American Homicides & Honor

Honor & American Homicides

The United States has more guns and more homicides than many other WEIRD countries. Compared to Europe in particular, the United States has much more gun violence, gun deaths, and murders in general. Peter Singer offers one plausible explanation for this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Pinker writes, “In Europe, first the state disarmed the people and claimed a monopoly on violence, then the people took over the apparatus of the state. In America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms. … In other words Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”
The argument that Pinker makes is that Americans maintained their weapons because they never allowed government to become strong enough to take their weapons away. Americans never fully gave government the sole authority to use violence. Americans have retained the idea that they should be able to use violence to protect themselves if ever needed. In an almost mythical manner, weapons and defensive violence have been enshrined in the United States.
However, having weapons and placing defensive violence in a special place is not the entire explanation for higher rates of murder in the United States that Pinker offers. Pinker suggests, especially in the South, that the United States has also maintained a culture of personal honor. In such a culture, any slight against the individual needs to be avenged so that the individual’s honor is not damaged. Pride, family heritage, and displays of strength and power are important in such a system, and must be upheld (it is fitting that the biggest movie franchise in the United States is the Avengers).
The way this translates into more homicides is not through direct murders for individual advancement or gain, but through murders following individual fights. Pinker writes, “southerners do not outkill northerners in homicides carried out during robberies, only in those sparked by quarrels.” Southerners are far more likely to turn to violence, and accept violence, when it is a response to aggression or a slight against an individual. Honor, it turns out, is a dangerous force and idea that leads to more homicides surrounding frivolous slights.
I don’t think Pinker’s explanations fully capture or fully explain why homicide rates in the Untied States are higher than in other WEIRD countries.  I do think they demonstrate different aspects of the United States which contribute to greater uses of violence. When combined with ideas about racism in the United States, extreme positions of inequality, lack of social safety nets, and some capitalistic aspects of our economic system, I think Pinker’s considerations are very important. Violence is not fully owned by the state because our population won’t allow the state a full monopoly on violence. Many parts of the country still cling to honor cultures that tacitly encourage violence – especially in self-defense or preservation. As a result, the murder and violence potential of the Untied States is higher than many WEIRD countries, and that shows through in the data.
Violence and Statelessness Within a State

Violence and Statelessness Within a State

Recently I have been making efforts to take longer views of history, to understand how things that happened and developed a long time ago still impact the world today. Sometimes this is easy to do. In a city, infrastructure decisions are evaluated and planned with 30 or more years of useful life intended for the investment. A building, bridge, or park is expected to stick around for a while, shaping its immediately area for a long time (or possibly forever if we chose to maintain the infrastructure indefinitely).
What is harder to see is how cultural products, as opposed to physical infrastructure products, stick around and continue to shape the culture and development of human social worlds. We are used to thinking of humans as individual actors who have the power to change and adapt to any given situation. We don’t think about how specific cultural arrangements could influence people for the long term. But the reality is that cultural interactions, products, and institutions can have a dramatic long term impact on people, just as a park or bridge can have a long term impact on a city.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker discusses how lower-income African Americans ended up with higher rates of violence due to poor policing. These higher rates of violence translated into discriminatory practices that have lasted for a long time, and are still with us today. It is easy to think that any black person in the US today can simply chose to be different, to ignore the long influence of history, but that is to ignore the real social institutions that shaped how African Americans understood themselves in our nation. Just as it would be foolish to ignore the impact that a park had in making a city an enjoyable place to live, ignoring the discrimination that African Americans faced and the subsequent violence that grew within African American communities would be foolish.
Pinker writes, “communities of lower-income African Americans were effectively stateless, relying on a culture of honor (sometimes called the code of the streets) to defend their interests rather than calling in the law.” When government discriminated against black people, when the police were not a reliable and trustworthy source of justice, when black people had to defend their own honor or risk being taken advantage of, violence became a solution. By segregating black people, denying them access to quality services, and by racially profiling communities of color in policing, a stateless people were created within our country. The law did not afford equal protections and the state did not provide the same opportunities and engagement for black people relative to white people. This created situations in which violence flourished, furthering the very systems of inequality and injustice that created the situations for violence in the first place.
This history is long. It is not something that can be understood simply by looking at the violence that exists in African American communities today. To understand how we ended up with Black Lives Matter, to understand why rates of violence in communities of color are what they are, and to understand racial tensions, we have to take a long view of history. We have to acknowledge that cultural factors can have long-term impacts and consequences, just as infrastructure decisions can. Discrimination created a stateless people within the United States, and that statelessness incentivized violence. None of this is a matter of individual moral failings, but a consequence of decades of institutional and governance failings.
States, Civilization, & Reducing Violence

States, Civilization, & Reducing Violence

People today are pretty terrified of living in a totalitarian state. Following the 1900’s, when Nazis rounded up and killed millions of Jews and when dictators in South America like Pinochet in Chile made dissenters “disappear”, people have become concerned about the power of the state and the possibility that the state would use violence against the population in order to maintain power and control. Totalitarian states do exist and are still scary (China’s surveillance is particularly alarming, Russian misinformation is a huge problem, and North Korea’s willingness to live in poverty if awful), but it is possible that people have gone too far in terms of their fears of the state in much of the world.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that states have made people and societies much safer, and that stronger states have done a better job of reducing violence than weaker states. He writes, “Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons for quarrel: gain, safety, and credible deterrence. People in nonstate societies fight about all three.” When you live in a powerful state, you can be relatively sure that you cannot use violence for personal gain. States can provide a feeling of safety by patrolling crime in a fair and competent manner. Through deterrence, states can reduce violence. Without a functioning state with the resources to provide credible deterrence, safety, and prevent people from using violence for gain, then individuals can take these things into their own hands. They are incentivized to perpetuate violence against others for their own gain, safety, and deterrence of future violence.
Totalitarian states may be awful, but well functioning and strong states (short of totalitarian regimes) reduce violence and allow people to interact in meaningful ways. We shouldn’t hate the state and constantly be fearful of the state simply because the possibility of totalitarianism is always there. It is easy to imagine a state that has been continually weakened and reduced by its population to become effectively powerless, incapable of stopping violence for personal gain, incapable of providing safety, and incapable of providing credible deterrence against violence. Such a state could be overwhelmed and taken over by a despot who wishes to impose totalitarian governance. Governments need to be strong and well functioning in order to reduce crime and violence. “The reduction of homicide by government control,” writes Pinker, “is so obvious to anthropologists that they seldom document it with numbers.” Somehow we forget this when we are mad at our government for increasing taxes to try to provide important services, improve public conditions, or to try to promote a more representative bureaucracy.
I don’t want to minimize the danger and threat that totalitarian governments pose to the world. I do however want to highlight the absurdity of claiming that any government action within a democracy is a threat that could lead to a dystopian and totalitarian regime of violence. If violence is our main concern, we might want to consider the dangers of an inept government more than the dangers of a strong government.
Accidental States

Accidental States

An idea from a recent segment of The Naked Scientists podcast has stuck in my mind the last few days. The idea was that we view the world with a bias toward our present moment and assume that everything within human history happened for a specific reason to get us to our present moment. We assume that our past selves and our ancestors all made specific decisions because they were deliberately working toward our current moment. Our bias assumes that world history unfolded intentionally.
However, this is likely not true. As an example, a guest on The Naked Scientists argued that this bias has shaped the way we view the relationship between humans and dogs. We assume that humans looked at ancestral wolves and saw an opportunity if they partnered with the animals. We assume that humans deliberately bred less aggressive wolves until they ended up with a domesticated creature that more closely resembles modern dogs. This narrative, however, may be a victim of present focused bias. It may have been more random, and in a sense accidental, that humans ended up getting close to dogs. It may have been less of a deliberate action and choice by humans to breed less aggressive wolves for specific protection and assistance purposes, and more of something that developed beyond human effort and control.
This is an interesting perspective and is fun to use when looking at other aspects of humanity. For example, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other.” This is a framing which suggests that states may have been as accidental in their development as the relationship between humans and dogs. Ancient humans may not have been sitting down in a council to think through the best ways to organize their society. They may not have been deliberately thinking about creating governance structures with the intention of building institutions that would serve humanity for thousands of years. Instead, early states may have been effectively random. They may have been chance agglomerations of people effectively acting as gangs with some better than others.
Accidental states are interesting to think about. When we first start to seriously consider government and governance (sometime in high school for many of us) we are introduced to ideas by Hobbs and Lock. Government is presented as a deliberate and well thought out institution, especially in the United States. We view the formation of American Government through our present moment, constantly looking at each developmental step along the way as if it were an inevitable and deliberate journey to our current political system. But perhaps governance, American and other, is more random. Perhaps there was less long-term planning and forward thinking than what we like to imagine. Perhaps protection rackets slowly morphed and evolved over hundreds of years. Perhaps tribes and kin-based institutions slowly changed though both internal and external influences to become something more like modern government, without any real intention or deliberate planning involved. Perhaps we have more accidental states than deliberate states.
Less Violence Correlates with Better Societies

Less Violence Correlates with Better Societies

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker makes an argument that doesn’t appear to be correct at face value. He argues that humanity has become less violent over time and that our societies are following a progression toward less violence as we work toward specific societal goals. While it may feel like our society is constantly on the verge of a meltdown and while we may hear about violent murders, robberies, and attacks in the media, the reality is that humans and our society have become less violent. This is true if you take a long view of human history, going back thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands of years, and it is also true if you take a more modern look at society, looking back a century or even a couple decades. There are fluctuations year over year, but the general trend is downward.
In his book Pinker writes, “across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.” Pinker acknowledges that each of these correlations are complex. It is hard to say that being less violent made a society richer, or that being better governed reduced a society’s levels of violence. None of these variables is easy to separate from the other. But it is clear that less violence is correlated with everything the areas Pinker highlights.
What is important to note is that these correlations reflect a better society that is more favorable to live within. If populations are mobile enough, you would expect people to move toward the more peaceable societies because they want to live in a richer, safer, healthier, and better governed society. Societies which lean into violence, or perhaps that have other negative qualities that cause greater levels of violence, will be less successful and worse off. Populations will want to leave those societies. They will not want to live within and support them. Cultural evolution doesn’t follow a specific path or goal, but we can expect people to want to live in places with the correlates from Pinker’s quote, and we can expect people to try to move toward those better societies. The feedback mechanisms are complex, so we can’t simply say that societies should be less violent for all these positive things to follow, but it does give us an insight into what matters and what societies should strive toward if they want to be successful relative to other societies.
There is no Escape from Imagined Orders

There is No Escape from Imagined Orders

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are forever trapped in imagined orders. Whether it is the American Dollar, human rights, or nations, we are trapped within agreed upon institutions for organizing our lives. The reason we are stuck with the imagined orders we have created is because they are what enable billions of humans to cooperate and interact without dissolving into lawless violence. What exists in a single person’s head is combined with what exists in the minds of others to form real institutions, practices, and patterns that shape our interactions and understandings of the world. Our imagined orders are social constructs, and they cannot be eliminated – they can only be replaced.
“In order to change an existing imagined order,” writes Harari, “we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.” Harari’s quote is not completely accurate. We can dismantle an imagined order without replacing it through lawless chaos, but it is unlikely that a state of lawless chaos will remain for long. In order to get many humans to cooperate together, especially to commit violence and destruction which is likely not in their own best interest, you often need some sort of imagined order to serve as the motivating impetus for the violence and destruction. You might get a sufficient number of people to riot and burn the system down without really knowing what will replace it, but eventually, a new imagined order will take over. More common, however, is the situation Harari explains, that one imagined order is slowly replaced by another.
“There is no way out of the imagined order,” writes Harari. Escaping one imagined order simply leads to a new imagined order. The divine right of kings was dismantled and replaced by ideas of human rights, which encouraged and supported the development of representative democracies. Imagined orders exist together and can build upon one another, but they cannot be escaped altogether. One way or another, for humans to live and cooperate together, we need large-scale imagined orders which prescribe and  proscribe certain behaviors, responses, and relationships across the billions of people living on earth.
Nudges Versus Regulation

Nudges Versus Regulation

“Libertarian paternalism, we think, is a promising foundation for bipartisanship.” Write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge. The authors are in favor of a governance structure that does not eliminate choice and possibility for people in the world. They are in favor of a system that allows flexibility for the people who have the time and capacity to consider all of their options before making a choice, and they prefer subtle and almost invisible forces to shape public opinion and behaviors. Throughout the book they argue that heavy handed regulation can be harmful to the long-term success and progress in some areas because people may push back against laws and regulations that limit freedom.  Nudges, in their view, can be an avenue toward real bipartisanship and cooperation because they can make real world changes without heavy handed government action.


The authors present the standard view of American politics where the Republican Party is presented as the party of small government while Democrats are the party of big government action. Republicans are all about freedom of choice and individual responsibility while Democrats are the party of government planning and the use of public institutions to improve people’s lives. I think this view is wrong. I think people are primarily self-interested, and gravitate toward the party that better reflects their identity, personality, and self-interests, and through motivated reasoning find high-minded excuses for supporting the party that generally aligns with the overarching political preferences that the standard view of American politics presents. But does this mean that Sunstein and Thaler are wrong about the ability of nudges to bring together Republicans and Democrats for action on public policy?


They write, “In many domains, including environmental protection, family law, and school choice, we will be arguing that better governance requires less in the way of government coercion and constraint, and more in the way of freedom to choose.”


When we consider whether Sunstein and Thaler are correct, we have to ask what is meant by better governance. Better governance might be reaching actual goals and actually improving people’s lives. It might mean creating a system that people are happier to interact with. Better governance may also mean a system that is more equitable, creates more social cohesion and trust, or that operates quicker. Each of these concepts is different, yet related, and we demonstrate that how we chose to measure better governance can shape the approaches we take. A focus on greater equity might come at the cost of quicker hiring and firing processes. Creating a system that leaves individuals who interact with governance happier may mean a system that is bigger and more expensive, but might not mean that it actually solves people’s problems. What we mean by better governance can conflict with what someone else means by better governance, so it is important to be clear about goals and expectations.


And that gets to the question – do nudges actually do any of these things? In terms of addressing environmental protection, I don’t think nudges are adequate. I think we are at a point where catastrophic environmental damage and climate change are unavoidable unless we have massive societal and technological changes. Simple nudges that tax oil and gas while offering rebates or incentives for purchasing electric cars won’t change the landscape quick enough to help mitigate climate change and create a sustainable world moving forward. I think we are at a point where we need real action to produce meaningful changes that lead to better governance in environmental policy. It might be time for outright bans on sales of gasoline and diesel engines, billion dollar prizes for green technology, and other heavy handed government interferences in markets and people’s daily lives.


However, within family policy, nudges do seem like they can be meaningful. Tyler Cowen recently shared research correlating child car safety laws with the number of children a family has. The argument being that car seats and seat-belt requirements may make it more difficult to have multiple young children who take a long time to get situated in a car before driving, reducing incentives for parents to have more kids. Family decisions, it seems, can be highly influenced by seemingly inconsequential factors. If this is accurate, then nudges, such as child care rebates, really might reduce the costs of childbearing, and might encourage larger families, shaping the actual outcome of people’s lives and securing a young tax base to support social service programs. Nudges might be an effective approach to encouraging more family formation.


To continue analyzing policy in areas where Sunstein and Thaler’s quote suggests nudges would be helpful, my argument on school choice would be that it is effectively 100% signaling and self-interest. Religious parents probably don’t care too much about what their children actually learn in school or where they go. They do care about how much their school choice argument and energy demonstrate their religious devotion. Wealthy parents care about the signaling power of elite schools and universities, and similarly care about how much their children will be able to signal and benefit from a private school education that is out of reach for the majority of families who send their children to public schools. Race, socio-economic status, and other identity markers seem to be core to the self-interest of most school choice freedom advocates in my opinion. From my point of view, better governance would enhance social cohesion, encourage more opportunities for those individuals who otherwise would be left out, and help us manage diversity collectively. If school choice is overwhelmingly dominated by signaling and self-interest, then I see little reason why nudges would be the best approach to shaping policy. Nudges that increase costs of signaling end up creating stronger signals for those who can afford to still send their children to private institutions, therefore increasing their value and creating more division and contention within the debate.


Nudges seem to have real power in shaping public policy and can likely bring together Republicans and Democrats in some instances, but if governance is not about public policy, but is instead about identity, self-interest, and signaling, then I don’t think nudges can truly do much to improve governance or bring together Democrats and Republicans. Similarly, for massively consequential policy areas, I don’t think we can leave our future and success up to nudges. They may take too long and not be forceful enough to really shape public behavior and attitude, especially if they face entrenched opposition.
The precautionary principle in governance

A Factor for Paralysis in Regulation & Legislation

A common complaint today in the United States is that nothing gets done. We are frustrated by political leaders who can’t pass important legislation. We dislike how slow local governments are to update infrastructure, adopt new technologies, and make improvements in the places we live. Gridlock has become the norm, and the actions that governments take seem to be too little too late.


But is this criticism really fair? Is the problem slow governments, ineffectual legislators, and inept public officials? Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow highlights a basic aspect of human psychology that might be one of the major contributing factors to the paralysis we see in governance today, and it has nothing to do with the quality of officials and legislators, but instead is all about the structures and systems of incentives that elected officials and policy actors respond to. The precautionary principle, a side effect of our general tendency toward loss aversion and our general stance against taboo tradeoffs drives our paralysis, and it is a logical response to the structure of many of our governing institutions.


Governments are necessary parts of human society, helping us establish rules for how we will live, interact, and make decisions collectively. Governments make investments, determine safety and efficacy standards, and help allocate resources across populations. In each of these functions of governance there is a possibility for error, a possibility for failure, and risk involved in the decisions. This is where the precautionary principle comes in. Kahneman writes,


“In the regulatory context, the precautionary principle imposes the entire burden of proving safety on anyone who undertakes actions that might harm people or the environment. Multiple international bodies have specified that the absence of scientific evidence of potential damage is not sufficient justification for taking risks. … the precautionary principle is costly, and when interpreted strictly it can be paralyzing.”


When risk is involved in decision-making processes, elected officials and public leaders are held responsible for any the bad outcomes that come to pass. There will always be a chance that a government investment fails, and no public official wants that failure to reflect poorly on their decision-making. There is always the risk that allocated resources could be misused, and it is often the official who approved the resource allocation (as well as the bad actor themselves) who faces consequences. When there is a deliberate decision to trade-off some level of safety or to accept an increase in risk in exchange for improved economic performance, faster traffic flows, or reduced government spending, public leaders and elected officials are the ones who look bad when something goes wrong.


The way our governance operates today encourages the precautionary principle. Risk is incredibly dangerous for public leaders, so the safer and more costly approach feels like the right choice in each individual decision. Over time, however, the costs add up, the paralysis becomes suffocating, and the public becomes dissatisfied and cynical. The answer might not be to completely cut out the regulation and safety apparatus of the government (that didn’t work well for President Trump who eliminated the NSC directorate for global health and security and bio-defense). The answer will be new structures for governance, new ways to allow government to take risks, and new ways to understand the risks that we all take in our lives. None of these are easy or simple transitions, but it is likely what we need in order to survive in a more complex and turbulent world.
Taboo Tradeoffs

Taboo Tradeoffs

A taboo tradeoff occurs when we are faced with the dilemma of exchanging something that we are not supposed to give up for money, food, or other resources. Our time, attention, energy, and sometimes even our happiness are perfectly legitimate to trade, but things like health and safety generally are not. We are expected to exchange our time, attention, and physical labor for money, but we are not expected to exchange our personal health for money. When I first read about taboo tradeoffs in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, the year was 2019, and we had not yet entered into a period of time defined by a global pandemic where people began to challenge the taboo against trading health and safety for entertainment, for trials for COVID-19 cures, and to signal their political allegiance.


In the book, Kahneman suggests that holding to hard rules against taboo tradeoffs actually makes us all worse off in the end. “The taboo tradeoff against accepting any increase in risk is not an efficient way to use the safety budget,” he writes. Kahneman’s point is that we can spend huge amounts of resources to ensure that there is absolutely no risk to ourselves, our children, or to others, but that we would be better off allocating those resources in a different way. I think Kahneman is correct, but I think that his message has the potential to be read very differently in 2020, and deserves more careful and nuanced discussion.


“The intense aversion to trading increased risk for some other advantage plays out on a grand scale in the laws and regulations governing risk.” The important point to note is that complete security and safety comes at a cost of other advantages. The advantage to driving to a football game is that we get to enjoy watching live sports, the risk is that we could be in a serious traffic accident. The advantage of using bug spray is that we kill the creepy crawlies in the dark corners of the garage, the risk is that we (or a child or pet) could accidently ingest the poison. The safest things to do would be to watch the game on TV and to use a broom and boot to kill the bugs, but if we avoid the risk then we give up the advantages of seeing live sports and using efficient pest control products.


Kahneman notes that when we make these decisions, we often make them based on a fear of regret more than out of altruistic concerns for our own health and safety or for the health and safety of others. If you traded some level of risk of your child’s safety, and they died, you would feel immense regret and shame, and so you avoid the taboo tradeoff to prevent your own shame. When this plays out across society in millions of large and small examples, we end up in a collectively risk averse paralysis, and society gives up huge advantages because there is a possibility of risk for some individuals.


To address the current global state of affairs, I think Kahneman would recognize the risk of COVID-19 and would not encourage us to trade our health and safety (and the health and safety of others) for the enjoyment of a birthday party, holiday meal, or other type of gathering without wearing masks and taking other precautions.  Throughout the book Kahneman highlights the difficulties and challenges of thinking through risk. He addresses the many biases that play into how we behave and how we understand the world. He demonstrates the difficulties we have in thinking statistically and understanding complex probabilities. The takeaway from Kahneman in regard to the taboo tradeoff is that there is a level at which our efforts of safety are outpaced by the advantages we could attain by giving up some of our safety. It isn’t necessarily on each of us individually to try to decide exactly what level of risk society should accept. It is up to the experts who can engage their System 2 brain and evaluate their biases to help the rest of us better understand and conceptualize risk. We might be able to do some things understanding that there is a level of risk we take when engaging in society in 2020, but adequate precautions can still mitigate that risk, and still help us maintain a reasonable balance of safety tradeoffs while enjoying our lives.
The Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

The Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

“Tremendous sums of money are spent on enforcing federal and state marijuana laws every year,” writes John Hudak in his book Marijuana: A Short History, “A 2010 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron puts that total cost at around $14 billion annually for federal and local law enforcement, judicial, and correctional costs.”


A common refrain in the public policy world is that government budgeting reveals a society’s priority. In the United States, our system of incarcerating individuals and enforcing laws that often disproportionately impact individuals from racial minorities does not reveal something that many American’s would be proud of. The amount of money that our country, our state governments, and our local municipal governments spend on law enforcement and incarceration is enormous, and the amount we spend on actual rehabilitative programs and preventive efforts is comparatively small. We seem to be a nation that is all about punishing bad guys, but not as concerned about preventing crime and helping people avoid lives that lead toward illegal behavior in the first place.


There is still a lot we don’t know about how marijuana use will impact the human body, and we don’t know the full costs of legalizing marijuana, but I think it is fair to question whether $14 billion dollars is worth the cost of prohibition. Keeping people in jail for low level drug charges doesn’t seem to be worth the cost to many people, and that is why some libertarian and conservative groups (such as the Koch brothers), have begun to support marijuana legalization. The question is whether our priority really should be policing and arresting people for using marijuana, or whether we should be investing that money toward other purposes.


Police and law enforcement resources could be redirected toward other crimes. Reduced judicial and correctional costs might allow for smaller local budgets, meaning lower taxes for citizens. And in states like Nevada, legalized marijuana has meant tens of millions in new revenue specifically for schools and rainy day funds. Ultimately, where our government decides to put money reveals what our preferences are as citizens and voters, and for a long time our preference has been to pay to remove people we don’t like from society, even if the cost is huge and overwhelms our state and local budgets.