Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

Two neighboring headlines caught my eye last week, proclaiming two prominent social problems.

“‘Robbed’ of His Life by a Wrongful Conviction” tells about the tragedy of Larry McKee. After 20 years in prison, a judge threw out McKee’s conviction for murder, because key evidence had never been given to his defense. Multiple witnesses, including the dying victim, had identified the killer as Hispanic. That evidence had been given to a grand jury, but the prosecutor withheld it from the defense during the jury trial. McKee is black. He is one of thousands of men, most of them minorities, who were put in prison for serious crimes of which they were innocent.

The other story also tells of men who some say are judged “guilty until proven innocent”. Before mocking Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, Donald Trump offered his assessment of the consequences of the #MeToo movement: “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” “You can be somebody that was perfect their entire life, and somebody can accuse you of something, and you’re automatically guilty.”

This is a familiar refrain from Trump, who has himself been accused by multiple women of sexual assault. When his aide Rob Porter was accused of abusing two wives, Trump tweeted, “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” When it was revealed that Bill O’Reilly had settled five harassment claims against him, Trump said, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong. He is a good person.” He also called Roger Ailes “a very good person” after he was ousted from FOX News in 2016.

Are these two situations comparable?

The new ability to use tiny traces of DNA to put individuals at a crime scene has greatly increased the possibility of exonerating innocent people. More thorough oversight of some police departments has revealed long-running scandals, where officers railroaded innocent people with coerced confessions, planted evidence and false testimony. The number of exonerations of innocent people has jumped from between 50 and 100 yearly between 2000 and 2010, to over 150 since 2015.

In 2017, 139 convicted people were exonerated. A majority of them, 84, had been convicted due to misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials, as in McKee’s case. Another 96 people were released through “group exonerations” in Baltimore and Chicago, because police officers had been methodically framing them for drug crimes.

Who are the people who are guilty until proven innocent?

I did a search on “men in prison exonerated”. The first two pages of news stories showed 3 men without photo, 1 Hispanic man and 9 black men, including a Detroit man who spent 45 years in prison. That impression is backed up by more serious studies. The Innocence Project shows photos of 362 cases exonerated by DNA evidence since 1992: a majority of the images are black men. An earlier study showed that about 70% of DNA exonerations were men of color.

A thorough study in 2017 about “Race and Wrongful Convictions” found that a majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are African American. African Americans were the major targets in the series of police scandals that have been uncovered recently.

Are men who were “perfect their entire lives” being unfairly targeted by allegations of sexual misconduct? False accusations of sexual assault and rape are very rare. The FBI estimated that 8% of rape allegations were “unfounded”, which includes cases where there was insufficient evidence to prove a case in court or the victim decided not to go through with a full investigation. A study in 2010 found that the prevalence of false accusations of sexual assault is between 2% and 10%. Very few of those unfounded allegations result in an arrest. False accusations tend to be made by teenage girls trying to get out of trouble, not by adult women describing what happened to them in the past. Over the past two decades, about 15 times as many murder convictions were found to be false as rape convictions.

The problem is the reverse. Women report only a minority of sexual assaults. Various studies have found that between 6% and 38% of men admit in surveys to having sexually assaulted women.

These situations are similar, but not at all in the way claimed by Trump and other critics of #MeToo. In both cases, a privileged segment of American society, white and male, has systematically victimized underprivileged Americans, female and not white, and walked away. The members of the Bronx district attorney’s office, who did not provide “potentially exculpatory evidence” to McKee’s defense, walked away long ago. All of the prominent men who have suddenly found themselves held responsible for their treatment of women, from which they walked away for years, are outraged by their new plight.

The key number is one to remember, especially right now: only about 1 in 20 accusations of sexual assault turns out to be false.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 9, 2018

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Fooling All of the People

I just heard a radio interview with Paul Ekman, who has been studying lying for decades. He concludes that there is no biological tell, no Pinocchio’s nose. No matter how sophisticated the polygraph or how astute the listener, there is no magic formula to unmask liars.

I’ve also been reading “I Spy: How to be Your Own Private Investigator” by Daniel Ribacoff. He has also spent years thinking about lying, and lying himself, in pursuit of true information. He outlines the obvious physical and verbal tells. These can be applied by anyone to any case, from what relatives say to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. By those professional standards, Kavanaugh’s testimony is not very believable.

Lies are not any old untruth. Ekman developed a careful definition: “a lie is a deliberate choice to mislead a target without notification”.

We spend a lot of money and time being misled by people we pay to mislead us. Last night I saw “The Devil’s Own” with Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford in their younger days. Pitt was an Irish terrorist, but a good guy. He worked hard to make me and millions believe that. But we had been notified: it’s a movie. Or it’s a play, it’s a sitcom. It’s a novel. We expect a fictional narrative to be a fiction, an attempt to convince us to believe just while we’re reading that these people are alive and real.

The line between fact and fiction has been getting blurrier for decades. But when authors at reputable organizations tried to hide the liberties they took with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they have been exposed and punished. Fact-checking still works.

This election campaign brings us a special seasonal offering of nationwide lying, the attack ad, on behalf of people hiding behind the people in tiny print. An attack ad does not have to be untruthful. If “opposition research” meant what it sounds like, it would be useful. We need to know as much as possible about candidates who want to run the country. But the “research” is dishonest at the start: what can we discover about our opponent that can be transformed into an untrue but effective TV ad?

By using character assassination to slip ahead of their opponents, politicians of all stripes debase our political system and tarnish themselves, too. They say, “It’s just my campaign. I must do this to get elected. Other people were trying to help me. I was misquoted.” Lies on top of lies.

I don’t mean to blur the differences in untruthfulness among attack ads. We must distinguish between stretching the truth and creating a big lie. The Swiftboaters spent millions to create a big scurrilous lie to influence the presidential election. As a “private citizen”, Trump heard about and spent millions to propagate a big lie about Obama’s birth.

But with a dose of naive optimism, we hope the campaign liar will become the honest government official, and that’s especially true about every President. A President is in a unique position to know anything. We get more political news from him than from any other person. Every president lies, and some have told whoppers of great significance. In his farewell speech in January 1961, President Eisenhower gave a remarkable warning about the dangers of our developing political-military-industrial complex. But it was drowned out by John Kennedy’s campaign insistence on a fictional missile gap.

Johnson told lies about Vietnam that resulted in thousands of American deaths and many times more Vietnamese deaths. Nixon was a crook, who got his start by employing dishonest attack ads in the 1950s.

Perhaps we are naive no longer. Trump is different, lying automatically about everything, from inconsequential but easily verifiable things, like the size of his inauguration crowd, to dangerous attacks on our democratic system, when he says that leftists and illegal voters rigged the election he won. The best minds in America, led by Kris Kobach, couldn’t turn up any evidence for that, either.

He lies and calls anyone who catches him a liar. Since he lies so much and so insistently, he ends up calling nearly all major sources of news our enemies.

Conservatives have been calling the most dedicated seekers after truth, scientists, professors, and journalists, who all tend to produce public information conservatives don’t like, liars for many years. On the other side, the most dedicated purveyors of falsehood have become conservative heroes. The media savvy outrager-in-chief Alex Jones and the seemingly academic Heartland Institute have both been peddling one big lie after another to self-selected conservative audiences with great success.

Can I learn anything from attack ads? Yes, but not what their creators intend. We shall know you by what you say about others. Compare what candidate A pays people to say about candidate B with what other sources say. Think about evidence. Candidate A says much about himself by trying to mislead you without notification. It takes more work, but we need to put in more work to know how to vote.

If you vote for perpetrators of political assault, eventually they will assault you.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 2, 2018

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Poor Are Invisible

Go shopping at the grocery store. Order a burger or a taco. Buy clothes at the department store. Go about your normal life.

There are no poor people. Or just a few, as you drive by the homeless shelter, where a few people might be smoking outside. Or you see someone in ragged clothes shuffling around downtown. Maybe someone asks you for a quarter.

So there’s a few poor people, but not many, not enough to make more than fleeting impressions on your day.

The newspaper doesn’t show poor people, either. There’s no poor person explaining how they get along on page 1, no reports on policies in Washington that take poor people seriously. Poor people don’t make the sports or culture or society pages and are even unlikely to appear in the obituaries, which cost money.

Students at prestigious universities won’t see poor people in their classes. Most poor young Americans, aged 19-22 and in the bottom 20% of incomes, are not in college. Those who are don’t show up at the famous private universities, where, for example, all our Supreme Court justices were educated. Many of those schools enroll more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.

But you have been surrounded by poor people all day. More than 1 in every 8 Americans lives below the poverty level, over 40 million Americans. The greeter at Walmart, the young woman taking your food order, the shopper looking for day-old bread – they might all be poor.

You just don’t know they are poor. You don’t know about their struggles to put food on the table for their families, about how poverty causes health problems, about how they choose between paying rent and getting health insurance. You don’t see them buy clothes at the thrift store, because you only ever go to the side entrance to drop off things you don’t need. You don’t see them at the emergency room, because you can schedule an appointment with a doctor and pay a quarter of what an uninsured person would be charged. You only see their neighborhoods through car windows and don’t have to think about how they got that way.

Adding to their invisibility, the poor are more concentrated in rural America than in cities. One-quarter of rural American children live in poverty, somewhat more than the one-fifth of urban children.

Poverty has many causes. Some are personal choices, like drug use, while others are bad luck, such as an accident. But the level of poverty in a nation is a consequence of political choices. The United States has more poor people than all other countries with similar economies, because of decades of political choices. More than 1% of Americans, that’s over 4 million people, live on less than $1.90 a day. Among the 10 countries with the highest per capita income in the world, the United States has by far the highest proportion of very poor people, more than twice as many.

Poverty is an inherent part of the American economic system. Over the past 40 years, the American economy has boomed, but the number of people living in poverty has grown steadily with our population. The boom helped the rich, not the poor. In that period, the incomes of the top 1% doubled, while the incomes of the bottom fifth grew a total of 4%.

Conservatives have made poverty into a liberal cause. Anyone could advocate for the poor, but conservatives in America have chosen to blame the poor for their plight, depicting the poor as venal, lazy spongers. Ronald Reagan picked out a singular woman con artist as a “welfare queen” to illustrate his view of everyone who was on welfare. FOX News regularly offers “evidence” that the poor live comfortably from welfare. Paul Ryan compared the safety net to a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”.

Americans who are conservative tend to blame the poor for being poor. More than half of Republicans believe that people are poor because of a lack of effort, true for only 19% of Democrats.

Poverty is more than twice as likely for blacks, native Americans and Hispanics, than for whites. So white Americans tend to greatly overestimate the connection between poverty and race, which feeds into the conservative tendency to blame poor people, who are assumed to be minorities, for their poverty.

Those attitudes explain Republican efforts to cut holes in the safety net for the neediest Americans. The Republican tax reform paid for huge cuts for the wealthy by reducing health care funds for the poor.

It’s easy to ignore the poor, to pretend there aren’t very many of them, that they get what they deserve, that they have nothing to do with us. None of that is true. No child deserves to get poor medical care or to have to miss meals every day. The poor do the jobs we don’t want and their low wages mean we can afford more of what we don’t need.

The poor don’t live off of us – we live on them.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 25, 2018