are denounced as extremist by the very extremist neo-liberals who created this calamity.

What economists often fail to include in their calculations is the influence of power on economic reality. Where are the jobs? They are in nations that allow corporations to exploit laborers (often women, young girls and children) and the environment. And they are not coming back; not without significant government intervention. Of course, this does not make sense from an economic perspective. Lower wages mean lower demand, means less profits. So why wouldn’t the corporate elite be interested in creating jobs that provide enough disposable income to increase demand? Because it’s not simply about economics. It’s about the power that is entangled in our political-economic structure.

The corporate elite have insulated themselves from the collapse of demand. Corporate profits continue to rise despite the fact that the demand base is largely crippled. So where are they getting the money to bolster their profits if not from common consumers? That’s a complicated question, which the economists are better equipped to answer than this writer. In a nutshell, however, they are getting the money from the people who do have the money—mostly from themselves. Just because the wealth and income isn’t in the hands of working people does not mean it does not exist. There is plenty of money out there, floating around. It’s just in the pockets of a freshly networked global elite. And if the elite have anything to say about it (and they do) that’s where it will stay.

This thesis suggests that unemployment cannot be understood as a universal economic bane. As this blog has pointed out in previous posts, the concept of “The Economy” is inadequate for understanding the contemporary marketplace. It’s more accurate to describe two economies¹, one composed of working people, and one composed of the corporate elite. The members of these economies do not have the same interests or goals. So to suggest that unemployment is “bad for the economy” is almost a non sequitur. Unemployment is bad for the market of working people and small businesses, but is actually beneficial to the corporate marketplace if elements of power are factored into the equation. Unemployment continues to exist, more or less neglected by the power elite, because it serves the interests of the corporate class. Furthermore, unemployment will continue to exist, more or less neglected by the power elite, so long as our state and federal governments serve the interests of this same corporate class.

In 1971, Herbert Gans wrote an article for Social Policy called “The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All.” In this article, Gans offered a functional explanation for the existence of poverty. Based on the work of pioneering sociologist, Robert Merton, Gans stated that poverty exists largely because it serves a function for a number of non-poor groups, “…few phenomena are functional or dysfunctional for the society as a whole, and that most result in benefits to some groups and costs to others.” (Gans) This fits in nicely with the above stated thesis that unemployment serves positive functions in the interests of the elite.

The most obvious function of unemployment is its devaluing effect on labor. Large populations of unemployed people become a sink of desperate labor to which corporations are attracted. Large pools of the unemployed applying for scant jobs allows the corporation to acquire not just the most highly qualified applicants, but those who are willing to work for the lowest wage. Thus, workers are trapped in a bitter race to the bottom of the wage pit.

Since the level of desperation experienced by the potential worker is inversely proportional to the value of his labor, the last thing the corporate elite wants is the existence of a meaningful social safety net. Unemployment insurance may just give a job seeker the ability to keep himself afloat financially while seeking the best job for his qualifications and economic needs. This must be done away with. Universal health care liberates the worker from the possibility of financial ruin consequent to becoming sick in the United States, freeing her to seek economic opportunities without the fear of losing her dwindling and inadequate employer provided insurance (if she’s still lucky enough to have it). Medicare and Social Security lock away billions of dollars from private interests while at the same time freeing a growing sector of the population from the burdens of labor. Take away the social safety net for the old and millions more people are forced to look for work until they die or are thrown away by the corporate class.

Now that corporations are liberated from local economies by technologies that allow instantaneous communication, easy travel and information technologies that allow corporate leaders to run their factories from anywhere in the world, this pool is rather a global ocean. If the people of one nation decide to protect their workers through legislation, then corporations simply pack their bags and move to a more amenable third world country that is more “business friendly.” Free trade agreements, like that being negotiated with South Korea, can best be understood as strategies for increasing the pool of unemployed or exploitable labor available to corporate interests.

The fortunate worker who acquires a job is more likely to be a passive producer if she understands that there’s a long line of people willing to replace her, and few opportunities for a better position elsewhere. The choice is stark. Submit to working for less than the value of your labor, or face economic destruction. Any working person understands the consequences of this nasty little mechanism. While worker’s wages have stagnated over the last thirty years, GDP has largely increased. This indicates that workers are producing more and more, but receiving little if any reward. So where does the benefit of this increased productivity go? As the graph at left indicates, the benefits in the form of income are housed in the coffers of corporations and the super wealthy. (For the source of this and other alarming graphs, click the graph itself)

As working people are excluded from the benefits of the marketplace, are marginalized and disempowered, so too are unions. The neo-con war against unions has been largely successful. Private sector unions have been crippled while public sector unions are engaged in a battle for survival. As Think Progress reports, the collapse of unions corresponds directly with the collapse of the middle class. (Again, click the graph to see the original source). In our contemporary world of money politics, a self-sustaining middle class and a strong union structure are frighteningly effective checks against unrestrained corporate power. The corporate elite cannot allow such a great alliance to stand. So unions are busted by corporate lap-dog politicians while corporate media paints unions as inimical to the middle class.

With the fall of the unions we see a concurrent attack against community organizing and voter registration efforts. Let’s face it, organized communities and blocks of unemployed and impoverished voters are the last things the corporate elite want to see. So groups like ACORN must be destroyed for doing nothing more than empowering the poor. Laws must be put into effect to make it more difficult to register to vote. Voting districts must be redrawn to mute the interests of the commons.

What about small businesses? We hear a great deal about the plight of small businesses, with nothing actually being done to save them but for inadequate tax cuts here and there. Small businesses are not insulated from the collapse of demand. Demand is key to their existence. Yet, when demand declines, so does the value of the business and desire to invest in such enterprise. Again, this could be understood as bad for the economy, but one might analyze how weakening small business benefits the corporate class. As small businesses fold or are forced to sell out to larger interests while prospective entrepreneurs refuse to take the risk of entering a dull market, corporations benefit from a decrease in competition. There’s nothing that corporations hate more about capitalism than competition. The corporate elite are interested in consolidation, conglomeratization and monopoly, not competition.

Fortunately, there is one place for a young man or young woman to find stable work, income and experience—the military. While corporations off-shore production and accumulate wealth, and any attempt at establishing a government jobs programs is derided as socialism, the military becomes a de facto WPA…and yet is not considered socialist. It’s not considered socialism because the Military Industrial Complex is largely a giant corporate welfare program; and corporate welfare, unlike welfare for poor people, is not socialism according to the very corporations that benefit from this dole. The de facto Military Works Progress Administration is an amazing hybrid born of the unholy union between corporate and government elite. As American corporations expand globally, they require a greater military presence to ensure access to markets and protect/acquire vital resources such as oil. The very dispossessed workers suffering from global expansion must then exert their labors, and spill their blood, to enforce corporate globalization. These globalized corporations will then turn around and further exploit the workers and soldiers into participating in this bloody, iniquitous market. It’s brilliant and sinister!

Despite the fact that the number one concern of the American people is jobs, politicians in both parties are largely silent on the prospects of actually creating jobs beyond their own rhetorical renunciations of the other. Can anyone reading this blog name a single, solid piece of legislation designed specifically for job creation? Yes, there is the ubiquitous propaganda about how lowering taxes will create jobs—it won’t, or how monetary policy can be used to stimulate jobs—it can’t, or the necessity of fiscal consolidation to awaken the magical Confidence Fairies to produce jobs—yeah, right. Everything from health care reform to extending the Bush Tax Cuts is premised on the promise of creating jobs. So far, every single claim has proven empty. Meanwhile, our so called representatives expend most of their time and energy on debating the debt, taxes, abortion, entitlements, even the penises of their colleagues when such matters come to attention. With regard to jobs, however, all we hear is cricket songs.

Jobs are created when institutions exchange currency for labor…period. There is no other formula. Corporations, as the dominant hiring institutions, are unwilling to create such exchanges not because they are insecure, as conservatives insist, or suffering from a lack of demand, as liberals argue, but because they benefit from high unemployment. If corporations are unwilling to hire, then some other institution must step up and perform that function. Keynes suggested that the only institution capable of such a task is the government. But what happens when the government serves the interests of the very corporations who benefit from high unemployment? Look around…there’s your answer. ______________________

  1. It might be more accurate still to describe multiple economies, but such would unnecessarily complicate the theme of this essay.

 

 


Joy in Death

A Study in the Sociology of Emotion

 


Above is the headline for an extra put out by the Fort Myers News-Press last week. It leads with the statement “Relief, Joy” then shows pictures of exuberant celebrants acting as if their favorite sports team just won the championship. Below is a juxtaposition of those celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden (Ceneta AP) and basketball fans celebrating the Lakers’ NBA championship victory (Saxon AP). Granted, US culture often mixes sports and military metaphors, but here we have the equation of normal elation of a victorious sports reference group with the death of man. A couple of questions come to mind. Is this the appropriate expression of emotion for the death of a human being, even a human being whom we can universally agree really deserved his fate? Secondly, what is the appropriate emotional response?



Emotion is a strange beast. On one hand, there is a primal element to emotions, an internal welling of sensations that appears to be automatic, unconscious and real. It is understood that when one is in an “emotional state” at the very least it is a pure and honest expression of self. This isn’t entirely true, however. Emotion is complex tapestry of psychological, biological and sociological forces. In short, emotions are not just “reactions” to stimuli, but also social actions. We don’t just “feel.” We shape our feelings according to our circumstances and express our feelings consistent with group norms and values.

But what is the norm or the situational expectation of the assassination of Osama bin Laden? I must admit to a certain amount of uncomfortable ambiguity when I heard the news that bin Laden was dead. It’s not that felt bad for the guy. I’m not shedding any tears. A sense of adequate emotional understanding of this event eludes me, however. After all, how often does a person defined and accepted as the personification of an evil terrorist mastermind, get killed? There is no emotional reference. There are no emotional precedents to help us define our internal state, and thus no means by which to express these emotions.

So I found it interesting that the News-Press helps define the appropriate response right in the headline. “Relief, Joy!” Relief? Perhaps there’s an element of relief. As a sociologist, however, I see this as a false, or at best temporary emotional response. Are we really relieved? Do we really have something to be relieved about? I don’t think so. The enemies as defined in this age are Al Qaida, an organization, and terrorism, a tactic, not a single man. Killing bin Laden does no more to end terrorism than the death of Hitler did to end racism and tyranny. Yes, a terrorist is gone, but terrorism remains…and may have a new martyr. So relief isn’t exactly the right emotion here. Or, dare I say, relief doesn’t “feel right.”

Even less so is “Joy.” Did we really experience joy at the news of bin Laden’s death? Think about those things in your life that have brought you joy. For me, the birth of my children, marrying my wife, these are definitional as moments of joy. Would I really rate the assassination of bin Laden as a comparable moment in my life? I think not.

We cannot blame the News-Press. If nothing else, this publication attempted to define our feelings with regard to this powerful event. We need some kind of a referent to put our emotions into context. So it’s no wonder that we turned to a sense of “victory” as a way of internalizing the experience. Regardless of our initial reaction we have to admit that we derived some satisfaction in “getting him” as expressed by the New York Post. It was a victory of sorts, and when do we experience this sense of victory as individuals within a reference group? Sporting events.

So the images above do not surprise me, but I have to admit a certain discomfort from this. After all, killing someone is not a sporting event. So when I turned on the news that night and saw people celebrating, whooping and cheering the death of bin Laden I became very uneasy. Is “celebration” an appropriate response to a man’s death even if we believe that man deserved to die? And what does this say about the state of our society and the development of our civilization? That we derive such satisfaction, and may even be prompted to define such satisfaction as “joy,” from the death of another, even the death of an enemy, should give us pause. Is this what it means to be an American?

More disturbing to me is the association of “pride” and “accomplishment” attributed to the death of bin Laden. Even President Obama, who admonished the celebration of bin Laden’s death as “not who we are,” included in his speech “America can do whatever we set our mind to…we can do these things because of who we are.” Is this what it’s come down to? Are we so bereft of any sense of accomplishment and pride that we embrace these attitudes when our nation demonstrates it admittedly awesome ability to kill someone?

Let’s face it. The death of bin Laden wasn’t the Apollo Program or the Hoover Dam or the Transcontinental Railroad or curing polio. We assassinated someone. Yes, we can argue that bin Laden deserved to be assassinated (which is not an argument condoning the assassination itself. That may be addressed in a later post) and the world is better off without him hanging around. But the ability to assassinate anyone we want should not be the basis for national pride. Albeit, we are in desperate need for moon shot, or another great project that demonstrates our resolve as Americans to overcome. To embrace the death of bin Laden as a source of joy, celebration, pride and accomplishment, however, is a profound exercise in desperate grasping. Such reveals the equally desperate plight of our society for something, anything to be proud and joyful over.

This desperation is dangerous.

 


 


Getting Past the Gun Control Mythology!

If we are going to have a discussion about guns, let’s have one unhindered by the same old MYTHOLOGY

 

We need to have a discussion about guns. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. What may be controversial is the nature of that discussion. For many years now the discourse on guns in the United States has hinged on two assumptions. First, individuals have a right to bear arms, and infringing on that right makes citizens more vulnerable to criminal violence as well as to government tyranny. Second, it is in the public interest to regulate access to deadly weapons as the irresponsible and reckless use of such instruments poses a legitimate hazard to citizens. These are not unreasonable claims. The dominance of the “gun rights” paradigm, however, seems to have the upper hand over the “public interest” end of the debate.

Yet what do we really know about the reality of guns in America? There is the great cowboy mythology of the “peacemaker” side-arm carrying gun slinger enforcing justice and civilizing the west. This is juxtaposed with the reality that many towns in the west forbade firearms in order to control violence. There are the damning statistics on how violent the United States is, with homicide rates that make the rest of the industrialized world cringe. The fear that predators exist around every corner and only a well armed citizenry can protect itself from the psychopaths among us. We even have the extremist rhetoric that gun ownership is the only defense against the possibility of an American dictatorship.

Do these rhetorical elements stand up to reality? The answer is no. Because our existing paradigms on gun control do not adequately describe the realities of guns or violence in the United States we cannot have a legitimate debate on the issue. We need to look at the data, decide what is relevant, and then move on from there.

This shouldn’t be a tall order, but it is. When special interests steer the debate they tend to make available the data that they like, and downplay the data that they don’t. This strategy is not specific to either side of the discourse, but it doesn’t take much research to determine which “side” owns the debate at this juncture. Try it yourself. Type “crime and guns” into a Google Search. Most of what you will get is an explanation on why more guns equate to less crime. Of course, criminals in a heavily armed society are less likely to ply their trade lest they run the risk of getting shot. Among the most notable sources you will find is author John Lott, who wrote More Guns, Less Crime. This perspective is very popular among the many gun owners and gun rights activists in the United States. Is it true, however?

For that we have to access some more literature that addresses Lott’s hypothesis. And the research just does not support his claim. Such research is, however, hard to find. Part of the reason for that is the NRA. According to the New York Times, pressure from this very powerful organization often axes research that does not conform to the NRA’s position. Truth cannot become a part of the dialogue when the research is censored.

Despite this obstacle, however, there is research out there that sheds doubt on the ?”more guns less crime” hypothesis. Most notably is a research study done by Ian Ayers and John Donahue III published in the Stanford Law Review. They tested Lott’s position, but expanded the parameters to include more logistical data and state specific variables. They find that Lott’s conclusions did not hold water once the research parameters were extended, as it should have if the “more guns less crime” hypothesis was correct. There was no strong correlation between violent crime and shall-issue laws for carrying firearms. In fact, the only statistically significant outcome was, in fact, an increase in robberies associated with shall-issue laws. Since Ayers and Donahue could not develop a satisfactory model to explain this increase, however, the researchers caution that this result is most likely an artifact of unknown external variables. The Ayers/Donahue research is supported by a study done by the National Research Council. There is no reliable data to suggest a link between crime and gun possession.

I did my own evaluation of this research by comparing gun ownership to murder rates at the national level. I figured that national statistics may be revealing since nations are more likely to control the movement of weapons across borders than are states. For instance, such a comparison among states or municipalities that have strong controls regarding weapons possession may be skewed if there are municipalities with more permissive laws nearby. This is less likely with national boundaries. I used murder rates because there are variable cultural perspectives among nations with regard to that which constitutes a “violent” crime. Murder, however, is a fairly stable construct, especially if defined as intentional killings. My results are below.

It is visually obvious that the lines for Gun Ownership (in blue) and for Murder per Capita (in red) look nothing like each other. This would indicate that there is a low correlation between the two lines. But to be sure I ran the correlation between the two and found it to be -.22. In other words, there is a very weak correlation suggesting that as gun ownership increases murder rates decrease. But a .2 correlation is very weak and is most likely the result of other variables. An r² suggests that gun ownership explains, perhaps, 5% of the variance. So 95% of the murder rates cannot be explained using gun ownership as a model.

This data is illuminating, but also problematic for both ends of the gun debate. On one hand, gun ownership is not a reasonable defense against murder, or any other crime for that matter. On the other hand, access to guns does not appear to create a threat to the public. The bloodbaths as a result of looser gun laws as predicted by gun control advocates just do not happen. Yes, there is regional data used by both sides to support their positions, but this data is inconsistent and not predictive.

Why? Shouldn’t one side or the other be true? Not necessarily. It could be that ease in acquiring and carrying a gun does act as a deterrent, but makes it easier for criminals to acquire guns that counter that deterrent. We know that guns are used every day in defense. We also know that guns are used every day to commit crimes. It could be that the deterrent factor on one end does not compensate for, or minimally compensates for, the ease of criminal gun ownership on the other end, and vice versa.

The next part of the debate I wanted to test had to do with freedom. It is a core belief among gun rights advocates that gun ownership equates to preserving freedom from government tyranny. Sounds good, but is it true? Turns out, no. There is no correlation between freedom and gun ownership. To test this I used the data from Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010 report.

Again, the chart speaks for itself. The data is divided into Political Rights (in blue), Civil Rights (in red) and Gun Ownership (in orange). The correlation between civil rights and political rights is clear, but gun ownership does not follow anything close to the same trajectory. In fact, the correlation between political rights and gun ownership was -.19, explaining 4% of the variance. This indicates that as gun ownership increases political rights decrease, but with a very weak correlation indicating that there is no definable relationship. The correlation for civil rights was -.23 explaining 5% of the variance. Gun ownership is no guarantee of freedom. Nor is gun ownership a threat to freedom.

So if the fundamental assumptions on both sides of the gun debate are irrelevant, where does that leave us? I would say that this should advance the debate because we don’t have to be bogged down by the irrelevant. If we are freed from the fear of leaving our citizens vulnerable or subject to bloodletting, and we are freed from the fear of tyranny, we can move on to matters that are significant.

The fact remains that the United States has a very high violent crime rate including an obscene homicide rate. If guns do not explain this phenomenon then what does? A very revealing set of data offers a suggestion for areas we might want to consider. The chart at left was created by Richard Florida for The Atlantic. We don’t have to ban guns, but this graph implies some suggestions that might make a difference (of course, as Florida rightly states, correlation is not causation so the following suggestions are purely speculative). We must address poverty and the instability of the working class as these are positively correlated with gun violence. This is reinforced by the significance of economic output as a negative correlation for gun violence (as economic output increases, gun violence decreases). Standard of living and well-being also appear to have a meaningful correlation, as SofL and well-being increases, gun violence decreases. These variables never enter the debate about guns and gun violence.

Some simple reforms that may make a difference according to the graph are an assault weapon ban (if self defense and freedom are irrelevant, what do you need an AK-47 for?), trigger locks and safe storage requirements. These are reforms that do not infringe upon a right to bear arms. Remember, in the time of our founding fathers there were no assault weapons.

The larger issues, however, are also touched upon by the graph. McCain states were positively correlated with gun violence while Obama states were negatively correlated. This shouldn’t place blame at the foot of Senator McCain. However, it is safe to assume that McCain states tend to embrace conservatism more than Obama states (although this could be an artifact of many other variables outside of conservatism). Conservatism is predicated on the primacy of individualism as a central tenant. It might be a good idea to look into the influence of individualism on society in such a way that has not been done since Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. When people feel that they are on their own, that justice is in their own hands, could that be a contributing factor in violence? And, if so, how is that sense self-defined justice influenced by the presence of guns? Is it a coincidence that the United States is seen as the most individualistic society in the world, as well as being the most fatally violence industrialized culture? Again, this is speculation, but speculation that I believe is worth looking into.

 

 

 

 


Crazy Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Dismissing Jared Loughner as crazy silences real discussions we should be having about our society

 

Before embarking on this discussion, let’s dispense with some of the ridiculous standard faire discourse born from the tragedy in Tucson.

  1. Liberals: Conservatives are not to “blame” for this attack. Loughner was most certainly not a right winger, his ax ground by the extremist Tea Party. It is natural to try to pin a cause to this or any tragedy. But such events are typically the result of multi-causal variables working in just the right way against just the right mentality to inspire tragedy.
  2. Conservatives: You may not be culpable for the attack, but you do share a considerable amount of the responsibility for creating a political environment in which such an event catches nobody by surprise. Yes, both sides pander to rhetorical flourishes, hyperbole and name calling. The conservative rhetoric, however, has been especially polarizing, alienating, exclusionary and eliminationist.
  3. There is every reason to believe that Jared Loughner is a very mentally disturbed individual. As such, there is no objective way to determine his motivation. Whatever incentive he had was the product of an addled confusion of thoughts and perceptions that defy the conventional logic and causative analysis that we might ascribe to a rational actor.
  4. Jared Loughner was not a radical liberal simply because he read Marx, nor was he an extreme conservative because he read Ayn Rand. I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, that doesn’t mean I’m a Hindu.
  5. Though Loughner is disturbed, his actions cannot and should not be interpreted absent the social and environmental context of today’s society.

I’ve decided to take about a week to contemplate the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others. This shooting was beyond the understanding of most people, by which I could say rational, stable people. Loughner’s actions were, by common understanding, senseless and without provocation. Faced with such a tragedy it is understandable for us to seek a sensible understanding of the event. We want to find the cause. We want a clear explanation as to why a man would take such brutal measures. To do this, we apply our understanding of the world and of society and our place in it—the things that we understand and can grasp—to make sense of an event that is far from sensible. It’s as if human beings have this innate aversion to the random, often chaotic, variables that influence our lives.

Consequently, during times of chaotic tragedy, we often find ourselves grasping and accepting explanations that are often baseless. We jump to conclusions about causality, and confirm our conclusions through reference groups that share our worldviews. These reference groups further shape our understanding of the event. And where there are reference groups in conflict, it is certain that these conclusions will lead to finger-pointing, scapegoating and equal amounts defensiveness and counter claims.

So when a tragedy like the Tucson shooting occur, it’s a good idea for those who really want to understand the event to avoid their trusted reference groups, separate the facts from the impressions and opinions of others, and draw what conclusions can be drawn. It is equally incumbent upon the researcher to accept that a complete understanding cannot be reached with limited data. Some levels of understanding will never be reached, and any conclusions we draw are nothing more than speculation.

For instance, there is only one way to determine the motives of Jared Loughner and that is for Loughner himself to come out and say, “My motives in this shooting were…” Even then, if Loughner is psychotic or schizophrenic or suffering from any other psychological impairment, any direct explanation of his motives will, most likely, be unsatisfying even if it’s intelligible. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon as his lawyer will almost certainly keep any statements by the alleged shooter clamped down tight. Perhaps, as with Timothy McVeigh, we might be able to make some inferences about his motives years from now. It’s likely that these motives will be unsatisfying. For an addled mind, anything could serve as stimulus for violence, from misinterpreting political hyperbole for a literal call to arms to hallucinations of divine voices.

Yet to dismiss Loughner as simply crazy, and therefore an illegitimate locus of social criticism, is missing the larger picture. Jared Loughner and his atrocious actions do speak to us and we can draw some lessons from his irrational actions. For it is safe to say that we are living in unstable and unsettling times. The legitimacy of our social institutions is under question and under fire from very visible sources of critique. All of us are trying to navigate this instability, economic, political and social, the best we can with greater or lesser success. However, if there is one thing that sociologists know, if there is one thing that sociologists can contribute to the discourse, it’s that structure determines behavior.

As a counselor and as a teacher I’ve had experience with this very thing. Take a person and put him in an unstable environment and you will get irrational behavior. Where the norms are weak and the values uncertain behaviors will reflect that instability. So if you take an individual who is already mentally unstable, and further destabilize his life, you can expect an escalation of behavior. This is especially true when the environment dis-empowers the individual, isolates him or, for whatever reason, does not allow for proper integration of the individual.

The New York Times recently ran an in-depth story on the life of Jared Loughner. Reading this story was not much different from the scores of psycho-social evaluations I’ve read on young men and women under my care or tutelage. Here was a young man whose life was defined by strained social integration and bouts of isolation, both voluntary and involuntary. From his community, in which children would consider a ball hit into the Loughner yard as lost, to the army, who rejected Loughner after he failed his psychological exam. From acquaintances and girlfriends to teachers in college, all recognized that he was a troubled young man, and all practiced the same technique for dealing with him…exclusion. Virtually no resources were made available to Loughner to get help, to stabilize his life. Ironically, it was much easier for Jared Loughner to get a gun than it was for him to get help, despite the fact that his state of mind was almost universally recognized as troubled.

Crazy does not happen in a vacuum. What is the cause of Loughner’s mental instability? There’s no way to really answer that question as society and psychology are interacting phenomena. One who is psychologically compromised will find social integration and acceptance more difficult if not impossible. This further exacerbates the psychological problems which, in turn, complicate social integration. Did this downward spiral begin environmentally, genetically, organically? Most likely his mentality was a combination of many elements. Regardless, it is safe to say that the state of our society certainly did not help Loughner and continues to do harm to countless men and women like Loughner in every town and city in the country.

We cannot separate Loughner, who specifically and intentionally targeted a political event, from the trend in threats of violence and acts of vandalism directed at public officials as a whole. This phenomenon is happening while violence as a whole in the United States has troughed after falling for over ten years (as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at left). So there is something about the political climate that is unique, something that the actions of Jared Loughner, regardless of his psychological status, have brought to the open.

And we know this. We can’t hide from it. New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman was the first “pundit” I read on this topic as I respect his status as a social scientist. He asked a very poignant and illuminating question. “When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?” I know that I was not particularly surprised. So I asked this question of my college students, “How many of you were surprised by the shooting in Tucson?” Not a single hand went up.

Violence in the United States, despite its downward trend in the last generation, is still such an integral part of our society that it really doesn’t shock us. Yes, it repulses us, offends us, but are we really surprised that such things happen in the United States anymore? I don’t believe we are. And that is very telling about the state of our society.

The fact that the target was a political official[s] also didn’t catch us off guard. This is indicated by the immediate response to the shooting. That is the near universal consensus that the “toxic” tenor of our political discourse was somehow to blame for this incident. There’s no way to know if this is true, but the fact that it is the first explanation to come to mind, the first discourse to develop from this tragedy is a social fact with sociological significance.

The focus of this presumed toxicity was also nearly universal—conservative pundits and politicians. Said conservatives, like Sarah Palin, went on the defensive, which one could interpret as a tacit acknowledgement that toxic speech is at least part of the problem. In Palin’s case, while she offered a defense of “passionate” political discourse, she did take down her much criticized “target” website. Why? If such “passion” is defensible, why take down the site in the wake of this tragedy? Why is using rifle scopes and talk of second amendment remedies and eradication only problematic after a political shooting?

And despite claims that liberal commentators were also guilty of such passionate discourse the focus remained on the conservative pundits. Not because they were necessarily wrong. Yes, liberal commentators have used insulting language and questionable discourse in their contests with their conservative peers. This author has not been immune using such rhetoric. Yet, there is something qualitatively different about the conservative end of the discourse. It’s in conservative rhetoric that we hear gun metaphors like “lock and load” and eliminationists rhetoric such as defining liberalism/progressivism as a disease that must be eradicated. Conservatives twist the established history by suggesting that liberalism is fascism, that liberalism is the process by which tyranny is established. Conservative commentators offer that liberalism has been the source of evil throughout history. Evil. Tyranny. Disease. Eradication. These are extreme forms of in-group/out-group discourse that defines political opponents as something more than just individuals with whom one has legitimate political and philosophical differences. In this case the out-group (liberals) are vile, a cancer on our way of life. As such, liberals cannot be compromised with. They cannot be reasoned with. There is nothing left to do but to destroy liberalism, cut it out of the body politic like the cancer that it is.

It cannot be said that there is a similar discourse among the liberal establishment. Even the often angry outbursts of Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz’ descriptions of conservative statements as “psycho talk” do not measure up to the conservative level of eliminationist rhetoric. Of course there are certainly some left wing blogs one could find that offers such rhetoric, but at the level of the established punditocracy such discourse just isn’t there.

So it’s not so much that the conservative discourse is the actual “cause” or motivating factor of the Tucson shooting. It’s the fact that we cannot reasonably separate the two; that our immediate response to the shooting was to look at our political speech is revealing. We know it’s wrong. We know it’s irresponsible. Even if the case cannot be made that an individual act of violence is caused by what we say, or the larger trend of threatening our public figures when they make a decision we don’t like, we at least recognize that there could be a connection. We recognize that maybe, just maybe, we might want to look at how we are saying things beyond the actual message we are trying to send.

If nothing else, we have learned that what we say is only part of the discursive process. There’s an audience out there that we cannot control. Currently there are over a thousand registered users on Mad Sociologist Blog. I’d like to think that all of you are rational and reasonable people, but I don’t know that. With this in mind, I might want to make sure that the rhetoric I use, however passionate, is also responsible. Yes, there’s no way of knowing how my writing will be interpreted, especially by one whose psychology may be impaired. I should not self censor my message, but I should at the very least be responsible about the way I present that message. Just because I may not be culpable in an individual’s atrocious decisions, does not mean I’m off the hook for what I say or write. If nothing else, the Tucson shootings should, at the very least, provide that lesson.

We also have a grave lesson of another troubling calculus of our nation. Crazy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Social instability and an inability or unwillingness to integrate members of the society may exacerbate psychological instability in individuals. But those individuals must live and interact within the very society which makes their condition worse. Case in point…Jared Loughner. By all accounts anyone who interacted with him on a significant level quickly recognized that this was a young man with serious problems. Acquaintances, girlfriends, schools, army recruiters, employers all recognized that there was something wrong. Yet, as it stands, not one of these sources put any effort into getting help for Loughner aside from one school that demanded proof of psychological counseling before they would allow him to return. In some cases, such as his college, the agents’ hands were bureaucratically tied. What about other instances? How many more Jared Loughners are slipping through the cracks?

And how many more Jared Loughners are arming themselves with high tech weaponry? The US army, during time of war, refused to arm Jared Loughner, yet he was able to purchase a Glock with two extra-large clips. Here was a young man, universally recognized as mentally unstable, able to take advantage of some of the most lax gun regulations in the country and gun down twenty people. Might this be an occasion to discuss how we arm our citizens? Raising such questions is not advocacy for banning guns, or overturning the Second Amendment; they are a rational response to what clearly demonstrates a cultural predisposition to violence. When we celebrate a reduction in violent crime to only 1.5 million instances should create pause. When it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a job we have some serious societal problems with our priorities.

So the calculus amounts to this, social instability + social isolation + political polarization + more guns = potential for tragedy.

It’s not wrong to use this moment, and the life and crime of Jared Loughner to add to a reasonable national discussion. It’s not wrong to insist on raising the standards for conducting this important discussion. Dismissing Loughner as crazy will contribute nothing to the very necessary, democratic discussions and will legitimize a status quo which we all know is not good enough for addressing the troubles we face today.



 


Class Matters

If you want a quick primer on how contemporary social discourse is tilted in matters of class and inequality just look at the recent Tax Cuts debate. The debate can be described graphically below highlights the issue perfectly. At stake was extending ruinous tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthy at the expense of the deficit and extending unemployment benefits to those destroyed by the rich at a significantly lower expense of the deficit.

For the wealthy, the difference was mostly symbolic. Yeah, if you make $250,000 a year, losing about $7000 might be hard to swallow, but it’s certainly not ruinous. If you are an unemployed, working class person, however, a loss of unemployment income is the difference between poverty and destitution, maybe providing a roof over your family’s heads or living under a bridge.

Missing from this debate was a productive discussion on the responsibility of the haves for those who have become have nots, mostly due to the policies of the haves. Missing from this debate was a serious discussion on providing meaningful work for those who need, want and deserve it.

So the accounting went from about $3-4 Trillion over ten years, depending on whose deplorable plan you were counting, to just under $1 Trillion over two years with a brief extension of unemployment benefits provided as a so called “compromise!” Um…I’m no math genius, so correct me if I’m wrong. We started out with a cost of $300 billion to $400 billion a year. But because we were concerned about the deficit we settled for a compromise that costs about $500 billion a year! There must be a math class that politicians take that the rest of us are just not privy to.

Regardless, what might have been a better way to spend $500 billion? After all, we are obviously willing to spend that money anyway regardless of the deficit. How about 16,000,000 jobs paying $30,000 a year? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 15.1 million unemployed Americans. So if that money was spent on direct hiring rather than tax cuts and unemployment we could eliminate the official unemployment rate! (Not really. The real unemployment rate is much higher. These folks would be inclined to look for work and, would thus be recorded as unemployed) These would be people who are able to catch up on their bills and make purchases that they have been putting off. This would help small business more than any tax cut. The improvements to infrastructure, the green technology, increased teachers in the classroom etc, would save us billions on top of what was being added to the economy.

Yet the above plan never became part of the discourse. And we cannot use the excuse that we can’t afford such program, because what we can afford is obviously not at issue. The underlying issue is the blind acceptance of a de facto two tier society that has embedded itself into our discourse and, thus, into our mentalities.