Thursday, November 19, 2015

How Much Are We Willing to Spend on Being Well Regulated?

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column discusses the economic consequences of reacting foolishly to fear and panic, focusing on the extraordinary suspension of rational thought that the Republicans have displayed in response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris (and Beirut).  I quote from Professor Dorf's post here earlier this week, in which he pointed out that the Republicans' overreaction to the 9/11 attacks led to the creation of the ISIS monster, to make the point that we have spent trillions of dollars in the pursuit of policies since 9/11 that have made matters worse, not better.  Rather than measuring benefits against costs, we are left with the sad realization that we have paid dearly, only to discover that we have made matters much worse.

It is true, of course, that Democrats jumped on that bandwagon, too.  Hillary Clinton might well have won the presidency in 2008 if she had not decided to show that she was "tough" by voting to authorize the 2003 Iraq invasion.  Being afraid of looking weak on military issues has led Democrats to do far too many stupid things over recent decades.

In that regard, however, I have to take a moment to say how glad I am that Barack Obama is the President of the United States right now.  Watching clips of his press conference in Turkey recently, I could not help but be thankful that we have an intelligent, informed, humane man with good judgment in charge of our national security apparatus, rather than someone who would rush headlong into another stupid foreign quagmire.  I am hardly in the tank for Obama, having spent countless hours over the last few years criticizing his economic policies.  More generally, I had come to believe that he is not actually a well-motivated liberal who is too timid, but rather that he is a center-right guy on many big issues (for example, his track record on deportations, notwithstanding his support for immigration reform) who is actually doing roughly what he wants to do, rather than being dragged to the right by political circumstances.

With all of that said, however, he is once again showing that people were not wrong to think that there is something special about the man.  His predecessor handed off a terrible economy and a huge mess in the Middle East, and Obama's policy druthers have not been inspired, but he is an adult living in a world populated by adolescent boys.  He understands that it is not possible simply to "win" this conflict by suddenly indulging in an orgy of violence.

The most ridiculous aspect of the Republicans' reactions to the Paris attacks, after all, is their implicit assumption that we could have taken care of this already, but we just were not yet mad enough to do something about it.  What kind of amnesia is this, where we forget about the years of continuing outrages, the beheadings and kidnappings and bombings, where we said each time that this was the last straw?  The simple fact is that, if it were actually easy to solve this problem, we have had more than enough reason well before now to pull out all the stops and do it.

The former football coach Mike Ditka used to say that he never took seriously the importance of "bulletin board material" -- trash talk from the other team that he supposedly could use to inspire his players -- because if his players were not already inspired enough to do everything in their power to win, there was really something wrong.  Can any sane person really think that there was some sensible and effective strategy that we have been keeping on the shelf, just in case we really get pissed off someday?

Having alluded to the existence of sensible and effective strategies, I will now devote the rest of this post to discussing the opposite.  The usual suspects -- Trump, Gingrich, and surely many others -- quickly responded to the Paris attacks by saying that everything would have been fine if Parisians were allowed to carry guns.  In the clip of the speech by Trump that I watched, the audience enthusiastically cheered at this claim.  Although I have frequently noted the dangers of arguendo reasoning -- where saying, "I'll accept your completely incorrect and morally dubious premise for the sake of argument, to show how you are wrong even on your own terms," merely ends up reinforcing the idea that the completely incorrect and morally dubious premise deserves to be taken seriously -- I cannot help but try to walk through the logic of many Republicans' claim that Americans (and now the French) should respond to the possibility of public violence by having everyone carry guns.

The chief concern of those of us who oppose relying on the populace to protect itself by carrying firearms is essentially that "a good guy" carrying a gun might not always succeed in killing the bad guy (or only the bad guy).  Picturing the scene in a university lecture hall (a venue with which I am quite familiar) where a gunman bursts in, for example, what we are supposed to believe is that one or more people in the room would quickly figure out what was happening, pull out their weapons and kill the perpetrator.  What I find much easier to picture is chaotic crossfire, where people are being killed from every direction.

That is not to say that it is impossible to imagine that an incident in which a killer who faces no opposition would kill everyone in a room, whereas a room with chaotic crossfire might end up with a lower body count.  However, I can also imagine increased incidents of violence when the people in a room are all armed, even if no bad guy walks in the room with a premeditated plan for mass murder.  The bottom line is that, even if one can describe a situation in which the right person with a gun in the right place at the right time saves the day, the other ways in which people could kill each other seem much more likely to be the norm.

Even if I am right about that, however, it is at least possible to try to have it both ways, significantly increasing the carrying or weapons by the public while making the public less likely to use their guns unwisely.  What would that require?  The title of this post, "How Much Are We Willing to Spend on Being Well Regulated?" is obviously a play on the language of the Second Amendment regarding a "well regulated militia."  And the Trump view of the world really does amount to turning the population at large into a militia, relying on them to do the jobs that we have traditionally asked police and soldiers to perform.

The thing is, we extensively train police and soldiers to use their weapons.  We put recruits through simulations in which they are presented with split-second decisions about whether there is a threat, and how to deal with it.  We expect these recruits not to simply fire round after round in the general direction of a possible threat.  Police who fire their weapons are expected to be able to explain why "it was a good shoot," meaning that the violence was justified and measured to the situation.

In the extreme, we could imagine a world in which all people have learned to use weapons only when needed, to be expert marksmen, and to store their weapons safely otherwise.  There is no perfection, but when we give law enforcement officers and soldiers the authority to carry weapons, we quite reasonably have expectations of their ability to meet a high standard on all of these measures.

How much are we willing to pay to make this the norm?  Opening "citizens' police academies" everywhere is possible, I suppose, and it might even be possible to set standards by which some people would be deemed something along the lines of "militia 4-F," that is, legally prohibited from carrying guns because they cannot perform up to the standards.  The point is, however, that even a society that actually prohibits gun ownership by the public at large (like the UK, for example) already effectively does this.  If you want to carry a gun to protect yourself and your neighbors, there is a way to do so.  You must join the equivalent of the militia, and be trained to do what police officers do.

And, in Trump World, if we were not willing to pay as a society and as individuals to regulate our new quasi-militia at least that well, then we really would be penny wise and pound foolish.


Greg said...

In areas of foreign policy, I think there continues to be sound advice in Theodore Roosevelt's "Speak softly and carry a big stick." I'm not convinced that any of our presidents since perhaps George H. W. Bush have succeeded in both sides of that policy. The growth of ISIS can be attributed both to George W. Bush's inability to "speak softly" and Barack Obama's reluctance to "carry a big stick."

The magic bullet that was never tried in post-war Iraq was keeping a continued, long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq to function not as an occupying military force but as a supplement to local police forces. This force could have supplemented local efforts to prevent ISIS control of Iraqi territory. While thankfully the U.S. forces in Iraq took more than 30 days to leave, their absence created a power vacuum that allowed the growth of ISIS.

Unfortunately, continued military presence on this scale would have been expensive both financially and in American lives. Further, there would be significant political capital lost in continuing a war that is rightfully viewed by the American public as unjustified. However, the cost of the military presence to provide stability is exactly the price that America should pay for starting the destabilizing war in the first place.

Republicans are no better. While McCain may have been right that it should have taken "100 years" of U.S. presence to create a truly stable Iraq, most Republicans expect military force to be a quick fix to all problems. Further, they fail to recognize that the use of force needs to be accompanied by diplomacy that eliminates or at least reduces the need for further violence. This diplomacy includes nation-building, but it also involves diplomacy on a more personal level to reduce individual hatred and create a lasting peace. This includes the acceptance of refugees.

I wish I could say that I believed any of the candidates for president would be able to fill both the roles both of chief diplomat and Commander in Chief, but I'm not sure I see that kind of balanced, nuanced capability from any of them. Further, even if that capability existed in one of them, it would be unlikely to show itself during the primary season where the candidate's role is to tell the most extreme members of the electorate exactly what they want to hear.

David Ricardo said...

The primal rationale for government, indeed the only unassailable rationale for government is that in return for the populace giving some of their income/wealth to fiscally support government and in return for the populace giving up some of their individual rights and agreeing to conditions that they otherwise would not accept, government agrees to protect the populace from harm.

If government is unable to protect the residents of the United States; If all of us must be armed (and incredibly dangerous as Mr. Buchanan's post describes) then what is the point of government? Of course, Republican hysteria notwithstanding the U. S. government and other western governments have done a remarkably fine job of protecting its citizenry.

There is or course no complete protection against an individual or a group of individuals intent on killing another individual or a group of individuals where the killers are willing to die. But in the United State a person is far more likely to die from unsafe practices of the owner of a firearm, or from the irresponsible actions of an inebriated driver or even from a law enforcement officer then from a terrorist attack. If Republicans were really serious about protecting the populace rather then promoting fear and distrust for their own political gain they would at the very least be in favor of regulations for the safety of guns.

Shag from Brookline said...

Quite a few wars (official and unofficial) have taken place involving America since TR's "Speak softly and carry a big stick." It is not clear to me that our foreign policy should be guided by this advice what with the world of changes that have occurred in the world since TR's utterance over a century ago. It's interesting that Greg brought this up, although not quite responsive to the question raised by Neil. But while interesting, Greg did not include the legal reasons American troops were not left behind in Iraq by the Obama Administration. Those reasons included decisions made by the Bush/Cheney Administration regarding certain legal protections for our troops remaining in Iraq. Iraqi leaders wanted America out.

Neil's question revives the Heller (5-4) and McDonald (also 5-4) decisions which discarded the 2nd A's prefatory clause. While Scalia's Heller opinion provided dicta on regulations in a not to historically accurate manner supported by originalism, it did not do so in the context of a "well regulated militia." So I don't know if Neil is looking for a revival of these decisions or focusing upon the dicta and what might be reasonable regulations under the modern (5-4) view of the 2nd A, or perhaps both.

Justice Holmes' statement in Schenk not giving 1st A speech protection to yelling fire (whether truthfully or falsely) in a crowded theatre comes to mind, obliquely, with some of Neil's examples of armed persons in attendance at a forum invaded by terrorists here in America. I share Neil's concerns. Perhaps being "well regulated" should be a collective rather than an individual determination.

Joe said...

President Bush signed an agreement to take out American troops & it is what our country and Iraq itself wanted. Shag is correct here. The term "magic bullet" is usually applied a tad sarcastic, since there usually isn't one. It isn't President Obama's fault. He's not really some sort of magical person who can avoid past commitments, the will of this country and desires of the locals like that. And, long term U.S. presence itself would likely cause problems as it tends to do over history to have foreign troops in a land. Our own history suggests this.

George HW Bush decided to have a limited approach regarding Saddam in Kuwait which was sound and Obama has repeatedly also had a limited approach including getting international support. See, e.g., Libya, putting aside (like Kuwait itself) if it was good policy. And, by leaving Saddam in power, the danger continued. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and other groups rose in power, for various complicated reasons. I'm not sure how different Bush41 would have acted than Obama. He didn't leave some force in Iraq, even though in the process it resulted in at least two groups to be victims of human rights violations in the aftermath.

There is no "magic bullet." Obama to me is the best option in the real world. Hillary Clinton seems a bit more militaristic but is close enough to be the best choice. Her experience in foreign service here helps as compared to those on the other side for sure.

Greg said...

I intentionally glazed over the legalities of staying in Iraq, and especially that Iraq didn't want us there. This was a conquered country, we could have made continued military presence for stability's sake a requirement of the government hand-off, much like we did in Cuba during TR's presidency.

I'll admit that I didn't realize the extent to which Obama was merely carrying out the agreements which George W. Bush had already established. This significantly weakens my Obama criticism, while strengthening the criticism of Republicans and their expectation that violence is a quick fix.

Of course I agree with Joe that there isn't any "magic bullet." I was objecting to the implication that there was nothing involving the U.S. military that could have been tried but wasn't. Terming this a "magic bullet" was rhetorical, and my intent wasn't to say that any single action would fix the plethora of complex problems in the middle east.

I agree with Joe that Hillary Clinton seems the strongest of the current candidates on foreign policy, and certainly a better choice than any of the Republican candidates. I'm just disappointed that "reluctant start an unprovoked war" is what qualifies as a nuanced opinion on U.S. foreign policy. It certainly isn't a blueprint for the proper application of force in furtherance of U.S. and appropriate humanitarian interests.

Shag from Brookline said...

Growing up during the Great Depression in a New Deal immigrant family, I have continued on as a progressive to this day. But I am disappointed with the Republican presidential candidates because they are having intramural battles but hating Obama for everything as what they have in common, rather than discussing substantive issues and challenging Democrats on such issues, so that voters have a better idea of what is involved. Democratic candidates need testing, as well as Republican candidates. Eventually the Republicans will nominate a candidate but that candidate may have difficulty during the general election avoiding the extreme positions taken by the various Republican candidates. Who knows, it might be Trump or Carson. But the rest of them have been involved in a political cat fight. Will voters in the general election ignore the campaign extremes of the Republican candidates? As a kid growing up in Boston in the late 1930s, early 1940s, I remember Father Coughlin trying to convince the Catholic majority with hatred of others. Very few were convinced by him. But today we have the Republican candidates spewing hatred of the others, now Syrian refugees.