The Super-rich and the new order of American politics

I don’t know what’s going on, but I keep coming across interesting journalism in Politico.  The latest– a journalist’s account of his attempts to infiltrate the Koch’s annual big money gathering.  Interesting details and this conclusion nails it:

Indian Wells was a snapshot of an extraordinary shift: the reordering of the political system by an elite fraternity of the superrich and a small brain trust of consultants who cater to them. Starting in 2010, a few dozen of the wealthiest donors turned on a gusher of mega-checks that have made them more important than the thousands of grassroots activists, small individual donors and even party leaders put together. Together, these donors have injected into campaigns sums that were once unimaginable, even as recently as the 2008 presidential election.

Intentionally or not, this new system has eroded the power of the official parties that have rigidly controlled modern politics for decades by doling out or withholding pork-barrel spending earmarks and campaign cash. Suddenly, party leaders have none of the former to offer (the result of symbolic belt-tightening reforms), and far less of the latter than big donors operating outside the party system. The result—the one Obama lamented on that rainy day in Washington state—is the privatization of a system that we’d always thought of as public. It amounts to the takeover—hostile or not—of American politics by the ultra-rich.

There’s absolutely no way you can remotely justify this as good for democracy.  Unless you are a Republican politician, sadly.

Correlation is not causation– Greek life edition

I was going to post on this last week.  Then didn’t.  Then a FB friend (who is surely reading this) posted and I felt I had to offer my brief commentary on how not to interpret data like this.  From Vox:

 Researchers at Gallup believe they found a formula for a good life after college, and students in fraternities and sororities are more likely to follow it than most.

The polling firm interviewed tens of thousands of college graduates about their well-being after college. They found a few steps students can take in college that predict whether they will be thriving financially, socially, and in the workplace after they graduate. Put simply: “Find professors who excite you and make you care. Get very involved in an activity. Find a mentor. Get an internship. Work on a long-term project.”

Students who were in fraternities and sororities were more likely to do all five — and more likely to say they had a sense of purpose at work, that they had strong connections to friends and family, and that they like where they live, Gallup said this week.

Hmmm.  Alas, we don’t randomly assign people to fraternities (put me in the control group!) so this presents a classic case of selection bias.  Are people who join fraternities systematically different in personality characteristics?  Absolutely.  Might those personality characteristics also contribute to being more involved in campus life, independent of belong to a Greek organization?  Absolutely.  The Vox write-up suggests this, but not nearly strongly enough:

Still, it’s possible that the type of students who join fraternities and sororities are also more inclined to make personal connections with professors and to get involved in extracurriculars in the first place [emphasis mine], or that students at colleges with Greek life are more likely to be happy after graduation than students at colleges without, regardless of whether they pledge. Students who participate in Greek organizations are also less likely to have debt, researchers found.

The results indicate that despite the bad reputation Greek life can have for drinking, hazing, and sexual assault, the experience is a positive one for many students — and that reforms to sororities and fraternities should preserve the factors that correlate with students’ later well-being, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, in a report on the findings.

Of course, there’s a way to address this.  Not perfectly, but it generally does a solid job.  It’s called additional measures and multivariate regression.  Barring any kind of statistical control, this report ultimately strikes me as pretty useless and comes down to little more than “students who choose to join intensive, voluntary campus organizations also more likely to engage with academic facets of college life.”  Now, maybe the fraternities and sororities are, in fact, causing more of this (and really, it would not surprise me if they don’t make a small contribution in this regard).  But barring better analysis, best to stick with the mantra– correlation is not causation.

Militarization of the police

A student of mine told me about an incredibly troubling incident in Georgia where police very seriously (as in induced coma) injured a toddler by throwing a flash-bang grenade in his crib while serving a no-knock warrant against his father.  I knew I could go right to Radley Balko for just the right righteous indignation accompanied by smart analysis on this incident.  I was not disappointing:

Sheriff Terrell says the suspects are dangerous drug dealers who are known to be armed. Hence, the SWAT team, the no-knock raid and the flash grenade. I’ve yet to see any indication that drugs were found, which usually (but not always) means that the police didn’t find any. Frequently in cases where a raid goes wrong, police tend to be quick to point out what they found to justify their actions. (The police did apparently make an arrest.)

Here’s the kicker:

Terrell said both the district attorney and Georgia Bureau of Investigation have said there was no wrongdoing on the SRT’s part.

“I’ve talked to the D.A., I’ve talked to the GBI,” Terrell said. “I’ve given them the whole information and they say there’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing to investigate, there’s nothing to look at. Given the information given, GBI’s SWAT team would have done the exact same thing – they’d have used the exact same scenario to enter the house.”

Terrell said the lack of knowledge that there were children in the home contributed to the situation.

“It’s an accident that we would have avoided if we’d just had any inclination that there had a been a child in that house,” Terrell said. “We had no idea.”

Here’s the problem: If your drug cops conduct a raid that ends up putting a child in the hospital with critical burns, and they did nothing that violates your department’s policy, then there’s something wrong with your policy.  [bold mine; italics in original]

A flashbang is an explosive device that emits a deafening boom and a blinding flash of light. It’s designed to temporarily stun the occupants of a building so that the armed men who deployed it can “clear” the building. It is an instrument of war. And cops are tossing these things through doors and windows with no idea what’s on the other side. Indeed, that’s the whole point.

Balko then includes a litany of similar distrubing incidents.  All of which sadly reflect “policy.”  He concludes:

There are some very limited circumstances where flashbangs may be appropriate in domestic policing, such as when a fugitive has barricaded himself in a building, or during a hostage situation where lives are at immediate risk. Using them for drug raids is reckless, dangerous, and unnecessarily jeopardizes the safety and constitutional rights of citizens in the name of preventing other citizens from getting high.  [emphasis mine]

Of course, that’s also a pretty good description of the drug war in general.

Clearly, one of the huge and under-appreciated costs of the “war on drugs” is the degree to which we’ve seen police department use military tactics against our own citizens.  Sure, this may be called for on occassion, but again, the evidence is beyond overwhelming that these extreme military tactics are far over-used.  You give the police fancy military toys and fancy military training and steep in all in rhetoric of “war” they are going to use their fancy toys, fancy military training, and treat alleged criminals as “the enemy.”  This is just not how things should be in a democracy.

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