Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

Obama Supports Extension of Patriot Act

Liberal, eh?

The Obama administration supports extending three key provisions of the Patriot Act that are due to expire at the end of the year, the Justice Department told Congress in a letter made public Tuesday.

Lawmakers and civil rights groups had been pressing the Democratic administration to say whether it wants to preserve the post-Sept. 11 law’s authority to access business records, as well as monitor so-called “lone wolf” terrorists and conduct roving wiretaps.

The provision on business records was long criticized by rights groups as giving the government access to citizens’ library records, and a coalition of liberal and conservative groups complained that the Patriot Act gives the government too much authority to snoop into Americans’ private lives.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama said he would take a close look at the law, based on his past expertise in constitutional law. Back in May, President Obama said legal institutions must be updated to deal with the threat of terrorism, but in a way that preserves the rule of law and accountability.

In a letter to lawmakers, Justice Department officials said the administration supports extending the three expiring provisions of the law, although they are willing to consider additional privacy protections as long as they don’t weaken the effectiveness of the law.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that the administration is willing to consider stronger civil rights protections in the new law “provided that they do not undermine the effectiveness of these important (provisions).”

Leahy responded with a statement saying it is important for the administration and Congress to “work together to ensure that we protect both our national security and our civil liberties.”

Before the U.S. election, I mildly preferred Obama over McCain (in the same way I’d prefer fire over knife: I dislike the policies of the flag-waving, militaristic right more than those of the soft-headed, big-government left). Now, I’m not so sure the differences run any deeper than the symbolic contrast between a young black guy and an old white guy.

Drunk in Public

should-a

Geoffrey Palmer want to make being drunk in public an offence in New Zealand:

“It’s not an offence to be drunk in a public place but nonetheless police have to deal with (drunk people), but they have nowhere to take them.”

Being drunk in a public place should be an infringement offence that incurs a fine, Sir Geoffrey said.

The law could include drunk and disorderly behaviour or only being drunk and discretion be left to police on whether to charge someone or not. (…)

The amount of police resources used policing the “late night culture” in New Zealand was “truly astonishing”, he said.

“Unless you saw it you wouldn’t believe it.”

This guy is clearly a puritan; he doesn’t like drinking and feels the need to Do Something about it. He’s willing to cite whatever shonky research best serves his case.

Still, at first glance, banning public drunkenness seems like a better option than increasing the excise tax on alcohol or taking other measures to “reduce availability.” If government wants to reduce the external costs of alcohol, it should address behaviour most closely related to external harm. People who are drunk in public are far more likely than those having a couple of beers at home to cause problems for others. As Ed Stringham puts it, “raising taxes on alcohol to prevent problem drinking is akin to raising the price of gasoline to prevent people from speeding.”

As it happens, I don’t think government should be concerned with reducing the social costs of alcohol: I think they are much smaller than the social costs of any policy intervention I can imagine. Even if we accept the need to Do Something, however, Palmer’s proposal worries me more than other (perhaps less efficient) means of alcohol control.

Since being drunk is arbitrary, the proposal would give police more arbitrary power. As someone who takes the rule of law seriously, this worries me more than the (very high) cost of excise taxes on innocent drinkers. Unless you think being drunk is itself wrong, in which case I don’t much value your opinion, this gives cops another legal weapon to brandish against innocent people they don’t quite like the look of.

Discretionary power sounds reasonable enough, but it is dangerous. It replaces the rule of law with the rule of men, and history teaches us that power corrupts.

Woman Tased in Front of Kids for Driving with Hand on Cheek, Questioning Authoritah

I’ve been assuming that the forthcoming ban on using a cellphone while driving is just an unenforceable piece of symbolic politics unlikely to do any harm. I still think that’s right, but this story from the States of a woman being pulled over for allegedly talking on a cellphone, tased, arrested, and having her kids left in a freezing car for 40 minutes made me think twice:

In January, an Onondaga County sheriff’s deputy pulled over Audra Harmon, who had two of her kids with her in her minivan. A routine traffic stop escalated quickly.

The deputy, Sean Andrews, accused her of talking on her cell phone. She said she could prove him wrong.

He said she was speeding. She denied it and got out of the van. He told her to get back in. She did, then he ordered her back out.

He yanked her out by the arm, knocked her down with two Taser shots and charged her with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. His rationale on the disorderly conduct charge: She obstructed traffic when she got out of the van. The speeding accusation: going 50 mph in a 45-mph zone. (…)

Andrews told Harmon he’d seen her using her cell phone while she was driving. In the video, he makes a phone gesture with his hand. She told him she’d been driving with her right hand on her cheek, but that she hadn’t talked on the phone for at least two hours. She says she offered to let him look at the phone to see for himself. He declined. (…)

“Are you OK? Do you need help?” [witnesses] Santorelli and her father yelled, according to Santorelli’s statement to deputies.

“I’m not OK, and I do need help,” Harmon responded. As Andrews picked her up and escorted her to his car, Harmon pleaded with the witnesses.

“Please come get my kids!” Harmon remembers yelling. The witnesses said they couldn’t do that, but they asked Harmon for her home number so they could call her husband. She gave it to them.

“I wanted these strangers to get my kids, because at that point I thought they’d be safer with strangers,” Harmon says. The kids sat in the car for about 40 minutes until their father arrived and took them home, which was about 500 yards away, she says.

Harmon said she wants to teach police a lesson: It’s OK to admit you’re wrong. She said Andrews manufactured the speeding charge once he realized she didn’t deserve a cell phone ticket. Andrews had not clocked her with a radar gun. Instead, he said in a report, he calculated her speed by following her for “several seconds.”

“I want the public to know these police officers apparently aren’t being trained well enough to know when it is justified to use a Taser,” she said.

I don’t think training is the problem. Cops are using tasers to make their jobs easier, and are not forced to answer for their unjustified use. Cases like these normally involve an inquiry, but the officer is almost invariably found to be faultless. The only way to make cops less brutal is to make them more accountable. The actions of this uniformed thug were morally equivalent to assault and kidnapping; he should be punished accordingly.

Coherence versus Political Reality

Arnold Kling tries to categorize current attitudes towards markets and state intervention as combinations of three points on an ideological triangle; Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive:

1. Point L, where you believe that markets are effective at processing information and solving problems. This position is to take a radically pro-market view, and to let markets fix their own failures.

2. Point C, where you believe that tradition incorporates the evolved use of information to solve problems. This position is to be very cautious about overthrowing existing institutional arrangements.

3. Point P, where you believe that expert technocrats should be in charge. You are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts.

I think something like this would be the best framework within which to think about policy, but I think it only works as a descriptive model of actual beliefs for a small subclass of people: those with both a decent knowledge of the social sciences and a broadly consequentialist worldview. Politics as it’s practised on the ground isn’t a competition between alternative coherent worldviews, but competing myths, symbols, and identity groups.

The difference between Arnold’s description and political reality is most obvious in the case of conservatives. Hayekian conservatism is certainly a reasonable argument against the reformist zeal of either libertarians or progressives, but most self-identified conservatives surely don’t base their preference for existing institutions and norms on arguments from institutional evolution. They see existing institutions and norms as right – not merely stable equilibria which it would be unwise to mess with.

Arnold is talking about policy, but politics is an entirely different thing.

Fatties as Folk Devils

Megan McArdle has a great interview in the Atlantic with Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth. Campos argues that turning fat people into thin people is impossible, and in any case wouldn’t do much to improve health outcomes. The part I found most interesting, though, is the discussion of status politics and moral panic:

It’s the classic pattern of moral panics. As public concern about the damage being done to the fabric of society by the folk devils increases, increasingly intense demands are made on public officials to “do something” about the crisis, usually by eliminating the folk devils.

That of course is the strategy for this crisis. If fat people are the problem, then the solution is to get rid of them, by making them thin people. The most amazing aspect of this whole thing, for me, has always been the imperviouusness of policy makers, and even more so people who consider themselves serious academics and scientists, to the overwhelming evidence that there’s no way to do this.

I mean, there’s no better established empirical proposition in medical science that we don’t know how to make people thinner. But apparently this proposition is too disturbing to consider, even though it’s about as well established as that cigarettes cause lung cancer. So all these proposals about improving public health by making people thinner are completely crazy. They are as non-sensical as anything being proposed by public officials in our culture right now, which is saying something. (…)

Or (llke the upper West Side women) they stay on a permanent restricted lifestyle that the vast majority of people don’t have the combination of willpower and social privilege to maintain. There’s an important class angle here. Thinness is a sign of social status, and is to some extent a product of it, which is one reason — probably the main reason — why it’s so prized, especially among women. (…)

Right, as Mary Douglas the anthropologist has pointed out, we focus on risks not on the basis of “rational” cost-benefit analysis, but because of the symbolic work focusing on those risks does — most particularly signalling disapproval of certain groups and behaviors.In this culture fatness is a metaphor for poverty, lack of self-control, and other stuff that freaks out the new Puritans all across the ideological spectrum, which is why the war on fat is so ferocious — it appeals very strongly to both the right and the left, for related if different reasons.

Excellent throughout. Read the whole thing. See also the work of Joseph Gusfield on the American temperance movement:

As his own claim to social respect and honor are diminished, the sober, abstaining citizen seeks for public acts through which he may reaffirm the dominance and prestige of his way of life. Converting the sinner to virtue is one way; law is another. Even if the law is not enforced or enforceable, the symbolic import of it’s passage is important to the reformer. It settles the controversies between those who represent clashing cultures. The public support of one conception of morality at the expense of another enhances the prestige and self-esteem of the victors and degrades the culture of the losers.

Policies ostensibly aimed at promoting health and dealing with the obesity epidemic are really about those who place a high value on health and thinness having their views upheld as correct, just, and universally valid. Bigots, I tell you.

Economists and Sociologists

Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory asks: if sociology sucks, why do economists keep doing it? He cites Weber, Parsons, Becker, Levitt, Akerlof, and Caplan as examples of economists who “regularly dine at our restaraunt,” yet constantly complain about the service. I’d add Douglass North, Timur Kuran, and many of the contemporary Austrian School to the list of economists doing important work on sociological topics.

I’m neither a proper economist nor a proper sociologist, but I have undergraduate majors in both. To me, it seems that while many economists are doing work on traditionally sociological topics, very few are using the insights or methodology of sociologists. Commenter Gordo at the Orgtheory post nails it:

You seem to suggest that sociology is the “restaurant” and the “customers” are economists who enjoy the restaurant’s food. I think the more appropriate metaphor might be that of people sneaking food (economics) into a stadium baseball game (interesting topics) because the food there is so bad (sociology).

That seems to be the general consensus among economists: sociological questions are interesting, but sociologists are not rigorous enough to be of any use in answering them. There doesn’t seem to be any inconsistency in economists sneaking within sociological borders while badmouthing the natives.

I don’t quite agree with that apporach, howver, as I think the work of many sociologists would be useful for economists, particular those studying politics, to consider.

Recent work by Brennan & Lomasky, Caplan, and Kuran demonstrates that we can’t think of political behaviour simply in rational choice terms. This means we need to think about collective behaviour, symbolism, and social conformity – things sociologists have seen studying for a long time and on which they have had many interesting insights.

I think there are huge potential gains from economists taking this body of work seriously, while maintaining a critical stance towards some of the methodological weaknesses in the field. There’s some bad sociology out there, but there’s also a lot of very bad economics.

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