Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Bad Statistics in the Gun Debate

I saw an article pop up on my Facebook recently, and I wanted to respond to some of the statistical manipulations that are being used. Gun control is a debate that ends up getting very heated, but a lot of the problem is the use of dishonest statistics and dishonest rhetoric that doesn't facilitate discussion, but rather makes people talk past each other. I'm going to attempt to respond to some of the ones that I found in the article.

Mistake 1: Talk about gun homicide, but not all homicide

The first mistake that I noticed was in their Myth #2 (also present in #7). In the fact check, they cite gun-homicide statistics. Okay, fine. Not really a surprise that more guns is connected to higher gun homicide and gun murder. The problem is that gun murders shouldn't be the specific concern, murders generally should be. While it is certainly true that gun homicides get rarer if guns are rarer, that does not imply that the overall rate of homicide will go down.

In Myth #7, they note that women in states with higher gun ownership are more likely to be murdered by a gun, but the straight comparison of murder rates is not presented. If they want to make the honest case for gun control, they would need to demonstrate that reduction in gun availability lowered the rate at which women were murdered overall. Removing guns would not help if all the people were stabbed to death instead of shot to death.

Mistake 2: Mass shootings stopped by good guys with guns...

In Myth #4, they talk about armed civilians stopping. Mass shootings that end before the third victim are not mass shootings, and so don't get counted. Basically, they are stating that once a shooting became a mass shooting, armed civilians didn't rush in to stop the shooter. Fine. But an armed civilian who stops a shooting before the shooter hits three people prevents it from counting as a mass shooting. 

Basically, the good armed civilian is in a no-win situation here. If they stop the shooter before they kill at least three people, then they didn't stop a mass shooting because there was no mass shooting. But if they let three people get hit then they didn't stop a mass shooting, they just ended it a little early. It is still a mass shooting. 

Mistake 3: Self defense with a gun = killing someone

This mistake spans two of the myths (#5 and #6). They talk about the rates of people using firearms for self-defense, but do it in only in terms of shooting people. The only self-defense uses that they count for these statistics are cases where the gun is fired. A gun doesn't need to be fired to be used in self defense. The exact numbers are murky, but the estimates of defensive uses of firearms would put them somewhere above the gun death rate overall.

When talking about the defensive use of firearms, it is very important not to assume that all defensive use ends with the death of the attacker, especially since (I would hope) that killing the attacker is not the primary goal. Eliminating the threat is the goal, whether this ends in the death of the assailant or not. If the attacker runs away, that is still mission accomplished.

Some of the points in the article are interesting food for thought, like myth #3 about an armed society being a polite society, and some points about the loopholes are interesting, and might merit some discussion. I can't trust that it is honestly presented though, since they aren't willing to present honest arguments about reducing violence generally (which has been trending down, as one of their sources notes). If they want to attempt to convince me that additional laws will help reduce violence, they need to show that violence on the whole will actually be reduced, not just gun-related violence.

Friday, September 18, 2015

We're All Anti-feminists Now

Feminists often say that feminism is just a movement for the social, political,  and economic equality for women in relation to men. They go by the 'dictionary definition' of feminism. With a quick Google, we get:
the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

Nothing groundbreaking there. The thing is that there are many different brands of feminism: radical, sex-positive, sex-negative, equity, intersectional, and a few others that I'm not familiar enough to talk about. The problem is that some of these brands of feminism are mutually exclusive (sex-positive vs sex-negative, for example). So what does Feminism really mean? Looking at these categories, it depends on who you ask.

Summary of some Feminisms (not an exhaustive list)
Radical Feminism: Gender is purely a social construct that should be abolished, and that men have been ruling over women through the patriarchal cultural norm. They tend to look poorly on trans individuals. They also tend to be somewhat sex-negative.

Sex-Positive: This feminism views sex as a generally good thing, and celebrates women's choices with respect to sex. They look favorably on sexual liberation. They try to reclaim terms like 'slut' to make them positive terms, rather than smears.

Sex-negative: This is mostly a secondary trait of the particular brand of feminism, and is usually paired with a Marxist view of men = oppressor, women = oppressed. They view sexual choices of women as shaped by the patriarchy so that some choices aren't really choices. Prostitution, pornography, and 'sexual liberation' are considered oppressive and damaging to women, even between consenting adults.

Equity: This is just the view that women and men should have equal legal rights. That's it. No other baggage that I'm aware of. If I have to pick a feminism, this is it for me.

Intersectional: This is a relatively new buzzword, but it is basically looking at the Venn Diagram of oppression and marveling at all the different ways that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy oppresses everyone except straight white males.

White: This is the label applied to upper middle class feminists by intersectional feminists for not looking at the oppression of non upper middle class white women.

So with all these different feminisms, what is anti-feminism? It doesn't have a nice dictionary definition like Feminism does, but the wiki article gives a decent working definition: An ideological opposition to feminism. The problem: which feminism? The thing is, there are a few mutually exclusive 'feminisms,' like the sex-positive vs sex-negative feminisms. To be one, you must be against the other. This is also illustrated later in the wiki, where some feminist writers are labeled as anti-feminist by other feminists. This means that the people labeling other feminists as anti-feminist are in fact opposed to that form of feminism.

What I take from this is that in order to be feminist, one must also be anti-feminist. To be in favor of one form of feminism is to be against other forms of feminism with which you disagree. This means that you are against feminism, and therefore anti-feminist. So even feminists are anti-feminists, and the term anti-feminist has no meaning.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

First Principles or Bust

So over the weekend, I got into a nice little... discussion with someone that had a very different view of the world that I do. They were a progressive, so most of our disagreement was about economics and the governmental involvement in education, and things like that. This is not particularly unusual. The problem was that we would approach historical events from different perspectives, which would, of course, change our analysis.

History is an important empirical test for theories of economics and other social sciences, but there are some insurmountable problems with the study of history. Mises pointed out that historical circumstances are always different from case to case, there are no fixed values (Human Action). Because there are no fixed parameters, it is impossible to parse the historical record perfectly. Instead, we have to approach from the other direction. We develop a theory and we look at history through that lens or 'understanding' as Mises terms it.

Some people might disagree that this is how history should be done, and that history needs to capture all of the relevant facts, and then form judgments from there. But what facts are relevant?  When we are choosing what facts to include in the analysis, we are using some theory already to decide if a fact might be useful. History is messy, which means that unraveling the true cause and effect is difficult. Discarding a fact you think is irrelevant might make deciphering the events impossible.

This means that we need a good way to determine what actions, events, and people are important before looking at the data. We have to have an a priori theory to give a proper understanding of history, rather than having a theory that twists in the wind and cannot bring insight to the facts of the present, or worse, a theory that can bring any insight to the present. A purely empirical theory will not know what data needs to be gathered and what data can be safely ignored.

So how do we get around this issue? All the data that we look at will be cherry picked to some extent, since we don't have the time to go through all of the facts of any specific event, and so the data we get will have a selection bias. I think the solution is as Mises presented in Human Action. We have to develop an a priori theory that can explain the phenomena that we are interested in, and then look at the data in that light. It is also important to understand that this theory has to be logically consistent, otherwise it is useless. No a priori theory will be completely falsifiable, since there will always be confounding factors to various degrees. Conflicted data with the theory would highlight these areas where additional explanation is required.

We need to make sure that we correctly select the axioms and starting points of the theories we end up using. It is extremely important that the first principles are solid, otherwise any theory will fall apart, or worse, be correct in some cases for all the wrong reasons.

The way I see it, historical theories can either be specific enough to be falsifiable, or general enough to be somewhat predictive. Some mix of the two, and specific parts of the theory can be falsifiable, but the overall structure will not be. As an example, we could say that in general, higher taxes will lower the growth of GDP (or something similar). Specific test of the theory will be if we raise taxes, the rate of growth of GDP might go up, which would mean that in this specific case, the theory didn't hold. But there are other confounding factors that would make that a bad conclusion, and we can't go back in time and try holding taxes at the same level.

I guess the main thing I'm trying to get at is that when it comes to history, it is impossible to get all the facts, and the facts you get have a selection bias. Therefore it is important to get the theory explicit and established beforehand so that others can challenge it directly. If people are operating with different theories, this needs to be discussed both before and after discussion of the historical facts.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Apathy is the Target

Something that bugs me about the identity politics and the debates around it is that the end goals of the movement are never really discussed. What are the ultimate goals of LGBT? Of #BlackLivesMatter? Of feminism? How are these ultimate goals articulated, and then how do we get there from here?

To me, apathy should be the final goal. Are you a woman? I don't care. Are you black? I don't care. Are you gay? I don't care. Some other identity? I don't care. That's not to say that people shouldn't care about those close to them, to a degree. An example would be if I'm trying to play matchmaker, knowing the sexual preferences of both matches is important, and shouldn't be ignored. In public life, however, it shouldn't matter. Someone I don't know and will probably never meet is gay? OMG STOP THE PRESSES! Actually, no, I just don't care, and neither should you.

One of the problems with current identity politics is that I think they loose sight of the goal. Instead of trying to make the identity of the class unimportant, they make it the ONLY important attribute. Arguments can hinge on whether the person making the argument is white, black, LGBT (and indeed which of the letters they identify with), man, or woman. The way I see it, the argument should not be based on the identity of the writer. We shouldn't care. If the argument is from personal experience, it may matter, but that is just an anecdote, so there is no way to evaluate it objectively anyway.

I think that a decent part of the population is getting to the apathy point. I would like to think that I'm more or less there. The problem for me is that social justice types tend to bring up these identity politics so that they can't be ignored. Why should I care more about the plight of women than men? Or blacks more than whites? Instead of trying to get people to care about other people, the social justice advocates will try to get us to care about blacks specifically, or women specifically, or gays, lesbians, bi, and trans. But not about people generally. Aren't blacks, women, LGBT people too? They aren't people any more or less than white men. In order to combat prejudice they end up espousing prejudice.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Only Diversity that Matters

The only diversity that matters is diversity of thought. For all the talk about diversity, it is always about the diversity of the superficial. Racial diversity and gender diversity rather than diversity of opinion and diversity of thought. This leads to the appearance of diversity without any actual diversity.

Sure, there is a case that people of different races have different perspectives on issues from their different background. Women probably experience life at least somewhat differently from men and vice versa (I would be very surprised if men and women experienced life in the exact same way). Blacks have different experience than whites, and so on. But that doesn't mean that having some black people in a group makes it diverse. You also need diverse opinions from the black community, as well as diverse opinions from every other community. No racial group has uniform ideas, and to think that you can capture the true diversity of humanity by checking racial boxes is naive.

Just as an illustration, if you take Thomas Sowell and Milton Freidmen (black and white), you will have less diversity of thought than if you had Milton Freidman and Bernie Sanders (white and white). Similarly, you have less diversity of thought if you had Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders (black and white) than if you had Jesse Jackson and Thomas Sowell (black and black). To have true diversity, you need to have people from all backgrounds of both race and politics, because that more fully captures the different perspectives of the issue.

It could be argued that because there are a minority of, say, conservative blacks, that this is a perspective that should not be included. But that looses the point about diversity. We should examine the perspectives of the unusual, because they are perspectives that the majority hasn't had the chance to examine. Just because the majority thinks something, doesn't make them right. In fact, we should give minority opinions extra examination, because we are most likely to suffer from confirmation bias in favor of the majority opinion.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Minimum Wage: Common Arguments

With Bernie Sanders so popular on my Facebook feed, the $15 dollar/hour minimum wage has been floating around a lot, and there are a lot of arguments that I think need to be addressed.

A good starting point to refute is the Salon article about the myths of the minimum wage

Myth 1: The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage. 
Liberal/Progressive Take: Everyone working a full time job should be able to support their family.

Okay, so I'm not going to argue intent of the policy. It may well have had the noble intention of having everyone living above the poverty line. Intentions, sadly, don't really matter. What matters is the effect of the policy and the means by which the policy is enacted. 

The problem with the argument about the minimum wage is the definition of 'living wage.' I have lived at $8/hour. It wasn't that bad. Adjusted for inflation, that is about $10/hour in today's dollars. In graduate school, my wage is officially ~$20/hour, but I only get paid for 20 hours/week. This would be full time at ~$10/hour. I have lived fairly well on that. One problem with having a single living wage across the nation is nonsensical. A living wage will be different in LA or NYC than it will be for some podunk town in the middle of nowhere. A national minimum wage would try to impose the living wage of NYC on a smaller town that has a lower cost of living.

Also, I often hear that a parent should be able to support their family on the minimum wage. This is a load of bull, with a very simple question. How big is the family? Should a single mom be able to support three kids? 4? 5? Where do we draw the line? What about a two parent household? Should they be able to support any number of kids on minimum wage? This notion of supporting a family is one that doesn't allow for the continuation of the logic. 

Myth 2: Minimum wage increase won't help anyone if other costs go up too
Liberal/Progressive Take: This won't make a difference in inflation because it will take people off other welfare programs, and will also stimulate the economy with additional spending.

This argument is basically that paying people more will take them off welfare, and allow them to get off food stamps and other welfare programs. The problem with this argument is that it is that it is also just as possible that because people on the welfare system know it so well that instead of earning more, they will try to cut back hours to stay on welfare because it is familiar. We can't be sure as to the response of people to this particular stimulus.

As to the argument about stimulating the economy, this is the standard broken window fallacy. The workers who are getting paid are spending more, sure. But you don't see the employees who were never hired and what they spend, or the other spending that the businesses would have made if they didn't have to pay workers the additional amount. 

Myth 3: An increase in the minimum wage is bad for employers
Liberal/Progressive Take: This will spur workers to be productive, and make business run more efficiently.

It will certainly spur employers to find ways to cut employees out. The way that wages actually rise is by individual workers becoming more productive on average. Raising the minimum wage will indeed force employers to do more with fewer workers, which goes against the progressive response to Myth 5. If we pay workers more, they have to work harder to compensate, or work with additional capital investments to make them more effective.

As to other arguments about paying more being a good business practice, that is something that individual business owners have to determine. For most industries, this is true, since according to the Salon piece, only 4.7% of workers are on minimum wage. This means that 95% of employers ALREADY KNOW that paying employees more is good for retention, and I think the reality is all employers know it, but they don't care about keeping the 4.7% that is on minimum wage, otherwise they would pay more. Duh.

Myth 4: $15 is a random number.
Liberal/Progressive Take: It is what is required to raise workers above the poverty line, while being feasible for businesses.

So that means if the poverty line changed, this number will change. So who defines the poverty line? Also, who determines what is feasible for businesses? The minimum wage would take the ability of employers to find what is feasible for them, if that number is below this proposed minimum. 

Myth 5: It will cost us jobs and raise unemployment
Liberal/Progressive Take: There is no evidence from analysis of 13 states, and these states had faster job growth.

This directly contradicts point 3. If workers become more productive, that means that you can do the same amount of work with fewer workers. Also, this is a causation is not equal to correlation. Just because these states had faster growth and increased the minimum wage, doesn't mean that they are directly related. These states may have grown even faster if the minimum wage was not raised. I would have to see a more careful analysis rather than the aggregation at the state level, and other confounding factors. 

Myth 6: Only teenagers and uneducated people work for the minimum wage.
Liberal/Progressive Take: 4.7% of the working population is at or below minimum wage, and 88% of those are above the age of 20, and 43% have attended college.

What kind of college education? There are many fields in the social sciences and humanities that don't really have economic value to most companies. Do they have value? Sure, but not to companies trying to serve consumers. So college education can be (though isn't always) irrelevant. Should I care about your dance major? Depends. Am I a dance company?

The 88% of people on minimum wage who are over the age of 20 don't have a whole lot of other opportunities. If they did, they would be working for more than minimum wage. But that is irrelevant. What is relevant is if we are then advocating for age discrimination? Should someone be entitled to higher pay just because they are older? I would say no. Why should it be okay to employ a highschooler at minimum wage, but not a 21 year old, or a 30 year old? To use another social justice bugbear, that would be unequal pay for equal work, and that is not right. So why are these 20 year old unable to do more complex jobs that pay better? Have they not learned on the job? Why should they be entitled to more just because they are older?

Myth 7: Seattle already has a minimum wage of $15 and it's terrible
Liberal/Progressive Take: Totally not terrible, and the $15 minimum hasn't been reached yet

This is hard to argue about since it is true, they haven't gotten the wage to $15/hour yet, because of a slow roll out. So we can't judge the effects. Also, the big companies with large profits that they cite, Starbucks and Howard Schultz, are not the companies that would be most affected. Those are companies that are operating marginally, and just scraping by. That what is meant by the marginal change. It is not going to change for companies that are doing well, but a company that is doing barely okay will not make it. 

Statesman vs Politician

There is a distinction that I think a lot of people miss in how a democratic government works. Most people combine evaluations of politicians as 'good' and 'bad' based on criteria which is not important to how they are selected. I make this distinction between statesmanship and politics.

Lets start with politics. I would consider a good politician someone who gets elected. The best politicians are the ones who get elected to the highest office as many times as allowed. Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, and Reagan were good politicians, Reagan was the best of those, from the electoral results. They all were elected to the highest office twice. My statement that these are all great politicians is usually challenged because people confuse 'politician' with 'statesman.'

A statesman is someone who is good at governance. These are the people who are able to make government function effectively. Good statesmen are NOT the same as good politicians. The key problem with the democratic process is that we want good statesman, but we select good politicians, and they are not the same. This is why things whether getting a beer with a candidate are political questions, even if they have nothing to do with making effective policy.