Saturday, February 23, 2013

Congress: the size of the job

I read the story about John McCain sending a form response to the parent of a mass shooting casualty, and thought: "wow, that's despicable." As the day went by, though, I started thinking it obviously wasn't intentional, because who would do that? There had to be some reason for the bungle. It turns out, it was symptomatic of a much larger issue in senatorial duties:

TPM Reader PL gives us more inside perspective ...
I used to work on Capitol Hill as a junior staffer responding to constituent letters and emails. I wanted to give a quick bit of context for the McCain / Flake form letter scandal. The first point is that the sheer volume of correspondence Hill offices get. It is increasing dramatically. See this 2011 report from the Congressional Management Foundation that found some offices experienced over a 1000% increase in constituent mail from 2002 to 2009 . And a good chunk of that volume is from interest groups who conduct form letter email campaigns. [i.e. "click here to send an email to Congress"]
When I worked as an "LC" in 2007-08 the form letters were such I huge part of our office's daily email traffic, I actually devised ways to auto-filter them based on their IP address [Form letter services are usually handled by a handful of specialty firms, so all the emails they send are blasted from their servers and appear as coming from the same IP address] Of course, my coworkers and I would then scrutinize the filters letters to make sure we did not miss any important information that people may have written in addition to the standard form letter content.
From your story about the Aurora parents it seems that Mr. Teves wrote his heart wrenching and personal story within a form letter campaign organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Therefore, if McCain's and Flake's offices use similar routing and filters procedures to those that I used, I can absolutely see how there could have been a mistake in how Mr. Teves' email has handled.

Like with the rest of the American workforce, senators and house representatives have task loads that are growing too big for them to handle. Recall, too, that the demands of the permanent campaign many reps and senators have to wage means they spend four hours a day doing telephone fundraising. These people were hired to make federal law, which involves among other things reading bills thousands of pages long and gaining a basic understanding of who knows how many different issues, not to mention the broad competency they should gain with the matters their committee assignments pertain to, and they spend fully half of a 40 hour work week fundraising. It is by far the thing they spend the most time doing.

Now consider, on top of all that, the advent of email communication. I've been thinking about this as an archivist and coming across materials in the newest collections that have printouts of email and listserv communiques. Most of the books on collection assessment breezily note that you should treat email like correspondence via snail mail. A quick browsing through a collection of emails, however, and it's abundantly clear that they're not the same. The ease with which one can shoot off an email to anyone, combined with the fact that it doesn't cost a stamp, means emails are much more frequent and informal than mail. Furthermore, knowing several instructors who teach online classes, I also know that people have a much greater tendency to say rude or ugly things in email, which is an emotional drain on a person tasked with sifting through an avalanche of the things.

And they've increased 1000% in seven years. Congresspersons are now being sent not just more mail than they can read, but more mail than their interns can read!

There are a lot of things that need to change with Congress, but we tend to focus on the problem of partisan polarization. Meanwhile, I happen to think congressional overwork is as much of a problem, and it pertains directly to how representatives deal with us, the constituents. The fundraising matter can probably be dealt with in several ways, the most elegant of which, in my opinion anyway, is making congressional campaigns purely publicly funded. Alternatively, the rules committee could perhaps mandate that representatives spend X hours of each day on the floor or in committee, or if possible, both parties could just get together and make a gentlemen's agreement that it's in everyone's interests to cap daily fundraising at an hour.

The email issue is trickier. I'd be fine with representatives and senators no longer responding to emails and instead insisting that they'll only respond to snail mail. While we're at it, if I were dictator for life I'd ban congressional Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, however, we should stick with the politically possible.

The two problems point to a larger issue as well, which is that the population is growing, but the size of Congress is not. The size of the House of Representatives has not been increased since 1911, when the USA was about one third of its current population. Why not increase the number of reps? Some argue that doing so would make it harder for reps to build relationships and forge alliances to pass legislation, but, uh, I think that ship left the harbor sometime around Election Day 2006. It's at least worth considering, I think.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

it's past time to start asking questions

In a wake of the debacle that occurred on Monday, I'd like to ask a few questions. They stem from this graph:

2006 #2 Florida 41 14 #1 Ohio State
2007 #2 LSU 38 24 #1 Ohio State
2008 #2 Florida 24 14 #1 Oklahoma
2009 #1 Alabama 37 21 #2 Texas
2010 #1 Auburn 22 19 #2 Oregon
2011 #2 Alabama 21 0 #1 LSU
2012 #2 Alabama 42 14 #1 Notre Dame

This is a graph of the last 7 BCS championship games. The winner in every case represented the SEC, even though it only held the #1 spot going into the game twice out of seven. Not counting 2011, when both teams were SEC, the average margin of victory is over 16 points. Only one of these games (2010) was decided by less than 10, and Oregon was never ahead in that game. In none of these games did the non-SEC team have a lead at halftime or at any point afterward.

In 2006, Ohio St. entered the game seemingly unstoppable, averaging 36 points per game and allowing only 10. They had a Heisman winning quarterback, and a first round tight end and wide receiver. Aside from returning the opening kickoff for a TD, they scored a whopping 7 points on Florida while allowing 41.

In 2007, LSU entered this game with 2 losses, to #18 Kentucky and unranked Arkansas. They hung 10 more points on Ohio St. than anyone else managed all season.

In 2008, Oklahoma had set a record for points scored in one season (702), scoring 60 points in 5 consecutive games, 3 of which games were against ranked opponents. They had not scored less than 35 in any game before this one. Florida held them to 14.

In 2010, #1 Oregon's offense was described as a "death star," clocking in at 49 points and 573 yards per game. Auburn's middle-of-the-pack SEC defense held them to 19. At the end of the game, #1 Oregon had scored fewer points on Auburn than had:
  • #9 Alabama (27)
  • #12 Arkansas (43)
  • #12 South Carolina (27)
  • Georgia (31)
  • Ole Miss (31)
  • Kentucky (34)
  • Clemson (24)
  • Arkansas St. (26)
  • Chattanooga (a non-FBS team) (24)
In 2012, #1 Notre Dame led the nation in scoring defense until this game, averaging 10 points per game. Alabama scored 42 on them. In fact, the Crimson Tide offense had a better than average day against Notre Dame, scoring more points on the Irish than they had against 8 other teams on their schedule, including such powerhouses as Ole Miss, Florida Atlantic, and Western Kentucky.

7 BCS championships. 7 SEC victories. 6 SEC blowouts.

How is this possible? How can one conference possibly have this much success, and four different teams in that conference, seven years in a row? How can they have better production against the best of the non-SEC than against non-AQ patsies on a regular basis?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

getting the lead out

A few years ago a friend of mine was putting together a syllabus for a history course on the 1980's, and was soliciting ideas for topics to discuss. He got a lot of political ideas -- the Reagan revolution, the mobilization of the Christian Right, anti-Communism -- and a lot of "fun" cultural things to comment on, like New Wave, for instance. I tried to think of something that was important to people's everyday lives but that was a bit "unsexy," and what I came up with was the spike in urban crime that sometimes is associated with crack or gangs or whatever.

Then I decided to read up a bit on it, and the more I read, the more I discovered just how big, and how inexplicable, this crime wave was. Violent crime in US cities began a significant rise in the 1960's, peaking in around 1991. By that time, rates of murder, rape, and robbery had increased to 4 and 5 times what they were in the '50's. And then the Times Square ball dropped on 1992, and just like that, the crime rate stopped and then began a precipitous fall. By 2012, we had a crime rate similar to what we had in Nixon's first term. Violent crime in NYC, for example, is down 75% from its 1991 peak.

The effects of that crest and ebb must have affected us in significant ways, even if we're too close to it see. The trend of gentrification of old city neighborhoods, the population declines of major cities, suburban sprawl, the continued concentration of African Americans in urban ghettos and higher rates of incarceration, all could possibly be connected to this trend. Imagine what a war zone Washington, DC or inner city Atlanta looked like in 1991, and that only 20 years later, those are hot spots for young, educated couples looking for a cool place to live.

There are two aspects of this tremendous transition in our social landscape that I find absolutely baffling. One is that not only has it gone largely unnoticed, but most people actually believe America is getting more dangerous. The second puzzler is that such a sea change occurred with no obvious cause. Lots of people have ideas on why it might have happened, but there's no clear cause we can point to for the fact that cities became 4 to 5 times more violent between 1960 and 1990, and then returned to the same rates as rural areas.

Kevin Drum thinks he may have hit upon the answer, and it's shockingly mundane: lead exposure from leaded gasoline emissions. I would really have expected a more sociological answer, but his case seems quite strong to me.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


I've waited a while to write anything about Sandy Hook and the gun control debates that have spun out from it. To be honest, I haven't thought about gun control in a long time, and it's never been a very important issue to me. It's also long been one of my last conservative hold-outs; I share the libertarian skepticism that gun legislation would disarm many criminals.

TNC posted the script of a conversation on the subject between him and Jeffrey Goldberg that I found somewhat insightful and, if nothing else, pleasantly civil. Like probably most liberals, I don't actually want to "take everyone's guns away;" I just think some sensible regulation is in order. Still, I feel like the conversations about guns and the solutions proposed don't have much to do with the scenarios they purport to solve.

In the Newtown story, for instance, Adam Lanza raided his survivalist mother's arsenal and walked into an elementary school with her guns. How, exactly, does registration or a database or an assault weapons ban prevent something like that? Lanza used an AR-15, sure, but I would imagine he could have racked up a similar death toll with any semiautomatic weapon. People suggest a mental health angle, but what solution lies that way? I'm pretty sure most psychiatrists would find the idea of a mental health "no fly list" database for guns repellant. How can you square that with patient confidentiality? And what if the person trying to buy a gun has never had a psychiatric evaluation? Are we going to mandate them for firearm purchases? That sounds like a good idea, admittedly, but I wonder how hard it is for a potential shooter to fake their way through something like that. And again, remember, Lanza didn't buy his guns. He took them from his mother's house.

Meanwhile, most violent crimes committed with guns are the mundane street violence that gets less play on the national news. Perhaps there's some way to prevent felons from buying guns, but a great many gun crimes of this sort are committed with stolen handguns. How do you stop the flow of illegal guns into the streets? An assault weapons ban makes more sense here, but street crime is usually more about one dude vs. one other dude, in which case the difference between an "assault weapon" and a revolver is negligible. If there's a way to prevent purchases of handguns by people likely to have them stolen from them, it isn't obvious to me.

In more general terms, now is actually not a great time for such matters. It's usually a bad idea to go crafting sweeping legislation in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. That's how we end up with things like the USA PATRIOT Act. Plus, we have to remember that the odds of being involved in a mass shooting are vanishingly small, and that as a whole America is safer than it's been since Eisenhower was in the White House. Though now may be the moment when the political iron is hot, the issue of gun violence is probably less important than it's been in a very long time.

I will say this, though: I said at the beginning that I'm skeptical about gun laws disarming criminals. The truth is I'm less skeptical of that than I used to be. It is indisputable that all other developed countries have far fewer guns than we do, and all other developed countries have a tiny fraction of our rate of gun violence. All other countries, however, also have a black market for firearms, just like we do, the very same thing American criminals use to get their guns. Ergo, if it were true that gun control only took guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, all of those other countries have the same rates of gun crime as us, since just like our criminals, their criminals have access to guns via the black market.

Except apparently the guns are far more expensive, or there aren't enough to go around (two sides of the same coin, I know), or they just don't bother going through the trouble. In any case, crimes committed with firearms here are committed with knives and baseball bats in Britain and Japan and Finland and Argentina. That's important, because the presence of a firearm makes an assault many times more likely to be lethal, especially a mass assault like what happened in Newtown.