Friday, July 29, 2016

Parsha Pinchas: Zealousness and How There Can Be "Too Much of a Good Thing"

With all the ISIS attacks taking place in the past few weeks, it has me think about taking religion too far. I'm an Orthodox Jew, but I still believe in an interpretive tradition that can be discussed and debated in an amicable manner without infringing upon others, especially when it comes to life and death. Religious fundamentalism is already irksome, and all the more so when someone kills another human being in G-d's name. Even so, how did last week's Torah portion end?

It introduces a biblical character called Phinehas (Pinchas). Pinchas was not just one of the priests in the priestly order. He was also the grandson of Aaron and son of Eleazar (Exodus 6:25). His grand entrance in the story is brought about by a bump in the road through the wandering of the desert. Balak was unable to use Bilam to curse the Israelites, so he turns to the wonderful world of debauchery. He sends a bunch of Midanite women to successfully tempt the Israelite men and get them to pray to a false deity: Peor (Numbers 25:1-3). This resulted in a plague sent by G-d (25:3). Since idolatry is a major affront to Judaism, Moses ordered the judges to slay each individual who committed idolatry (25:5). As an insult to injury, one of the Israelite men publicly brought a Midianite woman to the Tabernacle. Pinchas was so angered that he took a spear and killed the two (25:7-8). As a result, the plague was uplifted (25:8).

In case that doesn't confuse you enough, look at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, particularly with Numbers 25:11-13. Not only does G-d recognize that Pinchas turned away G-d's wrath because Pinchas was motivated by G-d, but also grants Pinchas "My covenant of peace (בריתי שלום)," as well as an eternal spot in the priesthood. We know that this took place because the later high priests were descendants of Pinchas, although Eleazar may have had other sons (Ibn Ezra's commentary on Numbers 25:13). If we take the verse at its simple meaning, if you're solely motivated by the zeal to serve G-d, it's okay to kill people in His name. It is not simply that modern-day sensibilities are violated, but also that what Pinchas did was the exact opposite of peaceful and in violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Is G-d really saying that we should emulate this behavior?

Fortunately, this shock isn't just one for us in the twenty-first century. The ambivalence of Pinchas' behavior goes back much further:

Pinchas did the right thing.

  • Rashi seems to be okay with Pinchas' actions because as Numbers 25:11 states, "He [Pinchas] was zealous for My sake," meaning that Pinchas' intentions were pure, and thus justifiable.
  • R. Samson Raphael Hirsch said that "Anyone who wages war on the enemies of what is good and true is a champion of the Covenant of Peace on earth, even while engaged in war."
  • The Chatam Sofer commended Pinchas for showing as much zeal, alacrity, and energy to do right as the sinning Israelites put forth to do wrong. 
  • Midrash Shemot Rabbah 33:5 assumes that Pinchas was righteous in his actions. 
  • R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook thought that because Pinchas protected the Jewish people from the plague and further moral depravity, his actions brought about peace. 
Maybe Pinchas did the right thing, but there's a catch.
  • The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) says that if Pinchas would have asked the rabbinical court prior to committing the act, it would have not been permitted. This act is presumed to be an act of zeal. But Maimonides (Rambam) adds on the caveat that the Talmudic source points out it was permissible only because Pinchas caught them in the act, and if Pinchas would have waited, he would have been liable for murder. More to the point, this Talmudic passage teaches that if Zimri (the Israelite Pinchas killed) would have killed Pinchas instead, Zimri would have been innocent in a court of law because it would have been an act of self-defense, which diminishes Pinchas' killing. 
  • The previous Torah portion ends with Pinchas' deed and 24,000 dead Israelites. Only in the following Torah portion do we see Pinchas vindicated. This is to teach us that we are not to prima facie praise extremism, and that we should wait for the dust to settle to see if his motives were pure (Moses of Coucy). Speaking of which.....
  • According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7), the Elders were ready to excommunicate Pinchas. However, G-d interjected and said that Pinchas would be granted priesthood for all time (per Numbers 25:13). What is implied here is that killing people is not typically acceptable. It is really difficult for an individual to objectively view their motives. Pinchas is not meant to be taken as an example of how we should live our lives, but rather an anomaly in an exigent circumstance. G-d is the only one who can objectively know our motives, which is why He voiced His "final answer" in Numbers 25:13. Conflating personal motives with actual zeal for G-d is all too easy. It is objectively too difficult to fulfill the requirements of this law, which is why the Sages in this Talmudic passage discouraged such zealous behavior. 
  • Rabbi Pinchas Peli thought that Pinchas "occupies a great place in the pantheon of the Jewish people," but also added that we should emulate with caution because zeal can occasionally be an asset, but not be viewed as a permanent norm. 
Did Pinchas do the right thing? Not so much...
  • The Babylonian Talmud (Zevachim 101b) said that Pinchas did not become a priest until he made peace with the other tribes [per Numbers 25:13]. Regardless if he technically did the right thing, there is a hefty price for zealousness, and peace needs to be made to pay the price.  
  • Regardless of whether the act was justified, it left Pinchas in emotional turmoil. Again, zealotry has its price, and G-d was granting Pinchas the peace to cope with it (Netziv). Even so, if you look at the Torah scroll, when you look at the word for peace in Numbers 25:12 (שלום) when mentioning "the covenant of peace", the letter "vav" is broken, implying that Pinchas will never fully have that internal peace. In verse 11, we also see that the letter "yud" is smaller than the rest of the letters in Pinchas' name. The "yud" stands for the name of G-d and for the word Jew (יהודי), and Pinchas' violence, even if it were justifiable, diminished him as a Jew and as a person.
  • I want to throw in an alternative interpretation into the mix. Where else in the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) do we see such a zeal to serve G-d? The obvious answer is Elijah because he is used in this week's Haftarah to parallel Pinchas' zeal. However, I want to take a different approach, and say that there are parallels to the Nazarite. As I wrote a few years ago, the Nazarite took on the three prohibitions because the individual wanted to channel their fervor for G-d in a higher spiritual direction. The problem is that at the end of the temporary Nazarite vow, one has to make a sin offering. Rambam says in the Mishneh Torah that the Nazarite is both a holy person and a sinner. Ultimately, the Nazarite vow is meant to be a concessionary vow. However, avoiding one extreme by going to the other is a bad idea. There needs to be a balance via the Golden Mean, which is something that Rambam advocated. According to the K'tav Sofer, we should go with the Golden Mean. Zeal and peace are two contradictory, extreme qualities. G-d granted peace not to reward Pinchas per se, but to bring him to a sense of balance to best serve G-d. Much like with the Nazarite, there are exigent circumstances that require us to go to an extreme. However, we ultimately screwed up because we should not have needed to go to an extreme to find balance. It is far from the ideal of the Golden Mean. G-d reminds us that peace is preferable, and in terms of Jewish values, it is one we should emphasize over zeal (Iturei Torah). Even when showing fervor to G-d or pursuing peace, much like Pinchas' grandfather did (Pirke Avot 1:12), we should not go in such extremes to do so. 

Although there is disagreement among commentators, there are some commonalities. Regardless of whether Pinchas' violent act was proper, it unquestionably left a permanent emotional scar. Zealousness comes with a personal toll, and diminishes us as those who are doing our best to serve G-d's ways. The sources also remind us that this Pinchas' actions are not meant to be as instructive. It is also noteworthy that Joshua was chosen instead of Pinchas to lead the Jewish people because a leader needs to have patience and forbearance to do his job. Zealousness is too unstable of an idea to last in the long-term.

Sure, we should care about G-d a lot, but extremism is not the way, and finding the circumstances to replicate Pinchas' zeal are next to impossible. We should take a the fervor to stand against moral depravity, much like Pinchas did, but also to remind ourselves there are better ways of acting in G-d's name than taking the extreme of zealousness.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Economic Impact of Hosting the Olympics: Should Rio Have Accepted the Bid?

With the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro starting at the end of next week, ticket sales are still of concern. Between the economic recession, the Zika virus, and crime rates, only 73 percent of tickets have been sold with less than two weeks to go. While these are issues that Brazil needs to contend with, there is still the issue of profitability as a whole. Are Brazil's woes the primary cause of a lack of ticket sales, or is hosting the Olympics generally an unprofitable endeavor?

The argument of the Olympics being profitable is similar to that of stadium subsidies. Essentially, the theory is that that multiplier effect from the Olympics boosts economic growth. Aside from the short-term expenditures from the goods and services related to the Olympics and boosting infrastructure and construction spending, there is also the long-term benefit of being able to better promote a city for foreign investment.

According to the Council on Foreign Affairs' (CFR) recent economic analysis on the Olympics, countries spend much more on Olympics than initially budgeted. Take the 2014 Winter Olympics. Not only did the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics end up costing 4 times as much as the original bidding cost, but it will cost the Russian taxpayers $1.2 billion a year for the foreseeable future (Müller, 2014). It is not just Sochi. According to Oxford University, the average cost overrun in the past 50 years has been 179 percent (Flyvbjerg and Stewart, 2012). Even for Rio de Janeiro, the cost overrun is expected to be an extra $6 billion on top of the initial estimated $14 billion.

As the CFR mentions, the only city since 1936 to generate a surplus is Los Angeles from the 1984 Olympics, and that's because a) they already had the infrastructure largely in place, and b) Los Angeles did not rely on taxpayer dollars to fund the Olympics. A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows a net positive impact on international trade (Rose and Spiegel, 2009).  However, other research shows no long-term effect on the GDP (Billings and Holladay, 2012; von Rekowsky, 2013). Research shows that aside from such extraordinary circumstances, Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities (Baade and Matheson, 2016, p. 202). Two reasons for this lack of economic development are the substitution effect (i.e., much of the hotels and restaurants would have been constructed anyways) and a lot of the construction firms used are usually international firms. None of this brings up the general transience of the employee gains, the lack of positive impact on tourism, the significant infrastructure costs to satisfy International Olympic Committee, or the creation of stadiums that have little to no post-Olympic use.

There are some reforms that can be made, such as changing the bidding process, more flexibility in using already-existing facilities, transparency, or including financial sustainability as part of the bidding process. One thing is for sure: cities that are not fiscally solvent, e.g., Rio de Janeiro, should not be hosting the Olympics.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Parsha Balak: Do Lost Causes Exist? A Lesson on Choice and Blessings

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found. 'Twas blind, but now can see. I know it's a Christian hymn that has become popularized in American culture, but it's actually a good depiction of this week's Torah portion. How so?

Balaam was the original "prophet for hire." King Balak was afraid of what the Israelites did to the Amorites (Numbers 22:2), and thus hired Balaam to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 22:7). Throughout the passage, Balaam does everything possible to distort G-d's word in order to curse the Israelites. Balaam takes G-d's ambiguous permission (Numbers 22:20) and manipulates it to his advantage. Balaam was so hellbent on bringing down the Jewish people that it took a talking donkey to make him realize just how far he strayed (Numbers 22:34). But Balaam makes up for his evil intentions and collaboration with the Moabite king. He starts by building seven altars for seven bulls and seven lambs (Numbers 23:1). In Judaism, the number seven represents creation, good fortune, and blessing.  He continued the goodwill by blessing the Jewish people, even in spite of Balak's protestations. He even made a statement that was so strong that it part of the Jewish morning liturgy:

מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. -Numbers 24:5

Yet by the end, Balaam counseled Balak to entice the Jewish men to debauchery (Numbers 31:16). Balaam ended on such a bad note that he is one of the seven people who has no share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 90a). While rabbinic literature considers Balaam to be so evil, Pirke Avot [4:1] teaches us that a wise person is one who learns from every individual, so what can we learn from Balaam's behavior?

When Balaam is first commiserating with Balak, Balak points out that "I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6)." The Chofetz Chayim points out that Balak recognizes in this verse that Balaam has the ability to both bless and curse. There is the question of why Balak didn't ask Balaam to simply bless his own people, but there is also the question of why Balaam went along with it, especially knowing that G-d already blessed the Jewish people. Someone as blinded as Balaam had the ability to do good all along.

According to Sforno, the meaning of being created in G-d's Image is that we have the faculty to choose between right and wrong. For Sforno, it is what makes us human. Even with someone such as the Pharaoh and his heart being heartened, Sforno believed that the hardening was necessary for Pharaoh to have free will. At least looking at another evil man such as the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative, we see that G-d does not deprive us of choice in the regards of morality. We don't know what Balaam's background was. We don't know how much the "school of hard knocks" kicked him around. We don't know what made him the wretch he turned out to be. What the Chofetz Chayim points out in Numbers 22:6, however, that Balaam had the choice to not be a wretch, and also that we have choice. We have the ability to bless and curse. We have the ability as to whether we emphasize blessings in our life or whether we view life negatively. I think that hubris and the power of prophecy got to Balaam's head, which prevented him from thinking clearly about what G-d wanted. He was so close to G-d, yet Balaam made it all about Balaam. Yes, we have a choice every time we act, think, or speak. We have a choice as to whether to be blind or to see. We have the choice, and it should be one of blessing. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Waiting Periods: Can They Lower Gun Deaths?

With all the shootings reported in the media, gun violence has been a topic that has flooded media outlets across the United States, whether we're talking about such related sub-topics as terrorist watch lists, mass shootings, or high-capacity magazine bans. Americans are getting pretty sick of hearing about gun violence. Although guns are not one of the top ten leading causes of death, there is a disproportionately visceral reaction to gun deaths, which could explain this piece from the Washington Post (WaPo) last week. As the WaPo piece points out, mass shootings and suicides are more common, and the commonality between the two is guns. For the author of the WaPo, the cure is waiting periods. The question here is whether she is right.

With regards to waiting periods, there are two separate discussions to be had: one regarding gun violence and one regarding gun suicides. When looking at gun violence, waiting periods do not seem to have an effect, which is largely what Politifact found last year when sifting through studies (including the CDC study) on the topic. That could make sense for a couple of reasons. One is that if it is a "crime of passion," they very well might pick up the first thing they find to kill the victim. The second is that, as a Duke University study points out, criminals are much more likely to buy a gun through their social networks than through a gun dealer or gun show. Plus, with improved technology, a background check can be complete in hours, not days.

However, looking at gun-related deaths related to gun violence is only a part of the story. When looking at CDC data on causes of death, gun suicides make up for nearly two out of three gun-related deaths. America's big gun problem is not that of gun homicides, but that of gun suicides. 55 percent of all suicides are carried out with a firearm, even though 15.5 percent of suicide attempts by males are carried out with a gun. While 2.5 percent of women who attempt suicide do so with a gun, the sad truth is men are 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide than women, and 70 percent of suicides in America are committed by white males. According to the CDC, suicide is one of the top ten causes of death, and firearms contribute a major role to that because they are regrettably an effective weapon of choice for suicides.

In other developed countries, only about 9 percent of suicides are committed with firearms, whereas it is 55 percent in the United States. The question here is whether a waiting period would deter individuals from buying firearms to commit suicide or if the individuals would use some other method to commit suicide. The WaPo piece had a completely separate methodology section spelling out its assumptions. Part of that was realizing that other methods had a lower success rate, which led the author to calculate that there would be a 20-38% reduction in gun suicides. Even on the low end of that estimation, that would translate into about 4,200 lives saved every year. A study from Harvard (Miller et al., 2013) seems to accept the substitution theory presented here. Additionally, we have to remember that the feeling of wanting to commit suicide is an intense, yet often brief emotion. A reasonable waiting period has real potential to prevent suicides, either because the individual either reconsiders purchasing a gun, seeks help, or pulls out of the suicidal funk. Greater gun access translates into higher probability of suicide. Even the Politifact article admits that there is enough evidence that waiting periods can lower the effect on suicide rates. A 2015 study from the American Journal of Public Health confirms the assumption that waiting periods lower suicide rates (Anestis and Anestis, 2015).

However, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't express my skepticism. A study (Ludwig and Cook, 2000) was conducted to test of the effects of the Brady Law's background check and waiting period. While it did not affect the overall suicide rate, it did lower the suicide rate for those 55 and older. Australia is not a good example to use because after its gun buyback, Australia actually experienced a temporary increase in its suicide rate before it decreased again. South Korea and Japan are two countries that have very strict gun control, yet they are amongst the countries in the developed world with the highest suicide rates.

While I don't find the evidence on waiting periods to be clear-cut (it would also be nice to have more evidence, too), there is certainly enough evidence to consider waiting periods as a matter of public policy. How long the waiting period is another question. 10 days might be excessive and unconstitutional. To reiterate that suicidal bouts are often brief, you might only need something like 2 to 4 days to be effective. If we are looking to reduce suicide rates in this country, I only think that waiting periods would be part of the equation. This country would need to move to a new societal norm regarding suicide. If someone's bone was protruding from their arm or leg, you would tell them to go to the hospital. However, if someone is going through depression (6.7 percent of Americans are going through major depressive disorder as we speak), it is often looked down upon in this society. Countries that have strict gun laws, such as Japan and South Korea, have strict gun laws and high suicide rates, which implies a cultural component to the equation. Americans live in a high-stress, rat-race society that does not treat mental health with the respect that we should. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death, yet it does not get nearly the same press that mass shootings do, even though an American is about 100 times more likely to die from suicide this year than from a mass shooting. Knowing is half the battle, and the more we make people aware of this issue, the more we can take steps to help people cope with anxiety and depression.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Iran Deal One Year Later: Success or Failure?

For many years, Iran has been perceived as a threat to world order. The Iranian government has said on more than one occasion that it wants to wipe Israel off the map. In general, the terrorist organizations it supports destabilizes geopolitical relations in the Middle East, thereby creating a neoconservative boogeyman. One year ago was the signing of the Iran deal that was meant to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. As is customary in U.S. politics, both sides of the spectrum were in full force, from doomsday scenarios to improved diplomatic relations with Iran. When looking at the Iran deal a year ago, I concluded that while the deal does have flaws, it was still better than remaining with the status quo. Now that a year has passed, we can go off of more than mere predictions and speculation. Has the Iran deal worked, or were the naysayers right in that we have simply given Iran what it wants?

Before I even begin, I have to preface by saying that this analysis is preliminary. I used a similar disclaimer when analyzing the effects of marijuana legalization after one year, or when analyzing the central banks using negative interest rates when it only had been in practice for a short while. Even so, there are still initial findings that can be stated. In the case of the Iran nuclear deal, the main question is the capacity of the Iranian government to have a sufficient stockpile to create nuclear arms. Did the deal hasten Iran's nuclear ambitions, did it halt them, or does it ultimately not matter because there is a certain inevitability to the occurrence?

One thing we have to remember is that Iran is still funding terrorist groups. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Iranian government is calling the shots in the Iraqi government with regards to dealing with ISIS, perpetuating the Syrian war machine that is causing the genocide in Syria, and is starting covert Shia terrorist cells in the Middle East. It doesn't address human rights violations or the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Without the use of economic sanctions, the United States has less options to keep the Iranian government in check, although the deal also has sanctions "snapback" in the event that Iran reneged on the deal. While the point has some validity with regards to stabilizing Middle Eastern geopolitics, it is still wanting because it does not answer whether the Iran nuclear deal itself was effective.

Jeffrey Lewis, who is the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury, stated in a recent interview that proponents expected that the Iranians were going to behave like Boy Scouts. When looking at this deal last year, I even said that there was no deal that was going to bring peace in the Middle East because Iran was going to continue to be an instigator, regardless of having a "Deal or No Deal." If Iran was really that nice, there wouldn't be a need for a nuclear deal in the first place. What we have to ask ourselves here whether they have the capabilities to instigate on a nuclear level, particularly with regards to whether they have enough centrifuges and uranium to create the nuclear weapons.

Instead of a "breakout time" of two months, the deal has lengthened that to a year, which would give world powers plenty of time to respond in the event that Iran decides to break the deal. Other major benefits (see Congressional Research Service [CRS] report here) that came with the deal: the number of centrifuges have been reduced two-thirds from about 19,000 to 5,060. Nuclear research has been limited, and Iran's uranium stockpile has reduced about 98 percent. Iran is redesigning the Arak reactor so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been allowed unprecedented access to help ensure compliance. The aforementioned CRS report (p.10) stated that Iran has complied with the major provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon recently stated that the Iran deal has made it so that Iran is no longer an "immediate, existential threat to Israel." Plus, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed the Lance Amendment, which would not give Iran access to the U.S. dollar.

The concern for naysayers is the sunset provisions and what happens when the deal completely expires 15 years down the road. Iran is, and still very well could be 15 years later, a kleptocratic, theocratic mess of a regime. Figuring out a way to make Iran the country it was prior to the Ayatollah's usurping of Iran in 1979 is a tricky goal, although it would address root issues in Middle Eastern power politics. It is going to have to be a long-term game since the U.S. government tried to install a friendly regime back in 1953, and failed miserably.

That set aside, we can't ask ourselves whether this deal will fix things forever. We also have to remind ourselves that the final verdict won't play out for years to come. The question is whether conditions are better with the deal than they would have been without the deal. The main goal was to block Iran's path to nuclear arms for an extended period of time, and in spite of whatever imperfections exist, the primary goal has been achieved. There is worry as to what happens when the deal expires, and we should prepare for that, although conversely, the deal might show the Iranian government that it is better for Iran to not pursue nuclear weapons. We should also be prepared for more rounds of diplomatic meetings to help mitigate tensions in the Middle East. There is also the issue of whether the Iranian government blames the state of their economy on world powers on delaying the lifting of the sanctions, although Boeing is looking to enter the Iranian market. There is expected to be a bumpy road ahead (see GAO report here), such as the making sure that China also plays ball with regards to securing the proper procurement channels, the 2016 U.S.-Iran Naval Incident, and Iran testing ballistic missiles. Again, Iranian officials are not Boy Scouts, and we can't expect them to be. We have to remind ourselves of what our options were, and which was the best option given what was on the table. There is no guarantee that the deal will play out nicely, but enacting this deal seems to be our best option to move forward.

12-11-2016 Addendum: The Brookings Institution put out a nice article on how the Iran deal is working, and how Trump's attempt to negotiate a better deal would, at the very least, be ineffective.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Relationship Between Police Officers & African-Americans: Can The Rift Be Mended?

This past week was immensely jarring in terms of interactions between African-Americans and police officers. Alton Sterling, who was an African-American male, was shot by Baton Rouge police officers. Less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile, another African-American male, was shot by police during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis area. These two shootings, one of which was perpetrated by a Caucasian police officer, caused an uproar about police misconduct towards African-Americans. To make matters even more jarring, an African-American decided to go on a sniper attack and murder five police officers that were trying to keep the peace during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

Before delving into some of the finer points surrounding police misconduct, I would like to start with the prevalence of deaths caused by police officers, especially since the Black Lives Movement primarily started based on the protest of law enforcement officers killing African-Americans. The Washington Post (WaPo) released some 2015 data and 2016 data for deaths caused by police officers.

We'll look at 2015 and 2016 since the data are most recent. In 2015, there were 990 police shootings, and 2016 has 513 people shot as of date.  Looking at the 2015 WaPo data, 79 percent those shot were armed with a deadly weapon (a tenth of those killed were unarmed). Three quarters of the incidents involved police officers that were under attack. Also, there were about twice as many Caucasians killed as African-Americans. African-Americans, however, do not make up nearly as much of the population as Caucasians. When adjusted on a per capita basis, African-Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than Caucasians.

On the other hand, we cannot expect these rates to line up with general population demographics. After all, police follow crime and work to stop it, which leads them to high-crime areas. Arrest rates come into play here because it provides a solid proxy for the extent to which police interact with others while on the job. As of 2014, African-Americans account for 13 percent of the population (Census) while accounting for 27.8 percent of the arrests (FBI, Table 43). While this could be an issue of these shootings taking place in areas with higher rates of crime, it could also be argued that there is a systemic bias against African-Americans, a concept that is often referred to as implicit bias. However, the Washington Post sheds some light on the topic (James et al., 2016). The research from Washington State University does show a racial disparity, but ironically enough, the disparity is in the opposite direction: officers are three times less likely to shoot an unarmed African-American than an unarmed Caucasian.

[As a side note, I would like to dispel the notion of a "war on police." As the American Enterprise Institute points out, there isn't a "war on police," either. Both in terms of raw number of police deaths and rate of police deaths, the figures have been on an overall decline since the mid-1970s.]

Even with facts refuting the narrative of "the police are out to disproportionately kill black people," the racial tension in this country is much more profound than police shootings. When it comes to treating people equally under the law, the issue of racial disparity is not that of mere perception (see Pew Research findings here and here), but an issue that has been ongoing in American history. With slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even today with such laws as stop-and-frisk [that disproportionately affect the African-American community], it can hardly be said that the United States legal system has treated African-Americans fairly. The Mayor of Dallas did not hold back when talking about the complications of race in this country, and said that we need to tackle the issue of racism in this country.

There is something to be said regarding police misconduct in this country, particularly when discussing racial disparity. Take an example like stop-and-frisk: it is ineffective, it is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights, and it disproportionately affects African-Americans. Even with issues of police misconduct in the United States, it provides zero excuse to go on a shooting rampage against police officers for revenge. More violence is only going to send this country in a downward spiral towards further divisiveness and violence, which, as I will cover momentarily, is not the ultimate goal.

While one could get caught up in the debate between "black lives matter" and "blue lives matter", what I want to do here is put more emphasis on criminal justice reform. Why? Because among other reasons, police officers are to be held to a higher standard for the power they hold. Police officers are meant to protect and serve, and when there is an abuse of power that takes place, such imperfection should come under greater scrutiny.

As for how to move forward, I would first like to touch upon the issue from a public policy standpoint, and provide a few solutions regarding policing reform:

  • Demilitarization of police force. I covered this topic when the Ferguson altercation took place back in 2014. To summarize, the police force is overly militarized. By ending the federal government's 1033 program and limiting local police officers from purchasing military equipment, abuse can be scaled back by "taking away their more harmful toys." 
  • Disarmament of police force. An extension of the former recommendation is to completely disarm police officers of firearms. While this might seem counterintuitive, there are five developed countries that have successfully implemented this policy. However, given how gun culture is in the United States, I have to retain skepticism of how successful it would be in the United States. 
  • Police Body Cameras. While the implementation of police body cameras are in their infancy, they seem to have an overall positive effect on police officer transparency so far. 
  • Citizen Oversight Panels. "All politics is local," and considering that police forces tend to be localized, this cliché holds true. This is a measure that not only gets citizens involved, but  increases accountability over police officers. Increasing community policing would also help police officers feel more connected to their community, and vice versa. 
  • De-Escalation Training. This is an idea that seems to have worked for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. Essentially, officers undergo [annual] training using real-life scenarios that are controversial and vexing, thereby helping officers learn from others' past mistakes, thereby providing a basis to avoid future altercations. 

Implementing these policies would help reduce the rate of altercations that cause these irksome scenarios to come into fruition. However, I think something else needs to take place that cannot be enacted by public policy, and that is inculcating a sense of human decency across the board. To put it in Jewish parlance, we need a stark reminder that we are all created in G-d's Image (בצלם אלהים), regardless of race. Although this series of tragedies has put the emphasis on the African-American community (which it should, given the circumstances), I also think the end-result and overall message need to be that of unity. As President Obama stated a day before the Dallas shooting, "When people say 'Black Lives Matter,' that doesn't mean blue lives don't matter; it just means all lives matter, but right now, the big concern is the fact that the data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents." Comedian Trevor Noah echoed Obama's sentiment by saying that "if you're pro-Black Lives Matter, you're assumed to be anti-police, and if you're pro-police, then you surely hate black people, when in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be." Yes, all lives matter, and I think that in spite of the political rhetoric on all sides, I don't think that point was being denied. At least from what I have gathered, those of the Black Lives Matter movement had not been saying "only black lives matter."

Aside from public policy that would reduce police shootings and police abuse, what needs to be done is to express solidarity with those who are hurting from all that has transpired. As my rabbi suggested during services last week, we need to make connections with people to help heal the wounds in this country to emphasize our essential humanity over differences we have. Ultimately, we have to send a reminder that because all lives matter, that does mean that by extension, black lives matter, and we need to show that in word, thought, and deed.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Trade Liberalization Does a Better Job at Alleviating Poverty Than Foreign Aid

Foreign aid is supposed to help the poor. It is something we hear often enough in political discourse. We give money to those in need, and the vicious cycle of poverty is solved. Think of foreign aid as wealth redistribution on the international level. With our increasingly global society, we have seen extreme poverty, which is now defined by the World Bank as living on $1.90 a day in 2011 dollars, drop considerably. We have also seen the role of developed nations in terms of providing foreign aid change considerably, particularly after the Kennedy Administration created USAID in 1961. Is it possible to contribute the success of global poverty reduction to foreign aid initiatives?

Before delving in, let's keep in mind that we are not talking about foreign aid given to alleviate humanitarian crises. That is a separate form of foreign aid that is out of the purview of this discussion, not to mention that the primary goal of humanitarian aid is not economic growth, but consumption of much-needed goods. We're not going to discuss military foreign aid, either, since that is based on geopolitical self-interest. What we are discussing here is foreign aid expenditures designated to help citizens from developing countries in development assistance, i.e., official development aid. What can we see based on the evidence out there?

  • A meta-study of 97 econometric studies (Doucouliagos and Paldam, 2007) shows that "after 40 years of development aid, the evidence indicates that...the correlation between aid and growth is essentially zero."  
  • A 2005 report (Nakamura and McPherson, 2005) found that foreign aid has "no significant effect" on poverty.
  • Research on income distribution suggests that countries that receive high amounts of foreign aid are more likely to have uneven income distribution (Herzer and Nunnenkamp, 2012). 
  • Although foreign aid to Africa soared in the 1980s and 1990s, African countries experienced less growth per capita as a result (Easterly, 2003).
  • Foreign aid is correlated with lower economic growth (Subramanian and Rajan, 2005).
  • In addition to these reports, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute points out foreign aid's ineffectiveness. 

This is not to say that there aren't studies that support foreign aid (e.g., Kerstering and Kilbing, 2014Clemens et al., 2012; Dunning, 2004) or success stories of foreign aid, but that on the whole, there is more evidence to show the overall ineffectiveness of foreign aid as a form of poverty reduction. Why is foreign aid overall ineffective in the first place? As U.S. Federal Reserve's Board of Governors member Lael Brainard pointed out, "The history of U.S. assistance is littered with tales of corrupt foreign officials using aid to line their own pockets, support military buildups, and pursue vanity projects." We would like to think that well-intended, benevolent architects of foreign aid policy have the insight to adequately implement such policy. However, the truth is that given the systemic nature of corruption, it is much more difficult to craft well-targeted foreign aid. Even with minimal corruption, governments simply do not have enough information to know what the best use of a dollar of aid is, which is why that more often than not, foreign aid goes to the one with the most connections, not the one who is most in need. More to the point, Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton uses research to argue that the ineffectiveness had to do with how foreign aid affects the relationship between the government and its people. Essentially, foreign aid incentivizes foreign leaders to be less accountable to its constituents. If foreign aid does not address the more systemic issues, it is hard to imagine how throwing cash at the problem will solve anything.

If foreign aid cannot have the desired effect, then what can? If India and China are to be instructive lessons, the answer to that question is freer trade. In spite of the chagrin of people like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, trade liberalization is the single greatest achievement in poverty alleviation. As I pointed out a few months ago, an economy with less trade barriers brings net gains for society. In 2010, the OECD wrote in a report that the evidence supports the theory that "trade liberalization reduces poverty on average and in the long-run (p. 32)." The World Bank followed suit by saying that less protectionist countries have better employment and wages outcomes (2014, p. 3-4). And here's a meta-analysis of 60 studies showing the positive effects of trade liberalization on poverty reduction. We should also consider how to couple trade liberalization with allowing for private donations to flow into these developing countries, instead of strictly relying on the government-to-government model that has been so pervasive in foreign aid.

Foreign aid was created to help foreign countries grow economically and be lifted from poverty, but the sad truth is that over 40 years of research shows that it does not fulfill its intended goal. While it might not be an easy endeavor, if you want to alleviate poverty in developing countries, you have to find ways to liberalize their economies.

3-20-2017 Addendum: I just came across this International Monetary Fund (IMF) study from 2016 that found that "large  aid inflows not only undermine garments' tax efforts, but also create a crowding-out effect on capital expenditures." They also found that reducing foreign aid had the reverse effect, and that those with low governance scores and low absorptive capacity have even larger problems. In short, another study showing that foreign aid doesn't help.

Monday, July 4, 2016

How Scared Should We Be of a Terrorist Attack on American Soil?

September 11, 2001 made its imprint on the psyche of the American people. It's why the American people have had the pleasure of experiencing the Patriot Act, a metadata-collecting NSA, fighting two wars in the Middle East, a Terrorist Screening Database, and a Transportation Security Administration that makes traveling by plane all the more intolerable. It also shifted how we view that argument between security and liberty. More recently, we have heard about ISIS on the news and other terrorist attacks throughout the world. All of the aforementioned events have also shaped how we view patriotism. Unfortunately, the fear caused by terrorism has shifted patriotism in a mentality of "either you're with us or against us." It makes me wonder if we are truly safer, and even if we are, does it matter if the end result is fear? If we end up being more fearful as a result, then the terrorists truly have won. Given that 49 percent of Americans are worried that a loved one would be a victim in a terrorist attack, I do have to wonder just how much "the terrorists have won." This brings me to another enthralling question: just how much should we be fearful? Another way of framing the question: what is the probability of the terrorism taking place on American soil?

Much like with public policy in general, prevalence plays an important role in whether we should pursue public policy. If it is a solution with a problem, much like with transgender bathroom bans, then the answer is clear cut. If the problem is highly infrequent, we still need to answer whether the magnitude of the highly infrequent occurrence justifies an intrusive public policy. According to the Global Terrorism Database from the University of Maryland, 124 individuals have died in terrorist attacks on American soil since 9-11, and this includes the attacks in San Bernardino and Fort Hood. On average, that is a little over 8 people dying from terrorist attacks every year. The number of terrorist attacks on American soil has actually dropped since 1970 (see below). If we need to put these numbers in further perspective, depending on the year, an American is about as likely to die from being struck by lighting or as likely to be crushed to death by a television as they are to die in a terrorist attack. When looking at causes of death, Americans are much more likely to be killed by their own habits related to diet, exercise, smoking, or alcohol, much of which is preventable with a healthy lifestyle.

And what about those terrorist plans that were thwarted? According to the Heritage Foundation, there were 64 plots foiled since 9/11. Let's assume that these plots were not foiled, and let's assume that each hypothetical plot took a wildly liberal estimate of 100 American lives. That totals to around 6,400 American lives in the past fifteen years. While any life taken is unfortunate, the amount still is but a fraction of the number of people who die from car accidents or gun suicides on an annual basis.

Why don't we put the costs into perspective? The United States government has spent about $100 billion a year on counter-terrorism initiatives, which comes to about $1.5 trillion spent since 9/11. Let's take the Environmental Protection Agency's estimation that the actuarial cost of a human life is $9.1 million. And since the $9.1 million figure is in 2011 dollars, why don't we adjust for inflation and make that $9.72 million? That means that the cost of preventing that death toll of 6,400 lives should have been $60.26 billion. The fact that we spent $1.5 trillion on counter-terrorism measures means that we overspent by about $1.4 trillion!

Keep in mind that I am not saying that we should take measures to prevent such attacks, but that when we do, we should do so in a way where the benefits exceed the costs. The sad truth is that terrorist attacks will happen for years to come. The silver lining is that dying from such attacks is highly improbable. Terrorist attacks are scary because they are designed to create fear. Those who commit these acts of terror want us to be scared. If we give into that fear, the terrorists do win. The best thing we can do on the Fourth of July, and indeed, every day? Live our lives. Show that freedom, love, happiness, tolerance, and democracy trump hate, fear, and terror. If we conduct our lives in that manner, the terrorists lose.

Happy Fourth of July!

July 15, 2016 Addendum: Heritage Foundation released updated statistics on terrorist attacks. According to the numbers they just released, the number of terrorist attacks is now at 89 attacks since 9-11. Even with this upward revision, that means that only $86.51 billion should have been spent, which still means we overspent by about $1.4 trillion.