Tag Archives: complexity

Attractors, Goals, and Guns: Part I

I had a late night debate with several friends over the merits of gun control and realized, in the process, that it’s an almost perfect test case for adaptive co-management in complex systems. It’s a policy issue where traditional legalistic approaches, like banning, fail and more creative measures are needed. Even more interesting, unlike many political debates, it’s a debate where most people would agree on a similar objective: reducing gun crime.

It’s useful to start this with my own position: I despite most gun ownership and possession, especially handguns. Unlike rifles, they’re purely people-killing machines. People don’t often rob people or do drive-by’s with deer rifles. Nor do people hunt deer with concealed weapons. But I also recognized that if I lived in a violent city, like Manila, I’d be inclined to purchase a weapon only because so many other people have guns and wish to do harm. I wish they could just be banned and *poof*, they’re gone. But nothing in social systems ever works that easily…

What’s the Goal?

This is a tougher question than it first appears. When we say we want to get rid of guns, why? Is it to reduce overall gun fatalities? Is it to reduce violent crime where guns are used? Or is it to remove the threat of planned violent crime like armed robberies? Each of these is very different and each has both different wider implications if we were to stay logically consistent and different policy recommendations.

In my own opinion, the first goal “to reduce gun fatalities” isn’t a very good one. My reasoning is fourfold, the first being intentionality. Consider for a moment the question of which is morally more repugnant: Hitler ordering the deaths of 6 million Jews or Mao’s 50 million famine deaths caused by incompetence, pride, and negligence? It’s a difficult question when put like that, but I would argue that, by default, we feel more angered by the intentional killings of the Holocaust than the mostly unintentional – if exponentially larger – killings of the Great Leap Forward. Mao, in his own head, thought he was instituting policies that would lift his country out of poverty and hunger forever. Hitler was intentionally killing unarmed men, women, and children as a matter of policy. This is a usually silent, implicit moral distinction we make.

An underground gun factory in the Philippines

If we apply the same logic to the gun control debate, it forces us to ask: which is worse, accidental gun deaths or planned violent crime? To even more clearly separate this, let’s use two categories: “white” and “black” market gun deaths. “White market” guns being those bought legally with proper registration. The assumption – which might be wrong – is that few people go to a store to buy a gun that they plan to use in a murder, mostly because of the background checks and registration involved. The kind of people who plan on being involved in gun violence are almost always people already living criminal lives and buy their weapons on the black market.

Similar to the Mao vs Hitler comparison, I think we can draw a moral distinction then between the people who plan to be involved in gun violence and those who more-or-less accidentally become involved in gun violence (either through an accidental discharge or a “crime of passion”). I think it’s precisely these people that normal people fear when they talk about unsafe cities or neighborhoods. It’s also this level of violence that spawns massive increases in legal gun sales, which in turns feeds the black market with surplus. If Manila or Baltimore’s gun violence was overwhelmingly lovers shooting cheating spouses, neither would be considered a “dangerous city” and average people would have little reason to want to own a gun.

My second issue with using “reducing gun fatalities” as the goal comes from what I recently called the Singerian Approach. Where does implicit logic take us if we run with it to the margins? We live in a dangerous world in our daily lives. I’ve read that slipping in the bathtub is the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Car wrecks and ladders beat guns by a long mile in accidental fatalities. Banning guns, were it even to work, would reduce only a fraction as many deaths as banning cars and forcing people to use public transportation.

Even more morally challenging is that almost all of us are leaving lethal invisible footprints in our wake just by living our daily lives. A coal-fueled power station can leave a footprint of 278 deaths per terrawatt hour, meaning that the power station on Lamma Island has one death connected to it for every 57 minutes of peak use. It’s too disconnected to even seem real. Assuming the power plant runs at full capacity and is using cheap Chinese coal, that’s 9,211 deaths per year, or one Dachau every three years. All for our laptops, air conditioners, and TVs to be fed a never-ending stream of cheap joules. It’s far more obvious that guns kill people even if it’s statistically less important. Focusing on gun deaths seems to limit us to the optics of sensational death more than more mundane realities of everyday mortality.

The message that I’m driving at is that while we may value lives tremendously in our rhetoric, we value them significantly less so in practice. We’re actually pretty comfortable with the 1.2 million road deaths each year. It just doesn’t rile us up as much as other issues. Morally, we’re not as bothered as much as we should be because there’s no Hitler-like figure ordering henchmen to collapse coal mines, implant lung cancer, inject asthma, and drive cars into pedestrians.  There’s a much more complex causal chain linking our own consumer demand with private-side supply issues. It’s not just evil mine bosses, it’s also billions of evil consumers who demand cheap coal. Like you and I.

My “Singerian Approach” is to say that if we want to get into the messy business of prioritizing the reduction of unplanned deaths, one needs to find a way of arguing that the unplanned “white market” gun deaths are morally more important than the unplanned deaths caused by the Lamma Power Station, driving accidents, and so many other issues that take so many more lives but don’t pull our emotional strings. Why put time and money into one issue and not the other? It’s not an impossible task to create this sort of internally consistent moral chart, but I think it’s quite difficult and something most people don’t even want to think about.

The fourth reason is that focusing on a single variable is intellectually shallow and, as I’ll spell out in more detail later, can lead to multiple unintended consequences. We find the same issues with assumptions like higher income meaning a reduction in the poverty or using standardized testing to measure the performance of schools, teachers and students. In my own study on rural non-formal education, the only variable that matters is yield. Not farmer livelihoods, environmental impact, or evaluating input costs versus profits. This single variable is used to measure something altogether more difficult and complex. Poverty isn’t just about assets and the problem of guns goes far beyond the number of people they kill.

My own take is that government policy should be focused primarily on reducing public risks, not private risks. In other words, the government should be more concerned about people being robbed at ATMs than preventing crazy ex-lovers from doing something too crazy. Having a gun in your household dramatically increases the chance of gun related violence in your household. It’s a risk, like driving your kid to school on a motorcycle, that we should allow people to make even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves and would chastise friends or family who do.

As such, I feel the Lamma Power Station deaths are worse than “white market” gun deaths because of how preventable and public the threat it is. Switching to almost any other fuel source would cut those numbers dramatically. The only thing missing is political will to spend the money. The government has enough money to built a bridge to Macau and Zhuhai, but not enough to dramatically reduce lung disease and air quality. This stands in contrast to the private, household-level threat “white market” gun violence poses. Because I don’t spend time with people who own guns, I stand almost no chance of being affected by “white market” gun violence. Yet I have no choice but to breathe toxic air and use “blood” coal.

For me, then, the public policy goal towards gun violence should be a reduction in the threat of planned gun violence. “Threat” is an important word here because the people that make up systems act on expectations. In Hong Kong, I’d feel pretty comfortable running from someone demanding that I hand over my wallet. In the America or the Philippines, where lethal street crime is a real threat, I’d likely ask if there’s anything else I could help them with. The background threat of violence can drive entire countries, cities, and neighborhoods into stagnation and decline while the assumption of non-violence let’s polities’ move forward in positive ways. I think one of the most important variables people forget when analyzing China’s amazing growth is how safe China is. My wife felt safe walking through what was essentially a slum in 3am, but she wouldn’t feel safe after dark walking through her rural Philippine hometown.

Part the reason for this is that research is beginning to show that that violence in communities is much more like a disease than we ever imagined. People exposed to violence are more likely to commit violence. It goes beyond “black market” gun violence. Upticks in violence will, overall, drive up demand for legal guns. Thus, I think one can substantially reduce gun ownership and use by removing the perceived threat of planned violent crime.

This is very clear when we look at the extreme ends of violence. Think of the proliferation of automatic weapons in a city like Baghdad. I’ve read multiple accounts that say almost every family there has an AK-47. Families own these guns because of how rampant kidnapping and assassinations are. Were that threat – both real and perceived – to significantly diminish, I’m fairly confident that Iraqi mothers would be demanding that their husbands get something so clearly dangerous to their families out of their houses.

To whit, the larger moral problem is planned criminal violence. Reducing planned criminal violence ‘works’ with a secondary goal of reducing overall gun fatalities. If normal, non-violent people feel safe they’ll be far less likely to want to own a gun. Setting the goal as reducing gun deaths in aggregate, without context to the type of violence, is to confuse the Hitler’s for the Mao’s. Both are ‘bad’, but one (arguably) has a stronger moral imperative to stop than the other.


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Complexity, Inequality, and the 99%: A Response to Clive Crook

I appreciate that Clive Crook is talking about inequality in an intelligent, serious way. I think that’s rare on both the left and the right. My experience living in China left me thinking that inequality wasn’t nearly as important as absolute poverty reduction and people’s quality of life improving. I have several friends in China who grew up eating meat only a few times a month and didn’t get electricity in their homes until the mid-90’s. They drive cars and own their own electronics businesses now. It would seem on an intuitive level that the kind of economy that lets them increase their own livelihoods so quickly would also produce a few billionaires in the process. I also have issues with the way we calculate and compare inequality.  Richard Wilkinson, however, recently convinced me relative poverty is one of the most important issues of our time – even in wealthy economies.

In Look Past Taxes to Fix Global Puzzle of Inequality, Clive Crook makes a number of very good points with a few weak points worth rebuttal. It’s a good place to go through some of my own thoughts on the issue.

What I think Crook gets correct is that this 99%/1% sloganeering is problematic.  Our “obsession with the peak of the income pyramid is much too simple-minded,” as we should be more concerned about our income distribution patterns overall.

US Wealth Distribution (2003)

The super-rich only make up one side of tail of a distribution where the other tail has 46 million Americans in poverty. Important for me, and less for him, is that this tail is far longer than the top tail. Though he doesn’t make the point explicitly, just taxing the 1% more won’t make a only a small dent in inequality or our budgetary problems.

Second, tackling the inequality problem is going to be difficult:

inequality isn’t one issue but a writhing bundle of issues. Unpack it and you see there’s no easy remedy. It demands more thought and humility than most politicians can muster.

In complex systems theory the idea of power laws inside critically self-organized systems is amongst the most overlooked insights that I know of. Compare human heights with power laws and normal distributions : if human height followed a power law distribution, most of us would be incredibly short but at least one of us would be over 8000 feet tall and the median height would still be the real-world median height. In reality, heights are normally distributed bell-curves with only a few Kobe Bryant’s and Peter Dinklage’s.

Our global economy is, without a doubt, critically self-organized and produces power law distributions with market shocks and wealth distributions (see chart to the left). Disentangling the global economy and uncovering its feedbacks and the paths that led to our current state of affairs might take decades.  And after that we’ll likely have to wait decades more before politicians listen to academics who propose strategic decouplings to make economic systems healthier. I am almost certain that the things that bring the most instability to our systems are also the most lucrative – like the financial industry in the US and real estate markets in China (and the US from the late 90s until 2008). I can’t help but think of the global warming debate all over again.

Scott Page asks us to think of earthquakes, whose distributions relative to size and frequency also follows a power laws when analyzing how to harness the lessons of complexity. Perhaps the best way to bring these geophysical systems out of criticality is to intentionally set off smaller earthquakes to release pressure at critical places and times. Doing that might gives us a bell-curve with more small/medium-sized quakes to stop the large ones from happening. In the same way, finding the things that bring our economic system to a critical state would help prevent the kind of market shocks we’re seeing in financial markets,

Earthquakes also follow a power law distribution. Flip this 90° right for it to look like the US inequality distribution

commodity prices, and income distributions. The Chinese government’s experiments with free market economics limited inside special economic zones like Shenzhen  springs to mind as an cordoned-off economic outlet that contains the excesses of capitalism but can still spread the rewards through the system. Ultimately, a healthy system is one where only a few people are doing very badly and they exist in near equal proportion to people doing phenomenally well – where private jets and food insecurity are equally rare. We couldn’t be further from that today with 1 in 6 people in America food insecure.

Crook’s solution is that we need a host of policies to address the problems, including taxing the “middle class”:

An enlightened liberal agenda should include higher taxes on the rich — and higher taxes on the middle class as well. That agenda needs those revenue streams not to punish the 1 percent but to pay for low-wage subsidies, other supports for the working poor and a more effective safety net. It would prioritize K-12 education, vocational training and other main avenues of opportunity for the less well-off. It would attack rent-seeking, broken corporate governance and hidden subsidies to industries that don’t add value.

His use of “middle class” is problematic, as (like most Americans) he seems unable to see past his own nose to choose his terms more carefully. He goes on to says “American liberals find high incomes more upsetting than poverty.” It’s a silly statement and  the problem is much deeper because – as a society – Americans have mostly agreed that “real” poverty doesn’t exist here except in a few isolated cases. Mentally disturbed homeless people come to mind but your typical Wal-Mart employee doesn’t. In the colloquial sense America only seems to have three economic classes: the homeless, the middle class, and now the 1%. Everyone, apparently, is the 99%. Meaning everyone is middle class. Every time anyone from Boehner to Obama speaks about the economy it’s about the middle class. Every tax cut, jobs bill, stimulus or trade bills are all either for (or against) “the middle class.”

But this is by self-identification and something a professional policy wonk should see past. A professor and friend of mine once asked an American freshman class of 200+ students to raise their hand if they thought they were upper class. One or two people raised their hands. He asked who thought they were middle class. Everyone else rose their hand. Poor? Nobody. This despite the recent census showing that fully 15% of the population live in poverty.

Where Crook and I might agree is on the numbers. Who he calls the middle class I would probably call rich and would have quintile statistics behind me. I think we’re probably both talking about the top 10-20% of the country. The salient issue, for me, is that the discourse of “middle class” is even more problematic than his critique of obsessing over “the 1%”.

I think Crook is most wrong when he focuses on income taxes having gotten slightly more progressive and argues that the wealthy are paying their share. Instead of breaking out the charts, it’s self-evident to say that people’s income classes can be broken down into weather they make money from wages, salary, or from profit. The most pernicious effect of the Bush Tax Cuts was the reduction of capital gains taxes and other profit-earning taxes. As a high school teacher in Florida, I was paying something near 35% of my income in taxes*. Warren Buffett recently disclosed that he only paid 17.4% of his income in taxes.

Crooks insistence that “rich Americans contribute a greater share of taxes than do their peers in other industrialized nations” is rubbish. The issue today isn’t how progressive our taxation because we have a regressive tax system now that needs to be fixed. It’s like asking how best to redecorate the kitchen when all the doors of a new home are missing. In the meantime, the two biggest tax policies we should be pursuing is (a) getting the Buffett’s of the world to pay, at minimum, what other works are paying by looking at more than just their salaries, and (b) simplifying the tax code enough to make it both easier on everyone else and much, much more difficult to cheat on.

* state sales tax + federal income taxes on $33,000/yr. Like most lower middle class earners, I spent every dollar I made.

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Reflections on Satish Kumar’s “Holistic Education”

I watched a Satish Kumar lecture yesterday and walked away distinctly unimpressed. I’ll start with where we agree, move on to where I was repulsed, and then conclude with some lighter territory of where I just disagree.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: Satish Kumar

Satish Kumar

Where we would agree – and by we, I mean most education researchers and educationists – is that “education” is a bigger concept than just teaching, though it is often stripped to that essential characteristic. He discusses how the latin root of education is educare, which means to bring out. He then takes an (unacknowledged) page from Freire and slams the “banking” view of learning. OK, fair points so far.

People and institutions often lose sight of the bigger picture, sometimes even teaching gets reduced to schooling and focuses on all the institutional roles schools and universities play.  I was in a Philip Altbach seminar a few weeks ago and a faculty member noted that his entire analysis of the role of world-class “center” universities focused on their role as research producers – where did he think the role of teaching and learning fit in? Altbach replied that teaching was difficult to measure but that they were trying new metrics but was interrupted, with a bout of collective laughter, when the questioner repeated “teaching and learning.”

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