Friday, October 28, 2016

Not voting for Trump should be the most obvious political choice of your life

The majority of voters have devoted no time toward educating themselves in the relevant fields for determining what presidential policies are best. Nor do they seem to care much about the opinions of the experts in those fields. This is probably not much of a problem when you have to pick a side on an issue where experts are divided. But if your goal is to use the best information to form correct political opinions, the consensus of experts, when it exists, should be given a whole lot of weight. And to an extent that I didn't think would ever happen in a presidential election, experts across the political spectrum agree that Trump must not win.

On economics, not a single member of the Council of Economic Advisers supports Trump. Greg Mankiw, perhaps the most distinguished Republican economist and former CEA chair, said "I don't know any mainstream economist--right, left, or center--who has good things to say about the economic policy views of Donald Trump". Or just look for a survey of economists on any of the main ideas Trump has been pushing. For instance, a survey by the IGM Forum had 100% response of "disagree" or "strongly disagree" that his desire to raise tariffs would be a good idea.

On foreign policy, a survey of IR scholars found only 4% favored Trump in the general election. This is not a reflection of liberal bias - far more than 4% of those surveyed were Republican. And a similar survey just about the GOP candidates in the primary got only 1.66% favoring Trump. Here is an open letter from 50 GOP senior foreign policy officials against Trump. Not a single Republican Secretary of State supports Trump, and one of them has endorsed Clinton. When I wanted to learn more about how very conservative Republicans (the wonky type, not the culture warrior type) view foreign policy a while back, I read Bret Stephens. In this election he's supporting Clinton because, in his words, "it's important that Donald Trump ... be so decisively rebuked that ... the Republican voters learn their lesson that they cannot nominate a man so manifestly unqualified to be president in any way, shape, or form."

In politics and political commentary in general, no GOP President endorses Trump. The 2 most recent GOP presidential nominees publicly oppose him. Bush Sr is reportedly voting for Clinton. Of the 31 GOP governors in our country, 9 are publicly opposing Trump. Of the 54 GOP senators, 13 are officially opposing him. 3 former RNC chairmen are publicly against him. If you look up any conservative commentator who is more on the intellectual/wonky side, there's a good chance they are against Trump. David Frum. William Kristol. Josh Barro. Krauthammer. The National Review - "the Bible of American conservatism" - even devoted an issue to "Against Trump". George Will has gone so far as to even leave the Republican Party. Read how sad Avik Roy is about his party nominating Trump.

This clean break of the-people-who-actually-know-shit from the candidate of their own party is really staggering. Has it ever happened before? Will it ever happen again? If you actually care about reality, this should be a huge deal to you in how you decide to vote. If you're a Republican and this doesn't indicate to you that this time, your party's candidate isn't worth voting for, what ever will? What do you know that all the people who are actually knowledgeable in your own party do not?

There are so many things about Trump that I thought could never be true about a major party's nominee:
  • His rise in his party started with an absurd, racism-motivated conspiracy theory: birtherism. And he has a habit of promoting all sorts of conspiracy theories: that vaccines cause autism, global warming was invented by the Chinese, Ted Cruz's father was involved in killing JFK, Scalia was murdered, the BLS is lying about the unemployment rate, falls for and promotes hoax videos about a protester at his rally being a member of ISIS because "all I know is what's on the internet", etc. Imagine if the Democrats nominated someone whose main rise in their party came from being at the forefront of the 9/11 truther movement.
  • Lying is unfortunately par for the course with politicians. But with Trump it's at another level. What's worse, he seems like he truly believes the majority of his lies, which ties in very much with his knack for conspiracy theories.
  • In addition to being prone to conspiracy theories, believing in lies, and knowing nothing about the issues a President needs to act on, he doesn't even acknowledge that this is a problem and seek help from those who are knowledgeable. For instance, he says he knows more than the generals about ISIS. At the RNC convention he said "only I" can fix America. Who says that?
  • He encourages, and even promises to subsidize, violence from his supporters. When removing protesters from his crowd, he lamented that "nobody wants to hurt each other anymore." Then he tells his crowd that if they rough up a protester, he'll pay their legal fees. Later someone at his rally did punch a protester, told the media that "the next time we see him we may have to kill him", and when speaking of this later Trump said he was looking into paying that guy's legal fees. When a couple of Trump supporters attacked a Mexican homeless man because, in their words, "Trump is right", Trump wouldn't condemn them but instead would only say that his followers are "passionate" and "want this country to be great again". I never thought this could be the sort of thing that a presidential candidate says/does in an American election. Did you? And not only that, this is from the guy who went on to win his party's nomination.
  • He is bizarrely vindictive. He habitually sues people who say things about him he doesn't like. He stays up until 3 in the morning tweeting insults about people he believes have wronged him. What was his weird feud with Megyn Kelly about? And some of his actions have been scary with regard to how this plays out with freedom of the press. He didn't like his coverage by the Washington Post so he barred their reporters from his events. And then he said that, as retaliation, he would use his presidential power to go after Amazon (because it's owned by the same person as Washington Post). How is this something that a presidential candidate openly said?
  • He wants to be the "law and order" candidate, and the way that works with his lack of rationality/skepticism and inability to admit he was wrong could be very scary. For instance, when some teenagers, the "Central Park Five", were arrested as suspects for a rape, he bought full page ads in the papers demanding that they be put to death. Problem is, they turned out to be innocent. And despite proof to the contrary, Trump still maintains that they are guilty.
  • Some Republicans defend torturing terror suspects because they believe it will lead to valuable intel. Trump said that regardless of that, we should torture them simply because they deserve it.
  • While on the topic of war crimes, he has repeatedly said we should kill innocent people if they are family members of terrorists.
  • War crimes part 3: he has repeatedly said that he wants to invade countries to take their oil. Basically, what was a left-wing conspiracy theory about Bush's reason for the Iraqi War is Trump's publicly espoused position.
  • He has openly asked Russia to hack Clinton. Nixon had to resign because he tried to get others to illegally access information as oppo research on his political opponents. Trump publicly asks a foreign government to do this for him.
  • He has talked repeatedly about wanting to use nukes and that more countries should have them.
  • He wants to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants. Imagine how much harm that would do to a single one of those people, many of whom have been here for a long time. Consider also children who are legal citizens but their parents are undocumented. Then, accounting for scope neglect, multiply that harm by 11 million. That's an unimaginable amount of harm. And it would additionally harm the rest of us. Economists across the spectrum agree that immigration is good for our economy. Imagine all the businesses suddenly losing 11 million employees and customers. Why should we commit all this harm against ourselves and others? Because they broke a law that harms nobody? What if Trump wanted to jail everyone who broke the law by not buying health insurance? Or take away driver's licenses from anyone who speeds? If those examples sound like stupidly extreme punishments for such harmless law-breaking, then you understand why deporting 11 million people is awful.
  • He wants to ban people from entering the U.S. based on their religion.
  • He thinks a judge should be disqualified from presiding over a case of his if the judge's parents are Mexican.
  • He suggests that he'll reject the results of the election if he loses and jail his opponent if he wins. I thought candidates like that only existed in third world countries.
  • Small hands.
A lot of these go straight against what I always thought were unshakeable shared foundations of how our democracy works. How, after all this, could Trump have won his party's nomination and continue to have the support of most of his party's voters? And even within conservative tribalism, he has said many things that would be considered heresy for other GOP politicians. For instance, he criticized McCain for being captured, and it wasn't long ago that he said Clinton was a good senator, secretary of state, and would make a good president. Meanwhile, if another GOP politician so much as hugs Obama, that goes very badly for them with their voters. Why do all the usual rules that apply to all other politicians seem to just not apply to him?

During most of the GOP primaries, I thought there was no chance Trump would win. When someone like Paul Krugman suggested he would, I considered that a result of having a liberal-fantasy-land's strawman idea of what Republican voters are really like. I had more faith in the rationality and decency of the average conservative than that. But Trump won his party's nomination, and the majority of Republican voters still seem to support him. What am I supposed to think about the average Republican voter now?

The most important thing is for the sane Republicans to make sure Trump goes down in history as just a strange fluke, and that they go back to electing respectable candidates that don't threaten the basic norms of our democracy. But my big fear is that Trump making it this far, even if he loses big, has lowered the bar and created a new normal going forward, and the reason he gets away with so much of this stuff is because this is actually what a large portion of Republican voters prefer in a candidate. My optimistic side hopes that this is mainly just a symptom of some celebrity-worship blind spot in American culture that others won't be able to replicate in the future.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Trump and the 2nd amendment

If a politician says they want to expand criminal background checks for gun purchases, they will typically be fiercely opposed by the NRA and a strong segment of voters, who will accuse that person of wanting to "take our guns".

But... the NRA supports Trump, and Trump said the following about his version of stop-and-frisk which he wants to implement nation-wide:

"if (the police) see a person possibly with a gun or they think may have a gun, they will see the person and they’ll look and they’ll take the gun away"

Did he just misspeak? No, because not long after that, at the first debate, he re-iterated this. Why is this OK with the NRA and like-minded people, but expanded background checks are not? How would such a policy work with open carry laws?

One thing to note is that, when Trump says something like this, in the context of the conversation he is talking about black and Mexican people. Is that what makes it OK? Sometimes people try too hard to make things like this about race, but I honestly can't see what other difference there is. What am I missing?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Radical Islam"

Why doesn't Obama blame terrorism on "radical Islam"? The same reason Bush didn't: the recommendation of the CIA. Here's an explanation on Vox from a retired CIA officer.

I wonder why some people think it's so important to say that despite the advice of the CIA? What do people think it will accomplish?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Some reasons I don't like Bernie

The world is really complicated, and therefore, figuring out the best government policies is very difficult. Emphasizing simplistic ideological purity, to the point of applying one idea to all problems and ignoring the knowledge of people who actually study each problem, is a bad way to approach the world's complexities. I mostly think, in the U.S., the left has been doing a better job at avoiding the mindset than the right. But the popularity of Bernie Sanders doesn't look good in that regard.

I watched his last debate (and he's debating again now), and pretty much any attack he makes on Hillary is essentially about ideological purity - very similar to Tea Party attacks on "RINOs" that liberals previously mocked. And his own logic for whether to support something seems to always go like this: "Is this on the side of 'corporate America'? If yes, I'm against it. If no, I'm for it." Should I expect that question will work really well as a substitute for what actually matters: the net effect on the quality of people's lives?

One of the worst ways this plays out is his stance on trade. He, like Trump, opposes free trade and doesn't want American workers to have to compete with poor foreign workers. For one thing, support for free trade, and understanding how it is a net benefit to America, is one of the most commonly used checks on a person's understanding of economics. And besides that, we are seeing a rapid rise from poverty in the developing world in the countries that have been able to tap into globalization the most. The absolute poverty in the developing world is far worse than the "stagnating middle class" that Sanders wants to protect here. What Sanders essentially wants to do is block one of the most proven routes out of absolute poverty by forcing us to buy more expensive products from comparatively wealthy Americans. That is redistribution upward, from the poor to the wealthy in the world, and would increase overall inequality. But I suppose it's worth increasing poverty and inequality as long as we're opposing "corporate America" while doing so.

The same problem applies to immigration. Although he wants to treat immigrants who are already here nicely, he's actually anti-immigration in other ways, similar to his opposition to free trade. He has voted against immigration reform and explained that he does not want to allow more immigrants because they'll lower our wages and take our jobs. It takes a false, zero-sum view of economics to think that is true as its net effect, but suppose we give Sanders the benefit of the doubt here. The poverty of the immigrant that he imagines in these scenarios is worse than being a "stagnating middle class American" who he is trying to protect. Using immigration quotas to prevent poor people from earning a living for themselves here is again redistributing income upward, both increasing poverty and inequality (unless you don't count foreigners as people). But as Sanders has said, "open borders is a Koch brothers proposal", and using government force to increase poverty/inequality is just the price you have to pay to keep your ideological purity of opposing rich Americans I suppose.

Even though free trade and immigration are overall beneficial to our economic growth and toward reducing poverty and inequality, it is true that some Americans can be worse off. If Sanders wants only those exact Americans to be in his circle of empathy, there's a much easier way to help their incomes without shrinking our economy and forcing foreigners into crushing poverty. Just propose redistributing more income through wage subsidies!

Instead he wants to do redistribution through policies that sound terrible to me, such as "free" college (this gets at the main reason I think that's really wasteful), and a $15 minimum wage. Maybe a $15 minimum wage would work in a high-wage part of the country. But that is above the median wage in some of our states. How would it not be disastrous to tell a whole state "it is now illegal to pay anyone the amount that the majority of you are currently getting paid"? How can I understand his support for that other than as ignoring the complications of real life when they are inconvenient?

You know how liberals (rightly) attack the GOP for ignoring what experts such as climatologists have to say? Is it now OK to completely ignore economics? Because Bernie, for many more reasons beyond the issues I already mentioned, just ignores mainstream economics and chooses to believe what is convenient for his ideology. On Twitter I mostly follow economists and musicians - it's funny how whenever Bernie is mentioned, it's always negatively by the former group and positively by the latter. For example, past Democratic CEA chairs have openly criticized him for undermining the Democratic Party's reputation on evidence-based economics. You should laugh at Ron Paul when he talks about the gold standard because the overwhelming consensus of economists laughs at that. But be consistent. Bernie chose an MMT economic adviser, which is kind of like the left-wing version of that. Etc.

Does Bernie seem like a sincere, principled person? Sure. But that's hardly enough to make someone a good president. What matters most is the actual effects of what you do. If you make the world a worse place, I don't care if you did so sincerely, or if you didn't take money from super PACs, or whatever.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Brain dump on gun control, and why I'm skeptical of it

I've long been uninterested and agnostic on gun control. I'm not sure why it generally hasn't interested me, since I like politics. But I was agnostic largely because I had the impression that studies on it were really inconclusive. Then a couple months ago, the two widely covered shootings ramped up the issue. Obama even said inability to pass new gun control laws has been his "biggest frustration". This awesome NY Daily News cover happened. And I got a small burst of interest in the topic, looked into it a bit, but have ended up mostly where I started. Here's a brain dump on what I learned and what my thoughts are. If I feel like digging into gun control again in the future, this will help me pick up where I left off. Or maybe this will prompt a discussion that will help clarify some things for me.

Common misconceptions about gun violence

"Violence is getting so much worse!"

In reality, the U.S. and the world has seen declining violence, both over the course of history and our lives. Here's gun violence over the past several years in the U.S., from the Pew Research Center:

Gun Violence Has Declined Since '90s

Yep, gun homicides are down by half since 1993.

It is true, however, that homicide is unusually high in the U.S. compared to other developed nations. Check here for the numbers.

"But mass shootings are increasing, and that's what's most important!"

I don't know how to determine if that's true because there's not a clear line between "mass shooting" and regular shooting. Depending on where you draw that line, you can get very different results. Read this. Regardless, mass shootings are a very small share of all shootings. We should want to stop shootings because being murdered is bad. Five separate single-person murders are worse than one four-person murder. Giving all our attention to the latter case is a misleading distraction, and maybe a dangerous one. There's some reason to believe that our extra attention is part of what inspires deranged people to commit those shootings in the first place.

"All this gun violence is really about mental illness"

This seems like a wishful-thinking argument that attracts people on both sides of the gun debate. Some on the right would like this to be true because it means guns aren't the problem. Some on the left would like this to be the case because it's nice to believe all the world's problems will go away if we just provide more care to those in need. But... "only 3%-5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most do not involve guns." -- source

Common Facebook-level pro-gun arguments

"We need our guns to defend against the government."

We have, by far, the largest and most funded military in the world. If for some reason I need to take up arms against the government, that will be why I will fail, not because of more stringent background checks or more limits on what types of guns are legal. Strangely, most people who use this argument also want to increase our military, which keeps me from taking this very seriously.

"Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

I don't even know what this means. "Nukes don't kill people; people kill people." Does anyone ever say that? Why not?

"Criminals don't follow laws, so laws restricting guns won't reduce gun availability for the bad guys."

A simple counter-example is grenades. It's not legal for us to buy grenades, for the good reason that we don't want it to be very easy for a person to kill a whole lot of people. And yet we don't see many criminals using grenades to commit mass murder. In recent mass shootings, where the attacker wanted to kill many people, they tend to use legally-acquired weapons. Making something illegal usually reduces its occurrence... otherwise I'm not sure there'd be any point to having laws.

However, the counter-counter-example is alcohol and drugs. Clearly, a restrictive government policy of a high-demand product (like the Prohibition) can create black markets, which can make the law ineffective as well as create even more problems (like better funded criminal organizations). So I do think this has to be in the "potential cons" list when considering any proposed gun law.

"The only person that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

This is the idea that less murders would happen if more people had guns, because potential victims could defend themselves. This is a hard thing to judge because I don't think there are good numbers on how many murders are prevented because the would-be victim had a gun.

One starting point is the number of "justifiable homicides" each year, since the FBI keeps track of that. A "justifiable homicide" is when one person kills another, but is cleared from wrong-doing because it was in self-defense. That looks to be ~275 per year on average.

On the other hand, a good guy with a gun can also cause gun accidents. The CDC gathers data on gun accidents per year, and in the most recent year I saw, the numbers were 505 deaths and 33,636 injuries.

Another potential downside to good-guys-with-guns is escalating a crime. For example, an armed robber who only intends to rob a person without harming them may shoot the victim once realizing that the victim has a gun. I have no idea how to get an idea for how common this happens though.

So we have some positives and negatives to good-guys-with-guns. Surely many crimes are prevented by the bad guy's knowledge or just suspicion that the would-be victim is armed, so the number of crimes prevented by good-guys-with-guns has to be much more than just the number of "justifiable homicides". But I don't know how we'd get a very good idea of how big of a factor this is beyond that. Maybe it's enough to offset the negatives, or maybe not.

And if you want a funny take on this, here is a Daily Show correspondent who went through a simulated shooting to see how well he'd be able to stop the killer.

The Evidence

So if you want to know what affect gun control actually has in the real world, it's probably best to look at empirical studies done on... gun control in the real world (actual academic studies, not "studies" from political groups with a pre-determined agenda). It turns out that most studies focus on gun ownership rates. They are a simple way to measure the size of the change from a gun control law. And most gun control arguments largely boil down to the idea that making it harder to get a gun would reduce gun deaths; if that's true you'd expect to find a correlation between gun ownership and gun violence.


I started by looking at the studies on the gun laws that passed in Australia after their mass shooting in 1996, because that's what I've always heard about as the most drastic change in gun policy, and presumably that means its effects on gun violence should be easiest to detect. It did lead to a significant decrease in gun ownership (30%!), and a lot of research has been done on its effects on gun violence.

Here is the most recent study, which also gives an overview of previous studies. Its methodologies do not find a statistically significant change in homicide or suicide rates from the law. And here is the study most commonly cited that does suggest the law reduce homicide and suicide (it finds the reduction on suicide is much bigger/clearer than the reduction on homicide).

I'm not smart or knowledgeable enough to judge which of those are better. And from what I can tell, researchers themselves are fairly split on it as well (otherwise I would just go with the consensus of the experts). I have gotten the impression though that there's a bit more agreement that the evidence gives good reason to think it reduced suicide by a decent amount.

I'll go with the average of the expert opinions here and take this as evidence for a small positive effect from the gun control law in Australia on homicide. It's worth noting that the divide between the researchers/studies are between "good" and "neutral" effects; nobody is seriously looking at the evidence and finding that Australia's gun control made violent crime worse.

The U.S.

From a first glance at the U.S. compared to other developed nations, gun ownership and homicide look clearly correlated. The U.S. has more homicide than similar countries and way higher rates of gun ownership:

But from a first glance at states within the U.S., you see a small negative correlation; states with more guns have less murder:

Of course, since crime rates are influenced by a wide combination of things, this divergence shouldn't be too strange as long as you accept that gun ownership is just one small variable of many. So what do empirical studies in the U.S., which try to isolate the variable of gun ownership, say? From what I can tell, they are pretty mixed, and a quick overview can be seen here. That linked paper also talks about common problems with gun studies, and claims that the studies that do a better job at avoiding those problems are less likely to find a statistically significant correlation between gun ownership and gun violence.

But at Slate Star Codex there's a really interesting dive into one study that looks to be particularly good, which works out a framework for predicting homicide that works when run in different ways, and does find a (small!) correlation between gun ownership and homicide. And it's far more interesting than anything I can write about this, so you should probably just stop wasting your time here and read that instead.

Things I worry about

All the above makes me lean toward believing that less guns would mean a little less murder, while still mostly being agnostic. But there are things that make me worry that trying to legislate/enforce our way there would backfire...

1. Trying to pass gun control can increase the number of guns.

Whenever there is even the perception that new gun control laws are likely to pass, gun purchases go up. So if politicians try and fail to pass new gun laws, they have caused the opposite of what they hoped. And even if they succeed, the increased purchases may be more than the decrease that the law brings into effect.

2. The U.S. may be more prone to a black market if restrictions get too tight.

Australian gun control measures did not produce a big black market with all the problems that can bring, like we currently have with drugs. But Australia passed their laws with widespread public support, as well as with a previous gun ownership rate of only 7% (compared to 32% here). Clearly, any change in America would have less widespread support, and guns are a much deeper part of our culture.

3. The U.S. already has too many guns to make any difference without a drastic change.

Consider the difference in gun ownership between the U.S. and Canada (getting the numbers from which I already linked earlier). The U.S. has 4 times as many guns per capita as Canada. But our gun ownership rates are not nearly so different: 32% here and 26% in Canada. This must be because Americans who own guns tend to own many guns. The ease of access to a gun has more to do with ownership rates, not guns per capita. But gun control measures will tend to be working on guns per capita, and in the U.S. you could greatly reduce the guns per capita with basically no effect on ownership rates.

4. Gun control would take effort that'd be better spent elsewhere.

Even if, despite all these problems, gun control would be overall good, there's a good case that it'd be only a tiny bit of good relative to the effort and likelihood to make meaningful change. There's a theoretical list of all the things our government could do differently, and they should be fought for in an order prioritized by amount-of-good times likelihood-of-happening. Even if gun control is on that list, maybe the effort spent on it is keeping people from working on something higher up that list.

5. Enforcing stricter gun control laws could increase tension between the police and African American communities, and thereby increase crime

As touched on by the slatestarcodex link I provided earlier, the main reason for high homicide rates in the U.S., relative to other developed countries, is cultural. In particular, African Americans account for a disproportionately high amount of the violent crime. I believe in Steven Pinker's explanation of violence as explained in The Better Angels of our Nature. In the case of this topic, the applicable part of his ideas are that violence within a community is correlated with distrust of those who have a "monopoly on force" (the police). We have a particularly bad history in our country between the police and African Americans, and this explains the higher violence. It's easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle there where that higher violence brings a harsher police presence, which maintains the distrust of police, and so on.

If that is the case, then the most important thing to do is to rebuild trust, although that's not quick and easy. Arguably the biggest thing we can do toward that end is reduce unnecessary conflict with police by reducing the number of things the police should enforce. This is why I think ending the war on drugs would go a long way toward reducing violent crime. But if there were a very big effort to enforce much more restrictive gun laws, you can expect it to be enforced much more harshly in poor minority communities.

6. How much value should freedom be given?

Earlier I linked to the CDC's numbers of accidental deaths by different causes. You know what had far more deaths than accidental shootings? There were 3,391 deaths by accidental drownings. Suppose we can reduce those with "swimming pool control" laws. Should we? Or would you feel like that's an encroachment on people's liberties that wouldn't be worth the lives saved?

What could make up my mind?

Gun suicides kill twice as many people in the U.S. as gun homicides, so arguably this should be the focus when trying to determine the effect of gun control laws. And my impression is that there's a stronger link between the two in the evidence, but I haven't looked into it as much. So this is a point currently in favor of gun control, but I'm really not sure what sort of value to place on that relative to other things. Learning or thinking more about this could change my mind on the issue.

On homicide as well, learning more about evidence on that could definitely change my mind either way since I've barely scratched the surface. But I'm too bored to go on, and not optimistic about what value I'd get out of further digging.

Or maybe future evidence with better information that doesn't yet exist will clear everything up. Speaking of which... for political reasons the CDC has not been doing gun violence research for a long time. That's probably not helping.

There's also countless possible ideas that could be called a "gun control law" that this general overview doesn't address. Surely some would be good and some would not. I just don't know which is which, nor am I familiar with all the different types of gun control that have been proposed. Maybe looking at more specific proposals will sound convincing to me and not be prone to the concerns I have. Or maybe not.

The end.