For an actual, functioning version of the “viz”, go to Tableau Public
Is the Republican Party the party of fiscal conservatives? Maybe, but it’s hard to make that argument as long as they deify Ronald Reagan. President Obama certainly ballooned the deficit, but it wasn’t unprecedented if one looks at an exponential trendline. The fact that the debt is growing roughly exponentially is truly horrifying, but let’s take it for what it is. It’s also worth noting that the deficits seem to abate near an election year.
President Obama introduced unprecedented (in terms of unadjusted and adjusted raw numbers) deficits, which goes a long ways to explaining the tea party.
More details and visualizations available at my Tableau Public profile.
Recently, I wrote a letter to my representatives. Rep. Mark Pocan (2nd District of Wisconsin, including Madison) gave the below reply. In response, I send the following note.
Also worthy of note: Sen. Tammy Baldwin also replied; Sen. Ron Johnson did not.
Thank you for contacting me to express your support for clean energy and environmental conservation. I value your opinions and appreciate you taking the time to write me.
I share your strong commitment to preserving our natural habitats and keeping our lakes and waterways clean. The Second District is filled with beautiful state parks including Devil’s Lake in Sauk County, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, and the Ice Age Trail in Dane County. We must bolster our outdoor economy and environmental tourism in the Second District by bringing communities together in the conservation process. Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers and streams have vital economic and cultural importance.
Like you, I recognize climate change represents one of the greatest threats to our country and our planet. Increasing carbon levels in our atmosphere, if allowed to continue unchecked, carry dire consequences for the future of our planet. I believe one of the best ways to preserve our environment is to invest in clean energy capabilities. If we make these investments in the short term we can ultimately make our energy use more efficient, giving American families and businesses opportunities to save money on energy usage. We must modernize our energy technology through research and development of new technologies, so that we continue to create and manufacture goods while reducing harmful pollution and saving consumers money.
In the Second District, we have already begun to take these types of proactive steps. In recent years, small businesses that sell wind turbines and solar panels have been increasingly successful in our communities. I hope growing awareness regarding the cost-savings in renewable energy will continue to benefit small businesses that support a clean environment.
We must also preserve our environment and wildlife species by strengthening measures to protect these natural habitats and public lands. I strongly oppose efforts to weaken environmental conservation standards, including measures to undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and place burdensome requirements on the Fish and Wildlife Service. With so many species of plants and animals on the verge of extinction, we cannot afford to weaken these established protections.
As a member of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, the House Safe Climate Caucus, and the Animal Protection Caucus, I will advocate for policies that protect our wildlife and promote investments in the research and development of sustainable, clean, and renewable energy. Throughout my time in Congress, I have consistently supported environmental protection legislation and worked to close loopholes which allow corporations to pollute our environment without facing any consequences. I strongly believe we must protect our natural resources, including federal lands. You may be interested to know that I introduced the Protect Our Public Lands Act, H.R. 1902, which bans hydraulic fracturing on federally owned public lands. There are many steps Congress can take to ensure our natural resources are protected and preserved for generations to come. Please know that I will keep your thoughts in mind as I continue to work in support of clean energy and environmental conservation.
Dear Representative Pocan:
Recently, I contacted you about my concerns regarding HR 1430 and the state of Science in today’s political climate and discourse. You replied with a thoughtful letter about the importance of finding 21st century energy solutions and combatting climate change. I appreciate your letter, and fully agree with the points you made. As a result, I will consider voting for you this November (full disclosure: I have not voted for you in the past, either because you were unopposed or because I voted 3rd party).
However, your letter failed to address my key concerns with HR 1430.
I recognize climate change as an important–arguably the most important–issue facing the future of our country and even the human race. But I’m more concerned about how we approach this issue; the Republican claims that climate regulations will in hurt jobs are not unreasonable in many cases. I believe we must approach climate change in an evidence based-based manner, and my concern with HR1430 is not that is anti-environment (though it is and that does concern me), but rather that it is fundamentally anti-scientific.
My exhortation for you is to not just propose bills that better the environment, but to propose bills that promote Science and evidence-based policy. Furthermore, I would like your input on how I, as a citizen, can support the cause of Science, Evidence, and Objective Truth in today’s political climate.
Thank you for considering this,
– The Tattooed Economist [I gave my real name in the letter]
I will absolutely post any germane response to this blog, if a truly relevant response arrives.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, Evangelical and Republican political analyst Michael Gerson laid out the history behind a conundrum: “One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics […] is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump.” The piece is excellent, and you should all go read it. Mr. Gerson’s motivation for writing this article was to attempt to save the word “evangelical” because “some words, like strategic castles, are worth defending, and evangelical is among them.”
In this post, I would like to offer why I disagree with that sentiment. This is far from a rebuttal of Mr. Gerson, but rather additional context and history, albeit history that is less well organized than Gerson’s, surrounding my view of words more generally. I also want to expound on some points Gerson approaches, but doesn’t elucidate, regarding evangelicals today. This will be a much less cohesive/organized post than many, but this is just where my brain is right now.
If Donald Trump is good at one thing, it’s pandering to people who feel left behind or repressed. Trump’s abrasive rhetoric of blaming others endeared him most notably to white men with lower levels of education in rural areas. In other words: the people who feel left behind or ignored by the rest of the country. Likewise, he appealed to manufacturing workers who want to blame hispanics for taking their jobs, rather than acknowledging that their jobs are obsolete. And so too Evangelicals, who feel oppressed by a dissolute culture that views them as old fashioned hypocrites. For that last group, it’s worth quoting Gerson at length:
Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”
After falling from their position as the leaders of the Abolitionists to sidelined for the civil rights movement, the Evangelical Church became more and more passe as a cultural force. But far from obsolete, there’s still a strong “good old days” fallacy amongst people who still call themselves Evangelicals–yearning for the days when America was more moral; back when the Church had more influence on civic life. This fallacy made them prime targets for Trump’s manipulation.
Anyone who thinks most Bible-thumping politicians like Roy Moore are Evangelicals by belief structure–that is, he believes in a saviour who wants to form a personal relationship with him to transform his life–is probably kidding herself, but Moore is one of many in a long line of politicians who have learned how to say the right things about hot-button issues to rally the evangelical vote. How else can you explain how white Evangelicals are more similarly distributed to NRA conservatives than the general population with regard to gun control? Don’t get me wrong: Evangelicals are decisively more open to, and in some cases in favor of, more gun regulation than the NRA, but less so than one might expect the “pro-life ethos” would demand. (Christianity Today did a good summary of Pew Research outlining these statistics). And this is because politics have made strange bedfellows between groups with different aims coming from the same motivation: both the NRA and Evangelicals don’t like government intrusion on their rights, but are perfectly fine having the government intrude on others’ rights on their behalf. They found common ground in this regard, and made a political alliance.
The US doesn’t have a parliamentary system formed on party alliances, so we just have single issue voters coalescing into a political party with a full platform where no one in the party cares about more than a couple of the issues in that platform. Thus we have today’s Republican party, which blends economic conservatives, social conservatives, and xenophobic nationalists into a weird, incongruous amalgamation.
This strange Republican coalition not surprisingly–nay, inevitably–leads to a fair bit of of criticism of Evangelicals. As a result of their political alliances, Evangelicals have internalized–and to some degree spiritualized–the political priorities of their allies like the NRA and fiscal conservatives. This results in a fair bit of hypocrisy on the part of the Religious Right: rather than championing social justice–a very prevalent theme in the Bible, particularly the minor prophets–Evangelicals are seen as a repressive force, lumped in with crazies like Westboro Baptist “Church” (I use scarequotes because I believe them to be more of a cult than a Church). Some of this criticism deserved, like Evangelicals’ undue emphasis on anti-LGBTQ policies–homosexuality may be Biblically questionable, but the fact that all people are made in the Image of God is not. Some of it is undeserved, or at least exaggerated, like the criticism that all Christians are illogical and anti-scientific–for example, in the introduction to his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins equated religion with severe mental illness by saying he and his psychologist friends had talked about classifying a belief in God or miracles as a “Religious Delusion” or “Relusion” (though to be fair to psychologists, this definition of “Religious Delusion” is only held by a small minority of psychologists).
And some of the “oppression” itself is hypocritically misperceived.
Ironically, this leads to a similar phenomenon as perceived microaggressions that most religious right conservatives bristle at. Evangelicals are often quick to point out oppressions that I would call fake microaggressions or overreactions. Microaggressions are “the casual degradation of any marginalized group” (thank-you Wikipedia) and they are real, largely in the form of assuming and acting upon racial stereotypes. However, many hyper-liberals have taken the term way too far. For example, it’s not (or at least shouldn’t be) a microaggression for a white person to ask a black person about his/her hair. If us white folks aren’t allowed to earnestly ask about literally surface level differences between races, then how can we expect/hope to have a deeper discussion about the types of systemic racism African Americans face? I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but I think any African American who has interpreted “can I feel your hair?” as a microaggression is probably overreacting (though I say “probably,” because it’s not inconceivable that the context was such that this was a microaggression, I just find that possible context improbable) Some microaggressions are real, but many are either people being overly sensitive or people just being jerks with no larger narrative… because all people are sometimes jerks.
Similarly, when alleged Evangelicals on Fox News decry “the War on Christmas” as somehow part of a wider conspiracy to discriminate against Christians, I call BS: Fake Microaggression. The phenomenon of using the phrase “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” makes for an easy, almost cheapshot, example of perceived-but-fake microaggression, but there are plenty of other fake and real microaggressions leveled at Evangelicals: assuming they hate homosexuals (possibly a real microaggression, more likely a justified question), assuming they’re no fun (real microaggression), sexually provocative ads because “sex sells” (fake microaggression), not requiring Creationism be taught in science class (fake microagression), accusing them of misogyny (possibly a justified question, probably a microaggression), atheists existing (fake microaggression), blaming most wars throughout post-Roman history on Religion (false, but also a real microaggression).
These microaggressions–some as a result of hypocrisy, some real, and some fake–then breed a victim complex. Sometimes, this perceived victimization is justified theologically: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated [Jesus Christ] first” (John 15:18). Being mocked for religious beliefs gets interpreted as being mocked for Christ’s sake, which is a sort of badge of honor, vindicating the underlying behavior. This may very well be true in some cases, but like “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:19), I believe this passage is used to justify behavior that Jesus himself would not endorse, like being a sanctimonious jerk who belittles non-Christians.
There certainly is a time and place for Christians to be counter-cultural and criticize the Zeitgeist, even when it makes them unpopular. The Evangelical-led Abolitionist movement comes to mind as a shining example of doing this correctly. But there is also a time for Christians to take criticisms seriously, and re-evaluate whether they are behaving in a Christ-like manner. Overliteral interpretations of the Bible and regarding it as a literal science textbook are a cause for criticism that should make Evangelicals give pause (note: there are theologically and scientifically reasonable arguments for Creationism, but I don’t believe most Creationists know or understand these arguments). From its inception, Christianity was counter-cultural by giving rights and dignity to Jews and Gentiles, Men and Women, Slave and Free (Galatians 3:28), which was a completely novel concept in the 1st century. In the 21st century, after more than a millennium of Judeo-Christian influence, it should be a given that the Christian response to cultural trends and norms should be very different than that of the first Christians. Forgetting that fact justifies avoiding introspection and self-evaluation. Neglecting those things tends to encourage the darker parts of human nature to grow in their influence, and makes people unreflective sanctimonious versions of what they could be, and those versions of ourselves usually really are worth hating, and that’s not persecution.
The above is a description of the type of person and worldview that the word “Evangelical” has come to describe for me. I recognize that the word has deep theological roots that go far beyond social constructions and connotations, but words change over time. The word “Liberal” has deep roots in the philosophical and political economy writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. In Europe, the word “Liberal” still largely refers to what Americans would call “Libertarian,” but in the United States, “Liberal” is more closely associated with the ideas of John Maynard Keynes than the ideas of Mill. As someone whose political views were heavily influenced by Mill and the intellectual tradition of Liberalism, this is a loss.
But it is also a sunk cost. The social lexicon is emergent, and it’s extremely difficult for any one individual, particularly one without a very loud social microphone, to change the definition of a word–at least one that has evolved organically. It’s true that people like Sarah Palin have redefined phrases like “End of Life Planning” in the social lexicon, but that phrase had a very specific definition in a fairly limited, technical context. Liberal and Evangelical are words whose meaning has evolved in a much broader context, so they aren’t as easy to reclaim. I wish that society’s dictionary would respect historical precedents and precision of language, but alas it does not.
Bringing things to a close, I wish I could call myself a Liberal, because my political views are very closely aligned to those of the Classical Liberals. But doing so would lead to all sorts of confusion, because I vehemently disagree with the Keynesian ideas and policy recommendations that form the basis of many “Liberal” ideas in modern America. Similarly, theologically, many of my beliefs are similar to those of 19th century Evangelicals like R. A. Torrey (albeit with a notable millennial bent). But most modern Evangelicals don’t know how Torrey was, much less read his writings. Words like Evangelical, Republican, Liberal, and even Democratic (capital or lowercase D?)–and many others that I won’t bring up for fear of distraction or tangent–all have rich histories, but they also have presents that deviate from those histories. Perhaps it’s time for a “rebirth” of the movement by its old name, and this period of time will be labeled something like “The Scandal Years” in future history textbooks and Wikipedia articles about these words.
Or perhaps it’s time to let the best parts of the movements and worldviews that these words once represented be revitalized under a new name.
Let the old name die, and the central idea live on, without the baggage the words have acquired over the years. Gerson isn’t necessarily wrong that some words are worth defending, but I would argue that a good general knows when a strategic castle is lost, and it’s futile and counterproductive to try to save them: reinforce the next castle; find the next word.
Dear Representative Pocan:
I am writing as one of your constituents to express my concerns with HR 1430, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 or the HONEST Act. This bill is based on a misunderstanding of science and sets an extremely narrow and unnecessary limit on the scientific evidence the EPA will accept.
President Trump and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director Scott Pruitt have both shown blatant disrespect and misunderstanding of how science is conducted. This bill nakedly uses the language of legitimate criticisms of aspects academic research to discredit the whole enterprise of scientific research, which is both ignorant and extremely disturbing when coming from the highest levels of government. This act is anything but “honest.”
The standards it sets for what research the EPA can use is “best available science, specifically identified, and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” This definition is both subjective in its use of “substantial,” and also unnecessarily excludes studies where the full dataset is not available to the general public. While I would love to see more datasets made available to the general public, forbidding the EPA from acting on evidence without published datasets is the wrong way to go about that and is another example of the present administration doing what is right for their favored political special interest groups rather than what empirical evidence suggests is the right way forward.
With that in mind, I would ask you, as my representative, to use your influence, vote, and voice in Congress to fight such ignorant approaches to science and environmental issues.
If Congress or Secretary Pruitt is truly concerned about the quality of published research and reproducibility of environmental science, I encourage Congress to give funding through the National Science Foundation and other grant programs to fund reproduction studies. Similarly, you could provide funding for pure data collection activities or public datasets that should be made permanently available on the EPA website. In the meantime, vote NO on HR 1430.
[The Tattooed Economist]
A while back, I wrote a letter to my federal, congressional representatives: Representative Mark Pocan (D), Senator Tammy Baldwin (D), and Senator Ron Johnson (R). I just got a response from Sen. Baldwin, which I’ve pasted below. There content is kind of insane, and I might comment on that later, but what is important to call out is that I got a response.
Rep Pocan has a checkbox option for “Do you want a response?” to which I said no.
Ron Johnson’s office sent me an automated email thanking me for my feedback.
Tammy Baldwin’s office sent me an automated email, and then took two weeks to write what appears to be at least a somewhat customized response.
I still haven’t heard a real response from Johnson.
Baldwin’s response uses Trump-level rhetoric about “China’s cheating” and a Marco Rubio-esque “people buy into my agenda” disregard for constituents, but she gave a response. The response was probably a staffer combining paragraphs from previous press releases that seem to be related to my letter, but that’s pretty great: it’s not just a stock letter (I assume, since it’s a little disjointed and repetitious).
I disagree with almost everything Baldwin (or at least her office) is claiming here, but I appreciate that one of her staffers took the time to try to help me hold her accountable.
So where’s Ron Johnson? If I get a letter from him, I’ll be sure to post it. But if I don’t, the impression he gives is that he’s more interested in his own Senatorial power than actually representing me, his constituent (who voted Libertarian in 2016) or acknowledging my concerns. And that’s how we move from a representative democracy to a senatorial oligarchy… or, as is the case with Sen. Johnson, to a rump senate who defers to an autocratic strongman who cares more about fame than power and cares more about power than doing what’s right.
Response from Senator Baldwin, in all it’s nebulous, anti-trade glory (emphasis and parentheticals mine):
Dear Mr. [Tattooed_Economist]:
Thank you for contacting me about trade policy. It is good to hear from you on this important issue.
In April 2017, President Trump signed executive orders directing the Secretary of Commerce to investigate whether steel and aluminum imports threaten our national security, as authorized under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. On March 8, 2018, President Trump signed orders imposing tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports.
I believe the best way to support Wisconsin workers is to put in place strong Buy America standards, renegotiate a better deal on NAFTA, and take on China’s cheating. The President’s announcement sends a strong message to bad actors like China on steel and aluminum. Further, as the nation’s leading paper producer, Wisconsin needs President Trump to do more to target China’s cheating—which has hurt our paper economy and led to layoffs (WTF?? Paper is hurt by China? Not digitalization?). Lastly, I called on President Trump to exempt our European trading partners if they commit to fighting China’s cheating (What is this “cheating”? But at least she’s calling for key exemptions)—we need to work together to ensure that Wisconsin’s manufacturing and farming economy isn’t hurt by these efforts (okay, but curbing trade is inherently harmful to the consumer, and both farmers and manufacturers are hurt more by automation and rent-seeking oligopolies than trade). I am pleased that United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer recently announced temporary exemptions for the EU and other countries as they negotiate with the United States.
In addition, on March 22, 2017, President Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, citing China’s thefts of American intellectual property (If IP is the reason for this, that’s fine, but Trump’s communication with the public suggests otherwise). I welcome the Trump Administration taking a targeted approach to China’s cheating. In this case, cracking down on China’s violation of intellectual property laws is something I support because the theft of American intellectual property threatens economic growth and American jobs.
Finally, on January 24, 2017, I sent a letter to President Trump outlining my trade and economic policy priorities. My letter emphasizes the need to take on unfair trade deals, fight against outsourcing, establish strong ‘Buy America’ rules and crack down on countries like China when they cheat American workers. I encourage you to access the full letter on my website at: https://www.baldwin.senate.gov/press-releases/trade-letter-trump.
Once again, thank you for contacting my office. It is important for me to hear from the people of Wisconsin on the issues, thoughts and concerns that matter most to you. If I can be of further assistance, please visit my website at www.baldwin.senate.gov for information on how to contact my office.
Thanks for reading,
The Tattooed Economist
The Ideal of Science is built on the ideas of falsification, unbiased testing and retesting hypotheses, replication, and skepticism towards novel results until a body of evidence coalesces around a repeated finding. There are a number of factors in both human nature and in the current state of academic research that deviate from this ideal, but on the whole, science, as conducted by humans and published in academic journals, is arguably the best tool we have for discovering the empirical realities around us. Most of the time.
Thanks to humanity’s love for controversy and surprising (even unbelievable) findings, which are compounded by the media’s reporting on scientific findings (especially social media), Science is also frighteningly easy to manipulate and falsify to serve the baser ends of individuals of low integrity. Thus we have the possibility that a single study biased by a pursuit of something other than the truth can do huge amounts of damage to society, and indeed human progress, if it comes first and is emotionally visceral enough.
In my research for the previous two posts I did about gun control, I found an interesting parallel that I wanted to share between gun violence research and vaccine research; specifically, the similarities between Andrew Wakefield and John Lott.
Wakefield was a British physician who published the first paper that alleged a causal link between the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) Vaccines and Autism in 1998. Rightly so, this paper caused a splash in both popular and academic circles, and numerous other researchers began looking to replicate the results and look for the causal mechanism between MMR vaccines and autism. As subsequent results started being published, the replicability of Wakefield’s findings started to come into question. This happens in science–particularly with publication bias in academic research, so there are lots of studies that end up not reproducing, and that’s just a part of science and why replication and repeated experiments are so important.
However, after a few years, it became apparent that Wakefield’s results might be more than just another study that got p<0.05 by random chance. An investigative journalist named Brian Deer began looking into the Wakefield study to see how a study that caused such a big splash had turned out to be false. Eventually it came out that Wakefield had intentionally fabricated the results of the study to discredit the MMR Vaccine because he had gotten a patent for his own measles vaccine, and his research was funded by lawyers trying to create evidence for a malpractice case. Eventually, his paper was withdrawn, and both the US and UK have barred Wakefield from practicing medicine (thus, he was a physician). He continues to give lectures and write articles (albeit not academic ones) for the anti-vaccine community about the dangers of MMR vaccines.
I wrote about Dr. Lott (he still has his PhD) a little bit in a previous post, but let’s recap a bit. Lott was an academic economist, and in 1997 he an a colleague published an article claiming that making concealed carry laws more accessible dramatically lowered the overall rate of crime. Just like Wakefield’s paper, this rightly caused a splash, and very quickly response articles started being published. Unlike investigating the link between MMR and Vaccines, the choices in how to tease out causation from a variety of correlations in econometric regressions is as much art as it is science, and complicated, uninterpretable models are not just possible, but often encouraged (whether explicitly in the name of “sophistication” or implicitly through publication bias). This is a problem for science generally, but more on topic, it also means that it’s very easy to make modeling choices that give the results you want, but don’t give a robust or reliable model.
Such was the case with Lott’s 1997 study. Subsequent reviews of his analysis found that his model was highly susceptible to outliers, didn’t account for other variables that have been plausibly connected to crime rates falling (many of these other factors are examined by Donahue and Levitt, which was republished in the popular book, Freakonomics), and generally was a pretty weak and biased article. As a result of his intransigence with regard to gun regulation in the face of mounting evidence, Lott has generally had a very hard time getting published or getting a reputable academic job for the last decade or so, and now he’s primarily a columnist for Fox News and the head of his own non-profit, the Crime Prevention Research Center.
Both Wakefield and Lott have been all but completely discredited within the wider academic community. This is how science and the marketplace of ideas more generally are supposed to work: if you publish a study that isn’t true, it won’t reproduce and a body of evidence will prove it false; if you refuse to accept the body of evidence that shows that your evidence is weak, mismanaged, or possibly fraudulent, then you don’t get a seat at the table anymore. (Note: there is a time and place for resisting the majority opinion, but both Wakefield and Lott have gone beyond reasonable levels of resistance to a level of either willful ignorance or nefarious intent.) The problem is that the wider academic community is boring and ignored by the general public, particularly the tweeting public, so these debunked “scientific studies” remain evidence for people who don’t care about the truth to use to sway people who don’t have the time or energy to adequately search for the truth.
Both studies have bodies of evidence disproving them. But they’ve both come and made a mark on the public debate. “More Guns, Less Crime” is not just the name of Lott’s book, it’s become a rallying cry for the NRA and the politicians they fund, despite being debunked. Concerns about vaccines are finally starting to shift away from autism, but people are still wary of them for ever-vaguer reasons. The media reports on shocking new findings, but they don’t loop back to cover the slow-building mountain of evidence, so it’s not that surprising that most people don’t know what the evidence really says–but that doesn’t stop them from thinking they know what it says, because they heard that one study on the media.
Human progress is at least tightly connected with scientific progress, if not predominantly driven by it. But when the scientific discourse gets distracted by debunking the work of unethical researchers, the opportunity cost is discourse that would advance society. When bullshit artists (e.g. lobbyists) have “scientific studies” to corroborate their side, observers understandably lose faith in “science,” further curtailing the ability of researchers to convert data into findings and those findings into meaningful steps forward.
In two fields we have the case that a single study got published and was debunked within 5 years, but went on to shape the public discussion on the topic for the next 20 years. That’s 15 years of discussions that would have been better spent discussing the next problem. In the case of vaccines, we spend so much time showing that MMR doesn’t cause autism, that not enough research is being done to prove that the current schedule of 6 vaccines at a time doesn’t have negative impacts for some subpopulations. For guns, we pit empirical evidence against the logic of deterrence rather than looking for ways to solve the real problems of balancing black markets with restrictive background checks and an inefficient, outdated reporting and background check system. But instead, we’re discussing closed questions, to the edification of no one.
I don’t have a solution here. I mostly wrote this because I thought it was an interesting parallel and I like sharing things I find interesting. But there is an exhortation here: don’t trust a single study, especially if it just came out. This is not to say we should assume all new studies are false or ignore them, but we should have a healthy level of skepticism. I know I’m guilty of this as well (even in this article I cite a news article referencing a “first-of-its-kind study”), but when a new study comes out, we should first evaluate the methodology, and then we should keep paying attention for a few years to see what kind of body of evidence builds up.
This is hard to do, and things that are hard to do rarely become social norms, but I’m hopeful that the renewed focus on “Fake” and “Truthful” news may have spillover effects into how we consume reporting on scientific studies (I have to be, otherwise this is all way too depressing). But that’s only going to be happen if we learn the lesson from these two papers and remember that a single paper does not a body of evidence make.
I promised a post comparing the academic fraud, public misinformation, and political intellectual manipulation found in vaccines and gun safety debates. That’s still coming. But due to recent events, my overall feeling of complete disenfranchisement and powerlessness within the political process, and sheer stupidity of our President, I was compelled to write my senators. Here’s my letter to Sen. Baldwin, who is up for election this year. I wrote similar letters to my other representatives at various levels of government.
Senator from Wisconsin, United States Congress
30 W Mifflin St
Madison, WI 53703
Dear Senator Baldwin:
I am writing as one of your constituents to express my concerns with the Trump administration’s recent moves towards tariffs, and the larger push towards economic protectionism and isolationism favored by the present administration. This position is similar to positions you have taken in the past, and I was disheartened by your tepid response to the President’s brash moves.
In numerous speeches and tweets, President Trump has suggested that the United States should alienate our trading partners and protect a small number of manufacturing workers–particularly in the steel and aluminium industries–at the expense of all American consumers. This focus on trade deficits and disregard for the unintended consequences of barriers to free trade displays a fundamental and dangerous lack of understanding of economics by the current administration. Economists of all political persuasions agree that free trade can cause harm for some individuals–particularly blue collar workers–but it ultimately benefits producers and consumers in all countries far more than it harms them.
With that in mind, I would ask you, as my representative, to use your influence, vote, and voice in Congress to fight draconian and ill-informed attacks on free trade such as tariffs, quotas, or any other policies that deter from humanity’s “natural propensity to truck, barter, and trade,” thereby harming American consumers and producers alike.
Instead of pretending we can stop the inexorable forces of globalization, competition, and trade, we should invest in workers who are displaced by free trade–offering them compensation for their dying industry in the form of skills training, extended unemployment benefits, and expanding similar programs.
Please work with other Democrats–and Republicans, who seem quite willing to oppose this policy–to fight the president on this. Help Americans lean into the benefits of globalization, while providing for those hurt most by the harms, rather than myopically running from it in the name of the harmed minority, thereby harming the majority.
The Tattooed Economist
(I used my real name in the real letter)
If you’re like me and like Free Trade (and I know you do because my reader base isn’t that big), please consider sending a letter like this to your representatives!
Disclaimer: I apologize to my virtually non-existent readers. I generally try to at least try to pay lip service to acknowledging the other side of whatever debate exists. But for this issue, the evidence is so overwhelmingly on one side that I can’t even pretend the NRA is anything less than an anti-democratic institution that falls so solidly on the Evil side of John Stewart’s Stupid vs. Evil question as to be a candidate for the antichrist, and my rhetoric will be both more black-and-white/polemic and crass/profane than normal.
In the wake of a mass shooting, like that which recently took place in Parkland, Florida, there’s a certain, disgusting predictability to the responses. More than any previous publicly touted mass shooting, my wife and I aren’t sad about it; we’re just pissed off at the bullshit responses from both the left and the right—though the right is clearly the bull with not just a lot of shit, but full blown diarrhea. Unlike after previous shootings, I’ve been just ignoring the news because I’m just sick of hearing the same tired platitudes. Though my wife, who has been continuing to pay attention assures me that those tired platitudes are still making the circuit just like they’re getting paid.
So when the overwhelming majority of Americans support some bare minimum of gun control—universal background checks, including at gun shows and, where possible, private sales—why hasn’t it happened? Tyranny of the passionate minority over the passive majority aside, what are the intellectual justifications that minority uses to invigorate their base and maintain a semblance of credibility with the general populace?
As far as I can tell, there are four main arguments against increasing gun control. In no particular order:
As a Classical Liberal (or Libertarian, for want of a better label) with a pretty cynical view of humanity, I’m pretty sympathetic to 3 out of 4 of these arguments. In the case of most regulation and consumer protections, these arguments would be enough to convince me that Uncle Sam is intent on micromanaging us into obscurity and our economic growth into annals of history. But in the case of gun control, the empirical evidence is so strong as to render the above arguments not just false, but ethically reprehensible. I’m going to take these four arguments one a time.
James Madison was a genius. However, in his INTP-ness he forgot to include enumerated rights in his constitution, so two years after the US Constitution was ratified, we got The Bill of Rights, an omnibus of 10 amendments explicitly granting a variety of liberal rights, ranging from not needing to quarter soldiers (3A) to, most germane here, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (emphasis mine).
Madison, Jefferson, Jay, Hamilton, and other Founding Fathers may have been ambitious geniuses, but they were still mortal men. The Constitution and the early precedents they set for legislation, executive privilege, jurisprudence, and general mos maiorum were forged in a specific time and place and within a particular context of politics, culture, and technology. Fortunately, these men were prescient enough to understand this fact, and built in a mechanism for altering the constitution. Among the more significant alterations to the Constitution as society changed are women’s right to vote, civil rights, presidential term limits, and, in fact, the freedom of speech and right to bear arms. In tandem with jurisprudence and Supreme Court precedents, the Constitution is, no matter what more conservative Justices may say, a very living and plastic document.
Given this context and relevant to this topic, I want to make a single rebuttal to the argument that we can’t have gun control because the Second Amendment obviates any attempts to regulate guns. Specifically, that rebuttal is that any argument that appeals to the Second Amendment as some sort of divine canon is a weak argument for weak-minded people. The Constitution is inherently meant to adapt to changing times, and correct itself when empirical evidence or technology makes such leaps or strides as to render constitutional precedent obsolete. For example, in 1933, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment, which created Prohibition. Based on the overwhelming empirical evidence that Prohibition was a colossal failure, FDR famously declared that “what America needs now is a drink.” We can, and should, change the constitution when situation necessitates.
Just like the 18th Amendment, the 2nd Amendment was not necessarily a bad idea, given contemporaneous societal pressure, but both of these amendments were written in a context that no longer applies. In the case of Prohibition, no one really anticipated the wealth to be made from bootlegging and the technological advancements that rendered the 18th Amendment doomed from the start (missing market failure). In the case of the 2nd amendment, none of its authors could have possibly imagined the technological changes that would change a “gun” from a muzzle loaded rifle firing one shot a minute to an assault rifle with a range of 1000 feet or more that can fire at 9 rounds per second (with a bump stock); such a deadly device was inconceivable at the time.
So to appeal to the Second Amendment or the Founding Fathers as a justification for preventing gun control is just fucking stupid. The Founding Fathers were geniuses, and as geniuses they accepted that conditions would change such that the documents they were writing should be changed to adapt to new technological advancements. To pretend that what they said is immutable canon is an insult to them. To appeal to their insights rather than empirical reality that modern guns are insanely dangerous is to admit that you don’t have original thought or argument and is a complete misunderstanding of the role of the constitution. Changing the constitution should not be taken lightly, but it should not not be taken. (Furthermore, though this extends beyond my single rebuttle, Justice Scalia wrote into Heller that gun regulation is constitutional and should be taken; he explicitly wrote that Heller was not intended nor should it be taken as the end of the conversation.)
This is just false. It’s like saying “you get thrown from the earth by centripetal force.” It’s not entirely outside the realm of hypothesis and postulation, but it’s empirically false, false, false.
The logic of this argument is pretty straightforward. Suppose an individual, Jimmy, is on the fence about staging a public shooting. If more people at a given event—a concert for example—have guns, then Jimmy is more likely to be killed before he has a chance to kill that many people. On the other hand, if guns are relatively difficult to come by through legal means and Jimmy has some (through legal or other means), then most people at this event will not be armed, which means Jimmy will be able to kill more people before he’s either shot by security, overwhelmed by masses rushing him, or runs out of ammunition. If access to weapons is lax and many people have guns, then Jimmy’s expected body count falls. If the number of expected deaths is less than some threshold Jimmy deems utility maximizing, then he will decide to forgo his postal expedition, thanks to the fact that someone in the crowd is likely to kill him before he can exact his desired body count.
It’s not an unreasonable line of reasoning. While it may be analogous to the idea that putting a giant spike in place of an airbag is the best way to prevent car accidents in that only an economist could think of it, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.
What does make it unequivocally wrong though is the data. Rowhani-Rahbar, et al find that about 21% of American handgun owners carry them loaded daily (35% carry them not loaded; presumably not on their person). This may sound like a lot, and it is, but this amounts to about 3 Million Americans, which is less than 1% of the population.
The argument that looser gun regulation has a deterrent effect on crime hinges on the idea that a would-be criminal will choose not to commit a crime because he or she believes that someone else in the area will have a gun and shoot him or her before the crime can be fully carried out. The problem with this argument is that the vast majority of handgun owners (~80%) don’t carry their guns regularly. So sure, if a would-be shooter thought that patrons of a nightclub were packing, s/he might look elsewhere to commit a crime. But the data don’t support the notion that more gun permits mean more “good guys” with guns in the places we need them. We would need a 5-fold increase in the number of gun owners to double the number of guns being regularly carried in public locations. The article says nothing about the nature of the public locations, but I suspect that nightclubs, concerts, and schools are not high on the list of places handgun owners carry their loaded weapons as a way to deter potential crime.
In other words, empirical data about how gun owners behave makes the claim that more gun owners deters would-be criminals highly dubious, to say nothing of the fact that gun owners themselves are a fairly small group who tend to own multiple—even dozens—of weapons, so loosening gun sales is unlikely to substantially increase the number of gun owners.
There was an academic in the mid/late 90s who claimed that increased rates of civilians utilizing concealed-carry rights lowered overall violent crime rates. This conclusion has since not replicated and deemed to be bullshit. Although I haven’t found another source claiming this, Dr. Malone told my class on The Economics of Crime that Dr. Lott (the aforementioned academic) wouldn’t share the data used for one of his studies with other academics on account of his graduate student “lost” the datasets. While not impossible given the times, this is an extremely dubious (even if not widely publicized) claim.
The consensus of academic research is that fuck no “more guns = less crime,” but that more concealed carry permits is highly correlated (adjusting for other factors to the point that I will claim a plausible causal relationship) with higher rates of gun deaths; both suicides and homicides. The Lott findings and discrediting remind me of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent studies about the MMR vaccine causing autism, which has directly lead to hundreds of unnecessary deaths because of fears related to vaccines, but that digression is for another post.
This is far from a comprehensive review of the literature, but here are some sources that explicitly cite Lott, contradict his findings, and have large enough datasets to be somewhat reliable:
Meta-point: some of the above articles are available in their full form; some aren’t. All of the abstracts are available on Google Scholar. Anyone with an internet connection has access to Google Scholar and can find the research—at least the abstract, which should have the upshot—with pretty minimal effort. This is not to detract from the value of reading full research articles or gloss over flaws in our research culture, but it is an illumination of the fact that research findings have been democratized and no one (with internet access) can credibly claim that reliable summaries of scientific studies are too difficult to find. Perhaps I’ll do another post on this too.
The upshot of the above articles is that all analyses by Lott that suggest that more guns means less crime is methodologically deeply flawed. For example, using Lott’s regressions/models and excluding the State of Florida from his dataset nullified his results. Further studies have found that the effects of looser concealed-carry laws unequivocally increases rates of gun homicides. Broader studies find wider prevalence of gun-carrying adults has at best a negligible effect on violent crime generally—not the general decrease imagined by the NRA—and increases violent crime for certain sub-populations: most notably armed robbery by alcoholics.
To conclude this section, would looser gun laws mean more good guys are carrying guns to stop criminals? Probably not: most good guys don’t carry their guns regularly and most guns are owned by a self-selecting group of people, meaning most people still wouldn’t buy guns (much less carry them) if gun control laws were looser. Furthermore, more guns around tends to lead to more gun deaths—mostly suicides, but also an unfortunately large number of homicides, especially unintentional, or at least unplanned, homicides.
A third line of reasoning behind preventing further gun control measures is that further measures won’t actually reduce gun homicides of violent crime. And here we finally come to an argument that is at least approaching intellectually honest.
Outright Ban leads to black market activity. If we banned all assault rifles, that would not solve any problems—this answer didn’t play well for Senator Rubio at a recent town hall, and Rubio didn’t sell it well, but he wasn’t wrong (though his answer was pretty weak). More concerning to me than having minor alterations take a gun from illegal to legal is that banning assault rifles will give a broader market for black market dealers, thereby increasing the wealth flowing into organized crime. As with all things, making it illegal does very little to decrease demand, even if it increases the price and therefore decreases quantity demanded. As long as demand exists, someone with flexible morals will find a way to meet that demand—whether it’s for drugs, prostitution, or guns. The difference is that when something is illegal, safety and quality standards of that product or service falls through the floor and all the (very sizable) profits go to criminal organizations, expanding their empire of enforcers, corrupt lawyers, money launderers, etc.
Let me be clear: I think outright bans of assault weapons would create as many problems as it solves, but this is hardly an ethically justifiable reason to forgo any new restrictions. Assault rifles, as their name explicitly states, serve one purpose: to kill. They are offensive weapons—not weapons for self-defense—and owners and manufacturers should be closely vetted and monitored.
This leads me to the next justifications gun rights advocates use to support the “it won’t make a difference” argument. Advocates of this argument (especially those on the blogosphere) like to cite quasi-arbitrary numbers about how much legislation is out there that curtails libertine gun ownership. And they’re right: there are a lot of gun laws out there. The problem is that almost none of them have teeth, and many of them would actually be illegal to enforce.
The real problem with this line of reasoning is not that it’s wrong—it’s not. Rather, the problem is that this argument ignores the real problem with the laws, and is therefore dishonest. Thanks to the puppets of the NRA who sit in seats in congress (and their blinder-wearing, naive, or credulous constituents who keep them in power) most gun regulation has been hamstrung from the start. There are bans on automated reporting, which allowed for a clerical error that allowed the shooter in a Texas Church to illegally obtain firearms through legal means. If we had a better technological infrastructure for sharing data, that probably wouldn’t have happened. but we don’t have effective background check databases because such improvements are currently illegal.
As an example of the flaws with this argument, I’ll cite the Dickey Amendment. Not because it’s inherently the worst offender, but simply because John Oliver did a nice clip about this, and I might as well jump on the bandwagon there. Also, data suppression is a hug pet peeve of mine. The Dickey Amendment created restrictions on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can study with regards to gun violence, and resulted in an almost total defunding of all gun research by the CDC (a scant $100,000 in 2013). This lack of funding for gun violence research makes evidence-based policy much more difficult (though not impossible, as I’ve shown above). Absent evidence from research aggregation institutions like the CDC or National Institutes for Health (NIH), it’s not surprising that the primary voices are those of lobbyists like the NRA, who have much larger budgets and more passionate speakers who don’t feel the need to be tied to silly things like “empirical evidence,” “data,” or “truth.”
Lastly, we come to an argument that is (almost) completely true, and completely misses the point: the real issue isn’t guns; it’s mental illness, immigration, NAFTA (and unemployment), gangs, black people, etc., and if we ban guns, these would-be killers will just use other weapons like knives or bombs.
I don’t think immigration or global trade are the issues, but it’s true that systemic disenfranchisement and racism and mental illness are absolutely the root cause of most gun homicides—mass or otherwise. However, there are two problems with this justification. The first is that advocates of of this argument are rank with hypocrisy–cutting funding for mental health programs before and after advocating those programs as an alternative to gun control. The second problem is a level of willful ignorance. Just because the root problem is mental instability doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prevent mentally unstable people from obtaining weapons that are highly effective killing tools (more effective than homemade bombs or knives). To his credit, at least Senator Rubio claims that he doesn’t want mentally unstable people to own guns, but absent any system of gun monitoring programs with teeth it’s perfectly legal for them to buy assault weapons that, when equipped with legal augmentations, can fire 30 or more rounds in a matter of seconds.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m sympathetic to this argument, and I fear government overreach more than I worry about personally getting caught in the crossfire of a mass shooting (being a white, upper-middle class introvert has its advantages). I fully endorse Smith’s and Hayek’s indictment of the “man of systems” and skepticism of “scientism.” If the government is going to deprive anyone of their ability to do something—say, own a gun—then they better have a good reason for it. John Stuart Mill put it far more eloquently in On Liberty: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
I fully believe in these principles and would defend them with my reputation (not that that has much value) and even my life if I thought it would do any good given the situation. (Fortunately, it’s hard to imagine these principles being violently suppressed V-for-Vendetta-style anytime soon, but it’s hypothetically possible.)
That said, even natural rights for larger group can and should be curtailed or superseded for individuals or subgroups who do threaten to use those rights to harm others. Take, for example, alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious problem that affects millions of people—both as alcoholics and their loved ones. But from both a natural rights standpoint and from empirical evidence from a historical experiment that prohibition of alcohol is a bad idea. Instead, we appeal to personal responsibility: Please Drink Responsibly.
However, we still have limits on alcohol sales (must be 21 or older, local restrictions on where and when you can purchase alcohol, etc.). We can debate the merits of those regulations and their efficacy and unintended consequences (and I have), but even a Libertarian like me agrees that after some number of drunk driving offenses—fatal or not—the state is justified in pulling someone’s license or compelling them to install a breathalyzer on their vehicle. (Again, I’m talking about precedents and principles; not specifics.)
The number of gun homicides per year and the number of fatalities from drunk driving collisions are both around 10,000 people per year in the US (give or take 15%). Yet, we don’t have a mechanism (in most states) for confiscating guns the way we do drivers licenses. There are a number of critical differences between gun homicides and drunk driving deaths, but the analogy holds as an example where something is inherently risky, but outright banning it is ineffective and potentially even more dangerous. Personal responsibility is important, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any restrictions or recourse to curtail people’s (natural?) rights when they have shown, either individually or as a group, to be irresponsible and that irresponsibility threatens the safety of others in the community. Given the aforementioned differences between drunk driving and irresponsible gun use—most notably malicious intent, potential scope of harm (eg. small car pileup vs. Las Vegas shooting), and general lethality—how much more so should this principle apply to guns?
I don’t want capricious government, but the solution to that is evidence-based policy; not government inaction.
I don’t want excessive use of coercion in government, but this is only to say that coercive action must have a damn good reason; not that coercion is never justified.
I don’t want government overreach, but that is not to say that government should have no reach.
Appeals to liberty and rights are great. I don’t want Uncle Sam arbitrarily doing what special interests want, but that includes the special interests of the NRA. I want a free society that can do largely as they see fit with their own lives rather than Washington DC telling us what we can and cannot do… unless there’s a good reason for telling us what we can’t do. And empirical evidence gives a damn good reason for limits on individual freedom. The fact that the vast majority of gun-owners never violate the law (at least beyond basic civil infractions) is justification enough on the grounds of liberty that guns should not be outright banned. But subdividing that group to identify (even by close proxy) those would be irresponsible and/or lawbreakers is not an unreasonable infringement or limitation on liberty. Personal responsibility begets personal liberty, but empirical evidence and general gravitas of the content necessitates that the progression run in that direction, so when personal responsibility proves insufficient to protect society, personal liberties may be taken away for those persons.
I intentionally call these suggestions rather than solutions, because, as I said earlier here and in my last post, the root problem is not guns per se. The reason mass shootings (and all other gun homicides) happen is that mankind is dark and depraved. Still, it is in our collective interest to make it more difficult for the darkest and most depraved among us to get access to devices that were designed and created specifically to kill other human beings as efficiently as possible.
These are (roughly) in order from least effective to most effective, but also from most immediate to most long-term.
First, there’s no reason a law abiding marksman or hunter needs a bumpstock or high capacity magazines; let’s make it illegal for civilians to purchase or own them. I’m not so naive as to think that banning them will eliminate them from the market, that people won’t develop their own, homemade bumpstocks, or that the black market won’t fill in some of the missing market created by such a ban, but my hope and expectation is that making it illegal will deter hobbyists enough that only criminals will seek these, which is a much smaller pool of consumers—small enough to severely curtail the production of these items.
Second, let’s make registries available for both law enforcement and academic institutions to study gun owners and gun homicides. This starts with universal background checks, including for private sales and gun shows, and then quickly moves to repealing the Dickey Amendment (something Representative Dickey himself supports) and make it not just legal, but encouraged, for independent institutions like the CDC and NIH to study gun violence and gun control legislation. Furthermore, let’s have a registry that tracks every gun by serial number from the time it comes off the line through each individual sale thereafter. Anyone who buys more than 2 guns in a one month period should have a longer wait times for each subsequent gun purchase within the next 9 months. Registries should be comprehensive and secure; just used for law enforcement investigations, background checks, and research (much like CMS Claims). Going along with this, let’s cut through the red tape that prevents sharing of information between enforcement agencies and just generally streamline and automate the process of getting information into and out of this national gun database.
Third, let’s actually fund mental health programs, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and inner city revitalization programs based on evidence. This includes enforcement and ATF confiscation of firearms from people who no longer pass background checks, but it also includes evidence-based public health interventions to improve economic conditions and public safety, thereby lowering demand for guns and gun violence. Much of that evidence could come from aforementioned gun registry. These are complex, multi-causal problems, and multi-pronged approaches stemming from the marketplace of ideas and research will be needed to address them. That’s why this is my last category of suggestions: it’s very, very long term, but also it’s the only thing listed that could sustainably curtail gun violence.
Conspicuously absent from my list of suggestions are appeals to human decency, reason, or changes of heart. I wish these options were on the table, but they’re just too quixotic and impractical. I don’t expect that any of the logical points or empirical evidence I enumerated in the first half of this polemic will actually persuade anyone since experience and cynicism have convinced me that logic and evidence have very little persuasive power for most people. Alas.
What I hoped to accomplish with this post (besides organizing my thoughts, like all posts), is to find a middle ground, and make arguments and suggestions that start with right-wing premises and show the justification of action and irrationality of inaction. Impassioned calls from the left or the upset concerned citizens in the wake of a shooting to ban all assault rifles for everyone are only going to alienate gun enthusiasts and convince them there is no middle ground to be had. Contrary to that notion, all of my policy suggestions have come (roughly) from Republican lawmakers. There is a more fertile, middle ground between the extremes of banning all guns and libertine free reign. Neither extreme will meaningfully or sustainably address the societal concerns about mass shootings. There is no legislation that will permanently stop all gun violence or mass shootings. But there are data to be gathered. There are truths to be discovered. There are hurting people who can be helped. Shifting the conversation from the irrational and delusional (on both sides) might, just might, help us attain these noble goals.
In the wake of the school shooting in in Florida, a lot has been written and found about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz. Like all school shooters, he was a troubled young man with many problems, and he left in his wake some hints of what was coming. So much so that the FBI is being dragged over the coals for not “doing something” to stop him.
But what does that mean? What could they have done?
On Friday, two days after the shooting, the Miami Herald accused the FBI of “Bungling” the case:
The FBI received two alarming tips about Nikolas Cruz in the past six months: Someone who knew him well believed he was capable of murdering teachers and students. And an online commenter using the handle “nikolas cruz” professed his desire to become a “professional school shooter.”
But somehow no one at the FBI connected the dots or shared information about Cruz with the agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday, when he killed 17 people at a high school in Broward County.
Honestly, I’m not sure which I find more disturbing: the fact that a disturbed 19 year-old man went postal and killed 14 high schoolers or the implications of what the authors at the Miami Herald, Jay Weaver, Sarah Blaskey, David Ovalle, and Nicholas Nehamas (Weaver, et al), are advocating with this statement, which is truly anti-democratic and even anti-modernist.
I’ve just levied a pretty heavy charge, so let’s unpack this. What did the FBI know? What could they have done? What should they have done? What do we, as a society really want them to do in future, similar situations? What are the wider implications?
Starting with what the FBI knew, Weaver, et al identify two key pieces of information that the FBI had or should have had: a person close to Cruz identifying him as a potential threat and a comment made on YouTube that a user named ‘nikolas cruz’ wanted ‘to become a professional school shooter.’ First, let’s look at this tip.
The January tipster to the FBI hotline said Cruz owned guns. The person told the FBI’s Public Access Line, located in Clarksburg, West Virginia, that Cruz “had a desire to kill people” and could potentially conduct a school shooting, according to the bureau. The tip line received 766,888 calls in 2017. This one was not deemed a credible threat, as it should have been, and sent to Miami for follow up, the FBI said.
The authors assert that this should have been deemed as a credible threat, but why? Ex Post it is obvious that this threat was credible, but what makes it different from the other 766,888 tips? Particularly in light of the fact that Cruz was interviewed by Florida’s Department of Children and Families and deemed not a threat, it’s not unreasonable that the FBI came to same conclusion. Sure, they might not have followed protocol and still forwarded the tip on to the local unit, but it strikes me as highly improbable that the tip being forwarded would have changed anything.
Second, Mr. Cruz posted his sick wishes about staging a school shooting to YouTube. They say that everything you put online is permanent, which is true, but with 400 hours of YouTube content uploaded every minute, not everything you put online is quickly or easily accessible, even if it is permanent. I looked for some APIs to pull YouTube data, but not surprisingly, it’s not that easy to pull all comments across all of YouTube, even for a given period of time. Pulling comments on a previously identified/flagged channel? Sure, but not everything. In other words, I don’t have specific counts, but I can’t believe that Cruz (and let’s just assume it was actually the same person) was the only person to post a comment praising school shootings—sarcastically or not, computers have trouble telling the difference—much less the only comment with the words “school shooting.” The internet is a dark place at times, as Microsoft’s ChatBot, Tay, will attest. Point being: this is the kind of detail that is only obvious in hindsight. Ex ante, it’s just another asshole on the internet, and it’s impossible to identify, track, and/or follow up on all the assholes on the internet.
Protocol for the FBI says that they should forward all tips to the national hotline to the local districts for further review. That didn’t happen, and Christopher Wray, the FBI Director has publicly apologized for that. Beyond that, the Herald makes it sound like the simple act of forwarding this tip on would made any difference at all. Specifically, Weaver, et al say that, local agents were “agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday” (emphasis mine). That might is important, and strikes me as complete fantasy and wishful thinking. Really, what could the FBI have done?
Mental disturbance isn’t a crime, and Cruz acquired his weapons legally. Whether or not he should have been able to get those weapons is a topic for a future blogpost, but up until the time he started gunning down his former classmates, he had showed violent tendencies at home, but his adoptive family never pressed charges and he hadn’t committed any crimes outside the home. He was under monitoring by the mental health provider community, and was being treated for his readily apparent mental health issues without being denied habeus corpus. What about Cruz’s case would or could have justified imprisoning him for being a deeply disturbed dude, given that he was over 18 and hadn’t explicitly made threats against himself or others to a mandatory reporter?
That was a rhetorical question. In a Republic, jailing him for being creepy and disturbed would be wrong. Sometimes these pesky ethics of rule of law and presumption of innocence mean that the guilty walk free, even to kill again. That said, I believe this is still preferable over Bills of Retainer where public opinion, not evidence “beyond reasonable doubt,” determines one’s guilt.
As stated above, by Weaver, et al’s own words (specifically, “might”), it’s not obvious that the FBI could have done anything. By my reading of other sources, the FBI and local agencies had done almost everything right—Marjory school had expelled Cruz for his behavior, and the Department for Children and Families had investigated him. The FBI should have passed the tip on to local agencies, but that’s really the only oversight in this whole case, which is a pretty minor thing. FBI Director Wray can’t say that though; due to political pressure, he has to admit that they somehow mismanaged this, and that scares me.
Weaver, et al, and apparently much of public opinion writ large thinks that the FBI “bungled” this. What they really mean is that they identified a tip as a negative when it turned out (ex post) to be a positive. They made a Type II error, to use statistics jargon. To reduce the risk of a Type II error, we have two options: increase the statistical power or lower the threshold of statistical significance required. Both of these options are antithetical to democracy.
By bringing up the YouTube comment, Weaver, et al are essential advocating complete NSA monitoring of the whole internet. Natural Language Processing algorithms to analyze every YouTube comment, every Blogpost, every Blog Comment, and every Tweet to identify comments indicative of future violent behavior. Is that really what we want? Because that’s what it would take to reduce the likelihood of a Type II error by increasing statistical power.
In their opening paragraphs Weaver, et al say that local agents “might have been able to do something.” They are conspicuously silent about what that something could possibly be. As I’ve said before, up to that point Cru hadn’t done anything to warrant his arrest or detainment against his will. To violate his civil liberties and confiscate his property (guns) or detain his person based on a hunch or the fact that he’s a messed up guy would have been unconstitutional. And how many messed up guys are out there who fantasize about violence and could even be capable of carrying out a mass shooting? How many of those will actually go through with that fantasy? Data are sparse here, but this is probably a small-but-not-trivial number.
More importantly, what would that mean if we did decide that a “credible threat” was enough to detain someone? Who would decide what constitutes credibility? How long could someone have their civil liberties legally curtailed? The implication from this article seems to be that “Well, Cruz turned out to be guilty, so it should have been obvious before. Thus he should have been detained and prevented from carrying out this heinous act.” The corollary of that is that anyone can call the FBI tip line and submit a “tip” about someone—honestly or not. Deciding which are credible and which are not will never be perfect. Claiming that any false negative is a “bungling” implies that we should lower the bar for credible evidence–thereby reducing the risk of a Type II error. Anyone can make an accusation against another individual and that accused individual should be immediately suspect? That’s how things worked during the Reign of Terror under Robespierre in the French Revolution; not under a functioning Republic. I’m not against getting better ways of minimizing both false negative or false positive errors, but we need to accept that both will always be present. And I would argue that prioritizing false negatives as more dangerous than false positives—i.e. it’s worse to miss a potential killer than to imprison an innocent person—is anti-democratic and anti-modern. And that’s a severe charge.
What Nikolas Cruz did was horrific. But what price are we, as a society, willing to pay to prevent it in the future?
Are we willing to cede our rights to habeas corpus and privacy to federal authorities? If so, we’ve already lost the Republic to the enemies of Modernity.
Are we willing to accept school shootings as regular occurrences? Well, then may God have mercy on our souls for the sin of ignoring justice. (The Bible spends far more ink exhorting bringing about justice than it does advocating saying “Merry Christmas,” condemning homosexuals, or other such evangelical first world problems.)
Are we willing to accept some restrictions and monitoring of gun ownership? I really hope so, but exploring that topic is my next two posts.
In other words, instead of blaming the FBI for not detaining someone who was clearly mentally disturbed, let’s blame the true culprits. The current state of gun laws that allowed a clearly mentally disturbed person to get weapons in the first place. An underfunded, overly bureaucratic mental health infrastructure that was unable to get Cruz the help he needed. And, most importantly, the banality of evil and the total depravity of human nature. Those are the real culprits, not the fact that the FBI didn’t pass on information to the Miami office that didn’t have much constitutional recourse to do much anyways.