Thursday, July 2, 2020

How the Social Justice Movement Behaves Like a Form of Religious Fundamentalism

On top of the pandemic, recession, and lockdowns, there has been a lot of news coverage around racial issues since the unfortunate death of George Floyd. It has brought considerable attention to Black Lives Matter and how there are racial disparities in the United States. 

The topics of policing reform, criminal justice policy, or racial issues have all been examined on my blog here. In the past month alone, I have discussed repealing qualified immunity and disbanding police unions as example of policing reform. Other policing reforms have been discussed, including ending the War on Drugs, ending mass incarceration, and de-militarizing the police. In terms of criminal policy and race relations, I have also analyzed how policing reform could men the rift between African-Americans and police officers, as well as how stop-and-frisk had disproportionate effects on African-Americans (see 2014 analysis). 

I believe that we need to partake in policing reform to reduce racial disparities within policing practice. Then there is the phrase "Black Lives Matter." As a Jew, I believe that everyone is created in G-d's Image. As a libertarian, I adhere to the idea of the dignity of the individual, irrespective of race. "Black Lives Matter" should be a simple statement of "because black people are human beings, they should be afforded the same respect and dignity as everyone else."

It's when the phrase goes beyond its simple and literal meaning that I take issue because it is next to impossible to divorce it from its political context. What makes it more difficult to decipher is the decentralized nature of "Black Lives Matter" (BLM) as a political movement. Is BLM solely about policing reform? And if so, which reforms? Defunding the police? Does "defunding the police" mean eliminating the police force or simply reducing its funding? The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) goes beyond policing reform and argues for such policies as reparations on its platform and claims to be anti-capitalist. Then there's the Black Lives Matter Global Foundation, a multinational organization that I would contend uses language that is common amongst adherents of Social Justice (SJ), commonly referred to as social justice warriors (SJWs). The ambiguity of goals combined with the lack of precise language make it difficult to discern what Black Lives is supposed to mean. 

I had difficulty discerning another phenomenon related to BLM as the George Floyd protests carried on. What I started to notice is that those who have been most vociferously anti-racist as of late are on the Left, especially on the Far Left. For this crowd, it is not enough to be non-racist or against racism; one has to actively be for "tearing down the institutions that systemically bring about racism." I could not quite put my finger on what was bothering me until I came across an article from the libertarian Reason Magazine. The article is entitled "Kneeling in the Church of Social Justice," and it details how the moral opposition to racism mirrors the rituals and phraseology of Abrahamic faiths. I grew up Catholic, and up until recently, I was an Orthodox Jew. I know what religious fundamentalism looks like. Reflecting on how Black Lives Matter is acting as a type of social justice movement led me to the realization that the SJ movement parallels religious fundamentalists. So how are SJWs similar to religious puritans? 

Before beginning, I want to clarify three things. One is that I am not here to argue that SJ is a religion per se. I know Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist individuals who adhere to SJ without giving up their religion (although I know other SJWs who substitute SJ with religion). Plus, the SJ framework does not attempt to answer such questions as "Does G-d exist" or "Is there an afterlife?" What I am arguing is that SJ functions like a religion in many ways, and that the similarities exceed the differences. Second, I recognize that "social justice" could mean different things to different people, but am here to illustrate some of the commonalities amongst SJWs. Third, I am not here to use SJW interchangeably with "liberal" or "progressive." While SJWs are on the Far Left, I recognize that being Left-of-center does not make one an SJW. Rather, as we will see presently, the SJW is a more specific subset of Left-leaning individual that adheres to a Left-wing orthodoxy that manifests itself in a certain way.
  • Ideologically motivated moral community. This is a point that author James Lindsay brings up in his astute essay Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice (I recommend reading it for further details on how SJ functions as a postmodern religion). It is inadequate to use a moral community as a criterion for a religion because the definition would otherwise be too broad. What helps to distinguish a moral community from an ideologically motivated moral community (or moral tribe) is a shared world view or ideology and incorporating sacrosanct ideas within the framework. 
  • Sectarian tendencies. Because SJ adheres to sacred beliefs, they cannot be questioned or doubted. You see this occur when one decides to question a religious fundamentalist's worldview: there simply is an incapability to handle criticism or scrutiny. Why? Sacred beliefs cannot be subjected to such "corrosive elements" as doubt or skepticism. Case in point: In 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lamented that too many people care about being factually correct over being morally right. This illustrates an important facet of moral tribes: the overarching moral imperative is what matters, damn any facts or logic. 
  • Doctrinal Belief System. A religion would not be complete without a set of beliefs commonly held. What are some of these beliefs? 
    • How the world works. Part of the SJ mindset dates back to 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that it was social institutions that corrupted human beings from their natural goodness. Sound familiar? It should. We are hearing the term "systemic racism" thrown around a lot lately. SJWs believe that every wrong in the world is rooted in systemic discrimination. Their mindset is "remove the system, remove the problem." This Rousseauian concept is combined with a Marxist one. Karl Marx viewed history as a class struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat. The simplistic, neo-Marxist language we see used by SJWs today is more general in terms of the oppressor versus the oppressed. Rather than see individuals, the SJW crowd puts people into groups: black versus white, gay versus straight, men versus women. Not only is the inevitable result that of divisiveness, but it also creates a victimhood mentality that is all too pervasive in my generation of Millennials and younger. 
    • The doctrine of Original Sin. You might think that the idea of Original Sin is confined to Christian theology. However, it found its way in the SJW world, as well. The SJW Original Sin is being born privileged, whether that privilege is in the form being heterosexual, Christian, white, and/or able-bodied. SJWs might purport that "privilege" means "having a lasting sociological advantage." What they're really saying is that they take issue with privilege as a "facet of having grown up in a way that people ought to grow up." Rather than view it as positive that one grows up with adequate education, familial love, stability, or a lack of stigma, the term "privilege" becomes a negative attribute in the SJW mind. SJWs use "privilege" to shame and force one into contrition. The Marxist concept of false consciousness goes as far to say that "privilege" disqualifies someone from ever speaking truth. It is no wonder why "white guilt" has become en vogue for many white SJWs. 
    • Collective guilt. The concept of collective guilt, or blaming an entire category of people when only a [small] part of that group is guilty, stems from the Original Sin of privilege. This so-called "logic" plays out in the argument for reparations. It does not matter if a Caucasian-American's ancestors were in the United States prior to or during the Civil War. It also does not matter that none of us here in the year 2020 are directly responsible for the slave trade, Plessy v Ferguson, or the initial implementation of Jim Crow laws. What matters is the color of one's skin, and that should determine whether one should pay in this redistributionist scheme. For the SJWs, it is a crusade for justice, even if that means acting unjustly towards millions who are not responsible or harbor any ill will towards African-Americans. Regardless of the topic at hand, SJ is more about punishing or favoring certain groups while de-emphasizing, diminishing, or downright negating individual choices or actions when it comes to justice. For the SJW, they believe in that the logical fallacy of division, i.e., if someone belongs to an identity group that is deemed guilty, that individual is guilty, regardless of an individual's actions. 
    • Identity Politics. Identity politics is the result of viewing individuals as part of a group or collective rather than being their own individuals. The idea of identity politics grew out of discourse of leftist intellectuals in the 1960s. To deal with the ennui and disappointment about Marxism, they created what is called social constructivism. The idea of social constructivism is that knowledge cannot be objectively obtained through discourse and reasoning because the knowledge that society has been created was done so by heterosexual, white males. What evolved from these postmodernists is the paradigm that objectivity is impossible, but the identity and oppression based on this lack of objectivity are objectively real (or at the very least, there needs to be a platform for these voices to be heard since they historically have not been heard). For equality to exist in their minds, the knowledge of women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, and other marginalized people needs to be foregrounded. Aside from the highly subjective nature of this approach, identity politics are problematic because sole focus on identity is divisive, it produces heavily biased readings of situations that are not based on truth but the identity of the individual speaking (an example of the genetic fallacy), and it is incapable of consistently upholding the principle of non-discrimination. The concept of identity politics is a considerable departure from the universal application of human rights in classical liberalism. You can read more about the history and formation of identity politics here.
    • Greater government power as an end-goal. Individuals of a certain religion exist on a spectrum of belief or observance. The same goes for those advocating for SJ, and that is partially due to the ubiquitous and poorly-defined nature of the term. For those who believe in "SJ-lite," (who I would argue would be a number of people who are Left-of-center, but would not be considered actual SJWs), it could mean a bit more of wealth redistribution [to alleviate racial disparities] than already exists. For others, it means upending the current institutions to deal with the centuries of perceived or actual systemic injustice. I don't understand why SJWs think this would work because nature abhors a vacuum. Rather than fighting power structures and oppression, SJWs will end up creating its own variants of power structures and oppression if they gain more political and cultural power. The best example of a social justice-based society fighting class differences and disparities in power is Communism. Communists thought they had the answers to fighting the war on the oppressor, and that only brought misery and millions of deaths. I'm not here to equate SJWs with Communists, but to have the analogy serve as a reminder of what fundamentalists, religious or secular, are capable of when they have unfettered access to power and control. As we will illustrate throughout this piece, what SJWs have been doing are mild in comparison to theocracies or Communist regimes because they hold a relatively minimal amount of power. Getting back to my original point, regardless of where an SJW falls on the spectrum of the SJ movement, being an SJW involves a belief in the aggrandizement of government power to help mitigate the unfairness within the systems. 
  • The SJW Caste System. Hinduism evolved into a rigid, hierarchical system based on karma and dharma. Even in Judaism, the Kohanim (Preists) and Levi'im (Levites) are afforded certain privileges. In the SJW world, the caste system that exists is referred to as intersectionality. Intersectionality started off with noble intentions. It was meant to be a framework in which minorities or disenfranchised can explain their unique experiences, particularly if there is more than one aspect of marginalization in play. A Caucasian male will typically experience the world differently than an African-American male. A heterosexual, African-American male will experience the world differently than an African-American lesbian. I do not dispute that various aspects of identity intersect in ways of how one perceives the world or how one is perceived. It does not diminish the fact that some aspects of identity make it more difficult to navigate the world. On average, a straight person is going to have an easier time than a gay person. Racial or religious minorities will have a tougher time on average than someone who is white and/or Christian. What I take issue with is that intersectionality has devolved into the Oppression Olympics. There is no official scoring system to speak of, but there is a hierarchy of oppression that exists in the SJW world. Straight, white, Christian males are at the bottom. Gay people rank higher than straight people. Gay people of color rank higher than gay, white people. Any non-SJW who has interacted with those in the SJW world will have picked up on this implicit hierarchical system with little to no effort.  
  • Social Control and Moral Codes. In religious fundamentalist communities, using moral codes to achieve social control comes in many forms, whether that it is of controlling speech, food, sexual behavior, marriage, what to do with your weekend (Shabbat), or what to wear. For SJW's, there are multiple attempts at social control (e.g., cancel culture, social media mobbing), but the most obvious example of social control is that of political correctness. A SJW would argue that political correctness is merely a modern-day application of politeness. As I argued three years ago when discussing political correctness, political correctness is speech and thought control in the guise of tolerance, politeness, and unity. The belief held by SJWs is that controlling use of potentially hateful and/or triggering language can make the world a safer place for oppressed individuals (see more in "Microagressions and Humorlessness" sub-section). For a specific example, you can take a look at my analysis on the word "Latinx." It does not matter if political correctness actually does make a difference in terms of changing one's mind. What matters here is even the appearance or illusion of having said control. 
  • Anti-blasphemy laws. Christian- and Muslim-majority countries alike have historically enacted blasphemy laws when someone shows a lack of respect or reverence for a given deity. In such a society, the official ideology is the only acceptable form of theory, beliefs, and values. Any alternative has to be quashed under the law in order to maintain social order. This has been true whether it has been a theocracy or a Communist regime. There was a time when those on the Far Left were some of the greatest advocates of free speech. After all, Berkeley has been dubbed the birthplace of free speech in the 1960s. How things have changed in the past few decades! Noam Chomsky once said that those who truly favor free speech have to favor it not just for likable views, but views that one despises. Rather than advocate for a freedom the Far Left once cherished, SJWs have generally supported anti-hate-speech laws, a nebulous subjective concept that is nothing more than a secularized version of anti-blasphemy laws. If you think this has not happened yet, go to a college campus. Examples of trigger warnings (which, by the way, are shown to be useless or actually harmful), safe spaces, anti-hate provisions in campus speech codes, and the suppression of conservative and libertarian speakers are numerous and easily searchable on Google. 
  • How one views non-believers. In certain religions, the "in-group versus out-group" dynamic is expressed in terms of "believers versus non-believers." Under the religious fundamentalist framework, believers enter Heaven, whereas non-believers go to Hell. It might not have an eschatological bent, but SJWs have a similar mentality. If you believe in the "Original Sin" of white guilt and if you think that everything in the world is due to a systemic injustice that needs to be toppled, then you are part of the in-group. If you disagree with the SJW view of how the world works or how to fix it in any way, shape, or form (even if you yourself belong to a marginalized group), not only are you wrong. You are considered evil, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, and/or a hater of poor people. That level of intolerance towards the non-believer is indicative of fundamentalist thinking.
  • Punishment of non-believers. An element of theocratic societies or religious fundamentalist communities is to punish those who stray off the "narrow and righteous path." Fortunately, we are not dealing with the executions that occurred during the Salem witch trials or the Spanish Inquisition. That might have something to do with the lack of political or military power that SJWs possess to implement oppression on such a scale. What we do see is cancel culture, or what Left-leaning, transgender activist Natalie Wynn (also known as ContraPoints, and who herself was a victim of cancel culture) refers to as a milder digital version of mob justice reminiscent of the French Revolution. As I brought up earlier this year in my analysis on cancel culture, author J.K. Rowling, an individual who is otherwise very much Left-of-center, has been accosted by the cancel culture mob because she said that biological sex exists. Another example of trying to reinforce its moral code and deal with those who stray off what they deem righteous, there is diversity training to make sure everyone is in line. And forget for a moment that diversity training is shown to have little to no positive effect on people's perspectives or implicit biases. Similar to other forms of religious fundamentalism, there is no tolerance for dissent in the SJW world.  
  • Contradictions and creating inadequacy. One of the reasons I left Orthodox Judaism is because no matter what I did, it was never good enough. In religious fundamentalism, the system is set up in a way that you fail before you began because it expects something that is quite frankly super-human. Here are two examples of quandaries in the SJW world. 1) If you do not speak out or fight against the unfairness and ill-treatment against gay people, you are a homophobe. But if you speak out against Muslims who are exhibiting homophobia or criticizing a Muslim-majority country for punishing homosexuals, you are considered Islamophobic. 2) If you do not believe in gender as a societal construct, you are "heteronormative." But if you do not believe transgenderism as a biological reality, you are "transphobic." So which is it: is gender really a thing or not? It doesn't matter what you say, believe, or do: you can't win! If cancel culture teaches us anything, you can be punished for something down the road that was considered normal or acceptable five or ten years ago. Much like with religious fundamentalism, the SJW framework is designed in a way where you can toil away but will always be deemed inadequate. 
  • Being "born again." It is common for Protestants who have developed a deep relationship with Jesus Christ to refer to themselves as "born again." The phrase "born again" is associated with the idea of baptism, in which one experiences a spiritual rebirth. Amongst the SJW crowd, this idea is referred to as "being woke." Being woke leads to another tendency of SJWs: a holier-than-thou attitude.
  • Holier-than-thou. Holier-than-thou mentality is marked "by an air of superiority or morality" in which you think very highly of yourself. This concept originates in the Bible (particularly the Christian Bible), although it was not commonly used in the vernacular until the 19th century. In a Christian context, examples of this could be thinking you are "a better Christian" because you go to church every week, attend Bible study, or volunteer often. It is not an issue whether your actions have positive outcomes, but how you relate to those actions, as well as others in light of those choices. In a SJW context, such examples are thinking you are better than everyone else because you eat organic, buy fair-trade, don't use plastic straws, or drive a hybrid car. Speaking of hybrid cars, South Park criticized such sanctimonious behavior over a decade ago. In the episode "Smug Alert!", the people of South Park bought hybrid cars. The people of South Park thought they were such saviors of the environment and so full of themselves that they smelled their own farts to get off on their own piety. 
  • Microagressions and humorlessness. One thing I have noticed about religious piety is that there is no room for a healthy dose of humor amongst religious fundamentalists. SJWs share similar sentiments when it comes to humor because they take life too seriously. For one, being woke means being on the constant lookout for that which is unjust and fight it. This leads into my second and more compelling reason why I don't think SJWs have a sense of humor: microagressions. A microagression is a brief and commonplace verbal or behavioral expression, typically without malicious intent, that are taken as insults by individuals from marginalized groups. Remember, the SJ crowd has individuals that will say such things as marijuana is racist towards Mexicans, that chairs are sexist, expecting people to be on time is culturally insensitivethreading eyebrows and yoga are forms of cultural appropriation, using the wrong pronoun in transphobic, and according to a list of microagressions from the University of California, asking someone where they are from is nativist and disparaging towards foreigners. There is a difference between being considerate towards others and going over the top, and SJWs crossed that line a long time ago. Humor is often crude, raunchy, over-the-top, salacious, and yes, politically incorrect. In a world of being offended by the most of micro of so-called "aggressions," anything can be triggering for SJWs. If SJWs get huffy over microagressions, how can you expect SJWs to enjoy humor? Along with that humorlessness is the incapability to laugh at oneself. Show a SJW one of the videos below and I guarantee that instead of finding it funny, they will give you an earful about injustice, something systemic, or how they feel oppressed. 


If you read this and thought the characterization or description of the SJW world seemed over-the-top, that is only because the SJW mindset is that extreme and absurdist. With its ideologically motivated moral community, strict adherence to its belief system, desire for societal conformity, attempts to control others in multiple areas of life, antagonism towards those who disagree, and overall narrow-mindedness, it is indisputable that SJWs operate in a similar fashion that religious fundamentalists do. On the one hand, I am glad that the SJWs do not have considerable political power, although G-d only knows they are working on influencing the Democratic Party. I can find at least some solace in a study showing that 80 percent of U.S. citizens think that political correctness has gone too far (Hawkins et al., 2018). On the other hand, their influence, which used to be confined to academic settings, has grown. In recent years, their influence has gone beyond the ivory tower and into the media, the corporate world, and increasingly politics. 

As we approach the Fourth of July, I think of the beginning of establishment of freedom in the United States on July 4, 1776. I reflect on how the Founding Fathers solidified the ideal that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all by signing the Declaration of Independence. While I am by no means giving President Trump a pass on eroding liberties (see here, here, here), I have serious concerns about how Social Justice has gained considerable influence in U.S. culture. I have observed what havoc they have wreaked with the minimal amount of power they have. I shudder to think of how destructive it could be if they truly got their way. 

Anyone who attempts to fully control and politicize various aspects of life, whether religious or secular, on the Left or Right, fits the textbook definition of totalitarianism. Nazism, militarism, theocracy, Communism, it does not matter what you call it. Societies with authoritarian tendencies diminish civil liberties and economic prosperity. Although SJWs have not gained the power they would like to have (yet!), it does not change the fact that the SJ movement is a type of authoritarianism akin to religious fundamentalism. It is not only a threat to the "American way of life," but it threatens anyone who disagrees with SJWs and wants to live their lives peacefully. There was a time that the Left valued social liberty, equality, and freedom of expression. If I were to have one hope on this Fourth of July (aside from an end to this pandemic), it is that my non-SJW friends on the Left can weed out such nonsense from its ranks and relegate it to the same status of "nut job" that we give extremist cultists.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Trump’s Executive Order Limiting Work Visas Is a Sure-Fire Way to Delay Economic Recovery

Just when you thought that President Trump could not be any more anti-immigration, he makes an effort to outdo himself by signing an executive order this past Monday. In addition to extending his executive order in April that banned certain green card visa applications (see my analysis of that executive order here), he has now banned certain work visas through the end of 2020. The main visas covered under Trump's latest executive order are as follows:
  • H-1B Visa: A temporary work visa for speciality occupations. While these jobs require a Bachelor's degree and practical application of one's studies, a lot of H1-B recipients are in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For further detail, you can read my 2017 analysis on H-1B visas here.
  • H-4 Visa: These visas apply to immediate family members of H-1B visa workers.
  • H-2B Visa: A temporary work visa for temporary, non-agricultural workers on a one-time, seasonal, or intermittent basis. Examples include landscaping, amusement attendants, and housekeeping cleaners. 
  • L-1 Visa: A non-immigrant, temporary visa for high-level employees of multinational businesses. 
The stated purpose of Trump's executive order is to "protect unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs." Trump is also concerned about placing a "risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery." Basically, his argument is that allowing for temporary workers are a threat to the U.S. labor market and the job prospects of U.S. citizens. Now is the part where I go through the reasons why Trump's latest executive order is misplaced:
  1. We tried this before and it failed. Trump likes to think this will boost economic recovery, and yet, that has not happened. To deal with the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover greatly reduced immigration while deporting 500,000 workers of Mexican descent. The outcome was that it lowered wages and job opportunities for native workers (Lee et al., 2017). In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson cancelled the Bracero program in the hopes of increasing the wages of U.S. workers for farmers. The only measurable effect of cancelling the Bracero program was slowing wage growth (Clemens et al., 2018). During the Great Recession, reducing H-1B visas has been shown to slow job growth for natives in IT-related industries by 55 percent (Peri et al., 2014).
  2. Native workers are not being displaced. As I explained in April, Trump is adhering to what is referred to as displacement theory. Essentially, his simplistic view is that guest workers will displace native workers, thereby delaying the recovery. This has hardly played out in practice. Any displacement has been small and primarily has occurred with high school dropouts. Plus, the long-term wage effects of immigration are small
    • As the Cato Institute explains in its May 2020 report on H-1B visas, H-1B workers earn well above the prevailing wage, which is another way of saying that H-1B workers are not in direct competition with natives. 
    • The fact that native workers are not being displaced is all the more so true with L-1 visa holders. The reason for that is L-1 visa holders are already-existing employees of multinational companies. 
  3. Immigration can create jobs for native workers. Trump's executive order is violating the lump sum fallacy. His zero-sum thinking essentially leads him to believe that the size of the economy (and by extension, the labor market) is a fixed amount and that it cannot grow. This is patently false. There is some research showing that immigrants on average create 1.2 local jobs per local worker (Hong and McLaren, 2015). In the case of H-1B visa holders, their skills complement the labor market. This is why the American Enterprise Institute found that H-1B visa holders specifically contribute to positive job growth. 
  4. H-1B workers contribute positively to productivity. Per my 2017 analysis, H-1B visa workers generate more jobs for native workers on net, greater productivity growth, more patents, and greater tax revenue. Cato Institute points out that due to the great amount of innovation produced, lowering H-1B workers would be tantamount to a less productive society. 
Bottom Line: These visa limitations that Trump imposes will only serve to harm the workers that Trump intends to help. Trump's basic misunderstanding of immigration and labor markets will not last for a few days, but will reverberate in the long-term. If Trump wants a speedy economic recovery, keeping away talented workers and limiting ways for businesses to grow is a funny way of showing it. 

6-28-2020 Addendum: A panel of economic experts surveyed found that a) Trump's ban will weaken the United States' position in STEM and other research, b) fewer students will be attracted to U.S. universities, and c) research activities are bound to move abroad. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Evidence Base for Wearing Face Masks to Control COVID-19 Is Growing

As we transition from lockdowns to the next stage of getting through this pandemic, face masks are becoming a symbol of what the new normal is to look like. Face masks have also become a symbol of a culture war, and I can understand why tensions are high. Political polarization was really high before the pandemic. Lockdowns only increased the social tension and unrest. There are reasons people do not want to wear masks, ranging from infringement on civil liberties or not wanting to appear weak to that it can be more than a tad uncomfortable. I get it. I personally would rather not wear one either. At the same time, I have to ask myself what the evidence on face masks says. I wrote a piece on the topic last month entitled A Libertarian Case for a Temporary, Partial Face Mask Mandate During the COVID-19 Pandemic. To summarize my argument for face masks:
  1. N95 masks and surgical masks are much more effective than cloth face masks. 
  2. The argument for face masks is stronger when being inside since germs dilute and decay in the outdoor air. 
  3. Face masks do a better job of slowing transmission from someone than they do at preventing someone from catching COVID-19 from someone else.
  4. There is a minimal cost of inconvenience, and there is even some evidence that face masks provide a net positive economic benefit. 
  5. The public health concern of stopping the pandemic from getting worse overrides the discomfort or civil liberties since the decision to not wear a face mask could very well harm another, thereby violating the non-aggression axiom
  6. As such, there should be a temporary, partial face mask mandate. It should be limited to indoor setting where people are likely to be close to one another. It should also be limited to when the rate of transmission is still high where it would likely cause another surge in infections.
What has changed in the past few weeks? There is more evidence that has come into play. When I first looked at this issue last month, the evidence was limited and often contradictory. Various public health experts were giving conflicting advice. Some were saying to not wear masks because it could make the problem worse. Others were saying that we should because it prevents transmission. It was hard to figure out what was going on. Now we have greater evidence as to what is going on. Here are some of the more recent findings. 
  • A study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A found that the median effective R0 of less than one (the amount required to eradicate a disease) could be reached even if face masks were only 50 percent effective (Stutt et al., 2020). This study also found that face masks are twice as effective as slowing the rate of transmission when they are worn before symptoms appear.
  • Most previous study on the effectiveness of face masks was in the context of healthcare settings. A meta-analysis from The Lancet (Chu et al., 2020) covering 172 studies analyzing the effects of social distancing, face masks, and eye covers. The study found that there low-certainty evidence supporting the use of face masks. Social distancing measures had a medium-level certainty. 
  • The Institute of Labor Economics analyzed the use of face masks in Germany to find a 40 percent reduction in the rate of transmission (Mitze et al., 2020).
  • An Italian researcher found that face masks encourage social distancing (Marchiori, 2020). 
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the COVID-19 outbreak on the Navy's USS Theodore Roosevelt (Payne et al., 2020). They found that those who wore face masks have a lower infection rate than those who did not wear face masks (55.8% versus 80.8%). 
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) changed its recommendation from not wearing face masks in public to wearing them in public.
I am sure we will see more and more evidence coming in about various measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Face masks are not meant to be 100 percent or bullet-proof because that is the nature of cloth face masks. What we are seeing, though, is more evidence that face masks can be effective in flattening the curve. Per The Lancet study, I find that social distancing is more effective than face masks (also see Hsiang et al., 2020). That is why face masks still need to be accompanied by social distancing, hand washing, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Police Unions: Another Example of the Problems with Public-Sector Collective Bargaining

Public-sector unions have been a topic of criticism on this blog. Generally speaking, public-sector unions drive up budgetary costs while decreasing employment, result in a more inefficient allocation of resources, and generates less profits. Teacher unions and the collective bargaining have been shown to lower student test scores, amongst other negative effects. Today, I am going to scrutinize another form of public-sector unionism: police unions.

In light of George Floyd's death and the protests that have occurred, policing reform is front and center of political debate. The political climate against police officers is strong enough where affiliates of the AFL-CIO have severed their ties with the International Union of Police Associations. This is a conflict for both the Left and the Right alike. The Left wants to be tough on policing reform, but would have to recognize the role that collective bargaining has played in the systemic issues. The Right is in a pickle because they have a problem with the collective bargaining aspect, but do not want to be perceived as anti-police or soft on crime. 

What I argue here today is that much like with other public-sector unions, police unions create perverse incentives that contribute to the problems pointed out by critics of police abuse. Before I begin, I want to say that the system is not completely inept. As the Washington Post pointed out in its 2017 analysis, 37 of some of the largest police municipalities had collectively fired 1,881 officers between 2006 and 2017. That being said, there are still major inefficiencies when it comes to police unionism. For one, one out of every four officers part of the Washington Post analysis were found to have been rehired. If you want some shocking anecdotal evidence, you can read this Atlantic article here. To add onto that, Reuters analyzed 82 major cities and their police union contracts. Two of the major abuses as a result of provisions within the police officers' contracts are the ability to erase disciplinary records and giving officers access to all investigative materials. 

There is a limited amount of research on the topic, but let us take a look at some of the academic literature on the effects of police unions:
  • Increased rates of misconduct and increased death. Police unions have contributed to misconduct since the 1960s (Bies, 2017). A paper from the University of Chicago looked at "moral character violations" of police officers in Florida from 1996 to 2015. Their main takeaway was that the collective bargaining of police officers resulted in a 40 percent increase of police violence (Dharmapala et al., 2018). University of Victoria economist Rob Gillezeau preliminarily found that collective bargaining of police officers is responsible for 60 to 70 deaths annually. 
  • Limited accountability measures. A article from Duke Law Review shows how collective bargaining of police officers limits officer interrogations after alleged misconduct, indemnifies police officers [similar to qualified immunity], limits the length of internal investigations, and de facto bans civilian oversight (Rushin, 2017).
  • Collective bargaining of police officers is a de facto tax. Taxpayers indirectly cough up the cost for public-sector collective bargaining, whether in the form of paying for a public-sector worker's higher-than-market-value wages, more inefficient allocation of resources, or a lower GDP. In the case of police unions, there are not simply the general costs of negotiating. Police unions have a tendency to push back on internal misconduct reforms, which can be quite costly to handle in court (Harmon, 2012).

Existing research and findings conclude that collective bargaining of police officers results in greater obstacles to disciplinary actions and greater misconduct. There needs to be accountability and discipline of bad apples because public safety is otherwise in jeopardy. The current collective bargaining practices of police unions permits too little accountability and too much abuse. By removing enabling provisions and eliminating [or at least minimizing collective bargaining power in the form of something such as a limited form of minority union bargaining (see Fisk and Richardson, 2016), we would be a step closer to the policing reform that the citizens of the United States deserve. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Eliminating Qualified Immunity Would Curtail Rights Violations and Bring Greater Accountability to Law Enforcement

The unfortunate death of George Floyd caused by Officer Derek Chauvin has brought up a myriad of questions as to how to deal with police misconduct. A phrase that I am sure you have heard being thrown around is "qualified immunity." You are probably wondering how one could make a connection between modern-day policing and a nineteenth-century statute.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Section 1983 (42 U.S.C. §1983) allows for people to sue the government for civil rights violations. That sounds like a good thing because it holds government officials accountable for bad behavior. This makes sense since the Act was created to curtail civil rights violations that were particularly going in the South at this time. The plain language of 42 U.S.C. §1983 was upheld until the Warren Court. In the case of Pierson v. Ray (1967), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) argued that "a policeman's lot is not so unhappy that he must choose between being charged with dereliction of duty if he does not arrest when he has probable cause, and being mulcted [fined] in damages if he does." And this is how qualified immunity was born.

It was in the case of Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982) that SCOTUS ruled that qualified immunity applies except when it does not violate "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights. The process of determining if something is "clearly established" was not formalized until 2001 (Saucier v. Katz). The first step is determining if there was a constitutional violation. The second step is determining whether the right was established at the time the conduct took place. For qualified immunity to not apply to the officer, there would need to be a previous court case with sufficiently similar circumstances rendering the conduct unconstitutional. Pearson v. Callahan (2009) ruled that the constitutionality of the violation remains undefined, which makes it more difficult to pass the hurdle of qualified immunity.

Now that we have gotten through the legal history, let's get into why this matters for policing. It was the initial case of Pierson v. Ray that established qualified immunity based on the notion that worries about liability would get in the way of their work. Law enforcement officers do not think about being sued when performing their duties (Schwartz, 2018; Hall, 2003; Vaughn et al., 2001Garrison, 1995).

Tangentially, the worry is that even if they do their jobs properly, they will be burdened with the trial process and the associated costs. Qualified immunity was meant to protect all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. This argument comes in two sub-arguments. The first claim is that qualified immunity exists to prevent officers from being bankrupt from civil lawsuits. The problem with that argument is that governments pay 99.98% percent of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered (Schwartz, 2014), which is to say that police officers do not pay the bill in such a trial (Emmet and Maazel, 2000). Even if indemnification were an issue (which it clearly is not), it would still be fine because it would give the government an incentive to crack down on abusive officers. Derek Chauvin had 18 complaints against him, and yet he was allowed to resume working. Perhaps that would not have been the case had qualified immunity not existed.

The second argument is that qualified immunity exists to protect officers from the burdens of the discover phase.  A study in Yale Law Journal found that qualified immunity is rarely applied early enough to protect officers from civil discovery. The study found that qualified immunity could be raised in 3.9 percent of cases. In practice, only in 0.6 percent of cases was such protection able to be offered (Schwartz, 2017).

Another point I would like to bring up is a study showing how qualified immunity increases the costs, time, and complexity of litigating constitutional claims (Schwartz, 2019). This study is more pessimistic in stating that the win rates would stay the same if we removed qualified immunity. However, removing the costs would increase the number of cases, which means that more justice would be served.

What we see here is that qualified immunity actually does very little to help with constitutional litigation. This brings me to the reasons to criticize the practice of qualified immunity. As the Cato Institute points out, qualified immunity is an "atextual, ahistorical judicial doctrine that shields state officials from liability." There was no good-faith defense (certainly during the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871) that would justify SCOTUS' ruling. As a matter of fact, prior to 1967, officers were strictly liable for unlawful acts (Pfander and Hunt, 2010).

Let's go with the "clearly established" clause from the 1982 SCOTUS case. This clause is argued to have made it more difficult to make it prosecute officers when they commit constitutional violations on the job. International news organization Reuters released a report on qualified immunity in May 2020. Reuters not only found that qualified immunity made it more difficult for the case to go to trial, but even when it does go to trial, there are many instances in which the courts favor the officers. Since Pearson v. Callahan, the officer is more likely to win, according to Reuters. An analysis from Notre Dame Law Review confirms Reuters' finding by concluding that officers win 70 percent of the time (Reinert, 2018).

Qualified immunity is judicial activism at its worst because it violated Fourth Amendment rights, not to mention a violation of the separation of power that the Constitution was meant to protect (see Baude, 2018). It sends the message that officers can "shoot first and ask questions later" while protecting bad cops.

The fact that something so unconstitutional and ineffective exists in our legal system is mind-blowing. We need to do better as a society when it comes to protecting constitutional rights, and one of those ways to improve police officer accountability is to eliminate qualified immunity or at least limit qualified immunity with "excessive reasonableness." Given the conservative nature of SCOTUS (and when I say conservative, I mean classical conservatism, i.e., it leans on tradition and established principles) and love for stare decisis, it is unlikely that SCTOUS will overrule its previous ruling. On the plus side, bipartisan legislation was introduced last week to eliminate qualified immunity, so we shall see what happens. I don't expect eliminating qualified immunity will eliminate police misconduct, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

How Lockdowns Became the Catalyst for the Protests and Riots in Response to George Floyd's Death

2020 has already been a crazy year. First, there is a pandemic. Then there is ample panic where multiple countries put their citizenry on lockdown. As a result of the contraction of economic activity caused by these lockdowns, we are experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. If that were not enough, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (who is white) knelt on the neck of George Floyd (who was black) for about eight minutes, thereby causing Floyd's unfortunate death. Floyd was arrested after allegedly using a $20 bill at a market. Floyd was already restrained and begging for Chauvin to stop. Floyd's unfortunate death led to their being protests against police brutality throughout the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. Protests then spread throughout the United States (and eventually internationally) in support of justice and policing reform, as well as a revival of Black Lives Matter at the forefront of media attention. Although there have been peaceful protests, there has also been looting and rioting that has caused considerable economic damage.

The specifics of the Floyd killing, general abuses perpetrated by certain members of law enforcement, and racial disparities that still exist to this day play a clearer role on how we reached the point of protesting and rioting in the United States. The lockdowns, on the other hand, are not an immediately apparent contributor. However, when you think through the nature of the lockdowns and their effects, what we see is that the lockdowns became the catalyst for the protests and riots to take place.

The first and most obvious facet of the lockdowns is the economic damage that the lockdowns have left in their wake. There have been more than 40 million jobless claims. U-6 unemployment, which is a figure that includes discouraged, workers, marginally unattached workers and those working part-time for economic reasons, is at 22.4 percent. 40 percent of low-income earners have lost their jobs, which is even more telling since low-income households have fewer savings and financial stability to begin with. While there is some hope that a significant amount of this unemployment is temporary because of the lockdowns, it is nevertheless bad enough where the Great Recession pales in comparison. Paying rent is getting more difficult. The economic stresses caused by the lockdowns is increasing stress-related disease and suicide, what is being labeled "deaths of despair." The mental health organization Well Being Trust made a baseline estimate last month that there will be an extra 75,000 dead from these "deaths of despair."

This gets into the economic concept of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is "the return of a foregone option less than your return on your chosen option." It is the price of the next best thing you could have made if you did not make your first choice. What does opportunity cost have to do with the riots? Prior to the lockdowns, most people had jobs they had to attend. With the lockdowns, a lot of people have been unable to work and confined in many ways. Business closures make it that much easier to go out protesting or rioting. This economic concept plays out in reality.

Francesco Rocca, who is the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, predicted in March that the increased unemployment and and increased risk of suicide would result in social unrest in major Western cities. I expressed concerns about social unrest in early April, and lo and behold, it is here.

We can look at history. The Great Depression saw its fair share of unemployment protesting and riots.  According to the University of Washington, there were 702 such demonstrations between 1930 and 1932. More recently, we can look to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in response to Rodney King's death. What caused those riots? Two economists also looked at international riot data and cross-city comparisons in context of the L.A. riots of 1992 to find that high unemployment played a major role (DiPasquale and Glaser, 1996).

If certain case studies are not enough, consider this. In its 2013 report, the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that unemployment is the single largest factor in social unrest. To quote the ILO paper, "A one standard deviation increase in unemployment raises social unrest by 0.39 standard deviations, while a one standard deviation increase in GDP growth reduces social unrest by 0.19 standard deviations." People feel restless, stressed, anxious, and angry given everything the lockdowns have caused and the uncertainty surrounding them. Should it be a surprise that research confirms this intuitive concept?

The second facet of lockdowns that contributed to the lockdowns is that of social isolation. In its 2016 report, the centrist Brookings Institution describes to what it refers to as "third places." Third places are places that people spend time at between being at home ("first place") and work ("second place"). Examples of third places are restaurants, houses of worship, recreation centers, pool halls, and parks. They are places that where one can develop community, build relationships, and create positive memories. It is not simply the place that matters, but the people. Human beings are social creatures and thus crave social interaction. We were not meant to work all day and binge-watch Netflix all night. This sort of mass social isolation is not tenable, certainly not anything beyond the immediate-term. The American Psychological Association points out that social isolation can lead to increased risk of "depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity at every stage of life." In short, the social isolation brought on by the lockdowns caused people to collectively snap.

Finally, there is the additional police enforcement as a result of lockdowns. Lockdowns are a de jure ban on millions who try to earn a living, leave home, or go out to have fun. Combining the criminalizing of these aspects of living with the face mask bans and social distancing requirements, it has caused more friction between law enforcement and citizens trying to enforce what would be considered petty infractions. A few examples to list:

  • The New York Police Department reported that there was an increase of altercations as a result of enforcing COVID-related laws.
  • Officers in Philadelphia dragged a man off a bus for not wearing a face mask. Similarly, a mother was arrested in New York City for her refusal to wear a face mask.
  • A man in the East Village of New York City was beaten for not maintaining social distancing (see video here).
  • A woman in Idaho was arrested for being in a closed park, and was charged with trespassing.
  • A business owner in Colorado was arrested for using his own property. 
  • A SWAT team in Texas raided a bar that defied the lockdown and arrested the proprietors. 
  • On the other side of the pond, the United Kingdom has enacted a "bonking ban". Earlier this week, the United Kingdom mandated that having two or more people having sex indoors is prohibited under British law. Good luck enforcing that one!
To recap, economic downturn caused by the lockdowns, the social isolation, and negative interactions with additional police enforcement have created the perfect storm. I'm not here to say that the lockdowns were the sole factor in the riots and protests. Like with so many other phenomena, there are multiple factors. At the same time, we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that the lockdowns played no role whatsoever. The years of policing abuse were the kindling, the lockdowns were the firewood, and the death of George Floyd was the match that lit the fuse on these protests and riots. Let's not forget this as the list of costs incurred by these lockdowns continues to get longer and longer.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Section 230: How Trump's Attempt to Regulate Twitter Is Unnecessary and Would Harm Freedom of Speech

I was wondering when there would be something inane enough in the news to take a break from writing about coronavirus. It looks like I have found that something. Last week, Trump made a couple of tweets about how mail-in voting could lead to widespread fraud. In response, Twitter fact-checked the tweets and applied warning labels to said tweets. In less than a day, Trump signed an executive order to regulate social media companies from censoring. Trying to stop the censoring of conservative sites has become a cause célèbre for Trump and conservatives.  In attempt to address it, Trump decided to go after Section 230 in the executive order. What is Section 230?

Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 that states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Essentially, it protects social media platforms and other internet platforms from being liable for what their-party actors say or do on the platform. This Section is important because it is the legal framework that allows for people to efficiently post YouTube videos, Yelp reviews, comments on websites, and Facebook statuses. So why is Trump trying to dial back Section 230 protections such a problem?

The evidence for censorship of conservative voices on social media is scant and anecdotal. The basis for such regulation in the first place is that conservative voices and media are being silenced. A March 2020 working paper from George Mason University scrutinized the claim and illustrated how little evidence there is for such a claim (Feeney, 2020). Tech trade association NetChoice shows that such liberal media outlets as Huffington Post, the Daily Show, and Young Turks were more likely to have their content restricted than conservative media outlet Prager U. The Economist shows that Google restricts both left-leaning and right-leaning content alike (see below).

It is based on a misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Twitter is a private platform. The First Amendment only applies to government action regarding speech. There have been a number of court cases that state that private platforms are not subject to applying First Amendment standards to their content moderation: Cubby v. CompuServePrager University v. Google LLCFreedom Watch v. GoogleJohnson v. TwitterTaylor v. Twitteramongst others. As a matter of fact, Trump's attempt to regulate a private platform very would could end up being ruled as a violation of the First Amendment.

It is based on a misreading of Section 230. As the Cato Institute brings up on its legislative analysis of Section 230, it is Section 230(c)(2)(a) that explicitly allows for platform providers to remove content they find "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable."  The reasoning in the executive order violates the plain meaning of Section 230.

Imposing neutrality or fairness on social media could backfire. Government attempts to control speech undermine free speech. We already saw how bad free speech got when the government imposed the Fairness Doctrine on traditional broadcasting. Past administrations used the Fairness Doctrine to blunt dissenting opinions and trample on the First Amendment. Trump's executive order could set legal precedent for other forms of censoring free speech beyond social media platforms. It would not only be an issue for Twitter or Facebook. Trump could use it to silent such liberal comedians as Trevor Noah or Stephen Colbert. What happens if Joe Biden makes it to the White House? This precedent could be used to silent conservative media. If history has taught us anything, a government's attempt at content neutrality would likely result in silencing voices, not amplifying them.

An absence of Section 230 would likely mean less free speech. One of the main aspects of Section 230 is allowing websites and online platforms moderate without risking liability for third-party content on their platforms or websites. It is because of Section 230 that Yelp does not get sued every time someone posts a bad review on Yelp. Imagine if YouTube got sued for all the idiotic comments made in its Comments section. It would be a legal nightmare! If the platforms became legally responsible for third-party content, Facebook, Twitter, and other companies would have greater incentive to remove any content that would be legally problematic or controversial. Trump going after Section 230 is ironic because if it were not for Section 230, Twitter would likely shut down Trump's account for liability reasons.

Other unintended consequences and costs of repealing Section 230. The Electronic Frontier Foundation brings up unintended consequences of removing Section 230. If online service providers are spending money on fighting legal battles, it diminishes the ability of social media platforms to innovate since that money could have been better spent elsewhere. Social media platforms would also have to spend more money on monitoring content in real-time to avoid liability. Given the number of posts on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the like, it would be impractical to moderate every post. These costs could be passed onto online users, which would mean not only censoring your freedom of speech, but also less access to online platforms and resources.

ConclusionAs a private company, Twitter has no right to stay neutral or owe anyone a platform, and that includes the president. Whether Twitter or Facebook is correct in their judgement of fact-checking is a separate question. The First Amendment guarantees social media platforms the right to do so. If you have a problem with a certain platform, delete your account and use a competing platform. That advice goes for President Trump, as well.

Attempting to penalize private companies for purely political reasons under the guise of defining federal regulation of free speech as free speech is as Orwellian as "2+2=5." It is truly vexing and disturbing that Trump is using the government to silence a private company simply for questioning him. If the president were truly able to exert unilateral force to decide how a private company may operate, it would lead to additional erosion of our democratic institutions.

Whether Trump likes it or not, Section 230 is one of the single most important laws protecting free speech on the internet. Without Section 230, individuals, corporations, and government leaders who want to silent free speech on the internet would be more able to do so. If Trump were to get his way, not only would it cost platform providers and users more, but it would be a major assault on the First Amendment. Fortunately for us all, Trump's executive order has much more bark than bite. At the same time, it does not matter if the executive order is unenforceable or if Trump created the executive order to appeal to his voting base to get ready for the November elections: it creates a precedent that would make us all less free.