Monday, October 6, 2014

What is Affirmative Consent?


So Jerry Brown just signed SB-967, the Student Safety: Sexual Assault Bill, into law in California. There's been a good deal of reporting recently on widespread problems at colleges and universities in how they deal with rape and assault and I'm the first to acknowledge those problems. There's a
culture of acceptance at best or tacit approval at worst of sexual assault on campuses, and in many cases faculty and staff would rather ignore it than address it. So legislation to reform the system and protect victims is certainly needed and welcome.

And that brings us to the current bill, which basically requires every school to enact and Affirmative Consent sexual assault policy to receive any state of federal funds. The affirmative consent standard is usually defined as requiring the each person engaging in sexual activity to obtain active affirmative, voluntary agreement to sexual activity. Which sounds great. Of course affirmative consent should be required. But when it comes to criminal legal matters the details are critical and that's where California's new law is problematic. The relevant text reads:

(1) An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.
This law requires "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement" but never defines what constitutes such agreement to satisfy the legal requirement. It tells you what does NOT constitute consent, including lack of protest, silence or an ongoing dating relationship. OK. But what DOES constitute affirmative consent? A yes, a nod, a smile? And further complicating things is the requirement for ongoing consent throughout the sexual activity. Again, what exactly is required? Does an initial verbal consent mean that less definitive physical cues are sufficient going forward? Or must both parties pause every 10 minutes to obtain updated verbal consent? 

This may seem like petty carping because everyone KNOW what consent means. But in legal matters of such import, "just knowing" isn't enough. This law creates questions and confusion with arbitrary and undefined requirements to avoid being guilty of rape. Amanda Marcotte defends this ambiguity saying "The law has no bearing on the vast majority of sexual encounters. It only applies when a student files a sexual assault complaint". To which Jonathan Chait responds "So the law will not come into play because nobody will actually try to enforce it. Instead, it will technically deem a large proportion of sexual encounters to be rape, but prosecutors will only enforce it if there is an accusation. And since most, and possibly nearly all, sexual encounters will legally be rape, then accusation will almost automatically result in conviction... What percentage of the last decade worth of Hollywood sex scenes, if acted out between college students in California, would technically constitute rape? A majority? Ninety percent? Deprogramming and reorienting societal ideas about sex is an evolutionary process. California isn't merely attempting to set out to nudge the culture in this direction. It is reclassifying all sex that falls outside those still-novel ideas as rape. A law premised on this sort of sweeping, wholesale change is likely to fail." I have to say I find Chait's argument more compelling.

So again, reform and new laws to deal with sexual assault are both needed and welcome.  An Affirmative Consent law of some form is a great idea.  But those laws must be clear, well defined and specific in their requirements.  I don't think California's new law reaches those bars.








Friday, September 26, 2014

Inflation, UNH! AH! What is it good for? Absolutely..... a few things actually.


Oh, inflation, you bane of existence.  You Weimar Zimbabwean destroyer of worlds, bringing terror into the souls of central bankers.  Why can't you be vanquished by our modern economy?  Well, the reason is that we (meaning not crazy people who study economics) want moderate inflation.  You may have heard talk of the Federal Reserve targeting 2% inflation and thought "why don't they target 0% inflation?  inflation is terrible".  And in fact so had I wondered in the past.  The reasons are complicated (as macro economics generally is, despite what some might tell you about it being just like a household budget.  it's not.), and as a non-economist I only have a limited understanding of them all.  But I'll try to run through the basics here based on my limited knowledge.First off, what is inflation?  Via Wikipedia: " inflation is a sustained increase in the general price level of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.[1] When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, inflation reflects a reduction in the purchasing power per unit of money – a loss of real value in the medium of exchange and unit of account within the economy."

One of the great knocks on inflation is it degrades buying power. And of course this is true, and out of control inflation can cause severe price instability and lots of secondary economic problems and governments can get caught in an inflation spiral trying to print their way out of the crisis.  But in modern times and advanced economies this just hasn't happened in close to a century.  That's why the ever fearful inflation hawks have to point back to the Weimar Republic of the 1920's and war torn, third world, Zimbabwe to support their ever present screams of "HYPER INFLATION IS
COMING"!  To ignore the past is to be destined to repeat it.  But to ignore present realities leaves one living in the past instead of dealing with current reality.  The fact is the Fed and the rest of the major central banks around the world understand monetary economic theory, act mostly independently of short term political influence and have kept inflation well controlled for decades through many economic cycles and disruptions.  We're simply not living in a world where the USA needs to live in fear of hyper-inflation.  And of course the facts on the ground, despite the tearful cries from the Wall Street Journal and various other right wing, supply side economists, bear this out.  If you listened to them the last 6 years, and bet on soaring inflation and worthless treasury bonds, you'd have lost a lot of money.

But I digress.  Let look at why low to moderate inflation is desirable.  First off, consider a bank that's made a loan, such as a student loan.  With 0% inflation, the value of the loan payments in terms of purchasing power are constant of say 20 years.  As a net lender, the bank likes this.  If there's some inflation, the bank is losing real value on it's asset.  But remember, for every lender there's a debtor.  The student who took the loan graduates, gets a job and starts paying.  Inflation means this new worker is likely to get raises every year that meet or exceed inflation.  So for the young worker, real purchasing power stays stable or grows while debt service shrinks.  This is good for the debtor.    Now you might think "ok, so it's a wash.  one side wins, the other loses".  In a microecon sense this is true, but in a macro econ sense it is not necessarily true.  The debtor and lender are in different economic positions.  A young single college graduate is going to be constrained balance sheet constrained in their spending due to large college debt, while a bank very likely is not so constrained.  Particularly in a weak economy, such as now, banks and other large institutions are awash in cash with no place to spend it.   So in terms of effect on spending and GDP, helping a balance sheet constrained individual vs a lending institution with a strong balance sheet will lead to a better macroeconomic outcome.

The second reason why inflation is useful, especially during a demand driven recession, is it can pull spending forward.  Meaning, if the real value of your money is going to decrease over time, you are incetivized to make purchases today.  So I buy a car and GM builds a new production plant this year instead of next year when it will cost us both more.  This is particularly true for buyers who are holding under utilized cash, which is exactly the people you want spending in a recession which can otherwise lead to hoarding resources out of uncertainty.

Third, when economies try to adjust to a recession there are two "stickiness" problems.  First there's downward wage stickiness and the Zero Lower Bound on interest rates.  Downward wage stickiness means that both employees and employers are very resistant to wage cuts, even in a negative inflation environment where technically a nominal cut would equal no change in real compensation (people are not rational economic actors and anyone who tells you different is wrong).  The ZLB refers to situation when the short-term nominal interest rate is at or near zero, causing a liquidity trap and limiting the capacity that the central bank has to stimulate economic growth.  In other words,the Fed's monetary policy loses efficacy because they can't cut rates below 0%.  Inflation solves both these problems, allowing wages to adjust without nominal cuts and the real interest rate ( nominal rate - inflation) to go negative. 

Now, I'm probably missing lots of things and failing to explain or even understand some of the intricacies on this, but that's as good as it gets from me.  If you want a more professional opinion, go read a not rambling drunk.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Race in the Twenty-First Century

Don't worry, this isn't a 698 page treatise full of data and confusing charts.  Its just a series of posts related to the recent spate of racial news and controversy in America.   Most recently , we have Donald Sterling, but before that there was Cliven Bundy, the Supreme Court affirmative action and voting rights decisions, George Zimmerman's acquittal and various lesser controversies like Duck Dynasty and Paula Dean (whose name I had forgotten, but luckily if  you google "fat racist southern chef" she comes up #1 in the results...and 2-100 also).  All this against the backdrop of our first black president and all the backlash that's entailed.  So since I bitch about it all the time, I decided to type out some thoughts more formally than my standard IM or facebook rants.

Many people, often well meaning (though sometimes not and invariably white), cite Obama's election as proof of a post racial, post-racism america.   Or at the very least, proof that despite individual racists, there is no longer systemic racism that affects minorities.  I think there's a few indications in these high profile cases showing why that's not true.  But let's start with Sterling.  One of the things that struck me in his recorded conversation is his sense of entitlement and moreover of aristocratic nobility.
I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? 
What has been termed his "plantation mentality" is striking in this quote.  He feels he's giving his employees everything and they should all be grateful.  They don't work for him and make an equitable trade of their skills and effort for a fair wage. He's GIVING them something they really don't deserve and should be grateful for it.  Of course this attitude isn't limited to racists and I imagine many of the ultra-rich feel the same way about all us plebeian serfs, but I digress.   In this case, Sterling has made it clear he's talking about African Americans in particular.  The second thing, which is more significant to the idea of systemic American racism, is who exactly Sterling is talking about.  Not some poor, uneducated nobodies (which is just as bad, but carries different implications) but wealthy, famous athletes including Magic Johnson.  This American icon, entrepreneur and wealthy man isn't welcome to even attend Clippers game because he is black.  And in a sports league that leads the way in minority players, coaches and administrative staff, the NBA still has 98% white majority ownership of teams, with the only exception being Michael Jordan.  So when people point to Obama and other successful African Americans to argue racism is a thing of the past remember that the truly rich and powerful in the US (including every other past President) remain almost exclusively white men.  And at least one, and I expect many, are still racists who regard non-whites as inferior serfs.

to be continued....

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chris Christie: From GOP Presidential Favorite to Federal Corruption Indictment Favorite

The bigger the are, the harder they fall (pun most definitely intended).  The power, fame, corruption and just plain meanness Chris Christie used to advance his career and crush his enemies is exactly what makes so
many people eager to pounce now that he's weakened and exposed.  This isn't to say the multiple ongoing investigations are merely political witch hunts, merely that he's made himself very alluring target for very legitimate investigation.   I reserve judgement on his guilt (though if pressed I'd say the corruption runs deep and wide in his administration, with his full knowledge and endorsement), but there are several things that indicate Christie knows he's in huge trouble.

First off, there's the Christie million dollar "investigation" by his handpicked law firm.  The fact that he felt the need to do this means he was very worried about the real investigation by the US Attorney and to a lesser extent the NJ legislature.  Beyond that, the investigative report itself was so fawning that it read like Governor Christie erotic fan fiction, complete with its very own torrid affair and jilted lovers.  And within this legal fellating, by Randy maestro et al., they were still forced to admit Wildstein claims to have told Christie about the lane closings while the were ongoing in direct contradiction to Christie previous statements.  And they don't say Wildstein is lying, but just that Christie can't recall it happening.  Sure.  The whole million plus dollar, tax payer funded, report was nothing more that propaganda to discredit Christie's enemies and likely future prosecution witnesses; in particular David Wildstein and Bridget Kelly.

Which brings me to point two.  There seem to be at least two key players who can discredit the Governor's story and do so with both testimony and documents, Kelly and Wildstein.  This being the case, I fiound it immediately odd that Christie wasted no time in throwing them  under the bus in the most crass, dickish ways possible.  To paraphrase, Wildstein was a high school nerd who Christie barely knew because he was probably in math club or band while Christie was playing football and banging cheerleader or whatever.  In any case Christie certainly had no idea what Wildstein was doing and the Port Authority and whatever he did was extremely stupid and he's fired so lets move one!  This all despite the fact the Christie and Wildstein were long time allies and Christie created the the job specifically for Wildstein to be his political enforcer at the Port Authority.

Christie gave pretty much the same treatment to Bridget Kelly except he threw in a little "she's a nutty little slut who probably having her lady time and she cries a bunch".  Even Christie apologist Joe Scarborough was appalled by this point.  And now Wildstein in in talks with the US Attorney, and I can't imagine Kelly's far behind (you want to be the first to flip not the last to get any kind of bargaining power for immunity).  So the puzzling thing is why would Christie throw two of the people with the most power to hurt him under the bus almost immediately after things heated up.  I can only imagine its because he knew they'd talk and he knew he was going to be implicated by it.  For him to know they'd talk means he must have known they committed crimes and would be forced to make a deal or face criminal prosecution and likely prison.  That immediately means he's been lying and is culpable as well.   But furthermore, it likely means Christie believes their cooperation will be enough to get him prosecuted as well.  Hence his desperation to smear them both and undermine their credibility for a jury.

And just as a quick addendum, here's an excerpt from a DailyBeast article about Christie's legal problems:
Being targeted by the Feds, Smith recalled, is “the closest that a human being in modern times [is going] to get to feeling what it was like when man lived in the wild and was hunted.” There are probably, Smith said, “ten people who have spent the last three months doing nothing but focusing on any criminality that [Christie’s] engaged in, or that people close to him have engaged in. Ten people who wake up everyday and have a map in their office—a map of people—that all lead back to him. And their goals to figure out a way to connect those dots until it gets back to him.”

Friday, March 7, 2014

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 missing, likely crashed

It appears that a Malaysian airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has crashed with 227 passengers plus crew on board.  This is terribly tragic and saddening.  But I'm also confused by news reports which are stating that the airline has no idea where the plane is and that they lost contact 2 hours into the flight.  The fact that they don't know where it is seems crazy, since planes are tracked on radar and with radio beacon system called ADS-B.  According to wikipedia "Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) is a cooperative surveillance technology for tracking aircraft. The aircraft determines its own position via GNSS and periodically broadcasts this via a radio frequency.".  So how can they not no where the plane crashed?

The second thing that's not making sense is the 2 hours before they lost contact.  According to flightaware.com, which monitors plane locations using ADS-B, the last reported position for the plane was braodcast at 12:02 pm EST, less than 20 minutes after it took off, at Lat 4.9, Long 102.6. (http://flightaware.com/live/flight/MAS370/history/20140307/1635Z/WMKK/ZBAA/tracklog)  This would put it just a hundred of so miles from Kuala Lumpur and near a Large Lake called Hulu Terengganu.  So either the location beacon failed before communications, the news reports are wrong, flightaware.com is wrong, or the airline is not telling the truth.

The Audacity of Paul

I see Rand Paul and Chris Christie led the latest New Hampshire poll of the probably GOP field, tying with
12% each.  Forgoing all the caveats about a single poll in 2 years before the election, i think there are some interesting things to be said about the result.  First, it highlights the divide between the establishment and Tea Party/Libertarian wings of the party.  Christie is still the leading establishment choice despite his scandals, mainly because the rest of the field is so weak.  Rand looks like he may end up as the major challenger from the right.  But what I think is more interesting is why Rand Paul is so prominent in the GOP.  I'd argue that it is mainly fortuitous historical timing. There's no other time in modern American politics where a far right libertarian could contrast himself favorably as the reasonable moderate voice in his party. His father was basically the same guy (with a bit less charisma), and was generally marginalized as a crank. So Paul, having set himself up with strong right wing cred, and with a small but dedicated libertarian base, can get away with kicking the extremists and moderating on certain non-fiscal issues.  For example, criticizing Ted Nugent for calling Obama a "subhuman mongrel".  The fact that this is more about the GOP than Paul himself is pretty obvious if you try to imagine the republican reaction to Nugent's racist insanity in the context of the 80's or 90's political landscape. If he even made the news, disavowing his comments would be automatic for any major political figure. Today, doing so is some sort of brave political stand.  The truth is that Rand Paul, like his dad, is basically a right wing crank peddling childish economic policies he learned from reading a few terrible novels by a sociopath name Ayn Rand which he apparently mistook for academic texts.  But nowadays being a crank is en vogue in the GOP.