When the Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong

In my last post I mentioned that I’d get back to Eugene Volokh’s “modest proposal” and I’m doing that now. Here’s the passage that follows the one I quoted before:

Well, we tried, and the conventional wisdom is that the cure was worse than the disease — which is why we went back to a system where alcohol is pretty freely available, despite the harm it causes (of which the deaths are only part).

I think that the conventional wisdom is wrong or, at least, unproven. I’ve already produced the facts and figures. The reality of Prohibition is that it substantially decreased the rate of alcohol abuse (which has never returned to its pre-Prohibition level) and there’s no proof that the violence and organized crime that rose during the Prohibition era wouldn’t have risen anyway. There was more than one factor behind the rise of organized crime in the 1920s and 1930s among which are technological change, increasing urbanization, and the immigration of the late 19th and earliest part of the 20th centuries. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano were all immigrants or the children of immigrants. I’m not claiming that all criminals are immigrants merely suggesting that anomie and loss of social cohesion may be contributing factors to crime.

I think that the better argument against a return to Prohibition is that in the case of alcohol consumption the ratio of abusers to users is quite low. Nearly 60% of American adults are regular consumers of alcohol; about 7% are abusers. The comparable figures for marijuana are 25/2, for cocaine 1.5/.3, and for heroin .3/.17.

Indeed, that might be a good way to think about the rationale behind prohibiting the use of some substances while merely restricting the use of others. There is some likelihood of abuse attendant on use that is just too high a risk.

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Ways and Means

Ruth Marcus demands that we take some action to reduce the likelihood of future incidents like the shootings in Oregon last week:

The Second Amendment protects a right to gun ownership. It does not forestall reasonable regulation. The sorts of small steps that now appear unachievable would not interfere with the needs of responsible gun owners.

It is too soon to know how the Roseburg killer obtained his weapon or weapons; how evident was his mental illness; whether he could have been stopped. It is not too soon for all of us, myself included, to feel ashamed by our willingness to accept the status quo as bloody but immutable.

There are, however, several questions she leaves unanswered. What “reasonable reforms” would have that effect? Chicago has or had regulations or restrictions that were among the toughest in the nation, so tough they didn’t make constitutional muster. It also has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country. Just last weekend we had a spate of violence that left six dead and eight more wounded. What reforms, specifically, would have changed that? Mayor Emanuel says there are too many guns but doesn’t have any proposals in mind that would both reduce the number of guns and meet constitutional muster.

Eugene Volokh points out the close association between gun violence and the consumption of alcohol:

Now I generally don’t support the “don’t just stand there, do something” school of criminal law. When all the proposals seem likely not to work, or do more harm than good, implementing one of them for the sake of “doing something” strikes me as a mistake.

But let me offer a concrete analogy (recognizing that, as with all analogies, it’s analogous and not identical).

Every day, about 30 people are killed in the U.S. in gun homicides or gun accidents (not counting gun suicides or self-inflicted accidental shootings). And every day, likely about 30 people are killed in homicides where the killer was under the influence of alcohol, plus alcohol-related drunk driving accidents and alcohol-related accidents where the driver wasn’t drunk but the alcohol was likely a factor (again not including those who died in accidents caused by their own alcohol consumption). If you added in gun suicides on one side and those people whose alcohol consumption killed themselves on the other, the deaths would tilt much more on the side of alcohol use, but I generally like to segregate deaths of the user from deaths of others.

So what are we going to do about it? When are we going to ban alcohol? When are we going to institute more common-sense alcohol-control measures?

I recognize that Mr. Volokh means this as a “modest proposal”. More about that later. The point is that in addition to the presence of lots of guns there are other factors involved. Among these are inadequate treatment of mental health problems, substance abuse, and low social cohesion. Rather than one grand (but ineffectual) gesture in gun control why not try some smaller moves in all of those directions?

Over the last few days I’ve heard praise for President Obama’s words as an attempt at moving the Overton window. What I believe they are missing is that there is no barrier to engaging in symbolic action aimed at redirecting the national discourse while proposing concrete steps that will effect your intended objective. If President Obama is trying to change hearts it’s not working. If anything, public opinion has moved in the direction of believing that we have gun control laws that are strict enough.

One more thing. I own two long guns, family heirlooms, neither of which has been discharged in living memory. I’m no “gun nut” but I understand where they’re coming from. There are many people in the United States who are absolutely as dedicated to the Second Amendment just as there are people who are dedicated to the First Amendment. I suspect that’s why few Democratic politicians other than a few backbenchers and no Republicans have staked any political capital on gun control. I’m not advocating despair—merely pointing out that when you hear a politician declaiming gun violence it may well be cynical and that goes for the president of the United States, too. Verbal advocacy for gun control while being unwilling to sacrifice anything for it may just be a form of signalling.

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Who Gets the Blame?

If President Obama makes good on his threat and refuses to sign a temporary spending bill if one comes across his desk, who will get the blame for “shutting down the government”? The prevailing wisdom is that Republicans will get the blame (presumably due to their majorities in both houses of Congress) if no spending bill is passed but does the same apply if reason the government “shuts down” is that the president refuses to sign a temporary bill? Does President Obama’s 45% approval rating factor into the equation?

We’re facing a similar situation here in Illinois. For the last several months the state of Illinois has been operating without a budget under various court orders because Gov. Bruce Rauner won’t sign an unbalanced budget. The difference is that the Illinois constitution requires a balanced budget while there’s nothing unconstitutional about a temporary spending bill.

I think that blame would fall on the president in the case of the federal budget and the Illinois legislature in the case of Illinois because Democrats have super-majorities in both houses of the Illinois legislature. Am I being unfair to Democrats? I see it as expecting more from them.


Adjustments to the Jobs Reports

In the comments to Doug Mataconis’s post at OTB on the September labor situation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which see here, our old friend Michael Reynolds remarks:

Why are we still responding to the early reports? Have we not been through one revision after another?

which, as it turns out, is a very good question.

Every month the BLS issues a report on the employment situation for the previous month which includes a first revision for the second previous month and a second revision for the third previous month. So, for example, the employment situation report issued in October contains the first estimate for September, a first revision for August, and a second revision for July. Whether you think the revisions are better than the original estimate is in the eye of the beholder.

Here’s a summary of the results for the last twelve months:

Month First estimate First revision Second revision Direction of first Direction of second
September 142,000        
August 173,000 136,000   Down  
July 215,000 245,000 223,000 Up Down
June 223,000 231,000 245,000 Up Up
May 280,000 254,000 260,000 Down Up
April 223,000 221,000 187,000 Down Down
March 126,000 85,000 119,000 Down Up
February 295,000 264,000 266,000 Down Up
January 257,000 239,000 201,000 Down Down
December 252,000 252,000 329,000   Up
November 321,000 353,000 423,000 Up Up
October 214,000 243,000 261,000 Up Up

The data are noisy, of course, but there are clearly a lot fewer jobs being created now than at the end of last year. My first order approximation suggests that revisions tend to be in the direction of trend but that may be a trick of the eye.

As to why we pay so much attention to data that are being revised, what fun would it be to ignore them? More importantly, revision is the way that science progresses and being subject to revision is actually more important than being measurable at all.

My conclusion is that we should be treating the present employment situation much more seriously than we are and that we need some policy revisions, something unlikely to occur with all of the hoopla about the 2016 presidential election. However, I’m glad to see the data and even happier that the BLS revises their data over time.


Signs of a Slowing Economy

The most recent employment situation report has not brought good news:

U.S. employers slammed the brakes on hiring over the last two months, raising new doubts the economy is strong enough for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates by the end of this year.

Payrolls outside of farming rose by 142,000 last month and August figures were revised sharply lower to show only 136,000 jobs added that month, the Labor Department said on Friday.

That marked the smallest two-month gain in employment in over a year and could fuel fears that the China-led global economic slowdown is sapping America’s strength.

“You can’t throw lipstick on this pig of a report,” said Brian Jacobsen, a portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

Not only is the change in the number of jobs less than was expected but last month’s job figures have been revised to sharply downward. Job growth in both months was below the “natural increase”. Zerohedge has noticed that and points to the sharp decrease in the labor force participation rate, now the lowest it’s been in almost 40 years:

While the September jobs number was an absolute disaster, here is the real punchline: in September, the people not in the labor force soared by a whopping 579,000 to a record 94.6 million, up from the previous record 94.0, even as number of people employed – according to the household survey used to calculate the “5.1%” unemployment rate – tumbled by 236,000 to 148.8 million.

And as a result of this latest surge in people who aren’t working, nor want to work, the participation rate crashed yet again, and sliding from 62.6% to 62.4%, it was the lowest since October 1977.

Basically, things are moving the wrong way. We want less slack in the labor market not more.


Reacting to Tragedy

I wanted to say a few words on President Obama’s reaction to the shootings in Oregon yesterday. I view them more as a cri de coeur than as a policy prescription. I can understand how those who are radicalized with respect to gun ownership could have seen them as an attack.

As far as policies go, based on what we know now from published accounts, what could have prevented the deaths from happening? Just off the top of my head I can think of three or four, none of them constitutional. It makes me wonder what President Obama meant by “commonsense reforms”?

Much as I hate to credit it, the only prescription I’ve seen that would meet constitutional muster and might have prevented the tragedy is the one from the Second Amendment absolutists: open carry.

In conclusion I’m glad I’m not faced with being expected to respond to every news story as President Obama is. Sometimes just being sad and having no other opinion is about all I can come up with.


Kimberley Strassel’s Checklist

Hot on the heels of my Q&A on Hillary Clinton’s emails, Kimberley Strassel has a closely related post. Here’s a snippet:

All you really need to know at this point is this: Pretty much every claim Mrs. Clinton made at her initial March news conference, and since then, is false. In the spirit of keeping it simple, here’s the Complete Busy Person’s Guide to the Clinton Email Scandal. Stick it on the fridge.

It’s much more negative than mine was.

I honestly don’t see how a fair-minded person could contend that there is absolutely no scandal here.


Another Precinct Heard From

And the editors of the Wall Street Journal are on the same page as David Ignatius:

Mr. Obama could make Mr. Putin pay a price if he reversed his Middle East policy and revived American leadership. In Syria the U.S. could set up a no-fly zone to create a haven for refugees against Islamic State and Mr. Assad’s barrel bombs. He could say U.S. planes will fly wherever they want, and if one is attacked the U.S. will respond in kind.

In Iraq the U.S. could directly arm the Kurds. And the U.S. could rev up the campaign against Islamic State from more than 11 or so strike sorties a day. This would show a new commitment that might convince the Sunni Arabs that the U.S. is finally serious about defeating the caliphate.

By now we know Mr. Obama will do none of this. He wants America out of the Middle East, so he will gradually find a way to accommodate Russia’s presence in the Middle East and Mr. Putin’s demands. U.S. allies in the region will get the message and make their accommodations with Russia and Iran. The next President will inherit a bigger terror threat and diminished U.S. influence, if not worse.

Does that sound like a call to war to you? It does to me. The reason that Putin has moved fighters into the Syrian theater is because he has anticipated the possibility of a U. S.-created “no-fly zone”. It’s an unambiguous message to the U. S. to do no such thing. Arming the Kurds is a very good way of provoking our notional allies, the Turks. In support of whom in Syria? Al Qaeda? DAESH? I think the Kurds have been very much over-sold in this country but that’s a subject for another post.

Has everyone lost their ever-loving minds?


Everything In One Sentence

I wanted to take note of a single sentence in David Ignatius’s Washington Post column on Russia’s increasing involvement in Syria:

Putin embodies a kind of muscular diplomacy the United States disdained over the past three years of halfhearted attempts to train and equip the Syrian opposition. Obama’s failure to develop a coherent strategy left the field open for Putin.

because it illustrates everything that’s wrong with the Washington prevailing wisdom, of which Mr. Ignatius is the haruspex. There are several assumptions bundled into the sentence, first, that there is a coherent interventionist policy for the U. S. in Syria. It also assumes something else: that Russia has entered the lists in Syria solely because of a vacuum produced by U. S. inaction. Neither of those is true.

The first is not true because the choice in Syria is between the Assad government and radical Islamists. However much the Administration might wish there were liberal democrats in Syria just waiting for their opportunity to form a a government there isn’t one. There’s the more-or-less secularist Alawite government of Assad and his regime, there’s Al Qaeda and groups affiliated with them, and there’s DAESH and groups affiliated with them. That’s it. All are bad choices, inconsistent with American interests or values but, sadly, the Assad government is probably the best of the lot. Given how awful that regime is that’s not something any American president is likely to admit.

But as we have seen in Iraq DAESH would be even worse. Iraq was ethnically and religiously diverse with Arabs, Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, just to name a few of the many groups that have called the country “home”. DAESH is changing that in the areas it controls. No one other than Sunni Arabs is safe in those areas and those are only safe as long as they adhere to a particularly harsh and antiquated form of Islam.

And do I really need to remind anyone that Al Qaeda was responsible for the most deadly terrorist attack on U. S. soil in history? I see no circumstances under which supporting Al Qaeda is in our interests.

But the second is even more absurd. Syria is in Russia’s neighborhood. Sevastopol is about 750 miles from Damascus—roughly the distance between New York City and Atlanta. The travel time is 33 hours overland. Russia is much more threatened by violent radical Islamism than we are. It has about three times as many Muslims as we do and some are very radicalized. Indeed, the Boston Marathon bombers were Chechens and there are many Chechens fighting the Assad government in Syria. They have good reason to believe that what happens in Syria won’t stay in Syria.

Far from needing a more muscular or interventionist policy in Syria, the U. S. needs a less interventionist policy in Syria. We shouldn’t be supporting radical Islamists under any circumstances. Actual U. S> military intervention means risking a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia. Do I really need to remind anyone that Russia is the only country other than the United States able to bring life on earth to an end? Direct confrontation with Russia would be foolhardy in the extreme.

The best thing we can do right now in Syria is maintain a low profile.


Lead, Follow, etc.

Meanwhile, the editors of The Economist are upset with President Obama:

TO HEAR Vladimir Putin, Russia has become the leader of a new global war on terrorism. By contrast Barack Obama seems wearier by the day with the wars in the Muslim world that America has been fighting for more than a decade. On September 30th Russian jets went into action to support Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered troops. It is setting up an intelligence-sharing network with Iraq and Iran. The Russian Orthodox church talks of holy war. Mr Putin’s claim to be fighting Islamic State (IS) is questionable at best. The evidence of Russia’s first day of bombing is that it attacked other Sunni rebels, including some supported by America. Even if this is little more than political theatre, Russia is making its biggest move in the Middle East, hitherto America’s domain, since the Soviet Union was evicted in the 1970s.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, America’s campaign against the Taliban has suffered a blow. On September 28th Taliban rebels captured the northern town of Kunduz—the first provincial capital to fall to them since they were evicted from power in 2001. Afghan troops retook the centre three days later. But even if they establish full control, the attack was a humiliation.

Both Kunduz and Russia’s bombing are symptoms of the same phenomenon: the vacuum created by Barack Obama’s attempt to stand back from the wars of the Muslim world.

Syria is in Russia’s backyard not ours. They are more at risk from violent radical Islamists than we are. They have vital interests at stake and we are, inexplicably, assisting Al Qaeda.

As George Patton said, lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. We should pick one. We’re trying for “all of the above”.