Friday, January 11, 2008


The advertised title of the lecture was “Faith-Based Initiatives: Role and Efficacy in a Civil Society.” That seemed interesting and unbiased enough to me, so I devoted a long lunch hour to walking across Duke campus and attending.

It didn’t take long for me to start feeling like a sucker. Even before the speaker got to the heart of his topic, the names he dropped made me a little queasy. He reminded us that he is newly on the faculty at Baylor University, which requires a profession of faith in Christ from all its faculty hires. He boasted of the support his research center has gotten from the John Templeton Foundation and the Heritage Foundation. All of this was by way of his PowerPoint presentation, the first 20 minutes of which was an infomercial for his center and its director, his boss—not what I expect from this academic lecture series I’ve been attending for a couple of years now.

The speaker is a criminologist, and the real content of his talk was not faith-based initiatives in general, but one in particular: a faith-based prison launched in Texas by Charles Colson’s outfit, Prison Fellowship. (Colson was described as a well-known Christian leader and prison evangelist. Full stop.) Our guest related the story that Colson had applied to 11 states with this proposal and been turned down 11 times, before he found his Promised Land in Texas in the late 1990s, and his champion in the person of Governor George W. Bush. Dubya of course was interested—the themes of faith-based governance and compassionate conservatism which would propel him to the White House may have begun to form in his not-inquisitive but acquisitive little brain--and in effect said to Colson, “Where have you been all my life?”

That’s a verbatim quote of our speaker’s joke. It was just a throwaway line, I don’t think the guy put any thought behind it, but I had to laugh out loud, a little too loud for the social situation, at the image of George W. Bush warmly greeting Charles Colson, saying “Where have you been all my life?” Dubya was probably pretty coked out during Watergate, so it’s understandable he might not have recognized Colson (though would it have killed him to ask Poppy?). But sometimes two guys just have an instant connection.

Anyway, the research our speaker presented was on Colson’s prison program and its relationship to recidivism rates. He talked around the issue a lot, about the difficulties of his study, inmates dropping out or being paroled early, the absence of quality control in the services provided. His data was really limited to one bar graph, which showed a small differential in re-arrest and re-conviction for Colson’s group, and nothing about statistical significance.

Speaker Guy alluded to the objection that there may have been selection bias: that men who enrolled in Prison Fellowship are inclined to go to Bible studies and also inclined not to re-offend, and the services themselves may not have made much difference. He tried to defuse that objection by saying he interviewed wardens and chaplains, who assured him that the prisoners who chose to go into the Colson program weren’t more devout, they were just cynically trying to get more privileges. That’s not terribly rigorous or convincing. It looks to me like there is probably a selection bias at work: There might be correlation, but not necessarily causation.

It turns out that this research study has a checkered history that the speaker didn’t divulge. I did a little Googling when I got back to the office. Colson’s Texas prison is one of the early success stories in the faith-based initiatives movement, one of its crown jewels. This 2003 Slate article by Mark Kleiman, however, throws cold water on the so-called success. Kleiman accuses evaluators of cherry-picking the data in order to show positive effects on recidivism. I believe the presentation I heard has been refined since 2003 (our guest complained of having to include in his sample even those who were early dropouts, which seems to address one’s of Kleiman’s objections) but I don’t know exactly how.

These prisoners, it appears to me, were being relatively showered with resources: Bible studies, life skills training, mentoring that carried over from incarceration to re-entry, and other stuff. Sure it did some good! What I’d like to know is, what was the effect of the faith-based nature of the services? Is it better to get inmates to participate in Bible study than in Oprah’s Book Club? Is it better to get inmates connected with a church on the outside, than it would be to get them connected with a softball league? Education and positive social bonds would seem to help keep crime down, regardless of any religious content.

In talking about all the complicating factors our guy all but admitted that some churches and mentors in the program don’t know what they’re doing. (There’s an inherent problem when your volunteer service-providers live in Katy and Sugar Land, and your clients live in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Some mentors were happy to go to meetings in the prison, but didn’t want to meet their mentees in the ‘hood for aftercare.) Showering money upon people who didn’t know what they were doing: sounds the George W. Bush M.O. to me. Another comment that strikes me as funny in retrospect: in the infomercial part of his talk, the speaker alluded to a grant his center had to study culture and values in China, but said that there were sensitive issues in the work and that he didn’t want to comment on it in a setting where he was being tape-recorded. Always respect the power of electronic surveillance.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

New Hampshire Hangover

I’m disoriented. I was getting used to the idea, excited even, that Barack Obama would be my presidential nominee. I was feeling comfortable with Hillary Clinton’s highest office being Senator from New York (not too shabby, right?). I was braced for a discussion of what Clinton would do from a hopeless position—would she lash out in a way that damaged Obama for the general election? Despite the cackling from certain corners on the right, I was even comfortable anticipating a sort of goodbye to the national stage by Hillary and Bill, a stage curtain falling on the notion of a Clinton Dynasty.

What happened yesterday in the Democratic primary was pretty astonishing. None of the campaigns expected a Hillary win, not even Hillary’s, not even on the day of the voting. None of the polls or pundits called it right. And all I can figure is, the key turning point was Hillary’s show of emotion two days ago. Markos is right on target here. Hillary is my least favorite of the Democratic aspirants because of her platform, but personality-wise I like her, as a woman candidate I like her (I have school-age daughters, and they are truly excited about the prospect of a woman president, and that shit matters to the parents of young girls), and when she is unfairly attacked on grounds of her gender and personality, I want to come to her aid.

In terms of my political preferences, I’m disappointed by the NH result. I’ve concluded that my positive feelings about Hillary Clinton are rooted in feeling sorry for her. She checked her own ambitions for the sake of her husband, and got publicly humiliated by the Lewinsky scandal for her trouble. Her post-2000 political career is kind of a consolation prize, in my eyes, and that is not a basis for choosing a President. Being a Senator is a hell of a fine consolation prize, but to be the champion of American progressivism in the post-Bush era, I want the best progressive politician. Hillary isn’t it. Bill used to be it but isn’t anymore. They are fighting the last war.

I think Hillary took the wrong lessons from Bill’s tenure in the White House. If she was reprising Bill’s 1992 campaign, I’d be excited. (In fact, I think I’d even be excited if she were fighting a 1998-99 vintage campaign and raging against the vast right-wing conspiracy. She’d probably lose, but I’d be cheering for her.) But she is peddling a 1996 brand of defensive, timid, small-bore, technocratic politics, that is loath to buck the forces of big corporate money, and that thinks presidential saber-rattling is a winning national security strategy for a Democrat.

But I can't help but feel happy for her today. Maybe I'm naive and she's the cold calculating tear-summoning vixen of Dick Scaife's fever dreams, but I think the few days after Iowa were maybe the low point of Hillary Clinton's life, and that last night was the greatest night of her life. That's kind of neat. And I’m trying to trust this process, this chain of events. I’m trying to be open to the idea that a long hard-fought primary season is a good thing. The huge Democratic turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire are really encouraging signs for next fall. I hope the Dems can keep the excitement going, and that we end up with a candidate who's been thoroughly and fairly vetted, and whom we're all behind.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Watch Your Step When Boarding

The primary season is heating up—as in, the Democratic nominee may be decided in two days. It felt like the primaries would take forever, yet suddenly on one side (the only side that matters! please Lord) they may be over in a flash. And I might ought to say something about what has happened in Iowa and is about to happen in New Hampshire. But first, a brief aside.

I am really interested in the reflections of 20-something lefty blogger-reporters (like Ezra Klein here and here, and Chris Hayes here and here, and Dana Goldstein here and here) who are being sent out on the campaign trail to file daily dispatches like regular Boys and Girls On The Bus.

(At this point I deleted a graf about why I think I identify with these youngsters. Let’s just say, I have idiosyncratic and fairly pathetic reasons. Oh to be young again, and have a different job…)

It's the stock in trade of bloggers to spray piss and vinegar at mainstream political reporters. Now some of these bloggers (and blog-fueled publications like the American Prospect) are putting their money where their mouth is, trying to do a better job at the function they have largely deplored.

I think they are doing fine. They are helping to highlight the fundamental problems, if not outright absurdity, of our primary system. (Ms. Goldstein's account of being mistaken for the person in charge of an Iowa caucus precinct is amusing and on-point.) Maybe I'm more tuned in somehow, but I don't remember as much talk in past years of how disorganized and in some ways undemocratic (small d) the caucus protocol is, and how it has monstrously outgrown its modest founding purpose.

What's more, the young turks are also giving some glimpses, from the newly-inside, of what the working existence of campaign correspondents is like. Some blog commenters seem hypervigilant for signs of their heroes' selling out to The Man, yet Chris Hayes especially has some sharp and sympathetic observations about the pack psychology of the press pool, and the practical problems or constraints that tempt reporters to focus on trivia and/or run with their cynical preconceptions.

Another brief note: uncharacteristically for me, I tuned in to MSNBC for awhile Saturday night to watch Tim Russert and his crew of old-guard journos opine from New Hampshire. I have never heard TV pundits talk so much about accusations that the media were skewing electoral outcomes. In retrospect, it was probably in response to desperate protests from the Hillary Clinton camp. The talking heads weren't quite copping to the charge, but they were acknowledging that it was out there.