Sunday, April 22, 2007

The NBC Videos

The Herostratus syndrome. That's what they ought to call it. Herostratus was the man who, one summer day in 356 BC, set fire to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and burned it down -- in order to become famous. Of course, it worked.

The week after John Lennon was murdered, I read in a newsletter that a friend of mine subscribed to a statement that went something like this: John Lennon was killed by some asshole who wanted to get his name in the papers. Well, you won't read it here.

I've always liked that idea. Notice you've never read the name of the Virginia Tech shooter here. And guess what? You never will! You also won't see any of those self-posed pictures he sent to NBC while he was between murders. The picture immediately above shows the ruins of the temple at Ephesus.* Now there's something that deserves to be remembered!

Should NBC -- and papers, news shows, and web sites all over the world -- have publicized those videos and pictures? Here is a principle that is relevant: it is morally bad, other things being equal, to help a criminal to achieve his or her criminal intentions. If I kill my uncle Julius in order to inherit his money, don't give me any of Julius' money!

This doesn't (yet?) answer the question about the NBC images, though. When I say "other things being equal," I mean to recognize that there can be overbalancing reasons on the other side. What are they in this case?

That "the people have a right to know"? That's just silly. I don't even think the people who talk that way mean what they say. If you have a "right to know x" and I know x, don't I immediately lose my right to remain silent and not tell you x? What about my rights?

That's not the answer. But what it is, I am really not sure.
* Added later: A commenter pointed out that the above picture is actually the Library of Celsus. I got that picture from a web site that obviously mislabeled it. Another website indicates that what remains of the Temple of Artemis is actually little more than the single column you see here at the left. The blogosphere: imperfect, but self-correcting! (Or can be.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech Murders: The Debate Begins

The murders at Virginia Tech hit home with me. I spent several long stretches of time in Blacksburg back when the Public Choice Center was still there -- Jim Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, David Friedman, Bob Tollison, Geoff Brennan -- there were many interesting and brilliant economists there, and in a beautiful Georgian mansion in the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I still treasure these memories. Now my thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends, and the stricken community of Blacksburg.

Of course the bodies were still warm when renewed calls for gun control were heard around the world. The Prime Minister of Australia, who came to office on an anti-gun platform after a similar incident there, denounced the incident as another example of the evils of the American "gun culture." It probably was too early for him to know that the murderer was in fact no American, but, as reported by the Va Tech chief of campus police, a resident alien. But of course the Prime Minister's point was about the guns, not the culture. The guns are the problem, was the idea.

In a way, this is obviously true. Those people were killed with a gun. What may be a little less obvious, though, is that guns might be part of the solution as well. Notice that not one of the thirty three murder victims was armed. Is there any doubt that if even one of them had been, the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?

This a particularly poignant question, because in 2005 there was a bill in Virginia that would have allowed students with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns on campus, but it died in committee. (Hat-tip to historian David Beito here.) The victims of this atrocity had been deliberately disarmed by their own government. Adding horribly to the irony of this is the fact that one Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesperson, praised the death of this bill:
"I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions," Hincker said on Jan. 31, 2006, "because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.
"Feel safe," maybe. But isn't being safe more important?

Notice that these shooting sprees are only ever seem to occur in places like schools, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, post offices. Why is there never a huge murderous rampage in a bar? Bars are full of people with poor impulse control. They have been working for hours at reducing their impulse control, shrinking their profit-horizons, and trashing their ability to distinguish right from wrong. Why don't you ever see the headline, "33 Killed in Saloon Rampage"?

There is a pretty obvious answer. The people in a bar may not be the nicest or most rational people in the world, but they all know that the bartender probably has a gun and a baseball bat behind the bar. They also know that he (or she!) would be happy to use them in order to maintain good order and public peace.

These killers go into schools and playgrounds because they feel safe there. Don't you think it is time to interfere with their government-given sense of security? If an armed professor or student had brought the Blacksburg killer down, it would have saved innocent lives immediately. It would also have given the next insane murderer reason to pause and go elsewhere, or maybe just to either seek help or keep his evil thoughts to himself.
For the above picture, my thanks to Jonathan Wilde over at Catallarchy.

Added later: The above post was written immediately after it was revealed that the shooter was a "resident alien" and I did not yet know that he had lived here since the age of eight.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

More on Rude, Surly Teenagers

Andrew Sullivan linked to my original post on this subject, with more comments coming in as a result. Here are a few of my reactions to them.

One commenter, a high school teacher (scotts), said that most kids respect people who show them respect, while on the other hand foreign students often express shock at how mean and ill-behaved American kids often are. Sometimes, "because I said so" is the only alternative to letting one jerk ruin things for the other 34 people (!) in the room. It was also suggested that explaining what teenagers do in terms of identity-formation is "mumbo jumbo."

Actually, I think that talking about "respect," as if it should be obvious to everyone what that is, is closer to being mumbo-jumbo. The capacity to deal with many small conflicts of interest every day without getting into screaming arguments is something that we learn, and it is a slow and gradual process. It seems simple to us because we have automatized it. It isn't so simple to the kids!

One thing that I have found helps in avoiding shouting-matches with Nat is to avoid putting him in situations that put a great burden on his developing people-skills. This means thinking ahead so that we have enough time, when there is some kind of conflict, to talk it out, propose solutions, and reach some sort of agreement so we can all do more or less what we want to do.

Before I had a kid, whenever I saw a child throwing a tantrum in a supermarket, I would think, "Dang those blankety-blank kids! No manners!" After I had a kid, I would be as likely to think, "Dang those blakety-blank parents! Ain't got a lick o' sense!" Such scenes, I've noticed at last, are usually the parents' fault.

In such cases, I think the right solution is to figure that if you are going to take the kid to the store with you, then your shopping trip is going to take up more time and energy that it would without them. Kids need our attention. Part of what this means is to talk to them about the trip beforehand. If there is some reason why you are going to expose them to the sight of hundreds of tempting treats without buying them any (health problems? budget constraints? time constraints? etc.) be sure they understand it beforehand. To some people I am sure it sounds comical to reason with a three year old in this way, but I think that is because they have never really tried it.

But this doesn't yet deal with the issue of why American teenagers are worse-behaved than those in other cultures, or what to do about it. But unless scotts is saying that the right response to this is to blame American teenagers for their lack of moral fiber and to administer increased doses of authority and discipline, then I'm not sure that he is disagreeing with what I was saying here.

Ideally, I would say that the solution here is the same in principle as the one that applies to the supermarket and the small child. Don't put kids in a situation that they are unable to deal with on their own, unless you are going to interact with them enough to enable them to deal with it.

Years ago, I used to assign a book in one of my classes, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. It was a socialistic utopia, a world in which the government owns everything and people live in huge dormitories. The cityscape was dominated by "stately piles," huge buildings where swarms of people bustled calmly away like ants. Bellamy's big idea was economies of scale: cost per unit produced goes down as an enterprise becomes bigger. Why waste money on small, individual houses or factories when we can all live in one giant domicile and work in one supercolossal factory? For reasons I have never understood, socialists have always tended to think that there is no limit to economies of scale. Look at the old USSR. Whatever they did, they like to do it huge!

I eventually stopped assigning that book because the students detested it. Who would want to live that way? What a nightmare!

Well, isn't that how we are forcing our kids to spend their days? It has never been sufficiently appreciated that, as far as K-12 education is concerned, the US is probably the most socialistic country that has ever existed. And just like their colleagues in the old USSR, the people who made our educational system like it huge. Vast high schools, swarming with teens who mainly interact with each other, forming cruel little cliques and gangs. Adult supervision is often limited to the blunt-edged instrument of crowd control. The first public elementary school that Nat attended was a vast, frightening labyrinth inside. Imagine inflicting such an architectural nightmare on a small child! What were they thinking? Of course I know what they were thinking: economies of scale!

Scotts suggests that the only alternative to the crowd-control approach to education would be one that is ridiculously expensive. I don't think so. When we were first putting Nat into school, we visited every private school in our area (except for the religious ones). The private schools gave students more individual attention and at lower per-student cost.

Well, I still haven't commented on the reason why American teenagers are less well-behaved than others. Of course I don't really know. But maybe one part of the explanation is to be found in the idea of identity-formation. Teenagers are becoming the people they will be in adulthood. And as an American adult, you are an autonomous individual. You are selling your labor in a free market. There is a welfare-state safety net, but your fall if there is one will not be cushioned by the thick pile of mattresses they have in France or Germany. You also are not looking forward to a life watched, cared-for, and regulated by an extended network of aunts, uncles, cousins, patriarchs and matriarchs. You are on your own.

Maybe the task of becoming such an individualistic person is not very well supported by the giant socialist factory-school system we have developed. In other words, maybe there is a fundamental contradiction in the system.

Here I have only discussed one commenter and have run out of time! Maybe more later!
BTW, take a look at the video linked on this post on Crooked Timber. There is a lot of unhappiness coming out of these kids. Where does it come from?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rude, Surly Teenagers: A Defense

Cartoonist and animator Eddie Fitzgerald has a very interesting post, Why Are Kids So Surly?. He tells a touching story about his grandfather, who raised him out of a sense of duty, and young Eddie, who ignored him, snubbed him, and never once thanked him. Now, grampa having passed on, Eddie wakes in the middle of the night wishing he had done things differently. Kids, he says, learn to forgive your parents' mistakes now, before its too late. It will save you some guilt-time later on!

Many of the commenters who wrote in expressed guilt about the way they had treated their parents, or are still treating them today. I was the only one who wrote in defending (well, up to a point) the way teenagers behave. Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people: the Good Many who feel too much guilt, even about nothing at all, and the Bad Few, who never feel guilt, but should.

I wouldn't dream of denying that Eddie was giving good advice. Forgiveness? I'm for it. But within reason, like anything else. Also, I would add that some of us should start by forgiving ourselves. Forgiveness, like charity, begins at home.

Having said that, as the parent of a teenager myself, I would only want to supplement Eddie's advice with some advice to parents. It is this: Please realize that teenagers have two very good reasons to be surly.

First, they are extremely narrow people, only interested in certain things. If they act bored, its because they are -- with your interests, not with theirs! Their intense focus is a perfectly natural part of the process of identity-formation. Kali Fontecchio, who can remember being a teenager like it was only yesterday (come to think of it, in her case is was yesterday) commented that the interests of teenagers can coincide with those of adults. In her case, she was interested in many of the same things that her dad was interested in, but she would act indifferent anyway:
I would act bored when he tried to tell me about something I would like, "oh Kali, there's a really good Laurel and Hardy short on tv right now." I'd act like it didn't mean anything to me. The moment he closed the door I'd jump for the remote, turn on the tv and watch it!
Come to think of it, I see my son doing that all the time. There's no way he is going to agree enthusiastically with anything I say, at least not right away. Personally, I don't find that sort of behavior obnoxious. It's another aspect of the identity-formation process. Look at it this way. Your influence has completely dominated your kids' lives so far. You know vastly more than they do about everything that you think is interesting or important. Your influence consequently has to be resisted, or they will have no being of their own at all.

It may not be so bad, from their point of view, if their interests coincidentally overlap with theirs, as long as their interests and concerns don't come from you. As a result, though Teenagers can be interested in the same things that their parents are interested in, it will often be as if they weren't.

Second, many teenagers live under the thumb of inscrutable, irresponsible authority. "Because I said so!" "As long as you live in my house you follow my rules!" They are in a state of rebellion because, unlike you and me, they have plenty to rebel against. Most families are run like little dictatorships, with authority exercised either by arbitrary fiat or "rules" made by a power that answers to no one. For a lot of teenagers, it would show a lack of self-respect if they were not in a state of rebellion.

Nota: I don't have time to go into it now, but there is an alternative, which is sometimes called "noncoercive parenting" or "taking children seriously."

This is our son Nat, doing his imitation of surly. He really isn't, though. Surly, I mean. Trust me. His worst problem: nothing to rebel against.