Monday, March 19, 2018

"Ban the Box" Laws: Should Employers Ask About Criminal Background at the Beginning of a Job Interview Process?

If someone commits a crime, I believe not only that people should be held responsible for their actions, but that the punishment should be proportionate the the crime committed. This idea of proportionality has more or less become standard in criminal law, at least in the developed world. The offender does their time, and afterwards, the individual comes back into society through what is known as prisoner reentry. The truth of the matter is that this transition from prison to society is tricky. It is more so the case in the United States since the United States incarcerates more people than China does, not to mention that the United States has the highest incarceration rate out of any major country (see International Centre for Prison Studies data here). As of year-end in 2015, there were 70 million with a criminal record, 6.7 million of which were either incarcerated or on parole or on probation. If we take that smaller number of 6.7 million, that is still about 3 out of 100 adults in the United States!

The high incarceration rate combines with another complication about integrating U.S. ex-offenders into society: getting a job. I say this because in the United States, it is commonplace to ask an applicant if they have committed a felony or has a criminal record. Employers use it as a screening question, which is easier than before because of the declining cost to conduct a criminal background check. After all, it is hardly the only factor potential employers use to screen out potential employees. There are a fair number of employers that would rather have a potential employee with a college degree or has a certain number of years of experience. It makes sense for an employer wants the best qualified and most motivated workforce possible. If an employer has a workforce that lacks discipline, honesty, integrity, it will directly impact business. And in certain fields, it makes absolute sense to screen a potential employee for a criminal record. A bank is not going to want to hire a former robber as a bank teller, and a fire department is not going to want to hire a former arsonist to be a firefighter. However, there are plenty of jobs out there where the position is unrelated to the past crime. Plus, if the crime were committed years ago and the ex-offender has become a better person, that is not reflected in checking that box on the job application. The simplified nature of this filter does not provide potential employees the opportunity to contextualize their former crime.

Combine that with ex-offenders more likely to have a lower level of education, lower set of job skills, and more likely to have mental and physical health issues, not to mention that they are more disconnected from the labor market on account of being in prison, it becomes a considerable challenge to find a new job (Doleac, 2016). As such, it takes longer for an ex-offender to find a job than your typical citizen. It takes 60 percent of ex-offenders at least one year to find a new job after leaving prison, which is important since employment is the single largest factor that prevents recidivism (Raphael, 2014Berg and Huebner, 2010). In addition, there is evidence showing that ex-offenders who cannot find a job are more likely to reoffend. Due to the fact that this integration is difficult, about two-thirds of ex-offenders commit another crime within three years (Bureau of Justice Statistics), thereby perpetuating the cycle. This increase in crime and incarceration rates ends up costing us all.

One suggestion to break the cycle is referred to as "ban the box." Ban the Box (BTB) laws make it illegal to remove from their initial hiring applications the question of whether someone has a criminal record. This question is postponed to later in the hiring process, typically during the background check right after the conditional job offer (see flow chart below). The idea is that by postponing that consideration, ex-offenders will have a better chance at gaining employment. I ask about BTB laws in the first place because a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) was released on how BTB laws affect crime rates (Sabia et al., 2018). With that said, I would like to observe the effects of BTB laws and see if proponents are correct in their optimism.

Callbacks and Employment Rates for Overall Ex-Offender Population
One question is how this affects ex-offenders. After all, the purpose of BTB laws is to make sure that ex-offenders can integrate back into society and be productive members of society, as opposed as to returning to a life of crime. A literature review from the Urban Institute (Stacy and Cohen, 2017, p. 11) shows that BTB laws increase the likelihood that an ex-offender receives a callback for employment. The same Urban Institute literature review also finds that there is little evidence that it actually increases the overall employment rate for ex-offenders (p. 12). A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston confirms these findings. This study found that BTB laws decreased ex-employer employment by 4 percent (Jackson and Zhao, 2016). Their reasoning is that the BTB laws emboldened ex-offenders to apply for jobs for which they thought were previously out of reach, thereby lowering the employment rate. Semi-conflicting research from the Right-leaning American Enterprise Institute shows how BTB laws increase employment in high-crime areas by 4 percent (Shoag and Veuger, 2016).An interesting caveat is that it increases employment in the public sector (Craigie, 2017Atkinson and Lockwood, 2014), but again, on the whole, the information we have suggests that it does not help with the overall ex-offender population.

Employment Prospects of African-Americans
I ask about African-Americans in particular because they have been disproportionately and adversely affected by the U.S. justice system. An African-American male without a criminal record is statistically less likely to get a job than a Caucasian male with a criminal record (e.g., Pager, 2003).

Even with that being said, the problem is that BTB laws do not remove an employer's reluctance to hire an ex-offender. An employer would rather have an honest, peaceful, agreeable individual. Not only is it good for the employer's reputation within the market, but because ex-offenders are more likely to reoffend, an ex-offender is more likely to be taken off the job by another arrest or conviction. When you remove an observable piece of information, such as a criminal record, employers have to use other information. Employers will use unobservable information that is related to the potential employee being "job-ready." Employers do this with college degrees. College degrees are not necessarily sought after because of the knowledge, but because of the correlated qualities of greater motivation and diligence required to acquire a Bachelor's degree. This "statistical discrimination" happens also with BTB laws.

Using a criminal record is a filter that is far from perfect, but what happens when it is removed? Employers use other information that is even less perfect. Men are much more likely to commit crimes than women. And as the Brookings Institution points out, an African-American male has a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison, a 17 percent chance for Hispanic males, and a 6 percent chance for Caucasian males (see Brookings Institution information below for breakdown by educational attainment).

Essentially, one of the unintended consequences is that rather than use criminal record to determine whether or not a candidate committed a crime, they go ahead and do something racist and sexist by using one's skin color and gender as ways to guess who is more likely to have previously committed a crime. One study from NBER (Doleac and Hansen, 2016) goes as far as suggesting that BTB laws make it more likely for an employer to hire a young, low-skilled Hispanic or African-American male when criminal records are not observable. This has a particularly negative impact on African-American males that do not have criminal records. There are other studies that confirm that statistical discrimination exists (Agan and Starr, 2016; Stoll, 2009Holzer and Raphael, 2006). A recent study showed that while BTB laws can increase overall ex-offender employment, it still negatively affects African-American males (Flake, 2018).

How Do BTB Laws Affect Crime Rates?
There is some evidence that BTB laws decrease crime rates (Craigie, 2017). On the other hand, there is the NBER study I had cited at the beginning (Sabia et al., 2018). The NBER study found that it lowered crime rates for those who already have lower probabilities of having a criminal record (e.g., women, older individuals). This is consistent with the labor-labor substitution toward those who are perceived to have lower criminal records. The study found that BTB laws did increase property crime rates for working-age Hispanic males. Aside from suggesting an increase of crime rates, what the study does more importantly is confirm that BTB-induced statistical discrimination exists.

There is a desire on my end to have more evidence because some of it is suggestive but not conclusive. Nevertheless, based on the evidence, my opinion is that a "ban the box" policy should be left up to the individual employer. Policy alternatives should be explored because the price of not being able to successfully integrate ex-offenders into society is too great. Instead of ignoring criminal records, what we should do is find ways to show that ex-offenders can be successfully and safely employed. What would help in this case is to provide employers with more information, not less, about a potential employee's job-readiness. There could also be investment in these individuals' job-readiness, something which would most assuredly cost less than recidivism. A certification program signaling that the ex-offenders are indeed job-ready would help: Ohio's job-readiness certification program is showing preliminary success (Leasure and Andersen, 2016).

Some other policy alternatives offered (see Urban Institute's list below) have been improving the background check to better contextualize the ex-offender's history, transitional employment opportunities with supervisor references, providing companies that hire ex-offenders with liability insurance, expunging criminal records [for those with relatively minor crimes], or scaling back occupational licensing (see Slivinski, 2016), the latter of which I have discussed before. While considering these policy alternatives is important, we have to remember that this problem ballooned because of mass incarceration. To solve the issue of integrating ex-offenders, we also need to create a society without over-criminalization that caused the prevalence of the problem in the first place.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Look at the Italian Economy and Ramifications of the 2018 General Election

Last week, Italy had its General Election for its parliament members after the Italian Parliament was dissolved by President Sergio Mattarella. No single party won the majority, and there is not even enough consensus at the moment to form a coalition government. Even so, it became clear that the influence of the center-left is greatly diminishing in Italy, and that anti-establishment populism is surging, much like it has in other developed countries. While the hung parliament is figuring out what sort of coalitions to build, I would like to take a look at the state of the Italian economy. Over the years, I have heard criticism about the Italian economy, but have never personally taken a particularly deep look at the economic data to make my own determination. Today, I would like to take a look at the Italian economy because it is the third largest economy in the Euro Zone. Italy took a particularly huge hit since its economy shrunk by nine percent and subsequently dealt with a triple-dip recession. If the Italian economy takes a downturn, its effects on the Euro Zone, as well as the global economy, would make Greece's government-debt crisis look like a cake walk in comparison.  With that being said, I would like to examine the state of the Italian economy, followed by a preliminary take on what the elections could mean for Italy's economic future.

Italy is in the process of a recovery that is gaining traction. As the OECD points out in its November 2017 report, the growth in business investment and export demand has helped the Italian economy (p. 178). Lending to non-financial rate corporations has are also helping with the recovery, as is Italy's booming manufacturing base. What's nicer is that the Italian government is repealing the value-added tax hike (which is good considering how high it is already) and providing businesses with tax incentives to invest in the Italian economy. Standard and Poor's felt confident enough in the Italian economy that in October 2017, it raised Italy's credit rating to BBB, the first such increase in three decades because of greater economic growth, growing investment, and increased employment.

Nevertheless, I do have concerns about the Italian economy. The OECD finds that Italy's greatest vulnerabilities are the high levels of non-performing loans (NPLs) and its high level of public debt (p. 180). Italy has a higher NPL ratio than its European counterparts. In its 2017 report, the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) covers the topic of NPLs and why they are a risk to the stability of the European financial system. At the very least, tying up resources in NPLs detracts from investing in productive sectors of the economy. More to the point, high levels of NPLs stifle lending and investment. If it does not get better, banks would be less likely to give loans, which could reverse Italy's progress. The quicker the resolution to Italy's NPL problem, the better.

The OECD also views debt-to-GDP ratio as a threat. The bad news is that Italy's debt-to-GDP ratio is already high. The good news is that the OECD does not anticipate the debt-to-GDP ratio getting higher. Nevertheless, the OECD realizes that Italy is prone to higher interest rates, which is why it recommends that "continuing pro-growth reforms and gradually raising the primary surplus are key to reducing the public debt ratio (ibid.)."

Dismal levels of GDP growth have fed insecurity. Demographics imply that Italy could use more immigrants based on its really low fertility rate of 1.34. However, given how the elections went and how anti-immigration sentiment has been growing in Italy, good luck with that! That set aside, the Italian GDP grew 0.4 percent last quarter. Although that is better quarter-to-quarter growth than in recent years, it is still below the Euro Zone average (Banca d'Italia), not to mention that its GDP is still below pre-crisis levels. While IMF, the European Commission, and Banca d'Italia are anticipating higher short-term GDP growth (see EC projections below), Fitch is anticipating lower medium-term GDP growth due to economic slack, declining wages, and a highly fragmented political landscape.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) points out additional concerns in its July 2017 Article IV Consultation for Italy. The IMF is concerned that the risks to Italy are significant, most notably because of weak productivity and low aggregate investment. Much like the OECD illustrated, the IMF points out that until Italy can deal with its NPLs and high debt-to-GDP ratio, economic growth in Italy will be stalled (IMF, p. 4). And as much as Italy has maintained its debt-to-GDP ratio, which is the second-highest in the EU, there is no sign of Italy being able to slow down the spending buildup that has amassed over the years (p. 10). At least from the IMF's point of view, risks are significant and tilted to the downside because of political uncertainty, financial fragility, and possible setbacks to reforms (p. 11).

Conclusion: What does this mean for the Italian government? That remains to be seen. It is difficult to speculate on what exactly the parties would compromise in order to form their coalitions. Some of the larger parties had Euro-skepticism as part of their party platform. The good news is that Italy is most probably not going to cause volatility by leaving the Euro Zone. Brexit shows us that it is difficult enough to leave the European Union when you're not even part of the Euro Zone. Italy would have an even more difficult time doing so since it is part of the Euro Zone. Limiting its contagion effect on the global economy is always nice. There is also the worry that the Italian economy could tank and crash out of the Euro Zone, as this report from the American Enterprise Institute alludes (Lachman and Nabil, 2018). To reiterate, so much of this depends on the coalitions formed and how they enact economic policy.

I still wonder if it would have a major impact on the Italian economy itself. After all, Italy has a habit of churning through governments. Italy has had 65 governments since 1945, which suggests that changes to the economy might not be so everlasting. A coalition government means that the Italian parliament will have to compromise more, which means less likelihood for more drastic economic policy. This is not to say that Italy does not need economic reforms because it clearly does. However, given the major parties that won a plurality of the votes, it is unclear as to how much of that reform would be in Italy's favor. The greatest challenge for the Italian government post-election is to ensure economic and financial stability. As the OECD already pointed out, that includes pro-growth reform and keeping the debt-to-GDP ratio low. If Italy could manage to do that without doing anything radical, the results of the Italian election should not be particularly worrisome.

Main Sources
Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD)
Banca d'Italia [see here and here]
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
European Commission (EC)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Trump's Steel and Aluminum Protectionism: Let the Tariff Torture Begin

Last week, President Trump announced that he is going to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. The President framed his move both in economic terms of helping out the manufacturing industry (U.S. steel in particular) and as a national security concern. I have written on this topic myself in the past, so at least I don't expect my remarks on Trump's biggest international trade policy shift since withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be terribly long. I can say with confidence that tariffs are generally a deficient way of going about international trade policy. Since I looked at the issue shortly after Trump initially announced his intent in 2017 vis-à-vis a Section 232 investigation to analyze the potential of such a trade barrier, I concluded that it would be unacceptable, to say the least. Not only did I conclude that there was no national security justification, I scrutinized what happened the last time we imposed such tariffs in 2002. The answer? 200,000 jobs lost and less economic growth. Rather than re-analyze something I have scrutinized, I will simply add links to the latest studies and analysis of the topic below:

  1. Net loss of jobs. An economic consulting firm, Trade Partnership, examined what the effects of the tariff would be (see report here). Their estimation was that a net 146,000 jobs would be lost.  What their calculations mean is that for every job gained in steel production, five jobs would be lost for those who use steel in their manufacturing process. This matches up with the economic theory that tariffs cause a net loss in employment. 
  2. Effects on state economies. The centrist Brookings Institution analyzes how this could have a ripple effect for states that are more reliant on the steel and aluminum industries. 
  3. Macroeconomic effects. Moody's stated that the tariffs could exacerbate inflationary pressures, tighten [profit] margins, and increase supply chain disruptions in the manufacturing sector. Barclay's is anticipating that the tariffs will cause inflation to increase by 0.1 percent.
  4. Increased likelihood of trade war. While we were able to avoid a trade war in 2002, Trump's tariff is different in that of scope. In the past, it has been limited by country. Also, Trump is using a more opaque investigation process than past presidents, which gives Trump more latitude, not to mention that using Section 232 means that they won't decline over time like they do Section 201 [à la President Bush]. A broader tariff, as opposed to one that targets a country such as China, means that all countries are affected. Some of the largest steel importers are the United States' allies: South Korea, Germany, Canada, and Japan.  Per World Trade Organization (WTO) laws, allies could retaliate to a point, as the Peterson Institute points out. The European Union already expressed the possibility of trade retaliation in the amount of $3.5B. A tariff is what a country does to itself in a time of peace what a foreign nation intends to inflict with a blockade in a time of war. As the Cato Institute illustrates, no one wins in a trade war, and I wish Trump would have realized that before making this into law. 
  5. Articles about the economics and economic history of tariffs written in response to Trump's tariffs: see hereherehere, and here. Oh, and here is one article going into how we have tried tariffs before and how little they prevented economic decline in the targeted industry.
There is the economic theory, historical precedent, and considerable amount of empirical evidence showing how such a tariff would be awful for the United States. There is no economic or national security basis for Trump's decision. What we see here is that the amount of evidence disproving Trump's ideas about tariffs is piling up. The most probable outcomes of these tariffs will be fewer jobs, less economic output, significantly higher prices for products with steel and aluminum, and trade retaliation that could very well lead to an all-out trade war. All I can say to conclude at this juncture is that it is a shame that Trump's faulty decision is going to negatively affect millions.  

3-9-2018 Addendum: The Council on Foreign Relations is estimating that the tariffs will eliminate 40,000 auto industry jobs, which is equivalent to a third of the steel industry.

3-13-2018 Addendum: A panel of prominent economists were asked whether these tariffs would improve Americans' welfare. None of them said "yes." And then there is this letter from the Department of Defense in response to Trump's tariffs. The Pentagon has an incentive to overstate the "national security." If the DoD is opposed to the scope and severity of Trump's tariffs, it shows just how unnecessary the tariffs really are. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Harvest Box": Food Boxes Are a Terrible, Paternalistic Form of Food Assistance Reform

The Trump administration recently released its FY2019 Budget Proposal. One of the budget reforms that caught my eye was with regards to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps. Right now, the 42 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits have a special debit card, known as an EBT card, with which they can buy unprepared food at authorized stores. I wrote a lengthy piece on how we need to reform SNAP. Although I wrote it about four years ago, the reforms I suggested are essentially still relevant since they have not been implemented. Trump's Budget Proposal does not simply have a $200 billion cut in SNAP benefits over the next decade (To put that budget cut into context, the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] spent $70.9 billion on SNAP in 2016, and $68.1 billion in 2017). In addition to the budget cut, Trump added a SNAP reform to the Budget Proposal. He wants to replace some of the food stamps with what has been referred to as a Harvest Box. What is a Harvest Box?

SNAP is currently under a voucher system. Instead of getting all of their benefits to spend on groceries, Trump proposes that recipients receive a Harvest Box. A Harvest Box is a food box with "shelf-stable" products (e.g., milk, cereals, pasta, canned meat, canned fruits and vegetables) that are "100 percent American produced and grown." For recipients who currently receive $90 or more in SNAP benefits, the recipients would pay for the Harvest Box with their benefits and get the remainder on the EBT card. This Harvest Box change is expected to affect 81 percent of SNAP recipients. The Trump Administration's reason for this is twofold. One is to cut back on fraud rates, even in spite of the fact that SNAP-related fraud is at a low 1.5 percent. The second is for those receiving benefits to have a healthier diet. Prior research shows that those on SNAP have a slightly less healthy diet than those not on food stamps. Additionally, the USDA estimates that Harvest Box would save $130 billion over ten years because the USDA can buy the food items at wholesale prices. What could possibly go wrong? Given the criticism out there, a lot. It is bad enough where both the Right and Left are less than pleased with Trump's Harvest Box idea.

One issue with the Harvest Box is severely limiting food choice for a demographic that already has limited food options. It is not simply displacing the private sector and running a parallel, state-run distribution center that is reminiscent of low-income socialist countries. It is not only the government being intrusive or hubristic enough to tell people that they know what diet is best for millions, when these millions of people have different consumer preferences, dietary needs, and variety in ethnic cuisine that allows for a more expansive palette. It is not only that food pantries have shifted from providing food boxes to allowing for individuals to peruse the pantry's shelves for what they need. It will increase food prices because that is what happens when you constrict supply to American-only products from select suppliers. As I brought up when discussing the "buy local" movement, not only is it unfeasible to determine if a product is "100 percent American" since value chains are so complex, but limiting free trade is bad both from an economic growth standpoint and a consumer welfare standpoint.

The food choice also makes me question the health claims. Let's forget for a moment that the USDA has yet to study the health effects of the Harvest Box. The Harvest Box is not going to be sending fresh foods like Blue Apron does. It will be sending shelf-stable items, ready-to-eat cereals, and canned items. More non-perishable items and less fresh produce is less likely to improve nutrition. The food decisions SNAP recipients currently make might not be the best. For example, SNAP could bar sugary drinks. At the same time, they are relatively good choices given the context: low-cost items that fit within the monthly budget, easy to cook, and are reasonably filling.

There is a matter of increasing stigma for SNAP recipients. One of the nice features of switching from actual food stamps to an EBT card is that a SNAP recipient can go into the grocery store and purchase food as any other consumer would. Having SNAP recipients required to visit a food distribution center or have a Harvest Box delivered on their front doorstep will increase the likelihood of stigma. This stigma could also deter recipients from wanting benefits in the future.

Another criticism I have is that there is little reason to trust the government to deliver these Harvest Boxes. This would be the same Administration that contracted with an incompetent company to deliver pre-made meals to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, only to have the vast majority of those meals not delivered. This is the USDA that told us back in the 1990s [with the Food Pyramid] that we should eat a lot of carbohydrates and avoid all fats. It turns out that the government was wrong, and that such advice arguably increased the obesity rate in this country (see video below). Plus, Harvest Boxes are less reliable than SNAP benefits since food delivery can be more easily disrupted than an EBT card.

Then there is the matter of creating a new distribution network for delivering the Harvest Boxes. The USDA estimates that it would only cost $2.5 billion a year. I am skeptical of this figure in part because the USDA doesn't provide detail on how it will purchase, package, and ship these Boxes to millions of Americans. USDA spokesperson Tim Murtaugh even admitted that the projected savings do not include shipping door-to-door for all recipients because such decisions will be left at the state level. That's a pretty big expense to omit! Looking at the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (a USDA program implemented at the state level that helps the elderly), administrative and distribution costs amount for 25 to 33 percent of overall costs. Those costs are much higher percentage wise than with SNAP at 6.8 percent, which gives reason to believe that the USDA is underestimating distribution costs. Plus, the current SNAP program piggybacks off the already-existing distribution centers in the private sector, whereas the USDA very well would have to create its own. The USDA has never done anything like this on such a scale. Aside from creating a whole new distribution network, here are some other logistical questions:
  • Who will be delivering these boxes? USPS? UPS? FedEx? Some new government entity? And how will the government absorb the increased costs when Trump is looking to cut the SNAP budget?
  • Would boxes be delivered door-to-door? Do recipients need to be home? Would recipients pick them up at a distribution center?
  • What happens to recipients who move around frequently or are temporarily homeless?
  • What if food is stolen or delayed?
  • What happens in the event of a snowstorm, hurricane, or other natural disaster?
  • How will USDA deal with delivery in remote, rural areas?
  • How will this distribution account for dietary needs and food allergies? How about children who are picky eaters?
I have plenty of criticism about SNAP, don't get me wrong. At the same time, more central planning and using fewer market forces is not efficient. Fortunately, there is not much likelihood that this will pass Congress. If Trump wants to reap the harvest on this one, he will need to think of another way to approach food assistance reform.

3-3-2018 Addendum: If you need more verification that the Harvest Box is a bad idea, here is a survey of prominent economists stating that a Harvest Box would lower SNAP recipients' well-being and lower their food security.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Why Does Purim Occur on the Jewish Month of Adar?: An Insight on Purim and Happiness

A little over a week ago, the Jewish calendar reached the month of Adar. The Talmud (Ta'anit 29a) says that when the Jewish month of Adar begins, we increase our happiness. The Talmud continues to say that Jews should proceed with litigation in the month of Adar because of the good luck that is inherent within the month of Adar. During the month of Adar is the holiday of Purim. Purim commemorates the biblical account of the Book of Esther. In this Book, we see the story of how the Jewish people, who were at the time in exile in Persia, were saved by the cruelty of Haman, the king's vizier. What does the miracle of being saved from extinction have to do with happiness?

  1. The Hebrew month Adar (אדר) has the same root as the Hebrew word for "strength" (אדיר). This correlates with the fact that the zodiacal sign of Pisces corresponds with the month of Adar. Pisces is the sign of the fishes. What do fishes have to do with Purim?
    • Fish are seen as a fertile species, and thus are a symbol of blessing and fruitfulness. 
    • I wrote a homily about four years ago on why fish have fins and scales. Fish are a metaphor for how we should behave. Fins help us propel forward, and scales protect us when life is bumpy. 
  2. In the Exodus narrative, Adar was the last month that the Jews spent in Egypt. The month of Adar commemorates as the prelude to the Exodus, which leads to the receiving of Torah and commemorates freedom. Happiness is rooted in our freedom because it gives us the ability to reach our fullest potential. 
  3. Jewish tradition teaches us that when the Jews accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, it was done so under duress. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 88a) that G-d held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people to accept Torah. However, it was during Purim that the Jewish people accepted the Torah voluntarily. The voluntary nature of accepting Torah and mitzvahs teaches us that we accept G-d out of love and not fear. Pirke Avot teaches that while fear is sometimes necessary, it is out of the love of G-d that we truly become close to G-d. Purim is such a happy moment because we come to G-d out of love, and not fear. 
  4. Haman selected the month of Adar in attempts to annihilate the Jewish people not just because the Jewish people lost their Temple and were already down. Haman chose Adar because it was the month that Moses passed away. Haman took that as a sign to destroy the Jewish people. While that 7th of Adar was when Moses passed away, it was also the day when Moses was born. This reminds us that a fork in the road could be a crisis or an opportunity. Looking at research on happiness, about 40 percent of happiness is our own choice. We have the ability to take that 40 percent and choose what to do with it, much like the Jewish people decided what to do in terms of making the best of their situation.  
  5. Some of the Purim practices liberate us from our usual routine and has the potential to encourage happiness. Mishloach Manot, the practice of sending gift baskets to at least two friends on Purim, encourages us to give. Giving is significant because research shows that giving leads to greater health and happiness. The practice of drinking on Purim tries to find a balance between not being sober and being drunk in order to connect to G-d in a different way. Wearing costumes is a way to reveal a different part of ourselves that we might not reveal other days of the year. Exploring different venues can help us find a different way of being happy that we might not have previously thought possible. 
  6. Purim is a time where we turn things upside-down. Things that are normally not encouraged (e.g., drinking a fair amount of alcohol) or even forbidden (e.g., cross-dressing) are permitted on Purim. It turns life upside-down for a day. R. Geoff Mitelman brings up the idea that is the fact that life gets turned upside-down is the reason why we should be happy on Purim. The word Purim (פורים) comes from the Hebrew word "lot" (פור). During the entire Purim story, the fate of the Jewish people was uncertain. Purim is a reminder that we don't have full control over our lives, and that chasing after a security blanket or a bubble in which nothing hurts us ever is not only impossible, but precisely the wrong way to go about happiness. Sukkot teaches us a similar message: The sooner we get comfortable in the insecurity of life, the happier we will become because we are not chasing after something so elusive. 

To tie all of these ideas together, Purim is about how we choose to react to our circumstances. Life is not always fun. There are times where it is downright cruel and uncertain. The story of Purim is taking a moment of darkness, a moment where it looked like the Jewish people would be no more, and to transform it into light. And that's the point: the ability to make life a happier one comes from us. It is an internal process, and chasing after external validation or success leaves one empty. Am I saying that it's easy? Of course not! I'm working on it myself, and it comes with difficulty. However, the month of Adar reminds us that we take control over what we can and adapt to the rest. I'll end with the Serenity Prayer:

G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Prevalence of School Shootings and Why We Don't Need to Arm Our Teachers

It is amazing how mass shootings cause a media frenzy and a huge amount of debate in the United States. I know that for me at least, it has resulted in a few blog entries. With the Las Vegas shooting last year, it was about how there isn't a real link between mental health and mass shootings. In response to the Orlando shooting, it was how a high-capacity ban wouldn't make a real difference. The Sandy Hook shooting had me wondering about whether "common sense gun reform" was possible, and the Aurora gun shooting resulted in a brief attempt of me putting mass shootings in the context of overall deaths in the United States.

With the Parkland shooting last week that occurred at a public school and involved 17 innocent children taken from this world much too soon, the topic of gun control has reemerged. Some have proposed "fighting fire with fire" by arming teachers with guns. This was part of the NRA's National School Shield Plan from 2013, so it is not as if this were a brand new idea. The state of Kentucky recently introduced a bill to arm teachers and administrations. The premise behind this idea is to provide training, practice, and advice directly related to a school shooting scenario in order to minimize the carnage unleashed during a school shooting. It is seen as an alternative to schools that cannot not afford to have police officers or other security guards on the school premises. I want to see whether or not this would be a good use of taxpayer dollars, but first, I want to see how prevalent school shootings are.

I bring up prevalence because in order to assess a problem and what are justifiable costs and benefits, we need to know how frequent it is happening. After the Parkland shooting, school shootings in the United States are being branded as "a new normal." The anti-gun organization Everytown for Gun Safety put out a statistic that the United States has already experienced 18 school shootings this year. Considering that we're not even two months into 2018, that sounds like a lot. The problem is that the statistic was inaccurate as it was sensationalist, and the Washington Post and Politifact called them out on it. So how prevalent are they?

Prevalence of Gun Homicides and Mass Shootings
It makes sense to ask how prevalent mass shootings in general are since some mass shootings are also school shootings. Plus, schools are the second most common site for mass shootings (FBI). Since the Parkland shooting was both a mass shooting and a school shooting, I will be looking at the prevalence of both.

It is a point I first brought up in 2012 and again in 2016: mass shootings are an uncommon form of gun-related death. The CDC's National Vital Statistics System found in their most recent report on fatalities (2015) that gun homicides do not make the Top Ten list for leading causes of death. In 2016, gun-related homicides increased from 12,979 in 2015 to 14,415 in 2016 (see CDC WISQARS database). Homicide rates did increase in 2016, but a preliminary review of 2017 data shows a decrease in homicide rates. Since most homicides in the United States are committed with guns, it is reasonable to assume that gun-related deaths also dropped in 2017. This brings us to mass shootings.

In its piece on mass shootings (updated after the Parkland shooting), Washington Post breaks down the historical demographics of mass shootings. Washington Post admits that mass shootings are a small portion of overall gun deaths. In 2018 so far, there have been 21 deaths from mass shootings and 1,827 gun deaths. For 2018, that would mean 1 percent of gun deaths are from mass shootings. However, that is just for two months, which is hardly an adequate timeframe to define a "new norm." The Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on mass shootings from 1999 to 2013. Using the FBI's definition of mass shooting as "multiple-homicide incident with four people killed within a single event," CRS found that there have been an average of 21 mass shootings annually, and that there has not been a particular increase in this time period (see below). The Left-leaning Mother Jones uses this criterion (along with some others) in its open source database.

Comparing across nations is also interesting. As CNN brings up in a recent article, from 1966 to 2012, the United States accounts for 5 percent of the population and 31 percent of the mass shootings.   The Crime Prevention Research Center does something interesting with the international data. They compare the United States to Europe by using death rates per million and frequency per million, and found that the United States is not at the top of the list.

Mass shootings are infrequent, but are terrifying not just because of the number killed, but also because they take place without advanced warning and in places we would not expect. One of those unexpected places is in a school, which brings me to my next point......

School Shooting Prevalence
Now that we have looked at gun homicide statistics and mass shooting statistics, let's take a brief look at school shooting data. The data I found did not segment by number of deaths in the school shootings the same the data are segmented with mass shootings, so I won't make that distinction. As for prevalence, here is what I could find: I'm normally not a fan of using Wikipedia as a source. In this case, they provide a good listing of school shootings in the United States. We see an increase of school shooting deaths in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s and beyond. 150,000 students have experienced a school shooting since Columbine.

This sheds some light on the raw data, but how about the rate at which school shootings happen? At the very least, we need to adjust for population growth over time. The Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] provides an annual report called Indicators of School Crime and Safety. In its most recent report, we see a breakdown of deaths in schools (see below). What NCES concludes is that from 1992 to 2014, school shootings have accounted for less than 3 percent of overall youth homicides (NCES, 2016, p. 37). Just as interesting, the Cato Institute looked through NCES data to calculate what percentage of schools undergo a school shooting. As of 2014, only 0.009 percent of schools have historically undergone a school shooting. In terms of percent of children killed, only 0.000044 percent of children are murdered in a homicide at school. In its 2016 fact sheet on Understanding School Violence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that "school associated violent deaths are rare." How rare? According to 2012 CDC research, the CDC found that the probability of a child being a victim of a school-related homicide is 1 in 2.5 million. Even if you were to argue that school shootings have been twice as prevalent since then (which is generous to assume), that would still mean only a probability of 1 in 1.25 million, which would mean that a child would be about 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning and 17 times more likely to die in a car accident.

Globally, the best data we have is from the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis. This Academy aggregated data from each incident where there were two or more victims. From 2000 to 2010, 28 out of 57 incidents happened in the United States alone. When it comes to mass shootings that are school shootings, the United States has a bigger problem than other countries. Nevertheless, school shootings remain a small percentage of youth homicides in the United States, as well as a statistically rare occurrence. 

Should We Arm Teachers in Response to School Shootings?
I don't want to get into whether there are too many school shootings. Given the horrific nature of the crime and the fact that the victims are children and school staff, I'm sure we can all agree that one school shooting is too many. For argument's sake, let us assume that the prevalence of school shootings is high enough where we need to take some drastic action, such as arming teachers. While the idea has some intuition behind it, I have a few issues (also see Center for Homicide Research paper here):

  • Cost of arming teachers. Per the NRA's 2013 report, one-time training costs $800 to $1,000. To be generous, let's assume $800. NCES estimates that there are 3.592 million teachers in 2018. 30 percent of Americans own a gun (Pew Research). Only 61 percent of firearm owners have had training (Reuters). Assuming that the demographics of U.S. firearms owners applies to teachers, 657,336 teachers have had training, which means that we would need to train 2.93 million teachers. That would mean that the cost of training these 2.93 million teachers would cost $2.3 billion nationwide. This does not consider that training would need to be ongoing, the cost of purchasing the handguns, the permits for these handguns, and the storage and insurance for the handguns. Many schools already have strained budgets. Can schools afford such a measure? 
  • Storage of firearms. It is not just the cost of the storage that concerns me. Where are the teachers going to store their firearms? If the storage area is too heavily guarded, it would be too difficult to access in the event of a school shooting. If it is too easy to access, there is legitimate concern that someone could steal the firearms.   
  • Success rate of hitting target and casualties. When I was covering the topic of the inadequacy behind a high-capacity magazine ban, I brought up how police officers hit their target 30 percent of the time. Even if teachers are trained, it is a reasonable assumption that their success rate would be lower than that of a police officer. Why? Because teachers are not accustomed to such scenarios like police officers and security guards are. Combine that with a bunch of students potentially in the line of fire, I cannot imagine how this would end well. It is difficult enough for a police officer to hit their target. How can we expect a teacher with minimal to no training to do the job? 
  • Teacher pressure and turnover rates. On average, the United States experiences an attrition rate of about 2 percent (BLS). The Department of Education's NCES found that about 17 percent of teachers quit teaching within 5 years, which is below the commonly believed 50 percent. In spite of the lower attrition rate, teachers still face a number of priorities, including grading, academic commitments, curriculum planning, mentoring students, and meetings. With everything else teachers have to manage, you want to throw gun training and keeping track of a gun on top of it?

It is important to make sure our children are safe while in school. At the same time, it is not the job of the teacher to defend students. It is their job to teach. That is what they are trained to do. Having a jerk-knee response to a phenomenon that has not particularly been on the rise is a poor use of resources and a way to let fear override better judgement. Arming teachers is a way to cut corners, especially given the potential lethalness of the government funding teachers to carry firearms while in school.

And let's not forget about prevalence. Government statistics show that school shootings are rare, even if they are more common than in other countries. School shootings account for a small percentage of youth homicides, and mass shootings account for a small percentage of firearm homicides. We should keep the prevalence in mind as we make policy priorities. This is not a call to discontinue the discussion on gun reform, but rather a call for more effective and targeted way to reduce gun deaths than arming teachers.

Monday, February 19, 2018

"Chain Migration": How Trump Needlessly Demonizes Family-Based Immigration

For those of you have been reading my blog, you have probably noticed that I have been covering the topic of immigration more extensively since Donald Trump became President. Since the beginning of 2017, I have covered such immigration-related topics as the border wall, refugee ban, high-skilled immigration visas, the idiocy behind cutting immigration in half, DACA, why we don't need more border agents on the wall, and temporary protected status. Today, I feel the need to cover another topic of immigration that Trump doesn't have a clue: chain migration.

Chain migration is a term that was popularized in the 1960s to describe how U.S. citizens and green card holders use current law to bring extended family into the country, much like links follow one another in a chain. It refers to a specific type of family reunification, i.e., when a family member is following another immigrant. It is not a derogatory term, but rather a term for a commonsense idea that people are more likely to move whether their relatives are. Chain migration is a mechanism that many families have historically used to bring their families over to the United States, including President Trump.

I bring the topic of chain migration up in the first place because for President Trump, an end to chain migration is an essential to sign off on any immigration deal for the 690,000 affected by DACA. Trump views chain migration both as a way for terrorists to enter the countries and as a way to open the floodgates of immigration by allowing an unlimited number of extended relatives. If we are to get into chain migration, we should figure out the demographics of these individuals and figures out what is going on. With that, let's cover the myths that are commonly used by the President and other like-minded individuals.
  1. "Chain migration" immigrants are a national security threat. The Cato Institute covered this topic last year, and found that the odds of being killed by such in immigrant in a terrorist attack is 1 in 723,000,000. To put this in perspective, the odds of being struck by lightning is 1 in 161,856. You are nearly 4,500 times more likely to get struck by lightning than killed by an immigrant brought in through chain migration, and over 50,000 times more likely to get killed by a native citizen.
  2. Immigrants using "chain migration" to enter the country do not have the skills to succeed in the U.S. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the argument that these immigrants are incapable of succeeding because they lack literacy and work skills. Nearly half of adults who come to the United States through family-sponsored and diversity visa categories have a college degree. This is higher than the third of U.S. natives that have a college education. 
  3. The low-skilled "chain migration" immigrants are ruining this country11 percent of those who come through family-based immigration lack a significant formal education. Nevertheless, these individuals, by and large, succeed. This does not surprise me in the least since low-skilled immigrants on the whole positively contribute to the economy.
  4. "Chain migration" is a loophole resulting in an influx of millions of immigrants. Trump claims that "a single immigrant can bring in unlimited numbers of distant relatives." That simply is not true. If you take a look at current law, it only allows for sponsoring immediate relatives (i.e., spouses, children, siblings, parents) and their spouses and minor children. Current law does not allow for aunts, uncles, and cousins, not to mention that immigrants cannot sponsor relatives until they themselves have green cards or become naturalized citizens. 
    • Although there is no cap for immediate family members, there is a maximum of 480,000 family preference visas. In 2015, 69 percent of these visas were for U.S. citizens' spouses and children, which further diminishes the argument. 
    • Per a report released from the Congressional Research Service [CRS] on the topic of family-based visas earlier this month, we have a backlog of 3.95 million people, with average wait time being 23 months and waits as long as 23 years (CRS, p. 13, 19).
    •  The CRS report points out that Trump's hypothetical of immigrants flooding our cities is theory without empirical backing. The report then lists reasons for family-based immigration being more modest, including needing U.S. citizenship, the fact that not all eligible candidates want to immigrate to the United States, and long wait times for visas (CRS, p. 24-25). As the Right-leaning Manhattan Institute states, "Chain migration is an information system that enables networks of people to find each other to come and work. If there is no work, individuals will not invite family members to come."
  5. "Chain migration" is overwhelming the United States. You would think that from President Trump's rhetoric, we are being overrun by immigrants vis-à-vis "chain migration." In absolute numbers, we admit more immigrants than other nations in large part because we are a larger nation than most. In 2016, the United States allowed for 1.2 million legal immigrants. 68 percent of those immigrants were brought here due to "chain migration." To account for nations' sizes, we need to look at immigrants as a percent of the nation's overall population. The Cato Institute did so in mid-2016, and found that as a percent of the population, the United States admits less immigrants than other developed nations.
There are not masses of foreigners coming on our shores (CRS, p. 27-28) and eroding our economy or the "American way of life." "Chain migration" has become  the nativist boogeyman term used as cover to want to cut down on legal immigration. There is no justification on cutting back or banning "chain migration." Ultimately, it does not matter if immigration is "chain migration" or not. It does not matter if the immigrants are high-skilled or low-skilled. What we find is that more immigration is a net benefit for immigrants, native workers, and the economy as a whole.