Monday, December 28, 2015

Study gun violence in the US? Don't count on it

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 27 December 2015

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes ... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions — especially selfish ones. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Why do we bother arguing with numbers? Numbers and statistics are ubiquitous in our society. Someone should do a content analysis of our media and speech and see how much content is oriented around numbers whether it be rankings, opinion polls, scores, profits, costs, guns and crime. Yet, to what degree does any of it make a difference? What numbers change anyone’s mind?

Take the “gun debate.” Recently crime statistics were the topic of the nanosecond. In short, murders and violent crime are way way down. Of course the perception of violence and violent crime is way way up. Research into the perception of crime suggests that one’s perception of crime is not based on personal experience as much as media viewing habits. In other words, those who watch a lot of crime shows and news (both of which are ubiquitous) overestimate by a significant amount the actual level of crime and violence. The actual numbers don’t matter.

Take one disagreement between pro-gunners and anti-gunners: What it means to have lots and lots of guns. The pro-gun side claims more guns reduce crime, especially the murderous kind. The anti-gun side claims, no, more guns leads to more violence. This is what scholars call an empirical question, we can answer this. So, let’s look at the states with the most guns and compare it to the states with the most murders. (This is not perfect because not all gun violence ends up with a corpse, but this is how research proceeds.) We are going to “correlate” state murder rates with gun registrations, a measure of ostensibly legal guns. Washington, D.C., Arkansas and Louisiana are in the top 10 in terms of both number of guns and murder rate. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Georgia are among the top 10 murder rates but rank in the next 10 in number of registered handguns. South Carolina and Tennessee are in the top 10 of murderous states but fall in the middle of registered guns. None of the 10 states with the lowest murder rates are among the states with the 10 highest gun registrations. Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and New Hampshire are among the bottom 10 murder rate states but fall in the range of 11-30 in terms of gun registrations. There is a correlation here but it’s not nearly as strong as either side wants to believe.

Looking just at murders with guns, by far the most common means, it’s clear that not all people are equal. Not to dismiss the tragedies, but the chances of being murdered by a gun in the U.S. is much greater for males than for females. The Brookings Institute analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and found for women, the gun murder rate is less than five per 100,000 while for men, it is at least three times higher. In short, gun violence is a “man thing,” though not all men are murdered equally.

The greatest gun danger to white men is suicide, not being murdered. Almost 80 percent of gun deaths among whites are suicides, while it’s black men who have reason to fear others with guns, over 80 percent of gun deaths among blacks are murders.

As a scholar, arguments over numbers call for more research which means more numbers. There are all kinds of interesting correlations (correlations do not equal causation) regarding guns and violence, risk factors, and cultural factors. All of which are worthy of study and could yield some valuable insights regarding policy. 

 Yet, as a nation, as reflected in our national policies, we choose to NOT study it. A 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, funded by the CDC, that concluded rather than protection, guns in the home pose an increased risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. This article received a lot of attention and the NRA began a campaign to stop federal funding of such research and succeeded. In 1996 an amendment to the omnibus budget bill was passed that prohibited any CDC money to be spent on research that advocated or promoted gun control. That ban remains in effect and was later expanded to include the National Institutes of Health.
A continuing mistake.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

As 'privatization' expands, the public sphere erodes

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 13 December 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-party series of essays about free speech on college campuses.

Two other forces have brought us to the point where students feel threatened on ISU’s and other campuses by “street preachers” and “unsafe” in the face of passionate disagreements and potential objectionable Halloween costumes. And they are related. The first is the incredible narrowing of the “public” as well as the tarnishing and demeaning of all things public.

“Private” is good, while “public” is bad. What public institution is held up with pride in the United States anymore? Certainly not democratic government or our courts. Even the military is forced to increasingly privatize. Public education once used to be held up, but not anymore with those who are entrusted with our public institutions working effectively to undermine them. Public lands are constantly under fire to be privatized. National, state and municipal Parks’ budgets are cut and cut until they are no longer truly public because to stay in operation they have to charge user fees and then “privatized.”

Who doesn’t love Disney World? But you don’t have freedom of speech there. Try wearing a provocative piece of legible clothing without a Disney trademark. Go to a town square, and you can start talking loud about the mayor if you want, except there are no people anymore in the town square, they are at the mall. So, go to the mall and start on about the mayor being a crook; you will be escorted out. Public might as well be “pubic” in today’s America. Facebook isn’t public, not only can people “block’ you but Facebook can violate your constitutional rights by shutting you out, except it’s not your constitutional right, you have to play by Facebook’s rules and that is their right as (private) property owners. Even the Livefyre commenting feature on the Tribune-Star’s website where this essay appears has “rules” about speech.

As we de-public our democracy, we create fewer and fewer spaces where those cherished rights can be exercised. You don’t have rights to free speech in the workplace (unless you work for the government, oh right, not even there, ask the Terre Haute police officer about his political statements contrary to the current administration’s favor). You don’t have rights to free speech in a private home at the dinner table. As a culture we might emphasize it, but it mostly only works when people are relatively equal. Your boss or your mom aren’t going to respect your mouthiness as free speech, its back-talking or insubordination and you get grounded or fired for it.

Most of those corporate sponsored SEC football schools, like Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, are all government schools established as Land Grant Universities by the Federal Government following the Civil War to specifically further the industrialization of the country, but today, they are more like private schools because the states are getting out of the public anything business (even prisons as they are rapidly being privatized). And with that privatization comes the inevitable treating students as “customers.” And customers are treated well are they not?

I mean, if an employee is treated shabbily by a boss, we hardly care. Just look at the waning public support for unions. But if a customer is treated poorly by a business, it’s known and in some cases, some treatment is considered illegal, such as refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, or refusing to serve a customer with the wrong religion or skin color. Public institutions treat people shabbily, like the IRS, while our universities recruit students as though they are heading off to a private resort and given the debt that so many students carry even in public (government) colleges. No wonder they feel the right to exclude offensive individuals from their “private” space, especially the obnoxious and biased press.

No, it’s not the “pussification” of America nor is it the” progressivism” of higher ed or the continued insensitivity of the dwindling white power structure of academia, it’s the systematic devaluation of and shrinkage of the “public” in our society. Free speech only ever existed in the public sphere which once was ubiquitous, especially with such incredible institutions as education and a press that served the public. But today, public is an insult and everyone unquestioningly assumes the superiority of “private.”

The result is a loss of social space to exercise free speech or to have a free press. Besides, the “press” is so vilified today. For some, it’s the press that is the “enemy.” Mizzou students formed a ring around protesters to protect them from the intrusive eye of the press. Later some of them will be the legislators who pass laws that make it a crime for journalists to take pictures of factory farms to show the public the conditions of the animals that become bacon and hamburgers. As our “public” rights erode, “private” rights expand.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Free Speech is Taking a Beating on Campus

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of two columns from Thomas L. Steiger on the subject of free speech on college campuses. 

The events at the University of Missouri and Yale last month have pushed questions of free speech and freedom of the press into the limelight. I’ve been thinking about free speech and its meaning in our society today since ISU’s “microdrama” surrounding free speech when the Chief of ISU Public Safety sent an email to all students pointing out that the evangelizing by Terre Haute’s own fiery modern circuit riders, Brother Jed, Sister Cindy, and I’m sure in spirit, “Mad Max”, was protected speech under the US Constitution.

I don’t know what precipitated it, but I’m guessing that some ISU students who didn’t like the street preacher’s insults of “fornicator,” “whore,” “whore monger,” and “sinner” either complained or perhaps got physical, because the preachers were then relocated with a barricade around them with a sign that read “THIS IS PROTECTED SPEECH YOU HAVE THE OPTION TO LISTEN OR IGNORE WALK AWAY OR STAY YOU MAY ALSO PARTICIPATE THREATENING OR INTIMIDATING CONDUCT WILL NOT BE ALLOWED.”

I was surprised by this and began watching the students interact with the street preachers. The angry students worry me. I saw no one trying to use humor to argue back. I know our students are religious and many know their bibles and have paid attention to the lessons of their home church, but few tried to argue with the preachers at that level, instead people were googling things to hurl back to the preachers.

Brother Jed, Sister Cindy and (now departed) Mad Max first insulted me when I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Florida. Holding court on the Plaza of the Americas with often 100s of students mocking back at them was great entertainment in a pre- Internet time. I recall Jed calling me a whore monger. I actually was familiar with the term, my preference for 1940s serial detective novels taught me a lot. As an awkward 17-year-old on a campus of 60 percent males, I wished I was a whore monger.

Jed, if you have never seen him, has quite an act. It’s dramatic and very physical. We learned to imitate it and often would line up behind Jed and go through his motions with him. Sometimes he would get agitated with us. We never threatened him. We mocked him; laughed at him and each other. I don’t recall any anger. I saw intense anger, perhaps hatred, as ISU students yelled “you preach hate” at the street preachers.

Because of the threatened boycott of one of the sacred rites of fall advertising, SEC football, by 30 African American gladiators (football players) the attention of the nation was momentarily fixed. The hunger striker never seemed to make the news. But, by god, threaten Saturday football in the SEC and stuff happens. A university president and chancellor are toppled. But it was the student reporter getting poor treatment and a liberal journalism prof stopping the reporter from doing his job that really hijacked the show. Follow that up with the controversy at Yale over Halloween costumes and you now have this essay.

Conservative reactions to the Yale incident, where the Yale administration sent out an email to the students to be culturally sensitive regarding their Halloween costumes and a faculty member who thought the Administration’s official email was a bit heavy handed and encouraged the students to express themselves and for others to just look away or ignore a costume they didn’t like, led to an eruption on campus where the faculty were harangued, apologies demanded, threats made, etc. Look it up, it’s a fascinating peek into the lives of some of our most privileged students.

Conservatives have jumped on this with their usual memes around such topics with the “pussification” of America, which is nothing more than a not-so-subtle complaint about women’s greater equality. One thing has changed on American college campuses, there are more women than men today and while there are still some areas that are still heavily male, they are dwindling.

Another conservative meme, one artfully crafted by that noted sociologist George Will (anyone who knows him will smile at me calling him a sociologist) blamed “higher ed progressivism” for the debacle at Yale. Really? So a year or two at Yale causes this? Never mind the 12-14 years of private school education among a select “people like us” atmosphere. Or that Yale students aren’t like “government” school university students who attend “public” (said with derision) universities where the grounds are public property and free speech must be respected. It’s not just a school policy as it is at Yale, but American Constitutional Law that protects it at a government school like ISU.

Liberals are having a hard time responding to these issues. They can’t seem to deal with the contradictions. It’s OK, use the contradictions to move the discussion along. Use data, evidence, and reason. Oh, and throw in “nuance.” That’s always a winner.

Next week: As public rights erode, private rights expand.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tom Steiger:

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 30 August 2015

What would the ratings be for these early Republican presidential debates without Donald Trump? What are the indirect effects as well? How much more are people reading early presidential primary coverage just because of him? Arguably, no doubt it will be by Trump himself, that he is a job creator just given the coverage he receives.

The political professional class explains his rise to frontrunner among a jammed field because he is “just” tapping the frustrations and anger among a swath of the electorate. That swath appears to be growing then, as his poll numbers continue to rise despite gaffe after gaffe and his insistence on not playing by the “rules.” He’s such a “bad boy” demagogue.

A more sociological explanation would be to think about “authority.” Presidential aspirants campaign on three threads. The first is their qualifications to be president, which is not extensive, only to be a natural-born citizen and at least 35 years old. Taxi drivers have more formal qualifications than that. A traditional qualification for presidential authority is that the candidate be male, white and “successful” (meaning either rich and/or having some power in their life up to the point of running for president). No one questions if we are ready for a successful white male to be president.

Other informal qualifications matter, too. Can a woman be president, is America ready for an African American president, is s/he too old, is s/he too young. Of course, President Obama did not fit one of those traditional qualifications, but this has not led to a groundswell of otherwise racially diverse candidates. Tradition is a powerful force in politics, like going to Iowa.

The last thread is the plan to fix whatever is wrong with America. Funny how candidates never say, “America is great, don’t fix what is not broken, I promise to not change a thing.” One unstated qualification to be president apparently is to think America is not great and needs substantial, fundamental, radical change, that is unless you are the incumbent, then you “stay the course.”

Sometimes It’s not enough that our presidential candidates be people of accomplishment, whether it be deal maker, reality TV star, noted neurosurgeon, governor, senator, former CEO of a tech company, or be a white male natural-born citizen, the candidate that inspires devotion to them and their plan is going to be the candidate to beat. And that candidate must answer the big questions her/his following has. The mundane questions are answered in policy briefings, such as fixing all the programs that are messed up, even the ones that are not. What I am referring to here are the really big questions like “how to make American great again”, or “how to have a political revolution,” “how to achieve the higher ground”, “how to make the new century an American one” (that’s already 15 years old), “how to reignite the promise of America,” “how to create a ‘right to rise,’” among many others.

These three threads match up well to what sociologists see as three societal sources of authority: bureaucratic authority flows from technical qualifications; traditional authority flows from long-standing practices and; charismatic authority flows from devotion to the individual’s exceptional qualities, “heroism” or exemplary character, and the answers the individual provides to important questions. It is charismatic authority that is driving Donald Trump to frontrunner status. I am not a Trump supporter, but I can see that he inspires personal devotion through his acts of “heroism” (making disparaging remarks about women, disrespecting the press [who are only doing their jobs], being crass and crude), and his exemplary character focused on his business exploits and personal flair (reality star). Plus he offers simple fixes (“it’s simple, George, it’s simple”) to the big (political) questions of the day: how to make American great again. Send back the immigrants and make Mexico build a wall to keep its people in, take our jobs back from the Chinese, stop being PC, get tough with the Saudis and force them to pump more oil, seize the oil fields in Iraq, stop taxing rich people (corporations), but tax those corporations that export jobs overseas.

As I finish this essay, Trump’s poll numbers have increased to 32 percent of Republican voters. Trump dominates the news with more vitriol toward Megyn Kelly and throws Univision’s Jorge Ramos out of a press conference. Trump’s growing legion of devoted followers may see these actions as “heroism” and exceptional character, not boorish, racist or misogynist.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Three rulings and the end of the world as we know it

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5 July 2015

Does the Supreme Court have a publicist?

The three decisions delivered last week, one on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), one on the Fair Housing Act and then on marriage equality couldn’t have generated more buzz. Each one of these is worth its own essay but in the fast paced world of “news” three weeks from now no one will be focused on these so I’ll write a bit about each one here. Typically I prefer to write about people’s reactions to events. I’m going to deviate a bit and write my own impressions of these cases.

The 6-3 ruling on the ACA really shouldn’t have been a surprise. “Intent” is a major factor in conservative jurisprudence and the Supreme Court has five conservative justices (six really but no one likes to suggest Breyer is a conservative). As Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, the intent of Congress was to improve insurance coverage, not wreck the markets, so the “inartful” language in that section of the law that King v. Burwell was based on makes no sense in the wider context of the law. Exactly.

Justice Scalia, however, saw it different and said what could be clearer than the clear language of the text. Yet, in Washington, D.C., et al v. Heller, Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, found an individual right to bear arms in the second amendment which reads “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The plain and simple reading of this notes the well regulated militia as the reason for the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Yet, Scalia’s opinion writes extensively about what the meanings of plain and simple terms meant “then” including a long discussion about rights not enumerated in the Constitution but that were already understood and then cited a raft of documents including English Common Law. Reading Scalia’s decision in Heller is one of the best examples of why “fundamentalism” is so wrong on its face. Yet, Justice Scalia seems less able to infer the intent of Congress from six years ago than he is the intent of the founders more than 200 years ago.

By upholding the use of statistical evidence of disparate impact in housing cases without the need to show discriminatory intent the Supreme Court allows us to hold our policies and our actions accountable even when our intentions are good. This is big because the Supreme Court in the early 1980s disallowed the same kind of analysis in employment discrimination cases.

Still, today, evidence of intent is necessary to prevail there. Perhaps time is ripe for a change in employment law, too. In any case, for those who point to “institutional discrimination” this is a big win because intent is not necessary when the practices or rules lead to discriminatory outcomes. Sometimes intent to do “good” is insufficient. We must look at outcomes of our practices. We are more residentially segregated today than we were in the 1950s. This causes all kinds of problems from inequality in schooling, to gerrymandered legislative districts, to an institutional barrier to wealth accumulation for minority peoples. Intent is subjective to determine, whereas outcomes are not.

The 5-4 ruling on marriage equality, no doubt, created the most furious responses. Suddenly the rainbow flag meme was everywhere.

The backlash began as well with such typically American extreme reactions as “the end of civilization was upon us.” This is similar to the response to Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage. The laws were defended eerily similar to how same-sex marriage has been justified: Religious grounds, a dubious claim to damaged children and a historical and factually inaccurate claims of the “natural order” and universal forms of marriage.

Does anyone really think that civilization has fallen apart since 1967? Yes, white supremacists do. Revisit Obergefell v. Hodges in 50 years and there will no doubt be other social issues that are front and center that threaten civilization as we know it having survived marriage equality; that is if climate change hasn’t ended civilization as we know it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Deciding how much equality America can afford

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 14 June 2015

How much are we willing to pay for equal opportunity? Cultural values are ideas that are broadly held that people use to decide what is good, right, proper and just. As individuals, we typically do this as part of “common sense.” In public policy, we often find we need to balance competing or even conflicting values.
Individuals are faced with resolving competing values. For instance, family is a common value, as is hard work and material success. Yet, devotion to family can be challenged by demands of the workplace, and workplace success can be challenged by family obligations. Individuals typically find a balance that works for them, and different individuals will balance those competing values differently. Sometimes a promotion is turned down for family reasons. Public policy, however, does not generally permit each of us to have our own policy.

There is much discussion over the last few years about rising economic inequality in the United States. There is no question that economic inequality, as conventionally measured, is increasing; the effect of its rise is beginning to add up and is undermining structures that create equal opportunity, such as education, enrichment programs, access to tutoring, even “middle class values.” Without making measurement the subject of this essay, trust me when I say, if we examine wealth, the picture is even worse. Income, even today, is distributed far more equally than wealth.

Policies impact economic inequality. Progressive income taxes reduce it. The tax changes ushered in by President Reagan in the early 1980s, that reduced income tax progressivity, led scholars at the time to predict a rise in income inequality. The busting of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (a union) by President Reagan signaled a tilt in public policy against unions. Changes since then, at both the federal and most states levels, such as reducing income taxes, property tax caps, and so-called right-to-work laws all contribute to increasing income inequality.

Do Americans no longer value equal opportunity? I see no evidence of that. Many would argue that the rich and corporations have bought our politicians. While the rich have always had a disproportionate ability to influence politics, I think what has happened is a slow and until recently not-so-noticed tilt of the balance in favor of another core American value: Wealth creation or free enterprise.

Just as individuals can value equally their family and their work, in reality people try to balance them but it’s difficult. At different times individuals may tip the scales in work’s favor and family is neglected. At other times family demands may result in missed opportunities at work. For nearly 40 years America’s public policy has favored the value of wealth creation and free enterprise over equal opportunity. Just as some individuals over time spend increasing time at work and less with family, they only realize it when they don’t know their kids and have missed those milestone moments because of work.

The undermining of equal opportunity in the U.S. is finally so glaring that researchers can predict individual’s economic place based on the zip code they grew up in. When one’s origin is that predictive then the reality of equal opportunity is nothing more than a myth.

Progressive income taxes, higher taxes on capital gains, inheritance taxes, robust unions, social safety nets, especially Social Security, and public education among others all help create the reality of equal opportunity. Those things also reduce the creation and accumulation of private wealth; in short, they reduce the efficiency of the economy. Taxes transfer potential private wealth into the public sphere where it can be used to maintain the reality of equal opportunity.

There is no question that reducing taxes, especially on the rich, weakening unions, hammering away at all things public, especially education which is often the largest portion of state budgets, will increase the efficiency of the economy and the creation of private wealth but at a social cost of greater inequality. Virtually all Americans would agree that equal opportunity is valued and so is free enterprise and wealth creation. The challenge is in balancing the two.

Perhaps the 2016 election will provide a platform for just such a debate. Savvy listeners will hear it but don’t expect the candidates to admit that their favored policy positions have any downside whatsoever, any costs to either economic efficiency or to equal opportunity. Every voter will, in essence, be deciding how much equality America can afford.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Role of Violence in Addressing Injustice

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Mother's Day 2015

Americans do not suffer injustice well.  The latest example is the protests and violence in Baltimore in response to the match thrown into the tinder box named Freddie Gray.  Those who focus on the rioters and property damage instead of the underlying issues fail to see the role of violence throughout American history in addressing injustice.

 There is a difference between explaining and understanding violence and making excuses for it.  Those individuals who engage in protest violence, whether property damage or bodily injury, will be prosecuted and considerable public resources spent on bringing them to criminal justice.  Those who cause the spark, such as police who kill people for things they should not be killed for, are not very likely to be so pursued.  Nevertheless, the history of using violence to bring attention to injustice has a long and fruitful history in the United States. Already the violence in Baltimore is sprouting fruit because the Baltimore officer(s) are charged with homicide.  Time will tell whether the officer(s) are ever actually tried and convicted.  If not it might be another spark.

The Boston Tea Party is an early American example of violence toward property to protest injustice.  Bostonians, some disguised as native Americans, illegally boarded ships sitting in Boston Harbor and threw the shipments of tea overboard, ruining it.  The tea was the property of the East India Company, perhaps one of the first notorious multi-national corporations.  The British government retaliated, no doubt using many of the same kinds of statements we hear today by those deploring the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore while diminishing the underlying issues.  This is an iconic story in American history, perhaps a spark for the American Revolution, inspired by the injustice of “no taxation without representation.” 

 Slavery, arguably the most sinister institutionalized injustice in US history, was violently protested by members of the abolitionist movement.  John Brown argued for armed insurrection to overthrow the institution of slavery.  Some go as far as to suggest that Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry was a spark that ignited the Civil War, which remains the most deadly conflict in American history and whose underlying tensions around race continue today.  John Brown was captured at Harper’s Ferry, tried, convicted and executed. His violent actions as an individual were punished but his cause, turned out to be, on the right side of history. 

 A bomb thrown at police in Chicago, in Haymarket Square, during a labor protest against police killing protesters the day before (a nationwide labor protest in favor of the eight hour day (“eight hour a day with no cut in pay”)) is viewed as a watershed moment in international labor relations.  The resulting trial of the bomb throwers resulted in convictions and death for two of the protesters.  The eight hour day is a reality today, thanks in part to those willing to resort to violence for the cause.

The Weather Underground, protesting the injustice of the Vietnam war and what they viewed as the ineffectiveness of the peaceful protests against it, escalated to a bombing campaign of federal buildings, including the Pentagon, robberies, and a call for armed revolution.  The Weather Underground morphed its call to action to include anti-racism and other social justice movements as well.  The government response to the Weather Underground was largely deemed illegal and whatever efforts to bring the individuals to criminal justice were largely undermined by the lawlessness by which the authorities pursued them. 

 The US has the worst anti-abortion violence of any country.  There is no question that it has been effective in reducing access to abortion and creating an increasingly hostile environment for its practice. Anti-abortion violence has included murder, attempted murder, bombings, harassment, and kidnapping.  Harassment and threats are almost a daily occurrence with mixed responses from government authorities.  Here, too, individuals have been prosecuted and held responsible in the criminal justice system for their violence but the overall movement has strong supporters in government. 

 The point is that violence as a political response when conventional politics fails has a long and effective history in the United States.  Before condemning the violence in Baltimore do we consider the role of the Boston Tea Party property violence, the insurrectionist abolitionists, the bomb throwing anarchists, radical left Vietnam anti-war bombers, and anti-abortion assassins in the struggle against injustice as well?  Or do we white wash history in order to change the subject from one of police brutality and injustice to one of petty criminals and threats to law and order? 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Indiana's place in America matters, so act like it

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5 April 2015

Congratulations, Indiana! You matter. The firestorm that you find yourself in surrounding the RFRA began locally, quickly spread nationally and is now international. While some think what others think shouldn’t matter and are annoyed at the negative attention, the fact is Indiana matters now to a lot of people beyond your borders. This has not always been true.

I moved to Indiana almost 30 years ago and as an outsider, it was clear there was tension between those who didn’t care what outsiders thought (especially those in Washington, New York, California and especially Illinois) and those who did. When I first came here, those who didn’t care were in charge. But Gov. Bayh was different: He cared what outsiders thought and focused on education and economic development. Gov. Daniels continued bringing Indiana more in line with the world beyond the borders. Recall, his first action was to move Indiana onto daylight saving time.

Indianapolis has transformed in these almost 30 years. Despite Indianapolis hosting an NBA and NFL team, the city seemed backwards and wasn’t in the same league as major cities like Chicago, New York and Atlanta. This is no longer the case. It’s hosting another Final Four this weekend; it will, no doubt, host another Super Bowl before the end of the decade. It has become a major destination city and it is not because of its bustling waterfront or mile high mountains or unpolluted air. It’s the welcoming attitude, world class facilities, operations and people.

Hosting events like Super Bowls and Final Fours, major conventions, and hosting major businesses like Angie’s List (a new tech service industry), Lilly, NASCAR and the NCAA come with the price tag of success, that is, Indiana matters because people care about stuff that happens here. And while the ardent supporters of RFRA might try to hide what RFRA is about, to outsiders, it is clear what RFRA is about and it doesn’t fit with a city/state that only has one thing going for it: Being a world-class host. RFRA clashes with the image and expectations (think of Indy as a brand) of a world-class host.

Over the past few years, I’ve talked with travelers about Indianapolis. I’ve never heard a negative thing. I hear stories of the fantastic waiter, Martin, at a well-known steakhouse; the pioneering owner of a restaurant that is quietly doing a hard business in a sustainable fashion; and near world-class entertainment and a growing hub of culture and creativity. My best and longest friend, a Chicagoan, recently visited me in Indianapolis. He adhered to the former image of Indy and after a weekend, left most impressed. Far from a hinterland, whether you like it or not Indiana, you matter to a lot of people who do not call Indiana home.

Let’s not kid ourselves. If a caterer doesn’t want to cater a gay wedding, or a pizza joint doesn’t want to provide pizza for a gay event, all they need to say is “Sorry, we’re booked that day.” This is what myriad other bigots do every day in the housing, restaurant, transportation and other service industries. It’s not right, but it happens and it’s typically unknown to the would-be customer. But some extreme Christians, who think their business is also a ministry, want to tell the gay customer why they won’t serve them. This is the reason why this bill was passed into law. This is the freedom that its supporters want. After all, as your legislative leaders said, there is no law in Indiana against discriminating against gays and lesbians. RFRA would just “cover” those who want to pretend they are acting morally.

Anyone who manages a brand knows how hard it is to establish a brand and how easily it can be hurt. Make no mistake, Indiana; you’ve hurt your brand. When the hometown conservative newspaper in a bold front page editorial says “Fix This Now,” you’ve screwed up. And damage control won’t work with a brand; you have to act in a way that reflects the brand. Dodging and weaving, stuttering and stammering, does not befit this brand. Take a cue from the Visit Indy website and get back to the brand: Indiana is Welcome to All.

PS. Stop blaming the media for your woes. It is news when big companies express themselves like this.

PPS. Indiana Democrats, you need a better candidate. Mayor Ballard will take care of Governor Pence. Who do you have to run against Ballard?

Friday, March 20, 2015

In race, experience more valuable than perception

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, March 15th, 2015

Last week’s video of University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers regaling whomever with a racist chant captures our attention. Why? Is it really news that racism exists in the U.S.? Is this particular instance newsworthy because it is young people and for how many generations have we older folks forgiven ourselves by thinking the next generation will be better and lo and behold we find they are not? Is it because so many white folks seem to think racism is not much of a problem and then to have it so glaringly staining sons of the middle class?

Putting aside the predictable outrage, and those who would blame black culture for the brothers’ racist chant, those who are serious about the state of relations between black and whites should point to the black and white differences in perceptions about things in this country. “Black” and “white” may serve as common labels for racial identity but it also describes how blacks and whites view many issues that confront us.

There are sharp differences in how blacks and whites perceive things in the U.S. Not surprisingly, there is a sharp difference in how the criminal justice system is viewed. In data from August 2013, The Pew Research Center asked blacks and whites about “how blacks are treated in your community.” The differences (point differences in parentheses) in those reporting “less fairly than whites” is wide:  By the police (32); in the courts (40); on the job or at work (38); in stores or restaurants (28); in local public schools (36); in getting health care (33); when voting in elections (36). Pew reporting on public opinion on the death penalty in 2011 showed a 35-point difference in support for the death penalty (whites over 70 percent and blacks half that). All this before the police shootings of unarmed black males in Ferguson, Cleveland, in a Wal-Mart or choked to death for selling cigarettes.

This is not new, either. The American Enterprise Institute, citing Gallup surveys, points out that in 1993, 68 percent of blacks said that the American justice system was biased against black people and after 20 years that percentage has not changed. A third of whites in 1993 thought the system was biased and 20 years later that percentage has dropped to a quarter.

What lies beneath these perceptual differences? Reality. Asking about experiences gets us closer to reality. In a study of Georgia youth (18-29 years old) those kinds of questions were asked in relation to gun violence and gun control (; 46.2 percent of whites compared to 24.4 percent of blacks reported either they or someone they knew had carried a gun in the last month (the previous month did not cover hunting season). While whites were more likely to be around guns, it is blacks who experience gun violence, 22.5 percent of blacks compared to 8.3 percent of whites reported themselves or knowing someone who was a victim of gun violence in the last year.

These experiential differences probably lie at the heart of black/white differences in views on restricting access to guns versus the rights of gun owners as well as why black and white youth have a large perceptual difference on whether gun violence is a problem in their community (27 point difference). The point is that perceptual differences are not just a matter of perspective but of experience as well. The report from the Justice Department on Ferguson demonstrates the differences in how black and white Fergusonians are treated by the police.

Even on tax fairness blacks and whites differ. In a study by Georgia State University (, in terms of viewing different kinds of taxes as fair, there is a 15-point difference in the state income tax, a 27-point difference in the sales tax, and a 7-percent difference in the property tax. I suspect that there is also an experiential difference at the foundation of these perceptual differences, too.

We can argue all day over whose perception is closest to reality. Let’s try moving to discussing experiences, it gets us past “that’s your opinion.” We can ask why the police disproportionately ticket one group over another; why are blacks given longer and harsher sentences for similar crimes? It get us past acting shocked when the scions of the middle class are caught with their white hoods on and expelling them (making them victims and generating sympathy for them) and onto asking why did they think this was OK?

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email

Sunday, February 22, 2015

In education battle, Dems need different approach

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 22 February 2015

 Indiana’s political juggernaut to lead the nation in charter schools is breathtaking. Who says government is broken? Some Republicans have worked for many years on this across two administrations and despite some serious setbacks such as Tony Bennett’s stunning defeat and the “cheating” scandal involving changed letter grades for some charters, they are revolutionizing K-12 education in Indiana.

Glenda Ritz, a political novice with a quintessential grassroots campaign, was elected overwhelmingly, garnering more votes than even Gov. Pence. I voted for Ritz and what I recall of her message was “slow down” and assess the changes already made. I’ve lived in Indiana for nearly 30 years and that message of “slow down the change” seems as much a winning political strategy as is appealing to “Hoosier values.”

For Democrats and “friends of education” it seems like it’s an outrage a day.  The most recent outrage regards a bill that just passed out of committee on a party-line vote regarding required accountability assessments that charter schools use. ISTEP, even a shortened one, is onerous and seemingly unforgiving. And so far, though time is still short for an appropriate assessment, charters aren’t demonstrating superior performance, perhaps not even as good, as the bureaucratic laden, unionized public schools.

So, this problem will be “fixed” by letting the charters off the hook by picking their own test. This is a bold if transparent fix to rig the competition by changing the rules. It’s a master stroke, too, because parents trying to decide between charters and their public counterparts or other charters will now be faced with comparing apples, to oranges, to bananas.

The Democrats and “friends of education” response to this puzzles me. They don’t seem to understand that for those conservatives (and their corporate backers) pushing these changes, the test they want to decide the “quality” of a school and its services is the market, the same “test” we use for restaurants, car dealers, hair stylists, home improvement companies, etc. The market’s elegance is unparallelled. Plus no one is compelled to shop at Wal-Mart or Dollar General or Target. If you can afford it, it’s yours and you can pay a dollar, four dollars, or 14 dollars for the (seemingly) same thing — it’s your choice. The metrics used to demonstrate the quality of the charter’s product is vulnerable to the market, too. Parents may prefer a certain test or at least common tests so they can compare apples to apples. Of course, professional marketing plays into consumer evaluation. I mean, it’s not like slick advertising has any impact on people’s choices or price.

Democrats and other “friends of education” protest by arguing about “fairness” and allude to the corporate interests that are pushing the privatization of Indiana public schools. While I sympathize with these protests, politically they are ineffective as are threats about 2016 or running Glenda Ritz for governor.

Perhaps a more effective political response would be a jujutsu move. Jujutsu is a Japanese martial art form that developed in response to the formidably armed and armored samurai for an unarmed and unarmored opponent. In short, the idea is to use the advantages of the more armored opponent against them, to use their energy against them. It seems to me that the supermajority juggernaut might be vulnerable to political jujutsu.

I think it’s a mistake to assume the supermajority is all like-minded. I’ve seen fissures and I think the idea of “slow down the change” might resonate with some and if the argument for charters is to unburden them from all the bureaucratic red tape, then why not focus on reducing the bureaucratic tape on public schools? Let public schools choose their assessment tests, too. An equally bold move to stripping Glenda Ritz of her chairship of the state board of education would be to offer up a market reform in public schools:  Public school choice not just limited to failing schools.

I think this might cause some pause among the supermajority. Plus, if it got any traction at all, it would expose those cynically trying to undermine public education in favor of corporate education, and make targeting specific officials more effective in the next election. Use the arguments for market solutions, choice, and accountability against those who push this for charters and challenge them to introduce it into public education

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ideology, acrimony get in the way of finding solutions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 25 January 2015 
I believe making good political decisions and good public policy need robust discussion, not “acrimony, accusations, and aspersions,” (Mike Varney, 2015). Unfortunately, recent research by the Pew Research Center does not bode well for robust discussion in our political arenas. In a report titled “Political Polarization in the American Public” ( Pew demonstrates a trend toward more political polarization among Americans, “Today 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” That Democrat and Republican elected officials are becoming more ideological, less moderate and less cooperative with each other is obvious. Supposedly the larger body politic doesn’t like it and wants more cooperation and less posturing. Except the public is becoming more like that, too.
One can quibble over how Pew measured polarization. Indeed, I think some of the choices suffer some wording problems and for anyone who takes a scalpel instead of an ax to such statements, the “test” is crude ( Nevertheless as Pew has measured liberal and conservative ideology, polarization is occurring.
Polarization doesn’t appear to be a problem identifying what the important issues are ( Two-thirds or more identified these as important issues for the next two years: terrorism, economy, jobs, education, and Social Security while less than 40 percent identified global warming or global trade as a priority. And Democrats, Republicans and Independents agree on what the top challenges and priorities are. All three list terrorism and the economy as a top policy priority, both Democrats and Republicans list improving the jobs situation. Social security is a top priority for Republicans and Independents. The specific solutions are starkly different and reflect the polarization.
“Compromise” and possibly developing better policy by incorporating elements of the competing views is unfortunately nearly impossible when there is little common ground between the groups. According to Pew, the more consistently liberal one is, the more likely they are to prefer urban environments, while the more consistent conservatives prefer suburbs or the edges of small towns. This is not just social separation but physical as well; its de facto self-segregation. Indeed, Pew labels the phenomenon “ideological silos” where half of consistently conservative and 35 percent of consistently liberal people indicate it’s important that they live where most of the people share their political views and 63 percent of consistently conservative and 49 percent of consistently liberal people indicate that most of their close friends share their political views. In terms of what is important to people about the community they live in, everyone agrees that being near family, good schools, having access to the outdoors for fishing, hiking and camping are important, but for consistently liberal folks, so is access to the “arts’ (73 percent) while for consistent conservatives it’s not (23 percent). Perhaps this explains why there seem to be few conservatives in Hollywood.
Most distressing is the antipathy between the groups; 79 percent of consistently liberal folks hold negative views of the Republican Party, just under half, “strongly unfavorable” views. Consistently conservative people hold similar negative views of the Democratic Party, 82 percent unfavorable, with over half “strongly unfavorable.” Half of consistently liberal people view the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. A whopping two-thirds of consistently conservative people view the Democratic Party that way. I wonder how consistent liberals view the National Socialist Movement (white supremacist party) and how consistent conservatives view the Socialist Workers Party? This antipathy extends to individuals; nearly a quarter of consistent liberals would be unhappy if a family member married a Republican and 30 percent of consistent conservatives unhappy if a family member married a Democrat.
I can see the increasing polarization leading to extremism where even members of the respective sides do not and really cannot question their own positions due to accusations of heresy and apostasy. In short, their beliefs become articles of faith. Questioning the beliefs is viewed as a weakness. The beliefs are no longer held “rationally” but emotionally, similar to how people with racial or sexual prejudices respond to contrary evidence to their prejudice; evidence to the contrary only hardens their belief(s). This kind of insularity contributes to “group think” and an increasing narrowing of perspective. Don’t we tend to scoff at the insularity of Saudi Arabia and North Korea?
Before shootings, beheadings and bombings started between the Sunni and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, IRA and Loyalists, and other polarized violent groups, did ideological polarization, silos and antipathy between the groups come first?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Candid discourse needed on U.S. use of torture

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4 January 2015

A Gallup Poll from summer 2013 asked Americans if the country’s moral values are getting worse. Seventy-two percent said yes (among Republicans, 87 percent; Independents, 68; Democrats, 56).

In December 2014, Pew asked Americans if the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified. Fifty-one percent said yes. An ABC News/Washington Post poll used the hot button word “torture” (usually not a good idea in good polling practices) and received the highest positive response of the major polls asking that question, 58 percent. Over half see the future torture of suspected terrorists as justified. (Only 20 percent reject any justification for the use of torture.) Is it ironic that 87 percent of Republicans said that the country’s moral values are getting worse yet in the Pew survey, 76 percent of Republicans said that the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified, followed by 49 percent of Independents, and 36 percent of Democrats?

Following the US/Allied defeat of the evil of Nazism/Fascism, and based on the atrocities uncovered in war crimes trials of the Nazi/Fascist leaders, the U.S. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Geneva Convention as well as subsequent conventions. Rebecca Evans writes:

“The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, in unqualified terms, that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (Article 5). The Geneva Conventions of 1949 not only provide protection for enemy combatants and civilians but also instruct that unlawful combatants must be ‘treated with humanity and … shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial’ (Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 5). The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture even ‘during public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation’ (Articles 4 and 7). Similarly, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment insists that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability of any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture’ (Article 2).”

It would be interesting to see how many Americans today agree or disagree with these statements. In light of recent poll results, I suspect no more than around 20 percent would strongly agree.

Legalities aside, it’s the moral and ethical questions that are of concern because in the moral calculus that 80 percent of Americans are willing to use to justify torture (generally viewed as an evil act), to torture one person to obtain information to stop another 9/11 or worse (the Fox series “24” justification), do we also calculate the corrosive effect of violating our own moral positions? Since so much of the moral discussion is in terms of “effectiveness” then should that calculation also not estimate the inevitable loosening and “normalizing” of torture?

History shows this is the case, from Abu Ghraib to the French in Algiers to Argentina in the 1970s. The use of torture, history shows, undermines the rule of law, something that should be very worrisome to a “nation of laws.” Is the use of torture in the war on terrorism related to the seeming increase in police brutality? History suggests that it may be. We have been in the war on terrorism now for over a decade. President Obama ordered torture stopped. What assurance is that?

If “effective” is the justification for what is moral or not, then Jim Wright poses this challenge to that argument:

“Theft is an effective means of making a living.

“Murder is an effective means of winning an argument.

“Abortion is an effective means of ending a pregnancy.

“Terrorism is an effective means of conveying a political point.”

We need a national conversation on where the lines should be drawn, much like we have been having with abortion for 40+ years. Where is the point too far? Is torturing, raping or beheading a family member of a suspected terrorist justified if it’s effective? How about slowly cutting off fingers, toes, nose, ears, then limbs with an axe, if it’s effective? Why not bomb Mecca if a suspected Islamic terrorist doesn’t cooperate? Where is it that our moral compass finally quivers over to “no, not justified.”

Lastly, Americans used to value freedom over all else and claim that it was the universal value. What does a prisoner want more than anything else? To escape; to be free. So, why don’t we offer their freedom in exchange for what we want? If giving Sheik Mohammed Khalid his freedom in exchange for information to stop another 9/11 or worse, wouldn’t it be worth it?

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