Jul 27

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.

This week and next, we’re debating the motion: America Makes the World a Safer Place. Below is Eric C’s argument against the motion.)

Before we begin, let me frame my argument for why I oppose the motion. (This is, unfortunately, necessary; many people don’t understand the basic concept that “the world getting safer” does not equal “violence doesn’t exist”.)

I believe America’s policies--foreign and domestic--have caused violence, which keeps the world from being EVEN safer than it is now. In some ways, this is a counter-factual: if America had done things differently over the last twenty years, the world would be safer and less violent than it is today. I’m aware this is a high bar to hurdle over, but I think I can do it.

Let’s get into the specifics. First, foreign affairs.

America’s Overreaction to 9/11

Check out the “List of Ongoing Conflicts” page on Wikipedia (as of July 2015) and you’ll notice two things:

1. War really is on the decline.

2. Of the four deadliest wars right now, America is to blame for two of them. Moreover, America is involved--mostly unproductively--in five of the fifteen deadliest wars happening today.

So two things are true: war is less deadly than it’s ever been, but America has needlessly inflated the overall number of wars by choosing to fight and get involved in so many of them.

Our extended stay in Afghanistan could be justified ethically for the first few years, but repeated mismanagement of that war turned it into a quagmire. Iraq, on the other hand, was a war of choice that destabilized the region. If America hadn’t invaded Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people (Iraqis mainly) would still be alive. (Who knows what would have happened in Syria without the Iraq war. Certainly couldn’t be worse than the situation today.) And our drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have angered millions of people, creating more violent extremists and increasing instability.

The American Military Doesn’t Care Enough About Limiting Civilian Casualties

My second biggest disagreement with American foreign policy--after starting so many wars--is with how poorly we’ve fought them. And by poorly, I don’t mean “failing to close with and destroy the enemy”. Actually, I mean the opposite. This means detaining less Iraqis and Afghans. It means limiting civilian casualties. It means sacrificing more of our own soldiers to protect others. If we’d have gone into Afghanistan seeking to rebuild a war-torn nation, developing roads and infrastructure and providing medicine, I believe we could have won.

But the American military hates that. And they’re so immune to criticism by the American populace that the military won’t be forced to change its approach.

Michael C and I started the blog mainly to write about population-centric counter-insurgency. We haven’t written about it much recently, mainly because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sort of ended. Still, it matters. The American military‘s failure to embrace the future of war has prolonged our wars...and artificially increased war deaths across the globe.

Republicans Hate Treaties

International norms help make the world a safer and better place. But Michael C has written recently about how Republicans hate treaties. Due to the anti-treaty stance of Republicans in the Senate, this means America leads the world in preventing international norms from being established. Treaties make the world a safer place and the U.S. Senate leads the world in opposing them.

America Hypocritically Loves Dictators

As we’ve written about before, America hates some dictators, but not all. For example, Iran is our mortal enemy, but Saudi Arabia is not. This has made the world less democratic and, by extension, more dangerous. We don’t do enough to oppose all of the regimes that torture and violate human rights.

On to domestic policy....

Gun Rights

Years ago, Michael C and I decided that we weren’t ready to discuss gun control on the blog. We didn’t feel--as we wrote about here--that the facts were in. Studying the academic literature, we no longer think that’s the case. More guns equals more gun deaths.

America has lots of guns. As most statistics show, if you own a gun, someone is more likely to be shot by that gun, either through suicide, spousal abuse or accidental shooting. Many of the major statistics cited by gun rights advocates have been debunked. By owning so many guns, America is more violent than it should be.

Our Judicial System

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, America’s judicial system, which locks up way too many young men, doesn’t mean the world is more violent than 50, 100 or 500 years ago.

But it is a huge problem.

Our country’s views on crime, punishment, prisons and rehabilitation have created a permanent underclass of citizens. Business don’t hire people with criminal records, worsening the problem. Our drug laws--though getting better recently--are insanely punitive. And we see how police departments across the country harass minorities. The reason I’m adding this into the debate is that America has failed to adopt the policies Europe has embraced, and increased violence is the result. Thus, America’s massive homicide rate compared to Europe is, well, America’s fault.

In closing, America has, like other nations, adopted a number of policies that have made the world safer. But compared to other nations, too many of our foreign and domestic policies have perpetuated violence both in our country and across the world. And that’s why you should oppose the motion.

Jul 21

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

In fiction, conflict is the heart of good drama. Does the same thing apply to non-fiction political writing?

We’ve been writing a lot recently about how the world is getting safer. We mean a lot. Michael and I, like most every topic on the blog, agree on this point. The conflict comes from us disproving the people who don’t believe this. (Eric C wrote a whole series of posts debunking those opinions.) But another conflict arose discussing this issue. Inspired by this John Horgan post, and assuming you want the world to keep getting safer and believe us that it is getting safer, it begs a simple question:

Is America making the world a safer place?

Michael C knew the answer pretty easily, yes. Eric C knew his answer, no. Michael C mentioned supporting democracies. Eric C mentioned supporting dictatorships. Michael C said international aid. Eric C said Iraq. So it looks like we had the making for a good old-fashioned On V debate. So let’s have it. The motion is:

America Makes the World a Safer Place.

The debate will go in three parts. First Eric C will argue against the motion. Then Michael C will argue for the motion. Finally, we will have rebuttals.

Jul 14

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Two months ago, we gave seven answers to an unasked criticism: why are we writing so much about how the world is getting better and safer?

Our first point was “the vast majority of people still don’t know this fact” and today’s post explains why: way too many people, pundits and politicians say the world is a “dangerous place” or “as dangerous as it has been since World War II”. Politicians running for president make this claim and, outside of a handful of liberal bloggers, few media members refute it. In other words, the people who don’t believe the world is getting better and safer have a microphone to amplify their incorrect beliefs.

Marco Rubio inspired us to write this post. Go to his website and find his taglines. “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today” and “Nothing matters if we aren’t safe”. (H/T Jonathan Chait, who correctly debunks Rubio by citing Pinker and pointing out that this is “insanely wrong”.) Frankly, every reporter covering Rubio needs to point this out. Claiming that the world isn’t safer is global-warming-denialist level wrong.

One of the most difficult tasks with writing this post is that people keep making this claim, so we have had to keep updating the article. (Expect future On V updates.) Cue Marco Rubio releasing an op-ed for Time, a slight variation on his original theme, “Sen. Marco Rubio: Under Obama the World Has Become a More Dangerous Place” Except that, overall, the world is so much less dangerous than ever before. And it’s hard to argue that Obama’s foreign policy has made America less safe than the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

For another great example, Michael Fallon, UK Senior Secretary for Defence, believes that ISIS and Russia make the world as dangerous as any time since WWII. That’s flat wrong. But we’re just scratching the surface of fear-mongering. Stephen Walt summarizes some other fear-mongers:

“Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks “the question is not whether the world will continue to unravel but how fast and how far.” The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, told Congress last year that “[the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” (Someone really ought to tell the general about the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, and a little episode known as World War II.) Not to be outdone, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes the United States “has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”

In a few weeks, Michael C and I are going to write about the policies we believe will make the world safer, answering the “How?” question. Oddly, if you made a Venn diagram, very few of those policies intersect with Republican/Rubio’s policies. But Republicans don’t have a monopoly on fear-mongering. Glenn Greenwald cites both Republican Lindsey Graham (“We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today.”) and Democrat Dianne Feinstein (“I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now.”) both making the case that we live in a dangerous world. Zach Beauchamp details not just the fear, but the often odd--and unrealistic--statements of GOP candidates for President.

This isn’t limited to politicians, though. Two of the arguably most culturally-influential people of the last decade have made this incorrect assertion. The first comes from Jon Stewart, universally beloved culture and comedy icon, who said after the Charlie Hebdo attack, “2014 was not a great year for people.” (Actually, it was.) George R. R. Martin--creator of the most famous fantasy series on TV--told an interviewer, “I think people no longer believe the world is going to be a good place.”

But just because people don’t believe the world is getting safer, doesn’t make it true.

Jul 08

This article is a quick addendum to last week’s post about terrorism and self-driving cars (referred to here often as Google cars) where I wrote about the already-burgeoning fears of terrorists using self-driving cars as a weapon. But I should point out:

People are already afraid of self-driving cars.

Thanks Ultron, T-1000, HAL 9000 and whatever-the-robot’s-name-is in Ex Machina. Yes, people inherently distrust machines and computers. More importantly, they question their competence. Anecdotally, at our last family get together, I had a long discussion with someone who just couldn’t accept the idea that cars could drive better than humans.

The media isn’t helping. While I was writing up last week’s post, the AP released a “stunning” report about Google cars. They’re getting into accidents! Here’s a sampling of Google News (ironic, right?) headlines about the story:

USA TODAY: Google says its self-driving cars have had 11 crashes

San Jose Mercury News: Google reveals 11 self-driving car accidents in 6 years

MarketWatch: Google's self-driving cars are getting into accidents

Los Angeles Times: Google acknowledges 11 accidents with its self-driving cars

Business Insider: Google's self-driving cars have been getting in accidents in California

The Hill: Google: Self-driving cars had 11 'minor' accidents

Quartz: Google's driverless cars have been involved in four car accidents

Sounds bad, right? 11 accidents! That’s higher the national average!

For my grammar nerds, though, you’ll notice the oddly-shaped sentence structure, leaning on passive voice, “have been involved” being the best example. So how bad are Google cars? A quote from The Verge’s accurately titled article, “Google's self-driving cars have been in 11 accidents, but none were the car's fault”:

“First, the raw numbers: there have been 11 accidents in total, all minor, which Google asserts were never the fault of the car. Seven involved another vehicle rear-ending the Google car, two were sideswipes, and one involved another car traveling through a red light.”

Yes, Google cars “were involved” in 11 accidents--no injuries, all minor crashes--but in each case, humans were at fault. And these fender-bender accidents, it turns out, are the same type of accident most people don’t report to federal authorities. (They don’t want their insurance rates to go up.)

For anyone keeping track on the humans versus self-driving cars scoreboard: Google cars: 0, Humans: 11. These numbers come from Google, so we have to take their word for it. That said, regulators are going to come down hard on Google to prove their cars are safe, so I trust them. Google also plans to release monthly accident reports. And you better believe if Google hits someone, that someone would go to the media if Google didn’t report it.

Google, in response to the news stories and headlines, wrote up an article on their self-driving cars. Instead of disputing the accidents--they didn’t--they explained how terrible humans are at driving.

Discussing this issue--just to put it out there, we love self-driving cars--Michael C and I determined that this news story actually works in Google’s favor. Google is already tracking how bad humans are at driving. They’re not just going to figure out if their cars are safer than industry standard accidents; they’re going to prove that humans are actually worse. And the next wave of headlines, in early June when Google released its first monthly report, were more in the self-driving car/Google’s favor.

In other words, reporters and editors love “shocking” headlines, but our fears about self-driving cars are woefully misplaced.

(Unless you are a taxi cab, uber or truck driver.)

Jul 06

With the passage of another Fourth of July weekend, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief now that the threat has passed.

Oh, did you think we were scared of an impending ISIS or ISIS-inspired attack? Unlike local police departments, the media and the FBI, we’re not scared of terror attacks. We’re afraid of the true danger over fourth of July weekend: fireworks.

(Actually, we’re not. Like terrorism generally, fireworks don’t kill that many Americans per capita.)

But compared to terrorists--who didn’t strike America this weekend--fireworks did cause quite a bit of damage. A drunk man tried to detonate a firework from his head. It didn’t work and he died at the scene, the first death since Maine legalized fireworks two years ago. Over 800 acres and one home burned in Washington state after fireworks started a fire. Two more homes were damaged in Sacramento, California. And 9 people were injured in Vail, Colorado. Oh yeah, and a New York football Giant hurt his hands in a firework accident.

Want to find more? Search the word “fireworks” on Google News the day after the Fourth of July. These were from the first page alone.

So, be aware, fireworks are the new al Qaeda.

More accurately, they’re as deadly to Americans as terrorism. According to an article on the National Fire Protection Association, “in 2011, fireworks caused an estimated 17,800 reported fires, including 1,200 total structure fires, 400 vehicle fires, and 16,300 outside and other fires. These fires resulted in an estimated eight reported civilian deaths, 40 civilian injuries and $32 million in direct property damage.” An additional 15,000 people were injured.

Now, you should always take statistics from an interest group with a grain of salt. But other groups support this finding. The Consumer Products Safety Commission reported that six people died in 2012 and eight more in 2013 from fireworks. The reports also detail exactly who and how they died. The CPSC found more deaths, 11 total, in 2011 than the NFPA.

Since 9/11, using low estimates, about eighty to one hundred people have died from fireworks. In the same time, 74 people have died from terrorism. So you’re more likely to die from fireworks than terrorism. (We should note out that Islamic extremists were only responsible for one third of domestic terrorist attacks.) That’s not even mentioning injuries and property damage.

Honestly, I think terrorists would be more successful if they lobbied for securing gun rights, selling more fireworks, and increasing the speed limit. Who needs terrorists when Americans are content with killing themselves? (For anyone about to make a “fireworks equal freedom” argument, tell that to my neighbors who’ve been popping fireworks until one in the morning all week.)

Being serious, it just seems a shame that dozens of people across the country are now homeless because people set off fireworks unsafely, while the country’s news channels and politicians worry needlessly about terrorism.

Jun 30

Say you’re an American who’s been alive for the last 10 years. You’re more likely to die from any of the following things than terrorism…

- Bathtubs

- Bee stings

- Being shot by a police officer

- Lightning

- Drunk drivers

- Moving heavy furniture

- Traffic accidents

And so on. Basically, terrorism is one of the least likely ways that you can die in America. But Jeffrey Goldberg doesn’t buy this argument:   

“...a bathtub death is in most ways not equivalent in impact to a death caused by terrorists. The death of someone in a bathtub accident is obviously a terrible tragedy for that person's family and friends. But unlike a death caused by terrorism, a bathtub death has few, if any, political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications.”

Researching the likelihood of dying from terrorism for an upcoming "Costs of Security" post, I stumbled upon this article from a years ago. Michael C and I disagree 100% with it so much, we had to respond. Why? A few reasons...

1. The Difference Between Terrorism and Other Ways of Dying is our Over-Reaction to it.

In Goldberg’s mind, terrorism matters because it has “political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications”, forcing us to take it more seriously than other ways of dying. But flip that around: because society takes terrorism more seriously than other ways of dying, it has political, economic, societal and constitutional ramifications. It’s a trap. We overreact to terrorism, and because we overreact to it, we should take it more seriously, but taking it more seriously causes us to overreact even further...

Goldberg actually makes the point for us. Which came first? The ramifications or the reaction? Goldberg, in his piece, cites the strain on the constitution caused by terrorism:

“And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights.”

It’s sort of a circular argument.The impact of 9/11 and terrorism on our constitutional liberties is exactly why we should treat terrorism like other forms of dying. If society treated terrorism like we did bathtub deaths--just another hazard in the modern world--then our Constitution and civil liberties wouldn’t be threatened.

2. Terrorism Has Foreign Policy Ramifications...Because Terrorism Guides our Foreign Policy

Goldberg claims terrorism matters because it has foreign policy ramifications. Goldberg wrote a New Yorker article falsely claiming a link between al Qaeda and Iraq.

So terrorism matters...because it has foreign policy ramifications...and politicians and pundits use terrorism to endorse foreign policy decisions. You see the loop again, right?

3. The Comparison That Totally Debunks Goldberg

For most ways of dying, it is hard to directly rebut Goldberg’s point. Deaths from terrorism don’t have a direct connection to say bathtub deaths or bee stings. (Unless terrorist start arming bees...) But what if I could find an example where it does?

Like, say, car crashes.

In America, car crashes kill around 30,000 people each year. Terrorism since 9/11 has killed less than thirty people a year, and even those numbers are inflated by including the deaths of American civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, terrorism has only killed 74 people. (And white Christian extremists have killed twice as many people through terrorist attacks than Islamic extremists...without the remifications Goldberg worries about.) The evidence is clear; cars kill more Americans than terrorists.

Here’s a thorny problem for people who fear terrorism: what if a miracle cure for car crashes existed that was also a terrorist threat?

Like the self-driving car.

Self-driving cars will see better and react faster than humans ever can. Unlike humans, self-driving cars will only get safer through improved sensors and programming. And they won’t even make it on the roads until they are proven to be safer than humans. They’ll never get tired, drunk, distracted or lose their senses to old age. Some car companies are also developing vehicle to vehicle communications, which will save even more lives.

Of course, the only thing can stop the clearly safe self-driving car is the one thing that Jeffrey Goldberg fears most: terrorism! Take this headline from CNBC, “Self-driving cars—the next terrorism threat?

Let’s assume the terrorist threat is real and, when self-driving cars are adopted, terrorist use them to successfully kill Americans. Say self driving cars cut the number of car crash fatalities in half, but terrorists successfully kill ten Americans each year by hijacking self-driving cars. Would the “ramifications” of terrorism mean those ten deaths matter more than the 15,000 saved lives? Perhaps those numbers are too extreme, but at what point do the saved lives from car crash fatalities outweigh the “ramifications” of terrorist deaths?

We’re comparing two ways of dying: the current reality of humans dying in car crashes versus the potential for humans to die from terrorism in self-driving cars. And the inevitable over-reaction to terrorism by the American people. Will self-driving cars cut down the number of traffic fatalities compared to the risk they’ll be used by terrorists? Absolutely, but the terrorism deaths will get a lot more news coverage. A lot more.

And that’s why this comparison is so needed.

Jun 24

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Some critics of the “world is getting safer” theory (I call them “anti-Pollyannas”) make what appears to be a very convincing argument: why use per capita statistics? Isn’t that unethical? From a Scientific American review of the The Better Angels of Our Nature:

“Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker's entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease?”

This Foreign Affairs review makes the same argument:

“But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.”

Or from David Bentley Hart at the website First Things:

“Pinker’s method for assessing the relative ferocity of different centuries is to calculate the total of violent deaths not as an absolute quantity, but as a percentage of global population...Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents.”

It’s a seductive ethical argument, but there are two problems with it.

First, for most categories of human violence, you can use either per capita or absolute measures, violence has gone down. Actually, since the end of World war II, absolute deaths in war have gone down. Not per capita, absolute numbers, which coupled with exponential population growth, represents an absolutely remarkable transformation for the better.

Same with homicides, at least in England’s case. According to The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today, despite having only 1/50th the population. The pattern holds for slavery, torture, public executions, and so on.    

Humanity isn’t just getting better, it’s becoming so much better that despite exponential population growth, violence in absolute terms is still going down.

Second, this is still a very bad philosophical argument. Here’s the counter-argument from a comment on the Scientific American review. Honestly, I can’t say it any better:

“...how did this statement make it into the review? To take the counter argument, presumably you'd rather live in a world of 20 people where 9 are murdered every year than a world of a million peole [sic] where 10 are. Come on.”

Just, wow. Sort of says it all. And that’s why you use per capita statistics. If you approached someone independent of this debate and asked, “How should society track change for violence through the ages?” I can’t imagine anyone saying, “absolute terms instead of per capita”. Do these people watch news reports about the crime rate and shout at the television, “A single life remains a static sum!”

Have criminologists fundamentally based their discipline on an immoral metric?

Of course not.

(MC Comment: I would say that this is Eric C’s attempt to handle one minor statistical squabble in the realm of the “declinist” theory versus the world. Nassim Taleb and Bear Braumoeller have both posted lengthy academic articles critiquing the statistical methods used by Pinker, using much more advanced techniques to rebut the theory of the long peace. We’ll try to handle those in a later article, though it is tough without access to their data/code.)

Jun 22

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, please click here.

A while back, I wrote a post on how I would have argued on America’s greatest Oxford-style debating competition, Intelligence Squared US, specifically the episode on the Arab Spring. Today, I will present the opening statement I would have delivered rebutting the motion, “Spying Keeps You Safe”.)

Before I begin, let me concede a shocking point: I agree with the motion. Spying does keep us safe. I mean, if we didn’t have any police, would we have more crime? We would. So if we didn’t have a single spy or counter-terrorist, would we have more terrorists? Yes, we would.

Of course, we don’t really mean that spying keeps us 100% safe. And we don’t really mean this motion in the abstract. The motion is really asking whether the exorbitant costs of the spying apparatus--in both fiscal and civil rights terms--keep us safer than if we spent that money elsewhere. Especially when it comes to domestic spying by our government.

Literally, by any metric--cost-benefit, lives saved, efficiency--America wastes most of the money it spends on counter-terrorism and spying.

Let me give you a thought experiment to help explain how. Last year, America’s intelligence agencies spent a collective $75 Billion with a B on intelligence. What if we had only spend $70 billion? Would the likelihood of a terrorist attack have gone up? By how much?

Unfortunately, those are all questions America’s intelligence chiefs can’t answer, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer. And if they can’t answer them, do we really think “spying is keeping us safe?” They can’t even tell us how!

In our contemporary times, terrorism is excessively rare. Terrorism kills less people than gun violence. Or bee stings. Or heart attacks. Or suicides. Even the year that America suffered 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in history, more Americans died in car accidents. But even making those comparisons doesn’t capture the fact that you have a better chance to win the lottery than die of terrorism.

In fact, because terrorism is so unlikely, intelligence spending actually hurts Americans because we could use it in better ways. Instead of improving economic opportunity or curing diseases, we spend money paying multiple agencies to write the same reports with the same information. We pay signal intelligence agents to spy on their ex-wives and girlfriends. Or we encourage FBI agents to ignore financial malfeasance, organized crime, drug trafficking and other crimes to entrap Muslim Americans.

So vote against the motion because spending on spying means not spending the money on other concrete ways that could save lives now. As the debate goes on, we can also discuss how the intelligence community over-hypes this threat, how the intelligence community over-estimates its effectiveness, how the intelligence community favors expensive technological solutions over low-cost, more effective human intelligence solutions, how spying on Americans hurts our civil liberties and we can also discuss the waste in the intelligence community.

But most importantly, spying doesn’t keep us safe...in fact it’s killing us.

(Unfortunately, we don’t have enough street cred to get invited on Intelligence Squared. From my listening, though, to win an Intelligence Squared debate, the best technique is often to reframe the terms of the debate. Eric C and I have tried to do this in our series, “The Costs of Security” where we have tried to reframe the debate on terrorism in the U.S.)