Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘crime’

Donald Trump’s Lawyer and the Monty Hall Shadow

Our distant descendants hunkering in their radiation-proof underwater bunkers will speak of “Donald Trump’s lawyer” proverbially, as an oxymoronic self-flagellating professions, the way we might speak of “Bernie Madoff’s accountant” or “Jeffrey Dahmer’s nutritionist” or “Water-safety officer on the Titanic”. Tom Lehrer spoke on one of his satirical LPs from the 1960s about people following the news with unease, feeling “like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis”. One might similarly say “I feel like Donald Trump’s lawyer”.

Our story to date: When last we saw Sheri Dillon it was a week before Donald Trump’s inauguration, and she spoke beside a table full of binders — none of which were ever seen by the public — which supposedly showed that Trump was taking some unspecified action that would resolve all legal and ethical conflicts arising from his business interests. They were the most prominent unseen-document-political-props since Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “list” of “known communists”. (Or perhaps Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”.) (more…)

Comey of errors

After the November US election I agreed with many commentators, who said that Comey really should resign for his failures of judgement or (depending on who you’re listening to) malfeasance with regard to the Clinton email server investigation, that it would provide partisan satisfaction for Democrats for him to be forced out, but that it was essential for the nation for him to stay in office as an independent check on the president’s authoritarian impulses. Some said he has the most secure job in Washington, since Republicans and Democrats both wanted to keep him, albeit for very different reasons.

Apparently not.

We’re used to thinking of scandals as something that will damage the politicians involved if and when they come out, possibly driving them from office. But that’s not always how it works. That isn’t even really the fundamental dynamic. Hidden criminality by people in power locks them in a death struggle with the rule of law and the system of honest democratic politics. Only one can survive. If the politician has weak support, or self-doubt, or respect for democratic norms then it’s like a moon in Jupiter’s gravitation — for all intents and purpose we can just say it’s the massive planet (the constitutional system) acting on the small body. But it can be more like a black hole interacting with a star: Both are perturbed, and until they get close you can’t judge how massive the black hole is. (more…)

Trump’s foreign affairs

I was thinking about this comment by Josh Marshall

One of the first bits of news that attracted attention to this possible link was a Trump campaign effort to soften the GOP platform’s plank on Russia and Ukraine at the GOP convention.

I think this fits the development of my thinking, more or less, but it leaves something out. As someone who nothing of the personalities involved, I was already primed to think there was something important and odd about Trump’s connections to Ukraine in particular by the reporting on his hiring of Paul Manafort to advise his campaign in March 2016, and Manafort later becoming campaign manager in April. I remember very clearly thinking, how peculiar that someone with so much foreign experience is guiding a US presidential campaign. And someone who has been working in Ukraine, of all places. Within the context of US politics, which is usually so parochial, an operative who had gone off to work for Eastern European oligarchs and Third World dictators seemed inherently corrupt, like many of the figures that Trump associated with in New York real estate who had slipped across the border from shady dealing into outright criminality, and could no longer be seen in respectable society.

I interpreted it as a sign of Trump’s inability to attract normal campaign operatives to his strange ethno-nationalist insurgency. But then there was this 28 April article by Franklin Foer in Slate:

Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He is among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective…
Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump? One of his friends told me, “He wanted to do his thing on home turf. He wanted one last shot at the big prize.”

Statistics and causal truth: Police edition

As usual, Andrew Sullivan — who has now returned temporarily to blogging, attracted like a moth to the Trump conflagration — manages to take a common, superficially convincing argument, and express it with moral fervour and personal conviction that makes the tenuous logic really conspicuous. In this case, it’s the argument based on the much-discussed study by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. of the rate of various violent outcomes of police stops, finding that black people are more likely than white to be physically abused by police, but not more likely to be shot.

(Here’s an excellent NY Times report, and  the original study.)

…the Black Lives Matter activists, whose core and central argument is that black men are disproportionately killed by cops. The best data shows this is false…  I find [the study] conclusive. Feelings do not, er, trump data in a deliberative democracy. A reader writes:

I understand that there has been the recent study suggesting that given an interaction with a police officer occurs, then the police officer is no more likely to use a gun with a black person than with a white person. However, given that many black men have a much higher rate of interaction with police (such as, anecdotally, Philando Castile, with 52 traffic stops), then is it not fair to say that black men are disproportionately killed by cops?
The point is that there is no evidence of individual racism in these police encounters, despite the impression from many chilling phone videos. The structural bias still exists as a whole, as I said, but the narrative about cops being more likely to kill a black member of the public when encountering him is false.

I have no criticism to make of the study — I have not analysed it in any depth, but it seems credibly and even impressively done — even if I find the premise absurd, that a single study of such a complex phenomenon could be “conclusive”. But they do not “trump” the data that black people make up 13% of the US population, but 31% of those killed during an arrest, and 42% of those killed during an arrest when unarmed. The point is, what these facts (and many others, including the others) mean jointly depends on what we think is the reason for black people being so much more likely to be arrested.



Even in America it is illegal to attain political ends by threats of violence. But what about threats of threats of violence? From Florida:

“We began receiving complaints from voters,” she said Wednesday in an email to the Post’s editorial board. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center. When we received a call that indicated individuals planned to impede voting and maybe even call in a bomb threat to have the location evacuated on Election Day…

I suppose this is familiar as a kind of protection-racket negotiating stance. “We’re just having a friendly chat here. Nobody is making threats. If you want to make threats, we can also make threats, but there’s no need for any of that.”

Big notes

I remember reading, back in the late 1990s, an article in Spiegel, about the dubious decision of the Euro finance ministers to create a 500 euro banknote. Since the only people who use cash in significant quantities in this millennium tend to be shy people eager not to be singled out for their achievements by prosecutors, the question was raised, why would you want to create a unit of currency that enables law-abiding citizens (and others) to pack five times as much currency into a suitcase as the former favourite $100 bills?* The answer given by Edgar Meister, one of the directors of the Bundesbank, was that Germans had gotten used to having a 1000 Mark banknote, and that if the largest Euro banknote were worth less, people would think this new currency was a weakling.

Eine Währung, die es sich leisten kann, mit so hohen Noten herauszukommen muß wertbeständig sein.

A currency that can afford to produce such large banknotes must be solid.

As everyone knows, that’s why Germany produced this 50 million Mark note in 1923: (more…)

More damned statistics

The news website Vox published this chart last year, by Dara Lind, based on FBI data on people killed by police during arrest. The most chilling thing about it is that refined statistical analysis on people killed by police is possible, with all kinds of elaborate subgroup analyses. That’s because there were 426 cases in that year. In general I’m all in favour of more data, which makes it possible to study problems in a more refined way, but I’m happy that the statistics gathered by the Independent Police Complaints Commission don’t have much to work with: In the same year there were 15 deaths in or following police custody in England and Wales.

UPDATE:  I thought the US number seemed surprisingly small — only about 5 times the UK number on a per capita basis, despite the fact that British police don’t routinely carry firearms. In fact, The Guardian’s documentation of all police killings in the US lists 1146 people killed by police in 2015. I presume this has to do with the fact that the FBI statistic only counts people killed during arrest.

Cyber Sutton

Asked about the motivation for recent cyberattacks on the Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system, banking security consultant Shane Shook said

These hacks specifically target financial institutions because smaller efforts result in much larger thefts. It’s much more efficient than stealing from consumers.

Shades of Slick Willie.

The value of a reputation

I strongly appreciate the importance of a reputation for probity.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.

So many vague accusations and suspicions can float around in everyday life where the best basis for judgement is to appeal to prior probability. But this goes too far:

Mossack Fonseca says it has operated beyond reproach for 40 years and never been accused or charged with criminal wrong-doing.

Mossack Fonseca has just mislaid 11 million documents that show its complicity in a vast web of tax evasion through secret accounts in Panama. Even to say that it has operated legally would be stretching credulity. To say that it has been “beyond reproach”… well, I suppose it’s technically true, since no one knew enough about them to reproach them. Similarly a master burglar, when finally caught with his home full of stolen jewels and cash, could say, “This is an outrage. No one has ever cast such aspersions on my good name.”

Social climber

What is it about rock climbing that makes it such a useful synecdoche for enjoying your life? In an article about an unusual case about a girl whose lawsuit against a sexually abusive teacher foundered when her claims of “loss of enjoyment of life” seemed to be contradicted by a happy Facebook page, I was struck by the comment

Melissa’s account was mostly locked to outsiders, but some pictures were visible: Melissa hanging out with her boyfriend, Melissa working at a veterinary hospital, Melissa rock climbing, Melissa out drinking with friends… Nor did it support her claim of “loss of enjoyment of life,” which one judge has defined as the loss of “watching one’s children grow, participating in recreational activities, and drinking in the many other pleasures that life has to offer.” Rock climbing is a recreational activity; drinking with friends is one of life’s pleasures, after all. Last month, the court ordered Melissa to hand over every photograph, video, status update, and wall message ever posted on her Facebook accounts so that the school district may search for more clues that Melissa is secretly thriving.

And that reminded me of an article many years ago in Harper’s about American casualty adjustors, whose job it is to put a price on someone’s life for purposes of wrongful death suits.

I ask them to evaluate my worth, and they tell me that outdoorsy people are worth more than people like me, who stay home and read. “People have no sympathy for somebody who sits alone on his couch, drinks beer, eats food, and is a load,” Ed says.

“That’s why nobody likes me,” says George. “It’s how sympathetic you are. People go, ‘He rock climbed,’ you know. `This guy enjoyed life. He was out there doing things.’ You cherish life more if you are interacting with it.”

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