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.

Where Guns and I Part Ways

Firearm deaths, US population and gun policy events.

Firearm deaths, US population and gun policy events.

I will admit, I don’t get guns at all.

As readers of this blog know, I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where owning a gun is seemingly mandatory (for white people, at least). It would seem that guns are as important to life as Jesus, fried food and philandering.

Some white metro-Jacksonians are so afraid of black people, that they won’t enter the city limits without carrying one. I always thought this was rather odd way to stave off muggers, particularly if one were attacked from behind. Better to provide some poor kid looking for drug money with $10 than a loaded gun. (To be fair, Jackson is one of the most crime ridden cities in the US.)

I’ve seen three people shot in my life-time. Once, I was behind a line of cars in Brooklyn, NY coming back from a show. A man on the street fired 12 shots into the car in front of me, possibly killing both of the people inside. I can’t verify whether the victims survived, but it didn’t look good as I passed.

Another time, I saw a man shot in the head on the street in New Orleans. I learned that all of the arguments over concealed carry are bunk. Shootings happen really, really fast. So fast, that if you blink, you’ll miss it. More disturbing is that manner in which people fall when they’re shot. It’s nothing like the movies and something one doesn’t ever forget.

I am convinced that the many gun rightists have never seen someone shot.

Much of what I know of guns, comes from my drug-addled, socio-pathic step-father. Most Mississippi households have at least one firearm, and mine was no exception. In the darkest days of my childhood, they would be placed haphazardly around the house, in plain reach of anyone who wanted to grab one. Every once in a while, he would pick one up and wave it around for dramatic effect, to punctuate whatever insanity he was spewing at the time. My step father loved guns, presumably because they made up for his own figurative, and possibly literal, impotence.

My father would tell tales of having killed a cocaine dealer in downtown Jackson by shooting him in the chest. The man was so full of lies, that it was difficult to know whether to believe him or not, but for me it was unsettling to know that I might be sharing a home with a murderer.

Which is where guns and I part. That my step-father was able to easily obtain guns is a travesty of public policy. That gun retailers and manufacturers seemingly actively target mentally unstable, paranoid and psychologically weak people like my step-father is unforgivable. That profits are made off the sale of guns to people like him is patently disgusting.

I advocate that America needs to reign in the gun industry, who have distorted the conversation from a discussion of public safety, to one that borders on the religious, uses fantasy, anecdotal evidence and misinterpreted realities to further justify the addition of more weapons to our already massive personal armory. Moreover, in the name of a poorly reasoned political ideology, large amounts of industrial money from non-transparent entities is sloshed at Congress to support a thankfully dwindling minority.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on gun policy. While I would love to live in a gun-free world, it would be wholly impractical to round up all existing weapons in the United States. Moreover, the presence of law-abiding and harmless gun owners make this radical step unnecessary.

If we are going to continue to allow personal stockpiles of weapons, we should follow the model of Switzerland, where, lacking a formal army, citizen gun ownership is almost universal. Intensive training, yearly re-certifications and household inspections, such as that of Switzerland, should be the norm. For well meaning and honest gun owners (which I maintain to be the majority), this will not be a problem.

The American government, as a representative of its people, needs to pull the conversation of guns away from the paranoid nonsense so often peddled by gun profiteers. We need to, as Switzerland does, hold all gun owners to this standard to promote responsible use and attitudes toward gun ownership. Gun ownership should be promoted as a hobby and as a means of reasonable self-defense.

There were 31,347 firearm related deaths in 2011. That’s almost the same as all deaths due to automobile accidents (34,485). Yet, owning a gun is easier than owning a car and requires less training in most states. We would also note that cars are used more frequently than guns. Any regulation that drops that number by even a quarter would be welcome. There would be at least 7,500 more people alive today than otherwise.

John Stuart Mill spoke of the tyranny of the majority, but here, a vocal and well funded minority has dangerously forced the conversation on guns into the world of delusion.

WHO Stating the Absolute Obvious

From the WHO’s “Malaria Elimination: A Field Manual for Low and Moderate Endemic Countries“:

“Malaria transmission is particularly difficult to interrupt in areas with efficient mosquito vectors, a long or year-round transmission season, poor state of overall development, marginalized populations and weak health systems with inadequate coverage of health services, as well as in areas with civil unrest, illegal cross-border movement, or areas that border high-burden neighboring countries and experience intense cross-border population movement. Each of these factors will reduce the feasibility of malaria elimination”

Shouldn’t this be completely obvious? They are describing every place where malaria is, outside a few exceptional cases at this point. The WHO is stating clearly that malaria elimination in Sub-Saharan Africa is absolutely impossible.

What the Business School Taught Me and What Business Can Teach Science

Video store in Tanzania

Video store in Tanzania

Recently, I’ve taking a course in the UM Ross School of Business. In general, I’m a guy that likes to escape his comfort zone. I like to talk to people I don’t agree with, and go to places that I’m not expected to go. It keeps things interesting.

The course I took is probably pretty atypical for a business course, though. Ted London, one of my coworkers at the William Davidson Institute, teaches a class entitled “Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid.” Basically, it argues that profitable business ventures which target the poorest of the poor are possible and can have positive impacts in terms of poverty alleviation and improvements in public health. He advocates a strategy that partners developed country expertise and capital, with local entrepreneurship and knowledge.

What I’ve learned:

1) Business is about problem solving. I used to think that business was about profit maximization. In essence, though, it is about identifying problems and creating new ways to solve them for mutual benefit. Certainly, part of this includes profit making but often profits mean sustainability. Certainly, if short term gains are your only goal (stock markets, for example), someone will lose. Long term success, however, depends on creating relationships for mutual benefit. Look at the successes of a company like Toyota.

Science, however, is about discovery. We ask questions and seek answers. The limitation here, is that nobody wants to be wrong and thus the identification of problems is of low priority.

2) People in business are easy to talk to. Businesses are primarily about relationships and cooperation. Opportunities are produced by making contacts and listening to what people have to say. People with poor social skills will do badly in business. People like me.

In science, you can have the social skills of a doorknob and it might not make a bit of difference. You can be hardheaded and happily work away in your bubble oblivious to the outside world. This is fine, in an increasingly diversified and interdisciplinary world, a bit of communication and ability to navigate connections between people is becoming ever more important.

Scientists have to learn to talk to people outside science, or we will fail. Not the issue of climate change. The wishy washy (though necessary) language of science doesn’t translate well to policy makers, giving climate deniers plenty of fodder to work with. The world might end, partly because scientists have poor communication skills.

We could learn a lot from business schools. I noted that they write few papers and do multitudes of presentations, which are often graded on form as well as content.

3) Business is not, by definition, evil. Last night, I went to a Holiday Party for the Emerging Markets Club of the Ross School of Business at UM. Half the people there had served in the Peace Corps, hardly what one would expect of MBA students. They are determined to create careers which benefit the world. Certainly, there are evil business people out there, but there are also evil NGOs and evil scientists (known a few). Business is about what you bring to the table and how your goals align with those around you. If you gather conscientious and dedicated folks together, good things can happen. If you can make it profitable, someone will fund you.

In science, we talk about grants in the hundreds of thousands and several millions of dollars. This funds discovery, but does little to benefit impoverished communities directly. In business, they are talking about tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in capital. Given the right people and the right project, this money can multiply itself and can directly transform the lives of the poorest of the poor in a sustainable fashion. Often, I really wonder what we’re doing. While the information we generate can inform the development of new ways to fight malaria, for example, it often seems like we work in a bubble.

In short, it’s been a great experience. I’m happy to have been able to have the chance to work and learn at the UM B School.

To close, here’s are a couple of videos about Bottom of the Pyramid ventures. The first is about a program that CEMEX, a large Mexican cement manufacturer, has to profitably sell housing to poor communities and the second is a video from the late C.K. Prahalad, a former Professor in the UM B School who pioneered the thinking behind these ventures.

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