Just decriminalize all of it!

I’ve been thinking a lot about illegal drugs lately.  I just finished the semester of Criminal Justice Policy and there’s just so much wrongness from our misguided war on drugs.  Part of me wants to say just stop this crazy war, legalize all of it, let people who want to get high, get high, and help people who develop dependencies using a medical model of treatment and rehabilitation.

But then again, some of these drugs are really quite dangerous.  And its easy to invent new, dangerous drugs.   And I certainly generally believe in our system of regulating prescription drugs.  Not anybody should just be able to walk into a pharmacy and buy Oxycontin, Adderall, and Lipitor.

But I guess the question is what you do with people who use drugs they shouldn’t and what you do with people who sell drugs they shouldn’t.  I think I’m increasingly of the mind that if you are only “crime” is using a drug that you are not supposed to, we certainly don’t need to put you in jail for it, or even consider it a crime.  The problem comes with sellers.  A lot of small-time dealers are actually just addicts doing some selling to support their habit.  I don’t think it is really useful to have them in prison either.  As for the big time sellers, if we still don’t want people addicted to cocaine, meth, etc., at some level it has to be criminal to sell the stuff.  But at what level?  And how much do we punish for simply an economic transaction (as opposed to violence, coercion, etc.).  I don’t know.  But at this point, I feel like our society would actually be a lot better off if we stopped using our criminal justice resources to punish people for their desire to get high.

Best Criminal Justice in the world?

I had a guest speaker in my class earlier this week who began her presentation by stipulating that the US Criminal Justice system is the “best in the world.”  Of course, much of the rest of her presentation suggested otherwise, so I somewhat doubt she really meant this.  I’m no expert on comparative criminal justice, but my thought was that if we are the best in the world, damn is the rest of the world hurting.  Not to mention, in general Northern European democracies seem to be so much smarter about public policy, so I figured they probably are on criminal justice policy, too.

Well, with the power of google and the World Justice Project, my suspicions are confirmed:

Want a just society? Consider moving to northern Europe. The U.S. isn’t even in the top 15.

This week, the World Justice Project released its annualRule of Law index. It’s base don a survey of 1,000 people in three major cities in 99 countries, each asked identical questions about the limits of government powers, corruption, civil liberties and crime.

The criminal justice system in the U.S. is what pulls the rug out from higher rankings here. [emphasis mine] The general public view it as discriminatory, and stories like the murder of Trayvon Martin in central Florida in 2012 help perpetuate that negative perception.

And here’s the cool graphical summary of the US:


No, we’re not the worst in criminal justice, but safe to say not exactly best in the world.  Like most everything else public policy-wise, we could do so much better.

Quick hits (part II)

I’ve been a horrible blogger lately.  Good stuff coming soon– I promise.  Until then, lots more good links.

1) The Supreme Court thinks it is just fine for cops to pull you over because they don’t actually know the law.

2) The Northern Lights are awesome and it is hard work to film them.

3) Tax day last week brought lots of talk about the IRS.  It really is just unconscionable how the Republican slash their budget and then complain that they can’t get anything right.  Of course, Ted Cruz says we shouldn’t even have an IRS because every one would surely pay their taxes then.

4) It’s not easy out there for cable channels that are not part of big media conglomerates.

5) So, just one more totally, obviously innocent prisoner who is languishing away in Virginia.  I would have liked a little more focus in this article on why the Democratic governor still has not pardoned him, as that is the obvious solution at this point.

6) Enjoyed this comparison of cities that have professional sports teams in all four of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey.

7) Bloomberg View with a nice editorial on how we need to defeat the NRA and actually do research on gun violence.

8) Apparently Washington state is also suffering horrible drought— especially in apple-growing regions.  I take this quite personally (I eat 2-3 apples every day).  That said, at this point in the year, the Washington Apples preserved from the Fall our pretty horrible.  I’m desperately awaiting the Southern hemisphere apples to arrive from Chile and New Zealand.

9) Yet more on the increasing evidence that, for most people, salt is pretty harmless.

10) I always enjoy pieces knocking down libertarian utopias– in this case the idea that the interrnet will somehow make government regulation obsolete.

11) Sure, professors need to reach out more to a general audience, but I’d argue that political science is doing a pretty good job at this.  The Monkey Cage, for example, has proved hugely influential (at least indirectly) among young, smart journalists.

12) I so cannot wait for the new Star Wars movie.   I’m so excited about actually seeing a Star Wars movie in the theater with my kids.  And watching this trailer, I have to say that John Williams Star Wars score probably has more emotional impact on me than about any music.

13) Regardless of what’s going on with the law, the death penalty in America is definitely on the wane (which, given its huge flaws, I would argue is a good thing).

14) In Republican North Carolina, we need more prayer and less debt:

— ​Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and 10 other legislative colleagues are rounding up signatures for a “call to prayer for America” from fellow lawmakers, hoping to start a national movement…

“The consensus among those in attendance was that people of faith can no longer sit idly by and watch as our nation’s history and Judeo-Christian heritage are being re-written with a false narrative,” according to a handout that Sanderson passed out to his colleagues. The formal resolution says that those in Charlotte “realized the need for America to turn back to God and prayer.”

Asked what issue he thought should be the focus of the prayer, Sanderson said there were several.

“One of the greatest threats facing our nation right now is our level of debt,” he said. “I don’t know you could list all the things our nation is facing right now. There’s just many.”

15) Contrary to what you may have been told, marijuana is not a “gateway drug.”  Nicotine, however, is.

16) To their credit, the Koch brothers support much-needed criminal justice reform.  To their discredit, they don’t let this play any role at all in the Republican candidates they support.

17) The self-fulfilling power of Moore’s law.

18) How a Union general stopped Raleigh from being destroyed after Lincoln was assassinated.

19) You know what’s crazy?  How much we rely on Alcoholics Anonymous despite the fact that it is not based on medical science whatsoever and has incredibly little evidence to support its efficacy.  There’s way better approaches that are, you know… evidence-based, that they are smart enough to use in other countries.  Heck, I’d never even bothered to read the 12 steps before reading this article.  I’m sure it really does help some people, but just reading these steps, you’d have to think there’s surely many a better approach out there.  And there is.

Quick hits (part I)

I was at a political science conference over the weekend, thus pushing back quick hits and regular blogging.  Sorry!

1) There’s something remarkably pathetic about a man (Orthodox Jews in this NYT story) who is unwilling to sit next to a strange female on an airplane.  My sympathy is with the women unwilling to move.

2) Tom Edsall asks whether Obamacare has turned voters against redistribution.

3) Not only do Republican presidential candidates dodge questions on evolution, they are even dodging on how old the earth is (and as compelling as the science for evolution is, the science for the age of the earth is far more compelling).

4) Nice post in the New Yorker on how the death penalty deserves the death penalty.

5) Can you trust your ears?

6) When even Jesse Helm’s former political strategist says the NC Republicans have gone too far (in the Wake County redistricting), you know it’s true.

7) The difficulty journalists face in reporting on quacks and pseudoscience.

8) Back before he was discredited, Jonah Lehrer wrote a nice piece on how brainstorming doesn’t work.  Reading that actually changed the way I teach.  And here’s a recent piece summing up the evidence on the matter.

9) Jimmy Carter is not happy with how organized religion discriminates against females.

10) James Fallows piece a while back on the troubles with civil-military relations these days talked about the unfortunate and inappropriate demise of the A10.  And here’s an NYT Op-Ed from a former A10 squadron commander who is now a Republican Congresswoman.

11) The sentences for the teachers in the Atlanta cheating scandal strike me as way too harsh.  Why do we have to use long prison sentences as the solution for everything in this country.

12) A must-see for Game of Thrones fans– why you shouldn’t invite Jon Snow to your dinner party.

13) Sure, very few people read most published articles, but there’s a lot of crappy journals out there.  Serious scholars have serious impact in serious journals.  Yes, perhaps professors need to pen more for “popular media” but I’d say that Political Science is actually doing a nice job of this.

14) Encouraging teenagers to read with adult, instead of “young adult,” books.

15) Jon Cohn on the terrifically effective anti-poverty program based on home visits.  We need to scale this up!

Child First is a “home visiting” program, which means staff members work with families mostly in their homes rather than in office settings, sometimes meeting as frequently as three or four times a week. The first priority is addressing tangible problems like poor housing or lack of medical care, which sometimes means connecting families with public programs. But the main focus is improving relationships within the family, particularly between the parents and children, through a combination of advice and therapy…

Child First has its own data to back up claims of success. Studies have shown that participation in Child First reduces the incidence of developmental problems and mental health issues for children, and decreases calls to child welfare authorities.

16) If the head of the DEA is clueless about what really makes sense in the war on drugs, it’s time for her to go:

1. Dead kids as a sign of drug war success

In 2011, the Washington Post wrote about a report on the deaths of hundreds of children at the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Asked to comment on the findings, Leonhart said that “it may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs.”

“If this is a sign of success, maybe we should reconsider waging this war,” wrote Alex Pareene in Salon at the time.

17) No, students should not assault teachers, but there’s some real potential for taking this too far if we label it a felony.  Especially for children with special needs (obviously, this concern hits close to home).

18) This was a terrific Radley Balko column on absurd interpretations of the 4th amendment and everything that is wrong with modern drug raids.  It totally deserved it’s own post.  I’ve failed long enough– just read it.

The most important inequality

Bill Ayers with a great post arguing that the most significant inequality in our society is not one of wealth (not that that’s unimportant), but political power:

The real issue – indeed, the fundamental question of all governance no matter what kind of political system you have – is distribution of power. We talk a lot about money corrupting politics, and it clearly can and does – but that’s a back-end reinforcement mechanism. Money follows power far more than it leads it. Take a look at folks who got rich outside the usual power structures – Bill Gates is a good example. Gates has more money than the Koch Brothers will ever have, but that doesn’t make him more powerful. His wealth has had very little, if any, impact on American politics. Most people don’t even know what his political views are.

So when we argue about whether our political system should be redistributing wealth, we are barking up the wrong tree. What we should be talking about is the redistribution of political power. We have forgotten that such redistribution is exactly what democracy is designed to do. Political power always and everywhere tends naturally to accumulate over time in the hands of a small elite – this has happened in every human society, everywhere, at every stage in history. The whole point of the American revolution, the Constitution (and before it, the Articles of Confederation), the Magna Carta, and all of what we regard as the best political experiments in history have had this one thing in common: the goal of intentionally taking power away from the few and spreading it out among the many. [italics in original; bold mine] …

This will sound to some like a partisan argument, and in a certain sense it is. The Republican Party, from its policy positions to its core ideology to its funding sources, seems to have aligned itself some time ago with the existing dominant bases of power in the United States. A message that rejects wealth redistribution is a message in defense of the status quo – that is, the current distribution of power in the country. So far as I can tell, the Republican Party on most fronts seems content with the existing concentration of power…

The Democratic Party in general, going back probably the late 1960s and the Chicago debacle, has largely accommodated itself to the existing power system as a means of remaining relevant….

So where to turn? As usual, I don’t have any good solutions – if the answer were obvious somebody else would have found it already. But I do argue – as I always have – that asking the right questions and focusing on the right issues is far more important that having the answers. Right now our political system is largely asking all the wrong questions. We have for the most part abandoned the central mission of democracy in favor of some of its trappings. If we start asking the right questions, I don’t know what will happen – but I think the outcome is likely to be better than the path we are on.

Great stuff.

Security theater comes to baseball

hate security theater.  The idea that some guy with a metal detector does anything to actually keep an arena safe during a sporting event is preposterous on it’s face.  During my recent trip to the ACC tournament I went through security by holding my phone and keys high up in my hands while the rest of me got wanded.  I swear, if I had one of those big phablet phones, I probably could have hidden a 6″ knife behind it in my hand.  Or heck, maybe even a small gun.  But, that aside, there’s a million ways to actually get a weapon into a sports arena if you’ve got an IQ over 100.  Thus, all this security theater is so, so stupid.  I so love this essay by actual security expert Bruce Schneier on the occasion of MLB now requiring this nonsense for all games.  There’s just so much right in here:

As a security measure, the new devices are laughable. The ballpark metal detectors are much more lax than the ones at an airport checkpoint. They aren’t very sensitive — people with phones and keys in their pockets aresailing through — and there are no X-ray machines. Bags get the same cursory search they’ve gotten for years. And fans wanting to avoid the detectors can opt for a “light pat-down search” instead.

There’s no evidence that this new measure makes anyone safer. A halfway competent ticketholder would have no trouble sneaking a gun into the stadium. For that matter, a bomb exploded at a crowded checkpoint would be no less deadly than one exploded in the stands. These measures will, at best, be effective at stopping the random baseball fan who’s carrying a gun or knife into the stadium. That may be a good idea, but unless there’s been a recent spate of fan shootings and stabbings at baseball games — and there hasn’t — this is a whole lot of time and money being spent to combat an imaginary threat…

It’s an attitude I’ve seen before: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” Never mind if the something makes any sense or not.

In reality, this is CYA security, and it’s pervasive in post-9/11 America. It no longer matters if a security measure makes sense, if it’s cost-effective or if it mitigates any actual threats. All that matters is that you took the threat seriously, so if something happens you won’t be blamed for inaction. It’s security, all right — security for the careers of those in charge…

I can hear the objections to this as I write. You don’t know these measures won’t be effective! What if something happens? Don’t we have to do everything possible to protect ourselves against terrorism?

That’s worst-case thinking, and it’s dangerous. It leads to bad decisions, bad design and bad security. A better approach is to realistically assess the threats, judge security measures on their effectiveness and take their costs into account. [emphases mine] And the result of that calm, rational look will be the realization that there will always be places where we pack ourselves densely together, and that we should spend less time trying to secure those places and more time finding terrorist plots before they can be carried out…

If it’s in the name of security, we’ll accept it. As long as our leaders are scared of the terrorists, they’re going to continue the security theater. And we’re similarly going to accept whatever measures are forced upon us in the name of security. We’re going to accept the National Security Agency’s surveillance of every American, airport security procedures that make no sense and metal detectors at baseball and football stadiums. We’re going to continue to waste money overreacting to irrational fears…

We no longer need the terrorists. We’re now so good at terrorizing ourselves.

Yes, yes, yes!  If only a few decision-makers had more courage and more commonsense not to subject us to this.


Lots of good stuff written with Hillary making her official announcement for 2016.  Seth Masket’s post is my favorite so far as he makes a number of good and important points:

I’ve written a bit about this in recent weeks, but just to sum up what we know about campaign effects, they’re not very powerful, at least in general elections. That is, most of what candidates and campaigns can directly control—the candidate’s skills and strengths, advertising, issue stances, speeches, debate performances, campaign themes, etc.—just don’t affect voters very much, and when they do, it’s only for a very brief time. This is because a) the two major parties tend to nominate competent candidates who roughly match each other’s strengths; b) the campaigns act simultaneously, meaning that a lot of their efforts end up canceling each other’s out; c) most voters pay only fleeting attention, if any, to day-to-day political events; and d) the effects of the political fundamentals—the economy and war/peace—are enormous and tend to overwhelm other factors…

Neither Bob Dole nor Al Gore ever reached that level of support within their party even by the end of the primary season. If no other serious candidate has jumped in the Democratic race so far, it’s because these endorsements have communicated to them loud and clear that the party has already made up its mind…

And as Jonathan Bernstein reminds us, Clinton has already demonstrated considerable political skills in becoming what she is today: the de facto Democratic nominee for president in 2016, more than a year before the convention that will make it official. This is no small feat. No one who is not a sitting president or vice president has ever pulled this off in modern presidential nominations history…

She’s long had her detractors within her party, which is a big part of the reason that Obama was able to deprive her of the nomination in 2008. But she’s worked tirelessly to build on her support and mollify detractors, to woo endorsers and funders, to win over the Democratic campaign leaders who worked against her in 2008, and to convince influential insiders that the party and the country are ready for her. This requires serious skill, and she’s basically done it better than anyone else in modern history…

There’s a part of a presidential campaign where candidate skills make a big difference. At least on the Democratic side, that part has already happened, and Hillary Clinton won. [emphasis mine] What she’ll need from here on are favorable fundamentals, and there’s very little she can do to affect those.

Chait, meanwhile take a good look at what to expect for 2016 according to a number of factors, but I think this sums it up pretty well:

Unless the economy goes into a recession over the next year and a half, Hillary Clinton is probably going to win the presidential election. The United States has polarized into stable voting blocs, and the Democratic bloc is a bit larger and growing at a faster rate. [emphasis mine]

He does a great job looking at a variety of aspects of the electorate and the 2016 election, but I do think this is the most important:

1. The Emerging Democratic Majority is real. The major disagreement over whether there is an “Emerging Democratic Majority” — the thesis that argues that Democrats have built a presidential majority that could only be defeated under unfavorable conditions — centers on an interpretive disagreement over the 2014 elections. Proponents of this theory dismiss the midterm elections as a problem of districting and turnout; Democrats have trouble rousing their disproportionately young, poor supporters to the polls in a non-presidential year, and the tilted House and Senate map further compounded the GOP advantage.

Skeptics of the theory instead believe that the 2014 midterms were, as Judis put it, “not an isolated event but rather the latest manifestation of a resurgent Republican coalition.” Voters, they argue, are moving toward the Republican Party, and may continue to do so even during the next presidential election.

It has been difficult to mediate between the two theories, since the outcome at the polls supports the theory of both the proponents and the skeptics of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory equally well.

A Pew survey released this week gives us the best answer. Pew is the gold standard of political polling, using massive surveys, with high numbers of respondents and very low margins of error. Pew’s survey shows pretty clearly that there was not a major change in public opinion from the time of Obama’s reelection through the 2014 midterms:

Of course, Pew is not surveying actual voters. It’s surveying all adults. But that is the point. What changed between 2012 and 2014 was not public opinion, but who showed up to vote.

Now, of course it is far from a given that Hillary Clinton will win in 2016.  But I think it is plenty fair to say that if present trends continue– an economy that continues to grow at a reasonable pace and a non-implosion from Hillary– she’s got to be considered a very strong favorite.



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