Thursday, October 20, 2011

Moammar Gaddafi is also dead

God have mercy on him, as well.

While I am not a peace Christian, I only support the use of military force as a last resort. Gaddafi's case would appear to be a last resort. However, military victory is absolutely worthless - or it can have a negative value! - without winning the peace.

So, prayers to the Libyan people for rebuilding their country, and for citizens of other Arab nations who seek democracy. They must win the peace, and we must help them where we can and where we are asked to.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

As a follow up to the comparative analysis of criminal justice systems, I wanted to reiterate to Americans who criticized the Italian system's flaws that the U.S. has its share of crazy prosecutors.

For example, Cristian, a 12 year old boy got into an altercation with his 2 year old brother, David. David sustained a head injury - his mother's delay in seeking treatment compounded the injury and he died. Cristian is being charged as an adult with first degree murder. Cristian appears to have lived in an abusive household, and it's quite possible that he's abused his brother (although there's no discussion of that in the papers, and there's a gag order on the case). However, first degree murder requires intent and premeditation. It's hard to see how this could reasonably be true, and it's hard to see how this will benefit a child who could be rehabilitated.

Not to mention that this kid is a kid. At 12, he's 6 years short of the generally accepted definition of an adult.

There's a petition to the District Attorney below:

Monday, October 03, 2011

A Comparative Analysis of Criminal Justice Systems: Italy Versus the United States

Recently, the U.S. state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. While Davis had been initially convicted of murder of a police officer, the majority of the eyewitnesses who implicated him recanted their testimonies, indicating that they had been coerced by police officers. Davis managed to secure an unusual re-hearing of his case. However, in the U.S., appeals (i.e. anything after the first trial) generally center on narrow, procedural grounds. At his re-hearing, Davis' lawyers had to prove that no reasonable juror would convict him, which was a nearly impossible bar to clear - in contrast, at a criminal trial, the prosecution is supposed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt to all the members of the jury. It is very difficult to challenge evidence at appeals trials in the U.S.

 Several years ago, Amanda Knox and Rafaelle Sollecito were convicted in Italy of murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Since then, though, experts have argued that the investigation and the prosecution were flawed. In particular, forensic expert witnesses for the defense refuted the DNA evidence that Knox's DNA was on the murder weapon and that Sollecito's DNA was on the murder victim's clothing. It appears that the appeals trial did consider this new evidence - in contrast, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was most likely convicted of murder on the grounds of evidence of arson that was later disproven by experts, could not challenge the evidence at trial and had to resort to a direct appeal to the governor of Texas, who set up a commission (Gov. Perry later appears to have sabotaged this commission when they seemed to be leaning in favor of recommending a pardon. This commission was outside the regular judicial system, so they could not have overturned his conviction, whereas the Italian appeals court could, indeed, overturn Knox's and Sollecito's convictions.

 Some U.S. commenters have cast aspersions on the Italian justice system. However, I would urge U.S. analysts of legal systems to note an interesting structural difference between Italy's system and the American one: flawed evidence can be more easily challenged in the former on appeal. Given the number of acquittals of people on death row from DNA evidence, the U.S. should look into that. For the record, I am not absolutely against the death penalty in all circumstances - but I am absolutely against imprisoning or executing people who are not guilty as charged. The first line of defense does need to be ensuring that nobody is wrongfully imprisoned to begin with, but the above still holds. The Italian prosecutors said that Knox was lucky she was tried in Italy, as she would be given the death penalty in the U.S. - what's actually true is that had she been convicted in the U.S. on faulty evidence, she would most likely be screwed and be unable to reverse it on appeal.

PS - on the other hand, it also appears that the Italian appeals courts can increase a lower court's sentences, and that the prosecutors have requested that they sentence both Sollecito and Knox to life.

PPS - it appears that the appeals court exonerated both Sollecito and Knox. Our prayers should be with Meredith Kerchner, the murder victim, and her family.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Progressives Should Get to Know Monetary Policy

In sociology, conflict theory is an analysis that emphasizes the economic, social or political inequality of a particular social group. When some conservatives in the U.S. claim that there's a class war on the rich, they are applying conflict theory - albeit the inverse of their conclusions is correct. There's a conflict theory analysis to be made of inflation fears and Gov. Rick Perry's attack on the Federal Reserve. To be brief, one major thing the Federal Reserve, or the Fed, controls the money supply - basically, how much money is available to the entire U.S. economy. It does that by trying to set a certain interest rate on short term loans to banks - lower interest rates generally mean more money. General interest rates of various terms will track the short term rates to some extent (with longer loans almost always having higher interest rates than short term ones). This is a gross and inaccurate oversimplification, but you can think of it as the Fed setting a target interest rate. If you're interested in what the Fed actually does regarding the Fed funds rate, read this article and this one. I'll argue that the Fed should be going for higher inflation, which could help stimulate the economy - but that higher income individuals are more hurt by inflation than unemployment (whereas the poor are hurt worse by unemployment than inflation). That's the class conflict that's behind the crank monetary policy ideas that some on the American Right espouse. Note, though, that macroeconomics and monetary policy isn't my primary expertise, so I may be off on some descriptions - but I think the general thrust is consistent with what some progressive economists would believe. The Fed, and most central banks, has two goals: to control inflation and to minimize unemployment. When the economy enters a recession, the Fed reduces interest rates - this makes it easier for businesses and consumers to borrow money. Not that anyone should be doing so with wild abandon, but this makes businesses and consumers more likely to spend. When the economy heats up, the Fed increases interest rates, gradually. If inflation is too high, the Fed will also raise rates. Keynesian economists argue that a certain amount of inflation is consistent with an increasing level of aggregate demand - the more people who are employed and the more that they are paid and spend, the greater the demand for stuff, which causes inflation. If lots of people are unemployed, it's probably going to be difficult to have high inflation unless there's a different cause, like war in the Middle East causing oil prices to spike. On that last bit, there's an argument that higher inflation would reduce unemployment. Matthew Yglesias sums it up:
Higher inflation expectations would have a number of benefits. For starters, they would reduce real interest rates, mitigating the problem of the zero lower bound on nominal rates. They would also increase the cost of hoarding cash. This would encourage wealthy individuals and cash-rich firms to purchase real goods and services, or else invest in productive assets. Last, since mortgage debt is denominated in nominal terms, a faster rate of inflation would speed the deleveraging process and let households repair their balance sheet.
Here's an explanation of the bolded words, which are my emphasis - "Reduce real interest rates": Right now, interest rates on all sorts of debt are pretty low. As I said, they tend to track the rates the Fed sets in the Federal funds rate. Generally, you want to reduce rates to stimulate economic activity. However, the Fed funds rate, which is the only one the Fed directly controls, is just about zero - the "zero lower bound." The Fed can't reduce interest rates directly, but if they were to target higher inflation, it would have the same effect - if you're earning 5% in a savings account and inflation is 1%, you're doing pretty well, but if you're earning 5% and inflation is 4%, you're barely breaking even. Same thing if you're the debtor, rather than the saver. "Increase the cost of hoarding cash": Higher-income individuals save more than lower-income individuals. If the rich folks were to spend more, that would help the economy (all else equal), because businesses would hire more workers to meet the additional demand. It might not be immediately obvious, but if inflation is higher, you might as well spend, because your money will be worth less next year. That influences decisions at the margin. "Mortgage debt is denominated in nominal terms": One of our big problems right now is that lots of people have high amounts of mortgage debt, thanks to the housing bubble (i.e. thanks to the idiots on Wall Street). As I alluded to earlier, higher inflation erodes the value of debt. And it turns out it's a stealth way of reducing the burden of mortgage debt. Now, the Fed doesn't have any direct levers to cause higher inflation. To some extent, though, them just saying that they're targeting higher inflation may well work, as businesses and individuals anticipate higher inflation. They can also just go out and buy however much bonds or other financial assets they want to, a policy known as quantitative easing. The Fed won't actually be spending any taxpayer dollars - it will just be using its administrative authority to buy stuff, usually from banks. When it does this, it injects more money into the system. There are probably some less conventional policies they could do which I'm not familiar with, but that this Wikipedia article tries to describe. As I alluded to in the intro, the interests of the rich diverge from the rest of the country. Higher income Americans usually have a lot more financial assets, like stocks, bonds, money in the bank. They will just about always be less likely to be unemployed that the average American, and especially than the poor. However, most low- and moderate-income Americans have little in the way of financial assets. They're barely making ends meet - why do you think there's a payday loan industry? They're also more likely to be unemployed - much more likely, if they have less than a high school education or GED. In other words, the rich are more hurt by inflation than by unemployment. The poor are likely to be hurt more by unemployment than by some inflation. To be clear, I'm not arguing for hyperinflation. I'm saying, though, that we should be willing to accept higher but manageable levels of inflation, if they stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, the monetary cranks have the better of the monetary policy debate right now. They're accusing the Fed of "debasing the currency." They're arguing, as Gov. Perry did, that the Fed is rampantly printing money, as if that will cause government profligacy. They say that the Fed is hurting retirees on fixed incomes. The thing is, though, that we're not experiencing inflation. Having the dollar 'weaken' with respect to other currencies will increase our exports - if we have a 'strong' dollar, then it's harder for other countries to buy our stuff, and if they can't, then that's detrimental to the recovery. Inflation is not that high right now. And Social Security, which is a significant source of retirement income for most Americans, is inflation protected. In other words, there's significant reason to believe that the cranks are wrong: inflation isn't very high right now, and if we could probably withstand some inflation (in the 4% range), if it boosted the economy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sometimes, Life is Unfair

An acquaintance of mine is a musician, a cello player. He and his fiance, a violinist, were recently in an automobile accident and sustained severe head injuries. Severe enough that their rehabilitation involves their therapists teaching them how to eat and speak. Normally, speech therapists help you overcome speech and memory errors - if they actually have to teach you to speak because you can't, that's a bad sign.

It's more likely than not that they will never be able to resume their careers as musicians and that they will require long-term care for the rest of their lives, at significant expense to the state (or perhaps their families, but their folks aren't exactly loaded), and that their families will experience a significant burden in caring for them.

Not that this should happen to anyone, but why wasn't it the person who hit them who experienced this severe a head injury? Or why couldn't that driver have been paying more attention, or be going a few miles an hour more slowly?

Some Christians say that everything that happens is part of God's plan, and the parents of one of these folks asked, is this really God's plan for my kid? This seems so unfair.

My response is that yes, it is unfair. Personally, I don't believe that God plans for bad things to happen to people. But Christians of both strains of thought would say, I think, that God is with us always, and that God is especially with those who are suffering. God is taking special care of my friends and their families - even if it isn't obvious.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I'm concerned with the direction the country is going, and I'd like to give you some feedback on how I see you have handled things.

First, I'm a progressive. I strongly support many of your administration's policies. A number of my fellow progressives have complained that we weren't able to pass single-payer legislation or to put a public option (non-US readers - this means the government would compete against private insurers across the entire market) in health reform, or to fully rein in the big banks with financial reform. I share their concerns, but we passed what we could, and it was a good first step.

However, you and your team seem to have gone out of your way to insult the left. You say all we do is complain. You spend more time insulting the left than confronting the right. I think I have you figured out, Mr. President - you're a moderate to liberal, 1980s or 1990s era, Republican. That's fine - congratulations on health reform, financial reform, getting bin Laden, and all the rest. I'd rather a Democrat do it, but whatever. We passed

Second, Mr. President, your party (the Republican Party, that is), is quite different from Republicans of your era. They moved well to the right, starting in or about the late 1990s. At present, your fellow Republicans in Congress are far more conservative than the average American. My impression is that they have these priorities: 1) making you a one-term president, 2) eliminating most spending on government supports for the poor, 3) keeping tax rates for the wealthy low, and 4) spending more on defense. In fact, the Ryan budget would essentially eliminate Medicare, and it would probably leave inadequate support for the middle class as well. So, your party isn't particularly concerned about the middle class, either.

Third, Mr. President, your conduct during the debt ceiling negotiations worries me. When you were negotiating with your (Republican) colleagues during the government shutdown, you should have made them raise the debt ceiling as well. You failed to. You also made a whole bunch of policy concessions to them. Such as volunteering to raise the Medicare retirement age to 67. Mr. President, if we're raising the Medicare age to 67, we'd better be getting a LOT of increased taxes (weighted to the rich). Others have commented that it won't save as much money as you'd think, that it would raise overall healthcare costs, and that it could raise prices in the insurance exchanges, but consult your policy advisors on that. Anyway, you negotiate very weakly. You act as if your (Republican) colleagues. They're not. You've given them so much that they think you'll roll over and play dead.

Fourth, you haven't defended your administration's achievements or its nominees. You haven't sold the public on health reform. You refused to defend Elizabeth Warren, who would have headed the financial reform folks, against unreasonable attacks. You didn't defend Milton Diamond, who won a Nobel prize in economics against unreasonable attacks from Richard Shelby that he was unqualified. Your (Republican) colleagues are working at every step to undermine you. Your silence is only encouraging your fellow Republicans, who aren't anything like you.

Fifth, you've lost your way. I know you're a moderate Republican. However, you need principles. You need to communicate those principles to the American people and you need to defend them fiercely. Your team seems obsessed with capturing independents. So, you've tried to be reasonable. Well, this isn't working so well. America needs leadership.

Last, you're going soft on your fellow Republicans. This strikes me as odd. The thing is, the Republicans have really learned to be ruthless. If you don't want to replay the debt ceiling fight the moment you get re-elected (assuming that you do), you need to learn to do the same. I thought your political team was a bunch of thugs from Chicago - either they've gone soft (and you should fire them), or you should listen to them more.

Friday, May 06, 2011

For Christians, the only acceptable reaction to Osama Bin Laden's death is, "Lord have mercy"

Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and possible Republican candidate for President, recently made a statement about Osama Bin Laden's death by saying, "Welcome to hell, Bin Laden."

I do not presume to speak for God. However, based on my reading of the Gospels and my understanding of God, I would instead argue that the only acceptable response for Christians is, "Lord have mercy."

Yes, may God have mercy on Osama Bin Laden. He went astray of God's will. He went against the teachings of his religion. He could have turned. He could have repudiated violence. He could have worked for peace, not for war.

And God have mercy on us! We are so quick to war, so quick to celebrate death. I think God must be happy that al-Queda has sustained a severe blow, and we have every right to be happy about that as well. But God loves all of His children, including Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, there is much work to be done. Al Queda must be destroyed. But Robert Pape and Jenna Jordan argue that we might want to withdraw most of our military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, while using intelligence and small scale covert operations against al Queda - because our military presence helps fuel support for al Queda. In addition, we must continue to make fundamental changes in our foreign policy towards countries that are predominantly Muslim. We must support the Arab Spring - a repudiation, by the way, of al Queda's theology of armed insurrection.

And, as an aside, the guy who got Abu Musab Al Zarqawi without torture says that contrary to the apologists, torture most likely impeded bin Laden's capture.

As Martin Luther King said, you cannot kill hate. War can, if used correctly, contain hate. But ultimately, peace is what kills hate, and we must work doubly hard to win the peace.