Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Archive for July 2013

Richard Cohen, Michael Bloomberg, and the Suspiciousness of Black Men

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I haven’t written anything about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Anything I’ve wanted to say directly about the case has been said far better by others. But I did want to weigh in on a tangential matter.

There was a great deal of outcry over an awful column by Richard Cohen (who has a long and undistinguished history) justifying Zimmerman’s actions by insisting that Martin’s wearing of a hoodie made him suspicious.  [No link, but here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates]  That the Washington Post continues to feel that valuable column space should be taken up by Cohen tells us something important about the Post. It’s  perfectly understandable for people to be outraged by Cohen. But what has troubled me is the difference between the reaction to Cohen and another figure who’s tried to justify such things, one who in addition is actually overseeing the policy: New York City Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg is undeniably an authoritarian. It’s strange that he’s perhaps best known on this score for his law limiting the size of sugary drinks (forcing those who want more to buy two instead of one, not exactly a grave threat to civil liberties to my mind). But getting beyond that, Bloomberg has overseen NYC’s racist stop and frisk policy. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 17, 2013 at 3:58 pm

The Patriot Act, ‘support’ for public policies and the construction of democratic control

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Not long ago, I argued that how poll questions are often framed, and more important, how they are interpreted in the media, worked to reinforce the status quo, specifically on the issue of mass surveillance.

I’ve since ran across an article (h/t Chris Bowers) that addresses this issue and sheds some important light on my point: Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott, Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions – The Case of the USA Patriot Act (pdf). They investigate whether pollsters are manufacturing opinions on subjects where they don’t exist, in response to the pressure to add public opinion to political debates. In essence, they argue that respondents do not know what the Patriot Act (a complex piece of legislation) does, but use clues from the wording of questions to make up for that ignorance.  So what appears to be actual opinions about the law (which for the record, shows very different levels of support depending on the question wording) is simply an artifact.

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Written by David Kaib

July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

We ask so little of Democratic public officials: lowering the barriers to voting

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While Republicans are sprinting to take away voting rights in the wake of Shelby (or doubling down, since they were already aggressively pushing voting barriers), you might think that Democrats would be doing the opposite.  Sadly, not everyone has gotten the message that the Democrats are the party of lowering voting barriers. From the Oregonian:

Legislation aimed at adding hundreds of thousands of registered voters in Oregon failed by a single vote in the state Senate on Sunday.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joined with all 14 Republicans to defeat a bill that would automatically register eligible voters when they received new or updated driver licenses in Oregon.

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Written by David Kaib

July 8, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Blaming Voters or Consumers is a Cop Out

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I’ve argued here before that blaming voters for bad policy or consumers for things like labor conditions is a cop out.  (Here and here for voters, here and here for consumers). The general idea is that social outcomes are not a product of unalloyed aggregated individual choice.  Institutions matter, power matters.  Elites shape the ideas (or people) that can get a serious hearing, and the structure of the choices people get. They work to suppress information and to coopt efforts to challenge them. They make symbolic moves to demobilize those challenges. They act to influence the preferences people hold.  Those who hold positions of power and authority are supposed to do things like follow the law, act morally, represent us, etc.  When they fail to, it’s their fault – ‘why did you let me?’ is a ridiculous response to a charge of dereliction of duty.

There are often two response to this claim that raise an important point, and addressing them helps me clarify my argument.  First is the idea that I’m saying that people have no responsibility to act at all–that I’m essentially leaving them out of the conversation entirely. Second is the idea that saying they aren’t to blame is saying they have no role. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 8, 2013 at 9:05 am

Independence Day

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My hope for Independence Day is that we can start with the small step of calling this day Independence Day, not Fourth of July. It strikes me how odd it is to refer to the day by its date. I suspect it’s partly because of its political content – like so much political language, this seems to be an example of “blunt[ing] the too sharply pointed.”

From there, I hope that we can reconnect with the meaning of today and other holidays – like Martin Luther King Day and Labor Day. Perhaps we might also use this day as a chance to think about the ways we have yet to root out royalism / aristocracy in our culture – whether that is the way we treat presidents, senators, celebrities, or the rich.  If we get past the fireworks and barbecue, we often just lionize the people at the top of the American Revolution (who did not make the Revolution, they were only a part of it.)  It’s also worth remembering that those who made the Revolution were putting principle over their loyalty to the country—those who chose the opposite path were not called patriots, they were called loyalists.

It’s also not just about our country, it’s about each one of us and about people around the globe – who have every right to self-determination that our political ancestors had.  Merely using the name Independence Day rather than 4th of July is a small step – thinking and talking about what independence is about today, for all of us, is the key. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 4, 2013 at 8:56 am

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