Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

The Religion of Politics

The most significant difference between science and religion is that the former deals with empirical evidence, while the latter requires faith. (You can’t, after all, demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of God in a laboratory experiment.)

Falsification is the heart of scientific inquiry; no matter how fervently a scientist believes in a particular explanation of natural phenomena, if further experimentation disproves it, she alters that conviction. Religious beliefs by their very nature cannot be falsified.

Ideally, policy decisions, like science, are based on evidence; we try a policy approach, and if it doesn’t work, we try something else. The characterization of states as “laboratories of democracy” rests on that premise–states will try different approaches to similar problems, and others will learn from their successes and failures.

When political ideologies become religions, societies suffer. A recent post at Political Animal, made that point:

When Josh Duggar and countless similar self-righteous conservatives are exposed as cheating molesters, it doesn’t cause conservatives to question whether their belief system might be causing those problems. They just double down. When abstinence education causes more teen pregnancy than responsible sex education, conservatives double down on the slut shaming. When tax cuts on the rich and wage cuts to government workers lead to economic recession, Republicans don’t question their core economic beliefs; they just claim they weren’t allowed to go far enough.

In a way, modern conservatives are similar to the Communists of old. No matter how obvious the ideology’s failure, the response is always that the policies were not enacted in a strong and pure enough manner.

That inability to come to grips with failure and adjust course, and that insistence on doubling down in the face of adverse results, is part of why many consider modern conservatism to be an almost cultic movement. Its adherents long since stopped caring about the evidence or empirical results. It’s all about who can prove truest to the faith, and maximally annoy and rebel against the evil liberal heathens. Policies and results are really beside the point.


Guns and Externalities

In economics, an externality is defined as the effect of a decision by one set of parties on other parties who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.

The classic example of a negative externality is the widget manufacturer who pollutes a local waterway rather than properly disposing of his toxic byproducts. This saves the manufacturer money, advantaging him in the marketplace because he doesn’t have to factor the cost of disposal into the price of his widgets. Local taxpayers pay to clean up the waterway, effectively subsidizing his profits.

The discussion on this blog yesterday triggered (I know, bad pun) a consideration of the externalities created by our current permissive gun laws.

The Shorenstein Center at Harvard has an interesting and relevant analysis. It begins with the raw numbers:

More than 30,000 people a year in the United States die from gunshot wounds, whether intentional or accidental. What we don’t hear as much about are the tens of thousands more who are hurt by bullets but survive. In 2013, five people suffered non-fatal firearm injuries for every two who died, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 2003 to 2013, 799,760 people sustained non-fatal injuries — nearly 23 percent of which were accidental. This 10-year total includes 82,325 children age 17 and younger.

A recent, 18 state study focused on individuals who had been treated for a firearm injury in 2010 and discharged alive. The research team assessed the strictness of gun legislation in those states using scorecards created by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Among the research findings:

There were, on average, 19 non-fatal firearm injuries per 100,000 people in 2010. Of the states included in the study, Hawaii had the fewest injuries — 3.3 non-fatal gun injuries per 100,000 people. South Carolina had the most with 36.6 per 100,000 people…..

States with strict laws regulating background checks and gun purchases had lower rates of non-fatal injury. Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws also were associated with lower rates of non-fatal injury. When researchers analyzed legislation and the records of patients who were 19 years old and younger, they found that states with strict child-access laws had fewer children and teenagers with self-inflicted and accidental firearm injuries compared to states with “non-strict” laws.

Here’s the kicker–or, in economic terms, the externality.

Recent estimates have suggested that the societal cost of nonfatal firearm injuries in 2010 approached $20 billion …

And guess who pays most of that $20 billion?

Most of this economic burden falls on taxpayers via costs directed toward Medicare, Medicaid, and the uninsured.

Yesterday, in the comments, Red George suggested requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance. A great idea, but I’m sure the NRA would argue that making gun owners assume responsibility for the damage they cause would violate the Second Amendment.

And we know who writes the laws….

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things….

Like reasonable laws.

Recently, Indianapolis City-County Councilor Kip Tew sponsored an ordinance that would  require people to file a report if a gun they owned was lost or stolen.

Laws requiring gun owners to report loss or theft of a weapon help police in several ways:  they deter gun trafficking and discourage straw purchasing; they  facilitate the return of the guns, if found, to their lawful owners; and they help police disarm people who aren’t legally eligible to possess firearms.

As an officer friend pointed out recently, timely reporting of gun thefts and losses allows police to trace guns more effectively, and makes the successful prosecution of users of stolen guns more likely.

A very small step, granted, but a step in the right direction.

Currently, however, there aren’t enough votes to pass the measure. Not because council members are opposed to it, but because several of them worry that it might violate a relatively recent provision of the Indiana Code–a provision so ridiculous I couldn’t believe it was real.

Here are the relevant parts of Indiana Code 35-47-11.1 – 7.

Except as provided in section 4 of this chapter, a political subdivision may not regulate:
(1) firearms, ammunition, and firearm accessories;
(2) the ownership, possession, carrying, transportation, registration, transfer, and storage of firearms, ammunition, and firearm accessories; and
(3) commerce in and taxation of firearms, firearm ammunition, and firearm accessories.

Anyone “adversely affected” by such an action is authorized to sue for damages.

This is yet another example of the legislature telling local governments what they can and cannot do (my Home Rule complaint). And in this case, what our local folks can’t do is anything that even smells of gun regulation.

But the rest of this abomination is even worse:

A person is “adversely affected” for purposes of section 5 of this chapter if either of the following applies:
(2) The person is a membership organization that:
(A) includes two (2) or more individuals described in subdivision (1); and
(B) is dedicated in whole or in part to protecting the rights of persons who possess, own, or use firearms for competitive, sporting, defensive, or other lawful purposes.

Sec. 7. A prevailing plaintiff in an action under section 5 of this chapter is entitled to recover from the political subdivision the following:
(1) The greater of the following:
(A) Actual damages, including consequential damages.
(B) Liquidated damages of three (3) times the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.
(2) Court costs (including fees). (3) Reasonable attorney’s fees.

Short version: if Indianapolis tries to protect its citizens by controlling guns or ammunition in any way whatever, the “membership organization” (i.e. the NRA) can sue the city and recover attorney’s fees and punitive (“liquidated”) damages from our tax dollars.

Think about that.

I can’t imagine what “damages” the NRA would suffer from the passage of an innocuous and helpful measure like reporting stolen guns. (For that matter, putting on my lawyer hat,  I don’t think that “theft” comes within the definition of “ownership, possession, carrying, transportation, registration, transfer, and storage,” but I do understand council members’ concern that it might.)

If you ever want an example of the way a well-heeled lobby overrides the will–and the welfare–of mere citizens, this one’s a doozy.

Calvinism and America’s Crappy Transit

Some years back, I wrote a book titled “God and Country: America in Red and Blue.” I was intrigued (still am) by the various ways in which contemporary policy preferences are rooted in religious ways of looking at the world. I wasn’t focusing on the more obvious connections–we all see the relationship between religious beliefs and opinions about abortion or gay rights or capital punishment, for example. I was interested in the under-appreciated ways that religious perspectives had shaped cultural attitudes and fostered certain approaches to public policy.

As I did my research, I was especially struck by the ways in which early Calvinist theology has shaped American attitudes toward the poor. Ours is a culture with a deeply entrenched, if bastardized, version of Calvinism; a belief that God smiles upon the “elect,” and the poor are poor because they are morally defective. (Accusations that poor folks lack “middle class values” are a modern and none-too-veiled version of that theologically-rooted conviction.)

A recent article at Vox connected that insight to America’s pathetic public transportation.

American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. At the same time, a much greater percentage of US public transit costs are subsidized by public tax dollars….

Many people try to explain this paradox by pointing to US history and geography: Most of our cities and suburbs were built out after the 1950s, when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. Consequently, we have sprawling, auto-centric metropolises that just can’t be easily served by public transportation.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

What, then, accounts for the discrepancy?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

It’s true. American politicians don’t see transit as a quality of life or economic development issue (both of which it certainly is) or even as a vital transportation function; they think of it as another government aid program to help poor people.

And the poor are “undeserving.” After all, according to Calvin, if they were deserving, God would have made sure they had cars.

Wishful Thinking Isn’t Foreign Policy

A post-debate column from the Brookings Institution focused on a criticism of Administration foreign policy that is dangerously disconnected from reality in its naivete.

The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”

As the author notes, the message is simple: favoring diplomacy over force is weakness.

The problem with this very simplistic worldview is front and center in the current debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. Opponents–not all of whom are Republicans, and several of whom should know better (yes, Senator Schumer, I’m looking at you)–routinely fault the agreement as “not good enough,” but fall curiously silent when they are asked to propose alternatives. To date, I have not heard any of them offer a single specific suggestion; when pressed, they say something like “I’d get a better deal,” without explaining what “better” would look like or how they would achieve it.

None of those who are opposed to any deal at all with Iran have said what they would do instead. Implicitly, of course, they are counseling war.

All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.

Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.

The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.

There’s a reason thoughtful and knowledgable people–from Dick Lugar and Madelyn Albright to nuclear weapons experts–have strongly endorsed the Iran agreement.

Wishful thinking is not strategy; posturing and self-delusion are not foreign policy. It took an unnecessary and costly war to teach George W. Bush that lesson; we don’t need a repeat performance.