Gun Control: The Evidence

gunbizarreIn my piece on gun control in this week’s Nashville Scene, I observe that empirical evidence helps make the case for gun control. Space limitations prevented me from doing much on that point beyond mentioning the well-known fact that the U.S. is far more gun happy and far more gun-violent than other countries. So let me point more specifically here to three forms of evidence.

First, U.S. rates of gun violence vastly outpace those in other countries where firearms are more controlled and less ubiquitous. Here is a graphical view, showing that even as assault deaths in the U.S. per 100,000 population have dropped in recent decades, that rate remains far above that of essentially every OECD nation.

Second, a form of evidence I didn’t mention is the fact that over the last 30 years, the vast majority of mass shootings in the U.S. involved guns acquired legally, and most have involved precisely the kinds of weapons targeted by gun control legislation. The argument by gun rights types that the ten-year run of the 1994 so-called assault weapon ban proves the ineffectiveness of gun control is diminished by two facts: First, there is evidence that deaths from mass shootings were lower during the period the law was in effect. And second, the fact that the 1994 law was riddled with exceptions and loopholes (described in depth here) argues for better gun control, not against it. The gun lobby advocates strenuously for exceptions, and then argues afterwards that a ban can’t work because of all the exceptions? Please.

Third, sociologist Richard Florida shows that gun deaths are lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. This is illustrated in a map of the states that overlays firearm deaths above with gun control restrictions. He finds substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and assault weapons bans, trigger lock requirements, and safe storage mandates.

As with the bulk of research on gun regulation, the evidence I cite here speaks mainly to correlation not causation. Given other things that change in the demography of violence over time, the rarity of cleanly constructed gun control legislation, and the inevitable problem of interstate weapons flow, it is virtually impossible to either demonstrate or refute causation on this subject. What we have is pretty good correlational evidence from multiple angles that firearms regulation can matter and make a difference.

For a rather different take on gun regulation and control from any offered in the Scene‘s collection of essays, check out Nashvillian John Harkey’s analysis of firearms as a public health issue akin to tobacco. Harkey advocates for “a response comparable to the tobacco crisis identified two generations ago with the 1964 Surgeon General Report.” His argument is worth a look.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Lobbyists Schmobbyists

wineaisleWinner of this month’s award for the most annoying statement by a Tennessee lobbyist: Chip Christianson, vice president of legislative affairs for the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association, who had this to say in a Tennessean state legislature preview piece the other day on the matter of allowing wine sales in grocery stores:

“This is 100 percent pushed by the grocers. Polls, schmolls. There’s no groundswell of people trying to get this done.”

Multiple polls-schmolls have found that upwards of two-thirds of Tennesseans want this to happen, so Christianson’s view can be not-so-loosely translated as “up yours, consumers.” Look, I get it — the TWSRA represents liquor store owners, and the last thing they want to see is the competition and downward price pressure that will come with grocery store sales. (And there is empirical evidence that retail wine prices will drop with grocery store availability.)

It’s quite remarkable that a conservative state legislature continues to find it so difficult to make this happen. What principles are more bedrock conservative than letting the people have what they clearly want, by way of more rather than less market competition? House Speaker Beth Harwell sounds almost reasonable when she says “I believe it’s time for grocery stores to be allowed to sell wine — and I believe Tennesseans want that — but we want to do it in a way that creates an equal playing field for the mom-and-pop stores as well.” But where is her “equal playing field for mom-and-pop stores” vibe when big-box retailers are decimating the mom-and-pop economies of small towns and cities?

And by the way wine in grocery stores is hardly novel or adventurous. More than two-thirds of states allow this in one form or another, including such bastions of radical progressivism as Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, and North and South Carolina.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Supremes on Medicaid: “Loaded Gun”?

Although the insurance mandate gets most of the attention, many believe that it’s the Supreme Court outcome on Medicaid expansion within ACA that could have the longest lasting impact. Stanford professor Pamela Karlan wrote in last Sunday’s Times that the Roberts court ruling on Medicaid contributes to a neutering of federal power that should have liberals worrying big time:

For the first time since the New Deal, the court struck down an exercise of Congress’s spending power. It held that Congress lacked the power to deny Medicaid funds to states that refuse to expand their coverage. Chief Justice Roberts — joined by the liberal justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan — held that while the government can deny additional Medicaid funds to states that refuse to expand their coverage, it cannot penalize them by rescinding current Medicaid payments. This is a loaded gun indeed.

Prof. Karlan notes that this is just the latest in a string of rulings curbing federal power, with cases coming down the pike next term on voting rights, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and environmental affairs giving the Court opportunities to chip away further.

Without discounting Prof. Karlan’s conclusion that the trend at the Court gives “Americans who care about economic and social justice a reason to worry,” I do think after reading the Roberts opinion and the Ginsburg dissent carefully that she overstates a bit the ruling’s logic and argument on Medicaid (though granted, not the effect!). The Court held that the federal government can penalize states by rescinding current payments if the expansion is modest and incremental rather than radical. There is a fundamental difference of opinion between Roberts and Ginsburg over whether this particular expansion is modest or radical.  To use the language in their back and forth in their opinions, is it a difference in kind (Roberts) or degree (Ginsburg)?  Personally I’m inclined to side with Ginsburg and Sotomayor on this point, though it isn’t necessarily a simple or straightforward call.

It’s fascinating that this aspect of the case split the liberal wing of the Court — with Kagan and Breyer joining Roberts to find that it’s a difference in kind, not degree, and accordingly conclude that its overly coercive on the states. Perhaps they genuinely bought the Roberts formulation that the Medicaid expansion really is a difference in kind.  But I am guessing that  what tilted them might have been Roberts’ willingness to keep the ruling narrow — to say that the finding of undue coercion on the states invalidates only the threat to revoke all Medicaid funding to a state that rejects the new funding and conditions, but doesn’t (as the Scalia/Kennedy/Alito/Thomas cabal would have) invalidate the whole kit-n-kaboodle.  Of course, Ginsburg and Sotomayor expressly at the end of their dissent bought into that limiting principle regarding what gets invalidated, making it possible for that narrow effect to prevail (otherwise the whole thing would could have been tossed). The coalition dynamics on the Court were fascinating on the Medicaid issue, arguably moreso than on the mandate.

A conspiracy theorist might argue that Roberts sold his conservative brethren out on the mandate in order to buy Breyer and Kagan’s support on the Medicaid aspect, getting what he really wanted most of all — Prof. Karlan’s loaded gun: the potentially huge dent in federal spending power that some construe in the Medicaid outcome.  Hard to say, though, because these kinds of SCOTUS “turns” take a decade or two to really see in full.


SCt Aftermath: Cry Me a River of Indifference

This post appeared on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

It’s unremarkable that Republicans and assorted Obama haters reacted to the Supreme Court ruling on health care yesterday with a combination of despair and spitting anger. To give them some mild credit for civility, at least most who were disappointed by the outcome did manage to restrain themselves from their worst impulses, unlike the Indiana congressman who likened the ruling to 9/11 or the columnist who called it “the end of America as we know it.”

But it is remarkable that Republican leaders responsible for crafting and disseminating reactions seem wholly unable to understand what this issue is even about. An email blast Thursday afternoon from Tennessee GOP chair Chris Devaney articulated what we can take to be the official state party message on the ruling. The substantive elements of Devaney’s email are astounding in their blend of blatant disinformation on the one hand, and willful blindness to the social problems the health care bill is intended to address on the other. Let’s have a look.

Devaney: We have known since the day Obamacare was rammed through Congress at the final hour that the law was bad.

I gather “rammed through” is GOPspeak for “duly enacted by majorities in both houses of Congress.”

Devaney: We knew that this new law would add to the deficit, increase taxes, grow the national debt, and raise the cost of health care services.

It is well understood by those who have impartially scored the bill that net, it doesn’t add to deficits, doesn’t raise taxes for most people, won’t grow the debt since it doesn’t add to deficits, and slows the growth of health care delivery costs.

Devaney: For months we listened to President Obama try to convince the American people that his new law was not a tax. However, today the nation’s highest court called it just that, a tax.

Roberts’ opinion calls it “an exercising of Congress’ taxing power.” Obama did in some interviews seek to frame it as a penalty rather than a tax, but it’s not as though Roberts and the Court’s majority just pulled the idea that it looks like a tax out of thin air; the Obama administration briefed and argued this angle for all to see.

Devaney: While America faced a difficult recession, President Obama and Democrats passed a law with 21 tax increases costing more than $675 billion over the next 10 years.

We can argue over specific numbers (and I’m not sure where that specific one comes from) but it is fundamentally dishonest to sum up in the bill in terms of the costs of some of its provisions. Scoring the whole thing involves a complicated blend of costs and savings — too complicated for Mr. Devaney, obviously.

Devaney: So much for defending the middle class.

I have no idea what this means.

I’ll grant that wonky disputes over the numbers get tiresome. What’s truly disquieting about Devaney’s messaging is not things said about the numbers, but rather things left unsaid about the real issue involved: the staggering number of people in this country without health care. In fact, with the exception of a passing (and factually misleading) reference to the cost of health care services, there is nothing in the Tennessee GOP’s response to suggests anything beyond callous indifference to the plight of those who lives are deeply affected by the country’s ongoing health insurance nightmare.

The Congressional Budget Office, which does the scoring that Devaney so badly misreads, estimates in its most recent analysis that Obamacare (or should we skip the formalities and just call it KenyaCare, Chris?) will reduce the number of people without health insurance by more than 30 million, and will up the rate of insurance for legal nonelderly residents to 93 percent in ten years (from its present 82 percent).

That’s a shit lot of people who will no longer live with the insecurity of knowing that an unexpected catastrophic illness (as opposed to the expected kind?) could wipe them out. Not only does Devaney fail to mention any kind of alternative path to solving the problem of underinsurance — a social ill that we alone bear uniquely among advanced nations — he doesn’t acknowledge even minimally the existence of the problem.

For at least the last decade the Republican party at both the national and state levels has conveyed unambiguously through word and deed that it has no interest in public policy that would significantly reduce the number of uninsured people. Chairman Devaney’s vapid and callous response to the Supreme Court’s action yesterday shows depressingly that nothing whatsoever has changed.


Public and Private

Photo: RM Stringer (Creative Commons)

Times columnists Gail Collins and Paul Krugman both wrote op-ed pieces this week about the eagerness with which  politicians seem to lust after the idea of privatizing public services. The timing is no coincidence; their interest was clearly piqued by the paper’s recent investigative reporting on New Jersey’s dysfunctional system of privately run halfway houses for prison inmates. As Collins points out, the impulse to privatize is one that crosses the political aisle, though perhaps not in equal measures:

Politicians of both parties are privatization fans, although the Republicans are more so. Mitt Romney has flirted with the idea of privatizing veterans’ health care. He goes steady with the Medicare privatization forces and is believed to be secretly married to the folks who want to privatize public education through the use of vouchers.

Krugman zeroes in on the potential for corruption when (as in New Jersey) the private companies involved cultivate deep connections with the politicians who are supposed to be working for us, not them:

Never mind what privatization does or doesn’t do to state budgets; think instead of what it does for both the campaign coffers and the personal finances of politicians and their friends. As more and more government functions get privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises, in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business. Are the corporations capturing the politicians, or the politicians capturing the corporations?

Between the stresses on public officials balancing difficult budgets and the voices of the energetic anti-government right, the question of how and when to privatize has become one of the fundamental issues of the day at the intersection of business and public policy. And that gets me asking, as a b-school professor, how we tackle this subject in management education. The answer: for the most pretty frivolously.

Business curricula are so caught up in technical training rooted in the functional areas of the firm (finance, accounting, marketing, operations, human resources, and the like) that the attention paid to matters of policy that span the boundary between firms and governments are treated as an afterthought, if at all. The market-focused ideology of U.S. business schools leads many within their walls to reflexively celebrate privatization and disdain regulation rather than think deeply about them. Your average b-school sees its mission as preparing graduates for gainful employment at (for instance) a firm that runs private prisons, not for deep engagement with the question of whether privatizing corrections is good public policy and beneficial for society.

A b-school dean might reply that someone wishing to engage deeply on that should head across campus and get a public administration or public policy degree; we’re here to equip our students with the tools they need to run these operations, not to question them existentially.

I think that’s wrong. Privatization isn’t something that business people should automatically favor any more than it’s something that big-government liberals should automatically oppose. When it works well it streamlines government and stimulates private sector economic activity — both good things. But when it doesn’t work it makes government less efficient and less effective (and possibly more corrupt), which harms business interests along with everyone else’s. There are things the private sector does better, and many things it doesn’t. Business people, like other humans, should be engaging in thoughtful conversation about this divide, not just sharpening pencils waiting on the sidelines to see what profit opportunities might emerge. We do our students a disservice if we don’t prepare them for that conversation.


The Business of Governing

Michael Lind asks if we need a businessman in the White House:

At first glance, it might seem plausible that successful private sector leaders understand the modern national and global economies. But doing well in one part of the economy is quite different from understanding what is good for the economy as a whole …. Running an economy that is good for business is radically different from running a business, in a number of ways.

Agreed, although Lind undersells the important point that “running an economy” is not the president’s responsibility. The temptation by the Mitt Romneys of the world to say, essentially, “I’d be a good president because I’ve run businessy stuff” misconstrues the job as predominantly managerial. Yes, a president does have to manage the organization that is the White House, and preside over the large bureaucracy we know as the executive branch, and there is ample evidence that these aren’t Barack Obama’s strong suits.

But in terms of the impact of a presidency, these are small parts of the gig compared to big picture matters of policy and diplomacy, which bear virtually no resemblance to the kind of experience one gets wearing a suit in the private equity world. Given an ideologically neutral choice for president (or governor or mayor) between an intellectually nimble, thoughtful person who grasps the nuances of policy, diplomacy, and political philosophy, and a competent, pragmatic alternative who knows his or her way around a boardroom, I’ll take the egghead every time.

Lind also wonders, if business types would do so well, why there have been so few:

The vast majority of American presidents have been career politicians, who moved up in state politics before aspiring to a national stage. And most presidents who worked in the private as well as the public sector were lawyers, not corporate managers or investors.

This analysis is less successful: equating the rarity of a thing with its merits might work in the rare gemstone trade, but as argument goes it falls short of the mark. Given rather limited evidence that our system results in the election of outstanding political leaders, it makes little sense to draw inferences about ideal qualifications from the attributes of those who have held office in the past.


Statistical Homicide

This post appeared on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

In a Tennessean op-ed last week on the proposed budget for Nashville and the tax increase it contains, local businessman Nathan Massey made a statistical claim that more money for policy officers reduces crime:

Let’s look at crime statistics. There were 51 homicides in Nashville in 2011. That is the lowest number of homicides since 1966. That suggests a direct relationship between investment and return.

I won’t comment on the merits of the budget or the tax hike,* but I can put on my social scientist hat (or striped shirt, to upgrade the metaphor) and referee the merits of a statistical argument. And on the matter of a lower number of homicides supporting a relationship between investment and return I’m throwing yellow flags: extremely illegal procedure.

Massey’s factoid may be accurate — the number of homicides has receded to the terrority it occupied back in the 1960s — but the meaning of those numbers is anything but clear. If you want to understand trends in violent crime, murder is perhaps the least reliable thing to look at. It is well understood that drops in raw homicide numbers can be explained in significant measure by advances in medicine and technology that make victims of attempted murder likely to survive. A landmark 2002 study, “Murder and Medicine,” published in the academic journal Homicide Studies (and who doesn’t want a subscription to that next Christmas?) showed that it’s not violent assaults that dropped over the last four decades of the twentieth century — nationally the rate of aggravated assault quintupled! —  but rather the lethality of assaults. The study (summarized by the NIH here) found that but for the dramatic drop in trauma mortality, murder rates by the turn of the century would have been much higher than they were.

A glance at long-term trends in violent crime in Nashville (using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, synthesized for Metro Nashville here) bears out this skepticism about the meaning of a drop in homicides. Looking at rates of violent crime in Davidson County, rather than numbers, we find that while, yes, the murder rate (per 100,000 population) has dropped by more than a third since the mid-1960s, rates of aggravated assault, rape, robbery, and violent crime overall have more than doubled. On an upbeat note, though, these rates have noticeably backed off their peaks during the 1990s.

As a New York Times writer put it at the time the “Murder and Medicine” study came out, we “aren’t any less murderous — it’s just getting harder for us to kill one another.” It is, by extension, statistical malpractice to use long-term trends in the raw number of homicides as evidence either for or against the efficacy of law enforcement spending.

*No can do, owing to spousal unit on Metro Council who will vote on the thing.