Competition: diasyrms for Trump

Donald Trump said this about Ben Carson, a rival for the Republican nomination :

He was a doctor, perhaps an OK doctor, by the way.

The trope usually goes by Pope’s phrase “damning with faint praise”, but I’m sure RBC readers do not need reminding that its technical Greek name in rhetoric is diasyrm.

The put-down is feeble. You can’t take away from Dr. Ben Carson his outstanding medical qualifications and stellar career. He headed the department of paediatric neurosurgery at the teaching hospital of Johns Hopkins, which likes to think of itself as the best medical school in the world, possibly with reason. It is a great tragedy that in his very last operation in Baltimore before leaving medicine for politics, Dr. Carson heroically donated to his patient half the grey cells in his cerebral cortex.

It is Donald Trump‘s pathological vanity – he is in textbooks  as an example of narcissism – that makes him far more vulnerable to diasyrm. Readers are invited to supply examples. To get you going, a better jibe from Lloyd George:

[Neville Chamberlain] would make a good Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.

My suggestions:

  • Donald Trump has demonstrated far greater acumen as an investor than Bernie Madoff.
  • Donald Trump is magnetically attractive to women, for six months.
  • Trump’s dramatic hairdo would assure him a future as a hairstyling model for the leading trade magazine in North Korea.
  • Trump regularly demonstrates his superior people-management skills in firing no-hopers on reality TV shows.
  • Donald has never, ever had sex with a pig.

Entrants please remember the praise part. Straight insults do not count, however ingenious and deserved. Example: at Oxford, I once heard the young Quentin Hogg described as “a shining wit, as Dr. Spooner might have said”.




Don’t just stand there, do something! (Provided there’s something useful to do.)

Of course my brilliant old friend and longtime UCLA colleague Eugene Volokh is right (and Jeb Bush was also right, though tin-eared and hard-hearted).  The impulse do “do something” in the face of a bad situation, and especially after a disaster, can lead to policies that make things worse instead of better (for example, invading Iraq), and it is wiser to resist that impulse than to do something foolish. The “Yes, Minister” syllogism – “We must do something; this is something; therefore we must do this” – is not a form of reasoning that leads to good results.

That’s especially true for gun policy, because the debate heats up after a mass shooting, and mass shootings are completely atypical of gun deaths overall. The question “What would have prevented this particular disaster?” is inevitably the wrong question.

And Eugene is also right – being right in the service of really bad policy choices is one of his annoying habits – to compare guns to alcohol as two commodities whose consumption in the United States leads to the deaths of tens of thousands of people other than consumers, in addition to deaths among the consumers themselves.

But that’s where Eugene stops being right and becomes ridiculously and disastrously wrong. He assumes, falsely, that just because we’re not currently doing much to stop the violence involving guns and alcohol it must be the case that nothing useful can be done.  In the case of guns, the cross-national statistics offer a strong hint that there’s something very wrong with policy in the United States, since no other developed country has anything like our rate of gun deaths. Our rate is three times that of Finland or Switzerland – our closest competitors among developed nations – four times that of Canada, and ten times that of Australia. That suggests we might have something to learn from their policies.

John Donohue’s recent work showing that adopting a “shall-issue” concealed-carry law correlates with future increases in homicide rates  suggests that state-level gun policies matter, though it’s hard to tell whether the results are due specifically “shall-issue” as opposed to “stand-your-ground” and other elements of the NRA policy agenda; states that loosen their gun laws are likely to do so along more than one dimension.  But even if there’s nothing positive to do, reining in the desire of Eugene’s gun-crazed allies to increase the prevalence of gun ownership and gun-carrying would be a good place to start.

One obvious positive thing to do about guns would be to tighten the rules about background checks. Right now, registered gun dealers (Federal Firearms Licensees, or FFLs) must verify that gun buyers are eligible to purchase; that’s the Brady Law background check. But about a third of all gun transfers don’t involve an FFL: they’re private sales, including sales at gun shows, or they’re gifts.

There’s no good reason not to require a check for every transfer; no doubt the gun stores would be happy to provide the service at a competitive price.  That simple change, supported by the vast majority of voters and proposed by the Obama Administration, fits perfectly the NRA slogan that what we need is better enforcement of the laws already on the books. But in fact the NRA opposes it, and if Eugene supports it he’s keeping that support a secret.  No one can estimate how many lives it would save, but surely that number isn’t zero.

If Eugene wants to say – as apparently Jeb wants to say – that protecting the convenience of gun owners and gun merchants is more important than saving lives, that’s his right. But to say that there are no lives to be saved,  at reasonable cost to other goals, is simply false.

That’s even more obviously true with respect to Eugene’s comparison case, alcohol. He writes as if the only alternative to our current insanely loose alcohol policies would be a return to Prohibition, and that what we can do  about controlling alcohol-related deaths is “not much, other than trying to catch and punish alcohol abuse.”

Nonsense. There are at least two options out there that would substantially reduce the number of people who die as a result of other people’s drinking (while also reducing the number who die, suddenly or slowly, as a result of their own drinking).

The first and most obvious (except to a libertarian) is raising alcohol taxes. When something costs more, people use less of it, especially people who use enough of it so its price matters in their personal budgets. Most of the damage from alcohol-related violence comes from heavy drinkers, not casual ones.  So higher alcohol prices will lead to less drinking by heavy drinkers and therefore fewer drunk-driving deaths and fewer drunken homicides.

Philip J. Cook’s Paying the Tab estimates that a 10% increase in the price of drink (which could be achieved by doubling the current federal alcohol tax) would reduce all violent crime – not just alcohol-related crime, but of course including a lot of gun crime – by about 3%.  The effects on traffic fatalities are of about the same magnitude. The effects seem to be roughly linear.

So tripling the alcohol tax – which would cost the median drinker less than 20 cents a day, and which wouldn’t be nearly high enough to create a black market – would eliminate about 6% of the 13,000 murders we suffer each year, saving about 800 lives. It would also eliminate about the same proportion of 32,000 traffic fatalities, saving something more than 2000 additional lives.  In other words, a simple change in the tax code could eliminate about one 9/11′s worth of sudden death per year.

The other straightforward approach to shrinking alcohol-related damage, including homicide, is to deter drinking by people who commit crimes under the influence. That’s the approach of South Dakota’s Sobriety 24/7, which requires people with prior DUI convictions arrested for a fresh DUI to come in twice a day for an alcohol-breath test, under the threat of a night in jail if the result isn’t 0.0.

The results are spectacular: being on the program (for an average of 90 days) reduces DUI recidivism by 50% over the next two years. Applying the program at a county level reduces auto fatalities by 12% and domestic-violence complaints by 9%. (Beau Kilmer and his colleagues at RAND are about to publish an estimate of the effect on all-cause mortality that will blow the top off everybody’s head, but that work is still under review so I can’t more than hint at the results.)

Here’s a more speculative idea, but one I’d like to see tried. A third activity that leads to lots of sudden deaths on the part of bystanders is driving. One thing we do to reduce the carnage is to forbid people to drive if they’re under the influence. Alcohol effects coordination, but it also influences anger management, impulse control, and judgment. So why do we let someome walk around armed when he’s drunk out of his gourd? The old-fashioned Western saloon had a “hang ‘em here” policy; customers were expected to disarm before getting loaded. Why not enact that as law, requiring that anyone possessing a gun in public either (1) remain sober or (2) lock it and unload it? You could think of that as either a modification of gun policy or a modification of alcohol policy.

So Eugene’s comparison case is almost uniquely poorly chosen. There are some things we could do today to reduce gun violence by changing gun policy, but those effects would mostly happen slowly and can’t be estimated with much confidence.  But there are things we could do about alcohol policy today that would reduce violent death, including violent death by firearm, predictably and measurably six months from now.

Yes, the activist impulse to “do something” can and does lead us astray. But so does the libertarian impulse to just sit there and watch people die, all in the name of limited government.











The Power of the Greek Example

Germany took a hard line with Greece this summer as much out of fear of political as economic contagion. Even if wiping out Greek debts were easily affordable, it would quickly have become prohibitively expensive when voters in Portugal, Italy and Spain demanded the same deal.

The Portuguese elections are tomorrow (Sunday), and will provide an indication of whether the German strategy worked. This has been a bad year for psephology, but that said the available poll data (courtesy of the Telegraph) suggests that the lesson of Greece has not been lost on Portuguese voters.

When the Greek drama began in June, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho belt-tightening government was in parlous political shape. Only around 30% of the country supported the government, and the Socialists were drawing support by demanding a surge in government spending in defiance of the Lords of the Eurozone.

As the Greeks have been brought publicly to heel over the past few months, Portuguese voters have apparently taken notice. The Socialists have faded enough to give the government a reasonable shot at holding power.


Guns again/still

The world is not short of discourse about guns and violent crime at the moment, but some facts bear highlighting, and more emphasis, throughout that discourse.

First, the NRA is the lobbying and PR arm of a small industry whose business is to make and sell as many guns as possible.  If the corn merchants could make up a story about high-fructose corn syrup protecting Americans from government and burglars, and find a piece of the constitution to misread, they would do it and we would all gain ten pounds.  The NRA’s business is not freedom, or recreation, or American tradition; it is money. Mass killings are especially profitable for their masters, as frightened citizens run out and buy more weapons.

Second, there are guns and guns. When I was a teenager, before I got interested in girls, I was something of a firearms hobbyist and dispatched reams of paper targets and some small game, even spending a year on the college rifle team before I got bored with it. Distinctions can be firmly drawn among guns whose purpose is target shooting, guns whose purpose is killing animals in the wild, and guns whose purpose is killing people. The ideals in the last category are automatic pistols with large magazines, short-barrel cylinder-choke shotguns, and machine guns; the last of these are illegal but fairly easy to make out of their close cousins, semi-automatic assault rifles and carbines. Killing (i) a lot of (ii) people, period. The targets with which these are practiced are human silhouettes, with higher scores for hitting lethal areas.

Sporting firearms are almost entirely owned by a shrinking but still large group of people who keep them locked up and use them for hunting and target (paper or clay pigeons) practice. They teach their kids to shoot safely for people and lethally for the game, and know not to mix gunpowder and alcohol. No firearms legislation contemplated or proposed by anyone puts those weapons at risk, or should.

Most of the people-killing hardware is in the hands of two categories of owners. One is plain criminals, and everyone agrees they should be relieved of them. The second is folks who are more or less deranged in one or more of three ways. Some are afraid that the US government is going to take over the country and become the government of the US, and have the completely loony idea that their firepower will be more than a bee sting against the real army, should the US government try to compel them to obey the laws of the United States.  Others imagine violent criminals accosting them in the street or in their homes, and expect that they will get their piece out of the drawer by the bed, or their holster, like a movie action hero in time to make a difference.  Both groups ignore the amply demonstrated fact that their self-defense weapon is many times more likely to kill a loved one, in an argument that escalates or in a suicide, than to ever deter a crime.

Many years ago, my colleague Mark Moore floated an idea that makes more and more sense to me in the current political paralysis. Congress should require everyone owning a handgun, or a long gun not suitable for hunting, to have a license, renewable every five years at no charge, and should authorize/deputize, and fund, the NRA as the sole issuer of that license. When a firearms outrage takes place, it will be a matter of public record which NRA functionary, supervised by which NRA executive implementing what protocol, thought it would be OK for that perp to be armed, on the basis of what evidence, and not just that Wayne La Pierre is mouthing bromides about abstract rights. (That history would of course be of special interest to plaintiffs’ lawyers.)

The constitutional provision requires deference, and I am quick to say that I am a strict constructionist on this issue.  I have no problem explicitly authorizing every citizen to possess the most lethal weapon the founders could have imagined when the second amendment was drafted: any muzzle-loading black powder single-shot flintlock (or touchhole) firearm, from a dueling pistol right up to a naval cannon, is OK with me as an American birthright privilege, and I would march in the street to protect your right to have any of those things.

Yes, you can have a bayonet on the rifle.


Word of the Day for Americans: “Vacation”

I sent an email to a European colleague this summer and got the following automatic message in return:

Dr. So and So is on holiday for the month of July. Consistent with university policy, all email sent to her during this period is automatically deleted. If you wish to contact her, please do so next month.

Now there’s a place that understands what it means to be on vacation. Can you imagine coming back to no email? Not receiving email during your vacation? I can’t, because I work in America.

Throughout my brief vacation I got email after email from Americans that opened with some variant of the phrase “I know you are on vacation, but”, as if making this statement somehow changed the fact that I was supposed to be on vacation. The worst offender was a committee chair who was told repeatedly that I would not be attending a meeting during my family vacation, but the day before the meeting nonetheless emailed me a 300-page long document with a note that read “I know you can’t attend the meeting because of your vacation, so I am sending you the material that we will be discussing so that you can email in your analysis of it for us”. I think she believed this was unusually accommodating on her part.

A friend had an even worse experience. He went on a family vacation to a remote area where he had no email or cell phone signal. When he returned two weeks later he found out that he had been demoted. While he was on vacation, his company had announced a re-organization. His boss said “I expected you to be calling me and emailing me every day communicating your vision of how you fit in with the new structure. When you didn’t I knew you weren’t really committed to the company.” Never mind that he couldn’t even have known that the re-org had happened and never mind even more than he was on freaking vacation.

Employees of the U.S. unite. Do not email your co-workers on vacation, ever. Do not call them or fax them or text them either. And if your boss asks you to do so, state firmly that your hard-working colleague is on vacation, and ask your colleague to do the same for you when the situation is reversed.

Capitalism is a mighty thing that can produce much good. But if we don’t place limits on it, it will eat our bodies, our souls and our families alive. So American workers, look up “vacation” in the dictionary, commit the words to memory and live by them always.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Under the Skin

It’s October again, which means that we’re kicking off another month of horror-themed movies here at RBC! The first in the series is a new interpretation on the alien femme fatale story, in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The action begins with a motorcyclist bringing a lifeless woman to the back of his van. There, his accomplice, a naked woman played by Scarlett Johansson, takes the victim’s clothes for herself. Already five minutes in to the film, and very little has been explained yet, nor will it for much of what follows. Instead, viewers have to divine who the characters are, and what their motivations may be, based on the smallest fragments of information.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 00.39.30

So, when the woman starts driving the van around the streets of Glasgow with the intent to seduce men and bring them back to her home, we believe we may have a grasp on what she’s about. We’d be wrong. Once inside her home, we learn that its interior is nothing but a pool of immaculate black oil, into which the woman’s suitors descend and are consumed during their pursuit of her. It’s not clear what happens to the men once they are submerged in the oil until half way through the film. By that point, the woman has amassed a sufficient number of victims that one of them notices another suspended in the mysterious black fluid. Upon reaching out to his fellow captive, he finds that the other man disappears into nothingness, leaving only skin behind.

Consequently, much of the first half of the film is devoted to trying to decipher who this protagonist is, what’s happening to the men she seduces, and why she’s doing it. Answers to any of these questions remain elusive. Therefore, you might just settle on thinking of her as an alien simply to make things easier on yourself. Yet one of the remarkable successes of Under the Skin is that we learn to invest in and sympathize with her all the same, despite all this not-knowing. Continue Reading…

Tragedy in Oregon

I share President Obama’s disgust about our nation’s inaction regarding gun violence. The bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill came close to defeating the filibuster. Its provisions would have been helpful in reducing gun violence.

If you want to learn more about the policy dilemmas in mass shootings, the links in these two Washington Post Wonkblog columns I did on the Isla Vista shootings may be of interest. By horrible coincidence, I lectured about this case this morning to University of Chicago medical students.

One more thing. I don’t even want to know the name of the Oregon perpetrator until I learn much more about and honor the beautiful people he injured or killed today. There’s no reason to put the killer’s name in lights.

Oh yeah. A second thing. Any politician who argues that mental health is the core issue in preventing gun violence should be asked whether he or she supports ACA’s Medicaid expansion. That’s the single most important issue in America regarding access to mental health and addiction services.


First rule of GOP politics: Never, never, EVER tell the truth

Incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy just committed a “gaffe” in Michael Kinsley’s sense of the term: in an unguarded moment, he allowed himself to tell the truth. The truth is, as most of has have always known, that Benghazi!, like its predecessor Whitewater!, was an entirely bad-faith exercise in partisan character assassination from the get-go. But don’t listen to me, listen to what the Speaker-to-Be told Sean Hannity:

Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would’ve known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.

Naturally, the rest of the House Republicans are outraged: not, of course, at Trey Gowdy for ghoulishly making a political meal out of the bodies of four dead Americans, but at McCarthy for blabbing.

The political press corps is caught in the middle. Lots of those reporters and editors, especially at the New York Times, have been more than willing to peddle Gowdy’s “partial-transcript” leaks as if they had news value, and to let Gowdy and his staff hide behind anonymity to defame a political rival. In other words, they’ve been playing according to the Clinton Rules, which hold that anything a Clinton does is guilty even after it’s been proven innocent.

So far, most of that crowd has reacted to McCarthy’s stunning admission, which makes them look like fools or scoundrels or both, by ignoring it. But I’m hoping that the second round of stories, with other Republicans commenting on McCarthy’s blunder, will start to crack that Wall of Silence. And I’m starting to look forward to Clinton’s appearance before Trey Gowdy’s inquisition. He might well come out of that experience as no more than a Deuce.




The marijuana movement and the marijuana lobby

Reactions to the “Responsible Ohio” cannabis-legalization initiative have a lot to tell us about the changing politics of the marijuana question. No much of what they have to tell us is encouraging.

Cannabis policy change in the United States has been driven, until now, by people whose interest in the matter was primarily non-commercial: pot smokers yearning to toke free, culture warriors of the (cultural) left, libertarians, criminal justice reformers concerned about arrest and incarceration, and people who think that it’s bad policy to criminalize the behavior of tens of millions of people unless there’s a stronger reason to do so than the risks of cannabis create.

Not that economic interests have been entirely absent; Dennis Peron was in the business of selling “medical marijuana” when he spearheaded Proposition 215. But Peron was also a righteous stoner; there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of his expressed opinion that “all marijuana use is medical.” But the main funders of the recent initiatives, and of the big marijuana-legalization groups, have been ideologically-driven billionaires such as George Soros and the late Peter Lewis.  (How old am I? Why, I’m s-o-o-o-o-o-o old that I remember when billionaires weren’t a branch of government.) And the people doing the work have been, for the most part, true believers rather than hired hacks.

That has begun to change. Americans for Safe Access has morphed from an advocacy group for medical-marijuana patients to, in effect, a trade association of medical-marijuana growers and sellers. The National Cannabis Industries Association has taken things even further, hiring a Washington lobbyist who might have been provided by Central Casting: about as far, culturally, from a typical NORML or MPP activist as it’s possible to imagine.

Inevitably, then, the marijuana movement has begun to give way to the marijuana lobby. To be sure, I’ve had my share of clashes with movement folks, and I haven’t always been impressed with their policy acumen or their standards of argument, but I’ve never seen any reason to doubt that they’re advocating the public interest as they perceive it. The people now being hired by the guys in suits doing cannabis-business stock promotions play by different rules. I expect them to have about the same ethical standards as lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical, food, and fossil-fuels industries: that is, I expect them to be utterly willing to sacrifice human health and welfare on the altar of the operating statement, just like those folks at VW who decided it would be a cute idea to poison the air just a little bit to goose the performance of their diesel-driven cars. Continue Reading…

To make the punishment fit the crime

A wrinkle on the VW scandal. How does criminal justice achieve this goal? It’s often very difficult, but not here. VW’s environmental crime (forgetting about the deception of regulators and fraud of customers for a moment) was to cause the emission of a large volume of toxic NOx gas: 237,000 to 949,000 tonnes worldwide, estimated the Guardian. The number can be firmed up, and should be.

Reparation for this part of the misdeeds (and only this) is fairly simple:

require VW to secure at its own expense an equal reduction of the same emissions from vehicles, over the same timeframe as its offence, and on a permanent basis.

It’s not necessary to go into much detail on how. VW employs excellent engine emissions engineers: some of them are crooks to be sure, but they all know their stuff. (At risk of a Godwin violation, I can’t resist a reminder of  this guy.) The most efficient method is very probably not to take VW’s own modern car diesels off the road, but ancient trucks, buses and vans. The “permanent” condition means that the replacements wil have to be full or hybrid evs. If necessary the implication could be made explicit.

This should be only part of the sanctions. It would surely pay the VW board to offer it at once.