Of all the stupid “wars”

The War on Drugs is probably the dumbest.  In my little opioid-inspired trip on Friday and Saturday, it was encouraging to hear from many in law enforcement that they recognized the ultimate fruitlessness of a “war on drugs” approach.  Even in rural North Carolina, many of the law enforcement professionals recognized the need for a far more holistic, community-oriented approach to drug addiction rather than a “lock up all the drug dealers” approach.

Naturally, Trump and Sessions, fully embrace the War on Drugs approach.  I really liked this NYT Op-Ed that makes a really interesting case for just how misguided this approach is:

Politicians often escalate drug war rhetoric to show voters that they are doing something. But it is rare to ignore generations of lessons as President Trump did earlier this month when he announced his support for the execution of drug traffickers.

This idea is insane. But the war on drugs has never made any sense to begin with.

Executing a few individual smugglers will do little to stop others because there is no high command of the international drug trade to target, no generals who can order a coordinated surrender of farmers, traffickers, money launderers, dealers or users. The drug trade is diffuse and can span thousands of miles from producer to consumer. People enter the drug economy for all sorts of reasons — poverty, greed, addiction — and because they believe they will get away with it. Most people do. The death penalty only hurts the small portion of people who are caught (often themselves minorities and low-level mules)…

Without the drug war, substances like cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth are minimally processed agricultural and chemical commodities that cost pennies per dose to manufacture. But lawmakers have invented a modern alchemy called drug prohibition, which transforms relatively worthless products into priceless commodities for which people are willing to kill or die…

An overreliance on intensive policing over the decades has also produced a rapid Darwinian evolution of the drug trade. The people we have typically captured tend to be the ones who are dumb enough to get caught. They may have violated operational security, bragged too much, lived conspicuous lifestyles or engaged in turf wars. The ones we usually miss tend to be the most innovative, adaptable and cunning. We have picked off their clumsy competition for them and opened up that lucrative economic trafficking space to the most efficient organizations. It is as though we have had a decades-long policy of selectively breeding supertraffickers and ensuring the “survival of the fittest.” [emphasis mine]

Of course the ultimate proof-in-the-pudding on how misguided our supply-side efforts on drugs have been can be seen in the ever declining street price of drugs.  I spent far too much time finding a chart on heroin prices up through 2016, but this was the best I could do via Wonkblog:

Meanwhile several additional google searches suggest the street price today is more like $200/gram.  So, just cracking down on heroin dealers basically gets us nowhere.

Drug addiction ruins lives.  But so does a horribly mis-guided “war on drugs.”  Let’s treat this like the public health problem it is, take a harm-reduction approach, and actually be smart about things.  On the bright side, at least many in local law enforcement seem to get this, even if our national “leaders” do not.

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Quick hits (part II)

1) Great Wired article on the inherent difficulties in self-driving cars and testing the technology:

Dozens of companies are developing autonomous driving technology in the United States. They all rely on human safety drivers as backups. The odd thing about that reliance is that it belies one of the key reasons so many people are working on this technology. We are good drivers when we’re vigilant. But we’re terrible at being vigilant. We get distracted and tired. We drink and do drugs. We kill 40,000 people on US roads every year and more than a million worldwide. Self-driving cars are supposed to fix that. But if we can’t be trusted to watch the road when we’re actually driving, how did anyone think we’d be good at it when the robot’s doing nearly all the work?

2) I’ve become quasi-obsessed with what seems to be the great new intellectual charlatan of our age, Jordan Peterson.  Loved this NY Review of Books take:

Such evidently eternal truths are not on offer anymore at a modern university; Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited. But Peterson, armed with his “maps of meaning” (the title of his previous book), has only contempt for his fellow academics who tend to emphasize the socially constructed and provisional nature of our perceptions. As with Jung, he presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom.

Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations…

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics.

3) As I was hearing about many lives being saved by Narcan (nalaxone) this weekend, I couldn’t help think about this study (that suggested it actually led to increased opioid use through moral hazard) that was a pretty much classic example of how to lie with statistics.

4) Chait on all the “but liberals should be attacking important problems rather than giving right-wingers ammunition on the illiberalism on campus issue”

Many columns have made the case that too many columns have made the case against political correctness on campus. That is not necessarily a bad thing. If people have intense feelings about the number of columns devoted to discussing free speech on campus, they should express them. The heart wants what the heart wants.

But complaints about the quantity of a discussion tend to devolve into non sequiturs. Many of the anti-anti-PC-niks, while conceding that it’s wrong to shout down speakers or close down newspapers, use the moral power of some other issue to make their case. Because we have too many anti-PC columns, they insist, we have too few columns on some worthier subject. “This is not to say that counter-protests and free speech debates aren’t important and don’t deserve our attention,” argues McClennen. “But it is stunning to note the public apathy toward the systematic defunding of higher ed — a move that affects all families regardless of political beliefs.” Uyehara complains bitterly that “The Free Speech Grifters” — her term for critics of illiberalism on campus — “were silent when Maya Wiley, the Social Justice SVP at the New School, made news for the humanity she showed toward Sam Nunberg during his six-hour media meltdown over an FBI subpoena.”

As a matter of fact, I was not silent about Maya Wiley’s extraordinary gesture toward Sam Nunberg. But imagine that Uyehara was factually correct, and I had failed to discuss that episode. What does one have to do with the other? If the real problem with anti-PC columns is that they ignore more important issues off campus, then doesn’t that criticism apply with equal force to anti-anti-PC columns?

The anti-anti-PC columns propose numerous psychological theories to explain the perverse motivation of the moderate liberals and (generally) anti-Trump conservatives who talk too much about the campus left. We have supposedly given aid and comfort to the far right, which has deftly exploited the excesses of the campus left.

My response is that the right is attempting to discredit liberalism by attaching it to the illiberal left, and the proper response, both morally and politically, is to separate the two. It’s obvious to me why conservatives want everybody who’s alienated by the callout culture to self-identify as a conservative. It’s less obvious to me why liberals should also want that. [emphasis mine]

5) Dave Leonhardt on how education should be an easy winning political issue.

6) The evidence for gender bias in student evaluations of college teaching is ever more clear.  Good case that we should therefore not use them in employment/tenure decisions.  Given the alternative of an entirely non-empirical way to assess teaching (still susceptible to gender bias), I suggest we put a lot more thought into finding the right way to do this.

7) The funding for K-12 education in Oklahoma is just a joke (many systems have moved to 4-day weeks to make the budgetary ends meet).  Yet, how many frustrated Oklahomans will actually reject the Republican party that has brought them this low-taxes-at-all costs educational disgrace?

8) Looks like human culture as we know it may have began well earlier than we thought:

When Rick Potts started digging at Olorgesailie, the now-dry basin of an ancient Kenyan lake, he figured that it would take three years to find everything there was to find. That was in 1985, and Potts is now leading his fourth decade of excavation. It’s a good thing he stayed. In recent years, his team has uncovered a series of unexpected finds, which suggest that human behavior and culture became incredibly sophisticated well before anyone suspected—almost at the very dawn of our species, Homo sapiens.

The team found obsidian tools that came from sources dozens of miles away—a sign of long-distance trade networks. They found lumps of black and red rock that had been processed to create pigments—a sign of symbolic thought and representation. They found carefully crafted stone tools that are indicative of the period known as the Middle Stone Age; that period was thought to have started around 280,000 years ago, but the Olorgesailie tools are between 305,000 and 320,000 years old.

Collectively, these finds speak to one of the most important questions in human evolution: When did anatomically modern people, with big brains and bipedal stances, become behaviorally modern, with symbolic art, advanced tools, and a culture that built on itself? Scientists used to believe that the latter milestone arrived well after the former, when our species migrated into Europe between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, and went through a “creative explosion” that produced the evocative cave art of Lascaux and Chauvet. But this conspicuously Eurocentric idea has been overturned by a wealth of evidence showing a much earlier origin for modern human behavior—in Africa, the continent of our birth.

The new discoveries at Olorgesailie push things back even further. They suggest that many of our most important qualities—long-term planning, long-distance exploration, large social networks, symbolic representation, and innovative technology—were already in place 20,000 to 40,000 years earlier than believed. That coincides with the age of the earliest known human fossils, recently found elsewhere in Africa. “What we’re seeing in Olorgesailie is right at the root of Homo sapiens,” Potts says. “It seems that this package of cognitive and social behaviors were there from the outset.”

Quick hits (part I)

Sorry to be late again.  I was on a fact-finding mission (sort of) to Wilmington, NC about the Opioid crisis.  Here’s a “bindle” of heroin (that’s paper it’s wrapped) I actually held in my hands.  It’s a bad photo because I had to make sure none of the evidence-identifying info was in it.

Anyway, on to it, then…

1) There was a lot of scientifically illiterate coverage of astronaut Scott Kelly’s DNA this is a nice article on the reality (and some nice explanations of how DNA change actually works):

What the nasa study found was that some of Scott’s genes changed their expression while he was in space, and 7 percent of those genes didn’t return to their preflight states months after he came back. If 7 percent of Scott’s genetic code changed, as some of the stories suggested, he’d come back an entirely different species.

The misinterpretation of the study’s results spread like wildfire this week, across publications like CNN, USA Today, TimePeople, and HuffPost. Even Scott Kelly himself was fooled. “What? My DNA changed by 7 percent! Who knew? I just learned about it in this article,” he tweeted earlier this week, linking to a Newsweekarticle.“This could be good news! I no longer have to call @ShuttleCDRKelly my identical twin brother anymore.”

2) This teenager got an Op-Ed in the NYT about not joining the gun walk-outs.  Well-written, but teaching firearm safety ain’t going to stop school shootings.

3) Yeah, of course the DNC email hack was actually done by a Russian Intelligence Officer.

4) Interesting and disturbing research on terrorism and sex stereotypes:

How does the threat of terrorism affect evaluations of female (vs. male) political leaders, and do these effects vary by the politician’s partisanship? Using two national surveys, we document a propensity for the U.S. public to prefer male Republican leadership the most in times of security threat, and female Democratic leadership the least. We theorize a causal process by which terrorist threat influences the effect of stereotypes on candidate evaluations conditional on politician partisanship. We test this framework with an original experiment:a nationally representative sample was presented with a mock election that varied the threat context and the gender and partisanship of the candidates. We find that masculine stereotypes have a negative influence on both male and female Democratic candidates in good times (thus reaffirming the primacy of party stereotypes), but only on the female Democratic candidate when terror threat is primed. Republican candidates—both male and female—are unaffected by masculine stereotypes, regardless of the threat environment.

5) This is a great interview that hits at basically everything you need to know about food and nutrition and takes on many misconceptions.  That said, it really all comes down to Michael Pollan’s aphorism… Eat (minimally-processed) food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.

6) Meanwhile, a great story about how The Joy of Cooking took on some very misleading food science research.

7) This Onion headline is so me, “Accidentally Closing Browser Window With 23 Tabs Open Presents Rare Chance At New Life.”  Except in my case, I’m desperate to recover all the open tabs.

8) More really interesting PS research in the latest PRQ.  And why, sadly, it’s not enough to even ask women to run for office more (which we do need to do more than ever):

Gender differences in who gets recruited by political party elites contribute to women’s underrepresentation on the ballot, but recent evidence suggests that even when women are recruited to the same extent as men, they are still less likely to be interested in seeking office. Why do men and women respond differently to invitations to seek office? We hypothesize that women view party recruitment as a weaker signal of informal support than men do. We use a survey experiment on a sample of 3,640 elected municipal officeholders—themselves prospective recruits for higher office—to test this. We find that female respondents generally believe party leaders will provide female recruits less strategic and financial support than male recruits. In other words, even when elites recruit women, women are skeptical that party leaders will use their political and social capital on their behalf. This difference may account for many women’s lukewarm responses to recruitment.  [emphasis mine]

9) Really liked this from a widow friend, “‘Stay Strong,’ And Other Useless Drivel We Tell The Grieving.”

10) Drum on Facebook:

In a sense, though, I don’t blame either Facebook or Zuckerberg for any of this. As a country, we’ve made it crystal clear that we don’t care about personal privacy. We mock European privacy directives. We ignore the dozens of companies that do exactly the same thing as Facebook but have lower profiles. We allow credit reporting companies to collect anything they want with no oversight at all when they screw up and wreck someone’s life. On a personal level, we’re routinely willing to turn over every detail of our lives in return for a $1 iTunes coupon.

If we don’t like the idea of Facebook making our personal lives an open book to anyone, we can do something about it. The way to do that is to elect “politicians” who will write “laws” that regulate it. But Republicans don’t like regulations in general, and Democrats are queasy about regulating Silicon Valley since they get lots of money from there. As it happens, this is not one of my personal hot buttons,² but I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats could make some real inroads among older voters if they took a strong stand on this.

11) I still love March Madness but college basketball sure ain’t the same in the one-and-done era.  That said, the rule is terrific for the NBA and they have basically no incentive to get rid of it.  Short version: the signal to noise ratio of quality players coming straight of high school is not good.  That same signal to noise ratio after a single year of college is way better.  Why would the NBA give that up. There’s been no Kwame Brown’s since the one-and-done rule.  Here, Adam Silver basically admits as much after politically claiming it’s not actually working for the NBA:

In a press conference before the 2017 NBA Finals, Silver said the eligibility rule was “not working for anyone.”

“We think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play at an elite level before they come into the NBA,” Silver said. [emphasis mine] “On the other hand, I think the question for the league is in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger?”

That said, I’ve heard plenty of argument for the baseball model, but never for the hockey model.  I like it.

12) Loved this in the Atlantic on why guilt is good for your kids:

And guilt, by prompting us to think more deeply about our goodness, can encourage humans to atone for errors and fix relationships. Guilt, in other words, can help hold a cooperative species together. It is a kind of social glue.

Viewed in this light, guilt is an opportunity. Work by Tina Malti, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, suggests that guilt may compensate for an emotional deficiency. In a number of studies, Malti and others have shown that guilt and sympathy (and its close cousin empathy) may represent different pathways to cooperation and sharing. Some kids who are low in sympathy may make up for that shortfall by experiencing more guilt, which can rein in their nastier impulses. And vice versa: High sympathy can substitute for low guilt…

Proper guilting connects the dots between your child’s actions and an outcome—without suggesting anything is wrong or bad about her—and focuses on how best to repair the harm she’s caused. In one fell swoop it inspires both guilt and empathy, or what Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor at NYU known for his extensive work on empathy, has termed “empathy-based guilt.” Indeed, you may already be guilting your child (in a healthy way!) without realizing it. As in: “Look, your brother is crying because you just threw his Beanie Boo in the toilet.” Hopefully, the kid is moved to atone for her behavior, and a parent might help her think through how to do that.

 

More Pelosi

Great piece from Jon Bernstein:

Two things Democrats should know:

Congressional leaders are almost always unpopular. Pelosi isn’t unpopular because she’s a liberal, or from San Francisco, or even because of misogyny. She’s unpopular because she’s a congressional leader. As of last June, Pelosi was 20 percentage points underwater in favorability polling. So was Paul Ryan.

Both were targeted in ads by the other party in the recent Pennsylvania election. That’s just par for the course throughout U.S. history…

Besides, the anti-Pelosi message isn’t really about swing voters, who barely know who she is. It helps fire up partisan Republicans. And Republican-aligned media has no problem creating new demons for hard-core Republican voters to get fired up against.

Democrats in Congress who are impatient to move up or who simply believe the leadership has grown stale have a stronger case to make. All organizations eventually need change at the top. Even though Pelosi was an excellent speaker of the House and has been a first-rate minority leader, it’s clear that at 77 she no longer represents a long-term leadership option.

But neither is Steny Hoyer, and neither is next-in-line James Clyburn. It’s absolutely true that Democrats need to prepare for succession in the House, and I’ve criticized Pelosi for not doing so in the past. If there really is pressure to accelerate the process, that’s probably the source of it. The solution isn’t to push her out, however. It’s to push Hoyer out, and probably Clyburn too. Then, House Democrats can have their big fight over their future leader without having to commit to someone untested right away, since they would only be choosing the second-ranked position — whip if they remain in the minority, or leader if they win a majority in November.

Now that is a sensible take.

 

And more partisan change

Nice chart from Patrick Egan showing this shift in education and partisanship over time.  And note, the huge drop in Democrats in both categories in the 70’s and 80’s in large part reflects realignment of the South away from the Democratic party.

 

Expertise matters

One of the really fun things about being a professor of Political Science is that I can talk about my job and a subject I totally love with just about anybody.  Of course, going back to graduate school, I know have 24+ years of it being my job to study American politics, so I really know what I’m talking about.  The downside of being a professor of Political Science is that anybody who watches 15 minutes of Fox News (or MSNBC) a day nonetheless thinks they are on equal footing.  They’re not.  Thus, I really love this Frank Bruni column inspired by Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy for NY governor:

You wouldn’t want to be operated on by a physician with only a few surgeries under his or her belt, and the assurance that this doctor brought a fresh perspective to anesthesia and incisions wouldn’t thrill you.

You would choose a pilot who had flown 999 flights over one with nine, and you would want your child’s teacher to be practiced with pupils, not merely a vessel of great enthusiasm.

So why the romance with candidates who have never done a stitch of government work before? …

Liberals complain a lot these days about how little regard many conservatives have for expertise, and that’s not only a fair point, it’s a vital one. In medicine, in social sciences, in economics and in so much else, rigorous training and painstakingly earned knowledge matter. They’re not badges of elitism. They’re proof of seriousness…

Shouldn’t experience count in politics, too? And doesn’t excitement about Winfrey for president or Nixon for governor have some relationship to disdain for professors who peddle inconvenient truths? Both responses elevate what’s ideologically and emotionally pleasing over what makes the most sense. Both degrade the importance of experience…

It’s as if I decided I wanted to be an actor,” Quinn told me. “I speak in public. I get my picture taken. I need to lose a little weight, but aside from that, why can’t I do this? Because I can’t. The years I might have spent developing skills in that area, I spent developing other skills.”

Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, said that the downgrading of experience and devaluing of expertise can be explained partly by the internet, which allows people to assemble their own preferred information and affords them the delusion of omniscience.

The narcissism of our era also comes into play, he said. Feelings have been accorded as much currency as facts. No one can claim more or better feelings than anybody else. And so Nixon’s empathy as a mother and frustration as a subway rider, to name two themes in her video, carry as much weight as a political veteran’s legislative wrangling and budget balancing.

“Americans have a tendency to look around and think, ‘We are all peers now,’” Nichols told me. “It sounds lovely. Except that when you’re up to your hips in water in the basement and you’ve got a plumber standing there, you hand the wrench to him and say, ‘O.K., maybe we’re not peers.’”

The mess of the Trump administration suggests where an insufficient respect for germane experience can lead. The president put Carson in charge of federal housing, Rex Tillerson in charge of diplomacy and Jared Kushner in charge of civilization itself. None of this panned out, but all of it was true to how Trump campaigned.

Ahhh, good stuff.  And, no I don’t know everything about politics, but I am experienced in the subject and that means something.  And all else being equal, we’re a heck of a lot better off with the people running our government actually having experience running government.

Second Amendment reality

Garrett Epps with far and away one of the better pieces I’ve read on the 2nd Amendment in a while.  Strongly asserts some important facts that are all too readily ignored in the current political debate and makes a strong case for a more sensible constitutional interpretation:

The courts have not, to date, interpreted the Second Amendment beyond the right of (in Stephens’s phrase) “owning a handgun for self-defense,” and, in fact, of owning that handgun in the home. “[W]e hold,” the Court wrote in Heller v. District of Columbia, “that [D.C.’s] ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.” Justice Scalia’s opinion set out careful limits:

Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

So throwing up our hands and proclaiming that we can’t move forward without a “constitutional fix” is a flawed response; so is responding to gun-control proposals with outlandish claims of constitutional protection. We have the Second Amendment; rather than engage in loose talk, we should look at its text carefully…

That contextual reading is quite enlightening; it strongly suggests to me that the main—indeed, almost exclusive—purpose of the amendment was, in fact, to protect the rights of states to maintain and arm militias. There’s certainly enough evidence to support an argument for some reference to personal possession—but noconvincing proof that personal possession was the main focus, or that personal possession was intended to be unqualified.

That reading makes sense in a larger context—that of the constitutional situation at the time of the Philadelphia Convention. Of all the changes the new Constitution made in the relations of state and nation, the new central government’s arrogation of power over the militia was the most radical single feature of the new system…

All told [under the Articles], the arms and the military power remained solidly in state hands, with the confederation government taking over only in the direst circumstances, and after humbly asking the states for permission.

In the Constitution of 1787, by contrast, the federal government would control virtually every aspect of war, peace, and military structure. The new Congress could declare war, raise an army, or both, by a bare majority and without consulting the states; Congress was in charge of training and arming the state militias, and could call the militia into service without state permission or even state consultation…

All told, the text lays out a stunning power grab. To much of the revolutionary generation, a standing army was the mortal enemy of freedom and self-government. Those ratifying the Constitution had vivid memories of red-clad professional soldiers—some speaking German—swarming ashore to enforce British tax laws, and then to try to crush the Revolution. Now a new government—without so much as saying “by your leave”—could create such a force at pleasure, and send it, and their own militias, to crush any state that did not obey federal ukase. That must have raised hackles from Lexington to Savannah…

That’s the context. To me it suggests that, in adopting what became the Second Amendment, members of Congress were attempting to reassure the states that they could retain their militias and that Congress could not disarm them. Maybe there was a subsidiary right to bear arms; but the militia is the main thing the Constitution revamped, and the militia is what the Amendment talks about.

I’ve devoted years of my life to studying such ideas as the “original understanding” or “original public meaning” of constitutional provisions. No matter what anyone tells you, no one (and I certainly include myself) can really know the single meaning of any part of the Constitution at the time it was adopted.

Anyone who claims that the text of the amendment is “plain” has a heavy burden to carry. The burden is even heavier if an advocate argues that the Second Amendment was understood to upend laws against concealed carry or dangerous weapons—both of which were in force in many parts of the country long after it was adopted.

Anyway, lots of good stuff in here.  And lots of good ammunition (sorry, couldn’t resist) should you ever get in a debate about the 2nd amendment.

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