What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”

Hate Crimes

“The shooting deaths of eight people at Asian-run spas in Georgia this week triggered a vigorous national debate Thursday over whether the mass killing amounted to a hate crime.” “Georgia hate crime law-Atlanta shooting”  These deaths (and recent attacks on Asians more generally) raise several issues that I would like to explore. 1. What is the point of hate crime laws?  The poor ladies killed in this attack could care less what motivated Robert Aaron Long, the 21 year old shooter. 2. Whose fault is it? Let’s start with the shooter (and other attackers), please. 3. What should we do about it (beyond locking the shooter, and other attackers, up)?

What is the point of hate crime laws?

“Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican who helped shepherd [Georgia’s Hate Crime] bill into law, said it was intended to allow for especially stiff penalties for crimes in which “the perpetrator’s prejudices and biases are attacks not only on the victims but on all of society.  Thank goodness law enforcement will have the ability to charge this as a hate crime if the facts support that,”   [op cit]

Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel Cino noted that: “The majority of the victims are women, and they are Asian. Those are two protected statuses.” And what if they hadn’t been?

Traditional laws do differentiate between first, second, and third degree murders, but if you plan to and succeed in killing someone, it didn’t traditionally matter whether you loved or hated the victim. I can understand why such information might be useful in exploring approaches to mitigating the risk of such future murders, but I don’t see its relevant to the guilt and punishment of the murderer. I do not support capital punishment, but Mr. Long should surely be put away for the rest of his pathetic life whatever motivated his killing spree.

According to Mr. Long, “he was on a mission… to stem his addiction to sex. The spas were ‘a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.’”  “What happened-Atlanta shooting”

In determining the length of a sentence, courts do pay some attention to the motive for a crime as well as the crime itself but a special category of “hate crimes” has always seemed troubling and unnecessary to me.

Whose fault is it?

In a free society of responsible citizens, we must never forget that in the first instance the fault for a crime rests with the criminal. But it is fair to ask what motivated the criminal. While Mr. Long’s horrible crimes do not appear to be motived by the hatred of Asian’s, there has definitely been an increase in verbal and physical attacks on Asians over the past year. Much of the press has been quite eager to point to the hate filled and divisive statements against China by former President Trump. While he is certainly guilty of poisoning public discourse on China, immigration, Muslims and related topics, it is an odd place to look first.

Animosity toward Asians, and Chinese in particular, arises in the first instance from the behavior of China (shorthand for the government of China — synonymous with the Communist Party of China). In fact, unfavorable attitudes toward China have skyrocketed around the globe over the last three to four years. “For our enemies we have shotguns explaining Chinas new assertiveness” Public attitudes toward China are lower in Australia and the U.K., for example, than in the U.S. and fell sharply well before the Covid-19 pandemic.  “China global reputation coronavirus”  Attitudes toward China began to deteriorate in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, violations of the one country, two systems agreement for Hong Kong, theft of intellectual property from the West, and treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, to name a few. China’s suppression of information on the virus producing covid-19 pales in comparison to its bad behavior in other areas.

What should we do about it?

The world that objects to China’s behavior needs to stand together in pointing it out. Former President Trump’s stand-alone, bilateral approach was a failure. But it is very important when the U.S. and other governments criticize China to clearly differentiate the government of China from the Chinese people, whether citizens of China or the U.S. or elsewhere. It is the Chinese government–the Communist Party of China–that is misbehaving.

The distinction between a government and its people is important more generally. For example, those who criticize the misbehavior of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, are sometimes mistakenly accused of anti-Semitism–i.e., of being against the Jewish people. It is likely that many are reluctant to criticize the Israeli government for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. As the Biden administration joins with other countries to criticize the misbehavior of the Chinese government, it must, and it is, clearly distinguishing the Chinese government from the Chinese people. And we, each one of us, must speak out at the sight of rude or inappropriate behavior toward Asians, or anyone else. ALL LIVES MATTER.

Shifting Gears: The Way Forward

The Trump administration accomplished many good things and many bad things (especially in the trade and foreign policy areas). Trump himself belongs in jail in my opinion. Hopefully, with the new Biden administration we can turn our attention to policy issues and stop calling our policy opponents nasty names. We must state the positive case for why our policy views are more appropriate–why they are better for our country. These are the sorts of public debates that we have been missing for a while and to which we should return.

One of our most fundamental principles is America’s commitment to equal treatment under the law for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or preferred hair style. Equal treatment is extended to everyone whether they or their ancestors came from Asia, Europe, Africa or Ireland (yes, even Ireland). We have never fully measured up to this principle, but it remains, and should remain, the objective to which we continually strive. It means that our accomplishments and “place” in society largely reflect our own talents and efforts. We are a nation of individual liberty. We are free (to a large extent) to make our own decisions. Our policy disputes often concern where to draw the line between what we decide for ourselves and what the government decides for us. My blog last week on our response to Covid-19 provides an example: https://wcoats.blog/2021/03/06/the-unnecessary-fight-over-covid-19/

Equity (equal outcomes) was the fundamental principle of the Soviet Union, though its outcomes fell far short of the principle. Between these extremes of equity (communism/socialism) and equality (equal treatment under the law) is our actual world of governments with more intrusive or less intrusive rules and dictates on our behalf, with broader or narrower social safety nets, etc.  America continues to debate where and how to set these boundary’s, but one of our great strengths, and a source of our broadly shared affluence, is undertaking the debate from the side of (and with the presumption of) self-reliance (with family and friends) and equality under the law.

The distinction between equity and equality is sharply contrasted in the following WSJ oped.

THE  WALL  STREET  JOURNAL.

Friday,  March  5,  2021.

Section A, Page 17, Column 1

‘Equity’ Is a Mandate to Discriminate

The new buzzword tries to hide the aim of throwing out the American principle of equality under the law.

By Charles Lipson


On his first day as president, Joe Biden issued an “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.” Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees must now explain whether this commitment to “equity” means they intend to abolish “equal treatment under law.” Their answers are a confused mess.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton raised the question explicitly in confirmation hearings. Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland responded: “I think discrimination is morally wrong. Absolutely.” Marcia Fudge, slated to run Housing and Urban Development, gave a much different answer. “Just to be clear,” Mr. Cotton asked, “it sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race. Is that correct?”

Ms. Fudge’s responded: “Not based on race, but it could be based on economics, it could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time.” Ms. Fudge’s candid response tracks that of Kamala Harris’s tweet and video, posted before the election and viewed 6.4 million times: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity.”

Ms. Harris and Ms. Fudge are right. There is a big difference. It’s the difference between equal treatment and equal outcomes. Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition and impartially judged outcomes. Equity means equal outcomes, achieved if necessary by unequal treatment, biased competition and preferential judging.

Those who push for equity have hidden these crucial differences for a reason. They aren’t merely unpopular; they challenge America’s bedrock principle that people should be treated equally and judged as individuals, not as members of groups.

The demand for equal outcomes contradicts a millennium of Anglo-Saxon law and political evolution. It undermines the Enlightenment principle of equal treatment for individuals of different social rank and religion. America’s Founders drew on those roots when they declared independence, saying it was “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.”

That heritage, along with the lack of a hereditary aristocracy, is why claims for equal treatment are so deeply rooted in U.S. history. It is why radical claims for unequal treatment must be carefully buried in word salads praising equity and social justice.

Hidden, too, are the extensive measures that would be needed to achieve equal outcomes. Only a powerful central government could impose the intensive—and expensive—programs of social intervention, ideological re-education and economic redistribution. Only an intrusive bureaucracy could specify the rules for every business, public institution and civic organization. Those unhappy implications are why advocates of equity are so determined to hide what the term really means.

Americans have demanded that all levels of government stop giving special treatment to the rich and powerful. That is simply a demand for equality. Likewise, they recognize that equal treatment should begin early, such as with adequate funding for K-12 students.

Since the New Deal, most Americans have supported some form of social safety net for the poor and disadvantaged. But this safety net doesn’t demand that out-of-work coal miners receive the same income as those who are working. The debate has always been about how extensive the safety net should be and how long it should last for each recipient. There is broad agreement that no worker should be laid off because of his race, gender or religion. Again, that is a demand for equal treatment.

What we are seeing now is different. It is the claim that the unfair treatment of previous generations or perhaps a disadvantaged childhood entitles one to special consideration today as an adult or young adult. Most Americans, who are both generous and pragmatic, have been willing to extend some of these benefits, at the margins and for limited periods. They don’t want to turn these concessions into large, permanent entitlement programs, giving substantially different treatment to different groups, even if those groups have suffered historical wrongs.

One measure of how unpopular these unequal programs are is how often their proponents need to rename them. “Quotas” were restyled as “affirmative action.” The goal was still to give special benefits to some groups to achieve desired outcomes. Now “affirmative action” has also become toxic, rejected most recently by voters in deep-blue California. Hence, the new name, “equity.”

Instead of making their case openly and honestly, advocates of equity twist and turn to avoid revealing their radical goal of re-engineering society through coercion. If the results fall short, as they inevitably would, the remedy is obvious: more money, more rules and more indoctrination. Why not tell us who will receive these special benefits and for how long? At whose expense? Who will administer these programs? Who will judge whether the outcomes are fair enough? When will it all end?

Since the ultimate goal is achieving equal outcomes, these evasions raise the hardest question of all. Isn’t equity just a new brand name for the oldest program of achieving equal outcomes? Its name is socialism.

Mr. Lipson is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

Are Venture Capitalists racists?

Shifting sovereignty from Kings to the people, was the beginning of human flourishing. In the United States, in its constitution the people returned only those powers to their government necessary to protect their wellbeing. The right to and protection of ones honestly acquired property is an essential aspect of this arrangement. This includes, of course, the right to invest our property anyway we choose.

Venture capitalists are those wealthy people who choose to take great risks in the prospect of large gains by investing in “startups” that have not yet established their profitability.  Put differently venture capitalists are prepared to finance an unproven idea/product/service that might gain public approval, i.e. might become profitable, though most of them fail.  As consumers we have benefited enormously from goods and services my parents never would have even imagined that a few wealthy investors took a chance on.

So the idea that the government might need to enact laws to insure that a venture capitalist’s investments do not reflect racial bias is shocking at several levels. “In the clubby world of venture capitalists, who spent $130 billion in the United States last year and helped anoint the world’s four most valuable companies and countless other successful start-ups, there is effectively no legal backstop that ensures people of color have an equal opportunity to share in its wealth creation.”   “Black-entrepreneurs-venture-capital”

First of all is the right of these investors to their property. They can give it all to their daughters if they want to.  Marxists and other egalitarians reject such a right but that would throw away the whole basis of the wealth our capitalist system has created that Marxists would like to redistribute.  But I want to focus on why capitalism minimizes the role of bias in our economic decisions.  This was explored long ago by Nobel Lauriat Gary Becker in his famous 1976 book on the Economics of Discrimination.

Becker’s basic point is that if your economic decision is influenced by racial or sexual or any other non-economic bias it will cost you money, i.e. you will make less than you otherwise would have.  If you hire a man when a woman was better qualified, he will contribute less to your company’s income than would have the woman, thus you pay a financial price for your bias. The same is true if you hire a white person when a black one was better qualified, etc.

The purpose of venture capitalist investments is to make a bundle by funding the next great idea. Most will fail but one or two turn into Facebook, or Amazon.  It may well be that a venture capitalist systematically under rates the potential of black entrepreneurs, i.e. that he suffers racial bias.  But in that case he will be less successful in his investments.  Capitalism will punish him for his prejudices and diminish his importance as a venture capitalist because it will diminish his wealth. None the less, an Irish venture capitalist may well bias her investments toward fellow Irishmen and a black venture capitalist may risk an extra break for a fellow black. But the profit motive of capitalism will discourage departures from objective evaluations of investment prospects.

The idea that a law should forbid or discourage racial or sexual bias when venture capitalists decide in what to invest is without merit.  Moreover, it is hard to imagine what such a law would look like and/or on what basis a government bureaucrat would overrule and direct the placement of a private investor’s chose of investments.

To peak briefly at the other–entrepreneurial–side of the equation, the unbiased opportunity provided by capitalism has attracted many foreigner entrepreneurs to our shores.  Steve Jobs (Apple, NeXT, Pixar), who was adopted at birth, was the son of Joanne Schieble who was Swiss-American and Abdulfattah “John” Jandali who was Syrian.  Steve Wozniak, Apple cofounder, was the son of Polish and Swiss-German parents.  Sergey Brin cofounder of Google/Alphabet escaped from the Soviet Union.  The famous architect, I.M. Pei, immigrated from China.  “How-12-immigrant-entrepreneurs-have-made-america-great”

George Floyd, RIP

How should we respond to the horrifying murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a bad cop with “18 complaints on his official record?” “A Minneapolis-police-chief-promised-change-george-floyd’s-death-shows-hurdles”  Finding a constructive answer is not easy.  While it is difficult to watch the horrible death of George Floyd at the hands of a bad cop as three fellow policemen looked on without becoming enraged, those setting fires, smashing windows, and looting are not looking for constructive answers (or if we are to be extremely generous are not being thoughtful about what measures would actually be constructive) and should be locked up.

For starters, in looking for answers we should acknowledge that the problem (racism–unequal treatment of black Americans as well as other ethnic minorities in the law, then by law enforcement and by many people) has existed in America since its founding. But we should also acknowledge that enormous progress has been made over time, especially in recent years. Slavery has been abolished. Racial minorities are no longer discriminated against in the law (as opposed to law enforcement).  Even policing has improved considerably, though being arrested for “driving while black or DWB” remains too prevalent. And then there remain too many Michael Brown, Jrs, an 18-year-old black man, who was killed by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and too many George Floyds. Any would be too many.

A great deal has been done since Michael Brown’s murder to improve police training. The details are impressive. Medaria Arrandondo, Minneapolis’s police Chief, is black and is committed to furthering the work of his predecessor, Janeé Harteau, to expunge racism from the force and to rebuild trust between the police and the communities they exist to keep safe. While considerable progress has been made, why does it remain so difficult to provide black Americans with the equal treatment under the law to which every American is constitutionally entitled?

Evolution has genetically predisposed us to trust family and distrust if not fear others. Civilization, in part, has required that we overcome or at least tame this primitive impulse with moral teachings and laws (“do unto others and you would have them do unto you”) that facilitate our ability to live together and build trading economies to our enormous benefit. We learn what is “right” from our families, schools, churches, and the varied people we hang out with. We learn from the words and behavior of community leaders that we respect (some have made more positive contributions than others!). Institutional structures are also very important. They should provide incentives for behavior to conform to our moral and legal principles. Police Chief Arrandondo, for example, has increased the transparency of the police force (complaint records, webcams, etc.) in efforts to hold officers more accountable for their behavior.

In the area of policing there are two interrelated institutional impediments to good policing that we should address. Policing can be difficult and can be dangerous. “In a series of decisions beginning in 1967, the Supreme Court gutted [the Civil Rights Act of 1871] by permitting police and other government agents to claim they acted in “good faith” when violating citizens’ rights…. The Supreme Court decided government officials deserved ‘qualified immunity.’”  “Cops-kill-because-we-gave-them-the-legal-framework-to-do-it”  This must end.

“‘Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a top contender for Vice President candidacy for Joe Biden, was the chief prosecutor for Hennepin County (including Minneapolis) from 1998 to 2006. Klobuchar, who was nicknamed “KloboCop” by detractors,  “declined to bring charges in more than two dozen cases in which people were killed in encounters with police” while she “aggressively prosecuted smaller offenses” by private citizens, the Washington Post noted. Her record was aptly summarized by a headline early this year from the Twin Cities Pioneer Press: “Klobuchar ramped up prosecutions, except in cases against police.” [see previous link] This must end.

“Since 2012 there have been more than 2,600 complaints filed against Minneapolis police officers by civilians, according to data provided by Dave Bicking, who was part of the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review. Of those, the data showed just 12 resulted in an officer being disciplined. Among those, eight received written warnings. The most severe penalty was a 40-hour suspension.” [see previous link and “My-fellow-brothers-sisters-blue-what-earth-are-you-doing/?”] This must end.

The other institutional impediment to good policing is the understandable but pernicious self interest of police unions in defending their members from charges of misconduct. “Lt. Robert Kroll, [has been] president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis since 2015. Like his union counterparts across the country, Lt. Kroll has been a fierce advocate for greater autonomy for officers…  Lt. Kroll has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement as a terrorist organization.” “Minneapolis-police-chief-promised-change-george-floyds-death-shows-hurdles”

I am reminded of my mother’s complaint (she was a grammar school teacher) that the teachers’ union was the biggest impediment to improving the quality of education in California. Any monopoly (government, unions, monopoly firms) ultimately sacrifices the public interest for their own if allowed to. This must end.

Black Marks in our History

On October 16, I attended a meeting of the Committee for the Republic at which “Defender of Liberty Awards” where presented to Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo for their bravery and perseverance in defending freedom in America. These Americans of Japanese ancestry had undertaken to legally challenge their internment in concentration camps during World War II ordered by Franklin D Roosevelt four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They generally lost their legal challenges, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.  If you are not familiar with this shocking atrocity (or even if you are), I urge you to watch these short videos and weep at the depths to which racism has driven some of us in the past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z8EHjVoN-o  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MXF2302fr8

These atrocities were not the first, nor unfortunately the last, abandonment of our principles in the name of security in times of heightened fear (think of the so called “Patriot Act” following 9/11 and President Trump’s failed efforts to ban travelers from six Muslim countries more recently). While these reactions are manifestations of racism and cowardice, it is to our credit that we (generally) ultimately acknowledge our periodic abandonments of our love of freedom and justice under the law for barbaric acts that we think will make us safer. https://wcoats.blog/2016/10/20/terrorism-security-vs-privacy/ 

The Defender of Liberty Awards to Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo were accepted on their behalf by their surviving children who shared with us their experiences. Several of them learned what their parents had done in school as they never mentioned or discussed the shame and hardship of their three years of internment in despicable facilities.  Growing up in California I had one Japanese classmate in grammar school. When I learned that FDR had put him and his family in a concentration camp for several years, I overcame my shock and shame to ask him about it, but he would not discuss it. It reminds me a bit of the typical reaction of rape victims.

While a cowardly public silently acquiesced to the rounding up and the imprisonment of their Japanese American neighbors, an underlying motive was the desire of some farmers to eliminate the competition of Japanese American farmers. From Wikipedia: “The deportation and incarceration were popular among many white farmers who resented the Japanese American farmers. ‘White American farmers admitted that their self-interest required removal of the Japanese.’ These individuals saw internment as a convenient means of uprooting their Japanese-American competitors. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942:

‘We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over… If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.’”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans

Quoting again from Wikipedia: “In 1980, under mounting pressure from the Japanese American Citizens League and redress organizations, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine whether the decision to put Japanese Americans into concentration camps had been justified by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the camps. The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and concluded that the incarceration had been the product of racism. It recommended that the government pay reparations to the internees. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 (equivalent to $42,000 in 2018) to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3,390,000,000 in 2018) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.”

At the Committee for the Republic ceremony the amazingly talented Bruce Fein recited from memory the following:

Athens had Socrates.

King Henry VIII had Sir Thomas More.

And we have the Mount Rushmore of moral courage to honor this evening:  Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, And Mitsuye Endo.  They are largely unknown American heroes and heroines of World War II.  It can be said without exaggeration, seldom in the annals of liberty have so many owed so much to so few.

What is more American than fidelity to Thomas Jefferson’s injunction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to god?  Our defender of liberty award recipients resisted the racist tyranny of president Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 issued unilaterally without congress on February 19, 1942, a date that should live in infamy.  Provoked by racism in the west coast battleground states, EO 9066 summarily dispatched 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans because of their ancestry alone into internment camps.  Remember their names.  For they are first cousins of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen, Nazi concentration camps, not extermination camps like Auschwitz.  Roosevelt’s camps were ten:  Manzanar (CA), Poston (AZ), Gila River (AZ), Topaz (UT), Granada (CO), Heart Mountain (WY), Minidoka (ID), Tule Lake (CA), Jerome, (AR), and Rohwer (AR).

Risking ostracism or worse, our four award winners challenged the constitutionality of president Roosevelt’s racism.  The president and his mandarin class colleagues echoed the Orwellian bugle of general John Dewitt 80 days after pearl harbor: “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”  I am reminded of Mark Anthony’s mocking funeral oration in Julius Caesar:  but president Roosevelt was an honorable man, so were his assistants all honorable men.

Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Endo took their cases to the United States Supreme Court with mixed success.  The high court sustained FDR’s executive order based on knowing lies about military necessity made by the Department of Justice.  Dissenting justice Robert Jackson presciently warned that the court’s decision in Korematsu v. United states would lie around like a loaded weapon ready for use by a future Caligula, Claudius, or Nero in the White House who claimed an urgent need.

But the four did not surrender.  They continued to fight over long decades for vindication and defense of the constitution both for the living and those yet to be born.  In triumph, our defender of liberty award honorees brandished the lofty principles of the greatest generation—the constitution’s architects—against its traitors. Korematsu and Hirayabahsi had their convictions overturned in coram nobis proceedings.  The civil liberties act of 1988 denounced the racism and unconstitutionality of EO 9066.  And the United States Supreme Court overruled Korematsu in Trump v. Hawaii.

Defending liberty is always unfinished work.  Tyranny knows only offense—like a football team with Tom Brady playing all positions.  We cannot escape our moral responsibility as American citizens to equal or better the instruction of American patriots Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yausi, and Endo.  It is for us, the living, to ensure that their courage was not in vain.  It is unthinkable that we fail to try.  Gordon Hirabayashi was right at the young age of 24: “it is our obligation to show forth our light in times of darkness, nay, our privilege.”

When you awaken each morning, be haunted by Edward Gibbons’ epitaph on Athens:

“in the end, more than freedom, they wanted security.  They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

It is altogether fitting that my closing lines will be delivered at this time and place [the Metropolitan Club] within shouting distance of the white house to thunder like a hammer on an anvil.  In  the eyes of the United States constitution, there is only one race, it is American; there is only one religion, it is American; there is only one ancestry, it is American; there is only one gender, it is American; there is only one sexual orientation, it is American.

E pluribus unum Out of many, one.

______________________________

Walking out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government we got: “A Republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”  I am worried.

 

Where does the desire to explore come from?

Long ago I had the pleasure of introducing a young friend to types of food he hadn’t tasted before.  He was quite comfortable with his American style hot dog and hamburger meals and wasn’t certain he wanted to try new and strange dishes.  People differ in this regard.  Some are eager to try new cuisine, see new places, and encounter new people and cultures. Some are not.  And some are even rather intimidated and reluctant to leave their familiar comfort zone. There is a lot to be said for the predictability of the familiar, perhaps similar to well-worn shoes.

After some gentle persuasion, my friend agreed to sample a few dishes.  I reassured him that nothing would be forced on him and that he might even discover some exciting new tastes.  If he found that he didn’t like a dish he would not have to finish it.  But he would never know what he might be missing if he didn’t explore a bit.  Once he started, however, it was hard to stop him.  He was pleasantly surprised at how interesting and tasty some dishes were.  He was particularly reluctant to try foie gras knowing it was goose liver, though he fell in love with it by the second bite.

As I noted earlier, people differ in their tastes for adventure.  We might just leave it at that but for two reasons.  The first is that being rich is more interesting and exciting than being poor.  I am speaking here of experience rather than money.  Seeing and engaging new and different places, meeting new and different people of different cultures, listening to new and different music can make life richer.  The core of a liberal arts education (as opposed to acquiring professional skills) is the introduction to and broadening of our understanding and appreciation of ours and other cultures. It makes our lives richer.

The second is that openness to change is a necessary aspect of economic progress.  Technical progress disrupts the established order but increases our productivity and standards of living.  Global trade not only significantly increases our material standard of living but confronts us with other people and cultures as well.  Both–technical progress and global trade often impose changes on us (such as the job skills demanded in the market) that we might otherwise not choose or want.  If people can choose to live where their opportunities are greatest and if firms are able to employ people with the skills that best fit the firms needs, economies will be more efficient and will raise the standard of living for everyone.  By allowing the disruption of innovation and trade we will have the opportunity to, or be forced to, confront and deal with strangers more often.

This can have a negative side for those who do not easily embrace adventure—those who prefer the familiar (hot dogs and hamburgers). If new neighbors come from different backgrounds and cultures, adventure lovers can enjoy the excitement of learning more about other places and people.  But those uncomfortable with strangers can be – well – uncomfortable.  Economic advances can also have negative impacts on those whose skills are no longer needed and we would be wise to develop and support government measures to soften and facilitate the needed adjustments.

A predisposition to seek and embrace adventures or to shun them is given to us by nature. However, civilization and its advance builds on nurturing more social skills and openness. Failure to teach/convince our fellow citizens of the rewards of adventure (or merely accepting and adjusting to change) can lead to disastrous results.  In extreme cases unease can turn to fear/hate as in the recent white nationalist terrorist attack in El Paso by Patrick Crusius.  As-his-environment-changed-suspect-in-el-paso-shooting-learned-to-hate.  The nature of public debate on race relations, religious freedom, globalization, etc., and the words of role models can have a profound impact on how those confronting change formulate their views on these subjects.

The world is a better, richer place when all of its people respect one another and live peaceably together. We and our education systems (school, churches, clubs, jobs) should do our best to encourage those reluctant to welcome strangers of the positive experiences it can open to them.  By learning to understand different ways of thinking and doing, we not only enrich our lives but can strengthen our own ways of doing things (our own cultures). Such interactions can show us what we like and value about our own ways and what we might adjust in light of the interesting practices of others. This is what the American melting pot is all about. It has produced a vibrant, dynamic and economically flourishing country. However, it is more friendly to the adventuresome types than to those resistant to change. We would do ourselves and our country a favor to kindly encourage those “left behind” to open up more to the wonders of our changing world.  With regard to a difference subject of misinformation Anne Applebaum explores multiple approaches to this task: Italians-decided-to-fight-a-conspiracy-theory-heres-what-happened-next?

 

The College Admissions Scandals

A few weeks ago, Ito and I went to “Admissions,” the very well performed and thought provoking play by Joshua Harmon about affirmative action, at Studio Theater. Several friends had independently attended the play and suggested that we get together for one of Ito’s superb dinners and discuss it.  So we enjoyed an evening discussing the pros and cons of “affirmative action,” the “temporary” suspension of nondiscrimination legislation meant to repair and make up for discrimination against blacks that made them less prepared for college. It is a complex issue without obvious solutions. The play did an excellent job of fairly presenting all perspectives on this issue.

My opinion is that suspending, even temporarily, equal treatment (merit-based college admissions) of applicants to universities and colleges, as is done with affirmative action, is not the best approach to achieving equal treatment of all. It attempts to treat the symptoms of racial discrimination rather than the disease. First of all, private universities (unlike state schools using tax payers’ money) should be free to establish whatever admission policy they want.  Any school I would want to attend will want to include an element of diversity in its student body as an important element of the education they offer and will build that into its admission policy in whatever way it considered sensible.

And now we are confronted with the revelation that some of the rich and famous paid bribes to get their underperforming children into top schools. As stated in the Washington Post: “the scope and sheer shamelessness of an elaborate scheme in which some of the country’s richest people allegedly paid bribes to get their children into top U.S. universities is truly mind-boggling.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-college-admissions-scandal-should-prompt-broader-soul-searching/2019/03/13/f67aa986-45b5-11e9-aaf8-4512a6fe3439_story.html

This is shocking and unacceptable for the same reason I oppose affirmative action. It violates the principle and standard of merit in hiring people or admitting them to college. Our country is one of the wealthiest and most respected in the world because firms and organizations allocate jobs, positions, and resources in general on their merits (i.e. qualifications for the job, etc.). In short, people and other resources are put to their most productive use.  Obviously, this is not always the case. But firms that fall short of this standard suffer lower profits than if they had adhered to it. In short, in the private sector there is an economic incentive to employ the resources (including people) that best fit the needs being filled. Companies that employ their under-qualified relatives suffer lower profits as a result. Hiring or admitting people on the basis of merit is also our standard of fairness that is widely admired throughout the world.

Affirmative action is a deliberate departure from this standard as are the recently revealed bribes and test score cheating for college admission. In the first case it is an effort to overcome the damage of earlier discrimination against a once enslaved people. In the second case it is an effort to overcome the deficiencies of intelligence or character in our own children. A world in which we acquiesce to standards other than merit will always favor the already well off. We will never fully achieve the high standards of merit based appointments we have set, but we should never stop trying. A powerful strength of the private sector in a competitive free market economy is that the economic incentives are in the right direction.

American universities may never achieve a perfect admissions system completely based on merit and devoid of personal bias, but we should encourage them aim for it. The world outside of the academic environment is unfair enough when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation and religion to name a few. Let us try to instill in the younger generation the understanding that hard work and smarts are what gets you ahead– not money, influence and certainly not the color one’s skin. And let’s promote attitudes and policies that encourage and reward such a reality.

Is Rep Ilhan Omar anti-Semitic?

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Somalian immigrant, has been insisting that we need to publicly condemn Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in Israel itself. This mistreatment includes illegally occupying Palestinian land on which Jewish Israeli’s build so called “settlements,” excessive use of force against Palestinians protesting their treatment (since 2000 Israeli soldiers have killed 9 Palestinian, including women and children, for every Israeli killed by a Palestinian), and legally restricting the citizen rights of Israeli Arabs (i.e. imposing apartheid on Palestinians living in Israel) in an effort to keep Israel both democratic and Jewish with a “one state solution” that would make Jews a minority). All of my Jewish friends, including some Israeli Jews, also condemn these horrible acts. The issue is well summarized by Andrew Sullivan: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/03/how-should-we-talk-about-the-israel-lobbys-power.html?utm_source=fb&fbclid=IwAR1B12R8xQ0PTQhRO3u2f0nPO2ssSPmdZCEbbYbnvWNByClY2zuNgXaV9TE

So why is Ms. Omar being condemned as an anti-Semite by some (those who, in my opinion, are simply diverting the conversation away from Israel’s bad behavior)? It seems to arise from her complaints that “‘I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel,’ Omar tweeted March 3 in response to critics. ‘I find that to be problematic and I am not alone.’” Washington Post 3/11/2019 https://wapo.st/2TEMzt9. More specifically, and this is where critics have focused, she has complained that the so-called Israel Lobby has blinded American’s to Israel’s bad behavior. “On Feb. 27, Omar told an audience at a town hall event in Washington, D.C., that accusations of anti-Semitism were meant to silence her criticism of Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.”  Ibid. In my opinion the charges of anti-Semitism reported in the above Post article, prove her point.

Some people were particularly offended by her reference to the “Dual loyalty” of many Americans (Jewish and non-Jewish) to both our own country and to Israel.  I do not respect anyone who uncritically agrees with anything and everything their hero says or does whether it is Trump, Putin, or Bibi (I like some of Trump’s policies and dislike others, but disrespect the man). The same goes for governments. Given the strong reaction (claims of anti-Semitism) of any criticism of Israel in earlier years in the U.S. (we now see a regression to those days) I was pleasantly surprised on my many visits to Israel that a critical public discussion of Israeli policies and behavior was far more open and honest there. We should not be surprised or concerned that organizations such as American Israel Public Affairs Committee champion a particular point of view. That is what they exist for (just as the Log Cabin Republican’s and other policy oriented groups exist to propagate a point of view). What is unusual is the amazing influence that AIPAC has had on American foreign policy, often against America’s best interest. If you are not aware of this read John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

It is natural and usual for any of us with origins in another country (that would be most of us) to retain sympathies for the fatherland even when condemning bad things it might do. My Russian American friends, for example, can’t help smarting a bit at criticisms of Putin even when they fully agree with them. The country that gave us some of the world’s greatest literature and music has also given us the gulag, etc. But no one, at least no one I know, would dream of calling me anti-Russian when I condemn Putin.

I have not read every word from Rep Omar, but I have not read anything that suggests she is anti-Semitic. She has raised important points about the policies and behavior of the Israeli government.  President Trump’s, and for that matter his predecessors for many years, uncritical acceptance of Israel’s outrageous treatment of the Palestinians in their charge, should be challenged. Those diverting the discussion by labeling those of us who condemn Israel’s behavior as anti-Semitic are exploiting America’s very understandable sympathies for the horrors of the holocaust and a long history of anti-Semitism. But such charges and diversion are dishonest and a disservice to the best interests of the United States (and I would say of Israel as well).

Should Virginia Governor Northam Resign?

After first apologizing for his college yearbook picture in blackface (next to someone in a KKK costume), then denying that it was him in the picture, why hasn’t Governor Ralph Northam resigned? I think that it is because he knows in his heart that he is not a racist. No one can read the Washington Post account of his childhood and college years and think that he is. https://wapo.st/2MW4ndp

The unfolding story raises a number of important points or lessons, if you will (I am always an optimist).  Should adults be held accountable for views or behavior in their youth—i.e., are we able to grow in our understanding and change our views?  Should the prevailing understanding and attitudes of earlier times influence how we “judge” earlier behavior, i.e., does context matter? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson where slave owners, after all. These questions are relevant more generally (think of the confirmation hearings of Presidential nominees for the Supreme Court and other important positions).

Northam’s now famous yearbook picture immediately raised several questions in my mind.  Before making judgements about Northam’s attitudes on race I wanted to know, among many other questions, what was in his mind when that picture was taken (or if not him, put on his yearbook page).  What message did he think he was sending? My first reaction, clearly not the reaction of many others, was that he was making fun of the KKK.  I have the same question about blackface more generally and those fun musicals and minstrels with black-faced white singers and dancers. When did black face become an affront to blacks or should I say African Americans?  This question is thoughtfully explored by John McWhorter in a must read piece in the February Atlantic Monthly https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/mark-herring-and-grey-zones-blackface/582355/. According to Wikipedia: “In the United States, blackface had largely fallen out of favor by the turn of the 21st century, and is now generally considered offensive and disrespectful.”

As I grew up in California, “Negro” was the polite term for “African American.” It sharply contrasted with the derogatory term “Nigger,” the very sight of which outrages me.  But fashion evolved. As an undergraduate at the U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s we switch from Negro to Black, to keep up with evolving fashion.  One of my favorite columnists in the 1980s and 90s, William Raspberry, an African American opinion writer in the Washington Post, wrote a column I liked a lot bemoaning the ever-changing fashion in referring to Negros, Blacks, People of Color, African Americans, etc.  He said that changing the name is less important than changing the reality of the status and treatment of minorities in America.

Prejudice reflects ignorance.  It is best overcome with knowledge. Familiarity is an important source of knowledge. Large numbers of people cluster with their own ethnic or religious group and thus have little direct knowledge of “others”. Those who thought badly of “niggers” or “faggots” generally didn’t know any. They feared what they did not know. Black-faced performers began to introduce blacks to many whites. Though they were often buffoonishly stereotyped, they were non-threatening and were thus likeable. People often fear what they do not know.

In a step up from blackface Amos and Andy in the sitcom of the 1950s were played by real African Americans.  They were heavily stereotyped but lovable. No one could fear them. In the 1970s we progressed to the Jeffersons and in the 1980s to the Bill Cosby Show. With familiarity, baseless fear dissipated.  TV encounters were increasingly complimented with real live encounters.

Something similar happened with gays. TV first introduced homosexuals as silly but harmless hairdressers or fashion designers. For many of us looking back the stereotypes are borderline offensive (no offense to effeminate hairdressers). But gays gradually became more present in television and in our surroundings and less threatening. Then we were introduced to the comedy show Will and Grace who progressed gay images toward the idea of successful and diverse people living in New York. They were funny and approachable people we would be comfortable to hang out with. People began to discover that their uncle George or Aunt May were gay and were OK with that. Will and Grace performed a similar service for gay acceptance by a wider public as had Cosby for African Americans.

Context matters and people learn and evolve. My own opinion of Governor Northam has evolved from thinking that, of course, he should resign to thinking that he shouldn’t. https://wapo.st/2SBEyoy