Doesn’t anybody take economics anymore?

From an AP story:

“Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that every child born in the United States should get a $5,000 “baby bond” from the government to help pay for future costs of college or buying a home.

‘I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time, so that when that young person turns 18 if they have finished high school they will be able to access it to go to college or maybe they will be able to make that downpayment on their first home,’ she said.”

Why not a tax cut? Or even tax credit? Or a simple voucher? Or why not just… write a check?

Why create yet another government bureaucracy to waste money administering what could be an incredibly simple benefit?

WHY????

It’s absolutely amazing to me.

And a BOND, no less. Let’s rewrite the headline…

“Clinton suggests saddling every child born in America with a $5,000 debt obligation at birth.”

Doesn’t sound so nice that way….

Lest we forget, if it’s a bond, it’s a debt that we repay through taxes. Giving everyone $5,000 is exactly the same as doing nothing but raising everyone’s taxes to pay the interest and manage the administrative costs of the program. She’s proposing a bond because that way she can write the cost of her gift to our children off on our grandchildren. Although I’m sure she’s thinking of “bond” in the way that Social Security is a “bond.” You know, in the way that it’s not a bond at all.

Anybody want to guess what the performance of the government managed account will be? Anyone? Compared to private investment? Anyone?

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Caribbean Soup

Our days have been pretty hectic lately. September is a busy month, what with my step-daughter’s birthday, my wife’s birthday and then my mother’s birthday all occurring on sequential days (keeps thing easy to remember). And then there’s my mother-in-law’s birthday about a week later and my step-son’s birthday a week after that. Toss in some back-to-school nights, some travel baseball, and some flag-football practice, and our September days fill up quickly.

I usually do most of our grocery shopping (it’s an easy stop on the way home from work), Jamie ended up getting the protein for Wednesday’s dinner on her way from home on Tuesday. She was looking at the chicken sausage and decided that “Italian” was getting a little boring, so she settled on Teriyaki and Ginger. “Sounds good,” I thought when she told me. But then I paused… teriyaki and ginger chicken sausage… what do I do with that? (I figured a marinara sauce would be… odd)

Yes, I know. Stir-fry. But I made chicken and broccoli stir fry on Tuesday night (it’s one of our youngest boy’s faves), and we’re a decadent American family. Not only do we not eat the same food twice in a week, we don’t even like to eat the same method of preparation twice in a week, much less on back-to-back days. So on Wednesday, I stopped at the market and tried to decide how to prepare the sausage.

I know what you’re thinking. “If you had time to go the store, why not just buy something else? Take a flyer on some beef why don’tcha? Keep the teriyaki ginger sausage in it’s little hermetically sealed packaging until next Wednesday and whip up another stir fry!”

I did think of that. But by this point, I felt like one of the Iron Chef’s. “This week’s theme ingredient is Asian Chicken Sausage!” “Fukui-san! What’s he doing there?” “I… I’m not sure, I think he’s opening another beer… yes, yes, it’s another beer… I think it’s Hefeweizen.” “Hefeweizen! Fascinating! And he’ll what, use that to deglaze the pan?” “No, no, I think he’ll drink that one too!”

Ok.. so maybe more of a Brass Chef.

I was standing in the veggie section, trying desperately to imagine an alternate preparation for teriyaki and ginger flavored sausage. I was running through sausage recipes in my head… grilled sausage sandwiches, sausage pizza, sausage and potatoes with some sauerkraut, sausage soup… AHA! Sausage soup! But not Italianate… how about… Asiany/Caribbean?

In the end I decided on a Sausage/Coconut/Pineapple soup. It was very, very yummy. Very reminiscent of Tom Kha, but definitely not Tom Kha. Here’s my best guess as to the recipe, since I once again failed to take notes as I went along.

1 lb Teriyaki & Ginger Chicken Sausage, sliced into discs
1 cup fresh pineapple cut into chunks
2 cans coconut milk
1 tblspn fresh grated ginger
2 tbslpns minced garlic
2 tbspns coarsely chopped cilantro
1 small onion, sliced
1/2 tspn Thai fish sauce
1 tspn crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste

I began by throughly browning all the sausage in a dutch oven. When the sausage was browned, I added the onion and let everything saute together for a few minutes. Next I added the ginger, garlic and crushed red pepper, cooked for a minute, and then deglazed the pan with some beer from my glass (white wine would work too, and water would do in a pinch) — just enough to deglaze the pan.

Next I added the pineapple and let everything simmer together for a few minutes.

Then I added both cans of coconut milk, the fish sauce, and the cilantro and brought the soup to a slow boil. Salt and pepper to taste.

I served it with Tostones.

From Durham to Jena

I’d been sort of vaguely following the Jena 6 story, but have resisted writing about it because, as a number of bloggers have pointed out, the reporting has been murky and the facts are a little wriggly. But it does seem to me that there’s an essential issue that’s being lost in the current discussion of the Jena 6. The issue isn’t whether or not there’s racism in America (there is), or even whether there may in fact be pervasive and systemic racism in America (there is). The issue is whether that racism is being addressed and repudiated, or whether it’s being used — and manipulated — for personal glory.

For those who don’t know, the Jena 6 are six young black men from Jena, Louisiana who are awaiting trial on charges of aggravated battery; they allegedly assaulted a white classmate in the High School cafeteria and beat and kicked him till he lost consciousness. The controversy lies is the background.

As I understand the time line, some months before the assault an assembly was held in the High School gymnasium. Apparently Jena, like many high schools nationwide, has defacto, self-imposed racial segregation. There are “Black Bleachers” where only black students sit and there was (it has since been cut down) a “White Tree” under which only white students sat. At this assembly a black student who was new to the school inquired if he was allowed to sit under the “White Tree” in the school yard. The principal told him he could sit wherever he wanted to sit. Following the assembly, he and a few other black students sat in the shade under the white tree.

The next morning, three nooses were found hanging from the tree.

The principal expelled the students responsible, but the school board overturned that punishment and instead suspended them from school for three days.

This set off a series of racially tinged incidents; the details of which are murky. There was a series of school-yard fights. Another assembly was called. The DA spoke to the students, telling them, “[w]ith one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.” (Referring to his power to prosecute.) The black students claim he was looking directly at them. He claims he was speaking to the entire student body. A school administration building was set on fire. The arsonists have not been found. A white student beat-or-threatened-or-assaulted a black student with a bottle and was charged with simple battery. The assailant received probation. A white student brandished an unloaded shotgun at a group of black students in a convenience store parking lot. He claims self-defense, the black students claim he was threatening them. The black students wrestled the gun away from the white student and ran off. They were charged with stealing the shotgun.

And then came the beating in question. A young white man, who may or who may not have been taunting a black classmate, was allegedly assaulted and beaten until he lost consciousness by six black youths. Those six students were arrested.

They were charged with attempted second-degree murder.

Those charges have since been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that requires the use of a “deadly weapon.” The weapons in question are the alleged assailant’s shoes.

See the Wikipedia entry for the full chronology. (And for the details surrounding Mychal Bell, the only one of the six to have been tried.)

So here we are. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (that paragon of integritude) have staged marches. 10,000 people protested in Jena last week, among them several celebrities. Many pundits, Jackson included, are treating this case as the seminal civil rights case of the early 21st century — on a par with the protests and marches in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s. Jackson went so far as criticize presidential hopeful Barack Obama for failing to give the Jena case enough attention. Jackson purportedly said that Obama was “acting like he’s white.”

OK, deep breath… and, here we go.

Is there racism in Louisiana? Yes.

Is it really still the kind that hangs nooses from a tree? Yes it is. Jena is northern Louisiana, and there are a LOT of stupid crackers in north Louisiana.

Is the kind of self-segregation we see in the Jena High School partly to blame for the heightened racial tensions? Probably. Segregation is almost always stupid. But lest we forget, you can go into any high school anywhere in the country and find evidence of exactly the same kind of self-segregation. The difference is you don’t always see the nooses. Or the arson. Or the prosecutorial misjudgment.

But let’s look at the prosecutorial judgment. By the time of the final incident, the local prosecutors were probably pretty tired of the mess. So they did what prosecutors everywhere do. They threw the book at the students. Essentially, they try to deter future crime by “making an example” of these particular students, and that’s a problem. More on that here.

The problem is that the current protest isn’t so much about demanding that appropriate charges be brought, but about demanding that all charges be dropped. The rallying cry for the protest movement has been “Free the Jena 6!” Richard Thompson Ford, of Slate.com says this might be because, “‘Stop Informal Segregation and Prosecutorial Overzealousness That Disproportionately Affects African-Americans Here and Elsewhere’ won’t fit on T-shirt or a placard.”

And that’s a problem because, as Ford goes on to say, “…the logic that underlies the demand to free the Jena 6 comes down to this: These six young men were justified in kicking their lone victim senseless because other people who shared his race committed offenses against other black students.”

But that’s the logic behind all of current progressive thinking on race. It’s the mistake of stripping individuals of their moral agency and then of treating those same people merely as fungible parts of an arbitrary collection.

It’s what the Nazis did with the Jews, it’s what misogynists do to women, it’s what bigots do to homosexuals, and it’s what those racist kids did when they hung the nooses. But it’s also what everyone in the “Free Jena 6 movement” are doing in Jena, and it’s why they can muster outrage over prosecutorial overzealousness in Louisiana, but not in North Carolina.

By demanding that the charges be dropped, they have declared the moral agency of the accused void. In that, they commit the same kind of shameful wrong that the young would-be-thugs who hung the nooses did; they have reduced the Jena 6 to mere objects.

Hanging the nooses gave voice to an ugly, nasty sentiment. A few kids sat under a tree. They were black, and for that — their crime of being black — these kiddy-klan crackers said they should be punished. They hung the nooses and tried intimidation. Demanding that charges against the Jena 6 be dropped completely is an implicit claim that the beating was justified. Because the student hung the noose? No. Because the student was white.

This kind of thinking is endemic. How else to explain the differences in the treatment of the Jena 6 and the Duke 3? (If you’ve been abroad for the past year, here’s a summary of the Duke case.)

In an interview with the American Journalism Review, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas talked about Newsweek’s coverage:

“It was about race. Nifong’s motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class… We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place… We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton each weighed in on the Duke rape case. Sharpton staged protests, but none in support of the the three students who were wrongly accused by an overzealous prosecutor. Jesse Jackson offered the accuser a college scholarship, whether or not her allegations were true (reported by the AP, one link here).

The faculty at Duke university who publicly vilified three innocent students, have not repudiated their attack. Sharpton hasn’t apologized, and who knows if Jackson followed through with a check.

Why? Because the narrative was right. Race matters. Facts don’t. People don’t.

In Jena, there’s a lot we’re not sure of. There are a lot of conflicting eyewitness accounts, and almost certainly there’s a lot of lying. And there’s a lot of racist thinking. On both sides.

The problem is that the essential issues in Jena, like the essential issues in Durham, really have nothing to do with race. The essentials are the lives of the young men and women in question. And those lives aren’t “narratives.” These are people, not plot points in a story.

Let’s get the facts right, and then lets root out the racism…. everywhere. That would be a narrative worth listening to.

Jambalaya


This is a Cajun Jambalya, with just the barest of a nod to the Creole tradition. I like Creole Jambalaya (with tomatoes and seafood), but Cajun is my favorite.

I made this today for my mother-in-law’s birthday party. It’s my most requested dish for family gatherings; it came out very well today.

1 1/2 pound high quality smoked pork sausage (a good quality kielbasa is acceptable), chopped
1 pound andouille sausage (if you really can’t find good andouille, you can use chorizo), sliced into 1/8 inch pieces
1 pound ham, chopped into small cubes (use tasso if you can find it)
1 pound chicken (boneless and skinless — thigh meat is best, but I often use 1/2 breast and 1/2 thigh)
1 pound shrimp, peeled and cleaned, with their tails left on.
1 large onion, diced
1/4 cup celery rib,
chopped small
1/4 cup bell pepper, chopped small
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon thyme
1/2 tablespoon basil
3 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 tablespoon white pepper
5 1/2 cups chicken stock
3 cups long-grain rice

— Salt and cayenne to taste. Depending on the heat of the andouille/chorizo, whether or not you use tasso, and the saltiness of your sausage, you’ll need to use more or less salt and cayenne.

Heat a heavy Dutch oven on high and add the ham. After the ham browns, add the sausage and brown in batches. As the sausage browns, remove with a slotted spoon and add another batch. You shouldn’t need to use any additional oil, as the sausage should render plenty as it browns. Be careful not to burn the sausage — if you do burn the meat, the jambalaya will end up bitter.

When the ham and sausage have finished browning, brown the chicken. Don’t overcook the chicken, or it will shred. Remove chicken.

Lower the heat and add the onion. Saute until onions while scraping up the brown bits from the meat. Saute until the onions are soft and brown and just beginning to carmelize. Add the celery and bell pepper and saute 4 or 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for just one minute (Garlic burns very easily, you just want to sweat it). Add 1 cup of the stock and scrape all the tasty little brown bits from the pot. Add the thyme, bay leaves, basil, pepper and meat and simmer. Continue scraping the brown bits up — that’s where the color and flavor live! Continue simmering until stock is gone. This is where I do most of my tasting. The flavors should be pretty gigantic at this point, remember, we still have to add the rice!

Add the rest of the stock and bring to a boil. Add the rice, reduce the heat to medium, and gently turn the rice. After a couple of minutes, add the parsley. Turn the rice once or twice to ensure that no rice sticks to the pot. When the pot begins to boil, reduce heat to low, toss in the shrimpies and simmer, covered, for at least 25 minutes. Do not remove the cover while the rice is steaming.

DO NOT remove the cover. AND DO NOT STIR.

Don’t do it! I’m telling you, don’t lift that lid and don’t stir that pot.

Get your hand out of there! Did you stir that rice? You did, didn’t you!

When the jambalaya is done, remove from heat, turn the rice and meat to mix everything up again and serve!

Predictions…

I’ve been half-heartedly following the presidential primary races, and I’m feeling pretty bored. Sure, there have been some scandals on both sides of the aisle, but really… I find it hard to care. Probably because I can’t find a single candidate that I really like.

My problem is that I’m not a single issue voter. I’m passionate about political issues. But for me, there is no single overriding issue that makes or breaks a candidate.

I’m a radical nut-case whack-job Objectivist. I don’t ever expect to find a candidate I like.

But I’ll still offer my predictions!

The Republican nomination is still up for grabs. Thompson is making headway, and Guiliani has lasted longer than I thought he would. McCain and Romney are still plugging away. But Romney is a Mormon and, well, eventually that will cost him in the national polls; you can’t hide your special underwear forever. McCain angered the GOP too many times, and the party won’t forget it. Guiliani is pro-choice, no he’s pro-life, wait, who’s he talking to? There’s that picture of him in drag, the ugly divorce, his daughter won’t vote for him… and he’s kind of pro-gun control too…. no chance for the nomination. He might be a Republican in New York, but in Mississippi, he’s just a damn liberal Yankee. That gives the nod to Thompson, the folksy Reagan. (Yes, Thompson is divorced, but his ex wife AND her new husband contributed money to Thompson’s campaign. It’s a brave new world in divorced families, something I’ll talk about too at some point.) Thompson will need some street cred to win the general election, so I think he’ll pick Gingrich as his running mate. Okay — I can hear the laughter. “Gingrich?” you say. “P’shaw!” (Who says p’shaw? What are you, some kind of weirdo?) But trust me. Powell won’t take the offer, Rice is political suicide, Romney will have spent the last of his political capital…. Just watch. Although Guiliani will be tempting as he brings the (false) hope of actually winning in New York state.

Hillary will get the Democratic nomination. (Obama just isn’t a serious challenger. You don’t win elections by saying you want to bomb our allies. Or have tea with whichever Castro is strangling Cuba. Or repeatedly hang your party out to dry as you try to score points with their radical wing.) Edwards is a non-starter. Sure, he has nice hair, but what else is there? He’s like the worst of the other two: Obama’s brain with Hillary’s charisma. And Hillary will pick… (drum roll, please)… Al Gore to be her running mate. Remember, you saw it here first! Their theme song will be Lennon’s “Yesterday.” But seriously, Gore is the perfect pick for her. He gives her charisma (I know, I know… can you believe that we’ve come to a point in american politics where Al “Robot-Man” Gore is what passes for charisma?), and he may be enough to keep Nader from affecting the election too much.

Clinton/Gore vs. Thompson/Gingrich (or Thompson/Guiliani)

Much will depend on Hillary. If she can overcome her negatives, she’ll have a shot. Thompson will rely on progress in Iraq to blunt Hillary’s momentum with moderates. Plus, you know, he’s all folksy.

The results will be too close to call on election night and Gore will find himself in the middle of another contested election.

Thought Gumbo

I’m stealing the title of this post from my friend, Eric, over at Thought Gumbo because I think it’s a great idea, “Thought Gumbo.” It’s a great visual, it’s got a great connotation: something wonderful and delicious — a little spicy, a little southern…. mmmm, mmmm good.

(I’m stealing his topic as well.)

Eric mentions that he read somewhere that a successful blog should be focused. Keep the topics limited.

As he says, “Yeah… I’m not going to do that.”

Well me either!

Check out his blog! It’s great thought gumbo! It’s got music, computer topics, semiotics, and games!

On Justice

Being a Saints fan, I’m generally opposed to winning, and take great comfort in schadenfreude. But the recent Bill Belicheck scandal barely made me yawn; I’m just not outraged. It doesn’t feel like CHEATING so much as it feels like “cheating.” But the issue and the subsequent penalty did raise interesting questions about the nature of justice. (I know, I’m such a dork.)

Personally, I think the punishment was appropriate. What bugs me is that it’s the same punishment that the league uses to penalize teams who violate the salary cap rules, which I think isa far worse form of cheating. (The 49’ers lost only a third and a fifth round pick for cheating the salary cap in their contracts with several players, including Steve Young.) It seems like the Niners got off easy. I’d rather they were punished more severely.

But would a heavier punishment have been more just? In this particular case, the NFL now has rules in place that absolutely prevent the kind of salary cap cheating practiced by San Francisco. A greater punishment would have only been punitive; it wouldn’t serve as a deterrent for future teams. So am I just being mean?

The question, taken out of the narrow and often absurd context of professional sports, is: “What should be the purpose of justice?” Should it be deterrence or punishment?

Given that no punishment can actually restore the world to the way it was before the wrong was committed, shouldn’t our purpose be instead to prevent future wrongs? After all, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world looking like pirates.” Or something like that….

But is that true? Is punishment an out-dated, ugly concept? I’m not sure it is. I think that justice necessarily involves some aspect of punishment (and that punishment necessarily involves some aspect of retribution). The punishment we mete out for a wrong, while it doesn’t restore the world to its original state, does serve a vital purpose. Punishment is a way of enforcing a kind of moral causality.

If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. If you do good things, good things will happen. That, I think, is essential to the idea of justice. We want to believe that our moral prescriptions and injunctions have force; we want to believe that being moral matters in the world. (I think this is probably true for the vast majority of people. We want to believe that morality matters in this world. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs about justice being served in the afterlife, or the next life, or whenever… we would like justice to be served on earth as well.)

So is justice primarily about punishment rather than deterrence? I think it is. Punishment is necessarily retributive. Deterrence (whatever may come) is a handy by-product, a positive externality, but nothing more. The aim of justice is not to deter future wrongs, but to apply moral causation to past ones.

Let me use an example. Let’s say I’m having dinner with friends, Wally and Brenda. I’m over at their place and we have a nice meal. I see that Wally and Brenda have a small wine collection, and I spot an expensive, but very excellent bottle of Pinot Noir. I grab it and tuck it into my jacket as I leave. Now, it turns out that Wally and Brenda were saving that bottle of wine for their anniversary next Saturday. Now they can’t drink it, they can’t really afford to replace it, and that particular wine can’t be found locally (they brought it back from a trip to the West Coast). But, after I’ve guzzled bottle, I learn that they planned it for a special occasion, and in my drunken state, I am overcome with guilt and confess to my crime.

What does justice demand? I think I should be at least required to replace the bottle with a bottle of comparative quality. To really satisfy justice, I should be required to make some sort of amends — do something above and beyond — maybe get them two bottles, or buy them dinner as well. (And probably grovel a great deal if I want to keep their friendship.) The point is that my crime cost Wally and Brenda more than a bottle of wine. Maybe not much more, but something more. Something beyond my ability to restore. Therefore, I should bear an additional, punitive, punishment beyond mere restitution. (Restitution, where possible, should always be a component of justice.) But my punishment should also be commensurate with my crime. Hacking off my hand, or selling my car, or submitting to a whipping would not be commensurate. (Neither would a mere $2 fine.)

But what of deterrence? Well, so long as Wally and Brenda leave the authorities out of it and we handle the dispute privately, I may be deterred from future pilfering by the prospect of losing their friendship. But let’s say that I don’t know or care about Wally or Brenda. Let’s say I’m caught by the cops for petty thievery. Justice would demand restitution (such as is possible) plus some form of punitive action. Hopefully, my punishment will serve as a deterrent, both for myself and others — but it may not.

The problem with focusing on deterrence is that deterrence depends on the degree of punishment. The harsher the punishment, the more effective the deterrent. But if the punishment is too harsh, say hacking off a hand, then the punishment is no longer commensurate, and more importantly, it is no longer just.

Justice demands that the “punishment fit the crime.” But deterrence depends only on the degree of punishment. If deterrence is our focus then we can expect that we’ll see a rise in unjustly harsh punishments. Think of zero-tolerance policies in schools and the kids who are suspended or expelled for bringing mouthwash to school. Those are rules where deterrence is the primary — and the punishments tend to be wildly unjust.

In a socio-cultural context, deterrence mistakenly places the focus of justice on the community, rather than on the individual where the concept justice naturally belongs. Just as it would be wrong to punish someone else for my crimes, it would be wrong to punish me for crimes that have not yet been committed, which is what we ask when we increase punishments to effect deterrence (we make the punishment harsher than it is to deter future crime, in effect punishing the criminal for other people’s potential crime).

To be sure, deterrence can still be a laudable aim. But we should be careful to craft punishments that are commensurate with the crime committed. If we focus to heavily on deterring future crime, we run the risk of sacrificing justice to security.

We can seek justice in the law, and we can seek deterrence in the law, but we can’t seek justice by seeking deterrence. Deterrence, such as it is, must be a product of justice and not its aim.

Update:

I just saw this news item.

A Student at the University of Florida is arrested and tasered at a John Kerry rally. It’s a YouTube universe, and you can see the video here.

In the video the officers claim they’re arresting him for “inciting a riot.” An odd charge given the placidity of the students in the hall. (note: Kerry continues speaking, droning on and on about the 2004 election while a young man is wrestling with police and being tasered in the same room.)

I’ll come out a say it: the officers’ reactions were incommensurate with the the boy’s wrongdoing. He went over his time, he was passionate, and a little looney. At no time did he seem dangerous or violent.

He was dragged, tasered, and arrested.

Further Note: After I wrote this, I came across additional material relating to the incident. The video I originally saw gave the impression that Kerry was much closer to the incident than he actually was. The possibility that he did not hear the young man crying out is far more plausible than I originally thought. There also seems to have been some indication that the young man was intentionally disruptive in his manner leading up to his question.

However, barring any collusion between himself and the campus security force, it appears from the video that he had been physically subdued by multiple officers — and handcuffed — before he was hit with the taser.

I understand and respect the dangers that law-enforcement face, but these were campus security. Their first duty is to protect the students of the university. It still appears that the punishment greatly exceeded the crime.

And the problem with that is that it effectively serves as a kind of deterrent to other students who raise their voice in a political forum. The student in question, regardless of his maturity, was clearly exercising his first amendment rights. There should have been a more graceful — and less combative — resolution.