This past weekend, I was referred to this article, a defense of economists and their seemingly-hardhearted assessments when it comes to our current troubles. While reading it, I brought to mind a dichotomy of thought that I’ve been struggling with for a while now.
My favorite sentence out of the article (and I’ll come back to this towards the end of my post):
To put it another way, many economists (including me) believe that the existing barriers to punishing wrongdoing, if left in place, would result in more unjustifiable killings by police of African Americans and other racial minorities even if there were no racism among the officers than would happen if all officers were racist but did not have such policies protecting them from consequences of their behavior.
Before he gets that far, our economist starts with the recent nationwide lockdown and the political fights surrounding their implementation and the resistance to them. For myself, I also long struggled with the ubiquitous school lockdowns, a reaction to the handful of highly-publicized school shooting incidents.
I hate them. I think the crisis-management approach that we use in public schools terrifies the nation’s children while teaching them horrible lessons about threats, authority, and fear. On the other hand, I’ve also listened to a police chief talk about one such drill. I absolutely understand why it is a great idea from his perspective. A building full of students who not only know what to do but have practiced it under semi-realistic (i.e. stressful) conditions will reduce the number of wild cards that he has to face during a chaotic event. In turn, this will increase the chance that he can end a bad situation without loss of life. So whose opinion is more important?
Someone responsible for security or safety might look at their options in terms of something like the above. You want to do the things that are easy and don’t cost you a lot. You also want to be as effective as possible. So when your budget is limited, you will be focused on quadrant A. The green zone is the best bang for your buck. Highly-effective yet easy-to-implement means the best return-on-investment for your time and dollar. The pink zone might be what you’d call “security theater.” It isn’t effective, but you can be seen to be doing something. In an environment of budget limitations, you might have to restrict yourself to quadrant C. This might be even more obvious, depending on how you measure “cost”*. The lower left corner of C is apt to get the “if it will save just one life” treatment. Once upon a time, these decisions were made largely out of the public view. There might be a person in charge of safety or security who is restricted by a budget. Or it might be that safety and security were but one of the responsibilities of a manager or a CEO. Of course, in both these cases, the application could be haphazard. We can all think of examples of safety or security being neglected or underfunded.
To compensate, today’s world often emphasizes “Best Management Practices (BMPs).” Oversimplifying, this allows the total knowledge of from an industry or activity, throughout society, to be captured and shared with all participants. Perhaps information indicating wher certain mitigating strategies might lie on the above graph could be obtained before making decisions. This is a good thing. The better information you have, the better decisions you’re going to make. Enter, however, the government and human nature.
In a free market of ideas, each entity would be free to examine the BMPs that apply to their sector and choose the most effective for their individual situations. More and more, regulations require strict adherence to BMPs. In most cases, this doesn’t sound like a bad thing. Nevertheless, circumventing logic and thought in favor of blind compliance isn’t a virtue. Imagine, if you will, a BMP that applies to my factory requiring protection from extreme cold. If my factory is in a tropical zone, might I still be mandated to follow it? Does that make any sense?
Similar forces are at work via the insurance industry. In the best of worlds, an insurance company will price risk versus the cost of mitigation. My factory might forgo some aspect of security or safety based on a calculation that insuring against a small-but-costly risk is cheaper than investing in what is necessary to avoid it. Although my involvement with insurance is, at best, extremely indirect, I’m seeing some hints that rather the pricing risk, insurance companies are simply recommending the mitigation. In fact, in some cases, it is more than a recommendation. “Take X precaution or we will cancel the policy,” seems to be an implicit or even explicit message.
The trend is further enhanced by basic human nature. For most of us, rather than struggle with a decision, over which we will then be held accountable, we’d prefer the choice be made for us. Is a one-in-a-million but devastatingly-damaging worth avoiding? It’s easier if I can fall back on someone else’s orders.
“I don’t want to spend that $10 million, but it’s what the regulations require.”
“I’m sorry that so much property was damaged in our unforeseeable accident, but I want to emphasize that we complied with all applicable safety regulations.”
More than anything else, I believe this, entirely understandable, instinct is what shut down our nation’s economy so fast and so completely. Many business owners could see trouble brewing. Even without restrictions, they were bound lose customers and custom, possibly making their business models unviable. Staying open would also put, perhaps, their own health or the health of their employees at risk. Yet, closing up for the duration seemed to be throwing in the towel; conceding defeat. How much easier it was when the Governor ordered them to shut down for a time that “scientists” and “experts” determined was “necessary”?
But what is “necessary,” what is “best practice,” in the face of massive uncertainty and unknown and unknowable risk? Humanity has come to rely on a number of strategies that get us through. One is our ability for logical and unpassioned analysis. What is really going to be the most effective? What is really the best “bang for the buck?” Another is that “free market of ideas.” We collectively optimize our approach by allowing free individuals to determine their own best course while learning from each other’s successes and failures. As much as we loath to put innocent lives at risk, Apollo 11s just aren’t possible without the occasional Apollo 1.
So if you are that Chief of Police, and money doesn’t matter (because you’ve got Federal grants to pay for active-shooter simulations), why would you do anything less than whatever-you-can-do to advantage your department in a potential school shooting? That’s your job. But whose job is it to take the opposing view? If the cost across all four of the quadrants is small, who will stand up and ask, are these metal detectors, these surveillance cameras, these bi-monthly drills really an effective way to deal with the off-chance that there will be violence in our school? Would not that voice be shouted down? Is that not the voice of someone who doesn’t even care about “our” children? Isn’t that an opinion we no longer need in our society?
Up until fairly recently, we had our national values to fall back upon. Constitutional rights. Individual freedoms. Yes, we might say, a police state might enhance security, but it goes against our American values. Today, appeals to our sense of Western values is far more likely to be met with derision (“Freedumb!”) than reasoned discussion.
All these factors map smoothly from the school lockdown argument to the societal lockdown; the reaction to the Corona pandemic. Even more so in an environment where we don’t fully understand the risks, the err-on-the-side-of-caution approach has immense appeal. Politicize it, so that neighbors go at each others throats over who cares enough to self-sacrifice sufficiently, and you’ve got the current mess.
Let’s return to the final example in the article – addressing the issue of Black victimization by the criminal justice system. The author, analytically, determines that “racism” isn’t really what’s at issue and provides a more effective route to address the problem. If anyone actually read his article, he’d be torn shreds in our current environment. He’d be right, but better these days to be politically correct than correct.
It seems to me that there are the proverbial “two types of people” on display here. It also seems to me that we need some of each for the world keep on spinning. While these two views occasionally must be weighed and one chosen, we are best when they peacefully co-exist, each allowing the other to do focus on what they do best. The “economist” (or the engineer, the analyst, the statistician, etc) makes sure things get done. He comes up with a way to balance risk, cost, and reward and keep the wheels turning and the goods flowing. We also need the occasional emotional overreaction to shake up the status quo. Sometimes society truly does change for the better, and we can’t do that without challenging the assumptions that we’ve always lived by.
I’m sure the author isn’t “good” with racism. He’s simply pointing out that this isn’t the means by which to accomplish our goals. Our society needs both the reminders that racism is a societal evil as well as the wonks who can improve the role and impact of police in our society in a way that is effective as well as cost-effective. The problem here is the politicization of everything. We’ve taken a situation where the entire nation held very-nearly an identical opinion (the killing of George Floyd was horribly wrong) and turned it into a vicious political battle where one must choose sides and wave the flag. Where anyone whose opinion isn’t exactly like your own must be evil.
I wonder. Is this yet another fault line in the division of our society. Is the “economist” on one side of the fence while the “protester” stands on the other side, unable to find common ground? Is this another urban-versus-rural-like example of two Americas, but one that is intellectual rather than geographical? Or am I just trying to over-generalize one writer’s attempt at analyzing problems and solutions?
*If “cost” includes the politics or public opinion as an expense, this should all-but-rule-out the upper left part of D. Something might be cheap and easy, but the majority of citizens see it as a gross infringement on their rights and freedoms, it is “costly” and won’t get implemented.