A Tale of Two Studies

Violence Policy CenterJuliet Lapidos at Taking Note reported yesterday on Defensive Gun Use. In it, she wrote about a new study from the Violence Policy Center (VPC) that counters the claim by the NRA that there are over 2 million defensive uses of guns every year. The VPC finds that there are less than 70,000.

The NRA number (actually 2.4 million) comes from a 1995 journal article by Gary Kleck & Marc Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: the Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun.” Here are the basics: it is based on 5,000 telephone surveys. And that seems reasonably solid. On the other hand, Kleck seems to have an ax to grind. We see this on this faculty page and his Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page is a good example of why we can’t have nice things when it comes to gun research. The page presents criticism of the study with an almost point by point refutation of these criticisms. Then there is a whole long section on Kleck’s responses to the criticisms. I tend to think (as I’ve seen elsewhere on Wikipedia) that the NRA crowd is gaming the page.

The main problem with the study seems to be that it has sampling bias. All the other similar studies have found the number to be more in the range of one million. A good example of this is found in Table 1 of the paper where respondents are asked how likely their use of a gun was to have stopped a murder. Of the respondents, 15.7% said “almost certainly would have.” That means without these defensive gun uses, there would have been almost 400,000 murders in any given year. If we include “probably would have,” the number goes up to almost three-quart million. This is not credible. This is not even close to credible. And I have to add that the gun nuts I’ve known, have been paranoid and highly likely to think there are threats everywhere when they are usually nowhere.

In fairness, however, Kleck and Gertz admit that their number is is likely an upper limit. But that doesn’t stop Kleck from going around the country calling for more guns (I heard him in a debate about 10 years ago). Nor does it stop him from claiming on his faculty page, “Other recent research has found that higher general gun ownership rates reduce homicide rates, probably because the violence-reducing effects of guns among noncriminal victims and prospective victims outweigh the violence-increasing effects of guns among criminals.”

The biggest refutation of Kleck and Gertz was done by David Hemenway of Harvard in his book, Private Guns, Public Health. If you are interested in the subject, you ought to read it. I’ve requested it, but who knows when I’ll get it.

The VPC research paper (pdf) is based upon the National Crime Victimization Survey which has data going back to 1973. They looked at the data from 2007 through 2011. Using these data, they find their very small number of defensive gun uses. But they back this up with an interesting statistic. In the period they studied, there were 1,031 justifiable homicides. There were 45,328 criminal homicides in that time. That’s 2.2% justified homicides. Given the roughly 9,000 criminal homicides each year, what are the odds there are huge numbers of murders stopped by just waving a gun around?

Let me be clear: I don’t accept the 2.4 million number at all. But I’m not convinced about the 70,000 number either. I think that the mere presence of a gun can prevent crime—especially property crime. I’d like to see more studies on this stuff. In general, I don’t think a well armed society is a safe or polite society. But I am open to discussion. Because I’m a liberal. And I think that is one of the worst things about political debate: conservatives are not open to discussion. In fact, my experience with conservatives is that they think if they can just explain what they think, I (and everyone else) will agree with them. Normally, they find that I do not because they have not thought very deeply about their opinions. And then they go off and don’t talk to me again, for the same reasons that Christian fundamentalists don’t talk to me twice: I erode their certainty.

But here’s the thing. It used to be reported that 40% of all gun purchases in America are made without background checks. I heard that this is an old number and that now it is only 20%. I haven’t checked, but I assume the 20% number is correct. I don’t go around quoting the 40% number because I am no longer think it is right. The truth matters to me. And it ought to matter to everyone. But if I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that the truth only seems to matter to liberals—be it in politics or religion.

Are we as a society safer because of all of our guns? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. The problem is that the pro-gun crowd is certain, and I doubt that a mountain of evidence would ever convince them.

America Tortured After 9/11

The Constitution ProjectIt is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture. That’s not what I say; that’s according to the nonpartisan, independent review performed by the Constitution Project. According to Scott Shane at the New York Times, the group is releasing a 577-page report tomorrow.

I understand that a group with a name like “Constitution Project” sounds like it’s filled with a bunch of libertarian and pacifists who are outside the political mainstream. But that isn’t really the case. It is a think tank that tries to bring the left and right of the political spectrum together to agree on constitutional matters. And the eleven members of panel were well represented by the two major parties. What’s more, Shane explained, “It is the most ambitious independent attempt to date to assess the detention and interrogation programs.”

What is most significant about the report is that it is so unequivocal. When Dianne Feinstein et al, wrote their letter criticizing the film Zero Dark Thirty, they were careful never to use the word “torture.” This is because, according the United States government, we never tortured anyone. Of course, this is just a semantic game: you say “torture” but I say “enhanced interrogation techniques”; let’s call the whole thing off?

The following passage from the article includes a key quote from the report:

The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

This is the kind of stuff that members of the panel tend to rationalize, saying that everyone “had acted in good faith, in a desperate effort to try to prevent more attacks.” I’ve been hearing this for years, and I’ve never bought it. It strikes me as being as believable as Bush’s repeated claim in 2002-2003 that he really didn’t want to go to war. In this case, I think that Cheney and company were looking for any excuse to torture. It wasn’t about keeping anyone safe; it was about being the badasses that these guys imagined themselves to be.

But the report does not only go after Bush. Shane wrote:

While the Constitution Project report covers mainly the Bush years, it is critical of some Obama administration policies, especially what it calls excessive secrecy. It says that keeping the details of rendition and torture from the public “cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security” and urges the administration to stop citing state secrets to block lawsuits by former detainees.

It doesn’t too much seem to matter who is in power, although clearly Obama is distinctly better than Bush. But therein lies a major problem. If Obama is the best our country can reasonably expect for a president (which I believe), “slightly better than Bush” does not speak well of who we’ve become. Hopefully, this report will help a little.

Update (16 April 2013 9:42 pm)

Andrew Sullivan has had his problems in the past, but he’s never been a torture apologist. And today over at The Dish, he had a very reasonable proposal:

What matters—and the law is crystal clear about this—is that torture and anything even close to torture be prosecuted aggressively. This is true especially when a government is claiming urgent national security in defense of its own crimes. The laws specifically rule out any defense on those grounds. So either we are a republic governed by the rule of law or we are not. Yes, there is discretion as to whether to prosecute any crime. But war crimes are the gravest on the books and have no statute of limitations. Prosecuting them is integral to adherence to Geneva, which itself is integral to the maintenance of the rule of law and of Western civilization itself. Either we set up a Truth Commission and find a way to pardon the war criminals, while establishing their guilt—which would at least give a brief nod to the rule of law. Or we have to take this report and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings as a basis for legal action for war crimes.

There is no way forward without this going back. And there is no way past this but through it.

Patrick Dollard Doesn’t Remember 9/11

Patrick DollardBlue Texan over at Crooks & Liars brought my attention to the following stupid right-wing tweet. There are stupid right-wing tweets everyday; it is a regular feature on Crooks & Liars. But this one really deserves attention because it highlights something that most conservatives think but that is completely wrong.

But before we get to it, just look at that picture: see him in his camouflage? As far as I can tell, he’s another chicken hawk. Loves to pretend to be soldier, but not enough to actually join.

There are a lot of details here and I’m going to ignore them everything but the elephant in the room: George Bush kept us safe for 8 years accept for that one day when almost 3,000 Americans died from a terrorist attack.

Look: I don’t actually blame Bush for 9/11. The president isn’t God. Bad things happen all the time and I don’t think it is right to blame the president. But the idea that Bush kept us safe for 8 years but Obama has not kept us safe is just ridiculous. Do people like Patrick Dollard have any idea what they are talking about? Are the almost 3,000 dead on 9/11 negligible compared to the 3 that died yesterday?

It seems to me that such people just remove the 9/11 attack from consideration. “Oh, I’m talking about after 9/11!” Well, apart from that being pretty convenient (“Hitler didn’t kill any Jews! I’m referring to after the Final Solution was completed, of course!”), this is not what Patrick Dollard said. He didn’t say that Bush kept us safe for seven years; he said eight years—probably because in some kind of twisted conservative anti-mind trick, 9/11 wasn’t Bush’s fault, even though everything is Obama’s fault.

Man, this kind of shit really makes me mad.

Reinhart and Rogoff Shown to Be Wrong—Again.

Reinhart and RogoffThere is a bit of economic news today that is wonderfully fun and I dare say it would be a shame for you all to miss out on it just because you don’t follow the economics blogs. What’s more, in terms of truth, it really matters, even if, in terms of politics, it probably won’t.

In 2010, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two economists at Harvard, published a hugely influential paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt” (pdf). In it, they purported to show that if the total government debt equaled more than 90% of the country’s GDP, then there would be a big slowdown in economic growth. This paper was used more than any other to justify economic austerity all over the world, but especially in Europe and the United States. In fact, Paul Ryan, in his The Path to Prosperity (pdf) budget, claimed, “The study found conclusive empirical evidence that gross debt exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth.”

That sounds bad, right? In fact, if you look at the paper, it is even worse. Countries with a debt-to-GDP ratio of less than 30% see a growth of 4.1% whereas those with a ratio of more than 90% see a contraction of 0.1%. Of course, long ago, I had dismissed the paper for two reasons. (But the fact that I even knew about the paper should give you some idea of just how important it has been.) First, correlation is not cause. And in this case, the cause is probably the opposite of what Reinhart and Rogoff (R&R) suggest. When economies are bad, governments have to borrow money. The case is much stronger that bad economies lead to large debts rather than the other way around.

The second reason I didn’t accept this paper comes from an idea that Dean Baker has been drilling into my brain the last few years: debt-to-GDP ratios are meaningless. What matters is the interest burden of the debt. A government will have no more difficulty managing a 50% debt-to-GDP ratio at 4% than it will a 100% dbt-to-GDP ratio at 2%. Or let me personalize it: would owing $2,000 on a credit card really matter if the bank only charged you $5 per year in interest?

There were other problems with the paper. Paul Krugman, as I recall, questioned the study on the fact that its entire case depended on two periods of contraction in the United States and (especially) New Zealand. But now, all the wheels seem to be falling off the R&R cart. Three researches, Herndon, Ash, and Pollin (HAP) of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have published a paper that finds major problems with this earlier research. And the best part: the biggest finding of R&R—the 90% threshold—went away when HAP corrected a spreadsheet error R&R had made. They accidentally cut 25% of the countries in their database out of their calculations. And looking at it, they should have known. But I think when they saw what they wanted to see, they didn’t probe. And that’s pretty funny when you consider all the policy makers who did the same thing with their paper.

If you are interested, Mike Konczal over at The Next New Deal wrote an excellent overview of all that’s going on. But the truth is, the fact that the R&R paper was build on feet of clay won’t matter at all. Paul Ryan and the other conservatives who pushed austerity didn’t do so because they were convinced that R&R were right. Rather, they already had their agendas, and just quoted R&R to justify it. In Europe, austerity proponents will probably stop quoting it—but it won’t change their minds. In America, they will just keep quoting it. Because: hey, facts have a well-know liberal bias.

How We Feel About Those We Victimize

Glenn GreenwaldLast night, I tried to convey my feeling that we focus (largely because the media profit from it) on big tragic events while we ignore rapid and endless “mundane” tragedies of life in the United States. And I do feel that way. But I admit: it is a provincial view. But there is no one like Glenn Greenwald to break me out of my provincial haze.

In an article, The Boston Bombing Produces Familiar and Revealing Reactions, he makes many observations. I recommend reading it yourself. But what I think is the most important observation is that people should note that however they feel about this attack on innocents in Boston, it is the same as the people in Pakistan feel about US drone attacks on innocents there.

Unfortunately, I can almost hear what people would say in response to this, “But that’s war! The United States isn’t trying to kill innocent civilians.” (I will leave the more vile counters like “They all hate us!” alone.) I find this argument anachronistic. Since at least Sherman’s march to the sea, warfare has not been limited to conflicts between armies. Total war, where civilians are considered a critical aid to armies, is standard now. It is ridiculous to imagine our military leadership as focused on honor like some ossified old British general from the middle 19th century.

But regardless of the argument, I don’t think that we would be too understanding of an army that constantly bombed us, killing scores of civilians, even while it claimed that it didn’t mean it. These people see innocents killed all the time. It doesn’t much matter what the intent (much less the stated intent) of the killers was. And that is one of the most important lesson we can take from last night’s bombing: the people in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan experience this daily with much greater consequences.

We are not the only victims. In fact, we are not the primary victims; not even close.

Athletes Are Not Paid Too Much

Baseball pitchI am not much of a sports fan, but I do rather enjoy watching the game of baseball—although I would rather watch the minor leagues. But one argument I get into with sports fans (and non-fans) is the supposedly unreasonable player salaries. This is nonsense. And I take particular umbrage at the fact that people almost never complain about the stratospheric profits made by the owners in the congressionally mandated professional sports monoploies. The truth of the matter is that if a pitcher is paid $10 million, it is because the owners believe (quite rightly) that he adds more than that to the profits of the franchise. What’s more, there is a long history in professional sports (Especially baseball!) of owners depriving players of their rightful participation in the profits they create.

I had hoped such nonsense was limited to cocktail parties, but alas, no. Over at Slate, Edward McClelland wrote, The Other Kind of Moneyball. It is a feature length article about how McClelland doesn’t think that Justin Verlander is worth all the money that the Detroit Tigers are paying him. Apparently, we are supposed to care that he has now changed his alliance to the Washington Nationals. (To show you were my head is at: I originally typed, “Washington Senators”!)

Luckily, the voice of reason came thundering back from McClelland’s Slate colleague Matt Yglesias, who asks the sensible question, What’s the Alternative To Sky-High Salaries for Baseball Players? His main point is my own: if you limit player salaries, it won’t change the game; it will just make the owners even more wealthy. Maybe players are too rich, but they aren’t nearly as rich as the owners. And the owners do what for their money? Oh, that’s right! Nothing.

Yglesias points out something else that I haven’t spent much time thinking about: the closed nature of professional sports in the United States. Perhaps you’ve noticed how bizarre the soccer leagues are in other countries: it is hard for foreigners to know what’s going on. That’s because they have free markets in the leagues over there. Try starting a new professional baseball league in America: you can’t do it. MLB is protected against competition. If people want to start complaining about this, I’ll be on board. And the greater competition would likely increase the number of players making a living and decrease the highest salaries. Regardless, if we just focus on limiting salaries, all that changes is that the players make less and the owners more.

Painting to Lose Your Head Over

Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le BrunWilbur Wright was born this day in 1867. Actor Peter Ustinov was born in 1921. The great arranger and composer Henry Mancini was born in 1924. Jazz flutist Herbie Mann was born in 1930. And Dusty Springfield was born in 1939.

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (the Pope emeritus) is 86 today. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was not as good as Wilt Chamberlain, is 66. Billy West, the voice of Philip J. Fry and many others, is 63. Jimmy Osmond is 50 today. I include him only so that you will click over and see what a hunk a hunk of handsome man thing he’s become. Or maybe it’s just the photo. Jon Cryer and Martin Lawrence are 48 today. And Claire Foy of Going Postal is 29.

The day belongs to the great painter, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, who was born on this day in 1755. As I think that you can see in the self-portrait above, she’s just marvelous. As a result, she was very popular with aristocracy, and almost lost her head because of it. But she fled France and became a cause celebre throughout Europe, eventually returning to Paris in triumph. She died just before her 87th birthday.


I can’t end the day without listening to this Dusty Springfield song: