Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Guns Are Often Not the Best Tool

I have made the point here before that I am neither a strict pacifist, nor do I believe that guns cannot be used for legitimate self-defense purposes (here and here). I believe that, on balance, guns are often not the best tool for self-defense; they are certainly not the panacea that some seem to want to claim. But I do not come at this issue as a fanatic, either pro-gun or anti-gun.

From that standpoint, the following story is an interesting one. It is told by a gun owner, about another gun owner who appears to be both responsible and thoughtful - not a "gun not", and not a proponent of openly carrying guns either for symbolism or for deterrence:
Man Attacked in Walmart Won't Open Carry Again
I appreciate this fellow's perspective, and the restraint which he showed in this situation. He is certainly correct that the best use of a gun for self-defense involves NOT pulling the trigger. I give him props for properly noting that situational awareness is the best defense. I think he's also probably right in his conclusion that openly carrying a weapon in this case made the defender a target - that had he not been carrying his weapon visibly, this fellow would not have attacked him at all. There's an irony there, but I'll leave that for others.

Those who have read my writings on this subject before know that I prefer unarmed means of self-defense where possible, and am a proponent of traditional martial arts in particular (though there are a great many "non-traditional" systems, including Russian Systema and Krav Maga, which can be highly effective as well). Interestingly, the story linked above actually helps make that point - this fellow would have been better off had he not been carrying at all, even if the other guy still attacked him, provided that he was ready to deal with such an attack.

The story itself is fairly simple: a stranger grabs a baseball bat from a rack in the aisle of a store and takes a swing at the protagonist's head with it. Here's the meat of the story:
The man picked up a bat from the bat rack, and without warning, drew back and swung it at Mr. Walker’s head with full force. 
Unlike most people who would have frozen due to the unexpected nature of the attack, or who would have reflexively recoiled away, Mr. Walker stepped forward into the swing and turned his shoulder into his attacker. His reaction both reduced the force of the blow, and kept his assailant from making a potentially deadly strike to his head. 
Mr Walker then stepped back to create distance and drew his open-carried Sig Sauer P226 in .357 Sig, racked the slide the chamber a round (he carries it on an empty chamber), and ordered his attacker to the ground.
Martial artists will recognize this scenario - the baseball bat attack is one of the most common "armed attacker vs. unarmed defender" scenarios we use in training. And this guy's first reaction - to step in rather than out - was a good start.

From there, however, the best next step would have been to control the attacker, taking away his option to continue the attack by immobilizing the arm, taking away the bat, or preferably both. There are dozens of ways to do this, and most reasonably experienced martial artists could think up two or three of them on the spot.

So while I applaud the defender in this story for his restraint in not firing his gun, the fact that he didn't is not because of his virtue or skill - it's because the attacker chose to comply rather than continue the attack. As many in the self-defense community will tell you, that's a weak reed on which to hang your fate.

By his own admission, the defender "stepped back to create distance" - let's assume six to eight feet at most, a quick couple of steps. That would take him out of immediate swing range, but not so far that the fellow with the bat couldn't try again. A determined, or crazed (or drugged-up) attacker could very well do so.

This is where watching movies and TV gets us in trouble. On screen, there is a certain narrative omniscience - we see that the good guy has a gun, and the bad guy sees it to. But what if, in this case, the bad guy didn't see the gun? Or what if his judgment was impaired, or he thought he could get the swing in before the gunman pulled the trigger? Any of these is possible in the real world, and experienced cops and prosecutors will tell you they all happen.

At that point, our gun-armed defender faces a terrible choice. An attacker with a baseball bat who has already swung at him once is 6-8 feet away and charging again. That attack is going to land in 0.5 seconds, tops. In that time, the defender must make a life-or-death choice: to fire or not. Both choices can lead to disaster. It's a terrible position to be in - shoot or don't shoot, either can ruin your life.

The martial artist does not face this same choice, having a range of tools at his disposal. In response to the initial attack, he can take away the bat and immobilize the attacker. He can strike in a way that injures, but does not kill. He can break the attacker's arm, rendering another swing impossible. He has a wealth of options, limited only by his training, his skill, and his imagination. Almost none of those options leave anybody dead.

Every attack is different. One problem in debates over self-defense is that they are anecdote-based: we present stories or make up scenarios and then argue that our preferred method would be the best way to deal with this situation. Rarely in life in there one answer to everything. But in self-defense, guns present for me too stark a choice: kill or be killed. I prefer to leave matters of life and death to others, and to try to fill my toolbox with skills and abilities to cover a scaleable range of possibilities. I applaud this gun owner for the outcome of this case. But he would have been better off with training and practice in place of the gun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Politics is Fundamentally about Power

When Bill Clinton ran for President back in 1992, his campaign had a few simple phrases that they used internally to stay on message. The most famous of these became widely cited: "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton's success propelled that phrase to almost mythic status: elections are won or lost on economic or "pocketbook" issues.

This is relevant as we start the serious, above-board portion of the next Presidential election cycle (yes, it's still early in 2015 and we're talking about the 2016 campaign - so it goes these days). Candidates are emerging from the woodwork (few of them surprises) and already starting to argue about the agenda. Economic issues are featuring prominently already, and probably will throughout.

A lot has been written (including in this blog) about the growing level of inequality in America. The phrase "the 1%" now has a lasting and universally-understood meaning, which itself is an indication of how skewed things have become. I still believe that the question of economic distribution is one of the fundamental issues of our time, because it opens the door to the wider question of what kind of society we want to live in.

Unfortunately, the economic argument has become mired in our usual tribal politics and bumper-sticker sloganeering. And here I have to give props to the conservative side of the argument, because they have managed to fashion a couple of closely related trump cards. One is the argument that "Liberals care about equality of outcomes, conservatives care about equality of opportunities." The other is the nearly universal revulsion the conservative movement has instilled towards the notion of "economic redistribution". Robin Hood (taking from the rich and giving to the poor) no longer has much legitimacy in America.

Leaving aside the sincerity of either of these arguments (and I believe that many conservatives are sincere, especially about the opportunity vs. outcome side of things), this whole "debate" misses the point. Focusing on money and economic distribution is trying to treat the symptom instead of diagnosing the disease.

The real issue - indeed, the fundamental question of all governance no matter what kind of political system you have - is distribution of power. We talk a lot about money corrupting politics, and it clearly can and does - but that's a back-end reinforcement mechanism. Money follows power far more than it leads it. Take a look at folks who got rich outside the usual power structures - Bill Gates is a good example. Gates has more money than the Koch Brothers will ever have, but that doesn't make him more powerful. His wealth has had very little, if any, impact on American politics. Most people don't even know what his political views are.

So when we argue about whether our political system should be redistributing wealth, we are barking up the wrong tree. What we should be talking about is the redistribution of political power. We have forgotten that such redistribution is exactly what democracy is designed to do. Political power always and everywhere tends naturally to accumulate over time in the hands of a small elite - this has happened in every human society, everywhere, at every stage in history. The whole point of the American revolution, the Constitution (and before it, the Articles of Confederation), the Magna Carta, and all of what we regard as the best political experiments in history have had this one thing in common: the goal of intentionally taking power away from the few and spreading it out among the many.

In this, our current political system is failing spectacularly. I've cited before the study by Gilens and Page showing remarkable evidence of oligarchy stretching back decades. Other studies have been done, and other evidence collected, pointing in the same direction. The growing concentration of power in the United States isn't a debatable point - all the evidence we have points to the same conclusion.

This will sound to some like a partisan argument, and in a certain sense it is. The Republican Party, from its policy positions to its core ideology to its funding sources, seems to have aligned itself some time ago with the existing dominant bases of power in the United States. A message that rejects wealth redistribution is a message in defense of the status quo - that is, the current distribution of power in the country. So far as I can tell, the Republican Party on most fronts seems content with the existing concentration of power.

But mine is not necessarily an argument in favor of the Democratic Party in general, or Hillary Clinton (the presumptive nominee at this point) in particular. Clinton is very much a part of the existing power structure (as are nearly all of the other potential Democratic candidates), and has never shown a great deal of fervor for the mission of redistributing power back out, though she does adopt some of the lingo. The Democratic Party in general, going back probably the late 1960s and the Chicago debacle, has largely accommodated itself to the existing power system as a means of remaining relevant.

Recently some friends of mine on the left have been cheering as wealthy private individuals (Warren Buffet, George Soros) with more left-leaning views have begun talking about jumping into the political fray to push back against the power of conservative money. And while such a struggle would appear to make the system more "balanced", in reality it simply turns American politics into an argument among rich white guys. The famous Swahili proverb seems to fit: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled."

Some have turned to the growing Libertarian movement as an antidote, and on its face it would seem that Libertarianism - with its message of shrinking the power of government and pushing decisions back to the local level - is consistent with the notion of redistributing power. But in this, Libertarians are terribly naive. They focus entirely on official government power and ignore the significant power in the hands of private players (the Koch Brothers, Buffet, or otherwise). A weak central government is an extremely fertile ground for an oligarchy - look at Russia in the 1990s under Yeltsin, when the oligarchs ran roughshod over the country and gobbled up nearly everything of value. Believing that you can shrink the power of government and wind up with a freer and more democratic outcome - or even a place that people like living in - flies in the face of the evidence.

So where to turn? As usual, I don't have any good solutions - if the answer were obvious somebody else would have found it already. But I do argue - as I always have - that asking the right questions and focusing on the right issues is far more important that having the answers. Right now our political system is largely asking all the wrong questions. We have for the most part abandoned the central mission of democracy in favor of some of its trappings. If we start asking the right questions, I don't know what will happen - but I think the outcome is likely to be better than the path we are on.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why Does College Cost So Much? Beating the Same Dead Horses

Frankly, I almost hate to write this. I've written plenty of pieces before about the rising cost of higher education and the increase in administration within universities. There are too many to link them all here; try this one for starters, it points back to several of the others.

So why rehash this subject again? Because Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, somehow managed to get an op-ed published in the New York Times - in the Sunday Review section, no less - that beats this dead horse one more time with a bizarre series of not-quite-comparable almost-statistics that sound vaguely like an argument. You can find lots of writing picking his article apart piece by piece, from his misuse of analogies to his simple misstatement of facts. I'll assume that ground has been crossed already and so won't go over it again here.

Unfortunately, the visibility of Campos' piece has given new life to an argument that ought to have been disposed of a long time ago - that the rising tuition cost of college if really a function of evil, greedy, grasping, ever-multiplying administrators. Perhaps Mr. Campos pictures us sitting around in our office twirling our mustaches and petting white fluffy cats. But because he got his nonsense published in the NYT, we have to go over this again.

Are there more "administrators" on campuses? Yes, absolutely - although the first challenge you confront when you try to verify that is defining the line is between "administrator" and "staff". A lot of the "administrators" that Mr. Campos points to as the source of the problem are people who do things. Many of these things, as I have pointed out many times before, were things that universities were not expected to do two generations ago (he seems fond of comparisons to 1960) but are today.

In many if not most instances, universities did not choose these things for themselves - both society and government have thrust a great many mandates onto universities and colleges in that intervening 55 years. Faculty can't both be faculty and also do all of these other things (Title IX compliance; online education authorizations; demonstrating a bewildering array of accreditation standards; outcomes assessment; workforce development; student success for a vastly more diverse student body; etc, etc, etc). One of the few things to get bipartisan agreement among some members of Congress recently is the assertion that regulation of higher education has gone a bit too far in many areas. On this point, Republicans have been standing on solid ground for years: regulation has costs. Mr. Campos apparently doesn't want to talk about that.

There's also a gratuitous reference in Mr. Campos' piece to "seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators". I will freely concede the point that such salaries are ethically and economically indefensible. But to suggest, as he apparently wants to do, that these have any measurable impact on the cost of tuition is absurd. The vast majority of universities (my current employer included) have nobody earning anywhere near that amount. Schools with those salaries are mostly restricted to the handful of top-tier research & NCAA Div I/BCS institutions, and even at those places only a small handful of people are making a million dollars or more. Slashing their salaries in half would make only the tiniest dent in those institutions' budgets. I don't think football and basketball coaches should get $3 million a year either, but pointing to that as the cause of the tuition problem simply makes Mr. Campos look like he can't do math.

The reality, as always, is more complicated and would require a more complex conversation to really deal with. Mr. Campos' assertions aside, we DO invest less as a society in higher education than we used to. For a while (in particular, in the 1960s and 1970s) spending did rise as the number of students going to college rose as well. The cuts (measurable on a per-student basis, something Mr. Campos doesn't want to engage with) have come about in the last 20 or so years. It is also true during that time that tuition has gone up for a variety of reasons - some having to do with more student aid being available (a phenomenon which doesn't surprise economists, price inflation is a natural consequence of flooding a system with more money), some having to do with the increased cost of doing business for universities and the rising societal and governmental demands on those institutions, some having to do with cost-shifting based on a reimagining of higher education as a private good as opposed to a public good.

All of these things matter, and all of them have a hand in creating a problem that is in fact very real. As a parent of a college student who looked at both private and public university options, I agree that the affordability of tuition has gone wildly out of control just between my generation and my daughter's. I wonder sometimes how some of these smaller, less well-known private institutions manage to stay in business (the announced closing of Sweet Briar came as little surprise on that front). Even public institutions are less affordable than they once were.

So I agree with Mr. Campos on one point: we have a real college affordability problem. At a time when having a college degree is increasingly becoming THE path to a middle-class life, it is becoming harder and harder even for middle-class kids to get one. We should think seriously about this as a society, and together come up with changes that will help move us closer to the kind of country we want. But flogging dead horses and pinning everything on overly-simplistic, monocausal theories doesn't get us anywhere - even when you do it in the New York Times.