Thursday, November 27, 2014

Darren Wilson and cop culture

A narrative has developed among those who think Darren Wilson should have been prosecuted for shooting Michael Brown. The narrative gets its force from Wilson's testimony to the grand jury that ultimately decided not to prosecute him. Wilson repeatedly characterized Brown as a threateningly large menace who put the officer in fear for his life.

Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall distilled the essence of this narrative as well as anyone. He mentioned a possibility I hadn't considered but which on reflection I should have: Wilson might be temperamentally unfit to be a cop.

A lot of the police-brutality cases over the last five or so years suggest Wilson isn't alone. That, in turn, raises a question that Marshall didn't ask but that Radley Balko did in the Washington Post in September, long before the Ferguson grand jury's decision: if Wilson and other trigger-happy guys shouldn't be cops, doesn't that mean something is wrong with the departments hiring them?

Balko writes specifically about one infamously out-of-control officer (whom Marshall also cited in his piece), but the point obviously applies generally:

If Groubert’s actions were due to poor or inappropriate training, poor hiring practices by the South Carolina state police, or a police culture that conditions cops to see every interaction with a citizen as potential threat, sending him to prison isn’t going to change any of that. Individual cops who abuse their authority should certainly be held accountable, and a system that consistently held them accountable would be something of a deterrent. But focusing only on the individual cop in a case like this lets the police agency that hired and trained him off the hook.
Exactly. This is very likely bigger than Wilson or Groubert.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Calorie counts in restaurants

The Food and Drug Administration announced that restaurants will have to provide calorie counts for their foods and beverages. The rules will also cover grocery and convenience stores.

California already requires that some restaurants, notably fast food chains, post calorie information. In theory this is a good thing. In practice — well, it doesn't work as well as I'd like.

One problem is, the calorie counts are damned near impossible to read if your vision isn't very good. I'll admit, that may just be me. As the population ages, though, more of you are going to find your vision coming closer to mine. (Sorry about that.) The point is, if you can't read it, you probably won't pay attention to it.

The bigger issue is, the calorie counts may not matter to the majority of customers even if the information is legible. I pay close attention to the nutritional information in processed foods at the market. When I'm at a restaurant, though, I'm hungry and I don't much care about calories. My main defense against nutritional suicide is that I long ago weaned myself off fast food chains. I was lucky I had the option. If I didn't live in an area with a decent selection of non-chain restaurants serving not-too-unhealthful food, my hunger and my laziness would have doomed me to drive-thru dining.

Am I arguing against the new FDA rules? No. They might help, and I don't think they can hurt. However, don't get your hopes too high that they'll have a dramatic effect on the obesity epidemic.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hagel out as Defense Secretary

Chuck Hagel will step down as Secretary of Defense.

The decision was characterized as a mutual one by Hagel and President Obama, but I think this speaks volumes:

Mr. Hagel, a respected former senator who struck a friendship with Mr. Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq war from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Mr. Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists. Senior administration officials have characterized him as quiet during cabinet meetings; Mr. Hagel’s defenders said that he waited until he was alone with the president before sharing his views, the better to avoid leaks.
Obama, whatever his other merits and flaws, is not comfortable with those who don't have a longstanding relationship with him. He's no Lincoln, who assembled his much-vaunted "team of rivals" to give him as broad a range of perspectives as possible. Intellectually Obama probably respects the need for differing points of view, but as a practical matter he has shown little stomach for having them represented among his closest advisors.

It's no secret that Obama has had a mixed record on foreign affairs. If the administration's foreign policy woes could be laid at the feet of an unprepared or undisciplined military, that would be one thing, but they can't. Nor has Hagel been irresponsibly cavalier in his management of the armed forces (unlike, say, Donald Rumsfeld).

Hagel, though, has made his share of gaffes articulating (or, more commonly, failing to articulate) administration policy, and that has made him a less effective spokesman for that policy than Obama would like. That failing alone justifies his dismissal, regardless of how well he has done his job behind the scenes. However, the message his dismissal sends is that Obama is casting about for relief from his woes, and he's not thinking very hard about what will do him the most good. Again, the military has not been primarily responsible for the administration's foreign policy troubles.

What Obama needs to fix is a troubling disconnection between rhetoric and action. An unfathomable failure to foresee the likely consequences of its rhetoric often means the administration is caught flat-footed by events. Syria is a prime example, Russia another.

To address the disconnection, Obama has to look long and hard at his national security and intelligence machinery. The most recent House committee report on the Benghazi attack implicated not the military or even the Administration (directly), but rather, the intelligence services' analysis of what was going on at the time. That's just one example of what's wrong.

Obama, however, will also have to look in the mirror. He hasn't been an effective salesman for his own foreign policy. Nobody seems to think his administration has a philosophy guiding its foreign policy. That may be unfair to the administration, but ultimately it's up to Obama to convince us otherwise. That failure is solely his. Firing Hagel isn't a great start to addressing that failure.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ted Cruz the disingenuous twit

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) called out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for an inaccurate — some would say, flat-out wrong — characterization of the Obama administration's support for net neutrality as "Obamacare for the Internet". In my old job, we'd call that phrase "content-free", meaning that it carries no useful information — like much else Cruz says.

Franken, showing far greater respect for Cruz than I can muster, corrected his colleague by saying (correctly) that favoring net neutrality simply means favoring the status quo. Franken, however, used the phrase "keep things exactly the same".

Out of context, "keep things exactly the same" can be good or bad; that's why context is so important. In this case, the context was that Franken was talking about how Internet traffic is handled today: nobody's data is given preferential treatment. Opponents of net neutrality want to provide data pipelines that would provide better service (for some definition of "better") for a fee. Supporters of net neutrality, including Franken, think that creating tiers of service, differentiated by quality (and price), would not benefit the majority of Internet users.

Cruz, using the classic rhetorical trick of seizing his opponent's words rather than his meaning, made "keep things exactly the same" sound like a defense of ossification and a desire to stymie progress. Cruz made Franken seem as if he were defending the long hegemony of the old rotary phone.

In fact, what Franken was defending was the open Internet that has fostered innovation, enabling new businesses and business models that have had an incredibly disruptive effect on our world. (Remember, Republicans and free-marketeers in general hail "disruption" as vital to keeping the market honest: gotta keep those fat-cat established businesses on their toes!) On the other hand, the kind of tiered Internet Cruz favors would preserve the current hegemony of some of the biggest players in the market — notably, the major Internet service providers who also own content providers. Comcast, for instance, owns NBCUniversal. Guess whose on-demand programming could be counted on to stream more reliably than Netflix's (over Comcast's network) if net neutrality is abolished? How much would Netflix have to pay Comcast in fees to be delivered at the same quality as Comcast's own content? How much more would that end up costing consumers?

Did Cruz address any of this? Of course not. Opponents of net neutrality make noises about "new products and services" that tiered service would stimulate, but they've been stingy with details. Even so, Cruz could have advanced some such argument, if he were truly interested in arguing the merits with Franken.

However, Cruz isn't interested in a debate. He's only interested in catering to his low-information base, the ones who will smile at the seemingly clever wordplay that paints Franken as a stodgy, big-government apparatchik standing in the way of progress. Never mind that Cruz is simply wrong on that score; what's worse is, Cruz's audience is blissfully unaware that he's nudging them toward a costlier world in which big ISPs can extend their current marketplace advantage into the indefinite future by erecting prohibitively costly barriers to entry into the marketplace. An outfit like Facebook would never have gotten off the ground in such a world. The next Facebook won't, if Cruz has his way.

Cruz could be a moron, I suppose. My bet, though, is that he knows his rejoinder to Franken willfully missed the point. He's simply bereft of shame.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reminder: don't shop on Thanksgiving

Once again, we're faced with a number of large retailers opening all day on Thanksgiving. The New York Times piece notes that some retailers are publicizing their family-friendly decision to stay closed that day, but the backlash against Thanksgiving-as-shopping-day doesn't seem to have stopped any of last year's corporate culprits.

As I wrote last year:

We need Thanksgiving. It celebrates and refreshes our national spirit. It brings us together. And in these troubled times, when we are so viciously split by contentious issues, we need all the reminders we can get that we're one country.

Sacrificing all that Thanksgiving represents for the sake of consumerism is not just crass, it's destructive to our national unity.

(Read the whole thing. It was a good post, if I say so myself.)

So again, I say to you:

If you care about the well-being of the country, not to mention your family, friends and neighbors, don't shop on Thanksgiving.