Gun Laws – Paying for False Negatives

October 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

This video was making the rounds last spring. The video maker wants to make two points:

1.  Cops are racist. They are respectful of the White guy carrying the AR-15. The Black guy gets less comfortable treatment.

2. The police treatment of the White guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.

I had two somewhat different reactions.

1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the White and Black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the White guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.

2.  Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous – very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution – the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK.  The false negative – assuming an armed person is harmless when he is in fact dangerous – could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.

But the default setting for gun laws in the US is just the opposite – better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws asssume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.

Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying in effect that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people – the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents – pay that price.

Phil Woods, 1931-2015

October 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The great alto player (and sometimes clarinetist) Phil Woods died on Tuesday. Here’s my favorite Phil Woods story. I’ve edited it down slightly from an interview he did at JazzWax.

I had just graduated from Juilliard in 1952 and was playing at the Nut Club on Seventh Ave. and Sheridan Square in the Village. After all of that great education, here I was playing “Harlem Nocturne” ten times a night. [The Nut Club, as the patrons’ preference in music shows, was a touristy joint. It sometimes featured cockroach races.] I was saying to myself: My god, I’m a Juilliard graduate, and I can play great jazz, and here I am playing “Night Train” and “Harlem Nocturne.” I didn’t like my mouthpiece. I didn’t like my reed. I didn’t like my horn. I didn’t even like the strap.

One night somebody came into the club and “Hey, Charlie Parker’s playing across the street. He’s jamming.” The guy was referring to Arthur’s Tavern, which is still there on Grove Street across Sheridan Square. It was a little tiny hole in the wall with a little bar.

When I walked in, there was this 90-year old guy playing a piano that was only three octaves long. His father was on drums using a tiny snare and little tiny pie plates for cymbals. And there was the great Charlie Parker—playing the baritone sax. It belonged to Larry Rivers, the painter. Parker knew me. He knew all the kids who were coming up.

I said, “Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to play my alto?” He said, “Phil, that would be great. This baritone’s kicking my butt.” So I ran back across the street to the Nut Club and grabbed the alto sax that I hated. I came back and got on the bandstand, which was about as big as a coffee table. I handed my horn to Bird and he played “Long Ago and Far Away.”

As I’m listening to him play my horn, I’m realizing there’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing was wrong with the reed, nothing was wrong with the mouthpiece—even the strap sounded good. Then Parker says to me, “Now you play.” I said to myself, “My God.” So I did. I played a chorus for him. When I was done, Bird leaned over and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.”

I levitated over Seventh Avenue to the Nut Club. And when I got back on the bandstand there, I played the shit out of “Harlem Nocturne.” That’s when I stopped complaining and started practicing. That was quite a lesson.

He is often compared to Cannonball Adderly, and although I can hear the similarity, Woods was always one of my favorites while I never had all that much use for Cannonball. I first listened, really listened, to Woods when I bought the 1959 LP “The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess” – a big band playing arrangements by Bill Potts. The Otto Preminger movie had appeared that year, and lots of people wanted to ride its wake – Miles, Ella and Louis, and others. The Potts album was a fancy production with pages of photos of the musicians in the studio.

“Bess You Is My Woman” belongs to Phil Woods, from his section work in the intro to the final cadenza.

His sound is unmistakable. If you see the 1961 moive“The Hustler,” as the opening credits roll over a big band soundtrack, even though there is no alto solo, you hear the ensemble work and know that it’s Phil on lead alto.

His best-known solo, as I’ve noted before (here) is not in jazz. It’s the alto break in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” I imagine all the people who have heard that track countless times since 1977. They know all the notes but have no idea that they are hearing one of the greatest alto players of the post-Bird era.

Public Opinion, Prison, and Politics – Black Crime Matters

September 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives have finally begun to emerge from their nearly fifty-year long infatuation with draconian prison sentences as the solution to the problems of crime and, especially, drugs. It’s as though America has just discovered that that property in Glengarry Glen Ross we’ve been making huge payments on all these years is mostly an undeveloped marsh. How did this happen?  Who were those persuasive salesman, the ones who lived by the ABC slogan, “Always be convicting”? And why did we believe them?

The standard answer from the left has been: racists and racism. Starting in the 60s, politicians used “crime” as a code word for “race.” After all, you couldn’t say that you were against Black people, but you could say that you were against crime and for “law and order.” The strategy worked but not just because of American racism but because of the riots and the rise in crime in Black urban areas, then called “the ghetto,” now “the hood.”  In the leftish view, the new laws – everything from mandatory sentences for a first offense to life-sentences for a third conviction – were basically good old American White-on-Black oppression. Whites were comfortable knowing that most of the people being sentence to long terms and occasionally death would be Black. Mass incarceration, in the title of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.”

New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973, were some of the first and harshest versions of the new look in criminal justice. Many other states took inspiration, and in the 1980s the Reagan administration’s launched federal war on drugs * – all with a predictable boom in prison populations. The increase was sharper for Black males. (Data from Pew here .)

But in Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, Michael Javen Fortner challenges the idea that the drug laws, and punitive policies in general, were a White regime foisted on Blacks. Black leaders in New York City – and the Black people they led – were, Fortner argues, a major force pushing for harsher laws.

The book is political history – how laws got made forty years ago. But it’s also relevant for the debate over the very recently arrived Black Lives Matter. Conservatives, in their reaction against Black Lives matter, often like to bring up the inconvenient fact of Black-on-Black crime. Here, for example, is Sean Hannity on Fox last month:

Don't we have to address the black on black crime numbers that, it's not cops. It's not white people. There are racists, everybody knows that, but the majority of deaths of young black males are coming from other young black males.

Fortner too argues that trying to explain criminal justice policy while ignoring crime
is like explaining Advil profits without mentioning headaches. In the 1970s, the highest rates of street crime were in urban Black neighborhoods. That’s still true, though those rates have decreased considerably in the last 25years. 

In 1982, noted penologist Richard Pryor offered his observations on the proportions of Blacks in the general population and in prison. He also speculated that the disparity in these proportions was related to crime and the desire of Black people like himself to be safer. (It’s Richard Pryor. Do I really need to put a trigger warning here about language, sex, and violence?)


But are Blacks really more punitive than Whites? Fortner has a lot of anecdotal evidence – editorials in Black newspapers saying things like,“I’m in favor of burning them alive.” I haven’t read the book (the release date was only two days ago), but according to the review by Marc Parry in The Chronicle , Fortner “cites a 1973 New York Times poll that found 71 percent of blacks supported life sentences without parole for drug dealers.”  I could not find that poll, but I did find a national Gallup poll from 1973 on the same question. Whites supported the drug laws 68-28%. Black support was less strong – 58-36%.

Other surveys too have found Blacks less punitive than Whites.  They have always been less supportive of the death penalty; except for the high-crime years of roughly 1985-2000, a majority have opposed capital punishment. As for other sentences, look at the GSS item “Courts”: “In general, do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?”

Some obvious points:
  • Attitudes about punishment have softened in the last 25 years, probably because of the great decrease in crime.
  • Blacks have always been less punitive than Whites.
  • In periods of high crime, Blacks were strongly in favor of harsher punishments. Even today among Blacks, those favoring harsher punishment are in the majority.

But what about the other option on this question?

While the White-Black gap on “Not Harshly Enough” has been consistent at about ten percentage points, in recent years far more Blacks have come to see sentences as too harsh. While Whites still favor harsher courts by nearly 8-to-1, among Blacks the ratio is only 2½-to-1. 

Perhaps these general attitudes help explain the differences over Black Lives Matter. The movement arose in response to several well-publicized killings of unarmed Black men by police. But even before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and others, a significant minority of Blacks in the US had come to feel that the punitive tactics of the criminal justice system were not making them safer and needed to be reversed.

Back to the Future

September 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Opponents of government aid to the poor often argue that the poor are not really poor. The evidence they are fond of is often an inappropriate comparison, usually with people in other countries: “Thus we can say that by global standards there are no poor people in the US at all: the entire country is at least middle class or better. ” (Tim Worstall in Forbes).  Sometimes the comparison is with earlier times: “‘Poor’ Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average U.S. citizen throughout much of the 20th Century.” (Robert Rector at Heritage. The quote is from 1990, but I doubt that Heritage has changed its tune.) 

I parodied this approach in a post a few years ago (here) by using the ridiculous argument that poor people in the US are not really poor and are in fact “better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.” I mean, I thought the toilet argument was ridiculous. But sure enough, Richard Rahn of the Cato Institute used it in an article in the Washington Times, complete with a 17th century portrait of the king.

Common Folk Live Better Now than
Royalty Did in Earlier Times

Louis XIV lived in constant fear of dying from smallpox and many other diseases that are now cured quickly by antibiotics. His palace at Versailles had 700 rooms but no bathrooms. . .

Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg  has an ingenious way of showing how meaningless this line of thinking his. He compares today not with centuries past but with centuries to come. Consider our hedge-fund billionaires, with private jets whisking them to their several mansions in different states and countries. Are they well off?  Not at all.  They are worse off than the poor of 2215.

Think about what the poor will enjoy a few centuries from now that even the 0.01 percent lack today. . . . “Imagine, they died of cancer and heart disease, had to birth their own babies, and even drove their own cars. How primitive can you get!”

Comparisons with times past or future tell us about progress. They can’t tell us who’s poor today. What makes people rich or poor is what they can buy compared with other people in their own society.  And you needn’t sweep your gaze to distant centuries to find inappropriate comparisons. When Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” goes from the 80s to the 50s, he feels pretty cool, even though the only great advances he has over kids there seem to be skateboards, Stratocasters, and designer underpants. How would he have felt if in 1985 he could have looked forward thirty years to see the Internet, laptops, and smartphones?

People below the poverty line today do not feel well off  just because they have indoor plumbing or color TVs or Internet connections. In the same way,  our 1% do not feel poor even though they lack consumer goods that people a few decades from now will take for granted.