A Matter of Perspective

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By Mike Cronin

No doubt you know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west once every 24 hours.  It has done so for billions of years and will continue to do so for billions more.

Fact: The sun rises and sets about 16 times per day.

Fact: The sun rises and sets once every two weeks.

Fact: The sun doesn’t rise or set at all.

All of these facts are true.  How can that be?

Each is true from a certain perspective – and false from other perspectives.  The first is true from the perspective of people on the earth’s surface.  The second is true from the perspective of an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.  The third is true from the perspective of an astronaut on the surface of the moon.  The last is true from the perspective of the sun itself.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in so-and-so’s world, XYZ is quite different than in your world. Maybe you were taught to think of Western Europe, the US, the British Commonwealth, and Japan as the “first” world, and places like Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan as examples of the “third” world. Yet we all live on the same planet, so how can we be living in different worlds?

The first, second, and third worlds aren’t really separate worlds; they just appear that way from certain perspectives.  Sometimes using such metaphors can be useful in helping us frame our understanding of the actual world; sometimes the metaphors become euphemisms and are used to evade harsh truths.

For example: Haiti is the poorest, least-developed country in the western hemisphere.  It occupies part of an island called Hispaniola; the remainder of the island is taken up by the Dominican Republic. Compared to Haiti, the Dominican Republic is doing well. Some folks who call Haiti a failed state and a third-world country may be setting a scene or weaving a narrative (i.e. depicting things from a certain perspective) in order to ask you for donations to help the poor souls that live there.

Such people may mean well, but the solution to Haiti’s troubles probably depends on understanding things from a more difficult perspective.

Consider this: The 2010 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince (Haiti’s capital) was followed less than a month later by an even more powerful earthquake in Chile.  Both earthquakes caused about the same amount of destruction in terms of the value of the property destroyed, yet the death tolls were staggeringly different.  In the Haiti quake, nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives.  In the Chilean quake, the death toll was three orders of magnitude smaller. (A little over 500 people died).

Why was there such a vast difference between the two? How can a more powerful earthquake cause far less loss of life, but the same amount of property damage?

In Chile, there are building codes, insurance, robust first response capabilities, adequate hospitals, and property rights. In Haiti there are not. The property damage was the same from the perspective of cost, but vastly different from the perspective of number of buildings destroyed.  In Haiti, a good portion of the buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed outright, including the president’s palace.  In Chile, many buildings suffered damage that will be expensive to fix…but far fewer buildings actually collapsed – because most were built to code to withstand earthquakes.

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The Haitian presidential palace after the 2010 earthquake.

Why did Chile have those benefits and not Haiti?  Because for most of its history, Chile has given at least some recognition to the concept of individual and property rights.  Chileans had incentive to achieve and build and protect their investment.  Haiti, though its existence as a nation is essentially the result of a slave rebellion, never really adopted the concepts of individual freedom or property rights.  It has been ruled by a series of thugs, some worse than others, who would simply take what they wanted.

The harsh truth in the more difficult perspective: Sending aid to Haiti may help some Haitians stave off the reaper a little longer, but no amount of aid can help the Haitians adopt a philosophy of recognizing and respecting rights.

Understanding that a difference in perspective can be trivial (as in the case of knowing astronauts see 16 sunrises per “day”) or pivotal (as in the case of sending aid to Haiti), and how differing perspectives might be compared or judged against each other, is a critical skill to develop – one many of our elected leaders have failed to acquire.

Some Thoughts on Mass Shootings

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By Mike Cronin

In my last post, I tried to moderate the gun debate by debunking the myths that 1.) Shootings and violence are on the rise; 2. The police can and must protect you; and 3). The 2nd Amendment does not protect an individual’s right keep and bear arms.

A sharp-eyed commenter pointed out that I was largely silent on the sub-issue of mass shootings, so I thought I’d have a go at trying to cut through some of the alarmism* emanating from the media and gauge how bad the problem really is. Let’s take a look:

According to Mass Shooting Tracker, there were 363 mass shootings in 2013, 339 in 2014, and 353 in 2015 as of Dec 6.  Mass Shooting Tracker doesn’t articulate their criteria for what exactly a mass shooting is, though they do state that their mission is “providing unbiased, raw statistics, all with verified sourcing to inform society of the number of Mass Shootings that occur in the United States each year, no matter the cause or intent of the toll of victims.”

Nearly one mass shooting per day sounds horrific, right?  But the folks at Pew research recently published an article that shows that gun homicides have been going down since the 90s.

But wait! In June of this year, President Obama recently started “that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

And this Wall Street Journal article screams that the US leads the world in mass shootings.

So what gives?  Gun homicide has been going down, yet mass shootings are an almost daily occurrence?

We certainly have gun violence and mass shooting in this country; there is no denying that.  But is the problem really a crisis spiraling out of control?  Are we really the worst place among developing nations, or have we run across a vast case of weasel-ese?

chluke “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

We are being fed a tangled web of facts and data woven to further an agenda by spinners adept at using truth to lie or mislead or to “shape a narrative.”

My own agenda is to try to help people understand the world through the use of reason and rationality.  I am biased in favor of freedom, individual rights and liberty, free markets, and capitalism.  I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  Once I did that wearing a uniform, now I’m trying to do it in part with this blog.  To that end, when I cite references or statistics or other data, you can bet I tried to find sources or data that support my point…but I also will tell you that.

The leading adversaries in the gun control/gun rights debate do the same thing, except that they are much less likely to tell you their bias or agenda like I just did. The people who want more gun control, or even full confiscation, know that they are up against the 2nd Amendment.  They will use, or misuse, every statistical trick, fact, and rhetorical tactic in a way that makes gun violence in America seem as bad as possible.

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Conversely, there are people who would have us believe that the entire mass media is hell-bent on eradicating guns from America, or that Liberals just don’t get the concept that making something illegal won’t make it go away. They will also use, or misuse, sources and data to back up their positions.

Here are  a couple of tricks spin-meisters like to use:

Use absolute numbers vs rates to make a comparison between populations. The Wall Street Journal article does this.  It claims the US leads the world in mass shootings.  They are using absolute data to back that claim.  It is a fact that the US has more mass shootings than any other developed nation…but that is not the whole story. The US has more people and more guns than the rest of the developed countries, so of course we will have more mass shootings and more deaths, in absolute terms.  But do we have the highest death rate from mass shootings?  Nope.  We’re somewhere in the upper- middle. So which country is the worst? Would you believe it is statistically more likely that someone in Norway (?!) will die in a mass shooting than in any other developed country? That makes President Obama’s June assertion incorrect. Mass shootings do happen in some other developed countries with as much or more frequency per capita than in the US.

Omit context:  How many of the mass shootings in the US are justified self-defense (i.e. not a crime)?  We are not told.  How many are being committed by perpetrators with weapons that are already illegal to possess? We are not told. How many perpetrators were in the country illegally? How many were crazies off their meds who should not even be in public unsupervised? We are not told. How many happened at places where it was already illegal to have a gun at all (i.e. so-called “gun-free zones”)? We are not told. How many were attacks by terrorists? We are not told.  It is factual, but misleading, to merely count up incidents and report them without providing any context.

Another way to omit context: Make a crisis out of some aspect of a problem that supports your point, while ignoring or evading that the larger problem is within normal bounds. Mass shootings are but a subset of shootings, which are but a subset of violence, which is but a subset of causes of death.

Is there some other cause of death that is more of a problem than mass shootings? If so, why isn’t it getting as much attention?

In fact, there are several. The top ten causes are various diseases, accidents, and suicide. The homicide rate is roughly only half the suicide rate. Sadly, Heart attacks, cancer, accidents, diabetes, and suicide are not very newsworthy in and of themselves, but a killing spree is high drama.

So is the mass shooting problem as bad as we are led to believe? I’ve given you a peek behind the curtain, but you’ll have to decide that for yourself.

*Here is a mild example of the kind of alarmism I am referring to:  The Mass Shooting Tracker data listed above clearly indicate there are very nearly enough mass shootings (according to their unstated definition of mass shooting) to equal one per day over the last three years.  A PBS article citing this very same source ran with the headline “More than one mass shooting happens per day in the U.S., data shows.” Call me guilty of splitting hairs, but claiming a source indicates “more than one per day” when the data show “nearly one per day” is either sloppy exaggeration, ignorance of the length of a year, or irresponsible sensationalism.

Got Reason?

By Mike Cronin

It’s hard to know what to believe these days.  The mainstream media cares about ratings more than veracity or depth, so there’s always an undertone of urgency to the news.  Likewise, pundits are out to sell books, increase circulation of their columns, and keep their names on the air, so they make a living off of controversy.  Worst of all, sophisticated ideologues are adept at hijacking issues or movements and turning them to their own purposes.

How can we filter this constant stream of misinformation and disinformation and get to something resembling the truth?

We could do worse than to try using reasoned thought.   Here are a two examples:

The controversy:  Vaccines.  On the one hand, people argue that vaccines are safe and effective, and that not getting vaccinated puts not only the unvaccinated person at risk of contracting various diseases, but the vaccinated as well.  On the other hand, people argue that vaccines are not nearly as safe as they are touted to be, and they can cause more harm than the disease they are meant to protect us from.

A dose of reason:  Vaccines have proven highly effective (but not perfect) at greatly curtailing diseases such as Polio, Mumps, Measles, Small Pox, Typhoid, and Rubella.  Very few people, (but not zero) suffer any ill effects from receiving FDA-approved vaccines (unproven, or experimental vaccines, are a subject for another post).  A mercury-based preservative called thimerosal is used in some vaccines, but it was phased out of vaccinations meant for children beginning in 1999.  A sampling of anti-vaccine literature would have us believe thimerosal and other substances in vaccines can cause autism or other ill effects. There is no hard proof of this.

Bottom line: On balance, vaccines are an overall benefit, though they are imperfect. We should not disregard the good just because it is not perfect, especially if “good” is the best we have. The extreme low risk of side effects compared to the very real risk of contracting a disease suggest that it is generally safer to get vaccinated than to refuse to do so – but do your homework.

The controversy: Climate Change.  I have remarked on this in previous posts, so I will not go into it deeply here other than to sum up:  The climate may be changing, and human activity, especially carbon emissions, may be the main contributor, but that is far from proven.   To paraphrase Carl Sagan: if you intend to prove an extraordinary claim, you must exhibit extraordinary evidence.  You cannot do that when:

  1. Your change your theory to fit the times, but not the facts (the fear was global cooling in the 70s, then it became global warming in the 90s, now it’s “climate change”)
  2. You change your facts to fit your theory (Climategate)
  3. You vilify critics as heretics (aka “deniers”) instead of countering their arguments
  4. You use muddied language (e.g. “Consensus: 97% of climate scientists agree”). That’s the same as saying “the scientists that agree, agree. Those who don’t, disagree.” In other words, there is no consensus among climate scientists!
  5. Your organizing body is political, not scientific (IPCC)
  6. The “solutions” you propose penalize carbon-emitting activities in developed countries and allows the same activities in undeveloped countries – as if the climate recognizes borders or economics (e.g. Kyoto Protocol)

A reasoned view: Human-caused climate change may be real, but the “science” used to prove that is far from “settled,” and the implied catastrophe is far from certain. In fact, climate science is driven far more by politics and funding than by the desire to know the objective truth.

Bottom line: Take dire warnings of climate catastrophe with a grain of salt and don’t feel guilty for enjoying your modern standard of living, but don’t grossly pollute through sheer neglect or wanton disregard for the environment.

 

Stuff I Want My Kids to Know #1: There ain’t no Such Thing as a Free Lunch

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By Mike Cronin

Have you ever heard the phrase “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” often abbreviated TANSTAAFL?  Well, it doesn’t just refer to meals.  It means that whenever something is advertised as “free,” there’s always a catch or a string attached. “Buy one, get one free” doesn’t really mean you get one free, it means you get two for the price of one, or two for half-price each. It might be a good deal, but you are not getting anything free.

It’s the same deal when you are offered a “free” gift or a “free” upgrade when you purchase goods or services.  You are paying for the thing that’s free in the price of the thing that isn’t.

Sometimes you really do get a good or a service for no money, but it still isn’t really free. “Free” software often comes with adware or malware that will cost you time, money, or in some other way cause you stress. Even if it didn’t cost you money, you are still paying for it in other ways.

Many times, the catch or the string is buried in the “fine print.”  All of the big, bold, splashy fonts and bright colors on an ad are just a lure. The legal facts are in the tiny text buried in the middle of the insert or at the bottom of the ad. The fine print section is like the ingredients portion of a food label – it tells you what’s really in there.

The bottom line is that you can’t get something for nothing except in very rare circumstances. One way or another you have paid, or will pay, for what you receive.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  For example, when you receive a birthday or Christmas present, in a sense, you have already “paid” for it by being a friend worthy of receiving a gift. The trick is to remember TANSTAAFL whenever you are excited about a seemingly good deal.  If it seems to good to be true, it probably is, because you will pay for it one way or another!

Untangling the Illegal Immigration Knot

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By Mike Cronin

Let’s wrap our head around the multi-faceted illegal immigration problem.

  1. If you are an elected Democrat, the problem is that there are millions potential voters out there who cannot legally vote for you or your pals. How to solve that problem? Adopt narratives that simultaneously paint the illegal immigrants as victims who need rescuing and those who see things differently as racists. Then legalize the immigrants (or some portion of them) somehow, and/or prevent the passing of laws that require voters to produce a photo ID proving their eligibility.
  2. If you are an elected Republican, there are millions of potential Democratic voters out there who might vote illegally or who might become legal voters at the stroke of a pen. How to solve that problem? Adopt narratives that illegal immigrants are by definition criminals just for being here, and who steal jobs from American citizens, who vote illegally, and who cost us a lot of money in “stolen” benefits and entitlements.
  3. If you run a manual- labor intensive business that can’t afford to pay the minimum wage, paying an illegal immigrant in cash under the table is an attractive option.
  4. If you are a desperate person from Mexico or an impoverished country to our south, getting to America for the opportunities and freebies is an attractive option.
  5. If you are a cunning and morally flexible person, exploiting the stream of immigrants headed north is an attractive option.

So how do we solve a multi-faceted problem?  With a multi-pronged strategy that is also consistent with smaller government :

  1. Economics is the driving factor. As long as immigrants perceive things as better here than wherever they are from, they will come here.  Immigration has always been one of America’s strengths. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t but we need to do a much better job of managing it. Currently, unless one can claim one of the “Three R’s” (Relative, Rich, or Remarkable), it is next to impossible to attain a green card or citizenship. It should be easy for anyone to come here and start a new life…except for those who would do us harm (i.e. real criminals, terrorists, non-producers, etc.), so we need to secure the border. Immigration policy should be positive (you can immigrate here unless…) not negative (you can’t immigrate here unless…).
  2. We need to wind down the rhetorical panic. “Illegal immigrant” is no more a racist term than “speeder” or “shoplifter.” “Illegal immigrant” isn’t a race, it’s a status. “Mexican” isn’t a race, it’s a nationality.  “Latino” isn’t a race, it’s an ethnic identification. Yes, illegal immigrants broke a law. That doesn’t make them hardened criminals.   Also, “Illegal immigrants” can’t “steal” jobs from Americans, because jobs don’t belong to employees, they belong to employers.
  3. Lastly, as with most big-government problems, illegal immigration is an overlapping symptom, (along with unemployment), caused by another problem: Minimum wage laws. More on that can of worms in a future post.

 

Discrimination: Weasel Word?

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By Mike Cronin

Why is it that advertisements for luxury goods often appeal to those with “discriminating tastes,” yet it is widely regarded as wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of their genetic makeup, physical abilities, or group affiliations? How can it be good to discriminate in one instance, but not the other? I submit it is because the word discrimination has two opposing meanings; one of which is weasel-ease.

Dictionary.com gives four definitions for discrimination.  The first two seem to be almost completely contradictory to each other. The first, i.e. “an act or instance of discriminating, or of making a distinction,” alludes to judgment. It is the meaning that applies in the case of advertisers appealing to the supposed keen discernment of well-heeled consumers.  The second definition, “treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit…” is the kind of discrimination that gets folks into legal and moral trouble.

Here’s the rub: a person who takes such action for or against another solely on account of race, creed, gender, etc., is actually indiscriminately applying their prejudices or stereotypes against their victims. They are in fact failing to discriminate based on individual merit. That’s the exact opposite of the primary definition of discrimination, and it is the essence of collectivism. “Discrimination” has entered the weasel lexicon.

Weasel Words: Social Justice

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By Mike Cronin

When you hear someone speak of social justice, what comes to mind?  The first time I heard the term, I recall wondering why justice needed a qualifier. Over time, I came to realize that it was simply another corruption of language the weasels have been using to push us towards more collectivism; in this case: it sounds so righteous, but it is really just code for the same old thing collectivists always seek: group “rights” and wealth redistribution.

To their way of thinking, it is unjust for a few to accumulate substantially more wealth than others, or for there to be a large difference in incomes and holdings between the wealthiest and the poorest members of society. The supposed goal of social justice is a community wherein there is at least rough parity in the economic outcomes for everyone. The goal is to be obtained regardless of whether there might be a huge disparity in the productive inputs between everyone, and in ignorance of the economic concept that it is possible to create wealth vice distribute it. More broadly, but in the same vein, the term social justice is also used when collectivists seek “rights” for groups that do not exist for the individual.

Here are some of the problems with the concept:

1.            When opponents argue that the term social justice means equal outcomes without equal inputs, proponents argue that they don’t mean absolutely strict equality…but they fail to identify just what an acceptable range of differences might be, and they blank out discussion of input entirely – as if it were axiomatic that all input effort is equal.

2.            Proponents of social justice have no recourse but to use the coercive power of government to obtain “equality of outcomes.” In other words, to tax the incomes and/or confiscate the wealth of those who have been the most industrious, in order to give it to those who have been less industrious.  This deters productivity and rewards mediocrity – where is the justice in that?

3.            Polish political commentator Janusz Korwin-Mikke (a.k.a. JKM) opines: “Either ‘social justice’ has the same meaning as ‘justice’ – or not. If so – why use the additional word ‘social?’ … if ‘social justice’ means something different from ‘justice’ – then ‘something different from justice’ is by definition ‘injustice.'”

4.            Valid rights are negative in nature. That means they require no positive action on the part of others, merely that one restrain oneself from violating another’s rights.  The group “rights” social justice proponents argue for are really privileges, obtained at the expense of others. Two examples: If one has a “right” to housing (as opposed to the right to attempt to buy or rent shelter through mutual agreement with an owner or landlord), then one has a “right” to the time, materials, and labor of construction workers, tradesmen, planners, landscapers, and other human beings involved in the production and marketing of the house. If one has a “right” to health care (as opposed to the right to seek out health care from a willing provider in exchange for some mutually agreed upon value), then one has the “right” to the time, effort, skill, and materials of doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmaceutical producers, and all of the other people engaged in the provision of one’s care.

How awesome for you if you’re getting some of that social justice the politicians have been promising! How cool is it that now you have such rights! But how long will it be until no one will design new technology, or build a factory, or rent a house, or grow crops, or slog through years of medical school anymore?  Ever wonder why there is a shortage of engineers and doctors, and an overabundance of lawyers in this country? Where will you get your social justice when such people extract their own form of justice from society?