Trump’s cruel and arbitrary refugee order

20151030 Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece 2

​This executive order is heartbreaking.

When I lived in Atlanta about 7 years ago, I mentored two refugee brothers from Iran through the International Rescue Committee. They were members of a persecuted minority. They taught me far more than I taught them. They were so generous, kind, and hardworking. They invited me in their home. Fed me. Shared their lives and culture. The elder brother worked long hours at Target, stacking shelves. He looked out for his younger brother, who was still in high school. Each weekend, he cooked a big batch of a meat and rice dish (mostly rice), and he always offered me some. Their parents hadn’t come with them. But it was worth it for them to escape a society where they faced little future.

This is a cruel and arbitrary decision.

The order has refugees detained at airports, including “an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio.”

Worse yet, there’s no evidence this ban is needed, as reported in Christianity Today:

There is a 1 in 3.64 billion per year chance that you will be killed by a refugee in a given year. If those odds concern you, please do not get in a bathtub, car, or even go outside. And, for contrast, there were 762 tragic murders in Chicago alone last year comparted to 0 people who were killed last year (or ever since the mid-70s) by a refugee-perpetrated terrorist attack.

And it not only hurts these refugees, it sends an awful message:

If America bans refugees, it makes a statement to the world that we don’t want to make. It is the picture of someone who sits, arms crossed and turned away, with a raised eyebrow and a ready attack on the helpless, the homeless, the broken.

I hope immigration advocates find a way for the courts to step in to stop this vile policy.

What does Obama mean by “smarter government”?

Barack Obama at Las Vegas Presidential Forum

One unifying principle of my scholarship, you could say, is the quest for “smarter”
government: better management of vacant property, improved interactions between varying levels of government in setting education policy, ideal intellectual-property regulations, guidelines for limiting criminal prosecutions of copyright violators.

But the problem with promoting “smart” or “efficient” government is the difficulty in defining that idea, which means different things to different people. It’s been used to describe cost-cutting, but also faster government services, or use of data to improve government services.

Recently, in promoting “smarter government” at a special cabinet meeting, President Obama seemed mostly to intend these latter concepts, as he encouraged agency heads to work toward “better and faster delivery of government services, reducing waste and fraud, and providing more and better government data to help business owners solve problems and hire more people,” as summarized by USAToday.

The President’s proposal was met with criticism precisely because this idea of “government efficiency” is vague and exceedingly difficult to meaningfully benchmark. For that reason, Mark Hendrickson at Forbes called the“smarter government” slogan “one of [Obama’s] most vacuous banalities yet.” Ed Rogers at the Washington Post labeled it “a punchline.” Jonah Goldberg at the Washington Times deemed it plain “dumb.” (Take these statements with a grain of salt, though, as they seem to be undergirded by hostility to “big government.”)

Yet progress toward smarter government is somewhat measurable, as shown by PolitiFact’s list of 32 of Obama’s promises of “government efficiency.” This list includes broken promises like allowing Medicare to negotiate for cheaper drug prices and limiting subsidies for agribusiness, kept promises like requiring economic justification for tax changes and eliminating higher subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans, compromises on goals like establishing transparency standards for military contractors, and one big project still in progress to consolidate nine different government agencies on business into one (this project requires cooperation from Congress). Dave Boyer summarized PolitiFact’s scorecard in the Washington Times: Obama has kept 11 promises, broken 9, and compromised on 11.

In my view, the attack on Obama’s initiative as vague and just more “big government” misses the point. Certainly he could do better, but recognizing that technology can enable better government is a step in the right direction, for both sides of the political aisle. The digital revolution allows so much more information to be passed around, and government agencies can easily misstep into two extremes: ignoring this information, or getting lost in it without making any real progress. The correct approach is balance, something that, unfortunately, usually seems impossible for politicians to promote in today’s partisan environment. And of course, this balance will look different for every agency, making generalizations like the President’s very difficult to compose without banality.  Sometimes, however, I think that it warrants repeating that agencies just need to try to be “smart.”

Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois

I thought it would be interesting to look at the different type of criminal cases in the federal Northern District of Illinois versus the Southern District of Illinois. (There is also the Central District of Illinois, which I am not going to discuss.) Obviously, the Northern District includes more than just Chicago, but the city makes the District much more city oriented than the Southern District. I checked out the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s sourcebook on federal sentencing statistics for 2010 and looked at the total cases by category for these two districts (these include cases which went to sentencing, not just those where charges were brought).

Here’s the Northern District’s stats by primary offense:

Here’s the Southern District’s:

Here are a couple of thoughts. Continue reading “Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois”

Meet the companies with the most lobbyists in Chicago

Handshake (Workshop Cologne '06)Chicago requires lobbyists to register and then lists them (and their clients) on the city’s data portal. I went through and tried to figure out who had the most lobbyists registered in Chicago in 2011. I combined subsidiaries whenever possible. Here’s the list, by my count:

  1. JP Morgan Chase (19)— the largest U.S. bank by assets.
  2. Bank of America (10 + 6 for Merrill Lynch)— the 2nd largest U.S. bank.
  3. Chicago Parking Meters LLC (15)— company led by Morgan Stanley that has a 75-year lease on city parking meters (for opposing views on that deal see here and here).
  4. Two-way tie between AT&T (14), the communications giant, and…
  5. US Bancorp (14)— the 5th largest U.S. bank.
  6. Four-way tie between BMO Harris Bank (13)— Chicago-based bank, 16th largest in U.S.,
  7. Morgan Stanley (13)— financial-services giant,
  8. Public Building Commission of Chicago (13)— corporation formed by Mayor Daley (now chaired by Mayor Emanuel) to “oversee and help ensure quality [public] facilities,” and…
  9. Wal-Mart (13)— retail giant who has worked vigilantly to expand in Chicago.
  10. Commonwealth Edison (or ComEd) (12)— the largest electric utility in Illinois.
  11. Two-way tie between Clear Channel (11)— media conglomerate, and…
  12. Chicago Loop Parking (11)— company that owns and operates parking garages.
  13. KPMG LLP (10)— professional-services giant; one of the “big four” accounting firms.

Of course, some have noted that federal lobbyist-registration data may be unreliable because there are ways to circumvent the rules, and the same may be true of Chicago’s rules. But this data at least provides a rough sketch of who is working to influence Chicago officials.

Here is another website analyzing data about Chicago lobbyists from 2010, including which clients have paid the most to lobbyists. Oddly, some of the highest firms on my list seem to have paid low amounts in actually lobbying funds; the Salvation Army apparently paid the most to lobbyists. I would suspect that the major financial-services firms on my list have found ways to avoid disclosing the full amount they pay for lobbying, especially since they have so many registered lobbyists.

Politicians using social media

twitter politicsA hot topic right now is politicians using social media to communicate with constituents.

One example is Michigan state representative Justin Amash. According to a 2011 article on, Amash posts “all his votes, reasons behind them and other news from the floor on his Facebook page.” He emphasizes that it increases transparency for voters.

Twitter is another increasingly popular tool in politics. The Chicago Redeye reported on the trend on January 9:

In addition to [Chicago] Mayor Emanuel’s handle (@rahmemanuel), aldermen in 29 of the city’s 50 wards have Twitter accounts, according to a RedEye review, although each varies in how frequently he or she posts. . . .

“They don’t get it,” Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said of his colleagues who don’t use the microblogging service. “It takes effort and I think [the City Council is] way, way, way behind the curve. There is no reason not to have it.”

There is even an assistant professor at IIT, Libby Hemphill, who is tracking Chicago politician’s tweets looking for patterns about the information shared.

For politicians, however, using Twitter (or Facebook) is not without risks.

Politico reporter Scott Wong summed it up like this:

Twitter’s a dream for politicians with an itch to reach voters in candid, quick bursts, but the fear of jokes gone wrong, gaffes and hacks is becoming palpable.

Because of the potential for gaffes, one democratic consultant recommends that politicians stick to Facebook and not personally post on Twitter.

The best solution may be for politicians to hire professional tweeters to post tweets for them. As Wired covered in November 2011, many celebrities already employ “ghost tweeters,” who go to great lengths to copy their employers tone and voice while tweeting frequently in an effort to connect with fans and increase the celebrity’s profile. Of course professional tweeters are far outside the budget of most politicians (though probably not Mitt Romney), so they are stuck with drafting carefully.