Sloppy Thinking About Gun Control

November 14, 2017

After the car ran down people in lower Manhattan, I read an article about making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the author’s suggestions but I want to make a point about arguments for and against. One could say that people with bad intentions will just find other ways to kill lots of people. True or false? Actually it’s completely misleading. How many people with bad intentions will find other ways and how many won’t? How many people will do as much damage to as many people and how many won’t? The statement that some will doesn’t tell you. And the claim that all will is pure nonsense.

In the early 70s, I was a manager of the New York City legal services program, then known as Community Action for Legal Services or CALS. We had twenty-two offices around the city. All of them were in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. And in those pre-computer days, many of them had IBM Selectric typewriters which made our staff much more efficient but were expensive. Some thieves craved them. In our East New York office there had been a series of burglaries. After each we hardened the office against further break-ins. But those thieves were determined. Unable to get through the doors, they blew a hole through the wall and took the typewriters.

Obviously some thieves will use explosives. Should we have concluded that we might as well remove the locks on the doors of our twenty-one other offices? Plainly no. Nor would I recommend that you remove the locks from the doors of your homes. Nor would I recommend that you take all the shades and drapes down became peeping toms will find a way around them. Thinking about problems without examining how many, and what proportion of people will do how much damage is just sloppy thinking.

The NRA tells us that bad people will get guns. That statement is neither right nor wrong. If they mean some bad people will get guns no matter what we do, that is clearly true. But if they mean that whatever measures we take will not reduce the number of bad people who can get powerful weapons, that is clearly false. And they can’t tell us anything realistic about the proportions because they convinced Congress to block research into the effect of possible regulation of weapons. So they make sloppy statements hoping you’ll be taken in.

The Founders of our country were not so sloppy and they did lots to regulate guns – the most significant of which was to prohibit people from keeping ammunition in their homes. Ammunition exploded and caused fires so it had to be kept in public armories. Regulation mattered and they knew it.

So when people try to tell you what regulation will or won’t do, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes with sloppy nonsense. Some regulations work better than others. That’s a valuable subject of research and study, not an occasion for sloppy all-or-nothing claims.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 14, 2017.




The Outdated Economics of Conservative Ideologues

April 26, 2016

Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:

  • Think like Albert Einstein
  • Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
  • Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
  • … [and] make unbiased forecasts

Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.

A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.

One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.

Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.

That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.

Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2016.

Jobs and the “job creator” fairy tale

December 22, 2015

At this season in which charity is high on our agenda, I’d like to address some economic issues. I recently spoke with you about what the oligarchs are doing to American democracy. This time I’d like to talk with you about is happening to our jobs and wages. Jobs have recovered slowly from the 2008 crash; wages have flatlined for a decade. Candidates should be talking about jobs and wages.

Some want to turn money over to what they call the “job creators” – fabulous, fairy tale language. When taxes were cut to the 1%, the great bulk of that money didn’t finance jobs, or even trickle down to the rest of us. The 1% used it for finance, to jack up asset prices, buy and sell companies, close factories and outsource jobs abroad, or build McMansions, everything but better lives for American workers, who put in long hours at multiple jobs, with little to show for it but worry about the future. Creating jobs by lowering taxes hasn’t worked for decades because we already did it decades ago; now it’s become a fairy tale told for the gullible. It’s amazing the demonstrable nonsense that people can convince themselves of.

Our society insists it’s everyone’s personal responsibility to find work. As a legal aid lawyer, I worked closely with unemployed, mostly African-American clients. I felt like I was watching them die. Losing a job left them feeling worthless; nothing was more deeply hurtful or more threatening. With little to tide them over, they lived where they could afford housing, far from jobs, without cars to get to interviews or available work, or any network of employed friends to point them to possible jobs. On-the-job training left them few transferable skills, and parents struggled to find affordable day care. The more they needed work, the harder it was to find a job.

We had a fellow do odd jobs, yard work, pick up bottles and cans for the deposit, after losing his last job for lack of transportation. A lawsuit for unrelated injuries got him enough to buy a car. Instantly he was working, steadily.

The stuff called tough love isn’t love but it is dumb. People without assets or work become vulnerable to doing anything just to stay alive. That affects all of us.

The unemployed cost us money, for unemployment insurance, because of the dislocation that unemployment generates, and for lots of police because we fear the jobless. They cost us money because of the decrease in property values, the poor prospects of their children and those who live in areas of high unemployment. We pay in the fear of going out at night or stepping on to the wrong street; and we lose the multi-generational workforce we want for our own programs and projects.

Any responsible business person would include all the costs to individuals and our communities in their balance sheet for deciding whether to support a job program. To evaluate the cost to each of us individually in taxes, compare it to the taxes we have to pay for not putting people to work, as well as the value of the work they could do.

The notion that all taxes are bad for us, is sloppy economics. Justice, fairness and safety are not trade-offs but different sides of the same coin. I’d put people to work rebuilding and improving the infrastructure and other needed projects. There are a lot of things we can do to boost the economy and provide jobs if we are not bamboozled by fairy tale language about what the princes would do for us if only they had even more money.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 22, 2015.


Amtrak Subsidy

August 25, 2015

I’d like to talk about an issue that has been below the surface of the news but reflects a constant disagreement in our politics. Economic conservatives would displace almost everything in favor of the marketplace. But when you decide what to pay for, what are you including or excluding from the transaction?

Perhaps you’ve been following the arguments about subsidizing Amtrak, for example.[1] The details are more complex but I want to set out the basic issue. Passenger trains and commuter rails and busses tend to be subsidized by government. If they depended on the marketplace alone, they would fail. When any of us decide whether to take Amtrak or a city bus, or the subway in New York City or Washington, we are thinking of the personal costs and benefits. I’ve calculated, for example, that when I go to New York City, unless my wife is going down with me, it is cheaper to take Amtrak than to travel alone by car.

But if Amtrak failed, the trip to New York City would impose much greater burdens on me than just the cost. Given that this corridor is one of the busiest passenger rail corridors in the country, that would put a lot of people on the highway. It could make the trip slower, the likelihood of accidents on a more crowded highway greater, and, of course, unlike an Amtrak trip, I couldn’t read or work on the road.

Notice, though, that those burdens of extra traffic on the highway don’t just affect me. They affect everyone on the road. And my Amtrak bill does not reflect those benefits of mass transit. There isn’t any calculation on any bill that identifies the costs to me and to all of us if Amtrak were allowed to fail.

And of course I haven’t listed all the costs. The pollution costs of taking the car are much more than the pollution attributed to train travel. Highways take a great deal of land that we could have enjoyed for other purposes – their land use is much less efficient. They are expensive to police, expensive to clear for winter travel, and expensive because of the damage from salt splashed on the underbodies of our cars and washed into our rivers and streams.

Nor do those calculations take into account the impact on global warming. It isn’t possible to be precise about the cost for global warming. But it will be large and should be accounted for. Many things can’t be put into numbers. What’s love or freedom or life itself worth in dollars? As a common ad says, “priceless.”

So to see if subsidizing Amtrak is justified, we have to add all those shared benefits to ourselves and each other that can’t be part of the ticket price. Social benefits have to be paid for by the whole society. None of us alone can buy the benefits of less climate change or less congested highways.

So yes, I believe in subsidizing mass transit and helping it grow. I think it is valuable for those who don’t take it too. More generally, the marketplace doesn’t handle every problem well.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 25, 2015.

[1] See for the Congressional Budget Office discussion. Individual routes raise additional considerations but even those decisions impact the entire system.

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