Thursday, May 31, 2018

School Shootings & the "Violent Video Games" Canard

In the wake of recent school shootings, one of many diversionary culture-war issues has resurfaced. Public officials (like the Lt. Governor of Texas) and interest groups (NRA) have resurrected the claim that "violent video games" are to blame for children shooting up our schools. See, for example, this article:
School Threats Prompt New Look at Violent Video Games
The basic claim is that, by immersing themselves in realistic first person shooter environments like Call of Duty, impressionable young minds are turned towards wanting to do the same thing in real life.

If you're interested in this as an empirical hypothesis, there's plenty of evidence - all of which points in the direction of zero relationship. Millions of people (adults and children) play these games, and the percentage of those who actually shoot people is vanishingly small. No correlation has been found between playing these games and violent real-world behavior. Process studies of human psychology can't find anything that would link the two. On the basis of facts, evidence, and conclusions about how the world really works, it's clear that anybody pushing this claim is not interested in reality or truth.

All of this is old hat. What's interesting to me is that by focusing on video games, politicians and gun lobbyists are unintentionally opening a much larger can of worms. There actually is a point buried in this claim - it's just not the point they think they're making.

Video games, whether realistic like Call of Duty or fantastical like Legend of Zelda, tell stories. They differ from movies, television shows, books, and plays only insofar as they allow the audience to participate (to some degree) in how the story goes. They are essentially the same thing.

As video gamers know, there is always a pathway to follow. The game designers lay out the narrative they want, and you follow along. If I play Batman: Arkham City, for example, I can succeed in defeating the bad guys or I can fail to do so. What I can't do is "solve" the puzzle of the game using non-violent means. I can't negotiate with my foes, or engage them in meaningful dialogue to find out what they want and whether there's a joint solution. In Call of Duty, I can't call in the State Department to use diplomacy as a means to end the conflict. Violence is the solution.

To be fair, there is a separate genre of video games that doesn't follow this structure. These games are more focused on solving puzzles, or exploring environments, or growth and change. There's some fantastic work in that field. There are also gradations: Mario Brothers has "boss levels" and a narrative around defeating a villain, but it's not the same as Call of Duty.

In this regard, these video games are sharing a narrative incredibly common to our culture. Most of our movies - including many of the most popular - are based on this same narrative. TV shows are much the same: they set up heroes and villains, and the story is resolved when the former defeat the latter. This is true both of stories based on violence (Liam Neeson's "Taken", for example) and those based on shaming and embarrassment (think "Revenge of the Nerds").

Like most folks, I enjoy some of these stories myself. I'm a big fan of the Marvel Universe (movies and TV shows), which essentially tells this same story over and over and over again. I understand the appeal, and I don't think it's ubiquity makes individuals into real-life killers.

What it does do, however, is define the cultural air we breathe. All hero-vs-villain stories are zero-sum games. The villain is evil, the hero is righteous, the end always the same. When we apply these narratives to our own lives we are always the hero, never the villain.

I see this play out in the professional workplace all the time. You would think that beat-the-bad-guys narratives wouldn't have anything to do with an institution that supposedly has a common mission, staffed by people who are among the most educated in the world. Yet this is precisely the story that people live out all the time. As one college president recently pointed out, there's a whole literature of faculty-vs-administration narratives (see here for one recent hyperbolic example). I know a number of people in various positions who spend much of their time and energy not seeking common and cooperative solutions to our institution's problems but finding fault and looking for ways to defeat their enemies. Call it Call of Duty: University Edition.

President Trump, of course, represents this narrative personified. For him, everything is a battle to be fought and won. From his public statements and behavior, it appears that he cannot conceive of a world that might operate differently.

To borrow Alex Wendt's famous article title, our environment is what we make of it. When we tell ourselves stories about overcoming villains by force (whether that force is physical, verbal, or organizational), we convince ourselves that that's how the whole world works. We see villains everywhere, dragons to be slain.

Except that, in our own minds, we are all heroes. Our narratives don't line up. We create the things we claim to hate (conflict, anger, fear, violence) when we try to impose our narratives on others, and when they do the same to us. Unlike our movies and TV shows, there is no conclusive ending, no "peace in our time".

So while it's not true that video games turn 17 year olds into school shooters, it is true that we live in a culture saturated by violence of all kinds. We have forgotten that there are other stories, other ways of being. And so, like a nation of Don Quixotes, we tilt at windmills, imaging ourselves vanquishing ogres and wondering why others seem to intent on running themselves into buildings.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Immigration & the Rationalization of Deterrent Effects

Much is currently being made of the Trump Administration's new policy separating children from parents at the US border. This is an appallingly indefensible policy on moral and ethical grounds, and it's not even very sound legally. Under US law, asylum-seekers have every right to approach the US border and ask for asylum. Some of this is about taking children away from parents who didn't try to sneak across the Rio Grande, but those who tried to stay within the framework of US law. Even for those who did enter the US illegally, this is unspeakably bad.

Side note: there is no way to square this policy with any version of a Christian worldview. Those who support this policy and who claim nevertheless to be Christians are in thrall to false gods. Franklin Graham must read a very different set of Gospels than I do. But that's a topic for a different day.

One of the interesting aspects to the debate over this new policy is its supporters' claim that separating children from their parents will have a deterrent effect. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed as much when he said, "if you don't like that, don't smuggle children across our border."

Supporters of the policy tout this claim, believing (or claiming to believe) that by being harsher than previous administrations we will dissuade people from trying to cross the border. This displays an appalling ignorance of how deterrence actually works.

Deterrence works if and only if the consequences threatened are both credible and are worse than the available alternative. A minor punishment - a slap on the wrist - isn't enough to deter, because it is assumed that the punishment is less bad than the perceived benefits of doing whatever you don't want the other person to do. Increase the punishment, the thinking goes, and people will rethink their calculus and be deterred.

There are several problems with this logic. First, let's assume that people fleeing to the US are actually rational actors (probably not true, but let's assume). Central American migrants fleeing from violence-ridden societies controlled by gangs weigh their options: do I stay at home and watch my children die, or do I go to the US and save their lives, even if they're taken away from me? Most parents choose the latter every time. Separation and a chance at asylum is better than certain death.

The second problem is information flow. You can change the policy, but that message won't spread consistently across the entire population of Central and South America. Some will find out about it, others will hear different stories - stories of people who made it, who either snuck by the border guards or who successfully got asylum. Given the population, there's no way to credibly get the message out to everyone who might consider trying to migrate. Without a clear signal, deterrence will fail.

The third issue is that this is a (cruel) solution in search of a problem. We don't, in the aggregate, have an illegal immigration problem. Net flow across the southern US border has been outward for years - that is, more people flow across the border going south than come north into the US. And that's before Trump got elected and the racists all came out of the closet. The President's rants about hordes of M13 gang members crossing into the US are paranoid delusions, untethered from facts. The fact that the number of those seeking to get in is down suggests that it is only the most desperate making the attempt today - many "economic migrants" have already decided not to come. Meaning that the remainder are particularly difficult to deter, because the consequences of their not coming are much worse.

If you're really interested in what happens when you put up a serious border wall, we have an excellent example to study. For nearly 30 years the Berlin Wall divided East from West Berlin, rendering the latter an island in the middle of communist East Germany. The Berlin Wall was tall, built of concrete and steel and barbed wire and guard towers and spotlights. It was watched constantly, night and day. Get caught trying to cross it, and you were shot on sight. The East German regime was far more severe than anything that Donald Trump has dreamed up.

Moreover East Germany, while no worker's paradise, wasn't as difficult a place to live as parts of Central America today. There was precious little societal violence. If you kept your head down and didn't criticize the regime, your children would not be killed or kidnapped by gangs. The chances of you being caught in a drive-by shooting were essentially zero. You were spied on by the regime all the time, and dissenters were made to disappear. But everyone had jobs, of a sort, and homes, and while society was repressive it was not deadly. It sucked, but not in a fear-for-your-life-every-day sort of way.

And yet, even under these circumstances thousands of people tried to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1988. At least 138 were killed in the attempt. Many others were arrested and hauled off, undoubtedly to detention far more cruel than anything in the US.

If ever there were a test of a fortified border's ability to deter, it was in Berlin. And it failed. No matter how harsh the East German regime was, people tried to cross it anyway.

In the face of that evidence, does anybody really believe that separating children from parents is going to deter the desperate from seeking asylum in the US? This is a fantasy, cooked up to justify a cruel policy grounded simply in fear and hatred. It is of a piece with much of what this administration does - ignorant, rooted in fear, pandering to our worst instincts. I hope this quickly becomes a bad footnote in US history and not a permanent fixture.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Moving the Embassy Didn't Matter: the Palestinians Were Already Stuck

Now that the Trump Administration has recognized Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel and moved the US embassy there, many are asking what this will mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for future peace. A lot of public discussion, however, tends to be driven not by an analysis of what is and what may happen, but by what people want. This is one of those conflicts where dispassionate analysis is hard to come by - so naturally, I thought I'd give it a shot.

Objective analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult because both sides have very strong narratives rooted in justice and righteousness. That these narratives are largely incompatible is lost on no one, which goes a long way to explaining why there's been no resolution. Even outsiders tend to look at the conflict through the eyes of what they want to have happen, and make predictions that are really attempts to calculate how to get from wherever we are at the moment to that end.

This is particularly true for those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The case for injustice in Palestine is easy to make. Even former President Jimmy Carter, a man of wisdom who knows how to weigh his words carefully, has likened the separation of Palestinians from mainstream Israeli society and the control over their movements and territory, as akin to South African apartheid. The Palestinian population is stuck in a third- (or even fourth-) world existence, both politically and economically, from which there appears to be no escape. There's an easy justice narrative there.

Israel too has a narrative about justice and victimhood. Beyond the Holocaust, which was perhaps the worst targeted crime against a population in human history, and beyond the centuries of violent anti-semitism that preceded it, modern Israel is an island of less than 9 million inhabitants surrounded by a sea of hundreds of millions of Arabs, many of whom have expressed the desire to wipe Israel from the map. However powerful Israel has become - and it is indeed very powerful - it is difficult to fault modern Israelis for believing that the world is a threatening place, with hatred directed against them from all sides.

But if we want to understand the possible and impossible next steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none of this helps. For a conflict analyst, it is enough to know that the two sides have mutually incompatible, even mutually contradictory, narratives about themselves and the other. This much has been true since 1947, and it hasn't changed.

So what now? Is the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capitol city the end of the peace process? Or will this usher in a new era of opportunity? There answer can't (or shouldn't) depend on whether we like or don't like Donald Trump, or whether we prefer the Israeli or the Palestinian narrative, but on an analysis of the situation.

In any such analysis, it is important to note that neither "side" is a monolith. There are Israelis who are happy about the US embassy move, and those who are upset by it. There are even Israelis who would be perfectly happy to see all the Palestinians expelled from the whole territory, although they tend to be quiet about it. There are Palestinians who desire to "drive the Jews into the sea", and those who would be happy to live beside them in peace. So what we see at any one point in time reflects a rough majority opinion of each side. Feelings and goals can change, and if they do the analysis changes with it. But for now, things are what they are.

As of today, Israel has most of what it wants. It has complete control over its recognized sovereign territory, and (as of today) a slightly greater recognition of its claim to Jerusalem, which it already controls anyway. Since its withdrawal from direct occupation of the West Bank and Gaza back in the 1990s, it no longer has the immediate burden of trying to provide services or a functioning economy for most of the Palestinian population, nor the difficulty of policing it from within. Israel still faces security challenges from terrorism, from the Syrian civil war next door, and from Iran, but these are for the most part as managed as they can be, and the bigger issues (Syria and Iran) are independent of the Palestinian issue.

The status quo, in essence, is one that most Israelis are perfectly happy with. The moving of the US Embassy doesn't really change that, except perhaps in a minor symbolic way. Despite the emotional narratives and (for some) references to the Will of God, the primary interest for the median of Israeli society is peace and security.

There is a subset of Israelis who would like to change the status quo still further, by gradually assuming control over the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, in their parlance). The settler movement is actively engaged in this effort at what Palestinians might call slow-motion ethnic cleansing, encouraged (or at least enabled) by the current Israeli government. Again, the moving of the US embassy doesn't change this calculus much either, except perhaps as a further signal that the US will not actively oppose settler expansion. Then again, no American administration since George H.W. Bush has done much to dissuade this movement, so there again the Trump Administration hasn't changed very much.

On the Palestinian side, of course, no one is happy with the status quo. The economy is a shambles, there is little hope either individually or collectively that their prospects will improve, they are subject to a host of difficulties in being told where they can live, where they can travel to, and what jobs they can or can't have, and their political leaders are largely ineffectual, alternately violent and corrupt. Things have been bad for a very long time, and every year they get a little bit worse.

Here, the moving the US embassy is a small material change in that it signals that the two-state solution - with Jerusalem divided into two capitols side by side - is dead. More importantly, today's events send a signal that the power of the United States is firmly on the side of Israel, the locally dominant power in the conflict. But this is at best a marginal shift, because these things have largely been true for a while. It is arguable that, except for the symbolic location of the embassy, not much would have been different under a Hillary Clinton administration.

It can be argued that outcomes are a function of the intersection between interests and power. Israel holds nearly all the power in the current situation, while the Palestinians have essentially none. Palestinians have not yet discovered any means of leveraging their assets in a way that would exert significant power on the situation. In the 1980s they launched the Intifadah, and although they paid a heavy price for it they did force Israel to reconsider the situation. Since that time, and with a few echoes in the 1990s, Palestinians have been largely powerless.

Palestinians' hopes have always leaned on one of three possible sources of power. Either their Arab brethren in neighboring states would help them, or the United States would help them, or they would somehow find the means to alter the situation themselves. The first hope vanished in 1979 when Anwar Sadat abandoned any significant pretext of sponsoring the Palestinian cause. The second swelled briefly in the Bush 41 and Clinton Administrations, but hasn't been much since; Trump's announcement is the last of a line of nails in that coffin. The third has been slowly leaching away with time, and as Israel has gotten better and better at sealing the borders and preventing any significant weaponry from getting into the Palestinian territories.

The most likely scenario, therefore, is that the conflict is stuck. The party which has the greatest interest in changing the situation has no power to do so, and no prospect of acquiring any. The party that has power to change things has no interest in doing so. Barring a truly massive uprising that disrupts Israel's security calculations - and today's events demonstrate that they're willing to be pretty ruthless about meeting the threat of force with much greater force - this isn't going to change.

So it is not true that Trump's decision to move the embassy has killed the peace process. The peace process was already dead. And, although I don't like it and wish the world were otherwise, I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Iran Nuclear Deal and the Death of Rationality

We will find out later today whether the Trump Administration wants to continue to abide by the multilateral agreement limiting Iran's development of nuclear technology. All public indications are that Trump will renege on the deal, although predictability has never been this Administration's hallmark. As Trump himself would say, "we'll see what happens".

Assuming that Trump follows through on his threat and withdraws the US from the arrangement, this will signal a major blow to those who believe that US foreign policy can be understood as an exercise in rational choice. There is no way to square this decision with anything resembling rationality as it is commonly understood.

Rational choice involves a few simple steps. It's easy to understand, though incredibly difficult to practice:

1) Set goals, in priority order

2) Evaluate a range of options (preferably, all available options) in terms of:
a) Their probability of achieving the goals
b) Their likely costs

3) Select the option that maximizes gains and minimizes costs

Let's assume in this case that the US goal is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is the stated goal not only of the Trump Administration, but every administration before it. If there is one common element to US policy, this would be it.

The multilateral nuclear agreement is one way of achieving this goal. It has relatively low cost (2), and by all objective accounts it has a reasonably high prospect of success for the time being (1). We can argue about the probability of the latter, but it's somewhere above zero and somewhere below 1.0.

What are the alternatives? This Administration has offered few other options. Two possibilities come to mind:

• Renewed sanctions: The cost to the US of such sanctions is relatively low (2), but the probability of success is also low (1), certainly lower than the existing arrangement. Abandoning the deal means abandoning the constraints in it and the inspections that come with the package, which arms control experts have described as the most intrusive inspections regime ever devised. Israel recently revealed that Iran did in fact develop a program for nuclearization some 15 years ago - during a period of sanctions. Renewed sanctions will do nothing to prevent Iran from developing nukes, and will likely given them every incentive to do so if they think sanctions are a prelude to the next option...

• War: The cost to the US (and participating allies) of a war with Iran is catastrophically high (2). Such a war would almost immediately close the Strait of Hormuz, skyrocketing global oil prices and potentially sending the US economy back into recession. The immediate monetary and human cost to the US military would also be high. Iran is not Iraq - it is large, mountainous, and populated by a fiercely nationalistic people numbering in the tens of millions. The nuclear facilities we would most want to destroy are buried deep under mountains. Airstrikes or missile strikes won't work, and invasion is suicide. The human toll of such a campaign would be catastrophic. Moreover, the odds of such a campaign successfully denuclearizing Iran are extremely low (1), because of the aforementioned mountain bunkers and because in the long run, Iranians will have every reason to want to develop a deterrent to prevent another attack.

Few if any have argued that the current negotiated deal is perfect, and it doesn't address other kinds of behavior (missile development, support for Syria and Hizbollah) that the US would rather Iran didn't engage in. But there are no perfect solutions - there aren't even many good ones. If these are the options on the table, then abandoning the existing arrangement in favor of either sanctions or war is, quite simply, irrational.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that preventing nuclear proliferation isn't really the goal - the goal is regime change in Iran. That does indeed change the calculus, because the existing negotiated arrangement has a zero probability of achieving that goal. Sanctions likewise won't topple the regime, especially as they will be unilateral on the part of the US - Europe, China, and Russia won't join in, so their impact will be low on Iran. The only possible avenue that leads to regime change is war - and even that has a low probability of success, if you define success as "overthrow the existing regime and replace it with one consistent with US interests". If we learned anything from Iraq, it is that our ability to control what happens politically inside a country after we knock over its government is close to zero.

Very few, of course, have accused Trump himself or his administration of acting in a rational fashion. This is a Presidency driven by gut feelings, fear, and the desire to be the anti-Obama. Those things do help explain a decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear settlement. Let's just stop pretending that rationality can explain any of this.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Fear - on a College Admissions Tour?

Some have suggested that college campuses are just a reflection of the society we serve. That certainly proved to be the case at Colorado State this past week:
The Admissions Tour That Went Horribly Wrong
I encourage you to read through this article, or at least the facts at the top. The basic facts are these:

1) A parent on an admissions tour at Colorado State University called campus police to report two people (both Native Americans) who came late to the tour, whom she considered out of place
2) The campus police arrived, briefly detained the students for questioning, and then released them. The students were cooperative throughout.
3) Because of the delay, the students missed the tour and returned empty-handed to New Mexico - a seven hour round trip essentially for nothing.

Lots of the issues we're used to seeing these days surface here, including the selective use of law enforcement and the apparent pervasiveness of racism in our society. None of this is particularly new.

I call attention to this story only because it points once again to the root problem: Fear. This woman called police because she was afraid - afraid of people who looked different, who dressed different, who acted in ways she did not expect. Afraid, in her mind, of what they might do if allowed to roam unchecked. This was nothing but simple, irrational, soul-crushing fear.

In one sense, I feel sorry for this woman. What must it be like to go through life so afraid of your fellow human beings - your fellow Americans who walk the same streets, shop in the same stores, visit the same college campuses - that you feel the need for police protection simply because someone is near you? That must be absolutely awful.

And although she likely doesn't see it this way, it's a condition that's entirely self-inflicted. She can walk away from her fear at any time. Nothing needs to change - only her way of seeing the world.

I know that's not easy. But it's far easier than many of the other things we strive for. For each of us, our fear is entirely under our own control - if only we can see it that way.

Not for nothing, I suspect, is the most common commandment in the Bible: "Do not be afraid". No one ever made a good decision out of fear. This woman certainly didn't.

And so again is Yoda proved right: