A Few Random Thoughts About Sanctuary Cities

I never really gave much thought to sanctuary cities before, but the more I hear about them these days, the more I like them.

First of all, it’s always nice to see someone stick their finger in the eye of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Second, immigration law is federal law, and if the feds want it enforced they can damned well do it themselves. I’m still pissed off that the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act required employers to check employees’ citizenship status (i.e. “showing their papers”) and fill out an I-9 form to get a job, thus drafting all the nation’s Human Resources staff into doing ICE’s job for them. I certainly don’t think that cities and towns should be spending time and money investigating people’s citizenship status if they don’t want to. And if ICE agents are too slow to investigate someone’s citizenship status themselves, they shouldn’t be trying to dragoon local jails into holding people while they figure it out. If they want to hold someone, they should do it themselves.

Third, immigration opponents love to ask “If you think illegal immigrants are okay, then why don’t you let them to move in with you?” Well, that’s pretty much what sanctuary cities are doing, so what the heck is the problem? By definition, sanctuary cities protect illegal immigrants who live there. Residents of sanctuary cities are saying, in effect, that they like the immigrants in their community, illegal or not, and want them to stay. It’s the distant anti-immigrant busybodies who aren’t welcome.

Ashton Kutcher’s Unusual Confession

So, yesterday Ashton Kutcher testified before Congress about modern-day slavery. This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds — unlike those idiotic situations where an actor testifies before congress after playing a role related to the subject of his testimony, Kutcher actually founded a company, Thorn, that is involved in the fight against sex trafficking — but it’s still pretty weird.

For one thing, Kutcher is routinely ridiculed by sex work activists, who accuse him of helping police to catch and jail adult consensual sex workers. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, his congressional testimony has numbers which suggest he’s still doing that:

According to Kutcher’s testimony before Sen. John McCain and other U.S. lawmakers, the app—funded by the McCain Foundation—has helped save more than 6,000 U.S. sex-trafficking victims, including 2,000 minors, in the past 12 months.

These numbers wildly outpace the average number of new criminal investigations into sex trafficking opened in the U.S. each year or average number of victims identified by U.S. law enforcement. …

The report also notes that in government fiscal-year 2015, the FBI identified around 672 adult and child victims of sex or labor trafficking. The FBI opened 802 human-trafficking investigations (resulting in 453 convictions) that year, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened 1,034 sex- or labor-trafficking investigations (and got 51 sex-trafficking convictions). In addition, Uniform Crime Reporting data from the states indicates that 744 investigations into state-level sex-trafficking offenses were opened in 2015.

There’s almost certainly overlap between the FBI and state investigations. But even if we count all cases separately, we’re looking at a total of 2,580 investigations into sex or labor trafficking—5,725 less cases than Thorn allegedly helped identify in a one-year period.

This suggests that Kutcher is counting something other than child sex trafficking to boost his stats.

Considering the data we do have on state and federal human trafficking cases, the only way the numbers from Kutcher’s group could make sense is if a) they’re counting every red-flag ad Spotlight identifies, regardless of whether these tips are ultimately deemed worthwhile enough to prompt a criminal investigation, or b) they’re counting cases of consensual prostitution between adults and lumping all adult sex workers identified into the “adult trafficking victim” numbers.

What really caught my attention, however, was this statement of his:

“I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia. This child was so conditioned by her environment that she thought she was engaging in play.”

Kutcher’s children are two or three years old,  so unlike so much of the grandstanding over “sex trafficking” these days, that truly is a sad and disgusting crime, and someone should probably go to jail for it. And assuming the video was explicit, it’s also a piece of true child pornography.

It’s not often that you see a major Hollywood celebrity like Ashton Kutcher confess to viewing child pornography. In front of Congress. On television.

To be clear, no matter how much I disagree with some of the things anti-prostitution activists like Kutcher do in the name of fighting “sex trafficking,” I’m against prosecuting them for non-prurient viewing of video of the crime that they are fighting.

Still, that’s something you don’t see every day.

Losers Deserve Love Too

A while back, Maggie McNeill posted about a group called Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change (CoSWAC) which has a website they hope to use to “dispel myths surrounding participation in paid sex.”

I don’t know if this site will contribute meaningfully to the cause of sex workers’ (and clients’) rights, but one item on the Myths vs. Facts page caught my attention, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

MYTH: Clients are pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships.

CoSWAC responds with these facts:

  • Many clients are in relationships, but turn to sex workers to address unmet needs.
  • Some sex workers specialize in addressing the needs of disabled clients.
  • Sex work clients have diverse and complex reasons for retaining the services of sex workers.

I’m sure those facts are a reasonable response, and I understand why CoSWAC used them, but someone needs to address the motives of the people promoting this myth. People who say things like this aren’t just making an academic observation; they’re arguing that sex work should be (or remain) outlawed because of these kinds of clients. And that’s an ugly argument. Because even if the myth were true, so what?

Why should it matter that some clients are “pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships”? Does that mean they should never have sex? That they should never experience pleasurable physical intimacy, never touch a woman, because they lack the confidence or charisma to charm a woman into bed? Keeping them from hiring sex workers isn’t protecting women from predators. It’s just sentencing people with personality disorders to a life without intimacy. It’s just cruel.

Free Speech For Assholes

I’ve been taking some mild heat on Twitter for this response:

Honestly, I can’t even remember why exactly I don’t like Gavin McInnes. Somewhere between his annoying appearances on The Independents and the amazingly awful crap he wrote for the cesspool that is Thought Catalog, I developed my opinion that he is a huge asshole. However, I also support a broad concept of free speech, so I support his right to speak unmolested. The combination just feels a bit weird.

I had a similar response earlier to the news that reputed neo-Nazi Richard Spencer got sucker-punched on video.

There’s something I find fascinating about the tension I feel when this kind of thing happens. I despise neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers, but I support their right to free speech. Those of us who hate what they’re saying have every right to criticize them, and the people who invite them to speak, and the people who come to hear them. But we do not have the right to use violence (or the threat of violence) to stop them from speaking, or to otherwise prevent people from hearing them. That’s not how freedom of speech works.

It’s tempting to allow a few exceptions — Nazis for God’s sake! — but exceptions have a way of swallowing the rule. Shortly after everyone got so excited about a Nazi getting attacked, protesters at a university apparently became violent enough that they shut down a speaking event by a gay Jewish man. That gay Jewish man was Milo Yiannopoulos, a noted alt-right troll, so lots of people cheered his being shut down for his “hate speech,” but note how quickly some people went from cheering a neo-Nazi getting silenced to cheering the silencing of a man the real Nazis would have sent to the gas chamber twice over.

If nothing else, this kind of thing seems like bad strategy. We’ve just elected a president who campaigned against “political correctness” blown all out of proportion, and now protesters are handing him real examples of political correctness gone too far. He even tweeted about the Milo incident and threatened to cut UC Berkeley’s funding. That’s probably an empty threat, but you can bet a lot of his followers agreed with it. And given Trump’s own hatred of free speech, is it really a good idea to be making the argument that some speech deserves to be suppressed? Trump would almost certainly suppress speech that the protesters like.

(Also, this incident got Milo far more attention than he’s had in months. Was that really a good result for the protesters?)

I firmly believe in freedom of speech, and for reasons both principled and practical, I have no trouble supporting the rights of Gavin McInnes, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer to speak and be heard.

However…I still enjoy it when bad things happen to to assholes. Especially Nazi assholes.

Making America Great Again

At first I thought this was just funny, but the more I think about it, the better it makes me feel about America.

The reference here is Pastor Martin Niemöller’s statement about cowardice in the face of the Nazi rise to power. The best-known version reads like this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

To be sure, the sign maker is wrong in a lot of different ways. For one, this is not the first time “they” came for the Muslims. There’s been a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, and while some people have always objected, most of the time there wasn’t a big protest. We’re still killing innocent Muslims who get caught in drone strikes. Protesters against these things have been remarkably absent during the Obama administration.

Another problem with this sign is that Muslims are hardly the first ones they came for. In some cases, we did eventually speak out. Although the job is hardly done, we’ve been slowly but steadily grinding away against the oppression of black Americans (not without setbacks), and gay Americans have recently won some major victories.

On the other hand, hardly anyone speaks up for drug using Americans, or sex worker Americans. We’ve been screwing drug users into the ground for decades, with ever more oppressive laws, although there have been a few cracks in the wall with the piecemeal legalization of marijuana that’s working its way through state legislatures. Sex workers were for a while experiencing a period that at times smelled a little like benign neglect, with escort work being mostly ignored by law enforcement (e.g. some online escort agencies have been operating in the open for over a decade now) but there seems to be a backlash lately in which adult consensual sex workers are harassed and arrested, ostensibly for the purpose of stopping “human trafficking” in “sex slaves.”

Then there are the edge cases, including everything from drunk drivers to sex offenders. These are often people who did bad things, but in many cases the punishments are far out of proportion to the actual crimes, or the situation in which the crimes occurred. In my state, hardly a year goes by that politicians don’t do something to increase the penalty for drunk driving, and even a first offense with no injuries or property damage can result in dozens of criminal and administrative sanctions. In some states repeat offenders can get many years in prison. Sex offender registration laws continue to punish and isolate sex offenders for years or decades after they are released from prison, even in cases where the “crime” was relatively benign, like consensual sex between teenagers.

There is activism on all these issues, but hardly the kind of mass protests we just witnessed on behalf of Muslim immigrants. But that doesn’t make the mass protests a bad thing. I’m guessing the author of the “First they came for” sign is thinking in terms of the Trump administration. Trump (or more likely Bannon and Miller) came for the Muslims, and people spoke up to stop them. Even if it doesn’t meet my standards of “first they came for,” that’s still a good response to authoritarianism.

I’m hopeful that this will continue. I wish more people had spoken out against attacks on our liberties during the Obama administration, but perhaps we’ve stumbled onto a silver lining to the Trump Presidency: Now that it’s odious right wingers attacking our freedoms, maybe people will sit up and take notice.

In any case, we’ve had a good moment. This time, we did speak up. We were tested, and we passed.

in Freedom

Deceitful Words: Fast Growing

This is my second post in what I hope will be a series about words and phrases that should warn you that someone is trying to get something past you. (First one here.)

[Update: Since originally publishing this, I’ve rewritten parts of it to reduce confusion, adding context to the first example, and appending a few cautions.]

Today I’d like to talk about the phrase “growing faster,” and why it can be a sign that someone is maybe trying to trick you. I’ve been meaning to bring this one up for a while, and I finally decided to do it after a random observation by Scott Greenfield about the Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles document for the Women’s March on Washington, which includes this statement (emphasis mine):

We believe it is our moral imperative to dismantle the gender and racial inequities within the criminal justice system. The rate of imprisonment has grown faster for women than men, increasing by 700% since 1980

(The statement goes on to make some good points about the special issues affecting women in prison, but I’d like to focus on just this section.)

It seems odd to talk about wanting to “dismantle the gender…inequalities” of prison by focusing on the rate of imprisonment of women, since there are far more men in prison than women. It’s not even close. By the numbers, incarceration is a men’s problem — and disproportionately a problem for men of color — with a relatively small group of women also being incarcerated.

That’s not to say that women don’t have it bad in prison, and it’s not to say that women don’t face special problems in prison — the Guiding Vision statement mentions sexual assault, pregnancy, and health care in general — and in any case there certainly isn’t anything wrong with protesting the conditions in women’s prisons or arguing that we need to pay more attention to them. But that wasn’t enough for the authors of this document. They apparently wanted to make an issue of the the rate of imprisonment of women.

The problem is, women aren’t imprisoned at a very high rate by U.S. standards. Using Bureau of Justice Statistics figures, 64 out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2015, compared to 863 men per 100,000. Back in 1980, the figure for men was 274 (four times higher than the current rate for women), compared to only 11 for women, so imprisoned women have always been a relative rarity. But by choosing to look at the rate of change, the authors can cast this as a women’s problem, since the rate of imprisonment for men only tripled, whereas the rate for women increased nearly sixfold.

(I’m not sure why the Guiding Vision document indicates a 700% increase. Perhaps they are using a source that includes people held pending trail or something. I don’t think it changes my basic point.)

That’s a rarely mild example, and it might not even be intentional: Advocates for women’s issues may be genuinely alarmed at the increase in incarceration rates among women. But given that men are incarcerated at a much higher rate, the numbers do not show that women are suffering from inequality. They are at an advantage, and spending more time locked in a cage reduces the size of the inequality with men.

This is just one of many examples — and not a particularly pernicious one — in which advocates talk about the rate of growth of some statistic, expressed as a percentage or ratio, to mask the fact that current values are relatively small. You see this a lot in sensationalist crime stories in which some law enforcement spokesperson tells us about a new crime that is “the fastest growing crime” in their territory. This is especially common with newly-defined crimes.

For example, the first iPhones were sold in 2007, and the number of iPhones in the world grew very fast. And so too, presumably, did the number of iPhones that were stolen. This could easily be the basis of a news story: If in some law enforcement agency’s territory there were 25 iPhones stolen in 2007, and 75 iPhones stolen in 2008, a publicity-seeking top cop could put out a press release drawing attention to what his department was doing about the “shocking 200% increase in iPhone theft.” This trick works with almost anything new. Whenever a new product enters the marketplace, you’ll see stories about the “fastest-growing brand” or the “fastest-growing trend” as industry marketers and journalists collude to hype stories.

New things can grow so fast because they start so small. If you sell 1 million items the first year, you’ll have to sell 2 million items the second year to claim 100% year-over-year growth. But if you sell only 10 items the first year, then you only need to sell 20 items the second year to claim the same 100% year-over-year growth rate. And selling 20 items is much easier than selling 2 million items.

It could even happen by chance: If the numbers are small, the thing doesn’t even have to be new to have a high rate of change, because random chance will do the job. For example, a quiet town might have a 1-in-4 chance of having a murder in any given month. On average, that will be about 3 murders per year, but the murders aren’t going to tick off like clockwork at the rate of exactly 3 per year. That’s just not how murders happen. Some years there will be 3 murders, some years there will be fewer, and some years there will be more.

I generated a random sample of 10 years of murder rates based on a 1-in-4 chance of a murder in any given month, and I got this sequence:


That is a completely random sequence, with nothing changing in the model from year to year, but in the first two years the murder rate more than doubles. And look at the sequence from years 6 to 9: The murder rate doubles, then goes up 50%, then doubles again. Imagine being the police chief in this town in the 9th year and having to explain to the City Council why the murder rate has gone up 500% in the last three years. Then in the 10th year, your replacement gets credit for a 67% drop in murders. And it’s all just random events. Nothing material has changed.

The effects of random variations aren’t as extreme in larger populations. The numbers still go up and down, but the random variations tend to cancel each other out. Maybe some neighborhoods will get more violent, while others will quiet down, leading to a more or less steady murder rate. In absolute number of murders, the year-to-year variations in a large city are much larger than in a small town, but expressed as a percentage or ratio they will be smaller. As a general rule, all other things being equal, the larger the numbers involved, the smaller the variability from year to year when expressed as a ratio or percentage.

For that reason, people who want to convince you that big changes are happening will often talk only about a small subset of the data. Someone looking to exaggerate the crime rate may find to their disappointment that the U.S. murder has gone down. But if they look at the rates in the major cities, they’ll find that some have gone down and, crucial to their agenda, some have gone up. Lazy journalists do this all the time. One year they’ll write that “The murder rate in Denver, Chicago, and St. Louis has gone up a shocking 22 percent!” Then the next year, when those cities have quieted down, they’ll write about the shocking increase in murders in three different cities.

Here’s another example from the new White House page on law enforcement:

In 2015, homicides increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent.

The 50% increase in killings in the capital is a classic case of what I was just talking about, picking a small region to isolate a large increase. And the sentence before that is even more amazing, talking about “the largest increase in 25 years.” Crime has been decreasing for decades, so any increase is going to be one of the largest. By comparing increases, the author is not just talking about the rate of change, but the rate of change of the rate of change. It’s nonsense squared.

Even when talking about non-random growth in large numbers, it’s still possible for “fast growing” to be deceptive if the quantity under consideration is starting unusually low and growing toward a limit. President Obama’s fans have been pulling this trick for years on social media, posting statistics about the improving economy under his administration. But Obama took office in the depths of the deepest recession since the 1930s. All of the economic indicators were terrible. Since then, they’ve been returning to normal, catching up to where they would have been if U.S. production had remained at full capacity, which is not as difficult as increasing the capacity itself. It’s like bragging about quadrupling your running speed as you recover from knee surgery. The gains are real and important, but it doesn’t make you an Olympian.

When someone tries to make a point by telling you that something is growing fast, consider whether any of these possibilities apply:

  • Is the thing in question growing fast because it’s starting so small, so that a small change produces a large ratio?
  • If it’s small, could the growth just be random variations?
  • Are the numbers drawn from a small subset of a larger population, perhaps one chosen because it happens to have a high growth rate?
  • Is it growing because it’s recovering from a problem and returning to normal values?

None of these things are definitive proof that someone is trying to trick you. It’s possible that they’re using the only data available, or that they’re trying to make a point in which the growth rate really is important. But you should think about it carefully before accepting their conclusions.

A few caveats:

First, a small problem that’s growing fast is much more of a concern if the current value is an input into the growth rate of the problem. With a contagious disease, the number of people who are exposed increases with the number of people who are already infected, so that growth rate will accelerate and could reach huge numbers very fast. Thus it makes sense to pay attention to sudden contagious disease flare-ups, even when they are small.

Second, there’s a difference between a small problem, and a small input to a problem. There doesn’t have to be a lot of botulinum toxin in a city’s water supply to cause a lot of deaths, and there doesn’t have to be a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to cause global warming.

Third, whenever something is growing, it pays to watch out for threshold effects. A one-inch rise in sea level is not a disaster, unless it’s one inch higher than the top of the seawall.

A Betrayal of Green Card Holders

Apparently, thanks to an executive order by Donald Trump, the United States is betraying its green card holders.

The bans affect travelers with passports from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen and even extends to green card holders who are granted authorization to live and work in the United States, according to a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman.

I say “apparently” because some part of me resists believing that this is actually happening. I keep hoping that CBP agents in the field are misinterpreting the order, because otherwise this is really sick.

Green card holders are lawful permanent residents. We made them a promise that they could live here if they obey the rules. As it is, we revoke permanent residency for way too many reasons, but this isn’t even a revocation. The Trump administration, backed up by the jackbooted thugs of the Customs and Border Patrol, are simply preventing certain valid green card holders from entering the United States. In theory, they are still allowed to live here, but they’re not allowed to cross the border to get here. This applies even to permanent residents who actively live here, but who have left the U.S. temporarily to visit family in another country or to go on a honeymoon.

This isn’t protecting America from terrorism. It’s just being cruel to people because you can.

Something Missing From Trump’s Inaugural Address

Okay, I’m still up, and I’d like to talk about that inaugural address. It’s all gloom and doom, blamed on elitist politicians and foreigners, leading to Trump’s usual calls for nationalism, trade restrictions, and border controls.

I was planning to tear into the speech line by line, but I’m too far into the rum to keep it together for as long as that would take, so let me offer just one observation. Trump winds up the speech this way:

Together, We Will Make America Strong Again.

We Will Make America Wealthy Again.

We Will Make America Proud Again.

We Will Make America Safe Again.

And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.

He said nothing about making America free.