Saturday, December 29, 2007

Justice System Gone Awry - Busting Children

Have we gone nuts? A ten year old child brings a steak knife to school in Ocala. She's caught cutting her meat at lunch, and then arrested as though she was a serial killer on the loose. Perhaps a sharp knife was inappropriate on school grounds, which is a good reason to confiscate, teach her a lesson, admonish her parents and send her on her way. But why whack the fifth grader with a formal arrest as though she had committed a crime? That'll give a growing kid a warm and secure feeling about the law.

A first grader in Avon Park, Florida, lost control and acted out in class, kicking and scratching. That's bad. She obviously has a problem. Teachers called the cops, who came and handcuffed her for restraint. Okay, I can even live with that. Then child - a six-year-old - was brought to police headquarters and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. Huh? When did common sense lose it's foothold in America? Years ago, we'd read stories like this in communist China.

Moses Lake, Washington, 2006. Seven juveniles were taken into custody and arrested for vandalism and theft. Two of these were five and six years of age. The others were closer to twelve. Whatever happened to laws about contributing to the delinquency of minors? Locking up five year-old children as criminals? There must be another way to handle these kinds of situations.

December, 2006, a twelve year-old boy in South Carolina was arrested by police for petty larceny for - get this - opening his Christmas present without authorization. When his mother learned that he had opened the $85 Nintendo game without her permission, she called the cops to teach him a lesson, and the cops made the bust. Honest. Read for yourself. Click here: Boy Arrested

September, 2006, Pleasant Grove, Utah. A teenage prankster streaked naked across a stage during a school play. There are children in the audience. He's pretty stupid. He needs punishment. He got it. The kid is facing criminal charges for which he will likely be required to register as a sex offender for life. His name, address and photograph will be available on the Internet as warnings to citizens that this boy is a predator and to protect your kids. He'll be unable to find jobs. He'll be the instant suspect in unsolved sex crimes. A lifetime of retribution, for a silly stunt that has nothing to do with sexually offending anyone.

Honor student and football player, Genarlow Wilson was seventeen years old when he received consensual oral sex from a fifteen year-old girl in Georgia in 2005. Uh.that's an every day event by the thousands in all fifty states. But, the laws in Georgia mandated a ten-year sentence for the (ahem) sex offense with a minor child. Genarlow was ultimately released by a compassionate judge after serving two years in prison. Still, he must register as a dangerous sex offender for life.

I think we're using a sledge hammer to kill the bug. Serious crimes certainly need to be addressed by the criminal justice system, but we've gone over the top with the tough-on-crime mantra.

I'm sure glad I retired when I did. I served in an era when judgement and common sense prevailed, when a cop had the option to send a DUI driver home in a taxi cab, or kick kids in the ass for raising hell at a party, send lover's lane sexpots off to motel rooms and scare the hell out of truants and other youngsters who dabbled in pot. I had the latitude to make humane decisions about minor indiscretions, always aware of how an arrest would affect the rest of a kid's life. I feel comfortable that I, and many of my colleagues, saved some young people from entering the oppressive walls of the justice system as criminals when it wasn't in the best interest of justice.

Sure, I know all about the law, and my job was merely to enforce. I did that. I made over two thousand arrests in my career. But I also made a few unarrests for which I am proud, for I know in those few instances, I precluded a lifetime of obstacles and stigma for the undeserving because I decided to give the "offenders" a pass.

When it comes to showing small kids the strong arm of the law, there's another way, besides jails and handcuffs. It's called, education treatment, compassion and guidance. When a system can label people for life as sex offenders, when they are not, then something needs to be fixed. In today's world, the hands of police officers are tied, they dare not make decisions. It's all spelled out. Break the law, pay the price. Even if the price is a million dollars for a stick of bubble gum. They better not come for my grandson while he's still in diapers, even if he does throw a tantrum.


Another attack on individual responsibility

Back in 1971 the late Harvard behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner published his popular best seller, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York, Knopf). The book followed several more technical works by Skinner arguing that the belief that human beings have free will and are morally responsible is all wrong, a pre-scientific prejudice that needs to be discarded and replaced with a technology of behavior.

This work prompted me to write my first book, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (Arlington House, 1973), in which I disputed Skinner's claim to have come up with scientific reasons for rejecting free will and moral responsibility. I argued that he was actually subscribing to a certain school of philosophy that advanced the views he championed. His conclusions about free will and morality were not based on scientific findings at all.

It is now over 30 years since Skinner's work appeared and behaviorism is no longer all the rage in the discipline of psychology. But the basic goal of discrediting free will and moral--including legal or criminal--responsibility is still very much on the agenda of some folks. Only the school of psychology that is supposed to be undermining the belief in human freedom and morality is no longer behaviorism. Now it is some people's version of neuroscience.

The basic contention put forth by some of the champions of this new scientific approach to understanding human behavior is that our actions aren't really ours at all. And, very interestingly, the idea has enormous financial support from no less than the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It has contributed $10 million to do research on the issues involved, with the work carried out at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Now I say that this money will go to do research but it looks very much like some of those involved do not think much research is needed because they write as if they had already reached their conclusions. As an article on the website of the project tells it,

"The U.S. legal system incorporates assumptions about behavior that, in some cases, are centuries old and based on common sense and culture. For example, it tends to assume that people make deliberate choices and that those choices determine what they do. However, recent breakthroughs in neuroscience research indicate that such choices may sometimes be based upon electrical impulses and neuron activity that are not a part of conscious behavior. These actions can include not only criminal activity, but also decisions made by police, prosecutors, and jurors to arrest, prosecute, convict, or mandate treatment."

In other words, as some of these scientists would have it, we are back to Skinner, although in slightly modified terms. As the new technologists of human behavior see the matter, it is not operant conditioning that drives human behavior but impersonal electrical firings in our brains. Human beings do not make conscious decisions, they do not deliberate but are being driven by "electrical impulses." (I wouldn't put much stock in the qualification "sometimes" since anyone familiar with the work of some of the enthusiasts behind these ideas can tell that theirs is actually a sweeping pronouncement about all human behavior!)

A column isn't the place to attempt to rebut these ideas, merely to call attention to the eagerness with which some are promulgating them and to the enormous investment in the attempt to make them influential. But one thing can be said so as to put a bit of a break on all this enthusiasm about denying the efficacy of human conscious thought in directing human conduct. The British psychologist D. Bannister put the matter very poignantly over 30 years ago: "... the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture."

The point is that the champions of the relevant kind of neuroscience and its alleged findings are themselves making decisions, deliberating, and consciously deciding about what to do, day in and day out, including when they decide to make various claims about the implications of their work for the legal system they wish to discredit and take steps to convince the rest of us of how outmoded our thinking and institutions are. They cannot have it both ways--deny that people make decisions but then proceed to make all sorts of significant decisions themselves!

The plain fact is that there is something basic, undeniable about the role of our minds in our conduct, even in conduct that aims to discredit the human mind itself.


Entitlement Mentality

If you forgot to get a Christmas present for Charlie Rangel, don't worry. The congressman picked one out for himself, and he's sending you the bill: $2 million for a shiny new Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College. The New York Democrat's Monument to Me was one of about 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus spending bill Congress approved before going on vacation. Most represented a more subtle form of self-aggrandizement, aimed at maintaining power and prestige by currying favor with voters.

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, the total cost of the 11,000 or so earmarks in the omnibus bill and an earlier defense bill is about $14 billion, which is not much in the context of a $2.8 trillion federal budget. But the same tendency that explains the persistence of earmarks -- the habit of staying popular by pretending your constituents can get something for nothing -- also explains the failure to address the federal government's increasingly dire fiscal predicament.

The root of that predicament is not earmarks, which represent less than 1 percent of federal spending. Nor is it the war in Iraq, which at $100 billion or so a year accounts for less than 4 percent. So-called entitlement programs are the reason "America faces escalating deficit levels and debt burdens that could swamp our ship of state," as Comptroller General David Walker put it in a recent speech. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid account for 40 percent of federal spending and are expected to consume 51 percent in a decade.

Right now, Social Security makes the federal fiscal picture look better than it really is since the program generates a surplus that masks the true size of the deficit. In fiscal year 2007, for example, the official budget deficit was $163 billion; excluding the Social Security surplus, it was more than twice as high.

Since the government spends the surplus on other programs, the Social Security "trust fund" consists entirely of federal bonds, and those IOUs will come due soon. The oldest baby boomers become eligible for early retirement in 2008. They will start drawing Medicare benefits in three years.

The result, said Walker, will be a "tsunami of spending" that "will never recede." Under current law, the estimated gap between the benefits retirees have been promised and revenue to fund them is $53 trillion, of which $34 trillion is due to Medicare.

Nearly one-quarter of that long-term Medicare deficit, $8 trillion, is attributable to the prescription-drug benefit championed by President Bush and approved by a Republican-controlled Congress. "Incredibly," Walker noted, "this number was not disclosed or discussed until after the Congress had voted on the bill and the president had signed it into law." He said the bill's passage "arguably represents government 'truth' and 'transparency' at its worst."

Although it was presented as a solution to the dilemma of senior citizens forced to choose between eating and taking their medicine, the drug benefit is not means-tested. Like Social Security and Medicare generally, it transfers wealth from young workers to retirees who are often financially better off, buying the votes of older Americans with their grandchildren's money.

Not that the Democrats, who criticized the drug benefit as insufficiently generous, are any better. If you believe a Democratic president would be more fiscally responsible than Bush, have a look at the campaign ad that presents "Universal Health Care," "Alternative Energy," "Middle Class Tax Breaks" and "Universal Pre-K" as Christmas gifts lovingly wrapped by a beneficent Hillary Clinton. Unlike Charlie Rangel, at least Clinton wants to buy gifts for us, but she's still using our money. "Our government has made a whole lot of promises that, in the long run, it cannot possibly keep without huge tax increases," Walker noted. Yet Clinton is making even more promises, and she proposes to do it all while cutting taxes. I think I prefer Rangel's grandiosity. It's a lot cheaper.


Some correct but very subversive ideas below

Economics examples crop up in the most interesting places. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I ran smack into an application of the Law of Comparative Advantage that was so pure and simple that I can't resist the opportunity to share.

After flying up to visit family for the weekend, I accompanied my sister to work on Thanksgiving morning, in order to hang out with her some and pitch in. "Pitch in" is precise, because I wound up with a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow. My sister works as stallion manager in a stable. (A really nice stable. This place is cleaner than my house, although such a statement could be considered damning with faint praise.) "I'll clean the stalls," my sister said. "You can bed them down."

Well, this was good news all around. I don't at all mind the smell of stables, but it's undeniably more difficult to clean stalls than to bed them down. Cleaning consists of removing the (heavy) soiled straw bedding while keeping the still-reasonably fresh bedding for another day's use. Bedding down just requires lugging a fresh bale of (relatively light) clean straw bedding into the cleared stall, spreading the nearly clean straw left from the previous day, and then breaking up and scattering the fresh bale.

Very simple - but as with any sort of labor, there are little tricks and ways of conserving motion and effort that are not easy to explain but that accumulate with experience. Many of these economies of effort aren't even known to the worker; they develop as a sort of optimized "body memory" in response to muscle aches and the need to get work done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I've done my share of stable work "back in the day," but nothing even approaching the years my sister has put in under all sorts of conditions with all sorts of equipment. My sister even generously complimented me on knowing enough to "whack" the opened bale of straw with the fork to loosen it before I began spreading it around the stall. I'm not a complete newbie to stable work, after all. However, I'm sure I was wasting considerable effort - and time! - because of my relative inexperience and forgotten "body memory" of the necessary motions.

I think it's probably reasonable to say that in the process of cleaning and bedding, the workload is split about 70% into cleaning and 30% into bedding (my sister may be inclined to offer a correction to that estimate, but it seems about right to my less-experienced eye and pitchfork arm). I knew that 70/30 was probably the best split we could work and still finish at or around the same time, given my relative inexperience, general out-of-shapeness, and, frankly, my holiday mood. But even so, after the first stall, I asked my sister if it might not be more efficient and fair if we both cleaned and bedded stalls - meaning, of course, that she do around two-thirds of both cleaning and bedding, and I do around one-third.

Taking much less time to think it out than I am taking to write it out, my sister replied, "Thanks, but it'll go faster if I stick to doing the cleaning and you to the bedding."

And that jogged loose a memory of Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage. I remembered having an early economics mentor point out that, although Ricardo was thinking of international trade, the principle of the law made just as much sense when applied to the division of two tasks between two individuals, one of whom is better at both tasks. And that was clearly the situation in this case! As long as my sister was even better at stall cleaning than at stall bedding, then the job would get done much more quickly if she stuck to the cleaning and I to the bedding. Since cleaning is more difficult to pick up than bedding, not only was she sure to be better than me at both tasks, but she was very likely to be even better at the more difficult task, since she had been doing both for so long. My effort - willing but awkward - was best put to use in the task that was easiest for my sister, so that she could concentrate on doing a superior job at the task that was hardest for both of us.

To flesh out the insight with some numbers for illustrative purposes, suppose my sister was three times as good at me at cleaning stalls and just twice as good as me at bedding them. I hope these numbers are unrealistic (I can't be that bad!) but they do make for easier math. If it takes her five minutes to clean a stall and three minutes to bed one down, it would take me fifteen to clean and six to bed. So to finish two stalls with each of us working at both cleaning and bedding one stall, we'd take her 5+3 minutes and add my 15+6 minutes, which would give us a total of 29 minutes of labor - although, since we were working together, the total time to finish both stalls would only be 21 minutes, the last 13 of which would be filled by my sister nagging me to hurry up and finish so we could go for coffee.

If we do the same two stalls with her cleaning both and me bedding both, it would take her 5+5 added to my 6+6, which would let us get the job done in a total of 22 minutes of labor, or 12 minutes of time, allowing her only two minutes to relax while watching me finish the last bit of straw pitching. Assuming that the goal for both of us was to get the stalls completed in the least amount of time (and you can believe me when I say it was), then we both benefited from my sticking to what I was least bad at: bedding down stalls. But the best and most fascinating part of this is that it is the weaker and less experienced partner in the joint venture who stood to gain the most from this specialization and division of labor.

Well, who am I to argue with efficiency? I settled into the sneeze-inducing job of breaking open and spreading bales of straw around with a pleasure at knowing that my contribution to the joint effort was maximized by the rational division of tasks. Of course I was so tickled at running across Ricardo in such a seemingly unlikely spot that I spent - one might say wasted - several minutes enthusing on the subject rather than actually getting any work accomplished. The idea that it's the relatively weak and the unskilled who benefit most from specialization and the division of labor is so foreign to an American-public-school education that, even as I write this, I have to think it all out again as if it were the first time I encountered the idea.

If you are unskilled, there is no doubt that cultivating one or more skills that are (or will be) in demand will better your position. But even without particular skills, each individual has something of value to trade with - and the fewer specialized skills he has, the greater proportional benefit he will see from a mature marketplace with a high degree of specialization and division of labor. The mere existence of specialists will make his willingness to do unspecialized labor valuable to them. This is exactly why the unskilled laborers of America are likely to have pickup trucks and widescreen TVs.

There's a sort of built-in progressivism to the division of labor that, although it benefits all and almost always will benefit specialists by an absolutely greater amount, provides a greater proportional benefit to those who are relatively unskilled or weak. Again, this notion is so profoundly the opposite of the accepted economic tales of "robber barons" and Dickensian factory owners that, even while writing it, I find it startling.

The idea of the division of labor isn't so much about the skilled and the wealthy exploiting the labor of the unskilled and the poor as it is about the benefits of cooperation to everyone. That those who bring better skills or more experience to the cooperation do absolutely better is no surprise, but the fact that those who bring relatively less in the way of skills and experience to the market gain a proportionately greater amount is big and exciting news to a world steeped in the weak tea of socialist labor theory.

Real civilization is built on a foundation not of exploitation but of cooperation. And those with the most to gain from civilization and the cooperation it is built upon are the weak and the unskilled. Chain together my clumsy pitchforking, my sister's skilled farm management, her boss's business acumen, and his clients' professional success, with their employees' skilled and unskilled labor alike and you start to see the only real "safety net" the working world will ever know: the vast and amazing web of transactions and interdependencies of the marketplace, where even the weakest and least skilled have something of value to contribute.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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