Thursday, January 31, 2013

Listening to the Wrong People on Guns

I don't have a lot of answers regarding gun policy. I've written plenty on this blog already about my views on guns and their unsuitability for self-defense. But stories like this one have made me realize something else - that we're mostly listening to the wrong people (including me) in this debate:
Mother loses fourth child to Chicago gun violence
The facts on gun violence get lost amidst the philosophical shouting, posturing, and flag-and-constitution waving. Most gun deaths occur in urban areas, particularly "inner cities". Much of it is between people who know each other. Most of the victims as well as the perpetrators are the urban poor, disproportionately minorities. Newtown, Aurora, Gabby Giffords, and the case of the suburban mom who held off a home invader with her gun are all lightning-strike rare events. The reality behind the statistics of gun violence is this - one-at-a-time shootings, kids caught in the crossfire, gang revenge attacks - a daily grind of shootings that mostly go unreported on the national stage.

If this is the case - and in broad measure, it's very hard to argue otherwise - why are we listening to rich white people in suburbs and rural countrysides argue about guns? What does Wayne LaPierre know about the realities of gun violence in America? How much time has he spent in Cabrini-Green?

The same is true of me, of course. I don't live with daily violence. I don't know anybody who's been shot. Which is why I'm reluctant to offer up solutions from afar.

Right now we have a national argument over gun control being conducted by a bunch of rich white folks with philosophical axes to grind, who want to tell the poor black folks in the inner cities how they should solve their very real security problems. The NRA will point out that Chicago's strict gun control laws don't seem to be helping; liberals will point out that arming everyone (which is pretty much the case in inner-city Chicago) doesn't seem to help much either. Judging by the track record to date, neither has much useful to say about solutions.

One terrible irony is that one of those philosophical axes being ground in public is about "tyranny". We are witnessing a spectacle of the rich, white, and rural telling the poor, black, and urban what to do and how to organize their own communities and lives. In our philosophical arguments about theoretical tyranny, we have apparently forgotten what the actual thing looks like. Maybe we should shut up and listen for a while to the people whose lives are most affected by guns.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is EVERYBODY Cheating?

In the realm of higher education, law schools have been taking a beating for a while for falsifying various kinds of data - in particular, data about how many of their graduates find jobs. The Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Villanova, and others have faced sanctions over their efforts to make themselves and their product look better in the face of a pretty grim labor market for lawyers. Given the substantial stock of lawyer/ethics jokes already in circulation, not too many outside the legal profession saw this as all that surprising.

Now it turns out that the law schools aren't alone. Tulane University's Business School has been sanctioned for submitting false data to US News - drawing on an equally-large pool of jokes about "business ethics" being an oxymoron. But it turns out that this goes beyond Law and B-schools: George Washington University and Bucknell, both considered elite universities, have apparently been falsifying their admissions data to the public for some years.

At some point you have to start asking why there seem to be trees cropping up here and there and start asking about the forest. How widespread is this problem? We don't know, but the fact that more and more schools keep getting outed suggests that higher education has a cheating problem on its hands.

For years, of course, various folks have decried the arbitrary nature of rankings like the US News reports, the Princeton ratings, Barron's, etc. That hasn't kept them from being extremely popular with parents and prospective students, who are overwhelmed with data and looking for some way to simplify the process. If it turns out that the data going into those rankings is bogus, that may finally be their undoing - or, at least, their weakening.

I've been in higher education for over 15 years now as a professional (over 20 if you count being a student). I've worked with administrators who I very much doubt would engage in these kinds of shenanigans, as well as some who I suspect would do it in a heartbeat. It's very hard to tell from the outside, of course - they all smile and say the same things in public. But let's be clear - there are apparently quite a few cheaters in our midst.

What tends to put a stop to unacceptable behavior is the likelihood of getting caught, coupled with serious consequences for doing so. Lance Armstrong has become the poster child for a cycling world gone mad with doping - the New York Times put together a chart of the top 10 finishers in the Tour de France for the past 15 years, marking which ones had later been caught, which looks like an almost solid rectangular rogue's gallery. The sport is now struggling to figure out how to identify these folks fast enough, and punish them harshly enough, so the rest will stop. The Catholic Church has been wrestling with a pedophile problem for some years, and continues to do so, that poses similar problems.

But in higher education, there is no anti-doping agency, no watchdog groups of former victims pressing for justice. Among law schools, the American Bar Association has taken an interest, which should help there. But the organizations which could really help the broader industry - the regional accrediting bodies that provide the necessary sanction that every college and university needs - have neither the resources nor, apparently, the inclination to pursue the issue of data fraud.

None of this, of course, is to say that every school is in fact issuing fraudulent data. Public universities would have a harder time doing so, because everything they do is public record, so it's easier for folks to double-check. Most public universities are also overseen by state-level bodies which could bring much more immediate consequences for any infraction. And many institutions (my own included) don't have "climbing the rankings" as part of their strategic plans. For universities more interested in providing access than prestige, there's not as much incentive to lie about your numbers. But overall, we seem to be facing a broader problem, the full extent of which isn't known yet.

The same is true in cycling, in baseball, in the Catholic Church - any number of areas with a widespread "cheating problem" of one kind or another. We, the outside public, may know that not everyone is cheating. But we can't tell who is and who isn't. So we start to mistrust them all.

If you're the parent of a college-bound child (as I am) - forget the rankings. Because of the glut of PhDs over the last couple of decades, it is now possible for an enterprising student to get a world-class college education in a LOT of schools, many of them pretty far down the US News depth chart. Do your homework, visit, meet and talk to professors and students, get to know the place. Ignore the data. You may be better off following Obi-Wan Kenobi and the ways of the Force: Trust your instincts. Because you may not be able to trust the numbers anymore.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why the NRA Will Lose the National Debate

Having watched roughly a month of discussion, debate, and caterwauling over the issue of gun control in the US, I have come to an analytical conclusion: the NRA is going to lose. Yes, they may win a legislative victory or two by blocking this or that particular piece of gun legislation. They may convince Texas or another like-minded state to open up gun access in some marginal way. There are plenty of battles to be fought. But so long as the NRA continues on its current path, the outcome of the political war is certain.

I say this not because I want one outcome or another, nor because of an analysis of the various facts, factoids, and made-up stuff that partisans are slinging about. I come to this conclusion because the ongoing political struggle over gun control bears all the hallmarks of other, past political battles over social issues where one side has succumbed to inexorable defeat. There is a way of these things, signs that things are not going well. Movements would do well to heed these signs, but they almost never do.

One of the outward signs of impending loss is an asymmetrical pattern of rhetoric. The side that is losing (whether it knows it or not) ratchets up its rhetoric from loud to shrill to deafening. The argument evolves from "this is what we want" to "we're right and you're wrong" to "if we lose, it's the end of everything we hold dear". When the argument gets existential - the Death of Democracy, 1000 Years of Darkness - you know you've gone off the deep end.

There are plenty of signs of this, from NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre's "tone deaf", take-no-prisoners speech one week after the Newtown shootings to the internet reactions of many NRA supporters to President Obama's announcement about new gun legislation. A prominent Republican in Cincinnati, State Board of Education President Debe Terhar, got herself in trouble for reposting a popular pro-gun meme on Facebook that made an implicit connection between Adolph Hitler and President Obama. Her disingenuous "I didn't mean to compare Obama to Hitler" defense aside, she crossed the Godwin's Law line - sooner or later, someone always brings up Hitler, and whoever does loses.

Shrill Hitler comparisons aren't a particularly persuasive argument, but they are more a symptom than a cause of the impending loss. The justifications of losing minorities always turn to existential dogma sooner or later, as the remaining members circle the wagons and try to hold back the tide.

The real reason why the most rabid pro-gun position is destined to lose is that the core idea it is based on is fear. We need guns, we are told, because we need to fear our government (tyranny!), or we need to fear the "bad guys" (predators and killers!), or the mentally ill (mass killers and sociopaths!), or what have you. The problem with basing an argument on fear is that fear is a feeling which most people don't like and would rather not experience. And if they aren't experiencing it, yelling at them that they should doesn't help. Just because there is a small tribal wing of the Republican party that feels fear every time a Democrat occupies the White House doesn't mean that they can convince the rest of us to do the same.

What the pro-gun argument lacks is the hallmark of nearly all successful social movements: compassion. The Civil Rights movement ultimately triumphed because, at its heart, it was based on an argument of compassion for fellow human beings. The struggle for gay marriage is being inexorably won for the same reason. When one side's argument is based on compassion and the other isn't, the other simply looks mean-spirited, which more than any "facts" that might get thrown around tends to drive people away.

This is one reason why the abortion debate has remained largely stable and deadlocked over the last several decades. In the case of abortion, both sides appeal to compassion - the pro-life party to compassion for the unborn baby, the pro-choice party to compassion for the mother. These are some of the hardest moral questions, where we must pit the well-being of one against another. Those kinds of questions feel difficult, because our feelings are torn.

By contrast, nothing in the rhetoric of the NRA or its supporters shows any signs of compassion for anyone. There are (often exaggerated) appeals to fear (they're coming to take your guns!) And there are appeals to abstract principles, which tend to treat the Constitution as Holy Scripture and its authors as Divine Beings - an asserted dogma which likewise fails to convince those outside the tribe.

This, of course, is why the Newtown shooting appears to have moved the needle in ways that other events (Aurora, Gabby Giffords, even Trayvon Martin) did not. The desire to protect six year old children is universally human, and the compassion we feel for the victims and their families overpowers nearly everything else. To fail to express that compassion, as the NRA has, is to appear cold and callous, even inhumane.

No doubt some will protest that it's not right that we should make policy based on feelings, and that facts and principles - the stuff of Reason - should rule the day. Setting aside the NRA's troubled relationship with facts and science, this argument misses the reality of social politics. American society is significantly impacted by science and reason, but also by feeling and emotion. We are children both of the Enlightenment and the Romantics. Romanticism without reason leads to terrible excesses of passion. But reason without feeling (especially without compassion) leads to excesses of the cold, calculating sort - the sort that describes civilian deaths in war as "collateral damage".

Unless the NRA and its supporters can find a way to ground their arguments in a compassionate worldview, they are destined for defeat. It won't come today or tomorrow, but slowly and inexorably their power will wither and fade. And no shrill appeals to dogma or wild comparisons to Adolph Hitler will prevent their being reduced to irrelevance.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Civics 101: Whose Debt Is It?

This is one of those blog posts that won't get read by the people who need to read it. But I'm going to write it anyway. Maybe I'll get lucky.

As the political debate around the "debt ceiling" heats up, party tribalists out in the trenches are ratcheting up their rhetoric. Hard-core Republicans are posting various messages about "Obama's debt", just as a few years ago hard-core Democrats were casting aspersions on "Bush's debt". Here's a typical example (taken from my FB feed today):

So let's go back and review our basic civics lessons, shall we?

As I've written before, we invest FAR too much important into the Office of the Presidency. Yes, the President is a powerful position with significant influence, and a bipartisan string of presidents (stretching back to Ronald Reagan at least) have been very effective in organizing and using that power.

That being said, it is Congress that produces and passes the US government budget. Only Congress can levy taxes. Only Congress can authorize the spending of money. Ask Ollie North, Robert McFarland, and their colleagues what happens when you spend government money against Congressional orders - it ain't pretty.

So the debt we have? It's been piling up for some time, under a series of Congresses most of which are largely the same as the one before. Re-election rates run over 80% in the Senate and 90% in the House, so with a few changes on the margin this has largely been the same group of 535 people over the last many years.

It's not "Obama's debt". It's not "Bush's debt". Yes, both Presidents (as well as Clinton and their predecessors) suggested things that have either lowered tax revenues or raised spending, or both. All of those things - the ones that have actually contributed to the debt - were voted on and approved by Congress. Many of them enjoyed widespread popular support. I can guarantee you that the people who "like" pictures like the one above almost certainly supported some of the measures that have contributed to the problem they are now complaining about.

This ongoing demonization of the President when he happens to be from the other party is childish and woefully misinformed. Those who engage in it, however cute they think they are being, only reveal (and reinforce) ignorance. Unfortunately, this dynamic has become a serious impediment to real action, or even real conversation about action.

Anybody who thinks they can "win" such an argument, on FB or in any other forum (Fox News, MSNBC, at a town hall meeting, in the local paper), is deluding themselves and feeding their own ego. If we want any kind of constructive discussion about solving problems - and the debt is a very real and significant problem, although we may differ about the nature of it - people plying these kinds of bumper-sticker zingers need to be summarily ignored. If you want to bolster your own ego and feel clever, knock yourself out. But don't expect either attention or respect from the rest of us.

As much as we love arguments as Americans, they're a lousy way to solve problems. If we really want to solve problems, we need to leave behind these "childish ways" and talk like grown-ups. And that starts by taking the President (of whatever party) off the pedestal of blame or credit we place him on, and dealing with the real world.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Data on Sports in Higher Education

There is a long-standing concern in higher education about the cost of athletic programs, and how much spending on sports takes away from the academic mission of universities. Scandal after scandal involving eligibility, an NCAA that is by turns draconian and toothless, and persistent reports of football coaches earning far more than campus presidents (or many CEOs) have all fed the perception that college sports isn't about "amateur scholar-athletes" - it's a big business which has largely outgrown the academic tail on the university dog.

In a way, this concern echoes the social conflict in school itself between "jocks" and "geeks" - between those who idolize, even worship, sports and those who fear sports' dark side. In the realm of money and universities, geeks fear, the jocks have won the lion's share of resources.

Into this fray steps the Delta Cost Project, the most comprehensive attempt to gather data on performance in higher education to date. They have just released a report titled "Academic Spending vs. Athletic Spending: Who Wins?" The results are not encouraging for those of us on the academic side:
Athletic departments spend far more per athletethan institutions spend to educate the averagestudent—typically three to six times as much;among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions,median athletic spending was nearly $92,000 perathlete in 2010, while median academic spendingper full-time equivalent (FTE) student was less than$14,000 in these same universities.
Athletic costs increased at least twice as fast asacademic spending, on a per-capita basis acrosseach of the three Division I subdivisions.
Very few Division I athletic departments areself-funded; instead, most programs rely on athleticsubsidies from institutions and students. However,the largest per-athlete subsidies are in thosesubdivisions with the lowest spending per athlete.Without access to other large revenue streams,these programs have increasingly turned to theirinstitutions to finance additional athletic spending.
In other words - yes, sports programs (football in particular, but sports in general) have been sucking revenue away from the academic side of the house, and at an increasing rate in recent years. Given the relatively small numbers of students who participate in and benefit from these programs (especially the few programs that take the biggest bucks), and the lack of data on the educational impact of those programs relative to university educational goals, it's hard to escape the conclusion that this is simply wasted money from an institutional mission perspective.

My preferred solution has long been to spin off the costly and potentially lucrative sports (football, basketball, maybe baseball) into what amount to professional minor leagues (yes, baseball already has this, I know. What's a few more minor league teams?) Let their profits stand or fall on their own. If they want an emotional connection to a university, let them license the name, logos and mascot for a fee. But get 'em off campus and away from the university's budget.

I'm sure that others could come up with even better and more creative solutions. I'm also realistic enough to understand that none of these solutions is likely to happen, because those who are making money on this system are making a lot of it and will be very resistant to any change. But at the least, this report should pose some uncomfortable questions for Division I (especially Div. IA) presidents, who have the power (but have lacked the vision or the courage) to take action.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Apparently, Other Things CAN Stop a "Bad Guy With a Gun"

School shootings are amplified these days in the news, so it's not surprising that this one made the national press:

California sheriff: Youth who shot classmate felt he'd been bullied

Without other comment on the details or merits of the case, I will note only that Mr. LaPierre is apparently wrong. It is not true that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. In this case, the "bad guy" was stopped by an unarmed teacher and a school counselor - using words. Interesting stuff.

Guns, the NRA, and Zero Sum Politics

In the weeks since the Newtown shooting in Connecticut, a lot of people have weighed in on the national conversation about guns, violence, and the prevention of mass shootings. That's the way it should be - governance should be noisy and raucous and involve lots of ideas, to see what shakes out.

One thing that has surprised many has been the nature and tenor of the NRA's responses. First, the organization was absolutely silent for a week - not even a sympathy-with-the-victims canned response for a full seven days. Then came a fiery, combative speech from Wayne LaPierre that even some Republicans labelled as "politically tone-deaf".

Now the NRA's latest public pronouncement has been to lambast the Obama administration, and Joe Biden in particular, after having been invited to be part of the conversation at the White House.

This may leave many still scratching their heads. Why is the NRA being so combative, so "politically tone-deaf"? Why are they so reluctant to appear reasonable in the public eye, to possibly win over some supporters outside of their most hard-core backers? Hasn't anybody taught these guys how politics is done?

I admit to having been puzzled myself, for a while. But I think I've come to an answer to why the NRA is acting as it is. The answer follows from a dictum I'm fond of: behavior comes from ideas. As you think, so shall you act.

Wayne LaPierre's now-famous "good guy with a gun" formulation gives the game away. It isn't that his claim about bad guys and good guys was meant to be an analysis of the world, or a political argument to sway others. It was simply a reflection of the worldview of the current NRA leadership. In that view, there are good guys and bad guys, and conflicts between them are resolved when the good guys win and the bad guys lose.

Their approach to everything is therefore rooted in zero-sum thinking. Either I win or you do; we cannot both get something, because how can "good" and "bad" coexist? Accordingly, they don't want to "contribute to a national conversation" or "influence policy" or do anything that most of us would think of as political participation. They want to win, pure and simple, and regard anything less than winning as loss. To them, the fight is existential.

It is fitting that a group whose identity revolves around guns should adopt this view. In a conflict, guns are the ultimate zero-sum tool. There are very few compromises, ties, or partial results from a gun fight. It's been pointed out that guns don't kill people, they just make it really easy - and the whole point of you killing me is that my death will end the argument, the conflict will be over, and you will have "won".

Back in the real world, this is a terrible, awful, dysfunctional view of how to resolve conflicts. In a grand scale, it almost never works - everyone can name lots of attempted genocides from the last 100 years, but how many actually succeeded? Even at an interpersonal level, when someone shoots someone else they usually find that that doesn't resolve the conflict - it may only make it far worse. Ask George Zimmerman or Michael Dunn whether shooting someone solved their problems.

So long as the NRA continues to hold to its zero-sum worldview, its "contributions" are worthless and should be ignored. The complex issues of gun legislation, mental health, and violence will not be resolved or even meaningfully addressed by one side winning and another side losing. When the NRA's leadership gains enough wisdom and maturity to see this, they can rejoin the conversation. In the meantime, the rest of us have work to do in trying to sort out complex responses to messy problems in which, hopefully, all of us win something.

Everybody's Entitled To Their Opinion, But ...

In higher education, as in most fields, there is a broad proliferation of opinions. This is particularly true in the areas of the humanities & the social sciences, where the questions at issue are fundamental to human interests, passions, and identities. Politics, John Stuart Mill once wrote, is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss.

So it should come as no surprise that an outside organization with no particular expertise in History (the National Association of Scholars) has decided that it should conduct its own audit of American history courses as taught at two large public universities in Texas. Given the NAS' reputation for being ideologically right of center, it is perhaps not surprising that the report concludes in part that there is an "inordinate focus" on issues of race, class, and gender - hot-button issues for political ideologues on both the left and the right, red meat for tribal warriors who like to fight about such things.

Anyone who has been around the history profession for the last 20+ years would hardly find this "finding" surprising. Like all disciplines, history tends to shift its focus and emphasis over time, and issues of race, class, and gender have been ascendant for some time. In my field (international politics), thirty years ago we studied arms races and great-power alliance politics, and paid hardly any attention to terrorism and ethnic conflict. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find much research in the central publications of the field on arms races and arms control negotiations.

Whether the shift in history towards social history and away from other areas (notably military history, which people on the right often pine for) is a good thing or a bad thing is something every citizen is entitled to an opinion on. Members of the NAS are certainly entitled to theirs. On the other hand, what is the standard against which they are measuring "inordinate focus"? You can download their report here if you're interested; it's 64 pages long, insuring that relatively few will read the whole thing.

The report creates the illusion of objective scientific analysis, with color bar graphs and convincing-looking numbers, but in fact what they're touting as "fact" is extremely problematic. How do you measure how much of the content of a course focuses on race, gender, and class (what they have conveniently labelled "RCG history") as opposed to other topics? Why focus on these particular issues to start with? Is there a comprehensive list of all possible topics in history, and how do we decide which are most or least important? Are their operationalizations (a fancy term for "methods of measuring") valid?

This is the kind of "research" guaranteed to produce the results which the authors are looking for, and as such shouldn't be taken seriously. There are so many questions to be answered prior to any kind of substantive analysis of a curriculum - an "analysis" of the kind offered by the NAS is meaningless without those answers. At worst, it's mendacious, in that it gives the imprimatur of "science" and "research" to what is essentially a half-formed tribal argument.

Worse, from an academic standpoint it's not clear what authority the authors have to bring to the table. None of the three authors is an historian. One (NAS president Peter Wood, whose name goes on all major publications) is an anthropologist. A second is an NAS staff member with a BA in politics from King's College (where, I'm guessing, she didn't take American history). The third, Richard Fonte, isn't comprehensively identified anywhere, but may be the former president of the College of Lake County who resigned in 2007 after a fight with his own faculty. Yes, all citizens are entitled to their opinions - but if this same group had written a critique of, say, chemistry curricula they would have been roundly laughed at.

If you want to contribute to (or even start) a national conversation about what students should be learning in American history, lobbing ill-considered grenades is a terrible way to go about it. If you have a vision for what American history should be like, say so, and see how many people you can convince. Be prepared to engage in debate with historians who have spent their lives studying the subject. Don't spit out "research" that only contributes to ongoing tribal divides and accomplishes nothing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Our Hollywood Ideas About Guns and Violence

There's been a lot of conversation lately about arming teachers as a means of dealing with gun violence in schools. News reports have suggested that teachers are "flocking" to gun training programs. The NRA has certainly gotten behind this idea, with Wayne LaPierre's latest contribution to the public conversation - "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

I've blogged before about the role that ideas play in how guns get used in our society. Behavior flows from thought - how we think about things determines what we do, and ultimately shapes the outcomes we get as a society. Most of the time, we don't examine our thinking. The NRA certainly hasn't.

It's fitting that the term "Red Dawn fantasy" has started to surface as part of the public discussion. As much as Mr. LaPierre wants to point the finger at Hollywood, I would guess that a great many of his most ardent fans are also fans of the Red Dawn franchise (now extended, for reasons unclear to me, to two movies. Did we need a remake?) Red Dawn represents the classic American violence fantasy: the plucky underdog Americans use guns against the (clearly demarcated, obviously wrong) bad guys. Shooting the bad guys saves the day.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a pacifist, and I am quite willing to acknowledge that guns can be used in self defense. But there's another truth about guns, encapsulated in a pithy restatement by another blogger: Guns don't kill people, they just make it real easy. And because of that ease, arming everybody under the sun is a recipe for disaster.

Consider that police - the people who are primarily entrusted with the job of being the "good guys with guns" - undergo extensive training in everything from the use of firearms to communications skills, crowd management, the law, use of force & defensive tactics, and many, many more topics. A typical police academy curriculum involves over 600 hours of training, and that's just to become a rookie cop. Most states require additional training or continuing education on the job, to stay sharp and up to date. And even with all of this training police make mistakes, either by accident or through errors in judgment.

Why all of this training? Because the sudden intrusion of violence into a place it's not expected - a school, a movie theater, a political rally - is a tremendously chaotic event. Just as people are victimized by random acts of violence they didn't see coming, our ordinary instincts are not to think about what we would do if a person with a gun burst into the room, and we don't react well when it happens. To deal with sudden, unexpected violence effectively you need a lot of practice in telling friend from foe and understanding the range of appropriate options and how to choose the right one - inside of a few seconds, with life-or-death consequences riding on getting it right.

Given all of this, why do we think that the answer is to give teachers a few hours' training and a gun? Even experienced shooters who go to gun ranges a lot aren't necessarily prepared. Firing rounds at a stationary range target is about as effective in preparing you for self-defense as hitting a heavy bag is to prepare me for winning street fights. It hones one particular skill, but without the ability to apply that skill in context it's worthless - or, in the case of guns, potentially catastrophic. If I punch the wrong person in the wrong situation, I hurt them; if I shoot them, they're dead and my life is ruined.

As we continue our national conversation about guns, violence, and self-defense, let's leave the Hollywood fantasies behind and give violence the respect that it deserves. There are no simple, "magic bullet" solutions, just as there is no "secret move" someone can teach that will "always" win a street fight. We're dealing with a complex and deadly topic. Let's treat it as such, instead of thinking that an idea that fits on a bumper sticker will solve our problems.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Another Casualty in For-Profit Higher Ed

I've posted before (with perhaps a touch of Schadenfreude) about the travails of the for-profit education sector. After some years of being told that "the Phoenixes are going to take over the world", it's good to see some perspective returning.

In case you're still not convinced, here's still another in a line of retrenchments in that sector:
5 For-Profit Campuses Lose Accreditation After Abrupt Closures
My guess is that the juggernaut-like expansion of for-profit higher ed had little to do with new and exciting technologies, and a great deal to do with cheap investment capital blowing bubbles everywhere. Now those bubbles are popping and we're returning to a little more sense. Yes, established non-profit higher ed faces a lot of challenges. But I don't see the upstarts taking over anytime soon - certainly not with their track record in recent years.

Government Regulation - Are We Doing It Wrong?

Over the weekend, I found the time to read an entire article from The Atlantic. The article, titled "What's Inside America's Banks?", is an in-depth look at the financial disclosure statements of US banks (using Wells Fargo as a case study). It's enough to make most folks comb through their portfolios to make sure we don't own any bank stocks. It's well worth the time to go and read it.

Buried in the middle of the article is an interesting observation about bank regulation and its ineffectiveness:
Accounting rules have proliferated as banks, and the assets and liabilities they contain, have become more complex. Yet the rules have not kept pace with changes in the financial system. Clever bankers, aided by their lawyers and accountants, can find ways around the intentions of the regulations while remaining within the letter of the law. What’s more, because these rules have grown ever more detailed and lawyerly—while still failing to cover every possible circumstance—they have had the perverse effect of allowing banks to avoid giving investors the information needed to gauge the value and risk of a bank’s portfolio. (That information is obscured by minutiae and legalese.) This is true for the complicated questions about financial innovation and trading, but it also is true for the basic questions, such as those involving loans...(Today, big banks have to answer to a dizzying litany of regulators—not only the SEC, but also the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and so on. The disclosure regimes vary, adding to the confusion. Banks confidentially release additional information to these regulators, but investors do not have access to those details. That regulators have these extra, confidential disclosures isn’t much comfort: given the inability of regulators to police the banks in recent years, one of the only groups that investors trust less than bankers is bank regulators.)...
Until the 1980s, bank rules were few in number, but broad in scope. Regulation was focused on commonsense standards. Commercial banks were not permitted to engage in investment-banking activity, and were required to set aside a reasonable amount of capital. Bankers were prohibited from taking outsize risks. Not every financial institution complied with the rules, but many bankers who strayed were judged, and punished.  Since then, however, the rules have proliferated, the arguments about compliance have become ever more technical, and the punishments have been minor and rare. Not a single senior banker from a major firm has gone to prison for conduct related to the 2008 financial crisis; few even paid fines. The penalties paid by banks are paltry compared with their profits and bonus pools. The cost‑benefit analysis of such a system tilts in favor of recklessness, in large part because of the complex web of regulation: bankers can argue that they comply with the letter of the law, even when they violate its spirit. (emphasis added)
Governance has always been, in large part, an argument about the limits and scope of regulation. We need some government regulation on private behavior (lest we end up with Russia's oligarchs), but how much is enough and how much is too much? This is the basic stuff of politics.

But at some point in the 1980s, the discussion shifted. In a brilliant piece of political jiujitsu, those who had previously resisted regulation (in this case, banks, but the same applies to many sectors) embraced it and began actively participating in the creation of more regulation. The effect of this is that we are now drowning in regulations (the article points out that the Glass-Stegal act of 1933 was 37 pages; Dodd-Frank is 848 and it's not remotely done - in the end, the necessary regulations will fill tens of thousands of pages), but they don't work. We don't trust banks or regulators; we don't trust Congress or the executive bureaucracies.

How did we come to believe that more (meaning more complex) regulation is better? There was no national conversation to this issue, no political debate. It's a belief quietly assumed, unexamined, in the back of our minds. Modern finance (or industry, or what have you) is complicated, we are told - so we need complicated rules. No one questions the equation, even as we collectively distrust the results.

The idea of making regulation simpler and easier to enforce isn't a new one, of course. Philip Howard made this argument in The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. Because we are a tribal culture, and because at the time we were in the midst of the Clinton Prosperity, his book was widely derided by liberals and Democrats as being conservative and reactionary.

Left-leaning Democrats would do well to go back and give him another look, or read any of his three follow-on books. While he doesn't connect the dots this way, the argument that he is making - that excessively complex regulation is strangling the US economy and society - is one that should find friends on both the right and the left. The "1%" megacorps and vampire squid financial institutions that the left so distrusts are well-served by the massive yet ineffective complex of regulations we have built to "try" to contain them.

Ultimately, we've allowed our representatives in Congress to get trapped into thinking that every legislative response must contain an encyclopedia of details to cover every eventuality - rather than allowing judgements based on common-sense rules that we all understand. We don't get the effects of regulation that we want, and we as a people are pushed further and further away from our governance system, which becomes so esoteric than only K Street lawyers can understand it.

So perhaps it's time to put away the tired and wasteful debate over "more" or "less" regulation and talk about something more important - what kind of regulation do we want, and what do we want it to accomplish? We might find, if we have that conversation, that we agree on more than we think we do - and that real solutions can be found that most of us can agree on.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Guns CAN Be Used For Self Defense

Regular readers (all three of you) know that I've made the argument in the past that guns are, on balance, not a good investment for self defense. There are a great many potential misuses, and the statistical evidence that having a gun in the home puts you more at risk, not less, is overwhelming. For those of you who want to read those past posts - there are too many to link here - you'll find them in the archives, usually with the Self Defense label.

With all of that having been said, I have to acknowledge that guns can be used for self defense. Sometimes, they are in fact the tool for the job. For those who prefer to think of guns in a positive light (or for those of us who need to be reminded that the world is a complex place), here's a case to consider:
Woman hiding with kids shoots intruder
Here's a woman facing a nightmare scenario - at home with her kids, facing a determined home intruder  (he took the trouble to hunt her down in a crawlspace, which suggests intent to do harm). Her handgun gave her the opportunity to more than even the odds, and she successfully defended herself and her children.

The take-home message here isn't simple, however - especially in light of the current national debate. The gun in question was presumably legally owned, and was legally used in a way that nobody has argued against. The gun itself, a .38 special, is likely to remain legally available under any reasonably conceivable gun regulations. To the extent that this woman may have needed to obtain some kind of training as a condition for acquiring her weapon, that was likely all to the good.

Proposed restrictions on "assault weapons" don't have any impact on this scenario. Neither do changes to regulations surrounding gun shows (.38 specials being legally acquirable through licensed dealers), or high-capacity magazines, or "stand your ground" laws. The post-Newtown conversation really has nothing at all to do with this kind of case, and there is no foreseeable chance that other women faced with this scenario will have their options restricted in ways that this woman did not.

So there is no reasonable argument that guns are never useful for self defense. They provide some benefits against some scenarios (aggressive home intruders) while increasing risks in others (escalating arguments, suicides, accidents, children taking them for other purposes). In a society in which guns are legal (as ours is and will remain), the decision to have a gun is an intensely personal one. We should hope that people make this decision in light of all the evidence, and not because they belong to a particular political tribe or have latched on to one particular anecdote.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Called It

Resubmitted without further comment. Gloating? Sure, a little. It's nice to be right now and again, even if I wish reality were different.

Resolving Conflict is Simple - It's Just Not Easy

There's a lot of conflict in the air as we enter the new year. Various factions in Washington are in conflict over the Federal budget. Various factions in society are in conflict over gun restrictions. And some hard-core tribalists want to continue the conflict that played out during the election.

I have spent my entire adult life studying conflict - how to analyze it, how to understand it, how it gets resolved. Conflict resolution, as hard as it is to achieve, is really very simple. Not easy, but simple. Because there are (on the whole) only two ways that conflicts get resolved:

1) One party beats the other into submission and takes what it wants - the "winner take all" ending.

2) Both parties come to an agreement that ends the conflict - the voluntary and mutual ending.

The essence of civilized politics - the grand discussion of political philosophy for the past 400 years - is about how we get rid of the first outcome and enable the second, and how when outcome #1 is necessary the decision is made objectively on the basis of rules we all agree on ahead of time, rather than on who has the most power.

The systems we have built to accomplish these ends aren't perfect, and still need a lot of work. But on the whole, we've come a long way - Steven Pinker's observations about the decline in violence are only one indicator of our progress. And the march of that progress is, to a significant degree, a measure of our advancement as a civilization. The less we take from each other by force, the less we allow the strong to lord over the weak, the less we end our arguments in fistfights (or gunfights) rather than agreements, the better we are as a people. The recent massive protests in India, to take just one example, are a reflection of a shared human desire to beat back the barbarity that took that young woman's life and impose a more civilized society based on mutual consent.

To a substantial degree, this is an unremarkable observation - few of us want to live in a broadly winner-take-all, dog-eat-dog society. The problem comes, of course, in the particulars. When it comes down to particular issues, some forget the bedrock of mutual civilization in their desire to Win and Be Right.

What do I mean? Here are a couple of examples:

• In his address a week following the Newtown shooting, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre continued his organization's unwavering opposition to any legislation placing any sorts of restrictions on firearms. In a speech labeled by commentators across the spectrum as "tone deaf", Mr. LaPierre blamed everybody in reach and drew a simplistic "good guys/bad guys" view of the world. This is not the first time that the NRA has signaled its aversion to dialogue. Many of its most hard-core supporters cheered his stance, continuing a deadlocked "discussion" that has frustrated a great many Americans who would like to find a way forward.

• The following Facebook meme showed up on my FB feed today (posted originally by a FB group, the Conservative Club, with over 8500 followers - not enormous, but not a trivial number either):

The core message here is one of tribalistic bravado - "we're not gonna take it anymore!" Of course, what exactly these folks propose to do (aside from call their opponents childish names) is left to the imagination. But the gut feeling here is clear - we will win and they (morally bankrupt, Godless, soul-less evil Communists) will lose.

We spent much of 2012 listening to rhetoric from folks like Mr. LaPierre and the Conservative Club. In the context of an election, it was easy to dismiss this as pandering for votes - even as some of us worried about the corrosive effect on society as a whole. Now at the start of the new year, nearly two months after the election, there seems to be a lot of this kind of barbarity still around.

I use the term "barbarity" here not for hyperbole, but for its definition. If your approach to politics (or any conflict) rests on an unwillingness to dialogue, discuss, consider, compromise, or hunt for mutual solutions, you stand against the basis on which civilization is built. Refusing to look seriously for a mutual agreement while rejecting the rules we have set up for resolving disputes (as the Conservative Club's ill-considered meme does) is simply to say, "I'm right, you're wrong, and I'm going to beat you senseless until I win." Or, to give a real-world example of this kind of "dispute resolution" in action:
Tenants killed in snow-shoveling row
This landlord in Maine apparently decided that the only way to resolve his dispute with his tenants was to kill them. I doubt we'll hear Mr. LaPierre, or any NRA supporters, discussing this case.

So we as transition from one year of rabid partisanship to another, let's try to remember that the most basic disagreement in our society isn't between Democrats and Republicans, or between Right and Left. It's between those who think that civilization is based on reason, evidence, the search for mutual agreement, and the rule of law; and those whose adherence to dogma (Right, Left, or otherwise) will drive them to reject anything - reason, evidence, compromise, or law - that stands in the way of their total victory.

Tim O'Brien, recipient of the 2012 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, gave a speech recently in Dayton. In that address, he talked of his own experience in Vietnam, and the "two heads" (Left and Right) which have argued in his own mind ever since about that war. He expressed great concern about those who make the "one headed" mistake - thinking that they are right, that they know everything there is to know, and that there is nothing left to do but beat their opponents into submission. To the extent that this thinking gains the upper hand in our society, we are in real trouble. Let's hope that 2013 sees an increase in reasonableness and a retreat from dogma.