Monday, March 25, 2013

Disparate Impact


The Wall Street Journal Editorial Report is a weekly program that covers news events in an analytical format.  The 3/24/2013 broadcast had a segment on President Obama’s nomination of Thomas Perez for Secretary of Labor.

In the discussion, Jason Riley, editor of Political Diary brought up “disparate impact” as a theory of racial discrimination.  Here is his explanation:

Adherents of disparate impact believe that statistics can be used to prove discrimination. They sort of worship at the altar of racial parity in outcomes. Blacks are 13% of the population? They should be 13% of dentists and 13% of the freshman class of UCLA or 13% of the firemen. And if they're not, then legal action should be taken, and discrimination can be shown on that basis alone.

That’s a powerful concept.  If a policy is in place and it produces disparate outcomes (regardless of how race neutral that policy might be) it is deemed “discriminatory” and action must be taken. 

We see multiple case studies on this effect at the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If “disparate impact” has achieved legitimacy with issues of race, can it achieve legitimacy on issues of politics?  Consider the situation of people with dark skin tone.  In the United States, the odds are ten to one that a given adult from this group is affiliated with the Democratic Party.  “Disparate impact” in matters of race is thus a measure of disparate impact on the Democratic Party, with race being used as a proxy.

Does it make sense to contrive public policy to favor a political party, regardless of the subterfuge?

Maybe.  It is (of course) what politics is all about, but to hide behind a veneer of racial pretense seems awkward.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Everything Looks Like a Nail

Pope Francis at the Vatican, 3/16/2013 - Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal by Mary Anastasia O’Grady is titled, “Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope.”  Ms. O’Grady comes to the defense of newly-elected Pope Francis, who is the target of an international whisper campaign.

Ms. O’Grady refers to the work of Horacio Verbitsky, an editor at Pagina 12.  She describes the writings of Mr. Verbitsky as “propaganda.”

Here in the United States, Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post supports Mr. Verbitsky, describing him as simply a “left-leaning journalist.”

The point of view we support depends on our individual world view.  We more than likely are unaware of the work of Mr. Verbitsky, so we subscribe to either the opinion of Mr. Robinson or the opinion of Ms. O’Grady and move on.

I thought of that in the context of another point made by Ms. O’Grady in her article.  This sentence stood out:

Former members of terrorist groups like Mr. Verbitsky, and their modern-day fellow travelers in the Argentine government, have used the same tactics for years to try to destroy their enemies – anyone who doesn’t endorse their brand of authoritarianism.

I fixated on the word “authoritarianism” because it seems to be showing up in our popular dialogue more frequently.  Is authoritarianism good or bad?

Like the respective columns of Mary Anastasia O’Grady and Eugene Robinson, it depends on your world view.  An interesting example is the work of Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba, who studies authoritarianism for a living.

Mr. Altemeyer has received an award for excellence in teaching, and characterizes himself as “a moderate on most issues.”  From pages two through five of his book, “The Authoritarians,” here is what a “moderate” Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba tells us…

Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves...

 …the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation...

 But why should you even bother reading this book? I would offer three reasons. First, if you are concerned about what has happened in America since a radical right-wing segment of the population began taking control of the government about a dozen years ago, I think you’ll find a lot in this book that says your fears are well founded...

The last reason why you might be interested in the hereafter is that you might want more than just facts about authoritarians, but understanding and insight into why they act the way they do. Which is often mind-boggling. How can they revere those who gave their lives defending freedom and then support moves to take that freedom away? How can they go on believing things that have been disproved over and over again, and disbelieve things that are well established? How can they think they are the best people in the world, when so much of what they do ought to show them they are not? Why do their leaders so often turn out to be crooks and hypocrites? Why are both the followers and the leaders so aggressive that hostility is practically their trademark?

All this is from the first chapter of Mr. Altemeyer’s book, and he is just getting started.  His passion is directed against “right-wingers.”  He has even developed “The Right-Wing Authoritarianism” scale (pages eleven and twelve).

Returning to the concept of world view, if you believe authoritarianism is the sole province of right-wingers, you might have a certain political outlook.

That political outlook would dictate whether or not you find it incongruous that people who believe in the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances are grouped with people who subvert those principles to expand their power and authority.

Why does this not concern professor Altemeyer?  Apparently, when all you’ve got is a hammer…

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Morality Play

Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1948 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

A morality play is an allegorical form of drama where the main conflict is between the virtues and vices personified by the characters.

A classic example is Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, where the main character (Prince Hamlet) must deal with events after his father is murdered by his uncle Claudius.  It is a tale of good and evil, and we watch as Hamlet contemplates the ramifications of his actions.

A similar morality play is unfolding in American politics.  We get to watch our elected leaders contemplate the ramifications of policy decisions, but the political theater is where the real action takes place.  It is here we see politics as a morality play, and the battle is between good and evil.  See if you can figure out who is wearing “the black hats.”

Take the issue of fiscal responsibility.  The problem is real, but the conflict is perceived as being between those who want to protect our citizens and those who have no such feelings.

What about gun control?  Reducing tragedies from gun violence is a problem, but the drama is between people who want to protect our citizens and those who are characterized as being aloof and ideological.

Problems of foreign policy, voting rights, and sexual identity are also part of our national debate, but the drama is always between those who are sensitive to the feelings of individuals and those who are cast as having no such concern.

Our political leaders have a host of problems to confront, but Americans should consider how political issues are simply props for the larger morality play being staged.

We can look to the character of Hamlet himself, who muses “…the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Culture vs. the Constitution

Photo of Rep. John Lewis and other Democratic Party leaders by Dave Martin
On Sunday March 3, 2013, 73 year old John Lewis escorted Democratic Party leaders in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  The Democrats were commemorating “Bloody Sunday,” the March 7, 1965 event where Alabama State Troopers attacked marchers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Representative John Lewis (D-Ga) was the Chairman of SNCC from 1963 to 1966 and he led that march in 1965.

The Democratic Party used the day to bring attention to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This year, the Supreme Court will rule on Section 5 of that act, and the potential ruling is fraught with emotion.

We get an indication of the depth of feeling with the coverage of the “Bloody Sunday” commemoration.  Juxtaposed against the video of today’s marchers are the beatings that took place 45 years ago, along with pictures of fire-bombed buses and tear gas streaming across the streets.

And there is another “juxtaposition” that is being presented to us.  It is the characterization of a scornful Justice Scalia referring to the Voting Rights Act as an unnecessary racial entitlement.

Together, these three situations create an emotional connection with Americans, but skillfully placed, they can form a powerful narrative. What is that narrative?

Republicans want to hurt people with dark skin tone.

That’s not what is being said, and yet that is what is being taught.  We see caring and concerned Democrats juxtaposed against scornful Republicans in the context of racial violence.  Does that impact political decisions?  You be the judge:

--Must voter ID be rejected?  Why yes!  The American people have to defend themselves against Republicans who want to hurt people with dark skin tone.

--Must Colorado have a Black Caucus?  Of course!  Colorado Democrats must ensure protection from Republicans who want to hurt people with dark skin tone.

Later this year, Supreme Court Justices Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg will vote to retain Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  They know that Republicans want to hurt people with dark skin tone, and they see it as their duty to continue the necessary protections.

Obviously we will not see that justification in the legal opinions presented by the Supreme Court, but it is those exact feelings in play. Our culture promotes anti-Republican sentiment without a second thought.

Americans are confident that absurd and false characterizations have no place in our country, right?  After all, we have freedom of speech, and that takes care of the problem.

It’s in places like the Middle East where you see such difficulties.  Over there, it’s not unusual for people of the Jewish faith to be characterized as unclean and having genetic inferiority.  That’s wrong and absurd, but…

Egyptians believe this.

Palestinians believe this.

Lebanese, Syrians, and Iranians believe this.

Strangely, over here, millions of Americans believe Republicans want to hurt people with dark skin tone.

That is wrong and that is absurd, but…