As promised, I’m back for a bit of December blogging. In general my life is still quite busy, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. But I will still try to blog from time to time. Tell Ginkgo to kick me if I don’t blog at least once a month.
Anyway… so, the Newtown shooting. What I’m about to write may come across as quite cold, so I feel it is important for me to preface it by first saying that my sympathies and condolences go out to the victims and the families and friends of the victims of the shooting. And in particular, my heart goes out to the children traumatized by the shooting. That’s got to be quite a load to deal with.
Now, there’s been a lot of debate around this tragedy, focusing largely on gun control. I find the debate on both sides excruciating. And here’s why: no one seems to be talking about this in terms of cost/benefit trade-offs. Oh shit, you may be thinking, he’s not about to suggest that children’s lives have a price, is he? That they’re expendable? What a horrible monster you are, Xakudo!
Well, let’s change the subject to motor vehicles for a moment. In 2009 there were a little over 30,000 deaths due to vehicular accidents in the USA. So how many human lives are worth our freedom of personal transportation? How many lives are we willing to sacrifice for the convenience of hopping into a car and driving where we want?
It’s a macabre question to pose to someone. And it’s also misleading. The US human population is over 300 million, which means that 30,000 deaths works out to roughly 0.01% of the population, or 1 in 10,000 people a year. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not a large risk.
Can it be reduced further? Almost certainly. But every reduction will have a corresponding cost associated with it. And as the risk approaches zero, the costs grow more quickly thanks to the law of diminishing returns. And even with extremely small risks, say 0.00001% percent/year, you can still expect to see 30 people a year dying from car accidents in the USA. And that 30-deaths-a-year would actually represent some pretty extreme safety.
Incidentally, there have been fewer than 50 violence-related deaths per year in US schools for many years now. Granted, the population of school-aged kids is smaller than the general US population, so that probably works out to somewhere in the ballpark of 0.00006%. But that’s still an impressive level of safety. Schools are actually extremely safe, at least with respect to violent death.
So this brings me to the first thing that’s really wrong with the gun control debate right now: it’s not actually about school safety. The number of gun related deaths in the USA is about the same as the number of auto related deaths: 30,000 / year. School shootings make up a minuscule part of that.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the Newtown shooting shouldn’t have sparked debate about gun control. It’s totally fine that it has. It’s quite topical. But if we were having a rational debate, people should have quickly moved on from the topic of school safety due to its statistical irrelevance. We don’t need more armed guards to keep schools safe, nor do we need stricter gun control laws to keep schools safe, because they’re already safe.
The second thing that’s really wrong with the debate is that people aren’t being realistic about risk in general. There is no such thing as absolute safety, nor is there such thing as absolute security. Life is risky. The question isn’t how to eliminate risk, the question is what costs do we consider acceptable for which risk reductions. There will always be trade-offs we have to make in the name of safety and security. Debates around safety and security should acknowledge that reality and use it as a jumping-off point. People often don’t like to think this is how things work, but it is.
Personally, I think stricter gun control laws would be a darned good idea. Let’s try to cut into that 30,000/year number with some strict but “reasonable” gun control laws. I think the current balance could afford to take on some more costs for some more safety.
Alternatively, looking at e.g. national security efforts against terrorism, I think the balance is swung too far in the other direction, and I think we’re incurring too many costs (especially privacy and other civil rights) for relatively small security gains.
This kind of analysis is also very applicable to gender issues. Rape is a hot-button topic, for example, and I half-expect to hear someone yell “Even one raped woman is too many!” at some point. But even aside from being very gynocentric, that’s also just not a realistic way to approach it. A culture which could stop all rape would need to have a very oppressive structure itself in order to do so, and that incurs all kinds of costs. So we need to take a serious look at the cost/benefit trade-offs.
Stopping 100% of genital mutilation also incurs costs, and we need to stay alert about what trade-offs we’re making.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
So please, world, can we stop with the moral posturing and start talking about risk reduction in realistic, rational, evidence-based terms? Even rational people can disagree on the balance, but at least if we frame these debates properly we might be able to get somewhere.