Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

One of the main arguments in support of the death penalty is that with all of the litigation and the many years of waiting on death row, it would be impossible to execute an innocent person. Given that a number of prisoners on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, there may indeed have been some innocent people killed (since DNA evidence is not present in every crime, despite what we see on CSI). Until now, however, there has never been one case that we can say with a good amount of certainty that the man was probably innocent. From the New Yorker’s David Grann comes the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for starting a fire that killed his three children. Though the evidence seemed airtight at the time of the trial, there are some serious holes. The arson experts who studied the house had no real scientific training. There was never any motive for the murders. The prosecution had convinced the jury that a Led Zepplin poster and a skull tattoo were evidence of cult-like actions. Nevertheless, Willingham was executed. In recent years, Texas has been reviewing the evidence and may state next year that they believe he was innocent. If that happens, it will be a major landmark in our national debate over the death penalty.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

New York Times finally gets it

While studying an unemployment graphic by The New York Times back in March, I observed that they (like the rest of the traditional media) were ignoring the fact that the quoted national unemployment statistic (U3) is too limited in its definition. For example, it excludes all the people who’ve simply given up looking for work because there just aren’t any jobs in the area. This makes employment look far better than it really is, and it helps boost the stupid claims that western Europe’s national unemployment rates are far higher than ours. I showed that using the lesser-known U6 Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement of unemployment, which I explain fully in that post, US and Western Europe have very comparable unemployment most of the time.

This month, finally, the NY Times posted a state-by-state interactive graphic that confirms what many bloggers (including me) have been saying for quite some time: unemployment is much worse than many people realize. The new graphic shows the U6 rate in each state, rather than the usual and more limited U3, and for several states the unemployment is actually over 20%. Here’s a non-interactive picture of the map (click for full version):

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

While I laud the Times for their graphic earlier this month, they and others need to begin incorporating the broader definition into their reporting both nationwide and state-by-state. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug had a technicality. The government won’t change the definition back, I’m sure, because it’s like rose-colored glasses for the state of the economy. But the U6 figure is out there every month, and it takes about 5 seconds more to locate on the BLS website. The media just doesn’t want to waste time explaining the distinction to people.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Yet another reason the US Senate sucks

Yeah, I get the need for compromise in 1789 to get the Constitution passed, and I can see how back in the day it made sense to worry that some states would be trampled by others. But that matters less and less these days as the country is far more unified than before, with regional concerns often trumping state-by-state concerns. And thus the Senate serves as an undemocratic obstruction to passing sound policy backed by the country.

Specifically, on health care reform, 40 Republicans elected by 44.2 million voting Americans are able to stall and block 55 Democrats and independents elected by 79.8 million voters, with help from 5 obstructionist Democrats who were elected by a mere 2.5 million voters.

We know the polling data shows overwhelming public support for serious health care reform. We know that 79.8 million Americans voted for 55 US Senators (or their predecessors for the appointees) who support this reform. And yet 40 lousy Republicans concentrated in a decreasing number of states – mostly in the southern United States – backed by half as many voters are able to stall things to the point where health care reform is in danger again.

The US Senate sucks. It’s great when you’re in it, but it’s not so good for the rest of America. And, in my view, it’s getting pretty obsolete.

Originally published at Starboard Broadside

Little Somalia?

The political mess in Guinea-Bissau, a small former Portuguese colony on the coast of West Africa, has gotten to the point where the United Nations found that drug traffickers are leaving due to perpetual instability. When the traffickers leave, it’s pretty much a failed state. Is Guinea-Bissau the next Somalia? There’s an election today, but nobody expects anything useful to happen.

Recent events include (NYT, link above):

First the general was blown up. Then the president was shot dead, the former prime minister was arrested and tortured, a presidential candidate was killed in his villa, and the former defense minister was ambushed and shot on the bridge outside town.

So people have pretty much given up there. At least there still is a government.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

More on Unemployment

Yesterday I reminded everyone to check the U6 unemployment, which gives a better picture of the unemployment situation in this country. There’s another reason I forgot to mention, other than that it doesn’t ignore the chronically unemployed.

It’s being said that this is the worst unemployment in 26 years (which goes back to 1983). That’s true if one looks at the official rate over that period (BLS graph):

But the problem is, and I wish the old media would remember this, the official definition of unemployment changed in 1994, to exclude the chronically unemployed (who lack job opportunities in their area), which makes the situation look better. Not only does that mean that a slight decrease in unemployment does not automatically point to recovery (because people could just give up looking for a while and then be excluded), but it also means that the magnitude of the recession is ignored in media reports. Saying that this is the worst unemployment in only 26 years simply isn’t true. Using the U6 from 1994 to present and comparing that to the old official rate before 1994, which used roughly the same definition, we find that this is the highest unemployment since probably as far back as the Great Depression. This is probably the worst in 71 years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows me only back to 1948, but between 1948 and 1994, the highest unemployment was in 1982, when it reached 10.8% unemployment. Compared to the present (U6) unemployment, 16.4%, it’s evident that you have to go back past 1948 to find a higher unemployment rate than now. So I’m pretty sure that means going all the way back to the Great Depression, when (if I recall correctly) unemployment reached 25% at one point. After a brief recovery, it climbed back to 19% or so in 1938.

But all that is obscured when the old media decides to ignore the 1994 definition change that artificially lowers the official unemployment rate by 7 points in the month of may.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

US Unemployment at 16.4% (U6)

It’s the first Friday of the month, which means today’s labor report is out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for last month. The U6 unemployment rate nationwide hit 16.4% for May 2009.

This is much higher than the normally quoted U3 rate, of course, in case that seems high to you. But as I explained when the February data came out, we should be looking at the U6 to get an accurate understanding of the situation. I encourage you to read that post, if you didn’t before, since understanding the difference between the “official rate” and the U6 rate is critical, in my opinion, to understanding the US economy, especially when we’re not in a recession.

I call the U6 “real” unemployment, just like people talk about “real” wage growth (which accounts for inflation).

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.
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