Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Another Modest Proposal

With Apologies to Johnathan Swift
 (Note: If you haven't read this: http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html, do it now or you won't get it.)

Our great nation is beset by several crises: joblessness, soaring entitlements, violent crime. If one believes our national leaders, these can only be resolved by vast tax increases on the richest sectors of society, transferring their ill-gotten wealth to the deserving masses while providing employment to thousands of selfless public servants. Those who wish to be our national leaders claim, in contrast, that paying people not to work, paying others to have children they cannot support, and dispensing cash to political favorites for schemes of dubious validity is hardly a solution. However, when these aspirants to power were our national leaders the problems were hardly better addressed.

Both groups, wrapped in their ideological security blankets, miss an obvious point. If the unemployment rate is too high one may reduce it either by adding jobs or removing the jobless. If there is crime, one may remove criminals. If entitlements are too costly, one may remove the entitled.

This idea may be shocking and repulsive to those with antiquated humanitarian sentiments. However, the basic concept is supported by the very most moral, humanitarian, intellectually advanced thinkers of modern society, the "progressive humanists." Their superiority is established by virtually every credible news source, major university and freethinking religious institution in America. One only needs to ask them.

The program I propose is a simple extension of current pro-choice policies. Its goal is to reduce the number of dependent, violent and otherwise harmful individuals, thus benefiting our nation in three ways:
One, it expands not only women's but all parent's rights.
Two, it reduces the expenditures for entitlements and law enforcement, including incarceration.
Three, it controls population, which many activists believe to be the major cause of environmental degradation.

Consider that Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics showed that the increase in abortion following Rowe v. Wade resulted in lower crime rates years later because potential criminals weren't being born. More recent data shows that the offspring of single (never-married) mothers are far more likely to become criminals regardless of race or ethnicity. Single motherhood has vastly increased in the last 50 years. The conclusion is obvious: more abortion, less crime.

However, thanks to socially regressive elements of the population, abortions are often restricted to early pregnancy, while many impressionable women are convinced not to exercise this fundamental right at all, a decision they may later regret. The answer to this problem has been provided by two eminent philosophers, Guibilini and Minerva, writing in the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics. They point out that  "personhood" is an arbitrary judgement, since cognitive/neurological development continues long after birth. Because only "persons" have a right to life, "post-birth abortion" is both feasible and moral. Prior to the arbitrary designation of personhood there exists only a "bundle of cells" (hereafter referred to as a BoC to promote objective discussion) deserving of no special consideration.
A BoC may, morally, be terminated at any time and for any reason, including the convenience of the mother (hereafter referred to as the Female Generative Unit, or FGU. Fathers are denoted the Male Generative Unit, or MGU.)

The threshold for personhood, the moment when a BoC becomes an individual, is problematic. I propose modifying a traditional criterion, and declaring the BoC a person when it becomes capable of independent life. By this is meant the moment when the BoC is dependent neither on the FGU nor the MGU nor any other agency for any aspect of its sustenance, whether food, shelter, clothing, medical care, rent, tuition, car payments or past-due credit card bills. Until that point in BoC development it is not a "person" and may be freely aborted by any convenient means, the cost to be paid by health insurance.

Furthermore, there is no reason to limit abortion rights to FGUs. MGUs, always assuming they can be identified by the FGUs in question, may be burdened by BoCs as well. Like FGUs, MGUs' ineffable personhoods may be threatened by incessant demands for food, shelter, attention, dry diapers or a turn on the XBox by annoying, ungrateful BoCs. True, FGUs must carry the BoC internally for 3/4 of a year but once delivered the BoC is equally burdensome to both (again, assuming the MGU can be identified and is present at least part of the time.)

Importantly, personhood is not to be considered  permanent. Persons may regress to BoC status at any time by becoming dependent on others for support, or by interfering with other's enjoyment of their lifestyle choices. In cases of person-to-BoC regression in which M- or FGUs  are unavailable, the State in its wisdom may assume their role, acting (as the archaic Latin phrase puts it) "In loco parentis." * This would greatly reduce dependency and in fact create a new income source, as organs from aborted BoCs could be sold on the open market. The long-civilized and ethically advanced Chinese have instituted a similar system.

The social benefits of this simple change in philosophy would be immense. Not only would public expenditures and the jobless/homeless rate decline dramatically, but persons, freed from the life-sapping demands of BoCs, could actualize their true selves, whether in art, literature, music or late-night bacchanals at their favorite clubs. Crime would decline since imprisonment, a form of dependency caused by unpleasant interpersonal behavior, would create BoC status and engage "in loco parentis" abortion. All of this ethically advanced policy would certainly be easier to enact than reversing longstanding programs which subsidize lifelong dependence and the creation of future dependence, with little if any concept of social or moral obligation. The United States could then legitimately claim to have achieved the Great Society.

* In place of parents.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sheepdogs Revisited

I didn't want to write this. Really, I didn't. But  I'm so pissed that I've got to rant to someone and you all are elected. 

It's about New York, of course. About how one crazoid, reportedly a "disgruntled former employee" shot one poor SOB and how the NYPD, responding, managed to shoot nine bystanders. NINE, goddamn it. Of course, they got the crazoid, too. Shoot enough and you'll hit what you intend to sooner or later. 

Was it the cops' fault? Well, yes and no. Yes, because as police charged with the right to use deadly force they are personally responsible for their actions. Ethically anyone with such responsibility must develop appropriate skill and judgment. To neglect such development is a sin of omission. No, because the NYPD failed in its responsibility to educate them in what level of skill is necessary in extreme conflicts, how to make the best possible judgment under stress, and train them to that level of performance. Right up until people began falling the officers probably thought they knew what they were doing. Incompetents don't  know they're incompetent.

Is New York an isolated case? Get serious. I recall many years ago taking the Glock instructor's class with several police firearms officers. They all had the same question: What set of exercises are the absolute minimum the rank and file officers need in order to qualify?
Police qualifications are minimum-performance tests officers need to pass to carry weapons on the street. Frankly, they're not that tough. They're about marksmanship, shot standing peacefully on a range. Most if not all of the training the typical officer gets is about passing the test.  

This is actually more training than most officers want. Police are not usually gun people; most don't care at all about developing proficiency, much less training to shoot fast and accurately in a panic-stricken crowd. Most won't ever fight with guns, even in NYC or Chicago. (Memphis, maybe). There are some serious officers, of course. I shoot with a few, and have good friends among them. But most won't train on their own time or their own nickel. They'd rather be with their families, bowling, fishing, watching sports, whatever other people do. 

The answer--the only answer-- is to train as part of the job. It's not only about shooting; driving, first aid, any of that, requires more and better training. That costs money. Where does the money actually go? Not for training. For stuff you can see, cool SWAT equipment, computers, PR programs and diversity nonsense. The training officers I've known would love to have more time, more ammunition, realistic shoothouse ranges and force-on-force encounters that only the elites get now. 

The gun folks reading this know all of the above (and if I got anything wrong I'm sure they'll tell me.) This is for the rest, those of you that still believe in the comforting fiction that the sheepdogs can save you. These are your sheepdogs, the ones that shot down nine people in front of the Empire State Building. I'm sure they feel terrible about it, and equally sure that it doesn't help the wounded one damn bit. Bloomberg, that putz, and Kelly, police commissioner and assistant putz, will certainly use this shooting as another argument for gun control. They'll say that our dedicated officers will protect you, just like sheepdogs guarding their flock. NYC will settle the lawsuits certain to be filed. What does Bloomberg care? It's not his money. Kelly will cover his own ass like they always do. And people will forget, just like they forgot Amadou Diallo, another victim of the NYPD's training policies.

For those of you who will never have self-defense training, who live in "non-permissive environments" like NYC, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Frisco, LA, here's the best advice I have. If you hear gunfire, get down flat and stay down. Don't look around, don't try to run any distance. Just get down. No guarantees, but at least it'll make it harder for your guardians to blast you by mistake. You might look silly, but that beats looking natural at the viewing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Southern Poverty Law Center
I owe the Southern Poverty Law Center a lot. They influenced the direction of my life. Ironically, it's because of that direction that I've developed some serious reservations about them.

The beginning was around 1998. I'd read about the SPLC and how it tracked various hate groups and attacked them in court. I thought that was a good idea and sent a donation. In exchange they sent their "Intelligence Report," a periodical with information about the activities and people of the Klan, neo-Nazis and other varieties of slime. All was well and good until we got their year-end summary issue. It included a map of the US with little symbols--hoods, swastikas, boots, etc.--denoting the locations of active haters. There were dense concentrations of symbols in many of the places my wife and I liked to ride our motorcycle. Not only in Georgia, mind, but California, Colorado, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona....all places we'd been. It came home to me that Jack the Jewboy and his Quaker wife had been happily, innocently adventure-touring among monsters; monsters who'd enjoy harming us in nasty ways that the SPLC had thoughtfully detailed.

With this new knowledge came a choice: I could pretend I didn't know what I damned well did, riding as innocently as before. I could quit doing something my wife and I enjoyed, essentially surrendering our rights. Or I could be ready to fight back.

I had a flashback to 1971, when I'd gotten a death threat from the KKK (in Champaign, Illinois, nowhere near the SPLC's vision of hate-filled Dixie.) Then another, to the antisemitic bullying I'd taken in Chicago and Skokie. Then the last, to my first year at the University of Illinois. A speech by the then-leader of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, was cancelled because Jewish fraternities had bought the entire local stock of baseball bats.
In November, if memory serves.

I bought my first handgun a short time later. That was the start of a lifetime odyssey, and maybe the subject of a future essay. For now let's just say that I was grateful to the SPLC and continued to donate for several years. I felt then, and in a way still feel, that their work is helpful and necessary.


Over the years, perhaps because my friendships extended beyond the university, I started noticing some inconsistencies. For one thing, all the nasties seemed to come from the "Far Right." Antisemites, racial bigots, gay-haters, anti-government zealots, militias, all (bar a few "black separatists") were right-wingers. The left, it seemed, was a flower-child dreamworld in which all you needed was love. But while the progressives were busy imagining no posessions odd things were happening. Antisemitism was coming to universities, coddled and nurtured in "Mideast Studies" programs and elsewhere. Black "leaders" like Al Sharpton were actively attacking white people and promoting violence. Antisemitism is part and parcel of the "Occupy" movement, too. Remember the TV interview with he Occupier who said that "Zionist bankers don't belong in our country?" *If any of this was ever in the "Intelligence Report" I don't recall it. If I'm wrong, I welcome correction.

Then there's the SPLC's intolerance of academics who stray from liberal orthodoxy. I recall one historian taken to task for writing that the War Between the States wasn't primarily about slavery. "Revisionist history," they called it, and (again in my recollection, again welcoming correction) for that reason all but labelled the author a bigot.** This bothered me because they never opposed his arguments with historical scholarship. This tactic is called "ad hominem" argument, the logical fallacy of claiming an argument is wrong because you don't like its author. I wrote and told them so, because I'm an academic and care deeply about honest scholarship. Their response was a runaround.

Understand this: I don't claim the author in question was right. I don't know and not being an historian I don't have the tools or time to do original-source research on the topic. But somebody does, and they're the ones to take on his argument. The SPLC needs to present the arguments about these issues fairly so people can judge for themselves. They don't.

The SPLC is intellectually dishonest, too, in a sadly common way. Their "Teaching Tolerance" program, like other diversity initiatives, is well-intended and they seem to believe
it does good. The problem is, they don't know. The evaluations they present as evidence of effectiveness are worthless. Any graduate student in my field could design a study telling them how much, if any, improvement in intergroup relations resulted from their program. They, like many promoting social interventions, don't want real data. They want public relations.***

Finally, there's the SPLC's corporate dislike of anything that smacks of self-defense. They don't like guns and don't want anyone but police and their bodyguards to have them. They label Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership a "hard-right" group, which seems to be code for "We'd call them a hate group but can't." One wonders what they'd have to say about the Deacons for Defense and the Pink Pistols. Their stereotype seems to be that every shooting match is a militia waiting to happen and every self-defense school is a Nazi training camp.

Sociologically, this is understandable. Suppose the gay, black, Latino, Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, et al. victims of real hate groups simply shot, stabbed, clubbed or otherwise dealt with their attackers. Problem solved. What scary pictures would the SPLC run on its magazine cover? Who would they sue? How would they get on TV? The SPLC's existence 
depends on telling people who believe themselves helpless that  "We'll protect you!"  If those people suddenly got up and said "Thanks, but we've got this,"  their entire reason for being would be gone. 

Imagine being offered a choice. Option 1: Attacked by vicious people, you or a loved one take a crippling beating, followed by a years-long lawsuit and a settlement that, no matter how large, does nothing to help you speak, see, walk or otherwise function as you did. 
Option 2: Attacked by the same people, you shoot the bastards down. Which would you choose, remembering that Option 1 only applies if the scumbags have anything worth suing for?

Of course, it's not that simple. Self-defense requires commitment and training. It's way easier to write a check and hope, meanwhile congratulating yourself on how moral and upstanding you are. As for me, I'll continue training, practicing and teaching those who want to start their own odyssey. The money I used to send to SPLC will go to JPFO. 

* Don't believe me? Start here:http://www.usccr.gov/campusanti-semitism.html
Then spend some time here: http://spme.net/
You might say, well, that's just a few instances. It's like cockroaches. For every one you see there are 100 in the walls.

** In case you think any revision of conventional thought is open to attack, consider the case of Michael Bellesiles, the Emory historian whose revisionist history of gun ownership was greeted with applause and prizes, at least until it was discovered that he'd made up his data.
See http://www.emory.edu/news/Releases/Final_Report.pdf
This doesn't reflect directly on the SPLC, but does show that anti-revisionist indignation among liberals is highly selective.

*** If you want to know how to do evaluations, start here: 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The New Plantation

             The New Plantation

I retired from academia in 2010, after 40 or so reasonably succesful years. I was glad to go, because the ideals I originally thought to serve have almost entirely been replaced by something I find repellent.

What is the ideal of a university? It should be a community of scholars existing to create knowledge, communicate that knowlege (including the skills to acquire and evaluate it), and lend expertise to society. In short, research, teaching and service. Faculty are hired, retained, promoted and honored based on how well they do each of these things. Students come to acquire knowledge and skills which then contribute to their success and thus the welfare of society. Administrators exist to facilitate these goals.

Yeah, right. The proper metaphor for the university is no longer the "ivory tower," a shining refuge from daily life that promotes creative thought---if it ever was. A better metaphor is something more down-and-dirty. Like any metaphor, it only goes so far, but in its limited way may aid our understanding. 

The modern university is a plantation.

I'm defining "plantation" as a large agricultural enterprise that raises and sells livestock and crops for profit. Antebellum Southern plantations were defined by slaveholding; after the War Between the States those that were left shifted to a different but hardly more moral system. This is what characterizes modern public research universities. Consider the parallells between universities and plantations:

Undergraduates are livestock. In an actual plantation, livestock are raised and sold for profit.
How much profit depends on quality, numbers and value. Undergraduates bring money in two ways. First is tuition and fees, and is the lesser contribution. The last estimate I heard, from two separate schools, was that tuition and fees accounted for 15% of the operating budget.* The greater contribution comes from State funding, which pays some number of dollars per student credit hour. This accounts for 35% of the annual budget, according to the same sources.

What's important here is that moving undergrads through the system is how universities make a great deal of money. The better the students and the more of them, the more funding.
Some schools depend more on quality to attract students (or a reputation for quality, which isn't the same thing), some more on perceived value for tuition money, whether that includes classes or party time. The principle is the same regardless. Profit (how much is left over from direct expenses for salaries, new buildings, fancy office furniture and so forth) depends on spending as little as possible on livestock production while maintaining a salable product. What's the outcome? Large classes taught by the cheapest employees. Dependence on online services instead of real (and responsive) human contact. Discarding hands-on laboratories in favor of computer simulations. All of these make undergraduate production easier and cheaper.

There are, naturally, exceptions: elite scholarship programs, athletics, various non-research graduate programs like the Master's of Business Administration and the "Executive" MBA.
These offer individual attention, smaller classes, and a certain amount of pampering. These students are the equivalent of prize bulls, racehorses, fighting dogs and exotic chickens. Fancy, expensive livestock to be sure, but livestock just the same. 

An important aspect of raising livestock is keeping them docile. The plantation needs the stock to fatten up nicely, stay healthy and grow large so they can be marketed easily and profitably. Even the more high-strung or aggressive "sporting" stock must be manageable, and they are only allowed to run, jump or fight under controlled (safe and profitable) conditions. If the livestock wanders off, makes its own decisions, or learns to take care of itself outside the barn, pasture, kennel or henhouse, profits decline. If students were, for instance, able to defend themselves against the predation common on and around urban campuses, they might get the idea that they were able to do other things for themselves. Learn, for instance. That would never do.

If students are livestock, what corresponds to crops? Research grants and contracts. Not research itself, but research done in order to receive outside money. Most people outside the university don't know that grants, whether from Federal or State agencies, foundations or industry, cover not only direct costs such as equipment and salaries, but "indirect costs," expressed as "overhead." Overhead was originally intended to cover such necessities as building maintenence, lights, water, heat and so forth. Today overhead may add 45% or more to the cost of a grant. If, for example, direct costs amount to $1,000,000, the grant must be written for $1,450,000 or more.  This $450,000, minus actual overhead, is what corresponds to profit, and can be used by administrators for pretty much whatever they want. Overhead from grants and contracts amounts to another 35% of operating budgets.

In the modern research university, obtaining grants is a requisite for employment. Yes, one can do research without external funding, but that doesn't count, at least not for much. An assistant professor in science or engineering must obtain grant funds to receive tenure, regardless of other contributions. A tenured associate or full professor can't be fired out of hand (most places) for a lack of funding, but can be punished in other ways. Forgoing raises, for instance. Having one's teaching load increased and being assigned to basic undergrad classes, for another. Losing office space, lab space, or travel funding for conferences. Having fewer grad students. These may not seem terribly severe penalties to non-academics, but trust me, they're very effective. 

The crops grown on the plantation are the ones that will sell. Research, likewise, is done on the topics someone will pay for.** Typically that someone is the government. Since research funding is political, that means two things:
One, that the topics chosen correspond to political, not scientific or intellectual priorities, and
Two, that the results of one's research had better agree with whatever position the current set of politicians and bureaucrats favor. They're the customers.
Additionally, if one expects to publish (necessary but not sufficient for grants and advancement) one's results had better support the prejudices of the journal editors and reviewers. It's not so much that fraud occurs, though it sometimes does, but that the questions that are asked and the methods used are biased toward a particular end. If the buyers don't like your brand of cotton, you're stuck, so you'd better plant what they want. The system works like agricultural subsidies, for the same reasons.

I wrote all the above so I could discuss, finally, the roles of faculty and grad students. There are no slaves on the post-bellum plantations. The faculty are sharecroppers. If their crops are bountiful, the livestock fat and numerous, they get to share some of the profit. This comes in four ways:
One, reduced teaching. Grants pay part of one's salary. It's not unusual for a professor with major funding to teach only one class, and that a seminar in his or her specialty to fewer than 10 students.
Two, raises, promotions, endowed chairs and other honors.
Three, in some fields at least, lucrative consulting contracts.
Four, mobility. Lots of schools will want you, and that means more of one, two, and three above.

Doesn't sound much like a verse from "Ol' Man River," does it? It's not. No totin' barges or liftin' bales. No plantation store to keep you in debt.  Faculty as a group have very nice lives. 
I did, even without grant money on my curriculum vita. That's not the point. The structure of the social and economic systems are similar, and it creates negative consequences for society. For example, there are few more conforming people than university faculty, despite their job security. They often seem terrified to oppose the prevailing opinion of other professors, let alone their bosses. Don't believe me? Read these:


There's a lot of forelock-tugging going on there. It's hardly an environment where creativity can flourish, or one in which students can learn critial thinking.

What about graduate/doctoral students? Ideally they're apprentices and journeymen, learning their profession by serving as research and teaching assistants until they become "masters" in their own rights.  What they are really is field hands. They do the work the sharecroppers don't want to do or don't have time for, hoping for their own little plot someday.
Once again, this is metaphor. Their lives are hardly oppressed, they're paid relatively well and have benefits, but they do serve at their advisor's pleasure and depend on the advisor for their futures. It's no wonder most never stray very far, intellectually, from their bosses. Too often, their job is not to develop their own ideas but to advance their supervisor's interests. Sadly, most prefer it that way, as (to mix a metaphor) it's a lot easier to do a paint-by-numbers exercise than to attempt a "masterpiece" of one's own.

Every plantation needs overseers, bosses who enforce rules and dole out the rewards and punishments. In universities these are department chairs and deans. They are rewarded in turn with money, position and power. Years ago, being a chair or a dean was temporary; scholars took the jobs on out of necessity and returned to their real work as soon as they could. Today they are career options, stepping stones to higher administration. Some overseers are better and more humane than others, of course, but their rewards are for "making the numbers" of grants, undergraduate majors, students graduated, costs contained and the like, not for promoting learning, independent thought, and necessarily rare intellectual accomplishments. After a while, the system has an effect.

Who are the "owners?" Really, the government, of state schools, and nonprofit entities, for private ones. A better question is who acts like a plantation owner? These are the high-level administrators, the chancellors, vice presidents and presidents. The university president gets a large income and a mansion. He (sometimes she) also gets deference, entertains dignitaries, raises money, determines policy, and adjudicates disputes. Yes, presidents and others can be fired for a variety of reasons good and bad. Graham Spanier of Penn State and
Lawrence Summers of Harvard come to mind, respectively.*** The metaphor isn't perfect. But in marketing the plantation's goods, raising money, dispensing rewards to the faithful and punishing the rebellious, lazy and incompetent the university president is more the master of Tara than the ink-stained scholar.

Having ranted on for this long, I ought to present some solutions. Sorry. I don't have any. I have opinions about what should happen but no clue how to make it so. Still, here goes:

First, there is too much college. Not everyone wants to be a scholar and not everyone should be, yet this is the fiction behind the "college for everyone" mantra. There is honor, dignity, deserved pride and a good living in learning to do something well, regardless of what that is. Being a carpenter, plumber,machinist, woodworker, salesperson or what have you also does not mean one is "uneducated." In fact, just the opposite, since lifelong learning is part of any successful career. Most universities today teach most students neither useful skills nor critical thought, nor do they promote a desire to learn.

Second, there is too much research. By that I mean that the contents of most journals are unimaginative and trivial, not adding anything to our knowledge. Publication is for career-building, not knowledge enhancement.  Department chairs and deans count articles as they would sacks of cotton, the more the better. If funding agencies simply quit paying inflated overhead the pressure for grants would be reduced, talk at faculty lunches would be more about ideas and less about money and publication strategy. Just perhaps, what was published would have more solid content.

Third, the big plantations should be broken up and replaced with someting more akin to family farms. By that I mean smaller institutions that are free to innovate, developing new approaches to both research and instruction. They would compete in a marketplace of skills and ideas, where "diversity" would be a real and useful concept rather than the sham universities currently promote.  

Fourth, perhaps governments should get out of the education business, including the student loan business, which is just another subsidy. Let a real market emerge in which students pay for value received. If governments need research let them build laboratories or contract privately. In short, let people freely develop and market their intellectual products. You know, that's so crazy it just might work...

* A recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that 50% of the university system's  budget was tuition and fees. I don't know where they got their figures. I got mine some years ago from a talk by the then-Chancellor of Georgia Tech, and from a University of Illinois alumni mailing. Things change and I might be wrong, but in any case it doesn't hurt the argument.

** Two anecdotes:
In 1971 I interviewed at Purdue University. Talking with two eminent professors, I was asked what I would do if funding in my research area was cut. I said, given that I thought it was important, I'd find a way to do it without grants. They told me that was the wrong answer; the right answer was to switch areas. I responded that I didn't think research was a game. A few minutes later, introducing me to another faculty member, one said "This is Jack Feldman. He doesn't think research is a game." Then they laughed. I didn't get the job offer, which was too bad because I wanted to turn it down.
In 1986, shortly after coming to Tech, I was at a social event with a group of engineers. They were talking about a colleague whose grants had disappeared with a change in funding priorities. I asked why, given that he still had a lab and students, he didn't continue the work regardless. They looked at me as if I had grown two extra heads and then carefully explained, as if to a slow-witted child they didn't especially like, that one didn't do research unless some outside agency paid for it.

*** Although I'll admit in Summers' case it was fun to watch a mob of liberals turn on one of their own.  They really do eat the wounded.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sheepdog Fallacy

I'm an armed citizen and take self-defense seriously. I know the conventional wisdom: We're on our own, when seconds count the police are only minutes away, all of that. I train with a variety of weapons, in a variety of ways, with a variety of people all more adept and expert than I. My goal is to be safe, responsible, effective, and when possible to help others be the same. You'd be hard pressed to find a stronger supporter of the Bill of Rights--all 10 amendments--anywhere.

That said, there's an idea common in the self-defense community that I think is not only incorrect but dangerously so. It was put forward most recently in a pro-gun column in the August 3rd. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and goes like this:
People can be divided into three groups, sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep are the stupid majority, helpless in the face of danger, cowardly, conforming, hiding from threats (real or imagined) in the midst of the herd. Wolves prey on these, snatching sheep and lambs as they can, leaving only bloody scraps behind.* Sheepdogs are the guardians of the flock, bravely standing between the sheep (for whom they have a vague contempt) and the wolves, their sworn enemies. This makes the self-identified sheepdogs very proud. 

Let's consider this for a minute. "Sheepdog" doesn't describe me and probably shouldn't apply to you, either. First, who do sheepdogs serve? Not the sheep. They serve the shepherd, who owns both the herd and the sheepdogs. What's the shepherd doing with the sheep? Making a living, first by regularly shearing, or "fleecing" them, second by eating them, and third by selling them to someone else for either purpose. Sure, the shepherd wants the sheep alive and healthy. His living depends on them. They're not pets, they're products. The sheepdogs aren't pets, either. They're regarded as employees at best, as tools at worst. They exist to do a job.

Second, what is the sheepdog's job? It's not to protect the individual sheep, which they couldn't do in any case. There are simply too many sheep and too few sheepdogs. Having enough sheepdogs to guarantee each sheep's safety is not possible. The goal is to keep sheep losses to an acceptable level. Acceptable to the shepherd, that is. Sheepdogs  protect the herd, not each sheep, and to make this collective protection (and fleecing, and roast lamb) feasible the herd must be controlled, which is the sheepdog's primary job.  Domestic sheep are unable to survive in the wild; without the shepherd's control they couldn't live.

Third, how do sheepdogs control the herd? Through fear. Many years ago in New Zealand I watched sheepdog trials. In response to the shepherd's whistles and hand signals his beautifully trained dogs circled the herd, crouching and staring at the sheep, who nervously moved away in the direction the shepherd wanted. If the sheep weren't fearful they couldn't be herded.

Think about it. Police officers are formally tasked with protecting "society," i.e. the herd, not the individual. (See, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_v._District_of_Columbia) In our society, governments from the Federal to the local increasingly act like shepherds.  Police, the great majority of whom are fine and honorable people, are in the role of sheepdogs, like it or not.

Armed citizens are a problem for the shepherds. Not being sheep, they're not afraid of the sheepdogs and are prepared to take on the wolves, hyenas or whoever. They mean no harm to anyone, have no desire to control others, but are much harder to control and therefore to exploit. Worse, their example might spread. They're not  wolves, but not  sheepdogs either. The shepherds, expecting obedience from everything but wolves, have no clue how to deal with them. Their common response is to try to get rid of armed citizens one way or another, typically by removing the arms. Acting like a sheepdog when you're not gives the shepherds that opportunity.

 From the sheepdog's viewpoint the armed citizen is just in the way, becoming one more source of disorder. They hate disorder. From the herd's viewpoint, they're either scary or a provocation. Sheep have dominance hierarchies, too. Consider George Zimmerman, whose sheepdog fantasies led him to confront Trayvon Martin. Martin might have grown up to be anything from a serial killer to a respected statesman, but at that moment he was just a smartass kid who wasn't going to let himself be pushed around. So he did what sheep do, butted heads with what he thought was another sheep, and now he's dead. Zimmerman, who might have become a respected leader in his community had he learned better judgment, may never get his life back. The shepherds, meanwhile, use this sad incident as yet another excuse to remove the "menace" of the armed citizen from their herds.

Given all that, if you must have an inspirational totem animal, what fits? Well, two of the most dangerous animals on the planet are the rhino and the Cape Buffalo. They're grass-eaters,  grazing happily if unmolested and seriously aggressive when threatened. Neither seems obligated to protect the zebras, wildebeest and so forth from the predators. Rhinos are pretty much solitary, buffalo live in groups that cooperate in their defense.  I wouldn't try to herd either one. Take your pick.

* I like wolves, who generally get a bad rap. Modern urban predators are more like hyenas or jackals, but that's another rant. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Nobel Peace Prize and the Chicken Sandwich

The next Nobel Peace Prize should go to Truett Cathy. That may seem just nuts, but think about it:
What is this prize supposed to commemorate? According to the criteria from the official Nobel Committee in Oslo: 
"In addition to humanitarian efforts and peace movements, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for work in a wide range of fields including advocacy of human rights, mediation of international conflicts, and arms control." 

It's easy to think of "humanitarian efforts" in terms of charity or social movements; consider Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, for instance. But what about actions that have humanitarian effects, fully intended by their authors, which depend neither upon charity nor government and which are part and parcel of someone's livelihood? 

What has Cathy done? First, he invented a business model that provides tasty food, at a reasonable price, in a clean and pleasant atmosphere. This alone is no small accomplishment. Think about it. Have you ever seen a dirty Chick-fil-A? Have you ever had to deal with a Chick-fil-A employee who was surly or incompetent? Now think about any other fast-food outlet. See?
Why does this matter? Because Chick-fil-A is profitable, and therefore self-supporting. The company grows because people want to eat there, not because of government compulsion or plays on people's sympathy, however well founded.

Fine, but why does profitability qualify the founder for an award based on moral stature? Why is Cathy more deserving than Steve Jobs, Arthur Blank, Bill Gates or any other successful entrepreneur? It doesn't, by itself. It's the way Cathy's firm makes its money that matters. First, his business model makes becoming a franchisee easier, financially, than any other chain's. Five thousand dollars and a lot of hands-on individual effort will do it. That means that a lot of people otherwise unable to achieve financial independence can be successful through their own work. They're not bound to the ups and downs of political parties, not subject to the Dilbert-world inanities of corporations or government agencies. They're free.

Second, their business practices provide both opportunities and role models for young people. Kids get training not only in the specifics of fast food but in the more important areas of competence, responsibility and social relationships. They have real opportunities for advancement and education via company provided scholarships. Note, too, that these benefits do not depend on race, religion, sex, sexual preference or anything but ability and a desire to achieve. For very many minority students this may represent their only alternative to a culture of dependence and violence.

Sure, Chick-fil-A has charity initiatives, locally and nationally. They also sponsor a bowl game. That's all fine, but to me that doesn't matter as much as the fact that social benefit is built into the structure of their business.

They're closed on Sunday. So what? Their franchisees aren't forced to go to church---any church. They can visit the beach, attend a ball game, watch TV or sleep all day. What matters is that on Monday they're at work.

The Cathy family supports "traditional marriage." Again, so what? I'll bet Mother Teresa would have, too.

They treat each employee and each customer with dignity and respect. They don't coerce support for political candidates or policies, the way too many businesses and unions do. 

What Chick-fil-A does is serve chicken, fries, tea, milkshakes, cookies and so forth well and affordably, making people happier and more prosperous by doing so. They do all that without special dispensations or subsidies, without creating a burdensome bureaucracy, and without competing with charities for donations.  I can't think of anything these days more deserving of a Peace Prize than that.