Wonkbook: Don’t blame the legal system for the Trayvon Martin verdict. Blame the law.

July 15, 2013

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Trials, Andrew Cohen writes, "can never act as moral surrogates to resolve the national debates they trigger."

On Saturday night, George Zimmerman was found "not guilty" in the killing of Trayvon Martin. The verdict has spawned a fair amount of outrage.  But it's not an outrageous verdict. The outrageous parts came long before the verdict, and could never have been fixed by a trial.

"I think the jury basically got it right," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates. They were charged only with interpreting Florida law and the facts at hand. And "by Florida law, in any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living."

Zimmerman's trial bore a weight it could never carry. It was supposed to bring clarity and course to the events of that night, 18 months ago, when Zimmerman and Martin met in the dark and then things happened and then Zimmerman shot Martin and Martin died. But we'll never have real clarity on what happened that night. And there'll never be real closure, either. The legal system promises justice but demands evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt." When the truth of events can never be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the legal system can't deliver on its promise of justice.

Trials, Cohen writes, "are tiny slivers of the truth of the matter, the perspective as narrow as if you were staring at the horizon with blinders on, capable only of seeing what was not intentionally blocked from view."

But blinders can bring focus, too. Some of the issues driving the trial can be seen more clearly in its aftermath.

Florida's gun laws, for instance, makes cases like this one likely and even inevitable. Would Zimmerman have left his car and followed Martin without the comfort of the cold steel strapped to his body? It's unlikely. But Florida's laws are such that the kind of people who want to get out of their car and tail teenagers who scare them can carry guns when they do it, and Florida's laws are such that if there's then a confrontation and the gun goes off the person holding the gun is very likely to walk free.

And then there's the racial reality of the case. "The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty," writes Jelani Cobb. "It’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty."

"We can understand the verdict to mean validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were those of a reasonable man, that the conclusions he drew were sound, and that a black teenager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street," Cobb continues.

That might go a bit far. We can also understand the verdict as saying Zimmerman's guilt wasn't proven rather than that his actions were reasonable. But to understand the verdict as simply that is to ignore -- or will away -- everything around it, and everything before it, and everything that African-American men see in it, and what it says about how they have to act going forward.

When Gawker's Cord Jefferson was in college in Virginia, he and his girlfriend were parked in a hotel lot eating sandwiches. The security guard drove up and asked Jefferson's partner to step out of the vehicle. But she wasn't in trouble. She was just being checked up on. "Are you safe right now?" The guard asked.

It almost goes without saying that Jefferson is black and his girlfriend was white.

"It is a complicated thing to be young, black, and male in America," writes Jefferson. "Not only are you well aware that many people are afraid of you—you can see them clutching their purses or stiffening in their subway seats when you sit across from them—you must also remain conscious of the fact that people expect you to be apologetic for their fear."

During the trial, Martin's mother was asked by the defense whether she was avoiding the fact that Martin's actions could've contributed to his death. Perhaps if Martin had acted differently -- if he hadn't been scared or been angry, or if he'd turned around and smiled and spoken to Zimmerman in a voice that reminded Zimmerman of kids he knew and liked rather than kids he feared -- perhaps then, Martin would be alive today. Perhaps if he'd been quick enough and clearheaded enough to apologize for Zimmerman's fear the night would have all turned out fine. We can see that now, too, and it's an ugly thing to see.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 51. That's the number of votes Sen. Harry Reid would need to change Senate rules under the so-called "nuclear option" to change the rules on filibusters for presidential nominees under advise-and-consent.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: A map of Reddit.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) filibuster under threat; 2) from full-time to part-time; 3) the "puffery" defense; 4) immigration reform and trade; and 5) Zimmerman and civil-rights policy.

1) Top story: Standing at the "nuclear-option" brink

Reid confident he has the votes to trigger nuclear option in Senate. "After days of intense lobbying, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is confident he has enough votes to trigger the nuclear option to change the Senate’s rules...Reid expects to have at least 51 Democratic votes to prohibit Republicans from filibustering President Obama’s executive-branch nominees. Vice President Joe Biden could provide insurance by presiding over the chamber to break a tie vote." Alexander Bolton in The Hill.

Reid-McConnell clash latest evidence that genteel Senate has turned into a fight club. "The U.S. Senate, once considered the most exclusive and chummiest club in America, has in recent years been transformed into an ideological war zone, where comity and compromise have lost their allure, while confrontation and showmanship now pay big dividends...Reid’s move provoked some of the most personal attacks two Senate leaders have leveled against another in decades; Reid described McConnell as untrustworthy, while McConnell countered that the Nevada Democrat would go down in history as the worst Senate leader ever. Suddenly, the world’s greatest deliberative body just isn’t that much fun anymore." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

Reid-McConnell relationship reaches new low. "The tension is growing as McConnell emerges as one of the Democrats’ top targets in 2014 and as the two men collide over an unprecedented change to Senate filibuster rules. The ill will and bitter feelings have never been more intense nor meant more to the Senate, according to close confidants of the two party leaders." Manu Raju and John Bresnahan in Politico.

A GOP Senate now appears possible in 2014. "A Republican Senate in 2014 looked like a longshot after the GOP blew huge opportunities in North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana. But the GOP caught a huge break this morning, and a GOP Senate is looking like a realistic if still unlikely possibility—even without an anti-Democratic wave. The big news—perhaps the biggest Senate news of 2013—is that Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer decided not to run for Montana’s open Senate seat." Nate Cohn in The New Republic.

Music recommendations interlude: Beastie Boys, "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament."

Top op-eds

KRUGMAN: Hunger games, USA. "Something terrible has happened to the soul of the Republican Party. We’ve gone beyond bad economic doctrine. We’ve even gone beyond selfishness and special interests. At this point we’re talking about a state of mind that takes positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

STIGLITZ: How intellectual property reinforces inequality. "Economic power often speaks louder, though, than moral values; and in the many instances in which American corporate interests prevail in intellectual property rights, our policies help increase inequality abroad. In most countries, it’s much the same as in the United States: the lives of the poor are sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. But even in those where, say, the government would provide a test like Myriad’s at affordable prices for all, there is a cost: when a government pays monopoly prices for a medical test, it takes money away that could be spent for other lifesaving health expenditures." Joseph E. Stiglitz in The New York Times.

DOUTHAT: The House's immigration dilemma. "[A]s the Democrats have come to march in lock step on the issue — dropping the old union-populist skepticism of low-wage immigration in favor of liberal cosmopolitanism and Hispanic interest-group pandering — many of the country’s varying, conflicting opinions have ended up crowded inside the Republican Party’s tent." Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

DIONNE: Hillary Clinton and the quiet gender revolution. "Clinton’s gender is certainly relevant to the desire of so many who want her nominated. She would, indeed, appeal to women of diverse political views who want to break the presidential glass ceiling. But support for Clinton has at least as much to do with hard-core calculations that she could win because of her wide experience, her likely strength among working-class voters and her sheer endurance in the face of tests that few other politicians have had to confront." E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

SHILLER: Owning a home isn't always a virtue. "In today’s world, is it wise for the government to subsidize homeownership?...[T]here are also important practical advantages to renting to consider — especially when asking if government should support or discourage homeownership. For example, renters are more mobile. That means they are more likely to accept jobs in another city, or even on the other side of a large metropolis. In addition, it’s hardly wise to put all of one’s life savings into a single, highly leveraged investment." Robert J. Shiller in The New York Times.

TV interlude: KTVU, NTSB, and a whole lot of 'splainin' to do.

2) Will Obamacare turn full-time jobs into part-time ones?

Restaurants replace full-timers with part-timers. "Views differ on exactly what is driving the hospitality industry's pickup. Other factors likely also were behind it, including the addition of new restaurants as well as a move to staff up hiring after scaling back during the downturn, according to some restaurant owners and industry experts. But a number of restaurants and other low-wage employers say they are increasing their staffs by hiring more part-time workers to reduce reliance on full-timers before the health-care law takes effect." Julie Jargon, Brenda Cronin and Sarah E. Needleman in The Wall Street Journal.

Slowdown in health spending could be at risk. "Helped by lower drug prices, the Labor Department's index for consumer medical costs fell a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in May, the latest data available, from the month before, the first drop in almost four decades. A Kaiser Family Foundation report attributed three-quarters of the slower growth in health-care spending to the recession damping demand for drugs, doctor visits and elective surgeries and cautioned that spending could soar again as the economy strengthens." Melinda Beck in The Wall Street Journal.

Little understanding of health-care law opens door for scams, government says. "If a stranger claiming to be from the government calls to offer you an “Obamacare card” or threatens to throw you in jail unless you buy insurance, hang up the phone. It’s a scam. Fraudsters are poised to take advantage of widespread confusion over the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — to steal Americans’ credit cards, Social Security numbers and other personal information, consumer advocates and government officials say." McClatchy.

Texas abortion backers mull options. "Opponents of a Texas bill to tighten abortion regulations said they are considering legal options to challenge the legislation after state senators cleared the measure late Friday in a special session...The bill would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in most cases, down from the current 24 weeks. That would add Texas to a list of about a dozen other states with a similar cutoff. The bill also would impose strict new medical requirements on abortion providers." Caroline Porter in The Wall Street Journal.

Reid open to vote on 20-week abortion ban. "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Sunday that he was open to allowing a vote on a House bill that would ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. But he also suggested Congress shouldn’t be focusing on such “fringe issues.”" Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Why abortion isn't like other issues. "On abortion rights, both parties have a claim on public opinion. Maybe more to the point, both can make a strong case that the other party has an extreme view. Abortion is the relatively rare issue in which the cliché is true: public opinion does actually rest about midway between the parties’ platforms. As a result, abortion occupies a different place in the Republicans’ continuing struggle about whether and how to modernize their party." David Leonhardt in The New York Times.

Awesome interlude: The first things ever on major websites (the first YouTube video, for example).

3) 'Puffery' might not cut it for ratings agencies

The feds are finally cracking down on ratings agencies. What took so long? "Last week saw the first hearing in the U.S. government’s court case attempting to hold ratings agencies accountable for their role in the financial crisis. Reforming the ratings agencies has turned out to be a difficult process. One would think that such an obvious institutional failure should prompt quick and definitive reform, not just from the government but also from the private sector. But that hasn’t happened." Mike Konczal in The Washington Post.

US delays rollout of offshore tax dragnets. "The Treasury Department said it would delay for six months the implementation of a global regulatory system that aims to make it harder for Americans to hide money offshore. The change means that central provisions of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act will go into effect in July 2014. FATCA requires financial institutions in other countries to provide information to the U.S. government about accounts held by U.S. citizens." John D. McKinnon and Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: Key economic data coming this week. Amrita Jayakumar in The Washington Post.

Tame inflation also has some drawbacks. "At least one threat to the Fed's largess continuing—inflation—is well in check. June's consumer-price index reading, due Tuesday, may rise to 1.6% year over year, from 1.1% two months previously. But it is unlikely to go much beyond that in coming months and remains historically low. While tame prices avoid spooking the Fed, freeing it to consider factors such as unemployment, they may be too subdued. Rising prices boost companies' top lines and, ultimately, profits. That is needed to underpin stock gains." Spencer Jakab in The Wall Street Journal.

Banks cautious as profits rise. "Two of the nation's largest banks reported better-than-expected profits Friday, but executives warned that mortgage lending could drop in the second half of 2013 if interest rates stay elevated...Both banks said they could benefit from higher interest rates once they are able to widen the gap between banks' cost of borrowing and income from lending. Yet such a shift wasn't evident in the second-quarter results." Dan Fitzpatrick and Shayndi Raice in The Wall Street Journal.

Business confidence declines in survey. "Of 11,000 manufacturers and services providers in 17 countries surveyed between June 12 and 26, the proportion expecting an increase in activity over the coming 12 months exceeded the proportion expecting a decline by 30 percentage points—down from 39 percentage points in February, data-analysis firm Markit said. The slipping business confidence is the latest indication that there is unlikely to be a substantial pickup in global economic activity this year." Paul Hannon in The Wall Street Journal.

Down with price tags! Here’s how to profit when people pay what they want. "Last week saw the end of an ambitious experiment: Panera Bread’s pay-what-you-want turkey chili, which the sandwich chain started offering at 48 St. Louis-area stores to raise awareness of food insecurity and offer meals to the needy. Customers could pay the $5.89 “suggested” price, or more or less, or nothing. After an initial burst of interest in March, company executives said that customers just stopped realizing the option existed, and they pulled the option for “retooling.”" Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post.

The Internet is a tad obsessive interlude: Photographs of clocks at every minute of the day.

4) Immigration reform update

Immigration security may hurt US-Mexico trade flow. "These lawmakers, whose districts tilt more Democratic and Hispanic than many others in border states, worry that a crackdown, and the tone of debate surrounding it, will alienate Mexico, one of the country's most important trading partners. They argue that instead of pumping billions of dollars into efforts that they say would militarize the border, the government could divert some of that money to make legal crossings easier and cut down on delays at land crossings, which they say create a drag on the economy." Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

Republicans, after employer-mandate delay, now say they fear Obama will just choose not to enforce border security in reform. "Congressional Republicans pressed ahead Sunday with their emerging stance on immigration reform, arguing President Obama delaying the implementation of his health care law raises major concerns about whether he’ll enforce border security measures in immigration laws...House Republicans appeared to emerge with the new strategy after a closed-door meeting Wednesday, which was preceded by the Obama administration saying earlier this month that it will delay the start of the so-called employer mandate part of the president’s signature health care law until after the 2014 elections." Fox News.

Primary source: President wades into immigration-reform debate in weekly address.

Explosions interlude: Gas tanks.

5) Civil-rights policy after Zimmerman

Zimmerman not-guilty verdict unlikely to be the end of Trayvon Martin saga in court. "The not-guilty verdict that sounded so final, so utterly unequivocal, in Courtroom 5D of the Seminole County courthouse Saturday night has quickly given way to a kaleidoscope of demonstrations across the country, debate about wrongful-death lawsuits and Web-site-crashing demands for the filing of federal civil rights charges...Within hours of the petition’s debut, the Justice Department released a statement saying its civil rights division still had an open investigation into Martin’s death, dating back more than a year." Manuel Roig-Franzia in The Washington Post.

What a hate crime inquiry will need. "The department sets a high bar for such a prosecution. Three former Justice Department officials who once worked in the department’s Civil Rights Division, which is handling the inquiry, said Sunday that the federal government must clear a series of difficult legal hurdles before it could move to indict Mr. Zimmerman...“The government has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind” to violate Mr. Martin’s civil rights." Eric Lipton in The New York Times.

Primary source: The President's statement.

Anger flows at acquittal of George Zimmerman in death of Trayvon Martin. "George Zimmerman’s acquittal Saturday night on all charges in the killing of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, sparked deep emotional reactions across the country Sunday, resurrecting an intense national debate about the role of race and racism in American life. President Obama declared Martin’s killing an American tragedy but called for calm." Carol D. Leonnig and Jenna Johnson in The Washington Post.

COATES: On the killing. "I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses." Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Down with price tags! Here’s how to profit when people pay what they wantLydia DePillis.

When the Senate gun control bill died, so did the storyDanny Hayes.

The feds are finally cracking down on ratings agencies. What took so longMike Konczal.

When the Senate gun control bill died, so did the storyDanny Hayes.

‘They could have killed me very easily’: One Colombian mayor’s fight against homicideHarold Pollack.

When space weather attacksBrad Plumer.

Et Cetera

Monday longread: "The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible," a profile of John Boehner, by Jennifer Senior. New York Magazine.

Ideas to bolster power grid run up against system's many ownersMatthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

For NSA chief, terrorist threat drives passion to ‘collect it all,’ observers sayEllen Nakashima and Joby Warrick in The Washington Post.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Lydia DePillis · July 14, 2013