Technology Drives Wealth Up

November 18th, 2015

Throughout history technological changes have driven the distribution of wealth upward. What I mean by this is that new technologies often displace lower skilled workers and put more money in the hands of the owners of business, or what Marx called “the means of production.” Here are a couple of examples.

Once upon a time farms employed many dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Animals required care, fields had to be prepared, crops planted and tended, and then harvested. It typically took dozens of people to reap and gather a harvest on just a few acres of land. Until about 1870 a majority of Americans lived and worked on farms, and this was probably the norm across the world. But then farms began to use machinery, at first horse drawn threshers and reapers, but then mechanical tractors, and more and more things became automated. Agricultural employment decline inversely as automation increased. Today farms employ very few people. Most farmers operate huge complex combines that can till the fields and plant the crops in the spring, spread fertilizer and pesticides in the early summer, and harvest the crops in the fall. (I’m talking hear of the large agribusinesses that I grew up around in central Illinois.)

Once upon a time the farmer had to share part of the proceeds from the sale of crops with all the people who worked on the farm. But now the farmer gains all the income from farming and doesn’t have to share with “field hands.” This is not to say that farmers are getting rich, because they still have to pay for equipment, and farming is notoriously fickle and weather dependent. But my point is that money from farming is no longer shared among the farmer and many workers. It all stays in the farmer’s pocket. So the technological change has shifted the money generated from farming up.
Another more recent example – and one that I have personal experience with – involves lawyers and legal secretaries. When I began practicing law virtually every lawyer had a secretary. A lawyer would typically draft a document by hand on a legal pad and give it to the secretary to type. He would then review and revise the document and send it back for final editing. The law is very word and writing intensive, so secretaries were vital to the success of a law firm. Many large firms had more secretaries than lawyers. I worked at a large Seattle law firm where each attorney had a secretary, each section had a secretary, and there was both a day and night secretarial pool. I would estimate that there were just over twice as many secretaries as lawyers.

I began practicing law in the mid 1990’s, just as personal computers came into widespread use. All of my fellow law students used computers and did their own typing. When they got jobs they didn’t have the same need for a legal secretary as an older attorney. And so law firms began to trim secretarial staff. Now it’s common for one secretary to work for two or three attorneys, and they are now called a legal assistant since they no longer spend much time typing. According to one report I found, the legal secretary market has decline by about 10% per year since the mid-1990’s.
Now lawyers do all their own typing and don’t have legal secretaries. They have been replaced by Microsoft Word. And lawyers no longer have to share the money they get from a client with a legal secretary. Granted they have to buy a computer and software, but that’s a fraction of the cost of a legal secretary. So more of the money received from a case or a client goes to the lawyer than the staff. So the wealth accumulation shifts upward. According to studies, lawyer income has been increasing steadily since the late 1990’s.

My final example involved large scale industrial manufacturing, like making cars. There was a Jeep TV commercial from a few years back (I think it was shown during the Super Bowl) that began by showing jeeps being made during World War Two. The factory floor is covered with people, bolting and welding parts onto the vehicle on the assembly line. The ad then shows some scenes with jeeps over the years, then shows the exact same plant, outside of Toledo Ohio, where Jeeps are made today. There are a number of huge industrial robots, but not a single person in view. American automakers make roughly the same number of cars they did in 1950, but with a fraction of the workforce. There are fewer line workers, so more of the money received from each vehicle goes to people further up the line in the company. This is a trend that has played out across the manufacturing sector. Improved automation has been going on for years, but accelerated in the 1980’s with the increased use of industrial computers and robots, and the trend has only accelerated with improved computers and industrial machinery.

In the United States real wages have been stagnant since the late 1970’s, while corporate profits have grown, reaching near record highs in the last decade. One is clearly a product of the other. Fewer workers mean higher income up the corporate ladder, and more profits for shareholders.
The common counter argument is that when one industry fades another takes its place. When, for example, cars replaced horses, far more jobs were created than were lost. People lost jobs working in stables, but new jobs were created in auto plants and auto repair shops. In fact there were probably far more new jobs dealing with cars then old jobs dealing with horses. But there are two things to consider. The first is that there is a time shift. A worker who loses a job in a stable doesn’t walk down to the auto assembly line the next day and take a new job. (A few might, but most won’t.) Second, and perhaps more important, many of the new jobs are at a different skill level than the old jobs, typically a higher skill level. A car mechanic is far more skilled than a stable boy. And not every stable boy can master the skills of an auto mechanic. So everyone who loses their jobs might not find a comparable new job.

Similarly, people argue that as computer programs replaced secretaries, clerks, and bookkeepers, new jobs were created for programmers. But a computer programmer is at a much different skill level than a secretary, book-keeper or clerk. And unlike the transition from horse to cars, only a few hundred computer programmers created software that eliminated millions of secretarial jobs. So even those legal secretaries with the skills to become programmers could not find new jobs in that field.

This trend raises a number of very interesting questions, which I will raise here, and hopefully answer later.

What happens if this trend continues? Will it mean the “end of work” for millions of people? And what to do with those people who are displaced by technology and can’t find new jobs?

What does this mean for income inequality? This trend continues to drive wealth up, further exacerbating income inequality. Is there a point where there needs to be structural changes to deal with this?

I hope to answer these and other question sin the near future. Stay tuned.

The Marbella Index

November 18th, 2015

One of the most common words used by the Republican presidential candidates during the recent debates was “freedom.” They all believe in “freedom.” They want to preserve and protect American’s “freedom.” Freedom, Freedom, FREEDOM!!!

OK, I get it. But they never really explain what that means. What are they talking about when they say freedom? Based on other things they talk about, I think they mean the ability to do whatever you want. You are free when you can do what you want.

If this is what it means to be free, who is free? Who in this world can do what they want?

To understand this kind of freedom I apply what I call the Marbella Index. For those who don’t know, Marbella is a resort on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. It is frequented by rich Russian plutocrats, and tourists from across Europe, though mostly Germans and Scandinavians. The beaches are frequented by overfed Swedes and Germans in tiny speedos sporting their national flag, their Teutonic paunches drooping over skin tight lycra.

In Russia, to be truly free, you have to be a former communist party member, or now the son of a former party member, who got a slightly nefarious deal on a company during the early years of the first Putin administration.

In the rest of Europe all you need is a job, and you have a pretty decent wage and lots of vacation time. France is even famous for its vacation time. There are plenty of beaches on the French Mediterranean, so you don’t see many in Spain. But Germans and Scandinavians flock to Marbella, as well as beaches and resorts around the Mediterranean, from Spain to Turkey across the northern coast, and from Morocco to Egypt on the southern coast (though Islamic extremist and political instability are making those resorts far less popular).

In fact, if you go to fancy resorts around the world the people you see most frequently are Europeans, along with plenty of Australians and a surprising number of New Zealanders. This makes sense around the Mediterranean since it is close to the rest of Europe. But it is surprisingly true throughout the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, which are all far from Europe. There are plenty of American at Caribbean resorts, but you are just as likely to hear French or German as English. And you’re just as likely to hear that English with a British or Australian accent as an American accent.

I know people will argue that there are so many resorts in the United States that most Americans stay home, and that is certainly true. But Brits go to Bristol, and Germans ski in Bavaria. But the beaches of the world are full of middle class Europeans.

So based on the Marbella Index it’s the Europeans who are the freest people on earth.

The Extent of Our Control

November 1st, 2015

We are all dust motes, floating through the air, buffeted by forces far far beyond our control. But as human beings we don’t want to believe it. We want to believe that we have some degree of control over our lives and the world we live in.

I thought about this as I watched the most recent Republican Presidential debate. They were talking about the economy and about how their plans would revive the economy. I’ve listened to politicians most of my adult life talk about how their policies will impact the economy, and I’ve spend as much time watching and wondering at how little impact government policy has on the economy. In the last six years or so we have heard Republican politicians confidentially claim that the health care reform law known as Obamacare was going to stifle job creation and crater the economy. It flat out didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because government policies like that have only marginal impact on the economy. They do have some impact, but it is never as much as most politicians say.

The reality is that government policies have surprisingly little impact on our day to day lives. There are certainly some cases where government policy does have a major impact. If you are gay you were denied the right to marry until the recent Supreme Court decision. Now you can marry. That is a significant impact on the lives and happiness of a great many people. But the other reality is that if you are not gay the Supreme Court ruling has no impact on your life.

The reality is that the world is a big complex place with lots and lots of moving parts. The government can have an impact in certain areas, but a great deal of those moving parts keep moving without, or perhaps even in spite of, government action. The economy is made up of millions of consumers buying things and millions (or perhaps only hundreds of thousands) of businesses making and selling things. Government rules can have an impact, but the reality is that things keep getting made and bought because people want things.

The American consumer economy is a vast chaotic place. Products come and go, fads come and go, tastes changes. The ideas of a few tech geeks can have a greater impact on our lives that the ideas of the world’s most powerful politicians.

When I began my legal career most attorneys had their own secretary, and large firms actually had secretarial pools of secretaries. Now they don’t. Most law firms have a few secretaries/legal assistants assigned to each section. I would hazard a guess that in the last twenty years the legal market has eliminated a couple of million legal secretaries. Why? Computers and word processing software. Most attorneys now do their own writing, on their own computers. They no longer draft a letter or memorandum by hand then have a secretary type it up, then review it, etc, until the final product is produced. Attorney’s now do it all themselves. Bill Gates and Paul Allen had a greater impact on the American workplace that every politician and every law since the popularization of the personal computer and word processing software.

Most of us realize, deep in the pit of our stomach, that we have almost no control over the world we live in. We are buffeted by eddies and currents, tides and winds. Apple unveils a new phone and our world changes yet again. It is a disquieting feeling. And, in my opinion it is getting worse. We all know that the industry in which we work can change overnight. Some computer geek in Silicon Valley can create a new program that will make our job obsolete. Secretaries have been replaced by computers, factory workers have been replaced by industrial robots. Amazon is talking about shipping packages by drone, which will eliminate the jobs of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of delivery drivers. Welcome to the brave new word.

It’s a new world and we don’t like it one bit. We want to feel like we have some control over our lives. And the one place where we do have some control is over our government. We elect the people that run our government. Our votes control who is President and who is in Congress. So we, to some degree, do control the government.

But, here’s the thing, the government doesn’t really have as much control over things as we would like to think. If Amazon decides to ship by drone, no government policy will save those delivery jobs. Just like no government policy can save those factory jobs replaced by industrial robots, or those secretarial jobs replaced by Microsoft Word. Or, quite frankly, those retail jobs replaced by internet retailers like Amazon. But we don’t like that, so we lash out at the one place where we do have some control, which is the government. We are mad at government for not protecting us from a changing world. But the government can’t do anything, because the government did not cause those changes. And so our anger gets deeper and deeper.

NRA Calls Americans Most Murderous People on Earth

October 4th, 2015

The bumper sticker says “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People.” This implies that if a gun is not available a person with murderous intent will find another way to kill.

It’s absolutely true that people kill with things other than guns. In 2013, for example, there were 16,121 murders in the U.S., 11,208 with guns. This leaves just under 5000 murders by other means. According to the FBI the most common method other than firearms, are a knife or blunt object, or other non-personal weapon which includes drowning, strangulation and throwing out of a window. CDC numbers on Homicides.

On average, over the last ten years or so, there are roughly 15,000 murders in the U.S. each year. Of those, roughly 10,000 are with guns, and 5,000 with other methods. I should note that guns kill roughly 30,000 people each year. The vast majority are suicides, at about 19,000 per year. Accidental gun deaths account from roughly 500 to 1000 per year. CDC data on Gun deaths.

The question is whether all those murders who use guns would switch to something else, something a bit messier, like a knife or a tire iron. It is certainly possible.

I will admit that some people want to kill and they succeed. I’ll admit that some of those people will kill with guns, and if a gun is not available, they will kill with another weapon. Murder, unfortunately, is part of human nature.

In general, if you take account of environmental factors, human nature is pretty uniform around the world. Humans are all the same species, and act in remarkably similar ways in every society on earth. And some of those people are killers. Statistically the murder rate should be fairly stable around the world, excepting certain environmental factors, like wars or other forms of social chaos. And, in fact, the countries with extremely high murder rates, like Honduras and El Salvador, are in the midst of economic and political chaos. UN Global Study on Homicide.

The murder rate in the U.S., therefore, should be roughly the same as the murder rate in other similar countries, like those in Europe, Canada, and Australia. But it isn’t. The United States has one of the highest murder rates among developed nations. According to data from the UN, the murder rate in the US is roughly 5.0 per 100,000 people. The average for developed countries is around 1.3 per 100,000. This makes the U.S. roughly 3.5 times more murderous. Data from the Worldbank   UN Data on homicides. Here’s an interesting chart from Slate.  Justice Department Statistics

Now consider the weapon used to kill in the U.S. Guns kill roughly 10,000 people per years, and other weapons kill about 5,000. If you factor out the gun killings in the U.S., the murder rate drops by two-thirds, and puts us at roughly the same murder rate in the rest of the developed world.

The multiplier is guns. The other possible explanations are that we are in the midst of a civil war or Third World levels of social chaos, or Americans are simply more violent than other human beings. We aren’t in a civil war, and according to the NRA the problem can’t be guns.

The only way for the bumper logic to work is if Americans are simply more murderous that any other people on earth. So the NRA is saying that Americans are the most murderous people on earth.

By the way, the common Republican talking point that the issue is mental health and not guns only works if Americans are three times crazier than anyone else on earth. Well, they may be right about that one.

Same-Sex Marriage, The Sixth Circuit, and the Supreme Court

April 28th, 2015

[Note: This was submitted to the Lexington Herald Leader, but not published.]

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the cases dealing with state restrictions on same sex marriage on April 28, and will most likely issue a ruling by the end of the term in June. It’s widely assumed that they’ll rule that the bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, and hold that people have a constitutional right to marry whoever they please.

Four U.S. Circuit Courts have found these bans unconstitutional. One, the Sixth Circuit which covers Kentucky, has upheld their constitutionality. Unfortunately the Herald-Leader seems to imply that there’s a chance the Supreme Court will side with the Sixth Circuit. That is highly unlikely.
The reason is that the Sixth Circuit ruled on a technicality and never addressed the substance of the issue. The Sixth Circuit relied on a 1972 Supreme Court case called Baker v. Nelson, which was a one sentence decision holding that the issue of same-sex marriage didn’t raise a federal question. Because of this scant precedent, the Sixth Circuit said it didn’t have the authority to address the issue. The problem is that Congress made same-sex marriage a federal issue when it enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, and the Supreme Court tacitly overturned Baker when it struck down DOMA in 2013.

The four other Federal Appeals Courts that struck down bans on same-sex marriage did so with lengthy rulings that addressed, and rejected, most of the arguments in support of the bans. Every court, including the four Circuit courts and dozens of District Courts, that has found the bans unconstitutional have applied the same reasoning. Such bans violate the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states that “no person shall … be deprived of … liberty … without due process of law,” and the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that no State shall “deny to any person … equal protection of the laws.”

It’s a simple and compelling argument. If the state allows one group of people to marry, the equal protection clause says that they have to allow all groups to marry. However, the Due Process clause says that the government can deny rights to certain groups with “due process of law.” If the right involved is a fundamental right then the state must have a compelling reason and any restriction must be narrowly tailored to achieve the state’s compelling purpose.

Opponents of gay marriage say that states have a compelling interest in protecting families, children, and “traditional marriage.” The Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits all considered these arguments and found them wanting.

The Seventh Circuit focused on the idea of “traditional marriage” and found that tradition was not a compelling justification for denying people their rights. The Ninth Circuit analyzed the argument that marriage is about procreation, and found this argument unpersuasive because, in part, many marriages don’t produce children, and many children are born outside of marriage. The Eleventh Circuit analyzed the question of child rearing and found no compelling difference between opposite-sex and same-sex parents. The Fourth Circuit compared the restrictions on same-sex marriage to the odious restrictions on interracial marriage that were struck down in the 1960’s. The same specious arguments were used then, and are equally invalid now. Each of these decisions relies on lengthy historical and legal analysis, and copious and detailed factual studies.

So as the Supreme Court takes up the issue of same-sex marriage it will ignore the Sixth Circuit’s ruling as irrelevant. The Court will then consider the substance of the underlying Due Process and Equal Protection issues, and will rely on the detailed and thoughtful analysis of the other four Circuit Courts. It seems likely that the Supreme Court will decide, as has every court that has honestly evaluated these issues, that there is no compelling justification for banning same-sex marriage.

Hayek In the Rear View Mirror

February 16th, 2015

Friedrich Hayek is one of the patron saints of modern libertarianism. He wrote a book in 1944, called The Road to Serfdom, that predicted that western societies were going to fall sway to totalitarianism. He said that any level of economic planning would not work and so would require greater and greater government control, until inevitably, the government would completely take over.

It is a theory that is profoundly wrong, as even the most casual observation of the events since World War Two show, but one that still drives a great deal of modern conservative politics. Both Rand Paul and Paul Ryan are fans of Hayek, and both have stated that any government involvement in the economy is doomed to fail.

I analyzed this topic from the book in some detail in a recent article in Alternet. My title was Hayek in the Rear View Mirror, but they changed it to: Big Economic Theory Underpinning Libertarian Economics Is Total Baloney. Their title is more to the point, but mine was more poetic.

Minimum Wage and Unemployment

February 13th, 2015

Republicans consistently say that raising the minimum wage will hurt employment. If that is true it should show up in the overall employment data. If raising the minimum wage hurt employment then unemployment should go up after the minimum wage is raised. So the unemployment rate should be higher in the months after the wage is raised.

The following chart sets out the change in unemployment rate in the months after the minimum wage was changed.

Change in Unemployment and Minimum wage

[Here’s a link to a bigger version of the chart:]

The national minimum wage was established in 1938. It has been changed 28 times since then. It has been raised 26 times, and lowered 2 times. Unfortunately the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have data before 1950, so we don’t have records of the impact of the raise in the minimum wage before, but since 1950 the wage has been changed 26 times. It has been raised 24 times, and lowered twice.

If raising the minimum wage forces employers to lay off workers then the opposite should be true. Lowering it should spur hiring. But the scant statistics we have don’t really support this. The minimum wage was lowered from $1.25 per hour to $1.15 per hour in September 1964. The next month the unemployment rate was the same. It went down slightly, from 5.1% to 4.8 percent the next month, then up slightly to 5.0% the month after that. The wag was lowered from $1.60 to $1.30 in February 1969, but in the following three months the unemployment rate remained exactly the same at 3.4%. So, from the two statistically insignificant samples we have, lowering the rate doesn’t have much of an impact on hiring. But two data points are not persuasive.

Turning now to the twenty four raises in the minimum wage. Republicans make the claim that raising the minimum wage as an absolute, without nuance or equivocation. If that is true then the unemployment rate should rise every single time the wage is increased. But this has not happened. From the chart it is clear that the unemployment rate has gone down in many cases, in up in many cases. In the first month after the change, the unemployment rate went down ten times, and up eight times. So employment increased ten times after the minimum wage was increased, but it did decrease eight times after the raise. It stayed the same eight times. So the claim that raising the wage will, absolutely and without fail, lead to rises in unemployment is clearly not true.

One month is not a statistically valid sample, so I looked at unemployment over a three month period after the rate was raised. In most cases the rates jumped around a bit. In nine cases the unemployment rate went down and stayed down over a three month period. In seven cases in went up, and stayed up. In most other cases it jumped around. A few times it went up then down, and a few times it went down then up.

One important point to note: if you look at the unemployment rate charts of any year you will notice that they are constantly moving, going up and down. There are innumerably factors that impact the employment rate. These rates are “seasonally adjusted” so they take in to consideration the increased retail employment in November and December, and the increased construction employment in the summer months.

Based on this data I can say that raising the minimum wage does not cause unemployment. It is a canard. It sounds logical, but statistics do not support the contention.

Making Sense of Ferguson

January 29th, 2015

[This was recently published on CounterPunch under the title “The Police and the American Mind.”  My Original title was “The Thin Blue Line.”]

The only way to really make sense of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, is to understand two concepts. The first is that police believe themselves to be the thin blue line that stands between civilization and chaos. And the second is the “broken windows” theory of policing.

The “Thin Blue Line” is a common colloquialism for the police, but it’s more than that. It’s the way that the police, and many people in society, particularly conservatives, view law enforcement. Law enforcement is all that stands between civilization and chaos, the police are the Thin Blue Line that protects society from anarchy.

The “broken windows” theory was developed in the early 1980s by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who found that crime exists in every human society, but crime rates are higher where there are other signs of social disorder. In areas where there are broken windows, for example, there’s a sense that no one cares about the physical infrastructure of society, and that lack of concern trickles up. Vandals break more windows, then maybe break into the building, possibly even burn it down. These little crimes go unreported and unpunished, and so more crimes occur. The result is that there is not only more petty crime in dilapidated areas, but more serious crime. So Wilson and Kelling said that society should spend more time on the small stuff. Fix the windows, scatter the panhandlers, arrest the turnstile jumpers. Deal with the low-level crimes and the more serious crimes will come down.

The police in New York City began to take this approach in the mid-1980s. They went after graffiti artists, panhandlers, toll jumpers and the like, and instituted a zero-tolerance approach to most petty crime. As a result, crime came down, and in some cases significantly. Times Square went from a mecca of porn theaters, prostitutes and drug dealers to a tourist haven. Based on this success, the broken-windows concept spread across the country. Police began to see low-level crime as the first sign of anarchy, a potential the crack in the dike that protects civilization from a flood of crime. Petty criminals aren’t just sad sacks filching cigarettes, they’re the advance guard of social decay.

You can see this theory at work when you watch the video of five police officers confronting, taking down and killing Eric Garner. To those of us watching the video, Garner’s only crime was selling loose cigarettes. But to the police he wasn’t just some petty criminal, he was a broken window, the first sign of anarchy. And anarchy must be confronted with a phalanx of officers.

Read Officer Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony about his confrontation with Michael Brown: Brown wasn’t some kid who may have snatched a handful of cigars from a convenience store. He was a “demon.” And Officer Wilson knew in his bones that he was all that stood between that “demon” and civilized society. And so he acted accordingly.

The view of the police as the thin blue line between chaos and civilization permeates our society. Flip on your TV and watch “NCIS,” “Bones,” “Criminal Minds,” or reruns of “Law and Order.” What these shows all have in common (beyond wooden acting and a high body count) is the view-point that law enforcement is all that stands between civilized society and a wave of crime.

Local news is dominated by fires, car wrecks and crimes. And in virtually every news story there are lots of flashing lights and at least a few police officers trying to repair one of the cracks in society.

We have all internalized this idea. So have the citizens who sit on grand juries. They know that the police are the thin blue line. And even if they don’t think about it in those terms, a district attorney or county prosecutor is there to remind them. The prosecutor may say something like: “Those officers put their lives on the line every day protecting you and me. They need tools to deal with dangerous situations and dangerous people. And they need to be afforded the discretion to deal with those dangerous situations.” So the grand jury grants them that discretion. They afford them the leeway to protect society, which means that they weigh the situation, the deadly encounter, in favor of the police officer and against a potentially dangerous person. The result is that Officer Wilson in Missouri, and Officer Daniel Panteleo in Staten Island, New York, are not charged.

Many people see this and say that it is racism. And so the thin blue line intersects racial lines. There is no denying that black Americans are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites. Blacks make up about 12 percent of the population, but account for roughly 37 percent of the prison population. So on first blush it appears that blacks may be more prone to crime than whites. But if you cut the numbers differently and correct for wealth and poverty, the numbers equalize somewhat. This plays out across all crimes, but is seen most clearly with drug crimes. While five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, according to a NAACP report, African Americans are incarcerated at ten times the rate as whites. And while the violent crime rate is much higher overall for blacks than whites, it is similar for blacks and whites of similar socio-economic levels. So crime is largely a product of poverty not race. This leads back to the broken-windows theory. Poor neighborhoods are often dilapidated, and there is a good deal of petty crime. And so while blacks are no more likely to use drugs or commit crimes that whites, they are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, and so are treated based on the broken-windows theory and punished harshly.

The result is the perception, based on arrest and incarceration rates, that blacks commit more crimes than whites. Police deal with this on a regular basis. They see the broken windows and the petty crime of poor black neighborhoods, they know the “broken-windows” theory of criminology, and they put two and two together. So when they see a black guy on the street potentially engaged in a petty crime, they don’t really see Michael Brown, they see a representative from the world of broken windows. They think they’re being even handed, but their vision is obscured by facile theories about broken windows and clichés about thin blue lines.

And so when the police, and conservative commentators, see people protesting events in Ferguson or Staten Island, they see a number of things. First, they see the police as being unfairly accused of racism. But more importantly they see a direct challenge to how the police do their job, about how they protect civil society. The protestors are questioning how the police man the ramparts, how they patrol streets fraught with chaos. The police, and their supporters, don’t see protestors raising legitimate concerns about how to protect society; they see people who are naïve to the dangers that face society. They see the protestors as deluded about the steps necessary to keep anarchy at bay, and trying to fray the fabric of the thin blue line. And so conservative commentators respond with outrage, and the police respond in riot gear.

Does Government Only Worsens the Problems it intends to fix?

January 4th, 2015

“Government intervention never works but in fact prolongs and worsens the problems it is intended to fix.” Senator Rand Paul

I came across this quote recently while doing some research on Republican’s views of “The Road to Serfdom,” by Friedrich Hayek. Hayek is the intellectual forefather of much conservative thinking on government intervention into the economy. Paul’s statement was published in an essay he wrote for The Intercollegiate Review, a magazine for college Republicans. It is available on line at Rand Paul’s Challenge to Students.  The essay is a year old, but it seems to encapsulate Senator Paul’s hostility toward the government.

So how accurate is Paul’s statement? Does government intervention make things worse? There is no doubt that government can often be ineffective and bumbling. We see examples in the paper every day. But does that mean that government only makes things worse when it tries to fix a problem?

Let’s think about a couple of examples here in the United States, to test this theory.

After the Second World War, President Eisenhower decided that the nation had a transportation problem, and he proposed a government program to fix it. The problem was that it was extremely difficult to drive from one side of our country to another. Eisenhower had recently commanded a military force that pushed from the shores of France deep into Germany, and done much of that on Europe’s road system. Eisenhower decided that the United States needed something similar, and proposed our interstate highway system. This system is now fully built. Did it worsen the problems of national transportation?

There’s no doubt that highways have created a bunch of unanticipated problems. These range from expanding urban sprawl to the demise of small towns as commerce moved to the nearest Interstate exit. But did the government intervention into the national transportation system “prolong and worsen the problem it intended to fix” as Paul flatly states. Nope, not even close.

Here’s another example. During the creation of the nation the founders felt that it was important for the government to establish a system to protect inventors and creators, to allow them to profit from their creations as a way to spur innovation. And so they included a provision in the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson established the United States Patent Office. Did the patent office “worsen the problem it was intended to fix”? Not even remotely. The United States has the most dynamic and innovative economy in the world, largely because of the way we protect intellectual property.

But clearly these aren’t the kinds of things that Paul and other conservatives are talking about when they condemn government action. Mostly they’re talking about welfare and economic regulations. So, do these programs make things worse? It’s hard to analyze if you only focus on this country, but far more clear if you look at all the nations of the world.

Put simply, those nations with robust welfare systems have far less poverty than those nations that don’t. Just compare Western Europe with South America, or Africa. And well regulated economies are far more productive than lightly regulated economies. Compare the OECD countries (the 20 richest countries in the world) with most of the rest of the world.

Obviously there are outliers. There are a few remaining communist countries, like Cuba, Burma, Cambodia, and North Korea, and their economies are in shambles and their people in poverty. Clearly total government control of the economy as a means to ameliorate poverty does not work. But modern Western economies, with sensible regulation, are doing extremely well.

I’m sure conservatives will say I’m cherry picking positive examples, or creating a straw-man argument. But Paul said “government intervention never works.” He didn’t qualify it. I’m just holding him to his own words.

One of the knocks against Conservatives is that they are clueless about history. But they don’t seem to know much about the modern world either. Are they really unaware that countries without welfare systems are third world nations mired in poverty? Don’t they realize that countries without effective governments are chaotic failed states? Don’t they ever look at the world and see that countries with welfare systems have far less poverty than countries that don’t? Or don’t they see that the economies of the richest nations are regulated, while unregulated economies are pathetic?

I think that there are at least two causes to this problem. The first is that Fox News doesn’t do much international reporting. So Senator Paul doesn’t ever learn what goes on in the rest of the world. And he knows that his supporters don’t know either, so he can get away with making these statements. The other problem is the idea of American Exceptionalism, which allows conservatives to ignore the lessons from rest of the world. But the rest of the world exists, and it can teach us many valuable lessons. And one of those lessons is that government can fix problems.

Two-year-old Shoots Hole in NRA Theory

January 1st, 2015

On December 30, 2014, in Hayden, Idaho a two year old shot and killed his mother. The woman was shopping at Wal-Mart, with the boy and her purse in the shopping cart. She had a license for a concealed handgun, and the gun was in her purse in a special zippered pouch for a concealed weapon. Her son reached into the purse, and the gun fired, killing the woman. Presumably they boy was playing, and just thought it was a toy, or maybe it was a tragic accident and the child inadvertently hit or squeezed the trigger. The news story is not clear on the details. [Here’s the Story from Fox News .] But ….

According to a favorite gun advocate slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The idea behind the slogan is that murder is intentional, and if someone is intent on killing they will do it with whatever tool is available. The slogan strongly implies that every killing is intentional, and if a gun is not available the killer will use something else. So, according to this theory, if that toddler in Idaho hadn’t used a gun he would have killed his mother with something else. Perhaps he would have toddled to the auto supply section and grab a tire iron to bash in his mother’s brains. But clearly that idea is as absurd as it is sick. The child obviously had no intent to kill his mother (and will undoubtedly be traumatized by it for the rest of his life). Had the gun not been in his mother’s purse he may have played with her car keys or cell phone, and she would be alive today. So clearly it was the gun that killed the woman. The gun killed the woman, not the child.

Every year roughly 30,000 Americans are killed by guns. (See, Of that, roughly 10,000 are murdered, 19,000 commit suicide, and between 500 and 1,000 are killed accidentally. [The Wikipedia Entry for Gun Violence in the United States has a good overview of these numbers.] In 2011, the last year for which data is available, 32,163 people were killed by guns. Of that 19,766 committed suicide, 11,101 were murdered, and 851 were killed by accidental discharge of a firearm. [The CDC Data is here, in Table 2 ] There is no way to know about the 10,000 murders, and it is likely that if the murderer did not have a gun he would have used something else. (I say “he” because men commit 95% of all homicides. I apologize to the female murderers out there for my sexist language.) But it is worth noting that there were 4,852 murders by other means in the United States in 2011, so some would have been committed by other means. But just as clearly it is not true of those 500 to 1000 “accidental” gun. The two year old in Hayden Idaho had no intent to kill his mother, nor did the three year old in Arizona who shot his 18 month old brother, or the three year old in Oklahoma who killed his mother. Just Google “toddler shoots…” parent or sibling and you’ll get dozens of hits of small children inadvertently killing a family member. (It’s really disconcerting.) There is no way to know what percentage of the roughly 500 to 1000 accidental deaths each year are kids killing a parent, but clearly it happens with some frequency. Other leading causes of “accidental” gun deaths are people cleaning guns, and showing off with guns. But in every one of those accidental cases there was no intent to kill.

That means that between 5% and 10% of all non-suicide gun deaths each year are accidental, with no intent to kill. And this means that in 5% to 10% of all non-suicide gun deaths each year it was the gun and not the person, that did the killing. So guns do kill people.

The NRA and gun rights advocates may not care about logic, and they certainly don’t care about the roughly 1000 people killed accidentally by guns each year. They believe that their rights, or rather their warped idea about those rights, are more important than the lives of a thousand people a year. Those people are merely collateral damage, statistical blips, background noise lost in the chatter of silly slogans.