Saturday, July 4, 2015


I found myself listening to cable news today. I appreciated the music, and people telling what they loved about America. I appreciated that there were many tributes to the armed forces, as there should be. But it's important to remember that ISIS and Iran and North Korea are not threats to our freedom. Al Qaeda and Iraq and Afghanistan were never threats to our freedom. Vietnam and Panama and Germany and Japan were never threats to our freedom. We've been attacked by outside forces, and Americans have been killed. American soldiers have died by the hundreds of thousands to bring freedom to others. But not since 1814 has American freedom been threatened from outside.

Our freedom is threatened from within, by those that divide us, and try to use fear and anger and lies to manipulate us.

Our freedom is threatened by a government that operates in the shadows, ignoring the will of the people and the rule of law and the rights of man.

Our freedom is threatened by those who deny the rights and humanity and American-ness of their neighbors, and who try to use force of law to punish those who do not share their personal beliefs.

Our freedom is threatened every time someone tries to shout down a dissenting opinion, instead of discussing it, and every time someone rejects a fact that doesn't fit their partisan narrative.

Our freedom is threatened by government dysfunction, by elected representatives more committed to beating the other side than to finding solutions that work, and by elections whose outcomes do not reflect the will of the people.

Our freedom is threatened by a false definition of patriotism, one that says it's unpatriotic to recognize problems and try to fix them.

Our freedom is contingent on the idea that we are, as individuals and as a country, imperfect. The framers created a more perfect union, leaving to us the job of making it more perfect still. If we reject that charge, if we decide we are good enough and that no further improvement is possible, then we surrender our freedom to those in power. Because why should we strive to be better if we're good enough already?

If you call yourself a patriot, then you must ask yourself: how can America be better for all Americans, not just the ones I happen to agree with? And how can I help make that happen?

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: False Guilty Pleas

Why would someone plead guilty if they're not? Plea bargaining. In a plea bargain, the state tells an accused person "You are going to jail. Just say you did it, even if that's a lie, and you won't go for as long."

A plea bargain is great if the state is dealing with a guilty person. But what if they're dealing with an innocent? Regardless of how good a job the police and district attorneys may do, they will make mistakes occasionally, and accuse the wrong person. That's why we have courts and trials in the first place! Nobody but courts should be determining guilt or innocence.

It's just a matter of incentives. If a truly innocent accused is convinced they're going to jail, they will accept a deal and plead guilty, even if they did nothing. By offering plea bargains, the state is literally threatening innocent people into putting themselves in jail.

There is no justice in this. If we want to reduce the rate of false convictions, we first have to eliminate incentives for innocent people to convict themselves. Plea bargains may save the state time and resources, but only at the cost of the integrity of the entire system. We shouldn't be pushing innocent people to convict themselves. Plea bargains should be illegal.

(Now, I admit, we're not talking about the death penalty any more. Plea bargains contribute to wrongful convictions, but not to wrongful executions. You don't get the death penalty after accepting a plea bargain! What could you have pleaded down from?)

Of course, plea bargains exist to save the state money. So we get back to the same question we asked about the death penalty: what is the dollar value of not incarcerating an innocent person? Compare that against the dollars saved by not going to trial at all. I don't have numbers in this case, but I'm betting it doesn't work out in the plea bargain's favor.

At least, once any value at all is placed on the innocent.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions

The details of implementation are the difference between the death penalty working financially and not. So what if we imagined different details? Can we come up with a better system overall? And if we do, where does that leave the death penalty?

One serious problem with our present system is the high rate of false convictions. This doesn't just apply to capital cases; it needs to be fixed across all cases. The system already admits there's a problem, and tries to ameliorate it by providing appeal attorneys to those on death row. But doing that only for death row inmates, and only after years in prison, is treating a symptom, and treating it poorly at that. We need to keep innocents from being convicted in the first place, of any crime!

So what are the causes of wrongful convictions? I am clearly not a lawyer, but from my naive perspective, I see two ways someone gets convicted: pleading guilty, or being found guilty. I'll talk about both in upcoming posts.

Monday, June 22, 2015

2016 Presidential Candidates: Republicans, Part 1

The way our system is set up, electoral votes in most states are winner-take-all. That essentially disenfranchises most voters in the general election; most states' outcome is a foregone conclusion, meaning your vote doesn't matter. Tennessee's electoral votes will all go to the Republican candidate, so why bother voting for President?

The primaries are a different issue. Your vote there matters much more. The problem, of course, is that there are just so many candidates to get familiar with. The below is my attempt to summarize major public statements and headlines regarding the various declared candidates, with links to relevant news articles. Each name links to the Politifact fact-check of that candidate, and their overall record for truth or lies.

We'll start with the Republicans, because they're just so much more interesting lately. There are so many I'm going to have to break them up into multiple posts. I'm going to do the declared candidates first, in alphabetical order by last name, then cover the likely prospective candidates. I am not covering Jack Fellure or Mark Everson. There's virtually zero information about them.

Note that many of these points may seem like negatives, against the candidates. That is not by design. It is likely a consequence of most headlines about candidates in general being negative. I have, however, injected some commentary. I try to roast all candidates equally. Also note that some candidates have many more points than others. This is also not by design; some simply have fewer headlines about them to choose from.

Jeb Bush
Former governor of Florida, brother of W Bush, son of HW Bush.
Ben Carson
Ted Cruz
  • Opposes net neutrality while loudly demonstrating his ignorance on what it actually is, calling it "Obamacare for the internet"
    • "It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices." Everything about that sentence is wrong!
  • Claims global warming isn't happening
  • Thinks emergency care is cheaper than preventive care
  • Missed 10% of votes the Senate held during his time in office
  • Opposes disaster aid from federal government to the states... except his own
  • Supports unlimited campaign contributions
    •  Because it would make things more fair, you see!
  • Shut down the government because his party lost an election, and doesn't regret it
    • Oh, and led protests of the government shutdown 
  • Said that the recent court decisions on gay marriage and Obamacare are "some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation's history"
    •  Aside from, you know, literally thousands of others... get some perspective, man
  • Completely fails to understand how Christians can be opposed to actions of the state of Israel
  • And while it's not about Cruz personally, his father has some very strange pseudo-Christian views of his son being a fulfillment of some made-up end-times prophecy...
Carly Fiorina
  • Completely failed to run HP
  • Opposes net neutrality
  • Lies about corporate tax rates
    • US corporate tax rates are nominally high, but the actual collection rate (i.e. the number that matters) are quite low because of so many loopholes
Lindsey Graham
  • Is willing to raise taxes under some circumstances
    • Of course, his idea of raising taxes is very limited, but it's better than the usual "revenue isn't the problem" lie
  • Seems to have at least some support for environmental issues, if only to bow to political reality and not because he actually believes in them
  • Wants to eliminate habeas corpus, doesn't think imprisoned people should need to be proven guilty
  • Rejects his own party's multiple reports on the Benghazi attacks
  • He said that Obama is not a Socialist, he's a good man!
    • Of course, he also says he's extremely liberal, which you can only say if you have no idea what extreme liberals would actually do...
  • Says you can't govern based on anger, wants to govern based on realism instead
  • Has a completely awful record on foreign policy matters
Mike Huckabee

This guy was governor of Arkansas, ran for President, and now has a Fox News show. He has basically made a living speaking in public for most of my life, so he has more positions than I can possibly cover here. I summarize him thus: America is, was, and should become a Christian nation, wherein his particular version of Christian beliefs are given force of law. This version of Christian beliefs include:
  • Christian education in public schools, including young-earth creationism
  • Support of Israel removing Palestinians from Palestine
  • Banning all non-thereputic abortions, including pregnancies from rape
  • Banning gay marriage or adoption
  • Amending the Constitution to these ends
He's surprisingly sane on some other issues, and kinda nuts on others. Here's a survey of some things that caught my attention, but like all the candidates, I hope you'll read more:
  • Says school shootings happen because God has been removed from schools
    • ...despite the fact that church shootings are far more common...
    • ...and which god is he worshiping, that can be removed from schools? 'Cause mine can't be...
  • Thinks only women who can't control their libido need birth control
  • Thinks we're moving towards the criminalization of Christianity
    • Called the Obama administration "openly hostile toward the Christian faith"
  • Arranged parole for a rapist who raped and murdered again
  • Rejects the principle of judicial review
  • Supports a 30% federal sales tax
    • Cut taxes on the rich, raise taxes on the poor...
  • Says that vaccines don't cause autism! Yay reality!
    • Isn't it sad that I have to point out that he's sane about this?
  • Doesn't understand how the ACA handles pre-existing conditions
  • Wants to vastly increase the size of the American military
    • How is this to be funded? Unclear.
    • But he supports peaceful options with Iran
  • Told people to not enlist in the military until an overtly Christianity-enforcing President is in place
    • Never mind that the last time we had one of those, our military ended up with thousands of dead and tens of thousands of wounded...
George Pataki

And here we find the opposite of Huckabee. For a man who's been in the public spotlight for nearly twenty years, he has relatively few headline-making position statements on major national issues, and most of them are over a decade old. He talks the usual small-government talk, but he's at least somewhat out of step with the typical Republican positions on abortion, the environment, and gun control, which gives me hope he can think independently. I have no reason to think this man is either incompetent or insane.
  • Worked to repeal the ACA
  • Opposes a national sales tax (as of 2000)
Rand Paul

Friday, June 19, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Summary

We've looked at four main arguments for the death penalty. Given the wrongful conviction rate is, and will remain, non-zero, argument from justice will always fail. Given the low rate of escape, especially escape with further murders committed, argument from public safety fails. Argument from deterrence is functionally impossible to prove either way. Argument from cost works in theory, but doesn't in practice, because of how our system is set up to minimize wrongful executions.

Should we remove those safeguards? Execute more innocent people to save money?

I imagine most of you will say 'no'. I'll propose one last thought experiment instead: suppose we make all trials for either death penalty or life in prison have the same procedural safeguards. I would argue that that is a good idea; after all, sentencing someone to life in prison is no less taking their life than sentencing someone to die is. Shouldn't they be equally protected? And now the death penalty may actually be cheaper, like in the naive estimate.

But we just made the whole justice system cost-prohibitive; there are a lot more life-in-prison trials than there are death penalty trials. Can society afford to spent tens of billions of dollars on those increased costs? Once again we're putting a price on justice for the innocent. No matter which way you frame it, no matter whether you're talking about death or life, we're always forced to ask the question: what is the dollar value of saving an innocent life?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Adding Reality Back In

So from previous posts, argument from cost is the only possibly convincing argument to retain the death penalty. But there were simplifying assumptions I made; we left out a lot of the procedural differences between capital and non-capital cases.

Right now, death penalty cases are subject to additional expensive regulations that other cases aren't. There are two separate trials, lots of judicial oversight, and many additional prosecutor and defense resources are consumed. The appeals process is more complex, and most states provide appeals lawyers that are not constitutionally required to be provided in other appeals cases. All of that is paid for by the state. In theory, all of this is done to reduce the wrongful execution rate.

Let's assume it does. How does that change the arguments?
  • Argument from deterrence remains impossible to prove either way.
  • Argument from justice still falls against the death penalty, unless the government provided lawyers reduce the false execution rate to zero. Anyone willing to make that claim? I'm not.
  • Argument from public safety doesn't have quite as high a standard, as the wrongful execution rate doesn't have to quite get to zero. But given the extremely low escape-and-murder-again rates, it has to get very close to zero. Based on observational evidence, that doesn't seem to happen
  • Cost of the death penalty has now gone up substantially compared to life in prison. Executing someone now costs more than simply leaving them in prison forever. The death penalty just lost its only compelling argument.
In theory, the death penalty might make financial sense, if no other kind. In practice, as presently implemented, it doesn't even get that. With the present system, all four arguments work against the death penalty.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Argument From Deterrence

It is argued that the death penalty acts as a deterrent in ways that other penalties don't, and thereby lowers the crime rate and improves public safety. I'll admit, that doesn't work for my psychology. Whether I lose my life after fifteen years in prison or after fifty, I've still lost my life. But that's just me. I'm not a representative sample.

We'll try to analyze this argument from a statistical perspective, as well. Going back to our public safety argument, we can figure that something like 120 innocent people are on death row right now. Since they'll be there for about fifteen years, that's about 8 innocents per year killed if we keep the death penalty. Will the deterrence effect of the death penalty existing prevent more murders than that?

The homicide rate in the US is about 14,000 per year. I can't find a number for how many of those are premeditated (and thus subject to deterrent effects), but we can come up with a reasonable number. There are about 100 new death sentences per year, and not all premeditated murders result in a death sentence due to differing laws and circumstances and plea bargains. So let's say 1,000 murders a year are premeditated. In that case, if the death penalty deters even 1% of potential premeditated murders, it makes up for the lost innocent lives.

That's an effect so small that almost no experiment I can imagine could convince me it existed. Smarter people than me have tried, and the results are similarly unconvincing. Given that, I think that's where deterrence has to land: it might work, it might not, and there's no way to tell. This argument is null in either direction.