The Police Killing of Muhammad Muhaymin Jr.

July 11th, 2020

In 2017, Phoenix police officers arrested Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. over a “failure to appear in court over a charge stemming from misdemeanor possession of a marijuana pipe.” Officers killed the man during the course of the arrest. This is your War on Drugs.

Goldberg on Locke

July 11th, 2020

Jonah Goldberg has an interesting article out, “The Most Serious Attacks on the Founding Come From the Right.” One of Goldberg’s claims is that John Locke, although very influential on the American Founding, was not as influential as often assumed: “There’s ample evidence that his work in epistemology and psychology—then called ‘natural philosophy’—impressed the Founders greatly. But the Second Treatise on Government . . . simply wasn’t the Book That Changed Everything. I don’t say any of this to disparage Locke, but simply to note that Locke reflected ideas and principles that were already thick on the ground at the time.” He cites an article by Oscar and Lilian Handlin along these lines.

Goldberg also defends (classical) liberalism in his Newsweek column. He makes a lot of great points, but I think he concedes too much ground here: “There are a myriad downsides to radical individualism. America’s troubles today are inextricably linked with the breakdown of the family, local institutions, communities, organized religion and social trust.” What we might call atomistic individualism has always been a straw man version of individualism.

An aside: Goldberg mentions an article by Joseph Stengel on the origins of the Fourth Amendment.

The Possibility of Plasma

July 11th, 2020

Scientists have devised a way to use the antibody-rich blood plasma of COVID-19 survivors for an upper-arm injection that they say could inoculate people against the virus for months. . . . But the idea exists only on paper. Federal officials have twice rejected requests to discuss the proposal, and pharmaceutical companies—even acknowledging the likely efficacy of the plan—have declined to design or manufacture the shots, according to a [Los Angeles] Times investigation.”

I am continually amazed by how poor the American response to COVID-19 is—and how good it could be if people got serious about it.

Bailout Nation

July 7th, 2020

Prosecutors say [there have been] tens of thousands of attempts to rip off governments by fraudulently filing for expanded unemployment benefits or lying on applications for the Paycheck Protection Program.”

Racism in Ohio

July 6th, 2020

Is there racism in America today? As video from Bethel, Ohio clearly indicates, the clear answer is yes. See also Buzzfeed‘s report.

See also a report about a disturbing racist incident in Indiana.

A Death in Atlanta

July 5th, 2020

An 8-year-old girl died after she was shot during a night of violence across metro Atlanta. . . . The girl was riding in a car “confronted by a group of armed individuals.” This was one of “multiple other shootings across Atlanta.” See more about the other shootings.

A Black Militia

July 5th, 2020

There’s a black militia group in Atlanta called the “Not F***ing Around Coalition.” See also video of a march. The overtly racial tone of the group worries me.

Hogeland Versus Hamilton

July 4th, 2020

Among my friends and associates are Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. One friend recommends William Hogeland’s 2007 article that harshly criticizes Hamilton. Hogeland is especially interested in Hamilton’s role in the Newburgh Crisis and in the creation of taxes on domestic goods, which Hogeland characterizes as “taxes that straitjacket markets, restrict opportunity, reduce competition, punish small operators, cripple local economies, and offer government cronies bonanzas at the direct expense of other citizens.” Hogeland also harshly criticizes Hamilton’s response to the whiskey rebels: “Using the military to trounce the rule of law and violate civil rights was integral to his vision of federal power, national wealth, and a strong union.”

Criticism of Alden

July 2nd, 2020

I’ve shared a few critical remarks about Alden Global Capital but pointed out that Alden is operating within a broader market that is brutal for newspapers. Ultimately, Alden makes money in the newspaper business because subscribers keep paying and journalists keep writing.

Savannah Jacobson has a new article out that criticizes Alden.

Vouchers for Religious Schools

June 30th, 2020

This is a very big ruling: “In a landmark 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a state court may not strike down a school choice program simply because it permits families to choose religious schooling.”

Yet, as I have continually pointed out, this is not a straightforward win for liberty. There are real church-state issues here: A voucher program that funds religious schools forces some people to subsidize religious institutions that they oppose.

As a practical matter, at least in Colorado, the result likely will be to shut down voucher programs. However, there’s some chance some school district will embrace vouchers. I can even imagine a statewide ballot measure.

Olson on Religious Liberty

June 29th, 2020

Walter Olsen has a good run-down of important laws and court decisions pertaining to religious liberty.

Yet I have a question about how all this works out. Olsen writes, “Religious institutions, including church schools, enjoy an additional cordon of constitutional protection under a series of cases that include the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2012 Hosanna‐​Tabor ruling on the employment of religious teachers, in which liberal and conservative Justices locked arms to defend church autonomy.” As I asked, “Does this mean a religious school may discriminate on the basis of religion (to hire all Protestants, say), but a secular school may NOT so discriminate (to hire only atheists)?”

Olsen also points to David French’s article on religious liberty.

Douglass on the Freedmen’s Monument

June 28th, 2020

David W. Blight has a really nice op-ed about the Freedmen’s Monument, which some people want to tear down: “A huge parade involving nearly every black organization in the city preceded the dedication of the monument on April 14, 1876. . . . Horse-drawn carriages transported master of ceremonies and Howard University law school dean, John Mercer Langston, and the orator of the day, Frederick Douglass, a resident of that neighborhood. . . . The $20,000 used to build the monument had been raised among black Americans, most of them former slaves.”

The Smithsonian has the text of Douglass’s speech.

Timothy Sandefur has more on Douglass’s views of the memorial.

License Portability in Colorado

June 28th, 2020

Colorado governor Jared “Polis signs bipartisan occupational licensing portability bill.” The bill in question is HB20-1326.

Shapiro on the Drug War

June 27th, 2020

Ilya Shapiro has a lengthy article out, “This is Your Constitution on Drugs.”

The U.S. Testing Fiasco

June 27th, 2020

Paul Romer discusses “the massive damage that the FDA is doing by restricting the supply and use of tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” He notes that “although the FDA promptly approved the broken test from the CDC, it took an excruciatingly long time to approve tests that actually worked.” Romer includes many details and many citations pointing to specific aspects of the problem. Maddening.

Mars Helicopter

June 27th, 2020

NASA plans to send a small, solar-charged helicopter to Mars next year.

Protests and COVID-19

June 27th, 2020

So this is an interesting finding: “Black Lives Matter protests increased net stay-at-home behavior, likely among non-protesters, and COVID-19 case growth did not increase.” Of course, we are seeing case growth around much of the U.S., so it would interesting to know how much COVID-19 did spread through the protests, even if there was a stronger offsetting effect. Based on headlines I’m seeing it seems like bars and parties are a big part of the current rise.

Lowery on Objectivity

June 27th, 2020

Here I want to address Wesley Lowery’s interesting take on journalistic objectivity in more detail. Here is what Lowery wrote on June 3, in response to the New York Times running an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton about the protests titled, “Send In the Troops”: “There are so many black people who I love and care about who work at the NYT, and they deserve so much better than to have their own employer endangering not only their lives but the lives of their friends and families and millions of other Americans. American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” (I’m editing slightly for formatting throughout.) A key thing to notice here is that Lowery puts the term “objectivity” in quote marks. (For far-future readers: The context here is the mass protests that followed the brutal police killing of George Floyd.)

I mentioned Lowery’s remarks in my June 22 column defending journalistic objectivity. When I wrote the piece, I was not aware of Lowery’s June 11 follow-up comments on Twitter: “I think a lot of people are projecting a lot onto a quote that was the second tweet of a thread specifically about the Cotton op-ed and assuming it to mean something it does not. ‘Moral clarity’ is, first and foremost, about objective facts. Nazis are bad—objective fact. Black lives matter—objective fact. Climate change is real—objective fact. President Trump is a liar—objective fact.” This squares very well with my conception of objectivity. In this view, objectivity is fundamentally about an orientation to the facts, and there is no conflict between moral clarity and objectivity. Indeed, the two are inseparable; the idea that the facts matter is a moral view.

I want to turn now to Masha Gessen’s really nice article that picks up on Lowery’s insistence on moral clarity. (This pointed me to Lowery’s June 11 remarks.) I do think Gessen gets off on the wrong foot in suggesting that some journalists think that moral clarity is “terrible.” I don’t think any journalist actually thinks that. I think various journalists share my concern that some journalists might (as I put the point) “confuse moral clarity with prejudicial obstinance.”

Gessen observes that news outlets, in covering the protests, can choose to either “amplify the state” or “raise up voices that have been marginalized throughout history.” Gessen notes that a publication can opt “to do both.” I think this is a false choice when it comes to writing a news story. A good reporter will convey the entire picture, not simply by reflecting the views expressed by various parties during interviews, but by digging beneath people’s claims and putting the claims in context. The point of a news report is to convey to readers what is really going on, at a deep level, not, fundamentally, to “amplify” or “raise up” the agenda of one party. Of course, the facts very often support one cause over another, as a journalist is aware. And of course a journalist will face any number of difficult judgment calls about what to include and what to omit.

Gessen is largely concerned with how to handle a paper’s editorial pages, and here Gessen raises some important issues: “In making editorial decisions, [a paper] defines what it sees as the sphere of legitimate controversy, a term coined by the historian Daniel Hallin to describe what news outlets find suitable to publish.” (I referred to this as “Overton’s Window.”) Gessen continues: “Until recently, ideas such as defunding or abolishing the police fell outside the sphere of legitimate controversy—in Hallin’s terminology, they fell into the sphere of deviance, which meant that the papers did not amplify or even acknowledge them. But the idea of using the military to crush protests used to seem deviant, too.” This is a bit of a trick, I think; “defunding” the police, which means roughly to reduce the budget and scope of activity of the police, is a fundamentally different aim than abolishing the police. Going on a diet is hardly on par with not eating at all. But the broader point remains about choosing which views to consider.

Gessen quotes Susan Neiman as saying that moral clarity entails “looking at all the facts, looking at all the context.” This makes moral clarity practically synonymous with objectivity.

Gessen also quotes some of Lowery’s remarks from March 2: “Knowing where my own biases are / who I believe is right/wrong on an issue is what enables better and more fair questioning and reporting. Being honest with readers begins by being honest with ourselves. So often the questions that get the best/most insightful answers are posed from a place of moral clarity. Questioning someone powerful from a place of ‘neutrality’ often, in practice, results in journalism that is inappropriately soft in its framing (see: dapper Nazis).”

I think Lowery is largely right here about neutrality. After seeing the video of George Floyd’s death, there was no way I could be neutral with respect whether the killing was justified. It clearly was not. (Note: A judge needs to maintain legal neutrality when hearing the case.) So a journalist hardly should focus a story on the cops’ rationalizations for killing Floyd. But if a journalist hears of a new case of police killing someone, the proper place to start, with respect to whether the killing was justified, is neutrality. Sometimes the evidence is not in, and a journalist should not make assumptions prior to evaluating any of the relevant facts.

I’ll repeat my concern from my column: “One of my concerns about the new brand of activist journalists is that in their rush to do what they already ‘know’ in their hearts is right they may obscure rather than bring to light the relevant facts and thereby ultimately undermine authentic justice and human well-being. The line between righteous moralizing and self-righteous partisan pandering can, in practice, become thin and easily breached.”

I quite like Gessen’s framing here: “Moral clarity is a quest, guided by clear values and informed by facts and context, and clearly aligned with the original concept of journalistic objectivity.”

Gessen follows this up with a ridiculous statement: “There cannot be arguments about facts.” I think what Gessen means is that we should accept clearly established facts. That’s obvious. The problem is that facts often are not clearly established. Take the retraction of papers about hydroxychloroquine. Or the scientific controversy over “COVID toe.” In the case of the police killing of Elijah McClain in Colorado, one of the officers claimed McClain reached for the gun of one of the officers. Although I find that very hard to believe, so far as I’m aware there’s no decisive evidence either way. (The broader context is that police had no good reason to hassle McClain in the first place.) People reasonably debate complex facts all the time, in every field of study. Part of being objective means recognizing when the evidence for some fact is overwhelming, when it is merely suggestive, and when it is inconclusive. The facts are what they are regardless of what we think about them. Objectivity pertains to how we learn about facts, and often that is an extremely difficult and challenging process.

Gessen offers some interesting examples of what is up for debate. Gay marriage used to be up for debate, now it isn’t. I agree gay marriage is the right policy and there’s no point further debating it in this country at least in the context of mass media. “Whether Americans should have access to universal, taxpayer-funded health care is currently subject to debate; with any luck, in ten years, it will not be,” Gessen writes. Here I disagree. Regardless, what is up for widespread debate in a given culture obviously is not the same as what is factually true. Whether or not the U.S. passes “universal” health care, and whether or not people actively debate it, is independent of whether the policy, in fact, is just and supportive of human well-being (considering the long term and the full context).

Now I turn to Lowery’s June 23 op-ed for the New York Times, “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.”

Lowery, again, pushes back against a certain corrupted view of objectivity: “Since American journalism’s pivot many decades ago from an openly partisan press to a model of professed objectivity, the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses. And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers. On opinion pages, the contours of acceptable public debate have largely been determined through the gaze of white editors.”

I take his point. I merely add that what he is addressing is not actually objectivity, properly conceived. Indeed, what he is actually advocating is more objective news reporting, journalism that takes better account of the full range of relevant facts.

Lowery favorably quotes Alex S. Jones, who contrasts “he-said/she-said reporting” with “authentic objectivity.”

Lowery makes a great point here: “Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.” I simply add the caveat: A journalist needs to make sure that the reported “facts” actually are facts and that other relevant facts have not been left out. Sometimes journalists simply get the facts wrong, or they fail to include obviously relevant facts, and they should be called out for that.

Lowery advocates abandoning “the appearance of objectivity” in favor of “being fair and telling the truth.” As I’d put the point, journalists should be objective, not hide behind an illusion of objectivity.

Then Lowery goes off the rails by arguing that, because newsrooms are driven by “subjective decision-making,” “No journalistic process is objective. And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is.” Here Lowery makes two mistakes. First, he takes the inescapable optionality within news reporting as evidence against objectivity. But it isn’t. As I’ve said, a hundred reporters each would write the same story in a hundred different ways, yet each could be objective in its approach (or each could be non-objective). Objectivity entails recognition that certain decisions are morally optional—and certain decisions are morally necessary. Second, Lowery seems to presume here that moral judgments cannot be objective, which undermines his entire case against moral clarity.

Lowery’s errors carry over into his misunderstanding of bias. He suggests reporters must embrace rather than seek to overcome their biases, as the latter would lead to “public thoughtlessness.” That’s totally wrong. Having a moral point of view is not a bias, provided one’s moral point of view is deeply informed by facts and aimed at a sensible end (broadly, human well-being). A bias is a tendency or habit or temptation to believe something in the absence of facts or in contradiction to the relevant facts. A bias is always something that is dangerous and always something we should seek to overcome. Again, bias does not mean having a point of view; it means having a point of view rooted in fallacy and prejudice.

I like Lowery’s focus on accuracy and on “diligently seek[ing] out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree.” In effect, he is setting up guardrails against bias (properly understood).

Lowery is exactly right that reporters should avoid “simply rewriting a law enforcement news release.” Indeed, that extends to news releases from any source.

Lowery then has a thoughtful discussion about the Cotton op-ed; this is well worth reading (I have nothing to add here).

Lowery makes a great observation about the dynamics of social media: “Individual reporters now have followings of our own on social media platforms, granting us the ability to speak directly to the public. It is, then, no coincidence that after decades of pleading with management, black journalists are now making demands on Twitter.”

Although I quibble with Lowery’s conceptualization of objectivity and bias, I think he basically gets the substance right. He has become an important voice of our era. Read his work.

Senseless Violence

June 26th, 2020

Most people who have participated in the mass protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd have been peaceful and focused on needed reforms.

Some hanger-on rioters have hurt people and destroyed property.

In Wisconsin, rioters badly beat self-described “Gay, Progressive, Democratic [State] Senator” Tim Carpenter.

Illegal Adoption Scheme

June 25th, 2020

This is a bizarre case: “A former elected official in Arizona [Paul Petersen] who paid pregnant women as much as $10,000 to travel to the United States illegally to give up their newborn children for adoption pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a federal human smuggling conspiracy charge, the authorities said.” I suspect this case will give libertarian theorists fits if they look into it.

Deferring to Official Sources Is Not Objective

June 25th, 2020

Here’s a peculiar line I just read about objectivity in journalism (original here): “When White reporters cover issues involving race, they often fall back on traditional, passive practices of objectivity, such as deferring to official sources and remaining separate from communities.” That is just a complete distortion of what objectivity means. A reporter who defers to official sources is being nonobjective, not objective. Being objective entails actively going after the facts and cutting through the biases and often-self-serving rhetoric of official sources. So the remark reflects an important criticism of actual practices, it just has nothing to do with objectivity properly conceived.

Stone on Police Violence

June 25th, 2020

Economist Lyman Stone has out a new article on police violence. The main finding is that police in the U.S. kill a lot of people, some 1,700 people per year: “Police violence in America is extraordinary in its intensity. It is disproportionate to the actual threats facing police officers, and it has risen significantly in recent years without apparent justification.”

What’s the problem? Stone: “Police unions . . . cause higher rates of police killings by shielding bad cops from discipline. . . . [P]olice unions have military-grade equipment they can use to violently crush protests against their abuses, and they are legally immune from most consequences.”

Is there a racial component to this? Other reports suggest not. Stone, citing a recent study by Mark Hoekstra and CarlyWill Sloan, says yes: “Using the unpredictable and somewhat random patterns of 911 calls and what police happen to be dispatched in response as an approximation of a more formal randomized study, a team of economists recently demonstrated that white officers in particular are much more likely to use potentially lethal force against black citizens. When randomly dispatched into more heavily black neighborhoods, white officers’ odds of shooting someone quadrupled, while there was virtually no change for black officers. This study controlled for crime patterns at the time of day and in the neighborhood to which the officer was dispatched, and was able to observe black and white officers dispatched into the same neighborhoods, and the same officers dispatched into multiple different neighborhoods. It is by far the most robust study of racial bias in policing yet conducted, and found an enormous effect that can best be described as racial bias leading to excessive use of force, especially lethal force. Racial bias in police killings is real.”

Mount Rushmore

June 25th, 2020

I thought the AP did a nice job of putting the story of Mount Rushmore in context. From the modern vantage point, I think it was a bad idea to erect the monument there. But, unlike regular statues, the monument obviously cannot be moved. So my take: Live with it and learn from it as an artifact of American history.

The Russell Senate Office Building

June 25th, 2020

I happened to be on Peter Boyles’s radio show today and he mentioned that Senator Michael Bennet wants to rename the Russell Senate Office Building. I got the impression Boyles doesn’t think much of the move; I made a noncommittal remark because I didn’t know about the story.

Bennet called for the renaming of the building on June 12. The building was named after Democratic Georgia Senator Richard Russell Jr., who served in the Senate from 1933 through 1971. There is no doubt that Russell was an open segregationists and a coauthor of the 1956 Southern Manifesto.

Originally called simply the Senate Office Building (SOB), the building opened in 1909. The building was not named for Russell until 1972, a year after Russell’s death. Senator Robert Byrd, in suggesting the change, said of Russell, “I do not think any man who has ever served in this body contributed more of his intellect, his knowledge, and his extraordinary skills, to enhance the integrity of the Senate, which he so deeply revered.” Another Democratic Senator, Philip Hart, “took the position that the Senate was acting too soon after the two senators’ deaths [Russell and Everett Dirksen] and should delay acting until ‘history’s estimate’ of them could be recorded.” In retrospect that seems like a prudent take.

Incidentally, long ago I worked as an intern for Senator Hank Brown, who worked out of the Hart Senate Office Building, named, ironically, for Philip Hart.

Elijah McClain

June 24th, 2020

Elijah McClain was a young Black man who was killed by police officers in Aurora, Colorado. Reading the in-depth portrait of McClain by Grant Stringer, it’s very difficult to imagine that McClain, a massage therapist who literally would not hurt a fly, presented any threat, whatsoever, to the police. McClain was, by all accounts, an unusual young man. He routinely wore his running mask out in public, perhaps (a friend of his speculated) to ease his social anxiety, perhaps to ward off the chills. He went to the store to buy some items for his cousin and was walking home, wearing his mask and “flailing his arms,” i.e., (probably) dancing. For that someone called the cops on him. The police who confronted him had no indication he may have committed any crime. Police say McClain ignored their commands, which, so far as I can tell, they had no authority to give. Police said McClain was in an “agitated mental state”—it’s “funny” how people tend to get “agitated” when police screw with them for no good reason. The police called the fire department, and fire paramedics gave McClain ketamine. Police also put McClain in a choke hold. The lawyer of McClain’s family described the officer’s treatment of McClain as torture (this all from Stringer’s account). At one point “an officer threatened to sick a dog on” McClain, Stringer writes. Amazingly, the officers’ cameras became “dislodged.” McClain’s heart stopped on the way to the hospital, and he died several days later.

Subsequent reports indicate that the officers claim that McClain tried to grab one of the officer’s guns. That doesn’t add up to me. Anyway, the officers had no legitimate business hassling the man to begin with. The officers are now back on the job.