15 April 2015

Out-of-Control Police Violence and Government Overreach

Stephen Kershnar
Walter Scott, Traffic Tickets, and Government Overreach
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 12, 2015

The recent spate of videotaped incidents highlights intertwined problems: out-of-control police violence and constant government overreach.

By now everyone has seen the recent video of the shooting of Walter Scott in  South Carolina. Scott was stopped for a broken taillight. After he fled from Officer Michael Slager, the cop shot him eight times from behind and then appears to drop a Taser near Scott’s body. Slager gave the line that almost always protects cops: a struggle ensued, the suspect reached for my weapon and I feared for my life. After the video emerged, Slager was charged with murder. Without the cell-phone video, he’d be free as the wind.

In 2013, an individual who was being investigated in a case of mistaken identity complained that Slager tased him for no good reason and when his hands up in the air. The North Charleston police cleared Slager, although the alleged victim and several witnesses claimed they were not even interviewed about the incident.

The videotaped shooting comes shortly after the videotaped chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island that led to his death. Two journalists, Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri, estimate that the police shoot and kill around 1,000 people each year, that is, three a day.

Most, recently, a video captures a horse thief in Southern California who was stunned with a Taser by a sheriff’s deputy and fell to the ground with his arms outstretched. Writing for NBC, Joseph Kandel and Tony Shin claim that a group of 11 sheriff’s deputies then kicked him 17 times, kneed him to the groin, punched him 37 times, and struck him with batons 4 times. 13 blows appeared to be to the head. Following the attack, the man did not appear to move from his position on the ground for more than 45 minutes and did not appear to receive medical attention while deputies stood around him.

The issue that arises is whether the above cases and ones like them are the exception or whether there is a real problem with police violence. Often the police’s defenders claim there’s no problem here. They note that there are bad cops, but no more so than bad teachers, nurses, and bus drivers. Other defenders argue that the high-profile cases are isolated instances and not a systemic failure.

Others, such as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, rebut the isolated-instances claim. He argues that role of cameras in reducing police violence suggests that they can and do use far less violence when monitored and, hence, far too much police violence is unnecessary and wrong.

A study by Police Chief William Farrar found that in Rialto, California when police used body cameras, complaints against them dropped 88%. Furthermore, Farrar noted that this reduction in complaints was due to a reduction in force because (1) police shifts with cameras had half as many use-of-force incidents as those with cameras and (2) officers without cameras were more likely to use force without having been physically threatened.

Arizona State University criminologist Michael White notes that a study of police officers in Mesa, Arizona found that police officers had 60% fewer complaints after they wore body cameras and 65% fewer complaints than those officers who did not wear cameras. A reduction in complaints was also found in Great Britain when officers wore cameras.

It is possible that this decline in complaints and use of force is largely due to citizens behaving differently in response to the cameras, but this doesn’t fit well with the evidence. The Rialto study found that the police were more disciplined about only using force in response to a threat to them when they were on camera than when they are not. Also, a citizen already faces a serious chance of injury and conviction when fighting with the police and it is unlikely that the camera adds much of a further deterrent.  

Police involvement in citizens’ lives is also at a disturbing level. Sociologists Charles R. Epp and fellow researchers studied traffic stops and found that nationwide 12% of all drivers are stopped by the police each year. Based on data about the Kansas City metropolitan area, they found that more than a third of young black men are stopped two or more times a year for investigatory stops. An investigatory stop is one based on a minor matter (for example, driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, or failure to signal) and is often used as a pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Epp and company found that 44% of young black men who drive an older luxury car were subject to investigatory stops. Regardless of the race issue, far too many people are being pulled over and the courts and legislature deserve a lot of the blame here.    

Nor is it just traffic stops. Tickets are now used to bleed revenue out of cowed citizens. A 2006 Federal Reserve Bank study found states sharply increasing the number of traffic tickets given out to compensate for loss of revenue elsewhere. Some states have had had to limit the percentage of a town’s revenue that can get from tickets to 30% for state roads and 35% to state highways as some towns started to use police and courts as moneymaking schemes. These percentages are outrageous.

The results of using tickets as taxation are ugly. Timothy Williams writing in The New York Times notes that in 2013, an astounding 17% of Californians had their licenses suspended for failure to pay fines or appear in court. This is unsurprising given a 2012 state analysis that found that a $500 traffic ticket, even when paid on time, cost $1,953. It also found a $100 ticket for failure to have proof of insurance actually cost $490 and this increases to $815 if the motorist didn’t pay on time.


Police violence, police stopping far too many motorists for minor traffic matters, and towns using traffic tickets as their newest and most favorite form of taxation are a bad combination. The three are related in that the demand for more government revenue leads to more traffic stops, which leads to more friction, and so on. The system needs reform. 

03 April 2015

Are men doing better than women?

Stephen Kershnar
Hillary Clinton’s coming feminist campaign
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 29, 2015

Hillary Clinton will soon be running for the presidency again, this time on women’s issues. Writing in Bloomberg Politics, Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Epstein point out that she is pushing issues such as equal pay, family leave, and government subsidized child care. She attended a number of events focused on women’s issues, brags about how as secretary of state she did a lot for women and girls, and sprinkles her speeches with comments on becoming a grandmother.

Aside from yet another crass reinvention of herself just in time for the next election, the odd feature of a feminist campaign is that in the U.S. women are doing better than men.

Consider what makes a life go well. On one theory, how well someone’s life goes depends on how happy she is and how long she lives. On another theory, how well someone’s life goes depends in part on how happy she is but also on whether it is meaningful.

In the U.S., women are happier than men. University of Pennsylvania economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have found that over the last few decades (1972-2006), women are on average happier than men, although the gap between them is closing. Studies that focus on people in the European Union and studies of even larger blocs of countries also find women are happier. In addition, women live longer than men. A recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, American women live 5 more years (7% longer).

Hence, on average, women are happier and they live longer. If how well one’s life goes depends on, and only on, how happy she is, then women currently have better lives than men.  

If, instead, how well someone’s life goes depends in part on how meaningful her life is, women’s lives again go better. On a standard account, how meaningful one’s life is depends on the degree to which one has family and friends, knowledge, and dignity.

Consider family and friends. Women have more family in the sense that they are more likely to live with their children than do men. While the studies vary, it also appears that on average women have more friends than do men, particularly friends who are related to them (kin).    

Consider knowledge. When it comes for formal learning, women are more knowledgeable as evidenced by the fact that across all grades and academic subjects (including the sciences), women get better grades. They are also considerably more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Consider dignity. Large swaths of men lose dignity when they are caught up in the soul-crushing indignities of the criminal justice system. Also, men’s lives appear to more frequently lack dignity in that men commit suicide far more often than women. It should be mentioned that women more often attempt suicide and think about it. 

The interesting question is whether there is something wrong about a political candidate focusing on a better-off group. If the political marketplace is similar to the economic marketplace, then it is hard to see why there is anything wrong when a politician targets better-off voters just as there is nothing wrong when a business targets better-off consumers. A Lexus dealer doesn’t try to sell cars to the middle class and, morally, this is just fine. If Clinton doesn’t try to sell her candidacy to white men and, perhaps, even to married white women, this seems to be fine for the same reason. 

Still, there is something odd about trying to benefit a group already doing well, especially if the candidate is a member of it. Consider if Chuck Schumer (D-NY) were to focus his next senatorial campaign on benefitting Jews. The reason this would be odd is that Jews are the wealthiest religious group in America and it is not obvious that they need or deserve a larger piece of the pie. A 2008 Pew Forum study found 46% of Jews make more than $100,000 (more than double the rate of other Americans) and they are overrepresented in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, medicine, and so on. There does seem to be something strange about focusing on better-off groups, although it is hard to see why it is wrong. Women, like Jews, are a better-off group.

If one views politicians as subject to moral considerations that limit which voters they can appeal to and how they can appeal to them, then Clinton’s feminist campaign is problematic. After all, she is promising benefits to a better-off group and, if successful, it is hard to see how this will improve any of the things we value: liberty, equality, efficiency, or desert.

A Clinton apologist might claim that her proposed programs (for example, subsidized childcare, equal pay, and family leave) are the right thing to do anyway because they will make the country more equal. The feminist packaging is just a way of selling desirable policies.

The problem is that parenting is already so heavily subsidized in this country that it is hard to believe that the apologist can defend subsidized childcare with a straight face. The smorgasbord of free education, child-based tax credits and deductions, welfare programs, Head Start programs, and assorted other goodies make it hard to believe that yet another welfare program for parents should be created and lavishly funded. Equal pay is already mandated by law and likely already characterizes the U.S. workplace. And even proponents of family leave seem to have a hard time explaining why businesses, especially small- and medium-sized one, should be forced to pay workers who don’t go to work for months on end, albeit for emergencies outside of their control.


Even if these ideas weren’t terrible, they are hardly the most important issues Americans face.      

24 March 2015

Voting in Academia: Should contingents get the same voting privileges as tenure-track faculty?

Stephen Kershnar
Who Votes? Democracy and Academia
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 9, 2015

A fascinating article by SUNY-Fredonia English professor Emily VanDette (“Who Gets a Vote in Departmental Decisions?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education) signals a looming battle in academia. For years, tenure-track faculty along with university administrators have decided important issues in academia, including how academic departments (such as chemistry and history) are run. They’ve done so without allowing contingent faculty a vote.    

A tenure-track professor is a professor has or likely will have a permanent position at a university. Usually, people in these positions get paid reasonably well and have strong job protection. Traditionally, they are thought to be full members of the faculty in the sense that they have all the duties and privileges traditionally associated with being a professor.

In contrast, a contingent (or adjunct) professor is a professor hired for a specific purpose or length of time and often receives only part-time pay. For example, they are often paid per class and not paid well. They are not given all the duties and privileges of full membership in the faculty. For instance, they don’t have to do research and, also, don’t get a vote and strong job protection. They get last choice in classes and, when enrollment is down, get fewer classes thereby reducing their already meager income.   

The tenure-track faculty’s role has recently been challenged in that the contingent faculty have asked for and received more of a say in how departments and universities are run. Specifically, they want a vote on what’s taught, who gets hired, and who’s in charge. VanDette’s article nicely lays out the Fredonia English Department’s divisive struggle over this issue. The problem is that contingent faculty do more of the teaching at a college than ever before and are more often than in the past making careers out of adjunct work. As of last year, contingent faculty did roughly 50% of the teaching at Fredonia, but got only about 20% of the pay given to professors.

One theory of democracy is that it is justified because it allows people govern their own lives in the sense that they can control the world around them. As adjuncts are more commonly teaching at a university for longer periods of time and increasingly making adjunct teaching a career, the self-government argument strengthens because the university becomes more important to their lives.

A second theory of democracy is that it is justified by the equal respect people can and should demand of others who are part of an organization. The equal respect can be seen in that when everyone gets a vote, people’s interests and preferences are given equal consideration.  

The problem with both theories is that they don’t apply to the workplace. Consider a small family-owned restaurant. Morally, it is owners and not employees who have the right to decide how the restaurant is run. The rights of ownership exhaust the moral rights to control the business. Of course, restaurant owners should consult its workers because the workers often know more about the day-to-day operation of the business than anyone else, including the owners.

Even if were the case that owners did not have the right to control their own restaurant, there would still be legitimate reasons to give some people more of a say than others. Cooks and servers at the restaurant who have worked there full-time, done so for decades, and who oversee the other workers likely know more and have more at stake than transitory and part-time workers. It is consistent with self-government and equal respect that these differences be taken into account by giving the full-time people more of a say.

In addition, in academia, faculty votes count as no more than advice given to the university’s administrators. As such, there is little reason to think that self-government justifies faculty voting in general, let alone granting adjuncts the same voting privileges as tenure-track professors.

The equal-respect argument is murky here in part because equal respect is consistent with different roles being assigned based on knowledge, experience, and investment in an organization.    
   
A third theory of democracy is that it is justified because voting results produce better decisions than other forms of group decision-making, such as dictatorship. The idea is that publicly vetting ideas and including more people in the decision-making allows for more information to be considered and for it to be better used. Democracy is also better because it forces the group to take more people’s interests into account. An example of this last point is economist Amartya Sen’s observation that large-scale famines don’t occur in democratic countries with a free press.

On this theory, voting works better when voters are more informed, not coerced into voting one way rather than another, and invested in the outcome (they have some skin in the game). In the academic context, tenure-track professors meet these conditions to a greater degree than do adjuncts.    

As a general matter, and there are exceptions, tenure-track members know more about their fields than contingent faculty. They beat out stiffer competition to get a tenure-track spot and are required to have an active research program prior to tenure. They also know more about the university because they sit on more committees and do more service-related work. They often have doctorates (or other terminal degree) rather than a master’s degree. 

Tenure-track faculty are less subject to pressure from the administration and other faculty because their positions and salaries are more secure. They are also more invested in the university because they are more likely to work there longer and are more financially dependent on it than are contingent professors.

The tenure-track faculty’s greater knowledge about their field, lesser vulnerability, and greater investment in the institution make it likely that their voting will achieve better results if their votes are not diluted by the votes of contingent faculty. Even the proponents of contingent seem to agree to some extent in that they rarely argue that contingent faculty should get to vote on tenure and promotion. Still, fewer proponents want graduate students to vote. This is despite the fact that their arguments support both outcomes.


This better-result argument is correct and it explains why, traditionally, only tenure-track members get a vote. It also explains this voting rule is more rigidly enforced the higher up the university on the academic food chain. Still, when contingents are not allowed to vote, it just seems disrespectful and a denial of their right to self-governance. As contingents teach an ever larger portion of classes, the challenge to traditional academic voting rules will continue, even if it is mistaken.