Why I Hate “Common Sense”

With all the recent gun control discussions lately, I’ve seen a resurgence in use of “common sense” to justify various legal proposals. Let me outline a few reasons why I think “common sense” sucks.

It’s intellectually lazy

When you say something is “common sense”, you’re avoiding describing it in a cogent fashion. When you can’t elucidate your ideas in a clear form, it makes it harder for others to understand them, and harder for others to debate them. It turns a debate into a wrestling match w/ a blob of jelly, because you have not taken a definite position for your opposite to evaluate.

It’s demeaning

When you say something is “common sense”, you’re implying that anyone of equal intellect and knowledge would reach the same conclusions you have. In the real world, this is rarely true. More importantly, when you present that attitude during a conversation, it is insulting and demeaning to whomever disagrees with you.

It unfairly shifts the burden of proof

When you say something is “common sense”, you implicitly force your opposite to justify his disagreement without you first justifying your position. This is the opposite of good manners in a debate. If you are proposing an idea, it is your responsibility to present the evidence and logic to support that idea.

So, if you want to espouse your beliefs on what we should do to make this a better country, please do so. Just don’t justify it as “common sense”.

EU – No to X-Ray Scanners

For those who don’t know, the European Union has much stronger safety and privacy laws than the US. The EU just announced their new official policy for the deployment of airport scanners. Two key quotes:

It is still for each Member State or airport to decide whether or not to deploy security scanners, but these new rules ensure that where this new technology is used it will be covered by EU wide standards on detection capability as well as strict safeguards to protect health and fundamental rights.

In order not to risk jeopardising citizens’ health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorised methods for passenger screening at EU airports.

If only TSA would accept that dosing people with X-rays and taking nude pictures of them isn’t actually necessary for security! Hopefully the new EU regulations will spur Congress to pass similar laws that protect the health and privacy of Americans. As Scientific American reports, the TSA is planning on deploying over 1800 scanners in airports across the country. Write your Representative and Senators now to encourage them to follow the EU’s lead in protecting citizens!

TSA: Like burglar alarms?

Bear with me on this one…

Among the many thoughts I’ve been having on the TSA’s controversial backscatter “strip search” scanners are some musings based in game theory. Let’s look at the “players” in the security game:

  • TSA: Chartered with securing air travel. Strongly motivated to avoid the possibility of blame being assigned to them when a terrorist event occurs.
  • Politicians: Want to be re-elected. Subject to the whims of the polls; right now that means being “tough of terrorists”. Current controversies may swing some politicians away from the “security at any cost” mindset.
  • Pilots/Crew: Concerned with balancing security against their own personal well being and effectiveness as employees.
  • Flyers: Want to be safe, but there are threshold costs for security which won’t be acceptable. Where those thresholds are is subject to some debate.
  • Non-flying public: Insulated from any costs (economic, political, mental, social, etc.) of flying security measures. Hard to uniformly classify motivation as a single group.
  • Terrorists: Want to disrupt American lifestyle sufficiently to achieve their goal (remove US from Middle East/undermine support for Israel/support Sharia law in homeland/influence domestic US politics and laws towards Islam/whatever).

Some interesting features of the game:

One thing that clearly strikes me is that the interests of TSA do not align with the interests of the Pilots/Crew or the Flyers. TSA has no interest in assuming a “compromise” or “balanced” security policy. TSA only wants one thing from both groups – unquestioning compliance. I think this conjecture from the game bears out in the reported demeanor of TSA in real life.

Non-flying public is numerically larger than the flying public. Politicians are influenced by these two groups, but because the Non-flying Public doesn’t bear any direct costs to security, it is natural for the Politicians to under-value to the cost imposed on the Flyers group. The Politicians exert influence on the TSA. So the combination of the TSA having no incentive to decrease costs of security and the Politicians under-valuing costs of security implies that the feedback loop that should limit and control security policy to a reasonable level is actually weak and likely to result in over-costly security policy.

In the “mini-game” of a Terrorist attack, it’s not necessary for the attack to succeed in order for it to benefit the goals of the Terrorists. This means that it’s actually possible for a failed terror attack to be viewed as “positive outcome” to both the TSA and the Terrorists. The TSA because they can claim success and justification for their security measures. The Terrorists can as well, as long as the attack foments alarmist media and political coverage and results in increased fear.

Another striking feature of our “game” is that Terrorists and TSA are not diametrically opposed to each other. It’s possible for TSA and Terrorists to both “win” (or at least, both not lose) assuming the Terrorists can find a way to disrupt America that doesn’t depend on attacking the airline industry. Here at last is the feature of the game that inspires my title! Economics and game theory say that a burglary alarm doesn’t necessarily prevent all burglaries, it only has to prevent burglaries against the homeowner who pays for it. If it causes burglaries to shift to adjacent homes, there is a benefit to the alarmed homeowner, but a consequent loss to the neighbors. TSA is, in effect, like a burglar alarm – it encourages Terrorists to attack other targets. As long as the targets aren’t aviation related, TSA “wins” their part of the game. Of course, the problem is that the actions TSA takes to win are not necessarily the best for the public at large.

Just a few quick concrete examples of why this feature of the game should be so worrisome:

  • Security spending is limited to a finite budget. Ideally we should optimize our security budget over all policies and activities to result in the best security possible. Or, in the terms of our game, we should optimize our security spending so the Terrorists get as low a score as possible in the game. TSA (and all other single-scoped security agencies) are not motivated to do that. They are motivated to increase their security budget as greedily as possible in order to maximize their chances of securing their sector in the game, regardless of how cost-effective any given policy is.
  • Shifting behavior and secondary effects may impose costs higher than the Terrorists. For example, driving is much more dangerous than flying. Every time someone decides to drive instead of fly a long distance, we are increasing the number of deaths and injuries suffered on the roads. Since the death and injury rate from Terrorists is so very low, it doesn’t take many additional deaths to negate the benefits of enhancing aviation security.

The secondary health losses are one of the big controversies over the backscatter x-ray searches, and are also a perfect example of the second point. Even though the health risk is likely minuscule from a single scan, if the scanners are widely used on a significant percentage of fliers, the minuscule health impacts accumulate into being more damaging than the Terrorists. Since terror attacks are such a highly improbable event, even scanners that sound very very safe in the context of a single scan could easily accumulate a negative impact that outweighs any benefit to stopping Terrorists.

I’d love to see a more detailed analysis of this game, but from just my cursory knowledge of game theory it’s obvious to me that the flying public must 1) become very vocal about the costs of the TSA policies and 2) gain support from the non-flying public. Only then can we muster enough influence on Politicians to push through and influence the TSA.

If you agree, I encourage you to write or call Congress, talk to your friends and family about why you disagree with TSA policies, and, if you’re flying, opt out of the invasive body scanners. You’ll be subjected to an invasive “enhanced pat-down” as a result. I would encourage you to complain to your Congressional representatives as well as the ACLU if you feel that the TSA policy is inappropriate.

If you’re interested in a huge collection of links related to the TSA policy situation, please check out this post from Bruce Schneier: TSA Backscatter X-ray Backlash.

Some Thoughts on Health Care

A rather long comment I made to a converstation on Facebook. Thought I would share it (and archive it)… (Sorry for the missing context, but I think the comment stands on it’s own well enough and I don’t want to copy the other commenters in the thread without their permission.)

@Lauren: Yes, there’s no difference between abortion and inadequate health care… That’s exactly the type of well reasoned debating that will help us all get through this.

@Rich: Let’s be clear here – no one views the military budget and health care as a zero sum game. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the nation will sacrifice military funding to fund health care. While it makes a great emotional punch, it adds nothing to the rational debate.

While it’s certainly educational to see what other nations have achieved in their health care systems, it’s folly to assume that because they achieve “statistic X for cost Y” that we can do the same. “Health” is a complex subject and for any given facet could be influenced by cultural, diet, lifestyle, genetics, climate, or a dozen other issues. Ultimately the solution is not to transplant a system from somewhere else but to find a system that will work in the US. Given the size of the US and variety of cultures, climate, & demographics within our borders it is even harder to envision a national system that will be “one size fits all”.

Indeed, a big part of what prevents market competition from keeping prices in check is the fact that ever state currently has their own regulations for health care tailored to their situation. This creates huge barriers to entry that prevent easy implementation of a market-based scheme for health care.

Regarding the “fatcats”, it’s educational to see that non-profit insurance companies and HMOs (yes, they exist) have no had significantly better results in cost control than the for-profit “fatcats”.

@Jacob: First, as I stated above, my point was that after you federalize the $2 trillion health care industry, it will definitely be more than defense. Even with the additional numbers from the war funding, that still holds true.

The reason I stated it was “debatable” was specifically what you quoted. Personally, I expect a nation to spend more on the military than on healthcare during a time of war. Arguments over whether this war is right or wrong on whether we should be spending this type of money to fight terrorism are irrelevant in this context. As I said above, no one considers military and health care to be a zero sum game. No one in the government is saying “let’s stop building tanks so we can buy some more MRI machines”. This is a wonderfully effective emotional argument, but a completely irrelevant one.

@Clint: I agree with you on the issues, although I tend to prefer market-based approaches when they’re likely to work.

People seem to assume that if I disagree with them personally I’m defending the status quo. Please understand that I think things need to change too. But I think the best way to do that is to make considered logical changes, not get swept up into an emotional storm and dash off in the first direction that will make us feel better. (And don’t kid yourselves, if you’re bringing up the cost of the military in the context of health care, you’re an emotion-monger. No offense.)

Lifetime Guarantee

The Boston Globe has reached a deal with their labor unions to hopefully keep the paper running. Turns out one of the most contentious parts of the negotiations had nothing to do with compensation – it had to do with guaranteed lifetime employment. This is one of the things that makes my mind spin at the labor unions.
I’ve never worked in a unionized job, so maybe I just lack some critical angle on the whole deal here. But it seems pretty clear that the unions are no longer a bastion of hope against the unfair practices of evil management. It’s one thing to organize against sweatshop wages and unsafe work environments. But it’s a joke to organize so you blackmail management into a suicide pact – and that’s what lifetime employment guarantees are. When business is growing, there’s no real impact to an enterprise from that agreement. But it’s no wonder that management at any enterprise needs to get those provisions struck when business is weak.
As the economic downturn picked up over this last year, I’ve consistently heard stories about how unions have threatened the economic viability of businesses. The obvious examples from the Detroit car companies are just the tip of the iceberg. Unionized labor may have been a good thing in the past, but I have to wonder if there will be a point in time when government labor regulations will reduce unions to nothing but a poison pill that threatens both management AND labor with their demands.

Absentee Ballot Privacy

I voted with an absentee ballot this year, since I’m traveling full time for my current job. But it would appear that the election board disclosed the fact that I requested an absentee ballot to at least one of the candidates that I have the option of voting for. I’m more than a little surprised that such a disclosure is allowed! I plan on following up with the State Board of Elections after Election Day to find out what the situation is.

Yucca Mountain

Ars Technica has an interesting synopsis of a recent article in Science. The point of the article is that we should stop pussy-footing around at Yucca Mountain and start storing nuclear waste there. Based on the synopsis, the authors are making a few excellent points.

  1. Waiting indefinitely before using Yucca Mountain isn’t the safest course of action. The current network of 72 storage sites for nuclear waste is far more dangerous than activating Yucca Mountain and starting pilot programs to store waste there.
  2. The nature of Yucca Mountain – a facility which hopes to store waste material for a duration longer than the entirety of human civilization – means that we will most likely never have definite answers to some of the questions we all have about the facility. It’s hard to predict how a structure of that scope and subject to radioactive forces will react over a 100,000 year period when we’ve really only known about radiation for less than 100 years.
  3. Scientists need to start educating the public on what science can accomplish and what it can’t. Science isn’t a tool for establishing certainty – it is a tool for refining “best guesses” to ever higher quality. It’s important that the public understand that an undertaking like Yucca Mountain will always have a large level of uncertainty about it. They argue that the best case scenario is to start pilot programs at Yucca Mountain and begin developing real world experiences that can be used to refine our understanding of how Yucca Mountain will perform over the long haul.

Overall, I’d have to say I agree with their arguments. If we’re serious about decreasing our environmental impact, we’ll have to face the fact that an increased use of nuclear power is a logical part of the solution. The sooner we take steps to find a way to store nuclear wastes, the better.

Water boarding and/or Torture

The recent Congressional hearings for the candidate Attorney General has left me more disappointed than usual in our political process. For starters, the current debates are nothing more than a semantic argument. The real issue is the actions of the interrogators, not the definition of the word torture. Interrogation techniques cover a whole spectrum of coercion — ranging from asking politely to mutilation and fatal abuse. The difficulty in dealing with this spectrum is that there isn’t a clear line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.
Congress seems more concerned with semantic games around the word “torture” than stopping the behavior itself. We’re seeing the natural evolution of the culture that gave us Bill Clinton pondering the meaning of the word “is”, instead of admitting he had an affair and telling the world to butt out of his business.
The embarrassing truth is that Congress makes the laws, not the Attorney General. If something needs to be declared illegal, Congress itself has that power! If Congress is truly concerned about water boarding, they don’t need to find an Attorney General to fix it for them; they need to pass a law to outlaw it. The fact that they haven’t is a testament to their investment of politics above the moral ideals of our society.
It’s informative to consider the role of certain of our government agencies and the positions they’ve taken on the issue of water boarding. The military is the de facto agency responsible for using coercion upon our enemies. Military intelligence operations are aimed at operationally useful information.
Civilian intelligence agencies are aimed at developing objective information to support decision making by the executive branch. However, our intelligence agencies are increasingly influenced by political forces.
Military intelligence has long outlawed water boarding. However, the civilian agencies that are more susceptible to political influence apparently feel they can get results from a technique that the military abandoned long ago.
The White House and their supporters also feel that the public debate should be silenced to prevent giving our enemy any information about techniques. This argument ignores the corrosive effects of such secrecy on democracy. The government must be controlled by the will of the people. When secrecy becomes as systemic as Bush desires, the public is no longer informed well enough to manage government.
The enemy’s propaganda already portrays us as cruel and immoral; actually behaving cruelly does nothing but lend them credibility. This is a fundamental aspect of the conflict. This is billed as a “War on Terror”, but this war does not fit the traditional sense of war. In the traditional sense of war, the military is capable of winning. But the “War on Terror”, much like the wars on drugs or poverty, cannot be won militarily.
This new conflict is fundamentally a conflict of culture and values. As such, anything short of genocide will not resolve this conflict by force. In a conflict of values, one of the conditions for victory is to maintain the values of your culture. The steady erosion of personal liberty and human rights is effectively defeating us in this conflict.
The unilateral nature of the Bush administration is also self-defeating. In this conflict the principle victory condition is to make cultural allies of those who oppose us. By acting unilaterally, we alienate our existing allies and reduce our influence with countries like Saudi Arabia which are not fully aligned with us. It is precisely countries such as Saudi Arabia that we must transition into full fledged cultural allies, not just allies of convenience.

Fair Taxation

Quick, how much tax did you pay last year?
Have a hard time answering that question? Me too. The income tax system is ridiculously complex, and thanks to the miracle of payroll withholding, most of us don’t even know how much we’re paying in taxes. (If you think of April 15th as “Refund Day”, take a few seconds to read the “tax due” line on your return before you file it next year.)
I just finished reading The FairTax Book, which talks about replacing the income and payroll tax systems with a national sales tax. It’s an interesting read, and more details about the plan are available on Wikipedia and FairTax.org. While I’m taking a grain of salt with some of the claims in the book, it’s not hard to convince myself that it would be a huge improvement in the current tax mess.
Probably the biggest weakness in the plan is that it calls for people to have to political will to keep Congress in check. It seems self-evident at this point — people who spend most of their day worrying about whether Brittney or K-Fed get the kids for the weekend aren’t going to be involved enough to keep Beltway greed under control. But I don’t think that’s a reason to avoid making the change.
What do you think?