Having-a-column-in-the-Times-means-never-having-to-say-you’re-sorry Dep’t

Do you think that someone might remind Maureen Dowd that neither Hillary Clinton nor anyone else would have needed to decide about backing President G.W. Bush’s insane plan for war with Iraq had Maureen Dowd not helped him get elected by making up the nonsense about Al Gore’s earth-tones in order to question Gore’s masculinity?

Or would that be mean?

The really scary thing isn’t the possibility that Dowd is being paid by the Koch Brothers to sabotage each Democratic Presidential nominee as that person comes along. The really scary thing is that, like Donald Trump, she keeps doing the same tired shtick simply to get attention.

 

Lead and crime, continued

Yesterday I returned to banging the (Kevin) drum about the pernicious effects of environmental lead. Both a note from a reader and comments elsewhere about Kevin’s latest post suggest that an earlier post of mine had created confusion.

Here’s the note:

Mark, in your latest post, you seem to be believing the lead hypothesis for violent crime again. But here I thought you said that Phil Cook changed your mind. Are there new data that tipped you back, or is there a hole in Cook’s argument?

There are two different claims here:

  1. Lead causes crime, and the effect size is large.
  2. Decreasing lead exposure was the primary cause of the crime decline that started in 1994.

#1 is certainly true, and nothing Cook has written or said contradicts it. We have both statistical evidence at the individual level and a biological understanding of the brain functions disrupted by lead.

Cook convinced me that #2 is not true, or at least is not the whole story, because the decline happened in all cohorts while lead exposure deceased only for the younger cohorts. You can still tell plausible stories about how the young’uns drove the homicide wave of the late 1980s/early 1990s and that less violent subsequent cohorts of young’uns reduced the overall level of violence, but that’s not as simple a story. In a world of many interlinked causes and both positive and negative feedbacks, the statement “X% of the change in A was caused by a change in B” has no straightforward empirical sense.

So I’m absolutely convinced that lead is criminogenic, in addition to doing all sorts of other personal and social harm, and strongly suspect that further reductions in lead exposure (concentrating on lead in interior paint and lead in soil where children play) would yield benefits in excess of their costs, even though those costs might be in the billions of dollars per year. What’s less clear is how much of the crime increase starting in the early 1960s and the crime decrease starting in the early 1990s (and the rises and falls of crime in the rest of the developed world) should be attributed to changes in lead exposure.

The original point of yesterday’s post stands: When you hear people complaining about environmental regulation, what they’re demanding is that businesses should be allowed to poison children and other living things. No matter how often they’re wrong about that – lead, pesticides, smog, sulphur oxides, chlorofluorocarbons, estrongenic chemicals – they keep on pretending that the next identified environmental problem – global warming, for example – is just a made-up issue, and that dealing with it will tank the economy. Of course health and safety regulation can be, and is, taken to excess. But the balance-of-harms calculation isn’t really hard to do. And the demand for “corporate free speech” is simply a way of giving the perpetrators of environmental crimes a nearly invincible political advantage over the victims.

California’s Strange, Tragic Embrace of Prisons

California has for decades operated a large number of overcrowded prisons, in which conditions were recently described by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy as incompatible with the concept of human dignity and having no place in civilized society. If that were not sufficient cause for reform, the fiscal strain imposed by the state’s correctional system is now nearly $9 billion a year. Yet a generation of California elected officials — unlike their brethren in left-wing bastions such as South Carolina, Texas, South Dakota and Mississippi — have done nothing to reduce the size of the state’s prison population.

A range of lawsuits filed over many years (and fought by successive governors) recently culminated in the federal government forcing the state to move some prisoners to local jails. But Governor Jerry Brown is defying federal pressure to fully comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to reduce overcrowding to a still problematic 137% of capacity.

Even modest reforms to criminal sentencing get little love from elected officials in this Democratic Party-dominated state. Hope for change surged briefly last year when a bill to convert simple drug possession from a felony to a “wobbler” (a crime that could, depending on circumstances, be treated as either a felony or a misdemeanor) actually passed the state legislature after many similar prior bills had failed.

But Brown promptly vetoed it. At the time, he stated that a broad review of all sentencing was commencing, and that would be the vehicle to revamp the criminal justice system more broadly, including sentencing policy.

Almost a year later, Brown has shown no signs of honoring that commitment. Instead he has proposed another half billion dollars in new spending to build more jails and prisons.

Why so many red states have run rings about putatively progressive California in the pursuit of de-incarceration is a mystery that political scientists may one day unravel. In the meantime, a proposition to convert a significant number of felonies to misdemeanor status and to allow prisoners to retroactively appeal their sentences will be on the California ballot this November. The initiative, like the lawsuits before it, is a predictable consequence of elected officials repeatedly proving themselves unwilling to proactively address a serious social problem.

Lead, evil, and corporate free speech

Kevin Drum, who’s been doing Pulitzer-quality science and policy reporting on the behavioral effects of environmental lead, has yet another item today, once again reporting a new paper by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes of Amherst, who’s been doing the fancy number-crunching on the topic. No real surprise: in addition to greatly increasing rates of criminal behavior, lead exposure also increase the risk of other consequences of poor self-command, such as early pregnancy. Kevin draws one of the right morals of the story: that biology matters, while liberals and conservatives tend to unite in blaming everything on society, economics, and culture:

It’s a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn’t just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn’t related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn’t suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn’t suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down. Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline. This doesn’t mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don’t make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we’ve learned a valuable lesson: don’t poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.

But there’s another moral to be drawn.  The toxicity of lead has been known for at least a century. The introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline in the 1920s sparked a controversy, which the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, and Ethyl Corporation (a GM/Esso joint venture) won, using the usual mix of dirty tricks including lying and threatening scientists with lawsuits. A similar battle was fought over lead paint in the 197os, with the lead-paint vendors in the bad-guy role, and over lead emissions from smelters, with the American Iron and Steel institute trying to destroy Herb Needleman’s scientific career.
Then, mostly by the accident that leaded pain fouled catalytic converters, the battle was rejoined over lead in gasoline, with the old pro-toxin coalition fighting a drawn-out rearguard action to delay regulation as much as possible.
As far as I know, not a single executive, lobbyist, or scientist working for any of the companies that were making money by poisoning children and causing a crime wave spoke out in favor of public health and safety. Why should they? After all, they were just doing their jobs and paying their mortgages, and Milton Friedman had proclaimed that the only social responsibility of business was to make money (and that anyone who believed otherwise was a closet socialist): a morally insane proposition still widely repeated.
All of which makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s preface to The Screwtape Letters, explaining his image of Hell as the realm of the Organization Man:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in … sordid “dens of crime.” … It is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

The plutocrat majority on the Supreme Court has ruled that, whatever the facts, as a matter of law using money to influence the outcome of elections does not constitute “corruption,” because “there is no such thing as too much speech.”  Soon it will probably rule that the companies can cut the comedy and make contributions directly from corporate coffers to campaign accounts, but by now the rules are so leaky that it hardly matters anymore. As a result, quiet men (and women) in pleasant offices, who have not only neatly-trimmed fingernails but utterly clear consciences – men and women most of whom would be psychologically incapable of injuring a child with their own hands - will continue to poison other people’s children (with environmental toxins, unhealthy foods, alcohol, tobacco, and, shortly, cannabis), call anyone who tries to interfere a socialist, and use everything short of explicit bribery to get their way.

And that, my friends, is what’s at stake this year, and in 2016, and – unless we’re very lucky – in every election for the rest of my lifetime.

Moon shot

I waited too long in the evening to get the rich color, but this isn’t bad. Don’t try taking a moon picture on automatic.

This was taken at 1/450 sec, 800 ISO with a 300mm lens. (h/t @JeremyWest for the advice on settings.)

 

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It’s Still Thatcher’s Britain. Other Politicians Just Live In It.

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Leo Panitch is appalled by UK Labour Party Leader Ed Milliband’s public embrace of “responsible capitalism”:

The fact is that the leaders of erstwhile socialist parties have been talking the talk of responsible capitalism for a very long time. It was how they covered their tracks as they retreated from offering people a way out of the rat race of capitalism – rather than compensation for being losers in it – even in the postwar era. Those who imagine that the progressive reforms achieved in that era stand as proof today that a responsible capitalism is possible are sorely mistaken. On the contrary, the undoing of those reforms after just a few decades shows that a responsible capitalism is indeed a contradiction in terms…Ordinary people recognise it for the doublespeak it is. And if they are not offered a positive vision and plan for a renewed democratic socialism that embodies cooperation rather than competition as the basis of social life – if they are not offered, that is, any alternative to capitalism – they will increasingly cling to whatever toehold they have within it at the expense of the “others”.

That even the son of Ralph Milliband is fleeing his socialist roots is another demonstration that Margaret Thatcher remains the defining figure in the recent history of British politics, and not just because she slammed the Overton Windowpane shut on the fingers of so many leftist politicians then and continues to do so now. In the nearly quarter century since she left office, the ensuing PMs haven’t had anywhere near as much impact on British society, whether one judges them individually or as a group. Yes, in public, the opponents of those PMs dutifully shrieked that each was implementing enormous and catastrophic changes, but in private, the same people would have admitted that the alterations were minor compared to those undertaken by The Iron Lady.

It is hard for Americans to appreciate how broadly Britons of Panitch’s generation endorsed socialism and how profoundly its principles shaped the British economy (especially through trade unions) and political system when Thatcher came to power. Some of British socialism’s legacy, particularly many of the nationalized industries, was destined for the dustbin of history in any event with the advent of the global economy, but much of it she personally, gleefully crushed. Ed Milliband is smart enough to know that if he ran on a 1970s-style anti-capitalist platform, he would be crushed in similar fashion, and it’s hard to believe that Panitch doesn’t know that too.

Two lessons for Americans. First, although Ronald Reagan is correctly recalled as a transformative U.S. President, he was governing a much more conservative country than Thatcher. Reagan’s triumphs over leftists in the U.S. were thus both easier and more popular than those of Thatcher (She remains deeply loathed by a significant minority of the country, especially as one moves north). She shouldn’t therefore be cast, as she sometimes is by Americans, as a lapdog or knockoff version of Reagan: Potent a politician as he was, she was moreso. Second, surveying the current gridlock between a Democratic President and a Republican House of Representatives, many people conclude that it would be much easier to implement sweeping political changes in the U.S. if we had a parliamentary system like the U.K. But in the past six decades, Thatcher is the only British Prime Minister who set the limits of acceptable political discussion for decades after her time in office and who implemented political changes that will be broadly studied and debated by historians a century from now.

My dinner with Julian

A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.  We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.

As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!”  But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this.  His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”

“Really,” I said.  “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”

You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active in  mid-Twentieth Century America.  The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.

The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwald’s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South.  It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.  The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.

So why haven’t you learned about any of this?  Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death.  So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.  But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.

Not by all of us, though.  I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald  Fellows.  One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.  As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”  Ailey was Dunham’s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.

Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”

He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:

During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch.  Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them.  While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.  Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do.  His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”  He hoisted the car back onto the road.  “No charge.”

Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers.  “Do you know who this is?” he asked.  “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!”  It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her.  “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this!  I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”

Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.

# # # #

 

Pub Quiz

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I was a huge fan of the late James Garner, including of course for his work on the Rockford Files. This quiz is a tribute to that show, which always opened with a message left on Jim’s answering machine. The list below includes 8 real messages from season 1, and two that are fake. Your challenge is to identify the fakes. Answers after the jump. Observations on the quiz or on just how damn great this show was are welcome in the comments.

1. “Mr. Rockford? This is the Thomas Crown School of Dance and Contemporary Etiquette. We aren’t going to call again. Now, you want these free lessons, or what?”

2. “It’s Norma at the market. It bounced. You want me to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others?”

3. “Sonny, it’s Dad. Remember how my truck had that problem with the brakes? Can you pick me up at the end of the Santa Monica pier?”

4. “It’s Laurie at the trailer park. A space opened up. Do you want me to save it or are the cops going to let you stay where you are?”

5. “I staked out that guy only it didn’t work out like you said. Please call me. Room 234. County Hospital.”

6. “It’s Audra. Remember last summer at Pat’s? I’ve got a twelve hour layover before I go to Chicago. How about it?”

7. “This is Shirley at the bank. The answers are: no, no, and yes. No, we won’t loan you money. No, we won’t accept any co-signers; and yes, your account’s overdrawn. I get off at 4:30.”

8. “Jimmy it’s Angel. I’m onto an incredible land deal that you’ve got to get in on. Buddy, you are going to LOVE Florida, Call me.”

9. “It’s Doc Jones. What did you do to the hand, son? Three fractured knuckles! You hit somebody?”

10. “This is Mrs. Lindis. Three time this month I came to clean and it always look like people been fighting in there. Furniture broke, things tipped over. I’m sorry, but I quit.”

Continue Reading…

Secretary Kerry and that girly bike

Governor Jindal apparently dislikes Secretary Kerry’s transportation choices:

Yes we have another expression of that tired juvenile conservative trope that liberal men are wimp-metrosexuals* who fail to live out our apparently God-given gender roles.

There is nothing wrong with being a wimp (I happen to be one) or with being a metrosexual. But it’s a little weird here. Once you’re a highly-decorated war hero who’s chased down and killed a rocket-launcher-wielding soldier of the Viet Cong, you’re kindof entitled to ride whatever bike you want, girly- or otherwise, without fear of being macho-splained by Bobby Jindal. (Below the fold is the citation for Kerry’s Silver Star.)

 

*Trope not intended to describe Barack Obama, LeBron James, and other liberals who are filed under an alternative entry.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street (1953)Many films have been set in seamy settings where everyone is on the make, believing in nothing and exuding cynicism until something comes along to drive one person into moral behavior (e.g., The Third Man, Casablanca, The Mission). Sometimes what makes the worm turn is romance, sometimes it’s an attack of conscience, sometimes it’s religious faith, but in this week’s film recommendation, it’s hatred of Commies!: Pickup on South Street.

Samuel Fuller’s 1952 hard-boiled masterpiece is set in the urban world of schemers, grifters, prostitutes, cops and robbers that he knew so well. The film’s perfect opening sequence, which is dialogue, backstory and exposition-free, shows cool as a cucumber pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifting the wallet from the kind of woman a respectable young man’s parents hope he never brings home (Jean Peters). The theft is observed by two men who turn out to be federal agents. They’ve been trailing the woman because she has been unknowingly passing military secrets to the Reds at the behest of her lover/co-conspirator (Richard Kiley). Meanwhile, the clever Skip soon figures out that the piece of microfilm he found in the stolen wallet is extremely valuable. Skip decides to sell it to the highest bidder, politics notwithstanding, thereby throwing himself into conflict and intrigue with the cops, the feds and the Reds.

pickup-on-south-street-2The entire cast is on fire here, and all of them are well-matched to Fuller’s pulpy tone and visuals. Even though she hated playing the sexy bad girl, Jean Peters electrified a generation of men when this film was released, which was just before women of her physical type were largely pushed aside by Hollywood producers in favor of curvaceous blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Richard Widmark, who might remind modern audiences of a young Jack Nicholson, exudes cocky charm, which is an ideal foil for Kiley’s more restrained performance as a desperate Communist agent.

But despite all the thespian talent put on display by the leads, this film is nearly stolen by Thelma Ritter in a supporting performance as Moe, an aging, raffish stoolie/ragwoman who just wants to save enough money for a nice funeral. She will sell almost anyone out — even her surrogate son Skip — but she draws the line at helping Reds. And Skip, otherwise amoral, draws his own line in the sand when Moe becomes a target.

Pickup on South Street is a rough, tough tale of the city which features corruption, disloyalty, double-dealing, licentiousness and some savage physical violence (I would not be surprised if both Peters and Kiley got some bruises making this movie). In short, for fans of Fuller and film noir more generally, what’s not to like?

To give you the flavor of this movie, I embed below one of my favorite scenes, which is representative of the whole. Jean Peters’ character is looking for the “cannon” (slang for pickpocket) who stole her wallet and believes that someone named Lightning Louie can facilitate her search.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.