Friday, May 22, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Argument From Public Safety


It can be argued that public safety is served by killing such criminals. A dead person has literally zero chance of harming anyone. An imprisoned person can, in theory, escape and do more harm.

This is less clear-cut than the "justice" argument. People do escape prison, and sometimes they kill innocents while out. So if you execute terrible criminals you may kill innocents by mistake; but if you fail to execute them innocents may die anyway. Now we have an lives-to-lives comparison, if we can just dig up the statistics.

Per this (informal) source, less than 1% of prisoners escape, and most of those are people who walk away from minimum security work gangs, not murderers. Those numbers seem believable. We'll take that 1% number for now, being generous to the pro-execution argument.

Now, people sentenced to execution may still escape and kill people before they die. Time spent on death row varies, but the average is something like fifteen years, plenty of time to escape. The average age of prison admission in Florida is about 30, and while Florida is freakish in many ways, that's consistent with other numbers I'm seeing elsewhere. Let's also assume that a prisoner's average lifespan is about seventy-five years. So someone sentenced to die has about fifteen years to escape and kill again. Someone sentenced to life has about forty-five, or roughly three times that long.
(We'll simplify and assume that escapees are equally distributed by age, meaning a 74-year-old is as likely to escape as a 35-year-old. We'll also assume that an escaped 74-year-old who's spent his entire life in jail and a 35-year-old recent convict are equally dangerous to the general public. Again, we're being generous to the pro-execution argument. Stranger things have happened.)

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are roughly 170,000 murderers in prison. Per Wikipedia, roughly 3,000 are sentenced to die, and about 160,000 are sentenced to life, so that's consistent with the BJS data.

Now let's pretend we didn't have the death penalty. In that scenario, those 3,000 are sentenced to life instead. We're supposing that 1% of those, or 30, will escape, which again is generous in the extreme. We'll also suppose that a third of those escapes take place in the first 15 years of imprisonment, meaning they would have happened even with the death penalty. So now we have roughly 20 additional escaped murderers who would not have escaped if we'd executed them on schedule. And let's just assume they all kill one person before being recaptured (again, generous, as most escapees are captured very rapidly). So the death penalty saves twenty innocent lives, by this argument.

Now let's go back to our 4% false conviction rate. That means that of that 3,000 sentenced to die, roughly 120 are innocent. Let me say that again, just to get the full horror across: our government is going to kill 120 innocent Americans, no more guilty than you or me. That could be you, your neighbor, your family. This is not abstract, these are actual people that are going to die for no reason, no different than the innocents killed by those escaped prisoners.

Keep the death penalty and 120 innocent people die. Even assuming the wrongful execution rate is 1% instead of 4%, that's still 30 innocent deaths.

Eliminate the death penalty and 20 innocent people die, being extremely generous. For more realistic estimates of escape rates and the number of murders committed by escaped prisoners, a better number is more like two.

I don't see any way to massage these numbers to give a different result. Even being orders of magnitude more generous to the death penalty argument than is reasonable, the math doesn't work out. As long as our wrongful execution rate is higher than 1% and our escape-and-murder rate is less than 1%, the death penalty kills more innocent people than it saves. And the real numbers are a hundred times worse than that.

When evaluated with real-world data, the public safety argument works against the death penalty.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Calibration elections

I've talked in the past about how trust in elections is critical. Right now the system simply can't be audited, by design. We have hyper-partisans building, installing, and maintaining closed systems with known flaws. There's no possibility of recount, and no way of knowing that your vote was counted correctly. As a recent example of this, in a recent UK election a candidate received no votes, despite claiming that he voted for himself. Regardless of that particular situation's outcome, it does lead to some more thoughts.

One of the biggest potential security holes in the election system is the secret ballot. Let me be clear: the secret ballot is absolutely critical to having a functioning democracy. We've all lived our lives in a world with nothing but, so maybe it's harder to see that. But consider what would happen if you could prove to anyone how you voted: your boss, your family, your religious group could threaten you into voting how they want. The only way you can be confident to cast your individual ballot by your preferences is if you can never prove to anyone how you voted.

The down-side is that you can never prove to yourself how your vote was counted. I've proposed better voting machines, based largely around maintaining secret ballots. But we still have reduced faith in elections as a whole because of this. But suppose that mixed among the actual elections we also had calibration elections. Elections not for real people, but only to make sure the system works.

A simple question would be asked. "What is your favorite pizza topping" for example; something utterly trivial and subjective. Ballots in the calibration election would be marked and counted with the exact hardware being used for the real elections. The only difference would be the ballots themselves, which would be marked with the voter's name. The voter would also receive an identical copy of the ballot to take home. All the results would be posted to the internet, for each individual to check.

You wouldn't be able to prove that your real votes were counted properly. But you would be able to at least prove that the system works. It would still be possible to cheat the system; nothing's perfect. But I, for one, would have far greater confidence in our elections if this was part of them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Argument From Justice, Retribution, or Punishment

It is argued that some people simply deserve to die; that, given what they've done, their continuing to live is inherently unjust, regardless of other considerations. This is related to the argument that the victims' survivors deserve retribution. Let's assume that this is so, and that our goal is to minimize the injustice in the universe. Sentencing such people to life in prison creates injustice, and is therefore bad.

The counter-point to this is that executing an innocent person is also unjust. All it does is create a new victim, and do nothing for the survivors of the original. So the injustice created by an avoided-but-deserved execution is one value. The injustice created by executing an innocent is another value. Now since we are trying to minimize injustice, we must ask: how many avoided executions does it take before that injustice exceeds the injustice of executing one innocent?

And remember, we're not talking about killing criminals to save money, or for public safety. We're talking about killing them as an end unto itself. Would you, personally, be willing to kill one innocent person if it meant you also got to kill ten jailed Hitlers? A hundred? A thousand? From a perspective of justice, how many deserved executions is an innocent life worth?

My answer is infinity. I don't care how many horrible criminals I have to leave living in a hole forever; executing one innocent person is worse. By the argument of justice, as long as there is any chance that you might ever execute an innocent person, that potential injustice outweighs all the possible injustice of leaving actual criminals alive.

Tolkien asked, "Some that die deserve life; can you give it to them?" Obviously the answer is no. What we can do is not add to their number. That, at least, is just.

Let me know when the odds of a wrongful execution reach zero. Otherwise, argument from justice works against the death penalty.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fraternal Order of Police Candidate Survey

Earlier this year I considered running for Nashville Metro Council. I took out the signature forms, but concluded I couldn't commit the time to do the job effectively, so I won't be turning them back in.

However, I have been put on all sorts of interesting mailing lists. I thought I'd share the results with you. This one is from the Fraternal Order of Police, Andrew Jackson Lodge No. 5.

  • Would you support the pay study plan and increase Metro Nashville Police Officers pay above mid range?
  • Would you support current employees keeping their earned pensions?
  • Would you support the current pension plan and allow this plant to remain in effect for current officers?
  • Would you support additional ZONE officers?
  • What is your position regarding body cameras for police officers? What are your recommendations for funding such a program? How would you rationalize rules for their use, keeping in mind Tennessee privacy laws, children and use inside of homes?
  • Do you support the relocation of the Police headquarters? The Metro Police Academy is in need of an indoor firing range and repairs made to the running track and runway due to multiple pot holes. Do you support allocating money for the Metro Police Academy?
  • What is your assessment on the current police administration?
  • Would you support a police chief being promoted from within the department?
  • Would you support an ordinance changing the civil service rules to include a Police Officers' Bill of Rights?
  • Will you promise not to make pledges or commitments that will limit Metro's ability to meet obligations to employees?
  • Will meet with the FOP board members on a regular basis?
  • Have you or will you sign a no tax pledge?
A lot of these questions make sense. They're concerned about officers' pay, pensions, and resources. I am interested in what their "right" answers are regarding body cameras, and what would be included in a Police Officers' Bill of Rights. I'm assuming it's similar to this, which all sounds perfectly reasonable. Would that civilians had some of those rights!

Now, what's the deal with a no-tax pledge? That seems to have zero to do with police work, except insofar as it makes it impossible to run a functional government, in many cases. In theory, that should mean they're against a no-tax pledge. But the Republican Party has often convinced people to vote against their own best interests; has that happened here? I can't tell.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Death Penalty Analysis: Introduction

I recently listened to the Intelligence Squared debate on the death penalty. I didn't have a definite opinion on capital punishment before that, but it helped me organize my thoughts. I'm writing this series to help me organize my thoughts further. As per usual, this is not a formal analysis. All my numbers are rough. I'm just seeing if any of these arguments have any chance at all of being valid.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am considering only people who have been convicted of literally the worst imaginable crime; I'd name one, but someone will come up with a worse one, so just use the worst crime you can imagine. If anyone deserves to be executed, it's these people.

I'm also considering that the alternative sentence for these crimes is life in prison, and I'm assuming that it is better for an innocent person to spend life in prison than to be executed. Admittedly that last bit is arguable, but it's the assumption I'm making.

The critical question, the one that determines this entire debate, is this: what are the odds of an innocent person being convicted?

One study puts that number at 4%. Out of 25 people convicted, one will be innocent. That number is shockingly high. Even if you dispute the actual number (and reasonable people can disagree, especially on capital cases), I don't think anyone would dispute that innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn't commit. If you do so dispute, please consider this list of confirmed wrongful convictions, and this one of wrongful executions. And I'd suggest watching this episode of Brain Games (presently available on Netflix streaming). Any conviction based primarily on eye-witness testimony is inherently suspect.

I've heard four arguments for capital punishment, which I will address independently. All of these are based on a somewhat fictional premise: that sentence is the only variable, and that once sentenced, a prisoner will be executed. In reality, that's not true, but we'll talk about the effects of that difference later. I'm trying to analyze the simple theoretical case before getting to the more complex real one. When we add the complexities back in, we'll see if my arguments change.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Republican Congressional District Census

I just got a survey form in the mail from the Republican Party. Some of these questions are impressively leading. They're clearly asking questions so they can phrase the results the way they want for a sound bite, not so they can actually make policy decisions. And the questions are clearly worded to provoke anger and get the answer they want.

1) Do you generally identify yourself as:
  • Conservative Republican
  • Moderate Republican
  • Liberal Republican
  • Independent Voter who leans Republican
  • Tea Party Member
  • Libertarian
  • Other________
 ["Stephen"]

3) If you plan on voting in the 2016 Presidential elections, do you plan on voting for:
  • the Republican Nominee
  • the Democrat Nominee
  • Undecided
[Or, you know, the other dozen candidates...]

10) Do you believe the Republican Party should continue to embrace social issues or are these too divisive when it comes to winning elections?
  • Embrace
  • Too Divisive
  • No Opinion
[I'd rather the Republican Party not embrace social issues because their positions are often ignorant, unchristian, and stupid. It has nothing to do with being too divisive.]

1) Do you think things in our country are continuing to go in the wrong direction, or do you feel things are going in the right direction?
  • Wrong direction
  • Right direction
  • Unsure
[Things? There are many things! Some things are going right, some things are going wrong, and many, many things are going nowhere.]

3) Do you think our Republican leaders in Congress should be aggressive in forcing the Obama White House to work with them to create jobs, cut taxes and regulations, end economic uncertainty, and make America more competitive?

[Some of those things are contradictory...]

5) Do you favor a major overhaul of the current Federal Tax Code - currently thousands of pages long - that would replace today's burdensome tax system with one that is simpler and fairer?

[Well, yes. Of course, the Republican idea of doing that is typically "raise taxes on the poor so you can cut them on the rich." Obama's proposal to do literally exactly what this question asks, closing loopholes and simplifying deductions while remaining revenue neutral, was shot down immediately. Keep in mind, I don't like Obama; if anyone else was putting the lie to what these people claim to be their goals, I'd use them as an example instead.]

10) With revelations of "Fast and Furious", IRS abuses, the Benghazi cover-up, and other major scandals in recent years, do you feel Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have the right to hold government bureaucrats' feet to the fire and demand more transparency from the Obama administration?

[Do a bunch of manufactured, minor, or non-existent scandals justify demands for transparency? No. Demands for transparency shouldn't need to be justified. And I love how they're still referring to the Benghazi cover-up when their own repeated investigations concluded there was no cover-up.]

11) Do you believe more federal laws that impede individuals' Second Amendment rights are the proper response to recent gun violence in our nation?

[No, gun control isn't going to help much. But... did someone propose gun control laws while I wasn't looking? I'm really asking, here. Because after all the Republican talk of Obama coming to take all our guns six years ago, I haven't seen him make move one in that direction.]

12) Do you support Republican efforts to defer fully implementing ObamaCare and replacing it with something that will address the high cost of health care while maintaining the quality of care?

[The grammar here is weird. "...to defer implementing and replacing it..."? Anyway, I'd be open to the idea if the Republicans would make a specific proposal. I haven't heard anything with any details, except very rarely, and those details were nonsense upon examination. Probably because ObamaCare is the Republican plan. Was when Gingrich proposed it, was when Romney implemented it. They can't come up with better ideas because all of them have already been used.]

14) Do you favor Republican efforts in Congress to better strengthen our borders and fight President Obama's unconstitutional, unilateral decrees in writing new immigration policies?

[I don't think I could write a more leading question if I tried.]

1) Are Republicans in Congress right to fight back against the Obama Administration's efforts to severely cut America's military power?

[What efforts are these, then? Did I miss where we'd cut the number of carrier battle groups we maintain? Are we not still the core of the expanding NATO alliance? I'm pretty sure we've got a couple hundred thousand troops available now that weren't at the beginning of the Obama administration...]

3) Should America take military action if necessary to keep Iran and North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons?

[Little late on NK obtaining nuclear weapons. If the US should have taken action to prevent that, you should have told Bush.]

6) Should the US take a more muscular attitude toward Russia as it moves toward re-establishing itself as a military and economic superpower?

[What does it mean for a country to take a muscular attitude towards another country? Obviously, the bigger intent of the question is to imply that our present attitude is insufficiently muscular. Under any circumstances, utterly crippling their economy is as muscular as I care to get. What, do you want a nuclear war? Don't answer that.]

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Circular Square

A year or two ago I ran off on a tangent and made a website I thought would revolutionize grocery shopping. I called it Circular Square. Simple concept: give it your zipcode, and it will search the major chains for locations near you. It gives you their addresses, links to Google Maps, and links to their weekly sales circulars.

You can then search all those sales (or some subset) for a particular item that might be on sale. It will come back with everything matching your search. It was essentially a giant collection of scrapers with a clean  single-page AJAX front-end. It took a good bit of work to make each scraper, but I ended up with eleven or so, covering half the major chains around Nashville.

Got a shopping list, and want to know the best place to get each item this week? Problem solved. This site could save you half an hour of searching through fliers.

Oh, but it gets better: you would be able to log in and save searches! The system would then email you when something you wanted to stock up on went on sale. Love Blue Bell ice cream, but only willing to buy it if you catch the rare half-price sale? Just watch your email! And on top of that, it would search the coupon sites too! This thing was going to be beautiful. You can still go to the site and get an idea of how it went. (Saved searches didn't work yet, though.)

But I ran into a slight problem: the websites I was scraping change constantly. After a year or two without maintenance, only six of the eleven scrapers still give location results, some of those links don't work properly, and only two still give sale results. It's still pretty sweet for Aldi and Harris Teeter, though!

At the time I concluded that this wasn't going to be worth the effort to maintain. But I'm starting to reconsider. I can obviously make this site work. I even enjoy writing the scrapers, it's a fun puzzle to solve. But the real problem is that it has to be worth my time. I see a few possible business models.

1) Completely free. I just use it for my own purposes, save my own money and time, and let others use my tools if they want to with no guarantees of functionality. I'm pretty confident I wouldn't end up maintaining it very long under this model, but if I had some help it might survive.

2) Ads. The search page itself contains ads, the emails contain ads, ads ads ads. Not the insane sort that flash and blink and start talking, but some relatively unobtrusive ones. Might offset the time cost some.

3) Subscriptions. You get some subset of services for free, but having more than say three saved searches costs you. So then my question is, what would you pay for this?

4) Additional services. Maybe it makes a giant grocery list, then hires an Uber driver to go pick it all up for you. Or something marginally less crazy?

So I'm throwing it out there. What do my readers (all three of you) think? Should I pick this project back up, finish it out, and maintain it for a while? Would anyone out there use it besides me?