The (Possible) Link between Traffic Cameras and the Events in Ferguson

I am reposting the original post on traffic cameras from several months ago based on events in Ferguson.  But one does not have to agree with the violence to understand that what happened has a deep context.  I do think that Alex Tabbarrok of Marginal Revolution is on to something when he links the uprising in Ferguson in part with the problem of ciies using criminal activity to fund their budgets.

He writes,

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority (67%) of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

As Tabarrok comments,

You get numbers like this from %$!@ arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

The full post is here, and worth 3 minutes of your time.  I think the link between traffic cameras and Ferguson are the inherent problems embedded within governments seeking to profit from crime.  It opens the door to a whirlwind of abuses and unintended consequences.

And now, the original traffic camera post . . .

I have never been a fan of traffic cameras.  I suppose that they might hypothetically serve a good purpose at a very limited number of places, such as schools and dangerous intersections.  Maybe.  Hypothetically.

But I find their proliferation, along with the growth of the security-through-technology trend, disturbing for a variety of reasons.

Many hope and believe that the cameras will make our roads safer, but we should realize that the stated purpose may also involve raising revenue.  While I have no love for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s assertion that he would like to see many more cameras in D.C., he at least had the openness to admit that the traffic cameras would go a long way towards balancing the budget.

There is a baseness, a dullness (for lack of a better word), and a real potential for the state to become the ultimate prig* when it uses people’s misdeeds to raise money.  Can we not create or build anything anymore?   Granted, this argument is in the end an “aesthetic” one and can’t be measured.  You feel it or you don’t.  But there are some parallels in other areas of life.  We know that lotteries tend to work against the poor, but states use them to raise money for schools or other social programs.  The state must ask itself, “Do we want people to play the lottery or not?”

We know the detrimental impact of institutionalized gambling but many states use slot machines to raise revenue.  I remember visiting a casino years ago, and there are few sights more depressing in my memory than seeing the blank faces of the “slot jockeys” mechanically pulling the lever time after time.  Maybe the state shouldn’t ban such behavior, but I am not comfortable with them profiting from it either.

The whole idea of a “vice tax” is a very old one, but seems to cut against the very idea of civil government’s purpose in creating a social order that discourages bad behavior.  Perhaps there is some room for a detterence role in these kinds of taxes.  Yet there is the very real possibility that states who rely on such things to raise money and actually balance budgets may want people to engage in those behaviors.

If counties want to use traffic cameras to help their budgets, do they want motorists to speed or not?  Do they, in fact, need motorists to speed to balance the books?  If we answer “yes,” then we only have a small leap to envision the state manipulating speed limits, roads, intersections, etc. to make sure they meet their quota.

But many will say that these arguments reside in the pure hypothetical and will want more concrete objections.

The ACLU has a good and brief piece here detailing their objections to speed cameras, arguing among other things that they violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”  Traffic cameras automatically suppose that the owner of the car is driving the car, a reasonable though not absolute assumption.  But it you are not driving the car the burden is upon you to prove your innocence.  This burden would be quite unjust especially for someone from out of town.  If the fine was, say, $60 it would cost much more than that for the car owner from another locale to come to court and prove he was not driving.  He will simply pay the fine.  We understand that no perfect criminal justice system exists, and that some innocent people will be convicted unjustly.  But we should not set up a system where an unjust result is practically guaranteed on occasion.

Debate also exists as to how much safer traffic cameras actually make roads.  Wired Magazine cites this study showing how cameras at intersections have actually increased accidents.  Others counter that we can accept an increase  of “fender-benders” to decrease fatalities.  I agree, but that that assumes a false dilemma.  Increasing the length of time for yellow lights, for example, might accomplish the same purpose, and while a reckless drunk driver might not heed a longer yellow, neither would they heed traffic cameras.  Marginal Revolution

I trust I am no conspiracy theorist, but my final objection does involve the slippery-slope.  The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald  wrote a piece about Prince George’s County response to vandalism of its cameras:

They put up a cameras to monitor the camera.  

And from Marginal Revolution, this recent piece tells of some places shortening yellow lights for cash.

For the cost of the cameras the county could have instead hired a police officers to monitor the intersections instead.  And this gets to my final objection.  We should have no interest in contracting out our security to machines.  One can appeal to a police officer, and police often come from the communities in which they work.  Their judgments are fallible, yes, but when they make poor judgments they can be held accountable, unlike machines.

Thus ends my mild attack.  But maybe both sides are wrong when it comes to solving traffic problems.  Maybe we need an entirely new approach. . .

*Some years ago a friend of mine was driving south on Rt. 29 at night in a county that will remain nameless.  He received a citation for “Failure to Dim” (!) his headlights.   Of course the ticket itself was about $30, but add a $55 processing fee, and you have a very expensive “Failure to Dim.”

It turns out that this county raises a good portion of its revenue through traffic citations.  Considering that he was driving a rental car (he lives in the mid-west) and would certainly not return to challenge the citation in court, well, things begin to add up.

James Brown Danced towards Transcendance

The new James Brown biopic debuted recently.  I don’t have much interest in the movie, as on the surface it looks a lot like Ray and Walk the Line.  Steven Hyden encapsulated my thoughts when he wrote,

Like all biopics, Get on Up inserts the idea of a famous icon into a classic melodrama story line. It’s like making Terms of Endearmentabout Batman. It never really works, but Hollywood never tires of trying anyway, in part because audiences always seem to show up, in spite of already having seen this movie many, many times.

My interest in James Brown got renewed, though not so much by the movie itself, but a particular review I read.

I usually like what Grantland’s Wesley Morris has to say about film, but not this time.  In reviewing the film Morris reduces Brown’s music and stage act to, “the sex, basically.”  Now I won’t deny that an artist who had a hit album/song called “Sex Machine” wasn’t talking about sex in his songs.  But I strongly object to reducing his music to sex, even the song “Sex Machine.”

I can easily forgive Morris’ mistake because it’s so common to our culture.  We have elevated the physical experience of sex as the proper “end” of human experience, and this has cast us adrift on a host of issues plaguing our society.  We miss the transcendent pointers in sex when we make it our stopping point.  N.T. Wright put it succinctly when he wrote about sex and marriage (frequent readers will note I quote this in another post — forgive me),

It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

Back to James Brown (almost) . . .

I remember hearing an interview with pianist Jeremy Denk some years ago when he recorded his album of pieces by Ligeti and Beethoven.  Denk talked about the repetitive nature of the pieces from both composers on the album.  But he didn’t see monotony, he saw Beethoven and Ligeti both grasping at the reaches of space and eternity.  They strove for transcendence.  Denk commented,

“The last Beethoven sonata seems to me [to be] one of the most profound musical journeys to infinity ever made,” he says. “The whole piece seems to want to bring us from a present moment into this timeless space where everything is continuous and endless.”

But of course Beethoven and Ligeti are classical musicians and we expect them to think about these things.  We don’t naturally assume the same of James Brown,* though perhaps we should.

Most pop/soul/rock/swing music emphasizes the “2” and often the “4” of a four-beat phrase.  On multiple occasions Brown talked about how his shift of emphasis to the downbeat, the “1” of a musical phrase, permanently changed his music.  Instead of, for example, “Gonna’ HAVE a  funky-GOOD time,” he sang, “GONNA have a funky-good time.”  This “cleared the decks” for Brown’s musical phrasing in the rest of the measure/multi-measure phrase — it gave him a lot more room to maneuver — a kind of “timeless space,” to quote Denk.

We can hear this in one my favorite Brown songs, “Mother Popcorn.”  Listen for a start to the rhythm like, “and-ONE-and.”  By the time we get to the “and” of beat four we have lingered so long in the space Brown creates that it hits us like a coiled spring.  Because the song gets built around a two measure phrase, after the “and” of beat four we have a whole measure of “space” until the downbeat comes again.

A lot of Brown’s music in the late 60’s/early 70’s (my favorite era of his) devolves into rhythm almost exclusively, and his downbeat emphasis allowed for extended rhythmic exploration.  Brown discovered he had no real need for melody.  This meant that the songs had a repetitiveness to them, but it also meant that Brown could then make his bid for something in the great beyond.  He was free to “explore the space” unfettered by beats two and four.

Brown had a string of failed marriages.  His friend Rev. Al Sharpton described him as a lonely person with few real friends.  This should not surprise us, considering that both of his parents abandoned Brown as a child.   Given the facts about his life and music, are his songs really just about sex, or even primarily about sex?  It can’t be. What was “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” working for?   When we listen to “Cold Sweat” we have other things to contemplate besides sex.

His dancing adds to the transcendence. Watching him I can’t help but laugh in amazement.

The quality of my laughter is easily placed.  It is, to borrow a song title from Over the Rhine, a “Laugh of Recognition.”

Every night we always
Led the pack
There and back
And we never could do anything half
Oh you have to laugh
You just gotta laugh . . .

It’s called the laugh of recognition
When you laugh but you feel like dyin’

You’re not the first one to start again
Come on now friends
There is something to be said for tenacity

To quote the late, great, Mr. James Brown, “Ain’t it Funky?”

Or perhaps we should say, “AIN’T it funky?” (go to ca. 4:30-5:30 mark for some fun).


*In comparing these three I don’t mean to assert their musical equality. For the record, I’ll take Beethoven over Brown by a long shot.  But I’m guessing many of you will join me in taking Brown over Ligeti in a rout.

Abstract Thought and Ancient Religion

I enjoyed thumbing through Leonard Mlodinow’s Euclid’s Window, a book about the development of math and science Unknownfrom ancient to present times.  Mlodinow praises the discoveries of the Egyptians and Babylonians, but focuses on the significant advances of the Greeks from Thales down to Pythagoras and Euclid.  Their key discovery, their “leap of consciousness,” was abstract thought.  Previously civilizations saw only isolated parts or formulas. They knew certain things worked but had no idea of the connections between different ideas.  After the Greeks, we gained the ability to make generalizations, to group similar ideas under larger ones, and create systems.

Good stuff to be sure, but I hoped Mlodinow would offer speculation on how this happened. Why did abstract thought begin with the Greeks and not the Babylonians?  Did abstract thought in general (rather than just in math) come from the Greeks?  He did not touch on the question.

This frustrated me, so what follows is my own speculation.

Abstraction requires a certain view of creation itself.  Logically one must see order and pattern in creation before one could see it in math, for example.

Initially I thought that it makes sense that abstract thought did not show itself first in either Babylon or Egypt.  Babylon’s creation account reveals a haphazard universe.  Creation happens due to conflict between the gods.  Sorcery and power determine the winner.   We don’t see principle, justice, and so on.  In such a theological environment we would not expect them to think of general governing principles of thought.  At the the time of Thales, for example, Babylonians obsessed over the minutiae of dream interpretations.

The Egyptian creation account bears more similarity to Genesis 1-3, which should have given them an advantage in the “race” to abstraction.  However magic also plays a strong role in Egyptian society and myth.  It seems that in a society where nature can be manipulated on a whim one would not learn to see the forest for the trees.

So far so good.  In this triumphal ascent we should then see how Greek creation accounts most resemble Genesis and how this helped them.  But . . . Greek creation accounts might resemble the Babylonians more than the Egyptians.  True, magic doesn’t really have the role in Greek myth and folklore that it did in Egypt, but we do see the occasional frustrating randomness of the gods’ actions.  Perhaps Zeus and the others sometimes act in accord with “Fate” and a larger plan, but Fate remains mysterious and inaccessible to both gods and men.  There appears little in Greek religion on which to build the foundation of abstract thought.

Indeed, how did abstract thought arise in a polytheistic culture at all?  We might guess at some special revelation of God, perhaps.  What source did Thales and others draw on to develop it?  I am at a loss for ideas.  Perhaps this is why those who really took abstract thought seriously (like Pythagoras and Plato) end up breaking from Greek religion and starting “heretical” faiths.  Standard Greek religion had no category for such things.

I also wonder why the Greeks beat out the Israelites.  The Israelites had all the advantages in place.

As I mentioned, Genesis gives all the foundation for abstract thought one needs.  God creates everything, and does so in an orderly and purposeful way.  Yes, in the Old Testament as a whole God shows his omnipotence, love, and justice, by intervening in miraculous ways at times.  But in stark contrast to other contemporary faiths, the Old Testament has none of the fanciful/whimsically “miraculous” about it.  Throughout Scripture in fact, miracles get concentrated at key points in redemptive history (i.e. the founding of Israel, the beginning of the prophetic era with Elijah/Elisha, with Jesus Himself, and the beginning of the apostles’ ministry).  Today missionaries report miracles in areas where the gospel first gets introduced.  When looking at other ancient religions we may understand more why Jesus showed reluctance at times to effect miracles.  Reliance on them at our whims hinders the development of wisdom.*

We can say that the Israelites did develop, or we should say, had revealed to them, the “abstract” reality of God’s creation of all things, and His rule over and care for all things.  Certainly this is a far more important truth to have then imaginary parallel lines.  Though Biblical critics of the modern school say that Jewish belief in God’s universal dominion comes only with the later prophets (and then they often date them much later than most orthodox commentators) you have it “early” in Jewish history not just in Genesis, but in 1 Samuel 5, Psalm 19, Psalm 82, and so on.  The term “abstract” in this context has its problems, however.  We define abstract as “existing in thought but not having a concrete or physical existence.”   God exists in more than just thought.  He is real reality.

But the Greeks limitations in theology should not diminish their mathematical achievement.  Nor does it explain why the Israelites apparently did not take the general truths about God and the universe and apply them in other areas besides theology and ethics.  Nor again, does it explain how the Greeks developed their abstract mathematical ideas within their own context.

I intrigued, and I am stumped.

*All this to say — God forbid we start thinking along the lines of, “God, please do no miracles and keep to yourself, as your involvement will hinder the development of abstract thought!”