Poetic Justice as Fairness

by John Holbo on July 17, 2004

Orin Kerr writes: “The Engligh language needs a word for when advocates on both sides of an ongoing debate switch rhetorical positions, and yet they insist on decrying the inconsistency of their opponents while overlooking their own inconsistency.” If prof. Kerr will settle for a phrase, let me suggest ‘poetic justice as fairness’. I know it will never catch on among the non-Rawls joke getting set, but it’s the best I can do. (Actually what I am talking about is a slightly more generic version of what Kerr is talking about.) ‘Poetic justice as fairness’ denotes a vendetta-based, rather than abstract reason-based approach to argument. Dialectic as feud; Hatfields and the McCoys do thesis and antithesis, with stupidity as synthesis. The rule is: if you think your opponent commited a fallacy in the recent past, you are allowed to commit a fallacy. And no one can remember when it started, but the other side started it. It is difficult to break the tragic cycle of intellectual violence once it starts.

Timothy Burke has a post up at Cliopatra about why he doesn’t like Michael Moore, which is in this general vein:

What I find equally grating is the defense of Moore’s work as “fighting dirty” because the other side is doing so. I agree that many of the critics of Fahrenheit are astonishing hypocrites, applying standards that they systematically exempt their own favored pundits and politicians from, but the proposition that one has to play by those degraded rules to win the game repels me. If it’s true, then God help us all.

UPDATE: From comments received, it is clear my post appears even more naive than, in fact, it may be. I appear to be marvelling that these beings you call ‘humans’ sometimes employ rhetoric. Actually, I’m just giving a name to a peculiar slip. 1) You preceive that the enemy has employed a fallacy or other illicit rhetorical technique. 2) You denounce this as such. 3) You employ the very same trick against the enemy when the wheel turns and the opportunity arises. 4) You do so with a sense not just that it is fair to fight fire with fire but that somehow the bad argument has become mysteriously good, due to the fact that there is poetic justice in deploying it. (Admittedly, this isn’t what Burke is talking about, so my rather narrow point about argumentative psychology was muddled more than helped by the inclusion of the quote.)

2nd UPDATE: It occurs to me that the Rawls connection was probably not clear either. So I’ll just tuck a few further meditations discretely under the fold.

[click to continue…]

Neck and neck

by Chris Bertram on July 17, 2004

Online bookies BlueSquare now have “Kerry and Bush neck and neck at 5/6”:http://www.bluesq.com/bet?action=go_events&type_id=2670 , which represents a significant shortening of Kerry’s odds. (Compare their odds on the next British general election, which have Labour 2/7 on.)

A New Analysis of Incarceration and Inequality

by Kieran Healy on July 17, 2004

I’ve written about the intersection of “incarceration”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000087.html, “race”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000096.html and “the labor market”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000386.html several times in the past. In the United States, the remarkable expansion of the prison system over the past thirty years, despite generally falling crime rates, has had far-reaching effects on large segments of the population, but especially amongst unskilled black men. A striking way to characterize the depth of this change is to make a comparison to rates of participation in some other institution — say, for instance, that more black men have been to jail than are in college. But, as a lobby group found out last year, these comparisions are quite tricky to make properly, because the populations are different (all black men vs college-age black men, for instance).

But one of the many good reasons we have sociologists and demographers is to work out those numbers properly. A “new paper”:http://www.asanet.org/pubs/ASRv69n2p.pdf [pdf] by Becky Pettit and Bruce Western[1] does a terrific job of estimating how the effects of mass incarceration are distributed across the population. They estimate the risk of imprisonment for black and white men of different levels of education.[2] The paper is worth reading in its entirety, both to see how the findings might be understood and to understand how one goes about estimating these numbers in the first place — it’s not at all trivial to calculate them. Two core findings — bearing in mind these are the best available estimates — are remarkable:

* Among black men born between 1965 and 1969, 30.2 percent of those who didn’t attend college had gone to prison by 1999. A startling *58.9 percent of black high school dropouts born from 1965 through 1969 had served time* in state or federal prison by their early 30s.

* “Imprisonment now rivals or overshadows the frequency of military service and college graduation for recent cohorts of African American men. *For black men in their mid-thirties at the end of the 1990s, prison records were nearly twice as common as bachelor’s degrees.*” In the same cohort, “imprisonment was more than twice as common as military service.”

Interestingly, racial disparity as such has not grown in sentencing: the rates and risks of imprisonment are 6 to 8 times higher for young black men compared to young whites in both the ’45-’49 and ’65-’69 cohorts. But class inequality has increased. So while lifetime risk of imprisonment nearly doubled between 1979 and 1999, “nearly all of this increased risk was experienced by those with just a high school education.” Incarceration is now the typical life-event for young, poorly-educated black men.

fn1. Full disclosure: Becky’s a friend of mine and Bruce was one of my Ph.D advisers.

fn2. To forestall any misinterpretation, note that “risk” is a technical term here meaning roughly “the probability of being observed as ‘incarcerated’ during the period under study.”