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.
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Drug Deaths vs Media Coverage

From the Guardian’s Data Blog comes this neat visualization of poisoning deaths from various drugs and compared to press coverage thereof. The at the comparison for pot in particular.

I think this image, which shows the deaths as a proportion of users is probably more relevant when considering the likely social consequences of media bias.

The Most Disturbing Statistic I Found Today

In 1988, at the height of the HIV/AIDS panic in the States, the GSS asked a bunch of questions about AIDS. At that time, 63.7 percent of respondents favoured a policy of “requir[ing] people with the AIDS virus to wear identification tags that look like those carried by people with allergies or diabetes.”

Any kind of requirement for unpopular groups to identify themselves publicly reminds me a bit too much of this:

starofdavid

Update: Even more disturbingly, most people who personally knew AIDS victims supported compulsory IDs. Here’s the breakdown (as an image, since I can’t work out how to do tables in wordpress; click for larger):

gss-aidsids-aidsknow

gss-aidsids-aidsknow-chart

Disturbing. On the one hand, knowing someone with AIDS is likely to make the risk more salient. On the other, you’re supporting the branding of someone you know. The number of people surveyed with three or more acquaintances with AIDS is tiny, so it doesn’t tell us much; but I suspect knowing lots of people with AIDS is a good proxy for being well-integrated into the gay activist community, which should decrease support for tagging.

Selling Weed on Twitter

It is state-sanctioned medical weed, though (Hat tip: @goodiemonster):

California won’t let the gays marry but it does let people micro-blog (medical) drug deals. Meet former Northwestern J-school student Dann Halem, who is building an online business selling weed on Twitter. How is this possible you ask? (…)

The @artistscollctve Twitter account went up last week and, in the vein of a more #420 friendly Kogi BBQ, the medical marijuana delivery service also boasts “On-Time GPS” and the availability of “green crack.” Artists for Access is a “creative non-profit” operating under something called a 501 3c non-profit license, “as far as the law is concerned, we’re good.”

Technically legal in California, Halem’s dicey business model is legit from a state standpoint, but not federally. You can’t just call up an get a bag, but knowing the multitudes of dodgy loopholes that exist in the CA medical marijuana policy (i.e. insomnia counts) it’s probably not that hard to score a prescription. Line up your doctor’s notes ASAP! Because this opportunity may not (probably won’t) last.

I’ve heard of a few people buying non-medical weed via forums, but not nearly as many as I’d prefer. The internets could drastically reduce the (currently very high) transaction costs of purchasing the poison of your choice. The problem, of course, is the lack of security and trust needed to organize transactions online secretly.

Arto Bendiken has developed a couple of Drupal modules which could help with this. Agora provides the infrastructure for a market, while Lockdown provides security in case the narcs come calling. They both look ridiculously awesome, and I just wish my geek-fu was strong enough to fully understand all the technical details.

Systems like this could go a long way in making black markets more efficient, but I think the problem of trust remains. I suspect it would be useful for anyone trying to develop this sort of thing to look at how meatspace black markets have always worked – considering the ways in which initiation rituals serve as a costly signal and the incentive-aligning effects of vouching, for example.

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.