Skip to content

Category: Public Policy and Public Discourse

American Malaise…?

In the interest of completing the set — not to be the curmudgeon who laments about “…in my day…” or “…you don’t know how good you have it!”, but merely to remind people that this, too, shall pass — I have been thinking about what things were like in 1980, the year I graduated from high-school and began my journey into adulthood.  We were, for example, the last generation for whom the moon landing, Watergate, and Vietnam were all memories of experience rather than history learned from books. But, we were also a generation who came of age in what was widely described, at the time, as a period of malaise…

In 1980…

Leave a Comment

Guns and Gun Control

A few highlights: click through for the full discussion…

Bottom line: As both a moral and a practical matter (“practical” meaning if they want to elicit enough cooperation to actually move forward on solving the problem), people who understandably and legitimately want to minimize the damage that guns do to the innocent need to respect and accommodate the concerns of those who value their own equally understandable and legitimate right to bear arms; but those who value their right to bear arms need to take responsibility for minimizing the damage guns do to the innocent — and must, without doubt, accept some amount of constraint, and even sacrifice, to achieve that end.

And, yes, “gun culture” and its fetishization of guns — which is completely different than the right to bear arms — is pathological…

* * * * *

People who value free speech object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to censor anything.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to censor things are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” limits on speech is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” limits on speech actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban speech outright (or, at least, to ban outright any speech they disagree with, which is effectively the same thing).

People who value access to abortion object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction of the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on abortion are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on abortion actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban abortion outright.

And, yes.  People who value access to guns object vociferously and in absolutist terms to any suggestion that anyone have any authority to limit such access at any time and under any circumstances.  Why?  Because they fear – and justifiably so – that a large fraction the people who say they want “reasonable” authority to place constraints on gun access are not actually reasonable.  They fear that talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns is disingenuous and offered in bad faith.  They fear that people who talk of “reasonable” constraints on guns actually have much more extreme limits in mind, if they could only achieve them; and that their push for “reasonable” limits are intended merely as a starting salvo in a longer battle to ban guns outright.

If you want to bring along the sensible, practical people who lament the current state of affairs and, yet, who value their right to have access to guns for self-protection and/or sport, you need to do more than “re-frame” the language and the argument.  You need to convince them that you are both sincere and trustworthy.

You are asking them to rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in their coalition.  In the same way, you need to convince them that you can effectively rein in (or, at least, have the political courage to ignore, or even oppose) the most extreme voices in your coalition.  You need to convince them that the “reasonable” proposals you have in mind really are — truly — your ends, and not merely a means to initiate a march toward something more extreme.

It has been a bedrock principle of liberal American justice that people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty; and it has often been said (typically by those on the “left”) that it is better that ten murderers go free than that one innocent man be unjustly condemned and punished as a murderer. We are exquisitely sensitive to injustice and unfairness. It has, arguably, both instigated and consumed much of our political discourse in recent years.

If we want to pursue policies that try to predict who should not be trusted with exercising legitimate individual prerogatives (like owning guns – or, say, owning cars), we had best design such policies with multiple and nimble levels of appeal and review, with ample opportunities for error correction, and with the onus of the major effort resting on those who would curtail such prerogatives rather than on those who would retain them.

And we had best design them to minimize, as much as possible, false positives.

To be clear: we all need to acknowledge that it is unreasonable and implausible to expect we can define a system that generates no false positives at all.  Gun rights enthusiasts just need to come to grips with that fact: any system that is effective enough to be useful in reducing the carnage is going to sweep a few innocents into its net.

But, the alternative is what we have now: far too many other innocents being swept into the net of gun mayhem.  That is unacceptable.

Yes, there is a price to be paid for freedom.  But, news flash for the gun crowd: not being shot in your classroom or at the supermarket or while playing on your front stoop is also a kind of freedom, and arguably more fundamental than a right to own a gun.  We need to be willing to pay the price to protect that freedom, as well.

That said, people who want to enact various gun-related policies (and many other “progressive” policies) also need to acknowledge something: that restrictions on liberty, of any kind and no matter how “reasonable”, do, indeed, come with costs as well as benefits – yes, immediate human costs but, also, through legislative/legal precedent and an induced cultural complacency about such restrictions in principle, long-term systemic costs as well.  The fact that the short-term, human costs are not ones that you, yourself, care about or will pay, or that the long-term systemic costs seem distant and abstract or are not ones you can imagine or lament, does not mean they don’t exist or are unimportant.

If you want cooperation from people who will bear those costs, you need at least to acknowledge them, and to acknowledge that building in safeguards to minimize those costs is a reasonable and beneficial part of any such policy.  Insisting – as many on the “left” do – that concern about those costs is irrational or illegitimate – or, worse, is depraved and malevolent – is guaranteed to make cooperation impossible.

Being averse to research on “gun violence” is not irrational, for the reasons of trust cited above: the people calling for and performing such research are, in far too many cases, doing so in bad faith.  Calling for research on “gun violence” is a nearly certain sign that the proposed “research” is not actually about science: it isn’t aimed at investigating and understanding root causes; and it isn’t aimed at testing a variety of hypotheses.  Rather, it is aimed narrowly at proving a specific hypothesis: that “Guns cause violence (and should, therefore, be banned).”

That is poor science because it presumes the result it is purported to be researching.

More importantly, that is poor science because it is overtly political – it implies that the “research” is not as much intended to expand the boundaries of knowledge as it is to manufacture justifications for pasting a “scientific” patina onto a pre-determined policy preference.  It is, all too often, advocacy disguised as science.  It would be like proposing research narrowly focused on “Black criminality” or on “The cognitive bases for gender disparities”.  There may be real-world observational evidence that those things exist — quite likely the result of historical circumstances, including historical injustices.  But, we can and would probably safely assume that anyone proposing such narrowly-defined “research” had some agenda in mind beyond the simple advancement of human wisdom.

Yes, by all means, let us research the nature and sources of violence and what might be done about it.  But, don’t limit our focus to one specific tool.  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture (including, but not limited to, “gun culture”) that breeds such solipsism and lack of empathy?  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that fails to discourage people from acting out that solipsism, from inflicting it on others?  Ask, rather: what is it about our culture that so consistently fails to instill in its citizenry a respect for other people and a reverence for the Golden Rule?  And what can we do about that?

I would venture that the “framing” I identified – that people who want to be able to use guns thereby assume a responsibility for ensuring that all gun use is responsible gun use – may be the key to engaging with those who value access to guns.  Because, if we can turn the conversation from “rights” to “responsibilities” – if we can turn the conversation from “how we plan to impose our coercion upon you” to “how we expect you to step up and do the right thing” – the rest of the conversation will be immeasurably easier.

Perhaps, if we can find a way to turn our conversation about guns toward the duties of responsibility, rather than making it an argument about rights and regulation, we can not only make progress on guns but, then, extend that approach to politics and governance beyond guns into all the other subjects that currently divide us.

It occurs to me that perhaps the most effective policy for controlling gun violence would actually be to require any gun that can accept an external ammunition clip — which is a reasonably good proxy for its potential high-volume/long-term rate of fire — to be colored hot pink and fitted with a grip shaped like a phallus.

It would have no effect on the gun’s performance or its availability.  But, slinging a giant pink penis over your shoulder or strapping a giant pink penis to your hip to carry it around, or wrapping your hand around a giant pink penis in order to aim and shoot, would simply not look macho or cool.  It would not be photogenic.  It would not project an automatic aura of menace and authority.  It would, to the contrary, be rather emasculating.  It would indeed, make you look silly.

That would somewhat clarify exactly why it is that people think they need such firepower — it would tend to separate those who have some genuine need for a tool with that kind of performance from those whose primary need is actually for a brace to prop up their sagging self-esteem.

Leave a Comment

Deterrence

Regarding W.F. Buckley’s musing on whether or not, in the end, Ronald Reagan would actually have given the order to launch our nuclear response, I must point out that such ambiguity was always at the heart of the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction — that it is, in fact and by its nature, at the heart of any strategy of deterrence.

For deterrence to be successful requires two elements that must both be present:

    • That your opponent believes you have the capability to retaliate
    • That your opponent believes you have the will to retaliate (including the will to depend on retaliation, rather than backing down)

Note that neither element requires that your threat be ‘real’ — that is, that you actually have the capability in the first instance and that you actually have the will in the second.   What matters is that you can make your opponent believe both are real.

Leave a Comment

Why is “the right” so hostile to “climate change”?

The American “right” latched onto an “anti-climate change” attitude — and took that to the ridiculous extreme of being proof-of-membership-in-the-group — in large measure as a direct response to the early (and, alas, continuing) attitudes of the American “left” toward the subject.

From the earliest discussions of the potential for climate change and what we might do about it, the left succeeded in tying “climate change” nearly inextricably to “highly coercive and disruptive government mandated emergency command-and-control remedies”.

In that environment, there was simply no way to be both ‘conservative’ and accepted as someone who took climate change seriously. You were either wildly progressive or you were a “denier”. As far as the green left and the media that echoed its talking points was concerned, there was nothing, and no room for anything, in between.

To the extent that the “left” succeeded in transforming “climate change” from a legitimate scientific and policy debate into merely another excuse for getting what it had always wanted anyway and for other reasons — a self-righteous justification for telling us all how to live our lives coupled to yet more coercive authority concentrated in the hands of politicians and government bureaucrats (to be guided, of course, by academic intellectuals) — it did mean that the opposition from the “right” to “climate change” was much more about opposing that coercive policy agenda than it was about the science, itself.

Leave a Comment

Expertise and Ego

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then not only exaggerate their certainty, proclaiming that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable and unequivocal (Eat this and you will die!), rather than provisional and subject to chance, but will also proclaim, with equal certainty, that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

Leave a Comment

What picture of America do we carry in our heads…?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, in an article about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Peggy Noonan asked this question:

Why did the White House think the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was the right date for a pullout? What picture of America do they carry in their heads that told them that would be symbolically satisfying? It is as if they are governed by symbols with no understanding of what the symbols mean.

It occurs to me that the question — “What picture of America do they carry in their heads…?” — is much broader than the context of our policy in Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the question at the heart of nearly all the cultural and political divisions rending America these days.

The right asks that question of the left.  The left asks that question of the right.  And both left and right — and the vast middle that both left and right disdain and ignore — fear and despise the answer that they think and feel — or, all too often, imagine — the other side would offer if it was ever to be explicitly articulated.

That is, perhaps, the most important conversation of our generation: What picture of America do we carry in our heads? And can we come to some, if not consensus, then at least forbearance on what that picture looks like?

If not, we are truly lost…

Leave a Comment

Should Washington, DC be a State?

Is it either accurate or fair to say that there is not, and cannot be, any reason to object to statehood for the nation’s capital that doesn’t drag in racial antipathy and civil rights recidivism?

No.  Statehood for Washington, DC, is a troubling prospect.  And, it is troubling for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

The most compelling reason, however, to oppose statehood for DC is not that a city isn’t really a state, though that is true.  And it is not that DC statehood has the real potential to interfere with the autonomy of the Federal government, though that is also true.  And it is not that there are simple and practical remedies to the disenfranchisement of DC’s citizens that fall short of outright statehood and that would not, therefore, threaten Federal autonomy — though that, too, is true.

No.  The most compelling reason to oppose statehood for DC is that DC is a company town.

Leave a Comment

The Sledge Hammer

In your article, you predict 3 things that are likely to happen “…when people feel they cannot talk openly about a subject…”.

Here is another prediction: The Sledge Hammer.

That is the name I have given to a phenomenon I have observed many times in the last 40 or 50 years — prototypical examples are the passage in CA of proposition 209, outlawing affirmative action, and propositions 13 (CA)  and 2-1/2 (MA) limiting the rate of property tax increases.  But it might also, perhaps, be used as well to describe Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, not to mention “Defund the Police”….

The people who can see that there is, indeed, a problem but are told to shut up about it get impatient.  Then they get frustrated.  Then they get angry.  Then they get furious.

And then they swing the populist Sledge Hammer:  “Screw all of you condescending bastards!  If we can’t fix the system, we’ll destroy it!”

Leave a Comment

Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

Leave a Comment