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Sunday 4 May 2014

Humor, Memes, and the Historical Roots of Inequality

Be warned that today, I'm going to ramble all over the place.

The News and Internet Memes

There are some items reported in various news media that seem to live lives far longer than what their inital value may warrant. This idiocy of mountainous coverage of mole hill news often appears to be the product of the dreaded "slow news day." Some of it is merely the churn of 24/7 news-on-demand where Andy Warhol's apocryphal 15 minutes of fame means that reporters and editors are obliged to create a metaphorical 24 hrs/0.25 hrs = 96 new news items per day. In a world with such a demand for the latest and greatest news items, it's no stretch to see that some of those 96 daily items of "news" will end up being mostly trivial coverage of mole hills to the detriment of reportage of mountains.

One can certainly find trivial news and its mockery aplenty. Small town newspapers abound with such items as:

"12:47 p.m.-- A resident of High Street reported that someone came into house while she was gone, shaved her dog and took her cell phone charger" (1)

Items like this often live far longer than is justified simply because they are humorous to just about anyone other then the soul who made the original report and now live long lives on the internet, passed in unnumbered Facebook and Twitter "shares." I have to wonder if the persistence of this particular item lives on because it evokes that episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog where the Fred, the deranged barber pursued just about everyone but Muriel to give them a buzz cut (2).


The reduction of trivial though funny happenstance into memes on the internet has become as cliche as "all your base are belong to us" (3). The celebration and perpetration of the humorously trivial in the news by such venues like no doubt will be the subject of many anthropology and sociology dissertations for years to come. Sometimes it's not even the churn of news that sends such unimportant items into perpetual orbit on the internet. Back in 1994, back when web pages were really in their infancy, Compuserve still existed, USENET newsgroups were the rage and one could buy "Internet in a Box," someone passed a mimeographed page of church bulletin bloopers around in choir practice at my church in St. Louis. This venerable collection has since found its way onto the internet where one can find its several permutations on many church related blogs and websites (4, 5) where can one discover such gems like:

"Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early."


"The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on the Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus."

Spreading harmless humor on the internet might arguably be one of the best uses. It is tempting to say that the proliferation of needless and trivial news might one of the worst, but it is not in comparison to the truly criminal uses of the net such as fraud, con jobs, sexual stalking of minors, and the like. In a world where every amateur blogger can pursue delusions of being a real journalist, items like

"Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation"

don't seem so bad.

Mountains from Mole Hills due to Politics

There are some items pursued in the news media that while newsworthy, do garner attention far beyond their worth. The Keystone XL Pipeline is one such item. Given the reality that there are hundreds of pipelines transporting both raw and refined fossil fuel products, the stink over the Dept of State Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline is unbalanced. Why this one pipeline and not others? Frankly, all pipelines present some risk of leakage, and while dilbit crude from tar sands is a bit nastier than light crude, any given natural gas pipeline is vastly more dangerous. A simple internet search on natural gas pipeline accidents vs. liquid fossil fuel pipeline accidents will bear this out.

I believe the persistence of this item in the news is likely that the Keystone project has become an example, a scapegoat target of environmental activists who object to not just one pipeline, but all pipelines and all activities related to products derived from tar sands. By deriding one project, they believe they are able to cast aspersions on all similar projects. While there are few unbiased websites detailing the Keystone XL Pipeline project; a half-way decent chronology of the project and opposition is up on Wikipedia and a relatively neutral examination of pros, cons and claims can be found at the reputable (6).

Frankly, given a choice between scaremongering about Keystone like

"this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health" (7)

and a recirculated church bulletin blooper like

"At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice"

it's easy to see why many people eschew political dead horse beating on the news for laughs over the inanity of monorail cats (8)

Leonhardt's New York Times Article of 4 May 2014

Well, sooner or later, I am obliged by my own self-imposed rules for this blog to discuss someone being wrong on the internet, regardless of the appeal of church bulletin bloopers like

"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday."

Today's subject is an article in the New York Times Magazine on a subject that really should have died weeks ago, namely the publication of Professor Thomas Piketty's book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The article is by New York Times journalist David Leonhart with the title of "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable" (9)

New York Times Magazine articles are often pages and pages long, though there's often something in every one that's good. For example, I remember first reading about the murders, forgeries, and prosecution of the now infamous Mark Hoffman, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In contrast to the usual land and in-depth articles that usually grace the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Leonhardt's piece was really short, less than a page. The gist of it is that Leonhardt didn't grok all of Piketty's math on inequality trends so he called Piketty and asked him to explain. Piketty obliged.

Leonhardt then sums up some of Piketty's main points, namely that wealth inequality is growing, and has been getting worse with time and with the introduction of the tools and technology of modern productivity. According to Leonhardt's take on Piketty, wealth inequality was not as bad back in the pre-industrial days of agriculture because the basis of wealth, i. e. land, was static. With the introduction of modern tools and technology, that is not longer the case: the means of creating wealth, i.e. tools and technology, has been increasing since the industrial revolution and this results in both the creation of more wealth and more wealth inequality.

Granted, as I said in an earlier blog post, I have not read Piketty's book and probably will not do so until I can score an inexpensive copy. So I don't know what Piketty really said vs. what Leohardt thinks he said - though given that he actually bothered to call Piketty, I'm willing to give him more credence than a lot of other articles I've seen on Piketty's book. So on top of everything, you have to rely on my understanding of what Leonhardt said Piketty said, which may or may not be accurate - but Leonhardt's article is short so if you're interested, go read it for yourself.

What's important here is Leonhardt's statement based on Piketty's book that the wealth inequality gap is increasing and has been been doing so since the transition from agrarian to modern industrial societies. He goes on to say that such a trend is not inevitable and that Piketty's now infamous solution is to redistribute some of that wealth through a universal excess wealth tax. Given how much I don't like economics, church bulletin humor looks better by the second in comparison.

More Reactions to Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Maybe I shouldn't be running on at the keyboard here over a book I haven't even read yet, but the ridiculous obsessing over Piketty's book for the last month is really getting to be a bit much. Granted, a lot of the reaction to the book has to do with conservatives having a cow over the obvious Marxist leanings which are explicit in the book. After all, words like communist, Marx and wealth redistribution are enough to give any American Cold War vet the heeby geebies. McCarthy must be rolling in his grave!

The Economist has published a rather nice little commentary on the reaction to Piketty's book and its longevity thus far in the press because, frankly, it's just a book on economic theory (10). One could make a case that Piketty's book is really just a mole hill that's gotten mountain-status coverage in certain media venues because it contains buzz words and economic proposals that are contrary to American cultural norms of red bashing. American supply-side and monetarist economists, political conservatives, and their political supporters, many of whom probably can't even discuss Marx vs. Lenin vs. Stalin vs. Trotsky vs. Adam Smith, are apt to react to such words that have more to do with political camp than with true economic evaluation. Okay, I concede that I might not be entirely fair in my estimation of the general knowledge of American conservative rank and file.

For a book on ecomonic theory which is full of the kind of economic arm-waving math that I personally have little patience for, I find the reaction way out of whack. Piketty's book in his native French was published in France a year ago and hardly made any waves in Europe. An academic French economist wrote a review for a left-leaning publication in France that criticized the work for not being, well, more to the left (11)! As I noted in my first blog post on Piketty's Capital, the current reaction over the English language publication of this book has more to do with one's politics than with the actual book itself (12).

Just like the treatment of some of the trivial news items on slow news days, the coverage in the English-language press to Piketty's Capital is a mountain in reaction to a mole hill of a book.

Have you ever read the anti-federalist responses to the Federalist Papers? When we read the Federalist Papers or read about them in American History classes, the 85 different articles making up that work look like a coherent collection of essays in favor of the U.S Constitution. What we don't learn, or learn and then forget, is that the Federalist Papers were not a coherent, planned and crafted seamless set. Each of those "articles" was really an editorial in a late 18th century newspaper, published in various cities by different authors over a period of two years (1786-1787). As these articles were printed, rebuttal editorials by anti-federalist opponents were also being published in the early American post-Colonial press (13). The give and take was hardly give and take; the exchange between the two groups was heated and often polite to the point of nastiness. Even accusations of wanting to reestablish some kind of monarchy or tyranny were leveled against the Federalists as well as predictions of robbing the individual states of their sovereign power through the economic evil of one unified monetary supply for all the States. Some of the other anti-federal accusations were just as off the wall.

Some of the exchanges in the modern press in this country remind me at times of the spats in the newspapers of post-Colonial early America between the Federalists and their anti-federal opponents. Tea Party true-believers and "the government is the problem" "starve the beast" Reaganoid conservatives sound a bit like those old anti-federalists to me at times.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet?

Now that I've rambled from French left-leaning newspapers, the U.S. Constitution, shaving dogs and church bulletin bloopers, I should probably explain what it is about Leonhardt's article that makes it a worthy target of this blog.

First, Leonhardt's title for his article does not actually match the content of his article. His title conveys that wealth inequality itself is not inevitable. The body of the article states that the trend of ever-increasing wealth inequality is not inevitable, and that this is one of the main arguments of Piketty's book and also the basis for Piketty's wealth tax proposal as a means to reverse that very trend.

So what so wrong with that?

To begin, the title is misleading and also, it's wrong. Wealth inequality is an intrinsic feature of civilization. Hierarchy and social stratification are a feature of the Civitas. You don't have one without the other because agriculture, the defining act of any so-called "civilized" state, requires organization and specialization. Where you have organization and specialization, you will have social stratification and hierarchy creation, which lead to the unequal allocation of wealth across social classes.

The transition between primitive societies and the creation of the Civitas - or "civilization" occurs at the hunter-gatherer to agrarian transition. To support these very broad statements, I will now appeal to the work of one of the most prolific and respected encyclopedic historians ever, Will Durant.

Based on studies of Amerindians, Eskimoes, Samoans, Borneans, Amazoneans, Cittagong Indians and tribal cultures where land was not something anyone owned, where crop gathering was supplemental to hunting and organized agriculture did not yet exist, Durant pointed out that the means for survival were shared and differences in personal wealth were trivial. He labeled such societies as being truly communistic both in regard to food and to land. He also considered the members of these societies to be egalitarian though primitive, uncultured, and somewhat lazy. Yes, he really did said lazy, which makes sense for something written in the 1930s, which is when he wrote the passages I'm currently looking at (14). He had no knowledge of Sackett's famous (infamous?) study that settled the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural work debate that raged for almost 50 years, showing that people do less work and have more leisure time in hunter-gatherer societies compared to agrarian societies (15).

When I was reading Leonhardt's article, I noted Leonhardt's paraphrase of Piketty's idea that the static nature of pre-industrial society meant wealth inequality was more or less stable, namely:

"He suggested imagining a hypothetical village from centuries ago in which neither the population nor the economy was growing. Every year, the village produced the same amount of goods for the same number of people to divide — a reality that was typical before the Enlightenment, when material living standards and human longevity barely rose. (The peasants of the 15th century were not better off than peasants in ancient Rome.)"

Reading this, I thought to myself that Piketty might be a brilliant economist, but he is no historian. In particular, I remembered a passage in Will Durant's first volume in his acclaimed History of Civilization series, a work which - like Gibbon's - is more than just a history. It was a passage that contradicted this view that the economic inequality of pre-modern agrarian societies was static and stable. It took me a little while to find it. You can read it for yourself and see why I contrasted it with Piketty vis a vis Leonhardt:

Perhaps one reason why communism tends to appear chiefly at the beginning of civilizations is that it flourishes most readily in times of dearth, when the common danger of starvation fuses the individual into the group. When abundance comes, and the danger subsides, social cohesion is lessened, and individualism increases; communism ends where luxury begins. As the life of a society becomes more complex, and the division of labor differentiates men into diverse occupations and trades, it becomes more and more unlikely that all these services will be equally valuable to the group; inevitably those whose greater ability enables them to perform the more vital functions will take more than their equal share of the rising wealth of the group. Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence, and the chaos of revolution levels men again into a community of destitution. Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty. Periodically the land gets itself redistributed, legally or not, whether by the Gracchi in Rome, the Jacobins in France, or the Communists in Russia; periodically wealth is redistributed, whether by the violent confiscation of property, or by confiscatory taxation of incomes and bequests. Then the race for wealth, goods and power begins again, and the pyramid of ability takes form once more; under whatever laws may be enacted the abler man manages somehow to get the richer soil, the better place, the lion’s share; soon he is strong enough to dominate the state and rewrite or interpret the laws; and in time the inequality is as great as before. In this aspect all economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social-organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

As I acquired more volumes of Durant's History of Civilization, initially from my father who had several first editions, and then later filling in the gaps from purchases at used book stores, I read them all. It is a theme, subtle but explicit throughout Durant's opus that the inequalities of wealth in pre-modern societies were anything but static and stable. Durant clearly saw a pattern of where the cruelty and/or greed of some elites in certain societies led to inequalities of wealth and privilege so unjustifiable that those with nothing to lose would rebel, sometimes to fail and sometimes to topple their rulers, redistributing wealth and not always equitably. He noted the pattern in the Spartan Helots revolts; the patrician-plebeian class war of the early Roman republic; the Gracchi, Jacobins and Russian Communists mentioned above; as well as the Jacqueries of 14th century France.

Durant saw cycles in history of recurring struggle between the haves and the have-nots. While his initial statements in this area of historical interpretation was limited to economics and did not account for the effects of religion and propaganda in co-opting and coercing the lower classes in their servitude, like in Ancient Egypt to build the Pyramids, his point was made about the patterns of wealth distribution and class warfare. One only needs to look at the historical records to know that wealth inequality was anything but stable and static in the pre-modern pre-industrial agrarian world. Piketty is right in the statement that wealth inequality has been growing since the industrial revolution and Durant agrees with that (16), but Piketty is wrong in considering the wealth inequality of pre-modern societies as a constant. The European peasants of 15th century were likely serfs and probably were much worse off than the free citizen peasant farmers of the Roman Republic of Antiquity, but probably better off than the chain-gang latifundia slaves of the late Roman Republic and Empire. The Devil is in the details.

Wealth Inequality in Perspective

The internet can trivialize even the most profound of great thinkers. There may be a lot more to Piketty than one can extract from too many politically-biased editorials commentaries; for now, however, just a small sampling of Durant's encyclopedic vision across the vast landscape of history is enough for all that internet drivel to seem rather flimsy and much ado about nothing. Frankly, given the bankrupt profundity of politically-motivated biased journalism on the internet, I think I much prefer my church bulletin gaffs:

"This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar."

References, on the casual side

  1., accessed 4 May 2014
  2., accessed 4 May 2014
  3., accessed 4 May 2014
  4., accessed 4 May 2014
  5., accessed 4 May 2014
  6., accessed 4 May 2014
  7., accessed 4 May 2014
  8., accessed 4 May 2014
  9. Leonhardt, D. (4 May 2014), "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable," New York Times Magazine, p. MM23, also, accessed 4 May 2014.
  10., accessed 3 May 2014
  11. De La Gasnerie, G. (18 Oct 2013), "Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty," Liberation,, accessed 3 May 2014: e.g. " il n’est jamais question de domination sociale et culturelle, de violence, de relégation, d’exploitation, d’aliénation au travail, de classes, de luttes, etc." To be completely honest here, I found out about this review from reading the Economist, namely in an commentary piece at, accessed 3 May 2014
  12., accessed 4 May 2014
  13. I had a collection of the Anti-Federalist Papers when I was in high school competing in the American Legion annual oratory competition on the Constitution. I got a lot of good material for my speeches from that book, though alas, I came in second in my state the last time I competed and never got to go to the National level of competition. But that collection of anti-federalist material really expanded my knowledge of the formation of the this country beyond anything I learned at school. You can find a decent selection of the sorts of anti-constitution editorials that were being printed in early US newspapers at (accessed 4 May 2014) if you'd like to see what sort of acrimony was in the air just before the Constitution was written and ratified.
  14. Durant, W. (1935, 2014), Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, NY: Chapter 2 Ther Economic Elements of Civilizations, part 3 Economic Organization.
  15. Sackett, R. (1996), Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis: Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
  16. Durant, Will (1935, 2014). The Complete Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ, Age of Faith, Renaissance, Age of Reason Begins, Age of Louis ... and Revolution, Age of Napoleon, Reformation (Kindle Locations 621-636). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  17. Ibid, Kindle Locations 637-639

Saturday 17 August 2013

It's not basalt

Today's object of getting it wrong is an article in the New York Times. You can read it here: (accessed Aug. 17, 2013)

It's a piece discussing a geology article in this week's issue of Science, which is the premier of all scientific journals in the USA and along with the Royal Society's Nature is one of the two most respected journals in the world, bar none. An article in Science is a big deal for any scientist. Using the Science article as a departure point, the NY Times article drew a link between a geological event and a modern analog. The first event is the formation of the famous Palisades sill and a Triassic mass extinction event. The latter event is present-day global warming and the current modern mass extinction event we're currently in the middle of.

It wouldn't have been a bad piece - for those who like that sort of gloom-and-doom style of writing in the news - if the science had been better. You wouldn't know it from reading this article that the subject of the Science paper was about making better links between the break-up-of-Pangea rifting events and one of the largest mass extinction events in the geological record through the use of U-Pb dating methods. The abstract of the Science paper is free for reading online, though to get the whole paper you either have to be a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science or you can purchase just the text of the paper separately from an AAAS member's perk subscription to Science. If you're into geochronology, the Science paper is really a bid at revising the date of the Triassic-Jurassic age boundary. Well, that's my interpretation of this paper's purpose from reading between the lines. It's a big deal to instigate a revision of a Geological age boundary and it gives any researcher no end of excellent bragging rights in the relatively small and cloistered world of academic earth science.

Like many journalists writing about science, the NY Times reporter posed his account as if the link between big volcanic provinces and mass extinctions was startling, new and revolutionary. It's actually old news. The idea's been floating around for at least two decades. The American Geophysical Union monograph on the subject makes a good starting point if anyone is interested in this fascinating subject (Mahoney, J., and F. Coffin, Eds., 1997, Large Igneous Provinces: Continental, Oceanic, and Planetary Flood Volcanism, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 100, 438 pp., AGU, Washington, D. C., doi:10.1029/GM100.). Okay, I think it's fascinating but I'm also published in the broader field of continental volcanism. I might be biased here since not everyone is as deeply committed to rocks as I am.

No, I'm not really going to dump on this NY Times article because it made the Palisades sill sound like the source of the incredibly widespread Pangea-rifting event called the Central-Atlantic "Large Igneous Province" or "LIP." It's a fun acronym, LIP. Imagine thousands of smirking geologists going to American Geophysical Union or Geological Society of American conferences to attend sessions on LIPs. That's right up there with the US EPA's original program name for testing and remediating underground storage tanks, LUST, or the Navy's now-retired acronym for the now-renamed bureau of yards and docks, BuDocks (which was often mispronounced to rhyme with a feature of posterior anatomy). No, the reporter's presentation of the Palisades, the beautiful and famous massive cliff across the Hudson from Manhattan, as the font of all Central Atlantic LIP volcanism is not really worth nitpicking at. The reporter mispresenting the Science Pangea rift basin geochronology article as an analog argument for modern mass extinction is also not really worth nitpicking at. No, that's not what sent me off a cliff this time around. This time around it's all about basalt. I'm a bit of an expert on basalt. Wrote some good papers on basalt and continental basaltic volcanism in my day.

To make it even more personal, my first geology field trip ever was to the Palisades sill. I was an engineering student at Columbia. I had to take the "geology for science and engineering students" class as a requirement for my major. In the space of 10 weeks, I got hooked on rocks big time - so hooked that I took up geology instead of engineering. And part of that story involves those first fascinating field trips into the Triassic rift basin known as the Newark basin formed by the break-up of the Pangea super-continent. There are some first-rate rift-basin igneous rocks in the environs of New York City, including the Palisades Sill, which forms that spectacular cliff on the west bank of the Hudson, as well as the three prominent basalt flows which form the three big ridges to the west of NYC. The closest of these basalts, the Orange Mountain Basalt, crops out on I-80 in Patterson , New Jersey. That was included in one of those Columbia University geology field trips too. If you live anywhere near NYC or if you go driving down that patch of I-80 in New Jersey, you really need to check it out. The outcrop is on the south side of the interstate. It's hard to miss since it's a great big ridge that the interstate cuts through. In that cut are the most beautiful, well-formed, lovely pillows of basalt that you can see aanywhere. You would have to go to Hawaii or Iceland to see any as good. Not even the pillow basalts on Francis Drake Drive in Marin County, California, are as good. Serious wow-factor pillow basalt - in New Jersey, spitting distance from NYC, ticket to Hawaii or Iceland not required!

newark basin If you have no idea of what I'm raving about here, a pillow basalt is one that erupted in a water body like the ocean. Due to the action of water on the erupting basalt, the surface of a pillow basalt flow looks like a giant pile of grey to black pillows, ranging in size from bed pillows to haram pillows and bean bag chairs. You usually don't see pillow basalts in the large continental basalts like those in Idaho or Oregon or Washington. You do see them in places like Iceland or Hawaii or along the mid-oceanic rifts. The one on the highway in Paterson, NJ, formed in the young late-Triassic rift system that eventually formed what is today the Atlantic Ocean.

The Palisades were formed by injection of tholeiitic-composition magma into sediments a few kilometers down. The ingredients list for the Palisades Sill is essentially the same as for the tholeiite basalt barfed out of oceanic rifts; however, since the Palisades Sill was an intrusion, not an eruption, it's a rock type called diabase. The difference between diabase and basalt is one of texture. Basalts are formed from magma that is erupted at the surface into either air or water. Since eruption is a surface event, the magma is flash-frozen into a fine-grained rock which often includes lots of little gas bubble cavities called vesicles. There's a whole lexicon of terms just for patterns of vesicles in basalts that I will spare you from explaining for now. Diabases do not cool quickly like basalts since they are intruded away from the chill of the earth's atmosphere or hydrosphere. Injected into already-buried rocks, a diabase has time to cool slowly. This allows mineral grains time to grow to large sizes visible to the naked eye without a microscope or hand lens. In the Palisades Sill, the crystal grains of minerals formed and then settled into layers within the cooling magma body in a pattern known as crystal fractionation. In fact, the Palisades Sill is used as the exemplar of crystal fractionation in geology text books. It's famous for its obvious crystal fractionation features, like the ten-foot thick basal layer of green olivine crystals that you can see in the parking lots of some strip malls and apartment buildings in Jersey City, NJ, some of which I visited on those Columbia University geology field trips many years ago. It's not the sort of thing you forget: the towering vertical face, hundreds of feet tall, of the Palisades, and at its base, that shiny green layer of glassy, gemmy olivine. I'll never forget that trip: the hot September Saturday afternoon, the light blue Columbia van, the tops of Manhattan's skyscrapers across the river in the muggy haze, the two bored TAs, the smell of the garbage dumpster in the parking lot behind a supermarket in Jersey City, the fat buzzing flies, the fractured vitreous olivine crystals. To go on that field trip, I had to skip playing in the university band at that Saturday's football game at UPenn. I always liked collecting rocks, ever since I was four, but it was on those field trips that I fell in love with geology.

So while I can forgive the author of this NY Times article his sins of misrepresenting the point of this LIPs geochronology paper in Science, I do take exception at one thing. The author called the Palisades a basalt. It's not a basalt. It's a diabase. It's like calling a sugar beet a radish or a napa cabbage a brussel sprout. It's just not the same! I can barely tolerate hijacking a LIPs geocrhonology paper for pontificating on the evils of global warming but I can't stand it when someone gets the basic rock identification just plain wrong. Calling a thing by its proper name really does matter.

Further Reading:

The USGS has some nice webpages on the Palisades and the Triassic-Jurassic Newark rift basin at and The article in Science mentioned in the NY Times can be found here: (All links accessed 17 Aug 2013.) The figure of Newark Basin stratigraphy is from the USGS webpage on the Newark Basin

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Gun Control and the Art of Persuasive Writing

Whatever happened to arguing from the facts? I would think that anyone would prefer strong arguments based on well-researched facts; however, opinion pieces on controversial issues often appear to jettison fact for emotional appeals and employ rhetorical tricks far removed from critical thinking (1, 2). It is sad to note that this style of writing frequently infects both the right-leaning Wall Street Journal and the left-leaning New York Times.

When I was in high school, the best - and hardest - English teacher I ever had, one Mrs. Santangelo, impressed upon me that one should never dilute one's subject in an essay by introducing tangential or unrelated elements. The editorial board of the New York Times would have gotten a big red "R" for "rewrite" on the editorial under discussion today for just this reason.

Today's culprit for being wrong on the internet is an editorial in the New York Times regarding gun control (3). The editorial slams a Connecticut gun manufacturer for its announced departure to South Carolina because of the local hostile environment towards its products. The manufacturer, PTR Industries, makes semi-automatic assault-style rifles and large capacity magazines. Recent post-Newtown shooting legislation in Connecticut has made all of PTR's product line illegal in that state (4). The editorial argues that PTR has no basis to complain about gun control legislation in Connecticut because all gun manufacturers are protected from certain kinds of third-party liability by federal legislation passed in 2005.

I can live with editorial stands regarding improved screening and background checks for firearms purchases plus bans of large-capacity magazines. Unlike knee-jerk bans on assault weapons and assault weapon lookalikes, real data strongly supports that these measures would have beneficial effects on urban violent crime - topics I have discussed already in this blog. But there is not data behind the opinion in this New York Times editorial. There is no sound basis in the editorial behind the condemnation of PTR Industries other than a dislike of guns and an approval of using civil lawsuits against industries that make often-harmful products like guns or cigarettes.

Why is this editorial an example of being wrong on the internet? Because PTR's decision to leave Connecticut has nothing to do with the federal 2005 liability legislation. The editorial employs a form of bait and switch by starting the essay with a complaint about a gun maker moving to another state, a matter than is unrelated to the real theme advocating the repeal of the 2005 federal immunity from liability for small arms manufacturers. The editorial uses PTR's move out of state as a rhetorical crutch to introduce its dislike of the 2005 federal legislation. This case of bait and switch is a variation of the rhetorical device of distraction by introducing a second issue which is not germane to the first (1). In the rhetorical tactic of diverting a debate, the second issue might look related to the first when it fact its introduction is really intended to destroy the flow of a structured argument. In live verbal debates and in the examination of witnesses in a trial, this tactic can be very effective to interrupt or confuse the debater or witness; and since pauses, confusion and distraction can degrade credibility, this is a tactic sometimes used to discredit one's opposition and the opposition's arguments when one lacks the information to do so using facts.

The reason behind PTR's move to South Carolina is unrelated to the 2005 federal legislation that protects gun makers from certain kinds of lawsuits. The recent gun control laws in Connecticut resemble the 2005 federal protections for gun manufacturers only in that both are legislation. What appears to be going on here is that the New York Times favors the use of civil suits to attack the small arms industry. The use of torts against tobacco companies was a brilliant success by parties wishing to eliminate the health hazards of smoking. The attack of the tobacco companies showed that the civil court system could be an extremely effective tool to change societal trends and behaviors.

Civil litigation against manufacturers were once uncommon. Such lawsuits were usually unsuccessful unless one could show that a business bore direct responsibility for causing harm or abetting a criminal act in such a way that that a business would be liable for damages. It should go without saying that "liability for damages" is synonymous with "forking over lots of cash." Liability for damages can put an otherwise robust and successful business out of business forever, so the increasing frequency of civil suits against business for tangential liability is not necessarily a good thing. For example, the half-a-billion settlement against Pan Am after Libyan terrorists blew-up Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988 was a contributing factor to its bankruptcy and ultimate demise (5, 6).

Families of the victims of the Beltway Snipers pursued such civil litigation against a gun retailer and a gun manufacturer after the conviction of the shooters, the first such action against a gun maker (7). The gun maker settled out of court in 2004 before any determination was made by judge or jury at to whether the gun maker had any liability for damages.

In 2005, Congress passed and the President signed legislation making gun manufacturers immune from liability for damages when guns were involved in crimes or shooting accidents (8). Legislation granting immunity from certain types of liability for specific businesses or professions is not unknown; Good Samaritan laws and the Volunteer Protection Act are examples of such legislation. The 2005 liability immunity law for gun makers was controversial at the time, with the NRA and gun manufacturers in favor lined up against gun control advocates and trial lawyers in opposition. As a powerful tool that could negatively impact the small arms industry, proponents of comprehensive gun control would like to see the repeal of this legislation. The litigation of the tobacco industry has provided a template for societal change for when legislative solutions appear blocked by moneyed special interests. Since the Newtown shooting at Sandy Hook School in December and the subsequent failure of new federal gun control legislation, there has been a renewed effort by gun control advocates to have the 2005 legislation repealed. The New York Times editorial under discussion today is a symptom of this.

The motives behind PTR's relocation have nothing to do with the 2005 federal liability legislation (9). The relocation does not help Connecticut since the jobs lost will have a negative effect on local commerce and the tax revenue lost will not help state and local budgets. Connecticut can not claim it's business-friendly when it made a company's entire product line illegal to sell within state borders. Small arms manufacturing has been a business traditionally associated with Connecticut since the mid-19th century, but the message of ill-regard sent by the recent gun control laws can not be mistaken. What small arms business would want to stay in such an unwelcoming place? Connecticut was once one of the manufacturing powerhouses of the country, especially in defense contracting, but it is no longer a desirable place to do business. According to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, Connecticut's overall rank for desirable business climate is 40, with a business tax climate rank of 35 and the highest property taxes in the nation (10). Its sales tax and gasoline tax are also among the highest. It's an expensive place to live and an expensive place to do business. Given the unfriendly business climate in Connecticut, it is not a stretch to see why PTR Industries decided to move after Connecticut made its entire product line against the law to sell in its home state; and PTR Industries is not the only small arms business in Connecticut looking to escape the hostile business climate there.

A news organization with the standing and reputation of the New York Times should do a better job of persuasive writing as opposed to using a rhetorical bait-and-switch distraction tactic. PTR Industries' move to South Carolina has nothing to do with the real theme of this editorial.


  1. Boyer, W. and Stoddard, S. (2001), "How to be Persuasive,", accessed July 2, 2013.
  2. The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, "Gun Risk Perceptions,", accessed July 2, 2013.
  3. The Editorial Board of the New York Times (2013, July 29), "A Gun Maker Moves On,", accessed July 2, 2013.
  4. Memmott, M. (2013, April 4), " 'Historic' Gun Bill Becomes Law In Connecticut," The Two-Way: National Public Radio,, accessed July 2, 2013.
  5. Anon. (2009), "Public Justice 2009 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award Finalists: Making Terrorists and their Sponsors Pay,", accessed July 2, 2013.
  6. Anon.,, accessed July 2, 2013.
  7. The Washington Times (2004, sept. 9), "Families of Sniper Victims Reach Settlement,", accessed. July 2, 2013.
  8. Stolberg, C. G. (2005, Oct. 21), "Congress Passes New Legal Shield for Gun Industry," New York Times,, accessed July 2, 2013.
  9. McLeod, H. (2013, June 20), "Connecticut firearms maker leaving for South Carolina, citing gun law," Reuters,, accessed July 2, 2013.
  10. Anon. (2013), "2013 State Business Tax Climate Index Ranks and Component Tax Ranks,", accessed July 2, 2013.

Saturday 27 April 2013

ARG! More Keystone Pipeline Misreporting!


Well, the New York Times (NYT) did it again. They have asserted that a source says something it actually did not say when you go and look at the original documents being discussed. Sadly, the uber-topic is the Keystone XL Pipeline...again. I'm beginning to doubt that anyone at the NYT can appoach this subject objectively. The original NYT editorial can be found here:

The editorial is a commentary on the EPA's review of the US State Department Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS). A copy of the letter can be seen here:

There are multiple distortions and demonstrable misstatements in the editorial about the EPA letter, but for the sake of not excessively beating the dead horse subject of the NYT objections to this pipeline, I will restrict myself to just one of the more blatant examples of spin.

The editorial states:

(The State Department's) biggest problem, the (EPA) agency said, is a flawed assumption that distorts all of its analyses: that “oil sands crude will find a way to market with or without” the Keystone pipeline. This is a kind of magical thinking. If this pipeline won’t do, the State Department argues, other pipelines will be built or rail traffic will be ramped up. One way or another, the department says, oil sands production will go ahead full speed. For a variety of reasons, not least the cost of rail transportation, the E.P.A. has serious doubts.

That's not really what the EPA letter said. The EPA did not say the DSEIS assumption concerning the inevitability of Alberta oil sands development was flawed. Rather, the EPA argued that the DSEIS conclusion was based on incomplete economic modeling and rigor. To wit:

Although the DSEIS describes the GHG (green house gas) intensity of oil sands crude, the DSEIS nevertheless concludes that regardless of whether the Project permit is approved, projected oil sands production will remain substantially unchanged. This conclusion is based on an analysis of crude oil markets and projections of oil sands crude development, including the potential for other means of transport to bring oil sands crude to market.

The EPA went on to say:

Because the market analysis is so central to this key conclusion, we think it is important that it be as complete and accurate as possible. We note that the discussion in the DSEIS regarding energy markets, while informative, is not based on an updated energy-economic modeling effort.

Nowhere did the EPA label the DSEIS conclusion as an "assumption" nor did the EPA ever state that it doubted the State Deparment's argument or call it "flawed." What the EPA did say was that the economic analysis lacked sufficient rigor and details to support the statement the Albertan oil sands would be developed no matter what means of shipment were available.

The EPA uses its own two-part ranking system to evaluate environmental impact statements. The first part deals with its own conclusion about the environmental risks and hazards of a project. The second part deals with the reasoning behind its evaluation. The hazards and risks are rated as "lack of objections", "environmental concerns", "environmental objections", and "environmentally unsatisfactory." The reasoning is described as "adequate", "insufficient information", and "inadequate."

The EPA gave the DSEIS a rating of "Environmental Objections - Insufficient Information." In other words, the EPA has objections to the DSEIS because it did not have enough information in areas of environmental concern. The economic modeling was a chief concern because the State Department's most important arguement for the pipeline was the inevitability of Albertan oil sands development. The EPA objected and aksed for more modeling and market analysis.

Contrary to the NYT, The EPA letter did not say that the State Department:

"gave short shrift to the corrosive effect of the oil and its dangers to the vital aquifer underlying part of the pipeline’s latest route."

I have no idea where the term "corrosive" came from. It's not used at all in the EPA evaluation letter. Granted, the EPA had two other major objections to the DSEIS, both on the grounds of insufficient information on environmental, not economic, concerns. The first deals with the oils sands product that is pumped in a pipeline, called dilbit. Dilbit is a relatively new form of pipeline product and the growing experience around the world with dilbit spills has shown that it is harder to remediate compared to regular crude. Because dilbit spills are more difficult to deal with, especially in surface waters, the EPA wanted to see a spill prevention and remediation plan in or with DSEIS based on the unique characteristics of dilbit. The other objection dealt with the lack of any discussion of possible alternative routes for the pipeline which could potentially minimize the exposure of the North Great Plains aquifers and rivers to potential pipeline spills. Again, as in the case of the economic modeling, the EPA asked that alternative routes be addressed. Nowhere in the letter did the EPA call the DSEIS flawed or faulty or incorrect. The EPA charged that the DSEIS was incomplete and expressed willingness to work with the State Department in filling in the information it wanted to see.

While I understand the reasoning behind the EPA request for rigorous economic modeling of the impact of transportation mode and availability on oil sands development, one could argue alternatively that it's unnecessary and moot. The reason is very simple supply and demand. The population-driven demand for fuels is increasing and the supply of fuels is finite. The supply of cheap fossil fuels is in demonstrable decline which is why we are now seeing the expansion into difficult fuels to extract like shale-based natural gas and oil sands. The pursuit of expensive fuels wouldn't be happening if the cheap fuels weren't already gone. Until and unless cleaner forms of energy become economically viable and/or politically acceptable, fossil fuels like oil sands will be developed. It's a matter of when, not if. So in that respect, the EPA demand for economic modeling is moot, especially in the long term.

There is one other thing that the EPA showed no sensitivity to or awareness of regarding the development of the Alberta oil sands. Those are not our oil sands. They're Canada's oil sands, and it is up to the people, government and businesses in Canada as to whether those oil sands are exploited. If the Canadians decide that the oils sands will be exploited, then they'll be exploited regardless of what the EPA and New York Times think.

Thursday 14 March 2013

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Do Journalists Read What They Write About?

(Correction added 3/20/13)

I missed an editorial a few days ago but managed to catch up on my reading this morning, whereupon I spotted a new piece on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Just in case you don't know the details, the proposed pipeline will pump liquefied oil sands bitumen across the Alberta-Montana border and then head southeast across the Midwest toward Steele City, Nebraska. The article in question is "When to Say No," an New York Times editorial dated March 11, 2013. The subject of the editorial is the Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") issued a little over a week ago by the US State Department.

The following paragraph caught my eye:

To its credit, the State Department acknowledges that extracting, refining and burning the oil from the tar-laden sands is a dirtier process than it had previously stated, yielding annual greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17 percent higher than the average crude oil used in the United States. But its dry language understates the environmental damage involved: the destruction of the forests that lie atop the sands and are themselves an important storehouse for carbon, and the streams that flow through them. And by focusing on the annual figure, it fails to consider the cumulative year-after-year effect of steadily increasing production from a deposit that is estimated to hold 170 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered with today’s technology and may hold 10 times that amount altogether.

There are several things wrong with this paragraph but I'll start with the one that I knew was incorrect even without researching. What's wrong is the statement that oil sand petroleum has an "annual greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17 percent higher than the average crude oil used in the United States." That 17% rang a bell since it parallels a similar 17% mistake made in a Wall Street Journal blog from 2009 see my blog post from March 6 for m.... Seventeen percent also echoes numbers from various published sources discussing Canadian oil sand greenhouse gases ("GHG") including the State Dept. EIS itself:

WCSB (Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin) crudes are more GHG-intensive than the other heavy crudes they would replace or displace in U.S. refineries, and emit an estimated 17 percent more GHGs on a life-cycle basis than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States in 2005.

The important words here are "life-cycle basis." Modeling GHG emissions for any distinct source is usually done over the lifetime of all of the fossil fuel at that source in one lump regardless of how long it takes to deplete all the fuel there (e.g. Skone and Gerdes, 2009). The words "life-cycle" always refer to estimating all the GHG released "from cradle to grave," i.e. from untouched resource in the ground to final product for the entire life of a resource (Lattanzio, 2012). It is not an average with respect to a unit of time. A well-to-wheel ("WTW") GHG life-cycle estimate accounts not only for the GHG contribution from burning the fuel, but also accounts for the energy sources used to mine or extract the resource, pump it in pipelines or ship it by sea or rail, process it at a refinery and deliver it to the end-user customer. Using the life-cycle approach neatly dodges the problem of variable rates of production which every oil and gas field experiences due to the supply and demand conditions in the global marketplace for fuels.

The New York Times editorial made a mistake in calling the 17% GHG increase an annual rate of emissions. Whoever wrote it didn't understand the concept of life-cycle estimates for GHG. This becomes even more evident when the text goes on to say about the EIS:

by focusing on the annual figure, it fails to consider the cumulative year-after-year effect of steadily increasing production from a deposit that is estimated to hold 170 billion barrels of oil

The author of this editorial doesn't seem to know that the GRG life-cycle estimate of 17% was indeed based on the total extractable oil sand reserves for all four of the big Canadian oil sand deposits regardless of production rates or time. This leaves me wondering if the editorial author bothered to read the EIS at all since several EIS sections and one appendix were devoted to the discussion and comparison of well-to-wheel life-cycle GHG emissions for oil sand petroleum pumped through the proposed pipeline.

Correction and commentary added 3/20/13: I made a mistake which is why the paragraph above is struck out. I confused GHG footprint as discussed in the State Dept. EIS with life-cycle GHG estimates. But the NY Times quip about using an annual GHG figure vs. a total GHG footprint for total lifetime of the Alberta oil sands is still irrelevant. Why? Because the GHG life-cycle estimates are not annual figures. They are normalized, usually on either a per unit energy release or unit volume basis. Time is not a parameter when reporting GHG life-cycle estimates. One can convert GHG well-to-wheel or well-to-tank life-cycle estimates to annual emissions easily. It's simple if one starts with a life-cycle number reported on a per volume basis and then multiplies by the total amount of the fuel in question used annually. Alternatively, one could also estimate the total GHG footprint for a fossil fuel resource or any given industrial complex and then divide by the number of years that fuel source or industrial complex is expected to last, thus deriving an annual rate. Either way is a legitimate means to calculate an annual GHG emissions estimate.

The State Dept. EIS calculated the annual GHG emissions that would be introduced by the Keystone XL pipeline based on the assumption that the pipeline would be operating at capacity (830,000/barrels per day). Despite the fact that Canadian oil sands production is expected to double between 2012 and 2015, the capacity of the pipeline is a constant. Since the editorial is arguing against the pipeline, the lifetime of the Canadian oil sands is really moot. A recent Congressional Research Service study (Lattanzio, 2012) put this in a perspective that I believe most environmental activists would rather avoid. The numbers speak for themselves as to whether GHG-based arguments against the pipeline have any real substance. I will leave it to the reader to decide if the less than 1 percent annual GHG contribution of the Keystone XL pipeline to the annual US GHG emissions is meaningful:

The 2013 Draft SEIS analysis found that the potential range of incremental GHG emissions contributed by the pipeline would be 3.7 to 20.7 MMTCO2e annually. As the United States reported a total domestic GHG inventory of 6,865.5 MMTCO2e in 2010, the incremental pipeline emissions would represent an increase of 0.06%-0.3% in total annual GHG emissions for the United States.

The comment in the editorial about the destruction of forests appears to have been made in ignorance of Alberta's aggressive surface-mine reclamation laws. Many of the mines that were in production in the 60s and 70s are already on their way back to being forest. Also, only about 20% of the oil sands are mineable (Humphries, 2008); the remaining 80% can only be extracted through the use of down-hole in situ methods to convert the bitumen into a pumpible liquid. Since well fields are much less invasive than surface mines, preservation of Alberta's boreal forest will improve over time as oil sand production shifts from mining to pumping. There is a downside to oil sand mining and its subsequent reclamation. No reclamation method is capable of restoring the extensive peatlands that the surface mines must destroy to get at the oil sands

I find the whole Keystone XL Pipeline issue somewhat ridiculous, to be frank. The rest of the New York Times editorial makes further protests over the pipeline on the basis of the impacts it will have on groundwater aquifers and soils in the event of a spill. You would think from reading this editorial that no one had ever built a pipeline before or that there had never been a pipeline leak. The reality is that there are numerous large capacity pipelines already in existence - including two that are already pumping liquified oil sands bitumen from Alberta into the US - and their environmental impact to date is quite low. I've worked on pipeline leaks. They're bread-and-butter remediation projects. The thought that a spill might reach one of the big Midwest production aquifers is a bit silly since hundreds of feet and the presence of aquicludes like the Pierre Shale separate them. The Keystone XL pipeline proposal exists because the two pipeline from Canada currently in use are at full capacity and have been for several years now.

I'm really tempted to wonder out loud how people like the author of this editorial get paid to write nonsense like this instead of me? But since I gave up temptation for Lent, I will refrain from doing so.

Here's a NASA pic of the Athabasca oil sands mine in Northeast Alberta. Not exactly a garden spot.



Gerdes, K., and Skone, T. J. (2009), Consideration of Crude Oil Source in Evaluating Transportation Fuel GHG Emissions, National Energy Technology Laboratory (Report) DOE/NETL-2009/1346, US Dept. of Energy, ( ; accessed 3/6/13).

Humphries, M (2008), North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future, Congressional Research Service No. RL34258. (, accessed 3/14/13).

Lattanzio, R. (2012), Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Congressional Research Service No. R42537 ., accessed 3/14/13).

Levi, M. A. (2009), The Canadian Oil Sands Energy Security vs. Climate Change, Council Special Report No. 47, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, ( ; accessed 3/6/13).

Wednesday 27 February 2013

How to Cite References 101 -OR- Corporate Welfare Out-Spends Social Services Spending!

I just can't ignore this one. It's too egregious - and from a journalist at the gold-standard New York Times!

Here it is, from a NYTimes blog at

Just about every aspect of America’s economic and legal infrastructure — the laissez-faire governance of the markets; a convoluted tax structure that has hedge fund managers paying less than their office cleaners; the promise of state intervention when banks go belly-up; the legal protections afforded to corporations as if they were people; the enormous subsidies given to corporations (in total, about 50 percent more than social services spending); electoral funding practices that allow the wealthy to buy influence in government — allows the rich to stay rich and get richer.

Did you see it? Did you catch that??? 50% more than social services spending!

Shall we? The brave journalist, to be commended for courage here, has a link for specifically that 50 percent statement, and here it is:

Well, there's that! The Cato Institute, that bastion of Friedmanesque Reaganomics, neo-con scourge of all that is bloated and entitled Keynesian! Need we look farther than this? Well, sorry...we do. The source of a citation is not the citation - and I wish more people would remember this, and not just at news outlets but in academe too where the practitioners of the cited research paper can kill good research with a well-placed accusation of "doesn't know the litereature."

Let's follow the citation. It's a nice and well-written four paragraph position piece that is the obvious cover page to a lengthy study on the costs of corporate welfare. There is a single number mentioned: that corporate welfare has a price tag of around $100 billion a year. Sounds horrible, yes? Look at what is not said here though. The author of the Cato four paragraphs does not make a claim that corporate welfare costs 50% more than social services spending.

We can approach this three ways. Let's do all of them. First, what is $100 billion? I like to think of these things in terms of Trident submarines, using roughly 1990 dollars, which was the last time I priced a Trident submarine - not an illogical pursuit for someone who grew up in the town where Trident subs were built and who worked in the shipyard there at one point. A trident sub costs about $2 billion dollars from budget allocation to commissioning. So in Trident submarine units, $100 billion is 50 trident submarines. If we bought 50 trident submarines every year, the entire of economy of southern New England would go from the current blight to prosperity overnight! Oh fling me in that briar patch!

So, let us look at just Medicare. Referring to, specifically Table II.F1, we find that projected expenditures for Medicare Parts B and D ONLY (no Part A at all) for the year 2013 are $327.6 billion dollars - or 163.8 Trident submarine units.

I think my point makes itself. Even a fraction of our yearly social services spending exceeds that $100 billion - or 50 Trident submarine units.

Now, let us approach the problem in the second way. Where did this 50% number come from? From the Cato Institute report for which the four paragraphs were the obvious cover piece and lure? I don't know. I didn't take the time to investigate. That's not the point. The point is that the journalist who bothered to make a citation for the "50% more than social services spending" used a citation that didn't support the numbers actually cited. If the Cato Institute report was the real source, then that should have been cited instead. If I were still grading undergraduate essays at UC Davis, where I did nasty things like check citations, using bad referencing style would be worth a half to a whole grade down all by itself.

Correct citation is important. Without it, the value of the news media secondary sources upon which society depends can be completely undermined - though that's just my personal opinion, mind you.

The last approach to looking at this statement on corporate welfare: perhaps the journalist meant something different by "social services spending" than what I have chosen to interpret. This is easily answered with another quibble I would have delivered to those poor undergrads whose misadventures in writing I was once privileged to grade: when definitions matter or vary from common assumptions, define your terms! 'Nuff said.

On the flip side, a corporate welfare price tag of 50 Trident submarine units is a lot of money, says this practiced observer of the effects of defense contract cut-backs on a local economy. Of please fling some of that as contracts to the shipyard in the town where I grew up. My hometown could use the boost!

Saturday 2 February 2013

"Myths About Gun Regulation" - shame on you, New York Times!

I want to make it clear right off the bat that I like the NY Times, grew up reading it, and my day isn't complete without it (especially the crossword). It is true that its editorial page leans somewhat left but most of what's printed is more factual than not. I do like Krugman's columns because his clarity on the morass of national and global economics is good and sometimes brilliant - there's a reason he got a Nobel Prize for economics. But every now and then, they blow it on the editorial page. Feb. 1, 2013, was one of those occasions.

The editorial was titled "Myths About Gun Regulation." ( And here's the statement where they screwed up: A long–range, independent study issued as Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004 found criminal use of assault weapons had fallen by one-third or more as a share of gun crimes in major jurisdictions.

To their credit, they cited the study where this came from. But wait! I went and read the study. You can find it at:

It's a really interesting piece of work and it is both highly nuanced and not at all positive that the assault weapons ban of 1994 had an appreciable effect on violent crimes with guns. Yes, using their methodology, they did find that criminal assault weapon use fell by about a third (see p.55). But the way the NY Times phrased this result both obscured that this drop may not have been statistically significant - which is a form of lying about statistics - and that the way they developed their data might not have real correlation between pre- and post-ban gun use in crime.

The problem with their analysis is that there are no good nation-wide studies on specifically assault weapon used in crimes. There is not now nor has there ever been any uniform data gathering on crime rates involving specifically assault weapons. Congress has been an obstruction for providing support for such an effort despite calls for assault weapon stats for almost 20 years now. Because of the lack of such data, the study under discussion here used surrogates to estimate assault weapon in violent crimes. These surrogate measures included annual gross production of assault weapons, assault weapon prices, and law enforcement gun tracing requests sent to the ATF.

To their credit, the authors of this study admitted that there may no correlation between the above surrogate trends they used and trends in criminal assault weapon use. In fact, despite tha ban, the authors noted that If anything, therefore, gun attacks appear to have been more lethal and injurious since the ban.

They authors used the assumptions that rising availability had an positive effect on assault weapon usage and that rising prices had a negative effect. They honestly admitted to arm waving in assuming a correlation between gun tracing statistics and assault weapon usage. They felt there was a correlation because the surrogate trends they used appeared to fulfill their assumptions, especially when their surrogate trends appeared to correlate with assault weapon data from the few jurisdictions that actually tracked assault weapon crime statistics. The number of jurisdictions that did track assault weapon crimes can be counted on the fingers of one hand; however, all of them showed decreases in pre-ban to post-ban usage. But here's what the NY Times didn't tell you: the numbers of assault weapons crimes was so small that the observed trends may not have had statistical significance. In the jursdictions the study looked at, the typical percentage of assault weapon crimes relative to all firearm crimes was less than 3% before the 1994 ban and fell to less than 2% after the ban. The study noted that these numbers are so small that they may be meaningless when you consider that approximately two-thirds (plus or minus 5%) of all murders involve some kind of firearm - a statistic that has been stable for decades.

The NY Times editorial implied that the study under discussion demonstrated a real drop in assault weapon crime during the assault weapon ban of 1994-2004. But that's not what the study itself concluded. Here's what this study actually said:

Although the ban has been successful in reducing crimes with assault weapons, any benefits from this reduction are likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of non-banned semiautomatics with large capacity magazines, which are used in crime much more frequently than assault weapons. Therefore, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury, as we might have expected had the ban reduced crimes with both assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

I have to wonder if the NY Times editorial staff is just plain inept with statistics or if a pro-gun-control bias was involved in ignoring the study's conclusions. I expected better reporting from the premier newspaper in the US.