Fire Fighters

My brother-in-law has fought many fires in Arizona for the Forest Service. From him I learned that fire brigades are usually organized locally. Thus, when something horrible happens such as the deaths of the 19 Hotshots the impact is concentrated in a single community, much as it was during The Great War when military units were organized locally and some towns therefore lost all their young men in a single day’s combat. The people of Prescott are in for many bitter tears.

This spectacular photograph courtesy of The Telegraph is from Santa Rosa, California. In addition to being visually stunning it is constructed in such a way to emphasize how small the firefighters are relative to what they up against and how brave they are in persisting in their noble task nonetheless.


Oklahoma tornado

Oklahoma is an oil state. Oklahomans vote for people like senators Inhofe and Coburn, who rail at the ‘myth’ of climate change.  After all, there are millions and millions of dollars still to earn selling oil to burn: what more evidence does a reasonable Sooner need?

People who think science is more than a political flag one can choose to wave or not, depending on whether there’s profit in it, are pretty sure that one of the effects of global warming is increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

I wish I believed that a just Providence sent things like today’s tornado upon people who vote for oil-whore Oklahoma Republicans.  I don’t, but could the devastation in Moore possibly give the survivors something to think about along these lines?

UPDATE (21 May):

I obviously wrote the foregoing too quickly and too elliptically.  Let me unpack it here:

The reference to a just Providence was a pointer to the repeated meme, trotted out (for example) after Katrina, that natural disasters happen to people who deserve to be punished. The reason I “wish I believed that” is that if I did, I would feel OK about the consequences, I guess even the children whose school was shredded around them.    But I don’t: I believe natural systems are ordered by an amoral, implacable, scientific reality that we understand much better by taking it seriously and being smart than by theodicy.  I believe actions like putting carbon back in the air from underground as fast as possible have consequences, consequences that fall most heavily on the least deserving: the poor people who will not have enough to eat as floods and droughts deepen and come more often, and all the children still unborn around the world who didn’t get to dance at the fossil fuel party but will still have to figure out how to live in a toasted planet – yes, and children in tornado alley who never voted for anyone.

I also believe that the time to talk about politics and how we engage with that amoral reality is while the manifestations of foolishness, especially their injustice, are salient, and that doing so shows respect and sympathy for those who suffered and died for no good reason other than the cupidity of their leadership and its wilful ignorance (or worse, putative ignorance)

Hair of the dog

Let’s reflect on the two real lessons of the Battle of Newtown.

First, the Second Amendment is not about hunting animals and punching paper, it’s about winning a war against the government, and here we have a man who didn’t whine about tyranny, or run and hide: he took up arms like a Real American, went right at the most dangerous hotbed of government freedom-killing  subversion, a public school, and put a decisive end to the daily internationalist indoctrination of twenty Connecticut children. But Lanza was not able to kill even thirty people before the jackbooted thugs of blue-state Connecticut imposed their tyrannical will on him, another martyr to liberal sabotage of our Second Amendment God-given rights to insurrection. (Those rights are in the Bible, right where Jesus teaches his wussy disciples to go armed at all times, and practice quick reloading so as to really Render unto Caesar, not just mess with the odd drunk Roman soldier.)  The government won the Battle of Newtown in the end, because Lanza was disarmed by the regulations people like Mayor Bloomberg want more of. Government has stuff like tanks and helicopters now, so insurrection (freedom) needs serious hardware.   If Lanza (and his mother) had been allowed the belt-fed machine guns,  grenades, armor-piercing rockets, and ground-to-air artillery the constitution plainly allows but our surrender-monkey disarmers do not, he could have given the UN a real warning.  Patriots need stuff to take down an invisible black helicopter, not toys from an old western movie.

Some, however, may not see Lanza’s intervention exactly as a blow for freedom but in a slightly different light, perhaps as an insane explosion of savagery.  Never mind:  just turn the page to the other lesson, the one about the importance of arming everyone all the time to prevent mayhem. Everyone, even the principal, went to work without so much as a little .25 caliber automatic, never mind the Uzi, slung dashingly over the shoulder for easy use, that should be a part of every responsible teacher’s equipment.  (I myself have nothing but chalk on my sleeve to maintain order in the classroom, and that Uzi would be a real asset to my pedagogy.)

But what about the kids, Professor Volokh?  A safe society is one where everyone packs heat all the time: wouldn’t it build character for for citizens to learn their responsibility early on? There’s no problem finding a firearm for small hands: if every one of them had had a piece in his desk, and opened up on Lanza from all directions right away, only a few more would be dead now, maybe even fewer, and the survivors would have learned about pride and self-sufficiency instead of fear and surrender. We have fire drills; don’t we care enough about our kids to give them rapid-fire drills? And come to think of it, kindergarten is not too young to learn freedom through armed revolt (see lesson one above): what more oppressive, authoritarian institution is there than a school to its students?  K-12 students with suitable weapons could be learning to fight tyranny before the school crushes their spirit and turns them into slaves of big government.

The correct ideological exegesis of this event is above my pay grade; indeed both of the foregoing may be correct.  Either way the action implication is clear, as clear as those eternal and unvarying truths “Now this”, “Here we are”, and “Cut taxes on the rich”:  we need lots more, bigger firearms everywhere, and now more than ever. If freedom fighters like Lanza, and ordinary citizens like the innocent teachers and kindergartners at risk from murderous lunatics like Lanza, all get the serious weaponry they deserve, some good may come of this sad episode.

Overreacting to Irene?

Lots of people evacuated who could just as well have stayed home.  Irene was not the apocalypse for which  Bloomberg, Christie, and the other elected officials who pulled out all the stops prepared.  Were they wrong?  In a world without the second law of thermodynamics, in which time can be run back and forth, obviously they were.  And if you curse every year you spend money on life insurance and don’t die, similarly.  But it looks from here as though the various governments did the right thing given the information they had when they had to commit to a plan. The National Hurricane Center (that commie nest of waste, fraud and abuse that rips tax dollars from your pocket to fly airplanes into storms and pay lazy bureaucrats to stare at radar screens and crunch pointyhead computer models: Eric Cantor, where are you when we need this abuse shut down! but I digress, pant pant pant) churned out useful forecasts 24/7, and the mayors and governors used the best science available to manage a situation with large and robust uncertainty.

Will Rogers said, “It’s easy to make money in stocks!  First, buy some stock.  If it goes up, sell.  If it don’t go up, don’t buy it!”  Will Rogers was a comedian on purpose; Rick Perry and Ron Paul only inadvertently.  In the real world,  four storms that don’t peg the needle in the event, out of five with a working FEMA, evacuations, and subway shutdowns, is probably a good overall record, and observing one of the four says nothing about the policy.  Consider the alternative.


Obviously, we should be blogging furiously in the remaining day.  On the other hand, there’s other stuff I really want to do while I can, like learn Arabic and change the oil in my car, so I will have to be brief. Here are some useful updates of the sort for which you naturally turn to the RBC.

(1) It’s at noon.  God’s time, of course, rolling around the earth starting at the date line; don’t get mixed up with daylight savings time, you’ll waste an hour waiting.

(2) Camping was on TV today explaining that we should expect an earthquake that would open all the graves so everyone could get out and be dealt with.  He didn’t say anything about people who were cremated, and will obviously need their bodies back somehow, so an especially interesting place to watch might be a columbarium full of urns. Look out for flying shards.

(3) Be aware that everyone not raised to heaven will go through the days of awe and tumult, indeed the rest of what would be their natural lives,  under the illusion that life is going on as before and nothing has happened.  Something like the flashy thing in Men in Black, I expect.  So if it’s Sunday and you think the prophecy was not fulfilled, be advised that it indeed was, and everything from that point is imaginary, a perfect but unreal replication of what we have come to know as real life.   Including ersatz instances of the people you know who were raptured. All the exciting stuff in Revelation will be going on in the real world, but you will be missing it.  Or not realize it’s happening to the real you…it’s complicated…if you want to know how it works, I think you take the first, second, third, fifth words in a Fibonacci sequence, from Isaiah and Revelation 4-7, and then divide by something.  If you can get to a turntable, play the Tuba Mirum from Mozart’s requiem backwards.

Or just shine your shoes and put on a clean shirt Saturday, and don’t worry about it.

(4) Yes, your illusionary self will have to pay the mortgage and wash the dishes.  This is the end of days, not some kind of holiday. Be serious.

(5) It will be a good time to spend with friends and associates.  I hope you enjoy it as much as these folks.

[update 20/V] I was mistaken about noon time; apparently it’s 6PM local standard time, which is 7PM EDT. This  actually sheds serious theological doubt on the whole prediction: a just God would not bring the world to an end right before the first pitch at Fenway when we will be only a half-game behind New York.  We have been misled by a false prophet.  You are now free to move about the internet, and you can put off doing the laundry until Sunday.

Witnessing Violence and Death: What Happens to People and How Can They Be Helped?

When most people hear the word “trauma” they understandably think about combat veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But traumatic events are not confined to the battle field. They include being involved in an accident, being the victim of crime, surviving an earthquake or other disaster, or even witnessing others go through terrible things (e.g., some children were traumatized by news reports of Christina Taylor-Green’s murder in Tucson). Like the events themselves, immediate reaction to them is very hard to predict, as I know from painful experience.

Many years ago, my wife and I were driving home at night on Highway 101 and saw something that we wish we could forget, but never will Continue reading “Witnessing Violence and Death: What Happens to People and How Can They Be Helped?”

It’s not about guns, and Tucson is not why hateful speech is bad

The “Second Amendment remedy” discourse of the last few years is a near-monopoly of the far right, “crosshairs map” and all.  And  Arizona does have extremely permissive firearms laws, and it’s full of people who really, really, want to be able to play with guns and take them everywhere.  I would love to hang the Tucson massacre on both, the first because the hate/revolution/kill speech is deeply execrable per se and the second because like everyone, I really want there to be a legislative fix for crime and killing.  Unfortunately, neither dog will hunt and they both distract us from the real work.

Here are some thought experiments.
I. A lunatic has reached the stage of fear and paranoia that he wants to kill someone, or some people.  What is the probability that he will find something somebody said that he can take that way?  That after the fact, it can be shown that he read or heard something that could be interpreted as instructions to do it, or that the crime can be portrayed as having similarities to something someone somewhere publicly advocated in a figure of speech or literally? Can any imaginable policy change these much?
II. A public figure, or many public figures, use violent imagery.  What is the probability that, in a world with plenty of crazy, desperate, resentful people and fairly easy access to weapons, fertilizer and diesel oil, vehicles to drive into a crowd, gasoline, and the like, some nut will act out?
How does the probability of an attack change with 10%, 50%, or even 90% less violent public talk?
III. If public discourse matters, we need to think about what proportion of all the input assassins receive is sermons, Ann Landers columns, speeches, and whatnot urging good behavior and being nice to people, or just talking about issues without alluding to any mayhem.  If that went from 98% to 99%, would it make much difference?

The smirking, bloody-shirt language of the far right is despicable, but not despicable because it causes literal mayhem (which is extremely rare), and trying to nail it for that moves the effort to excuse or justify it to the wrong place.  It is despicable because it is intrinsically coarse, crude, heartless, and inhumane, and the people who do it would be contemptible with or without Jared Loughner.  It makes us dumb and angry instead of smart and thoughtful.  Its important consequences for life and limb are many more than the victims of a political or ideological assassin; it’s all the death and suffering caused by vicious policy that denies poor people effective policing and sick people effective medical care and all the rest of it.  There’s blood in the streets because one of our great parties has enshrined its worst self and abased itself before the likes of Limbaugh, but the blood at the Tucson Safeway is the least of it. Accusing Palin and Angle of being the cause of Loughner allows them to defend themselves by a cloud of “I didn’t mean that’s!” and “You can’t prove he did it because of us’s!”.  But they are just as despicable with or without Tucson, and should be attacked for their real evil.

What does make the Tucson event important in this context is not that violence in political talk causes stuff like it, or makes it more likely; it’s that it’s a salient, memorable, horrifying example of what that talk is frivolously using to make cheap points.  Every lout trying to put on the fake toughness of a bully surrounded by a retinue with this kind of imagery can now be called on it with the reality of Tucson: “Is this, or is this not, what you are asking for when you talk like that? and if not, what can you possibly mean, and what kind of person are you to talk that way?”

[UPDATE: Harold Meyerson sheds light in a similar vein here]

As to guns, I take the view of Mark K because he has studied these things and understands them. Arizona’s gun laws are almost exactly the same as those of Vermont, that savage, violent Wild East killing ground. Having more or fewer guns in the hands of the people who will have more or fewer with lax gun laws doesn’t lead to a lot more or less killing with guns. Some more, because a privately owned handgun is most likely to kill a member of its proprietor’s family, but not a lot. There may be some leeway at the margin about large-capacity clips, but even there, it would have been pretty easy for Loughner to have had two weapons instead of one, like the Virginia Tech killer of 32.  Or to have thrown a stick of dynamite, or a bucket of battery acid. Or to have made himself into a suicide bomber; there’s no indication he expected to get away afterwards.
At the same time, we need not be distracted by the completely loony idea that more guns everywhere will make less gun crime.    It’s instructive that even Arizona’s armed citizenry did not make the slightest difference in the body count; in fact, the only other  person on the scene with a gun in his hand didn’t use it, but he did almost kill the citizen who had disarmed Loughner.

If you feel better imagining that you will draw your weapon in time to make a difference when the shooting starts, and you’re sure you won’t blow away the other guy who had the same idea taking him for the perp, you are deluded, but probably not very harmfully.  I admit I am a little afraid that a bar or restaurant will turn into a general shambles sooner or later.  (The idea that a Glock in everyone’s pocket, or even an AR-15 in every coat closet, is what will make us safe against the US government should it choose to oppress us by force is also a delusion. But  for anyone who has seen on TV what five minutes of attention from an Apache can do, never mind an aircraft carrier, it just doesn’t bear discussion by the reality-anchored.)  Less killing by guns or anything else is not available to us by a quick-fix law either way; it requires seeking peace and civility the hard way, changing society in many ways, in small steady steps, at retail, with actual heavy lifting by everybody.

Candide meets leverage

Ian Ayres to indebted graduates: buy stocks on margin!

You are a recent Chicago graduate, and you left college with outstanding student loans of $50,000. You have savings of $10,000. What’s the best use of them?
Here is seriously meant advice from Dr Pangloss Ian Ayres of Freakanomics fame:

Most young college and professional school graduates have amassed significant student loans, and many more take on home mortgages. But Barry [Nalebuff] and I now believe that many of these savers would be wise to expose themselves to leveraged stock risk rather than merely use any savings to pay down existing debt.

What can I add to this?

  • On your second date with someone you really like, use your margin investing to illustrate your financial acumen.
  • If the investments go sour, and Enzo and Igor come calling from the debt collectors, remind them civilly but firmly that you can’t get out of your student loans by bankruptcy.

Commenters are invited to offer further advice to young Candide.

Letting it burn

Obion County, Tennessee is a rural patch with eight towns in it, each of which has a fire department supported by local taxes.  If you live in one of these towns, and your house catches fire, your neighbors put out the fire through the agency of the fire department.

Some people prefer to live out in the unincorporated areas, perhaps so they can shoot things for dinner, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the neighbors’ kids practicing the trombone, perhaps because they have a horse or two.  They give up various things that are affordable only in cities, like sewers, cable TV, a quart of milk you can walk to, and quick ambulance service, and pay less taxes. They also pay more for fire insurance than people who live in the district of a fire department.

Most rural areas in my experience have a volunteer fire department which pays no wages and raises money for equipment with bake sales and a barbecue on the 4th of July.  They will try to save your house whether you came to the barbecue or not, and often they provide a big piece of social capital for the community independent of fires.  Obion County has a system whereby rural residents can pay an annual fee of $75 for fire service from the nearest town.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this so far, any more than there’s a moral affront when someone who owns his home free and clear chooses to underinsure it, whatever we think of the judgment of the homeowner. Obion County might or might not be better off with a county fire department; it’s up to the voters to decide.  And deciding to have one or not isn’t even a liberal or conservative decision; it’s an economic benefit-cost analysis.

The firefighters of South Fulton watched the Cranicks’ house burn to the ground yesterday (with his dogs and cat in it, can you believe?) because the Cranicks hadn’t paid their $75 subscription fee.  The internets and MSNBC have been buzzing with outrage, many commentators trying to make this some sort of symbol of conservative, Randian, or small-government philosophical chickens coming home to roost.

There is an outrage here but it has nothing to do with Obion County’s choice of public and private services, nor the idea of selling fire services by subscription, nor political philosophy.  It has to do with the fire department’s wasteful and reckless response to a house on fire, justified by a vengeful and stupid small-mindedness…OK, and a complete collapse of community obligation.  The proper response to the situation was to put out the fire, and then to bill Mr. Cranick for the service he asked for on the spot and said he was willing to pay for.  Period.  Put out the fire; who pays for what, how, is a decision that can be made later.  The $75 fee is an insurance premium, but against the cost of spraying water, not against the stupid and pointless loss of a whole house.  At the cost of perhaps $200,000 in value destroyed, the stupidity of the firefighters saved perhaps $2000 in labor and equipment wear and tear, all to teach a wrong lesson.  Notice:  if no-one in the county paid the fire charge up front, and the city charged everyone who had a fire for putting it out (with a lien on the house if necessary) the city fisc would be exactly as well off as it is now.

I think the Cranicks’ insurance company may have a cause of action against the city for wilfully refusing to abate an imminent hazard; I certainly hope it does.

If you do something stupid and get stuck on a mountain, we don’t let you die there; we rescue you if possible and then send you a bill for the search.  If a house is on fire, the proper action for a fire crew is to minimize the loss (put it out) and arrange who pays for the service later.  If the political leadership of Obion County is still trying to explain that this episode went down properly, they have a piece missing and not just a screw loose.

Sherrod unleashes an avalanche of insight

Wow, is the Breitbart/Sherrod/Vilsack story a Golconda of learnable moments, or what? Let us count the ways:

(1) At some point, USDA was justifying firing Sherrod by proudly pointing to its “zero-tolerance” policy on racism.   ‘Zero defects’ is a management slogan with some utility as a goal in quality assurance, actually a restatement of ‘continuous improvement’,  but even there not a serious floor under actual performance.  Zero tolerance, however, is up there with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in the pantheon of really stupid airport management book bromides [would you fly on on airplane maintained according to the latter rule? was the reason for Beethoven’s ninth symphony that the first eight were broken or defective in some way?]; it’s an excuse to shelve judgment and hide behind a rule book.  It’s cowardly.  The only organization properly managed on a zero tolerance basis has no actual people in it. As Bob Leone taught me, good management isn’t about eliminating risk, sometimes not even reducing it, but choosing the right risks.

(2) Not everyone with access to the internet is a journalist or a reliable source or honest or decent. Again, there’s no escape from judgment and discrimination: Breitbart has been right about so many things (whether he prefers his own coffee with or without cream, the likelihood that the sun would rise in the morning, whether it’s safe to cross the street now, etc.) and yet,  to get all bent out of shape when he claims to have a smoking gun video about something is either cowardice or the sleep of reason; enter nightmare.

(3) When these things go off the rails, it seems they are jinxed indefinitely.  What job did Vilsack offer Sherrod to make things right? A job being in charge of non-discrimination in USDA; oy vey.  Sherrod, who is coming off like a tree full of owls, is diffident about being USDA’s recycling bin into which everyone else can shed their duties in this regard. She isn’t quoted as saying it, but is probably thinking that there’s something wrong with the idea that discrimination is an issue [women and] people of color have, and that an affirmative action officer has to be black or brown.

And there is something wrong with it: pervasive racism in USDA, directed against blacks, is what white USDA officials had and what, through a devastating lawsuit, has damaged the whole agency, not just its minority staff and black farmers.  Having someone other than the CEO in charge of quality assurance is usually a signal that quality assurance is a distraction or a side issue; same for having an affirmative action officer or whatever you call it: “I don’t have to actually act affirmatively, we have Shirley to do that for us”. Private firms don’t have a “vice president for being profitable”; being profitable is everyone’s job in a way that deliveries and facility maintenance is not.  Not discriminating is everyone’s job, (i) not a peripheral function that should be offloaded to an administrative unit with a figurehead manager, and especially, despite Breitbart’s apparent belief to the contrary, (ii) not something minorities and women have been especially neglecting and need to get better at, or (iii) not something that only benefits discrimination victims.

Another thing that’s wrong with it is the insulting implication that having given a good speech about her personal learning history and having been, briefly, a poster girl for mistreatment somehow makes Sherrod qualified to work this kind of transformation in a large, inertial agency.  Her expertise is in rural development  and building farmers’ prosperity, not in HR or organizational transformation: what does it say about Vilsack’s real motivation to succeed in the not-discriminating business that he would appoint someone to advance it who has no visible qualifications, expertise or experience in the task?

The Obama administration is increasingly taking hits from Democrats for being wimpy and not taking the fight to its enemies [note: I use the word enemies on purpose; the motivation of the rump that has captured the Republican party to damage the current administration and congressional majority, rather than to accomplish anything in the area of governance and policy beyond enriching its donors, is amply demonstrated] and much too deferential in the face of the right-wing media fringe.  This episode can be a wake-up along these lines, and explicitly recognizing a difference between partisan megaphones and real journalists would be a good entry to a better path.

A last note: (1) has some resonance with the nonsense floating around about the late lamented Journolist listserv.  Aside from the scurrilous quality of snooping around in stolen off-the-records archives to no real purpose except sneering and smirking, the idea that having found this or that careless musing someone once said has any value in understanding the person or his friends is a version of the zero-defects fallacy.  And I rush to disclose that I was a member of j-list, am a member of its successor, and I didn’t conspire, plot, or coordinate these remarks with any of their members, though they are at least 20% more insightful (from whatever base) than they would have been without having learned from the discussions there.  Sheesh.