On December 14th, 2012, Adam Lanza fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the time, some believed that this horrific event could usher in some badly needed reforms to US gun laws. I guess that didn’t turn out as intended. Here are the gun deaths since then:
It’s a common enough refrain: the poor in rich countries such as the U.S. – or at least the majority of the poor who aren’t homeless – are not really poor. Historically speaking they are better off than their richest ancestors from some centuries ago. They have stuff the Lords of yesteryear could not have imagined. And the same is true if you compare them to the utterly destitute in the Third World.
This story is wrong on many levels:
- First, you need a lot more stuff to be able to earn a decent living in an industrial society than you do in an agricultural one.
- Second, people often think in relative terms when they are asked what “poverty” is, which means that they see poverty not just as absolute destitution but also as the inability to participate in society (poverty is as much a feeling as an objective reality: it’s both a sense of deprivation, inadequacy and exclusion and a lack of nutrition and shelter).
- Third, relative poverty can cause or aggravate absolute poverty: see here and here.
- And fourth, there’s some evidence that relative poverty causes certain harms irrespective of its effects on absolute poverty.
However, none of this seems to persuade those who look at the absolute living standards of the poor in developed countries and compare them to the distant and historical poor. One of the more common arguments: “if the poor in the West are really poor, how come so many of them are fat?” (One example of this argument is here).
The basis of the argument is correct, but not the conclusions drawn from it: the poor in the U.S for instance (but probably in other developed countries as well) are relatively more likely to suffer from overweight (although there are some who contest the data). This is particularly the case for poor women and children:
Even among the homeless in the US – the subset of the poor whose food supply is probably most insecure – one third are obese.
The data seem to give support to those who claim that the poor can’t really be poor: if many of them are obese, they must have abundant food supplies, which means they have a financial surplus. But maybe it’s not abundance but the lack of quality food that causes overweight. Those who are poor and obese may live in neighborhoods where they can’t rely on public transportation as a means to diversify their diet (hence the concept of “food deserts”). Maybe kids in poor neighborhoods can’t enjoy good school meals or healthy exercise in public playgrounds. Maybe poor people also live in unsafe neighborhoods and feel that it’s better to stay inside as much as they can, etc.
Once you’ve considered the possibility that the poor are on average heavier than the rest of us because of reasons likes this, then you’ll understand that they can be both poor and overweight at the same time. Of course, it’s not clear if people will actually eat better and exercise more if they have the options to do so. There’s no single straight line from poverty to obesity, and obesity isn’t just the result of poverty and of the lack of access to healthy food and of physical exercise that it entails. Personal choices also play a role, as does genetics, pollution, lower rates of smoking, medical consumption etc.
Also, in case you’re wondering why this is a human rights issue: poverty causes obesity, obesity causes ill health, and ill health causes poverty. And both ill health and poverty are human rights violations (see here and here respectively). So plenty of reasons to link obesity and human rights.
As if the incarceration rate in the U.S. isn’t high enough already, the partial privatization of U.S. prisons creates some perverse incentives: the prison industry’s goal is to extract as much public money as possible by locking up the maximum number of people; this in turn fuels “tough on crime” policies and the insane war on drugs. Some examples:
The private prison industry was secretly involved in drafting Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law to boost demand for its immigrant detention centers. The Corrections Corporation of America has offered to help relieve the fiscal crises of 48 states by buying their prisons—provided the states sign a contract to keep them 90 percent full for the next twenty years, regardless of the crime rate. (source)
Not long after 11 September 2001, Steven Logan, the CEO of Cornell Companies (now part of the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group Inc) had good news for its shareholders. In a quarterly earnings call, Logan enthusiastically talked about tighter border control and a heightened focus on (immigrant) detention in the wake of the attacks. As he put it, “more people are gonna get caught. So I would say that’s a positive.” (source)
Note that more than 120,000 of America’s record 2 million prisoners are in private jails, plus a large number of illegal immigrants.
Welfare – meaning the provision by the government of a minimum level of material wellbeing and social support for all citizens – is a strange thing in the U.S.: it’s not directed mainly at the poor, it’s underfunded, it seems to be compatible with a high poverty rate, and it’s not colorblind – at least not in its effects.
Take a look at the following facts (source):
- In 2010, nearly half of Americans lived in a household that received direct government benefits. That’s up from 37.7% in 1998.
- At the same time, government revenues have been declining: adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue was the same in 2009 as it was 1997, even though the U.S. population grew by 37 million during that period. In 2011, the federal government took in $2.3 trillion in tax revenue, and spent the exact same amount on military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone.
- The share of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare going to the bottom fifth of households (based on income) has fallen from 54% in 1979 to 36% in 2007.
- The result of all of this: nearly 1 in 6 Americans – and more than 1 in 4 blacks – still live in poverty. The unemployment rate in 2009 was around 10% – for young, uneducated African-American males it was even 48.5%.
None of this should lead to the conclusion that the U.S. welfare system is completely dysfunctional – unemployment insurance, for instance, has rescued millions of Americans from poverty during the last recession. What it should lead to is serious consideration of the possibility and desirability of a completely new system.
More posts in this series are here.
In light of the recent Trayvon Martin case, a few historical examples of how fear of the “other” has led many Americans to acts of intolerance and discrimination:
- In 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland, tried to have Jewish refugees expelled, claiming they would “infect” the colony.
- In 1732, founders of the Georgia colony, which was seen as a religious haven, drew up a charter that explicitly bans Catholicism.
- In 1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith is murdered in an Illinois prison by a lynch mob. Soon after, many of his followers migrated to Utah.
- In 1854-56, nativists formed the Know Nothing Party (yes, that was their name), which called for strict limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries.
- In 1865-66, following the end of the Civil War, riots erupted during Reconstruction, and African American churches and schools were burned in Memphis and New Orleans.
- In 1882, strong anti-Chinese sentiment in California led to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from the East.
- In 1883, the Department of Interior declared many Native American rituals to be “offenses” punishable by jail sentences of up to 30 years.
- In 1942, FDR signed an executive order establishing “exclusion zones,” which led to the forced internment of some 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans. (source)
Needless to say, fear of the other isn’t a exclusively American problem.
Residential segregation can be the outcome of racial animus or racial prejudice, for example when whites decide that they don’t want to live near blacks for no other reason than race. In that case, segregation is a symptom of racism and is evidently wrong. What to do about it is less clear: forcing people to live somewhere is also wrong.
But residential segregation can also result from less prejudiced motives, sometimes even from rational ones: whites may be relatively wealthy and therefore decide that they prefer to live in a nice suburb. Automatically, they end up together with other whites. (Perhaps the wealth disparity has something to do with racism, but not the segregation itself). Yet, even in that case, segregation has harmful consequences and we will have to do something about it.
Residential segregation is harmful in several ways. When relatively wealthy whites move en masse to the suburbs, the relatively poor blacks who stay in the inner cities find themselves in an increasingly impoverished area. Shops will disappear; house prices will fall and will put pressure on people’s assets, etc. The reduced tax base will make it harder for the local government to fund high quality public goods. As a result, the quality of education and other public services will drop, which will start a vicious circle of poverty.
Physical segregation of races will reduce self-esteem and self-confidence among the members of the group that is worse off after segregation. It may also foster racial animus against those who are better off. And, finally, so-called membership poverty will kick in. People will see a reduction in the number of role models, and the remaining role models will by definition be relatively poor and hence not always the ones providing the most beneficial inspiration. Criminal role models also become more prominent, as the simple arithmetical result of the disappearance of the middle class. Furthermore, when people witness high rates of failure among group members, this will also negatively affect their aspirations and effort, which in turn will make a negative economic logic take root: for example, when few group members start businesses, few other members will have the opportunity to work for them or trade with them.
However, residential segregation is not entirely negative for the poor minorities remaining in the inner cities. As house prices in the cities fall, relatively poor blacks are more likely to become homeowners. However, that’s a small silver lining to an enormous black cloud.
U.S. military intervention abroad isn’t necessarily incompatible with respect for human rights. Sometimes it’s the only means to stop large scale violations. While military intervention always means imposing a certain level of harm on the local population, it’s possible to argue that in some cases intervention results in a net benefit. WWII could be viewed as belonging to this category of cases. Had the U.S. intervened in the Rwandan genocide, that could also have been a net benefit even if many Rwandans had died in the process. Of course, there are strict limitations to this kind of calculus – normally, it’s not OK to kill two in order to save three. However, in catastrophic circumstances, some sacrifices are probably morally acceptable if they are necessary to save thousands or even millions. That’s even more true if those who are sacrificed are responsible for the harm that triggered the intervention. (More on so-called humanitarian intervention here).
The argument that foreign intervention is necessary in order to protect the rights of U.S. citizens at home is somewhat harder to make. That was the rationale for the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but those probably did not help to reduce the terror threat at home. Perhaps the contrary was the case. And if you count the harm done to the invaded populations – as you should – then the net result is clearly negative, even if the invasions did succeed in reducing the terror threat in the U.S.
Furthermore, very few if any of all the military interventions ever carried out by the U.S. – either before or during the War on Terror - were meant to protect anyone’s human rights – neither those of Americans, not those of the people in the invaded countries. The central concerns were about spheres of interest, balance of power, economic profit etc., and the usual outcome was a human rights disaster.
Those interventions were numerous, especially if you add the quasi-military ones, namely those that involved support for local guerillas, assassinations etc. Many interventions had long-lasting effects: military bases were established, autocrats received military training and long-term financial support and so on. In fact, there have been so many interventions that they can’t all fit on a single map, unless you want to have something awful like this. Here’s a better map showing some of the American interventions in one part of the world:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a map from an earlier period in history, just to show that this is nothing new:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The number of troops or military bases abroad is another way to represent the extent of U.S. intervention in the world:
(source, the sharp increase in the late 60s is of course due to the Vietnam war, the sharp decline in the early 90s follows the fall of the Iron Curtain)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a map of US military bases in the Middle East:
- Human Rights Maps (158): Women with Unmet Need for Family Planning (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- Human Rights Maps (153): Female Life Expectancy in the U.S. (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
All national borders are the locus of strict enforcement: there is no country on earth where foreigners can just come in as they wish, and all states are eager to defend the integrity and completeness of their territory and the security of their citizens against attacks by other states or by terrorist infiltrators. Some authoritarian states also use force to keep their people inside their territory.
However, certain borders are fortified more than others. The US-Mexican border, the India-Pakistan border, the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea are among the places where the toughest national security and anti-movement policies are in force. Below are some maps and aerial images that illustrate the extent of these policies.
The US-Mexican border
The US is constructing a border fence in order to stop illegal Mexican immigrants - as well as “terrorists” according to some. This fence currently covers about a third of the border. Right wing politicians want to expand it, even though the non-fenced areas are so remote or rugged as to make a fence pointless or impractical. Together with drone aircraft, helicopters, video surveillance, seismic sensors, infrared sensors, private vigilantes and thousands of border patrol guards in all-terrain vehicles and on horse-back, it has indeed driven down the numbers of illegal immigrants – although the recession has also done its bit.
(source, click image to enlarge)
Some question the strength of the US-Mexican border, not always without good reason as can be seen from this image:
The India-Pakistan border
The border between these two countries is hotly contested, especially in the region of Kashmir. India is also wary of terrorist infiltration along the entire border. Sometimes called the “Berlin Wall of Asia”, the border has only one road crossing. Half of the border is floodlit, and hence can be seen from space:
The separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories
To so-called Westbank Barrier between the West Bank and Israel will be approximately 760 kilometres upon completion. In some places it’s a concrete wall. 12% of the West Bank area is on the Israel side of the barrier, meaning that parts of the occupied territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 are now “in Israel”. The main rationale for the barrier is protection against terrorist incursions, specifically by suicide bombers. The barrier severely disrupts free movement in the Westbank as well as access to Israel for Palestinians working there. Some Jewish settlers, on the other hand, condemn the barrier for appearing to renounce the Jewish claim to the whole of the “Land of Israel”.
The DMZ between North and South Korea
Since the end of the Korean war, there’s a country-wide demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, cutting the Korean Peninsula roughly in half along the 38th parallel. It’s 250 kilometres long – plus extensions into the sea – and approximately 4 km wide. It’s the most heavily militarized border in the world.
The South has discovered four tunnels crossing the DMZ, dug by North Korea. The North claimed they were for coal mining but no coal has been found in the tunnels, which are dug through granite. Some of the tunnel walls have been painted black to give the appearance of anthracite. Not very cunning. The tunnels are believed to have been planned as military invasion routes.
The border is visible from space at night, not because it’s floodlit but because of the large difference in electricity use between the prosperous South and the impoverished North:
And, no, it’s not dark because they’re all building tunnels…
Here’s an overview:
(source, click image to enlarge)
All these borders are sad reminders of humanity’s penchant for xenophobia, exclusion, parochialism, national hostility and war. And a testimony to almost universally shared misconceptions about property rights over the earth, about freedom of movement and about the value of diversity and equal opportunity.
A combination of better law enforcement and an economic recession has resulted in a steep decline of illegal immigration from Mexico to the US. One way to measure illegal immigration is to extrapolate on the basis of the number of Border Patrol apprehensions. These went down fast, as is shown by this map:
Here are the total numbers:
I personally regret this since I’m in favor of open borders (see here). If it’s the recession that drives down illegal immigration, then that means an increase in poverty or at least an absence of a decrease. And if it’s border apprehensions that drive it down, then that means a violation of people’s freedom of movement, freedom of association etc.
I’ve written before about some very significant health disparities across segments of the population of the U.S. (see here, here. here, here, here and here). Health disparities across racial, gender or income groups are a strong indication of injustice since most if not all such disparities have no basis in biology and must therefore have social or political causes. They lead to a shorter life and a lower quality of life for the average person in certain social groups. For example, this study shows that
the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 years in 2001.
See also these graphs:
The causes of disparities like these are other types of disparities:
- differences in health care access and utilization (through differences in health insurance and different access to good quality medical facilities)
- different homicide rates
- different HIV rates
- differences in nutritional behavior and food availability (see the concept of “food deserts”)
- different poverty rates
More data on life expectancy here.
Here’s a map of the number of people in the U.S. below the poverty line (year 2009):
(source, where you can view an interactive version of this map)
In total, around 14% of the population was considered poor in 2009. (Around 13% in 2008).
And these are the numbers for 2010:
Here’s another version:
Data for 2011:
Read more here about the way in which the poverty line in the U.S. is set and about some of the problems with the system. More maps about poverty in the U.S. are here, here and here. More data are here.
More human rights maps are here.
I’ve mentioned some of the problems with the U.S. system of poverty measurement before, but this is much more eloquent:
(source, source; the “savings” requirement covers retirement and emergencies and is included because the study wanted to capture economic stability rather than mere survival, and lifelong economic security rather than day-by-day security, which is quite appropriate given the instability of our economic system)
More on poverty measurement here.
You’ve probably already heard about Google’s Ngram tool, a tool that allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s collection. Such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use of a word at a certain time. (I’ve mentioned Ngrams before on this blog, namely here and here).
This is what you get when you type the words “slavery” and “slave” (blue and red lines respectively):
(click image to enlarge)
If we assume that Google books has a bias towards books published in the U.S., and if we simplify U.S. history a bit, then we can see a clear pattern in this time line. The increasing frequency of the use of the words “slave” and “slavery in the first half of the 19th century reflects the growing importance of the Abolitionist movement. The high point is obviously 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and 1865 with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, a modification of the U.S. Constitution abolishing and prohibiting slavery and liberating approximately 4 million black slaves. After that, the topic of slavery understandably became a lot less interesting.
However, the end of slavery didn’t imply a substantial improvement in race relations in the U.S. Segregation, discrimination and violence continued. Those “relics” of slavery probably explain the fact that interest in slavery rose again in the late 19th century. (This period is often called the nadir of American race relations).
During the first half of the 20th century, the topic became gradually less important, perhaps because African Americans fled the South to resettle in the North (the Great Migration). The Civil Rights movement caused an uptick in the sixties, because this movement can be understood as an effort to undo the last relics of slavery. The most recent uptick is perhaps due to the fact that even the Civil Rights Movement, Civil Rights legislation, affirmative action etc. haven’t been able to guarantee racial equality in the U.S. Calls for reparations are becoming louder, and this may be visible in the graph. Or perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t there.
Segregation comes in many forms: there can be segregation in schools, at work, in the places people live, in restaurants etc. In U.S. history, it has often been racial segregation, but there is also something like gender segregation, wealth segregation etc., and often these types overlap. Segregation can be the forced and legal separation of “different kinds of humans” into different groups and the illegality of interaction or contact. Jim Crow laws, laws regarding interracial marriage etc. have in the past enforced segregation. But even when it’s illegal it can be maintained by way of prejudice, discrimination, selective rental behavior or employment decisions, vigilante violence (e.g. lynching), intimidation, ghettoization etc. Below I focus on non-legally enforced residential segregation in present-day U.S.
Over the 20th century, the residential patterns of US households became increasingly divided by race. From 1940 to 2000, the share of the metropolitan white population who lived in the suburban ring increased from 38% to 74%, whereas, even by 2000, over 60% of the black metropolitan population remained in central cities. (source)
In the hundred largest metropolitan areas, where most whites and blacks live,
the exposure of the average white person to black people has risen by two percentage points, from 5.5 percent in 1980 to 7.6 percent today.
The decline of isolation among African-Americans since 1980 has been overwhelmingly due to the growth of Latino populations in black neighborhoods. The presence of Latinos in black neighborhoods has doubled since 1980, from 8.2 to 16.4 percent. Similarly, the declining homogeneity of white neighborhoods does not reflect the long-sought residential integration of whites and blacks, but instead the influx of Latinos into white neighborhoods. In 1980 Latinos were 5.5 percent of residents in majority-white neighborhoods. Today they are 11.2 percent. (source)
These two maps show current residential segregation in New York and Chicago respectively:
(source/source/source/source, one dot equals 25 people and is color-coded based on race: White is pink; Black is blue; Hispanic is orange, and Asian is green)
(source/source/source/source, one dot equals 25 people and is color-coded based on race: White is pink; Black is blue; Hispanic is orange, and Asian is green)
Another approach to residential segregation is in the map below:
(source, read the source for the methodology)
Where people decide to live is obviously their free choice and I don’t think anybody seriously defends forced relocation as a solution to residential segregation. However, if residential segregation is the result, not of free choice but of racial poverty, conscious or unconscious discrimination by landlords or employers or any other type of racial bias, then it is a problem. However, rather than trying to solve this problem directly, one should look at the underlying causes of residential segregation and do something about those.
- Check Out The Extreme Racial Segregation In America’s Biggest Cities (businessinsider.com)
- How White Is Your Neighborhood? [Urban Anthropology] (gawker.com)
- Segregation and Exploitation in the Old South (blogs.forbes.com)
- “Mapping Race and Ethnicity” and related posts (rustwire.com)
What I want to criticize in this installment of our series on lies and statistics, is the ordinal ranking of relatively similar entities in a way that creates the illusion of substantial disparity. You often see it combined with color schemes: one entity that’s just below a threshold value gets one color, and the next one which is just above gets another color, and then it’s like they differ substantially. It’s rather common in maps, of which there’s an example here:
(source, more information on the Human Development Index is here; note: the criticism offered in this post is not directed against the HDI itself)
Louisiana has a score of .801, West Virginia .800, and Mississippi at .799, and that makes Mississippi stand out although it’s really not different from the other two.
Something to keep in mind when looking at all the maps I post on this blog, or any ordinal ranking for that matter.
More about lies and statistics here.
- Lies, Damn Lies and World Cup Statistics (broadstuff.com)
- Lies, Damned Lies and Cat Statistics (idle.slashdot.org)
- How To Lie With Statistics (seobook.com)
- Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics (slideshare.net)
(source, based on information from Raúl Hernández-Coss for the World Bank; click image to enlarge)
Remittances to Mexico exceed $20 billion a year. Worldwide, remittances have surpassed direct aid in volume. The United States is the largest source of remittances – Saudi Arabia is second – and Mexico the largest recipient of money sent from the U.S.
- Remittances From Europe Sink Amid Recession (blogs.wsj.com)
- Sending More Money South of the Border (economix.blogs.nytimes.com)
Between the 15th century and the end of the 19th, the transatlantic slave trade – also called the Middle Passage – moved millions of slaves from West Africa, West Central Africa, and Eastern Africa to the European colonies in the New World. Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World, although the actual number of people taken from their homes is considerably higher (an estimated 15% of the Africans died at sea, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships). The main traders were the Portuguese and the British. Below are some maps showing numbers and flows:
Slave trade from Africa to the Americas, 1650-1860:
Here’s another version:
(source, click image to enlarge)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Origins of slaves:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Number of slaves in the US in 1860:
Another version of this map, showing some of the differences between regions across slave states, is here.
And in 1820:
This is an animation showing when United States territories and states forbade or allowed slavery, 1789–1861:
(source, click the image to start animation)
- Ron Soodalter: Slavery is Alive and Well in the US: In Support of California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (huffingtonpost.com)
- Why would a slave love slavery? (beliefnet.com)
- You: Firms oppose California bill to disclose policing of labor practices (latimes.com)
- Disunion: Visualizing Slavery (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- NYT: Visualizing Slavery (theroot.com)
- States’ Rights, but to What? (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
I’ve said it a few times before in this blog series: human rights violations can make it difficult to measure human rights violations, and can distort international comparisons of the levels of respect for human rights. Country A, which is generally open and accessible and on average respects basic rights such as speech, movement and press fairly well, may be more in the spotlight of human rights groups than country B which is borderline totalitarian. And not just more in the spotlight: attempts to quantify or measure respect for human rights may in fact yield a score that is worse for A than for B, or at least a score that isn’t much better for A than for B. The reason is of course the openness of A:
- Human rights groups, researchers and statisticians can move and speak relatively freely in A.
- The citizens of A aren’t scared shitless by their government and will speak to outsiders.
- Country A may even have fostered a culture of public discourse, to some extent. Perhaps its citizens are also better educated and better able to analyze political conditions.
- As Tocqueville has famously argued, the more a society liberates itself from inequalities, the harder it becomes to bear the remaining inequalities. Conversely, people in country B may not know better or may have adapted their ambitions to the rule of oppression. So, citizens of A may have better access to human rights groups to voice their complaints, aren’t afraid to do so, can do so because they are relatively well educated, and will do so because their circumstances seem more outrageous to them even if they really aren’t. Another reason to overestimate rights violations in A and underestimate them in B.
- The government administration of A may also be more developed, which often means better data on living conditions. And better data allow for better human rights measurement. Data in country B may be secret or non-existent.
I called all this the catch 22 of human rights measurement: in order to measure whether countries respect human rights, you already need respect for human rights. Investigators or monitors must have some freedom to control, to engage in fact finding, to enter countries and move around, to investigate “in situ”, to denounce etc., and victims should have the freedom to speak out and to organize themselves in pressure groups. So we assume what we want to establish. (A side-effect of this is that authoritarian leaders may also be unaware of the extent of suffering among their citizens).
You can see the same problem in the common complaints that countries such as the U.S. and Israel get a raw deal from human rights groups:
[W]hy would the watchdogs neglect authoritarians? We asked both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and received similar replies. In some cases, staffers said, access to human rights victims in authoritarian countries was impossible, since the country’s borders were sealed or the repression was too harsh (think North Korea or Uzbekistan). In other instances, neglected countries were simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest. With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it made little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there. … The watchdogs can and do seek to stimulate demand for information on the forgotten crises, but this is an expensive and high risk endeavor. (source)
So there may also be a problem with the supply and demand curve in media: human rights groups want to influence public opinion, but can only do so with the help of the media. If the media neglect certain countries or problems because they are deemed “unnewsworthy”, then human rights groups will not have an incentive to monitor those countries or problems. They know that what they will be able to tell will fall on deaf ears anyway. So better focus on the things and the countries which will be easier to channel through the media (see also here and here).
Both the catch 22 problem and the problems caused by media supply and demand can be empirically tested by comparing the intensity of attention given by human rights monitoring organizations to certain countries/problems to the intensity of human rights violations (the latter data are assumed to be available, which is a big assumption, but one could use very general measures such as these). It seems that both effects are present but not much:
[W]e subjected the 1986-2000 Amnesty [International] data to a barrage of statistical tests. (Since Human Rights Watch’s early archival procedures seemed spotty, we did not include their data in our models.) Amnesty’s coverage, we found, was driven by multiple factors, but contrary to the dark rumors swirling through the blogosphere, we discovered no master variable at work. Most importantly, we found that the level of actual violations mattered. Statistically speaking, Amnesty reported more heavily on countries with greater levels of abuse. Size also mattered, but not as expected. Although population didn’t impact reporting much, bigger economies did receive more coverage, either because they carried more weight in global politics and economic affairs, or because their abundant social infrastructure produced more accounts of abuse. Finally, we found that countries already covered by the media also received more Amnesty attention. (source)
More posts in this series are here.
- Why Are the United States and Israel at the Top of Human Rights Hit Lists? (3quarksdaily.com)
Some fresh data for 2010:
- Fewer Executions In 2010 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Death Penalty Use and Support Near Record Lows, Report Finds (time.com)
- Texas Embraces Alternatives to Death while California Embraces Killing (criminaljustice.change.org)
(If you wonder why I believe this is a human rights issue, go here first).
Despite what foreigners usually believe about the U.S., and despite the confused ramblings of a tiny group of anti-”socialist” loudmouths high on tea, U.S. public opinion is actually very egalitarian:
Americans are in broad agreement on the need for a more equal distribution of wealth. … that’s what a forthcoming study by two psychologists, Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, has concluded. First, Ariely and Norton asked thousands of Americans what they thought the nation’s actual wealth distribution looks like: how much is owned by the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, the next-wealthiest 20 percent, and on down. The researchers then asked people what, in an ideal world, they would like the nation’s wealth distribution to be.
Ariely and Norton found that Americans think they live in a far more equal country than they in fact do. On average, those surveyed estimated that the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans own 59 percent of the nation’s wealth; in reality the top quintile owns around 84 percent. The respondents further estimated that the poorest 20 percent own 3.7 percent, when in reality they own 0.1 percent.
And when asked to give their ideal distribution, they described, on average, a nation where the wealth distribution looks not like the U.S. but like Sweden, only more so—the wealthiest quintile would control just 32 percent of the wealth, the poorest just over 10 percent. “People dramatically underestimated the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S.,” says Ariely. “And they wanted it to be even more equal.” (source)
You can understand this as further proof of the ignorance of ordinary people. Or, more positively, as a sign that there’s actually widespread support for redistribution and “spreading the wealth around“. Or you can classify it as a case of cognitive dissonance: people favor equality in an abstract manner, but nothing that would actually do something about it, such as slightly higher taxes. Or you may be among those who believe that inequality is actually a good thing and that the public should therefore be kept in the dark about the distance between their beliefs about egalitarian ideals and the real world. If so, my insincere apologies for having published this post.
Some more numbers. According to the graph below, a bit more than 60% of Americans believe that differences in income are too large (in most other countries, this belief is shared by an even larger majority). However, only slightly more than 30% believe the government should do something about it (again, more support for government action in other countries):
(source, click image to enlarge)
More on income inequality is here.
If you’re not familiar with the Human Development Index, go here first. In essence, the HDI combines measures of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita for countries or regions.
When checking differences in HDI scores between countries or between regions of a country, you can clearly correlate those differences with migration patterns. The purpose of a lot of migration is to leave a low HDI region for a high HDI region. Take a look at these two beautiful maps:
(source, the border locality in the US with the lowest HDI still has a higher HDI than the Mexican border locality with the highest HDI)
Obviously, there can also be a reverse causation taking place: poor migrants move to richer places, but these places can – in part – be richer because of the activities of migrants.
Also, one wouldn’t want to imply that economic opportunities explain all the reasons why people migrate, but they obviously do explain a lot.
More human rights maps.
First, if you’re wondering why unemployment benefits are a human rights issue, go here. In a previous post, we discussed the relative stinginess of unemployment benefits in the U.S., compared to other developed countries, both in terms of duration, amount and eligibility (the majority of Americans out of work do not qualify for unemployment insurance, and the average weekly payment is 36 percent of the individual’s average weekly wage).
Unemployment insurance in the U.S. is a complicated affair involving both the federal government and the states. The total number of weeks of benefits available in any particular state depends on the unemployment rate and unemployment insurance laws in the state where the person worked. In case of a recession, the duration of benefits is extended.
- Unemployment Duration (outsidethebeltway.com)
- Ruth Marcus: Is Congress subsidizing slackers? (commercialappeal.com)
- Extending Unemployment Benefits (freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com)
From The Onion:
WASHINGTON–According to a new report released Monday by a panel of top economists and social scientists, the People’s Republic of China will overtake the United States as the world’s dominant asshole by the year 2020.
The findings, published in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, support recent speculation that America’s unquestioned reign as the leading super-prick may soon be drawing to a close, leaving China as the foremost shithead among all developed nations.
“We are seeing a changing of the asshole guard,” said Andrew Freireich, noted economist and lead author of the article.
Democracy – or the right to take part in the government, directly or through representatives who have been freely chosen in regular and honest elections that guarantee the equal right to choose - is a human right. In fact, these words have been taken almost literally from article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A more detailed defense of democracy as a human right is here.
The “equal right” part has often been summarized in the phrase “one man, one vote” (nowadays that includes women, fortunately). Democracy tries to give everyone equal political influence and to give equal consideration and protection to everybody’s interests, and it does so first of all by giving everybody equal voting rights. However, “one man, one vote” isn’t enough to give everyone equal political influence and to ensure that everyone’s interests are taken into account. The way that people use their vote can be influenced through propaganda, unfair media attention, unequal education, excessive use of money in campaigning etc. That is why democracies don’t stop at equal and universal voting rights, but also try to improve education and public discourse and impose limits on unequal participation in political campaigning (e.g. campaign financing limits, fair and balanced media coverage etc.).
If some people are excluded from the vote, or if other people have a disproportionate influence on the way people vote, then some of us have more political influence than others, and hence more power to protect our interests. Those who believe in democracy accept that certain people always more power than others to advance their interests, because political talents and interest differ, but the purpose of democracy is to equalize influence as much as possible. That is why nobody has more than one vote (it used to be different in the early stages of democracy) and nobody’s excluded from the suffrage (if you kindly forget about some categories of people; see here and here). And it’s also the reason why asymmetrical influence on the way people use the vote is discouraged. If all votes aren’t equal, and everybody doesn’t have the same rights and means to participate in and influence political decisions, then it’s difficult to claim that the people govern.
One of the mechanisms that change the weight of a vote that I haven’t mentioned yet is one that is build into the election systems of some countries. A notable example is the U.S. Senate.
I will not repeat how the U.S. Senate deviates from the principle of “one man, one vote” (see here if you want, or here). Suffice it to say that each U.S state is represented by two senators, regardless of population. In an interesting but utopian effort, Neil Freeman has kindly altered the map of the U.S. so that all states contain a more or less equal population, and “one man, one vote” is restored:
(source, click to enlarge)
Easier would be to change the composition of the US Senate methinks, or to just abolish it.
And it’s not just the U.S. Senate that fails to respect the “one man one vote” rule. The Presidential election in the U.S. is in fact an indirect election: voters elect members of the electoral college. These members are so-called electors who have pledged to a presidential candidate. These electors then elect the President. Presidential candidates have to have a majority in the electoral college – more than half of the 538 electors. Because states can send a number of electors to the college that doesn’t match the population size of states – some states can send more per capita electors than other states – presidential candidates can get a majority in the college without having a majority among voters. The U.S. Constitution specifies the number of electors to which each state is entitled. Electoral votes are allocated to the states each decade to reflect population shifts, but every state is guaranteed three electoral votes before allocation kicks in.
Proponents of the college argue that the system protects the rights of smaller states. Numerous constitutional amendments have been introduced, unsuccessfully, in Congress seeking to alter the Electoral College or replace it with a direct popular vote.
In Wyoming, there are 143,000 people for each of its three electoral votes. The states with the weakest votes are New York, Florida, and California. These states each have around 500,000 people for each electoral vote. In other words, one Wyoming voter has roughly the same vote power as four New York voters. (source)
More human rights maps here.
(source, source, source, photos by Perry Ryan, author of The Last Public Execution in America)
Rainey Bethea’s public execution on Aug. 15, 1936, in Owensboro, Kentucky. The era of public executions in the United States sputtered to a halt after 20,000 turned out for the hanging of Bethea, a black man convicted of raping and killing a elderly white woman. It was also the first first hanging supervised by a woman.
Because the original warrant specified that the hanging would take place in the courthouse yard, where the county, at significant expense, had recently planted new shrubs and flowers, a second death warrant moved the location of the hanging from the courthouse yard to an empty lot near the county garage. The executioner was drunk.
Timothy McVeigh requested in 2001 that his execution be televised, but this was denied. An internet company also sued for the rights to broadcast it.
Income inequality is a human rights issue (if you’re not convinced, go here or here first). Here are a few maps about income inequality in the U.S., in addition to some older posts on the same subject (see here, here, and here).
(source, click on the image to enlarge; a higher Gini value means more inequality)
You can clearly see the maps becoming darker over time, and also the shifting of inequality across the country.
However, if you take the global view and move away from the U.S., income inequality has actually gone down over time. See here. More maps on income inequality are here. Something on the related concept of relative poverty is here. And more human rights maps are here.
Here are two maps, one showing the percentage of white people per county in the U.S., the other one the percentage of poor people per county. And when you compare these two maps, it’s quite striking that the less white a county, the more poor it is. In many cases, such as South Dakota, Montana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the resemblance between the maps is almost perfect:
It’s not that there aren’t any white poor in the U.S. – obviously there are – but poverty is mainly a colored problem. More precise statistics on poverty and race in the U.S. are here and here. Something about poverty as a human rights issue is here. More human rights maps are here.
Tom Mullins, the Republican nominee for a New Mexico Congressional seat, has suggested that it might be a good idea to mine the US-Mexico border.
During the May 18 interview with KNMX radio in Las Vegas, N.M., Mullins said the U.S. could mine the border, install barbed wire and post signs directing would-be border jumpers to cross legally at designated checkpoints.
“We could put land mines along the border. I know it sounds crazy. We could put up signs in 23 different languages if necessary,” Mullins says in the radio interview, where he also expressed concern that terrorists could carry a nuclear weapon across the Mexican border.
He explained Monday the suggestion about land mines was something he’d heard while campaigning, and that it came in response to a complaint that nothing could be done to secure the border.
“When I heard it, I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting concept,”’ Mullins said. (source)
During the Red Summer of 1919, mobs of whites attacked African Americans in more than two dozen American cities, though in some cases blacks responded and initiated violent attacks themselves, often because police refused to intervene. The riots started after vicious rumors about Bolshevism and about blacks arming themselves and planning attacks on whites. Because of labor shortages during WWI, an estimated 500,000 African Americans emigrated from the South to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest. They filled new positions as well as many jobs formerly held by whites. In some cities, they were hired as strikebreakers, especially during strikes of 1917. This increased resentment and suspicion among whites, especially the working class.
Dozens of blacks were lynched during these race riots. The material damage was enormous. In Omaha, Nebraska a white mob of more than 10,000 burned the county courthouse and destroyed property valued at more than a million dollars. One man, Will Brown, was lynched.
The Omaha riot was triggered by reports in local media that sensationalized the alleged rape of 19-year-old Agnes Loebeck on September 25, 1919. The following day the police arrested 40-year-old Will Brown as a suspect. Loebeck identified Brown as her rapist, although later reports by the Omaha Police Department and the United States Army stated that she had not made a positive identification. There was an unsuccessful attempt to lynch Brown on the day of his arrest. The Omaha Bee publicized the incident as one of a series of alleged attacks on white women by black men.
At about 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 28, 1919, a large group of white youths gathered near the Bancroft School in South Omaha and began a march to the Douglas County Courthouse, where Brown was being held. By 5:00 p.m., a mob of about 4,000 whites had crowded into the street and ultimately stormed the courthouse. The police did what they could but were unable to stop the capture of Brown. His lifeless body was hung from a telephone post. Hundreds of revolvers and shotguns were fired at the corpse as it dangled in mid-air. Then, the rope was cut. Brown’s body was tied to the rear end of an automobile. It was dragged through the streets to Seventeenth and Dodge Streets, four blocks away. The oil from red lanterns used as danger signals for street repairs was poured on the corpse. It was burned. Members of the mob hauled the charred remains through the business district for several hours.
Tell me again that hate speech is just speech and should receive absolute protection…
Following up from a previous post: there are many things wrong with capital punishment in the U.S. (and with capital punishment as such), but the most obvious thing is the blatant racism of it all. A black person in the U.S. is almost 4 times more likely to be executed. Even if we assume that this higher probability of being executed correctly reflects a higher probability of being involved in crime that comes with capital punishment – and that’s something we shouldn’t assume, because it’s likely that there are injustices involved, e.g. inadequate legal representation and such – that shouldn’t put our minds at ease. We then still have to ask the question: why are blacks more likely to be involved in capital offences? Surely not because of their race. Something happens in society that leads to this unfair outcome.
Some would say that blacks in the U.S. have always been kept in their place, and that violence (including state violence) was and remains the best way to do that.
Here are some more numbers which show that it isn’t just the race of the defendant that matters but also the race of the victim, making it even more convincing that capital punishment is the new Jim Crow:
The probability of being sentenced to death is much greater if a defendant kills a white or Hispanic victim who is married with a clean criminal record and a college degree, as opposed to a black or Asian victim who is single with a prior criminal record and no college degree. … death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high status victims. Some victims matter more than others. (source, source)
So, capital punishment isn’t just racist, it’s also a means for the wealthy to keep the poor in their place. If that’s true, it’s depressing.
More on capital punishment.
There are many ways you can measure how many people in a country are poor. Quite common is the use of a so-called poverty line. First you decide what you mean by poverty – for instance an income that’s insufficient to buy life’s necessities, or an income that’s less than half the average income etc. Then you calculate your poverty line – for instance the amount of income someone needs in order to buy necessities, or the income that’s half the average income, or the income of the person who has the tenth lowest income if the population was one hundred etc. And then you just select the people who are under this poverty line.
I intentionally chose these examples to make a point about absolute and relative poverty. (I thinks it’s important to distinguish types of poverty and different definitions of poverty). In the U.S., people mostly use an absolute poverty line, whereas in Europe relative poverty lines are used as well. As is clear from the examples above, an absolute poverty line is a threshold, usually expressed in terms of income that is sufficient for basic needs, that is fixed over time in real terms. In other words, it’s adjusted for inflation only and doesn’t move with economic growth, average income, changes in living standards or needs.
A relative poverty line, on the other hand, varies with income growth or economic growth, usually 1-to-1 since it’s commonly expressed as a fixed percentage of average or median income. (It obviously can have an elasticity of less than 1 since you may want to avoid a disproportionate impact on the poverty line of very high and very volatile incomes. I’ve never heard of an elasticity of more than 1).
Both absolute and relative poverty lines can be criticized. Does an absolute poverty line make sense when we know that expectations change, that basic needs change (in contemporary Western societies, not having a car, a phone or a bank account can lead to poverty), and that the things that you need to fully participate in society are a lot different now than they once were? We know that people’s well-being does not only depend on the avoidance of absolute deprivation but also on comparisons with others. The average standard of living defines people’s expectations and when they are unable to reach the average, they feel excluded, powerless and resentful. Can people who fail to realize their own expectations, who lose their self-esteem, and who feel excluded and marginalized be called “poor”? Probably yes. They are, in a sense, deprived. It all depends which definition of poverty we can agree on.
It seems that people do think about poverty in this relative sense. If you compare the (rarely used) relative poverty line of 50% of median income in the U.S. with the so-called subjective poverty lines that result from regular Gallup polls asking Americans “how much they would need to get along”, you’ll see that the lines correspond quite well:
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
So if relative poverty corresponds to common sense, it seems to be a good measure. On the other hand, a relative poverty line means moving the goal posts for all eternity. We’ll never vanquish relative poverty since this type of poverty just moves as incomes rise. It’s even the case that relative poverty can increase as absolute poverty decreases, namely when there’s strong economic growth (i.e. strong average income growth) combined with widening income inequality (something we’ve seen for example in the U.S. during the last decades). (Technically, if you use the median earner as the benchmark, relative poverty can disappear if all earners who are below the median earner move towards the median and earn just $1 or so less than the median. But in practice I don’t see that happening).
Some data on relative poverty in developed countries:
(source, the relatively dismal number for the U.S. is partly due to very high incomes at the top)
More posts about poverty measurement are here.
This post picks up where some previous posts investigating the possible causes of wealth or income inequality left off (see here, here, here, here and here). In those previous posts we identified the following causes:
- globalization (i.e. outsourcing, trade liberalization) and the resulting competition between low-skilled workers in the West and in development countries
- competition between low-skilled workers in the West and immigrants (although there is also evidence that this doesn’t have a large effect on the wages of the low-skilled)
- the development of technology and a decreasing demand for low-skilled workers
- the increased importance of cognitive skills relative to physical labor
- declining manufacturing employment
- shrinking unionization and fragmentation of collective bargaining
- changes in household size and composition (due to later marriage and more prevalent divorce, more and more households have just one adult, and hence only one potential earner)
- coupling between people with similar education and thus similar earnings potential (“marital homogamy”)
- “positive feedback”: wealth begets wealth.
Regarding the situation in the U.S. (where the level of inequality is relatively high, see here, here, here and here), we can add two more causes: a decline of the minimum wage (inflation adjusted), and large reductions of the tax rates of the wealthy in the 1980s, 1990s and during the presidency of G.W. Bush.
The combination of these two policy choices logically increases inequality.
More on minimum wages in the U.S. here. More on taxing the rich here, on progressive taxation here, and on taxation in general here. More on income inequality is here. Something on the related topic of the causes of poverty is here.
Many people would agree that there are what we could call contingent reasons to abolish capital punishment:
- it’s practiced in such a way that it doesn’t meet basic standards of fairness and non-cruelty:
- and it also doesn’t do what proponents say it’s supposed to do:
- it fails to deter crime when compared to life imprisonment without possibility of parole – see here and here
- and it fails to be retributive because in many cases it could be argued that murderers for instance deserve a fate much worse than death – capital punishment is often much less than an eye for an eye; however, few proponents of capital punishment are willing to take that road.
However, is there an argument for abolition that does not depend on contingent facts? Or, in other words, even if the punishment would be administered in a totally fair, correct and non-cruel way, and even if every execution would deter n murders, would we still have reasons to abolish it? To put it in yet another way: is there something inherent in capital punishment, in the very nature of it, that justifies its abolition?
I think there is. Before I tell you, however, I just want to say that it is in a sense futile because the contingent reasons for abolition are so strong that they are enough. I don’t think we can ever find a way to apply capital punishment without discrimination, without the risk of killing innocent people, and without any cruelty (even painless executions involve psychological cruelty, often for years on end). Hence it isn’t really necessary to make the case that even in perfect circumstances – which will never pertain – capital punishment isn’t justifiable.
But I’ll make the case anyway, because it reveals something that is philosophically interesting, even if it’s not practically useful. Imagine the perfect but in my view improbably if not impossible circumstances in which capital punishment is used as a fair, non-cruel and correct way of punishing certain criminals (correct in the sense of avoiding miscarriages of justice) and thereby deterring further crime. The intention of being retributive is almost impossible, even in ideal circumstances, as I have argued above, unless we give up traditional notions of cruelty which few proponents of capital punishment are willing to give up, so we can leave that aside.
So the focus is on deterrence. What does it mean to deter? It means that criminals are used as instruments to advance the collective interest. They are sacrificed for the greater good and a resource for the benefit of others (namely the intended future victims of future murderers). When the state instrumentalizes people in this way, it sends a clear message that this is a normal way of treating people, with possibly disastrous consequences. One of the most important lessons we have learned from Immanuel Kant and others is that we should never use fellow human beings as means to an end. An offender, even the worst possible offender, has a certain value as a human being, a certain dignity if you want, which should be respected and which cannot be canceled in the process of punishment. An offender shouldn’t be a mere tool to send warnings and intimidations to possible future offenders.
Now, you could say: how is this different from life imprisonment without parole? Isn’t that also meant to deter and hence open to the same criticism? No, it isn’t. Life imprisonment is intended to stop the criminal from doing further crime, and hence the criminal isn’t used to deter others. Furthermore, life imprisonment is intended to give the criminal the opportunity to make amends.
Sorry for this very long post, but I think this is important. During the discussions about healthcare reform in the U.S., opponents frequently mentioned the unpopularity of the proposed Bill (although now, after the Bill has been accepted and turned into law, it seems that its popularity has gone up). Contrary to what you might expect from me, I don’t wish to engage in a discussion about the accuracy of the opinion polls that measure the popularity of healthcare reform (it’s obvious that extremely negative political propaganda has played a role, as well as lack of knowledge about the actual proposals).
What I want to do here is look at the deeper discussion about the problems arising from a representative body voting laws that are unpopular (or seem to be). One of the more eloquent dismissals of unpopular legislation, especially the healthcare legislation, comes from Megan McArdle:
Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn’t want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all. If you don’t find that terrifying, let me suggest that you are a Democrat who has not yet contemplated what Republicans might do under similar circumstances. Farewell, Social Security! Au revoir, Medicare! … Oh, wait–suddenly it doesn’t seem quite fair that Republicans could just ignore the will of their constituents that way, does it? … What I hope is that the Democrats take a beating at the ballot box and rethink their contempt for those mouth-breathing illiterates in the electorate. (source)
Apart from the fact that we usually mean something else by “tyranny of the majority” (i.e. majority approved and popular decisions violating the rights of minorities), she and others like her seem to have a valid point, but only at first glance. While I don’t believe that they advocate getting rid of the whole notion of elections and just leave decisions up to opinion polls, they certainly want to give opinion polls much greater weight and turn them into some sort of check on parliamentary majorities (however, it’s not clear how that is supposed to work).
I want to argue against this. It’s true that a democracy is all about electing leaders who are supposed to execute the will of the people by way of laws and policies (if we sidestep the important issue of direct participation). The people don’t vote laws and don’t decide and pursue policies themselves. They decide what can and cannot be viewed as the will of the people, but then they give someone else the power to execute this will in their name and to frame the laws and policies necessary for the execution of this will.
That’s because it’s practically very difficult to allow all people to participate in all decisions. In a representative system, the people can influence the laws and the policies of the government only indirectly. They elect those representatives who they think are likely to vote laws and implement policies in accordance with their wishes, and if, afterwards, the people find out that they elected the wrong representatives, they replace them. The desire to hold on to power, forces the representatives to act in accordance with the wishes of the people.
This means that representatives do not necessarily follow their own personal judgment or their own conscience. The people instruct them and tell them, in a general way perhaps, what kinds of laws or policies to implement, or at least they tell them which values should be promoted by laws and policies. In all their actions, the representatives must never forget whence they came, who elected them and for what reason. They are the servants of the people whom they represent and whose wishes they are supposed to realize with the help of laws and policies. If their own wishes and opinions collide with those of the people, then they should either set them aside or resign from their posts.
In other words, representatives are actors and not authors. The people are the authors and the representatives act out the words of the authors instead of their own words (although of course their own words may coincide with those of the people). This guarantees the congruence of power and society. The political actors speak and act the words owned by those whom they represent (the authors) and, if necessary, leave their own personality behind while doing their work. Their official personality must be the sum of the opinions of the electors who, for this reason, recognize themselves in the representatives. The representatives act with authority (a word related to the word “author”) and are likely to remain in office as long as this recognition lasts and as long as the representatives act in the way they were authorized to do. The difference between rulers and ruled is hereby eliminated, notwithstanding the fact that the representatives and the represented are not the same persons. They are not the same persons but they share the same personality (notice also the etymological origin of the word “person”, namely a mask worn by actors). Not only the election results, but also the laws and the government policies must be the reflection of the will of the people. Representatives do not only have authority on the basis of an election result, but also on the basis of their performance in office.
All that would vindicate the position of McArdle and other opponents of the healthcare bill. However, things are not as simple as this. Representation is more than just a convenient tool for self-government in large communities. It has certain other advantages.
[L]imitation to a small and chosen body of citizens . . . [is] to serve as the great purifier of both interest and opinion, to guard ‘against the confusion of a multitude’”. Hannah Arendt in On Revolution.
It’s not always easy for a representative to know what the people think, if they think something at all. It often happens that a representative guides, purifies or clarifies the thoughts of the people by presenting his own thoughts in a clear and concise way. At the next election, the people are of course free to express acceptance or rejection of these thoughts and to vote for or against the person defending them.
So it’s clear that the definition of the representative as an actor is a simplification. Representatives should be more than mere errand boys faithfully executing the will of their masters and speaking, not with their own voice, but with the voice of the voters. They are more than robots or parrots doing deeds and saying words that are not their own. Of course, a representative of the people “re-presents” someone, makes someone else present in parliament or in an executive function. He plays a part. He represents something that is pre-existent.
However, this is not always the case. What is represented often arises after and through the act of representation. By presenting his ideas in a clear and convincing way, the representative can convince the people to adopt his ideas. He can also try to add a certain clarity, direction, consistency and unity to the opinions of the voters. In the case of contradicting desires for example, he can establish a certain priority and favor one desire while putting another one temporarily aside. He decides an issue in the name of the undecided electorate torn between two conflicting desires (for example employment and limiting the arms trade) and defends this decision by giving clear arguments to the voters.
At the next election, the voters can always disavow the choices of the representatives, but then at least they are forced to decide what is their point of view, to make up their minds, to focus on one of their conflicting views and to end an internal conflict.
Politics should not always focus on every wish or follow every erratic movement in the opinions of the people. It should also try to guide these wishes by offering and forcing a clear choice. This means that it’s quite all right for a representative to follow his own judgment now and then instead of simply saying what his electors instructed him to say. This kind of independence is of course limited. It cannot be applied to fundamental opinions. For example, a representative chosen on a ticket of anti-racism cannot express racist ideas or execute racist policies while in office.
The simple model of democracy—the people making up their minds beforehand and choosing representatives who will faithfully implement their opinions—is sometimes a simplification of reality. The politician is often the midwife of the truth of society, in the words of Guéhenno, and shapes the will of the people. Politicians necessarily take over characteristics of the people and start to resemble the people, otherwise they cannot represent the people and the people will never support the politicians. However, the opposite is also true. The people often start to resemble the politicians because the politicians clarify the sometimes vague and contradictory opinions of the people.
If the representatives were only allowed to follow the instructions of the electorate, then the affairs of parliament would be no more than an exercise in arithmetic, a sum of opinions. Representatives in parliament could not and should not discuss, deliberate and convince each other. If a representative changes his opinions as a consequence of discussion and argumentation in parliament—and this happens very often, because otherwise discussion and argumentation would be useless—then his opinions are no longer those that won him the election and he no longer represents the people who elected him. If representatives must follow the instructions of the electorate in every case, then parliament cannot be a place where different opinions are juxtaposed and discussed and where people try to come to a common opinion based on argumentation rather than the coincidence of identical opinions.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. Edmund Burke
The poverty rate or poverty line in the U.S. is based on a system pioneered by Mollie Orshansky in 1963. In the 1960s, the average US family spend one third of its income on food. The poverty line was calculated by valuing an “emergency food” budget for a family, and then multiplying that number by 3.
This results in a specific dollar amount that varies by family size but is the same across the U.S. (the amounts are adjusted for inflation annually). To determine who is poor, actual family income is then compared to these amounts. Obviously, if you’re under, you’re poor.
Amazingly, this system hasn’t changed a lot since the 1960s, yet it suffers from a series of measurement problems, resulting in either an over- or underestimation of the number of families living in poverty. The problems are situated both in the calculation of the poverty rates and in the calculation of the income that is subsequently compared to the rates:
- Obviously, the system should take regional differences in the cost of living, especially in housing, into account. It doesn’t.
- As already apparent from the image above, a family today spends relatively less on food and more on housing, health care and child care etc. yet the poverty line is still dollars for emergency food times 3. So the question is: should the system take today’s spending patterns into account? We would have to know which it is: 1) Either the increased spending on non-food items has occurred because people can now afford to spend more on such items. 2) Or the increased spending on non-food items has occurred because these items got disproportionately more expensive (housing for instance) or because there wasn’t really any need to buy those items in the old days. Only if 2) is the case should that have an influence on the poverty line. And I think that to some extent it is the case. Child care for instance has become a necessity. In the 1960s, many mothers didn’t go out and work. Now they do, and therefore they have to pay for child care. Those payments should be deducted from income when measuring disposable income and comparing it to the poverty line. The same is true for cars or phones. Today you can’t really have a job without them so they’re no longer luxuries. A society would show very little ambition if it continued to designate the poor as those who have to wash by hand, read with candlelight, and shit in a hole in the floor. In fact, what I’m advocating here is some kind of relative concept of poverty. I’ll come back to that later. All I can tell you now is that this isn’t without complications either.
- The current poverty measurement doesn’t take into account disproportionate price rises (it merely adjusts for general inflation) and changing needs. An obvious improvement of the U.S. measurement system would be to adjust for exceptional price evolutions (such as for housing) and also to revisit the definitions of basic needs and luxuries. Hence, a better poverty measurement should subtract from income some work-related expenses, child care expenses, and perhaps also some health expenses to the extent that these have become disproportionately more expensive. But that’s not easy:
There is considerable disagreement on the best way to incorporate medical care in a measure of poverty, even though medical costs have great implications for poverty rates. But costs differ greatly depending upon personal health, preferences, and age, and family costs may be very different from year to year, making it hard to determine what exactly should be counted. Subtracting out-of-pocket costs from income is one imperfect approach, but if someone’s expenses are low because they are denied care, then they would usually be considered worse off, not better off. (source)
- Another problem: the current poverty rate doesn’t take all welfare benefits into account. Income from cash welfare programs counts, but the value of non-cash benefits such as food stamps, school lunches and public housing doesn’t (because such benefits weren’t very common in the 1960s). Those benefits successfully raise the standard of living for poverty stricken individuals. There’s a bit of circular reasoning going on here, because the poverty rate is used, i.a., to decide who gets benefits, so benefits should not be included. But if you want to know how many people are actually poor, you should consider benefits as well because benefits lift many out of poverty.
- The poverty measure doesn’t include some forms of interests on savings or property such as housing.
- The poverty measure doesn’t take taxes into account, largely because they didn’t affect the poor very much in the 1960s. Income is counted before subtracting payroll, income, and other taxes, overstating income for some families. On the other hand, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit isn’t counted either, underestimating income for other families.
- And there’s also a problem counting the effects of cohabitation and coresidency, overestimating poverty because overestimating expenses.
Because the poverty measurement disregards non-cash benefits and certain tax credits, it fails to serve its purpose. Poverty measurement is done in order to measure progress and to look at the effects of anti-poverty policies. Two of those policies – non-cash benefits and certain tax credits – aren’t counted, even though they reduce poverty. So we have a poverty statistic that can’t measure the impact of anti-poverty policy… That’s like measuring road safety without looking at the number of accidents avoided by government investment in safety. Since the 1970s, the U.S. government implemented a number of policies that increased spending for the poor, but the effects of this spending were invisible in the poverty statistics.
This had a perverse effect: certain politicians now found it easy to claim that spending on the poor was ineffective and a waste of money. It’s no coincidence that trickle down economics became so popular in the 1980s. The poverty measurement, rather than helping the government become more effective in its struggle against poverty, has led to policies that reduced benefits. Of course, I’m not saying that poverty reduction is just a matter of government benefits, or that benefits can’t have adverse effects. Read more here.
Fortunately, the US Census Bureau has taking these criticism to heart and has been working on an alternative measure that counts food stamps and other government support as income, while also accounting for child-care costs, geographic difference etc. First results show that the number of poor is higher according to the new measurement system (it adds about 3 million people). For some reason, I think the old system has still some life in it.
Some details of the new measurement:
when you account for the Earned Income Tax Credit the poverty rate goes down by two points. Accounting for SNAP (food stamps) lowers the poverty rate about 1.5 points. … when you account for the rise in Medical Out of Pocket costs, the poverty rate goes up by more than three points. (source)
More posts about problems with poverty measurement are here.
Contrary to right-wing rhetoric and popular belief (examples here and here), there isn’t much of a correlation between Latino immigration in the U.S. and crime rates. That’s something I discussed before, but I want to revisit the subject because there’s an interesting new article about it here confirming my claims (to make it even more interesting: it’s from a conservative magazine).
Nearly all of the most heavily Latino cities have low or even extremely low crime rates, and virtually none have rates much above the national average. Eighty percent Latino El Paso has the lowest homicide and robbery rates of any major city in the continental United States. This is not what we would expect to find if Hispanics had crime rates far higher than whites. Individual cities may certainly have anomalously low crime rates for a variety of reasons, but the overall trend of crime rates compared to ethnicity seems unmistakable.
Maybe we should assume that the numbers are bit too rosy because of the tendency of illegal immigrants to underreport crime (although the article tries to correct for underreporting by comparing homicides – almost no underreporting – to overall crime). Also, the likelihood of underreporting by illegal immigrants can be offset by a possibly equal effect of criminal restraint on the part of illegal immigrants: for the same reasons that they underreport crime – fear of contacting the authorities and being identified as illegal immigrants – they stay out of trouble with the police and try to act decently.
However, if we look at it from another side, we see that incarceration data show somewhat higher levels for Hispanics or immigrants (although most Hispanics are American-born, the vast majority still comes from a relatively recent immigrant background):
the age-adjusted Hispanic incarceration rate is somewhat above the white rate—perhaps 15 percent higher on average. (source)
Still, one can’t simply conclude from this that crime is more rampant among Hispanics or immigrants. It’s still possible that instead of higher criminality we simply witness the result of harsher treatment of those sections of the population by the judicial system. Also, incarceration rates are inflated because many immigrants are in jail not because of ordinary crimes, but because of infractions of immigration law; you should exclude the latter if you want to compare Hispanic and white criminality (unless you consider infractions of immigration law as essentially equivalent to ordinary crime, which is not altogether insane; but the point of this post is to examine the claim that there are more ordinary criminals among Hispanic immigrants than among [longtime] citizens).
In addition, you should correct incarceration rates for age and gender: in general, most criminals are young men, and it happens to be the case that most immigrants are also young men. So the likelihood that immigrants end up in prison is – slightly – higher compared to the general population, not because they’re Hispanics but because they are young men. Any other, non-immigration related influx of young men in a certain area – e.g. military demobilization or a huge construction project – would have an effect on crime. (If you don’t correct for this, you’re making a common statistical mistake: see here for other examples of the “omitted variable bias”).
Finally, immigrants are relatively poor and there is a link between poverty and crime. So that can also explain the higher incarceration rate for immigrants. If you link the higher probability of poor people engaging in crime with the fact that poor people have lower quality legal representation, you have a double explanation. So, again, if Hispanics do end up in jail more often, perhaps it’s because they’re relatively poor, not because they are Hispanics and somehow racially prone to crime.
All this is limited to the U.S. People can still make the case that immigration in other countries promotes crime, but that case is made harder by the false claims about the U.S. (At least in France there’s no proof of the share of immigrants in the population having a significant impact on crime rates). These false claims are always based on anecdotes, and you’ll always be able to find criminals with foreign sounding names in order to whip up a frenzy against immigration, thereby satisfying your racist hunger and building a political following of ill-informed voters. Again a clear demonstration of the usefulness of statistical analysis in human rights issues and the danger of anecdotal reasoning.
Bonus paper here. Quote:
We examine whether the improvement in immigrants’ relative incarceration rates over the last three decades is linked to increased deportation, immigrant self-selection, or deterrence. Our evidence suggests that deportation does not drive the results. Rather, the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native. Immigrants who were already in the country reduced their relative institutionalization probability over the decades; and the newly arrived immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s seem to be particularly unlikely to be involved in criminal activity.
More on migration.
I often discuss the human rights implications of incarceration: prison rape, overpopulation in prisons, juvenile incarceration, racism in incarceration rates, the social cost of incarceration, voting rights for felons and other related issues regularly make an appearance here.
Here are two other fine quotes admonishing the violence that occurs in prisons, even in so-called developed countries, and the high incarceration rates in the U.S.:
Prison will always be prison: Every society has to live with some level of institutional violence in the worlds it builds to confine its most dangerous elements, and there’s an inherent cruelty to incarceration that cannot be refined away. But there has to be a limit, as well. And what Americans have learned to tolerate (or rather, ignore) inside the walls of jails and prisons ought to churn our stomachs, shock our consciences, and produce not only outrage, but action. Ross Douthat (source)
Sentences in the United States are eight times longer than those handed out in Europe, Justice Kennedy said. California has 185,000 people in prison at a cost of $32,500 each per year, he said. He urged voters and elected officials to compare taxpayer spending on prisons with spending on elementary education. Justice Kennedy took special aim at the three-strikes law, which puts people behind bars for 25 years to life if they commit a third felony, even a nonviolent one. The law’s sponsor, he said, is the correctional officers’ union, “and that is sick.” (source)
Some prison statistics here (not only for the U.S.).
The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Carlos wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Time magazine wrote
“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is the motto of the Olympic Games. “Angrier, nastier, uglier” better describes the scene in Mexico City last week. (source)
Carlos and Smith were stripped of their medals, ejected from the Olympic Village, and returned to an unfriendly welcome in the U.S.
I know that talking about national or international economic models should be avoided because it’s highly simplistic, but I’ll do it anyway because I want to show that people who do sincerely talk about such models make some assumptions about them that are, in my view, incorrect. The Anglo-Saxon economic model, when compared to the mainland European model, is believed to focus more on individual responsibility than on social support. It imposes lower taxes and delivers a less developed social safety net. It’s more “liberal” (in the European sense of the word, meaning less social) and free market oriented. (Anglo-Saxon means English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States etc. but there are large differences between the UK and the US, the UK being less “Anglo-Saxon” than the US; and some mainland countries – like some Eastern European countries – are more “Anglo-Saxon” than they are ”mainland”. This goes to show that we’re being simplistic; see also here).
The mainland model is often believed to be better at poverty reduction, job security, social services, and income equality. The Anglo-Saxon model on the other hand is said to be more flexible, less state dependent and more competitive (because of lower taxes and less labor regulation) and suffers less unemployment (because of the less generous social safety net; see also here).
For the same reasons, the Anglo-Saxon model is also believed to be less equal and more open to social mobility – social mobility being defined as the difference between the socioeconomic status of parents and the status their children will attain as adults. When the focus is on individual responsibility and when people can keep a larger share of their income after taxes, they are incited to do well, to work hard, to develop their talents, and to innovate. This not only creates a more competitive economy, but also one in which people can be socially mobile and rise in status and wealth. Countries that impose high taxes and offer generous safety nets don’t give the same incentives.
However, we see that the UK and the US aren’t characterized by relatively high levels of social mobility:
A father’s income determines his son’s to a greater extent in Britain than in any other wealthy nation, with half of a high earner’s “economic advantage” being transmitted to their children, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found. … In Britain … background determines a person’s success to a far higher degree than in almost any other rich country. “Education is not as important for social mobility in Britain as for other countries. Class, to be honest, is the most likely explanation,” said Romain Duval, head of division in the Paris-based OECD’s economics department. (source)
Something similar is the case for the US.
It appears that the United States has less intergenerational social mobility than many other industrialized countries. (source)
(source, the height of each bar shows the extent to which children’s earnings when adults reflect those of their parents)
It’s true that the UK and the US (especially the US) are highly inegalitarian, and increasingly so, but high levels of income inequality do not necessarily go hand in hand with high levels of social mobility. In fact,
social mobility between generations tends to be lower in more unequal societies. (source)
So if you care about social mobility – and I think you should because high levels of social mobility indicate equality of opportunity, something no one objects to – then you should care about reducing inequality rather than promoting it through “Anglo-Saxon” tax and welfare systems (to the extent that there is something like it in the real world).
- 12% of juveniles in U.S. prisons are sexually abused each year, compared to “only” 4% of adult prisoners. Juveniles are three times more likely to be abused. No surprise that there’s a lot more rape going on in prisons than in the outside world, but the numbers are still scary: 0.3% of US non-prisoners report rape each year, versus a world median of roughly 0.05%. 60,500 adults are victims of rape or sexual misconduct in prisons each year.
- Prison rapes are perpetrated by fellow inmates or prison staff. 10.8% of males and 4.7% of females reported sexual activity with facility staff. 9.1% of females and 2.0% of males reported unwanted sexual activity with other youth.
- The US is world champion in incarceration rates: it has 0.7% of its population in prison, vs a world median of roughly 0.1%. (source)
In all fairness to the U.S.: contrary to corporal punishment in many Islamic countries, capital punishment in the U.S., although disgusting, is the result of a more or less fair judicial trial* and the punishment for horrendous crimes only.
* I say “more or less” because of this.
It is well known that states are overrepresented in the U.S. political system. For example, Wyoming has 0.2% of the U.S. population but has 0.6% of the Electoral College votes for President, and 2% of the U.S. senators; while California has 12% of the population, 10% of the electoral votes, and still only 2% of the senators. To put it another way: Wyoming has 6 electoral votes and 2 senators per million voters, while California has 1.5 electoral votes and 0.06 senators per million voters. … the 21 smallest states have the population of California but 42 Senators compared to California’s two. … We have looked at other countries (Mexico, Canada, Japan, Argentina, Thailand…) and found similar patterns. Andrew Gelman (source)
To some extent, this has been done on purpose, especially in the U.S. When forming the federation, small states had bargaining power and wanted to have an equal vote – equal compared to larger states – in the federal arena in order to protect their interests and to avoid being outvoted by simple population based majorities. This was called the Great Compromise: the Senate became the ”State’s House”, and the House of Representatives the “People’s House” (because it has a more proportional type of representation).
Such systems violate the principle of “one man, one vote”, a basic principle of democracy (which is why some prefer to call the U.S. a republic rather than a democracy), not only because it gives some voters more influence than others, but also because, in extreme cases, it can lead to the rule of the minority: a minority can get its proposals translated into legislation or policy, or can at least block proposals for change.
However, these systems aren’t always detrimental to democracy. In some circumstances, arrangements like these are necessary for the peaceful coexistence of different groups in relatively large states. When certain minorities don’t get certain safeguards, democracy and even the state as such may turn out to be difficult to maintain. There is a type of democracy called pacification democracy or consociational democracy (more here). This type of democracy is characterized by the will to eliminate permanent minorities as much as possible and to create mechanisms to guarantee a certain degree of participation for every group. Some of these mechanisms are:
- A guaranteed number of representatives (e.g. Senators in the case of the U.S.), government ministers, civil servants etc. from each group (disproportional representation).
- A second parliamentary chamber exclusively for the representation of minorities.
- Two-thirds majorities or even larger majorities for important decisions, which guarantees that at least most of the groups participate in these decisions.
- Veto-powers for important decisions. Each group, even a minority group, can block decisions that are contrary to its fundamental interests. In very heterogeneous and divided societies, this creates a de facto consensus-democracy instead of the classical majority-democracy. This may be necessary to avoid the “dictatorship of the majority” and the systematic exclusion of certain minorities. This system always tries to have the consent of all important groups in society, especially for important decisions.
- A high degree of local self-government (federalism).
All these things violate the principles of “one man, one vote” and simple majority rule, but sometimes this violation is necessary to have a stable and peaceful democracy. I argued elsewhere that democracy is always more than mere majority rule.