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Robert VerBruggen - August 23, 2014

This Atlantic article from Robert P. Jones is making the rounds (see Zack Beauchamp in Vox and Jamelle Bouie in Slate). It says:

Drawing on techniques from social network analysis, PRRI's 2013 American Values Survey asked respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey. The results reveal just how segregated white social circles are.

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. ... In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).

In an important way, as Jones writes, these numbers matter -- they show that white Americans are less likely to have interactions with members of other ethnic groups, and therefore might be less likely to understand where people of other races are coming from.

But I'm not sure that these results are surprising, or that they suggest a statistically disproportionate amount of self-segregation for whites. The U.S. population as a whole is 63 percent non-Hispanic white, 13 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian. This means that the baselines are different for different ethnic groups -- in an America with no sorting whatsoever, whites' social networks would still be 63 percent white, but black social networks, for example, would be only 13 percent black. Similarly, just by chance, white Americans would be far more likely to fall into groups that are entirely same-race. (The odds of a white person's first friend being white as well would be 63 percent, the first two 40 percent, the first three 25 percent, and so on, multiplying by .63 each time. For blacks, the numbers would start at 13 percent and decline rapidly, to 2 percent, 0.2 percent, and so on.)

So, comparing the raw tendency to have same-race friends is highly misleading if we're trying to measure the propensity to self-segregate. And it's not clear what a better method would be. These kinds of comparisons are incredibly tricky -- especially because all the numbers are tied to each other (when one ethnic group avoids others, those other ethnic groups' social circles by definition become more homogenous too), and because the groups' sizes are so different (e.g., it's easily possible for blacks' social networks to be twice as black as the general population, but whites' networks would have to be 126 percent white for that to happen).

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

'Less Lethal' Flash-Bangs Used in Ferguson Leave Some Feeling the Burn

Abbie Nehring, ProPublica - August 22, 2014

Peter Callahan was caught between two police lines in the West Florissant section of Ferguson, Mo., on Sunday night, when something fiery hot singed his leg. A nearby protester's shirt briefly caught fire.

Callahan, a Washington D.C.-based journalist, deduced that he had been hit by a flash-bang device. "I was also at Occupy Wall Street," he said. "This is a lot worse."

Among the debris protesters and journalists have picked up in the days since Michael Brown was killed are canisters of the 7290 flash-bang made by Combined Tactical Systems, a "less lethal" diversionary device that has made its way into law enforcement agencies' toolkits to carry out search warrants, and less frequently, to disperse crowds.

Flash-bang devices are one of many military-style weapons being used in Ferguson, along with tear gas and beanbag munitions. While marketed as non-lethal, there have been instances in which flash-bangs have caused serious injury and sometimes death when used by police, prompting debate over their proper use.

Earlier this year, a flash-bang critically injured a two-year-old baby in Georgia when a police special response team threw one into a crib while entering a home on a narcotics warrant.

According to Sgt. Colby Dolly, St. Louis County's 18-member tactical unit used the 7290 CTS flash-bangs for the first time three nights after Michael Brown's death and has continued to use them periodically in the subsequent days.

It's not clear how many people may have been burned or hit by flash-bangs in Ferguson. S.W.A.T. teams typically use them to temporarily paralyze suspects and prevent them from destroying evidence while carrying out search warrants and no-knock raids. They are less commonly used for crowd control and inside prisons.

Flash-bangs are descended from blank grenades developed by military special operations units. In the split second they take to deploy, they emit a wave of heat, light and sound intense enough to cause temporary blindness and deafness within a five-foot radius. Within closer range, they may cause partial hearing loss and bodily injury – particularly for children who are standing lower to the ground and closer to the impact. Some experts say that when used outdoors, flash-bangs can pick up gravel and launch it like shrapnel.

Accidents have been documented since the first days American tactical teams started using flash-bangs. In 1984, less than a year after the Los Angeles Police Department incorporated flash-bangs into their S.W.A.T. team, a woman was killed when a device exploded at her back as a tactical team entered her home to carry out a drug raid.

Flash-bang manufacturing has evolved significantly since then from crude explosives that detonated like grenades without shrapnel, to today's flash-bangs, many of which release a sudden volume of igniting gas through vent holes and leave behind an empty canister, like those found on the streets of Ferguson.

Witnesses to this week's unrest in Ferguson told ProPublica it feels like the ground is shaking when the devices deploy nearby. "It was a real loud explosion and people began to run, but they didn't know where to run to," said Tef Poe, who has been on the streets the past 12 days.

Dolly said that his agency hasn't been able to track injuries because individuals scatter when a flash-bang is deployed near them. "If you say you're injured, you're implicating yourself in causing trouble," he said.

The St. Louis County tactical unit uses flash-bangs occasionally when carrying out search warrants, but Dolly could not recall his unit ever using them to disperse crowds until this week.

In St. Louis County, tactical officers get a four-hour training course on flash-bangs taught by a member of their team. The in-house instructors are sent to Combined Tactical Systems for a three-day course to become certified trainers. CTS didn't respond to inquiries about what its training courses cover.

Proper training is critical to ensuring that flash-bangs are used safely, said R.K. Miller, who teaches tactical officers with the California Peace Officers Standards and Training. "They're dangerous if they're not used correctly."

The National Tactical Officers Association also offers training and sample guidelines on the use of diversionary devices including flash-bangs. Many tactical teams also attend training programs run by device manufacturers.

Peter Kraska, a professor in justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University who has written extensively on police militarization, contends that S.W.A.T. units typically offer much less training than the 250 hours per year the NTOA recommends. ,"Over 50 percent of teams in smaller jurisdictions receiving a mere 50 hours per year per officer," Kraska has reported.

In 2008, flash-bang manufacturers agreed to best practices and launched a voluntary program preventing sales of flash-bangs to law enforcement agencies that lacked certified trainers. Don Whitson, who teaches a course for the officers' association on 'less lethal' tactics including flash-bangs, says he has seen fewer injuries from flash-bangs since the agreement, but data quantifying these injuries does not exist.

Some law enforcement experts say that, even with the training issues, flash-bangs are preferable to other devices the police have used for similar purposes.

"I would rather see flash-bangs used than gas grenades which contaminate everyone, guilty and innocent," said Charlie Mesloh, a professor at Northern Michigan University who studies less lethal weapons. "There is very low risk of injury unless it literally went off when it was in contact with a person."

Still, Dolly acknowledged that there's no way to eliminate all risk, especially in the volatile and fast-changing situations police have faced on Ferguson's streets.

"Anytime you deploy a less-lethal device there's risk involved," he said. "You always consider the background and what's in the environment."

This piece originally appeared at ProPublica, where Abbie Nehring is a research intern.

Robert VerBruggen - August 21, 2014

At a Heritage Foundation event today, Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company, Inc./WomenTrends (TPC/WT) outlined the new immigration polling data her organization has published. The results lean toward the populist/immigration-skeptic point of view, so it's informative to compare the questions with those of two polls I wrote about in June, whose results were friendlier to high levels of immigration.

The simple reality, it seems, is that most Americans don't have fully fleshed out immigration-reform plans floating around in their heads. (Shocking, I know.) As a result, depending on how you ask the question, you can get them to support or oppose pretty much any proposal.

Even on the most basic issues the differences are stark. For example, in June a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies program asked people to choose between citizenship, legal residence, and deportation for illegal immigrants; 62 percent were in favor of citizenship, and another 17 percent supported a different kind of legal status. A similar question in the other June survey, by FWD.us, had a different blend of responses but also found a strong majority in favor of citizenship or legal status. And even when PRRI/Brookings polled another option in a different survey -- so-called "self-deportation," defined as "making conditions so difficult for illegal immigrants that they voluntarily return to their home countries" -- they found only 34 percent support.

The new survey, by contrast, asked respondents whether illegal immigrants should be given legal status or "encouraged" to go home. 70 percent picked the latter. So, a strong majority of Americans support legal status if the alternative is deportation, only a minority support making life "difficult" for illegal immigrants ... and yet a strong majority support "encourag[ing]" illegal immigrants to leave instead of granting them any kind of legal status.

What about the economic effects of immigration? As I noted in June, even the PRRI/Brookings data by themselves show how hard it is to poll the question:

70 percent of respondents said immigrants take jobs Americans don't want, while only 22 percent said they take jobs from American citizens. However, a very similar question that singled out illegal immigrants prompted very different answers: 45 percent say illegal immigrants "help the economy by providing low-cost labor," while 46 percent say they "hurt the economy by driving down wages for many Americans."

Once again, the TPC/WT data show a much more populist side to Americans' views. One question offered two ways of dealing with a lack of workers -- businesses could pay more, or the government could let in more immigrants -- and three-quarters of respondents said businesses should pay more. Three quarters also agreed that the government has a responsibility to use immigration law to protect low-income natives "from competition with illegal immigrants for jobs." Four-fifths of respondents agreed that "Americans who need work ought to have an opportunity to do the jobs that are currently done by illegal immigrants."

So, in the view of the American public, immigrants take jobs Americans don't even want ... but Americans need protection from illegal-immigrant competition, and businesses should raise wages instead of relying on immigrants if they can't find enough workers.

At the Heritage event, Conway suggested that immigration isn't an issue that should be decided on the basis of polling and political expediency. Instead, lawmakers should just do what's right. I'm actually optimistic on this -- not because any politician would make that choice voluntarily, but because it might be the only option. Given the state of the polling data, it's far from clear which a side self-interested legislator should pander to.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

What Ferguson Means for Urban Planning

Randal O'Toole, Antiplanner - August 21, 2014

The sad events in Ferguson, Missouri are being used by urban planning advocates to popularize their latest cause: suburban poverty. Ferguson is "emblematic of growing suburban poverty," says the Brookings Institution. "Hit by poverty," says CBS News, "Ferguson reflects the new suburbs." According to a Brookings infographic, between 2000 and 2011 the numbers of central city poor grew by 29 percent while the numbers of suburban poor grew by 64 percent.

There was a time that the suburbs were demonized because only middle-class and wealthy people lived there, leaving poor people in the inner cities. Now that lower-income people are living in the suburbs, the suburbs are being demonized for having "concentrated poverty," with a distinct implication that wealthy whites have moved back to the cities leaving the undesirable suburbs to the poor and minorities.

The reality is that all demographic classes -- all ages, races, and income levels -- are growing faster in the suburbs than the cities. The suburbs offer less congestion, lower-cost housing, and often better schools and other benefits over the cities. Instead of turning the movement of low-income people to the suburbs into some kind of crisis, this movement should be celebrated as a success.

Take Ferguson as an example. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, the median income of black households in Ferguson is only 60 percent that of non-Latino white households (tables B19013B and B19013H) . But it is 36 percent higher than black median incomes in St. Louis, and 4 percent higher than black median incomes in the St. Louis urbanized area. And while it sounds bad that black incomes are only 60 percent of white, in both the city of St. Louis and the St. Louis urban area they are less than 50 percent of white incomes.

Ferguson blacks also enjoy higher homeownership rates than blacks in the rest of the urban area. The rate in Ferguson is 46 percent, well below the white rate of 85 percent (tables B25003B and B25003H). But only 34 percent of city of St. Louis black households, and only 41 percent of St. Louis urban area black households, own their own homes.

In other words, Ferguson is a step up the ladder from St. Louis. Instead of decrying the fact that low-income households are rapidly growing in the suburbs, we should celebrate the fact that large numbers of low-income people have been able to increase their incomes and move to the suburbs where they enjoy higher homeownership rates than they could have in the more expensive cities.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and urban planners in regions such as the Twin Cities are using the specter of "concentrated poverty" to justify their plans to build denser housing in the suburbs. As I've noted before, this is based on a fallacious belief that multifamily housing is more affordable than single-family; in fact, this is only true because multifamily units tend to be smaller. So, in consigning low-income people to multifamily housing, planners are effectively condemning them to small dwelling units with little privacy.

The truth is that "concentrated poverty" is simply a derogatory term for a natural sorting that takes place when people decide where to live. Low-income people don't want to live in neighborhoods where the only grocery stores are Whole Foods any more than high-income people want to live in neighborhoods where the only groceries are Walmarts. For a variety of similar reasons, people prefer to live with other people who share the same tastes, and that often means people of similar incomes. This is not an indicator of racism or "incomism," but simply a reflection of shared personal preferences.

What has happened and is happening in Ferguson is a sad reflection of the racism that remains latent in our society. But it is not an indicator that we need urban planners telling people how and where to live.

Randal O'Toole is a Cato Institute senior fellow working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues. This piece originally appeared at The Antiplanner.

The FCC Needs to Rethink Its Auction Rules

Zack Christenson - August 20, 2014

When Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act in 2012, the bill included a provision that would allow broadcasters to auction off the spectrum they owned. This was meant to help alleviate congestion on wireless Internet networks, a problem that's growing rapidly as consumers increase their use of smartphones and other data-focused devices.

There has, however, been a major hiccup in rolling out these spectrum auctions that could have a detrimental effect on the consumer. In writing the auction rules, the FCC decided to restrict the bidding of the "dominant" carriers in each area -- usually Verizon and/or AT&T. These two companies combined serve 220 million subscribers, accounting for 65 percent of the wireless market.

The rule is meant to make more spectrum available for smaller carriers -- but it does so at the expense of the carriers that need wireless-broadband capacity the most. Consumers are hurt if the broadband isn't allocated according to the actual demand for it: One recent study estimated that these rules could lead to billions of dollars of consumer-welfare losses.

And, as if these bidding rules weren’t damaging enough, last week Spint and T-mobile filed with the FCC, claiming that the agency's favoritism toward them has not gone far enough.

The goals of these auctions should be twofold -- first, to make spectrum more flexible so that it's used in the most efficient way possible; and second, to ensure that the profit potential of putting spectrum up for bid reflects the maximum value of that spectrum. By restricting the biggest players in the wireless-broadband industry, the FCC is setting back both of those goals.

The FCC detailed its plans in a blog post, saying that after "trigger point" (largely a dollar-amount threshold) is hit in these auctions, some spectrum will be reserved for smaller carriers. If the FCC truly wants to benefit consumers, the agency should reconsider -- or at least impose target prices that are high enough not to trigger these restrictions except in the rarest of occasions. And the last thing the FCC should do is make these rules even more restrictive, as T-Mobile and Sprint have requested.

Many broadcasters have also been wary about the intentions of the FCC. Though the auctions are voluntary, the FCC has been vague about the rules, about the approval processes, and about how spectrum will be handled after the auctions. National Journal reports that just 70 television stations are considering entering the auction.

With the restrictions the FCC has put into place, consumers could continue to face poor service quality and spectrum rationing, combined with the potential for higher costs and data caps. The FCC should work to make the auctions more competitive by reconsidering its restrictions.

Zack Christenson writes on digital-tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.

What to Look for in Autopsies of Michael Brown

A.C. Thompson, ProPublica - August 19, 2014

In the next few weeks, separate teams of doctors will issue autopsy reports about Michael Brown, the unarmed African American shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. If history is any guide, they will differ, perhaps significantly, on how to interpret the gunshot wounds on his body. Michael Baden, the veteran medical examiner chosen to autopsy the body by Brown's family, has released the preliminary results of his autopsy and both the St. Louis County Medical Examiner and U.S. Justice Department have announced plans to conduct or commission separate post mortems.

As a journalist, I've read roughly 1,000 autopsy reports and spent much of my career reporting on fatal encounters between police officers and civilians. Here's some of what Baden found and what experts will be looking for as they examine Brown's corpse:

1. Evidence that Brown was fleeing from the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson. Shots to the back are a red flag, indicating the victim may have been running from the officer rather than attacking. The basic law on use of force turns on whether a police officer acted from a "reasonable belief" that he or she was facing a lethal threat. Baden - who was hired by Brown's family - believes Brown was shot at least six times with all the bullets striking him from the front.

2. Signs of a physical altercation. Forensic pathologists study the exterior of the body for bruises, scrapes and lacerations which can be signs that a scuffle preceded the fatal shots. Witnesses have said Brown and Wilson wrestled in the moments before the killing. On Baden's diagram of Brown's body, the doctor does not appear to have noted any significant injuries other than the gun shot wounds. Baden did not find gunpowder residue on Brown's hands, one piece of evidence that would likely be present if the two men were struggling for control of a gun discharged at close range.

3. Bullet trajectory. Shots fired at a downward angle may indicate the officer fired while the victim was on his knees or laying on the ground. A person in those positions generally poses less of a physical threat. Baden said a shot to Brown's head appeared to have come from above; he believes this was the fatal shot.

4. Number of shots. Baden voiced concern over the fact that Brown was hit by at least six shots. The doctor, who served earlier in his career as chief medical examiner for New York City and as an expert for the New York State Police, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, "In my capacity as the forensic examiner for the New York State Police, I would say, 'You're not supposed to shoot so many times.'" The number of shots may or may not be significant. Training on lethal force varies from department to department. Many forces train officers to continue firing until the suspect has been completely subdued. Some experts say that incidents in which a civilian has been hit with a single shot are more suspicious than those with multiple shots: The lone bullet could have been fired accidentally or in a moment of rage.

5. Gunshot residue. The presence of gunshot residue (GSR) on the skin or clothes of the victim may mean that the person was shot at very close range. Baden found no GSR on Brown's body, but said he did not scrutinize his clothing. Additionally, bullets fired from a few inches away leave distinct wound patterns on the flesh. Baden's report suggests the shots were fired from further away.

6. The presence of alcohol or drugs. Baden has not reviewed the toxicology tests, but results of those tests should be available soon (though it could take the authorities months to release them). Forensic pathologists typically fill vials with bodily fluids - urine, blood, or vitreous humor, the fluid within the eyeballs - and send them off to outside laboratories to be screened for alcohol, prescription drugs, and street drugs. If drugs or alcohol are discovered Brown's system, that information might provide some additional context to the fatal events.

In some police-civilian clashes, the evidence discovered during an autopsy turns out to be crucial. In the case of Michael Brown, it's not clear how useful this trio of autopsies will be. As the nation tries to understand what happened on August 9, the autopsy results may well not prove conclusive on the key questions.

A.C. Thompson covers criminal justice issues for ProPublica, where this piece originally appeared. He has been a reporter for 12 years, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area.

Arm Citizens and Let Them Police Themselves?

Sam Bieler & John Roman, Urban Institute - August 18, 2014

A city with limited resources and stubbornly high crime rates, Detroit is ripe for justice system innovation. Police Chief James Craig has seized on this opportunity, implementing a broad range of changes to the department.

These reforms appear to be making an impact. In the past year, Detroit has experienced significant declines in robberies, break-ins, and carjackings. Craig has split the credit for Detroit’s recent crime decline between the work of his officers and a policy suggestion he made in late 2013: encouraging citizens to carry concealed firearms.

Detroiters appear to be heeding the call. In 2013, Michigan State Police issued 6,974 concealed carry permits in Detroit, more than double the number issued in 2009. However, attributing the crime drop to armed citizens and advocating for more of the same may be opening a Pandora’s box.

Craig’s equation is simple: more armed citizens means less crime. But research shows it’s not quite that straightforward. The effect of privately owned firearms on crime is easily one of social science’s most hotly debated topics. Every imaginable conclusion has been reached at least once: policymakers can take their pick of studies showing that more citizens carrying firearms reduces crimeincreases crime, or has no clear effect.

Without good research, it’s impossible to determine what’s actually brought the city’s crime rate down: policing, more civilians with guns, or some factor we’ve yet to discover. As has been said many times, when you conflate correlation and causation, you can come to all sorts of silly policy conclusions.

Given the muddled guns-crime relationship, policymakers may want to look at what research does tell us about increasing gun access to determine whether encouraging citizens to arm themselves is sound public policy. Beyond crime rates, there are verified consequences to expanded gun ownership that should be considered.

Domestic violence and gun ownership have a troubling relationship. As our colleague Janine Zweig has noted, female intimate partner homicide remains stubbornly high, making it a particular policy concern for law enforcement. Gun ownership has consistently been linked with increased risk of intimate partner homicide, particularly for women. Indeed, firearms are particularly common in the homes of battered women, where abusive partners may use them to both threat and assault. The consistent link between firearm access and serious intimate partner violence should give any public official a reason to pause before encouraging a community to increase the number of weapons in circulation.

Gun ownership also entails a significant suicide risk. While the relationship between crime and gun ownership is still the topic of debate, the finding that guns increase the risk of suicide has been consistently and repeatedly demonstrated. Citizens should be free to balance personal defense and increased suicide risk for themselves, but policymakers should think twice before encouraging behavior with such a severe, clearly identified risk.

Giving citizens the choice to own a firearm is one thing, but given the risks and the lack of clear evidence that guns deter crime, it is worth reconsidering whether encouraging gun ownership should be a police-endorsed tactic. Instead, policymakers’ tactics of first resort should be evidence-based solutions with proven track records of reducing crime, like gang and gun violence interruption projects and programs that divert juveniles from the justice system.

Detroit has made important strides in fighting crime, and Craig’s reforms have likely played a key role in making the city safer. Detroit police have embraced this momentum, developing a strategic plan that puts more officers on the street and uses rigorous analysis to support officers with sound data and policing tactics.

Advocating for more guns in the hands of civilians might be a step back. When it comes to making Detroit safer, Craig might be better off continuing to place his bets on arming Detroit’s police officers with evidence-based crime reduction strategies, rather than its civilians with firearms.

Sam Bieler is a research associate, and John Roman is a senior fellow, with the Urban Institue's Justice Policy Center. This piece originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog.

Making Good on Bad Promises

Lewis M. Andrews - August 18, 2014

Hardly a day goes by without some headline about a town or city struggling to bridge the gap between the retirement promises it made to its employees and the reality of its budget. But what has received comparatively little attention is the shape of the solution that is emerging for these shortfalls.

Consider first the pension problem itself. According to a 2013 Pew Foundation study of 61 key American cities -- the most populous in each state plus all other cities with over half a million people -- the gap between promises to municipal workers and what has actually been saved is more than $217 billion. Pew has estimated the total underfunding for all of America's towns, counties, school districts, and other non-federal government entities at $1.38 trillion, a figure that is expected to rise sharply when new bookkeeping guidelines from the Government Accounting Standards Board are fully implemented.

Less well-known is the fact that many cities once dismissed as fiscal basket cases have actually found a way out of their pension problems, showing us what the future might look like. In 2011, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and his city council negotiated a plan that saves $25 million annually. A year later, Lexington, Ky., municipal officials and union representatives came to an agreement that was passed by the city in January of 2013 and later ratified by the state legislature. In Jacksonville, Fla., a task force recently announced a settlement, and the city's public-safety workers appear on track to ratify it.

The agreements vary in many ways. But there's a common denominator: a guarantee of previously promised pension payouts in return for substantial concessions from new hires. The Atlanta reform, for example, extends the retirement age for new employees and combines a smaller defined benefit with something similar to a private company's 401(k). Lexington's future hires will be on the job five years longer, must put in 25 years before benefits vest, and will face declining cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). Jacksonville's new employees are slated to get a reduced pension package as well.

Even in Detroit -- a financial disaster area if ever there was one -- existing pensions were just cut 4.5 percent, while new hires who retire after 30 years will receive pensions worth 40 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than those who retired in 2011. In other words, new hires gave up about ten times as much.

What such agreements reveal is that public labor is indeed willing to help resolve the pension crisis, but only as long as past promises are enshrined with what David Draine, a senior researcher at the Pew Foundation, euphemistically calls "a credible and achievable plan to pay down any existing pension debt." As a practical matter, this means disproportionately burdening new hires with benefit plans that have larger co-pays, longer requirements for vesting, and/or an emphasis on contributions over payouts.

After years of statistics showing that public employees are better compensated than comparable private-sectors workers, fiscal hawks might initially celebrate this tradeoff. After all, the revised terms for new hires are probably closer to what current and retired public employees should have been offered all along. But it is hard to view this solution in the context of larger political trends without coming to some very disturbing conclusions.

First, consider that current public employees have clearly emerged as the biggest political winner of the 2008 financial crisis. The 2009 federal stimulus package, advertised by President Obama and the Democratic Congress as an infrastructure program but in reality a subsidy for state and city employment, allowed local governments to leave previously contracted pay and benefit increases intact. In effect, Washington increased compensation for public workers with seniority at a time when private-sector employment was stagnant or declining. The current thrust of pension reform will now make these gains permanent.

Second, bear in mind the insidious coalition of union leaders and blue-state Democrats, in which the former subsidized the campaigns of the latter in exchange for excessive benefit increases. Public employees in a few of the most troubled states may eventually lose a fraction of their retirement benefits, but most existing promises will be kept -- meaning that the union tactic of financially compromising elected representatives has, in the end, proved depressingly successful.

From the taxpayers' perspective, it might be acceptable to make good on the inflated pensions of present and previous government workers if this means an improved methodology for providing public services in the future. Unfortunately, the partnership between labor and the Democratic party is far from destroyed, and thus it is far from clear that these cuts will be maintained in the future.

In their defense, most municipal officials who have signed on to the emerging pension-reform template do boast of adopting more stringent budgeting policies. We can only hope these policies prove stringent enough, for the current expedient of making good on bad promises gives union leaders and their elected allies every hope of one day doing it again.

Lewis M. Andrews is the senior policy analyst at Connecticut's Yankee Institute for Public Policy.

Missouri's Rule on Deadly Force by Cops

Robert VerBruggen - August 16, 2014

As new facts come to light about the interaction that led to Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, a major question is whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, broke the law. As Peter Suderman points out at Reason (citing a tweet from Sean Davis of The Federalist), Missouri appears to have a very lax standard for the use of deadly force by officers:

A law enforcement officer in effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody is justified in using deadly force only

(1) When such is authorized under other sections of this chapter; or

(2) When he reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested

(a) Has committed or attempted to commit a felony; or

(b) Is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon; or

(c) May otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.

4. The defendant shall have the burden of injecting the issue of justification under this section.

This is essentially the "fleeing felon" rule that was widely used in the U.S. for many decades -- but the Supreme Court struck it down in the mid-1980s. Now, police officers are allowed to use deadly force against a fleeing felon only if they have reason to believe the felon is dangerous. Missouri may not have changed the text of its law to reflect the ruling, but the ruling still applies.

We can see how these cases actually play out in Missouri by looking at the officially approved jury instructions. Obnoxiously, the state doesn't make those instructions available publicly for free, but here's a citation of the relevant provision in a Springfield Police Department document:

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

With Health Law, ERs Still Packed

Robert Calandra, Philadelphia Inquirer - August 15, 2014

Experts thought if people bought health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, they would find a private doctor and stop using hospital emergency rooms for their primary care.

Well, more people have health insurance. But they are still crowding into emergency departments across the nation.

An online study by the American College of Emergency Room Physicians found that nearly half of its members have seen a rise in visits since Jan. 1 when ACA coverage began. A resounding 86 percent of the physicians said they expect that number to continue growing.

In Philadelphia, emergency room visits were 8 percent higher in June than in November 2013, according to the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, which collects data from 70 percent of the region's hospitals.

"We find that when people don't have health care, there is a degree of pent-up demand," said Alex Rosenau, the ER physicians' group and an ER doctor in Allentown. "People finally feel like they can go get medical care once they have some insurance."

The spike in emergency room visits isn't totally surprising. Rosenau said when Massachusetts enacted its own health care reform in 2006, everyone predicted the newly insured would find a private doctor. Instead, emergency departments saw a 3 to 7 percent increase in volume.

"Insurance does not equal access," said Rosenau, adding that his group believes everyone should have access to care. "They know when they go to the emergency department, they are going to be seen."

Complicating the matter is the growing shortage of primary care physicians. People who have never had a private doctor may have trouble finding one. So they continue to rely on emergency rooms.

"We are seeing some folks who have new insurance but they just can't get access to primary care," said Theodore Christopher, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's chairman of emergency medicine. "If you can't access a primary care doctor, then you are going to go to the emergency room."

From July 2013 through January 2014, Jefferson's emergency room visits fell 6 percent. But from February through June of this year, visits picked up, increasing 4 percent. Since July, the start of the hospital's new academic year, business has been brisk.

"It's back to the old days," said Christopher, an avowed supporter of the ACA. "A lot of emergency department overcrowding, a lot of patients."

At Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia, Jack Kelly, the ER's associate chair, says it's still too early to tell what impact the law has had on his department. But from conversations with his North Philadelphia patients, he knows many don't have insurance.

"I find that there are still a lot of impoverished people here at Einstein who have not had access to the [ACA] website or who haven't made the call to sign up," said Kelly.

Those who have gone on healthcare.gov have told Kelly that the price of insurance is out of their reach.

"I've had numerous patients tell me that," Kelly said. "I think another important question is what is affordable health care and what are people willing to budget for it?"

What people can afford is also a "big concern" for emergency medicine, Rosenau said. People who bought bronze plans because of the low premium payments didn't always consider the other costs of their plan, such as high deductibles, large co-payments, and other costs.

"What we've done is we've made the bronze plan very low-cost and people bought them," Rosenau said. "But these are the people who can't afford the $6,200 deductible and may not have in their lifetime, in their economic status, ever heard of the concept of a deductible."

And because many won't pay their bills because they can't, emergency departments, which treat 140 million patients a year, are bracing for the worst.

"We haven't really seen this yet because it hasn't played out," Christopher said. "I think it's going to be hard for us to collect those dollars."

In Pennsylvania, the real X factor for emergency departments is what the state is going to do with Medicaid. Gov. Corbett's Healthy Pennsylvania plan is still awaiting a decision on a waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If the plan is approved or if Medicaid is expanded, it could introduce as many as 400,000 Pennsylvanians into the health system. Many of those newly insured people may be unable to find a primary care doctor and will likely turn to the hospital emergency department.

"The Medicaid issue is the real issue that might hit us," Christopher said. "If expansion passes, we will see a lot more patients in the emergency department."

This Kaiser Health News story also ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, where Robert Calandra is a health-care reporter.

Expanding Access to Pharmacies in Part D

B. Douglas Hoey - August 15, 2014

For decades, it seems, politicians have been talking about removing obstacles to health-care access, whether those obstacles are financial or physical. A new, bipartisan proposal would address both fronts in the area of Medicare drug plans.

For seniors, the advent of Medicare prescription-drug plans (or "Part D") has facilitated insurance coverage for prescription drugs and allowed patients broad pharmacy choice. However, in recent years, access has changed for the worse. Insurance middlemen -- that is, third-party benefit managers -- are requiring many patients to either pay higher out-of-pocket costs to continue using their pharmacy of choice or travel 20 miles or more to reach a pharmacy that offers discounted or "preferred" copays through the plan. The purpose of this inconvenience is often to encourage the use of mail order; not coincidentally, the largest pharmacy benefit managers also own mail-order pharmacies.

The agency that oversees Medicare -- the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) -- sought to address this issue earlier this year by proposing to allow "any willing pharmacy" to offer patients "preferred" copays through a Part D plan, provided the pharmacy accepts the plan's contractual terms and conditions. However, Medicare put this regulation on hold, primarily because of concerns about unrelated items.

In response, Representatives Morgan Griffith (R., Va.) and Peter Welch (D., Vt.) introduced a targeted legislative remedy: H.R. 4577, the Ensuring Seniors Access to Local Pharmacies Act. This bill, much like the regulation, would allow community pharmacies located in medically underserved areas to participate as "preferred" pharmacies in any Part D plan, so long as they are willing to accept the plan's contract. Thus it would give beneficiaries greater choice and access to pharmacies closer to home while allowing them to enjoy the cost savings enjoyed by others. Part D patients in rural areas would especially gain from this bill, because they rely heavily on independent community pharmacies, which are typically blocked from participating as "preferred" pharmacies.

Expanding patient choice in this way has broad support. Three out of four likely voters (76 percent) said they backed H.R. 4577 in a national survey by Penn Schoen Berland, even after hearing the arguments of the insurance middlemen who oppose the bill. Voter support in the poll was strong among Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. Key consumer- and health-advocacy organizations such as the National Grange, the National Rural Health Association, the Medicare Rights Center, the National Senior Citizens Law Center, the Consumers Union, and HealthHIV have endorsed the bill -- which also has 60 congressional cosponsors.

This is a necessary step in expanding pharmacy access. Ensuring seniors have proper access to medications and pharmacy providers helps to promote medication adherence, which in turn prevents costlier health treatments such as unnecessary visits to the emergency room and extended hospitalizations.

Moreover, after carefully reviewing the growing number of "preferred pharmacy" drug plans, federal Medicare officials concluded that an "any willing pharmacy" policy is "the best way to encourage price competition and lower costs in the Part D program." Consistent with that analysis, health-care economist and antitrust expert David Eisenstadt explained recently how H.R. 4577 has the potential to reduce Medicare costs: It would eliminate the exclusive arrangements between insurance middlemen and certain pharmacy chains that could be propping up drug costs by limiting competition.

Congress should act without delay to pass H.R. 4577. We encourage voters, Medicare beneficiaries, caregivers, and the entire health-care community to voice support for this measure so seniors in underserved communities have access to high-quality and cost-competitive health-care solutions.

B. Douglas Hoey is CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Signs of Safety

Rich Tucker - August 14, 2014

In 1970, the average car didn't have many safety features. No anti-lock brakes, no airbags, no steel-belted radial tires. Some cars even lacked seat belts. But your car's AM radio accurately predicted the future of driving.

"Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind," sang the Five Man Electrical Band that year. (They dropped their g's as President Obama often does.) "Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign." They didn't know the half of it.

In the decades since, driving has become much safer. Despite the fact that we have more cars driving more miles, road deaths have plunged more than 40 percent since 1972. Yet, even as the roads have become safer, they've also become more crowded. With signs.

Driving through rural Pennsylvania last year, I saw a sign that said "Buckle up, next 1 million miles." Ha, ha. A few miles later -- much fewer than a million -- the sign appeared again. And, soon, again. Blockin' out the scenery, for no good purpose. Seat belt use last year reached 87 percent, the federal government reports. The handful of holdouts aren't likely to be swayed by signs, no matter how humorous.

More recently, driving down a highway in rural New York state, a sign announced "Emergency Dial 911." Now, 911 coverage may be a rather new development in some places. But if you're not aware how it works, you probably need more help than a sign in the middle of nowhere.

These signs are merely annoying. But the spread of road signs is often driven by a government's attempt to keep people "safe." Decades ago, a local resident rolled through a "yield" sign in my parent's small town, causing an accident. The yield was immediately replaced with a "stop" sign, although few actually come to a complete halt. And they shouldn't have to; the sightlines are good at the intersection. Yielding should be enough. Putting up a stop sign that most everyone simply ignores only ends up undermining the rule of law.

And there are other bad outcomes related to oversignage.

"Attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions," as John Staddon wrote in The Atlantic a few years ago. "When you've trained people to drive according to the signs, you need to keep adding more signs to tell them exactly when and in what fashion they need to adjust their behavior. Otherwise, drivers may see no reason why they should slow down on a curve in the rain."

Staddon urges governments to advise us less, which would force us to pay more attention to road conditions. Columnist Mark Steyn agrees. When driving in Europe, "I quickly appreciate being on a country lane and able to see the country, as opposed to admiring rural America's unending procession" of signs, he writes.

But don't hold your breath waiting for the proliferation of signs to abate. Once governments start focusing resources on a problem, they seldom stop. Even if the problem itself -- such as seat-belt use -- is principally solved, governments just pour more resources into the project. And that's a shame.

"Paradoxically, almost every new sign put up in the U.S. probably makes drivers a little safer on the stretch of road it guards. But collectively, the forests of signs along American roadways, and the multitude of rules to look out for, are quite deadly," Staddon writes.

Perhaps more importantly, Americans are steadily ceding more of our liberties to governments, which, after all, are simply promising to watch out for our "safety." That's not likely to end well, and in fact is already going poorly.

A friend who works in health care in upstate New York says more than half her patients are on welfare, Medicare, or Medicaid. The government is looking out for them, supposedly. But, for state governments at least, money doesn't grow on trees. Somebody has to pay the taxes that pay for all that help, just as somebody has to pay the taxes that pay for all those road signs instructing us to fasten seat belts or dial 911.

In the long run we'd be safer, on the roads and in our lives, if the government was doing less to look out for us.

Rich Tucker is a writer living in Northern Virginia. You can e-mail him at newswriter@rocketmail.com.

Robert VerBruggen - August 13, 2014

This morning I'm seeing a lot of coverage of this new Centers for Disease Control report, which claims that the upward trend in nonmarital births has "reversed." Here's a chart:

Take a very close look at all three lines, though -- the two measures of births declined sharply, but the percentage of all births that were to unmarried women was basically flat. As the CDC explains:

The percentage of births to unmarried women declined slightly in 2013 to 40.6%, after holding steady from 2011 to 2012 at 40.7%; the percentage peaked in 2009 at 41.0%.

In other words, nonmarital births didn't really decline in particular; all births declined by about the same proportion. It's good to see the illegitimacy rate holding steady when it's been increasing for decades -- but it's hard to say whether this will be an enduring phenomenon, or whether the short-term factors that reduced childbearing across the board (especially the economy) had a more pronounced effect on unmarried women, forcing the line flat when it otherwise would have continued upward. Since unmarried mothers tend to be poorer and less educated, it's not hard to imagine that the recession would have played a bigger role in their childbearing decisions.

Another interesting fact from the report is that the unmarried women who do have children are increasingly likely to be in cohabiting relationships:

See previous RealClearPolicy coverage of marriage and childbearing here, here, and here.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

Darkness at Noon on the Campus Quad

Thomas K. Lindsay - August 13, 2014

It's come to this. No less a figure than the U.S. Commission Civil Rights' Michael Yaki is reported to have proclaimed that college students do not merit the free-speech rights of adults, because students' brains are still "in a stage of development."

For over two millennia, higher education had been animated by Socrates' assertion that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." Apparently Yaki's new maxim is, "The unexamined life is not worth living -- except by college students."

How did we get here? How can 18-year-olds have the constitutional right to vote, but somehow lack the First Amendment right to debate the pressing issues their votes will help decide? How are students "developed" enough to pick their courses (after universities dismantled required core curriculums in the '60s), but lack the right to raise questions based on what they've learned in these courses?

To understand this, we should start by refusing to highlight Commissioner Yaki alone. Nor should we dismiss this latest assault on freedom as a passing fad. It is, instead, a conscious, unrelenting project to transform American higher education and therewith American political life. Yaki's defense of speech restrictions on campus is but the logical extension of some professors' rationale for squelching free discussion in the classroom. Duke's Michael Munger makes this clear in a recent Pope Center article, where he relates that a fellow professor told him, "I don't need to spend much time with my liberal students, because they already have it right. I spend most of my time arguing with the conservative students." As Munger demonstrates, this tack denies a liberal education -- Socrates's examined life -- to liberal and conservative students alike.

But what if some students remain unconvinced, and continue to voice their out-of-season questions and concerns after they've left the Star Chambers that such classes have become? Yaki answers: They will face similar oppression on the campus quad, for they lack the "development" to question the reigning orthodoxy. Then, having locked down our campuses into Thinking Prohibited Zones, the oppressive project to end oppression will extend to the faculty, as a recent Harvard Crimson op-ed demands (the author would deny support for the scholarship of gadflies like Professor Harvey C. Mansfield).

But didn't universities restrict students in the "bad old days" prior to the '60s campus revolts? Under the powers arising from universities' acting in loco parentis ("in the place of a parent"), schools restricted visitation to dorms of the other sex, imposed curfews, etc. Back then, administrators believed they possessed objective knowledge about the good life, and felt it their right and duty to enforce the conditions of optimal learning on campuses. All that fell with the rise of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in the '60s, justified by arguments rooted in moral and cultural relativism.

But the "Campus Spring" of untrammeled freedom has now collapsed into repression, as in loco parentis has transmogrified into in loco Big Nurse -- into the simultaneous infantilization and repression of "underdeveloped" students, denying them the difficult and rewarding intellectual exercises required to become informed citizens and effective leaders. This development was far from a reversal. It was the culmination of the principles animating the revolution from the outset. How?

Moral relativism, taught in our universities for the past half-century, closes human reason off from access to and guidance by natural standards of justice and injustice. All that is left in the academic vision to "support community" is the solitary, unsupported "self." As a result, the question for our universities became how to construct community out of a diversity of unconnected selves. The answer: Only by "celebrating diversity" can society do justice to the self without a soul (fixed nature). On these premises, it's unsurprising that the new vision of community requires for its implementation the oppressive imposition of diversity-celebration on those who would dare voice any standard (natural or divine) superior to standard-less self-creation.

More simply, the new academic vision replaces in loco parentis, but does so on the basis of relativism; hence, diversity-as-monolith (political correctness, campus speech codes, sensitivity-training seminars) imposes the communal value of value non-imposition (diversity-celebration) in the name of the lawless liberty of the soulless self.

Add to this brew the "discovery" by our academics that, not only is the quest for objective truth impossible (because there are no absolutes to discover, except for -- and contradictorily -- the absolute truth that there are no absolutes), but also, all alleged truth-seeking in the past, as well as the freedom required for such seeking, was merely a rationalization in the service of maintaining power over those disenfranchised on the basis of race, class, and gender -- the universities' new Trinity. A Harvard committee report praises humanities research of "the last thirty years" for "unmask[ing] the operations of power" and exposing how "domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production."

With this, the unfortunate, sometimes racially insensitive pranks of campus fraternities -- Yaki's Exhibit A in his case for curbing campus speech -- are put on the same moral plane as all "cultural production," including all texts previously thought to be the "Great Books" of civilization. The minds of Socrates, Aristotle, and Locke were apparently as "underdeveloped" as Yaki deems undergraduates to be. Their unfiltered voices, like those of students, must accordingly be silenced.

If those on the left dismiss such criticisms with "we won, conservatives lost; shut up," they fail to see that this is far more than a partisan battle. It is a struggle over whether genuine intellectual liberty, or freedom of the mind, is possible. It is thus a struggle between civilization and barbarism, between light and darkness.

At this point, the darkness is winning.

Witness how a civilization commits suicide.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).

Could Risk Assessment Contribute to Racial Disparity in the Justice System?

Jesse Janetta, Justin Breaux, and Helen Ho, Urban Institute - August 11, 2014

We can't know who will commit crimes, but statistical models can give us an idea of who is more likely to offend. It's not quite Minority Report -- rather than seeing crime before it happens, the justice system uses risk assessment tools to gauge the probability of future offending based on factors like age, gender, and criminal history. This information is then used to inform a variety of decisions, including granting parole release, prioritizing who should receive programming (like drug treatment), or deciding how strictly probationers and parolees should be supervised.

Risk assessment is a key component of correctional practice, but its potential to contribute to justice system disparity is the focus of increasing concern and criticism. Recently, both a New York Times op/ed and Attorney General Eric Holder warned that using risk prediction assessments to determine sentence length could exacerbate class and race disparities in the criminal justice system. But what if there's more to the story?

Sentencing is not the only stage where risk assessments might contribute to disparity. Findings from our multi-site study of racial and ethnic disparity in probation revocation outcomes are a case in point. In all four of our study sites, black probationers had their probation revoked and subsequently incarcerated at much higher rates than whites or Hispanics. They also had higher risk assessment scores and more extensive criminal histories -- a major factor in the differential revocation rates.

Of course, you would expect scores from properly constructed risk prediction tools to relate to outcomes like probation revocation -- this is what they're designed to predict, after all. And if the tools predict reoffense, then supervising probationers with higher risk scores more closely and sanctioning them more severely is a common-sense approach.

However, while risk assessments derive much of their predictive power from differences in criminal history, such as the number of past arrests and convictions, they may not accurately reflect differences in actual offending behavior across racial and ethnic groups.

Ideally, a risk assessment tool should predict future behavior based on past behavior. But the reality is that current risk assessments rely upon measures that are partly driven by individual behavior, and partly by where the justice system is looking for offenses and how it responds when it finds them.

Despite similar rates of use, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana use and possession -- a prime example of how differences in criminal history can be flawed proxies for differences in behavior. Another example: a recent Vera Institute study found more severe prosecutorial responses to similar black and Latino defendants relative to whites and Asians. As disparate treatment accrues in the justice system, subjective decisions at earlier points become objective factors at later stages.

But that doesn't mean we should go back to pre-risk assessment decisionmaking. Evidence is strong that targeting programs by level of risk is the most effective way to reduce recidivism and promote reentry success.

Plus, reverting to more subjective decisionmaking will likely not reduce racial disparity. Presumably, reducing unequal enforcement, charging, and sanctioning would improve the effectiveness of predictive assessments by mitigating the influence of factors other than individual behavior. But that will be a long time coming.

In the interim, we need to be clear-eyed about the potential of our prediction instruments, at sentencing or any other point in our justice processes, to contribute to racial disparity in the justice system.

Jesse Janetta, Justin Breaux, and Helen Ho are researchers at the Urban Institute. This piece originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog.

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