What the Left Wants for Immigration Policy Or: Don’t Let Racists Set the Agenda

My best friend and I are pretty different—politically, theologically, and culturally. Had we not known each other since high school, we’d probably not have run into each other. But because we do know each other so well, we get to ask each other difficult political questions from across this wide and growing chasm that defines US political life today. Then, we can give earnest answers in a context of mutual trust and respect.

Leveraging this relationship, she opened a dialog around immigration policy—for my money, today’s touchiest political issue.

She had found a study by a thinktank (more on them later) that examined immigrant use of public benefits, and (being a fiscal conservative) she wanted to know how she could approach this topic without being accused of racism. Isn’t there a limit to how much we should support people who aren’t even from here? Shouldn’t we be working harder to care for our current under-privileged as a higher priority? (She sincerely means that latter part. Again: context of mutual trust and respect.)

And what does the left actually want our immigration policy to look like? No wall, no separating families (she agrees on both counts), but what do we affirmatively support?

What follows is an edited version of my response. I answered the “what do you want” question last with my friend, but I’ve put it first here, and you’ll see more about why I did that below.

  I.      What immigration policy does “The Left” want?

Well, that depends on whom you ask, because there is no “the left” that speaks with one voice. (In contrast, Fox & Friends is practically dictating national policy at this point.)

Are there leftists who want no borders or want to move in that direction? Sure. You know what other wing of public intellectuals often pushes for this? Libertarians. Pure laissez faire requires not only the free movement of capital and goods, but also people.

Most leftists don’t want truly unlimited immigration (no border, no screening, etc.), though many of us would support background checks, border inspections, an orderly immigration system, and little more.

A tick to the center from this position, I think the bulk of the institutional left and lefty intellectuals like me would probably be willing to sign on to something like the following:

A.    Official recognition of everyone who’s built a life here for a substantial period of time, without running into the criminal justice system.

That means legal residency, a path to citizenship, and all the protections that come with it such as minimum wage, workplace protections, and the ability to file a police report when you’re the victim or witness of a crime.

Imagine living with none of that. Even if you came here as an adult, that’s a pretty raw deal from a country built by immigrants. If you came here as a kid—if you have to live under these terms, in the only country you know as home—that’s unconscionable.

B.    Larger and more rational allowances for legal immigrants.

Family ties are a pretty legitimate factor in deciding who gets here, but so is economic demand for services—and not just in the professional classes. Unskilled migrants come here because there’s work for them to do, and any policy that tries to ignore this reality is just misguided. In terms of skilled labor, some sectors are positively starving for talent.

I’ve personally known people who earned US graduate degrees and were then told they had to leave after their student visas ran out. Selfishly, we should be trying to keep these people! And in high-demand specialties, there’s no way we can produce enough local talent to meet the demand.

Our immigration quotas are set too low.

Imagine a stretch of interstate where the speed limit were suddenly reduced to 30 mph. Is the problem that people would still go 75 (or drive like maniacs on the side streets to compensate), or that the speed limit is far too low? Laws aren’t inherently right or moral just by virtue of being the law. They should be rational and tethered to the actual needs of the community. They should punish the dangerously deviant, not the ordinary. In sectors like farming and construction, undocumented labor is awfully ordinary (akin to driving 75 anyway). In sectors where undocumented work isn’t feasible, jobs are just sitting unfilled, and the side-street-like workarounds like outsourcing aren’t helping us, either.

Apply the paradigm of setting speed limits to the question of immigration volume. Not unlimited, but basically enough to do the job so that illegal immigration isn’t generally necessary. This could bake in a bit of give and take as local supply and demand evolves for specific occupations. It could also allow families to reunite in the open, but at a moderate enough pace to allow local infrastructure to evolve accordingly.

Then, think about the resources this frees up! Imagine if the INS, ICE, and DHS more broadly could focus more squarely on stopping human and drug trafficking and keeping out convicted criminals. Imagine these agencies providing humanizing and helpful services to otherwise law-abiding would-be residents.

That would do far more to promote the safety and well-being of our nation than the vast majority of enforcement activities today.

C.    Border policy that’s actually based on security needs and rational analysis of empirical evidence.

The wall is a joke. Every dollar spent on the wall is many times too expensive relative to other ways to get the same level of increased enforcement. Most of the border is just unpopulated desert, and for the parts where fencing makes sense, there are generally fences already—and they tend to be in poor repair. A wall would still need to be patrolled, maintained, and repaired. Everyone who’s studied this seriously—and even Republicans elected from border regions—tends to conclude that a wall is a terrible use of resources. Invest more money elsewhere.

Or actually don’t, because unauthorized immigration is at its lowest level in ten years. This whole “crisis” is so manufactured it might as well say “Hasbro” on the bottom. The only thing that’s changed is the political rhetoric.

Sure, we could definitely use updating and repair of some of the physical plant we already have. To the extent that outdated or worn-out gates, bridges, offices, and so on slow down commerce? That’s a real problem. As far as ramping up enforcement to save lives, though? Our safety would be more quickly improved by investing in infrastructure that has nothing to do with the border—crumbling bridges, post-apocalyptic roads, and so on.

D.    Deflate and challenge the racial views and assumptions that animate this whole debate.

The truth is that we need immigrants. Overall, our country’s native population isn’t even reproducing at replacement level. Without immigration, Japan’s grey-haired present is our future. That’s not a good thing, fiscally speaking.

Want to talk about an expensive group to keep on the dole? Let’s talk about retirees! Boomers on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are going to be FAR more expensive than the subset of immigrant children on SNAP, free school meals, and state healthcare. And as Boomers continue to retire, we’re approaching an era where, without a continued influx of working-age adults being part of the legal economy (including Social Security and Medicare taxes), our budget is toast.

Even on a static basis, the only credible answer to “Is immigration a net negative or positive?” is, “Depends on how you measure, but close to break-even overall.” This is true even for measures that we imagine would be highly sensitive to unskilled immigration, like wages among high-school dropouts.

But on a dynamic/prospective basis, the more today’s immigrant kids can join the successful working population of tomorrow, the better off we’ll be.

There is little rational reason to fear immigration—and I’ll tackle the irrational sources of fear in a second. But there are studies and statistics thrown out to justify anti-immigrant positions. Let’s look at one example of how this can work.

II.      Don’t take “the numbers” as a given. Read statistics skeptically.

My friend started the discussion with a link to a study (which I will not directly link here). The author claims that immigrant households use public assistance at a higher rate than native-born households.

Authored by the Center for Immigration Studies, the study is just methodologically wrong, but we shouldn’t find this that surprising. To say that CIS has an axe to grind is, um, an understatement. By 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center had designated them a hate group. They explain:

Founded in 1985 by John Tanton, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has gone on to become the go-to think tank for the anti-immigrant movement with its reports and staffers often cited by media and anti-immigrant politicians. CIS’s much-touted tagline is “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” but the organization has a decades-long history of circulating racist writers, while also associating with white nationalists.

The SPLC goes on to explain that they have a history of torturing data to make incorrect conclusions look right on first glance. They also provide quite extensive evidence to back the claim that they have a racist agenda, racist rhetoric, and plenty of racist connections.

We shouldn’t be surprised that CIS used dodgy research methods to inflate these numbers to reach bogus conclusions. CATO (which is explicitly libertarian but more methodologically honest and, well, not a hate group) tears them to pieces.

See, for instance, this link: Center for Immigration Studies Overstates Immigrant, Non-Citizen, and Native Welfare Use. At the end of the first paragraph, Alex Nowrasteh explains, “For years, CIS and I have debated this topic and this blog is yet another installment. Please follow these links to read the previous installments.”

Each of the last eight words is a different link to another post where the author tears the CIS reports into little pieces. He’s awfully convincing. In particular, see: Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens. If you control for other factors (especially poverty) and use the right unit of analysis (individuals instead of families), the CIS claims just don’t hold any water.

So a hate group think tank cooked the numbers to make immigrants look bad. Who cares?

The fact that my friend (who’s hardly tripping over white papers in her daily life) comes to me with this question illustrates a bigger problem: we take bigots seriously because they always come with a figleaf covering their bigotry. In this case, “objective” data is the fig leaf, but there are many. “Make America Great Again” is surely the most important fig leaf of this century, so far.

You might ask: What role do race, identity, and culture play in the immigration debate? I also come bearing data, but I’ve tortured nothing. Specifically:

III.      There is a relationship between racial and cultural attitudes and immigration views

I’m not saying that anyone who wants tighter immigration policy holds this belief due to racial animus or even hostility toward the generic outsider. The two (policy and racial/cultural attitudes) are not inextricably linked.

However, there is substantial overlap, and that’s a key fact in understanding this debate. To illustrate this, let’s look at the intersection of where people in a Pew Research Center survey from September 2018 line up on two questions. What I’m about to say is not thorough or precise enough to publish in a journal, but it’s an original analysis and only a slight oversimplification of a properly scholarly conclusion.

First, which statement better describes your views?

  1. America’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation (68% overall), or
  2. If America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation (26%).

Surveying racial and cultural attitudes is difficult. Even people who marched alongside Nazi flags in Charlottesville will tell you, “I’m not racist.” They’re just supporters of an agenda of preserving the current racial and cultural heritage of the USA. Which is approximately what the roughly 26% of Americans who would choose Answer B above are saying.

Among questions that people will actually answer honestly (and even here there’s surely some social pressure toward answer A), this is a pretty good proxy for racial attitudes—especially toward Hispanics, who (inaccurately) are generally perceived as the vast majority of immigrants.

At best, this belief is racism-adjacent. Doubt it? Consider the widely-understood racial and cultural direction of our country—less white, more multicultural. Everyone knows that’s coming. Even people who’ve never been on a college campus know this. If you oppose that, you’re saying that you want our country to be whiter and less culturally diverse. That’s not exactly racism in its purest form, but it’s starting to sound an awful lot like racism, and it’s an answer that one in four US adults will give explicitly to a stranger.

The second question is: what do you think should be the priority for immigration policy?

  1. Better border security and stronger enforcement of our immigration laws (19%),
  2. Creating a way for immigrants already here illegally to become citizens if they meet certain requirements (33%), or
  3. Both should be given equal priority (46%).

Here’s a table of everyone who answered both questions as instructed:

  A. Openness B. Preserve Identity Totals
1. Enforcement 116 204 320
2. Citizenship 471 56 527
3. Both 567 210 777
Totals 1154 470 1624

The odds that there’s actually no relationship between these questions, and the table came out this way due to random chance? One in (ten to the power of 60). Tom Brady is more likely to kick 13 field goals during the Super Bowl. You’re more likely to come out of the grocery store and find a winning PowerBall ticket under your windshield wiper. Donald Trump is more likely to close his Twitter account.

Now look at that first row! Those who support stronger enforcement are 64% in favor of preserving our (whiter) current national identity—even though such identity preservation is supported by just 20% of the rest of the sample. In the social sciences, that’s considered a very substantial relationship.

I will grant that there are people who support stronger immigration for other reasons. I’ve even met nonwhite adults who are the children of illegal immigrants and still support more enforcement because they hold the (generally inaccurate, but common) belief that new immigrants are a net negative for our economy (see above). Even though they both embody and actively celebrate our nation’s growing diversity.

But a major chunk of the “more enforcement” crowd are clearly motivated at least in part by racial resentment and the desire to preserve the majority status for whites—even if they’ll gladly tell you that they’re not racist.

IV.      Don’t let racists frame the debate. Ask different questions.

The whole immigration “crisis” is a fiction created by a racist president (look up his role in the Central Park 5 case and his response to their acquittals). A president who ran on racial animus and whose entire campaign was built on blaming Hispanics (and other disfavored groups, but especially Hispanics) for “our” (white people’s) economic problems. Even if you’re anti-racist (which is different than, and vastly preferable to, being “not racist”), you help the racists if you let them frame the debate.

And when you start from the premise of making immigrants justify themselves, you feed racism, regardless of your intentions.

Letting racists dictate the agenda and answering questions as they frame them is something many people need to rethink—my friend, probably most Americans, the mainstream media.

If someone (Trump) or an organization (CIS) is demonstrably animated in substantial part by racial animus, those of us who are not the direct targets of this racism who still want a less-racist world owe it to those who are under attack to re-evaluate whether and how we let the racists ask the questions.

Like my friend, many are legitimately concerned about tax rates and how government spends your tax dollars. But why not ask about the F-35, a single military project with a price tag of roughly $1 trillion? Why are so many so-called fiscal conservatives willing to back military adventures abroad that, at best, have an uncertain chance to make some marginal improvement in our national security? The children of immigrants on public assistance are a tiny slice of the national budgetary pie compared to Raytheon and Lockheed. In one case, spending money surely saves lives—and in the other, spending money leads to major loss of life, livelihood, and long-term well-being.

Even when it comes to abuse of public assistance, why is this so often brought up in contexts with obvious racial connotations, such as immigration policy or urban policy?

The majority of public assistance recipients are white. There is a substantial culture of abusing public assistance in white communities. Read JD Vance’s excellent book, Hillbilly Elegy, or listen to the audiobook. He documents how Appalachia, and parts of the country that attracted substantial numbers from Appalachia (in particular, parts of the industrial Midwest), have countless white folks who never work, soak up public benefits, and have the gall to complain about moochers who suck off the public teat. (To be clear, I’m sure this is also true for many white folks with no Appalachian roots, and for others who are not white, but I bet there is a nontrivial statistical relationship in the direction of Vance’s qualitative observations.)

This is surely a big part of Trump’s base, actually. I’ll bet there are enough white public assistance beneficiaries, who resent minority receipt of public assistance, and voted for Trump in swing states (esp. the industrial Midwest), such that Trump couldn’t have won without their support. I’ll bet a lot of THEM have Black and Hispanic friends and even family and see no contradiction in any of this. (My brother-in-law bought a custom-made “45” hat after Trump won, but he couldn’t have been nicer when I started dating a Hispanic Jew.)

Pointing out other public waste here isn’t just “whataboutism” (which is an important thing to be able to spot and not a legitimate response to a genuine argument). If a family with at least some undocumented immigrants claims public benefits, it’s generally on behalf of legal residents or citizens, and there’s generally a legitimate need there.

Immigrant adults are more likely to work than non-immigrant adults. They also can’t just show up and collect public assistance because they’re generally not eligible. Even legal immigrants (which, by the way, is roughly 3/4 of immigrants) have time-delayed or limited access to most benefits. So: any effort to limit benefits to the families of immigrants generally means harming legitimately eligible people in genuine need.

In particular, if we follow CIS’s lead and use the category of “immigrant family” to regulate who can receive benefits, it means taking food out of eligible children’s mouths, denying them healthcare, and so on. The public expense is not trivial, sure, but it’s a modest part of our national budget, and trimming it at immigrants’ expense specifically would harm some of the very neediest in our society. Meanwhile, folks who don’t need it as much—like defense contractors—are, in my view, more legitimate targets for government thrift. They just also have more political clout.

V.      We need more immigration, more normalcy in the process, and more allies

So if someone asks you, “How can we absorb all these new people?!”, question the ideological and even racial motives of the people who got the questioner to this point—to whatever degree your relationship can sustain, in a context of mutual respect. Odds are, there’s someone with dodgy racial politics and a snake oil stand not too far behind.

Even millions of Trump voters have come to see the lies and hate for what they are. Encourage this, even if your friends and family will never fully sign on to the above positions. They might not be good anti-racists yet, but this is a good opportunity to start that shift.

Rationally, we should be asking how we can live without immigrants. European countries are trying to siphon off our college kids for a reason: they also need more young people! If the equivalent of a comparable expense up front gives us a citizen who’s loyal to this country (how many American kids will stay in Germany after college?) and can succeed up and down the economy (we’ll still need plumbers and physicians’ assistants, too), that’s actually a net win.

Today’s Spanish and Mandarin and Hindi speakers (India and China now send more migrants than Mexico) will continue to annoy crotchety locals. Most of these had ancestors of Irish, German, Polish, and the other disfavored ethnicities of yesteryear (Steven Miller, anyone?), and yet they see no irony when they tell today’s immigrants to “SPEAK ENGLISH!!!”

Some of these same nativists—especially the Italian-Americans among them—actually complain when they find out that New York’s Little Italy is now virtually free of people who prefer Italian, and they still don’t see the irony. Fifty or 100 years from now, it’s easy to imagine a portion of mostly-integrated Hispanics saying the same thing to another wave of immigrants—and maybe even grousing that practically nobody in The Bronx speaks Spanish anymore.

All the while, immigrants will continue to become Americans, whether officially recognized or forced to live on the margins. Their kids will lose their accents, and their grandkids will lose the ability to speak the family’s previous native tongue, without any intervention on the state’s part. Our country will continue to evolve, and we’ll be better off for it. The more we celebrate that future, and the more we integrate everyone into the legal and legitimized parts of society, the better off our country will be.

Even the white parts.

Putin’s Cock, Colbert’s Mouth, and Pai’s Tongue

The FCC is back in the news—this time for a possible action to fine late night funny man Stephen Colbert for lewd humor aimed at the President.

The FCC almost certainly isn’t fining CBS or its affiliates over Colbert’s tirade, but FCC Chair Ajit Pai definitely could have handled this issue more deftly in a talk radio interview this week. Combined with his poor net neutrality messaging last week, Pai has shot himself in the foot twice, in rapid succession, with poor messaging.

It would be easy to read Pai’s interview answers on Colbert as an implicit attempt to chill edgy criticism of the President. After a careful listen to the interview, I don’t think that was his intent, but it shows that Pai has a lot to learn about the current media environment.

Last Sunday, April 30, President Donald Trump gave an interview to the CBS news show Face the Nation. In it, he described the show as “fake news” and said that he calls it “Deface the Nation.”

The next night, in retribution, Colbert unleashed a string of insults of the President, including, “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The phallic first part of that last phrase—a phrase that is new even to this profane soul—is bleeped out, and Colbert’s mouth is blurred out as well. (Colbert is receiving legitimate criticism that this trope is homophobic.)

Colbert’s show airs on broadcast TV. This level of edginess—even with the bleeping and blurring—might draw a fine before 10 pm. Before 10, kids are presumed to be in the room, so “indecent” material is forbidden by FCC rules. These rules thus forbid naughty language and even partially naked people—but permit all but the most graphic violence. These standards have been vetted and shaped by Supreme Court precedent, but they still stand.

After 10 pm, though, material must be “obscene” for the FCC to bring the hammer down. “Obscene” material is way worse than “indecent” content. The First Amendment doesn’t go away merely because material is indecent, but the Supreme Court has held that obscene material isn’t protected at all. So the feds can stop distasteful stuff just because kids might be around (before 10 p.m.), but it has to be utter filth before the state can try to stop adults from seeing it.

The agency’s own website states, “The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography” and not material with any artistic merit. So Basic Instinct (with its merely softcore sex scenes and nontrivial plot) would likely be okey-dokey on your local NBC affiliate starting at 10:01 pm—as far as the FCC is concerned.

Some people complained to the FCC about the Colbert bit. This is not news. In fact, anyone can do this without any basis in fact or court precedent. I could file complaints accusing Daniel Tiger of cursing like a sailor; the online system would accept the complaint, and the FCC would make some token investigation pending available staff resources to do so.

In other words, the fact that someone has complained, and that the FCC will investigate a complaint, is not at all the same thing as there being any real threat of a fine or other penalty.

On Thursday May 4, FCC Chair Ajit Pai gave an interview with Philadelphia-based AM talk show host Rich Zeoli. In it, Pai acknowledged the complaints and said that the agency will investigate. He noted that mere indecency is fineable before 10 pm, but that it takes full-on obscenity to get a fine for late night content.

Yet he didn’t actually clarify these legal standards.

Pai was invited to share his opinions on Colbert’s bit, and he declined in an effort not to prejudice the investigation. (Kudos, of course.) He also said that their goal is actually to complete these investigations instead of letting them sit on the shelves, which is what has mostly happened with them in the recent past.

None of this is actually news, either, except that the news media have made it news. (With their margins being what they are, I can’t even blame them.)

The Hill’s Friday headline reads, “FCC to investigate, ‘take appropriate action’ on Colbert’s Trump rant.”

Rolling Stone raves (I always wanted to say that), “FCC Considers Fining Stephen Colbert Over Controversial Trump Joke.”

Countless similar headlines abound. They’re all fair, too. It’s what Pai said, on the record.

So by this weekend, some folks are fearing an imperious, censorious FCC might shut down some criticism of the administration. On first read, I even assumed Pai’s intent was at least to chill some criticism of the President. Instead of settling for reading the excerpts, though, I decided I had to listen to the interview myself and see what he actually did with his words—instead of what others have done with them.

Listen for yourself. I think you’ll hear a high-level administration official being a bit cagey and giving no definitive answer, even though an implicitly clear answer is what’s called for here.

What he should have done is highlight the agency’s own clarification—that a finding of obscenity requires that the content consist of hardcore pornography. Within that context, he could have demurred about whether Colbert’s bit qualified, but it would have answered the question well enough for the listening public without prejudicing the investigation.

Something like, “We haven’t determined whether it’s obscenity, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it basically has to be hardcore porn to be obscenity, so that’s the standard we’ll use as we investigate.”

If he says that as part of his answer, this interview is likely a non-event, nobody gets upset about possible FCC fines, and Pai looks a lot better by not getting bad press. Being against censorship in this case is a pretty easy, bipartisan stance; even the conservative host says he doesn’t want Colbert fined over this. Instead, in a hyper-partisan and hyper-paranoid (justifiably or otherwise, depending on your politics) political environment, Pai is cast as potentially censorious.

It’s ironic that the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission head would fail to adapt to the current media environment in this way.

This follows on another, more substantial error in media strategy, on an issue about which Pai actually cares. Late last month, he practically described network neutrality as a Communist plot, pushed through by the NGO Free Press. He radically misrepresented that group’s goal as the nationalization of the internet, when they want no such thing.

Further, he blatantly hides the massive multi-sector coalition behind this push. The coalition ranges from legal scholars (most of whom support at least the Title II classification the last FCC orchestrated) to major industry players (such as Google and Facebook) to a broad range of nonprofit actors and more.

Not only was this intellectually dishonest, it’s a genuine strategic mistake. The biggest threat to Free Press isn’t that Pai badmouths them; it’s obscurity and the resulting inability to raise money and mobilize internet activists. If he hates them so much, his best move is to ignore them, not to cast them as the heroes of network neutrality. (Along with Public Knowledge, they are especially prominent members of the NGO wing of that side of the debate, but these groups are in pretty good company.)

Moreover, network neutrality is an incredibly complicated technical issue that’s hard to mobilize around, but the pro-network neutrality crowd has the stronger incentives to mobilize. This is exactly what Minjeong Kim and I found in our research on the issue, and the finding was duplicated by Lee, Sang, & Lu in 2015, and by a team at Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2016. The more the net neutrality debate is brought into the public sphere, the more the pro-net neutrality side mobilizes.

This is why the last anti-net neutrality crusading FCC head, Michael Powell, made it as boring as possible. He basically parroted industry talking points about congestion and economic incentives. (A funhouse mirror version of these talking points can be heard in then-Senator Ted Stevens’ wonderfully incoherent 2006 rant about the “series of tubes.”)

Phrased in these terms, the debate would put anybody to sleep, and even those who try to make it exciting often struggle. This is not just my opinion. I met Chris Hayes at a house party some years back, when he was still subbing for Olbermann. Just weeks before, Hayes had done an interview with a major net neutrality advocate. (I won’t name this advocate, but they are an exceptionally good communicator, and I was impressed by their performance in the segment.) I brought this up, and Hayes said that their ratings had dropped by HALF versus the previous segment.

“Comcast might censor the internet” is the only framing that sparks enough interest to mobilize the public. Everything else pushes it deep into wonk territory. And that’s where Pai wants it!

By throwing out easily disproven character assassinations of his opponents, Pai instead draws it further into public view, where the public can better be mobilized. He invites people to see what Free Press has to say on the issue.

This is an obvious strategic mistake, and (again) the head of the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission should know at least that much about political communication and political mobilization.

So, to recap:

The FCC is almost certainly not going to fine Colbert for his bleeped-out “cock holster” comment.

It is almost as certain that they will strip away the network neutrality protections that took a Sisyphean decade of work to enact.

And Ajit Pai is cocking up the messaging for both.

“No Interracial Couples”: On religious liberty in Indiana

Even as an atheist, I strongly support the preservation of religious freedom from most kinds of state intrusion.

You should be able to wear your religious head covering of choice, even in driver’s license photos. Prisons should provide kosher or halal meals and allow prisoners to keep their beards. Native American tribes that use peyote in their traditional religious ceremonies should be exempted from the laws against that substance. Thankfully, this norm is generally and increasingly used to settle these questions.

One major problem with the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, is that it also includes disputes that are exclusively between private parties. Section 9 reads, in part:

A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.

This means that it will not only give heft to plaintiffs who seek to overturn state actions that substantially burden religion. It will also apply to civil actions between private citizens — including companies — giving a potential fig leaf defense to obviously noxious and discriminatory behavior.

The cliche example floating around is the bakeshop being forced to make a wedding cake for gay couples despite religious objections to the wedding itself. There are far, far more substantial issues in play than dessert, but even if we keep it at the level of the admittedly less-than-life-or-death, it’s easy to see the problems here.

Imagine a Christian bakeshop that refused to bake a cake for a Jewish or Muslim wedding. Imagine that’s it’s someone who sincerely objects to interracial marriage, on religious grounds — and yes, while this was far more common half a century ago, I’m sorry to report that these people still exist.

While racial animus is less accepted today, it’s still sincerely held by many and religiously grounded for some. Just because that’s passé and anti-gay sentiment is still held by a substantial portion of the population, is the legal and moral question any different? Is the discriminatory potential — and, let’s be frank, intention — clear yet?

Imagine bakeries with “No Interracial Couples” signs in their windows, or even an implicit policy to that effect. Offended yet? Even though this might be motivated by sincere religious belief? Would you object to a law that tells the victims of such discrimination that state courts are likely closed to them?1)The obvious intent and far more likely outcome of this law is to gut local ordinances that provide LGBTQ protections. Yet it would at least re-open the question of racial and religious discrimination in the context of any applicable state laws. Religiously-motivated racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination might be permitted by state law, at least in some contexts, and we wouldn’t know until the courts sorted it out. In less life-or-death contexts, such as refusing to bake a cake for a Jewish wedding, some judges might find the state interest to be insufficiently compelling. Do you want to tell that couple, “It’s federal court or bust.”? I sure don’t. My broader point, however, is obviously that this provides an analogy, bringing the battles of the mid-20th Century to bear on today’s civil rights battle. Good, that means you’re a decent human being.

Now, let’s get out of the bakeshop, because this will likely grant a hall pass for discrimination in far more serious contexts.

There is no federal protection for LGBTQ folks and no statewide protection in Indiana. Even in the towns where there are protections, however, this bill essentially guts those — a transparent intent behind the bill.

Thus, imagine hoteliers turning away LGBTQ couples. In the context of racial discrimination, this was decided 51 years ago, but it’s now an open question in Indiana.

Imagine realtors refusing to work with people whose lifestyles they find morally objectionable. Imagine bankers turning down loan applicants and even would-be account holders. Imagine teachers refusing to meet with parents in same-sex relationships.

All of these might now be legally sanctioned as long as they are motivated by religious (rather than secular) animus.

These acts of discrimination need not even be grounded in religious tenets that are central to one’s faith. The act clarifies:

Sec. 5. As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.

Talk about a free pass. Any exercise of religion counts, even if it’s as transparently silly as a Pastafarian head covering — but, you know, used for discriminatory rather than parodic effect.

This means that, except where state or federal law provides otherwise, even the thinnest veneer of religious objection will excuse wanton, explicit discrimination. It also means that these religious fig leaves will also force a plaintiff and/or the state to re-establish how compelling the state interest is in all the laws that ban discrimination.

No wonder thirty legal scholars signed a letter opposing the bill (pdf). They warn that the law will

likely create confusion, conflict, and a wave of litigation that will threaten the clarity of religious liberty rights in Indiana while undermining the state’s ability to enforce other compelling interests. This confusion and conflict will increasingly take the form of private actors, such as employers, landlords, small business owners, or corporations, taking the law into their own hands and acting, in ways that violate generally applicable laws on the grounds that they have a religious justification for doing so. Members of the public will then be asked to bear the cost of their employer’s, their landlord’s, their local shopkeeper’s, or a police officer’s private religious beliefs.

In other words, this bill will wreak havoc on the legal order in the state of Indiana, and the stakes are heck of a lot bigger than wedding cakes.

The only good news about this bill is the backlash it has engendered. Indiana is getting pushback from athletes, celebrities, and CEOs — but also sports organizations like the Pacers, the NCAA, and even NASCAR. NASCAR!

Despite this backlash, however, the Arkansas legislature has just put a very similar bill on the desk of Governor Asa Hutchinson. We will soon know whether the pull of the reactionary right outweighs the voices for equity, to say nothing of the rapidly growing chorus of opponents in the business world.

Arkansas-based Walmart — which may make more money from both homophobes and from LGBTQ people than any other company in the country — has weighed in against that state’s bill. If it passes, though, I wonder if they’ll try to find a way to argue that their religion forbids collective bargaining.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The obvious intent and far more likely outcome of this law is to gut local ordinances that provide LGBTQ protections. Yet it would at least re-open the question of racial and religious discrimination in the context of any applicable state laws. Religiously-motivated racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination might be permitted by state law, at least in some contexts, and we wouldn’t know until the courts sorted it out. In less life-or-death contexts, such as refusing to bake a cake for a Jewish wedding, some judges might find the state interest to be insufficiently compelling. Do you want to tell that couple, “It’s federal court or bust.”? I sure don’t. My broader point, however, is obviously that this provides an analogy, bringing the battles of the mid-20th Century to bear on today’s civil rights battle.

How to Solve the Vaccination Problem: Two Politically Feasible Proposals

My last post, “Is It Constitutional and Desirable to Require Vaccinations?“, asked serious questions about what at this rate is still probably not necessary. Here, I make two proposals that would be good policy right now, and would also be politically palatable.

After all, roughly 92% of American children are getting their MMR vaccine. How do we deal with the other 8%? This matters to everyone because vaccines are not 100% effective, and infants and some other folks can’t get vaccines for health reasons.

1. Eliminate, or at least harden, non-medical exemptions for school students

There are already two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, that only accept medical exemptions for public schools — not even religious exemptions. Little wonder, then, that Mississippi has a 99.7% MMR vaccination rate among kindergartners. It has been more than 20 years since either state had a case of measles.

This is good policy, and it should be adopted by the other 48 states. If your personal or religious beliefs are so strong that you insist on ignoring the advice of the collective, virtually unanimous opinion of medicine writ large, fine. You have to find another way to educate your children, at your own expense.

There is a bill in the California state legislature to do exactly this.

It’s getting some pushback from vaccine fear mongers, of course, but also from libertarian types. Here’s the thing, though: You don’t get to take advantage of a public service,  provided at public expense, and then tell the body politic that some very reasonable conditions placed on that service are a violation of your individual liberty.

It’s against policy to smoke anywhere on a K-12 campus in most if not all states — including in North Carolina, for G-d’s sake — and this infringement of liberty has come about with broad if grudging acceptance even among the gravelly-voiced crowd.

If you believe in this extreme of a version of personal liberty, you’re probably a follower (at least indirectly) of Ayn Rand. So take that reasoning to its conclusion. Rand didn’t even think public schools should exist. Until we abolish public schools and live in an objectivist utopia, then, there are just some times — from vaccines to seat belts to food safety inspections — that your liberty to do things “your way” might be curtailed.

Again: It’s constitutional to require vaccines, period, on penalty of a sizable fine. Requiring vaccines as a condition of using a public service? Sorry, not a violation of your basic rights.

But, you might say: What about private schools? Won’t all these well-off anti-vax families just pony up to send their kids elsewhere? A number surely will. The state should therefore also make private schools publicize their vaccination policies, exemption rates, and number of confirmed cases of vaccine-preventable diseases per year for the last five years. They should have to share this, in writing, with all current students’ parents and with any potential new students’ families.

A number of softer-hearted souls have proposed merely hardening the rules on personal exemptions — making it harder for parents to get the forms, making them resubmit every year, making them complete online learning modules, and so on. This has been partially effective, but it does not go far enough in my view.

“Resisting vaccination isn’t a matter of laziness; it’s actually time-consuming and expensive,” writes Whet Moser. Which means the same kind of parent who clings to anti-vax believes is also the kind of parent who will do “anything” for their kid. (Except, you know, make the single easiest decision a parent can make.) Instead of daring these folks to jump through more hoops, just keep the kids out of public schools, period.

If you want to compromise on the religious exemption, that is more reasonable — or, at least, less subject to the whims of changing opinions. I would, however, add a mechanism for sniffing out sham churches set up for this purpose.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to give on even this point, however. We have all sorts of rules in public schools that might conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, from mixed-gender classrooms to not letting kids get out of biology class because they don’t believe in evolution. If parents want something different on these counts, they have to find a school that meets their beliefs, and putting vaccinations on this list is perfectly reasonable.

2. Medical Isolation

Many people are talking about school policy changes, but I’m also concerned about infection at the doctor’s office — where you’ll find a disproportionately large share of infants and immunity-compromised children.

Thus, I propose that all medical offices have to post their vaccination policies prominently, and those caught not sticking to theirs are subject to a serious fine.

Imagine walking into the office and seeing this:

Statement of Office Policy on Vaccinations

XThis office only accepts patients that are up to date on their vaccinations (barring medical exemptions), and we verify.
This office only accepts patients that are up to date on their vaccinations (barring medical exemptions), but we do not verify.
X(If either of the above is checked) This office has after-hours "catch up" vaccinations.
This office accepts patients regardless of their vaccination status.

In today’s climate, that would be very reassuring to see. And if I make an appointment, show up, and instead it’s Box 4 that’s checked? My kid and I are going elsewhere.

If I discover this, I should leave, and I shouldn’t be forced to pay a cancellation fee. Such an office should also have to get written assent to this choice from all patients before they can bill for dollar one.

Box 2 would probably work well enough as long as patients/parents have to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury. Which brings up another important point: Verification would work best if states require that all immunizations be submitted to the state database. Vaccinating doctors are not required to submit this information in some states, such as (I’m very sorry to see) California, so it would be a good bit of extra work to be a Box 1 office.

I would probably be comfortable taking my child to a Box 2 medical office, but he’s 10, vaccinated, and healthy. If I had an infant or other especially vulnerable child, though, I’d really try to find a verified-immunization office.

It would be hard to find a doctor who’s willing to advertise to their patients that the unvaccinated are explicitly welcome in their office. Sure, even the occasional anti-vax quacks can be found, but it’s becoming hard to find doctors who will even see anti-vax parents. (Even without a mandate, if I were a doctor, I’d post a prominent “must be vaccinated” notice in my office, and I suspect we’ll start to see this soon in any case.)

So that’s my proposal: No public school without vaccinations or a valid medical excuse, and mandatory notice about medical office policies.

If you’re not vaccinating your children, you’re free-riding on herd immunity (to say nothing of harming your own child!), and the herd should try to limit the damage that your adorable little disease vector can do to the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is It Constitutional and Desirable to Require Vaccinations?

(This is the first of two posts, in which I ask if it’s desirable and constitutional to require vaccinations as a matter of law. My more pragmatic policy proposals are in part two.)

As with many others, I’ve been on an anti-anti-vax rampage on social media.

(I should perhaps rethink my strategy, but it’s not clear that there is a good strategy for dealing with someone once they’re in that camp. It’s not the first such example, either. How do you argue with a Scientologist? How do you convince congressional Republicans that we won’t eliminate the deficit without either raising taxes or seriously harming the economy? There aren’t a lot of good solutions here.)

Thus, one of my more libertarian friends (who gets all her kids’ shots, thank G-d, but who thinks you should use an alternative vaccination schedule that delays vaccinations) posted on my wall to ask if I would really support an infringement on individual liberty in the form of forcing folks to get vaccinated.

To which I say: Hell yes! I would support it, and it would even be constitutional. Which is not the same thing as supporting such a policy as politically pragmatic — but I have an answer for that, too.

As for my personal preference for whether we should force people to get vaccines against airborne pathogens — when they have been proven safe and effective, winning near-universal support among medical experts: Yes, I do want to live in that world.

I suppose I’d allow an exemption for truly anti-modern-culture isolationists who agree to keep away from broader society. (The Amish seem not to qualify on either count, by the way, with the majority getting vaccinated AND their willingness to participate in commerce with outsiders. Zippers no, shots mostly yes. Who knew?))

But in the general population — among those healthy enough to be vaccinated, of course — yes, I would support forcing folks to get their shots. If you’re not willing, I would gladly levy a stiff fine. (I mean, I’m not proposing that we lock unvaccinated families in a tent inside a hospital in Newark where they have to poop in a bucket or anything. That would be inhumane.) This would be especially effective if it had a high ceiling and explicit instructions to judges that it should be proportional to income — since, you know, being an anti-vaxxer seems primarily to be a disease of privilege.

The Supremes ruled on this over a century ago, by the way, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. In 1905, the court ruled that Massachusetts was within its power to fine Jacobson five dollars (equivalent to roughly $130 today) for failing to get vaccinated, at zero cost to himself, against smallpox.

The Wikipedia article is mostly accurate — relative to my skim of the case (IANAL, as always) — but read some of what the Supremes have to say on the matter. Pretty convincing, and definitive, stuff:

… the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.1)Court footnote 7

Not a lot of wiggle room left there. Watch them apply it to this specific question:

Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members. It is to be observed that when the regulation in question was adopted smallpox, according to the recitals in the regulation adopted by the board of health, was prevalent to some extent in the city of Cambridge, and the disease was increasing. If such was the situation,—and nothing is asserted or appears in the record to the contrary,—if we are to attach, any value whatever to the knowledge which, it is safe to affirm, in common to all civilized peoples touching smallpox and the methods most usually employed to eradicate that disease, it cannot be adjudged that the present regulation of the board of health was not necessary in order to protect the public health and secure the public safety. …

 

If the mode adopted by the commonwealth of Massachusetts for the protection of its local communities against smallpox proved to be distressing, inconvenient, or objectionable to some,—if nothing more could be reasonably affirmed of the statute in question,—the answer is that it was the duty of the constituted authorities primarily to keep in view the welfare, comfort, and safety of the many, and not permit the interests of the many to be subordinated to the wishes or convenience of the few.2)Court footnote 8

The court goes on, at length, in a way that might make the Ayn Rand followers of the world a bit uncomfortable. I feel no obligation to assuage their feelings, however. If what you’re doing might harm or kill me, the state has a right to stop you from doing it — even if it’s something as banal as forcing restaurant employees to wash their hands. Ditto foolish self-harm, such as with seat belt and helmet laws.

The decision is also a fantastic read for some historical context on exactly how far back the consensus on vaccines really reaches. For instance:

[Jacobson’s arguments] in the main seem to have had no purpose except to state the general theory of those of the medical profession who attach little or no value to vaccination as a means of preventing the spread of smallpox, or who think that vaccination causes other diseases of the body. What everybody knows the court must know, and therefore the state court judicially knew, as this court knows, that an opposite theory accords with the common belief, and is maintained by high medical authority.3)Court footnote 10

It is therefore the law of the land that, when confronted with a deadly infectious disease that is reliably and safely vaccinated against, a state or municipality may affirmatively compel the populace to be immunized.

This has been the definitive law of the land for 110 years, and the medical consensus behind — and safety of — vaccines has only increased.

This decision is many times more remarkable because it is from an era (the start of the Lochner era — Jacobson was published just two months before Lochner v New York) where the Court had a much, much more restricted view of what the state is allowed to do under the Constitution. This is the same session when the court held it unconstitutional for a state to tell employers how many hours a worker could work, and yet it held mandatory inoculation against deadly disease to be fully constitutional and consistent with American values.

I agree on both counts — constitutionality and consistency with our values. This is doubly so when it comes to children. They’re not your property. If you starve them or assault them or psychologically torment them, the state can and should intervene.

On the affirmative side, you have to send them to school or educate them in some comparable way, period; the value of education is not up for debate. When parents won’t do what’s demonstrably in a child’s best interests, the state can intervene and — when the risk is serious — should seriously consider doing so.

Thankfully, there are less invasive policy choices that would likely lead to the same desirable outcome of a return to near-100% childhood vaccination. That is the subject of my next post.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Court footnote 7
2. Court footnote 8
3. Court footnote 10

On DeflateGate, Statistics, and Reasonable Inferences

[I’m not a sports analyst, and this is not a sports blog. We’re scholars, especially of political communication, politics, and media policy. But I do crunch numbers, and I thought I could help add something to this debate.]

[Also, corrections and updates at the bottom, appended Jan 28, 2pm-ish.]

We’ve all spent the last week hearing a lot about Tom Brady’s balls. Patriots fans and Pats haters are fighting online with a viciousness that’s hard to overstate. A good number of you have also seen the use of statistics to try to sort out whether the Pats have a measurable advantage in something that would be directly related to the inflated pressure of footballs — namely, fumble rates. Statistical analysis is only good, however, if the data are correct, if we are testing what we think we are testing, and if we are using the right statistical tools for the job. In this case as in so many, we need more good analysis that asks the right questions and uses the correct data.

This post has a lot to say, so here’s a summary: Continue reading

Posted in Fun

Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Ombudsman: Is Goodell enough of a “certified liar”?

In his column on Bill Simmons’ suspension, ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte comes off as blissfully unaware of how ESPN’s action looks — parroting and even sanitizing the company line.

For those who missed the details, Judd Legum nicely sums up the silliness of the suspension: “ESPN Suspends Bill Simmons For Calling [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell A Liar, After ESPN Reported Roger Goodell Is A Liar.”

What really happened is the network suspended him primarily for taunting and thereby implicitly criticizing his superiors, but more on that in a bit.

As for whether Simmons should be allowed to call Goodell a liar, Lipsyte insists that, until there’s “a smoking gun that proves when the NFL viewed the Ray Rice video” (emphasis added), Simmons is off base. Until and unless such a smoking gun emerges, Roger Goodell is not a “certified liar”, Lipsyte argues.

Contrast this with what Simmons actually said on his podcast: “Goodell, if he [says he] didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar.” (Emphasis added.)

There is a major difference between seeing a video and knowing what is on the video, and conflating the two is exceptionally sloppy for an award-winning journalist.

To help illustrate: Thanks to several young children, I know a great deal about “Frozen”, despite not having seen the film.

If I watch Frozen this weekend and say, “Wow, I had no idea it would have so much singing!”, I would be a liar. If I were to claim that I had desperately wanted to see the film earlier, but before that point, I had had no way to see the film — you know, as opposed to deliberately having avoided some pretty clear opportunities — I would be a liar. Just like Roger Goodell is a liar. A lying liar who lies.

(Also, I dare Roger Goodell to sue me for libel.)

Simmons’ actual claim — that Goodell knew what was on the video and is lying when he says otherwise — were already well-documented by the fine investigative piece by Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg published on Sep. 19 — that is, days before Simmons’ Sep. 23 podcast for which he was suspended.

Goodell fibbing about whether he knew what was on the tape is only part of what Van Natta and Van Valkenburg identify as “a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.”

Of course, to accuse someone of a “pattern of misdirection and misinformation” is to call them a liar, albeit using five-dollar words.

In a now-infamous CBS interview, Goodell says explicitly that he had no idea what was on the video. Not only has ESPN reported that several insiders say otherwise, as Simmons himself pointed out in a Sep. 11 column, “back in July, two well-connected reporters (Chris Mortensen and Peter King) reported what NFL sources had told them happened in that second elevator video … and they got the details correct.”

Follow those Mortensen and King links (reproduced from Simmons’ column). For those of you who couldn’t stand to watch the video but wanted to know what was on it, Mortensen’s account is startlingly accurate. Again, this is from July and based on his insider access to league sources.

What Peter King wrote should, in hindsight, be viewed as an even bigger deal than what Simmons implies:

There is one other thing I did not write or refer to, and that is the other videotape the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen, from the security camera inside the elevator at the time of the physical altercation between Rice and his fiancée. I have heard reports of what is on the video… (emphasis added)

King walked back this claim on Sep. 8, after the video was leaked and the league denied that anyone had seen it earlier:

Earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video… The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty. No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me, and so I was surprised to see the claim today that league officials have not seen the tape.

Again, he wrote in July that the league and team had seen the inside-the-elevator tape. Then, over a month elapsed without anybody pulling him aside and correcting him.

To understand how significant this is, you have to know Peter King’s place in the NFL universe: one of the least critical, best-connected reporters whose rolodex of sources is a close approximation of “everyone”. King regularly takes calls from, and casually calls, league sources all year. He’s widely known as a friendly mouthpiece. (This is mostly true of Mortensen as well.)

If Peter King says something that the league doesn’t think is accurate, or even something they would like to add to or clarify, to any degree, King is essentially guaranteed to receive — and take, and respond to — a call from an insider.

The last sentence from King’s Sep. 8 correction is as close to damnation as we are likely to see from him on this point. It rightfully implies that (especially coming from him), “No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me” pretty much speaks for itself.

Thus, Roger Goodell is a liar, on this and many other counts. Simmons says as much. Then, alluding to his past troubles with ESPN, he dares them to discipline him, and they take the bait.

Little wonder the network is being excoriated all around the web. Deadspin points out that Simmons was merely “restating conventional wisdom.”

Business Insider fairly characterizes it as a hint “at the idea of corruption and censorship” at the network.

As if on cue for their entry as the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, management has enacted a suspension that proves Simmons’ implicit point splendidly. They’ve provided pretty good evidence that certain people (management) cannot be criticized, and that others (NFL leadership) should generally be criticized only in the most high-brow language — five dollar words only, please, and only when the evidence is incredibly overwhelming.

The suspension is feeding already-extant skepticism about the network’s ability to consistently (as opposed to intermittently) allow their talent to reach their own conclusions and share these publicly.

It is reminding many fans and writers of the network’s 2013 decision to pull out of its partnership in the “Frontline” documentary about concussions in football. Right now, Google News shows 788 results for [Simmons suspended Frontline documentary].

The message to Simmons was, undoubtedly, “You can’t criticize us publicly like this.” That is chilling enough. A substantial portion of the population, though, hears (at least in part), “You can’t criticize our content partner like this.” Even if that’s not the real motivation, the optics are (to quote Charles Barkley) just turrible.

This is where an Ombudsman is supposed to provide an outsider’s corrective — a reassurance to the reader that well-founded outside criticism will always have at least one ally in the building.

The more defensible (and, in reality, motivating) reason Simmons was suspended was for dissing management. While Lipsyte alludes to this (implying that the suspension is also due to management’s “thin skin”), he opens and closes by insisting that this story is really about whether Simmons had the goods for his claim — and he concludes that Simmons didn’t have the goods.

That takes real chutzpah from somebody who substantially misrepresents the claim in question.

Even as the hordes crash at the gates in Bristol, the Ombudsman — the Ombudsman — writes to reassure us that management basically got this one right, without even deigning to rebut claims that this sure looks like a result of the network’s conflict of interest. “Obviously I disagree” with such critics is all we get. When the very integrity of the network is being questioned, blowing off those questions is tone deaf indeed.

Goodell is a liar. Simmons was correct in calling him a liar. And ESPN was some combination of corrupt and petulant to discipline him for it.

If even the Ombudsman is this tone deaf, ESPN still has a lot of tuning up to do.

#FreeSimmons

News Coverage of Economic Immobility: Free of Historical Context

A recent Harvard study has found that economic mobility has not changed substantially in the last couple decades.

This has been framed repeatedly in the media as “mobility has not declined.” The Times headline is literally, “Upward Mobility Has Not Declined, Study Says”.

The NPR headline, “Study: Upward Mobility No Tougher In U.S. Than Two Decades Ago“, captures that story’s spin. Over at the New Yorker? “Social Mobility Hasn’t Fallen: What It Means and Doesn’t Mean“.

The reason for this framing is surely that political leaders of several stripes have contended that mobility actually is going down. Remarkably, this has included not only by Obama and other Dems, but also visible Republicans like Paul Ryan.

Still, just because political leaders are wrong does not justify using their claims as a starting point. A more accurate headline would be, “Study Finds Economic Mobility Remains Low”. Economic mobility has been remarkably low in the US since the middle of the 20th century. The new Harvard study is a valuable addition to the literature, but it is consistent with years-old studies suggesting that we’ve plateaued near the bottom of the scale.

Here’s a graph from a 2007 study using Social Security data, showing how mobility dropped sharply in the 1940s and ’50s, and has stayed low since then. (Click for a larger version.)

Graph: Decrease in Economic Mobility

Even the 1960s and ’70s had slightly more variability in mobility and were (on average) higher in mobility. The Harvard study, however, covers the working years of those born in the 1970s and later — that is, roughly the last twenty years.

Look again at the graph. There is about a 3% chance that somebody in the bottom 40% will climb to the top 40%, and vice-versa, in a given year. Through 1950, the odds of moving up from the bottom to the top 40% were at least 6%, and as high as 12%, depending on the year. Compared to that range especially, the Reagan years basically saw everyone cemented in place.

When mobility is already so very low, and has been for decades, the key finding of this study is not that it has failed to drop further. This is akin to a sports section headline of “Cubs Fail to Win World Series”. Nobody would write that headline. “Cubs Wrap Another Miserable Year” is more like it.

This would likely be true even if the GM had promised a title at the start of the year — though the New York Post would probably go with throwing that promise back in his face. Sadly, the reporters who cover economics research know far, far less about that subject than sports reporters do about the games.

These headlines are a good example of political coverage only taking place within the boundaries set by policy leaders, even when the facts should militate otherwise. Political reporters and editors don’t know whether economic mobility has gone up or down over the 20th Century; they only know what Paul Ryan and Barack Obama say about it. That’s shameful, of course, when good information is publicly available — much of which is readable to the outsider.

Shouldn’t reporters be fact checking whether mobility really has gone down? Asking politicians where they got their data? Reading enough books and scholarly articles (or at least the darned abstracts) to have at least a semblance of an idea where to start looking for such an answer? Regardless, they are not doing so, and it takes the PR flacks at Harvard (who have apparently done their job very well this week) to put such research on their desks.

Thankfully, both the paper and the coverage have put this finding in the broader context of growing concentration of wealth. On this question there is widespread agreement that inequality is (a) worse in the US than in any other industrial country, and (b) growing. Here’s the relevant chart from the 2007 study linked above that shows the growth of inequality:

Graph: Rising Economic Inequality

This graph depicts the “Gini Coefficient,” which is a measure of economic inequality. Inequality dipped after the war, and it has climbed steadily since then. This graph stops in 2004, but it has continued unabated in the decade since as well.

The study and the coverage are also right to highlight important geographic differences in mobility. A kid who grows up in the bottom fifth in San Francisco or New York City is over twice as likely to reach the top fifth as a similarly positioned kid growing up in Atlanta or Charlotte. (Could it possibly be that collective investment leads to greater mobility?) Check out the Times‘ really cool interactive map of economic mobility.

This wealth of great detail notwithstanding, the new Harvard study’s framing in the news headlines and leads is disappointing. “Cubs Not Champions” is not the right frame; this is a lot closer to “Cubs Continue Futility”.

P.S. Thankfully, economic inequality is now being treated as an economic problem. In that vein, we should be looking at the political explanation for inequality — which brings me, for the umpteenth time, to Winner-Take-All Politics by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. If you have not read this book and give a gram of care about inequality, go read it now. Even for those with no training in economics or political science, it’s a very accessible — and persuasive — read.

Johns Hopkins Gets It Right: Let’s Have Fewer PhD Students

In an effort to begin to address the glut of overqualified adjunct instructors, Johns Hopkins has announced that it is planning to cut its PhD enrollment by 25% and raise the stipend (read: salary) of the remaining graduate employees from $20,000 a year to $30,000.

Hundreds of current Hopkins PhD students are protesting, but they shouldn’t be, and in her writeup at Slate, Rebecca Schuman hits the nail squarely on the head — so much so that I’d like to elaborate a bit on how very right she is.

Generally speaking, a PhD — at least, one earned in the reasonable expectation of getting a “real” faculty job — is becoming a worse bet every year. Schools keep accepting more (and more schools keep creating new PhD programs in more disciplines), while colleges at all levels are relying ever-more-heavily on non-tenure track faculty. This includes adjuncts and (drumroll please) grad students.

This makes tremendous sense as a strategy for a given research university. Adjuncts and grad students (even if you count the tuition waiver) are way cheaper, more disposable, and easier to push around than full-time faculty. The star tenure-track faculty then get to teach more grad seminars. Advise more dissertations. Have more potential co-authors and research assistants floating about. Teach fewer lower-level undergrad courses.

The problem here, though, is that universities acting individually are not acting in the best interests of the academy overall or the nation in general. Collectively, PhD programs are burning through — and burning out — many of the nation’s best and brightest, then turning those same former rising stars into a lurking labor revolt.

Too often today, the people who did the best in undergraduate courses are becoming the burned-out, uninsured, woefully underpaid faces of college education to first- and second-year students. This makes college less valuable in a direct way. It’s hard enough to teach well when you’re paid fairly, have a reliable office, and teach 3 or 4 courses per semester while trying to do research and service. It’s damn near impossible when you’re teaching 5 or 6 courses, on multiple campuses, with little or no office space, little institutional support, and unsure how you’re going to pay your electric bill this month.

This system is also a poor advertisement for the product itself and even the “life of the mind” mentality that college is supposed to foster. If that’s what “too much” college education leads to, students might wonder if they should err on the side of too little. If the mastery of core liberal arts skills like critical thinking, reading difficult texts, and making sophisticated arguments has the appearance of leaving one broke, why should I put my best efforts into reading this book? Writing this essay? The savvy undergrad might think, “Give me the credential and let me get started at a ‘real’ job before your love of knowledge infects me and I wind up in your shoes.”

You know the “correction” the field of law just went through? The one with lots of freshly-minted JDs saying “I just spent a bajillion dollars and 3 years, and there are way too many candidates for every job”? We’ve been doing that in slow-mo in academia for heaven knows how long. It’s taking longer to sink in, of course, because compared to what you earned in whatever crap job you had during your BA, $15k/year and no tuition bill sounds like a great deal. Folks can’t or don’t account for opportunity costs, such as tens of thousands in lost salary, and heaven knows how much in lost opportunity to learn & rise up in other sectors.

More strikingly, nobody (not their undergrad faculty who graduated many moons ago, and certainly not the PhD programs who want as many apps as possible) tells these best-and-brightest about the real costs, benefits, and risks. Undergrad faculty in particular should be much more honest with themselves and their students about how much less repeatable their career trajectory is today versus 10+ years ago and how much depends on raw luck.

We’re also afraid to tell would-be applicants about the importance of the sub-discipline studied. Here, in my jauntiest department chair voice, is what the academy tells PhD students (outside STEM fields):

You there, doing critical cultural studies? And you there, doing detailed historical/archival/anthropological work? Welcome to the adjunct office! You’ll be here until you decide you want to own a home. Or get health care. Or not have your ability to pay rent be contingent on whether a tenured professor gets sabbatical.

You, however… You, with the experience working on a giant grant-funded data-collection-and-article-production machine? With lots of statistical savvy, who can teach the research methods and (field-specific quant) classes that befuddle and/or bore most of your soon-to-be colleagues? We’d really like to talk to you! Pay no attention to those poor souls all crammed into that tiny office there. Their working conditions are the just and fair recompense for their recalcitrant poststructuralism. Now, let me introduce you to our grant support staff.

I’m glad to have postponed my higher earning years to have chosen what is (for me) a highly rewarding career, even with the substantially diminished long-term earnings potential — versus, e.g., becoming a private-sector IP attorney. I love researching in an environment where research productivity is celebrated but not fetishized. I’m happy to have the chance to shape students’ lives, despite students’ highly varying levels of college readiness. I love teaching, despite the occasional class disruption due to our building’s mouse infestation. (Wish that was a joke.) That should be the expectation for more faculty, further up and down the prestige chain, and it should be a more likely outcome for a smaller set of PhD students.

Even though I’m quite happy where I’m at, there was a point where I realized how very in-doubt this outcome was. I was lucky to have picked communication; I believe we hire a larger portion of our PhD grads as tenure-track faculty than pretty much any other comparable discipline. I was lucky to get into Penn — by acclamation, the top program in media studies in the country, and the co-sponsor (along with Annenberg USC) of the party that all party crashers crash at the conference.

Despite this good fortune, even during my coursework at mighty Annenberg U Penn, I realized that I had only the thinnest grasp on what a Plan B (other than law school — and even more debt and postponed earnings) might look like. I realized that most potential Plan B employers would see my PhD as having little additional value versus an MA. More stunningly, I realized how very far from certain Plan A was from working out.

I don’t blame anyone for not telling me all of the above, not least because I think awareness on this point was much lower when I started my PhD program ten years ago. But today, in late 2013, programs and research faculty and teaching faculty and would-be students all need to come to the same conclusion as Hopkins. We should have fewer, not more, PhD students.

And while we’re at it, how about we work on making a BA more valuable, more broadly taught by tenure-track faculty, and (the horror) harder to earn?

The Real Threat to the US Economy

In the majority of media coverage about the shutdown and debt ceiling, the press has bent over backward to imply that there is plenty of blame to go around. This is false equivalency of the highest order, and I’m here to correct the record.

The number one threat to the US and world economy is congressional Republicans and, by implication, the reactionary extremist voters who put them in power. They’re about to blow up the financial system in vengeance because they lost the presidential election — and this largely over a policy first implemented by their own presidential candidate.

Today, we learn that House Republicans are still clinging to proposals to scale back the ACA. For the umpteenth time: That was decided in November. Grow up and move on.

And don’t say, “What about the debt?” If they were serious about that, they’d try to keep interest rates low and GDP high. (They’d also take seriously the idea of more revenue…) If we default, though, interest rates will skyrocket and GDP will crater. (That’s not just my opinion, btw; follow the link to see the stark terms used by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.) Think “rates on my credit card” (instead of the near-zero rates we enjoy now) and “next Great Depression”. That’s a helluva debt trap (expenses way up, income way down) to try to claw our way back out of.

Even the credible threat to default has short term rates rising and people nervous to make long term investments. Would you buy US Treasury bonds right now? Would you open or expand a business right now (or even during the negotiations, assuming a bill passes)? (Zandi estimates the current standoff has already cut $20 billion off GDP.) If I had money to move, it’d be leaving the US economy post haste.

This isn’t “Let’s compromise because everyone has some valuable ideas” time. This is “Either you jerks come to your senses, or you’ll drive our government and economy off a cliff.” And I don’t have a lot of faith in the former.

I really hope Obama is willing to declare unilateral executive power to continue borrowing if it comes to that. The alternative starts to look like an even more extreme, self-inflicted version of the Greek collapse. But with way more guns. What could go wrong?