Archive | December 2012

Goodbye 2012, Thank You for Reading

2012 is just about over. I was going to write some earth shattering retrospective on the past year, but I just simply thank everyone who read, commented or passed on the contents of this blog.

I’ll leave 2012 with some footage from Japanese greaser band Carol’s last show, which left the club in flames.



Today’s Reads 12/31/2012

1. A Constitutional expert recommends we start ignoring most of it (NYT)
2. Our system of tracking guns and enforcing standards on dealers is flawed (NYT)
3. US Population grows a mere .7 percent in 2012. Immigrants don’t even want us. (Bloomberg)
4. Scathing review of Jared Diamond’s new book, “The World Before Yesterday” (Bloomberg)
5. “Ten Truly Terrible Domestic Policy Ideas of 2012” – and they are all pretty bad! (Bloomberg)
6. The vaccine conspiracy fringe compromises vaccine delivery to developing countries, endangering kids (Bloomberg)
7. If you’re a minimum wage worker, Washington State is the place to be (at $9.19 an hour) (CNN)
8. Upper House elections in July might help keep Japan’s right wingers acting like adults for the moment (aside: why do Japanese elections happen so frequently?) (Japan Times)
9. Female directors dominate the best of Japan cinema 2012 (let’s hope they come in and save the economy, too!) (Japan Times)
10. Why the Bush tax cuts were created (I never knew) (Washington Post)

Today’s Reads 12/30/2012

1. Why raising taxes on the middle class might be a good idea (NYT)
2. An new year’s appeal to read news across ideological lines. Something I do anyway (I read the National Review), but it’s good the hear that someone else does, too. (NYT)
3. Inmates are asked how they would like to see Japan’s death row rules changed (Japan Times)
4. New HIV infections in African-American women fall for the first time since 2006 (Bloomberg)
5. A brief history of the disputed Senkakus (Economist)
6. Michigan, in its race backwards, tighten requirements for abortion providers (Detroit Free Press)
7. War as a public health problem (Patrick Clarkin)

Today’s Reading

1. Federal deficits and surpluses are driven by financial markets through rising inequality (NYT)
2. Mali’s first female Mayor appeals to the US for help to abate a worsening situation (NYT)
3. The Central African Republic may soon cease to exist (NYT)
4. The year in charts – emerging market growth flattens (Economist)
5. Business obstructs local high speed networks, and US government refuses to pony up pennies to give every American world class access (Bloomberg)
6. Short history of public sector labor unions (conservative analysis but interesting) (Bloomberg)
7. US becomes major gas exporter (Bloomberg)
8. Who are the exemplary African armies? (Africa Report)
9. Investing lessons of 2012, uncertainty is the new certainty (The Reformed Broker)
10. Extremism on the rise in Zanzibar (Financial Times)
11. Tanzanian reality TV teaches people to farm (Economist)

Do Loose Gun Laws Reduce Crime?

Crime Rates for Shall and May Issue States

Crime Rates for Shall and May Issue States

It’s a question that everyone seems to know the answer to, and an oft repeated mantra of gun rightists everywhere. Myself, I’m always skeptical so I decided to find out for myself.

Without getting in the specifics, in the concealed carry world, there are four major classifications of states:

1) Unrestricted – where anybody can carry a gun in any way they see fit
2) Shall Issue states – where those wishing to carry a gun must apply for a permit, and follow specific rules
3) May Issue states – which have more strict rules and regulations than shall issue states.
4) No Issue states – No concealed carry allowed

As of 2012, there are 39 “shall issue” states and 10 “may issue” states. As there aren’t many unrestricted and no issue states, I will compare shall and may issue states only.

I assembled a dataset of CCW classifications, along with population adjusted firearm deaths, rapes and robberies. Crime is certainly about more than just gun laws. Thus, for controlling variables, I also included the percentage of people living in urban areas, percent African-American and the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality.

Graph1The results can be seen above. Shall issue states have more firearm deaths and rapes than may issue states, but fewer robberies. These differences were all statistically significant.

Again, crime is about more than just gun laws. It is also about urban and rural divides, income inequality and entrenched marginalization and poverty. Thus, in ran some regression models using the controlling variables for percent urban, percent African American, and income inequality as measured by the Gini. I also included an interaction term for percent African American and the Gini, as the two could synergistically alter the state crime profile.

I found that May Issue states still had fewer deaths and rapes than Shall Issue states. Stricter gun laws were actually the only significant variable in the model. For robbery, however, the difference between shall issue and may issue states went away when including the other variables.

What I concluded: I found that states with stricter gun laws have lower rates of violent crime. I also found that there is no association of gun laws with robberies, which are better explained by demographic variables associated with urbanicity and the social problems of a pluralistic, yet unequal, society.

We might conclude, then, that the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is NO: loose gun laws do not necessarily lead to lower rates of crime, contrary to what appears to be popularly believed.

I could run with this and state publicly that strict guns rules work. Believe me, I want to. I won’t for fear of being guilty of the same crime that gun proponents commit when throwing around “evidence.”

This simple analysis suffers from a problem endemic to discussions of policy. Namely, that the factors on the causal pathway between policy and human behavior are elusive and difficult to measure. It is difficult for me to state definitively that gun laws have anything to do with crime at all. I am not able to effectively connect the dots between implementation and change in crime patterns, while accounting for all of the other factors that may be simultaneously at play (social problems, economics, incarceration, etc.). The results certainly can lead one to certain conclusions, but my goal here is not to prove that gun laws work, but rather to show that the data don’t support the assertion that they don’t work.

Regardless, popular discussions act as if finding the links between gun policy and crime is a trivial affair, despite weak evidence and measurement. Others have noted the complexity of drawing conclusions on the subject. It is ironic to me, that some of the same people who may accept weak studies of the effect of gun policy on crime as hard fact and cherry pick results, are the same people who deny human induced climate change, for which there is ample, well documented, and solid support. This is a sad, sad state of affairs.

Regression results

Regression results

Are Public Libraries Putting Small Bookstores Out of Business?

I fear that the answer is yes, particularly in small markets. The NYT ran an article yesterday documenting how public libraries are responding to local demand for popular reading. Specifically, they are catering to the public hunger for disposable romance novels.

At the bustling public library in Arlington Heights, Ill., requests by three patrons to place any title on hold prompt a savvy computer tracking system to order an additional copy of the coveted item. That policy was intended to eliminate the frustration of long waits to check out best sellers and other popular books. But it has had some unintended consequences, too: the library’s shelves are now stocked with 36 copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Now, I’m fine with this. Libraries are free to stock junk. One person’s trashy fiction is another person’s Shakespeare. I wonder, however, if the shift to popular junk fiction isn’t putting someone out of a job or a business. I feel, however, that the friendly public library is doing just that. Certainly, internet sales and e-books are the number one reason book retailers are going extinct. Public libraries, however, must be number two and their influence extends to other types of media.

Ann Arbor used to pride itself as have more bookstores per capita than any other city in the United States. We had more than 15 bookstores (by my count) in the downtown area which sold all kinds of books. These places were great spaces to hang out in, and made Ann Arbor attractive to tourists and visitors. It was something to be proud of. Now, of all the bookstores which were here in 1988, only one remains. It sells exclusively used books. There are other small book retailers, that are really just gift stores in the end.

Libraries did not kill these stores. I do feel, however, that the Ann Arbor Public Library and the (wonderful) Askwith Media Library at the University of Michigan killed the video store. Liberty Street Video died soon after the expansion of the DVD library at the Ann Arbor Public Library, located almost on the same street. Demand for DVDs still exists. The Askwith Library is always busy with students looking to borrow films for the weekend.

I am not trying to slam public libraries. I believe in public libraries and tax payer funded access to open information, even if it is information that some people may not like.

I was interested, however, in the complex issues at play in the simple article.

Are public libraries undermining small, local businesses? Are they setting standards for the small businesses by providing competition where there is none? Liberty Street Video could have responded by offering better services and products. It didn’t. It stuck with VHS until it closed. At the end, it was an awful store. Border’s died because it refused to compete with Amazon’s low prices.

How can public libraries balance potential negative effects on small businesses with the need to satisfy community demand?

Are private donations the solution? It’s worth pointing out that Askwith, UM’s large video library was built using private donations.

Personally, I don’t know, so I though I’d ramble on about it for a while. Though there aren’t many of you out there, what do you think?

Guns and the Polite Society

jesus and a hand gunNot to beat the gun discussion into the ground, but I’m rejoicing that we’re having this discussion at all. It’s far, far overdue.

Firmin DeBrabander, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, had an interesting column today that summed up my feelings on the possession of guns in public:

Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech. This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

There’s a reason why we don’t speak frankly in front of police officers, and that silence is wholly undemocratic. I have always maintained that Americans, despite their image worldwide as brash, opinionated braggarts, are actually hemmed in by their great capacity to do violence to one another. Despite Japan’s image as a country of deference, in my experience, the Japanese are mostly frank with their opinions and happy to share, no matter how controversial the topic. Granted there are exceptions, but the trends are there. It worth mentioning that Japan is quite polite, even without personal arms.

I was imagining what a classroom would be like where the instructor openly carried a weapon. Would there be discussion? Would students feel compelled to speak their mind and contribute? I think not. It is for this reason, that guns have no place in the classroom, despite right wing calls for arming school principals with M4’s. Classrooms, particularly on college campus, are the essence of democracy. Classrooms are places for sharing ideas and mutual respect. The power dynamic produced by weaponry violates this basic facet of education. It should be pointed out, that the parties which scream the loudest for universal ownership of guns, spew the most vitrol against formal education.

Cass Sunstein, Professor of Law at Harvard University wrote a brief history of SCOTUS interpretations of the Second Amendment, arguing that the present one, namely that individuals have a Constitutional right to possess individual firearms, is a radical one, and without precedent in American history:

It is striking that before its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court had never held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have guns.

For almost seven decades, the court’s leading decision was U.S. v. Miller. The 1939 case involved a ban on the possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Sounding like Burger, the court unanimously said that the Second Amendment’s “obvious purpose” was “to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of” the militia. Without evidence that the possession of a sawed-off shotgun was related to preservation of a well-regulated militia, the court refused to say that the Second Amendment protected the right to have such a weapon.

For decades, federal courts overwhelmingly rejected the conclusion that the Second Amendment protects an individual right. It wasn’t until the 21st century that lower federal courts, filled with appointees of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, started to adopt the individual-rights position. And, of course, the Supreme Court itself adopted that view in 2008, by a 5-to-4 vote.

In other words, the present commonly held interpretation flawed, and the result of a series of right wing SCOTUS appointments and a well funded disinformation campaign funded by the NRA and the gun industry. I have long suspected this. Though the Second Amendment clearly seeks to disrupt state monopolies on violence (tailored toward British rule), it takes a bit of gymnastics to believe that individuals are guaranteed the right to individual weaponry, when the Amendment itself refers to citizen militias in its preamble. Moreover, at least in my reading, there is nothing in the Second Amendment to suggest that states and localities can’t regulate individual ownership.

An article from the Economist today had the following to say regarding the necessity of guns to prevent tyranny:

As for the National Rifle Association bumper stickers arguing that only an armed citizenry can prevent tyranny, I wonder if that isn’t a form of narcissism, involving the belief that lone, heroic individuals will have the ability to identify tyranny as it descends, recognise it for what it is, and fight back. There is also the small matter that I don’t think America is remotely close to becoming a tyranny, and to suggest that it is is both irrational and a bit offensive to people who actually do live under tyrannical rule.

I couldn’t agree more. Americans scream and cry about the evils of government, but the reality is that the American system of elections runs mostly without problems. We can argue about whether the presence of money impedes the process of fairly electing representatives but compared with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Putin’s Russia or even the one party state of China, we’re doing pretty damn good.

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