Friday, 19 June 2015

“Reverse racism” yet again turns out not to be

Apparently South Auckland police have been instructed not to ticket Māori drivers caught driving without a licence. Instead they’re to refer them to community services for support. Predictably, New Zealand political Facebook groups have gone ballistic. At least one of them banned people from discussing this topic just because the comments were coming in too thick, fast, and nasty.

This wasn’t a Government policy release, by the way. For a rare wonder a New Zealand news outfit actually seems to have done some digging; less encouragingly, they’ve pounced on a point guaranteed to get the Anti-PC Brigade frothing at the mouth about “Mowreys” getting “special treatment”. Those of us who have the patience to read past the headline soon encounter the sentence

And police say they have the discretion to do the same for non-Māori drivers, but that’s not spelt [out] in the document.

Which makes the statement a few paragraphs down all the more puzzling:

So how do police determine if a driver is in fact Māori? Police whom One News has spoken to in South Auckland say they find this confusing and they have not been with singling out Māori [sic] in the first place. They say they’ve raised concerns with their bosses but have been told it’s a new policy and they have to get used to it.

Well, here’s a hint, guys: you have the discretion to do the same for non-Māori drivers, so how about you go ahead and act on the new policy whenever you’re in doubt? (The Equal Justice Project reports that the policy has been in place for over ten years, it’s just that this one document happened to mention Māori in particular.)

One News didn’t follow up the bit where the police said the aim was to “reduce Māori offending”. I was never exactly a professional journalist even by the standards of student magazines, but I would have known enough to ask how the police thought that was going to work. Since they didn’t ask, we can only guess. Is it naïve to hope that the police are twigging on to the fact that people who can’t trust them aren’t likely to listen to them? Probably.

See, there was a time when my partner kept getting pulled over for licence checks when she was driving. After this had happened several times she asked one cop why he’d picked on her. He answered “General condition of the car.” And that car was in pretty shabby condition – she got rid of it soon after. You see the logic: drivers of shabby cars are more likely to be unlicensed, or committing some other crime that you can bust them for (such as cannabis possession), than the population average. Therefore, pulling shabby cars over will net them more arrests than randomly sampling the driving population.

Thing is, you can get rid of a shabby car. Unfortunately, exactly the same logic applies if you replace “shabby car” with “brown driver”. It’s not that there’s an especially strong correlation between being brown and being unlicensed or criminal; a weak correlation would be enough. What makes brownness a tempting criterion for profiling is that it’s visible at a glance, whereas more relevant variables like one’s degree of economic desperation or anger towards society are even harder to detect than the crimes themselves.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t fair. And its unfairness causes two major problems, which together come back around and create a vicious circle. One is that people denied justice by the state are often left no choice but to pursue it themselves, a phenomenon which accounts for the great majority of violent crime. The other is that when a visibly different minority group are often seen in handcuffs or the dock, this creates a certain impression about them in the minds of the majority, which throws obstacles in the path of innocent members of the group whenever they seek employment, rental accommodation, bank loans, or what-have-you; and that, as well as being unjust, further undermines the minority group’s incentive to trust the system or obey its rules. I would confidently bet that these two conditions fully account for whatever real correlation there might be between brown skin and criminal behaviour.

So if South Auckland police have figured this out, and are trying to redress the balance that their own profiling practices have thrown off-kilter – well, better late than never. But good luck trying to get this country’s media to present that side of the story honestly.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Keeping the market honest

At least two people died last August due to New Zealand’s disgraceful lack of rental housing standards. And not in privately-owned rental accommodation either – these were both state houses. There is a Bill before Parliament to introduce “warrants of fitness” for houses like we already have for cars; I believe National have already voted it down once.

Here’s a comment from Facebook, representative of the National point of view:

Look at it from the other side: they voted against rising rents.

Maybe. But funnily enough, people seemed to manage in 18th-century England when – against exactly the same objection – a law was brought in mandating at least one toilet in every residence. Whatever extra the poor residents might have had to pay in rent, they gained back in not dying of cholera. Asthma is less often fatal than cholera, but the principle is the same.

I can hear the response now – “So what you’re saying is, people will willingly pay the higher rent if their family’s health is that important to them? Leave it to the market.” There are two problems with this. One is that these are state houses. They’re owned by Housing NZ, which dates back to the days when New Zealand’s government had a philosophy of actually doing something about things like homelessness. They’re not some middle-aged couple’s retirement fund. Housing NZ is not obliged to pass on refurbishment costs to its tenants. We wouldn’t even have to take more money off rich people whose houses aren’t giving their children asthma; we seem to have $27 million sitting around to change the national flag, for instance. I’m not enamoured of New Zealand’s current flag but children with asthma are more important.

The second problem is that the free-market model in economics assumes that both buyers and sellers have perfect market information. This assumption is behind a lot of the mismatches between economic theory and reality. In this particular case, imagine that landlords have the option of renting out both houses that meet the standard and houses that don’t. Now presumably it costs a certain amount of money to keep the houses patched up to standard, so those houses will have higher rents. But the tenant doesn’t know how much money it costs, so the landlord can whack the rent up by a good deal more than that and make a neat little profit on houses specifically advertised as “up to standard”. Tenants who can’t afford the higher price will have to be content with houses that are still substandard. If the standard is compulsory, on the other hand, then price-jacking like that will do nothing but lose you tenants. Regulations, in fact, fix the imperfect-information problem – and thereby keep the market honest.

Monday, 1 June 2015

How evolutionary psychology supports feminism

Yes, I know, that title could just about be my tag-line. Most of my blog these days seems to be about how various evo-psych concepts actually have feminist, rather than anti-feminist, implications. So I thought I’d gather it all together in one place for convenience of reference. (Indeed, parts of this post are directly copypasted from older ones.) Evolutionary biology is one of my persistent fascinations, and I really don’t like seeing misogynists using it as ammunition against social justice for women. Which is how it gets used a lot. Basically, if you get a guy on the internet mansplaining to you how oppression is due to biology and you should just accept it, please feel most free to link to this post.

Speaking of mansplainers, before I get into specifics: there’s a widespread double standard where, if something specific to women’s minds has a biological component, this means that women are irrational and their needs should be ignored, but if something specific to men’s minds has a biological component, this means that men can’t change and their needs should be pandered to. I’m making this explicit so you know that anyone trying to score that sort of point from what I say in this post is being deliberately dishonest, not just thoughtlessly inconsistent.

There’s another kind of dishonest quote-mining I’d like to forestall, too. Natural selection works on gene pools, that is populations of interbreeding individuals. “Women evolved to have trait X”, for instance, is a shorthand for “On average, women who had trait X had more surviving children than women who did not, and therefore trait X became more common in women of the next generation.” This does not mean to say that women who happen not to have trait X are therefore somehow not women, or not “proper” women, or any such nonsense. If you want to argue that, go do it on my previous post. Further, just because something is “natural” as in biological, that doesn’t mean it’s either desirable or unfixable. Actually, that’ll do for the first couple of points.