On theft and bullying.

On theft and bullying.

We aren’t born equal.

We never have been, not humans or any other animals.  Among species that birth in litters, the baby that leaves the womb largest has a lifelong advantage.  In the modern world, where a baby happens to be born dictates its future prospects to a huge degree.  Maybe it’ll be born in the United States, instantly reaping the benefits of citizenship.  Or maybe it’ll be born into a war-torn nation, amidst strife caused by climate change… which was itself caused by the creation of wealth and prosperity for all those U.S. babies.

And we use our initial advantages to further tilt the scales.  The largest mammal in a litter pushes the others aside and takes the most milk.  The rich get richer.

The same principal holds true in astrophysics.  The more dense a black hole, the better it will be at grabbing additional matter.  Densely-arrayed galaxies will keep their neighbors longest: because empty space expands, the rate at which stars drift away from each other depends upon their initial separation.  The farther away you are, the faster you will recede.  The lonely become lonelier.

But we are blessed.  Through the vagaries of evolution, humans stumbled into complex language.  We can sit and contemplate the world; we can consciously strive to be better than nature.

We can read Calvin and Hobbes and think, “Hey, that’s not fair!”

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It is perfectly natural for Moe to get the truck.  He is bigger, after all.  He is stronger.  In the world’s initial inequalities of distribution, physical prowess determined who would reap plenty and who would starve.  After all, not all territories are equivalently bountiful for hunters or gatherers.  Now we have sheets of paper that ostensibly carve up the world amongst us, but in past eras raw violence would’ve staked claims.  Human mythology brims with accounts of battle to gain access to the best resources… and we humans still slaughter each other whenever insufficient strength seems to back the legitimacy of those papers.

When the threat of contract-enforcing state violence in Syria waned, local murder began.  And we lack an international state threatening violence against individual nations – inspired partly by the desire for resources, George W. Bush initiated a campaign of murder against Iraq.

Except when we’ve banded together to suppress individual violence (the state as Voltron), the strong take from the weak.

At least we know it’s wrong.

We’ve allowed other forms of bullying and theft to slip by.  After all, differing physical prowess is only one of the many ways in which we are born unequal.  If it is wrong for the strongest individual to steal from others, is it also wrong for the most clever to do the same?

weaponsofmathdestructionFrom Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction:

But the real problem came from a nasty feeling I started to have in my stomach.  I had grown accustomed to playing in these oceans of currency, bonds, and equities, the trillions of dollars flowing through international markets.  But unlike the numbers in my academic models, the figures in my models at the hedge fund stood for something.  They were people’s retirement funds and mortgages.  In retrospect, this seems blindingly obvious.  And of course, I knew it all along, but I hadn’t truly appreciated the nature of the nickels, dimes, and quarters that we pried loose with our mathematical tools.  It wasn’t found money, like nuggets from a mine or coins from a sunken Spanish galleon.  This wealth was coming out of people’s pockets.  For hedge funds, the smuggest of the players on Wall Street, this was “dumb money.”

the math was directed against the consumer as a smoke screen.  Its purpose was only to optimize short-term profits for the sellers.  And those sellers trusted that they’d manage to unload the securities before they exploded.  Smart people would win.  And dumber people, the providers of dumb money, would wind up holding billions (or trillions) of unpayable IOUs. … Very few people had the expertise and the information required to know what was actually going on statistically, and most of the people who did lacked the integrity to speak up.

O’Neil was right to feel queasy – after all, she had become Moe.  All the high-frequency traders – who are lauded as brilliant despite often doing no more than intercepting others’ orders, buying desired products a millisecond before anyone else can, and re-selling them at a profit – are simply thieves.  Sometimes they are stealing because they are more clever.  Other times, they are stealing because their pre-existing wealth allows them to buy access to lower-latency computer servers than anyone else.

In any case, Calvin would disapprove.

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Thankfully, O’Neil quit stealing (although she doesn’t mention returning her prior spoils).  After all, that is part of our blessing – we cannot change the past, but…

… and here it’s worth mentioning that Ludwig Wittgenstein was clearly incorrect when he wrote that “One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.  If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely’, it would not have any significant first person present indicative.”  Most physicists believe in free will and the mutability of the future, despite also knowing that, according to the laws of physics, their beliefs should be false…

… we can always fix the future.

(As a special treat – here is one of the most beautiful comic strips about opening your eyes to change.)

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On preventing future crime.

On preventing future crime.

4557822128_5d9ba71628_zFeeling safe is great.

Ask anybody with PTSD – feeling unsafe is the pits. A perception of danger elevates cortisol, wears the body out, and makes it hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to remember anything.

And – properly wielded – state violence is the best way to keep people safe. Of course, the term “state violence” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about police officers murdering innocent people, which has led many to experience way more stress, their hearts racing whenever a patrol car is spotted down the street.

leviathanI’m only fond of state violence that protects. We Homo sapiens have a long evolutionary history as a violent species, and state violence at its best prevents violence from individuals. This is the basic idea behind Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.

A good practical example is the state violence that facilitated the civil rights march from Selma. The town was full of murderous individuals. Only the presence of armed federal soldiers – a clear imposition of state violence – prevented the far worse, anarchic violence that would’ve been perpetrated by locals.

At its worst, though, state violence is horrific. You get wanton destruction of life and liberty on a massive scale. Which is grim to think about, given that my own country is now helmed by a fickle racist who celebrates his own acts of violence against women.

Violence from a bad state isn’t keeping anybody safe.

10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConsider mass incarceration as currently practiced by the United States. Forcibly locking someone inside a prison or jail is a clear exercise of violence. In some cases, this violence keeps us safe. For instance, my mother-in-law was murdered last year. The man who killed her should be kept away from society so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else until he’s better. The brutality of this incident leads me to suspect he has some serious emotional disturbances at the moment.

But this dude has been shut inside various prisons for over nine years already… after convictions for non-violent drug crimes. When the state locked him away for all those years, were we the people made safer?

In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil proffers a reason for doubt:

weaponsofmathdestructionWhat’s more, for supposedly scientific systems, the recidivism models are logically flawed. The unquestioned assumption is that locking away “high-risk” prisoners for more time makes society safer. It is true, of course, that prisoners don’t commit crimes against society while behind bars. But is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? Is there a chance that years in a brutal environment surrounded by felons might make them more likely, and not less, to commit another crime?

Yes, I’d say there’s a chance. I doubt many people would disagree. Even those responsible for locking dudes in prison sometimes acknowledge that they’re doing the wrong thing.

While C. J. Chivers was researching his New York Times Magazine article about Sam Siatta, a marine who returned from Afghanistan with severe PTSD and no support, Chivers met with Jason Chambers, the prosecuting attorney whose office sent Siatta to prison. (After returning from the war, Siatta tumbled into alcoholism, and one night broke down a stranger’s door while stumbling home drunk from a party.) Many thought Siatta should be offered treatment instead of prison, but the prosecutors were unyielding. Siatta was socked with a six-year sentence.

Until, that is, Chivers arrived. Once Chambers learned that a reporter was investigating the case, he promptly offered to vacate the conviction. Siatta was released that week.

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From Chivers’s article:

There was a question to explore: Why did Chambers propose exactly the resolution to the case that his office had resisted for two years?

Chambers described a criminal-justice system that resembled an overworked mill. His office handles almost 5,000 cases a year, he said, and it was not possible for him to follow each of them closely …

From his point of view, Chambers said, the plea deal in the works was not actually a large shift. Siatta had received the minimum sentence for a Class-X felony and would soon plead to more than the minimum sentence for a felony one class down. “From a practical standpoint, it is a big change,” he said, because Siatta was out of prison. “From a legal standpoint, it is a hair’s width apart.”

And for society, Chambers added, the new arrangement was probably safer. If Siatta were to behave well in Shawnee [prison], he would be eligible for release in less than three years and would return with virtually no counseling or care for his PTSD. Now Siatta would be under state supervision for several years, receiving care throughout. “The rationale for me became, ‘What makes people safer over the long term?’ “ he said. “Is it treatment or just getting him off the street?”

Chambers is almost certainly correct: we the people will be safer if Siatta is given treatment instead of more time in prison.

Of course, our jails and prisons are so flawed that the same is probably true of most everyone sent away.

There’s even data showing how much less safe incarceration makes us. Individual prosecutors and judges have an inordinate amount of discretion, and defendants are randomly distributed among them… which means we’ve inadvertently conducted something like a controlled study. When a dude is busted for possession, he might land the judge who’s hard on theft but soft on drug crimes, in which case he’ll walk. Or he might land the judge who comes down hard on drugs and get four years in prison.

It’s absurd that a coinflip decision – which judge you’re assigned to – is the only difference between four years and freedom. From the perspective of justice, this is a nightmare. But from the standpoint of science, it’s great! Who doesn’t love controlled studies? Equivalent people are being assigned to receive either prison time or freedom, basically at random, which lets us compare how they fare afterward.

When Michael Mueller-Smith combed through the data for over a million defendants, he found that locking people up increases the likelihood that people will need expensive government services after release and increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes.

Oops.

It seems quite likely that the choices made by New York state prosecutors – locking a then-harmless poor dude away for a decade – led to my mother-in-law’s death.

jamestrentAnd yet. I’ve been trying not to end these essays on a dour note. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who spends time in prison becomes somehow tainted. So I’d like to close with advice from James Trent, whose lovely personal essay “A Visit from an Outsider” recently appeared in The New Yorker.
Despite being labeled with scorn by our criminal justice system and shunted away for decades on end, Trent resolved that even in prison he would do and be his best. He knows he’s made a positive impact on people’s lives during his time there. And he advises we do the same:

when you have a bad situation occur in life you can choose to become bitter or better. Choose to be better!