aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Monday, February 19, 2007
Bass on Amero: Take Action
Right after my newsletter was posted, many of you asked what you could do. You can check the Julie Amero blog and consider helping by way of the Julie Amero Defense Fund.
If you’re interested in details, there are two excellent articles that go into technical high-gear. The first is Randy Abrams’s “Can a Legal System Unversed in Technology Result in a Fair Trial?” Next is Mark Rasch’s 7-part Mouse-Trapped.
Your Cards and Letters
You can also use the power of e-mail. The State’s Attorney responsible for supervision of David Smith, the prosecutor in the Amero case, is Michael L. Regan. You might want to write him and strongly urge he help Smith file a motion to vacate the conviction. An e-mail to the Chief State’s Attorneys of Connecticut Kevin T. Kane and Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell can’t hurt, either. (There are more e-mail links on the Julie Amero site.)
If you write, however tempting, try not to go on a rant. Use your computing expertise—and a civil argument—and you’ll likely get better results.
The case has the public’s attention and it’s taken on an energy that won’t be stopped. Stay tuned.
Agreed. And for all the others who have not gotten our attention, the plea I’ve appended to all of my Amero posts:
WE NEED A COMPUTER FORENSICS INNOCENCE PROJECT; a Barry Sheck and Peter Neufeld of the computer forensics world. We need experts who believe in the presumption of innocence and are willing to spend the time it takes to dig through logs, registry entries and hard drives to find exculpatory material when present. This is hardly the first case of its kind and, unfortunately, it’s not likely be the last. Prosecutors who look for - and presume - guilt do selective searches for data supporting guilt; those accused rarely have the resources to pay computer forensics experts to counter that selective evidence.
Libertarian Paternalism gaining traction
In a NYTimes Talking Points column last week, Helping People Help Themselves (subscription), Teresa Tritch does an excellent job of walking us through the emergence of behavioral economics:
From “lather, rinse, repeat,” to how you invest for retirement, the way you do most things now is the way you’ll continue to do them. That all-too-human tendency to favor the familiar and resist change, called “status quo bias,” is a central finding of behavioral economics - a discipline that fuses psychology and economics. Behavioral economics has demonstrated that in money matters (as in life), people are motivated by impulses that are measurable and predictable - and often irrational. That won’t surprise anyone who ever threw good money after bad, succumbed to a fad or ate the whole thing. One of the founding fathers of behavioral economics, the late Amos Tversky of Stanford University, once quipped that the scientific exploration of human behavior illuminated what was already obvious to “advertisers and used car salesmen.”
And yet most economic models and the public policies they inspire still assume that human beings behave like Mr. Spock of “Star Trek.” According to the models, people are guided in their decision making by a consistently rational and highly reliable sense of their own best interest.
That notion is finally changing.
Behavioral economics first emerged some 30 years ago, most prominently with the research of Mr. Tversky and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University. By the 1990s, the field was being popularized. In 1990 and again in 1997, for example, Money magazine used behavioral economics to create features and quizzes designed to explain why smart people make dumb money moves. In 2002, Mr. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to behavioral economics. Increasingly, the field is attracting some of the brightest minds in economics, involving the nation’s major universities and think tanks, publications and conferences.
But it wasn’t until last year that behavioral economics first shaped public policy in a big way, via the pension reform law of 2006.
The behavioral economics aspect of the pension reform law is that it allows an employer to automatically enroll employees - who may opt-out - in a 401(k). It also allows automatic increases, the idea being that we can default into what’s in our best long-term interest and triumph over those pesky instant gratification desires that hold us back.
Tritch explores how this might be applied in other areas of our lives, from smoking to the cost of a printer (she highlights the $29.99 Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 3747 Color Inkjet printer, which has a four-year cost of $2,400 when you include ink for about 20 black and white copies a day. “Should that information be prominently disclosed?” YES!!!)
Questions of if and when the government should decide are also loaded.
Most any government intervention seems objectionable if you assume that people usually make the best choices for themselves. That anti-government sentiment is intensified if you also believe that markets are impersonal, leading by some inexorable logic to optimal outcomes for society-at-large.
Behavioral economists reject those assumptions. But it doesn’t automatically follow that government solutions are inevitable or even desirable: Excessive regulation of economic activity would lead to a nanny state.
In their articles and in a forthcoming book, titled “Nudge,” Mr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein suggest a middle ground. First, they point out the importance of acknowledging that in many situations, some person or entity must make choices that affect others.
Think back, for example, to the pension reform law. Before automatic enrollment, employers chose to require employees to enroll in a 401(k) plan. Because of the employer’s choice, an employee who did not enroll would contribute zero percent of salary to the plan. In other words, zero was the default contribution. Mr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein point out that in situations where it seems that no one is making a controlling decision, it is usually because “the starting point appears so natural and obvious,” it is taken as a given. Automatic enrollment, however, is a different choice that establishes a different default position. Is steering the employee in the direction of participating objectionable? No, especially since the employee is free to opt out.
Which leads to their second point in the search for a middle way between hands-off government and the nanny state. If no coercion is involved, there is no justification for rejecting government interventions out of hand.
Policies that do involve coercion - taxation, for one - obviously require public support to be sustained. If the support dries up, the policy presumably will, too.
But it is a mistake to oppose tax-supported programs like Social Security or universal health care on the faulty assumption that everyone does better when individuals take their best shots in the marketplace.
Critics of behavioral economics are quick to point out that government officials are also human, subject to the same biases that trip up the rest of, and thus would be no better at making decisions than anyone else. That’s an oversimplification. Expertise, professionalism and experience work to mitigate biases, as do debate, discussion, deliberation and oversight. In a functioning democracy, we have a right to expect and demand those traits and processes in government, in which case, we could rely on government decisions, at times, more than our own.
This being a democracy, we could rely, but verify.
I’ve long been an admirer of Cass Sunstein, but my first introduction to his more recent work with Richard Thaler on what they call “libertarian paternalism” came in a podcast of his talk delivered in the 5th Annual “Chicago’s Best Ideas” series last October.
I was immediately swayed. I’ve downloaded their principal paper, Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron (a brief 45 pages), but have not yet read it. As my title suggests, I can only hope these ideas gain traction. Tritch’s article reads like a right step in that direction.
The Divine Miss M
When I think Cleveland, like many a gay man of my era, I think Bette Midler and Live At Last recorded by Atlantic Records at the Cleveland Music Hall in 1977. Featuring those wonderful Sophie Tucker jokes. (Doug laughed out loud; and complained of typos.) An evocation of then (sans Sophie jokes)…
Making Cleveland a gay vacation spot won’t be easy
According to the PlanetOut Travel Awards, Ohio ranks at the very bottom of the list of gay travel destinations, right along with Iran and Uganda. (And those places have better weather.)
The Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland announced last month that it wants to change that.
The bureau will start marketing the city to gays and lesbians, hoping to lure deep-pocketed travelers to the North Coast.
It won’t be easy. The gay community is still sore about the 2004 election, which saw 62 percent of Ohio voters not only ban gay marriage, but also void any legal benefits for same-sex relationships. (We probably would have required the burning of rainbow flags if that had been on the ballot.)
The Sex Panic: Why we’re freaking out
It’s not them; it’s us!
I’ve quoted Pariah before. From Sexual Fascism in Progressive America: Scapegoats and Shunning:
Even before Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex was published in 2002, a massive campaign by fundamentalist Christian groups, including Concerned Women for America, attacked the publisher, the University of Minnesota Press. While the book was published, the Press created a new process for reviewing its books before publication. Levine spoke publicly about how she was humiliated time and again in public. She said the manuscript for her book had been turned down by many publishers, treated as if it were “radioactive.” Among other insights, Levine wrote that “obsession with pedophiles stems for the reluctance to confront incest and the rampant sexualization of children” in American culture. “Adults project the eroticized desire outwards, creating a monster to hate, hunt down and destroy.” Of the outcry against her book she added, “What happened to me is a perfect example of the hysteria my book is about.”
Emphasis mine; that quote rings true to me. Then there’s this reality-check, 95 percent of Americans had sex before marriage:
More than nine out of 10 Americans, men and women alike, have had premarital sex, according to a new study. The high rates extend even to women born in the 1940s, challenging perceptions that people were more chaste in the past.
“This is reality-check research,” said the study’s author, Lawrence Finer. “Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades.”
“Challenging perceptions” indeed! We imagine an idealized puritan past that we want to force the world to live by today.
Let’s bring our perceptions - and our laws - in line with reality. The problem is not 16 year-old suburban boys or 17 year-old football players or 40 year-old female substitute teachers. Rather, what we’re dealing with here is our own guilt and shame. We should face it, deal with it, and stop criminalizing our kids and our neighbors for it!