Everything is impossibly complicated

Archive for November, 2014

Ferguson and the Police

I feel like there’s more to the uproar around Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson than just the shooting itself. First off, there’s the problem with institutional racism that’s been widely raised: even if Darren Wilson was completely within legal bounds in killing Michael, there’s certainly a lot of suggestive evidence that laws are being selectively enforced against blacks, effectively making them subject to a stricter law than the rest of the population (take stop-and-frisk in New York, for example).

But further, I feel like there’s a widespread, increasing experience among the entire population of being mistreated by the police. I have a friend in a small town who was pulled over five times in three months for minor things (like crossing the double-yellow line as she got into a turn line, or not stopping satisfactorily long at a stop sign), which then caused her insurance rates to rise since she became classified as a “high-risk driver”. Adding to that the explicit, increased militarization of the police (like an armored car used to serve warrants for debt collection), and you start to get a general unease about the proportionality of the power bring used to “keep the peace.”

I think that Michael’s killing served as a focal point for the population who’s becoming increasingly concerned about all of these things, which is why it has exploded into a national issue.

On the other hand, conservatives, who seem to be dying to have a police state where everyone will be forced to live a conservative lifestyle at the barrel of a policeman’s pistol, appear to think that the failure of the grand jury to find any fault in Darren worth prosecuting should diffuse all the uproar, since that issue is what sparked the uproar. But even if everyone felt that the justice system had worked fairly in exonerating Darren (which is far from the case), I still don’t think the uproar would quickly fade, because all the other problems with the police still remain.

Failing to understand the complexities of the issue makes it hard for us to talk to each other. One side feels that there’s continuing injustice that’s not going addressed, and so wants to continue to protest. The other side thinks they’re just being boneheaded by refusing to accept the “objective” grand jury decision. I don’t think the focus on this single issue will ever get anywhere. We need to talk about the bigger issues of what we want our police to look like. Given that police are people with biases who makes mistakes and even abuse their power, how much power should they have, and what kind of checks and balances should there be on their power?

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The Value of Music

Mobo has an article on why Taylor Swift pulled her albums from Spotify. Her argument echoes U2’s, which is that music is important and rare art, and thus should be paid for (as opposed to being available for free). Essentially, she wants more money for people to hear her music.

I’m not sure how I feel about that argument in general. Certainly if a musician wants to make people party more for their music, it’s their right to do so (although I do get annoyed hearing people who make millions of dollars complaining about how they aren’t getting all the money they possibly can). But I was bothered by one point made in the article, quoting Aloe Blacc (who co-wrote Avicii’s song “Wake Me Up”):

But the irony of the situation is that our music is actually being enjoyed by more people in more places and played across more platforms (largely now digital) than ever before. Our work clearly does have value, of course, or else it would not be in such high demand. So why aren’t songwriters compensated more fairly in the marketplace?

This question is reflecting an ignorance of economics that I often see in the media-industrial complex. In reference to pirated movies, for example, the MPAA points to how many copies of a movie were pirated and claims an amount of lost revenue based on that. But the economic reality is that products become more popular when the price is lower–in other words, demand is not independent of price. For pirated movies, the demand at the pirated price (i.e. free) represents just about the highest possible demand for those movies. Raise the price just a little bit, and the demand will fall off significantly.

The same goes for Aloe’s comment that “Our work clearly does have value, of course, or else it would not be in such high demand.” The reason the music is in such high demand right now is because the price is so low. If the price goes up, demand is going to fall. And that will demonstrate the true value of the music: if demand falls only slightly when the price is raised, then the music has value. If it falls a lot, it has less value. But it’s not accurate to point at the demand level for the point where the music is free and claim value based on that.

As an aside, I’m offended by U2 claiming that music is sacred and therefore should be paid for, or Taylor Swift saying that music is art and therefore should be paid for. Such expressions cheapen concepts like “holiness” and “art” to being nothing more than vehicles for becoming rich. There’s no inherent reason that holiness or art should cost money, as both are dealing with aspects of humanity that transcend common greed. If millionaires want to complain that they’re not getting as much money as they could, that’s one thing, but they should not hijack concepts that lie at the core of our humanity to do so. It smacks of the sale of indulgences that inspired Martin Luther to renounce the Holy Catholic Church.

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