Flashy Math and Civil Rights

Today I ran across an excellent example of how percentages can be used to mislead on Obama’s Civil Rights Agenda page. If you scroll down to the very bottom, there is a bullet point called “Empower Women to Prevent HIV/AIDS:”

In the United States, the percentage of women diagnosed with AIDS has quadrupled over the last 20 years. Today, women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. Barack Obama introduced the Microbicide Development Act, which will accelerate the development of products that empower women in the battle against AIDS. Microbicides are a class of products currently under development that women apply topically to prevent transmission of HIV and other infections.

We can argue about the propriety of government forcing investment in prevention products some other day – what concerns me here is that first sentence: “In the United States, the percentage of women diagnosed with AIDS has quadrupled over the last 20 years.” It is important here to distinguish between a percentage and a population total. With a population total, we’re talking about an absolute value – so, if say, 2,000 women had AIDS in 1990, and 8,000 have it now, then we could plausibly say that the number of women with AIDS had quadrupled over the past 20 years, and that would indeed be in some sense “alarming.” But notice that the claim is that the percentage of women with AIDS has quadrupled. That means something quite different. That means that the number that you get when you take the number of women with AIDS and divide it by the total number of people with AIDS has quadrupled. Notice that since this second number depends on the total number of people with AIDS, then it is possible that the percentage of women with AIDS has quadrupled even as the total number of women with AIDS has actually DECLINED since 1990. And indeed, I believe this is what has happened.

Crunch these numbers to see what I mean. If 2,000 women had AIDS in 1990, but that number had dropped to 1,500 by 2008 (a 25% reduction), while at the same time the general population of people with AIDS dropped from 20,000 to 3750, then the percentage of the AIDS population made up by women would have quadrupled, yes, even though the number of women with AIDS had declined significantly. All that’s required is that the general population of AIDS patients be falling much faster than the number of AIDS patients who happen to be women.

Now, some people might complain that this still indicates that female AIDS victims are getting shortlisted for attention. Maybe. But isn’t it also possible that the number of men with AIDS was simply inflated in the early 1990s? In fact, we know this was the case. AIDS was, after all, originally called ‘GRID’ – for Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency – because in the beginning it mysteriously seemed to affect only gay men. I had always heard this, of course, but it wasn’t until I read Andrew Sullivan’s New Republic essay “The End of Gay Culture” that I realized just how devastating it had actually been. Sullivan credits it with nothing less than total destruction of 1970s gay culture:

The entire structure of emergent gay culture–sexual, radical, subversive–met a virus that killed almost everyone it touched. Virtually the entire generation that pioneered gay culture was wiped out–quickly. Even now, it is hard to find a solid phalanx of gay men in their fifties, sixties, or seventies–men who fought from Stonewall or before for public recognition and cultural change. And those who survived the nightmare of the 1990s to mid-’90s were often overwhelmed merely with coping with plague; or fearing it themselves; or fighting for research or awareness or more effective prevention.

And also, ironically, with later reinvigorating it as an assimilatory culture:

The plague provided a unifying social and cultural focus. But it also presaged a new direction. That direction was unmistakably outward and integrative. … For the first time, a cohort of gay children and teens grew up in a world where homosexuality was no longer a taboo subject and where gay figures were regularly featured in the press.

Sullivan is himself HIV-positive, so perhaps he’s exaggerating about a subject dear to his heart. It happens. But if he’s not – if the AIDS epidemic really had an effect this extreme on the male gay community, then it’s not only not hard to imagine that the raw number of women with AIDS has been falling even as its percentage explodes – it’s indeed difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.

Who are women with AIDS? Actually, they’re mostly black heterosexuals. AIDS was never a lesbian disease. So it’s easy to see the pattern here. Infection rates for men in general were inflated in the 80s because of the huge infection rate in the gay male community. That has since dropped dramatically – in part because it simply killed off most of the people who contracted it, and also because the fact of its being such a prolific killer in a particular segment of the population raised awareness in a way that the relatively low infection rate among black women – which at one of the highest demographic infection rates in the US is still well below 2% – hasn’t.

This isn’t to deny that AIDS awareness is important, or that there is no cause for concern about the infection rate in women in particular. Whatever your opinions about that, it’s easy to see that Obama is playing the alarmist game. There is no “epidemic” of AIDS among women the way there once was among gay men, and the “quadrupling” of the percentage of AIDS patients who are women need mean nothing more than that the male infection rate has fallen from “extreme” to a more natural level. Obama’s language is simply deceptive.

As for the rest of the page, it’s not exactly a litany of why we’re gonna regret a president Obama, but there are plenty of reasons there available to read. He wants to expand federal hate crimes legislation, for one, thus doing even more damage to due process and the Constitution than this absurd legal category as it stands has already done. He wants even more federal micromanagement of employment decisions than already exists. And he wants to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which is gonna work wonders for morale.

That said, there’s a lot of really good stuff on this page too. I’m overjoyed to read this one, for example:

Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: Obama and Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.

Absolutely right. It’s a shameful, racist, and ultimately counterproductive policy. There is no credible reason to believe that crack and powder-based cocaine pose radically different dangers to the body public, and so there is no credible reason for the sentencing disparity.

There’s also this:

Expand Use of Drug Courts: Obama and Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.

It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly a huge improvement from the Ashcroft/Gonzalez years. As I’ve said many times before, I think the War on Drugs is probably the stupidest government policy currently on the books. It massively misallocates economic resources, cuts the government off from a potential gold mine of tax revenue, causes much more (and much more violent) crime than it prevents, and most importantly it does lasting damage to the civil rights structure of our legal system, making criminals out of people who are guilty of harming no one, giving official sanction to that legal oxymoron, the “victimless crime.” If Obama wants to temper the insanity a bit, he definitely has my support.

All other things equal, I would be really happy about this as well:

Oppose a Constitutional Ban on Same-Sex Marriage: Barack Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 which would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prevented judicial extension of marriage-like rights to same-sex or other unmarried couples.

Obviously, given my views on marriage, it’s clear that I’m opposed to any federal law that defines marriage in any way, especially if it’s a constitutional amendment. But Obama does want to upend states’ perrogative on this issue in other ways:

Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples: Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples. Obama also believes we need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and enact legislation that would ensure that the 1,100+ federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions. These rights and benefits include the right to assist a loved one in times of emergency, the right to equal health insurance and other employment benefits, and property rights.

So I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I’m generally for civil unions. In fact, I’m for them for heterosexuals as well. I’d like to get the government out of the marriage business altogether. But this legislation may or may not be a step in that direction – and in any case I’m not sure this is a federal-level issue. So – could be good, could be bad, but it’s certainly nothing to get excited about.

Well, four years is a long time, and Obama’s definitely not the most forthcoming president we’ve ever had, so we’ll just have to wait and see. There seem to be good things on the horizon, but the commitment to the minority grievance culture, and the need to play statistical games to justify support for it, do not in general bode well for civil liberties under an Obama Administration.

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