Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Due process on campus

In 2016, Thomas Klocke was a business student at the University of Texas at Arlington.  On May 19 of that year, Klocke found himself seated next to Nick Watson, a fellow student, in one of the last classes Klocke needed to take to earn his degree.

What happened that day is in dispute.

According to Klocke's account, Watson told Klocke that he thought Klocke was beautiful.  Using his open laptop, Klocke says he typed "Stop it--I'm straight."  Watson responded on his laptop, "I'm gay."  As the class proceeded, Watson allegedly continued to glance at Klocke, who rebuffed the advances, asked Watson to leave, and eventually took another seat across the room. 

Watson's account differs significantly.  He claims that after he made a comment about privilege in today's society, Klocke opened his laptop and typed "gays should die" into the browser bar.  Watson then responded with "I'm gay."  He claims that Klocke then feigned a yawn, then stated, "well, then you're a faggot."  Watson says that he asked Klocke to leave, and that Klocke responded by saying "you should consider killing yourself."

Watson complained, first to the professor, then to a staff member in the UTA student services office.  Student Services responded by banning Klocke from attending the remaining sessions of the class and from contacting the professor or any student in the class, which resulted in his failing the final exam and the class, and in turn prevented him from graduating on schedule.  Klocke was not afforded a hearing before he was disciplined, nor any accommodation for his class attendance such as videotaping of the lectures.

Faced with academic and potential financial ruin, Klocke killed himself two weeks after the incident.

His estate is suing UTA for civil rights violations and Watson for defamation.  A copy of the complaint can be found here.

I have no dog in this fight.  I have no connection to UTA.  I didn't know Thomas Klocke or Nick Watson.  I'm not a college administrator.  I don't even have kids.  But something about this story bothers me on a deep level.

It's difficult to know what went on that day.  It's possible that Klocke harbored extreme animosity toward homosexuals.  It's also possible that Watson felt jilted by a boy he liked and decided to do what he could to ruin that boy's life.  I don't know what's true, and I'm not sure that it matters to what I'm writing about.

We are engaged in an increasingly politicized struggle over how colleges manage the interpersonal relationships of their students--not merely sexual matters, but also political conflict, free speech issues, and the discomfort that arises when young people encounter views that challenge them.  Free speech in particular is a core value of the traditional university culture, but as our society has become more polarized, and as conservatives in particular have become more radical in both the messages they push and the icons they uplift, there has been a backlash against certain types of speech that are deemed hateful, misogynistic, or otherwise not in keeping with other values that universities wish to uphold.

Sexual harassment (together with more aggressive forms of sexual violence, up to and including rape) is a hot-button issue on campuses these days.  A series of incidents of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by male athletes at Baylor University came to head last year and cost the popular and successful head football coach, Art Briles, and the prominent university president, Kenneth Starr, their jobs.  By contrast, allegations in a 2014 Rolling Stone article regarding fraternity rape culture at the University of Virginia had to be retracted when they turned out to be based on a fabrication.

When a person accuses another person of sexual misconduct, be it harassment or rape or anything in between, the allegations should be taken seriously.  Steps should be taken to protect people from sexual violence or harassment.  Colleges and universities have a special obligation to intervene to provide this kind of protection because even though their students are adults, physically and chronologically, they often lack sufficient experience and emotional maturity to take steps to protect themselves.

But because these matters can often turn on issues of credibility in a he-said, she-said (or he-said, he-said, as in the case of Watson and Klocke) scenario, when either party could be lying, how can we responsibly administer discipline or other countermeasures to protect victims, when those countermeasures can have the effect of damaging the academic, financial, or emotional standing of the alleged perpetrator?

There are no easy answers--or, at least, the easy answers are unsatisfying.  In a macro sense, sexual violence on campus is intolerably prevalent.  But in particular cases it can be difficult to know whether a specific rape actually occurred.  While I am unapologetically feminist in my outlook, I do not think it does women any favors when a man has his life destroyed by a false allegation, acted on capriciously by a university that's desperate to be seen as being tough on sexual violence.  (I also don't think it does men any favors when a woman has her life destroyed by the double victimization of rape in the first instance and a justice system, be it criminal or university-based, that devalues her.)  We need both:  more vigorous efforts to control and eliminate campus sexual violence, and a greater degree of certainty of guilt before discipline is imposed.  These concepts work at cross-purposes to some extent because in most cases we can't have perfect knowledge.

Nevertheless, I believe that what happened at UTA can teach us something important about how to deal with these situations.  It seems unlikely that what happened was the sole cause of Klocke's suicide; suicide is rarely the result of a single negative cause, and there were almost certainly underlying factors in this case that cause Klocke to end his life.

But the imposition of discipline without a hearing, particularly by a state-run institution, is troubling at best.  And the failure to provide Klocke with accommodations that would allow him to finish out the class seems extremely short-sighted and indicative of an effort to punish Klocke for expressing an unpopular, even hateful, view.  As abhorrent as I find his casual, cutting use of a sexual slur and his suggestion that Watson should kill himself to be (if he even said those things), I also believe that the remedy for speech you don't like is speech that you do like.  Disciplining Klocke under those circumstances seems arbitrary and well outside the bounds of appropriate handling by the university.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

His judgment Comeyth, and that right soon

Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, after then-FBI director James Comey announced that he was "reopening" the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, I suggested that if I were President Obama, I would be firing Comey on the morning of November 9 (the day after the election) for an egregious violation of the FBI's policy of noninterference with elections.

Such a firing would have been fully justified under the circumstances.

Given the narrow margins that allowed Buffoon* to slip in with an Electoral College majority despite a wide popular-vote victory for Clinton, it is easy to see how Comey's interference in the election turned the tide.  That's not to say there weren't other factors, of course.

* - For the record, I have decided to refuse to use the name of the current occupant of the White House, and instead refer to him by the word that most aptly describes him, "Buffoon."

Comey's unprecedented and unnecessary public comments in July and October were designed to cause damage to Clinton without charging her with a crime for which he knew no conviction was possible.  That he did not instinctually understand why an independent FBI cannot interfere with the electoral process illustrates why he made a poor director of that agency.

Obama decided not to fire him, and Buffoon kept him on with a public vote of confidence shortly after the inauguration.

There remain substantial questions about the interference of Russian agents in the election, as well as possible coordination between members of the Buffoon campaign (if not Buffoon himself) with those agents.  Buffoon's business dealings with and potential indebtedness to Russian interests remain fully opaque because we lack an effective mechanism to force a presidential candidate to disclose such information. One might look to the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution as providing that authority, but it requires some organ of the government, probably either the Justice Department or a Congressional committee, to investigate that sort of thing.

Investigations are proceeding with all deliberate speed--to quote Chief Justice Warren--which is to say that they are moving slowly.  The House and Senate Intelligence Committees each have a pending investigation, and the Justice Department began an investigation as well, shortly after Buffoon took office.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from the investigation, however, because it turned out that he bald-faced lied during his confirmation hearing when Senator Al Franken asked him if he'd had contact with Russian officials during the campaign.**  He said no, but he met at least twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.  Normally, lying under oath would be grounds for discharge from the position as well as potential disbarment as an attorney.  (On that latter point, several grievances have been filed with the Alabama Bar, where Sessions has his license, but that's a process that takes a lot of time, and I don't have a lot of confidence in the Alabama Bar to act in the public interest on this one.)

** - Neo-Confederate Sessions was an early supporter of Buffoon and was deeply involved in the Buffoon campaign. I suspect he was attracted to Buffoon because of the tacit promise to "make America white again."

So Buffoon turned to Comey, the FBI director, to head up the investigation.  

There has been no suggestion that Comey's handling of the investigation was anything but above-board.  In fact, all indications are that Comey's efforts have been aimed at ferreting out the truth, wherever the trail might lead, and whatever that truth might be.  For example, Comey refused to confirm Buffoon's ridiculous allegation that Obama had ordered the "wires tapped" in Buffoon Tower.  

Whatever Comey's transgressions were with respect to the election, it appeared that he was handling this investigation as an independent investigator would.

And then he was fired, so abruptly that he found out about it while watching television.

I have said several times, in different ways, that Buffoon is not a smart person, but a caricature of what a stupid person thinks a smart person is.  Buffoon was no great shakes academically. He was handed a small fortune and turned it into something less than a large fortune (simply investing in an index fund would have produced a much better return).  His grammar and spelling are atrocious. He has difficulty speaking in complete sentences.  He's mercurial, brash, and uncouth.  

But for many people, wealth is a close proxy for merit.  That is, if you have money, you must have something special in you that entitled you to that wealth.

The problem with thinking that way is that a lot of people who have a lot of money were born on third base. They didn't do anything to get there--they didn't hit a triple.  There are brilliant billionaires, but for every Bill Gates or Warren Buffet that built their fortunes on intelligence and innovation, there's an Alice Walton or Jacqueline Mars whose fortunes came from inertia. Buffoon plainly falls into the latter category.

And as a result of that, he will be easily outsmarted by the smartest guys in the room.  His many failed business dealings are proof of that.

Buffoon reportedly thought that he would have broad bipartisan support for firing Comey.  After all, Democrats are carrying a grudge with him, and enough of the GOP will usually fall lockstep behind Buffoon, such that Buffoon thought he could easily get away with it.

He didn't count on the Democrats (and some Republicans) seeing through the charade.  Sure, we have a beef with Comey about the election. But we strongly suspect there's something deeper going on. Whatever problems we might have with Comey, he was at least in position to investigate, and he was showing signs that he would not stop until the truth was out.

It doesn't take much to see that Buffoon saw Comey on the same trail, and he panicked.

And that's how we know where the trail leads.  Whatever Buffoon's ties to Russia might be, and no matter how opaque they are to the general public, Buffoon knows.  And he just told us all that when the truth is out, he's not going to look very good.

Where do we go from here?  The next step in this investigation needs to be the appointment of a special prosecutor--someone with the authority, independence, and motivation needed to get to the bottom of this. We get that by gumming up the works.  Democrats lack control over any branch of the government, but with the assistance of the handful of principled Senate Republicans who are rightly alarmed by this development, we can make the business of the Senate very slow and painful for everyone.  This will put pressure on Buffoon to name a real special prosecutor and to grant him or her the authority to follow the trail, wherever it leads.

If he has nothing to hide, he will welcome an independent review.

I'm not holding my breath.  But we can force this to happen.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The siren song of tax cuts

Probably the most persistent and pernicious economic lie of the last 40 years is that tax cuts aimed at upper-income people and businesses will "pay for themselves through economic growth."
There are circumstances under which the net effect of a tax cut is so stimulative of the economy that tax receipts actually increase. As usual, however, the devil is in the details, and those details are a lot more complex than can be understood in the amount of time most people have time to learn about and consider them.But we can try, anyway.
The aggregate health of our economy is best understood in terms of the total number of dollars that are spent for goods and services in the country by all actors in the economy. This is similar to, but not the same as, the "gross domestic product," which is a measure instead of the goods and services produced. Production is important to the economy, but merely producing a thing does not mean that it is an economic good unless there is someone willing and able to buy it. For example, we produce a lot of garbage, but that doesn't mean an economy devoted to producing garbage would be a healthy one.
What matters is spending, because an exchange--the fundamental unit of economic activity--can only take place when there are willing, able purchasers for goods and services.
One way to induce more spending is to put more discretionary dollars in the hands of people and entities. One way of putting more discretionary dollars in people's hands is to reduce taxation. It's superficially easy to assume, then, that any tax cut will result in more spending.
It's also wrong.

Some tax cuts will result in more spending, and some will not. To understand why, a couple of scenarios:
Scenario 1:
Imagine for a moment that your income over the last few years has been such that you've been able to live the lifestyle you want to live, buying all of the things that you want to buy, and in the process you've been able to set aside another $500,000 in savings for retirement, emergencies, and so forth. (Perhaps you don't have to imagine it.) Imagine also that your job is reasonably secure.
(This puts you in perhaps the top 2% of incomes, by the way.)

Then, one day, Congress passes a revision to the tax code that results in a year-over-year cut in your taxes of $50,000. What will you do with that extra money?
Scenario 2:
Imagine, now, that your income over the last few years has lagged well behind the pace of inflation, and you're living from paycheck to paycheck and carrying fairly heavy credit card debt, and it's a struggle to get by most of the time. You live in constant fear of losing your job or having your hours cut. It's been years since you took a real vacation. Your retirement fund is a joke.
Then, one day, Congress passes a revision to the tax code that results in a year-over-year cut in your taxes of $1,000. What will you do with the extra money?
Now, these two scenarios are very different in terms of how the protagonist views his financial position and even the value of money. I don't think we can say with certainty that Person 1 will behave in one way and Person 2 will behave in another way, because people don't always make choices that conform with our expectations.But, in the aggregate, we can make some generalizations that are fairly likely to hold true over time.

Person 1 might spend some of that money, but let's don't forget that Person 1 already has enough current income to buy everything he wants to buy. An extra $50,000 in that person's hands is much more likely to go into savings, because it doesn't give that person a license to spend something he wouldn't have spent previously. And the thing about savings is that while it's a good thing to have on a private level, it doesn't necessarily do anything for the economy. In fact, if that money goes into a tax-deferred retirement fund that's invested in the stock market, it will probably only work to drive up stock prices a bit--not to stimulate any other spending. In other words, there will not be any beneficial exchanges made possible by that tax cut. It's certainly not going to increase tax revenue--certainly not by the amount of the cut.

By contrast, Person 2 is likely to spend every bit of that $1,000, because an extra $1,000 in the hands of someone who is struggling is going to be used to alleviate some of that struggle. Perhaps it will go for a new refrigerator or washer-dryer to replace the one that's broken down. Maybe they'll take a small vacation to try to relax and recharge from years of constant work. Maybe they'll buy new clothes to replace the ones that have been worn hard for several years and are starting to show more than a little wear. It's also possible that they will pay down a credit card, or put the money in an emergency fund. Those activities aren't the kinds of economic exchanges that we're looking to stimulate--but they do facilitate later exchanges, and those later exchanges are much more likely to occur. After all, people who are in a marginal financial condition are much more likely to need to dip into savings or re-borrow on credit cards in a financial emergency.

Over the last 40 years, we've been sold this lie, that tax cuts always result in more spending that stimulates the economy. In fact, whether tax cuts stimulate spending or not is highly dependent upon the initial conditions, and we're not in a set of conditions where a tax cut directed at upper incomes would stimulate the economy.
For example, in 1961, the top marginal personal income tax rate stood at 91%. (Yes, it was really that high.) When the top rate is that high, people whose incomes are high enough to reach that rate lose a significant part of the incentive to make more money--or, at least, they will put their effort into making and spending money in ways that avoid taxation at that rate. The tendency was to lock up that money in investments that would not produce taxable income--and it happened at a rate that was significant enough that the economy had stagnated because of a lack of capital available for use in ways that would produce taxable income. So JFK proposed--and got Congress to agree--to reduce the top rate to 70%. That stimulated people with money to move their investments into new vehicles that would produce greater economic activity and greater tax receipts, and the result was that the new tax receipts offset the loss to the Treasury from the tax cut.

Today, however, the top rate isn't 91% or even 70%. It's actually 39%. And at that rate, taxes are not a disincentive to invest in income-producing activities. Cutting taxes on high incomes today is very unlikely to stimulate growth. It will simply stuff more money into the retirement accounts and savings of wealthy individuals. And with income inequality at historical highs, the credit markets are very tight, so even the availability of cash to lend doesn't mean we can rely on consumer borrowing for stimulus.
Cutting taxes on high incomes today isn't going to stimulate the economy. It will simply exacerbate the difference between the haves and the have-nots--and that is the fundamental economic problem facing the country today.

If you want to stimulate the economy, create jobs, and raise incomes, you need to put more money in the hands of the people who are closer to Scenario 2 above, who will likely spend it. And, frankly, we need to increase tax rates on top incomes. If I were in charge, I would impose a top rate of 50% on family incomes above $250,000; I would also tax dividends and capital gains as regular income. Finally, I would establish a Universal Basic Income--we would end all forms of welfare and replace it with a monthly check sent to every American, regardless of income, equal at least to the amount of the federal poverty line. More on that in a later post.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A culture of life

Recently my home state, Arkansas, has been in the news for trying to kill people on a deadline.

(The place where I hang my hat these days, Texas, is no slouch when it comes to killing people, but the squeaky wheel is getting greased at the moment.)


Arkansas's law-and-order governor signed eight death warrants recently, ordering death row inmates to be killed across a ten-day period between April 17 and April 27.  What created the urgency--until last night, the state hadn't executed anyone in 12 years--is that the state's supply of one of the drugs used to carry out the executions by lethal injection is set to expire at the end of April.  


Like many states, Arkansas uses three drugs to carry out executions:  midazolam (which anesthetizes the prisoner), vecuronium bromide (which paralyzes the prisoner's lungs), and potassium chloride (which stops the heart).  The impending expiration of the state's supply of midazolam is what's driving the push to put these men to death, but it should be noted that there are problems with the other drugs as well.


You might be wondering, "Hey, if the midazolam is going to expire, just throw it out and buy some more, right?"  The problem with that is that the makers of midazolam all refuse to sell it for use in executions anymore.  Likewise for vecuronium bromide--and McKesson, the maker of the supply of that drug that Arkansas possesses, has sued the state for deceiving it in order to purchase the drug for executions.  (Potassium chloride is easily synthesized and cheaply available from many sources, so it is not difficult to obtain.)


The whole process has been fraught with difficulties.  The state supreme court has stayed a couple of the executions, and a federal district judge issued a stay of the remaining six, only to have that stay dissolved by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For Ledell Lee, the appeals ran out yesterday, and he was executed shortly before midnight.


When it comes to the death penalty, I'm mostly a pragmatist:

  • The death penalty is expensive to administer because the due process of law requires multiple levels of review.  We can't streamline that process because that's one of the things that keeps us from executing innocent people (mostly).  Considering that 158 death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, due process is not a luxury we can afford to dispense with.  For the cost of a single death penalty case, we could keep the prisoner locked up for 120 years--longer than the verified lifespan of every human being whoever lived except one (Jeanne Calment died at 122).  
  • The death penalty is rarely administered (as opposed to imposing a long prison sentence), and its frequency has gone down steadily since the high-water mark of 98 executions in 1999 (there were only 20 in 2016).  Meanwhile, the murder and violent crime rate has gone down significantly over that time.*
* - Why?  My money is on the removal of lead from our environment in the 1970s.  Most everyone is aware that children are often rendered slow by exposure to lead from eating old paint chips or drinking tap water in Republican-controlled areas like Flint, Michigan, but long-term low-level lead exposure has less obvious but still significant effects and appears to be a significant driver of antisocial behaviors like violent crime.
  • The penalty is also racially discriminatory in its application.  76% of defendants in death penalty cases are white, but only 56% of people executed are white.  A black person is roughly twice as likely to be executed than a similarly situated white person.  And even though only about 50% of murder victims are white, about 75% of the victims in cases where there is an execution are white.
  • It's also not a deterrent.  States that have the death penalty have murder rates that are significantly higher than states that lack it.  Southern states are responsible for 80% of the executions in the modern era and have the highest regional murder rate (6.7 per 100,000, versus 5.6 per 100,000 nationally and only 4.2 per 100,000 in the Northeast).  In the Northeast, only New Hampshire (0 executions) and Pennsylvania (3 executions) have the death penalty; Maryland (5 executions) used to have it but abolished it, while New York had it briefly but never executed anyone before it was declared unconstitutional under the state constitution. 
There are lots of reasons to oppose capital punishment, and I don't see any good reasons to support it. But on social media over the last few days, I've seen a couple of people make arguments in its favor. What they boil down to, mostly, is a belief in "an eye for an eye," a concept that is traceable to the Code of Hammurabi (though, interestingly, not to the older Code of Ur-Nammu, which specified pecuniary penalties for most crimes). Its presence in the Hebrew Talmud is almost certainly more significant to its currency today. More on that in a moment.

The other argument in favor of capital punishment is more nuanced but of a color with lex talionis, the law of (legal) retaliation, the formal name for the eye-for-eye concept. Essentially, the argument is that these murderers gave their victims no consideration, choice, or comfort as they were being murdered, so we are under no obligation to do any better when executing the criminal.

It's easy to see why these arguments have failed to garner my support. The idea of "an eye for an eye" is perhaps more accurately stated as "two wrongs make a right." Even grade-school children understand the fallacy there. If that's a little too on-the-nose for you, consider the words of Martin Luther King: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

I recognize that it's difficult to expect people to make rational choices when it comes to emotional topics like murder. It is perhaps a fundamentally human reaction to desire retaliation when something terrible is done to a family member. The idea of someone I love being tortured, raped, murdered is too terrible to contemplate. I would most likely be out of my ever-loving mind if something like that happened, and desperate for retaliation.

The problem with that is that these killings are being carried out not by a bereaved and distraught family member, but by the cold, sober hand of a government of and by the people. We do not have the luxury of giving in to our deeper emotions when it comes to the actions of the government. We require more of ourselves--rational, even-handed, reasonable action. The lust for blood has no place in guiding how our government carries out our interests.

Even so, it is none of this that makes me uncomfortable. I will argue these points all day with anyone who cares to discuss them, and if you come to the discussion honestly, I feel confident that I can convince you.

As usual, my main problem with this is one of hypocrisy.

The people of my home state are, in large part, deeply religious, and almost all of them profess Christianity. When you meet a new people upon moving to a new place there, you are as likely as anything to be asked, at some point, "So, have y'all found a new church home yet?" When I moved back to Little Rock in 2012, in looking for a new doctor, I was startled to find that every single doctor I reviewed included church membership in his or her online biography. That did not especially inspire confidence in a science-based humanist like myself.

Now, I have noticed that most of the people who claim to be Christians are either not very well informed about what Jesus actually said in the Bible or more inclined to follow Paul. On the latter point, I tend to regard Paul as a Jesus impressionist, sort of like a Biblical Frank Caliendo. Sure, he sort of sounds like Jesus, just like Caliendo sounds like John Madden, but he's kind of doing a caricature. I mean, I do think that listening to Paul is sort of important for Christians, but if you are going to ignore Jesus or Paul, it's better to ignore Paul.

Where this comes in is in the famous Pauline verse, in Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." I have seen well-meaning folks cite that as proof that the death penalty is God-endorsed. The problem with this is twofold. First, you have to consider the context of that verse. Paul isn't discussing how we should handle criminal acts, but rather how the "proper" penalty for sin is death after death (condemnation to hell). In other words, if you commit a sin, what you earn is condemnation. Paul's point, however, is that Jesus's death on the Cross and subsequent Resurrection is payment for that sin, so that all believers can have eternal life in heaven.**

** - I think it's important at this point to note that while none of that makes any sense to me at all on any level, it is nevertheless an accurate accounting of what Christians believe--and, perhaps, the most fundamental tenet of Christianity.

I can see how, in the absence of other guidance, a Christian might be inclined to use that statement to discern what God's will is with regard to earthly justice. The problem, of course, is that there are actual words and actions of Jesus*** that are much more directly on point.

*** - According to the account provided in the Bible, as translated into English. The original is all Greek to me.
Matthew 5:38-39 (from the Sermon on the Mount): 

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Luke 6:27-28 (from the Sermon on the Plain): 

 "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."

Even so, these passages aren't exactly on point. After all, you might construe them as guides for private conduct rather than what the government ought to do to evildoers. I would then counter that because we are, rather explicitly, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, there is not really any difference between private conduct and public conduct. We have control over what the punishment should be for crimes. And we could go around and around, never reaching the heart of the matter.

And then there is John.

The Gospel according to John is different from the other Gospels. Unlike the other Gospels, it does not contain an account of Jesus's early life. It is solely focused upon establishing the divinity of Jesus and the validity of his ministry. And in John, specifically in the first 11 verses of chapter 8, there is an account of a group of Pharisees,
1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. 7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Here we have a situation in which the law specified the death penalty for the crime, and the political authority enforcing the law--the Pharisees, who were the Jewish political leaders in Roman Judea at the time--sought Jesus's counsel on how to best to enforce the law.  Jesus's instructions--that the penalty was a valid one, but that its enforcement was left to people who are sinners themselves and thus unworthy of enforcing the law--could not be more clear on this subject.

Now, I am the last person who would advocate for the imposition of lawmaking and law enforcement based on the Bible.  But that's not the point.  I have seen many purported Christians in Arkansas who in one breath condemn abortion and homosexuality; who condemn atheists and agnostics as unfit to teach school or testify in court or hold political office; who fight hard to prevent children from learning about healthy sexual behaviors and contraception; and who voted to prohibit homosexuals from adopting children; all on the basis of their belief in the primacy of the Bible in proper conduct.  In the next breath, they call for the death penalty to be enforced with great frequency and efficiency, even though their principal religious text says to do otherwise.  A large number of Arkansas Christians have been in an utter panic over the last few weeks, worried that they might not get to kill these people.

Perhaps it is too much to expect of people who view forced prayer in their public schools as a good thing, despite Jesus's instructions to pray only privately.

But it is a disgusting hypocrisy, and for it, the supporters of this terrible act have forfeited any claim they have to work toward a "culture of life."

One day, we will come to recognize that the death penalty simply isn't worth it.  That day will come too late for Ledell Lee, whom the State of Arkansas murdered last night in cold blood.  It may come too late for the remainder of the men who have been scheduled to die this month.  But it will come.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The friendly skies

In which I explain the legality, ethics, and optics of overselling flights, and use the term "salty" as a teenager would.

By now you've heard of the incident in Chicago on Sunday on a United Airlines flight to Louisville.

United Airlines oversold the flight (i.e., sold more tickets than they had available seats).  United also needed to get a crew of four to Louisville to fly the next day.  This is not an entirely unusual situation, so United offered volunteers $400 to give up their seats.  Finding no takers, they upped the offer to $800, which is apparently the limit for such compensation per a corporate policy.  They still had no takers, so their next step was to "deny boarding" to a passenger, supposedly randomly selected.

The problem, however, was that they had already boarded the plane, so this meant removing someone from the plane.

The randomly selected passenger was a doctor who said he needed to see patients in the morning, and he refused to deplane.  After he reiterated his refusal, United notified the airport police in Chicago, who bodily removed the passenger, banging his head on an armrest and cutting his head open in the process.

Since cameras are ubiquitous these days, most of this was caught on video.

As a frequent traveler, I thought I might weigh in on this a little bit.

First, you'll find no words of comfort for United coming from me.  In my experience, United is the worst American airline--worse even than the super-discounters Allegiant and Spirit.  I have had a no-United policy for my own travel for around 10 years now.  As a result, the incident on Sunday came as no surprise to me.

But I do feel some obligation to separate what was legally correct--which is what United did--from what is correct from the standpoint of customer service, business ethics, and financial reason

It's true:  Airlines oversell their flights.  They do so because an empty seat is one that the airline will never be paid for.  Airlines feel safe overselling their flights because they know that the chances are excellent that there will be no-shows.  Business travelers like me have changing schedules, and we frequently buy and cancel tickets at the last minute.  For example, tomorrow, I'll be headed to Washington, DC, on a last-minute trip.  I bought my ticket last night, but there was a good chance I would have to delay the trip until Friday.

Occasionally, more people will show up for the flight than there are seats.  For safety reasons, the airline can't put more people on the plane than there are seats (and believe me, they would if they could).  The airlines have various ways of dealing with this.  First, they ask for volunteers to take a later flight.  Sometimes there's another flight in a couple of hours, so the airline will give you a meal voucher and a voucher for future travel (usually worth $400 or so, enough for a round-trip if you plan in advance) and a guaranteed seat on the next available flight--sometimes even on another airline.  If they don't get any volunteers with comps, they will sometimes offer cash.  Volunteering to be bumped can, under those circumstances, be a great way to get some freebies if your schedule is flexible.

But what do they do if they don't get any volunteers?  That's a matter found in the airline's "contract of carriage," the agreement you "signed" when you bought a ticket--although the contents of that contract are heavily regulated by law.  And it turns out there is a federal regulation that governs what happens, found in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, in section 250.5.

First, the airline is entitled to deny boarding to any passenger it wishes to on an oversold flight.

If they "bump" you, but they can make alternate arrangements that get you to your next stop within an hour of the original time, they don't have to pay you anything.

If they can get you there between one and two hours of the original time, they owe you 200% of the fare to your next stop, with a maximum of $675.

If they can't get you there within two hours of the original time, they owe you 400% of the fare to your next stop, with a maximum of $1350.

There are some exceptions to this:  If the airline has to substitute a smaller plane for a larger one and bump people, there is no compensation.  If the scheduled flight is on a plane that holds no more than 60 passengers, and they have to bump people for weight or balance issues, there is no compensation.  And if the scheduled flight is on a plane that holds no more than 30 passengers, there is no compensation under any circumstances.

Finally, to get involuntary denied boarding compensation, you have to ask for it.  You have the right to insist on a check rather than a voucher for use on their airline.  But they can offer that to you if they want, and if you take it, that's the end of the question.  By the way, you can decline the standard DBC and sue the airline instead--but don't count on getting more than the standard DBC unless you can show extraordinary circumstances.

So, to review, United was completely within its rights to deny boarding to the passenger in question--even though its purpose was to free up seats for its own personnel.  And the passenger was legally wrong to refuse to get off the plane.  Regardless of his reasons for needing to get to Louisville, the contract of carriage does not give him the right to stay on the plane.

And that's the end of the "legal" part of this story.

United's behavior, though legal, is nevertheless wrong for several reasons.  First, it had to know that the optics of denying boarding to a paying customer in order to fly its own personnel to position them for a flight the next day would be bad.  United could have easily and cheaply arranged for a car service to take its personnel on the five-hour drive from Chicago to Louisville.  I was traveling once to a very important meeting in San Antonio, and I missed my connection in Houston because of a weather delay out of Charlotte.  We didn't reach Houston until 11:30 pm and had to be in San Antonio by 8 am, so my business partner and I hired a car service to drive us from Houston to San Antonio, about 4 hours, while we slept.  It was around $400, and this was about 10 years ago.  So, let's say that a thousand dollars would have gotten the crew to Louisville.

Or, if driving weren't an option, United could have chartered a private plane to ferry the crew to the destination.  That would've cost them something like $15,000--a lot of money, yes, but...well, just you wait.

But I suspect that this kind of thing would have gone entirely unnoticed but for what happened next.  After all, every year, there are about 60,000 passengers who get bumped involuntarily and receive DBC, almost all of them without incident.

The passenger refused to deplane.  And, as illegal as that was, it was completely understandable.  When you have a confirmed seat on a flight, and you're sitting in that seat, and you have acted in reliance on having that seat in getting to your destination, and you have very good reasons for needing to be at your destination, it's reasonable to be upset at being told to deplane.  And, depending on how tired you are, you might be a bit salty* about it.

* - I am reliably informed by my teenage friends that this is a correct slang usage of the term "salty." Historically, "salty" has referred to the use of coarse or vulgar language, derived probably from the association of bad language with sailors and the salty sea.  But I am told that the current vernacular defines "salty" as an emotional state that's something like angry, agitated, or upset, particularly in response to being embarrassed or otherwise mistreated.

When the passenger refused to deplane, however, rather than seeking another solution, United chose to call the police.  Again, this was legal on their part.  It's unclear whether the police officers could bodily remove the passenger as they did--and slamming his head against an armrest is yet another issue--but United could legally force the passenger off the plane.  I predict litigation against United and the police because of the manner in which it was carried out.

United had to know that the process would be filmed.  And even if it didn't, this removal occurred in front of around 150 other passengers, many of whom were traumatized to see a fellow passenger picked up and bashed into an armrest.

And the initial public reaction of Oscar Muñoz, the now-embattled CEO of the airline, to this?  To blame the passenger.  It's hard to imagine a more tone-deaf response to this crisis.  (He has since issued a different statement promising to get to the bottom of this and to do better.)

So United is about to understand what it is to be punished for poor customer service--and that's what this boils down to.  The hallmark of a customer-focused company is one that seeks to do right by its customers.  That doesn't mean that the customer is always right--frequently customers are wrong--but it does mean that treating your customers well is your first impulse.  We've all experienced poor customer service.  Rarely are we given the opportunity to teach the perpetrator a lesson in the way that United is about to learn one.

United could've solved this problem by driving its crew to the destination.  Cost: $1000.

Or it could've driven the passenger to his destination, hiring a swanky limousine.  Cost:  $1000, plus some freebies to make the passenger feel better about what happened.

Or it could've chartered a plane, if it were that important to get the crew to Louisville quickly.  Cost:  Around $15,000.

Or it could've raised the voluntary denied boarding compensation to $1500 or $2000 (and somebody would've taken that).

Instead, United is going to lose a lot of passengers.  That's true domestically, although not as significantly as you might expect because of the way the domestic market is segmented.  But it's about to be exceptionally brutal in China, for reasons that United probably couldn't have anticipated.  United has about 20% of the routes between China and the U.S., and it has made a major effort to serve the burgeoning Chinese travel market.  It turns out that the passenger who was denied boarding, then manhandled off the plane, is of Asian descent.  And that's gotten Chinese consumers talking about a boycott of United.

Over the course of around 48 hours, the video has been viewed more than 200 million times in China alone.

At one point, United's market capitalization--the value of its outstanding stock--was down by a billion dollars, about 6% of the company. It has since recovered to "only" a $255 million loss.

And it really couldn't have happened to a nicer airline.  (I mean that literally. It wouldn't have happened to a nicer airline.)

All airlines have their problems.  All airlines oversell flights, and as long as they handle it correctly, it's really OK.  But some airlines are better at handling it correctly.  That's why I heartily endorse Southwest.  They don't get it right every time, but they do put customer satisfaction as their first priority.  They do everything they reasonably can to make the travel process better, and it shows.  Simply put, I love flying with them.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Trans Nation

N.B. I have been working on this article for quite some time, but a development has prompted me to finish it.  More below.

I write today about the T in LGBT.  T stands for "transgender," and while transgender persons face some of the same kinds of discrimination as homosexuals and other sexual minorities, being transgender is something altogether different from sexual orientation.  Being transgender means having a gender identity that differs from the outward manifestation of your sex--for example, identifying as male when your sex organs are female, or vice versa. (This is a simplified description; there is much more to this issue and the issues that hover closely by it.)

Gender identity has been in the news quite a lot lately.  As the concept of equal rights for homosexuals has gained popular support, that support has begun to extend to other sexual minorities, including transgender persons.  Various cities of all sizes have begun to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances that expressly protect against discrimination based on gender identity.  The reaction to these ordinances has been histrionic and predictable.

The standard reaction has been to refer to these nondiscrimination ordinances as "bathroom bills," and to attack them on the basis that they provide cover to (cisgender male) child molesters and rapists, who will gain legal access to single-sex bathrooms by dressing as females, where (presumably) they will commit rape with impunity as law enforcement officers look on, helpless and incapable of acting lest they be sued for discrimination against these predators.

Of course, this sort of thing happens so rarely that it doesn't really deserve mention.  The real goal of these bills is to punish people who step outside what has been traditionally considered normal.  In fact, virtually all of the legislation in the sexual sphere is specifically designed to punish certain classes of people--essentially, everyone who is not a binary cisgender heterosexual person.  (You might, in certain cases, add "married" to that list of adjectives.)

After the backlash against North Carolina's misguided attempt to rein in transgender acceptance, which cost Pat McCrory his job as governor, the traditionalists are focusing on a different approach--setting up laws and policies that expressly permit businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities on the basis of their religious beliefs.

As I see it, there are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this question.  One of the approaches, the authoritarian traditionalist approach, focuses on crafting laws and policies, and on conforming your behavior, speech, and attitude, to express a powerful social disapproval of anything other than married heterosexual procreative sex.  The other approach focuses instead on giving individuals the freedom to chart out their own lives and to make their own decisions when it comes to their interpersonal relationships, especially their sexual ones, and their sexual and gender identity.

As a lifelong liberal, my tendency is toward the second approach on social issues. But I will be the first to admit that I have not always hewed closely to that approach, mostly out of my own fear and ignorance.  For example, I was well into adulthood before I managed to rid myself of the fear that I would be seen by other people as gay--a fear that requires some measure of hatred toward gays, simply to operate.  It takes time and practice and courage to look inside yourself and to define your personal outlook by what's in there rather than by how other people see you.

When it comes to transgender issues, it took even longer to get to where I am.  I mean, I don't think I've ever had any active dislike of the concept, but it was a topic that escaped my understanding for a very long time.  I can remember seeing a Super Bowl ad (Ooh! It's a link! He never posts those!) for Holiday Inn in 1999, when they were touting the fact that they had spent a huge amount of money renovating their hotels.  The setting was a high school reunion.  A beautiful, glamorous woman walks in and draws the attention of every man in the gymnasium, while the voiceover recounts what she's spent on cosmetic surgery.  She approaches one man who can't quite seem to place her.  Soon he realizes who she is--"Bob?  Bob Johnson?"  The tagline is something like, "Imagine what Holiday Inns will look like after we spend a billion."  I thought it was a clever idea, and really funny--and the joke relied on at least the tacit acceptance, if not the outright approval, of the concept of gender reassignment surgery.  (Unsurprisingly, outrage forced that ad off the air, but it scored Holiday Inn a major win in publicity.)

But if you had asked me then about transgender issues back then, I probably wouldn't have had much to say about it.  My outward gender matches my inner maleness.  It's hard to conceive of wanting to change that.  For many years, it was something that I didn't understand.  It is a very human thing to fear what you don't understand.  I'm not immune to that.

Several years ago, I was in the lobby of a Baltimore hotel, waiting on a shuttle to take me to the train station.  I took notice of a woman who seemed to be waiting on a taxi.  She drew my attention primarily because her build was rather masculine--she was taller than me, and I'm 6'2", although that might have been the pumps she was wearing.  She was wearing a nice blouse and a skirt, very professional-looking, but underneath she was built like a linebacker.  And it became clear after a few seconds that she was biologically male but presenting as female.  She smiled at me, and said, "It's a beautiful day today."  She seemed very nervous.  I smiled back, weakly, and agreed.  I excused myself and stepped outside.  I'm sure that my face showed my recognition that this person was "other."  My shuttle wasn't for another 15 minutes, and I could have talked to her.

But I didn't.

Later, as I was sitting on my train to New York, I reflected on the encounter.  I felt ashamed.  This was a chance for me to test the liberal viewpoint I have always talked about, and I failed, because I was nervous and uncertain.

For all I know, this was the first time this woman had shown her true face to the world.  For all I know, she was only looking for someone to see the person she felt like inside.  For all I know, she had decided to be brave and to see what the day would bring.

And for all I know, I could've been the person who gave her what she was looking for:  acceptance of the person she is, without judgment or condemnation or fear or derision.

I don't know what makes people who are genetically male feel female, or vice versa.  I don't know what makes people feel attracted to members of the same sex, or to both sexes.  I don't even know what makes me attracted to women.  It might be genetics.  It might be the environment.  It might be a choice, or simply a choice to follow your true self.  I'm not sure it matters.

Because what I do know is that each of us is a person.  None of us is better than anyone else.  None of us is more entitled to make decisions for others' lives than they are.  No religious principle or social construct can elevate any of us over others, to give some people power over the most intimate details of others' lives.

So, if your birth certificate says you are male, but deep inside you feel female, then it's up to me to respect that.  Your status as a person entitles you to nothing less.  It may be difficult for me to understand, but I don't have to understand why you are as you are to respect you for who you are.

I chose to finish this post today for a man whom I never met.  He was a twentysomething trans man, assigned female at birth, but he knew from an early age that he was really male.  He lived a troubled life, which is understandable because being in a body that betrays your mind leaves you open to the kinds of irreconcilable mental conflicts that express themselves in other, self-destructive ways.  But he was loved by his mother and by his grandparents, and they accepted him for who he really was, even as others in his life didn't.

I never met him.  I've actually never met anyone in his life.  We are connected only loosely, through a chain of acquaintances.  I don't know what might have triggered his despair, but I can't help but think things might have been different if he'd felt a broader measure of love and acceptance.

When I learned today that he committed suicide over the weekend, I wept.

So often, we do not know the damage we cause to others.  I can imagine the course of the life of the woman I met in that hotel lobby.  I can imagine that some other person extended her the kindness that eluded me on that day.  Perhaps she found the acceptance she was looking for, and that emboldened her to live her life more openly and courageously.  But I can also imagine that my giving her the slightest indication of discomfort made her withdraw from her tentative progress.  I will never know how it turned out for her.

But I do know how it turned out for that young man.  And I wept for him, and for everyone like him, almost all of whom I will never know.  I wept because these are valuable people who have much to contribute to our society, and so many take their lives, every day of the year.  They take their lives because what they experience in the world is wrapped up in hatred and derision.

If you want to understand why I believe it is so very important for us to learn to accept transgender persons for who they are, you need look no further than the face of his devastated mother, who only wanted for her child what all good mothers want for their children:  Happiness. Fulfillment. Peace.

What kind of person will you be?  Will you be part of that hatred and derision?  Or will you be kind?

When you back laws and policies that are designed to harm transgender persons, you aren't doing anything to encourage transgender persons to "be normal."  You aren't showing respect for "traditional values."  It costs you nothing to be kind, so you save nothing by being unkind.  You're just causing damage you will never see.

It doesn't have to be this way.  But it will take some courage.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

An outright moron

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

— H.L. Mencken, On Politics

I am not altogether certain that Mencken was right in his initial conditions.  That is, I don't think that democracy has been perfected.  If anything, we have gotten ourselves off track with regard to democracy.  And his approach seems rooted somewhat in the ahistorical belief that our political institutions were set up, in those heady days of 1787, primarily to avoid "mob rule."

I have no doubt that the highly educated men who wrote and debated and instituted our great Constitution were rightly suspicious of the uneducated masses.  They were fearful of the great mass of people who, lacking resources, obtained no great measure of book-learning beyond that necessary to work and pray, which in most cases was none at all, and they did not want those people pulling the levers of government directly in any sense.

But, even then, politics and horse-trading were afoot.  The Electoral College exists, it was said in those days, and specifically in Federalist No. 68 (authored by the now-popular Alexander Hamilton), as a bulwark against mob rule by interposing an erudite, discreet body of the best qualified individuals between the easily inflamed passions of the people and the Presidency.  That was, however, merely the sales pitch.  The real motivation behind the Electoral College was to ensure that smaller states received outsize say in the election, in exchange for their support of the new Constitution.

In No. 68, Hamilton also argued that the existence of the Electoral College "affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Rather than the popular choice, the body is designed to produce the right choice, the definition of which Hamilton kindly provided.  "The true test of a good government," Hamilton said, "is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration."

In No. 63, James Madison, writing about the Senate (but in any event talking about government generally), said:

Thus far I have considered the circumstances which point out the necessity of a well constructed senate, only as they relate to the representatives of the people. To a people as little blinded by prejudice, or corrupted by flattery, as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary, as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought in all governments, and actually will in all free governments ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth, can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.

It seems Madison knew his posterity better than we know ourselves. But what he and Hamilton and the others could not have anticipated is the degree to which people of such defective ideology as the Republicans are vomiting out these days might, through gamesmanship and subterfuge, gain absolute control over the levers of power and use them to implement a bastard form of tyranny—a tyranny of anarchy (except, of course, in the bedroom).

And that brings us to Mencken.  What Mencken got right is that as we progress through our long descent into self-destruction, the "people," not a majority of us, but the loudest among us, would see the fulfillment of their apparently highest desire:  A President who lacks any reasonable qualifications and whose basic functional intent is to monkeywrench the government—or, as Mencken put it, an outright moron.

It has been said before that we were already there.  Ronald Reagan was no great shakes in the brain department, but he could say his lines and hit his marks.  George W. Bush spoke and acted like a moron until the gravity of events pulled him into a regular orbit.

But nobody tops Trump, at least not in the category of "outright moron."  (I shudder to think of who might outpoint the Fascist Cheeto on that score. Thankfully, Justin Bieber is Canadian and therefore ineligible to serve.)

And here we are, less than 24 hours away, and that outright moron will be the President of the United States—together with his record-low approval rating, his "work when I want to" attitude, his insistence on personal loyalty instead of competence and expertise, and his cabinet of idiots and sycophants.  I'll side with Hamilton:  The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration—and all signs are pointing to "unmitigated disaster."  So much for the protection of the Electoral College.  Thanks a lot, Hamilton.

I will leave it to others to hope for the best.  I believe that the ship has sailed on "the best," and if we can simply survive the next four years, that will be yuuuge.