Stuff you couldn’t make up dept.

The ill-loved Confederate flag flies in deluded pride at the South Carolina state capitol.

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia

Attached to its flagpost by chains.

Image by Reuters, h/t Daily Kos.

Weekend interlude: Just a closer walk with thee

The setting and circumstances of Charleston’s atrocity remind me of the many times that I’ve visited various African-American churches. As a white non-Christian, I’ve always been embraced as a valued guest. That Dylann Roof was accorded similar hospitality, and yet apparently went on to murder the very people who graciously welcomed him adds yet another incomprehensibly depraved element to this attack.

We could all use some joyful noise to salve the wound just a little bit. Below are Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, at the Newport Jazz Festival 1970.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Night Train to Munich


Last week, I recommended The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense and romance. This week, I recommend a quasi-sequel made without The Master, who had by then decamped to Hollywood: 1940′s Night Train to Munich.

Released two years after The Lady Vanishes, the film features the same female lead (Margaret Lockwood), the same scriptwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same setting (a European train journey taken on the brink of war), and even two of the same supporting characters (Charters and Caldicott). The director this time around, Carol Reed, was clearly to some extent aping Hitchcock’s style, but Reed’s distinctive touches are in evidence throughout.

The world had gotten much darker between the making of the two films, and Night Train to Munich reflects that by having more suspense and less humor than The Lady Vanishes. The film opens grimly with the people of Prague being terrorized by the arrival of German storm troopers. Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt), whose scientific expertise can aid the war effort, must flee the Nazis without his daughter (Lockwood), who is subsequently interned in a concentration camp. She is befriended there by a handsome, idealistic Czech national (Paul Henried, then called Paul von Hernried, in a strong performance that almost surely led to him being cast later as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The two flee to London and reunite with Professor Bomasch, but he and his daughter are almost immediately kidnapped back again to Germany! Enter a brave, resourceful spy (Rex Harrison!!!) who goes undercover in Germany to rescue the Professor and the lovely daughter whom he clearly fancies.

Relative to The Lady Vanishes, the major disadvantage of Night Train to Munich is that it doesn’t give the talented Lockwood enough to do beyond looking lovely and in peril. On the other hand, that omission gives more screen time to Rex Harrison, in a remarkable example of off-beat casting working shockingly well. Sir Rex, who would later be credible as Dr. Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, carries off a Nazi uniform with panache. The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization.

The film took advantage of Charters and Caldicott’s (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) reputation as comic, out of touch Englishmen. Initially, they are played for laughs, but in a key scene they are humiliated by a German officer and realize that the time for joking is past and they must become engaged in the fight. They then perform bravely in the struggle against the Germans, who have clearly underestimated them. All of this was no doubt a resonant message for British audiences in 1940.

After a series of Hitchcock-level plot contrivances, the film concludes with a nail-biting closing act in which our heroes try to escape using a cable car across a Swiss gorge. What the climax lacks in realism (those 15 shot pistols only run out of bullets when it would be maximally agonizing to do so) it more than makes up for in thrills. I also loved the final shot of the key bad guy (whose identity I will not reveal) which is sympathetically done. It’s a moment that shows how Reed’s artistic sensibility was different than Hitchcock’s, and establishes that despite being to some extent an homage to Hitch, this superb movie is at the same time very much Reed’s own.

Although not quite in the same class as The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich is an exciting and enjoyable film. If you have the stamina for a double feature, it’s tremendous fun to watch it back to back with the movie that inspired it.

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

Why empirical political scientists and political theorists talk past each other

The latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, which just went up, includes my article “The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide.” I’m always behind the times when it comes to paywalls, but here’s my best shot at a link for “blogging”:

The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide

This is for professional political scientists, and admittedly harder going than the book review I blogged about a couple of days ago. The basic idea is that empirical political scientists very often use as their assumed measure of democratic quality “responsiveness”: the extent to which changes in public policy reflect changes in the preferences of the public, or the median voter. Political theorists, on the other hand, almost never define democratic quality this way: there are a host of other things that democracy is supposed to be about. I try to hash out where the disjunction came from; why it matters; what each side can learn from the other; and why there’s still room for legitimate differences and a division of labor. (Teaser version: we should expect people who measure political phenomena for a living to seek rough agreement on how to define what they’re measuring. We should also expect people who study political concepts and political values for a living to be legitimately dissatisfied with the inevitable simplification this entails.)

Academic readers should be able to download the full version easily as an .html or .pdf. Anyone else whose interest is piqued by the abstract should email me at my academic email address (not hard to find) and I’ll send you a version within a few days.

Lurch on, O Mighty Ship of State

There has been extensive commentary about Hillary Clinton’s decision to position herself further left as a candidate than did her husband, who picked off many Southern white and independent votes from the GOP when he ran for POTUS. There’s not as many swing voters left these days, so Hillary Clinton is going where the votes are. It’s smart politics, and I expect the Republican candidates to try to fire up their own base in the same fashion.

While not faulting candidates for taking a rational course, I do want to moan ineffectually about how dispiriting it is that we have no middle ground left in our national politics. This reduces us to a Westminster system of government when one party controls the White House and both Houses of Congress, and the rest of the time we have gridlock and ferocious efforts by the opposition to undo whatever happened in the other party’s “Parliament”, especially because it was a product of the wing of the party that the opposition hates the most. Given the difference between presidential and mid-term election voters, we probably have much more lurching back and forth to endure in the coming years.

I hate this aspect of our politics because Americans have to make many decisions in their lives that can’t be revised every two years if the policy environment lurches sharply in the opposite direction from which it was recently headed. Consider these kinds of life decisions: Should I buy a house and take out a mortgage? Should I risk taking a new job that doesn’t come with health insurance? Should I get married and have children? Can I afford to retire now? Should I try to start a business and hire people? Should I take out loans and go to medical school? Should I join the military? Those are just some of the consequential life decisions that people make in light of the public policy environment, and when it rocks and sways and reverses in dramatic fashion over and over, what once seemed like good choices can end up as disasters.

This is an entirely immature and self-indulgent post: i.e., I am just whining and have no solutions. I just wish we could agree as a people on some fundamental rules for the kind of country we want to have so that everyone who is just trying to get through this life without inordinate pain and frustration doesn’t feel that their future is a hostage to fortune every 24 months.

“Liberalism as Drama”

My review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea has just been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I like both the book and, well, the review. An excerpt from the latter:

… Fawcett faces unflinchingly what too many of liberalism’s historians and defenders ignore: liberalism was, at its origins, an elite and elitist position. It was cool at best towards democracy and consistently determined to define equality in ways that prevented it from entailing political equality. Between about 1880 and 1945, this changed for good. Judith Shklar once wrote, in terms that Fawcett might endorse, that liberalism and democracy shared a harmonious and monogamous marriage — but one of convenience. Fawcett chronicles the courtship and the prenuptial agreement. Liberals “silenced,” though never “abandoned,” their doubts about democracy. Making an effort to shed its paternalist, improving disposition — swapping the schoolmasterly temperament of a Humboldt for that of the libertine, perpetually indebted Benjamin Constant — liberalism dumped its old favorite word, “character,” for a new one: “choice.” Democracy, for its part, changed substantially as well, from a radical and populist doctrine to one that made its peace with representation, elite-staffed bureaucracies, private property, and a definition of popular sovereignty that rendered it fairly empty rhetoric.

One could summarize Fawcett’s story like this: liberals kept their core ideas and gave up their deep, vicious prejudices regarding who could be trusted to live by them. Democrats, in turn, gave up the demos: they would no longer dream of “the people” acting, only of discrete people speaking and voting. The bargain seems, in good liberal style, mutually beneficial.

Read the whole review here. And buy the book.

The U.S., Mexico, and Cheap Legalized Pot

Alejandro Hope makes the interesting observation that although the official marijuana legal regime is different between the U.S. and Mexico, growers in both countries operate in a grey zone between aggressive prohibition and full legalization. Growing is legal at the state level in much of the U.S. and illegal everywhere in Mexico, yet:

U.S. growers and distributors face a far greater risk of going to jail than their Mexican counterparts. In 2012, 92,000 persons were arrested in the United States on charges of marijuana production and/or sale. By way of contrast, in 2014, Mexican federal authorities opened 2109 investigations related to the production, transportation, trafficking, and commerce of all illegal drugs.

Alejandro also notes that the greater risk of arrest in the U.S., coupled with higher land and labor costs (and I would add, water costs) produces an eye-popping pot price differences:

farm gate prices for commercial grade marijuana in the mountains of northwestern Mexico can sell for as little as $6 dollars a pound. In Mendocino County, California, growers can get around $800 dollars per pound of high-grade sinsemilla weed.*

In both countries, pot is pretty cheap these days in absolute terms despite the added business costs that stem from some degree of illegality. If the U.S. legalizes completely, U.S. prices will fall dramatically. It is not fanciful at all to imagine that a joint could sell for a dime eventually, barring minimum unit pricing legislation or enormous excise taxes (ad valorem taxes don’t matter much, even a 50% tax would be inconsequential if pot were 10 cents a joint).

This raises an interesting question: If the U.S. legalizes, would Mexico follow suit and start a cheap, mass market marijuana industry that undercuts the prices of U.S. producers? If legal U.S producers can make a 10 cent joint, a legal Mexican producer should be able to make 5 or 1 cent joint. A common rejoinder to such speculation is that consumers will insist on high-grade, boutique U.S. marijuana from “branded” places like Mendocino County, much as they insist on craft beer rather than Budweiser. This argument will resonate with journalists, college professors, policy wonks and other educated middle class types who drink craft beer, but remember, after the best year in its history, craft beer has has reduced the share of the market taken up by mass market beer to a paltry….89%. When most people outside the chattering classes reach for beer, it’s cheap, mass market product. The same could easily happen with pot, and under legalization Mexican farmers could be extremely competitive in that market.

*Internet users skew upmarket, so I know some readers will think this estimate is way too cheap based on their own buying experiences in posh dispensaries. So let me confirm from recent conversations with Humboldt County sinsemilla farmers: they got about $800 per pound in the last growing cycle and are selling for a price in the same general range right now ($1100/pound, give or take).

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

Protecting public safety while reducing the prison headcount

Three things to like about Ross Douthat’s Sunday column on incarceration:

1.  He starts in the right place: the sheer scale and horror of mass incarceration, especially as practiced in this country. (Douthat is right: by any reasonable definition, SuperMax is torture.)

2. He acknowledges the key fact: there aren’t enough harmless prisoners that releasing them would solve the problem. If we want to get to civilized levels of incarceration we need to let out some seriously guilty and possibly dangerous people.  Just to get back to the U.S. historical level – already about 50% above European rates – we would have to let out four out of five current inmates. That means freeing large numbers of armed robbers, rapists, and murderers.

3. And he asks the right question: how to do that without ending our twenty-year winning streak in crime reduction.

Fortunately, I think there’s an answer to that question: learning to manage offenders without putting them behind bars. The key to that – and, it turns out, to de-brutalizing the institutions themselves – is a system of rules and sanctions based on swiftness, certainty, and fairness.

The evidence for success in swift-certain-fair community corrections is pouring in. The next step is to extend it to the currently imprisoned population through some form of graduated re-entry. Since that’s a new idea, we can’t be sure in advance how well it would work, or which version of it would work best in any given population. But once you ask the right question – how to reduce incarceration while improving public safety – you’re well on the road to finding the right answer.

Footnote Douthat makes the implicit assumption that keeping someone who might commit crime behind bars naturally tends to reduce crime. That would be true if incarceration didn’t have criminogenic side-effects, both at the individual-offender level and the community level. But in fact it does, and as the scale of incarceration grows the crime-control benefits shrink (since you’re locking up less and less dangerous prople) while the costs grow. Useem and Piehl estimate that in the median state the marginal prisoner somewhat increases the crime rate. If this is right, then the first slice of de-carceration won’t come at any cost in the form of increased crime even if it’s not coupled with improved community supervision. But that surely wouldn’t be true of making the reductions we actually need to make in the prison headcount.






On Social Media, There is No One to Whom to Apologize

After his sexist, unfunny comments went viral and provoked a social media firestorm, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his honorary professorship and been kicked off the European Research Council. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, likewise a distinguished scientist, has also been personally and professionally battered:

their house was doorstepped by reporters, says Collins. “One of them said that his paper had found my ex-husband.

He said it was all very juicy and I needed to get a response in. I didn’t, but I still had a sleepless night. In fact, it wasn’t that juicy. It was a story of a woman, me, who divorced one man and then married another, Tim. But it was still horrible.”

In addition, bodies such as the Royal Society – of which Hunt is a fellow – were pressing for him to make a fuller apology for his remarks in Korea. Within two days, the pressure had become desperate for both scientists. “Tim sat on the sofa and started crying,” says Collins. “Then I started crying. We just held on to each other.”

In watching another one of these social media condemnation cycles, it occurred to me that once these get going there really isn’t any way to stop them. When there were three television networks, you could do an interview with Cronkite and say that yes, you behaved terribly and you were sorry. The finite, definable, public figures and organizations who were criticizing you could then accept the apology and call off the dogs (particularly if you took the trouble to meet with them personally and apologize again). Your reputation would be deservedly dented, but at least your career and family weren’t destroyed.

Today, because thousands of people (maybe tens of thousands) are independently condemning the target of social media firestorms, there really isn’t any way to stanch the flames by owning up to your mistake. If you went on a TV show and apologized, most of the people who were gunning for you would probably never see it, and it would be practically impossible for you to craft individual apologies to every angry email writer and Twitter critic. All you can really do is wait for the storm to move on to the next target.