Archive for the ‘Duuuh’ Category

Sam Harris and the Fundamental Things: Do They Apply?

March 4, 2011

Well, not exactly. Sam Harris, the affable atheist who claims that a system of morality can be established by scientific thinking, leaves a hole in his system big enough to drive a juggernaut through. He starts with the age-old utilitarian presumption that pain is bad and pleasure is good, and the even more preposterous presumption that everybody agrees on those two truisms.

Let’s look at the purely material facts. It took medical science, in the guise of the National Institutes of Health, until the late 1960s to discover that physical pain is bad for you. Duuuh. Until then, it was regarded as, at best, merely a symptom, an indicator of some other problem. It was useful, and interesting, only to the extent that it was a valid and scalable indicator (that is, that severe pain indicated a serious problem, while minor pain correlated with a minor problem. Which in fact ain’t necessarily so.) The use of anesthesia for surgery goes back to the ancient Greeks and their contemporaries in India and China. But it was used, not because it made the patient feel better, but because it’s easier to operate on a patient who can’t fight back. Medical science (such as it was) was perfectly fine with pain in situations that did not inconvenience the physician or, more especially, the surgeon. (Docs here, please feel free to argue this point.) Which is why anesthesia for childbirth was not widely used until the late 19th century, and faced strong opposition from both the medical profession and religious authorities then.

Religious authorities. Ah yes, there’s the rub. There’s where Sam Harris meets his unacknowledged opposition. Genesis 3:16 portrays the Holy One telling Eve, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth.” So the Victorian divines told their medical opposite numbers, who are you to mess with the divine plan? Women are supposed to have pain in childbirth. It took Queen Victoria herself to overwhelm these pronouncements by having her 7th, 8th, and 9th children delivered with the assistance of chloroform. (Her Majesty was in many ways not all that Victorian. She was also one of the first people in England to have a telephone in her home.)

Well, okay, Jeremy Bentham had propounded, long before Victoria made pain relief in childbirth socially acceptable, the philosophy of utilitarianism, the goal of which was the greatest good (which he pretty much equated with pleasure, or at any rate the absence of pain) of the greatest number. But the church authorities didn’t like him much better than they liked anesthesia. From their point of view, Bentham was barking up the wrong tree. Material well-being was irrelevant to them. And that point of view did not die out with the Victorians. It is still with us today. Innumerable religious thinkers even today tell us that suffering is not merely inevitable but, in many instances, good for us.

The most intelligent and graceful defense of this position is probably that of C. S. Lewis, in his two masterful books (separated by 20 years and the death of his beloved wife), The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed. Suffering, he tells us, is the Holy One’s tool for helping us become better and ultimately perfected.

The Roman Catholic view of suffering was that the sufferer could “offer up” her suffering as a form of prayer, or more accurately a form of sacrifice, to help redeem the world. Dunno whether this is still current. There is something to be said for this approach to unavoidable pain—it gives it meaning, and may thereby make it more endurable. But, at least in the Middle Ages, and even today in some monastic and ascetic communities (such as, famously, Opus Dei), people have been encouraged to deliberately seek out pain, and even inflict it on themselves, in order to be able to use it, either for one’s own spiritual improvement or for the redemption of the world, or both. Orthodox Muslims seem to follow these same paths, up to and including self-inflicted suffering.

The Jewish tradition, while it does not encourage voluntary suffering, is realistic about the prevalence of unavoidable pain (as one would expect from its history.) We believe in relieving pain and suffering to the extent possible given the science and technology of the day, but we also try to confer meaning on unavoidable pain. That’s the whole point of the Book of Job.

The Buddha teaches that suffering is intrinsic to normal human existence (that’s the First Noble Truth), and that most of the ways we use to avoid or lessen it don’t work (that’s the Second one), but that enlightenment as to the true nature of human existence can enable us to transcend it (that’s #3.)

The Stoics did a lot of thinking about suffering too. They were, so far as I can tell, the first to stand the inevitable why me? on its head and ask why not me? Who am I to be exempt from the normal costs of human existence? Why should I find my own suffering any more problematic than the much greater suffering of enormous numbers of other beings, past, present,and future? They did expect this contemplation to make suffering more endurable, which is a little hard for us moderns to accept, but it’s still an approach worth taking.

Sam Harris is, of course, a neo-utilitarian who doesn’t even give credit where credit is due (thereby, according to the Talmud, postponing the redemption of the world. But I digress.) For his fellow neo-utilitarians, his argument is perfectly sound. But he’s ignoring a large proportion of the human race, which is downright dangerous, and for sure isn’t good science, since it skews the rest of his sample. Sure, it is possible to establish a utilitarian morality which is scientifically valid, if you start with utilitarian premises and are addressing only other people who accept those premises. That’s not science, that’s just technology.

Jane Grey

Snowpocalypse Now

February 2, 2011

Happy Ground Hog Day to all! Apparently the entire central US, from Oklahoma to Maine, is on the wrong end of a massive snowstorm, just as Australia is bracing for a historically huge typhoon and Cairo and its environs are bracing for actual all-out battle. We are all in the middle of an Irving Allen scenario. Here in Chicago, we have been getting blizzed since yesterday afternoon. The Public Safety people just gave a press conference in which they said, essentially, “Stay home. If you absolutely have to go anywhere, call ahead first to make sure somebody is there. If nobody answers, stay home!!” The fact that none of them were calling from home somewhat blunted the effectiveness of this counsel.

Punxsutawney (sp?) Phil apparently violated this very good advice to come out at dawn today and predict an early spring. It can’t come early enough for me right now. Outside, I can hear our super running the snowblower, which he has been doing since roughly 6 AM. I do admire that man.


The Home Mortgage Deduction

November 24, 2010

Boon or Boondoggle?

The Simpson-Bowles proposal strikes me as the outcome of a joint bipartisan fit of pique. “Take that, you free-lunchitarians of both parties!” It’s hard to blame the authors. I feel that way myself quite a lot these days. But the proposal to eliminate the home mortgage deduction strikes me as really ill-conceived, or at least ill-timed. The Wired family is surely not alone in residing in a property that would be worth a whole lot less than a rental if it were not for the home mortgage deduction. We refinanced some years ago; it might have been a really frivolous and bad idea except that, as it turned out, we consummated the deal shortly after I spent a month under bed arrest after major emergency surgery, unable to work and not yet on Social Security or Medicare. Without the proceeds of the refi, we would have been in real trouble. But as a result, most of what we are paying for our mortgage these days is interest. And, since we live in a condo, the monthly assessment for which is only slightly less than the rent on an apartment of similar vintage, if we weren’t getting the deduction, we would be a lot better off renting. Except, of course, that, without the deduction, a lot of other people would have much less incentive to buy our place, so we would have a hard time selling it. This would create a whole new housing market crisis, even if we were not currently in one.

Like most of us, I am familiar with the arguments against the home mortgage deduction, and agree with many of them. But I feel roughly the same way about it that many “centrists” feel about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and used to feel about the Vietnam war: it was a bad idea getting into them, but getting out is going to hurt a whole lot of innocent people. At the moment, it would probably be the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off in our economic system.

If I thought there were any chance of Simpson-Bowles being legislated in its entirety, I would be really worried. But I think what the authors really did was just list all the “third rails” of our current polity and crunch the numbers, knowing—and probably intending– all the while that this was a purely theoretical exercise, or maybe a wish list.

Jane Grey

“Teachers’ Pay Not Linked to Success”

April 19, 2010

Thus read the headline on today’s Chicago Sun-Times. As I walked past the news box and scanned it, I could only say “Duuuuh.” Most people’s pay is not linked to success at whatever their jobs require them to accomplish. Harvard Business School does studies on this issue every so often. The last one I recall reading about, which was looking only at salary levels for its own graduates, controlled for all the factors it could measure, and finally concluded that the crucial variable was physical height. People who have ever been unemployed for more than a few months will have lower-than-average salaries for the rest of their working lives, regardless of how well they do their jobs. People who have been notably underpaid at any stage in their work history (women, for instance) will go on being underpaid for the rest of their working lives, because most employers calibrate a worker’s pay based on his/her previous pay.

Well, okay, that probably wasn’t what the headline really meant. I took a look at the article over lunch, and it really defined “success” in terms of the test results of the students. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether student test results are a valid measure of teacher competence and dedication.) How, one may ask, is this different from Wall Street bonuses, which fall upon the competent and the incompetent, those who lead their companies into success and failure, with equal frequency?

I suppose it’s different because the Wall Street managers don’t have a union, and have to accomplish this remarkable feat of economic ledgerdemain one at a time, a tribute to the spirit of American individualism. Ain’t free enterprise grand?

Red Emma

A Match Made In California, and Other Ephemera

March 29, 2010

I’m sure that somewhere, there must be a personals section of some publication which starts out with an ad for “middle-aged, pudgy, balding man with good sense of humor and strong sex drive seeking “real woman with curves, PhD, and black belt for good times,” and halfway down the page shows another ad for “real woman with curves, PhD, and black belt” seeking “middle-aged, pudgy, balding man with good sense of humor and strong sex drive for good times.” It probably happens fairly often with slightly less precise duplication. So was I the only person noticing the other day, when NPR broadcast at the beginning of ATC a piece on the dire finances of the California state government, which is cutting all sorts of essential services for lack of funds, and maybe 20 minutes later, another piece on a legislative proposal in the same state to decriminalize recreational use of marijuana by adults and permit local governments to regulate and tax it? This would greatly alleviate the financial mess in the Golden State by simultaneously reducing expenditures on police, courts, and prisons while providing a new source of revenue. Duh!!

And then there’s the likely new prime minister of Iraq, Allad Allawi (sp?) who is routinely referred to in the news as a “secular Shi’ite.” My Jewish affiliations make it easy for me to recognize this locution—it identifies the politician in terms of the mosque at which he does not pray. Reminds me of the want ad allegedly posted in a Belfast paper twenty-odd years ago, which specified that the job was to be filled by “Protestant—need not be Christian.” Now that we in this country are seeing a lot of “cultural Catholics,” we need to get used to this stuff. John Steinbeck, in “Pepin the Great,” depicted a French Chamber of Deputies in which one of the major parties was the “Christian Atheists.” It’s only a matter of time.

And then there’s the current government of Burma, which is asking the world to allow it to make “a gentle transition to democracy.” Hard to know how to take that.

Red Emma

The Flabby Arm of the Law

September 11, 2009

Some of our colleagues are disturbed that the US government seems lackluster in its enforcement of immigration law.  If we were paying attention, this would surprise no one.  It is only a special case of a reality so long-established and widespread in this country that it isn’t even a “problem,” it’s just an essential component of our culture. Americans don’t like law enforcement roughly 50% of the time.  Or, as our daughter puts it, every American law includes one invisible clause: “except me.”

Our various ancestors came here in the first place to get away from onerous economic and legal systems in the Old Country.  Sure, the Puritans immediately set up what seemed like an equally onerous system here.  But read Perry Miller and George Demos on how it actually worked out.  The Puritans anti-sex?  Not if you count the number of public rebukes for fornication and adultery, and the number of “premature” births.  In the era before TV and central heating, the Puritans did what they had to to keep warm and entertained.  Anti-violence? Anti-theft?  Read the stats.

More important, consider what our ancestors, like our own legislators today, used the law for.  First, (Wired’s First Law) nobody legislates against what nobody does.  The existence of a law against fornication isn’t evidence of a society’s high regard for chastity.  It is precisely the opposite.  The people whose lawmakers pass such legislation know their constituents screw around (as, a fortiori, do the lawmakers themselves.)  They just want to get on the record, when they have the time to get out of that unsanctified bed, that they know it’s wrong.

Same goes for drunk driving, indoor smoking, drug use, and exceeding the speed limit.  We use these statutes mainly to proclaim that We Are Nice People.  Not that we are people who don’t drive drunk, smoke indoors, use drugs, and speed.

That’s purpose #1 of American laws. Purpose #2 is the control of “undesirables.”  We are also a thrifty lot, who don’t like to let useful stuff go to waste.  Now that we have all those laws lying around on the books, why not use them to keep Those Other People in line?  Prohibition, clearly, was a Protestant movement to keep those wine-bibbing, beer-guzzling Italian and German Catholics from having too much fun.  The War on Drugs began as a war on African-Americans and graduated to a war on hippies.  The only prosecution for fornication in an egregiously well-known Southern state in the 1960s involved two African-American honor students who were active in the Civil Rights movement.  You get the picture.  Once the statute books are full of laws everybody violates, everybody is vulnerable to prosecution.  We can pick and choose among our potential defendants.  Should anyone be surprised if those who do the choosing concentrate on Those Other People?

Every now and then, some court finds this bias too blatant to be acceptable.  That was what happened in San Francisco, roughly a century ago, in Yick Wo vs. Hopkins, the grandmother of all discriminatory prosecution cases, in which Mayor Mark Hopkins decided to close down all wood-frame buildings used as laundries, which—surprise!—included almost all Chinese laundries and almost no non-Chinese laundries.  Even the US Supreme Court of that era, hardly a bastion of equal protection (the same guys who brought us “separate but equal” Plessy vs. Ferguson and “three generations of imbeciles is enough” Buck vs. Bell,) thought that was too much.*  Every now and then the courts still follow that precedent, though mostly they just nibble away at it like ducks at a pizza, and hope for it to disappear entirely some day.

Legislators get lots of good publicity out of designating a Serious Problem and then passing a law against it.  Occasionally, they run into embarrassed staffers who, having been assigned to research The Problem and draft the law, discover there already is such a law.  Legislators do not get good publicity from merely proposing to enforce a law that has been on the books for a century.  That’s just “the nanny state.”  The laws that actually get enforced are a small proportion of those on the books, and the proportion of violations of those laws that actually generate prosecutions is even smaller.

Every now and then, one of Us gets busted for breaking a law clearly aimed at Them, and complains about it.  “The only reason I got stopped for speeding was that it was easier for the cops to catch me because I was only going five miles over the limit when everybody else was going fifteen miles over the limit. It isn’t fair.”  Most of the time, as noted earlier, the courts disregard this argument, unless it seems to have really blatant racial, ethnic, or religious implications.  Being the slowest-moving lawbreaker on the road is a bad idea.  Most people know better. OTOH, prosecutions for Driving While Black are actually attracting lots of negative publicity these days, and many jurisdictions are cracking down on them. (For more information, check this out

But most of the time, even local judges are not too bashful to say, of a defendant who is about to catch an unexpected break from the criminal justice system, that s/he “is not a member of the criminal class.”  (I’ve heard it myself, and probably many of you gentle readers have too.)  At heart, we are all Aristotelians.  We believe character determines fate, what you are determines what should happen to you, and what you have done in the past is our best guide to what you are.  So if you are a high school dropout with no visible means of support and a record of minor misdemeanors, we have no trouble concluding you must be more guilty of buying or selling cocaine than the solid, middle-class citizen next to you.  This is common sense, and tends to be accurate more often than not.  As long as we don’t really feel obliged to determine whether the high school dropout etc. actually made the drug sale/purchase in question, we figure he will get what’s coming to him more often than not, and that’s close enough for government work.

In conclusion, the reason “the Sixties” are still a hissing and a byword among hard-line conservatives is not that people actually became less law-abiding, but that they became less willing to accept the American deal—act like a solid citizen most of the time, don’t flaunt your lawbreaking, and we will treat you like a solid citizen unless you are Black or poor or Indian or Mexican or gay.  People who were not any of those things suddenly began breaking laws in public, and worse still, objecting to laws against sex, drugs, and harmless recreation, proclaiming that We Are Not Necessarily Nice People, and shouldn’t have to be.  That way lies Armageddon, Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes… The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

So the immigration laws are a relatively minor casualty of something a lot bigger and a lot harder to clean up.  God’s Own Party has, wisely for their purposes, chosen to go about enforcing those laws by turning all illegal immigrants, and most legal immigrants, into Those Other People, unlettered Hispanics sneaking in here to take jobs and welfare benefits from good Amurricans.  It seems to be working.  Maybe it shouldn’t be.

Red Emma

Do Americans Watch Too Many Hospital Shows?

July 31, 2009

Watching Marcus Welby may have led Americans of a Certain Age to expect house calls and long conversations with their doctors.  Watching ER may have led younger Americans to expect a lot of noisy rapid action.  Watching Grey’s Anatomy or General Hospital may have led many of us to sneak a peek into supposedly empty hospital rooms in hope of catching younger medical personnel in flagrante delicto.  Popular culture undoubtedly shapes our expectations of the health care system, for better and for worse.

Age, class, and gender play their part, too.  Younger males, especially blue-collar men, want as little contact with the health care system as possible.  Real men don’t go to doctors and don’t take meds.  Real blue-collar men watch ESPN, which rarely deals with medical issues other than the ingestion of illegal substances by professional athletes. Naturally, this tends to make doctors, when seen at all, the bad guys.

Women generally get stuck functioning as the designated interface with the health care system on behalf of everybody else in the family until they are old enough to need somebody else to handle those duties on their own behalf.

Middle-class, educated, white-collar Americans have higher expectations, because in addition to watching Private Practice and Hawthorne, they read Scientific American and the Health section of the daily paper.  Which leads them into the same trap we collectively fall into:  losing track of the distinction between what we can imagine being able to do, what science has worked out the how-tos for but not implemented yet, what elite medical care can provide if paid enough for it, what is actually being done in the majority of American facilities, and what poor people can get if they’re really lucky.  The popular culture culprit here may not be a hospital show at all, but CSI and other purveyors of gee-whiz technology.  In an earlier generation, we didn’t have so much trouble realizing that Dr. McCoy’s scanner was a couple of centuries away. Today, we rarely think about the fact that the various non-invasive technologies for imaging and surgery  that we really do have available now are EXPENSIVE.  ER was pretty good about discussing the financial facts of medical life where they were relevant to the plotline, but of course, in an emergency room, the law requires every bona fide emergency patient to be treated regardless of ability to pay, so the issue didn’t necessarily come up until much later, usually long after the show was over.

Quite possibly what popular culture and the health care system should be working on together is a medical version of Car Talk.  You know, that Public Radio show on which, every Saturday morning, two Italian-American mechanics (both MIT-educated, and one of whom has a PhD, so much for blue-collar credentials) take questions from listeners nationwide about the foibles and failings of cars and mechanics.  They have a pretty healthy and realistic attitude toward both.  Cars are mortal.  All cars eventually disintegrate and die.  Mechanics are fallible and sometimes greedy.  Car dealers and their repair and maintenance facilities are not necessarily much better.  But most of us can keep our cars running for well over 100,000 miles by paying attention to telltale noises (Car Talk makes me wonder if good hearing and possibly even perfect pitch are Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications for a car mechanic), tending to routine maintenance regularly, and not doing Really Dumb Things.  Some car problems are Really Dangerous, and some are just trivial or unpleasant.  Check with your mechanic to see which is which, and don’t hesitate to get a second opinion when the first one doesn’t sound right. Since most of their calls involve cars over five years old (that’s forty-five in people years), they have no gee-whiz technology to call upon, just basic grease-monkey stuff.  [Cars with GPS and rear view cameras are still brand new and under dealer warranty, so the Car Talk Boys never hear about them.]

This is precisely the level of technology most of us need to hear about when our bodies act up, except that we don’t usually give off telltale noises (other than the stuff stethoscopes listen for, which was probably a much larger part of the practice of medicine seventy years ago.)  Unfortunately, doctors are mostly too nervous about getting sued to offer medical advice to strangers on the public airwaves (note that the Car Talk Boys never issue any disclaimers about their advice. Is this because so far, most of us don’t sue our mechanics?)  There should be ways to work around this.  Because, at least until we start heading into the Geezer Years, most of us think of our bodies pretty much the way we think of our cars: we just want to keep them running reasonably well at reasonable cost for as long as possible.  We want our doctors to function like good car mechanics.  Mostly, we want them to specialize in doing things we mostly think we could do for ourselves if we wanted to take the time and trouble, but it’s easier to let somebody else do it.  We want hints on how to do some of the easy stuff for ourselves, and then we just want to leave the complicated stuff to them.  If we could drop our bodies off at the hospital and come back for them later, most of us probably would, especially if we could get a suitable loaner in the meantime (Here’s a slightly used Mel Gibson, shouldn’t give you any trouble, but it’s only got a quarter tank of gas, be sure and have dinner on the way home tonight…)

And in the Geezer Years, we probably don’t expect what the medical establishment seems to think we do.  We don’t want to live forever. We just want to keep functioning more or less normally for as long as possible. We don’t want to fight as long as possible.  Whose idea was it to depict medical intervention in terms of combat in the first place anyway?  These days, a lot of patients regardless of gender seem to buy into the model, but I suspect that’s mostly because they are made to think they ought to.  I know the denizens of That Other Blog will say I’m pushing euthanasia or assisted suicide or something, but I think if the medical establishment were willing to tell patients it’s okay to give up or give in beyond a certain point, a lot of people would, thereby sparing themselves a lot of unnecessary pain and perhaps also cutting down on the enormous proportion of lifetime health care expenditures that is now spent in the last six months of life.    Nurses are often better at talking about these realities than doctors, and maybe they should be encouraged to do it more often.  It is their primary job, after all, to care about how the patient feels. Maybe hospital chaplains should be recruited for these discussions too; they are mostly connected with faith traditions that tell us the soul is more important than the body, after all.  Doctors, on the other hand, tend to see themselves as the patient’s designated champion in the combat against death.

Well, enough of awkwardly chosen metaphors (a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?)  Now that Obama has started talking about what used to be health care reform as health insurance reform, we will need to start looking elsewhere to change the health care system.  Stay tuned for The Body Talk Boys, Mark and David Welby, and don’t eat like my brother.


More About Innocence

July 12, 2009

In 1995, Rolando Cruz, who was twice tried and convicted for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, was granted a new trial by the Illinois Supreme Court, which finally decided that someone else’s confession to the crime just might be a significant piece of data.  The prosecutor claimed to be infuriated and appalled.  So were the victim’s parents.  They had a right to have this case finished, they said.  “Cruz has already had a lot more chances than my daughter had,” Jeanine’s father said.  The case has lived a year longer than Jeanine herself did.

What this tells us is pretty much the same thing the Gary Dotson case told us, the same thing we learned from the 1994 Texas death penalty case in which the U.S. Supreme Court in its wisdom decided that innocence, at least if not asserted in the proper time, place, and manner, is a mere technicality, the same thing we just learned in the Supremes’ Osborne decision from Alaska.  We learn from all of these cases that the “criminal justice system” is not actually about justice.  Indeed, it is not even about vengeance and retribution, as we ordinarily understand them–doing unto the others who have done unto us.  It’s about human sacrifice.  If the Bad Guys have caused X amount of destruction, pain, and death to the Good Guys (us), the Good Guys are thereby entitled to cause roughly the same amount of destruction, pain, and death to any member of the Bad Guy class–i.e., young, poor, non-white, male, high school dropouts with prior criminal records.  The Bad Guys, like all sacrificial animals, are interchangeable.  We may be horrified when we find santeros sacrificing livestock in the public park, but, after all, we generally find chickens more likeable than Bad Guys.

Once upon a time, criminology students were taught that the purposes of the punishment meted out by the law enforcement system were four: rehabilitation, deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution.  Well, we gave up on rehabilitation 30 years ago, on deterrence 20 years ago, and on incapacitation 10 years ago.  Now we are giving up on specific individual retribution.  That is:
1) we no longer believe the criminal justice system can reform the Bad Guys–once a Bad Guy, always a Bad Guy
2) we have decided that we do such an uncertain and sloppy job of catching the Bad Guys that almost no one from the Bad Guy class is deterred from committing crimes by the prospect of arrest, prosecution, conviction, and punishment
3) we can’t even be sure of keeping Bad Guys off the street for any length of time any more; and now
4) we can’t afford to take the time and effort to make sure we’re punishing the right Bad Guy for a particular crime he actually committed.  This, of course, should have been obvious to us 30 years ago, when, for the first time, more criminal charges were resolved by “plea bargains” than by trial.  The whole point of the plea bargaining system is that, if the prosecution can’t prove and doesn’t know what the defendant has done to deserve punishment, the defendant does know. Currently, 95% of all criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains, in which the prosecution doesn’t have to care if the defendant did what he was accused of doing, so long as he meets the other requirements of membership in the Bad Guy class and can be persuaded that he will get a better deal by pleading guilty to whatever the prosecutor wants to charge him with than by going to trial.

At the same time, in parallel with these developments, the victims’ rights movement has been evolving.  It arose as a reaction to the increasing mechanization of prosecutorial offices.  Prosecutors currently consider “unwinnable” any case that depends on the testimony of an innocent civilian witness, as opposed to someone they can rely on to testify as and when required–a police officer, a paid police informant, or an accomplice of the defendant.  So prosecutors rarely go out of their way either to file or to follow up charges brought by innocent civilian witnesses.  They see their job as “disposing of cases,” rather than convicting people for acts they have actually and provably committed.

Victims and their families, not unreasonably, got tired after a while of having to take time off from work again and again to go to court without ever having an opportunity to testify.  They got furious with not being informed of all court dates, and then seeing cases dismissed because “the complaining witness did not appear.”  (As a practical matter, the defendant can probably turn up missing several times before anything serious happens to him; if the complaining witness fails to show up once, the case is almost automatically dismissed.) They got utterly fed up when the prosecution bargained their cases down to time served and turned the criminal out onto the street, without even warning the victim, much less consulting her.  And they found it even more infuriating that they–and all other taxpayers–had to pay exorbitant sums in tax money to maintain this system.  The defendants get free room and board (with no obligation to do anything to repair the damage done to the victim); the lawyers get a job; and the prosecutor gets elected to whatever he’s running for this year. And the victims get–a lot of lost time from work, a lot of intimidation in court from the defendant and his buddies, the pain of having to remember and recount the victimization over and over for years, and the same gigantic tax bill the rest of us get.  Who can blame them for being angry?

And some of the responses of the criminal justice system to the victims’ rights movement were in fact fairly appropriate:
1) the use of civil suits against defendants, to prevent them from ever being able to profit from book and movie rights resulting from the crime, or ever being able to get rich at all, from any source;
2) Victim-witness assistance programs, to counsel victims and witnesses, and keep them informed of court dates
3) in many jurisdictions, requirements that the prosecutor must consult with the victim or the victim’s surviving family before plea bargaining the case
4) in some jurisdictions, the right of the victim or his/her surviving family to address the court before sentencing, whether the conviction results from a trial or a plea bargain.

The problems arise when the victim or his/her family demand a role in the process of adjudication (the “did he do it or didn’t he?” phase of the trial) beyond that of occurrence witness, and use that role to testify to the victim’s good character and beloved place in the community, or the devastating consequences of the crime.  These issues have no relevance at all in the adjudication phase.  At that point, it is the job of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they have prosecuted the actual perpetrator, and of the trier of fact to find that they have done so, before any questions connected to the victim’s character and value to others can even be considered.  Before we can talk about the kind of person the victim was, we need to establish that s/he was in fact this defendant’s victim. The victim and his/her family have no right to see a particular defendant convicted, unless he happens to be provably guilty.

Indeed, even at sentencing, the fact that the victim was a good person, loved and valued by community and family, and that the loss of the victim, especially in such a horrendous crime, has devastated the family and the community, is only dubiously relevant.  Is it really more heinous to kill a church-going mother of 2 small children than a homeless man with no known family? If we take this position, we are only a short distance away from giving a medal to a person convicted of murdering a street person or some other general nuisance, instead of punishing him. The victim’s character and value to family and community are certainly valid questions in a civil suit, for purposes of calculating damages.  But in a criminal case, the controlling issue in sentencing should be the effect of the crime on the public welfare (what the medievals called “the king’s peace.”)

Well, okay, that was then.  Now, we’ve already decided that justice has been done, the victims made whole, and the “king’s peace” restored, if anybody is convicted of the crime.  The fact that the wrong person may be languishing in jail is of no consequence, so long as he is the right kind of person–young, male, preferably non-white, poor, high school dropout with a prior criminal record.  Whether or not he committed this particular crime, we figure we are all better off if people like him are in jail rather than on the street.

Most recently, we are even willing to extend this reasoning to the death penalty.  It’s okay to fry the wrong person so long as we fry somebody from the Bad Guy class.

We are not even made particularly uncomfortable by the fact that convicting or punishing the wrong person may well mean that the right person is still on the streets, threatening and victimizing other Good Guys.  After all, given enough time and the proper working of karma, and a wide enough dragnet for “the usual suspects,” the person who escapes prosecution for a crime he has actually committed will probably end up behind bars or even on Death Row for somebody else’s crime, or another one of his own (as Brian Dugan–the confessed killer of Jeanine Nicarico–did, after all.)

The criminal justice system has turned into an actuarial operation, which is defined as functioning properly when the people most likely to be guilty of some violent street crime are also most likely to be convicted of and punished for some violent street crime, whether or not the two crimes are identical, and whether or not any individual “most likely” suspect is actually guilty of any violent crime at all.

Of course, at this point, we may simply not have the money to use the criminal justice system for its original purpose.  The FBI estimates that only a tenth of all violent crimes committed are reported; less than half of all reported crimes result in arrest; less than half of all arrests result in the bringing of criminal charges; and, as stated earlier, 85% of all criminal charges are resolved by “plea bargaining” rather than trial.  Serious pursuit and trial of all violent criminals would increase the cost of the criminal justice system by a factor of 240.  No politician on the face of the earth would seriously consider proposing this to the taxpaying voters.

But, if we are not to have a real system of justice, why should we pay as much as we are paying, just for the current actuarial arrangement?  Why not take the actuarial concept to its logical conclusion and just hold a lottery on a regular basis, to choose the members of the Bad Guy class who get to go to jail, and for how long?   Once or twice a year, we could hold a big lottery to pick a candidate (or two, or however many our marketing mavens think would pay off maximally) for Death Row?  The system would not only be cheaper than our current one, it could actually be made to pay for itself or even run a surplus, if we turned it into a state-sponsored, televised “Reality Show” sweepstakes.

We wouldn’t even have to televise the actual executions, if the do-gooders insist on keeping them off the screen.  Just Vanna White drawing numbers out of a rotating basket, with the pictures of  the suspects sweating it out until the word comes down, and then reacting appropriately to winning or losing.  Then we interview all parties on Oprah (hey, it pays a whole lot better than a presentence investigation–can you say “privatization”?) and hold a contest for school kids to write in with the most original ideas for execution.  First prize, obviously, is a ringside seat for the winner and his or her family; second prize is a working model of the winner’s choice of an electric chair or guillotine; third prize is a statue of the Lady with the scales.  Only she’s dressed in a spandex bustier and hot pants, fishnet stockings, and spike heels, with twenty-dollar bills peeking out of her cleavage.


Who’s Flying Your Plane?

June 10, 2009

That’s today’s headline in the local paper. It’s about, of course, the commuter plane crash near Buffalo, a few months back, in which all passengers and crew died. The crew included two pilots with minimal experience and low pay, lousy test scores, long commutes, and almost no chance to rest between flights. Apparently many small commuter airlines have similar staffing problems. They pay their starting pilots between $16,000 and $30,000 per year. The airlines in question piously hope that publicizing this kind of information won’t make the public reluctant to fly small airlines, whose staffing is just as good as that of the rest of the industry.

Right. Just as good as Sully the Miracle Man who, during the same period, with all engines stopped by bird strikes, managed to save all passengers and crew aboard his plane by landing it in the middle of the Hudson River at rush hour in New York. He, of course, has been flying for U.S. Airways or its predecessors for nearly 30 years, plus military flying service. We don’t know his income, but we can reasonably assume it’s well into the six figures. He obviously deserves every penny of it. But an airline spokesman says there is no connection between pilot pay and flight safety. Yeah, right.

Which raises the question—most of us fly at most a couple of times a month, and more often a couple of times a year. While the professionalism of our pilots on those occasions is an essential concern, it isn’t a constant concern. Unlike, say, the question of who’s caring for your toddlers, or your parents, or your disabled family member.

According to the Service Employees International Union, the average home health care worker earns between 6 and 8 dollars an hour, rarely works a full week of 40 hours, and gets no benefits whatever. And no, these not teenagers working their way up to better things; most of them are over 45, and many are over 65. For them, this is as good as it gets. Many of them have disabilities of their own, which they cannot afford to attend to.

While a pilot is responsible for a lot more lives, s/he also shares that responsibility with a co-pilot and an engineer. Even the cheapest of the regional airlines examined by the Chicago Trib pays $78 per hour in training and salary per crew member for its flight crews, or roughly $250 per hour total. That’s well over 30 times the hourly wage of a home health care worker, who probably cares for three or four clients over a week. If one of those clients is a member of your family, are you sure this makes sense?

Let’s get back to the issue of connection between pay and safety, either in the cockpit or behind a wheelchair. The main reason workers get paid at all is to enable them to maintain, day to day, their own ability to work. If they don’t get paid enough to maintain stable housing (note that an increasing proportion of homeless people have jobs, and that one of the pilots in the crashed Colgan flight had spent the previous night on a couch in the staff lounge), that will be reflected in the quality of their work.

The other reason workers get paid, of course, is to motivate them to show up and do their jobs competently. Most economic historians have concluded that ante bellum slavery in the American South, lacking this motivation for its workers, was grossly inefficient and might well have died on its own in a few decades, had the Civil War not intervened.

Unlike the airline industry, the home health care “industry” lacks any governmental statistical oversight. So we don’t really know much about the risks to client health and safety caused by poorly trained, underpaid, overworked home health care workers. But while you’re on the ground, gentle reader, you should have time to stop worrying about whether your pilot has been properly trained, housed, and rested. Why not use that time to worry about whether the person who takes care of your mother-in-law, or your nephew, or who will someday be taking care of you, is able to do the job safely.

Red Emma