Risk, Politics, and Group Alignment

September 24, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do we assess the different risks in our lives?

Her name was Paige,* but New Yorkers in the 1980s knew her as “the sign-the-petition lady.” She would set up at her anti-pornography display at various locations around Manhattan and chant endlessly, “Sign the petition. Sign the petition.”

In her right hand was some  offensive image from a porn mag (often, the meat-grinder cover from Larry Flynt’s magazine Hustler). Her other hand invariably held a lit cigarette. I was always tempted to say to her, “You know, you’re at greater risk from what’s in your left hand than what’s in your right.” But I never did.

Photo © richardgreene 2015
(Click to enlarge. The cigarette in her left hand will still not be clearly visible, but I’m sure it’s there.)

The recent bomb explosion in New York again raised the specter of terrorism and with it the question: how great is my risk from terrorist attacks? For some people, mostly on the right, the message was, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Donald Trump said, “ “We better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough,” though he did not specify what form this toughness would take.

By contrast, the mayor of New York insisted that “New Yorkers will not be intimidated. We are not going to let anyone change who we are or how we go about our lives.” He’s probably right. New Yorkers would find it difficult to change their daily lives. They could, for example, lower their risk by avoiding crowded places, but that’s where most of them work every day. The mayor’s comment makes sense because the risk of a terrorist attack is very low compared with other dangers, even bomb-like explosion.  We’ve had a few of them in the last decade, some of them fatal, but they were from gas mains.  And in that same period, at least 1000 people have died just walking the streets, the victims of automobiles.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, trying to estimate our risk from terrorism repeats the statistic from The Economist “the risk of an American being killed by terrorism in the decade after 9/11 and up to 2013 was one in fifty-six million.” He then asks, “Why [do] we develop such a high level of fright about such a low-level probability. Why are so many still so easily panicked?”

Gopnik gives two reasons – politicians and human psychology. The political angle is obvious. If a politician can get people to fear some thing and then present himself as the person best able to fight that thing, he’ll get a lot of votes. So some politicians  like  try to amp up our perception of the risk, taking their cue from Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” (See this post from a year or so ago.)

Gopnik’s  second factor is “the eternal human propensity to overstate and overimagine risks and loss and underimagine and understate gains and benefits.”

Maybe.  But Gopnik misses the moral angle. People react on the basis of moral judgment, not just rational risk calculation. Causes of harm that are immoral inflate our perception of their probability. We think we have more to fear from bad people – people who do want to do us harm – than from bad drivers, who do not want to do us harm. This moral judgment also draws a line between Us and Them – and we perceive Them as dangerous to Us. Bad drivers do not constitute a Them. Neither do apartment owners who install illegal gas lines. They are not some group we are at war with.

This moral Us/Them basis of risk assessment may also figure in the Black Lives Matter response when someone points out that Black people are more at risk from Black civilians (Black-on-Black crime) than from White cops. That’s irrelevant to their issue, which is that They (cops) target Us (Black people).

In the same way, anti-Muslim politicians and their supporters dismiss statistics about risk. In fact, my impression is that people who live in low-risk places but who are more militantly anti-Muslim are more concerned about the risk of terrorism and more likely to demand anti-Muslim measures than are those who live in places most likely to be terrorist targets – cities like New York or Los Angeles.

And in the same way, the sign-the-petition lady would have dismissed my  suggestion that she had less to fear from Larry Flynt than from Philip Morris. **


* Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has more about her. A streetcorner very near where I live was one of her locations, so I often saw and heard her. But I never once saw anyone stop to sign the petition. According to one of the comments on the Vanishing New York blog, she used the petition mostly to get the names and phone numbers of women she could then hit on.

** There is an extensive literature in psychology on perceptions of risk which I am leaving out.

Ten Years a Blog

September 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many years ago, I saw Penn and Teller’s off-Broadway show in a small theater on West 43rd St.  Before his fire-eating routine, Penn explained that it wasn’t a trick. It was more of a skill. The performer really is putting a flaming torch in his mouth, and if he lets his mouth get at all dry, he can get burnt. It happens. It hurts. “So the next time you see someone eating fire” Penn said, “the question to ask is not how. It’s why.

The same might be said for keeping a blog going for a decade. Ten years, 1572 posts. My answer to Penn’s question is the answer Teller, if asked, would give on stage. But I will follow my custom of culling a handful of posts that I liked from the last year.

The Philosophy of the Gun in Trumpland

September 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

It seems odd for a politician to boast that many of his supporters are potential murderers, terrorists, and assassins. But then much about the Trump campaign is strange and odd.

Trump acknowledges that his supporters believe in what I once called (here) “The Philosophy of the Gun.” Here’s the gist of that post from seven years ago.

The philosophy of the gun is simple: if someone does something you don’t like, shoot them. If you can’t shoot that person, shoot someone like them.

If you don’t like abortions, shoot an abortion doctor . If you don’t like an anti-abortion protester , shoot him. If you feel wronged by people at work, go postal. If a woman has rejected you, shoot her. If you can’t find a woman who actually rejected you, shoot several women. Don’t like the kids in your school? Shoot them. Feel you’ve been dissed by someone from another gang, shoot them.

Gun advocates put this in terms of self-defense. If you have gun, you can defend yourself, your property, and your loved ones from people who are doing something you don’t like. Which is just another way of saying that if you don’t like what the person is doing, shoot them. The only difference is that such shootings might be legal.

My blog usually gets few comments, but on this one, the gunslingers descended en masse,* though as I said in a post the next day (here), they mostly agreed with my basic point; they just didn’t like the way I put it.

Now Donald Trump has joined me. A few weeks ago, he hinted that if gunlovers (“Second Amendment people”) didn’t like a judge, they would take aim and assassinate the judge (or perhaps the president who appointed the judge).  Yesterday, he suggested that they would shoot Hillary Clinton. No mention of policies or judicial appointments. They would shoot her just because they don’t like her – if they could get away with it.

I think they [Clinton’s Secret Service detail] should disarm immediately. Take their guns away, she doesn't want guns. Take their— and let's see what happens to her. Take their guns away. OK, it would be very dangerous.

Very dangerous. Trump is talking about people who adhere to the philosophy of the gun, and apparently he counts many of these people among his supporters. He is saying essentially that they will shoot the Democratic nominee for US president. He merely adds the caveat, if they can be successful, i.e., if the Secret Service cannot shoot them first.

When Clinton said that half of Trump supporters were racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic, the Trump campaign and supporters took umbrage. When Trump himself suggests that many of them are potential terrorists and assassins, they seem to take it as a compliment. 

* Peter Moskos, whose blog Cop in the Hood is well worth reading, once told me that sometimes when he’s feeling neglected and lonely, he’ll put up a post about guns. And very soon, he’s got lots of company.

Has Trust Gone Bust?

September 16, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks was preaching again this week. His Tuesday column (here) was a jeremiad on the ills that “an avalanche of distrust” is bringing to US society.  (The phrase “avalanche of distrust” came probably from the headline writer, not Brooks. Brooks refers to “an avalanche of calumny.” Either way, the country’s being buried under a lot of bad snow.)

A generation ago about half of all Americans felt they could trust the people around them, but now less than a third think other people are trustworthy.

Young people are the most distrustful of all; only about 19 percent of millennials believe other people can be trusted. But across all age groups there is a rising culture of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering.

Brooks is partly right, partly misleading. He seems to be referring to the General Social Survey, which, since 1972, has asked regularly about trust.  The GSS has three items that pertain to trust.
  • TRUST – Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in life?
  • HELPFUL – Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?
  • FAIR – Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?
The GSS data does show some decline in all these since 1990 – i.e., a generation ago.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
Of the three variables, TRUST has declined the most. The percentage of people saying that most people could be trusted fell from 39% to 30%, Brooks’s statement about “half of all Americans” a generation ago being trusting is a bit misleading as it implies that 50% was standard year in year out. In fact, in only one year, 1984, did the percentage reach that level. As for the other variables relevant to the “culture of paranoia,” perceptions of other people’s helpfulness also declined; perceptions of their fairness changed little.

What about the age differences Brooks notes?  I extracted GSS data on the Trust variable at three different periods – 1972-1976, 1989-1991, and the most recent years that we have data for.

In every period, the young are the least trusting, but the difference between them and people in older age groups is much greater now than it was 25 or 40 years ago. That’s because millennials, as Brooks correctly notes, are much less trusting than were their 18-30 year old counterparts in the 1970s.

But what about the rest of us? According to Brooks, “across all age groups there is a rising culture of paranoia.”  In the 1972-76 period, in the youngest group, 38% were trusting. In 1990, those people would be in their early 40s to early 50s. In that year, that age group was somewhat more trusting than they had been 25 years earlier. And 20 years later, when they were in their late 50s and up, they were still as trusting as they had been before. The same is true of the people who were 30 and up in the 1970s. Similarly, the youngest group in 1990 had the same level of trust twenty years later – about 30%.

Trust seems to be remarkably resilient – impervious to the vicissitudes of aging or of social and political changes. The Watergate era, the Reagan years, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the recent recession – none of these seems to have made much difference in each cohort’s level of trust.  Go figure.

Brooks’s sermon then turns from the aggregate data to the effect on people’s souls.

The true thing about distrust, in politics and in life generally, is that it is self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures.
Over the past few decades, the decline in social trust has correlated to an epidemic of loneliness. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no close friend with whom they could discuss important matters. By 2004, 25 percent had no such friend.

That finding, which made headlines a decade ago, has since been questioned if not debunked.The GSS data it’s based on contained a coding error, and other surveys have found no such drastic increase in friendlessness. Claude Fischer has an excellent blog post about this issue (here). He includes this graph based on results from the Gallup poll.

Brooks obviously is not interested in these corrections. He is, after all, crying “avalanche” in a crowded political theater. But it tuns out there’s not all that much snow. The change to worry about is that over the last 25 years, each new cohort is less trusting, and this is one time when hand-wringing about what’s wrong with kids today might be appropriate. Those attitudes, once formed, are little effected even by major changes in the society and government.