08 October 2015

Incomplete list of complicated things that get discussed with vaguely described solutions

1) Gun Control - "common sense gun control" means? So far I've heard this used to describe a lot of things, but mostly it gets used to mean "people shouldn't have guns". That's a sentiment I agree is preferable for a modern civilisation is that it not rely upon mass armament or fear of crime and that the general public can go about their business freely and safely without any concern for whether or not they are armed or not (a condition which I believe already exists in probably 90% of American towns and suburbs, and most major cities). I think we are going to disagree about what methods are appropriate for most people not to have guns. It helps to lay out a specific idea here and not just assume everyone knows what you mean. Strictly enforced and expanded background checks? Gun safety training? Gun buy-backs? What exactly are these common sense regulations everyone supposedly agrees we should do?

I wrote about this problem several years ago and unfortunately little has changed in the tenor and tone of the debate in any way, and very little of the debate focuses on the largest sources of problems (violence often related to black market drug distribution, and suicide) while an enormous amount focuses on these (still) fairly rare events that become national news. Enacting the sorts of policies that would significantly reduce the former problems will probably look very different than anything that would deal with the latter, if there is anything that can be done at the policy level. They look like very different issues at this point. But the former problem is way, way worse.

A brief addendum to the things I wrote before would be that the types of policies likely to impact gun violence in a meaningful way, in my view at least, would be things that would take some time to see some results. Alcohol taxes could be raised. Mental health training for police could be dramatically overhauled and mental health care improvements would probably start to cut into suicide rates. Various narcotic street markets could be priced out by providing safer and legal markets for the substances being traded. Background checks may take years before they began finding points of sale that in some way meaningfully restricted gun ownership and at considerable regulatory cost as the existing market and pool of available weapons is too high that transfers can be done privately without much monitoring. And so on. Even among the things that are far more radical in the American context and much less clearly common sense (assault weapons bans, gun buybacks, etc), we would probably not see much impact for many years, if at all.

We should not expect that if anything is done it will stop mass shootings from happening.The causes of those are likely to be all over the place that they will be difficult to respond to with single effective policies. For instance, many of these "common sense" reforms have had little to do with the actual shootings (background checks for example seem to have had mixed results, as one should expect). That is not by itself a reason not to do them. It is simply to say that the idea that we should tie policy responses to fairly rare events is probably a bad way to try to sell it as a good and necessary change (as we did with terrorism and as Obama explicitly tried to justify over a trillion dollars of spending to deal with terrorism over the last decade, which I disagree was money well-spent). We should expect that if anything is done we might see reductions in the rate of violent crime and suicide. That would be the yardstick I'd measure it against. Comparatively speaking, measuring the rates of violent crime in other countries is a more interesting study than looking at sensational events in smaller industrialized democratic countries and their responses. It's also very much like the "there are no giants here" theory, in that if we take a very rare situation and adopt often radical policies in response to it as a serious problem, and then nothing happens for a long time, we often hear "well see, we got rid of the giants, you don't see any around do you?" as though the cause of this absence was the radical policy shift. I think this is dubious in the case of terrorism. A more likely cause is that the number of people willing and capable of acting out terrorist deeds is extremely small. Just as the population of people willing to commit mass shootings is.

Shorter-term the change I would make to deal with mass shootings would be simply to have the media cover the shooter much less, cover the victims. The academics and police can poke into the shooter and their background to figure out what's going on there. I don't give a shit anymore who these people are. They don't seem that different from anyone else fundamentally that we have much of a pattern to identify who dangerous and disturbed people are beforehand and thereby make any effective policy change. So we could change the culture instead and start ignoring their deeds and focus on the effects for now. Maybe that will make it less likely someone shoots other people for attention. Maybe not. It's a better use of our time to remember people who lost their lives senselessly and their names than the people who took them. I'm not quite sure why Jack the Ripper is well known for example. Or Ted Kasinzski. Obviously it's not a new problem but it's one that I'd be quite happy to see a shift on.

2) Family Leave - "people should afford their own children" to me means "poor people shouldn't have children". That's not why people have children is a financial decision (if anything, there are relatively cheap things we could do that more poorer people could have fewer children if they wished, but also make it easier for people to have children if they do wish to).

This is barely disguised socially Darwinian thinking. It's very similar to the "we should drug test welfare recipients" idea that I routinely bash upon as idiotic and wasteful, not to mention morally reprehensible, particularly for self-described liberals. Speaking of which, yet another state has failed to materialize any savings or significant effect from doing that.

3) Syria. "Help the Syrians more actively, establish a stable regime" - That's a nice idea. I agree that would be awesome if Syria wasn't involved in a civil war and had a stable moderately democratic government. This would be a lot better for the Syrian people than the status quo of the last several years.

But. This is kind of like the underpants gnome plot as applied to international relations. Resolving multi-factional violence is a difficult problem on its own. It is not resolved easily by having us picking sides or trying to make friends in the midst of it. It is not clear to me that "taking an active role" (which is vaguely defined as "go bomb people we don't like") would be a significant improvement on the ground, particularly if it is not followed up with. Which is the more challenging part still than getting people to stop shooting each other. Often bribing them works pretty well on that front. Following up with that to establish some kind of peaceful resolution with inclusive governments forged from separatist factions that must work out their differences within a country is very hard. In fact, establishing any form of stable democratic regime in foreign countries is extremely hard as an international relations problem. To the point that I'm not entirely sure we have any idea how to do it. Japan might be the only successful example in the last century and that took a massive war against a world power with a fairly developed economy and the institutions to go with it that lasted, in one form or another, over a decade (going from Japan's fighting with China and the USSR), with another decade of military occupation (followed up by decades more of military "cooperation"). Point being we had moderately good conditions in which to forge and impose a democratic rule, a clear international sanction to do it, and it still took decades of work. We would have few of these building blocks in Syria (or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Kosovo or Libya), and limited international support to do so. Which means we could very well end up right where we started. Basically what happened with Iraq.

I'm unsure why there is still much enthusiasm for this in the international relations policy elite. Yes it is a terrible problem. No it isn't clear to me you have proposed a plan that a) solves it and b) does so at an acceptable risk, for example how your solutions or interests should differ on this from other international relations concerns that might be far more damaging to American power and security (say, the Ukrainian crisis). I still hear people thinking we should have a no-fly-zone. When the Russians are now operating air strikes in country? Really? This is a good idea? Risking war with a nuclear power? To carry out a vaguely defined mission that has little impact upon American security concerns? If the concern is humanitarian, take in a million refugees. We could do that in a year. I'd frankly be even greedier and take in all of the refugees if they want to come here. All of them if necessary. We can do something about the suffering and condition of these people immediately and easily. We cannot do something about the underlying conditions that created that suffering very easily and immediately. That doesn't mean we cannot or should not. It means the vaguely defined missions and interests I've heard being bandied about aren't very compelling cases that the people who would be in charge of conducting such operations have a clear idea how to do it and would succeed, or at worst would not make things worse by running about. Until they sound much less like the Green Lantern theory of international politics or the underpants gnomes, I'm probably going to be very skeptical that someone has a handle on things and should run with it.
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