Saturday, November 4, 2017

Calculating the Impact of Weaponized Drones on Civilian Casualties

Several recent articles published in the JHU News-Letter have called for the Applied Physics Laboratory to end its research on weaponized drone technology and refuse future cooperation with the US government’s drone programs.  These calls stem from the hundreds of civilians known to have been killed or injured by American drone strikes during the ongoing War on Terror.  Such deaths are tragic and demand reforms to how our military utilizes drone strikes moving forward.  I hope to discuss my reform proposals in a future article.

Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that the introduction of weaponized drone technology has increased civilian casualties overall, relative to what they would be in a world without drones. This means the APL is being illogically and unfairly blamed for technological contributions which may well have saved lives.  Furthermore, drones are certainly here to stay on the 21st century battlefield with or without Hopkins’ continued involvement.  Knowing this, discontinuing that involvement would likely do more harm than good.


Estimates of how many civilians have been killed by drone strikes vary wildly.  In June 2016, President Obama conceded internal investigations had revealed 64-116 civilian casualties from US drone strikes throughout the course of his tenure.  Most independent studies agree this figure is far too low; more aggressive figures come from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), a left-leaning watchdog agency which keeps meticulous records of all airstrike reports from many competing sources. As of October 29th of this year, they calculate a minimum of 639 civilian deaths and a maximum of 1380 (versus roughly 6,000-9,000 combatants killed) between all suspected or possible US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002.  These estimates are higher than those of most other investigations; but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are correct.

The drone debate is often framed as a simple value judgment whether that number is too high, or whether it’s an acceptable price to pay in pursuit of America’s foreign policy goals.  But this framework is far too simplistic, because it fails to account for the litany of other ways drone strikes cause or prevent civilian casualties indirectly. The more important ethical question is the impact of drone strikes on the number of civilians killed on the battlefield overall – by any means, drone or otherwise. This is a much more complicated question, and the raw bean-counting of how many civilians’ drones have killed directly is but one variable involved.

Another variable is the number of civilians which might have been killed by conventional military interventions – but weren’t, due to the military’s preference for drone warfare.  Drones are far safer for civilians than conventional military operations, and far more precise than any alternative airstrike method.  A central question, therefore, to the debate surrounding drones and civilian casualties is the extent to which they are used instead of versus in addition to conventional military intervention.

The United States currently conducts drone strikes in at least four nations (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia) and has historically deployed them in at least four more (Iraq, Algeria, Iran, and Libya).  Were weaponized drone strikes no longer a military option, the military would have to decide what to do instead about the terrorist threats in those regions.  In some of those regions, they may elect to do nothing, and allow the known terrorist groups residing there to operate unperturbed.  In others, they may attempt to kill the known or suspected enemy combatants using more conventional airstrike methods (including bombs dropped from airplanes, long distance artillery rounds, or cruise missiles fired from warships).  And in other regions, they may decide to put boots on the ground (either deploying special operations forces, invading with conventional forces, or both).

It's impossible to know for sure which options our political and military leaders would choose in which region were drones not available.  But if there’s any substitution effect going on at all, wherein we use drones instead of using a more conventional method for military intervention, the tradeoff in civilian casualties is almost definitely worth it from a humanitarian perspective.  Recall that the BIJ’s highest estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes alone topped out at 1,380. By comparison, the civilian death toll from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was at least 210,000 violent deaths as of 2015, with an upper estimate of nearly 500,000 when considering indirect causes (like battered infrastructure, decreased health conditions, food shortages, etc).  The vast majority of those victims were not killed by American weapons directly – but they’re dead just the same, as direct consequence of the US decision to invade.

Short of replacing a full-scale invasion, drones also save lives when they replace conventional airstrikes.  In Syria, for example, where the US-backed coalition against ISIS has largely eschewed drones in favor of Air Force bombing, the civilian death toll from American strikes during this year alone is over 600 by CENTCOM’s own admission.  Watchdog groups like allege totals as high as 4,000.

The point is, drones are the most accurate and least invasive method of military intervention we have.  If you are wary of the American military industrial complex’s political sway, it’s difficult to imagine that the alternative to a world with drones is a world in which the United States simply minds its business and keeps the troops home.  And if you remember the consequences back when the War on Terror was fought primarily with conventional armies, that alternative world is a frightening one indeed.

A third variable in play is the number of civilians which might have been killed by local terrorists – but weren’t, because drone strikes killed those terrorists first.  American weapons are not the only thing blowing up civilians in these countries.  Arguably the largest threat to civilian life are the terrorists themselves, who habitually and intentionally set off car bombs or suicide vests in crowded public places, with the deliberate aim of killing as many civilians as possible.  From 1980-2015, a minimum of 4,814 suicide attacks occurred in over 40 countries, killing over 45,000 people.  75% of these attacks took place the three of the countries most heavily targeted by drone strikes: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

Drone strikes save lives by hampering the planning and execution of those attacks, killing small numbers of bad guys before they go on to kill larger numbers of good people.  The overall size of this impact is difficult to quantify, but Johnston and Sarbahi discovered that from 2007-2011, drone strikes in Northwestern Pakistan created a commensurate decrease in both the number and deadliness of terror attacks. There is evidence, therefore, that the most heavily droned regions have seen a decrease in overall violence, in close temporal relation to when the drones began falling the heaviest.

On the flip side, there is a fourth variable: although drone strikes kill terrorists, it is also likely they are creating them to some extent. Drones are extremely unpopular in the Middle East, and have been used heavily in enemy recruitment propaganda.  Furthermore, there is intuitive reason to suspect that the relatives of those killed by drones will be more easily radicalized against the United States (though again, this also occurs when civilians are killed by conventional means).  For all our decades of anti-terror efforts, overall membership in radical Salafi-Jihadist groups is as high as ever. Once again, it’s impossible to know how many new terror recruits were inspired by drone strikes as opposed to some other motive, but it’s important to consider this impact as well.

With all that in mind, our formula for the number of innocent lives drone strikes have saved looks something like this:

Lives Saved = a + (b*z) – c – (d*z)

Wherein the variables stand for the following:

a = Civilians who would have died from conventional military engagements (which were avoided, to some extent, thanks to the military’s preference for drone warfare)

b = The number of terrorists killed by drone strikes which could not have been killed by conventional methods

z = The number of innocent people the average terrorist kills

c = The number of innocent people killed by drone strikes

d = the number of terrorists radicalized by the bad PR of drone strikes


Given the range of uncertainty for each of those values, that’s an extremely murky picture.  To my eyes, it’s much too murky to say with any empirical confidence that the value of Lives Saved is positive or negative.  What’s more, it is murky even with the benefit of hindsight; back in the early 2000’s – when APL was supposedly first developing drone technology – it would have been even less possible to know whether the invention would help or hurt.

Neither can we know how whatever weapons APL is researching today will be used in the future, nor towards what ends.  If even political scientists cannot predict such complex future outcomes, and even philosophers cannot agree on the ethics of warfare, how is it fair to burden the physicist with this responsibility?

I don’t know whether drones have saved lives or not, and neither do you.  It’s largely a moot point, though, because they’re not going away regardless. The government has plenty of them already in operation, and if it’s not the APL that researches them it will doubtlessly be some other laboratory (certainly including Chinese and Russian laboratories, who will use them with much less respect for international norms than we).  To stand athwart the incessant tide of technological progress in the field would be both futile and sanctimonious, achieving nothing beyond the psychic comfort of a delusory moral high ground.

A better strategy is to focus our efforts on refining military power through both political and technological means.  This means holding politicians and Soldiers accountable for abuses, reinforcing checks and balances, and pursuing international cooperation to ensure the wrong technology doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.  And when we are asked to lend technical expertise, it means using the cutting edge of science to adapt the clumsy and indiscriminate military technology of yesteryear so that it better comports with modern norms on collateral damage.  An engaged APL can improve aerial imagery to prevent civilian-combatant mix-ups.  It can make our explosions more contained; radar more precise; communications more reliable; body armor more effective; vehicles more resistant to IED blasts; MEDEVAC helicopters capable of flying further on each tank of fuel.  It can lean in and improve our military to make warfare less awful, instead of watching it inflict avoidable pain for the sake of saying “at least we had no part in it.”

I join my former classmates’ opposition to our nation’s unfortunate history of meddlesome warmongering – but to me, blaming the researchers is barking up the wrong tree.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Is it ethical to research and develop weapons for the United States military?

I think so.  My current successor at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter Opinions Section disagrees, and she wrote and published this article explaining an example pertaining to our university.  It’s very well written and well researched and you should read it first before proceeding to the discussion below.

I responded with the following, in an online forum visible to many other Hopkins students (past and present).  As you will see, several of them chimed in as well!

Me: I was disappointed to read the entire article and find not a single argument for why conducting weapons research places blood on one's hands. The policymakers responsible for America's endless and illegal military interventions worldwide are certainly deserving of our protest. But the APL are not the ones waging war nor deciding when military force will be used. They're just doing research, and advances in military technology typically REDUCE collateral damage and save lives as opposed to the alternative. Were the APL disbanded tomorrow, America's wars would not stop; but the drones we use would be less accurate (or worse, the military may resort to the 500lb. carpet bombs they used back in Vietnam instead) and more innocent civilians would likely die as a result.

I'm as non-interventionist as anyone, but for so long as our Soldiers must fight, I want their equipment to be top notch.

Student 2: Her main point was a $100 million nuclear weapons contract. When was the last time the United States used one of those without collateral or civilian damage?

Student 3: So these nuclear weapons we are building by 2024 are actually gonna save lives 🤔

Student 4: It's important to note that, yes, to some degree technological improvements have reduced casualties, but the idea of "precision warfare" is a total myth. Innocent civilians are consistently killed by drone strikes (which tends to produce more terrorists than it kills terrorists). Additionally, there are often side effects to more advanced weaponry that we don't know about. For instance: Depleted Uranium weaponry is used a lot by the military (cheap, strong and nominally "safe"). However, once it has been used on an environment, it radiates out into the surrounding area and dramatically effects the local populations by consistently spreading radiation based diseases, meaning people are still suffering from weapons that were used literally decades ago. Also, the US has like, what, 10,000 nuclear arms? we don't need more. That's more than enough to wipe the whole world out several times over.

You know what they say: if you kill a child in a far off land, you're a monster, but if you profit off of that, you're just a good businessman.

Student 5: I think this is pretty ridiculous--the "War on Terror" is in many ways a function of military technology. It would be very difficult to bomb civilians, combatants, or whomever they say they're bombing these days in so many different places and with such ease if the US military didn't have access to cheap, easy-to-operate drones. Contemporary military intervention can really only happen if the military can use tactics like "precision warfare" across vast geographic areas because the "enemy" isn't territorial or conventional. The status quo would be impossible with Vietnam-style technology. Non-cooperation with the military industrial complex wouldn't stop the US military in its tracks, but it would put the present strategy in serious jeopardy. Given that we can all agree that military intervention is bad, I'd say that a world in which the US didn't have access to the high-tech drone guidance systems and whatnot developed by Hopkins would be preferable because the "War on Terror" would be severely constrained.

Student 2: "I don't think my biology department contributes to research on cancer, they aren't actually administering cancer medications and treatments - the doctors are. Ergo, it's foolish to think that the department contributes to curing cancer."

Your argument might even make some sense if the DoD and the federal government weren't giving the APL billions of dollars to explicitly make technology that they will use to kill people.

Why do you say "our Soldiers must fight" if you've said in the previous paragraph that our policymakers are responsible for our wars? Surely, it's not like they are under some inevitable foreign compulsion to fight if it's entirely our own making?

Student 4: also, even from a purely strategic perspective, drone warfare is completely counterproductive. Like, if your brother, who had no link to the Taliban whatsoever, was killed by a drone strike, along with a bunch of other people, you don't think that'd be liable to radicalize a few people? Drone warfare not only kills people, it creates a consistent atmosphere of fear that 1. Nobody should have to live through and 2. produces more terrorism than it cures.

Me: Lots to get to here.  First, the nuclear contract.  Nobody wants nukes to actually be used, and it is admittedly dubious that building even more of them enhances their deterrent effect by much.  But by the same token, it is equally far-fetched to pretend that a marginal increase in our existing arsenal of 6,800 some nuclear warheads places innocent life in any greater danger than it was in before – much less that it places so much blood on Hopkins’ researchers’ hands that all undergraduates have a moral obligation to condemn it.  Matthieu proved my point for me: the nuclear contract may well be a waste of taxpayer money, but it’s not going to kill anybody.

In any case, the nuclear contract was not Emeline Armitage’s “main point” as I understood it, so much as it was her lead from recent events.  She mentioned it briefly, then transitioned from it into the same cause dovish Hopkins students have been pressing for years: sweeping rejection of all DoD weapons’ research at APL.  Decades of protest against APL’s non-nuclear, pre-drone military research were approvingly cited, as was the HRWG’s 2010-2013 anti-drone campaign.  A prior NL article from this same author also lamented the drone research specifically.

I’ll get to drones in a moment, but my main objection is to that overarching idea that conducting physics research on improved military technology morally implicates you in anything the military does with it, including its accidental misuse to kill people other than the intended enemy.  By which moral framework does that hold true?  Deontologically, technology can be used for good or evil, but either way the moral culpability for how it is used lies squarely with the user.  When DoD approaches a Hopkins researcher and basically asks “How can we make these missiles we’re firing at the bad guys more accurate?”, and then turns around and fires that very-accurate missile at a wedding procession by mistake, the blame for those deaths does not lie with the scientist who improved the accuracy.

On utilitarian grounds, I guess reasonable people can disagree about which prospective, future technologies will make war safer for civilians and which will make it more dangerous – but it’s all a moot point when those technologies are already here and being used in combat every day.  Drones are a thing now and they’re not going away.  Nukes are a thing now and they’re not going away.  To stand athwart the incessant tide of technological progress in these fields is as sanctimonious as it is futile – it’s not going to save anybody.  If it is not Hopkins’ APL that researches these fields, it will be some other laboratory (certainly including Chinese and Russian laboratories, who will use them with much less respect for international norms than we).

In summary, my argument is as follows:

1.      Most advances in modern military technology are much likelier to reduce collateral damage or generally save lives than they are to kill more innocent people.

2.      Even if you reject point 1, most advances in military technology are inevitable, and pursued competitively by friend and foe alike. 

3.      Allowing America’s enemies to obtain advanced military technology before we do has adverse consequences – not only for our national security, but also typically for the wellbeing and survival of innocent civilians.

4.      Therefore, it is better that our military know at least as much about these technologies as the rest of the world and stay ahead of the curve with top-of-the-line equipment, without having its Soldiers hamstrung by less effective equipment than would be otherwise possible.

5.      Therefore, there is usually nothing immoral about conducting research to improve America’s military technology.

Selectively slowing the technical capacity to kill is not a promising pathway to peace.  A better strategy is to resign ourselves to the reality that the US government has long since held the capability to kill anyone on earth in a whole host of creative ways, and instead focus our efforts on refining the use of that capability through both political and technological means.  This means holding politicians and Soldiers accountable for abuses of power, reinforcing checks and balances, and pursuing international cooperation to ensure the wrong technology doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. 

And to the extent we are asked to lend technical expertise, it means using the cutting edge of science to adapt the clumsy and indiscriminate military technology of yesteryear so that it better comports with modern norms.  An engaged APL can improve aerial imagery to prevent civilian-combatant mix-ups.  It can make our explosions more contained; radar more precise; communications more reliable; body armor more effective; vehicles more resistant to IED blasts; MEDEVAC helicopters capable of flying further on each tank of fuel.  It can lean in and improve our military to make warfare less awful, instead of watching it inflict avoidable pain for the sake of saying “at least WE had not part in it.” 

I join Ms. Armitage in full-throated opposition to our nation’s unfortunate history of warmongering – but to me, blaming the researchers is barking up the wrong tree.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Utilitarianism, Deontology, and Campus Rape Policy

A few weeks back, Betsy DeVos announced changes were likely to the Obama-era Department of Education policies pertaining to sexual assault, after months of looking into the issue and meeting with both sides.

Like everything else pertaining to Secretary DeVos, the left did not greet this news warmly.  One of my friends made a Facebook post lamenting the change, to which I responded with this article defending the change.  Below is the exchange that ensued.

Me: My TLDR position is that I agree sexual assault is a real problem warranting serious resources to combat, and realize college campuses present a uniquely susceptible environment for it; however, I think this should be addressed through an affirmative consent standard in local law enforcement, rather than through campus tribunals ill-equipped to investigate such matters and strongly pressured by DoE threats to withhold federal funds.

Her: Yeah, I pretty much agree. I'm not sure that the Yoffe article gets at your TL;DR. What about the article interested you? To me, we're bound to get some victims screwed over (let's call these false negatives) and some people falsely accused (let's call these false positives). The data shows that there are far more false negatives than false positives. In general, I think the effect of what Yoffe wrote, regardless of her intentions/framework/anecdotal evidence misrepresentative of the larger data, is fixing false positives at the expense of incurring more false negatives. I'm not sure what the first step to fixing the system is (campus tribunals are ill-equipped but I don't know that law enforcement is better, until I find data on it) - I guess there needs to be many different kinds.

Me: I think whenever we’re in the business of imposing severe punishments for alleged crimes, there are broader moral implications than the raw bean counting of how many false negatives v. false positives we will produce. 

As you alluded, there’s good reason to believe that false rape accusations are rare – probably no more common than they are for any other violent crime.  But for every other violent crime, our criminal justice system is deliberately designed to place the benefit of the doubt with the accused anyway, even if that results in more guilty people walking away free than it does innocent people being caged.  And for every other violent crime, progressives are not merely okay with that, but actually at the forefront of defending and expanding the rights of the accused so as to reduce the number of false positives even further.  I get that a college education is not a legal right, so schools are not *constitutionally* obligated to provide similar protections before expulsion.  But it still feels hypocritical for the progressive left to now push for reduced protections on the accused as soon as the crime in question comports with the broader narrative of patriarchal oppression they’re trying to advance. 

When the Innocence Project provides anecdotal evidence of black men being improperly convicted for rapes or murders they didn’t commit, it is not enough for criminal prosecutors to retort that such anecdotes are misrepresentative of the larger data on black/inner-city crime rates.  Whatever the context, the logic that most of the accused are probably guilty (and those who aren’t are necessary collateral damage towards the larger aim of being tough on _____ crime) is an inherently conservative position, and I’d argue a regressive one. 

There’s an old saying that “it’s better for a hundred guilty men to go free than it is for one innocent man to be convicted.” That’s sort of hackneyed and over-simplified, and it may not even be true (perhaps the acceptable ratio varies depending on what the crime is, or on the recidivism rate, or the expected strength of the deterrent effect, etc).  But still, that underlying sentiment comes from a certain deontological strain in our moral reckoning that tells us it matters who inflicts the injustice. 

By analogy, doctors could plausibly cure a larger total number of patients overall by being a bit more aggressive with their treatment programs, but in so doing they may also injure or kill people who were never previously in any danger.  Our medical system rejects that strategy on the basis that those creating and enforcing medical procedures have a moral obligation to “first, do no harm.” 

I’d argue the government has similar obligations.  As someone interested in policy (and specifically the abuse of state violence), it matters to me that the false positives in this case are created by a government acting on our alleged behalf (through a deliberately aggressive, centrally imposed national policy with unintended consequences) whereas the only ones who can be held morally responsible for false negatives are the rapists themselves. 

And, as a feminist, I think the long-term project of reducing sexual assault in society is more impeded by the bad PR of excessive campus expulsions (feeding an inaccurate narrative that all or most campus rape accusations are frivolous feminism gone wild) than it is aided by a marginal increase in offenders kicked off campus.  This is especially true for so long as the investigative bodies are extralegal, such that those found guilty aren’t even jailed anyway, and remain free to walk the streets potentially assaulting people off-campus just as freely as they formerly did on campus.  No policy can un-victimize those already raped; so, if Obama-era DOE policy risks victimizing the not-guilty without preventing the guilty from victimizing again, how is it reducing the number of victimized persons?

Her: I think we're approaching this from two different frameworks of morality (neither of which is wrong). On a sort of related note, if you have interest in that sort of thing (moral frameworks in political dialogue) I recommend Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind."

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

If you see something, say something

The Army can tell me I have a duty to speak out against Sexual Harassment and Assault.  Or, the Army can forbid me from impugning the character of my superior officers and tell me to keep my politics to myself.  But it cannot do both.

So with the break of the Weinstein scandal and the #metoo thing sweeping social media, I cannot help but remind my tiny audience that my ultimate boss – the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces – is almost definitely a serial sexual predator.  This isn't the Army's fault, but it's true nonetheless.  The evidence is overwhelming to any rational observer.

Below is the growing list of women who have come forward to accuse the President of sexual assault so far, in chronological order:

1.     Jessica Leeds.  Leeds alleges that about 45 minutes after takeoff on a first-class flight in the early 1980s, Trump lifted the armrest and began touching her, grabbing her breasts, and tried to put his hand up her skirt. "He was like an octopus," she said. "His hands were everywhere. It was an assault."

  1. Kristin Anderson.  Anderson claims Trump reached under her skirt and grabbed her vagina through her underwear while she was talking with friends at a nightclub in the early 1990s.  She had no interaction with him prior to that moment.
  2. Jill Harth. In 1997, Harth filed a lawsuit against Trump for repeatedly sexually harassing her and groping her underneath a table in 1992, as well as molesting and trying to kiss her non-consensually in 1993.  She settled the lawsuit, but remains adamant about the assault claim.
  3. Katie J” – a pseudonym for a child sex trafficking victim pimped out by convicted child rapist Jeffrey Epstein.  Katie filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump raped her at a party when she was 13 years old in 1994.  The hyperlink above directs to her video testimony, in which she alleges Trump also raped a 12 year-old girl named Maria in her presence.
  4. Cathy Heller. Heller met Trump for the first and only time at Mar-a-Lago in 1997.  She says Trump grabbed her, went for a kiss, and grew angry with her as she twisted away, barking “Oh, come on” before holding her firmly in place and planting his lips on hers.
  5. Temple Taggart McDowell. Former Miss Utah says Trump kissed her directly on the lips the first time she met him in 1997, making her so uncomfortable that she refused to see him without a chaperone ever again.
  6. Karena Virginia. Virginia says she was groped by Trump at the U.S. Open in 1998.
  7. Mindy McGillivray. She says Trump groped her while she was attending a concert at Mar-a-lago in 2003.
  8. Rachel Crooks. A former receptionist in Trump Tower, she says she was assaulted by Trump in an elevator in 2005; when she went to shake his hand and introduce herself, he did not let go and kissed her on the cheek and mouth repeatedly.
  9. Jennifer Murphy. Murphy is a former Apprentice contestant says Trump kissed her on the lips non-consensually after a job interview in 2005.
  10. Natasha Stoynoff. She says Trump pushed her against a wall and jammed his tongue down her throat at Mar-a-lago in December 2005.
  11. Jessica Drake. Drake claims Trump grabbed and kissed her without consent, then called her to offer $10,000 for sex in 2006.

13.  Ninni Laaksonen. A former Miss Finland, Laaksonen alleges “Trump stood right next to me and suddenly he squeezed my butt” backstage at a David Letterman appearance in July, 2006.

14.  Anonymous. CNN anchor Erin Burnett alleges that an unnamed friend of hers, who wished to remain anonymous, claims Trump kissed her without consent in a Trump Tower boardroom in 2010, and then made further advances while alone with her in his office.

  1. Cassandra Searles. She says Trump grabbed her ass and invited her to his hotel room in 2013.
  2. Summer Zervos. Another former Apprentice contestant, Zervos says Trump invited to her a hotel, started kissing her and grabbing her breasts, and began "thrusting his genitals" on her in 2007.

Were there but one accuser, the SHARP program reminds me, it should be taken seriously.  Were there three accusers, it would be an alarming trend that should trigger an immediate investigation.  And 16 accusers arrayed against one man is as damning an indictment as the court of Andrew’s opinion needs to have.  You shouldn’t lie to yourself either.

Every company in the entire U.S. Army is required by regulation to keep a SHARP Representative Contact Information board posted in plain sight.  They are also required to display a second board – usually right next to the first! – depicting the names and photographs of that unit’s entire Chain of Command.  This second board is currently crowned by the photograph of someone plainly guilty of the worst SHARP violations imaginable – and that renders the first board sort of absurd, doesn’t it?

Friday, October 6, 2017

A polite and productive conversation on gun control

A friend of mine posted this link depicting the death toll from public shootings in the US on Facebook the other day (they define “mass shootings” in an atypical way designed to inflate their prevalence, but I won’t get into that here).  The following conversation ensued.

Friend: I ask people who oppose stricter gun regulations, is this acceptable? Seriously. I would like to hear why anyone would oppose gun registration, making armor piercing ammunition, automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal, background checks, limits on the quantity of guns and ammunition that can be purchased and stockpiled, and other attempts to save lives are unacceptable in light of the current epidemic of gun violence. Not talking about taking away someone's right to own a gun for hunting or home defense, but a lot has changed since the amendment assuring citizens the right to bear arms (muskets) was written. If anyone has an argument for why it should not be updated and enforced at a national level, why gun laws are actually becoming less restrictive, I would love to hear it.

Me: Before I dive in, I want to thank you for actually laying out specific policy proposals we can discuss.  That already makes this a more serious conversation than everyone vaguely hand-waving about “common sense gun reform,” as if there were any consensus (even on the left) about what that entails.  As you can see, I got on a bit of a roll and wound up writing too much haha – but that’s because I think getting detailed is exactly what’s needed to advance the dialogue beyond culture war virtue-signalling.  So, thanks for letting me get wonky.

I’ll go through your proposals one at a time, and try to summarize my stance as concisely as possible in layman’s terms before diving into the technical details.

1.     “Making armor piercing ammunition illegal.” You’ll be relieved to hear that most “armor piercing” ammunition is already illegal under federal law.  That which remains legal can’t really be distinguished from “normal” rifle ammo, which is the LEAST likely ammo to be used in a violent crime.  Banning this ammunition as well would have no measurable impact on gun deaths, while imposing comparatively massive headache for millions of law-abiding hunters and sport-shooters.  As such, it doesn’t make sense as a violence-reduction strategy. 

Whether a given bullet (aka “round”) will penetrate a given piece of body armor depends on dozens of factors, including the bullet’s size (“caliber”), shape, weight, density, material, and velocity (not to mention the type, material and thickness of the body armor in question).  This means there’s no neat line between which rounds are “armor piercing” and which are not. 

Federal law currently prohibits all *handgun* ammunition specially designed to be large or dense enough to pierce police body armor.  But because rifles fire larger rounds at faster speeds than handguns do, even most ordinary rifle rounds (the sort commonly used in hunting, for example) could pierce a Kevlar vest. 

Rifle rounds are legal, and with good reason: they’re the least likely to be used for malevolent purposes.  Rifles simply aren’t a practical tool for most criminals because they’re unwieldy in close quarters and you can’t conceal them in clothing; as such, they account for only a minute portion of the overall gun casualties in the country. 

Those who are shot by rifles are almost never wearing body armor anyway, which makes the whole topic sort of a red herring.  The only people who commonly wear body armor are police officers; on average, only about 50 policemen are killed in the line of duty each year.  Not all of those are killed with firearms, and those killed with firearms are sometimes shot in the head, where body armor is no help.  Whatever number remains is not a large enough portion of the 30,000+ gun deaths in the country to warrant our legislative energies.  And it especially doesn’t make sense in response to indiscriminate mass shootings like the one in Vegas, which rarely target anyone likely to be wearing protective gear.

2.     “Making automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal.”  Again, you may be relieved to discover that automatic weapons (aka machine guns) are already illegal (with the exception of those manufactured before 1986, which by this point are antique showpieces and cost at least $25,000 each).  Semi-automatic weapons, on the other hand, are not illegal, and that’s because MOST guns are semi-automatic: they have been around for hundreds of years, and they are EXTREMELY different from fully-automatic weapons. 

On a fully automatic machine gun, squeezing the trigger once and holding it down will cause the weapon to rapid-fire at a rate of hundreds of rounds per minute.  That’s obviously very dangerous – but again, these have been illegal for 30 years already.  On a semi-automatic weapon, however, only a single round comes out each time you pull the trigger, which makes it vastly less powerful.

Revolvers are semi-automatic weapons.  Police handguns (and really, almost all handguns) are semi-automatic weapons.  Many hunting weapons are semi-automatic.  Semi-automatic weapons are among the most useful and effective for self-defense.  Banning them would require confiscating hundreds of millions of guns from law-abiding people using them for benign purposes.  From my view, this plainly violates both the letter and spirit of the second amendment.  If you still want to ban all semi-automatic weapons even knowing the difference between semi- and fully-auto, then really what we should be discussing is whether it should be legal to own a gun at all.

One caveat, here…on SOME models, it is possible to alter a semi-automatic weapon so that it functions similarly to a fully automatic.  This appears to be what the Las Vegas shooter did.  This is usually illegal already, but if it turns out he found some loophole, I’d be all in favor of closing it and making that alteration harder to achieve.

3.     “Background checks.”  Once again, federal law already requires all *licensed* firearms vendors in all 50 states to perform background checks on all would-be customers, and lists criteria (like histories of violent crime) which preclude sale.  However, there is admittedly a loophole here, which is that unlicensed vendors (those who don’t sell as a primary business, but are selling second-hand from their private collection to a neighbor or friend, or at a gun-show) need not perform these checks.  These second-hand sales account for roughly 40% of all gun ownership transfers in the country, and a “universal background check” policy closing this loophole currently exists in only about 15-20 states.  Nationwide universal background checks is a reasonable proposal, and one of the top priorities of gun control advocacy groups like the Brady Center.

Like most Americans, most gun owners, and even most NRA members, I have no problem with requiring universal background checks.  The question becomes this: which traits, if discovered on the background check, should preclude gun ownership?  Gun control advocates typically mention two: a history of violent crime, and a history of mental illness.  The first I’m okay with; the second, I am not, for two reasons.

First, equality under the law means we cannot take away people’s constitutional rights unless it’s as punishment for a crime.  It’s plainly discriminatory to withhold rights from an entire class of people just because some tiny minority of them are stereotyped as violent and crazy.  That violates the 5th and 14th amendments as well as the 2nd.

Secondly, a law which deprives second amendment rights from anyone with a history of mental illness is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of mentally ill people declining to seek help – especially in the South, and especially among veterans.  There are enormous swaths of this country in which gun ownership is seen as an indication of manhood – where owning a gun is right up there with driving a pickup truck, drinking beer or watching football as a culturally important social outlet for men to talk about.  Not coincidentally, it is often these same social circles of conservative southern men who most struggle with a) PTSD from combat experience, and b) stigma about appearing weak by expressing their emotions, making them both the MOST in need of mental health treatment and the LEAST likely to seek it out.  That is a toxic combination; a world in which seeking help means forfeiting their guns and appearing even more feminine in their social circles would make it more toxic!  To the extent that mass shootings are a problem caused by both the availability of guns and the mental health crisis in this country, we need to ensure that the solutions we pursue to one problem do not worsen the other.

4.     “Limits on the quantity of guns and ammunition that can be purchased and stockpiled.”  This is two separate proposals: limiting the number of guns, and limiting the amount of ammunition.  For the first, my question is: why?  And for the second, my question is: how?

If war kicks off with North Korea tonight, the U.S. Army will send me into battle with one firearm.  That’s not reckless of them, and it’s not due to funding limitations: one weapon is really all you need!  People who stockpile weapons before going on a rampage are wasting their money, because you can only fire one weapon at a time with any accuracy anyway.  In the time it takes to grab a second weapon, you might as well just reload the first.

As such, limiting the number of firearms people are allowed to own wouldn’t do much at all to reduce the killing capacity of mass shooters – but it would sadden a lot of enthusiastic collectors, and inconvenience a lot of law abiding people.  For example, my father owns three shotguns for a perfectly sensible reason: my family of six likes to go skeet shooting sometimes as a family outing.  Having three weapons we can fire simultaneously minimizes the time each of us must wait for our turn.  So I guess my follow-up question is, how many weapons would you permit people to “stockpile,” and what would capping the number there really accomplish besides irritating conservatives?

The same question applies for ammunition limits: what should the limit be, and how would you enforce it?  Ammunition is expensive, so many sport shooters buy in bulk to save money. If you prohibit them from buying in bulk, they (and would-be mass shooters, for that matter) will just split their purchases into smaller increments from multiple stores or online locations, so as to acquire the same overall amount they initially wanted. 

Perhaps you would make people register and report how much ammo they have on hand; if so, how do you ensure they are reporting honestly?  For example, suppose you make a limit of 100 rounds “stockpiled” per person.  In June, I buy 100 rounds – then I go to the range and shoot them.  In July, I want to buy 100 more rounds; do you let me?  If so, what’s to prevent me from lying about how much I shot, and buying 100 more every month to eventually get 1,000? And if you don’t let people buy more over time, doesn’t a limit on the ammunition you can “stockpile” basically amount to limit on the amount you can ever fire?

Friend: Andrew, you make some great points. I truly appreciate all the time you have put into explaining the issues involved in gun regulation from the perspective of a responsible gun owner.

I totally agree with you about the problems of trying to deny gun purchases based on any mental health issues. There is such a huge spectrum of mental health that it makes it difficult to draw the line. And you make a great point about how it may actually exacerbate mental health issues for some. I think we need to expand the availability of care, especially for our veterans. I also think we have some major cultural problems in our country (and beyond) that are not easily solved with legislation but need to be addressed. The identification of emotions as weak/ feminine combined with guns/violence as an expression of masculinity has no easy solution but, as shown by the fact that the vast majority of shooters and other perpetrators of violence are male, this issue needs to be put out in the open and addressed.

We need more open discussions between people with opposing views because I think we share the goal of wanting to reduce gun violence, but we need to understand the issues involved. Clearly this is not going to be solved by just one solution but by a combination of closing loopholes, making sure others are not opened, and attending to the mental health of our citizens and culture. I'm still going to advocate for gun control which may involve some compromise on the part of gun owners and sellers of guns and ammunition, but will definitely take into account the concerns of our country's responsible gun owners. I'm not happy about airport inconveniences or having to show ID to buy Sudafed, but if it makes our country safer, I'm will to do it. Thanks again and I really hope you don't go to North Korea.

Me: Totally understand where you're coming from, and in many cases those compromises are perfectly reasonable.  Of course I share the goal of reducing violence – shouldn’t everyone?  It’s for that exact reason, though, that I’m wary of giving government a blank check to solve complex social problems, and I think the TSA and Sudafed analogies you made are perfect examples.  Both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs were waged in the hopes of making us safer, but wound up going much too far, with the result being more violence instead of less.

It’s funny you mention Sudafed, actually, because I think that the single most effective way to reduce gun deaths in this country would be to legalize drugs.  An enormous portion of the “mass shootings” depicted on this link are gang related; guess what the gangs are fighting over?  From 2006-2013, Mexican drug cartels alone killed an estimated 60,000 people in drug-related violence.  Prohibition sends these cartels lucrative profits by shielding them from competition and taxation; inversely, legalizing marijuana would divert money away from gangs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product.  Pot smokers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and bloody turf wars between rival distributors would disappear as the demand for their services dried up.

Legalization would also decrease gun violence in other ways by rebuilding America’s poorest and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which only increases crime down the road (among both the children who grow up without a father, and also the fathers who struggle to find legal employment after their release thanks to a criminal record).

I’m getting carried away again, but the point is that many laws intended to make us safer fail to do so, and even those which do often come with significant tradeoffs to liberty, equality, prosperity, or other values.  When faced with those tradeoffs, it’s not enough to say “if it makes our country safer, I’m willing to do it” across the board – it’s important to quantify just how much safer a given policy is likely to make us, and at what cost to competing considerations.  Hopefully enough of our legislators – perhaps in calmer times – will have enough talks like this one to find that happy medium and make reforms we can all agree on.  Say hi to John for me!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Jones Act is Morally Indefensible

A sailor friend of mine recently shared this defense of the Jones Act, a surviving relic of early 1900’s regulation which mandates (among other things) that all shipping between US ports be done on American-made vessels staffed by American sailors.  My response is below:

“Protectionism is always bad policy.  I understand you’re in the industry and would never want your working conditions to be any less safe or pleasant than they already are.  But labor laws impose costs in any industry, and that necessarily exposes all regulated industries to competition from foreign producers not subject to such laws.  That tradeoff isn’t unique to shipping; yet in no other industry is it thought sensible to ban foreign competition outright!

I live in a country where work hours are long and OSHA regulations don’t really appear to be enforced.  As such, I suspect Hyundai can both pay and treat their workers less well than Ford has to pay and treat theirs, enabling Hyundai to produce comparable cars at a lower price.  That may suck for Ford, but it’s a risk the US legislators assumed when they decided to pass those laws.  Nobody thinks that justifies banning Hyundai, and it’s widely agreed doing so would hurt American consumers and foreign workers by a much larger margin than the status quo hurts Ford.  Why is shipping different?

Your article clarifies that nobody opposes temporarily lifting the Jones act during times of emergency, which is good, and which Trump has now done.  But doesn’t that concession basically admit what economic studies have proven time and again: that the rule raises the cost of living on Puerto Rico (and Hawaii, for that matter)?  And if you so, doesn’t supporting a temporary suspension of the act – but not long-term or permanent one – basically boil down to saying “it’s not fair to impose economic hardship on millions of people for the next two weeks or so – but thereafter, it’s perfectly okay”?  How does that square with the reality that the rebuilding process is going to take years, or even with the moral implications of poverty and cost-of-living during normal times?

With a shout-out to Don Boudreaux (who I quote below), suppose I offer you a deal: I will agree to protect only those American workers who in return agree to stop buying foreign-made products.  So American sailors and shipbuilders can retain their Jones Act monopoly…

“only if they, in exchange, agree to stop buying the likes of Toyota cars, Samsung televisions, Ryobi hand tools, Ikea furniture, Shell gasoline, Amstel beer, vacations to Cancun, and musical recordings by foreign artists such as the Beatles, Elton John, and k.d. Lang.  They must also promise to stop buying the likes of bananas, cinnamon, and vanilla and, indeed, even American-made food items if these are shipped to their favorite restaurants and supermarkets in foreign-made trucks – or in trucks equipped with tires made by Michelin, Bridgestone, or some other job-destroying foreign company.  These workers would be permitted to drink only Hawaiian coffee; they must quit drinking the Colombian, Guatemalan, and Ethiopian coffees that they’ve become accustomed to drink.  Oh, and absolutely no diamond jewelry, as those gems come from Africa.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Validation bias and the danger of technocracy

My recent post on healthcare included a section sharply critical of the AMA.  I explained why doctor salaries (and thus, healthcare costs) are inflated by licensure requirements, and highlighted some of the ways the AMA is historically and presently to blame for that.  I’ve since done some reflection on why the AMA behaves as it does, and would like to clarify my impression of its motives.

Whenever we allow professionals to serve as gatekeepers to their profession, cynical minds like mine are quick to point out the potential for outright financial corruption.  Their initial fear – that licensing boards will suppress competition for-profit – is understandable and perhaps even healthy.  But it is also an incomplete model of regulator behavior, and one which (if focused on exclusively) risks weakening the overall argument against centralized regulation of market entry. Regulator conflict of interest is not limited to pure graft.

Really, the incentive for financial gain is tied up with a deep human desire to validate our own importance and the importance of our work, which in the case of technical experts leads them to exaggerate the importance of their own expertise.  This leads to a mutually intensifying interplay between profit and snobbery: if the expert can convince himself that the would-be market entrant is truly so inferior that the public must be protected from them, the financial gain of shutting them out seems more like a reward for their public service.

In each of the policies I described in my earlier articles and many others, the AMA means well.  It is comprised of people who have devoted their lives to healing others, and conceive of themselves as guarantors of quality in the healthcare industry.  But this is the danger of technocracy: the experts become so enraptured with their subtle intricacies of their field that they come to exaggerate the need for that knowledge, at the expense of competing considerations.  In the case of healthcare, the competing consideration is access – through both cost and patient convenience/proximity – which is part of why American healthcare today is very high quality, but endlessly expensive.

The incentives faced by AMA members are not unique to doctors or healthcare; really, they’re a problem with licensure laws in general.  Wine experts will advise you to buy a $50 bottle over a $5 box of Franzia, because they truly believe the difference is worth it.  Gun lovers will tell you to spend hundreds of dollars on all sorts of accessories – scopes, grips, special ammo, etc. – to achieve the most marginal improvements in accuracy, because THEY can tell the difference.  Music lovers will stick up their nose at generic iPod headphones, and coffee lovers at McDonalds coffee, and fashion lovers at a cheap suit, and all of this is fine when these people are making purchasing decisions for themselves.  But when you empower a narrow band of wealthy experts in a narrow, lucrative field to make cost/benefit and risk tolerance decisions for everyone in society, they will always prioritize higher quality over cost reduction at a rate that’s simply unacceptable to those outside their geeky circle of enthusiasts.

Healthcare is no different, and a century of regulation written by those most passionate about healthcare is a huge part of why it costs so damn much. It’s not that there’s no way to provide it cheaply, it’s that those ways are illegal.  The AMA stubbornly opposes any encroachment on the licensed general practitioner monopoly based on the most far-fetched risks of decreased quality or safety, even when those measures would yield comparatively massive increases in affordability or convenience.  The FDA does the same with drug approval decisions.  Nobody wins from that tradeoff except the regulators.

The dangers of technocracy are multiplied (and yet easier to overlook) when the field in question is seen as a public good, or when the providers are seen as selfless public servants driven by non-profit motives.

For some reason, people seem more willing to accept a tiered system of cost-quality tradeoffs in the markets for cars, phones or banking services than they do in the markets for education or healthcare.  Providing a minimum level of education and healthcare to everyone in society is seen by many as a moral imperative.  Maybe it is; but, that doesn’t make the cost-quality tradeoff disappear!  When policymakers impose quality-assurance regulation out of pious refusal to accept anything less than top-notch education and healthcare for their constituents, it inevitably proves counterproductive to the parallel goal of universal provision.

When wealthy business owners or Wall Street executives get in bed with federal regulators to protect their own incomes at the expense of consumer choice, progressives are the first to cry foul.  The left sees plainly how the state is a tool for corruption when the industry in question is commonly associated with greed.  But when the industry in question pertains to the provision of things liberals value, they too often cannot bring themselves to suspect the intentions of those rigging the game, accepting instead the most cursory hand-waving about consumer protection.  They should not be so naïve.  Whether driven by profit or by validation-bias, strict licensure requirements keep doctor wages artificially high at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.  Deregulating the profession would amount to precisely the sort of rich-to-poor wealth transfer the left should be able to get behind.