Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Unbearable Epiphenomenality of Firearms

Genteel Victorian elite, via Petticoats and Pistols.
Shorter David Brooks, "Guns and the Soul of America":
Well, so according to fellow Canadian and fellow David David Frum, whenever there's one of these grotesque mass shootings, America's state legislatures jump into action to start passing gun laws, only not the way you might imagine. Instead of passing laws to make mass shootings less likely, they start passing laws to make guns easier to get, or easier to carry around. 
In fact Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin 2016 found that a single mass shooting in a given state raises the number of firearms bills that will be introduced in that state's legislature that year by 15%, and the number of enacted laws that loosen gun restrictions instead of tightening them will be 75% higher, if it's a Republican-controlled state, though not a Democrat-controlled one.
Which really blew my mind, because how are you going to explain this result other than by saying that the Republican party and the National Rifle Association exploit every such shooting as an opportunity to poison the population with fear and the irrational sense that they'll be safer if they just own more guns, and bring them to more different places, like schools, bars, and churches? 
Which is obviously ridiculous, I mean, what could the Republican party and the National Rifle Association have to do with that?
So I think the first thing has to be that it's not about guns at all. Guns are merely an epiphenomenon. The reason Republican state legislatures pass so many more bills loosening gun restrictions after a horrifying gun tragedy must be postindustrialization. The more we keep postindustrializing, the more the voters will demand more restriction-loosening gun laws. That just stands to reason.
And what can we do about this situation? What I've been telling you forever, moar narrativium! We need a new story on the postindustrialization/populism front, like Theodore Roosevelt's new American nationalism, but like different. And I want mine with extra mayo, don't disappoint me.
I know you all hate Frum, but let's just say The Atlantic has much better editors than the Bush administration did and his work is a lot better than it was in the Axis of Evil days. I may disagree with what he says, but I will defend to the death his right to say he did his homework, if I think he did, which I do at least in this case.

Which I can't, as usual, say about David F. Brooks:

In 2000, according to a Pew survey, only 29 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and 67 percent supported more gun control. By 2016, 52 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and only 46 percent supported more control.
And by April 2017, the number demanding more gun rights had dropped back down to 47%, around where it's been hovering since April 2009. That 29% was a remarkable Clinton-era low from 35% in 1993, but support for gun rights was generally low throughout the Clinton and Bush presidencies. The first time it came anywhere close to half the population was just after Obama's inauguration, and it's stayed there ever since. It wasn't about the "postindustrializing" of society, it was either about the mortgage crisis or about politics.

This gigantic shift in public opinion hasn’t come about because the facts support the gun rights position. The research doesn’t overwhelmingly support either side. Gun control proposals don’t seriously impinge freedom; on the other hand, there’s not much evidence that they would prevent many attacks.
The research in fact clearly backs gun control, as is shown comprehensively in this Voxsplainer by German Lopez:
In fact, it’s so persuasive that it changed my mind. I was once skeptical of gun control; I doubted it would have any major impact on gun deaths (similar to the views I took on drugs). Then I looked at the actual empirical research and studies. My conclusion: Gun control likely saves lives, even if it won’t and can’t prevent all gun deaths.
Speaking of changing minds,

better facts tend to be counterproductive on hot-button issues like gun control. As Tali Sharot notes in her book “The Influential Mind,” when you present people with evidence that goes against their deeply held beliefs, the evidence doesn’t sway them. Instead, they invent more reasons their prior position was actually correct. The smarter a person is, the greater his or her ability to rationalize and reinterpret discordant information, and the greater the polarizing boomerang effect is likely to be.
"You can trust me, because I'm not one of those bright guys." Happily, I think there's some evidence showing that being "smart" doesn't necessarily make you less able to change your mind.
A study has found individual differences in myside bias. This study investigates individual differences that are acquired through learning in a cultural context and are mutable. The researcher found important individual difference in argumentation. Studies have suggested that individual differences such as deductive reasoning ability, ability to overcome belief bias, epistemological understanding, and thinking disposition are significant predictors of the reasoning and generating arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals.[60][61][62]
And more happily still, that polarizing backfire effect (not "boomerang") identified by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010—
If someone believes something that’s false, and you present them with a correction, in many situations rather than update their belief they will double down, holding even tighter to that initial belief
—may not exist at all. There's some new evidence on that, too, reported last November by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine; a couple of much broader studies by Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter have showed that even in fraught political issues people are capable of recognizing evidence that disconfirms their beliefs.
As the paper notes, the experiments were set up in ways designed to maximize the chances of a backlash effect being observed. Many of the issues the respondents were asked about are extremely politically charged — abortion and gun violence and illegal immigration — and the experiment was conducted during one of the most heated and unusual presidential elections in modern American history. The idea was something like, Well, if we can’t find the backfire effect here, with a big sample size under these sorts of conditions, then we can safely question whether it exists.
And that’s what happened. “Across all experiments,” the researchers write, “we found only one issue capable of triggering backfire: whether WMD were found in Iraq in 2003.” Even there, changing the wording of the item in question eliminated the backfire effect.
The problem apparently isn't that too much information increases polarization, but that prior polarization makes people flee from disconfirming information. Nyhan and Reifler, pleasingly, instead of doubling down on their own hypothesis, have cheerfully joined in the new research.

David Brooks could have known about this if he'd ever look at New York Magazine instead of The Atlantic, just for once (I first heard about it on NPR).

So why are lawmakers responding to mass killings by loosening gun laws? The wrong answer is that the N.R.A. is this maliciously powerful force that controls legislators through campaign dollars. In fact, the N.R.A. spends a minuscule amount on campaign contributions compared with the vast oceans of dough washing through our politics.
Or you could read me, you know. The official PAC of the National Rifle Association spends quite a bit, though not more than the maximum amount allowed by law, on campaign contributions for a select number of federal candidates in every election; in the 2016 cycle 220 House candidates including 5 Democrats) and 23 Senate candidates.

Bret Stephens quoted a Washington Post report the other day according to which the NRA had spent just $3.5 million on federal legislative races since 1998, but the Post immediately had to raise that to $4.2 million, and if they counted donations to the RNC, RNSC and RNCC I think the number goes up to something over $12 million. The Koch Brothers' Americans For Prosperity PAC spent $13,222 on individual federal campaigns plus national party committees in the 2016 cycle, and Karl Rove's American Crossroads spent $0, and nobody accuses them of not trying to wield an influence.

Much more important is the amount of outside spending unlimited by federal law (thanks, Citizens United) they put into independent and officially uncoordinated support for candidates like Roy Blunt of Missouri ($257,951.50 as of Septembere 2 2016), Richard Burr of North Carolina ($381,471.32), Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (just $14,428.11), Rob Portman of Ohio ($238,727.28), or presidential candidate Donald J. Trump ($3,113,246.29), or against Russ Feingold ($2,515.00), Jason Kander ($2,345.62), or Hillary Clinton ($6,625,938.79, or 47% of their total budget for these federal campaign expenditures was spent attacking her).

And then there's the less widely reported spending at the state level, like Wisconsin, where NRA has spent almost as much money on Governor Scott Walker in the past 10 years as they did on all those congressional campaign contributions in the last 20, as reported in Urban Milwaukee:
Most of the spending, about $3.5 million, was by the NRA on outside electioneering to help Walker win his 2010 general, 2012 recall and 2014 reelection bids. Walker also received $22,500 in direct campaign contributions from pro-gun interests – the most of any legislative or statewide candidate – between January 2008 and June 2017.
In addition to Walker, current legislators received about $92,400 (see table below) in outside electioneering support and direct campaign contributions from the NRA’s political action committees and corporation, between January 2008 and June 2017. All but $500 went to support GOP legislators.
This money is directly correlated to the pushing of those anti–gun control bills in the state legislature:
During much of the same time, Walker and GOP legislators, who took control of state government in January 2011, have approved numerous pro-gun bills led by state’s concealed carry law.
More recently, last month, a state Senate committee recommended passage of a proposal, Senate Bill 169, which would allow adults to carry concealed weapons in Wisconsin without a permit. The measure eliminates the prohibition on carrying firearms into police stations, jails, prisons, and mental health facilities, unless those locations post signs to prohibit weapons on their grounds or in their buildings. The proposal also eliminates the prohibition on carrying guns, bows and crossbows in wildlife refuges, and while operating all-terrain vehicles. The measure would also allow people to carry tasers.
Even though the most recent polling (February 2016) shows 63% of Wisconsin voters happy with the current concealed-carry law, passed in 2011, which requires a permit (and 85% in favor of extending background checks to private and gun show sales). They weren't crazy about that concealed-carry law when it was first passed, either, but divided 46% for to 47% against. Now they're used to it and the NRA is pushing to make the law more radical. Which is how it works.

Though it's equally true that the grading they give the legislators at the state level is more important than the money, not because the voters as a whole care, but because enough of the voters in the Republican primaries do, as reporter Mike Spies explained to Terry Gross:
There's a really great story, actually, from 2012. A very prominent state lawmaker in Tennessee whose name was Debra Maggart for years had been one of the NRA's most stalwart allies in the state. She had an A-plus. She was a very reliable vote, and the NRA wanted to pass a piece of legislation there that ran into some obstacles from the state's business community. So Maggart ultimately decided to table the legislation. She didn't even oppose it. She actually was reflecting the will of her caucus and the idea was that once it was tabled, they would study it more. But the NRA didn't like that, so they spent less than $50,000 putting up billboards in her district essentially conflating Debra Maggart with President Obama and gun control. I mean, it completely - it's hard to, like, really get across how ludicrous it was that that was what she was being punished for but also just because she's someone that had been really, really great for them.
And then what they did was they fielded a candidate who had no political experience but who was further to the right on the political spectrum from her to run against her in the primary. With the billboards and then with also, like, just one or two really simple YouTube advertisements characterizing her as a gun grabber and in, like, a month her ratings dropped. She was someone who was very popular in her district and she wound up losing the primary. And you do that once and just a few times or every now and again and it's enough to clearly put the - to send a message.
I don't know what David Brooks thinks the NRA is doing with its budget, but my impression is that it is playing some kind of role in the loosening of gun restrictions, and very successfully, and I'm not the only one.

The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.
No, you know what? You're not entitled to make airy arguments about conflicts over values and identity when your grasp of the relevant facts is so poor. (I also violently object to the use of "postindustrialization" as a noun, as if it were derived from a verb "to postindustrialize".) But one more bit is too rich to pass up:

Over a century ago, industrialization brought on a culture clash between agrarian populists and the genteel Victorian aristocrats. Theodore Roosevelt transcended the fight by inventing a new American nationalism. Meanwhile, the progressives cleaned up elite corruption and nurtured a square deal for those being left behind by technological change. Cultural leaders introduced new institutions and community forms, like the Boy Scouts and the Settlement House, that drew from both cultures and replaced them.
First, no, the Agrarian Populists had little to do directly with urban industrialization and were not engaged in a "culture clash" with I don't have any idea who he has in mind by "genteel Victorian aristocrats", Mrs. Astor? They were being starved to death by their inability to get a decent price for their cotton and tobacco as agricultural productivity kept increasing beyond their ability to acquire land, and the refusal of the powerful to permit any currency inflation (retaining r > g, as ever). Many white farmers (40%) and most black farmers (80%) were living as sharecroppers! Does Brooks think sharecroppers might be concerned that a lady in Newport could get an abortion?

Then Teddy Roosevelt's "new American nationalism" and Square Deal as he dragged his party to the left were the same thing, and not for those "left behind" by technological change (is he thinking of 18th-century Luddites?) but those being ground up in it, and not exactly billed as "transcending the fight" but taking the side of the workers:
The Square Deal domestic program had three main goals: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection [and] evolved into his program of "New Nationalism", which emphasized the priority of labor over capital interests and a need to more effectively control corporate creation and combination, and proposed a ban on corporate political contributions.[202]
(After the first term when he got caught taking a $100,000 contribution from Standard Oil.)

Finally, in what sense did the Boy Scouts and the Settlement movement "draw from both cultures", apparently the agrarian populists and genteel aristocrats? Both came from England, but the scouting movement was more Edwardian than Victorian, having been imagined in 1907, and reached the US during the Taft presidency, in 1910, and the Settlements in Chicago and New York and other gritty cities were far from genteel. And in what sense did they "replace" the previous cultures, or what sentence was Brooks even trying to write there?

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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