Photo of the day

Not surprisingly, the new mascot for the Amarillo Sox is drawing some unwanted attention:

Get rid of the debt ceiling

Good morning to clear out smart commentary on the debt ceiling.  The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki makes the best argument I’ve read on why we should simply abolish this absurd law:

The truth is that the United States doesn’t need, and shouldn’t have, a debt ceiling. Every other democratic country, with the exception of Denmark, does fine without one. There’s no debt limit in the Constitution. And, if Congress really wants to hold down government debt, it already has a way to do so that doesn’t risk economic chaos—namely, the annual budgeting process. The only reason we need to lift the debt ceiling, after all, is to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, we’ll face an absurd scenario in which Congress will have ordered the President to execute two laws that are flatly at odds with each other. If he obeys the debt ceiling, he cannot spend the money that Congress has told him to spend, which is why most government functions will be shut down. Yet if he spends the money as Congress has authorized him to he’ll end up violating the debt ceiling…

Advocates of the ceiling like the way it turns the national debt into front-page news, focussing the minds of voters and politicians; they think it fosters accountability, straight talk, transparency. In reality, debt-ceiling votes merely perpetuate the illusion that balancing the budget is easy. That’s why politicians like the debt ceiling: it allows them to rail against borrowing more money (which voters hate) without having to vote to cut any specific programs or raise taxes (which voters also hate).

You might think that there are benefits to putting negotiators under the gun. But, as the Dutch psychologist Carsten de Dreu has shown, time pressure tends to close minds, not open them. Under time pressure, negotiators tend to rely more on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts. They don’t consider as wide a range of alternatives, and are more likely to jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. Time pressure also reduces the chances that an agreement will be what psychologists call “integrative”—taking everyone’s interests and values into account.

In fact, by turning dealmaking into a game of chicken, the debt ceiling favors fanaticism.

Nice conclusion (but I think the “halfway sensible” is far too generous):

We may nonetheless end up with a halfway sensible budget deal. But that would be the result of luck, not design. Instead of figuring out ways to raise the debt ceiling, we should simply go ahead and abolish it. The U.S. economy has plenty of real problems to deal with. We shouldn’t have to wrestle with ones we’ve created for ourselves.


When children die

People really want someone to blame.  Fabulous NPR/Frontline/Pro Publica report on the incredibly shoddy science that has lead dozens to be exonerated after being falsely convicted for killing children and that makes you wonder how many innocent people are sitting in prison for this most heinous of crimes for which they are not actually guilty.   I watched the Frontline on TV, the other night, it was fantastic.  You can watch the whole thing (only 30 minutes) on-line here.  I went to the Pro Publica website because I just wanted to have the link for this blog post, but then ended up reading the whole story because it was also fabulous and went into some of the details that were lacking in the Frontline report.   And, it’s just so happened that my afternoon commute the past few days has coincided nicely with the NPR version.  Also terrific and also full of new and complementary details.

Short version: Scientists have re-thought Shaken Baby Syndrome.  Some of the persons convicted on the basis of that, are surely innocent.  The biggest revelation is just how shoddy the “science” can be in performing autopsies of the dead children.  Heck, its hardly better than hair analysis or ballistics.  Basically, forensic pathologists all too often see themselves as just a tool of the prosecutors.  They don’t have to be board certified and they routinely ignore medical histories and fail to consult with other specialists who might shed additional light on the cause of death.  After a scandal rocked Canada due to a forensic pathologist who simply lied, etc. for a bunch of convictions, they’ve put in place a system to try and get these investigations done the right way.

We know what steps are needed to fix the system–and most of them are not particularly expensive.  After it’s problems, Ottawa has made some much-needed change.  It would be great for US states to follow that lead:

Ontario has changed the rules for how to do an autopsy — and who does them. “We’ve gone beyond the era where you have self-trained, self-taught people,” Milroy says. “You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be self-trained and self-taught. Why should you have your forensic pathologist not certified?”

There are lessons that American policymakers can also learn from Canada about how to improve child autopsies. Some of those solutions require spending more money. But others are simple.

Canada — just like the U.S. — lets doctors do autopsies even without board certification. Ontario now expects forensic pathologists to get better training, or it will hire new ones from countries that demand a lot of training — like Milroy, who came from the United Kingdom.

Great Britain reviewed its child death cases in 2003 after courts released three women who had been jailed for killing their babies. It turned out that they were convicted largely on one medical expert’s flawed testimony. The review, completed in 2006, found three more British parents and caregivers who also may have been wrongly convicted.

The investigations in Canada, which turned up Charles Smith’s flawed autopsies, concluded that the problem went deeper than one rogue pathologist. So now all autopsy reports in criminal cases are done by teams and are peer reviewed.

Milroy says there’s another big change: It’s in the way courts, police and even pathologists themselves see the role of the forensic pathologist. “We think the truth,” Milroy says. “What can I say about this case — truthfully? What cannot I say about this case truthfully? One of the things that is important as a forensic pathologist is that you are not — and this is where again Smith erred — you are not part of the prosecution team.”

It’s a horrible thing when a child dies.  What an awful way to compound the horror by putting an innocent person in prison for it.  This has to stop.

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