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Ben Carson and neutral principle

A little over a week ago, renowned pediatric surgeon Ben Carson electrified the Right by giving a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast that was widely deemed a critique of President Obama’s agenda on health care, taxation, and stimulus spending.  Some in the media, including conservative columnist Cal Thomas, objected that Carson had violated an unspoken rule of the National Prayer Breakfast tradition to steer clear of partisan politics.  The Right has gleefully fought back, celebrating Carson for allegedly speaking truth to power and rejecting any idea that there should be any muzzle on speech in such a forum.  Carson is now being touted as a possible presidential contender in 2016, despite his own protestations to the contrary.

Carson is unquestionably impressive and was so during that speech.  I recently had the opportunity to observe him in person during a taping of a Sean Hannity special in which he was the featured guest.  He is superbly articulate and magisterially calm, and is an unapologetic and persuasive exponent of personal responsibility, free enterprise,  and limited government (with one odd exception for food stamps).   His contempt for redistributive politics is exhilirating and it would be a boon for the country if he had a wider platform.  (Sadly, however, Carson’s arguments have been made before in the political realm, sometimes as compellingly, yet they failed to win a sufficient number of converts.  The problem is not the messenger, but the message, I am increasingly coming to believe, pace conservative wishful thinking.)

With regards to the Prayer Breakfast protocol, however, the Right might have had a case if there were any chance that it wouldn’t make the identical argument if the roles were reversed.  Imagine if a liberal cleric giving the Breakfast keynote had objected to the Iraq War during President Bush’s realm, or had criticized Republicans for hurting the poor.  The Right would have howled with protest. 

Showing a similar oblivion to neutral principle, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn objected on CSPAN’s Washington Journal this morning to Obama’s declared intention to act on certain policy matters if Congress didn’t give him his way.  Few on the Right objected to Bush’s expansionist view of the executive war powers, which dismissed any Congressional check on his power.  One despairs at the lack of self-awareness.

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Mass shootings and urban violence

President Obama once again conflated the Sandy Hook massacre with chronic gun violence in last night’s State of the Union speech:

in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun. 

Two weeks ago in Minneapolis, he spoke of the need to “protect our kids and address the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country.”  But Newtown-style mass shootings have almost nothing in common with garden-variety gun crime besides the use of a firearm, and the failure to distinguish them has resulted in overlooking the most effective means for reducing gun deaths. 

Mass shootings, especially mass shootings of school children, are exceedingly rare.  Identifying common causes and certain means of averting them is therefore difficult, and legislative fixes are likely to possess a high degree of over- and under-inclusion.  Requiring federal background checks for private gun sales would not have kept guns out of the hands of Adam Lanza, while the NRA’s proposal to put an armed adult in every school across the U.S. wins the prize for the most absurd overreaction to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

The most common gun violence, by contrast, is drearily predictable and is the source on average of nearly ten thousand homicides a year.  Such violence occurs overwhelmingly in certain locations of cities—over the past 30 years in Boston, for example, 75 percent of the city’s shootings occurred in 4.5% of its area, whereas 88.5 percent of the city’s street segments experienced not a single shooting.   Urban shootings are retaliatory or the product of the most trivial of slights.  They are committed by handguns, not assault rifles.  Victims and perpetrators usually know each other, absent bullets going astray.  Reforming the involuntary commitment laws and beefing up mental health services are largely irrelevant to these shootings, since though the shooters have serious problems with impulse control and are clearly a danger to themselves and others, few would be deemed mentally ill.  And both victims and perpetrators are disproportionately minority, by huge margins.  New York City is emblematic of the country’s gun violence.  According to victims and witnesses, blacks commit 80% of all shootings in New York, though they are 23% of the city’s residents.  Add Hispanics and you account for 98% of all shootings.  Whites commit a little over 1% of shootings, though they are 35% of the city’s population.  These disproportions pertain across the country.

The media loves to think of itself as a crusader for racial justice against the bigotry of red state Americans.  Yet it pays little attention to black on black violence, compared to the ubiquity of such violence.  Only in the extremely rare occasions when a black victim has been shot by a police officer or a white does it summon sustained outrage.  This selective concern undoubtedly stems as much from reluctance to recognize the flip side of the black on black violence phenomenon—i.e., the high numbers of black perpetrators—as from any selective compassion.

While it is unclear how to prevent mass shootings–short of the unlikely event of removing all guns from the public—we know how to reduce urban violence: data-driven, proactive policing.  New York has brought crime and homicide down an unmatched 80% since the early 1990s by identifying crime hot spots through the rigorous analysis of crime data, encouraging officers to lawfully use their discretion to question people about suspicious behavior, and holding police commanders accountable for crime on their watch.  After a street shooting, officers will be deployed to the area in anticipation of a retaliatory hit, where they will look for behavior that indicates that someone is carrying a gun or that gang activity is afoot. 

Gun control, however reasonable, has had only a limited effect on inner city gun violence, as the case of Chicago demonstrates.  Proactive policing, on the other hand, is a demonstrable success, saving thousands of minority lives in New York over the last two decades.  (Strengthening marriage, to increase the chance that sons grow up with their fathers, would also have an enormous effect on inner city shootings, but presents a much greater policy challenge.)  Mass homicides are getting most of the attention at the moment, for the simple reason, frankly, that whites identify themselves with the victims, but the real problem of American gun violence lies elsewhere, and the solution to it within reach. 



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Competitive death

The X Games—the extreme sport events broadcast on ESPN—just had their first death, reports the New York Times.  A snowmobiler trying to launch an airborne back flip was run over by his snowmobile, fatally injuring his heart and brain.  Such high risk competitions have become so popular that there are now six annual X Games, up from one in 1995.  Meanwhile, less publicized tests to push the body to its breaking point–such as this (insane) 135-mile bike, ski, or foot race in sub-freezing Northern Minnesota, in which participants lug all their camping equipment and supplies–continue to grow in number, difficulty, and participation rates.

(The wife of a participant in this year’s Arrowhead 135 snow race in Minnesota describes his experience:

There was a very wet snowstorm—about 10 inches of wet snow that started about 7 p.m. of the first day.  By 10 p.m. he  was soaked to the skin and couldn’t get dry.  Plus the snow was so thick on the ground that he was pushing his bike (loaded with 50 pounds of gear) through the snow at a rate of about 1-2 miles per hour.  Finally, he thought he was heading toward hypothermia ( a real risk) so he got out his survival gear—an arctic sleeping bag and a tiny water proof tent, set it up, stripped off the wet gear, and called for a snowmobile rescue.  The ultra elite bikers who got through the hardest part of the race before the storm hit were able to finish and the rest either dropped out or took a very long time to finish—you must finish in 60 hours, and there were a few who went that long. )


It’s a curious thing, this persistent desire to scourge the flesh and to engineer the risk of death.  Even as life grows more and more comfortable, healthy, and safe, and as we become more fanatically risk-averse regarding any possible hint of chemical toxins (see the current campaign against fracking and other excesses of the environmental movement), an ever-larger portion of us seek new ways to inflict pain on ourselves and to court danger.  Are thrill- and pain-seeking genes an evolutionary advantage?   Perhaps it is the competitive and self-testing impulse that confers the benefit or perhaps it is the crown of victory that creates a leg up in reproduction.  Of course, if you die before you breed, you’re out of luck.

War used to be a regular outlet for young men seeking glory through the risk of an allegedly heroic death; Stendhal’s’ Charterhouse of Parma portrays one such young man (Fabrizio Valserra), desperate to join the resurgent Napoleon’s army.  As war has become de-glamorized and less common, males (and a lesser number of females) create non-military combat for themselves, pitting themselves against the limitations of their own flesh.   It’s as if there is a dynamic equilibrium for risk: take it out of the fixed environment and we will put it back in in controlled doses.  (If the military manages to shoehorn females into combat brigades, the appeal of war as a showcase for male valor will diminish further, given the inevitable lowering of physical standards.  No women, BTW,  finished the Northern Minnesota snow race.)

These ever more masochistic races seem to embody as well a lingering desire to mortify the flesh—we may no longer set off on flagellating pilgrimages, but we can punish our bodies in secular ways, including anorexia.  Cartesian dualism may be a scientific dead-end in explaining consciousness, but the mind’s separation from the body, to the point of antagonism or revulsion, seems to be a lived reality.

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Gun control versus terrorism control

The current meme on right wing talk radio regarding gun control is that there are some rare unforeseeable tragedies—such as the Newtown massacre—that just occur as part of the random awfulness of life.  Government cannot prevent every last bad outcome, counseled Rush Limbaugh yesterday.  Michael Medved deconstructed the various proposed gun measures and persuasively argued that none of them would have prevented Adam Lanza from gaining access to his guns; today Medved repeatedly asserted that pace the President, there is no “epidemic of gun violence”—gun violence is dropping, he rightly said (which begs the question of whether even if shootings are falling, the level of gun violence in the U.S. can rightly be characterized as an “epidemic”).

These are by and large wise words, even though as a purely instinctual matter, having no affinity for guns, I am readily prepared to accept tighter limits on high-powered weaponry, regardless of the inexact fit between the legislative goal and the desired outcome.  (I understand the arguments to the contrary, however, even if I do not resonate to them.)    The problem with this “don’t expect the government to protect you from every harm” argument is that conservatives flagrantly ignore it when it comes to Islamic terrorism.  If mass shootings are extremely rare, Islamist-inspired homicides on American soil are rarer still.  According to Michael Shermer, citing research by James Alan Fox, an average of 25 people are murdered with guns each day, or one an hour (a rate that if caused by influenza would clearly be deemed “epidemic”).  There are 20 mass shootings a year (defined as taking out at least four victims).  By contrast, we have had the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and the Fort Hood shootings—three incidents over two decades.  And yet conservative opposition to the creation of an entire new federal department to fight terrorism was muted at best, and largely limited to issues of unionization.  As for the need for some sort of massive federal effort, not to mention a war, to protect Americans from terrorism, conservatives were nearly all on board.  We now have an entire multibillion dollar terrorism-industrial complex selling government ever more high-tech goodies to detect and guard against a largely hypothetical threat (especially regarding chemical and biological weaponry), and infantilizing airport security measures that cost billions in lost time and thus commerce. 

Many in the right-wing media world warn regularly about the unending threat of Islamic terrorism, and rail demagogically against Democratic politicians for not doing enough to protect us from the threat.  Yet garden variety gun violence takes out magnitudes more Americans each year than terrorism.

Gun rights advocates might respond that the difference is the Second Amendment.  But as Justice Scalia has pointed out, a right to bear arms does not rule out reasonable regulations on assault weapons, whose existence the Founders did not necessarily foresee.  And in any case, the issue is simply how one evaluates risk.  


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You gotta love the NRA.  Anyone who was expecting Vice President Wayne LaPierre to break the NRA’s week-long silence after the Newtown massacre with an olive branch and some sensible proposals regarding better background checks, say, or restrictions on high-capacity ammo clips didn’t know his man.  The idea of putting an armed guard in every elementary school in the country strikes me as utter lunacy (sadly, lunacy already embraced by 20 percent of elementary schools and one third of all public schools generally, reports the New York Times).  But no one is more responsible for laying the predicate for LaPierre’s proposal than the gun control Left.   The Left (including the media: see, especially, NPR) has been hawking the notion that the Newtown school shootings represent a widespread threat in order to advance its own agenda.  It can not now protest that LaPierre’s idea is a ludicrous overreaction to an extraordinarily rare, horrific event with no precedent.  (And in fact some gun control advocates have decided that there is more advantage to be had in backing the schools-need-armed-guards idea than in demolishing it.)  So now both sides are staring at each other across a common false conceit, even as more school districts have already begun arming up and police departments have announced plans to patrol schools in another eruption of probability-free thinking.  For the moment, there may in fact be an elevated risk of copy cat attacks from the unhinged.  But that increased risk is over a baseline that is extremely low to begin with.  Perhaps there is no cost to such reflexive overreaction.  But in fact there always is a cost, since public resources are finite.  Money spent putting an armed guard in every school could be better spent targetted by risk.  There are many inner city neighborhoods and schools that could do with more police presence, for example, because their residents face a non-negligble chance of getting shot: The per capita shooting rate in Brownsville, Brooklyn, for instance , is a whopping 81 times higher than in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood.  Spreading police intervention equally across all neighborhoods in New York, regardless of their crime rate, would be a waste of resources–one that the New York Police Department’s Compstat system thankfully prevents.  In the present instance, however, we seemed doomed to an irrational, if inevitable, response.

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At what point do we declare that the near saturation media coverage of the Newton massacre, however understandable initially, has become not just politically opportunistic on the part of a nearly unanimous gun control bloc but also voyeuristic?   Perhaps any coverage of such a tragedy inevitably contains elements of voyeurism from the very start—humans compassionately grieve for and sympathize with the victims, but also are drawn to look upon  others’ suffering with a horrified fascination.  That fascination includes some element of “Phew, I’m glad that wasn’t me” (as well as: “Why him and not me?”).   The Greek tragedians understood the mesmerizing effect of other people’s travails.   The Newton coverage to me is starting to enter the realm of arguably gratuitous detail regarding matters best left to private sorrow. 

The media also have an interest in selling their wares, obviously, and so will symbiotically exploit their audiences’ voyeuristic tendencies as long as they can. 

 Part of the answer to how much coverage of the massacre is justified—and by extension, what the public policy response should be–requires precisely defining what happened there.   If we categorize it narrowly as belonging to the subset: schoolyard massacres, those are incredibly rare.  The New York Times reports:

Research on mass school killings shows that they are exceedingly rare. Amanda B. Nickerson, director of a center that studies school violence and abuse prevention at the University at Buffalo, said studies made clear that American schools were quite safe and that children were more likely to be killed outside of school.

How much should we change our laws to prevent an event that almost never happens, especially in comparison to the number of school days logged by American children each year?   Gun control advocates thus want to put the Newton massacre in a broader context of gun violence more generally.   I have almost no gun rights instincts, so my knee-jerk response to the tragedy was: “Enough is enough.  The NRA’s got some ‘splainin’ to do here.”   Nevertheless I well understand the substantial arguments of the gun lobby against further regulation.  Homicides have dropped enormously over the last thirty years, and not just because of better emergency care treatment.  Gun violence is not getting worse, it’s getting better.  And as Steven Pinker has shown, violence in general has plummeted over centuries.  Further restrictions on gun purchases will be greatly overinclusive, especially if we define the problem we are trying to avert as school massacres.  Almost no one buying semi-automatic weapons and ammo will go on to murder school children.   But the proportion of legal gun owners who go on to kill anyone is also very low. 

The extent to which one tolerates over-inclusion and under-inclusion in a law depends on your preexisting world view—if you’re already inclined towards gun regulation, for example,  you won’t care so much if the proposed solution would burden many innocent gun owners and would not necessarily have prevented the current tragedy.  Because I don’t personally value gun rights, I am easily prepared to support a potentially infinite range of further restrictions on ownership.  But I realize that such a position  is purely idiosyncratic, if not selfish.  Suggest something greatly overinclusive about something I do care about, and I will be much more insistent on a tight fit between the law and the alleged problem.  When Al Sharpton proposes to shut down proactive policing in New York City after an officer mistakenly shoots an unarmed man, for example, I do rebel, and will argue the utter rarity of such shootings compared to the tens of millions of officer-civilian contacts a year and the costs of further restricting officers’ ability to prevent crime. 

Short of disarming everyone, it’s hard to see how to prevent such unusual tragedies like we just experienced—especially where the gun user was not the lawful gun owner.  Perhaps I’ve missed something, but nothing seems to suggest that Adam Lanza was within the range of even greatly liberalized involuntary commitment laws, so the safe harbor of hoping that stricter mental health laws or even more treatment would have prevented Sandy Hook seems unavailable. 

Of course, the greatest victims of gun violence proportionally are blacks; there are more black homicide victims each year than white and Hispanic victims combined, even though blacks are only 12 percent of the population.  Even the liberal media doesn’t care much about them.  Blacks are also the greatest perpetrators of gun violence.  In New York City, blacks commit 80 percent of all shootings, though they are 23 percent of the population.  Whites commit 1.4 percent of all shootings, though they are 35 percent of the population.  Blacks are underrepresented among gun owners.  Policing, not gun laws, brought gun violence down in New York City since 1994.  The one root cause that I would go after to lower black crime would be illegitimacy.  But the New York Police Department managed to decrease homicides by 80 percent since 1993—twice the national average—without changing family structure one iota. 

Left to my own devices, however, and reacting purely emotionally, I swing back into the gun control camp.  There simply is no dispute that the U.S. is miles more violent than other advanced countries.  Are guns a symptom or a cause of that violence?  I don’t know.  But in any case, do we really need all those guns?  Taboo question in many circles, I know.  If something is question of rights, “need” does not come into the question.  And conservatives preach that we should be nonjudgmental about other consumer preferences.  I am not supposed to question whether you “need” five SUVs or 63 pairs of Jimmy Choo stilettos.  Still, I will not mourn if it gets harder to buy guns.  The sounds of the machinery of the federal government cranking into gear must be terrifying to many a libertarian, but is a federal response really so inappropriate?  I am agnostic on this.  Legislation serves a symbolic as well as a technocratic function.  

(However rare mass shootings are, Islamic terrorist shootings—or any kind of domestic Islamic terror event–are even rarer.  Conservatives have been just as quick to jump on the policy bandwagon to prevent Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly unusual occurrence, and in so doing to impose far greater costs and consequences, as liberals are with regards to highly publicized shootings.)

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Thy will be done

A heavy snow is whipping the New York City region, blown relentlessly by winds expected to reach 60 mph later tonight.  Thousands in the area are still without electricity or heat in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and are living in shells of homes.  Who among us, with unfettered power to avert such repeated blows, would decline to do so?




It is depressing to see Fox News so desperately flogging the Benghazi attack in the last moments of the election.  Is that really the best that Romney and the Republicans have at this point?  It is a sideshow to the real problems facing the country, and the idea that the State Department under Obama is less concerned than heretofore about the safety of its personnel, or that our intelligence agencies are systemically less focused on preventing terror attacks, is fanciful.  This should have been a campaign fanatically focused on the unsustainable growth in entitlement obligations, government spending, and debt, all of which are drags on the economy, and yet, astoundingly, even after the promising selection of one of the most eloquent analysts of the federal budget as VP nominee, the Romney campaign avoided any serious discussion of entitlement reform.  Perhaps it is naïve to expect otherwise in a democracy, but I think that there is real value in an electoral  mandate.  If Romney didn’t have the guts to speak forcefully and honestly about the hard budget choices that will need to be made, and assuming that that reluctance stemmed from his pollsters accurately reading the national will, we’re in big trouble. 

Hard to tell if the seeming conviction of virtually the entire Republican punditocracy in a Romney victory is sincere or mere cynical strategy to try to convince the undecideds to vote for a winner.   If the pundits really do believe that Romney will win (and I know at least one who seems utterly confident that he will), they seem to be following the logic of so many matters of faith: It would be nice if it were so, therefore it must be so.

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Don’t go to college, please!

Hurricane Sandy has provided yet another reminder of our practical and psychological dependence on a steady supply of electricity.  Granted, the current devastation to the energy grid is a distribution, rather than a supply, crisis.  Nevertheless, utopian greens should take note.  Undoubtedly many of the Brooklynites and Lower East Siders desperately searching for ways to recharge their cell phones and iPads share their cohort’s usual scorn for coal, fracking, and nuclear.  But nearly every one of them would jump at the opportunity to crank up a greenhouse-gas-spewing generator, if that would get their wired (and lighted and refrigerated) lifestyle going again—and understandably so.  Even a desert-sized bank of Solyndra-built solar panels is unlikely to do the trick at the moment.

But Sandy is also a reminder of the ongoing necessity of blue collar workers—all those hard hats trying to repair power lines and pump the water out of miles of homes, tunnels, and subway tracks.  A universal population of college graduates, the desideratum of nearly all Democrats and far too many Republicans, composed as it inevitably would be of marketing and ethnic studies majors, would be of little use in rescuing the tri-state area from its catastrophic blow.  Yes, more engineers are also needed–in the long run, to try to design more resistant infrastructure, and in the short run, to diagnose the current ruptures and plan a strategy of attack.  But manual labor is a crucial component of the current recovery.  To be sure, many of these hard hats belong to recalcitrant and budget-breaking public employee unions.  But their power is slight compared to the teachers unions.   And unlike teachers, who enjoy regular paeans of praise from politicians and advocates, utility workers rarely are the object of aspiration and admiration.

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October Surprise

The election’s over.  My bets were on President Obama in any case, but the rightful suspension of campaigning in the aftermath of the hurricane catastrophe seals Romney’s fate.  Obama gets to look presidential, while Romney disappears.  Even if that suspension lasts just a few days, it breaks any momentum Romney may have been building up.  Perhaps he could recover it, but the chances are against him, I would think.  Things may look differently outside the Eastern seaboard, where normal life still continues.  But in the case of a disaster of this magnitude, people’s instincts are to preserve what they can of the status quo, my guess is.

In the meantime, many local officials in the tri-state area have been showing impressive leadership, above all the head of New York City’s crushed transit system, Joe Lhotta, a protege of former mayor Rudolph Guiliani.  With any luck, Lhotta will ride his display of organizational skills and crisis management into City Hall as a dark horse candidate in the 2013 mayoral election.  That field currently features one more disastrous tool of the welfare-industrial complex after another.   And N.J. governor Chris Christie has again demonstrated his take-no-prisoners executive style.  Our greatest thanks, however, go out to the anonymous members of the uniformed services who have been working without sleep to help the stricken and to restore the fruits of civilization to the storm path.

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