April 23rd, 2013

Why Does the New York Times Still Employ Maureen Dowd?

It is a mystery. Anyway, in the aftermath of the gun control defeat and Dowd’s hilariously bad column on the same, here is Megan McArdle trying desperately to explain Politcs 101 to a hopelessly confused student in Dowd:

… The American President and The West Wing are not searing portrayals of effective political management. They’re drama. The first question a dramatist asks is not “Is this how it really works?” but “Is it entertaining?” And the second is “Can the audience understand this in less than thirty seconds?” Veracity is way, way down the list. If you want a clue to how realistic it all is, consider that Aaron Sorkin awarded Jed Bartlett the Nobel Prize in Economics. Then go interview some Nobel Prizewinning Economists and ask yourself whether a single one of them would have the desire, or the ability, to run for president.

Jed Bartlett doesn’t win policy debates because of his amazing tactical skills, his overpowering arguments, or the sheer persuasiveness of his granite-faced brand of urbane folksomeness. He wins them because Aaron Sorkin is a liberal and he wants Republicans to lose on the major issues. Unfortunately for liberals, Tom Coburn and John Boehner don’t have their lines faxed over from Hollywood every morning.

And Megan McArdle points us to Walter Russell Mead, whose scorn for Dowd is magnificent to behold:

Column writing is dangerous work and long success in the game can lead to the stifling of that Editor Within who keeps you from looking too stupid in print. A rich self esteem, fortifed by decades of op-ed tenure and dinner party table talk dominance, has apparently given Ms. Dowd the confidence to believe that she is a maestro of political infighting, a Clausewitz of strategic insight and a Machiavelli of political cunning rolled up into one stylish and elegant piece of work. From the heights of insight on which she dwells, it is easy to see what that poor schmuck Barry Obama can’t: those 60 votes on gun control were his for the taking, if he was only as shrewd a politician as Maureen Dowd

The President needs to get his hands dirty, our genteel and accomplished op-ed writer advises the ex-community organizer and Chicago pol. He needs to get real, get down in the dirt, muck around with the senators and exercise raw power. Don’t make empty gestures and don’t give up, she advises him: fight! fight! fight!


If only Lyndon Johnson had understood the art of political pressure as well as Maureen Dowd. “You work with us, we’ll work with you.” It’s… brilliant! Reminding her about her six year term… if that doesn’t swing her around, nothing will. “You’re a mother…” This is a set of brass knuckles no one could resist. The NRA must be thanking its lucky stars that a bumbling amateur like Barack Obama is in the White House instead of the arch-politician Maureen Dowd; Heidi Heitkamp would have been putty in her elegantly manicured hands.

It goes on like that for quite a while, so be sure not to miss the entire blog post. I’d like to think that McArdle’s patient and desperate attempt to explain the facts on the ground—added to Mead’s entirely justified contempt for Dowd’s political instincts—would alert the New York Times to the fact that its columnist is simply not on the ball. But I have my doubts that the Times will take note. It seems content to have Dowd perpetually on its payroll, perpetually writing as though she is fourteen years old.

Nota Bene: To be fair to Dowd, she does seem to get the usual gaggle of suckers to approve of her drivel. I suppose she deserves some form of congratulations for that.

April 3rd, 2013

Aren’t Scientists-in-Chief Supposed to Be More in Touch with Reality?

Discussing a new initiative to map the human brain, thus possibly discovering how to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the president dubbed himself "Scientist-in-Chief." I like Barack Obama’s brain-mapping initiative well enough; it costs $100 million, which is cheap for government work and which could save us a lot of money down the road if it actually leads to advances in curing neurological diseases. At the same time, I can’t help but think that an actual “Scientist-in-Chief” wouldn’t be willing to suggest that vaccines cause autism.

But maybe that’s just me.

Additionally, I would have to think that a “Scientist-in-Chief” would actually care about facts, but again, I am let down; this time by the president’s insistence that 40% of gun sales lack background checks. Glenn Kessler points out that the claim just isn’t true:

There are two key problems with the president’s use of this statistic: The numbers are about two decades old, yet he acts as if they are fresh, and he refers to “purchases” or “sales” when in fact the original report concerned “gun acquisitions” and “transactions.”  Those are much broader categories of data.

As we noted before, the White House said the figure comes from a 1997 Institute of Justice report, written by Philip Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago.

 This study was based on data collected from a survey in 1994, the same year that the Brady Act requirements for background checks came into effect. In fact, the questions concerned purchases in 1993 and 1994, and the Brady Act went into effect in early 1994 — meaning that some, if not many, of the guns were bought in a pre-Brady environment.

Digging deeper, we found that the survey sample was just 251 people. (The survey was done by telephone, using a random-digit-dial method, with a response rate of 50 percent.) With this sample size, the 95 percent confidence interval will be plus or minus six percentage points.

Moreover, when asked whether the respondent bought from a licensed firearms dealer, the possible answers included “probably was/think so” and “probably not,” leaving open the possibility the purchaser was mistaken. (The “probably not” answers were counted as “no.”)

When all of the “yes” and “probably was” answers were added together, that left 35.7 percent of respondents indicating they did not receive the gun from a licensed firearms dealer. Rounding up gets you to 40 percent, although as we noted before, the survey sample is so small it could also be rounded down to 30 percent.

Moreover, when gifts, inheritances and prizes are added in, then the number shrinks to 26.4 percent. (The survey showed that nearly 23.8 percent of the people surveyed obtained their gun either as a gift or inherited it, and about half of them believed a licensed firearms dealer was the source.)

Cook and Ludwig, in a lengthier 1996 study of the data for the Police Foundation, acknowledged the ambiguity in the answers but gave their best estimate as a range of 30 to 40 percent for transactions in the “off-the-books” secondary market. (The shorter 1997 study cited by the White House does not give a range but instead says “approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions” involved a licensed dealer.)

Meanwhile, note the phrasing in the original report — “acquisitions” and “transactions,” which included trades, gifts and the like. But Obama spoke of “gun purchases,” and his tweet referred to “gun sales.”

Better “Scientists-in-Chief,” please.

January 31st, 2013

Fastest Gun In the West Wing?

Now that President Obama is pushing gun control legislation, I guess that he finds it useful to claim that he himself likes shooting guns from time to time; the better to convince gun owners that he respects the gun culture and the Second Amendment, and that he is not out to confiscate the guns of law-abiding Americans. The president informs us that when at Camp David, he likes to engage in skeet shooting.

The problem is that no one can verify this claim. And while Glenn Kessler is not yet prepared to call the fire department on account of the state of the president’s pants, there is every reason to believe that the president is simply not telling the truth. After all, while there are pictures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden with super soaker water blasters, there are no pictures of the president shooting skeet. The president made no references whatsoever to his own efforts to shoot skeet when he congratulated American skeet shooting gold medalists in the 2012 Olympics, although he was perfectly willing in the past to say that he “was inspired to run a little bit faster watching Tyson Gay, and lift a little more after watching Holley Mangold, or do a few more crunches after watching Michael Phelps and the other swimmers.” And of course, one of the problems with the president claiming that he does a lot of skeet shooting in Camp David is the fact that the president doesn’t go to Camp David all that often to begin with.

Kessler may not officially be prepared to call shenanigans on the president’s claim to engage in skeet shooting, but he gives me every reason to do so. Of course, if the White House wants to dispel my cynicism—and the cynicism of others—it can do so by providing evidence that Barack Obama actually does engage in skeet shooting.

It shouldn’t be too hard to do, assuming that the president’s claim is true.

UPDATE: We have evidence that the president shot a gun at least once.

December 20th, 2012

In Which People Try to Attack Megan McArdle, Only to Make Themselves Look Ridiculous

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, Megan McArdle wrote a column in which she advocated the following:

… I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.  Would it work?  Would people do it?  I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.

This prompted hoots of derision from Jonathan Chait, which set off a generalized port-side mockumentary of McArdle’s idea. For good measure, Chait sarcastically allowed that McArdle’s column might be “a very subtle parody of libertarianism.” Andrew Sullivan, being the blogospheric cheap shot artist that he is, actually awarded McArdle a Malkin Award nomination. For those of you who are blessedly unaware of Sullivan’s various silly awards, the Malkin Award is for shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric.” I have absolutely no earthly clue how encouraging targets of a gunman to gang rush the gunman in order to perhaps give those targets a fighting chance at living through the ordeal qualifies as “shrill, hyperbolic, divisive and intemperate right-wing rhetoric,” but I’m not Andrew Sullivan. (Speaking of which, barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, shelo asani Andrew Sullivan.)

But hey, guess what! Turns out that going after McArdle for this is more than a little bizarre. Let’s turn the microphone over to Jeffrey Goldberg:

McArdle’s suggestion is crazy, right? In many ways, yes, but it should be noted that this is not actually her idea — it is a recommendation disseminated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The federal government’s “active shooter” policy suggests that, as a last resort, a person facing an armed killer should “attempt to incapacitate the shooter” and “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” 

Mocking McArdle for her notion seems quite uncharitable, when you have an entire federal bureaucracy to mock. The truth is, of course, that attacking someone who is trying to shoot you (the old, “run from a knife, run to a gun” idea of self-defense) beats dying without a fight, but it’s still fairly ineffective. The heroic school principal and school psychologist in Newtown charged Adam Lanza, but were shot before they could “incapacitate” him. (DHS doesn’t say anything about small children swamping a shooter, but McArdle is ambiguous in her post on the question of whether she means small children or not. Obviously, first graders aren’t going to be attacking shooters.)  

In my recent article advocating for concealed-carry (and for stricter gun laws, as well), I provided several examples of idiotic-sounding recommendations that universities (which are usually self-declared “gun-free” zones) pass on to students, staff and faculty in the event of an “active shooter” attack. These recommendations motivated me to rethink the issue of concealed-carry. From the article:

Wichita State University counsels students in the following manner: “If the person(s) is causing death or serious physical injury to others and you are unable to run or hide you may choose to be compliant, play dead, or fight for your life.”

The University of Miami guidelines suggest that when all else fails, students should act “as aggressively as possible” against a shooter. The guidelines, taken from a Department of Homeland Security directive, also recommend “throwing items and improvising weapons,” as well as “yelling.”

Otterbein University, in Ohio, tells students to “breathe to manage your fear” and informs them, “You may have to take the offensive if the shooter(s) enter your area. Gather weapons (pens, pencils, books, chairs, etc.) and mentally prepare your attack.”

West Virginia University advises students that if the situation is dire, they should “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” These items could include “student desks, keys, shoes, belts, books, cell phones, iPods, book bags, laptops, pens, pencils, etc.”

The University of Colorado at Boulder’s guidelines state, “You and classmates or friends may find yourselves in a situation where the shooter will accost you. If such an event occurs, quickly develop a plan to attack the shooter … Consider a plan to tackle the shooter, take away his weapon, and hold him until police arrive.”

So McArdle’s idea is in line with that of the Department of Homeland Security and a host of educational institutions. It is also the plan that was adopted in Sandy Hook. We call the people who tried to take down Adam Lanza heroes—and rightly so—but when McArdle says that more people ought to try to implement these tactics, she is the subject of ridicule? The mind boggles. I mean, it’s one thing to politely but firmly hold that McArdle’s idea may not work—or at least, may not work cleanly. I’ll readily point out that if you tell people to gang rush a shooter and explain why it might work, the reaction you are going to get is “okay, you first.” And it’s not irrational to think that; everyone wants to live and most people are willing to be free-riders on the backs of those who do the dangerous work of leading the charge against a gunman. But it’s another thing altogether to get the vapors, clutch your pearls and look around frantically for the fainting couch simply because McArdle decided to advocate an idea that is already advocated by DHS and a number of universities, and was implemented at Sandy Hook. 

And of course, it’s all especially hilarious given the attempts by Chait and others to shoehorn attacks on libertarianism in their replies. If Megan McArdle so much as orders red wine with fish, people like Jonathan Chait will blog about it and will try to convince you that this gastronomic faux pas is all the evidence you need to know for a certainty that Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick were all full of it.

December 19th, 2012

Are Mass Shootings on the Rise?

Jesse Walker says no, and makes the following very good point at the end of his post:

… While there’s a lot to object to in the media coverage of the last few days — the inaccuracies reported on the day of the massacre, the exploitative intrusions on grieving people’s privacy — this feeling that the crime took place in our backyard isn’t a bad thing in itself. It represents empathy, and when the press amplifies our empathy, it’s doing good. But it’s also important for the press to give us a context for that empathy, lest those natural feelings for the victims and the people who loved them turn into an irrational fear that the next victims will be our own children or ourselves. Look at the ways so many schools locked down after Columbine: the increase in inflexible zero-tolerance policies, the speed-up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Those changes made a lot of students less secure, not more. And they were driven by contextless, free-floating fear. Empathy , paranoia no.

If we are smart, we will bear this in mind as we make policy post-Newtown.

December 17th, 2012

Nick Kristof Says the Thing that Isn’t

Writing about the shootings at Sandy Hook, Kristof tells us the following:

… don’t bother with the argument that if more people carried guns, they would deter shooters or interrupt them. Mass shooters typically kill themselves or are promptly caught, so it’s hard to see what deterrence would be added by having more people pack heat. There have been few if any cases in the United States in which an ordinary citizen with a gun stopped a mass shooting.

See bullet point number 3 here for why that isn’t true and why allowing people to defend themselves instead of cowering and hoping that a gunman doesn’t find them would actually be a better idea. And you know, even if neither I nor anyone else wrote a blog post about this, it shouldn’t be hard to think that even if mass shooters typically kill themselves or are caught, they are able to do a lot of damage beforehand in large part because the people being attacked may not have the means with which to defend themselves.

December 15th, 2012


There is little that I can write about the mass shooting yesterday at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut that hasn’t been written by others. The story is shocking, horrifying, disgusting, and endlessly sad. The carnage is appalling to behold, and the emotional damage in its wake will be awful beyond belief.

Naturally, in the aftermath of the massacre, we are all searching for answers and ways to lessen the likelihood that this kind of horror will be visited on any community ever again. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, or even most of them. I do think, however, that there are some things that we have to bear in mind as we think about what to do next:

  • For one thing, as Patrick Egan notes, violence has significantly decreased over the past forty years, and our societal unease has decreased along with it.
  • As Egan also notes in the same blog post, “ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows.” He informs us that in the 1970s, half of those surveyed by the General Social Survey reported that they had guns at home. Now, only a third report that they do. This has been caused by “a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes.” Egan points out that Gallup’s findings are similar.
  • The easy answer to the shooting in Newtown is to demand that guns be banned, or that their possession be severely curtailed. Obviously, those making this kind of argument are unaware of Egan’s findings (if they are aware of them and are still arguing that we need further gun bans, I wonder whether they are truly devoted to finding an actual solution to the problem of gun violence). But as Eugene Volokh writes, there is reason to believe that armed civilians are able to stop or deter (at least to some extent) perpetrators of violence. We ought to factor that into our decision-making in the crafting of any post-Newtown policy regarding the possession of guns. Jeffrey Goldberg makes this point as well:

People should have the ability to defend themselves. Mass shootings take many lives in part because no one is firing back at the shooters. The shooters in recent massacres have had many minutes to complete their evil work, while their victims cower under desks or in closets. One response to the tragic reality that we are a gun-saturated country is to understand that law-abiding, well-trained, non-criminal, wholly sane citizens who are screened by the government have a role to play in their own self-defense, and in the defense of others (read The Atlantic article to see how one armed school administrator stopped a mass shooting in Pearl Mississippi). I don’t know anything more than anyone else about the shooting in Connecticut at the moment, but it seems fairly obvious that there was no one at or near the school who could have tried to fight back.

  • Relatedly, if we want to craft and implement new policies regarding the possession of guns, we kinda sorta need to make sure that we have our facts straight regarding gun possession in the United States. But as Nick Gillespie makes clear, a lot of the reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings have been factually challenged. Glenn Reynolds makes this point as well. Get ready for a lot of influential people—some of them elected officials, others people who can easily bend the ears of elected officials—to spout some remarkably inaccurate commentary post-Newtown. If you are not worried that this remarkably inaccurate commentary can or will somehow find its way into post-Newtown legislation or regulations concerning the possession of firearms, I am going to have to wonder just what it is that you are smoking.
  • There is evil in this world. We have to face that fact. I know this seems obvious—especially post-Newtown—but lots of times, we simply choose to ignore the presence of evil because evil seems permanent and ineradicable, and that is unsettling to us. John Podhoretz puts things rather starkly:

The idea that civilization is dedicated to the protection and preservation the weak and the innocent, and not about fulfilling evil impulses to defile and destroy innocence, is the root and core of the West. One cannot conceive of anything more monstrous than a person or persons who could look small children in the eye and systematically shoot them dead. Which is why this crime, among the worst crimes in American history, is not just an assault on the children, or their families, or the town of Newtown—though it is all those things.

What the killer(s) did today was nothing less than a contemporary sacrifice to Moloch, in whatever form Moloch manifests himself today—the appeasement of a voice in the head, most likely. Evil, even if it is loosed due to mental illness, is an effort to destroy the common good by making good appear powerless, ineffectual, weak. Today saw a horrifically effective effort to give evil a victory. It has opened a portal and brought Hell to earth.

  • The presence of evil notwithstanding, however, it is an unarguable fact that mental health facilities in this country are woefully lacking. They do a poor job of helping many of the mentally ill, and they actively serve to endanger many of us thanks to their inability to render proper treatment in many individual cases. Read this post (via Brian Faughnan). I dare you not to be shocked and horrified. Now, imagine how many more Michaels there are out there failing to get the treatment they so desperately need. And what will happen to them when they become adults? What will happen to the people around them?

Obviously, this is an incomplete contribution to the discussion we are having in the post-Newtown world we are forced to live in. But it contains, I believe, issues and questions that we must seriously consider as we go forward. I can only hope that as others add their voices to the debate, we will be able to find a smart and workable solution that will make us safer without curbing on our constitutional liberties.

In the meantime, if it is in any way within your power, help the people of Newtown however you can. No matter how small you think the scope of your assistance might be, those on the receiving end will be grateful to have it.


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