Are Drugs Still Trumps?

July 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

For decades, drug policy in the US was based on a kind of hysteria, with lawmakers trying to outdo one another in dreaming up harsher and harsher punishments. Slowly but surely, drug laws are becoming more rational. But there are still people who think they can win an argument by shouting “drugs!” in a crowded-prison debate. They toss “drugs” out like a high trump card to sweep everything else off the table.

A few days ago, the Times ran an article by reporter Erik Ekholm on the children of parents who are incarcerated. Ekholm cited research, by sociologists such as the redoubtable Sara Wakefield, showing that having a parent sent away to prison does not generally contribute greatly to a kid’s well-being.

In the spirit of fair and balanced journalism, Ekholm was required to give space to the lock-’em-up folks, so he gives us “Heather MacDonald, a legal expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group.”
“A large portion of fathers were imprisoned on violence or drug-trafficking charges,” she said. “What would be the effects on other children in the neighborhood if those men are out there?”
Note Ms. MacDonald’s equation of violence and “drug-trafficking,” as though the person selling crack or heroin to willing customers were indistinguishable from an armed robber. I guess Ms. MacDonald has been watching reruns of Al Pacino’s Scarface rather than reading Sudhir Vankatesh (or the Montclair SocioBlog).

Nor, apparently, has she been talking with conservative economists down the hall at the Manhattan Institute, for she also seems to think that locking up drug sellers reduces the total number of drug sellers in the neighborhood. This fantasy is not only contradicted by empirical research (and by common knowledge); it also runs counter to what would be predicted by principles free-market economics. Market forces bring new dealers to replace the ones the police have just swept off the street.

(Hat tip: Todd Krohn at The Power Elite and SocProf at Global Sociology.)

If You Don't Know, Guess - But Sound as Though You're Certain

July 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does anybody really know why Palin resigned? Maybe Palin herself knows – and I emphasize the maybe. But that didn't stop the media from printing pure speculation almost as if it were solid fact. Here are some headlines typical of the first stories:

Palin prepping for a run for president?
Palin hints at White House bid by quitting as governor of Alaska
(The Times - London)
News fuels rumors of a 2012 run
(Boston Globe)

Not much later, we got headlines like this:

Alaska's governor Sarah Palin to resign, dooming her presidential pipe dream.
(New York Daily News)
Sarah Palin’s Lame Duck Resignation Logic Eliminates a 2012 Run for President
(US News and World Report)

You might as well be reading blogs.

Civility or Mindless Compliance?

July 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Suppose you were about to walk into a campus building, and you saw this sign.

Would you take the door indicated? If you were headed for one door when you saw the sign, would you change your course, even if it meant adding a full three steps to your journey?

If so, according to the people at The Situationist, you are guilty of “gender conformity” and “mindless compliance.”

Here’s the full video. (Note: it’s silent. Don’t bother, as I did, trying to figure out what’s wrong with your computer’s sound.)

The Situationist lists “related” posts on the Zimbardo prison, the Milgram obedience experiments, and the Asch conformity experiments.

Why didn’t they link to something about civility?

Suppose you’re walking into a building, and a stranger says, “Excuse me, would you mind walking through this other door?” would you stop and demand that he explain the rationale for his request? Or would you say, “Sure,” and go on your way?

The experimenter, Sarah Lisenbe, frames this as a gender issue. But would the results have been different if the sign had indicated different doors for first-year students and sophomores and above? Or students and faculty?

The video ends with a sigh (a signed sigh). But it left me with a question: what about the people who saw the sign but deliberately ignored it? What kind of person would disregard such a simple request?

Yes, I know there’s a counter-argument – that mindless conformity to signs based on gender only serves to reinforce gender inequality. It’s like obeying the Jim Crow signs for colored and white drinking fountains. (Is it relevant that this video was apparently taken at Mississippi State?)
So I guess the question is this: do you see the sign as an intrinsic part of a system of sex segregation and male domination; or do you see it as another request, like a traffic arrow, that’s so minor you don’t even bother to wonder about its rationale?

Mainstream vs. Bloggers

July 1, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Socioblog is pleased that the New York Times picked up on yesterday’s blog post and ran with its own horror story about private health insurance (in this case, Aetna). The Times also quotes from Wendell Potter, the former Cigna exec who testified before Congress a week ago about private health care insurance.

How do the mainstream media decide what is news and what isn’t? The Times did not see fit to cover Potter’s testimony when it was news. But why was it not fit to print? Potter was a former insider telling several inconvenient truths about insurance companies. He was making accusations in point-blank terms. Yet when I searched Lexis-Nexis, I found only two newspapers that gave ink to the story – the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer. A few others (e.g., WSJ, Hartford Courant) had the story on line. The AP put Potter at the end of a short item (621 words) about insurers using a “flawed database.” No TV networks covered it.

But several blogs had the story.

The disparity reminded me of the old days and I.F. Stone’s Newsletter.* After he was blacklisted, and most Washington insiders avoided him, Stone made a virtue of necessity. While most reporters avoided the boring stuff of actual legislation and got their stories from government insiders, Stone made a careful reading of transcripts of Congressional hearings. When it came to foreign affairs, especially the Vietnam war, he didn’t much bother with the press briefings from the White House or Pentagon, but he did look closely at non-US sources like Agence France Presse. It was like finding out inconvenient truths by going through the garbage people threw out. It was out there and public, though most reporters ignored it, and it often didn't smell very good.

I know that a lot of dubious material floats around the blogosphere, but the medium has allowed a thousand I.F. Stones to blossom. (Well, maybe not a thousand, but there are dozens of good ones.)

* Update, July 2: I am, it turns out, far from alone noticing the resemblance. According to a recent article in the L.A. Times by Stone’s biographer D.D. Guttenplan, “many contemporary observers” have dubbed Stone “the first blogger.”

There may be at least one difference between Stone and contemporary bloggers. Stone was meticulous about copy. His daughter says that he once told her, “Typos are worse than fascism.”