State of the Union

Ferguson and the Troubled Spirit of St. Louis

I live in the city of St. Louis, about 10 miles south of the suburb of Ferguson as the crow flies. As I have watched national media cover the events in Ferguson over the past 10 days, I have wondered what impression people outside of St. Louis have formed about the city.

The first thing that outsiders should know is that Ferguson is not some post-urban hellscape. It’s a working class suburb with a roughly two-thirds majority black population, which is not unusual for communities in north St. Louis County. Nor is the city government and law enforcement exceptionally poorly managed or racist. That is not a compliment, however. Most St. Louisans think of our area as representative of the nation as a whole, and there is a great deal of truth to that. But, like the nation at large, St. Louis is still divided along racial lines. Ferguson exploded as a flash point specifically because of the shooting of Michael Brown, but many communities in the area are just tinderboxes waiting for a spark.

The St. Louis metropolitan area can largely be divided into five areas. First, there is the city of St. Louis itself, which seceded from St. Louis County in 1876, making it both a city and county under state law. A little more than 300,000 people call the city of St. Louis home, and it is almost equally divided between black and white. That’s true both in terms of numbers and geography, with Delmar Boulevard serving as a stark dividing line between the south (mostly white) and north (essentially all black) parts of the city.

A plurality of area residents live in St. Louis County, with just under a million people according to the last census. St. Louisans usually subdivide the county into the informal regions of south, west, and north, which some people actually mistake for counties themselves. To put it as briefly as possible, the south county region is working class and largely white; west county is middle and upper class and white; and north county is working class and largely black. The demographics of north county—where Ferguson is located—have changed the most in recent years, with many white residents moving into the outer counties—most notably by moving west across the Missouri River into St. Charles County.

Ferguson exemplifies the shifting demographics of north county. It was nearly three-quarters white in 1990 and is two-thirds black now. However, I do not want to give the impression that people are moving away from Ferguson because it is a particularly undesirable place to live. It is served by the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which is one of the better districts in north county. By contrast, the school districts of St. Louis, Jennings, Riverview Gardens, and Normandy School District—where Michael Brown graduated this spring—have all lost their state accreditation. And on the subject of school districts, I am obliged to mention what is often called “the St. Louis question”: Where did you go to high school? This single question can neatly profile your race, class, religious affiliation, and upbringing. The question speaks to a local insularity and desire to keep to one’s social milieu that is stronger in St. Louis than other metropolitan areas that I know.

That’s not necessarily problematic, but it is very easy to live in St. Louis and only interact with people of your background. That can quickly lead to labeling people who don’t fit that as other and unwelcome. I do not believe that St. Louisans harbor more racist attitudes than people in other cities, but they are more skeptical of those they consider to be outsiders.

That said, Ferguson law enforcement is hardly alone in struggling with race relations. Just a few miles away in 96.4 percent black Pine Lawn, the police department is well-known for hiring the castoffs of other area departments and is regarded as something of a public joke in the law enforcement community. In 2012, the NAACP lodged 20 complaints of civil rights violations with the city.

Since 2012, University City—home to Washington University, my alma mater—has imposed a 9:00 p.m. curfew on teenagers under 17 in the Delmar Loop, a popular strip of bars, restaurants, music venues, and retail shops. Of course, the mostly white college students are not affected by the curfew, but the black teenagers who live around the area are rounded up with regularity. Police enforce the policy with the “nuisance abatement vehicle,” which is an armored vehicle mounted with cameras that allow it to record all 360 degrees.

In the primarily black neighborhoods north of Delmar, violent crime remains a serious problem. Nevertheless, University City seems to invest more resources in chasing black teens away from more affluent areas in quasi-military vehicles than in protecting their lives. I’m sure that makes an impression. Read More…

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Occupy Wall Street: An Addendum

I was extremely pleased to see my take on the original Occupy Wall Street protest posted online yesterday, but I feel it may already be largely outdated. I wrote the piece in early October as an attempt to understand what the movement was all about. Although I never fully agreed with what most protesters were advocating, I was surprised to find myself generally sympathetic to their complaints.

Now, several of the occupations, Oakland in particular, are fighting for their survival against police assaults. This video of the police raid on Occupy Oakland brings to mind the assaults of Hosni Mubarak’s thugs on the protesters in Tahrir Square this winter.

It gets worse. This video shows a police officer firing a flashbang grenade at a group of people attempting to help a young protester who had just been wounded by a tear gas canister.

At Occupy Nashville, the police even seem willing to arrest members of the media and charge them with resisting arrest for covering the story. Regardless of how you feel about the original message of Occupy Wall Street, this should be very alarming. These people are American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and they shouldn’t be attacked like an invading army.

I recently reread “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the controversy surrounding the killing of journalist Ruben Salazar by a L.A. sheriff’s deputy (using a tear gas cannon, incidentally) in 1970, and one line struck me as particularly appropriate today: “When the cops declare open season on journalists, when they feel free to declare any scene of ‘unlawful protest’ a free fire zone, that will be a very ugly day–and not just for journalists.”

Why the Occupiers started protesting is immaterial for the moment; that they have a right to protest is paramount. If we abandon that, we abandon everything that makes this country worth preserving.

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Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

My parents own two flower shops in my hometown, and as I was growing up I worked there after school and every summer. One day when I was 17, I had to deliver an arrangement to a nursing home just west of town.

I viscerally disliked nursing home deliveries, but upon entering, I was relieved to find that this home was far nicer than the others—it was clean and had individual apartments for each guest. I found the specified room and handed the bouquet to a pleasant elderly woman, who was overjoyed to receive it.

When I returned to the shop, my dad informed me that the nursing home had just called. Not only had I delivered the arrangement to the wrong room, I was at the wrong place altogether–the correct nursing home sat just down the road. I returned shamefaced and apologized profusely to both the woman and the staff (not to mention my parents) for the mix-up. I had screwed up, and it was only right that I take the blame.

Many police departments in this country do not seem to follow that standard of common decency, however. Take this case from Pontiac, South Carolina: Read More…

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Mexico’s “Market Alternatives” to the Drug War

Earlier this week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the Americas Society and Council of the Americas that if the United States cannot limit drug consumption–which it can’t–Mexico may abandon the drug war. From a Reuters report in the New York Times:

“We are living in the same building. And our neighbour is the largest consumer of drugs in the world. And everybody wants to sell him drugs through our doors and our windows,” [Calderon] said.

“We must do everything to reduce demand for drugs,” Calderon added. “But if the consumption of drugs cannot be limited, then decision-makers must seek more solutions — including market alternatives — in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.”

He did not go into more detail, but the remarks appeared to be a softening of Calderon’s attitude towards state regulation of the market for drugs, which could curb the power of the cartels by taking away their profits.

Calderon is probably just threatening U.S. political leadership here because they live in constant fear of Mexico going wobbly on them, and he knows it. However, what Calderon said is far larger than him. He may not personally want to end the War on Drugs, but if the violence in Mexico continues unabated, the populace will demand some kind of radical change, and legalization of some kind seems to be the leading candidate right now.

I am interested to see how the federal government would react to such a scenario. Certainly, they wouldn’t allow Mexico to pursue its own policies without Yankee interference. I predict that they’d declare the whole country a criminal enterprise and seize it as part of the largest forfeiture case known to man. I’m sure there are some Texas oil billionaires who wouldn’t mind getting their hands on Mexico’s oil fields.

Of course, the U.S. would then be stuck waging Mexico’s drug war, and I doubt we’d meet with any more success than they have. But that’s never kept us from trying.

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It’s a Market Failure, Even When the Government Provides It

The Cornell University economist Robert Frank’s latest New York Times editorial is well worth reading, not least for his argument in favor of a progressive consumption tax. (I’m not a fan of any kind of tax, but I think a progressive consumption tax would be far preferable to our current progressive income tax.)

That said, this section is way off base:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, all bets on the efficacy of Smith’s invisible hand are off. …

The median size of a new single-family house in 2007 was over 2,300 square feet, more than 50 percent larger than its counterpart from 1970. That creates a problem for concerned parents, because good schools are usually found in affluent neighborhoods. To send your children to one, you must outbid others for a house in a good school district. Yet when all families increase their bidding for such houses, they succeed only in driving up their prices. No matter how much parents pay, only half of all children can attend schools in the top half.

Frank is of course correct that in any educational system only half of the students can attend above-average schools, but a Smithian market would not lead to this distortion in the price of housing. Government bundles education and housing, effectively requiring families to buy two of their biggest expenses together. By definition, the wealthy can better afford any good or service than other people, but bundling the goods restricts middle and lower class people’s ability to pay for either. Laying that government mandated failure at the feet of the market is utterly bizarre.

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Uncertainty and the Death Penalty

When I was still teaching, I caught a student plagiarizing a paper. It wasn’t just a matter of improper attribution, either–she had copied and pasted whole paragraphs from Wikipedia, apparently unaware that I knew how to use Google. The next day, her mother called the school and discussed the problem with me. “My children don’t cheat,” she said. This was an article of faith, not a subject for debate. Other kids certainly cheated, but not her children, so regardless of the contrary evidence I could produce, she would not believe it.

Tonight, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, and many people, myself included, believe there is reasonable doubt about Davis’ guilt. Davis was convicted purely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, which even the courts are starting to admit is unreliable. (Speaking as someone who has been the victim of violent crime, I know firsthand that the memory goes straight to hell in a fight or flight situation.) Furthermore, several of those witnesses have recanted.

Nevertheless, Davis was convicted, and his appeals went through the proper channels, so according to those, such as Rick Perry, who sleep soundly in the confidence that the government has never executed an innocent man, he must be guilty. You see, our government doesn’t kill innocent people. Other countries may do that sort of thing, but our justice system is above all that, so there’s no need to examine the massive piles of evidence that show it regularly makes mistakes.

Because if we have to question whether our government kills innocent people, we have to question its moral basis. Or lack thereof.

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Government Cannot Repeal Scarcity

I missed the Republican debate again last night (this time I was bowling), and the first bit of it that I saw posted to Facebook by a liberal friend of mine was this clip of Ron Paul. Wolf Blitzer asked Paul what should happen to a hypothetical, healthy 30-year-old male, who has the means to buy health insurance but chooses not to, if he is injured in an accident and goes into a coma. Paul’s answer is essentially that in a free society, charitable organizations would take care of such people, which is a fine answer as far as it goes, but I’d like to go further by pointing out the injustice of expecting the government to provide care to people who choose not to provide it for themselves. Read More…

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On Obama’s Depressingly Conventional Approach to the Drug War

Jacob Sullum’s invaluable feature story in the latest issue of Reason details the many ways that President Obama has failed to live up to the high hopes drug law reformers pinned on him back in 2008, when hope was still fashionable. I found this part particularly stomach-turning:

More generally, Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that many people in federal prisons are serving unconscionably long sentences. Yet he has not used his unilateral, absolute, and constitutionally unambiguous clemency power to shorten a single sentence, even though he has not otherwise been reticent about pushing his executive authority to the limit (and beyond). Obama went almost two years, longer than every president except George Washington and George W. Bush, before approving any clemency petitions. So far all 17 of his clemency actions have been pardons for long-ago crimes, most which did not even result in prison sentences, as opposed to commutations, which authorize the early release of current prisoners. While seven of the pardons involved drug offenders, the most severe sentence among them was five years for conspiracy to import marijuana, which 63-year-old Randy Eugene Dyer of Burien, Washington, completed more than 30 years ago. As of mid-2011, Obama had received about 4,000 petitions for commutations,  in addition to 900 that were pending when he took office. He had not approved any.

Read More…

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Rick Perry and the Assumption of Guilt

I share Dan’s revulsion at crowd’s ghoulish reaction to Rick Perry’s record of executions at Wednesday’s debate, but what I find most interesting is the way Perry elided Williams’ question:

WILLIAMS: Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.

Perry seems to believe that these due process protections exist for the sake of the guilty, not the innocent. He assumes away the very core of Williams’ question. The point is that we don’t know for certain that these people committed heinous crimes, and Perry has proved absolutely incurious about the possibility that Texas might have convicted innocent people. He actively fought an inquiry that could have revealed Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in 2004, was in fact innocent, and he continues to block potentially exculpatory DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner.

Perry effectively assumes guilt in death penalty cases. He has to. If he allowed himself to believe that these people might be innocent, he would have to entertain the possibility that he is a murderer himself. So, yes, Rick Perry sleeps just fine at night–because he refuses to believe that he could be wrong.

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The Government Should Stop Giving Rich People Money

Warren Buffet caused a stir last week when he argued that he and other wealthy individuals should pay a higher tax rate. Now, as a libertarian, I prefer to balance the budget exclusively through spending cuts. However, if that’s not politically feasible, I support higher taxes today over deficit spending and the interest it entails.

But before we go raising taxes on every high-income individual, why don’t we just stop giving tax dollars away the most politically connected among them? Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute estimates that the federal government spent $92 billion in corporate welfare (i.e. subsidies to business) in 2006, a figure that has likely exploded upward with the rest of the budget. By comparison, eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy would raise $67.8 billion annually over the next decade on average–a quarter less than we spend on corporate welfare.

Until our government cuts corporate welfare queens such as Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto off from the federal teat, I have a feeling that any revenue raised from increasing the marginal income tax rate will just come out of the pockets of one group of rich men and end up in the pockets of other, even richer men, whose only skill is knowing how to play the political system.

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