Thursday, March 19, 2015

Letting ideology trump effectiveness

Two articles, one right after the other, reinforce the idea that we are letting our petty Gramscian obsessions interfere with the reality of invigorating our country.

The King’s Road by Kevin D. Williamson.
Corinne Ramey, a freelance writer working in collaboration with the Nation Institute, has published a long and deeply reported account of the deficiencies in the U.S. transportation system, with an emphasis on the poor quality of service and low environmental standards on offer to poor and largely nonwhite communities relative to well-off and largely white communities. The report was published in Slate under the unsubtle homepage headline “America’s Transportation System Is Racist,” though the article itself suggests very strongly that this is a case of a reporter’s being more intelligent than the people writing her headlines. The piece is very much worth reading.
This is a function of the thoroughly discredited but still widely used supposition that any disparate impact must be a function of intent and therefore, depending on the vector of impact: racist, sectarian, misogynist, agist, classist, etc. There are no fields of endeavor that perfectly match the large population distribution of attributes.
Ramey does not really much argue that the animating principle here is racism in the sense of malicious intent toward nonwhites — she does troll some newspaper comments sections for racially charged vituperation about “thugs” and the like, but the results are unpersuasive — instead leaning on a “disparate impact” criterion, i.e. the argument that the people who run our transportation system do not necessarily hate blacks and Hispanics, but end up mistreating them anyway.
As Williamson points out there is a parallel to education which, using the same definitions as Ramey, must be incredibly racist because of the extent of disparate impact when in fact, the overwhelming majority of the disparate profile is a consequence of history, path dependency, behaviors and choices.

Assuming that the disparate impact is a consequence of intent rather than personal choices and historical circumstances leads you to a portfolio of solutions which are 1) illegal, 2) counter to the culture, and 3) demonstrably ineffective. And that’s where we have been for much of the last thirty years, solving the wrong problems in the wrong ways.

The other example is The Department of Justice Is Asking Ferguson To Do the Impossible by Kriston Capps. After the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. After the St. Louis grand jury found no basis for a case against Darren Wilson, the Federal Department of Justice, just as they did in the Trayvon Martin case, wanted to have a second bite at the apple. But just as in the Martin case, again they came up with nothing. No crime was committed by Wilson. Having failed, the DOJ has gone after the Ferguson police department with a range of accusations. They clearly have uncovered some racists correspondence which ought to be punished, but appear to have failed on the larger issue. It appears that they are not bringing any individual cases, as you would if crimes had been committed. Instead they are forcing reforms on the police department based on the argument that the department is racist because of disparate impact. An absence of real criminal cases and rhetorical case built on a statistical chimera. Bah.
Ferguson relies on court fees to fund its municipal activities. It's a well-documented fact that the collection of court fines represents a significant revenue stream for the suburb. A rapidly rising stream, too. Collections now account for one-fifth of total operating revenues and serve as the second-largest source of revenue overall. Last fall, Mother Jones and NPR detailed the many ticky-tack fouls that Ferguson officials call on residents—especially poor and black residents.

The situation is dire for many. "Despite their poverty, defendants are frequently ordered to pay fines that are frequently triple their monthly income," reads a white paper by ArchCity Defenders, a legal nonprofit, on three egregious St. Louis County-area municipal courts, including Ferguson. Even Ferguson officials know it. One Ferguson Police Department commander described the futility of Ferguson's predatory collections scheme to Justice investigators with a saying: "How can you get blood from a turnip?"

That question may be turned on Ferguson officials now. Justice's recommendations for reforming Ferguson courts call for a vastly more sophisticated, professional court system than the one in place. At the same time, Justice's recommendations for reforming the Ferguson Police Department require it to focus far less on collecting revenue and emphasize protecting public safety instead.

So Ferguson needs to fundamentally revise its model for municipal governance. But how is the city supposed to pay for this work, now that the court can't raid the pockets of its residents?
Such magical thinking leads to magical solutions which is what Capps is attacking. Capps points out that the problem is not actionable racism on the part of the police department but the funding governance of the municipality. I agree, that is a real moral crime and if you don’t solve that problem, you will still have a gross problem that is destructive to the lives and well-being of the citizens of Ferguson. If you have a black police chief and an entirely black police force, but they are still sourcing 30% of the municipal revenue from criminal fines, then Ferguson will be no better off than it was before. Once again, we are letting race obsession stand in the way of improving the lives of citizens.

The meta-issue appears even more fundamental. It appears that the municipality of Ferguson does not have the financial wherewithal to support the level of municipal services that they might otherwise desire. I suspect, like many municipalities, they are unable to raise property taxes any further for fear of driving out the remaining property and business owners. If they are unable to generate additional revenue from taxes and do choose to get rid of funding via court fines (as they ought), then that means they are facing a 30% decline in municipal services.

The only practical resolution to this, absent dramatic improvements in productivity which are improbable, is to merge with other municipalities to get to a size where there are economies of scale and service provision. Merging means the dilution of local control. Ultimately, this probably comes down to a trade-off decision that no one wants to make and have so far postponed: do we accept the moral corruption of raising money via court fines and retain more local control or do we get rid of the fines and merge with others in order to achieve better services but with less control.

Ferguson has clearly chosen the former strategy so far and are likely to pursue the latter from here on out but neither scenario is attractive to anyone. If we focus on race as the motif force behind Ferguson's unpleasant condition, then we will absolutely fail to achieve any meaningful change. The DoJ has done a terrible disservice to Ferguson and the country by allowing the myth of disparate impact to subvert their possible actions for improvement.

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