Mass incarceration is a hard problem, not an easy one.

Freeing the innocent and harmless won’t solve over-incarceration.
How do you control the dangerously guilty?

Getting out of the mass-incarceration trap is hard. We currently have five times our historical incarceration rate and seven times the incarceration rate of most of Western Europe. We also have a frighteningly high rate of homicide and other violent crime, albeit only about half as high as it was twenty years ago.

To get back to our historical level, which would be a high level compared to the rest of the civilized world, we need to reduce the headcount behind bars by 80%. Pick five prisoners, and you need to let four of them out.

And no, you can’t do that by releasing innocent, harmless people. You need to release some seriously guilty and dangerous people. Which means you need to figure out a way to make them less dangerous that doesn’t involve putting them under lock and key.

Megan McArdle gets this right.


Megan McArdle vs. the rest of the Red Team

McArdle says it’s wrong to use armed force to defy the law. Why is she alone on the Red Team in doing so?

A previous post asked whether any “conservative” pundit or pol had criticized the armed mob that threatened federal officials carrying out a lawful court order in the Bundy Ranch confrontation. The answer to that question is a (qualified) “Yes.” Megan McArdle points out that Bundy was defying the law in the service of a claim to use resources he doesn’t own without paying for them, and that a civilized society depends on the rule that people “not take up arms to pursue their own self-interest against the rest of us.” She goes on to point out how much less tolerance there would be for parallel activities in an urban ghetto rather than in rural Nevada.

Now, Megan is a libertarian rather than a conservative; still, she clearly inhabits the Red side of the political spectrum. But what’s striking to me is that she seems to be unique. The default position on the Red team is that pointing guns at federal officials carrying out lawful court orders is just hunky-dory. The Republican sheriff of Clark County and the Republican governor of Nevada both backed the actions of an armed mob in defiance of the law.

Is there really no elected Republican, or right-leaning thinker or writer other than Megan McArdle, prepared to defend the rule of law? So far, apparently not. [Update: Yes there are. See below.] Unless and until that changes, it’s going to be hard to take seriously calls for “civility.” I’m prepared to stop saying that Republicans are a bunch of thugs and lunatics the moment they stop acting and speaking like a bunch of thugs and lunatics.

P.s. And where the hell are the national law enforcement associations in all this? Doesn’t the Fraternal Order of Police have anything to say about pointing rifles at cops?

A reader points to three more exceptions: all pundits, still no pols. Charles C.W. Cooke at National Review, Gracy Olmstead of The American Conservative (posting at The Federalist), and Glenn Beck (!)

Megan McArdle, gender discrimination, and Blue Blogistan

The treatment of Red-team females on the Net isn’t something the Blue Team should be proud of.

I’m not going to bother to refute the “Democrats do it too!” responses to my earlier post about Republicans’ addiction to violent hate speech. That sh*t just won’t wash.

But the fact that your neighbor actually has a beam in his eye doesn’t mean that you don’t have a mote in yours. While eliminationism is pretty damned rare on the Blue team, rudeness, intolerance and abusive misreprentation – the semi-deliberate misreading of opposing views to make them seem less valid – aren’t as rare as they should be, in a community that prides itself on non-judgementalism, open-mindedness, and a basis in reality. “We’re better than Bill O’Reilly” isn’t really a very high standard.

One example that has come up on this blog is the treatment of Megan McArdle, now at Bloomberg. Megan is a friend, and a far more subtle and nuanced thinker than many of her libertarian confreres. She is perfectly capable, for example, of recognizing that social insurance can facilitate entrepreneurship and other forms of socially desirable risk-taking. Her book on failure, which I read in manuscript, is superb.

That’s not to say that Megan isn’t an opinionated libertarian, or that she doesn’t sometimes overestimate how much economics she understands in ways that justly outrage professional economists. But it has long seemed to me that the contempt with which she is sometimes treated, both in comments here and elsewhere, is far out of proportion to her actual offenses. And it seems to me that I’ve deteced a trace of gender bias. In particular, there have been hints that my promotion of her work, and defense of her against attack, must be based not just on friendship but on erotic attraction. (The same happened when I defended Ana Marie Cox, whom I’ve only met twice. In each case, the visual evidence provides some apparent basis for the charge, but it simply wouldn’t come up in the case of an equivalently attractive male blogger – assuming that such a creature exists – if the person doing the defending were female, or a gay male.)

Following up on Amanda Hess’s complaint, McArdle has now posted a well-crafted essay on the extreme abuse to which female participants in internet discourse are routlinely subjected (to which Conor Friedsdorf, having guest-blogged for Megan, also testifies) and an even better essay on why accusations of sexism (or, as she does not say, racism) are so likely to be counter-productive.

It seems to me that progressives in particular ought to take this set of problems seriously, and that the two McArdle essays linked to above fully justify my claim that she is someone worth reading even if you come from an utterly different ideological place.

That won’t keep me from making merciless fun of Megan if, as I hope, her gleeful predictions about the demise of Obamacare are falsified by experience. (Megan hates it mostly for the same reasons I love it: without any consideration of its virtues as health care reform, it’s a massive downward redistribution of income, and it’s a signature accomplishment of a President and a party I support and she opposes. Of course I still think that her own point about failure strongly supports the decoupling of health insurance from employment.) But enough with the gendered personal abuse already.

What The Well-Off Would Pay for Wendy’s Coffee Doesn’t Matter

The fast food industry may not be able to pay higher wages because its customers are as poor as its employees

Labor protests were recently held in front of more than 1,000 fast food restaurants around the country. As a result of our job-killing recession and subsequent job-lite recovery, the fast food workforce is no longer composed mainly of teenagers. It now comprises many adults who are raising families, which is pretty hard to do on eight or nine bucks an hour and no health insurance benefits. Hence the protesters’ call for unionization and higher wages.

Many members of the San Francisco Bay Area Starbucks-going crowd (of which I am one) responded to the protests by lambasting Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King et al., e.g., “Starbucks charges more for coffee so that it can give its staff good wages and benefits. Wendy’s is just too stupid or too cheap to do the same thing”. When I hear comments like this from my fellow well-intentioned members of the upper-middle class, they make surface sense to me for a few seconds. But then I remember my experience working in a fast food restaurant. Continue reading “What The Well-Off Would Pay for Wendy’s Coffee Doesn’t Matter”

Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society

Megan McArdle is surely correct when she notes how much is expected today of young people who aspire to attend elite universities. Her own experience as a teenager was different:

…the things that we achieved were basically within reach of a normal human being who was going about the business of growing up: playing a sport, perhaps badly; taking classes; occasionally volunteering as a candy striper. Most of us took the SAT without the benefit of test prep services, and the “test prep” we got in class consisted of–learning vocabulary and algebra. People like me, who were painfully unathletic and had hashed some early high school classes still had a shot at an Ivy League School

These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars. Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

She then raises a provocative question:

This entire thing is absurd. I understand why kids engage in this ridiculous arms race. What I don’t understand is why admissions officers, who have presumably met some teenagers, and used to be one, actually reward it.

Robert Frank and Phil Cook’s Winner-Take-All Society was written almost two decades ago, but its acute analysis of situations such as this remains relevant and informative today. Admission to an elite university is a classic winner-take-all-market. First, competition is intense because the number of competitors has grown (i.e., there was a time when you competed for a Harvard slot only against a narrow sociodemographic segment of Northeasterners — now all manner of people all over the world apply). Second, rewards are distributed based on relative rather than absolute performance and even a narrow advantage over other market participants can have enormous consequences. Third, the rewards are concentrated in the hands of a small number of winners. That is, if 10 applicants are fighting for a single slot at Harvard, there is no scenario under which they can each come out with 10% of the reward they seek, or even a scenario where the best candidate gets 30% of the reward, followed by the next person getting 20%, third place receiving 15% and everyone else getting 5%. Instead one person gets 100% of the reward and everyone else gets nothing.

This situation has generated what McArdle decries: An arms race that families hate yet at the same time are afraid to retreat from unilaterally. If no parent signed their teenager up for SAT prep courses, interview training and essay coaches, and no adolescent invested thousands of hours in resume-stuffing extracurricular activities, all parents and all adolescents would be better off and no one’s chance of getting into an elite university would be affected (Recall that in a winner-take-all-market, it’s relative performance that matters). The problem of course is that in a winner-take-all-market such as elite university admissions, once even a few people engage in these competitive behaviors it costs everyone else not to engage in them also. Hence begins an arm’s race that the participants are damaged by but will not unilaterally exit. Continue reading “Elite University Admissions in a Winner-Take-All-Society”