The Emerald City Theory of Ending Police Brutality

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The Green Lantern Theory of Politics is the naive idea that political actors are not truly constrained by other political actors, but in fact can do anything given sufficient willpower. In recent years it has been used mainly to blame President Obama for not forcing Congress to do a broad range of things, when in fact Congress is an independent and co-equal branch of government that the President does not control.

Most of what is being written and said about what the current presidential candidates should do to stop police brutality toward people of color suffers from a related misunderstanding, which to keep with verdant terminology we can call Emerald City Theory. Emerald City Theory holds that all aspects of U.S. policy are controlled from Washington D.C. In L. Frank Baum’s books, the Emerald City was at the center of the Land of Oz. If you had a problem all you had to do is walk the yellow brick road to this seat of power, which oversaw all aspects of life throughout the realm.

In some policy areas, for example those concerning the economy and health care, there is a great deal of truth in Emerald City Theory. But for others, such as education and criminal justice, Washington simply isn’t where most of the action is in our federated system of government.

In the U.S., state and local law enforcement dwarfs that at the federal level, whether one looks at the number of officers, arrests, trials or courts. The FBI for example employs a third fewer people than New York City’s police department. The federal role in incarceration is also a footnote to the huge presence of state and local government.

To ask what Congress should do to stop police brutality, or what Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or any other candidate for President will do if elected, is to fall for Emerald City theory. To be sure, residents of the Emerald City can and should acknowledge the pain of the victims, use the bully pulpit to condemn racism, and launch federal investigations where needed. But none of these things will have the impact of even a single large American city’s mayor and police chief deciding to take on the issue.

There is in short no yellow brick road for activists to walk in this case. There are instead hundreds of roads which lead to state capitols, city halls, and county commissions. Like the Wizard of Oz, people in Washington can put on an impressive display but don’t have the power to deliver the changes that the country needs.

Happy 25th Anniversary, ADA

Twenty-five years ago today, July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

The fact that this anniversary is boring and uncontroversial underscores the depth of social changes that ADA exemplified, ratified, and advanced.  Aspects of the ADA are costly.  The required changes to American physical structures–buildings, sidewalks, roadways, and more–have been significant. (If you wonder how significant, travel to any great old European city and imagine how you would get around if you were mobility-impaired.) No serious politicians speak of repealing and replace ADA. They would be universally condemned if they tried.

So much of American social policy has proven mediocre or mean-spirited. Much remains to be done to help people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric limitations and disabilities achieve full and equal citizenship in American society. Yet today deserves celebration. Americans across the political spectrum have opened their hearts and their wallets to make a better country. In this important area, much was accomplished.

Guns again

The NRA seems to have been struck dumb, at least for the moment, in response to the shooting in Louisana.  Let me help, because the event demands analysis, not to mention that it’s always correct to say that what we need is more guns.

The tragic events in the Lafayette movie theater could have been prevented if only Louisiana had not disarmed its citizens. If it had ‘shall-issue’ rules for concealed carry, and allowed anyone over, say, 16 open-carry permission, the theater would have been full of armed citizens who would surely have killed the shooter the minute he drew his own weapon…and, in the darkness and confusion, presumably several of each other, grateful for the chance to personally water the tree of liberty.  Instead, senseless tragedy ensued. Governor Jindal, when are you going to give your citizens their Second Amendment rights?

Another recent episode teaches us the importance of everyone, always, packing heat; in New York, this woman would never have suffered violence and robbery if she had only been carrying an appropriate weapon and had training to use it.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Traffik

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I once saluted the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy mini-series as the summit of BBC programming. This week’s film recommendation is in the same league: 1989′s Traffik. Most Americans remember Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning adaptation of this series, but far too few have seen the British original, which at just over 5 hours allows much more character and plot development than could Soderbergh’s fine movie.

Simon Moore’s masterful script anchors what could have been a sprawling, confusing series in the lives of a small number of characters: A UK Home Office drugs minister (Bill Paterson) whose daughter is a heroin addict (Julia Ormond), a dogged German cop (Fritz Müller-Scherz) who relentlessly pursues an ice queen (Lindsay Duncan) who steps into the drug trafficking business when her husband (George Kukura) is indicted, and a desperate Pakistani poppy farmer (Jamal Shah) who finds work with a ruthless drug lord (Talat Hussain). As events buffet the protagonists and their respective story arcs cross, Moore’s narrative skills and Alastair Reid’s deft direction ensure that the viewer is irresistibly drawn in emotionally and able to track the complexities of the plot.

The performances by the actors range from good to amazing. Though it is hard to choose some to single out for praise, Müller-Scherz completely inhabits his role as a working class police detective who seems to hate traffickers as much for their wealth as their drugs. Paterson is marvelous in a tragic role, playing a rigid man who desperately wants to do good at home and at work yet almost always fails in both domains. Lindsay Duncan is also impressive, beginning the film as a woman accustomed to wealth and knowing yet not wanting to know where the money comes from. After her husband’s arrest, Duncan makes credible her character’s transformation into someone even more cold-hearted than he, revealing the greed and entitlement that was lurking in her all along. Her character, along with Talat Hussain’s Pakistani drug lord, are used by the film to portray the drug trade much as socialists tend to see all of capitalist enterprise: A system with a few rich sociopaths on the top and countless marginal people (whether in the drug trade or addicted to its products) scraping by and suffering at the bottom.

The cinematic team behind Traffik took a somewhat subjective approach in their portrayal of drug production and daily life in Pakistan. Home Office minister Jack Lithgow (Paterson), improbably, roams around Pakistan unstaffed, not unlike Macbeth lost in the haunted forest. His encounters with the locals are more emblematic than realistic, including his somehow running into Fazal, the farmer who will be a hub of the story that unfolds. Coupled with dreamlike, sun dappled shots of the countryside by cinematographer Clive Tickner, the whole effect of the Pakistan sequences is akin to watching a surrealist play. Yet it works because Lithgow is on a mission of unreality, trying to stop drug production with a feeble crop substitution program and more generally trying to control a culture that he can barely even understand.

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In contrast, the scenes set in Europe are more gritty and realistic, particularly Ormond’s descent into addiction. The skies are darker, the shadows longer and the cinematic look grimier. And over both the European and Pakistani scenes hangs Tim Souster’s music, a quasi-mystical threnody that accentuates the emotional anguish that the film creates. You won’t get his score out of your head quickly and you will not want to.

Traffik is a powerful, mournful film that doesn’t speechify or offer easy answers about drugs. Both artistically and as an education about its subject, it’s a triumph from start to finish.

Uber v. taxi in Brooklyn and Queens: twice as fast but no cheaper

The results of one day’s observation of taxi and Uber service in the outer boroughs of New York – the pilot phase of what is planned as a larger study – are now in.  Our riders in fact used three systems—street-hailing yellow cabs or Boro cabs, phoning NYC car ride services, and app-summoning UberX—in two randomly-selected low-income, low-crime areas, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. 

Even ignoring the substantial number of cases where no taxi or boro-cab service was available within a thirty-minute period or where the request for a ride was refused entirely, total time from initiating the request to being in a car was half as long for Uber as for the two varieties of taxi service. That more or less matched the results from Los Angeles. By contrast with the LA results, there was no measurable difference in price.

The Francises, Pope and Saint

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Francis of Assisi by Cimabue

Pope Francis Bergoglio’s encyclical Laudato Si’  “on care for our common home” is the first SFIK to have an Italian rather than a Latin title. It is also more significantly unusual in being addressed to “every person living on this planet” (§3). So non-Catholics like me are invited to react.

The praise part is easy. It’s a solid exposition of a theology of creation that most Christians and many followers of other faiths would endorse. The application to climate change and the call to action (§169) is clear and excellently timed, in the runup to the critical Paris climate conference in November. At times it transcends mere soundness and achieves prophetic force:

  • “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (§11)
  • “We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (§59)
  • “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…” (§83)

The Pope, channelling Francis of Assisi, condemns the instrumental view of animals of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas:

We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (§67; see also §221)

Thomists get a consolation citation of their hero in §86. We can expect to see more and stronger Catholic condemnations of factory farming.

The encyclical is far from perfect, and I have my little list of complaints, for what they are worth. Continue Reading…

Uber v. taxi, Round II

The BOTEC Uber-v.-taxi study in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which I blogged about Monday, had some important limitations as a source of definitive answers:

1. It only covered L.A.
2. It didn’t address, e.g., service to people with disabilities.
3. It was paid for by Uber.
4. Uber had the final say on publishing the findings.

Of those, #4 was especially problematic. It’s well known that (before the FDA cracked down) pharma companies used to fund multiple safety-and-efficacy studies of new drugs and then cherry-pick which results to publish. I’m close to certain that wasn’t the case here; we only did the one study, and the idea came from us, not from Uber. Still, the question mark remains.

One way to cure that is for others to carry out similar studies. As I mentioned before, we’re happy to make our data available for re-analysis and our methods available for replication to anyone who asks.

#3 would be more of an issue had Uber been allowed to influence the study design or influence the data analysis, interpretation, or presentation. But that wasn’t the case, and the methods were entirely straightforward.

I agree with those who say that it would be better to have more studies not funded by Uber, and I’m aware of at least one independent group interested in trying. But the fact that Uber wanted the research done, while apparently the legacy taxi industry and is regulators don’t want it done, or at least don’t want it done enough to pay for it, suggests to me that everyone involved had the same intuition I did, and that was borne out by the study results: that Uber would turn out to be faster and cheaper in servicing low-income areas.

As to #2, of course service to those with disabilities is an important issue, one of many raised by the emergence of ridesharing. But no single study can cover all the issues.

The picture just got brighter with respect to both #1 (geographic scope) and #4 (the risk of cherry-picked results). Uber – motivated, no doubt, by the vote previously scheduled for tomorrow in the New York City Council on the Mayor’s proposal to cap the number of Uber drivers (but not privately-owned cars) in the name of reducing congestion – has decided to fund a similar study in New York.

That doesn’t entirely get rid of problem #1, but two research sites are better than one when it comes to generalizability.

Better yet, Uber agreed to fund the study but not claim ownership of the data, so we will be free to report whatever we find, thus avoiding problem #4 entirely.

The bad news is that, given the political calendar, data collection needed to be compressed into a single day. As I write, a small team is riding around New York, comparing UberX with both yellow taxis and what are called “boro taxis,” which operate only outside Manhattan (which accounts for 90% of all yellow-taxi trips).

So we will only be able to report pilot-scale data: a target of about 60 observations. If the differences turn out to be as dramatic and consistent in New York as they were in Los Angeles, that won’t matter, because such differences will show up clearly even on a small sample. If the differences are narrower, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion at this stage. The plan is to do it again, more slowly, at a much larger scale.

Anyway, watch this space. The team expects to have the analysis done late tonight (California time), so there should be results up tomorrow.

Legalized Pot in California: No Gold Rush, No Cash Cow

There’s no way I will associate myself as a parent first, and as a public servant second, with something that is loosely drafted, that is looking to capitalize on the next California Gold Rush.
Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom

Our Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy released our final report today (link here). The report is not an argument for or against legalization but a discussion of what the policy consideration should be if in fact California’s voters choose to legalize recreational marijuana. Gavin’s quote hits one of the key themes of the report, which is that protection of public health is more important than money generation (whether that money is corporate profits or state tax revenues). In America, public health only has a shot against big money if regulations are strong and the oversight process allows public input rather than being a cat’s paw of industry (As Oregon unfortunately has and Ohio might also adopt).

Relatedly, we advocate ongoing policy flexibility rather than a ballot initiative that sets everything in stone up front. The experience of other legalizing states shows that some anticipated problems don’t in fact occur whereas other things go unexpectedly pear-shaped. Because none of us can see the future with complete accuracy, any marijuana regulatory process will have to be dynamic and evolutionary in response.

Twice as fast, half as expensive

The debate about how to regulate ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft – even whether to ban them entirely – has suffered from a surfeit of passionate assertion and a deficit of systematic data collection.

Ridesharing has been alternately criticized for its supposed mistreatment of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and the poor, and praised for providing those communities with an alternative to the inferior service they get from the regulated taxi industry.

A research team at BOTEC Analysis, with funding from Uber, set about to gather actual evidence about the relative performance of taxis and UberX in a sample of low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. (I’m on the author list, but only for editorial help: Rosanna Smart and Angela Hawken did the design and number-crunching, while Brad Rowe ran the data collection.)

The design could hardly have been simpler; we sent pairs of riders to call for taxi service or use an app to summon UberX for travel along pre-planned routes. The riders recorded how long it took – starting from the moment of picking up the phone or opening the app – before they were actually in a car and on their way, and also how much the ride cost, including a standard 15% tip for the taxi drivers and any premium charged under the Uber “surge pricing” system.

After each ride, the riders switched off; whoever took a taxi last time took an Uber next time. Our riders didn’t know that Uber had paid for the study.

The answer was clear-cut, and consistent across neighborhoods and days: summoning an UberX took less than half as long as calling for a taxi, and the trip cost less than half as much. UberX was also more reliable, with no very long wait times.

Even though Uber had no control over our data analysis or interpretation, the fact that Uber paid for the study makes some skepticism about our results natural and proper. We will happily share our data and methods with other research teams for re-analysis and replication.

It was not possible for a single study in a single city to answer all the relevant questions about ridesharing. Would the same relationship hold in other cities? Would it hold in the small number of very-high-crime neighborhoods we excluded in order to protect our riders? Would it hold after dark?

This study didn’t address questions about service for minority groups; though the neighborhoods we selected tended to have high concentrations of Latinos and African-Americans, we didn’t systematically vary the ethnicity of our riders. Nor could our study address the question of how taxis and ridesharing compare in handling riders with disabilities. And people who lack either a smartphone or a credit or debit card cannot use ridesharing at all, though they can use taxis. It would be helpful to know how often people lacking one or the other use taxis.

So this study ought to be the beginning of the scientific effort rather than the end.

But for now, anyone who asserts that ridesharing services disadvantage poor people or poor neighborhoods is making a claim that is not merely unsupported but actually contrary to the findings of the one systematic study of that question. The evidence in hand strongly suggests that UberX outperforms conventional taxis in serving low-income neighborhoods, at least in Los Angeles.

Full report here.

Young Writers: You May Be Cute, But Not Special

In John Singleton’s powerhouse movie Boyz n the Hood, Laurence Fishburne plays a divorced dad who successfully raises a son largely on his own. He fishes for a compliment about his parenting from his ex-wife, played by Angela Bassett, and she responds that while he’s been a good dad, he has only done what countless mothers have done “since the beginning of time.” Gently but firmly, she compliments him thus: “You may be cute, but not special.”

I think about this exchange often when I read political/cultural commentary by young writers, whether it’s in a book, a student paper or on blogs. Too many essays begin with words along these lines: “No one in this country is talking about X, so let me lay out some hard truths that can no longer be ignored!” And then they go on to offer some shattering observation such as “money is corrupting politics,” “Hollywood movies are sexist,” “Intimate relationships can be difficult,” etc.

One of the things that happens to you as you age and read more is that you realize almost everything that has been said about politics and society has been said before. When I read outlets that cover politics, I can almost imagine the editors giving out assignments to their reporters: “Bill, give me a lion-in-winter-plotting-his-comeback piece on ex- Senator Jones. Sally, I need a rising-young-pol-who-happens-to-be-Black profile on Congressman Green. Dave, how’s that he’s-controversial-but-he’s-a-happy-warrior piece about Governor Harris coming?”

Here’s a humbling experience that every writer should seek. When you think you have something new to say, google the relevant words and see how many other people have already said it, perhaps better than you would.

Does this mean you can’t say something again or in your own way? Of course not. First, every generation needs to work things out for itself. Even if what you are writing is old news to many people, it can be important for you in your own life to figure out important things through your writing, for example how you will handle the tradeoffs between parenting and career or the disappointments inherent in political activism. Second, if you are writing in the service of a cause, repeating what others said make sense because “everything has been said before, but you have to say it again because no one listened.” (It’s too perfect that that quote is attributed to more than one person.) Obviously, the fact that someone wrote about racism last year doesn’t mean the problem is surely resolved by now and need never be discussed again.

However, and it’s a big however, never package your own personal take on the eternal verities as a breakthrough in human development. Never write in a tone that suggests that you are the one, extremely special, unusually sensitive soul in our society who — gosh darn it — still cares. And never imply that your readers should be embarrassed for not having grappled with your unique perspective before (because it ain’t unique and they’ve probably heard it multiple times before).

Fresh voices humbly engaging history’s age-old debates make for good reading. But fresh voices who think history starts with them turn off the very readers they hope to engage.