DRI-309 for week of 10-21-12: The Economic Logic of Gifts

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Economic Logic of Gifts

The approach of the year-end holidays releases a flood of gift-oriented online content. One such article appeared on MSN on October 19. “What Women Want Men Don’t Give,” by Emily Jane Fox, seized the publication of research by American Express and the Harrison Group as an opportunity for male bashing. The full findings, though, don’t provide ammunition to either side in the battle of the sexes. But they do supply grist to the mill of economists.

Economists study the practice of gift-giving carefully. This surprises most people, who view gifts and pecuniary purchases as antithetical behavior. Yet in both theory and practice, gifts loom large in economics.

Most laymen are aware that the bulk of retail sales are expended on holiday gifts during the Christmas season. But they are probably unaware that economists are even more interested in the individual motivations for giving than in their seasonal macroeconomic impact. Senator Jed Sessions recently identified nearly 80 separate federal welfare programs that dispense around $1 trillion annually. Whether cash or in-kind, these disbursements are gifts in the technical sense. War reparations demanded by victor nations from the vanquished have sometimes changed the course of history, the most famous example being the steep debts levied on Weimar Germany by the Allies after World War I. Such reparations are yet another form of gift, this time on the national level. Their effects are proverbial among students of international economics.

The MSN article is best understood as an exercise in the modern practice of rhetorical journalism. That is, it is intended not to report facts but to produce an effect on the reader. Economists study unintended consequences of human action, and in this case the author’s attempt to manipulate her readers has produced surprising revelations about the economic logic of gift-giving.

The Process Frustrates Everybody – Including the Author

The research, sponsored by American Express and a consulting firm called the Harrison Group, surveyed 625 households whose working members ranked in the top 10% of wage-earners by income. The survey questions probed respondents’ preferences in both gift-giving and receiving. The results found “…a wide gap between what people want and what they actually get.” Apparently, the gap occurs because people do not give gifts in accordance with recipients’ wishes. Indeed, they do not even behave the way they themselves want their own gift-givers to act.

The author showcases women as victims of this asymmetry. “Two-thirds of affluent American women want gift cards. But less than a fifth of men will [comply]…Instead, 70% of American women are gifted clothing or jewelry.”

Thus, the article begins in a familiar manner. The reader is presented with stereotypes – woman as practical consumers, men as selfish dinosaurs who persist in their ways heedless of feminine sensitivities. But just when the reader feels able to predict what is coming, the article changes course.

Men, too, suffer the pain of asking without receiving. Men “…want food and alcohol – a third are hoping for gourmet foods and fine wine, and another third want gift cards. But women like to give none of these – 30% are expected to give clothing and another 15% books… What wealthy shoppers are better suited for [is] giving gifts to themselves.”

The author’s frustration seems comparable to that of her subjects. Having begun with one agenda in mind – to reinforce the stereotype of male insensitivity – she runs up against the comparable worthlessness of female behavior. When her gender angle encounters a roadblock, she makes a last-minute detour in the direction of class envy by indicting the self-absorption of “wealthy shoppers.” But she lacks the space to start up another argument and must rest content with allowing the headline to do all her work.

What Do Women Want, Generically Speaking? Does This Differ From Male Wants?

Economists try to interpret facts in light of what they know – or think they know – about human motivation. Can we take the scenario as presented above and make sense of it?

“What do women want?” is an age-old question. Economics does not recognize separate male and female systems of logic, so the apparent frustration felt by the author does not affect them. The fact that men and women behave broadly alike is not shocking. The question is: Is their behavior logically consistent?

Some commenters on the online article showed disdain for the author’s willingness to question the value of a gift. Why not accept it in the (presumably charitable) spirit in which it was offered? That is a question worth tackling.

The exchange of gifts is a ritual dating back many centuries. The distinctive features of holiday gift exchange in the Western world are its reciprocal and quasi-compulsory character. Reciprocity implies that, roughly speaking, the net monetary value of the exchanges can be treated as cancelling out. Consequently, their only real value must be to achieve some sort of efficiency. Otherwise, why bother? When it comes to random gifts, the commenters have a point. The mouth of a non-reciprocal, fully voluntary gift horse is certainly not worth close examination.

There is much to criticize about the holiday gift-giving ritual, though. The custom of giving gifts in-kind runs afoul of the long-recognized economic presumption in favor of gifts in cash. Students of intermediate microeconomics courses are routinely shown the inefficiency of programs like the federal food-stamp program, which subsidizes the consumption of (somewhat) poor people by giving them subsidized food rather than a cash payment of equal value. (Technically, the term “equal value” must refer to the value of the subsidized good – food – that the recipient chooses, which can only be determined after the consumption choice is made on pre-selected terms. But it is easy to show diagrammatically or mathematically that giving the recipient an amount of cash equal to the value of the food they choose could never make them worse off and would probably make them better off.)

The inherent logic behind the demonstration is quite straightforward. The gift confers an increment of real income upon the recipient. An addition to real income creates a willingness to consume a larger amount and/or higher frequency of all normal goods, not merely more of one specific good. Hence, the new optimal basket of consumption goods will include increases in more than just one good or service. Receipt of real income in the form of cash allows maximum scope for distributing the increase among the different possible choices.

Why doesn’t this same logic apply to gifts? The short answer is that it does. Economists have devised various ad hoc explanations to rationalize the practice of in-kind gift giving, but none of them really satisfies. That is why these research results are so unsurprising. Women prefer receipt of gift cards to clothing and jewelry. If the gift cards are issued by specialty stores, they allow the recipient a wider range of choice among the styles, brands and sizes of clothing and jewelry. If the cards are to department stores, they allow even wider branching out to other types of goods and services. There is even a legal market for the exchange of gift cards for cash (at a discount), just as food-stamp recipients once traded stamps for cash illegally at discounts up to 50%.

Gift cards are also among the preferred options of men, but men display more willingness to delegate the shopping for their preferred choices of gourmet foods and liquor. This is probably owing to the traditional division of labor, in which women shop for and prepare food but men often purchase liquor. This is the rare case in which you will be willing to let somebody else make your consumption choices for you – they are an expert and you are not (or may not be).

In the light of this, the oft-expressed nostalgia for the Christmas of childhood is understandable. Children are typically net beneficiaries of the gift-giving ritual, with their gift exports being outweighed in number and value by their imports. This favorable holiday balance of payments casts a rosy glow over the holidays that gradually dims in intensity as increasing export responsibilities accompany the aging process.

Note that there is a role for gender in these research results, all right – just not the invidious one implied by the article’s headline. Another way to consider this matter is to ask whether women’s responses would differ markedly if the gift-giver were another woman, as opposed to a man. (Later, we will consider the significance of the degree of intimacy between giver and recipient.) Assuming the answer is no – and the article made no reference to any such distinction in this research – then the economic logic above is sound.

Modifying for the division of labor, the research results show both men and women displaying the basic utility-maximizing, economic preference for cash or cash substitutes rather than narrow in-kind gifts. What are we to make of the apparent fact that both sexes appear “better suited for giving gifts to themselves?”

Utility Maximization and Selfishness

The article’s author is apparently affronted by the possibility that some of us are better suited for giving gifts to ourselves than to others and she wants us to feel her outrage. She probably likes her chances because her target – the top 10% of wage earners – is a loose proxy for “the wealthy,” who are under assault from many sides these days. The overriding sin committed by the wealthy is alleged to be “greed” or “selfishness.” This has often been likened to the behavioral assumption underlying the economic theory of consumer demand, which is utility maximization. We assume that people try to become as happy as possible.

The equation of utility maximization with selfishness simply won’t wash. For one thing, utility maximization doesn’t say anything one way or the other about other people because the individual’s utility function is assumed to be independent of the consumption of other people. “Independent” means just that. It doesn’t mean that we set out to hurt other people or to studiously ignore them. It just means that our overriding goal is our own happiness.

And in fact it could hardly be any other way. The reality of our internal and external worlds dictates it.

Each of us instinctively recognizes the difficulty of ever really knowing another person as we know ourselves. The closest most of us ever come is through the institution of marriage, yet nearly half of U.S. marriages end in divorce. The same basic conflicts that drive couples apart also militate against optimal gift-giving – budgetary disagreements, differences in tastes and preferences, in maturity and temperament, in perception and grasp of reality.

Looking out for number one has been our evolutionary priority since day one. But ever since man began congregating in groups, an ethic of sacrificing individual wants to the needs of the group was promulgated. This ethic had survival value for the group, although it tended to be hard on particular individuals. And, over time, group leaders became adept at suspending the rules in their own case.

Meanwhile, mankind slowly developed a market process for increasing wealth and happiness. This market process ran counter to the group ethic because it increasingly demanded cooperation with individuals outside the group – indeed, cooperation between individuals who never met or even suspected that they were cooperating. This extended order of cooperation was one of the market’s greatest strengths, since it prevented political, religious or cultural differences from interfering with the growth of wealth and real income.

When the social order consisted of mated pairs living in caves, it was not unreasonable for one mate to control the consumption pattern of the pair. The choices were so few and so starkly simple, the human species so primitive that one could envision coming to anticipate the wants and desires of a spouse to a high degree. Today’s sophisticated world with tens of thousands of consumption choices made by evolved human brains makes nonsense of that concept. Even spouses cannot be expected to read each other’s minds well enough to reach the apex of consumption choice.

In this context, it is worthwhile to observe that women are apparently the ones who pretend to this level of expertise. They refuse to delegate their clothing and jewelry purchases but are more than willing to overrule mens’ consumption choices, to the point of substituting clothes for food and liquor in their “gifting.” (Why not “giving,” by the way?) We accuse government bureaucrats of paternalism, but it would appear that this should instead be maternalism.

It is luminously clear that there can be only one true expert on your consumption, and that is you. Nobody else in the world could begin to accumulate the objective information on the thousands of potential goods that you can or might consume, or the subjective data on your particular tastes, preferences and attitudes towards them. It is sobering to realize that not even a life mate can approach the degree of familiarity needed to truly run your life for you.

Small wonder, then, that “nearly half of women” in the survey “said they were extremely, or very likely to buy themselves presents this holiday season. A third of men have similar intentions.”

It is idiotic to call this behavior selfishness when it merely acknowledges the practical facts of life. We need a vocabulary to describe an inordinate preoccupation with self – the kind displayed by thieves, murderers, embezzlers and the like – and this is the proper preserve of words like “greedy” and “selfish.”

The Theory of Gifts and Public Policy

The economic logic of gifts has important implications for public policy. For over four decades, various researchers have estimated the amount of welfare expenditures necessary to lift every man, woman and child above the so-called poverty line. Then they have compared this irreducible necessary minimum expenditure on fighting poverty with the amount actually spent by federal welfare programs. The ratio between what we spend and what we would theoretically need to spend has fluctuating over time. It has been as low as two and as high as ten. Currently, according to the latest estimate, it is about five.

We are ostensibly trying to eliminate poverty. We are currently spending five times more on indirect ways of doing this than we would need to spend if we simply gave cash directly to poor recipients. And we are failing to achieve the stated objective of eliminating poverty, since even if the value of cash and in-kind subsidies is added to income there are still a substantial number of people living below the poverty line. We know that cash subsidies are more effective at increasing the happiness of recipients than the in-kind subsidies, such as food stamps, in which the federal government specializes.

So why are we still pursuing a horribly wasteful and inefficient policy of fighting poverty and failing instead of implementing a simpler, much cheaper and more efficient policy that will succeed?

Put this way, the answer stands out. It is reinforced by the experience of any classroom teacher who ever explored the issue. In droves, students insist that we cannot afford to give cash to welfare recipients because they will spend the money in unsuitable ways; e.g., ways that the students do not approve of. Expenditure on illicit, mind-altering drugs is the example most often chosen to illustrate the point.

Students persist in this view even after the irrefutable demonstration that current in-kind forms of welfare, such as food stamps in both its former and present incarnations, also allow recipients to increase their expenditure on “other goods” besides the subsidized good. (In-kind subsidies hinder the flexibility of recipients but allow them to buy the same amount of the subsidized good as before with less money, thereby freeing up more regular income for use in buying drugs or other contraband.)

Thus, it is clear that the actual rationale behind the government welfare system is not to improve the welfare of recipients by maximizing their utility. Instead, it is to maximize the utility of taxpayers by allowing them to control the lives of recipients while assuaging their own guilt. Taxpayers are responding to the vestigial evolutionary call of the group ethic that demands individual sacrifice for group preservation, while meeting their own need for utility maximization. They are countenancing interference in the lives of the poor that they would never sit still for in their own lives, and which they resist even in areas as relatively trivial as holiday gift-giving.

Economists look for ways to make everybody better off without making anybody worse off. Eliminating the federal welfare system would end an enormously wasteful and unproductive practice. Research shows that private charity is highly active and more efficient than federal efforts even though substantial taxpayer income is now diverted into federal anti-poverty efforts. If federal programs were ended, more funds would become available for private charitable purposes. Recipients could choose the degree of maternalism they found tolerable and donors could demand or reject maternalism, as they saw fit.

Meanwhile, resources would be freed up at the federal level to produce other things. Dislocations among employees due to agency closures would be no different than layoffs in the private sector due to shifts in consumer demand between different goods and services. Obviously, some federal employees would migrate to private-sector charities, where employment would rise.

Another extension of these principles applies to recent attempts by federal bureaucrats to fine-tune the pattern of consumption by banning or requiring the consumption of particular foods, minerals, vitamins, fats or other substances. In principle, a case might be made for provision of information allowing informed choice by consumers. The problem is that even here, the federal government’s past efforts have worsened the very problems it now purports to solve. But there is no case in favor of allowing government to dictate consumption choices made by citizens because government cannot possibly possess the comprehensive information necessary to verify whether its actions will improve or worsen the welfare of its subjects.

The Economics of Gifts

The research results reported in the MSN article may have frustrated its author, but they are consistent with the economic principle of utility maximization – properly understood. People request the kind and general form of gifts that tend to maximize their utility, but they take exactly the same tack when it comes to giving gifts to others – they tend to maximize their own utility, not that of the recipient. We can fume, fuss, moralize and complain about this behavior, but it is the only practical way to behave. Practical human limitations dictate it.

And when it comes to public policy, it is utterly futile to expect altruism and omniscience to suddenly triumph in an arena where they are even less potent than they are in private life. Private charity has its limitations, but it is best situated to cope with the inherent difficulties involved when one human being tries to help another.

DRI-423: The Aurora, CO Movie-Theater Shootings

The shooting of over 70 patrons in an Aurora, CO movie theater in the wee hours of July 20, 2012 is the latest in a series of mass shootings over the past decade. For the most part, the public reaction to each has been dismayingly similar: shock, disbelief and outrage. These days, every conceivable human misfortune is grist for the public policy mill. Mass shootings have produced a dichotomy between those who call for more and stricter regulations against the sale, possession and use of firearms and those who seem resolutely resigned to the horror.

This recurring analytic incompetence is almost as maddening as the acts that give rise to it.

Root Causes

In the 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable to seek the “root causes” of criminal behavior. Rather than take the criminal impulse for granted and strive to minimize its incidence, sociologists and behaviorists asserted that crime could be eradicated by re-molding society according to a conscious blueprint. Eliminate poverty, end racism, reduce income inequality – by destroying these determinants of crime, we would destroy the basis of crime itself. The means chosen toward this end were government programs.

Those programs made little or no headway toward eliminating poverty and income inequality. Institutional racism did decline, as measured by the fall of Jim Crow laws and declining toleration of de facto segregation, although there was little or no discernible connection between these results and programs such as affirmative action. But beginning in the 1990s, academic researchers were astounded to discover a secular decline in human violent behavior. This very long-run trend stretched back to the beginnings of human history, but accelerated dramatically in the last few centuries – long predating the growth of the welfare state.

The incidence of contemporary criminal acts like murder, robbery, assault and rape fluctuates around this secular trend, varying along with changes in demographic variables like the average age of the population. Researchers have nominated a slate of candidates for the causes of this long-term waning of violence. These range from biological changes in the human brain to the growth and spread of capitalism in general and international trade in particular.

This realization is highly ironic, given the serial displays of caterwauling that invariably accompany a mass shooting. “America is a hopelessly violent society” – how then to account for the plummeting recent rates of crime, including murder, in America? “America’s irrational worship of guns and gun ownership is responsible” – how then to explain a rate of violent crime that is over four times greater in Great Britain, home to a nationwide ban on handguns, than in the U.S.? “Worsening inequality and the depredations of the haves periodically drive the have-nots into a frenzy of desperation” – how then to reconcile the historical evolution that even left-wing academics have dubbed “the Long Capitalist Peace?”

Deterrence and Interruption

No, mass shootings are not a manifestation of a sick society. They are simply a type of criminal behavior with certain unique attributes that pose special problems of criminal justice.

Organized humanity deals with almost all crime a posteriori, by solving the crime and punishing the perpetrator. This must be so. To coerce or incarcerate people in anticipation of crimes they might commit would be throwing the baby of freedom out with the bathwater of criminal incidence. To be sure, we make overtures to deterrence by putting locks on doors, auditing books and requiring passwords for online banking. But the lion’s share of criminal justice is accomplished by solving crimes rather than deterring them. The third criminal-justice salient – successfully interrupting crimes in progress – is the rarity, the spectacular exception.

What makes mass shootings unique is the overwhelming imperative in favor of reversing this order of priority. Currently we solve all mass-shooting cases. But a closure rate of 100% – which would be nirvana for virtually all other forms of crime – is rightly viewed as a disaster for mass shootings. The reason for this is all too clear; 12 dead and 59 wounded is not a result to be complacent about.

Deterrence is by far the preferred method of dealing with mass shootings. Interruption is the imperfect, second-best alternative. Once the shooting starts, we cannot be sure how long it will take to stop it and how many innocent bystanders may fall in the process. We know how to solve mass shootings. How do we deter them? Failing that, how do we interrupt them in order to limit their human toll? The answer to both questions is to be found in terra incognita, the mind of the shooter.

So-Called “Random Acts of Violence”

A majority of commentators despair of coping with what they choose to call “random acts of violence.” That description applies to these shootings only in a very limited sense. It is true that we cannot predict with any accuracy which individuals will generate the combination of free-floating rage and pent-up impotence that finds release in mass murder. But that does not mean that the killers act in a completely random manner. That is, they do not choose their moments, targets, venues, and weapons at random.

In Aurora, the shooter was sufficiently rational to select the Cinemark theater chain as his venue. He chose the midnight premiere showing of an eagerly awaited movie as his moment. His targets were an audience self-selected to cater to fantasy, escapist entertainment. He carefully stockpiled a cache of arms, ammunition, chemical weapons and body armor for months prior to the attack. According to David Weigel in Slate.com, he “made a series of smart tactical decisions that minimized the chances of anybody stopping him” on the fatal night.

Apparently, the shooter was operating according to what economist Herbert Simon called “bounded rationality.” That is, his actions were rational within certain internal and external limits. While it falls outside the normal definition of rationality for someone to wound and kill strangers for no reason other than to exorcise personal frustration, the killer strove to attain his utterly irrational objective in a relatively rational way.

For example, it might be tempting to characterize him as being under the sway of an “irresistible impulse” to kill as a way of releasing his frustrations. But he must have been able to curb those frustrations sufficiently to delay his attack until the necessary elements of success were present; namely, weapons available and directed against targets under circumstances in which they could not interfere with the plan’s execution. Presumably he recognized that the Cinemark theater chain’s “gun-free zone” policy of banning firearm possession by patrons would prevent active resistance by theater attendees.

Thus, we would expect him to react rationally to constraints and disincentives placed on his actions. As we will see, there is good reason to believe this.

Deterring the Shooter

The normal forms of criminal-justice deterrence invoke the fear of punishment. Incarceration is the classic example. But the mass shooter knows he will be caught and punished. He cannot even be sure he will not die in the attempt. Virtually by definition, he is somebody for whom incarceration holds no terrors because he is already imprisoned by his own impotent rage and can escape only through its release. He is fully prepared for eventual physical incarceration.

Execution will have some deterrent effect because all human beings fear death. But its power here is far less than in ordinary cases. After all, the shooter is prepared for the possibility that he will die in the gun battle that he starts. This is not a case for suspending capital punishment, merely an argument for not relying on it.

If the prospect of death is not the shooter’s worst fear, what is? What could possibly supersede the cessation of life in the hierarchy of human fears? Our analysis of the shooter’s bounded rationality provides the answer: The shooter’s worst fear is the fear of dying without getting his revenge on the world.

Any doubt on this score should have been erased in 2011 by the accounts of the Norwegian shooter Anders Breivik intoning, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” as he joyfully mowed down his 69 victims. His self-satisfied smile as capsule biographies of his victims were recorded at his recent trial was nothing less than post-coital; all that was missing was the cigarette.

The mass shooter’s entire raison d’être is to achieve one apocalyptic finale, one orgasmic release of frustration, one destructive denouement in which as many people as possible are killed so as to reveal the depth of his hurt and the power of his revenge. After that – well, après cette le deluge, to paraphrase Louis XIV.

Confronting the shooter with an overwhelming unlikelihood of reaching that goal is the ultimate form of deterrence – indeed, nearly the only form. How do we do it?

Interrupting the Shooter

Like a Chinese puzzle, the answer to that question lies wrapped in the answer to another. How do we successfully interrupt the shooter? A thought experiment will clarify that issue. Suppose that on-duty two policemen happened to pass the entrance to the Aurora screening room at the precise moment when the shooter burst in. Of all non-military personnel, police are best trained and equipped to deal with armed criminal action. How would they react?

The answer is simple and obvious: They would shoot the shooter. That is the only way to deal with a heavily armed criminal with obvious lethal intent. Despite the danger to innocent bystanders from a possible crossfire, the prospect of mass slaughter is the greater risk.

Nor does the body armor worn by the shooter affect this decision. Body armor does not convert the wearer into Superman, whose body can deflect bullets; it merely reduces the probability of a fatal wound. At the least, police rounds will still produce bad bruises and disorientation from the shock wave and physical impact. This should enable the police to finish off the perpetrator with head or interstitial shots. (Shooting to wound is an unaffordable luxury under the circumstances, since a wounded shooter may still get off additional shots.)

Alas, as we all know, police are almost never there when we really need them. For that matter, the increasing militarization of American police forces in recent years does not seem to have improved their speed or accuracy in responding to these emergencies. A recent statistic revealed that 11% of police shootings now involve innocent parties.

Fortunately, we are not limited to reliance upon police response in cases of mass shootings. State-level legislation over the last 20 years has allowed Americans to carry concealed handguns in 49 American states. Nearly all of those states also require permits to carry legally. Acquisition of a permit typically requires the applicant to pass a test of safety and proficiency (or demonstrate equivalent knowledge, such as military service).

It should go without saying that reliance on interruption by private citizens is not a panacea. There is no guarantee that a permit-holder will be present when a mass shooting erupts. The permit-holder may miss his mark or may not summon the courage to fire. As far as that goes, he (or she) may become the target of the shooter. Of course, drawing the shooter’s fire would itself almost surely save lives by allowing others to escape.

Nonetheless, armed resistance by private citizens offers by far the best alternative to the status quo. The debate over gun control has stimulated copious academic research on the effects of gun ownership and use of firearms to defend against crime. The most distinguished work has been done by Gary Kleck, David Kopel and John Lott. That research strongly supports the efficacy of the defensive use of privately owned firearms. The chances that this use will injure or kill an innocent party have been estimated at about 1 in 26,000.

The Demonstration Effect

As a practical matter, the most important effect of interrupting a mass shooter will not be the lives saved on site. It will be the lives saved in deterrence.

No doubt the 9/11 hijackers should have anticipated that their passengers would disrupt their plans by staging a counter-hijacking to take back the plane. Still, the passengers were soft, decadent Americans; they wereunarmed; they were narcotized by repeated injunctions to go along with the hijackers to insure their safety. The terrorist just weren’t quite willing to believe that the passengers would resist. In the event, two planeloads of Americans flew to their doom like sheep to the slaughter.

Then the flight of United 93 made it abundantly clear that no future American airline passengers would ever again allow themselves to die in the service of a terrorist cause. And once the terrorists saw this happen, they knew that their enemy knew what they were about. Voila! No more hijackings. (Not for want of opportunities, since surveys have shown the continuing presence of both terrorists and contraband on U.S. airline flights.) The terrorists are more than willing to die – but not without accomplishing their designs. The terrorists may be crazy, but they aren’t stupid.

It is highly likely that the bounded rationality of mass shooters will respond to this same demonstration effect. Up to now, mass shooters have meticulously shot only people who couldn’t shoot back. This is remarkable considering that the shooters are supposed to be insane madmen. But this can’t go on forever. The number of concealed-weapons permit-holders is increasing. Eventually, a mass shooter will miscalculate. Or perhaps a Cinemark patron will stop the next Joker dead in his tracks. And instead of witnessing the trial of an Anders Breivik we can entertain ourselves with another kind of shooting prosecution – for violation of theater firearms policy.

The Lunatic Fringe

That day will have to wait. For now, the lunatic fringe holds center stage. Hollywood has long held a place of honor in this community of fatuity. Roger Ebert and his late partner, Gene Siskel, double-handedly made movie reviewers into journalists and entertainers through their televised reviews. Now Ebert has elevated his profession even further by putting it on the same pedestal of analytical ineptitude traditionally occupied by producers, directors and actors.

After the Aurora shootings, Ebert wrote a column in which he stated that, since Colorado is a conceal-carry state, the failure of any audience member to shoot the Aurora shooter proved the ineffectiveness of conceal-carry laws. Under the best of circumstances, Ebert’s point would have been a non-sequitur, since conceal-carry laws merely allow the practice; they do not require it. (It is only in a fully totalitarian society that everything is either required or forbidden.) After nearly a decade of contention, Colorado’s conceal-carry law was finally passed in 2003. As of 2004, the state had nearly the lowest fraction of permit-holders in the country. As recently as 2008, there were only about 4,000 permit-holders combined in Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties, while the Denver metropolitan area boasted some 2 million people adults. The average movie screening room built over the last two decades holds 299 people, so it would not be statistically implausible that no permit-holders were present at the shooting.

But Ebert’s point is rendered absurd by the policy of the Cinemark theater chain, host of the Aurora cineplex where the shooting occurred. A few years ago, Cinemark chose to make each of its theaters a “gun-free zone” by denying its patrons the right to bring a gun inside. Just as any sensible person would predict, this policy did indeed make the theater a gun-free zone – for everybody but the shooter. It played right into the hands of the killer, who probably viewed it as a guarantee that he would face no armed opposition. And he didn’t.

We are accustomed to hearing from movie stars who take it for granted that their celebrity status as purveyors of emotion also qualifies them as experts in the intellectual domain of public policy. Now it seems that those who merely write about these celebrities assume that this same expertise has rubbed off on them, too. The word “assume” derives from Ebert’s ignorance of the practices within his own industry and his cavalier refusal to even check the facts – a practice once considered routine on newspapers like those Siskel and Ebert formerly worked at.

Not long ago, Ebert was seen complaining about the difficulty of earning money from online writing. In his case, this seems to be a vindication of the economic principles of marginal productivity and comparative advantage.

Totem and Taboo

How can we account for the fact that the calm, reasoned approach to the problem of mass shootings is never publicly broached? That approach is taboo because it demands that we accept the use of guns and self-defense as pragmatic tools of criminal justice. Left-wing control of traditional media outlets has assured the predominance of a totemic, visceral approach to guns. Evil resides in things, rather than in human acts. Since guns are inherently evil, guns cannot remedy evil. Getting rid of guns will rid us of the evil acts – a view popular on the left (and in movies) ever since the “merchants of death” school of international diplomacy tried to outlaw war by outlawing weapons in the 1920s.

Much is made of the polarized nature of American society, the fact that we cannot seem to get along and compromise becomes ever more remote. But there is no compromise between reality and fantasy. One either embraces the former or is swept along by the latter – until the deluge hits.