Tuesday, September 22, 2015

More on the Politics of Fear and Outrage

I had it in my mind to write a follow-up blog post about political parties and their use of Fear. So much of this is obviously nonsense and yet so many people - candidates, media, social media, and far too many ordinary citizens - are caught up in it. For myself, I will simply reject any party or candidate that runs on fear that The World Is Going To Hell - which means, for this coming cycle, I doubt I'll have very many candidates to support.

I may yet write that post. But in the meantime, Hank Green has beat me too it, and he's far more entertaining than I am. Please watch:

Monday, September 21, 2015

"They" Are Not All the Same - Ever

Ben Carson, in his quest for the White House and/or personal fame and fortune, has been treating the nation to the latest round of "let's demonize an entire group of people we don't know".

For those who missed it, Carson apparently said this on NBC's Meet the Press:
"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that."
He later went on to expand on these comments in an interview with The Hill. He stuck to his guns and gave various reasons, which I won't repeat here. He admitted that the original question was a form of "gotcha" journalism, but expanded his argument to say:
However, he acknowledged the question “served a useful purpose by providing the opportunity to talk about what Sharia is and what their goals are.”
Here, of course, is the big mistake. It's ironic that a black man would make this mistake, but as a friend of mine is fond of saying: it's good that irony is so funny, because there's so darned much of it.

The mistake lies in the word "their", as in "their goals". With one little word, Carson wraps all Muslims up in a single, neat, tidy package of people who all apparently share the same goals, have the same views, and behave in the same way.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play the stereotype card.

The contention, of course, is absurd. There is almost no generalization that can encapsulate all Muslims any more than there exists a general behavior that can be attributed to all Christians. How many American Catholics practice birth control? How many Protestants tithe? How many in all denominations get divorced, or remarry? There are a host of behaviors and beliefs that, when you look at what people actually say and actually do, vary widely even though people share the same religion.

The psychology behind all of this is well-understood. People who are part of "my" group - the folks on my side of the wall - are complex, interesting, and capable of a range of human variation. We differ from each other, and that's OK - maybe even a good thing. But folks on the "other" side of that wall - the outsiders - well, they're all the same. Just one big, monolithic mass. They're All Bad. They are THEM.

This is why I'm so fond of the term "tribalism". It's all about tribes, yours and mine and theirs.

Never mind that the evidence for monolithic belief and practice is non-existent. Never mind that people said this about Catholics - in the face of a real candidate for president - back in 1960. And never mind that JFK didn't take orders from the Pope, or impose Catholic doctrine on America. Because, really, Catholics are part of "us", just like Blacks are now part of "us" (but didn't use to be). Muslims - well, you know about them...

There is no difference at all between the thought pattern Carson has evidenced in these interviews and the thoughts of those convinced he shouldn't be President because he's black. We just have different labels for them. In the latter case, we call them racists. In his case, it's called Islamophobia. Potato, Po-tah-to.

This is absolutely rooted in the Politics of Fear. I don't know whether Carson actually believes this nonsense or not. But he knows that there are a bunch of Republican primary voters who do, the kind who can be whipped up into a frenzy and will show up to vote in low-turnout primary elections. And so he panders to the fearful and pours another spoonful of poison into the national well.

Thanks, Ben. Way to sell out the history of your own people in pursuit of personal gain.

Get Tough: The Fear-Based Politics of the Dirty Harry Fantasy

Last week's Republican candidate reality TV show put on display one of the most pervasive and persistent myths in American political culture. I call it the Dirty Harry doctrine, although someone else can undoubtedly come up with a better movie reference.

The Dirty Harry doctrine goes something like this: the US is the most powerful country in the world. But unless we demonstrate that power by "standing up to" various bad actors, our enemies tend to forget how powerful we are and will do bad things. But if we are tough, our enemies will back down and do what we want. If we don't "act tough", others will walk all over us.

This doctrine spreads itself to a general belief in the efficacy of implicit threats. Thus, Congressional Republicans talk about how they need to "stand up to" President Obama about this or that issue (health care, Planned Parenthood - pick one). Political candidates use the word "leadership" to mean "issuing nonspecific threats to cow others into submission", and their tribal fans eat it up. Even many pro-gun arguments are built on this same premise, that the threat of force solves all problems:

As I've pointed out before, these are emotional arguments. They feel good, which explains why they are so prevalent. Unfortunately, they have little bearing on reality.

Threats and intimidation - what people in my business call Deterrence and Compellance - only work under certain circumstances. They are not universally effective, and sometimes they make things worse. Anyone who walks around with only this one tool in their toolkit is pretty much guaranteed to fail much of the time, no matter what they're trying to do.

Take the assertion that a show of force in international affairs will change an enemy's behavior and get them to back down. There have been plenty of folks (mostly but not exclusively on the Republican side) arguing that the agreement with Iran is a bad idea, and that what is really needed to get Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons is a "get tough" approach, possibly including inflicting some actual damage to show them that we're serious.

What determines whether such a policy would work? Like all bargaining interactions, it's a function of actual power, perceived power, and perceived credibility. It's also a function of the motives and interests of both sides.

Japan attempted precisely this tactic in 1941. Its near-simultaneous attacks on US forces in the Philippines and at Pearl Harbor were designed not to defeat the United States outright but to convince the US to stay out of a war it wasn't yet involved in. The Japanese High Command believed that, if it could take away much of the US Navy's power in the Pacific, America would realize that it was dealing with a powerful and committed foe and we would back away from the fight, leaving Asia to the Japanese. Japan never wanted to invade the United States, and didn't much care about what we did within our own country - they just wanted us to stay out of their "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere".

This calculation, of course, was a spectacular failure for two reasons. First, the Japanese underestimated the real nature of power: industrial productive capacity, which America had in far greater quantity than Japan (or, indeed, than all of the Axis powers put together). Second and more important, Japan misjudged American resolve. The attacks caused a counter-reaction which drove the US from being somewhat concerned about Japan's behavior to being bent on its total and complete defeat.

How would Iran likely react to a "get tough" policy from the US? Iran clearly has the capacity to develop a nuclear weapons program even in the face of American sanctions. If Iran becomes convinced that the US is bent on the overthrow of its government, it has more motive to acquire nukes, as fast as possible. The Iranian people are likely to rally around their government, as nearly all people will do when presented with an outside threat. They may or may not like the Ayatollahs, but nobody reacts well to foreigners telling them what to do.

What about direct military action? The US' only practical option is to launch airstrikes on some specific targets. This might have the effect of slowing Iran's progress towards deployable nukes, but they would also seriously increase the motive for doing so. Airstrikes alone cannot stop Iran's nuclear program, and there are no other alternatives. Invade the country? Not a chance. Strike at Iranian sites with our own nuclear weapons? I can't imagine a faster way to get the US ostracized from the international community. Europe would abandon us in a heartbeat, and our economy would suffer far worse than in the recent collapse.

The point is, Iranian leaders know all of this. They have thought through all of these scenarios, just as American officials have. The reason we arrived at a negotiated solution is that leadership in Iran, the US, European countries, and Russia all came to the same conclusion: this is not only the best option, it's the only option.

And yet politicians want to sell us the "if only we had 'gotten tough' with them Iranians/Russians/what have you, things would be better" line. Their motives for doing so are clear: they traffic in the politics of fear. When people feel afraid, then emotional fantasies about how we're going to "get tough" on their watch make people feel better and therefore more likely to vote for them. It's shameless and ridiculous on all sides.

But as much as this is bad politics, it's worse for our soul. Fear clouds judgment, inflames our worst passions, and suppresses our best instincts. It makes us into worse people than we could be. It drives away, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, the better angels of our nature. Indulged in over time, it makes us far less than we are capable of.

At this moment in history, fear is the last thing most American should be feeling. In terms of traditional power, the United States is so far ahead of the rest of the world that the increment is hardly measurable. There are no serious threats to Americans' lives, jobs, communities, or culture. Iran is a regional power with regional ambitions at best, Russia is a shadow of its former self, and the Islamic State is just another minor insurgency with a savvy marketing campaign.

While we face serious challenges at home, things are far from dire. Our economy has a significant inequality problem, but it remains the richest and most productive in the world. The vast majority of American communities are safe, comfortable, nice places to live. Net migration of illegal Mexicans is actually flowing out of the country, not in - no "crisis" there. Violent crime is down in most places. Americans remain, on the whole, decent people who pull together when times are really difficult. There are problems that need to be addressed, and when we are in danger it is generally from ourselves. But a "dying civilization" or a "crumbling society" we are not.

Most of this, of course, doesn't have much to do with who occupies the White House. The government can nudge things in various directions, but the President does not determine outcomes. Blaming Obama for non-existent problems is wrong on two fronts: the problems aren't real, and even if they were the President didn't cause them. Especially not by simply "not being tough enough".

As Joseph de Maistre wrote in the 19th century, every country gets the government it deserves. If we allow ourselves to be governed by fear, if we continue to drink the spiked punch our "leaders" so desperately want to serve us, we will get exactly what we deserve. Moreover, fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we indulge in its pleasures, the more we see things to be afraid of everywhere.

So in our politics at all levels and in our daily lives, let's drop this "get tough" dogma. The Dirty Harry fantasy is the cry of the insecure bully ruled by fear. If you want to see different politics, or if you simply want to contribute to a better community, stop listening to the fear. If you attend to the better angels of your nature, you may be surprised at what takes its place.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

How to Mislead with Spiffy-Looking Graphs, or The Importance of Good Education

I ran across this graph today on my FB feed:

Now, I cannot easily or quickly verify the source of this data or figure out who the "Andrew Barr" named here is. But let me take these numbers at face value for the purposes of argument.

The data appears to make a remarkable comparison. At first glance, it appears to show that measles as a public health problem had largely died out long before the vaccine was introduced in the United States. This observation, if true, would call into question the relationship between vaccination and the suppression of the measles disease - precisely what the poster of this graph wanted to do.

But notice what is actually being compared here. This is not a graph of measles cases. It's a graph of mortality, normed per 100,000 population. It's not a graph of how much measles there is in the US population, but rather a graph of how deadly the disease is in a proportional sense over time.

In that light, it's not at all surprising to see the decline. Advances in modern medicine have permitted us to render many things which used to be fatal now much less so. Today, people who contract measles are much less likely to die than in those who caught the disease 100 years ago. That's a great thing, and the decline in mortality does in fact have little to do with vaccination.

The rate of measles, on the other hand, is another story entirely. Here's a graph of the actual number of measles cases in the US, in thousands, from 1954 to 2008:

This graph is based on CDC data; I retrieved it here. If you want to argue that CDC data are falsified by some devious government conspiracy, then the conversation is over and you might as well go elsewhere. Otherwise, we can continue.

Note what this graph shows. In the latter half of the 1950's and the early 1960s, the number of measles cases did decline, but was still up over 400,000 cases per year. From 1964 to 1968, the years following the introduction of the vaccine, that number collapses, and with two brief blips over 50,000 in the 1970s never recovers again. Today the number of cases is negligible, essentially reduced to a statistical zero.

The argument that "the measles vaccine didn't do anything" falls apart the moment you show the second graph. Of course, folks who want desperately to believe that vaccination is bad won't show you this graph - they won't even find it themselves.

This is why education is so important. We need to teach our children how to read graphs, how to understand the difference between a graph of total numbers and one normed per 100,000 population, and how to question the data presented to them and the conclusions drawn therefrom. There are lots of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen out there with pretty graphs and thundering voices trying to get us to buy their wares. The defense against this is strong education, from elementary school all the way up to college. We don't have to fall for this kind nonsense, however pretty it is.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Guns, Hair-Trigger Self Defense, and the Offense/Defense Balance

Regular readers of this space (there must be some out there) know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in "scenario gotcha" - there is always a different hypothetical that begins "What if I'm attacked in this situation...?" There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma", Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the "offense-defense balance". Jervis explains the idea this way:
When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other's army and take its territory than it is to defend one's own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.
This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis' words, "whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability." When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that "countries aren't people" and therefore this logic doesn't apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn't work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security - a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government - that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force - you're on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology - that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries - the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike ("Star Wars" fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or "Mutually Assured Destruction", as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a "balance of terror".

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the "war on cops", he wrote this:
In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.
I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back - that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis' parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let's stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"The Grad School Mess": A Diatribe in Search of a Problem

I was intrigued to read this article in this morning's Inside Higher Ed. I am familiar with the issues and challenges of graduate education - this is my day job, after all - but I hadn't realized that graduate school was "broken" or that this had become somebody's idea of conventional wisdom. Naturally, I read the article eager to learn more.

It turns out that by "graduate school" the author of the diatribe book in question (and the author of the news article about the diatribe book) means "PhD programs in the humanities". The author points to the dismal statistics about graduates of these programs and the low rate at which they land tenure-line faculty positions, and he criticizes (quite rightly) the tendency for faculty to support a status hierarchy where anything less than a tenure-track job at a major university is considered a "failure". I'm not sure why we needed a book from Harvard University Press to point that out, but I'll grant the argument that such value systems are silly and outdated.

The second book mentioned in the article, which is trying to be more helpful and less diatribe-ish, nevertheless still focuses exclusively on doctoral (PhD) education. While it's great that it didn't mischaracterize things as a "mess", it still steals a term ("graduate education") and applies it only to a very narrow slice of the world.

Back out here in reality, working with and supporting graduate students is very different. That's because the vast majority of graduate students aren't seeking PhDs at all - they're master's students. This is particularly true at my institution (maybe 10% of our grad student population are in doctoral programs), but it's also true a nearly all major research universities. Just down the road, the majority of Ohio State's graduates are also at the master's level, and they probably have the highest proportion of doctoral-to-master's students in the state.

This is the hidden reality - not that we're failing our humanities PhD students by not counseling them correctly but that we're failing our master's students by ignoring their existence. Until three years ago (when the Council of Graduate Schools commissioned a pilot study, which I was a part of) there was no systematic research about master's students and their success or failure. There have been tons of articles, going back decades, about doctoral students - as is reflected in the article above and the books it mentions.

Why does this matter? Because, as my friend Dan Drezner pointed out, what we say about higher education in public shapes everyone else's perception of it. By only talking about how "broken" doctoral education is (when we really only mean, some doctoral fields) and by ignoring the existence of most graduate students entirely, we create a false sense of crisis and give people "out in the real world" a false impression about what's going on at universities. That's a great way to sell books, but a lousy way to actually help things get better.

A good part of my job (and one of my favorite parts) is going out into the community around my university and talking about the virtues and benefits of graduate education. I talk about how a master's degree, or even a graduate certificate, can raise the level of a company's employees, how it can bring real cutting-edge expertise into the workplace, how it can open new worlds of possibility for individuals stuck in a rut.

This is the reality we see every day. The Mayor of Dayton, a proud WSU grad with an MPA degree, is reshaping a city at the heart of a million-person metro region. A VP for Purchasing for our local power utility (and a grad of our MS in Logistics program) saved his company over $1 million a year by reorganizing their supply chain - savings that I get in my power bill every month. When we talk about leadership and positive change in our community, it rarely comes from people with doctorates - because there aren't nearly enough of them, and most of them are working hard on very specific issues. But for sheer impact, master's degrees are what drive most communities towards a better future.

So I hope that people outside the academic arena can understand that these arguments inside the ivory tower about "graduate education" are really just arguments about a small slice of the pie. And it would be nice (though not likely) if folks on the inside could gain a little perspective before they start firing broadsides at things they don't fully understand.