28 September 2015

A note on social media campaigns

I've previously noted my disdain for "awareness" campaigns, of most any type. They are usually harmless. For instance, a childhood cancer campaign involves changing profile photos to those of superheroes. This is fairly benign. Kids usually like superheroes (so do adults, obviously). And there isn't usually a way to do a lot of early detection and interdiction for children and cancers, so we're stuck trying to figure out how to treat it (or if we should, which is even more horrifying to contemplate). So any campaign "increasing awareness" is liable to fund useful research somewhat more rather than funding more "awareness campaigns".

They also are not typically that helpful. It is better that some number of young people are aware of the existence of Boko Haram or the LRA and their activities in Africa. But that has little to say about what we can or should do about those as problems. It was likewise amusing (if typically wasteful) that some number of people learned something about ALS through dumping buckets of ice water on themselves. Whether or not that will materialize into a substantive improvement in the well-being of the people afflicted with it, or future persons, is much less clear. I at least credit people their intentions may be good even if their efforts are shallow and unresponsive to the deeper issues at stake.

Where I see some more recent annoyances is the yearly campaigns involving weird status games on facebook and "breast cancer awareness". Firstly, the status games themselves can involve some insensitive and even harmful postings. Posting a fake pregnancy announcement, a fake sexuality announcement, a fake marriage announcement, and so on, these are not things sensible people should do. Whether or not they "have good intentions". These are potentially quite harmful and at least annoying to say: couples who have experienced infertility or miscarriages, couples that are no longer couples, and maybe people who are in the closet about their sexuality (or gender for that matter). I'm not saying you can't post it, but I am saying I'm going to look askance at the people who do as though they have a problem. Because it seems to me that they might need a few explanations about the nature of reality.

In general, few people are concerned with toilet-related mishaps that they should be shared either. While I'm sure a percentage of the public thought those were amusing, they weren't very interesting amusements. For instance, that video of the Massachusetts man freaking out at seeing a sunfish, that was indirectly interesting, on top of being a series of crazy accented speech and expressions that lends itself to being easily copied for more ordinary purposes than ocean going voyages and the encounters those lend themselves to. Despite these flaws, I do not think people are posting such things maliciously and with the intention to cause grievous harm or annoyance to people like me.

Where I think the biggest problem here is that "breast cancer awareness" is already well past the saturation point. Much of the empirical evidence on treatment and detection of breast cancer suggests that any benefit from "additional awareness" is getting cancelled out by unnecessarily worrying people and of course, the unpleasant varieties of treatment that we subject women to upon detection. We are all pretty aware by this point that women have breasts, and some women tend to get breast cancers. So this kind of awareness should not be a major concern for charitable work or social awareness campaigning and the like. Many of these public campaigns are effectively more about this "awareness" activity than they are about the treatment and detection of cancer.

What is of more pressing concern is likely research into better screening methodologies (genetic screening data for example seems promising), and research into better and more effective treatment for those cases that require treatment, in particular for advanced cases. These are not things that can be directly provided through "awareness", and in some cases are not really available or fully in use yet. What happens by increasing awareness, but without any accompanying campaign to donate to such research as would be needed to make our work in this area more effective, is that a lot more people are aware of what we already do and are presented with the social requirement to enter into it out of habit. Which isn't that helpful at all. Indeed, I think it may be quite harmful on balance. I'd say we could use much less awareness of mammograms and for many women breast cancer screening in general (possibly cancer screening of any kind for many is a waste of time and money).

The false positive rate is way too high to be a useful test for many women which we use it on. There are specific cases where it may be quite useful, but the general public isn't going to know that when they, as people have quite vigorously in the past when discussing the flaws of this processing during debates surrounding the ACA, will insist on receiving such treatment in spite of its general futility. The general practice of screening some millions of women in this way annually seems to be saving perhaps one life in a thousand and subjecting several dozen, perhaps as many as a hundred other women per thousand to the kinds of worrying and stress over medical matters that isn't provided by checking WebMD every time you have a medical problem and nearly as many women as those who die of breast cancer without treatment are subjected to unnecessary (and expensive, both in money and well-being) forms of treatment for no apparent reason what so ever. That seems like a tremendous waste of a general awareness campaign to expend vast amounts of human energy and effort upon. A more focused campaign rather than general call saying something like "hey what about breast cancer!" would be much more constructive.

As I said with the ALS ice bucket campaign, this is a serious problem. Some thousands of women will be afflicted by breast cancer every year. Some thousands will die of it. We should have some level of seriousness in our social response to this, even if there is some humor injected into it. It should also be less about demonstrations of awareness, which unlike ALS, I think we're quite well aware of this as a problem as a society, and more about direct demonstrations of concern and aid to the problem as it exists now.

22 September 2015

A few notes on the elections, next year

1) Walker and Perry bombing out wasn't a very big surprise. Perry probably wasn't to almost any observer. For some reason Walker was. I was surprised at how fast he flamed out (he was leading polls all the way back in July for some reason), but that he did so at all was not that disturbing or unpredictable and I was suggesting as much months ago. He was not a very skilled politician and very clearly did not have good instincts for national politics or foreign policy questions of the sort that do not trouble a Governor's campaign but will bedevil a Presidential campaign.

What he always reminded me of was Tim Pawlenty's failed run in 2012: he was a conservative governor from a state neighbouring Iowa. That's it. That was his selling point. That did not work out so well for Pawlenty. There was never much reason to think it would with Walker. Union-busting is a state issue. It doesn't have much relevance or resonance at the national level, even among conservative politicians and voters. Since that seems to be the only significant campaign story Walker felt he could run on, that isn't going to get him very far. Not surprisingly it flamed out and did not work.

2) Rubio still looks to me like the most likely GOP nominee. I would feel pretty confident betting on it at least. There is still a significant "anybody but a Bush" attitude that pervades the GOP base, in a strong way that was not the case with Romney 4 years ago. There is still ambiguity about the direction of the party and its ideological positioning on issues like immigration that I think there are risks. But those risks won't end up with Trump or Cruz or some such at the head of the class instead either. Unlike those two, Rubio actually has establishment support and will probably rally more of it with Walker out of the way. He also hasn't shriveled up, been incapable of answering questions, or seemed like a blithering idiot like most of his rivals (in particular Bush and Walker). I don't agree with very much of any of his policy agenda. But if I had to guess, that's still the guy I would bet would be the nominee next year.

3) Sanders percolates up now and again in my feed of social media still, in part because I know a lot of liberals it seems. I think I have identified why I just don't get him as being all that interesting.

a) a Presidential campaign that all but ignores foreign policy, to the point of being pretty actively dismissive of it as a topic in interviews, to me is really not a serious campaign. This is on top of Sanders' positions on trade being very retrograde (like dismissed 250 years ago, even though they keep popping up in far left political talks). I'd like to think Sanders has somewhat agreeable views on IR, but given how dismissive his campaign tends to be of the topic, I'm ambivalent that this is actually the case enough. A domestic centered agenda, particularly an economic one, just doesn't interest me as a voter because most of that will require action of Congress or the Supreme Court. And it seems extremely unlikely that Congress or the Supreme Court will be radically altered sufficiently to enact most or even any significant portion of a Sanders agenda. By contrast, US Presidents can do a lot on the foreign policy scene. I wish more Senators or voters took this as something worth considering, but if Sanders wants to run on a domestic agenda, he should really stay in the Senate. That's where he can do the most damage.

b) The biggest primary election problem Sanders has had is that non-white voters, which account for about half of the Democratic electorate nationally, aren't all that interested in him. It has always been possible he could fix this, but I do not think he's capable of it based on his primary election positions and campaign fervor. The main problem, which I tend to agree with, is that Sanders' explicitly addresses questions of inequality as in and of itself a problem which results in racism. Rather than racism being in and of itself a cause of inequality. Police officers are not beating up or shooting unarmed black kids because of inequality. There's a case that kids from poor neighborhoods cannot get through college because of inequality, but that case isn't resolved by making college free, which for whatever reason remains a popular campaign talking point for Sanders. That case is resolved by improving the K-12 environments in which many minorities are living, and also by resolving or addressing strongly the issues of criminal justice reform more broadly on which police brutality is merely the tip of several icebergs of our country's problems on these questions. Sanders, and importantly, many Sanders supporters, seem to want to focus on questions of economic inequality first as they impact the white middle class rather than deal with the lower end of the pie and why those slices are distributing oddly. This sort of focus can carry states like Vermont, New Hampshire, or Iowa. States where Democratic politics and the state as a whole are dominated by white middle class voters. It will do him no credit in Nevada or Colorado or Florida or South Carolina. These are separable problems, and they are problems which demand distinct attention if someone is going to address them. Feeling like the problems of non-white voters are second class status is not a way to interest those voters.

More to the point, most of the agenda of a movement like BLM can get reasonably far with the support of only a President, rather than a Congressional action being required, as they pertain to DoJ authority and various executive branch programs and agencies in some way. A President cannot and will not solve racism (or for that matter, economic inequality), but can do some things to hammer state and local police forces to behave by siccing lawyers and federal authorities and judges on them, conducting investigations, requiring reforms, and tying those reforms to federal dollars and funding that some local forces may rely upon. All of which are things liable to help the lives of people much, much sooner than long-term economic reforms with the problems many minorities experience when dealing with police and law enforcement in general. The lack of focus on this as an immediate priority to eliminate easy sources of human suffering and brutality and misconduct is not lost on those who are suffering. There are sound political reasons not to focus on these issues (eg, white middle class voters tend not to care about them), but that only makes the division worse and more evident.

c) Inequality in general is the main theme on which Sanders seems to dominate his focus. I don't share this focus, but if I did, I'm not sure I would diagnose what he has as methods to resolve it. Min wage law doesn't seem to have a significant impact in the empirical literature and if anything might actually be harmful. It could be helpful too, but in general probably won't do very much about the problem of "fat cats on Wall Street" or "greedy CEOs", which is where almost all of the inequality disparity in the US stems from, and won't do very much about the plight of the poor, or the income traps of the structure of our existing welfare and social safety nets (where marginal tax rates can exceed 100% and people on net lose money by making more). It is not a very exciting policy change to demand as a result. College education is largely still reasonably affordable, even as the cost has grown substantially (in part because of federal subsidies). Reforms to make it free to the public are largely a give away to the fairly well off people who privately gain from attaining a college education already and do little about the basis on which a college education has grown in importance over a mere high school diploma in the first place, namely that too many jobs have become credentialized and licensed to require one for no apparent reason, and that a K-12 education isn't seen as satisfactory for many jobs. One reason it is not is that it is sometimes not seen as satisfactory for many colleges either. And then the another focal point seems to have been campaign finance laws, with the suggestion being that rich people are buying elections. This may be true that rich people can spend somewhat more on elections, but one reason rich people are "buying" elections is that richer people will vote. A lot more often than poorer people. There are a lot of reasons for that. Most of them do not have to do with "rich people can buy elections" in general. That is not going to fix American democracy or voter turnout if those are perceived to be imperiled by the amount of money now being spent on national politics.

A generally middle class populist campaign that focuses on these, as well as some of the protectionist themes, marginally anti-rich/anti-capitalist rhetoric, etc is not likely to attract much interest from me in the first place. But if it comes away from a putative problem like inequality with bad solutions, or the wrong solutions, or solutions to problems we don't have, and so on, it is really not going to get my attention in a good way.

19 September 2015

Series of quick blurbs

Or maybe not so quick. We'll see.

1) Was the clock kid arrested/suspended because he brought a clock to school or because he was a Muslim kid who brought a clock to school.

Short answer is probably a bit of both, but mostly the latter. There's some, but not much, justification to question what it is that a kid has, but if they don't have it out, and show it to a teacher rather willingly and openly, that should be a sign it isn't intended as a prank and was intended to be something random and fun that they built and hoped would be appreciated. It wasn't. That ought to be have been the end point. It wasn't. So here we are. The key points though that suggest there's a racial/ethnic/religious dimension on top of the overzealous school safety considerations would be that the school never took any of those overzealous school safety considerations at the time. If it was thought at any time to be an actual bomb, the school (and the police) never behaved as though they thought it was. I would be suing the cops for wrongful arrest/detention as a violation of civil rights (they had no probable cause for an arrest) and I'd be at least changing schools pronto if I were his parents. Sounds like at least one of those is happening.

2) Will Kim Davis end up back in jail for fiddling with the state forms?

Short version: maybe. She probably shouldn't be. Most of the state officials seem to think the forms her office is issuing are legal or at least will be recognized as legal for their purposes, and that this point it appears to be a question of state law that would matter. But they're very clearly being issued in an defiant "fuck you" manner to the court that required the issuance of certificates. Which courts and judges don't tend to like very much.

3) Why is Sam Harris still talking about racial profiling (particular of Muslims at airports).

Short version: I have no idea. He seemed very clearly to have lost badly in public debates he himself posted online several years ago on this exact topic. But he seems to have ignored this rather glaring flaw of history of his engagement to the subject matter. It ties into the clock story and the Harris/Republican narrative that "Christianity is under attack", whatever that means, in so far as there's a lot of strange rhetoric based upon fear that isn't easily translated into effective and legal policy. Maybe Harris' underlying argument is that Muslims are the most likely source of threats to airplanes and airport security, which is perhaps a plausible case for now but hasn't always been true and isn't the best way to secure them even if they are to treat such people as we can identify as possibly Muslim as the only likely source of threat. How that translates into an effective security process from that assumption is a very big logical step that overlooks a lot of costs and difficulties. Secularists and liberals tend to want to govern processes of law by reasonable steps, such as cost-benefit analysis or effectiveness. Apparently not when fear is concerned. Then the arguments look very much like the same ones that conservatives make when telling us Davis was in jail for practicing her faith, rather than violating a court order.

04 September 2015

A short legal primer. Sort of

So. Kim Davis is a trendy topic. Those probably were not words most of us would think to write a couple of months ago.

Some explanations for people who haven't followed this closely or imagine themselves to agree or disagree with her.

1) County clerks in Kentucky are elected officials. They're still public officials charged with doing public duties, like providing marriage licenses. One result of this elected status though is that they cannot be fired by another public official (a Governor for example). They have to be removed from office via an election or a process of impeachment that is typically complicated and time-consuming.

2) States could decide they don't want to issue marriage licenses, which to me seems like an idea likely to be less popular than is being imagined by some Christians or anarchists and some number of libertarians, but until or unless they do so, some city or county official will be charged with providing these licenses officially. In this case, a county clerk's office was tasked with this duty. There may be other public officials in the county that can perform this legal duty but they have other duties often (judges for example). Since the state gives out marriage licenses on a fairly regular basis, it is not productive to have this task on an ad hoc basis rather than an appointed office handle the regular business of the state.

3) Court rulings based around the 14th amendment have decided, I believe rightly, that these licenses should be issued regardless of gender in the couples involved. This means that any Kentucky law preventing such licenses between same-sex couples from being issued is invalidated and that such laws are to be enforced as amended. So the licenses must be issued and the court's interest is in gaining compliance with its orders that the state officials no longer be violating the Constitution.

The relevant factor here is that it is the state of Kentucky, not Kim Davis, which is seen to be acting when it refuses to issue a marriage license. Kim Davis does not make or decide state laws as a clerk. She carries them out and as such represents the state in that capacity.

4) The judge who issued the order to provide the licenses lawfully a) wrote in the 6th circuit opinion that was overturned that he effectively did not agree with same-sex marriages and b) gave Davis several avenues to lawfully comply.

Most significantly, she was to be allowed to turn over the duties to another clerk in the office rather than issue licenses she disagreed with herself. She refused to allow another clerk in her office to comply whether they wanted to or not or agreed with her beliefs or not. She imposed her beliefs upon others in her employ. This is not a power any elected official possesses, whether they imagine themselves to or not. This is ultimately why she was found in contempt of court and jailed, not for practicing her own religious beliefs but refusing to allow others to live in accordance with their own interpretations of faith and law and imposing upon them a required action that was deemed to be illegal by the federal court system and out of step with directives issued by the sitting governor of the state to comply with those rulings.

One of the apparently forgotten aspects of Jim Crow was that it was a binding legal obligation upon all citizens to segregate, not merely the beliefs of racists but the laws of racists as well were in force and on display. There were ways around this, but it was officially sanctioned by the state to require certain private behaviors, whether people agreed with those laws or not. If people do not agree with allowing same sex couples to marry, they are allowed to disagree with this, to voice opposition, to protest, to attend church services that reinforce these beliefs, and so on. What they are not allowed to do is prevent this from occurring legally and prevent others in their employ from executing the required public duties of issuing a license.

4a) (Update) It appears her dispute is that her name has to be on it as though this is constituting a personal endorsement. It is extremely unlikely that federal courts and judges will decide to amend a state law as to whether her name has to appear on a public form from a county clerk's office as a basis for official documentation being deemed valid. Their concern will be the relevant constitutional status of marriage law enforcement more broadly and not the precise mechanics that the Commonwealth of Kentucky decides to use to provide those marriage licenses, who has to sign where, etc. State laws may provide some protection if she were to sue in state court that some accommodation could be imposed or the state could act to amend the statute to provide such accommodations as allowing a deputy clerks name to be valid, etc, though that's not guaranteed of course. And she hasn't done that anyway. Suggesting her legal arguments are less about seeking accommodation and more about something else, or that her legal team is not very good (also plausible). (update to that part, it looks to me unlikely that the state courts would grant some variety of exemption either as the relevant forms only require the endorsement of the "office of", and not the "person of").

5) The absurdity of claiming that people could drive 30 minutes away for a public service required by state law seems to be a point of order as well. What this suggests in logical terms is that Davis does not agree with same sex marriage, but will abide by such marriages as endorsed legally by others in the same official capacity as herself as long as she has nothing to do with it. Except that she won't do that in her own county.

This is very different from say, abortion providers and distance traveled questions and constraints. The state is not in the business of providing abortions. It does not have to mandate that its officials provide them in a reasonable fashion within a legal jurisdiction of a county or major city. The state is in the business of providing marriage certificates. Since the state is in that business, it is required to do so in a non-discriminatory way (roughly speaking, since the state can prevent you from marrying your cousin or sister or father, or an under age child), and more significantly to this question here, the public and elected officials are tasked to do so as well. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, the effective response is that they should be removed from office in order to gain compliance with the legal environment.

Those public officials are free in their private capacity to complain all they want so long as they comply with the law in a non-discriminatory way or make reasonable accommodations to do so. Not issuing licenses at all in a county, without the approval of other city, county, or state officials, and thus requiring people to go to another county to receive a public service they are entitled to legally is not a reasonable accommodation.

6) The wisdom of jailing her to assure compliance with the law has been frequently called into question. I suspect that the intention of her or her lawyers was for her to go to jail for violating the law and that this is why she refused other methods of compliance. This made it unlikely that other forms of compliance would have worked in the interim to prevent violations of Constitutional law and the state's basic obligations from being ignored in the meantime.

As a form of civil disobedience, this is fine. She was willing to pay the consequences. As a form of protest intent on amending the legal environment, I'm less clear on how this would redound to anyone's benefit if they oppose gay marriage and the change in the legal environment. Some are claiming this makes her a martyr. A martyr to an already activated minority is still a losing opinion on this matter. Her actions would have to in some way change people's minds rather than just fire up people who still agree with her. She is not a church, whose practices were not changed by the legal framework of the 14th amendment requirements to civil institutions, and she was being allowed not to perform the ceremonial tasks personally as a requirement of her official duties. I don't see where that changes people's minds in a meaningful way. If anything, more people being aware that what she was actually doing was refusing to let anyone else operate in an official capacity under her charge should suggest that this is not likely to be a very inspiring case.

7) This question of the intersection of religious liberty with gay marriage (both in the public sphere and in the private business sphere) will come up again with a more presentable case. The Supreme Court refused to hear this one on appeal because it was a terrible case easily dismissed on the merits, most likely being used to fund raise by the legal team rather than attempt to actually reform or repeal the legal environment.