Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Numbers don't lie

But people sure as hell do and they often use numbers when they do it.

I was a regular fan of the Doonesbury comic strip during the Bush years because I wasn't any kind of fan of George Bush and because the strip didn't hesitate to mock the kind of presidential buffoonery I perceived; but I've never been an uncritical fan. When Gary Trudeau based a Sunday strip about financial industry corruption on "money lenders in the Temple" I let him know that I've yet to find a Bible story that mentioned such a thing, money changing and money lending being quite different things. We call Trudeau a liberal for some reason, but citing medieval anti-Semitic calumnies to make some partisan point isn't liberal or conservative, it's dishonest.

More recently Doonesbury gave us another cynical bit about how the deaths of 3000 people some 9 years ago prompted the largest increase in federal government size and authority, yet the 237,000 shooting deaths over the same period caused us to "weaken" our gun laws, I was too annoyed to bother e-mailing him. Why? Because it's numerically appealing but factually false. It's another example of putting the same picture in a different frame and claiming it's a different landscape. That's not a liberal or conservative thing, it's an honesty thing and no political party is free from such things whether or not one side is more heavily reliant on it. Let me explain.

We didn't weaken our gun laws actually. We let a ban that banned nothing and had no effect whatsoever on the number of "banned" items legally sold or on shooting deaths, expire on schedule. We finally allowed people to defend their homes against armed invaders without fear of being called a murderer. To call that "weakening" is to call any change weakening, just as the NRA seems to call any change "strengthening." The point careful avoided and upon which Trudeau none the less attempts to rest his case, is that gun related crime has not increased during this period.

But again, look at the picture itself. The attack on New York and Washington wasn't a chronic situation; it was a sudden and very large increase in terrorism. Shooting deaths in the US are, on the other hand, a very chronic condition, but none the less, they are not increasing and over a period of decades have been decreasing. If it were the other way around, Trudeau might have had a valid point, but as changes in the law did not actually produce an increase, he does not make a valid point and he's simply reacting without reflection or any care for accuracy. That might be called lying and covering it up with cynicism, if one were to be direct about it.

Grinding our same old axe on every opportunity that comes along: that's just the sort of thing I so often accuse conservatives of doing, but a lie is a lie, no matter who tells it, isn't it?

Yes, we Liberals have our pet shibboleths too. We have our intransigent attitudes and our faith based delusions and we suffer for it because our opposite numbers are well aware of every windmill we point our lances at and what hypocrites we are and how foolish we have been.

Take the fuss about the bloodbath that would surely occur if we got rid of the National Speed Limit. Did we apologize when it not only didn't happen, but the death rate went down? No we did not and we're not likely to be any more humble when we have to face the fact that the "shoot the Avon Lady" law did not prompt the shooting of any Avon ladies, but did however stop quite a number of lethal home invasions. When our predictions and dire warnings prove false, as they so often do, we owe it to ourselves to admit it. We owe it to ourselves to question ourselves and our most dearly held ideas.

Hypocrisy. It's defending ideas that don't work. It's pretending they do work or would work if everyone believed, whether it's trickle-down economics or bans on foreign made firearms made to look military or comical speed limits or bombing people into freedom or insisting tax cuts raise government revenue. It's everywhere and we don't get to be cynical about the other guy without passing the same test we apply to him.


d nova said...

i've heard we had an uptick in homicides and violent crime in general in '05 and '06, the 2 years immediately following the ban expiration.

Capt. Fogg said...

Lines produced on graphs of such things are never straight and ticks of that magnitude mean little more than noise. The general trend continues downward. We had the same argument when we abandoned the 55 mph speed limit. Supporters grasped at a brief, statistically meaningless "rise" in highway deaths.

As to the ban, I can't stress strongley enough that there was no effect on the kinds and numbers of banned weapons and accessories on the market. I got huge catalogs offering "pre-ban" items and the store shelves were filled with AK-47's and AR-15's and all the other things they cynically called "Assault rifles." In fact sales increased. I find it impossible to believe the end of it had any effect when the beginning and middle of it had no effect.

In my opinion, both these bans targeted small and barely significant sectors of the big picture. Most traffic fatalities don't occur on the interstate, for instance, so even if the speed limit had been obeyed little would have been accomplished. Most gun crime had to do with drug gangs who don't buy their weapons at Wal-Mart.

A huge drop in gang rime occurred at the end of Prohibition, not after the gun laws banning automatic weapons in the 1930's.

And of course banning drugs, something I see as a root cause, increased drug use, just as the Volstead act increased and glamorized alcoholism.

Such things are all about conning the public and politics and sometimes creating problems for profit.