To the Left!

I’ve always struggled with the words progressive and liberal.

In America at least, liberal seems to mean so many different things to different people that it doesn’t seem to mean anything at all. I have no idea what progressive  means at all.

Interfluidity has a handy-dandy chart that attempts to sort lefties into useful categories.
Progressives vs Liberals
While I am sympathetic to, for example, the goals of Black Lives Matter, and mindful of the fact that, in my friend’s memorable phrase, “It’s harder to move through the world” if you don’t have a particular genital configuration or skin colour, I’ve long believed that identity politics is poisonous to social discourse and is at least partially responsible for Trump, UKIP and worse.
Universalists want group identity to become less salient and consequential, and so resist tactics that highlight difference in order to promote intragroup solidarity and to sow open conflict with other groups. Identity-centered activists view solidarity and conflict as the best and perhaps only way to overcome identity-distributed oppression. To a universalist, tactics like “no platforming” sow precisely the sort of divisions we ought to be working to overcome. To an identity-centered activist, “no platforming” an apologist for racism or sexual violence is just winning..
Put me down firmly for universalist and allow me to claim Dr King for my side.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
The other axis is more difficult to place myself on.
“Classical liberals” and the people sometimes referred to as neoliberals don’t challenge the existence of large, consequential differences between rich and poor. They seek to remedy what is oppressive in economic stratification by putting a humane floor beneath the consequences of being sorted downwards, and by working to ensure that the sorting is “fair”. They tend to promote equality of opportunity and emphasize education as a solution.
I have long believed that runaway inequality is the biggest threat to American democracy. I believe that the game is rigged and that a handful of millionaires and billionaires have hijacked the apparatus of government and found a way to pretend that 47% of the population are moochers and parasites.
According to the chart’s economic axis, my fear of runaway inequality is incompatible with my deep-seated understanding that meritocracy and rewarding success are vital to a flourishing society. I don’t see them as in opposition to each other.
Strategically, I am a Classical Liberal but, practically, I think we need to reign in the power-grabbing plutocrats and find ways to ensure that Warren Buffet pays more tax than his secretary.
The author of interfluidity seems to struggle with this too.
The diagram above summarizes the differences as I see them among US liberal-to-left factions. Note that these are questions of more or less, not absolutes. I’d place myself in the “universalist left”, for example, but I do believe that some degree of economic stratification is legitimate and necessary, under economists’ usual rationale of preserving incentives to produce. I just think that the degree of economic stratification that currently prevails is way, way, way, way, way past the point where benefits of sharp incentives to produce are undone by even sharper incentives to cheat and outweighed by destructive social fragmentation.
As far as I can tell, the author’s self-diagnosis is the same as mine, but he wants put himself in the bottom left quadrant. I’m pretty sure I’m up in the top left.

Levi Stubbs Tears

I’ve been a Billy Bragg fan since I saw him at the Portsmouth Guildhall in ’86 and I’ve terrorized my family and friends by singing his songs ever since.

Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy

My best Billy Bragg memories include teaching Train Train to Dylan when we lived in New York. He was only a year old and he used to finish the chorus for me “Train! Train!…Hurry bring my baby back again!”.

Brewing Up with Billy Bragg

I was cornered by an Old Etonian and an Old Harrovian for singing There is Power in a Factory  in the showers at BRNC Dartmouth. They’d never met a Labour supporter before.

Talking with the Taxman about Poetry

The night before I was due to see Billy at the Guildhall, Rob and I saw him being arrested on the Nine O’Clock News for breaking into the nuclear base at Greenham Common. Billy was released in time though and he was brilliant. Ted Hawkins was his warm up act and I bought all of Ted’s albums too.

Levi Stubb’s Tears is one my favourites and I’ve wanted to learn it since I got my first guitar. This is the first song I’ve recorded in a couple of years and I’m a bit rusty. Was fun to play though.

I decided that the song needed a bit of a video to go with it so I spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering through Flickr’s Creative Commons gallery looking for images and cramming them together in iMovie (iMovie sucks).

 

This one’s for Stan (2)

I had a very pleasant chat with the guys on my football team after the game today. After the third beer the topic turned to politics and I made some claims that my teammates thought were outrageous. I promised to back them up.

First claim: Net Migration from Mexico under Obama is Zero

The specific point that Stan made was that under President Obama, immigration from Mexico was out of control. I said that net migration from Mexico under President Obama was zero.

Here’s the data (from Politifact):

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 2.20.38 PM

The chart shows that the number of Mexicans living in California has stayed more or less the same under President Obama. I make no claims as to whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But it’s a fact.

Second Claim: The number of deportations under President Obama has gone up.

Again, I’m not expressing an opinion on whether deportations are a good thing or a bad thing. I was merely countering the claim that President Obama’s was not enforcing the immigration laws.

Here’s the data (from Pew Research):

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 2.35.02 PM

Third Claim: Deficits are more likely to go down under Democratic presidents

My conservative friends were under the impression that the debt increases more under Democratic presidents. I’m on dodgier ground with this one because of recent history and a lot of depends-how-you-measure-it but I will valiantly do my best to defend the claim.

Here’s the data. This first chart is from The Atlantic.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 2.42.32 PM

The first thing to notice is that the debt shot up under President Reagan. The next thing to notice is the massive drop under Clinton. The situation under Obama is complicated and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. — Dick Cheney

There’s a different way to look at the numbers though that is kinder to Republicans. Let’s look at that first.

Here’s the per annum increase.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 2.43.51 PM

That Reagan jump still stands out and the Clinton drop does too. But this chart accentuates the increase under Obama that really troubles Stan. What’s up with that?

Let’s drill into the Obama years. Here’s the Wall Street Journal.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 3.19.06 PM

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 2.03.31 PM

 

Now, we all agree that that first year was horrendous but, as we all remember, we were in the aftermath of the word financial crisis in 70 years. The numbers have improved a bit since though.

The main cause of the Obama deficit was the reduction in tax revenues caused by the recession.

deficit=revenues – spending

As before, I’m making no comment about whether or not the government should increase spending during a recession, but the data says that spending increased more, percentage-wise, under President Bush than it did under President Obama.

Here’s a Forbes article (Obama’s a Big Spender…Just Like His Predecessors) that shows some data on spending. Again, check out the massive rise in spending under Reagan and the massive drop under Clinton.

Federal-outlays-as-a-percentage-of-GDP

You probably also didn’t fail to notice the massive rise under President George W. Bush and the absolutely enormous leap in 2009. Who gets the blame for that?

Another Forbes article (Who Is The Smallest Government Spender Since Eisenhower? Would You Believe It’s Barack Obama?) says that the budget in the first year of a presidency should be credited to the previous guy.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 3.37.40 PM

I think that’s going a bit too far but it does shine a bit of light on the complexity.

In summary, the data clearly shows that the deficit (and spending!) increased more under Reagan, Bush I and Bush II than it did under Clinton or Carter. Obama’s record stands or falls on whether you think the 2008/9 financial meltdown was Bush’s fault or Obama’s fault but let’s not pretend that it didn’t happen at all.

Here’s Factcheck.org with the final word,

Federal outlays for the current fiscal year are estimated to be $3.65 trillion, according to figures released in March along with the president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015. We calculate that to be just 10.1 percent higher than fiscal 2009 spending levels he inherited from George W. Bush. (Fiscal 2009 began nearly four months before Obama took office, and spending levels were mainly set by Bush. As we’ve detailed elsewhere, we attribute — at most –$203 billion of actual FY 2009 outlays to increases signed by Obama.)

That 10.1 percent increase in spending is below the nearly 12 percent rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index since Obama took office.

Obama’s increase in federal spending over five years contrasts dramatically with the 78 percent increase during Bush’s eight years.

A couple of other points came up that weren’t points of contention, but I’ll support them any way.

Claim: The number of uninsured has fallen under Obamacare.

Here’s a Gallup poll reported in Forbes (After Obamacare: Number of Uninsured Hits Five-Year Low):

Gallup-uninsured-chart

And here’s similar data from the CDC showing the 16 million people who now have insurance who didn’t before:

CDCUninsured

Now, I think Obamacare is shit. But it’s better than what came before.  Stan and I differed on whether it’s a tragedy that 9% of Americans still don’t have health care but we did agree that the USA spends too much on health care. Here’s how much too much (Health Costs: How the U.S. Compares With Other Countries on KQED).

US_spends_much_more_on_health_than_what_might_be_expected_1_slideshow

First of all, note that the US spends more on healthcare than everyone else. Second of all, note that the US Government spends more on healthcare than everyone else (except Norway and the Netherlands)!  But it doesn’t cover all the people! And does the USA get better healthcare for all this money? [SPOILER ALERT: no].

Stan said that if I could produce data to support my claims he’d reconsider his political outlook. I doubt I’ve changed his mind very much on the deficit (though it is certainly true that the deficit tends to go up more under Republicans) but I hope he will concede the facts on immigration and deportation at our next discussion 🙂

Stan?

No Dirty Tricks

My son made me watch the Democratic debate this week (a first!) and I’m glad I did. What a contrast to the Republican debate!

I love to read the reviews of debates like this and, more than any other time, I was shocked at how the media interpreted the result compared to my understanding.

My analysis first and then I’ll do a round-up of what the pundits are saying.

I don’t think debates like this are a zero-sum game, especially at this stage in the race. Each participant has different goals and it’s possible for more than one candidate to achieve their objectives. For example,

Hillary-2016-poster-43

Hillary Clinton is the front-runner by an overwhelming margin. She is unpopular within her own party and there’s a sense that she is the inevitable candidate because she is the inevitable candidate. She needed to do well enough to assure her supporters that she really is the candidate that she thinks she is; well enough to convince Biden that he would be wasting his time to join the race; and to show just enough charm and deference to Democrats further to her left that she is not a complete robot and/or tool of the plutocracy. Hillary achieved her goals.

bernie

Bernie Sanders needed to excite his supporters and to demonstrate that he is not the crazy socialist that everyone says he is. He also needed to make a good introduction to the people who are seeing him for the first time. I’m sure he knows as well as anyone that he is a long-shot but if he can move the Overton Window to the left, he is a winner. Bernie achieved his goals.

usa-election-o-malley

Martin O’Malley probably doesn’t expect to become president either but he didn’t disgrace himself. I doubt that he moved the needle on his campaign to be president but he probably made it a little bit more likely that he’ll get a post in the next Clinton administration. He’s probably content with that.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb should just stay home for the next debate. They lost.

chafee

The day after the debate, the mainstream pundits proclaimed with one voice that Hillary was the overwhelming winner and that the other candidates were a disgrace.

Hillary Clinton won. She won because she’s a strong debater. She won because Bernie Sanders is not. She won because the first Democratic presidential debate focused on liberal policies — and not her email scandal or character.” — Ron Fournier, The National Journal

“Hillary Clinton won because all of her opponents are terrible.” — Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker

Clinton demonstrated that she was, by far, the best presidential candidate onstage. Indeed, she may have been the only person onstage actually running for president. […snip…] But none of them waged the kind of frontal assault that would be required to dislodge a front-runner who commands Clinton’s breadth of institutional support. — Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

The commentators on the right actually thought that the whole debate was a setup, staged to make Hillary look presidential.

The most irritating criticism though came from those voices of the center-right who have been telling us for years that there’s no virtue left in politics and that everyone just wants to get in a cheap shot or score points with sound-bites. When—finally!—there’s a debate where politicians talk about the issues, they’re all aghast at the lack of character assassination.

Here’s David Brooks on the Newshour.

…the one advantage the Republicans have is they actually, a bunch of them want to be president. On the Democratic side, only one person wants to be president. That’s Hillary Clinton.

and

But the other factor is, the Republicans are actually arguing and fighting with each other. And what I saw up there was Hillary Clinton performing extremely well, and four other guys lying down and let her, letting her have the nomination. It’s like Bernie Sanders held up the white flag of surrender when he refused to really go after her on the character and moral issue, which is his only way in. — David Brooks, The Newshour

Really, David? The only way for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, to distinguish himself from the centrist front-runner is on moral issues?

Ross Douthat was even more nakedly critical of Bernie’s hesitance to get down and dirty.

by declining to attack Clinton on the issues where she’s actually most vulnerable — issues that have driven down her numbers with swing voters these last few months, issues that make her a weaker-than-expected general-election bet — Sanders is preserving his present popularity at the expense of any possibility of actually knocking off the frontrunner, actually beating her at the polls.—Ross Douthat, NY Times

Does it not occur to them that Bernie has no interest in winning a dirty tricks campaign? Even if he doesn’t win, he can shift the debate more significantly by staying true to his principles.

Rare among the pundits, Michelle Goldberg saw this.

His statement made him look like a mensch and a man of principle, ensuring that the debate remained a surprisingly substantive exchange on the issues he cares about most, rather a GOP-style pro-wrestling match. He actually seemed less interested in taking down the front-runner than in elevating his own ideas. That’s hugely rare in a politician. Clinton supporters who want a more progressive America have reason to be grateful for her strongest challenger. — Michelle Goldberg, Slate

AlterNet points out how much Bernie’s performance did for him in the polls.

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups & Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate? Bernie Sanders by all objective measures “won” the debate. Hands down. I don’t say this as a personal analysis of the debate; the very idea of “winning” a debate is silly to me. I say this because based on the only relatively objective metric we have, online polls and focus groups, he did win. And it’s not even close. —Adam  Johnson, AlterNet

polls

Bernie did pretty well in GooglePoints too.

GoogleDemDebate

In the end though, I have to agree with Matt Yglesias.

Clinton, in short, isn’t a flawless candidate, nor did she deliver a flawless debate performance. But she doesn’t need to be flawless to win — she just needs to be better than the opposition. And against a relatively weak field, she dominated. — Matt Yglesias, Vox

In Which Sturgeon’s Law Explains Everything

In 1951 Theodore Sturgeon was giving a talk about science fiction when someone in the audience noted that “90% of science fiction writing was crap”. Sturgeon shot back that “90% of everything is crap”.

This observation came to be known as Sturgeon’s Law.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon’s law is just as valuable when you are thinking about professionals as the old joke about doctors illustrates.

Q: What do you call a doctor who graduates at the bottom of his class?

A: Doctor

After years of pondering, I have come to believe that Sturgeon’s Law is more about the 10% that isn’t crap than the 90% that is. Forgetting the exact ratios for a moment, in every artform and every sporting contest, in every profession and every human endeavour, there is a distribution of quality in which a minority stands out as much better than the rest. We all know teachers who work that little bit harder to make their lessons interesting or the pharmacist who goes the extra mile to make sure that you understand your prescription. In my own profession—software engineering—only about 10% of engineers ever read a book about their craft once they leave college. This leads me to what I think is a more profound corollary to Sturgeon’s Law.

If you are a software engineer at the top of your game, you probably read books, attend conferences, study relentlessly to enhance your skills and engage in endless discussion on how to improve the state of the art of software craftsmanship.  Average software engineers do not do this but you are probably surrounded by the rare few who seek to be the best they can be. This is where the less obvious aspect of Sturgeon’s Law casts its insidious spell. When you meet people outside of your elite circle, they are more likely to be average than elite.

Most engineering managers have a similar disinclination to better themselves. The best of them are very good but most of them are not the best. Too many are merely average. When the very best of the software engineering profession looks at the competence of software engineering management, they sigh a little because most managers are not very good.

Oddly enough, the very best of software engineering managers have a symmetrical view of the engineers they manage. Most engineers are not very good either. This isn’t just true of software engineers and their managers; it’s true of QA engineers, product managers, and designers too. Most QA engineers think that most programmers suck at testing. It’s true. Most of them do. But most QA engineers suck at it too. To the best QA engineers, the average programmers seem like uncaring barbarians. And vice versa.

I should emphasize at this point that I am not suggesting that some people are better than others at everything. Even very great software engineers might suck at gardening or astronomy.

This corollary to Sturgeon’s Law pertains across so many domains where the best of folks surround themselves with other folks who are motivated to excel. The average person outside their circle contrasts poorly as a result. Consider a Kalenjin long distance runner from the Rift Valley in Kenya. He probably encounters other great runners almost every day of his life. Most of the people he runs with, eats with and loves with are also great runners. If our Kalenjin got on a plane to Helsinki, he’d probably be disappointed to find that most Finns are not great long-distance runners. Most of them are just average. Truth be told, most of the Kalenjin are probably average too but our guy doesn’t encounter them very often. He hangs with the elite when he is at home. Away from home he has less opportunity to be so picky. It was only when he went to Finland that he encountered so many people who were not elite runners. Finland has elite runners too of course (I fondly recall cheering for Lasse Virén at the Montreal Olympics) but you are not going to bump into them at the airport as you might when you are at the Kenyan School for Elite Runners.

It’s helpful at this point to remember that individuals are not statistics (The median is not the message in the memorable words of Stephen Gould). If you wanted to recruit a team of long-distance runners it wouldn’t be a great idea to fly off to the Rift Valley and round up the first 5 runners you came across. You’d probably have a very average running team. You’d be much better off choosing great runners wherever they hail from. Furthermore, if you had to choose between a Finnish runner and a Kenyan runner, there is no need to check their birth certificate or the colour of their skin when you decide which one should join your elite running team. You can actually race them and choose the one that runs the fastest. When you are dealing with individuals, you should concern yourself with their individual qualities, not with some arbitrary statistical correlation however accurate that may be. It might be true that the average Kenyan runs faster than the average Finn but—so what? You will never be in a situation where you have to choose between average individuals without some other evidence to inform your choice.

The insidious nature of statistical racism is magnified by confirmation bias. Once you have decided that Kenyans run faster than Finns, it’s all too easy to reinforce your prejudice by noticing all the data points that confirm your bias—Hey! There goes another fat, slow and lazy Finn!—and to overlook the occasions that contradict your instincts. There is a long, unfortunate history of people doing exactly this.

There’s a whole garden of isms that wither under Sturgeon’s steely gaze. My dentist (Hi, Dr Bobba!) has a lovely cartoon on the wall with a caption that says something like “Women will never make good dentists. Their wrists are too weak!”.

Put yourself in the perspective of a Victorian gentleman who just happens to be a very good dentist. All your friends are very good dentists. They all have a certain background in dentistry and very strong wrists. You probably have a quite distinct image of what a proper dentist looks like. The average woman of your acquaintance probably seems very un-dentist-like. She is probably very uninterested in dentistry and has very dainty wrists. If you had to choose a dentist based only on wrist strength, you’d be marginally better off choosing the dentist with the stronger wrists—in 1875. But in 2014, you can skip right past concerns about wrist strength and whether your dentist has the appropriate genitalia and just hire the one who is the best at dentistry. And Doctor Bobba *is* very good. Trust me on that.

More casually—in our everyday lives—we are surrounded at work by people who share a certain intellectual outlook on life. Maybe your colleagues are more interested in politics than the average citizen. Maybe your friends at the sports bar care an awful lot about the intricacies of the infield fly rule or exactly how many defenders need to be behind the ball before offside is called. They know more than the average Joe about sports and certainly more than the average wife. Does that mean that women don’t understand politics or sports? No, of course not. The median is not the message, remember? It means that the average wife—in fact, the average anyone—knows less about sports than the fanatics you hang out with at the sports bar.

Let’s try some more examples.

The average tourist who visits Paris from their friendly little town in Georgia will find most Parisians quite distant, abrupt and possibly rude. The literary Parisians that he encounters will surely conclude that tourists from Georgia know very little about French art and are quite uncultured.  If you repeat the experiment in the opposite direction and send a farmer to Atlanta from a little village in Provence I’ll wager the outcome will be identical. Repeat as necessary with Beijing, Nairobi, Melbourne and Rio.

The average kid who spent every evening of the 1970s browsing record stores for rare blues recordings is likely to be disappointed with the crap his kids listen to on The YouTube. And vice versa.

If you are really interested in US history, I bet you are disappointed with how little the kids of today know about your favourite topic. Guess what! They are disappointed in you too!

The average software developer who does not have a degree in computer science probably doesn’t know much about data structures and algorithms. Neither does the average CS graduate. Most of them slept through that class or forgot most of it the next day. More surprisingly, the average PhD is not very good at software engineering either unless they are working in their very narrow field of expertise. Of the best engineers I have ever worked with, only a few had a PhD or a Master’s degree in CS. Some had degrees in English or music and a good number had no degree at all. In fact, it’s quite amazing that many of the most famous people in software dropped out of college—or maybe that’s just my own confirmation bias playing tricks on me.

I expect the world would be a much happier place if people listened to their Uncle Sturgeon and relied on statistics and biases only when they prove useful. A statistical overview of a population can be helpful when you are deciding how to profitably market your new product or where to spend your campaign dollars or which college recruiting fair to attend. But if you are choosing an umpire for your baseball league or an anchor for your running team or a new hire for your software startup you’d do better to ignore the statistics and hire the individuals with the right skills for the job. To do otherwise is prejudice.

Acceptable Prejudice

Usual disclaimer: discrimination against atheists is pretty tame compared to the discrimination that blacks and jews and gays have historically faced. It’s not like atheists were ever persecuted or excluded from public office [er, you sure? -ed].

Why_Do_Atheists_Hate_America_billboard

This bloggingheads.tv vialog makes the claim that discrimination against atheists is different from other kinds of discrimination in that prejudice against atheists is still seen as acceptable or even desirable whereas, while there is still an awful lot of discrimination against jews, blacks, gays, moslems, fat people and the disabled, the balance of public opinion has passed a tipping point and polite society will condemn it rather than nodding in agreement.

This, from today’s Guardian, illustrates the point nicely.

Conservative anti-gay prejudice was under scrutiny again on Friday after the Welsh secretary, David Jones, was forced to backtrack on an assertion that gay couples “clearly” cannot provide a “warm and safe environment” in which to raise children.

The important part of the story is not that Jones is a homophobe. It’s that he recognizes that it is unacceptable in 2013 to be a homophobe and that he is obliged to circumscribe his prejudices to try to make them acceptable and to walk back any comments that betray what he really thinks.

He even summons his invisible gay friends to vouch for his good faith.

“I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can’t do.

“Which is not to say that I’m in any sense opposed to stable and committed same-sex partnerships.”

He did not believe he was homophobic, insisting he had “people in my life who are important to me who are gay”.

This is big news. Jones’s real crime is to be about 10 years behind public opinion. Back in 2003 it was obvious to most right-thinking people that the gays couldn’t be trusted to bring up children. Now that everyone knows a gay couple who are doing a fine job as parents, those ancient attitudes seem silly.  By contrast, it’s still acceptable to think that atheists are morally inferior or that we need to protect children from them.

Here’s the vialog.

Unfortunately, as long as atheists remain a disparate group with few interests in common (ie. forever. Ricky Gervais says atheists are like a group of people whose hobby is not-skiing) this state of affairs is likely to continue.

Red states, blue states. Makers and takers.

Nate Silver’s column today was about how the tech industry overwhelmingly supported the Dems in the recent election. Obama won 84% of the vote in San Francisco and almost as much in Silicon Valley and the rest of the Bay Area.

Even more striking was the proportion of donations from tech companies that went to the Dems – not just in Silicon Valley but across the nation. The following table shows where donations from employees of the ten most admired tech companies went.

From 538 @ NY Times

Ron Paul received more money from Google employees than Romney did.

Nate Silver focussed on the possible link between donations by techies and the failure of Romney’s data systems, presumably because all the competent techies were working for Obama. It’s far more interesting to me to consider what this pattern of donations says about Romney’s musings on who are the makers and who are takers and how Obama bought his votes with bribes to an underclass of moochers.

Mitt Romney told his top donors Wednesday that his loss toPresident Obama was a disappointing result that neither he or his top aides had expected, but said he believed his team ran a “superb” campaign with “no drama,” and attributed his rival’s victory to “the gifts” the administration had given to blacks, Hispanics and young voters during Obama’s first term.

ThinkProgress

I often wonder how the Republicans explain away Silicon Valley’s and New York’s overwhelming support for the Democrats. Does it interfere with their they-want-to-punish-success explanation that the well-remunerated employees of the most successful companies in the country actually prefer their political opponents? Surely not all of those tech employees are minorities voting for bigger handouts or young women voting for free contraceptives? What does it say about the class warfare narrative when 44% of people earning more than $250,000, voted for the party that wants to raise their taxes? How do they deal with the cognitive dissonance?

While we are on the topic of cognitive dissonance, have the conservatives not noticed that federal spending overwhelmingly flows from blue states to red states?

According to The Economist,

New York transferred over $950 billion to the rest of America’s fiscal union from 1990 to 2009. But relative to the size of its economy, Delaware made the biggest contribution, equivalent to more than twice its 2009 GDP.

Do they not know that marriages are more stable in blue states? Or that rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, obesity, drunk driving, armed assaults and poverty are higher in red states than blue states (not to mention European states)? Remind me, which is the party of individual responsibility?

Jeffrey Frankel, Professor of Economics at Harvard (from whom I purloined many of my red state/blue state facts), thinks that the folks who eat most heartily from the federal trough have a gap in their awareness of which groups are the freeloaders and that their politicians help to widen that gap.

The people who suffer the biggest gap between their perceived and actual share of the federal pie are likely to be getting a disproportionate share and yet to believe the opposite. If they believe that others are getting more than they themselves are, they are more likely to buy into the angry belief that other social groups are freeriding on society, and the ideology that government spending is wasteful and needs to be cut back, without realising that this includes the benefits they themselves receive. Perhaps these people are more likely to vote for Republican politicians, who tell them what they want to hear.

I have often wondered, in an odd echo of Romney’s 47% speech, whether the federal system with blue states subsidizing the red states, provides cover for the failings of conservative policies. If the federal government stayed out of healthcare, education, social policies and social security like the tenth amendment says it should, the blue states could experiment with universal healthcare, gay marriage and gun control and the red states could ban abortion, teach abstinence only sex-ed and do away with social security without messing it up for the rest of us.

In the laboratory of democracy, which petri dish would you rather live in?

 

Fun with Guns

 

The first gun I ever fired was a Lee-Enfield, the mainstay of the British Empire for the first half of the 20th century and the weapon of choice of the Sea Cadets. Wikipedia says that our Lee-Enfields were modified to fire .22 rounds but, in my memory, they were the original .303s. Who knows? (Petty Officer Barker, are you out there?)

I have a bunch of medals for shooting. Our Sea Cadet unit (TS Caprice, Bexley SCC), used to compete in tournaments pretty much every other weekend – adventure training, rifle drill, orienteering, rowing, sailing, football. We won almost every time we competed and my medal drawer overfloweth. Shooting was my forte.

I was pretty good at shooting despite the fact that I was – and still am – very short-sighted and, as a self-conscious teenager, never wore my glasses. I won silver in the South-East London shooting contest and gold in the pentathlon (shooting, orienteering, assault course, shot putt and…er … <mumble> something else I don’t remember) and best of all, we got the silver medal twice in a row in the All London Adventure Training competition (codename: Chosin; named for the Battle of Chosin in the Korean War) where we, a team of six fifteen-year-olds, were dropped in the middle of snowy nowhere for a weekend of hiking, camping, shooting and various other activities related to survival in the wilderness.

I also had an air rifle that my godfather gave me. It was already ancient when I got hold of it and the barrel was rusted. It wouldn’t shoot the little pellet thingies but I had fun chewing up bits of paper and shooting them at my dartboard. Once, I wondered whether it would hurt to shoot myself in the foot with a bit of chewed up paper. The answer? Fuck yeah, it hurts! I got a massive blister on my big toe [One day I’ll tell you about my experiment with a super-powerful slingshot, a section of hot wheels track and a dart. Spoiler Alert: it hurt exquisitely and it took me several minutes to pull the dart out of my thumb.]

After I joined the Navy, we fired all the usual Navy weapons. Most of the time we shot the standard issue SLR (self-loading rifle) but we also fired more exotic weapons like LMGs (light-machine guns), SMGs (sub-machine guns) and, once, a 9mm Browning pistol (fun fact: a NAAFI manager with an LMG was credited with shooting down a Mirage with an LMG during the Falkland’s War).

My next gun was a twin-barrelled 30mm BMARC.

This gun was my constant companion for 6 months in 1984/85 while we sailed around and around the Falklands trying to keep the Argies from coming back. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because I love saying it), the thrill of firing that gun is something I’ll never forget.

Alarm Aircraft! Green 9-0! Elevation 2-2! Starboard guns, engage! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! (20 times per second).

My next gun presented a different kind of thrill. I didn’t get to pull the trigger but I did get to load it. With one shell fired every 2.4 seconds and with two little 18-year-olds – weighing not much more than the 72lb shells that the gun fired – tasked with making sure the firing ring was never empty, you can imagine how much fun it was when the Captain announced

Naval Gunfire Support! 300 rounds. Engage!

I think I still have the bruises on my collar bone from pulling those shells down from the top shelf in the magazine and catching them on my shoulder. With a range of 30,000 yards, the 4.5in Mk8 was the most powerful gun I ever fired but I fired other weapons that were bigger. OK. I didn’t actually fire a torpedo, but I fired practice shots a hundred times and I sat next to a dude who fired one from HMS Revenge. Did you know they were wire-guided? Pretty cool, eh?

I missed out on firing the biggest weapon of all, the Polaris inter-continental ballistic missile, by a few months. My submarine, HMS Revenge, fired a practice missile a few months before I joined her but we fired an uncountable multitude of water shots on my one and only patrol and, each time, I fired a practice torpedo, the theory being that if you fire a polaris missile, every russian submarine within a few hundred miles will hear it and come to try to sink you.

I was the only crew member on HMS Revenge who was also a member of Greenpeace. When the Jimmy made his big speech about how everyone on board had to be totally committed to our mission, three of my messmates had to physically prevent me from going up to the control room to share my reservations about our nuclear deterrent with the captain.

[postscript: odd that my security clearance came up for review right after I joined Greenpeace].

So, despite my history with guns, nothing prepared me for the ongoing love affair that my adopted country has with weaponry of all kinds.

Everyone in the world knows how much Americans like their guns but you don’t really appreciate exactly how much they like them until you get here and talk to people. Otherwise-normal people have some really strange ideas about the appropriate role of guns in society.

The oddest idea is the one that a well-armed citizenry is the last bastion against tyranny. Even some of my most sensible friends believe that one — not just the crazies who think that Obama is a Kenyan, socialist muslim who wants to take their guns as step one in secret conspiracy to introduce Sharia Law and gulags. Even people who can speak in complete sentences.

Put aside, for a moment, the knowledge that the government has kept all the really good weapons for itself, the main flaw in the well-armed citizenry argument, for me, is an emotional one. When I close my eyes and try to imagine what tyranny looks like, the images that scare me the most are the ones that include well-armed citizens and which way they are pointing their guns (HINT: it’s not in the direction of the government). Think of Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan… and picture the folks holding the weapons. Were they the good guys or the bad guys? Any reason to think it might be different in a future American dystopia?

I expect that the mythology concerning well-armed militias grew from a seed of truth planted in 1776 and nurtured by 200 years of 4th grade history. Generations of elementary school kids have been taught that the bad guys from England were repelled by the good guys using long guns hidden in their barns. Not until high school do kids learn that it’s not always so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

According to Jill Lepore in The New Yorkerit wasn’t until quite recently that the Second Amendment was used to justify gun ownership.

In the two centuries following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, in 1791, no amendment received less attention in the courts than the Second, except the Third. As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma.

The idea that the second amendment has something to do with self-defense is an even more recent innovation. A few years back, writer Jonathan Safran Foer wondered how a politician might justify gun ownership without relying on the Second Amendment.

…why, after the massacre at Virginia Tech — hours after — did Sen. John McCain proclaim, “I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon”? Just what is it, precisely, that he believes in? Is it the Constitution itself? (But surely he thinks it was wise to change the Constitution to abolish slavery, give women the vote, end Prohibition and so on?) Or is it the guns themselves that he believes in? It would be refreshing to have a politician try to defend guns without any reference to the Second Amendment, but on the merits of guns. What if, hours after the killings, McCain had stood at the podium and said instead, “Guns are good because . . . “

Why do Americans see guns as intrinsically good when the rest of the civilized world has such a different opinion?

In the rest of his article, Foer, explores a few potential arguments to his rhetorical question, like public safety, a favourite among my gun-toting companions.

Guns are good because they provide the ultimate self-defense? While I’m sure some people believe that having a gun at their bedside will make them safer, they are wrong. This is not my opinion, and it’s not a political or controversial statement. It is a fact. Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Guns on the street make us less safe. For every justifiable handgun homicide, there are more than 50 handgun murders, according to the FBI.

After a passionate fireside discussion with some pirates on this subject, I had occasion to look into the statistics regarding gun deaths in the USA. They really are appalling. Check out these stats summarized by NationMaster:

  British Crime stats   American Crime stats
Murders with firearms 14 9,369
DEFINITION: Total recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm. Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence.
SOURCE: The Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2002) (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
Ranked 29th. Ranked 1st. 668 times more than United Kingdom
Murders committed by youths 139 8,226
DEFINITION: Homicide rates among youths aged 10–29 years by country or area: most recent year available (variable 1990–1999).
SOURCE: World Health Organization: World report on violence and health, 2002

The numbers are even more appalling when you factor in accidental deaths.

Foer again:

In 2004, more preschoolers than law enforcement officers were killed by firearms, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. The number of children killed by guns in the United States each year is about three times greater than the number of servicemen and women killed annually in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, more children — children– have been killed by guns in the past 25 years than the total number of American fatalities in all wars of the past five decades.

There are several theories for why America is the most violent country in the developed world. The most compelling is that democracy came too early to America. Steven Pinker’s   Better Angels of our Nature points to the state monopoly on violence as a major contributor to the persistent and dramatic decline in violence over the last several thousand years.

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

Book review of Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature in the New York Times.

Pinker documents in excruciating detail just how much more peaceful our century is than previous ones (if like me, you are wondering how Pinker explains away the Holocaust and World War I, go read the book. It will answer all your questions, I promise).

Homicide rates per 100,000 people in Europe.

One of the reasons for the decline in violence, as Pinker describes in this article, Why are States so Red and Blue, is that

All societies must deal with the dilemma famously pointed out by Hobbes: in the absence of government, people are tempted to attack one another out of greed, fear and vengeance. European societies, over the centuries, solved this problem as their kings imposed law and order on a medieval patchwork of fiefs ravaged by feuding knights. The happy result was a thirty-fivefold reduction in their homicide rate from the Middle Ages to the present. Once the monarchs pacified the people, the people then had to rein in the monarchs, who had been keeping the peace with arbitrary edicts and gruesome public torture-executions. Beginning in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, governments were forced to implement democratic procedures, humanitarian reforms and the protection of human rights.

In America, the sequence of events was slightly different.

The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

How much higher?

Quoting Democracy in America at The Economist,

Murder rates are about four times higher in America than in western Europe. And guns are not the only reason; murder by stabbing and clubbing is higher, too. The murder rate is higher among blacks, but American whites are more violent than European whites. The South is America’s most violent region; both blacks and whites in the South are more violent than those in the northeast. In other words, the murder rate is highest in those states that most disdain the sovereign (“government”) and champion self-reliance.

The outlook isn’t all bad though. Even though it seems like liberal politicians are getting ever more cowardly about gun control as the NRA gets ever more powerful, rates of gun ownership are actually falling…

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

The New Yorker

… and the opinions of gun-owners are diverging from the hard-line positions championed by the NRA.

Gun owners may be more supportive of gun-safety regulations than is the leadership of the N.R.A. According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are.

It’ll take a while but I am confident that Americans will eventually succumb to the same civilizing influences that have tamed Europeans’ violent urges.

Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it. In Europe not long ago it was the belief that “honor” of the nation was so important that any insult to it had to be avenged by millions of lives. In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers.

New Yorker, after the Aurora killings.

I expect that, part of the solution – the transition to a society with fewer guns, will result from the recognition that the second amendment, like all the other amendments, has limits.

From the Supreme Court’s judgment in District of Columbia vs Heller, written by Justice Scalia:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.