Saturday, April 7, 2018

Discussion on Net Neutrality


A few months ago the FCC controversially overturned some Obama-era regulations on so-called “net neutrality.”  I have mixed feelings about the process through which that the decision was made, but ultimately, I’m skeptical those regulations were necessary.  This puts me at odds with most of my generation, particularly on Reddit or Facebook or other places tech-savvy and left-leaning young people like to congregate.  Below is a truncated excerpt of a discussion I had with one of my friends on the subject several months ago, which I’d forgotten to post until now.


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Based on what I’ve read so far, there are five major arguments in favor of keeping these regulations:


1.     Without net neutrality, ISPs could censor or throttle web content for political reasons, which would give them undo influence over American political discourse.  Alternatively, they could censor morally subjective content (like porn or P2P streaming) in a meddlesome and undesirable way.



2.     Without net neutrality, ISPs could censor or throttle web content that threatens their business interests (like their competitors’ content, or that of their competitors of their partner companies, etc.) which would inhibit progress and hurt consumers.


3.     Both 1 and 2 have happened before.  Contrary to what the right is saying, this is not “a solution in search of a problem” because there are documented historical examples of ISPs censoring and throttling certain content before Obama’s Net Neutrality rules went into effect.



4.     The typical market solution to these problems – competition – is not currently possible due to the de facto ISP monopoly that exists in most parts of the U.S.



5.     Whether or not mandatory net neutrality is a good idea, the way in which Trump’s FCC has gone about repealing it has been shady and deceitful, feeding fears of excessive corporate influence on American politics.  Pai is a former Verizon lobbyist who’s basically in bed with the companies who will benefit, and has made clear he has no regard for public opinion on the matter.



I’ll play devil’s advocate on those five arguments first, before concluding with some qualms about regulation generally.



1.      “Without net neutrality, ISPs could censor or throttle web content for political reasons”


First, there are strong arguments that ISPs are allowed to do this already, even with net neutrality regulations in place. Here are some links explaining why.



Second, when has that ever happened?  None of the examples cited by that famous Imgur screenshot pertain to political blocking, and I don’t see any intuitive reason it would be in Comcast or Verizon’s business interests to engage in that sort of censorship.  These aren’t Chick-fil-A type companies that are politically active on social issues, and they don’t much care which ideas you encounter on the internet.  All they care about is how much data you’re consuming and how much that costs them.

Third, ISPs aren’t the only internet corporations capable of blocking content.  Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yahoo – ironically the most passionate advocates of net neutrality – already censor content they don’t like every single day.  Why should I trust ISPs with this power less than I trust Google or Facebook, and why should I be particularly concerned about this problem now if it’s already happening?



2.     Without net neutrality, ISPs could censor or throttle web content that threatens their business interests.


This is a good argument, and the one that most concerns me.  I can totally see Comcast throttling Netflix (unless you’re willing to pay more) in order to push their own shitty substitute products at cheaper prices. Regional monopoly makes this inescapable for many consumers.  That’s inconvenient for my generation of data-guzzlers, who currently benefit from one-size-fits-all pricing models.  I can see why you’re upset about it, and might even be better for me personally were net neutrality to remain in place.



The trouble is, I’m not sure the status quo is fair to people who don’t use the internet the same way I use it.  My grandma just needs to check her email, talk to Alexa and write Happy Birthday on her grandchildren’s wall.  If Verizon were allowed to offer a package for the only three websites she knows how to use, her internet costs would plummet and her standard of living would improve.  What moral principle makes that wrong?

Meanwhile, Netflix alone consumes 37% of US bandwidth during peak hours.  Why shouldn’t it (and its users) pay proportionally more for that?  I'm not offended at the thought that people (like me) who use 10x or 100x as much data as the average user might have to pay more than average. The argument that a given speed of data delivery can only cost one price, no matter how much you use it or how often, seems arbitrary and unreasonable.



In a way this reminds me of the debate over Obamacare’s individual mandate.  Some demographics are statistically certain to incur much higher healthcare costs than others.  The individual mandate’s central theory is that in order to keep healthcare affordable for these people, we need young and healthy people to buy insurance to help subsidize the costs for the old and sickly.  Same thing with data: some websites (and the people who frequent those websites) use way, way more than data than others.  Intentionally or not, preventing ISPs from charging differential rates for those sites has the effect of forcing those using tiny amounts of data to subsidize the costs of those using massive amounts of data.

I’ve opposed this argument fiercely when it comes to ObamaCare, since government has no right to coerce people into group payment schemes for whatever it subjectively deems a “public good”.  And surely, high speed Netflix access is much less of a moral imperative than universal healthcare access, so the moral argument behind forced subsidization is even weaker.  Price discrimination makes markets more efficient and reduces overall costs in lots of other markets, from air travel to sports tickets on StubHub.  Why shouldn’t ISPs be able to make some websites cheaper than others in like fashion?  If they abuse it and consumers lose, the next administration can always reimplement the rules anyway.  It hasn’t been a noticeable problem yet, though, so I’d rather let them innovate and experiment and see how it goes before inviting federal involvement.



3.     Both 1 and 2 have happened before.



Responding again to this screenshot, recall that the Open Internet Order Chairman Pai wants to repeal only went into effect in 2015.  Each of the cited examples of why we need net neutrality occurred before that time.  On several of the examples, the FCC was able to put a stop to the behavior even without the OIO; on the others, the conduct either incited enough consumer backlash to enact change privately, or didn’t really hurt anybody and went by unnoticed.  Is bringing the internet back to the way it was in 2014 really that scary a proposition?  Didn’t it develop just fine for decades without the FCC claiming Title II legal authority over it?



4.     The typical market solution to these problems – competition – is not currently possible due to the de facto ISP monopoly that exists in most parts of the U.S.



I certainly share this concern.  ISPs do have a monopoly in many regions and that’s antithetical to the free market I support.  These monopolies are always the result of TOO MANY government regulations on public utilities, and the ideal solution is to remove barriers to market entry by deregulating those fields.  Nevertheless, I recognize that’s not likely to happen soon, and in the mean time we need to deal with the market as it actually exists. 

Thankfully, I think there are alternative means of acquiring internet access on the way which may be sending landline ISPs the way of the dinosaur.  5G mobile service is almost here, and once it is, rumor has it tethering from phones will reach similar speeds as landline ISPs, even for video streaming.  There’s plenty of competition among mobile service providers which hopefully will liberate people from relying on entrenched cable providers.

In any case, this point is reliant upon #1 and #2 actually being problems in the first place, which I think my rebuttals above show are not so scary as portrayed.



5.     Whether or not mandatory net neutrality is a good idea, the way in which Trump’s FCC has gone about repealing it has been shady and deceitful, feeding fears of excessive corporate influence on American politics.  Pai is a former Verizon lobbyist who’s basically in bed with the companies who will benefit, and has made clear he has no regard for public opinion on the matter.



Frankly, I don’t care about public opinion here either.  Net neutrality is a very complicated issue which even college grads like us struggle to understand.  Outside a narrow echo-chamber of hyperventilating Redditors, the public are by and large oblivious to this issue, or else terribly confused by it – just like they are on Bitcoin or health insurance markets or Federal Reserve Banking or lots of other stuff our government tries to regulate.  We don’t have a direct democracy and I think that’s a good thing. Ultimately ISPs are private companies, and what they do with their property shouldn’t be up to majority vote.



As for the corporate donors, I think “legal bribes” is a bit cynical, since there’s little evidence those donations changed how the receiving politicians would have otherwise voted anyway.  Republicans have opposed most federal regulations for decades, long before net neutrality was on anybody’s radar.  Are lobbyists really “bribing” these congressmen to switch their votes – or just donating to whichever politicians were already advocating their preferred policies? Are congressmen unscrupulously selling their votes to the highest bidder – or determining their principles first, and then accepting money from whomever would benefit from those principles’ enactment?  Surely pro-neutrality companies like Google and Netflix are also donating to politicians on the democratic side, but neutrality advocates don’t see this as “bribery” because they understand the ideological arguments motivating those donations.  Why is it different in reverse?


That said, I certainly agree big corporations are far too “in bed” with regulators and congressmen in general.  This problem is widespread in our government and not unique to the FCC.  But the only solution to that is to reduce regulation – to get money out of politics by getting politics out of money – and that leads me to the more general observations I’ll bring up in my next comment.



***



Ultimately, each of these arguments for net neutrality rely on a deep distrust of ISPs.  This is presumably because they’re enormous, faceless monopolies that care only about profit, and have proven unresponsive to consumer demands. I hate Comcast too, so in a way I understand that distrust.  But regulating net neutrality still doesn’t follow from that, for two big reasons:



1.     The loudest proponents of net neutrality – Netflix, Google/YouTube, etc. – are ALSO massive, profit-hungry corporations, seeking only to entrench their internet dominance by preventing the emergence of cheaper alternatives.  What’s more, these corporations have even greater power to censor content they don’t like, which they use every single day without protest.  So the distrust of corporations cuts both ways, and seems mighty selective on the part of net neutrality advocates.



2.     More importantly, the government is currently run by Donald Trump, which from my view means left-leaning people should trust its motives even less than they trust those of corporations.


There’s a tremendous doublethink here in the way net neutrality advocates simultaneously support the regulation and oppose the regulators with equal zeal.  At the moment,
they absolutely loathe the FCC – it’s difficult to overstate how intensely they hate it.  Articles lamenting how evil and corrupt Ajit Pai is make the front page of Reddit almost every day.  He and his family have received death threats, as have congressmen who support him.  And yet, what they’re angriest at him for is nothing more than attempting to voluntarily reduce his own power! Articles are accusing him of “killing the internet” and “ending the internet as we know it,” and their authors want to save the internet by…keeping him in charge of it?

I think these people are quite right to not like the FCC, because it’s a useless relic of 1930’s radio law which has long out-served its purpose.  All they do is censor tame cuss words on morning talk radio, put dumb stickers on rap CDs and go ballistic when a nipple appears on a Super Bowl halftime show – we’d be better off without them.  But the implication of believing the FCC is corrupt and incompetent is not to increase its power!



Regulation advocates often criticize my libertarian beliefs for being too idealistic and detached from reality.  “Maybe a free market works in theory,” they say, “but in practice, things get a lot messier.”  The point about monopoly is a good example of this: competition may punish companies who displease their consumers in a perfectly free market, but in a world where government restricts market entry, we can’t rely on competition to reign in Comcast’s abuses.

That’s fair enough, but it also works in reverse.  Just as markets designed for a state of nature have to deal with a governed world, regulations designed to be implemented by impartial and like-minded regulators have to reckon with the on-the-ground realities of regulatory capture and partisan changeover. 
“I support regulation enforced by selfless, nonpartisan, all-knowing regulators impervious to corporate elbow-rubbing” is not a credible position, because there exist no such people.  That’s what makes the left’s love/hate relationship with the FCC right now so incoherent.  Obama’s OIO granted the FCC ex ante regulation of the packages ISPs offer *on the presumption/hope* that they would use that power to protect consumers in a neutral way.  If it turns out the FCC is prone to takeover by Verizon sellouts – as you each now allege – that presumption was unfounded, and the debate over the regulation’s desirability needs to take that into account.

I don’t want these people anywhere near the internet and you shouldn’t either.
  When SOPA and PIPA were proposed a few years back, Reddit and Wikipedia and Google all joined together to prevent the US federal government from seizing control over the internet in any way.  The common refrain was that the internet was not broken and didn’t need fixing, so if you could all just back the hell away from it and let it be, that’d be great.  I still think that – what changed?



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My friend had this to say in rebuttal:



1. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, etc. are in favor of NN because they think their users are in favor of it (which they are). They don't actually care one bit either way. If NN dies, they've got enough money to ensure their traffic is never slowed. Money that startups and newcomers don't. If it doesn't die, hey look at that, they save a few hundred million dollars. They're still going to crush newcomers a myriad of other ways (hopefully on merit of their technology...).

2. You make a good point - the current administration can't be trusted to tell you the time. It doesn't inspire much faith that his team would be the ones that would handle NN violations. But (a) he's not always going to be in charge and (b) at least there should be more visibility into his (mis-)handlings of NN cases than say what goes on in an underground bunker at Comcast HQ. I also seem to recall part of Pai's proposal (at least a few months ago) was to revoke Title II classification in such a way that the FCC/congress wouldn't be able to change their mind in the future... I'll need to find a source on this though. I'm also not sure if it's part of the current proposal.

There's also the bit about the FTC commissioner explaining that they are unprepared to take over the FCC's job:
https://www.theregister.co.uk/.../dont_rely_on_us_to.../.



Side note - the FCC is not entirely useless (though yes their censorship is nonsense). The fact that your microwave oven doesn't zap Grandma's pacemaker or close your garage door on your dog randomly is not a coincidence. It's also not an example of corporate altruism by device manufacturers. Given the choice, plenty of companies would import cheap Chinese chips that spew RF. Similar to how you can pretty much guarantee non-UL listed power supplies will burn your house down (although of course UL is not a gov't agency): profit >> safety.

Regarding SOPA and PIPA - they're entirely unrelated nonsense by the RIAA & friends that would have given us the joys of DNS blocking and deep packet inspection. Essentially our own "Great Firewall of China". DNS is like a phone book, and DNS blocking is like someone redacting entries from your phone book with a Sharpie. Now let the people doing the redacting be any company that *claims* some of the phone numbers infringe on their property, and you've got SOPA and PIPA. Just because we didn't want them doesn't mean we never wanted any Internet related bills.



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My response: Fair point on SOPA and PIPA.  The rest I’ll quibble with.

Regarding #1, I think that’s a na├»ve and hypocritical perspective on what motivates major tech corporations.  There are “a few hundred million dollars” on the line for Google, Amazon and Netflix, about which they supposedly “don’t actually care one bit either way” – whereas Comcast and Verizon can’t be trusted without net neutrality rules, or else they’ll surely abuse throttling and censorship power to squeeze every last dime out of their customers?  Either corporations lobby and operate strategically in order to maximize their profit, or they don’t.



As for #2, “I know the current rule enforcers suck, but better people might enforce them in better ways in the future” is not a compelling argument for state force.  I personally don’t trust Democrats any more than the Republicans, but even if you think there’s a night and day difference, the idea that FCC appointees can be reasonably expected to alternate between good and evil for the foreseeable future is not comforting.



Finally, what role does the FCC have in regulating microwave safety?  I think you’re wrong to believe that safety and profit are contrasting incentives without government regulation generally and I’m happy to debate that (you beat me to it by mentioning UL), but unless the FCC has overstepped their bounds much further than I previously appreciated, microwaves are not a communications product subject to their purview anyway?

Progress, or Premonition? Trump’s Cabinet Shakeup Raises the Stakes of North Korean Negotiations


(This article was originally published by Realist Review, a publication of the Johns Hopkins University chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society, advancing realism and restraint in US Foreign Policy.  Check it out here.)



President Trump jolted the Korean standoff with a slew of rapid and unexpected changes last month, in one of the busiest weeks for US-North Korean relations in decades. Initially, the developments seemed to continue the momentum towards de-escalation begun by the PyeongChang Olympic games, and may yet present an exciting opportunity for lasting peace. But beneath the surface, Trump’s new choice of advisors could signal a more ominous change in mindset should diplomatic obstacles persist, raising the stakes of negotiations already shrouded in uncertainty.


The chaos began on the evening of March 8th, when a South Korean envoy to Washington made a startling announcement from the White House driveway: President Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  Initially, this seemed a departure from longstanding US policy that formal talks were not possible until after the rogue North Korean state dismantled its nuclear program.



The following day, however, the White House – while confirming the talks were being planned – seemingly denied any reversal of that precondition, insisting the meeting would happen after North Korea made “concrete steps” toward denuclearization.  And those steps appeared plausible later that weekend, when South Korean media reported that Kim Jong Un sought a “peace treaty” with the United States, including a permanent US Embassy in Pyongyang.  The reports were unverified, but enough to spur optimism that a breakthrough was imminent – briefly.



Less than 24 hours later, that optimism turned to confusion when Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via Twitter and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his replacement.  Widely seen as a foreign policy hawk, Pompeo made headlines last July for speaking fondly of the prospect of regime change in North Korea, and refusing to rule out preemptive military action to achieve it.  The change came two weeks after the surprise retirement of Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korean policy.  Like Tillerson, Yun was seen as an advocate for diplomacy over military might.



The whirlwind continued on March 15th, when CNN and the Washington Post reported National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster would also be fired, and replaced by former UN Ambassador John Bolton.  The administration initially denied the reports, only to prove them correct by making the move official one week later. A dramatic, standoffish, and ultra-hawkish relic of the Bush Administration with a history of pressuring intelligence officials to misstate evidence, Bolton has forcefully and repeatedly argued the United States should bomb North Korea preemptively; his response to the close of the so-called “Peace Olympics” was to pen a February 28th editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”



How to make sense of all this?  Is Trump pining for war, or giving negotiations a chance?  Is North Korea serious about ending the armistice, or buying time to develop its nuclear research in secret?  Will they ever de-nuke on terms the US finds acceptable?  Or will hastily conceived and poorly planned negotiations end in failure?  If the talks fail, what happens next?  Will the talks even happen – and if so, where, when, and on what conditions?



Broadly speaking, the situation has three possible outcomes:



1.     Fruitful talks are held, and both sides make progress towards peace. 



Such progress could take a variety of forms, with some more preferable to American interests than others.  Ideally, Kim Jong-Un would forfeit his nuclear ambitions in exchange for a peace treaty ending the armistice and normalizing relations, the lifting of sanctions, and the cessation of peninsula-wide military training exercises.  If the US needs to sweeten the deal, it could offer to pay for North Korean denuclearization through a modified Megatons-to-Megawatts program, as well as to close some US military bases and reduce troop levels in South Korea (ideally without withdrawing troops from the peninsula entirely).  China could chip in by formally assuring North Korea of its protection.

Such a deal would enable North Korea to further its primary objective (regime survival) while finally winning a begrudging acceptance as a member of the international community, with corresponding opportunities for economic growth and improved standard of living. The South would advance its primary objective (stable peace) without feeling endangered or abandoned by its longtime protector and ally. And the US would achieve its primary objective (preventing a nuclear North Korea) without having to start another disastrous foreign war, and without giving up its presence in the region altogether. All three sides could sell it as a win.

Alternatively, Trump’s desperation for a perceived win may lead him him to cave too much to North Korea – perhaps by withdrawing all US troops from the peninsula, as he threatened to do in the campaign, or by failing to insist on adequate UN oversight to guarantee complete and permanent denuclearization.  This is less than ideal for the US because it would abandon a crucial ally, cast doubt on American willingness to defend its other allies, and cede ground to China in a pivotal region – only to potentially watch North Korea break its promises and re-nuclearize sometime in the future.

More likely, though, is that no grand-deal will emerge from a single face-to-face summit. Outcome #1 is achieved so long as the talks produce sustainable momentum towards peace.  This is the best case-scenario for all sides.



2.     Fruitful talks prove impossible, so the conflict reverts to the status quo.



Unfortunately, there is good reason to be skeptical that these talks will occur at all, and even more reason to doubt they will be productive.  The first obstacles are the combined military training exercises – titled “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve” – which the US and South Korean militaries are planning in April.  These exercises have taken place on a regular semi-annual basis for decades, but North Korea portrays them as threatening provocations which justify its nuclear program; in recent years, it has responded with concurrent missile testing.  Just as the US formerly listed denuclearization as a precondition for talks, North Korea has demanded the end of these exercises – not to mention the removal of US troops from South Korea altogether – as its own precondition.  Yet after Trump’s surprise agreement to meet Kim Jong Un, administration officials clarified that the military exercises will continue as planned.

The White House apparently expects Kim Jong Un to respond to this spring’s exercise NOT with his customary show of force, but by taking meaningful steps in the opposite direction.  If that’s true – that North Korea essentially agreed to Western preconditions for talks, without imposing any of their own – it marks an incredible breakthrough in the standoff that could arguably become Trump’s flagship foreign policy accomplishment.  But to many, it seems too good to be true, particularly when coupled with the disjointed way in which the plans were announced, with North Korea’s silence on the matter, and with President Trump’s infamous flair for the dramatic at the expense of diplomatic caution.



Next there are the logistical difficulties of the talks themselves. Who will be present at these talks besides Trump and Kim Jong Un?  South Korea will likely want a seat at the table; will China be invited? Where will they meet?  Kim Jong Un has never left North Korea since assuming power in 2011; would Trump agree to meet in Pyongyang, or would he see that as an emasculating powerplay? What are the “concrete steps” Trump expects to see, and who verifies whether they’ve been taken?  None of this was settled beforehand, because Trump agreed to these talks suddenly, with minimal input from diplomatic advisors (Tillerson was in Africa at the time and was not consulted).  Publicly agreeing to things before the details of the agreement are established carries risk that those details will prove a bigger devil than initially foreseen.

A third obstacle is Trump’s looming threat to back out of the Iran nuclear deal signed by President Obama in 2015.  By most accounts Iran has abided by its end of the bargain so far.  But Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal, and in May – around the same time he hopes to talk to North Korea – he faces
a self-imposed decision point on whether to waive Iranian sanctions, or cancel the deal for good. And while the recently deposed Rex Tillerson had advised Trump to stay in the deal, new State Secretary nominee Mike Pompeo is a strident critic; the change may indicate Trump is leaning towards backing out.  If he does, it would decimate the US’s credibility to negotiate denuclearization with a North Korean regime already wary of American caprice in foreign affairs.

Fourth, China – Pyongyang’s only real ally – will surely take a keen interest in the negotiations. In light of this, Trump’s recent decision to
hit China with $50 billion in tariffs seems rather more antagonistic than may be productive.  Bloomberg reports that Kim Jong Un is secretly visiting China at this very moment.  If Chinese president Xi Jinping feels peeved at Trump or left out of the proceedings, he may hamstring North Korea’s deal-making flexibility with some conditions of his own.


Should these new obstacles prove surmountable, the traditional ones may remain stubborn.  The status quo has persisted in part because the countries involved prefer it to any alternative previously deemed feasible.  The DPRK wants survival, and thinks nothing can guarantee its survival as effectively as a nuclear deterrent; so, they’ve acquired one. South Korea wants peace, already has it, and feels no need to jeopardize it in pursuit of anything else; so, they haven’t.  The United States wants lots of things – security at home, regional influence, global soft power, financial solvency, the spread of democracy, and also the denuclearization of North Korea – but can’t risk all the former to achieve the latter; so, they haven’t. Simply discussing these issues may not change the underlying calculus of states in conflict.  The nations involved have not been able to negotiate a peace treaty for the past 65 years, and it isn’t clear what would make them better able to do so now.  



3.     Fruitful talks prove impossible – prompting Trump to do something rash.



With all of that in mind, it’s at least as likely that talks with North Korea prove futile as it is that they become an important step towards peace.  But there is also third, more worrisome interpretation of last month’s news: agreeing to talks with North Korea now might strengthen the pretense for war later.  The scenario could play out like this:


1.     Replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State makes it considerably more likely that the US backs out of the Iran deal. 



2.     Backing out of a negotiated denuclearization with Iran less than three years after the agreement was signed would damage the US's credibility to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea.



3.     If Trump fails to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea at the highly publicized talks he just agreed to, he will lose face in the media (and could potentially feel slighted by Kim Jong-Un’s lack of trust, and/or frustrated by talks "not working.”)



4.     If Trump loses face in the media from a highly public diplomatic failure, he may scramble to reframe that failure as proof he was right all along about North Korea only understanding force.  And when he does so, one can safely assume that new National Security Advisor John Bolton will be whispering in his ear that he needs to “look strong” in the face of North Korean intransigence, likely in the form of the preemptive strike Bolton is so fond of advocating.


If there’s one thing Trump both understands and cares about, it’s how his actions will be portrayed in the news.  Should talks break down, the idea of a military strike might grow on him for precisely that reason: it would convert criticism of his perceived failure into rapt 24/7 coverage of his decisive response. The “rally around the flag” affect is a powerful thing, and Trump likely remembers the boost in approval rating he received from the Syrian missile strikes. Impulsively starting a war for the attention of it may not be beneath him, particularly when Bolton gives him such a loud and passionate strategic excuse.



The trouble is, John Bolton is dangerously wrong, and the consequences of following his advice would be nothing short of catastrophic.  North Korea has the world’s fourth largest military, including thousands of hardened artillery pieces capable of firing ten-thousand rounds a minute.  30 million South Koreans live within range of those artillery pieces, including the entire greater Seoul metropolitan area.  A 2017 Congressional report estimated that if war began, the early days of the fighting alone could kill up to 300,000 people: roughly the entire civilian death toll of the Iraq War, in mere days, in a first-world allied country the United States has sworn to protect.  This is assuming North Korea does not use nuclear, chemical, nor biological weapons. 

As the body count rose, the global economy would tank, while the local economy became rubble.  A 2010 RAND report put the economic cost of a conventional war at up to
70 percent of South Korea’s GDP (to say nothing of the impact on Japan, nor the rest of a region responsible for nearly a fifth of global economic output).  And far from advancing US interests in the region, a preemptive military strike would ultimately devastate them.  From the ashes of its former-ally would arise a seething hatred of the reckless, uninvited American aggression that caused such an unthinkable humanitarian tragedy.  After 65 years of partnership, the US’s betrayed friends would rush to the outstretched arms of China, which would quickly re-posture itself as the champion of regional stability and peace – indeed, as the only responsible superpower left.  On both counts, they would be right.



Thankfully, all of that remains unlikely.  Trump has proven resistant to most hawkish proposals so far, and he may sour on Bolton as he did with his predecessors.  The US remains in the Iran deal for now, and the Senate has not yet confirmed Mike Pompeo as the next State Secretary.  Three weeks after Trump’s announcement, all signs point to these talks happening on schedule; they may well happen, and they may well be fruitful. There is room for optimism yet!  Just beware of the warning signs should the dominos start to fall.  Talks are promising in theory; but if they backfire, the consequences could be devastating.

The Atlantic was justfiied in firing Kevin Williamson for his abortion comments

Several factors influence the just and proportional punishment for a given crime, but one of the most important is the degree of social consensus that the act is morally wrong. Moral questions are complex, inherently subjective, and emotionally charged. People will always disagree about them passionately. But we disagree about some questions more than others, and civilized societies navigating that landscape in search of peaceful coexistence must tread lightly on the areas of greatest contention.
This is why Kevin Williamson’s repeated, unrepentant position that women who get abortions should be executed is beyond the pale, and why The Atlantic was right to fire him. It’s fine (though wrong, in my view) to believe that abortion is tantamount to murder. And it’s fine (though wrong, in my view) to believe that murderers should be sentenced to death. But it’s immature and unserious political philosophy to simply combine those claims in a vacuum, without facing the reality that half the country disagrees with each of them. It’s akin to animal rights activists endorsing the execution of hunters, on the grounds that they think hunting is murder. And if you object to that analogy because “hunting is murder” is a more radical and scarcely held view than “abortion is murder,” you’ve proven my point: one cannot determine the just punishment for a crime without reflection on what portion of society agrees it should be a crime in the first place.


Elevated discourse of the sort The Atlantic promotes is impossible without intellectual humility: the self-awareness to recognize when one’s fiercest convictions are not shared by others, and the tolerance to admit that’s a relevant factor in how to proceed. Both halves of our political spectrum are in dire need of that.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The best way to reduce gun violence is to legalize drugs

(Note: I took pains to substantiate each claim at the expense of brevity, so for those in a hurry, the boldfaced sentences provide a nice summary of my argument.  There is also a TL;DR at the bottom).


I always dread gun control week.  I partly dread it because it’s precipitated by the killing of innocent people, and of course that’s awful to hear about.  But unfortunately, mass killings of innocent people happen every day, and if we’re honest with ourselves, they aren’t typically enough to interrupt our lives for long.  For me, the more direct implication of these particular incidents of horrific violence is that my Facebook News Feed will be cluttered with angry people talking past one another. 

This bothers me for two reasons.  First, most of these are people I like, and it’s unpleasant when people you like start acting like dicks.  But moreso, it bothers me because I devote a considerable portion of my spare energies in life to advancing the public discourse on issues I care about.  When people talk past one another as inevitably as they do about guns, that hobby feels futile and ridiculous.  At the very least, it’s a sign the discourse needs some stewarding.

So far as I can tell, the reason my friends are talking past one another is that they’re talking about different problems, with different solutions, that they’re calling by the same name.  The so-called “epidemic of gun violence” in the United States is more like a composite of at least four separate problems: two big ones, and two tragic but sporadic distractions.  In a more sensible world, we’d try to solve these problems independently – one at a time, and in order of urgency – instead of pretending there were a quick fix for all four at once.  And if we were to do that, we’d find that the best way to achieve the largest and fastest reduction in overall gun violence is almost definitely to simply end the war on drugs, which hardly anyone talks about in this context.  If nothing else, I hope this post gets more people thinking of it in that way.
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Every year, about 35,000 Americans are killed by guns.  My argument proceeds from the assumption that the “best” way to reduce gun violence is whichever way most reduces how many of those people are killed by any means (the last three words are important, because morally speaking, it does us no good to reduce gun deaths if those previously shot dead are instead merely stabbed or beaten to death, etc.) 

I’ve chosen this measure for its simplicity and universality: people of all political persuasions should be able to agree that saving lives is morally important.  More subjective moral considerations – such as constitutionality, the impact on recreational shooting, the impact on one’s capacity for self-defense, the importance of self-defense from nonfatal threats, or the importance of reducing firearm injuries as well as deaths – are deliberately omitted from this measure, to prevent the aforementioned problem of “talking past one another.”  Were they included, however, it’s worth noting that my case becomes even stronger.

Simply framed, gun deaths occur when someone motivated to kill chooses a gun as their killing tool.  As such, there are three primary strategies for reducing gun deaths, under which most policy proposals can be categorized:

1.     Reduce the motivation to kill in the first place.

2.     Restrict the sorts of people who have access to guns.

3.     Restrict the sorts of guns people have access to.

The first strategy is rarely easy, and not always possible – but when it is possible, it is objectively best.  This is because it’s the only strategy without risk of a substitution effect. Removing certain types of guns from the hands of certain types of people leaves those people free to enact violence with any other weapon they can acquire, whereas eliminating the motive to commit violence in the first place solves the problem at its root.  Strategies two and three may still be worth pursuing until such time as strategy one proves effective, but strategy one is the only permanent fix.

If strategy one is not effective, strategy two is the next best thing.  A very large percentage of American gun violence is committed by a very small percentage of Americans.  If it’s possible to identify who those people are likely to be in advance, restricting their access to any guns at all would save more lives than merely restricting the types of guns those people have access to (if you doubt this, be patient, the data I present later on will prove it). So the strategies are listed in rough order of intuitive preference.

However, each strategy will be more or less effective depending on the type of shooting it’s intended to reduce.  When we break down that 35,000 figure according to the shooter’s motive and intended target, we see there are four primary types of gun violence:


1.     Suicide.  Of the 35,000 annual gun deaths, about 21,600 are suicides; 62% of the time, the shooter’s intended target is oneself.  The motivations for self-harm are complex, but they’re easy enough to distinguish from what motivates violence against others.

2.     “Discriminate homicide,” which is homicide targeting specific individuals other than oneself.  This kills at least 12,500 Americans a year, for 36% of gun deaths.  The particular motivations in this category vary (hatred, rivalry, jealousy, money, etc.)  and as such, you could break this down further into similarly-motivated sub-categories.  Gang violence, for instance, kills roughly 2,000 a year, almost entirely with guns*;  domestic violence kills roughly 1,000-1,200 a year with guns**; and the Washington Post counts about 1,000 police shootings a year.  Also included are shootings in the course of robbery or other crimes, as well as second-degree shootings, often after fights at bars or nightclubs. But what ties them all together under my banner of “discriminate homicide” is that the killer discriminates: he attempts to kill a chosen one or few, but not others.

3.     Unintentional shootings.  About 500 Americans are killed each year by guns that were fired accidentally.  These have no motive nor intended target at all.  They account for 1.4% of gun deaths.

4.     “Indiscriminate homicide,” in which the intended target is everyone (or everyone of a targeted demographic) that happens to be at a chosen place.  These are the killings that make the national news, and fill my Facebook News Feed with angry people talking past one another.  They are also the only sort of homicide likely to be enacted with so-called “assault weapons.”  They are essentially what the average person thinks of when they hear the term “mass shooting”: a Columbine-style incident where a deranged gunman goes on a rampage in a crowded public place with the intent to kill as many people as possible.***

The Washington Post has
meticulously catalogued these narrowly defined “mass shootings” all the way back to 1966, when it argues the first such shooting took place at the University of Texas. Over the 51 years which have followed, it counts 150 mass shootings total (about 3 per year) having killed a total of 1,077 people (about 21 per year).  In fairness, these shootings have become slightly more common in recent years, as might be expected with the increase in population.  Over the eight years from 2010 to 2017, the Post counts 42 such incidents (5 per year), killing a total of 424 people (53 per year).  The deadliest single year for mass shootings was last year (2017) with 117 dead, thanks mostly to the 59 killed in Las Vegas.  Even taking this record-high as the new normal, mass shootings account for just 0.3% of all gun deaths in our country.  That they so dominate the media coverage of America’s “gun violence epidemic” strikes me as part of why Americans are talking past one another.
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By combining the four types of gun violence (in order of prevalence) with the three primary strategies for reducing gun violence (in order of preference), we can create a nifty little strategy chart, wherein the upper-left-hand corner has the maximum potential for violence reduction, and the bottom-right-hand corner has the minimum potential for violence reduction.


Reduce motivations to kill
Restrict who can access guns
Restrict the sorts of guns available
Suicide – 21,600/yr
Worthwhile due to the sheer volume of suicides, but very difficult.  Depression has no easy legislative fix.
How to know who is suicidal? We don’t want to discourage depressed people from coming forward; restricting their legal rights contributes to mental health stigma. Besides, there’s likely a massive substitution effect.
Useless; any gun can be used for suicide, and even a complete ban would merely would spur a massive substitution effect with other means of killing oneself.
Discriminate Homicide – 12,500/yr
Bingo. Ending the War on Drugs is an easy policy change extremely likely to reduce several varieties of discriminate homicide (including gang violence, armed robberies, and police shootings) by considerable margins.
Mostly already done (Lautenberg Amendment, background checks, etc.). Closing loopholes is worthwhile, but the additional impact is likely marginal.
Most firearm murderers use handguns.  Gang violence is more likely to have unregistered/black-market guns anyway – criminals don’t turn their guns in.  Domestic violence can use any sort of firearm just as easily.
Accidents – 500/yr
No motive to reduce.
Mandatory training or storage laws might help a little, but it would restrict the rights of many to save a very small number (often from themselves).
Useless; all firearms equally likely to discharge accidentally.
Indiscriminate “Mass shootings” -    < 120/yr
Like depression, the mental health issues which cause deranged men to go on killing sprees have no easy legislative fix. Rarity makes impact tiny.
Mostly already done (Lautenberg Amendment, background checks, etc.). Closing loopholes is worthwhile, but the additional impact is likely marginal.
(The color of this block is what most Facebook gun control arguments revolve around. No matter who is right, indiscriminate mass shootings are such a tiny sliver of the overall problem, and “assault weapons” are so rarely used in crime, that even confiscating all of them with zero substitution effect would have minimal impact on overall gun death figures.)

As you can see, I’ve taken the liberty of filling in this chart, with my impression of each strategy’s effectiveness towards reducing that variety of gun violence.  Blocks colored red strike me as unlikely to work.  Blocks colored purple could plausibly work to some extent.  And the block colored green is extremely likely to work to a large extent. 

To expand on this, let’s look at each type of gun violence individually, like I said in the beginning:  one at a time, and in order of urgency.


1. The most urgent source of gun deaths is suicide.  The best way to reduce suicide is to combat the stigma of depression and encourage suffering people to seek mental help, but this is difficult to achieve through legislation. 

Suicide is tragic, but it is equally tragic no matter how it is committed, which means the relevant question is not “how do we reduce gun suicide?” but “how do we reduce suicide in general?”  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, and the most compelling answers involve deeper cultural changes than government policy can produce.

Strategy #2 (restricting depressed people from owning guns) is problematic for several reasons.  First, equality under the law means we cannot take away people’s constitutional rights unless it’s as punishment for a crime.  It’s plainly discriminatory to withhold legal rights from an entire class of people just because some tiny minority of them are stereotyped as violent and crazy.  That violates the 5th and 14th amendments as well as the 2nd (and although I said I’d omit constitutional considerations, this makes it practically difficult to enact such legislation even if you don’t care about the ethics of constitutional questions).

Second, a law which deprived gun ownership from anyone with a history of mental illness would exacerbate the problem of mentally ill people declining to seek help – especially in the South, and especially among veterans.  There are enormous swaths of this country in which gun ownership is seen as an indication of manhood – where owning a gun is right up there with driving a pickup truck, drinking beer or watching football as a culturally important social outlet for men to talk about.  Not coincidentally, it is often these same social circles of conservative southern men who most struggle with a) PTSD from combat experience, and b) stigma about appearing weak by expressing their emotions, making them both the MOST in need of mental health treatment and the LEAST likely to seek it out.  That is a toxic combination.  A world in which seeking help means forfeiting their guns and appearing even more feminine in their social circles would make it more toxic.  To the extent that suicide is a problem caused by both the availability of guns and the mental health crisis in this country, we need to ensure that the solutions we pursue to one problem do not worsen the other.

Restricting the types of guns available is even less likely to help, because any gun can be used for suicide just as easily.  Also consider that Japan and Korea have almost no guns at all, but much higher rates of suicide than the United States.  Perhaps mandatory waiting periods before the purchase of new guns might help reduce the lethality of impulsive suicide attempts, and I’m open to that idea; but, the impact would likely be marginal with such a steep substitution rate, making the incidental reduction in “gun violence” rather hollow.  The bottom line is that a country’s suicide rate is more closely linked to underlying cultural factors than it is to the tools available to those considering it.  Therefore, the most sensible approach to reducing gun violence through legislation is to set aside suicide as a distinct social phenomenon unrelated to guns, and focus instead on reducing the remaining 13,000 annual gun deaths.


2. This is where my four pages of prelude mercifully end and I finally dive into the heart of my thesis: the best way to reduce discriminate homicide is to end the war on drugs. We have excellent intuitive and empirical reason to believe that doing so would substantially reduce the number of homicides in our country.  Estimates as to the number of homicides which are drug-related range from 5-50% (with the best studies splitting the difference).  But ultimately, ending the drug war could reduce even those types of discriminate homicide not directly related to gang or drug violence, like robberies or police shootings, for at least three reasons.

First, legalizing drugs would defund organized crime.  Prohibition gives a monopoly to those willing to break the law by shielding them from competition and taxation. This inflates the price of drugs and sends lucrative profits to gangs and cartels – including the same Mexican drug cartels that have killed an estimated 166,000 people in drug related violence since 2006.  The Federal Office of National Drug Control Policy states that marijuana alone “now earns cartels about $8.5 billion, or about 61 percent of their annual estimated income of $13.8 billion.”  The New York Times reports that while “no one knows exactly how much money Mexican traffickers make…reasonable estimates find they pocket $30 billion every year selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users.”  These profits are used to fund activities far more sinister than drug use; the cartels are known to dabble in kidnapping, extortion, weapons smuggling, human trafficking and child sex slavery, and hired assassination. Legalizing drugs would divert money away from these thugs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product, which the same New York Times Op-Ed claims would inflict more financial damage than soldiers or drug agents have managed in years and substantially weaken cartels.”  Reductions in gun violence would very likely correspond, in both Mexico and the United States.

Second, legalizing drugs takes them off the black market, which opens up peaceful avenues for conflict resolution.  As mentioned above, at least 2,000 people a year are killed in American gang violence.  A substantial portion of these deaths result from bloody turf wars between rival drug distributors.  These killings are characteristic of black markets, because participants in such markets lack access to the court system as a means of resolving disputes.  If drugs were legalized, consumers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and the black market would turn into a white market with access to judicial recourse.  The business of neighborhood drug dealers would dry up, and so too would the disputes those dealers previously resolved through violence.

Thirdly, legalization would help rebuild America’s poorest families and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime.  When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional.  Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves.  An infuriating 46 percent of our federal prison populations consists of non-violent drug offenders, 54 percent of which are parents with minor children, while an astounding 70 percent of gang members grew up in single-mother homes.  You do the math.

Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities.  This is part of why four of ten released prisoners wind up back in jail within three years of their release. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. First, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground marijuana trade as a profitable option. And second, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration, and thereby increasing the legal employment alternatives of would-be convicts.


In summary, legalizing drugs would defund organized crime, eliminate dangerous black markets, prevent hundreds of thousands of arrests per year (which in turn reduces recidivism due to having a criminal record, reduces how many children grow up in broken households) and generally help America's poorest and most desperate communities become much less violent places. The overall reduction in gun violence would be tremendous.

Restricting who has access to firearms cannot hope to achieve the same degree of homicide reduction, in part because it’s already been tried.  The Lautenberg Amendment makes it illegal for those convicted of domestic violence charges to possess a gun.  Criminal background checks are already required for licensed firearm vendors in all 50 states, and even from private vendors in 19 states. Closing the so-called “gun-show loophole” in the 31 states where it exists is a reasonable proposal, as is adding temporary restrictions on gun purchases for those with restraining orders.  But in a nation with 300 million guns in the country already, preventing criminals from getting their hands on one is easier said than done.  Besides, this strategy overlaps with ending the war on drugs anyway, since the black market criminal underworld in which drugs are peddled is also the largest source for buying illegal and unregistered guns.  Shrinking that market would make it tougher to circumvent the existing background check process.

Likewise, strategy #3 does not make sense for discriminate homicide, because when discriminate homicide is carried out with a gun, it is usually a handgun.  Handguns are used in nine times as many murders as all other sorts of firearms combined.  However, they also make the lease sense to prohibit, because a) they are the least powerful sort of firearm, b) they are the most practical for legitimate defensive use, and c) they are the most commonly owned sort of firearm, as well as the easiest to conceal or hide, which makes mass confiscation essentially impossible.  Consider that Brazil has a homicide rate four times greater than ours, with less than 10% of our gun ownership rate, and you realize that the degree of confiscation necessary for this to be effective is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

3. Compared to the likeliest impact of legalizing drugs, the best ways to reduce accidental or indiscriminate shootings barely even matter.  Set aside for the moment how indiscriminate and accidental shootings are among the most difficult to prevent, and simply recall that all of these shootings combined account for less than 2% of American gun deaths, whereas discriminate homicide (committed overwhelmingly on black men, with handguns) accounts for 36%.  If your proposals for reducing gun violence are primarily geared towards reducing the 0.3% covered by the media, ask yourself why that is.  Are you really convinced those proposals would make a dent in the broader problems afflicting our country?  Or are you merely reacting to whatever frightening anecdotes our sensationalist media throws in front of your face?  Are you treating all lives with equal moral weight?  Or do you mostly care about keeping the issue out-of-sight, out-of-mind?

And more importantly, if you advocate gun control, but are NOT yet ready to join the rising majority of Americans who favor the legalization of marijuana (at least), ask yourself how much of your gun-control rhetoric ought to be thrown right back in your own face.  You blame the NRA for “clinging” to guns at the expense of human life; but when will YOU, clinging to prohibition for God knows what reason, let go of your own sacred cows?  How many innocent lives will it take for YOU to have a serious conversation about America’s drug war problem?  When will YOU say “enough is enough?”


TL;DR: American gun violence can be broken down into four broad categories: suicide, discriminate homicide, accidental shootings and indiscriminate shootings.  Suicide is a complex social phenomenon which cannot be easily reduced through legislation.  Accidental and indiscriminate shootings are an isolated phenomenon, which amount to a drop in the bucket of overall gun violence.  Therefore, efforts to reduce gun violence will be most effective if they focus on discriminate gun homicide.

The largest cause of discriminate gun homicide is gang violence, and the largest cause of gang violence is the black market for illicit substances created by the war on drugs.  Ending the war on drugs by legalizing these substances would cause that market to vanish, and the systemic violence associated with it to plummet.  Consequently, ending the war on drugs would reduce gun violence in our country to a greater extent than any other feasible proposal (and certainly to a greater extent than all proposals aimed at reducing the death toll from indiscriminate mass shootings combined).







Footnotes:

*According to the National Gang Center, gang violence killed roughly 2,000 a year from 2007-2012, which was 13-15% of the annual average murder rate over that time.  This is likely an understatement, since not all precincts track the total claimed by gang violence; over half of these deaths came from Chicago and Los Angeles alone, for example.

No breakdown was provided as to what portion of these gang-related homicides were committed with a gun; however, intuition suggests this portion would be considerably higher than the portion of domestic violence homicides committed by gun (which is 50-60%) since a) domestic violence victims are much likelier to be women than gang-violence victims, and thus more easily overpowered without firearms by male perpetrators, and b) by virtue of cohabitation, intimate partners are more vulnerable to short-range weapons than rival gang members.  An 80%-with-guns estimate makes 1,600 gun deaths a year from gang violence our low-ball estimate, which is 13 times more than the deadliest year ever for indiscriminate “mass shootings.”


**Everytown USA says more than 600 women per year are killed by an intimate partner with a gun.  This Associated Press study says “nearly 75% of the victims in domestic violence shootings are the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them.”  If both are correct, it would put the floor number of domestic violence shooting victims around 800.
However, this source puts the number slightly higher, saying that 2,000 are killed by domestic violence overall per year, of which “more than half” are killed with a gun.  If it were much more than half, they’d likely have said so (“more than 60%,” etc) because the source is arguing for a strong link between guns and domestic violence.  This, combined with the differing data above, leads me to suspect it’s not much more than half, so I’m estimating 1000-1200 a year.  If you have better data, please send it my way in the comments.


***Some media outlets and advocacy groups employ much broader definitions of the term “mass shooting, like “any shooting leaving four or more dead, including the shooter” or “any shooting with four or more shot, not including the shooter.”  I’m cynical of these broader definitions because they seemingly “conflate to inflate;” that is, they clump together a wide range of categorically different sorts of crimes under the same label, so as to create the impression that the indiscriminate, Columbine-style incidents so ingrained in national memory are much more common than they really are.  For example, according to the Huffington Post’s definition, 57% of “mass shootings” are domestic violence related, which runs contrary to the widespread perception of mass shootings as highly public incidents, and therefore contributes to the problem of “talking past one another” that I find so lamentable.

I opted for the term “indiscriminate homicide” to remove this ambiguity.  Cases where the shooter selects his targets at random in public places plainly constitute a distinct phenomenon from the sort of targeted homicide that happens every day. They warrant their own category.