Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On Ferguson. My Very Limited Thoughts.

The events of yesterday:  No indictment for Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown.

How to write about that?

We could begin from this end of the funnel (pictured above), the narrow end, the one that released the no-indictment conclusion yesterday.  What happened in the grand jury proceedings?  How do such proceedings usually work and how did this one work?

It looks like this one was pretty different.  Grand juries almost always decide to indict.  The exception is in the case where the accused is a police officer.   Police officers tend to get the benefit of the doubt.

Did Darren Wilson get that benefit?  And if he did, why?

There are at least three possible explanations as to why grand juries are so much less likely to indict police officers. The first is juror bias: Perhaps jurors tend to trust police officer and believe their decisions to use violence are justified, even when the evidence says otherwise. The second is prosecutorial bias: Perhaps prosecutors, who depend on police as they work on criminal cases, tend to present a less compelling case against officers, whether consciously or unconsciously.
The third possible explanation is more benign. Ordinarily, prosecutors only bring a case if they think they can get an indictment. But in high-profile cases such as police shootings, they may feel public pressure to bring charges even if they think they have a weak case.
“The prosecutor in this case didn’t really have a choice about whether he would bring this to a grand jury,” Ben Trachtenberg, a University of Missouri law professor, said of the Brown case. “It’s almost impossible to imagine a prosecutor saying the evidence is so scanty that I’m not even going to bring this before a grand jury.”
What does all this mean?  Here's the problem with writing about legal topics, about events which take place far away.  The writer (me) should ideally understand everything about the laws of the state where Ferguson is located, about the past history of grand juries there, about the local politics, both racial and economic, about how prosecutors work and how they see their roles.  Most importantly, the writer should have all the evidence the grand jury was given, to truly figure out what was happening.

I cannot do any of that properly, and that's why this post is about the dance my own thoughts perform with the serious and important events taking place.  Because of my lack of competence in the required fields I have not said much about Ferguson.  But not saying anything about Ferguson seems off to me.  Hence these musings.

Climb up a bit into the funnel from the narrow end, while still focusing on the grand jury proceedings.  What about that prosecutor, eh?  Did Mr. McCulloch  sound to you like a prosecutor does?  Like someone presenting a case for the grand jury while essentially acting for Michael Brown?  To get justice for his memory and for his family and friends?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Uber. On "New" Alternatives To Traditional Worker-Employer Arrangements

Uber, one of the alternatives to traditional taxicab companies, has been in the news for all sorts of reasons, including its founders apparent sexism.  Those are all negative news, but  Uber and other companies of similar ilk are obviously doing quite well, and there are objective reasons for that:

They can fill gaps in markets where taxi medallions are monopolistically awarded by increasing the number of cars-for-hire, they can offer extra income for students and others who own a car and some extra spare time for driving, and they can even reduce a certain kind of racism, the kind where a cab will not stop to pick up a passenger who is black, say.

But on one level Uber doesn't look like a traditional corporation at all:  It looks more like a marketplace.  Note that it doesn't provide the workers with cars, it doesn't maintain the cars, and it most likely does not offer the drivers retirement benefits or health insurance.  Its main task is to match buyers of driving services with the sellers of driving services, and that sounds more like a market than a firm, though the Uber app itself is also a form of capital which belongs to the firm.

The reason I put the "new" in the title of this post between two raised sets of fingers is that the arrangement is not really new.  Indeed, in Victorian England poor seamstresses had to provide their own scissors, thread and needles before they could be paid for sewing work, organized by larger entities which looked like corporations.  The seamstresses were entrepreneurs in the sense that they carried the risk if the needles broke or rusted or if the thread turned out to be of low quality and useless for the job:  When that happened their earnings were much reduced.  The entity which hired them for work, on the other hand, only paid for the finished work some constant sum.  That moved some risk away from the presumed real entrepreneur and to the workers themselves.

It's that aspect of who-bears-the-risk that I find most interesting here, as an example of economic theory.  The usual econo-babble argument is that firms make profits partly because they bear the risks:  Many entrepreneurs go under while others thrive, and that's because of the risk game.   You lose some, you win some, and in a way it is the risk-bearing aspect of entrepreneurship which most appeals to our ethical antennas and reassures them of the rightness of those extra profits for the winners.

But what happens when the workers are all independent entrepreneurs?  Can the average Uber driver figure out the replacement costs of the car in his or her profit calculations?  That there is an actual per-mile cost of wear and tear and gasoline consumption when driving customers around?  Has that average Uber driver looked into the question of car insurance?  Will the company which insures the car accept claims which come from a professional use of a car that was insured for family use?

As far as I know, Uber insures the customers of the Uber cars, not the cars or their drivers.

Uber is not alone among the "new" arrangements of risk-sharing in labor markets.  In a sense the giant eBay is nothing but an app for getting buyers and sellers together, but it has also contributed to the slow death of the bricks-and-mortar antique and second-hand stores and increased the atomization of the market on the seller side.  It has made the transactions more invisible, because we no longer really know who we are trading with, whether the buyer will pay or send back a flawed specimen of the same product, demanding full repayment or whether a fraudulent seller simply disappears, to pop up shortly under a different name.  Even though eBay is clearly a roaring success, it also contributes to a certain amount of risk juggling downstream.

Or take this example of FedEx drivers: FedEx argues that its drivers are not employees, entitled to all sorts of employee benefits, but independent contractors.  The courts will decide if that works, but here's the reason why firms pursue that avenue:

Treating workers as independent contractors can save companies as much as 30 percent of payroll costs, including payroll tax, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and state taxes, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a workers’ rights group. Using independent contractors offers companies advantages, says James Baron, a management professor at Yale. “[It’s] driven in part by uncertainty about demand, and about future conditions, and a feeling that the firm has more flexibility with respect to scaling up and scaling down,” he says.*
Because independent contractors aren’t covered by wage and hour rules, they don’t have to be paid overtime, and they can be required to pay for uniforms and truck maintenance. Contractors don’t have the right to unionize and aren’t covered by employment protections in the Civil Rights Act, so they can’t use those provisions to sue over sexual harassment or discrimination.

I have bolded the last sentence because it suggests an additional problem for women and/or people of color in these arrangements.

This post was caused by something I read today, about Uber facilitating subprime car loans for its drivers:

Uber is reportedly facilitating subprime auto loans to its drivers. According to a report by tech blog Valleywag, the car share company is hooking up drivers with loans through Santander Consumer USA that can be paid off through Uber paychecks. The company is specifically marketing these loans to drivers with bad credit saying, "Even if you have bad credit or no credit at all, we can help you get behind the wheel in a week." Uber contends that these loans are low-risk, but others think that this is indicative of a larger auto-loan bubble in the U.S.
Fascinating stuff!  Once you have a loan like that, your incentive to keep on driving for Uber is strengthened.  But it's you, the driver, who bears the risk of default, not Uber, the company.

*Translate that part into ordinary speech and it says that risk will be transferred downstream..

Thursday, November 20, 2014

All the New Republican House Committee Chairs Share One Thing

They are all men:

Notably, none of the new House committee chairs are women. Current House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) remains the only female on the roster of panel leaders, which was announced earlier.

Is "House Administration" like housekeeping?

The Republican Party sighed a great sigh of relief after deciding that the war-against-women issues didn't seem to work in the last midterm elections.  Now they can run the party the way it should be run, as an old white boys' tree-house, and ignore those pesky wimminz' issues.

All this is hilarious.  Or would be hilarious if I was reporting on it from outside the country and if the Republican Party didn't vote almost 100% against everything that would make women's lives easier (family leave, equal pay, contraceptive choice etc. etc.)

But there's a technical reason for that dearth of women on the top of the Republican pyramid:  There aren't that many Republican women in the Congress in the first place, so the pipeline is nearly empty (or the oven turned off).

PS. I always remind readers in these posts that the relevant way to judge "diversity" is by thinking about population percentages and how well the percentages in the Congress reflect those.  From that angle Republican women are sorely under-represented. 

A Housekeeping Post

Can you see the comments link when you read the blog?  I noticed that my SeaMonkey (a backup browser) doesn't show the comments link at all.  If you use SeaMonkey, do you see a door to the comments?  It should be right below each post.

Anything else I should know?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When Life Gives You Don Lemon...

(This post is about sexual and physical violence.)

The background to this story is a vast and tentacled one*,  about the fifteen (so far) women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault at some point of  his long acting career.  One of those women, Joan Tarshis, was interviewed by Don Lemon about her experiences.  The transcript:

LEMON: Can I ask you this, because -- and please, I don't mean to be crude, OK? 


LEMON: Because I know some of you -- and you said this last night, that he -- you lied to him and said "I have an infection, and if you rape me, or if you do -- if you have intercourse with me, then you will probably get it and give it to your wife."

TARSHIS: Right. 

LEMON: And you said he made you perform oral sex. 

TARSHIS: Right. 

LEMON: You -- you know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn't want to do it.
TARSHIS: Oh. Um, I was kind of stoned at the time, and quite honestly, that didn't even enter my mind. Now I wish it would have. 

LEMON: Right. Meaning the using of the teeth, right? 

TARSHIS: Yes, that's what I'm thinking you're --

LEMON: As a weapon. 

TARSHIS: Yeah, I didn't even think of it. 

LEMON: Biting. So, um --


LEMON: Yes. I had to ask. I mean, it is, yeah.

TARSHIS: Yes. No, it didn't cross my mind.
On one level Lemon asks one of those questions which are commonly asked of people who come forward only a long time after an alleged sexual assault:  Why didn't you go to the police then?  Why didn't you resist or resist more?  Why did you go out with him (or ended up alone with him) in the first place?

Some ask those questions because they wish to ascertain (from the answers) the truthfulness of the allegations or because they wish to give the person interviewed a chance to explain her or his reasons for staying silent such a long time.  Some ask those questions as a form of victim-blaming, and some appear just clueless.

I think Don Lemon falls into that last category, though I'm willing to put him into all the categories if he so wishes.  But it's clueless to suggest that a woman in those circumstances should bite the man's penis,  perhaps to bite it off (thus causing him potentially to bleed to death).

Consider the circumstances:  You are alone with a man larger and stronger than you, a man much more powerful and famous than you, and you are told to escalate the situation by biting his penis.   What could possibly go wrong?

A lot could go wrong, both immediately (risk of physical violence increases, someone might die) and in the longer-run (a possible court case about excess use of force in self defense, combined with trying to prove the sexual assault in the first place (so that it is just excess force in self defense, not in an attack), a probable end to one's current career plans, stigmatization for life if the case becomes public).  Indeed, the circumstances in which biting-the-penis results in a happy ending for the victim are extremely improbable.

I can't believe I actually wrote the above paragraph!  But then Lemon's comments would have seemed pretty incredible a few days ago.
*Even vaster if you set it into the framework shared by Jhian Ghomeshi, a Canadian television celebrity who has recently been accused of hitting and choking women he dated.  Ghomeshi's defense is that he was acting the sadist's role in a fully consenting sado-masochistic relationship.  The women who have come forward say that they were not asked for consent and did not consent.

That larger framework is about more questions:  The power of the powerful, the pitfalls of power, the differences and similarities between those cases and the alleged or proven sexual and/or violent assault cases by less powerful individuals.

The imbalance of power in the Cosby and Ghomeshi cases has received shorter shrift than it deserves. It doesn't only affect the initial settings of the alleged acts but the likely consequences of reporting the acts to the authorities. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

And A Little More About That Shirt Debacle: Glenn Reynolds Chips In.

In some ways it really began as a storm in a teacup, and I missed the ball on something important when writing my previous post, though Crissa in the comments pointed the omission out:  There was no big feminist uproar about the shirt-with-the-leather-corseted-women, if by "big" we mean something written out on very large numbers of feminist blogs and/or talked about on various list-serves.

Indeed, after I checked all this, I found nothing about the shirt on those list-serves.  Glenn Reynolds (newly come to his full blossoming as an MRA (Men's Rights Activist)) also tells us is that there really wasn't much of a storm in the first place.  He states that two women whose jobs are linked to science commented on the shirt:

The Atlantic's Rose Eveleth tweeted, "No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt." Astrophysicist Katie Mack commented: "I don't care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn't appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM." And from there, the online feminist lynch mob took off until Taylor was forced to deliver a tearful apology on camera.
I'm not sure what this online feminist lynch mob looks like.  It couldn't have been enormous, because I missed it for quite a time. But sure, there were a few blog posts on the shirt.

What Glenn Reynolds seems to have missed is the responses Rose Eveleth, for instance, received.  They are not mentioned in his article so I'm going to put a few of them here:

Those are good to keep in mind when thinking about this bit from Glenn:

"Mean girls" online mobbing may be fun for some, but it's not likely to appeal for long. If self-proclaimed feminists have nothing more to offer than that sort of bullying, then their obsolescence is well deserved.
Added later:  It's almost impossible to measure various "mobs" on Twitter.  They could be a handful of people in some cases and a large group in other cases.  So we should be careful when using words like a "Twitter mob".  What can be measured, to some extent, is the number of responses individual tweeters get.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Story of The Shirt With Leather-Corseted Women

This BBC article summarizes the story, with relevant pictures.  The scientist in the quote is Matt Taylor:

One of the leading scientists on the Rosetta Project gave a string of TV interviews in a shirt emblazoned with half-dressed women. The angry reaction online spawned two hashtags, spoof images and has now led to a tearful apology as well.

The Story of the Shirt has indeed provoked lively debates online and possibly elsewhere, too.  There are two major sides to these debates, and because I happen to be bilingual in this stuff, I'm going to give you the main messages of both sides, in terms which are clear to people on the other side!  Isn't that useful and wonderful?

Let's begin:

First, the side which can be simplified into "women-in-science and women interested in those banned-word* issues":

Here we go again!  An important public interview about the fun and excitement in science, a major moment in the history of space exploration, and women are present in leather corsets sticking out their butts and tits from the shirt.  The broculture in action!  It's their world and we can only visit it if we are willing to stick our butts and tits out the same way.  If he had to wear a shirt with women on it, why not this one?

And this is what Taylor said in the interview:

During an interview about the landing, Dr Taylor had branded the comet landing 'the sexiest mission there’s ever been. 
'She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.'

Got that?  It's good to remember that Taylor's field is covered with guys, in statistical terms.  All this (and the broculture) should be kept in mind when considering the above message from one world.  It's also important to remember that this shit is drip-drip-drip, nonstop, even though consisting of tiny and essentially trivial jabs in one's eyeballs and ears.

Second, the defenders of Matt Taylor.  This group consists of people who think Taylor is just a bit of a goofball:

The guy is socially clumsy.  After all, scientists are socially clumsy.  He was trying to make the point that he's just the average guy, having fun, wearing a shirt a friend made him, showing all of us that science is fun and that nerds aren't really nerdy at all but ordinary folk:

Before the emergence of #shirtgate, Dr Taylor, a father-of-two and the son of a brick layer, praised on Twitter for being 'a proper cool scientist' and 'definitely not boring'. 
One Twitter user wrote: 'Dr Matt Taylor is what every scientist should look like - rad shirt, sleeve tattoos. Rad,' while another said: 'Matt Taylor causing thousands of people to choke on their cornflakes this morning.'
And imagine if you were given this public treatment for the way you were dressed somewhere in public (I once wore a black shoe and a blue shoe)!  
The scavengers have landed on the still-warm corpse of someone who offended the feminazis!  Poor guy.  He didn't mean anything sexist with that shirt.  He was just showing us the human side of being a scientist.  At the end of this idiotic debacle he had to apologize and he was in tears, and that's the real injustice, right there.

Got that?  Some people made a giant mountain out of a molehill and then tried to suffocate a well-meaning but socially inept scientist under that mountain.

And what do I conclude from all this, given my divine viewpoint?

That both sides are correct in some ways.  I doubt very much that Taylor tried to explicitly make women feel that they don't belong in science, and I doubt very much that he chose to see the project as a woman who must be seduced etc in order to put women in their proper place (outside science but sexually available).

At the same time, that's the message he was broadcasting, if ever so slightly.  And the reason for that is pretty obvious:  The ways we define "a normal guy" and "just having fun" do not exclude shirts like that or statements like that unless you are well-versed in gender issues and the complaints linked to the broculture in STEM fields.  Some people have the luxury of not having to be well-versed in those issues, and for that group the whole incident looks like people taking out a cannon to kill a mosquito on the poor man's forehead:  Reactions utterly out of scale with the presumed crime.

Compare that to the drip-drip-drip aspect of all those little acts that are tilted by gender.  Perhaps another mosquito parable would apply here:  One mosquito you can swat away, but if you are always surrounded by a horde of them you do become rather sensitive to mosquito stings.

Whatever you might think about that, someone probably failed in organizing those interviews and in making sure that Taylor was appropriately dressed for the occasion.
*That would be feminist.  See Time magazine for more details.