Should The USA Eliminate Tuition?

I just published a piece at Quillette on my experience within Germany’s tuition-free university system. A sample:

Yet the tuition-free system also has disadvantages. The first difference an American will notice is that most German universities look dingy and threadbare. Many were erected hastily in the 1960s and 1970s to house new students brought in by liberalizing reforms, and these cheap, poorly maintained structures are notoriously ugly (a German magazine recently ran a feature on “German Universities Ranked by Ugliness”). Most classrooms still feature rigid wooden or metal desks bolted into rows. Wireless coverage, library stocks, laboratory gear and classroom A/V equipment lag far behind the average American state university. It’s still possible to arrive to give a lecture and find an overhead projector awaiting your transparencies. Professors’ salaries are much lower than in the United States, and Germany’s problem with “adjunctification” and precarious conditions for aspiring scholars (known by the German neologism Prekarisierung) is becoming as urgent as it is in the United States.

This bare-bones regime also dominates student life and counseling. German universities are sink-or-swim: if you have scholarly or personal problems while studying, help will come only from overburdened counselors with hundreds of cases, or from student volunteers. Along with lax admissions standards, this fact helps explain the high dropout rates; one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree, as compared to 46.4 percent of Americans (although classification issues mean these numbers must be handled with care). This chronic lack of resources—in addition to the understandable fact that many outstanding German scholars publish in German—also helps explain why German universities punch below their weight in international rankings, a topic of obsessive concern to German politicians.

American college tuition is often obscenely high, but I don’t think the answer is abolishing tuition entirely, just as the answer to housing shortages isn’t to abolish rent entirely. Moderation in all things!

Sweden, Social Trust, Clans, and Crime

Over at Quillette, Paulina Neuding interviews an Mark Weiner, an American law professor, expert on clan-based societies, and volunteer paramedic on his impressions of Sweden:

Paulina Neuding: Sweden has experienced a rise in violence against first responders in recent decades, including rock throwing against paramedics in the country’s “vulnerable areas.” How do you explain this phenomenon?

Mark S. Weiner: The easy answer is that Sweden has a growing population of alienated young men, and ambulances are representatives of social and government authority. If I were a second-generation Swedish boy with an immigrant background living in an outlying suburb and experiencing the growing contradictions of Swedish society, I might be tempted to throw a stone at anything with lights and sirens.

And then I have a suspicion that some immigrants may perceive the ambulance service in Sweden through the lens of what EMS meant for them back home. In many countries, ambulance services are much less skilled than in Sweden, and they may have different institutional relationships with the police, for instance whether or not they are required to report crime. I also wonder if the way that immigrants view the ambulance service here may have been influenced by their experience with public authority in general in their countries of origin.

The country has a high-level ambulance service, a major tradition of academic medicine, and rapidly-shifting demography. But at the moment it will be hindered from doing so by the impermissibility of collecting statistics on the basis of race and ethnicity, and by the discomfort many Swedes have in talking about cultural differences.

PN: Let’s go back to your main field of study: What is clan culture and in what parts of the world can it be observed?

MW: What I call the “rule of the clan” is a form of socio-legal order that links radical constitutional decentralization to extended kin groups, or associations of fictive kinship, with a culture of group honor and shame. It tends to exist under conditions in which modern central government is weak, because in the absence of effective government, family groups and other collective actors tend to fill the remaining vacuum of power. You can broadly contrast the rule of the clan with societies governed by the liberal rule of law, which have modern government arrangements—for instance, professional, bureaucratic, neutral administration—and which take the individual as their constitutive unit, seeking to maximize individual autonomy along a variety of measures.

The rule of the clan exists along a spectrum. It’s at the core of very traditional communities that we commonly call tribal. It exists in the midst of more advanced but still incomplete or weak states, for instance in parts of the Philippines or Albania. It thrives alongside and often captures developing states, for instance under the Palestinian Authority or in former Soviet central Asia, where it sometimes goes under the name of “clannism,” to use a term from the 2004 U.N. Arab Human Development Report. And it’s present even within modern liberal democracies. Inner-city gangs act a great deal like traditional clans, especially in their feuding patterns—though of course not in their dedication to unlawful activity. Major corporations today likewise threaten to take on certain characteristics of post-modern clannism….

PN: Honor violence is a fairly recent phenomenon in Europe that has received a lot of attention in the past few decades. You say that we cannot understand honor violence without fully understanding clan culture?

MW: Such violence doesn’t grow out of individualism. It arises from a group-based culture in which people’s ability to work their will in the world is dependent upon the relative social worth or honor of their extended kin, and it’s linked in turn to a group-based socio-legal structure. Within that structure, honor violence makes sense—it has its own rationality, just like the reciprocal tit-for-tat of the blood feud. That doesn’t make it any less abhorrent from my perspective, but if you’re going to prevent the practice, it’s essential to appreciate what it represents….

Rinkeby looked a lot like many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where I grew up, and I’m looking forward to spending more time there. They certainly don’t look like “bad” neighborhoods as you’d expect them in the United States—though the only times I’ve visited with either the ambulance service or on my own have been during the day. In a Somali neighborhood in Gothenburg I walked into a bazar with a burly Swedish police officer whom everyone treated like a long-lost brother.

But statistics tell a different story about crime, and about political radicalization, as do newspaper reports about grenades and the new high-level trauma gear that I saw in the back of a Stockholm ambulance. And some things about these neighborhoods were really concerning. For one, their architecture. They seem designed to be alienating and depressing, but then that’s the case for a lot of Swedish housing. Also, although socially vulnerable neighborhoods are troubled by definition, I never saw a single police officer walking the beat. That probably hurts the vast majority of law-abiding community members who deserve public support. Finally, unlike in the United States these neighborhoods are very easy to ignore.

PN: Let’s talk about the “the Nordic gold”—i.e. high levels of trust between individuals, and between the public and the state. Is this something that you’ve experienced first-hand during your time in Scandinavia?

MW: Absolutely—it’s incredible, at both an interpersonal and social level. There’s just a lot less mutual wariness, conflict and friction than in the United States. If you’re at a dinner table in Sweden with people you don’t know, but to whom you’ve been introduced by a friend, the sense of being part of an in-group is deeply palpable, and very nice. I can’t tell you how many times people here have invited me and my wife to their summer homes on first acquaintance, or even to use them while they’re away. And the comparative lack of crime and the comfort people have in public places is wonderful. I suspect that at least aspects of this social trust were historically dependent on Sweden’s ethnic homogeneity, just as the greater social disorder in America stems partly from its pluralism. The trick for Sweden will be to maintain its high levels of social trust under its new demographic circumstances, which is one reason why I’ve advocated that Swedes embrace a thicker sense of national identity—one that’s as robust as it is inclusive….

PN: Finally, you define yourself as a liberal, and you also volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign during the presidential election. Is there a right-left divide when it comes to the willingness to speak about problems of multiculturalism, such as clashes between individualist and clan-based norms?

MW: My experience has been that I have much freer, more open and genuinely inquisitive conversations with intellectuals on the center-right than on the left in Sweden—and I’m eager to talk with absolutely anyone and everyone I can.

My concern is that the left here is closing itself off, and that its resistance to thinking about cultural differences is a progressive parallel to right-wing climate change denial and that it could eventually eat it intellectually from inside. I have the sad impression that public thinking on the left here is ossifying, which would be terrible for everyone, on the right as much as the left.

I like Weiner’s balanced, earnest tone. He touches on many themes I’ve addressed in this blog, such as social trust, the clan mentality of many immigrants, and the European left’s callow dishonesty when it comes to immigration debates. Wiener also notes something that strikes many Americans as strange and suspicious: the refusal to collect statistics by ethnicity. The consensus behind this see-no-evil hear-no-evil policy is breaking down, but the taboo still remains, and there are forces on the left still eager to enforce it.

I think Weiner’s take is too optimistic, though. He’s right that immigrant-heavy neighborhoods are not particularly dangerous in comparison to poor American neighborhoods (the main difference being cheap, omnipresent, illegal handguns and drugs). But the few statistics that do reveal ethnicity show European immigrants, on average, doing poorly in comparison to people of the native ethnicity. Gains are slow, and there’s still much ground to cover.

Clan-based criminality is notoriously hard to eliminate, and no legal system of any European state — much less the lenient, rehabilitation-oriented, consensus-based justice systems of Northwest Europe — has the tools necessary to make a dent in it. The only way to effectively destroy clan-based criminal structures is to get insiders to betray the clans and furnish reliable, admissible evidence to the authorities. And for that to happen you need criminal sentences which are (1) more intimidating than the clan punishment for betrayal, and (2) a sophisticated and effective system for keeping the identity of informants secret. No Northern European justice system has anything like these tools at its disposal.

Which all goes to show nations need to take care about whom they let in. And why they need to take a very close look at their “family reunification” immigration policies. Both Sweden and Germany screwed up on both points in the past, and are living with the consequences today.

The Bielefeld Sandwich Poisoner and the Meaning of “Especially Culpable”

One of the strangest cases in modern German crime has just ended in a life sentence (g) for the defendant, Klaus O. Klaus was a metalworker in a medium-sized firm near Bielefeld. He’d worked there for 38 years.

A few years ago, people at the firm started falling seriously ill for unknown reasons. They had been poisoned by substances such as lead acetate. One was left in a coma, others with permanent kidney damage requiring dialysis.

One of Klaus’ co-worker noticed a suspicious white substance on his sandwich. He advised the firm management, which installed a security camera. The camera caught Klaus O. poisoning his colleagues’ lunches. The authorities suspect he poisoned up to 21 people.

Klaus never made a statement to the authorities, and never revealed his motive. He seemed to have chosen his victims more or less at random, and there was no evidence he had grudges against them. A psychiatrist appointed by the court to evaluate him said his attitude was like a scientist conducting “experiments”. The Bielefeld Regional Court sentenced Klaus to life in prison for attempted murder and a series of other crimes. The Court also made a special finding that he was ‘especially culpable’.

To understand why this is important, we need to go in to German sentencing law. In Germany, ‘life’ in prison is a specialized legal term. In 1977, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany handed down the Life Imprisonment decision (g). The Court held that a life sentence was constitutional under German law, but that, to respect human dignity, a prisoner sentenced to life must always retain some chance of being released at some time. So absolute life without parole is unconstitutional.

The German parliament eventually created a new system of punishment to implement the Court’s decision. The law now provides that someone sentenced to life in prison must be considered for parole after serving 15 years of their sentence, and parole should ordinarily be granted if, after serving that time, there is a “favorable prognosis” for the defendant to be re-integrated into society. However, this rule can be superseded if the trial court finds that the defendant’s actions showed a “special” or “unusual” level of culpability (besondere Schwere der Schuld, literally: An unusually heavy load of guilt). According to a recent decision (g) of the Federal Supreme court of Justice, a finding of special culpability “requires that the overall context of the crime, including the personality of the offender, deviates so far from the court’s experience of ordinary murder cases that the release of the prisoner on parole after the minimum of fifteen years appears inappropriate, even if the defendant has received a positive prognosis.”

The Bielefeld court went even further, though, and entered findings which can later be used to impose post-sentence protective custody (Sicherungsverwahrung). This allows offenders who have served their official prison sentence to be kept in secured ‘treatment’ facilities if a court finds that they have “a tendency to commit serious crimes which pose a threat to the community.” Formerly, German courts could order this sort of preventive detention when an offender was about to be released from prison, even if nobody had raised the possibility of preventive detention when the offender was initially sentenced for his crime. The law allowing “retroactive” preventive detention was then successfully challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, triggering a series of German court decisions and legal reforms, as the Strasbourg Observer blog notes:

Since 2009, the European Court had to examine in several cases the compatibility of German legislation on detention of serious criminal offenders for preventive purposes. In its judgment of M. v. Germany, the Strasbourg Court characterized it as a “penalty”, applying to it the guarantees of Articles 5 and 7 of the European Convention. The preventive detention must be regarded as a “penalty”, on the one hand because its aim is not only preventive but also punitive and, on the other, because of the gravity of the measure provided by the German Criminal Code. Following this judgment, and called by the Federal Constitutional Court to completely recast the system (see BVerfG, 4 May 2011, 2 BvR 2365/09, BVerfGE 128, 326), a new law has been adopted on 5 December 2012 (Gesetz zur bundesrechtlichen Umsetzung des Abstandsgebotes im Recht der Sicherungsverwahrung). It is in this context that in 2016, the Court rendered the Bergmann judgment, which constitutes a turning point in its position. This was the first case in which the Court examined the compatibility of the Convention with the new German legal framework on preventive detention. The Court stated that, since the measure is ordered for therapeutic purposes in respect of an applicant suffering from a mental illness, the nature and purpose of the measure change substantially, to the point of no longer as amounting to a “penalty” (para. 182). Preventive detention is therefore exempt from the guarantees of Articles 5 (1) and 7 of the Convention.

To sum up the current state of the law in plain(er) English, German courts can still order offenders detained after they have served their official prison sentence, as long as (1) the court which handed down the initial sentence enters a finding that preventive detention may later be necessary; and (2) preventive detention after sentence is done for therapeutic purposes instead of punishment and conditions in detention are sufficiently “distanced” from ordinary prison confinement (Abstandsgebot).

Germany’s laws on preventive detention are controversial, as the judicial back-and-forth described above makes clear. However, the question is: what are the alternatives for protecting society from especially dangerous people? The most lenient approach is to simply release them after a fixed term, and accept the fact that some offenders (not that many) will commit fresh crimes. The American approach is to hand down either death sentences or life-without-parole sentences which afford prisoners no hope of release at all, no matter how much they change while incarcerated. The German system represents a middle-ground: Monitor how the offender does in prison, and then decide, shortly before release, whether to confine him afterward for “therapeutic” purposes.

In any case, the Bielefeld sandwich poisoner received the highest penalty allowed by German law: After serving 15 years of his sentence, he will not be immediately parole-eligible. The court will assign an additional period of parole ineligibility. And even after he serves out the additional period of parole-ineligibility, he may be kept in preventive detention. Given his age, then, Klaus will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.