## Fear of Crime and Information Theory

An appropriate lead-in to this post is the quote attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This fits very nicely into the structure of information theory, as formulated by Claude Shannon sixty years ago. His measure of information is equivalent to the reciprocal of the probability of occurrence of an event (specifically, the logarithm of this number). That is, if the probability of an occurrence is 100% (1.0), that is, if it’s certain to occur, then its information content is the logarithm[1] of 1, or 0; if the probability is 10%, its information content is 1; if its probability is .001, its information content is 3. In other words, the less likely the event is to occur, the higher the information content of its occurrence. That’s why it’s also called a measure of “surprise,” because the occurrence of a highly unlikely event is more surprising than one that is highly likely to occur.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with fear of crime? A lot, it turns out. As Steven Pinker has shown, violence and violent death has declined markedly over the past few centuries, and we are much, much less likely than our ancestors to die at the hands of others, either through wars or by crimes of violence. But this very fact means that (per the quote at the top of this post) each violent death nowadays has a greater surprise value than it did in the past. And that greater surprise value translates directly into greater fear – fear that oneself or one’s family is going to be harmed by others.

So we have this paradox: the safer we make ourselves, the more fear we have – of the unknown, of “them” (any outsider), of MS-13, of the person walking toward you (“Quick, get out your gun before he gets his out”). And of course, it is all so easy to stir up fear in a population, especially when those in power, whom we expect to be responsible adults, are the ones stirring it up.

‘Nuff said.

[1] To make it easy to follow, I’m using logs to the base 10. For those who slept through math class, the logarithm of a number goes up much more slowly than the number itself, so in the examples above the log of 1 is 0, of 10 (the reciprocal of 1/10) is 1, and of 1000 is 3. End of lesson.

## János Kornai speaks for open inquiry

János Kornai, whose Economics of Shortage provided the only (as far as I know) theoretically coherent and empirically supported analysis of the actual functioning of the economies of the ComEcon states, has just been awarded the Open Society Prize at the commencement ceremony of the Central European University in Budapest.

This may be the last time that prize, or any CEU degree, is awarded in Budapest. The authoritarian, ethno-nationalist, and anti-Semitic Orban government in Hungary, installed with the help of Russian money and influence (does that sound familiar?) is moving forward a law aimed at Hungarian-born (and Jewish) George Soros, whose philanthropy helped create CEU; when it goes into effect, it will force CEU to leave the country.

Below is the text of a letter from Kornai to a friend in the U.S., followed by the text of the award speech by the Rector of CEU and Kornai’s acceptance speech.

## Tom Schelling’s monument

This Monday the friends, colleagues, family, students, and disciples of Thomas C. Schelling gathered at the Kennedy School to honor his memory. The speakers included his eldest son (Andrew Schelling), the current dean of the school (Doug Elmendorf) two former deans (Graham Allison and David Ellwood), and an academic all-star cast including Mort Halperin, Richard Zeckhauser, and Glenn Loury. Somehow I was also asked to speak.

I didn’t speak from a text, but what follows is a version of what I said, “revised and extended,” just like the Congressional Record.

*****

SCHELLING’S MONUMENT

The dome of St. Paulâ€™s cathedral marks the center of the City of London â€“ a cathedral, and a city, both rebuilt after the Great Fire thanks largely to the energy and genius of Christopher Wren. On the floor directly below the dome appears Wrenâ€™s obituary, which concludes:Â â€œSi monumentum requiris, circumspiceâ€Â â€“ â€œIf youâ€™re looking for his monument, look around you.â€

Here in the Forum of the Kennedy School, one can say the same thing of Thomas C. Schelling: his monument is all around you. Not the buildings, but the school itself as an institution, the idea it embodies, and all of us and all the others who came together around that idea are Schellingâ€™s monument. The city of Cambridge, among many other cities, also forms part of that monument, since without Schellingâ€™s wisdom about how to avoid nuclear war it might well be a heap of rubble glowing in the dark.

As to the more local monument: Schelling did not re-form the Littauer School of Public Administration into the Kennedy School of Government all by himself. A whole catalogue of giants in that founding generation â€“ Richard Neustadt, Francis Bator, Howard Raiffa, Fred Mosteller, Phil Heymann, and Edith Stokey â€“ helped to start the work. The second and third generations, home-grown or recruited, who carried on the project here and elsewhere, included â€“ in addition to those who have spoken here today â€“ Mark Moore, Mike Spence, Mike Oâ€™Hare, Al Carnesale, Ronnie Heifetz, Bob Leone, Michael Nacht, Bill Hogan, Bill Clark, Dutch Leonard, and Ash Carter.

But though Schelling did not act alone, the power of his mind and the force of his personality were indispensable in convoking this community. Â To cite my own example among many: as a college senior, I was interrupted on my way to law school by reading â€œOn the Ecology of Micromotives,â€ which introduced the â€œtippingâ€ idea with its famous checkerboard model of how residential segregation could emerge, almost inevitably, in a population where everyone prefers integration but no one wants to be part of a small local minority. I went to Holland Hunter, the chair of the Haverford economics department and my mentor, and said â€œI have to learn how to do that.â€ Ho chuckled and said, â€œWell, Schelling teaches at the Kennedy School.â€ I said, â€œThe where?â€ Â And Iâ€™ve never looked back.

Among the giants of his generation, Schelling was foremost in creating the idea of public policy analysis as a discipline of thought, distinct both from public administration and from the social sciences: a pragmatic discipline focused on the question â€œWhat course of action, in these circumstances, would best serve the public interest?â€

Of course, Schelling wasnâ€™t only a policy analyst: he was a social scientist of towering stature, the sort of person whose Nobel Prize led people to say not â€œReally?â€ but â€œAbout time!â€ Others today have mentioned his contribution to the understanding of strategic interaction, and the role his concepts of imperfect self-command and strategic self-management played in starting what became â€œbehavioral economics.â€ But the Schelling idea that hit me hardest was the tipping model, and the more general principle of paying attention to the importance of positive feedbacks in the choice of problems to work on.

Reading Schelling on micromotives teaches you to avoid the Sisyphean problems â€“ where, once youâ€™ve pushed the stone up the hill, the power of negative feedback will roll that stone right back down over you on the way to its equilibrium â€“ and to choose instead the exciting positive-feedback situations where a nudge might get the stone over the crest and moving of its own accord down to a much better place on the other slope, or the dangerous positive-feedback situations where a little effort in the right place and at the right moment might keep the stone from rolling irretrievably over the brink. All of my work on focused deterrence in law enforcement is the application of that bit of insight; the book that resulted forms part of Tomâ€™s monument.

In the economics course Tom and Francis taught us as first-year MPP students, we learned many important things explicitly: for example, that an obviously pro-consumer ban on surcharges for using credit cards and an obviously anti-consumer ban on discounts for cash are, in fact and in truth, identical policies. That pointed to the general rule: Ignore the label on a policy, and ask instead about its results.

But Tom taught us even more vital things by his example:

• to use models without being used by them;
• to see the humor in serious situations, and look for the apparent paradox that might make sense of a situation and point toward a solution;
• to be prepared, and willing, to be surprised by the way the analysis comes out, or by the way the real-world situation stubbornly refuses to behave as the analysis says it ought to behave; and
• to embody clear thought in clear speech and clear writing.

Though he never would have put it in these terms, Tom taught us policy analysis not merely as a discipline in the academic sense but as a yoga, an intellectual and moral self-discipline requiring difficult feats of non-attachment: to self-interest, to group interest, to factional loyalty, to received opinion, to oneâ€™s own policy prejudices, and â€“ most of all â€“ to the need to have been right in oneâ€™s earlier views. No force in the world â€“ not greed, not envy, not party spirit, not even cruelty â€“ does as much damage as the inability to say, without too much discomfort, â€œI was completely wrong about that; good thing Iâ€™m smarter now.â€

By his example, Tom also taught us to pursue questions not for their abstract interest but for their practical significance. He was disappointed when I chose to write my dissertation on cannabis policy â€“ where I was convinced I could see the right answer â€“ rather than on cocaine policy, where the stakes were much higher but the right set of policies seemed much harder to find.

That principle led him to choose smoking as the new focus of his attention once his insights about preventing nuclear war had largely been incorporated into the thinking of decision-makers. Tobacco wasnâ€™t a â€œSchellingesqueâ€ problem, ready to fall apart at the touch of a brilliant insight. There is no analogy in tobacco policy to second-strike capacity or focal points or the threat that leaves something to chance. No, Tom chose tobacco simply because it was and is the leading preventable cause of death in the developed world, and a growing problem in the developing world, with tens of millions of lives at stake, and he was convinced that thinking hard about it would help point policy in the right direction.

The same was true of global warming. As Tom freely acknowledged, economic and strategic analysis were only two among the two dozen disciplines needed to address that question. He picked it up not because he saw the answer but because the problem was interesting and hard, and because the consequences of getting it wrong â€“ either ruinously over-investing in fending off what might be a phantom threat, or under-investing and failing to control warming before it becomes self-sustaining, or combining the two errors by adopting expensive but ineffective control policies â€“ might be so disastrous.

In both of those cases, he demonstrated his willingness to follow the analysis where it led, even if it led him away from his old allies. With respect to tobacco, he followed Nietzscheâ€™s advice to â€œdepart from oneâ€™s cause when it triumphs.â€ Having labored mightily to put the health harms of smoking front and center in policy discourse and to break the political power of the tobacco industry, and having helped demonstrate the futility of low-tar-and-nicotine cigarettes as harm-reduction measures, Tom later formed part of a distinct minority willing to speak out against what had become a rigid tobacco-control orthodoxy on behalf of the less dangerous non-combustion forms of nicotine administration, including â€œvaping.â€

On global warming, he started out in the camp of the skeptics: not skeptical about the human contribution to climate change, but somewhat skeptical about what seemed alarmist views of how bad things might get and deeply skeptical both about the capacity of initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol to control the problem and about the feasibility, constrained by international politics, of mounting the massive coordinated effort that might be required to keep greenhouse-gas levels below what some climate scientists regarded as intolerably dangerous levels. Â He hoped that geoengineering approaches and measures to adapt to whatever climate change did occur might reduce the magnitude of the required economic adjustments.

But as the temperature data continued to come in, and as sailboats began to ply the Northwest Passage through waters once utterly ice-locked, Tom parted company with the â€œCopenhagen Consensusâ€ group and started to call for more vigorous action, on the theory that changes in relative prices â€“ especially if phased in â€“ were likely to be easier adjust to than rising sea levels and shifting and rainfall patterns.

From the outside, it was hard to see the influence Tom Schelling wielded over those of us who followed him, without ever handing out orders. Once, in a conversation with Mark Moore about something Mark wanted me to do or not to do, contrary to my inclination â€“ I can no longer remember the original topic, about which Mark was probably right â€“ I defended my intentions by saying, â€œMark, you donâ€™t understand; I always wanted to be Tom Schelling when I grew up.â€ He replied, â€œWhat you donâ€™t understand is that everyone in this building wants to grow up to be Tom Schelling.â€

Well, Tom is no longer with us, and neither is that unforgettable smile. So itâ€™s time for the rest of us to grow up and get back to building the monument.

Footnotes

Here’s an earlier tribute to Schelling, from the memorial service at the University of Maryland.

Schelling’s most famous book, and the one most likely to be read 500 years from now, is The Strategy of Conflict. Â Micromotives and MacrobehaviorÂ is a Â similarly stunning achievement, centering around “tipping” phenomena. The best introduction to Schelling’s thought for the non-specialist is probably the collection of essays called Choice and Consequence; the two essays on “self-command” reflect his role in founding behavioral economics.

## Donald Trump just appointed an Ambassador to Israel who has called me a murderer. Am I supposed to be OK with that?

The latest line being pushed by Trumpsters, Republicans, and some Very Serious People, including my good friends Gleen Loury and Megan McArdle, is roughly: “You lost. Get over it. Trump will be our President, and we all need him to succeed. Don’t rock the boat by questioning his legitimacy.”

I hear that. A generation of slash-and-burn Republicanism has so weakened all of our key institutions, and the norms of restraint, civility, and reciprocity necessary to make a Madisonian regime operate, that the survival of the Republic is now genuinely in question. There’s a case to be made for pretending that Donald Trump is a normal human being and hoping that he will stop his pathological lying and grow up to be a real, live President. Barack Obama, the victim of Trump’s systematic campaign of libel (enabled by Fox News and many Republican politicians) acted on that idea at yesterday’s press conference.

But I’m not buying.

A seemingly minor appointment illustrates why I’m not buying, and why I will never accept Trump as holding anything but the limited legal powers the Constitution gives the President: no moral authority, no call on our cooperation, no presumption of good will or good faith, no presumption even that he is acting out of loyalty to the national interest.

Two days ago Trump appointed as Ambassador to Israel a man named David Friedman, his personal bankruptcy lawyer (which, as you might imagine, makes him a very important person to a professional bust-out artist such as Trump). Naturally, Friedman is a lunatic extremist when it comes to the Israel/Palestine question, asserting that Israel should deny voting rights and public services to its Arab citizens unless they pass some sort of loyalty test and that it is free to rule the West Bank indefinitely while extending no civic rights to its inhabitants and stealing as much of their land as it pleases for settlements. Indeed, he runs a non-profit designed to support one such venture, grossly illegal not only under international law but actually under Israeli law, as the Israeli courts have repeatedly ruled.

Well, that’s no surprise. It’s not even very important, since the Ambassador doesn’t make policy.

But Friedman’s hatred of Palestinians extends – as is often the case among right-wing Jewish extremists – to hatred of all Jews who aren’t right-wing extremists. As recently as June, Friedman published an essay in which he said that members of J Street – the moderate Zionist group that favors a two-state solution – are “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.”

Kapos were accomplices in mass murder. Some were killed by their fellow prisoners when the camps were liberated. Some of them were tried and executed for war crimes. Even years later, they were at risk of extrajudicial vengeance: undoubtedly illegal, but widely thought to be justified.

Now, as it happens, I’m a member of J Street. So Trump just nominated someone who called me a murderer, and implicitly called for my murder in turn. Of course I don’t expect to actually share the fate of Yitzhak Rabin – murdered by one of the illegal settlers Friedman supports, someone who had listened to the kind of rhetoric Friedman spouts and took it literally – but I resent it all the same, just as I resent Trump’s collusion in making anti-Semitism one again an active factor in American life. Of course liberal Jews are not the only objects of Trumpian hate speech, but equally of course I tend to take hate speech personally when it personally applies to me.

We’ve heard a lot from the right wing about how liberals get the terrorism problem wrong because we fail to understand radical evil. There’s some justice to that claim and I’m working to improve in that regard.  So I’m glad to report having made enough progress that I recognize radical evil when it moves into the White House.

## Theology you can use

Great news: the theologians at Liberty University are about to answer the great questionÂ of our time:

what kind of gun would Jesus carry?

The problem up to now has been that theoretical findings, in the ‘queen of sciences’ as in any research, always need empirical, experimental confirmation; now these scholars will be able to go out on the range and do real lab work. Â I was going to stock up on a variety of pieces, just to be on the safe side, for the looming bad times, but it won’t be long before we can pack certified Christian heat.

As a side benefit, we may also see that wussy “turn the other cheek” stuff replaced by a moral principle real Americans can stand behind, first articulated by Roger Miller in the magisterial Blake Edwards opusÂ Waterhole #3Â as the ‘code of the west‘:

do unto others before they can do unto you.Â

## Weekend Film Recommendation: Agora

This weekendâ€™s film recommendation, Alejandro AmenÃ¡barâ€™s Agora, is one of those films thatâ€™s so hard to sell to people that Iâ€™ve never successfully persuaded a friend to sink two hours into it. This is a terrible shame, because itâ€™s a wonderful film. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Agora”

## Open letter to the class of 2020

The following letter (updated, expanded and edited for this reissue) was posted in late 2010 (many comments there, worth a read).Â  In the last several weeks, I’ve been asked by a variety of friends and colleagues to post it again.Â  I wish I could report that it’s out of date, but the trends it discusses have worsened if anything, as more states accelerate the destruction of their greatest assets–Jefferson wanted most to be remembered for creating his state university–and half of our two-party machinery degrades into fact-free, willfullyÂ  ignorant armies competing to sow hate, fear, and spite.

****

You’ve been admitted to colleges, and chosen Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Next fall, you’ll meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere.Â  The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.

Thatâ€™s the good news.Â  The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits.Â  And you arenâ€™t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didnâ€™t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine. Â This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding whatâ€™s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest. Continue reading “Open letter to the class of 2020”

## Hypocrisy and inconsistency

I agree with Eugene Volokh that the charge of “hypocrisy” – literally, playing a role – is way overused in political debate. Whether someone else sincerely believes what he says is not, generally, relevant to the question. Often enough, what seem like inconsistencies in an opponent’s position reflect no more than one’s own reluctance or inability to enter into the other’s thought and find the principle or interpretation that reconciles two apparently inconsistent views.

Still, consistency remains a bedrock logical principle, and pointing out genuine inconsistencies remains a legitimate form of criticism. For example, people who defend the “religious freedom” of employers to deny their employees insurance coverage for reproductive health, butÂ not the freedom of Muslim congregations to build houses of worship, may reasonably be charged with twisting the idea of “religious freedom” all out of shape. If what they mean is that they want the freedom both to practice their own religion and to prevent other people from practicing theirs, then (despite the precedent set by the Puritans) their views may properly be called “un-American,” and their pretense to be defending “religious freedom” in the generally accepted (and Constitutional) sense of the term stands unmasked as dishonest.

## Selfishness

The Pope is wrong to blame the crimes of ISIS on selfishness.

From Pope Francis’ Christmas Day homily – emphasis added:

Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst.

The paragraph does not mention ISIS (or whatever the label of the month is), but much of the homily is concerned with violence in the Middle East and in Africa. In context, Francis is blaming terrorism and other forms of political violence and coercion on selfishness.

Sorry, no. Coming from a Jesuit, this is astonishingly sloppy. It’s on a par with attacking the 9/11 terrorists as cowardly, a mistake which Tim Noah and Paul Krugman correctly called out: a suicide bomber is necessarily very brave.

The medieval typology of deadly sins allows a better classification of al-Baghdadi’s as pride and anger. Anger may depend partly on pride – excessive self-esteem – but its expressions are often reckless and self-destructive.

The Seven Deadly Sins only get us so far and do not account for the core of jihadi or other religious fanaticism: the paranoid world-view, unlimited and unrealistic revolutionary agenda, and jettisoning of normal moral restraints.

Modern social science may not have a full explanation, but it has developed at least two pieces of it. One is the mechanism of confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek out evidence fitting a preconception and disregard evidence that does not. In the strong form, in arrogant and credulous personalities, this can create a positive feedback loop and lead us from a common prejudice (such as social and economic antisemitism), with some distorted basis in fact, to a radical dogma (the Jewish conspiracy for world domination) entirely detached from reality. Another insight applies to the followers: social pressures of group conformity and the psychological process of habituation can easily transform quite ordinary people into monsters. See Milgram’s fake torture experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of an SS battalion recruited from unremarkable reservists, not enthusiastic former brownshirts.

These two factors do not explain everything. In particular, the European recruits to ISIS chose the movement over other Islamic, even radical Islamic, authority figures.  Still, I think the case is clear that we cannot account for the movement’s rise by any appeal to simple selfishness. The Devil has many other tunes.

Postscript

Selfishness, in the form of common greed, accounts perfectly for the irresponsible marketing of prescription opioids, as much as the political variant explains Herod’s alleged Massacre of the Innocents. I’m not defending it like Ayn Rand.