Kip Viscusi: Pricing Lives for Policies in 2018

ViscusiAfter major catastrophes, there are often tallies of economic damages. The loss of life is often relegated to being the object of thoughts and prayers, but such losses have substantial economic value as well. Take two examples: the collapse of the bridge in Genoa, Italy on August 14, 2018, that killed 43 people; and the tourist Duck boat sinking on July 19, 2018 in Branson, Missouri that killed 17 people. How should we think about the economic value of preventing these deaths?  Court awards after fatalities are often modest, typically focusing on the earnings loss of the deceased. The approach I advocate to value fatality risks in a wide variety of situations is to use the value of a statistical life (VSL). The VSL corresponds to how much society is willing to pay to prevent a small risk of one expected death. In my book, Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society, I estimate that the VSL in the U.S. is $10 million.

Turning to these two recent catastrophes, let us calculate the economic value of the loss. The Genoa bridge collapse involved a heavily used motorway bridge, the Morandi Bridge. A 657 foot section of the bridge with dense traffic fell 148 feet. How much would it have been worth to spend in advance of the bridge collapse to prevent it from occurring? Based on my estimates of the VSL for Italy, the economic value of this loss was $243 million, in addition to the property damage and injury costs, bolstering the importance of providing a safer infrastructure. The Duck boat incident involved a capsized tour boat during a major storm while the boat was touring Tale Rock Lake. Preventing the Duck boat disaster would have been worth at least $170 million. With at least 20 additional more people killed in Duck boat accidents since 1999, there are clearly substantial economic benefits to greater safety measures than those that have been in place.

The most frequent use of the VSL in valuing lives for government policy is prospective rather than such retrospective calculations. On August 21, 2018,  the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a relaxation of air pollution standards that according to EPA estimates would lead to as many as 1,400 health-related deaths per year (NYT, Aug. 21, 2018, “Cost of New E.P.A. Coal Rules: Up to 1,400 More Deaths a Year.”). This startling risk estimate corresponds to an annual economic loss of $14 billion. This mortality cost should loom large in any balancing of benefits and costs of the regulatory relief effort and may well offset the purported economic benefits of deregulation. The EPA news release for the Affordable Clean Energy Rule estimated that this rule, which was targeted at providing relief to limits on coal-fired power plants, would generate $400 million in compliance costs and $400 million in additional emissions reduction benefits. Actual benefits and costs will depend on implementation of the relaxed pollution rules by the states.

While the VSL has been adopted most widely in setting government safety standards, it also provides the appropriate guidepost for setting penalty levels intended to serve a deterrence function, which is the usual province of punitive damages. How much should the courts penalize those responsible for deaths or catastrophic injuries? Jury instructions are not particularly helpful in enabling juries to select a punitive damages award, but the VSL provides precise guidance. The class action suit verdict against Johnson & Johnson in St.Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 2018 awarded damages to 22 women claiming injuries related to asbestos in talcum powder. Each woman received $25 million in compensatory damages, for a total of $550 million, and the group received an additional $4.14 billion in punitive damages. This blockbuster award had no sound rationale. If the desire is to properly deter firms from marketing risky products in the future, then the awards linked to the VSL are sufficient. The result would be a payment of $10 million each plus any additional medical expenses. Appropriate penalties on the order of $220 million plus all medical expenses would total far less than the award of $4.69 billion, but would still suffice in giving Johnson & Johnson the right incentives to avoid future risks.

The settlement amount for unwarranted police shootings likewise could be linked to the VSL. If the objective it to send the appropriate financial signals to the police to stop such behavior, settlements equal to the VSL will suffice. Of the 9 publicized police settlements after victim deaths, the median settlement is only $5 million, and only one settlement has been over $10 million. In this instance, using the VSL as the guidepost would put the settlement amounts on sounder footing. At present, all but one of these settlements has fallen short of a more pertinent safety-enhancing level.

What these examples indicate is that the VSL enables us to assess the value of mortality risks in a wide variety of situations. To date, government agencies throughout the world have adopted the VSL in assessing the likely economic benefits of risk and environmental regulations. Greater use of this approach by corporations, government agencies, and the courts would eliminate the systematic underpricing of life that often occurs.

W. Kip Viscusi is the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University. His many books include Economics of Regulation and Antitrust and Fatal Tradeoffs: Public and Private Responsibilities for Risk.

Keith Whittington: The Dream of a Nonpartisan Supreme Court

Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, long the pivotal swing justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, we have been hearing a lot once again about the desire for a replacement justice and for a Court that can stand outside of politics and be nonpartisan. Any nominee was likely to disappoint those holding on to that desire, but the nomination of the conventional conservative jurist Brett Kavanaugh did nothing to mollify critics of either this administration or this Court. The dream of a nonpartisan Supreme Court is as old as the republic itself, but it is nothing but a dream. We should demand that the justices behave differently than mere politicians in robes, but we should not ever expect to see a Court that stands completely outside of partisan politics.

The founding generation was deeply distrustful of political parties, and they designed the Constitution on the assumption that American politics would operate without them. They worried that partisans would always put the party interest above the general interest, and they hoped for a republic in which political leaders would seek to advance the general welfare of the people as a whole not the factional interests of a part of the people. They dreamed not only of a nonpartisan Supreme Court, but of a nonpartisan Congress and presidency as well. They were quickly disappointed.

The ink had barely dried on the Constitution before the founders began to organize themselves into political parties. They and their posterity discovered that parties were unavoidable in a democratic political system. Americans eventually learned, often grudgingly, how to accommodate themselves to the persistence of partisan divisions, and the Constitution itself was amended to take into account the fact that presidents and vice-presidents would stand for election together on a party ticket and that the Electoral College could not simply select the two best Americans to occupy the first and second positions in the national executive.

For some of the same reasons that parties have proven unavoidable in electoral politics and in lawmaking, they have influenced the federal courts as well. Americans have rarely disagreed about whether they should continue to live under the U.S. Constitution, but they have often disagreed about what the Constitution means. For over two hundred years, those disagreements have been exploited and organized by political parties. Voters, activists and politicians have hashed out those disagreements at the ballot box, on the streets, and in the halls of political power. Presidents and legislators have won elections advocating for their distinctive constitutional philosophies, and they have placed judges on the bench that have shared those philosophies.

We should hope and expect that judges do not behave in the same way as politicians. We do not expect judges to cater to the whims of public opinion or appeal to the interests of favored constituencies. We do not expect judges to trim the rights of unpopular minorities in order to win favor with popular majorities. We do not expect judges to engage in horse-trading to win votes. Not only do we expect them to put country over party, but we expect them not to be moved by narrow partisan interests. In short, we expect judges to stay out of the low politics of political campaigns, legislative logrolling, and partisan maneuvering for temporary advantage.

We cannot reasonably expect them to stand aloof from the high politics of constitutional debate, however. The Jeffersonians and the Federalists, the Whigs and the Democrats had different understandings of the proper use of government and the scope of government power, and those differences were enshrined in both party platforms and judicial opinions. The upstart Republicans had different ideas about the constitutionality of the extension of slavery, and they battled for those ideas in the courtroom as well as the ballot box. The New Dealers and the old guard conservatives had different hopes about how the country would emerge from the Great Depression, and those differences had implications for the course of American constitutional law.

The political parties today are divided about constitutional questions just as the political parties of the past were. The two parties represent different constitutional philosophies, with implications for a host of questions not only about legislative policy but also about judicial doctrine. If the partisan divisions are unusually visible on the Court today that is due in part to the fact that the two major parties have been locked in close electoral combat for an unusually long period of time and our constitutional differences have remained unresolved in society as well as in law. That does not mean that the justices march in lockstep or take their marching orders from party leaders on the hill, but disagreements in constitutional philosophy that we see expressed on the airwaves and in the newspapers are also going to be expressed in legal briefs and judicial opinions.

The Supreme Court has always been shaped by political forces, and we would not be happy if it were not. When Lincoln asked whether the “policy of government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people” was to be “irrevocably fixed by the decisions of the Supreme Court” or to be settled by “the people,” he understood that a republic would not tolerate a Court that stood entirely outside of politics and asserted its independence from the people themselves. The justices are not demi-gods; they are just people, who disagree among themselves as other people do. The courts contribute in important ways to the stability, vitality and desirability of our constitutional system, but we need not believe in the illusion of a nonpartisan Court in order to appreciate those contributions.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Trump’s Assertiveness vs. Rouhani’s Resistance

by Amin Saikal

President Donald Trump has acted to diminish the Iranian Islamic regime over its nuclear program, missile industry and regional influence. He has given Tehran an ultimatum either to succumb to his demands or face unprecedented punishment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected Trump’s actions to withdraw from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), and to reimpose sanctions as “psychological warfare.” The US and Iran are now locked in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Ironically, this is the first time in the history of US-Iranian hostilities since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime nearly 40 years ago that Washington, rather than Tehran, is isolated in world politics as a result of an American president’s actions. Not only the other signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but also most of the other states in the world have sided with Tehran. The European signatories and America’s traditional allies have taken extraordinary steps to salvage the JCPOA. They have gone so far as to invoke an old “blocking statute” to protect their countries’ businesses dealings with Iran and have instructed their companies either to defy American sanctions or run the risk of being sued by European Union member states. They have also opened a mechanism to enable those businesses affected by sanctions to sue the American government in the national courts of member states.

Whatever the European powers’ measures and the degree of sanction defiance by Russia and China as the other two strong supporters of Iran, as well as the Iranian government’s efforts to circumvent the sanctions, as it has in the past, Trump’s actions can still entail serious economic and political implications for Iran. The Iranian economy was in a fragile state prior to the reimposition of sanctions; it is now bound to receive more hard blows. This in turn is likely to increase public disenchantment with and protests against the Islamic regime.

However, the Islamic regime is unlikely to be brought to its knees, for four important reasons. The first is that Iran has endured soft and hard sanctions since the early days of its transformation into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. The regime has vigorously diversified Iran’s economy and trade. It has succeeded in making the Iranian economy less dependent on oil exports, and has expanded trade relations with friendly powers, including China, which has become Iran’s largest trade partner. It has engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and mastered different methods of sanction-busting, including barter trading, and transactions through third countries where it wields influence, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The second is that despite its theocratic and administrative shortcomings and corrupt practices, the regime is well entrenched. It has built sufficient coercive instruments of power to deal with any widespread public uprisings. The clerical forces and their associates that dominate the power structure have done everything possible to guard themselves against a revolution similar to the one that caused the Shah’s downfall and brought them to power.

The third is that the regime has successfully used the “threat” from the United States and its regional allies, Israel in particular, for public legitimation and mobilisation, and this factor remains at its disposal. Many segments of the Iranian society are unhappy with the regime and may well desire a better alternative, but when Iran is threatened by an outside force, a majority of them have rallied behind the government of the day. The more that Trump pressures and threatens Iran, the more he plays into the hands of the regime to invoke a combination of historically fierce nationalism and Shia Islamic devotion among the Iranians.

The fourth is that in the unlikely event of the Islamic regime crumbling through popular uprisings, this will not serve the interests of the United States and its regional allies. It could produce uncontrollable outcomes for not only Iran but also the region. The regime’s removal without a smooth power transition could generate a much worse national and regional situation than did the overthrow of the Shah’s autocracy.

The Trump leadership, egged on by Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, and backed by another regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has touted the use of force as an ultimate means to change the behaviour of the Iranian regime. However, Tehran has secured a strong deterrence against such an option as well. It has garnered adequate prowess though a combination of hard and soft power within an asymmetrical warfare strategy to make an attack very costly for its perpetrator. It has secured a network of regional protégé forces that includes most importantly the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses some 120,000 rockets of all kinds, capable of hitting targets in Israel and across the region. This deterrence factor should make the US and Israel think twice before they resort to the use of force.

Trump has sought to subdue the Iranian regime, but at the cost of America’s isolation from even its traditional European allies. The US has become an oddity in world politics. This had never happened since the rise of the US to globalism following the Second World War.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Princeton University Press.

How the big pieces fit together: Europe’s place in the multipolar world

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Lesson of the G7 train wreck

It’s official. After the calamitous G7 summit meeting in Canada, it is clear that an unbound Donald Trump is Europe’s worst nightmare. Although with typical unnecessary narcissism, he came late and left early, what Donald Trump did in his few short hours on Canadian soil will be commented on for years, as he emerged as a virtual caricature of everything Europeans hate about Americans.

Preternaturally over-confident and under-prepared, arrogant, and self-regarding, the president urged Russia be readmitted to the G7 club (despite its iron-clad control of Crimea and ruination of eastern Ukraine), doubled down on enraging European and Canadian allies alike over the brewing trade war (‘America is not a piggy bank’), and generally confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the White House actually prefers dealing with America’s authoritarian foes, such as China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, rather than the vexing, well-meaning, but weak democratic pygmies who populate the standard multilateral meeting. Surely, after such an odious display the rest of the democratic world must rise up in righteous indignation and…

Well, the best I can come up with is snub Trump administration appointments at formal cocktail parties. For the bleak truth lying behind Donald Trump’s appalling, wrong-headed policies and behaviour in Canada is that the rest of the democratic world is pathetically weak and bereft of agency. As such, while they seethe with disgust at having to put up with the odious president, there is nothing practically they are prepared to do to stop him. This most transactional of presidents has inadvertently but graphically illustrated how practically irrelevant America’s western allies, particularly in Europe, truly are.

Be careful what you wish for

This is all so different from the dreams of a new multipolar world that so animated European thinkers during the long days of the bipolar Cold War. Then, European policy intellectuals—particularly in France—dreamed of living in a multipolar age that would follow victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a time when Europe would finally achieve the strategic flexibility to have its own independent foreign and security policy, no longer shackled to (but still vaguely allied with) the US. But this long-term strategic goal amounted to little more than emotional wish-fulfilment, predicated as it was on two unremarked upon suppositions.

The first was that the relative diminution in American global power would be meekly accepted by a US long used to running things. In other words, a series of President Obamas would shepherd the US to accept its new central, but relatively more limited, structural position in the multipolar world. To put it mildly, a President Trump—whose very campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an overly emotional refutation of America’s relative decline—was not reckoned on.

Second, it was blithely assumed by European thinkers that their continent would undoubtedly and effortlessly emerge as the principal new force in this new world of many powers. As China rose during the latter days of the Cold War, following Deng Xiaoping’s historic opening in December 1978, European thinkers did foresee a world where a rising Asia would join America, Europe, Japan, and a diminished Russia as the main players on the global strategic scene (India was little thought of). But the notion that Europe would be by a long way the weakest of these great powers—politically divided, economically sclerotic, and militarily puny—never entered their thoughts.

As a result, while European thinkers seemed to pine for a multipolar world, in reality it was a new era where their continent was rising—as America was falling and the Soviets were non-existent—that was their real dream. Donald Trump’s petulant performance (and Europe’s anaemic non-response) at the just concluded G7 meeting glaringly illustrates that today’s world is simply not the sort of multipolarity European thinkers ever had in mind.

What Europe Should Do

Most foreign policy articles (and I have written over 500 of them) are cries in the wilderness, futile exercises where the analyst proposes outcomes that they know will never come to pass. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of every political risk analyst to try, to posit what can be practically done to retrieve strategic situations, for irretrievable decline is a choice and not a preordained destiny.

In this spirit, what can Europe do to make itself relevant as a Great Power in the real multipolar era we actually now live in? First, psychologically accept that while Trump is an extreme case, American leaders in general are transactional in nature; they will only take European concerns on board if it is viewed as a serious power capable of going its own way in terms of genuine practical policy consequences. Global politics is not a debating society; what matters are the views of the great strategic players, and the power they bring to bear—political, economic, strategic, diplomatic, and social—to further their interests. Europe must stop passively watching the world, and either master history, or history will surely master it.

Second, the Europeans have to act in a far more unitary manner in terms of foreign and security policy. Russia, an economic basket case in comparison (its economy is smaller than that of Italy), is the relevant comparison. For all that it is a corrupt, demographically decaying one-trick economic pony, a decrepit gas station utterly dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, Moscow punches far above its actual weight on the global scene.

The reason? President Putin can make decisive, unitary, foreign policy decisions for his country that are quickly acted on. Russia—as the Crimea episode illustrated—is still prepared to spend blood and treasure, to make real sacrifices to further the country’s foreign policy goals and interests. At present, I am not sure many in Brussels would be prepared to sacrifice a week’s holiday to do much of anything. For once and for all, Europe and its leaders have to decide if their foreign policy amounts to merely virtue signalling, or whether they are prepared to make the sacrifices to actually matter in the world.  

 To do so, an inner core of the key western European states—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands—must move ahead, and actually begin to craft such a common foreign policy. Failure to do so will inevitably lead the other great powers to cherry pick Europe, to keep dividing the place precisely because it is inherently divided. It is not the fault of the outside powers, as states since time immemorial have taken advantage of their rival’s weaknesses. Rather it is the fault of a Europe that simply can’t get its act together.

Finally, as the mediocre age of Merkel subsides, endemic problems must be solved, rather than merely managed. Across the continent, Europe must free up its animal spirits and find a way to increase average growth rates to around two percent, if horrendous rates of youth unemployment and endemic economic torpor are to be righted. President Macron’s courageous and largely successful labour market reforms are a start, by more needs to be done.

With France as a nucleus, and after decades of torturous (and maddening) inaction, the major European countries must commit themselves to some level of serious defence spending, as without an army their moralistic lectures are just that, and nothing more. Finally, and again Macron is onto something here, ‘A Certain Idea of Europe,’ the idea of a strong, distinct, unique and blessed Europe, a sacred place whose interests and values are worth fighting for on the global stage, must be advanced as a unifying clarion call to action.

It is not too late for Europe to emerge as its thinkers once dreamed it would, and Trump’s odious behaviour in Canada surely serves as a call to arms. But it is one minute to the midnight of Europe’s strategic irrelevance.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. He is the author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk. He lives in Milan, Italy.

A Big Deal: Organic Molecules Found on Mars

by David Weintraub

MarsIn 1976, both Viking 1 and Viking 2 touched down on the surface of Mars. Both landed on vast, flat plains, chosen because they were ideal locations for landing safely. Perhaps the most important Viking experiment for assessing whether life could exist on Mars was the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer (GCMS) instrument, built by a team led by Klaus Biermann of MIT. Ultimately, Biermann and his GCMS team reported a definitive answer: “No organic compounds were found at either of the two landing sites.” None, nada, zilch.

This scientific discovery had enormous importance for our understanding Mars. Summing up what we learned from the Viking missions in 1992, and in particular what we learned from the absence of any organics in the sampled Martian soil, a team of Viking scientists wrote, “The Viking findings established that there is no life at the two landing sites.” Furthermore, because these two sites were thought to be extremely representative of all of Mars, they concluded that this result “virtually guarantees that the Martian surface is lifeless everywhere.” 

If Mars is sterile, then SpaceX and NASA and Blue Origin and Mars One can all move forward with their efforts to land colonists on Mars in the near future. They needn’t wrestle with any ethical issues about contaminating Mars.

Fast forward a generation. In a paper published in Science last week, Jennifer Eigenbrode and her team, working with data collected by the Mars Science Laboratory (i.e., the Curiosity rover), report that they discovered organic molecules in Martian soil. The importance of this discovery for the possible existence of life on Mars is hard to overstate. The discovery of organics on Mars is a BIG deal.

Let’s be careful in discussing organic molecules. An organic molecule must contain at least one carbon atom and that carbon atom must be chemically bonded to a hydrogen atom. All life on Earth is built on a backbone (literally) of organic molecules (DNA). And life on Earth can produce organic molecules (for example, the methane that is produced in the stomachs of cows). But abiological processes can also make organic molecules. In fact, the universe is full of such molecules known as PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are found in interstellar clouds and the atmospheres of red giant stars and which have absolutely nothing to do with life.

Repeat: the presence of organic molecules on Mars does not mean life has been found on Mars. The absence of organic molecules in the Martian soil, as discovered in the Viking experiments, however, almost certainly means “no life here.” 

Were the Viking scientists wrong? Yes, in part. Their conclusion that the plains of Mars are representative of every locale on Mars was an overreach. When assessing whether the environment on Mars might be hospitable to life, local matters. That conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, we find significant differences on Earth between the amount and kinds of life in the Mojave Desert and the Amazon River basin. Why? Water.

The vast, flat plains of Mars are free of organics, but they are unlike Gale Crater. Gale Crater was once a lake, full of water and dissolved minerals. We know now that certain locations on Mars that were warm and wet for extended periods of time in the ancient past have preserved a record of the organic molecules that formed in those environments.

Could life have played a role in creating these molecules?  Maybe, but we don’t know, yet. We do know, however, where to keep looking. We do know where to send the next several generations of robots. We do know that we should build robotic explorers that can drill deep into the soil and explore caves in places similar to Gale Crater.

Abigail Allwood, working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is building a detector called PIXL that will be sent to Mars on a rover mission that is scheduled for launch in 2020. PIXL will be able to make smart decisions, based on the chemistry of a rock, as to whether that rock sample might contain ancient, fossilized microbes. A later mission might retrieve Allwood’s PIXL specimens and bring them back to Earth for more sophisticated laboratory studies. With instruments like PIXL, we have a good chance of definitively answering the question, “Does Mars or did Mars ever have life?”

What does the presence of organic molecules in the Martian regolith mean, as discovered by Curiosity? Those molecules could mean that life is or once was present on Mars. Finding those molecules just raised the stakes in the search for life on Mars. The jury is still out, but the betting odds just changed.

Given all we currently know about Mars, should we be sending astronauts to Mars in the next decade? Do we have the right to contaminate Mars if is already home to native Martian microbes? These are important questions that are more relevant than ever. 

David A. Weintraub is professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Life on Mars: What to Know Before We GoReligions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal with It?How Old Is the Universe?, and Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System. He lives in Nashville.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

HulsmanLegend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the Count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns on Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that Westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

***

This telling historical vignette was eerily reenacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, Westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the Western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness. 

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Keith Whittington: Tolerating Campus Dissent, Left and Right

WhittingtonThe reminders come nearly daily that tolerating freedom of speech and thought on college campuses—and in American society—is hard. It is very easy to say that we love freedom of speech in the abstract. It is much harder to adhere to that conviction when confronted with speech that we ourselves find to be, well, intolerable. When we encounter ideas or rhetoric that we find abhorrent, we are tempted to look for loopholes in the freedom of speech, to rationalize efforts to silence those who make us uncomfortable. This instinct is only natural and all too human, but it is an instinct at odds with the requirements of a liberal democracy and very much at odds with the ideals of a modern university.

The passing of Barbara Bush unfortunately became the occasion for another such reminder. An English professor at California State University, Fresno took to Twitter to celebrate the former first lady’s death, denouncing Bush as a “racist” and the mother of a “war criminal.” No stranger to provocative Twitter posts, the professor seemed to initially revel in the outrage she had generated before retreating from the increasingly intense public glare.

Fresno State president Joseph Castro was soon engaged in damage control, but in doing so did not represent the principles of either the university or the Constitution well. Castro did not content himself with reminding members of the public that the professor spoke only for herself and not the institution and did not even get around to emphasizing that universities are home to a large number of independent-minded individuals who hold a wide range of views and frequently disagree with one another. Instead, he chose to join the outraged public in denouncing a member of his own faculty for expressing views “contrary to the core values of our University,” which he identified as values of “empathy” and “respect.” The president subsequently emphasized that “we are all held accountable for our actions.” Indeed, the tweet was, in Castro’s view, “beyond free speech,” apparently because it was “disrespectful.”

Castro is, of course, correct that everyone is accountable for their actions. The question is what accounting is appropriate for appalling opinions expressed on a personal social media account. The speech of university professors can and should be criticized when it is wrong. Students and colleagues may choose to avoid quarrelsome professors. University professors are subject to discipline, and even termination, if they engage in professional misconduct. When American citizens who happen to be members of the faculty at a state university express unpopular political opinions in the public sphere, their speech is constitutionally protected from reprisals by state government officials, including university presidents. When members of the campus community spend their free time engaging in public debate, any university leader should refrain from asserting that “disrespectful,” uncivil, or odious comments are beyond the bounds of freedom of speech and subject to official sanction.

Universities should strive to nurture campus communities that are open to intellectual diversity and raucous debate. University professors should strive, even in their free time, to contribute positively to our social discourse and not to drag it further into the gutter. But freedom of speech is often messy and sometimes unpleasant. The disagreements among members of a diverse society are often deep and intense, and those disagreements will sometimes be expressed with passion. We are quick to recognize when others have offended us, but slow to recognize when we have given offense. We make greater progress in overcoming those disagreements and in making productive use of unconventional thinking, however, when we accept that we will sometimes be offended and we tolerate that with which we fervently disagree. Not every expressed idea is a good one. Not every disagreement will give way to greater insight. But intellectual and social progress is best made when we tolerate dissent rather than shout it down, when we criticize rather than punish, when we turn away from the provocateur rather than fan the flames.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Mark Serreze: Becoming A Scientist

In honor of Earth Day, Princeton University Press will be highlighting the contributions that scientists make to our understanding of the world around us through a series of blog posts written by some of our notable Earth Science authors. Keep a look out for this series all month long.

Mark Serreze, investigating the pressure ridges in the Arctic.

What is it that leads someone to become a scientist? It varies, but from what I’ve seen, it’s often a combination of nature and nurture. Just as some people seem to have an inherent knack for writing making music, or cooking, I think that some of us are wired to become scientists. In turn, there is often someone we can look back to—parents or perhaps a teacher—that encouraged or inspired us to pursue a science career.

I had an interest in science from when I was very young, and I was always full of questions about the natural world. The first book I ever owned is “The Golden Book of Science” 1963 edition—featuring 1-2 page essays on everything from geology to insects to the weather. Each night, at my insistence, my mother would read one of them to me. To this day, I still own the book.

When I wasn’t reading, I could spend hours outside marveling at the organized industriousness of ants as they built their anthills, or looking at colorful rocks with a magnifying glass. I was enthralled with the burgeoning manned space flight program, and, sitting beside my mother and staring at the black TV while she ironed clothes, watched in awe at the Project Gemini rocket launches.   

As for the nurture part, I had an advantage in that both of my parents were chemists with Master’s degrees. This was at a time it was quite unusual for women to hold advanced degrees. They met in the laboratory. Mom was a whiz when it came to thermodynamics, and Dad apparently knew everything there was to know about acrylic plastics. Ours was indeed an odd household. While my siblings and I chafed under a rather strict Catholic upbringing, at the same time we were very much free-range kids, and scientific experimentation of all sorts was quite acceptable.  

At one point, after getting a chemistry set for Christmas, I thought I might become a chemist myself. These were not the boring, defanged chemistry sets of today – back then, they included chemicals that, when properly mixed, yielded career-inspiring reactions. I later got heavily into model rocketry, astronomy, and civil engineering, building small dams across the stream running past our house to improve the habitat for the frogs. Included among the more foolish (albeit highly educational) endeavors was a scientifically-based experiment on the feasibility of riding ice floes down the Kennebunk River. Then there was the time when an experiment in pyrotechnics gone wrong ended up with a frantic call to the fire department to douse a five-acre conflagration in the neighbor’s field.

Years before I ever got into college I knew I was going to be a research scientists of some type, for, through nature and nurture, the roots were already there. As I talk about in my book, Brave New Arctic, a number decisions and events came together – mixed with some blind, dumb luck – to eventually steer me towards a career in climate science. What I could never have foreseen is how, through these events and decisions, and then through 35 years of research, I’d find myself in the position to tell the story about the dramatic transformation of the North.

Climate scientists, like myself, have to deal with an added challenge that climate change is a highly polarized subject. There are the frequent questions from the media: Will there be a new record low in Arctic sea ice extent this year? Why does it matter? Why is the Arctic behaving so differently than the Antarctic? It can be overwhelming at times. Then there are the emails, phone calls and tweets from those who simply want to rant. While I get a lot of emails from people fully on board with the reality that humans are changing the climate and want to get straight answers about something they’ve heard or read about, I also have a growing folder in my inbox labeled “Hate Mail”. Some very unflattering things have been said about me on social media and across the web. I’ve had to grow a thick skin.  

Making a career as a research scientist is not for everyone. Science is not the sort of thing that is easy to put aside at the end of the day. It gnaws at you. The hours are long, and seldom lead to monetary riches. It can also be a frustrating occupation, such as when realizing that, after months of research pursuing a lead, you’ve hit a dead end.

We chose to be scientists because it’s what we love to do. We live for those “aha” moments when the hard work pays off, and we discover something new that advances our understanding.

In writing this book I was forced to dig deeply to understand my own evolution as a scientist, and to document insights from other scientists who, like me, were there at the beginning when the Arctic still looked like the Arctic of old. It’s been an adventure, and when I someday retire (which is a very hard thing for scientists to do,) I hope to be able to look back and say that that this book opened some eyes, and inspired others to follow their own path to becoming a scientist.

 

Mark Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Will the US ever escape the Losing Gambler Syndrome in Afghanistan?

HulsmanThe Losing Gambler Syndrome is a fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand. When someone loses big at the tables, almost always they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing . . . and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.

Policymakers are not immune to this folly, often doubling down on a bad assessment emotionally in order to wipe the slate clean of their intellectual mistakes. I saw this doleful analytical process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq War slid toward the abyss; very often those policymakers urging ever-greater efforts in Iraq from the American people did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses.

History’s graveyard is replete with losing gamblers

Anyone who has ever walked the mile and a half in that beautiful, tragic open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges at Gettysburg knows that the Confederate assault on the third day of the battle should never have been made. The simple reason for Pickett’s disastrous charge is that Robert E. Lee had emotionally invested too much at Gettysburg to easily turn back. The famed Confederate general was both desperate and overconfident, a fatal combination. Lee was held intellectual hostage by his tantalizing near success (and actual failure) on the second day of the battle, becoming an unwitting prisoner of the Losing Gambler Syndrome.

Likewise, as the years rolled by without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign to get out, not to redouble his efforts.

When will they ever learn?

Tragically, the losing gambler’s curse continues today, with America’s seemingly endless war in Afghanistan being a textbook example. Within of few months of 9/11, American-led forces had routed the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda from its bases. However, then the war goals fatefully shifted. To prevent al-Qaeda’s resurgence, the US ended up endlessly propping up weak, corrupt, unrepresentative governments in Kabul.

As these governments did not have sufficient organic political legitimacy, the US found itself mired in an unwinnable situation, as without Taliban involvement in the central government (the Taliban represent almost exclusively the interests of the Pashtun, the largest single tribe in the country) any local rule was bound to be seen as inherently unrepresentative. This political reality is at the base of the 16-year unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Doubling down yet again

Yet President Trump’s ‘new plan’ (there have been an endless number of these over the past decade and a half) does nothing to deal with this central political conundrum. Despite in his campaign saying the war in Afghanistan had been ‘a total disaster,’ the President was persuaded by his respected Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, to increase American troop levels in-country to 16,000, ignoring the fact that during the Obama administration 100,000 American soldiers had been fighting there, all to no avail.

I suspect a key reason for this strange decision is that both Generals Mattis and McMaster served with distinction in Afghanistan. Like Lee, President Johnson, and the neo-conservatives huddled around George W. Bush, both have invested too much emotionally and practically to turn back, whatever the fearful odds.

So an unwinnable war is set to continue, as the unsolvable political reality at its base goes unremarked upon. The losing gambler’s syndrome tells us that once resources and intellectual credibility have been expended, it is all too tempting, whether met with crisis or entranced by near-success, to keep doing what has been failing up until that point. It is entirely understandable to do this, but as Gettysburg, Vietnam, and Iraq point out, practically disastrous. Policymakers must instead have the courage to look at failure straight in the eye and make adjustments to mitigate its effects, rather than doubling down and inviting more.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Keith Whittington: The kids are alright

SpeakIt has rapidly become a common trope that the current crop of college students belong to a generation of “snowflakes.” Unusually sensitive, unusually intolerant, the kids these days are seen by some as a worrying threat to the future of America’s liberal democracy. High-profile incidents on college campuses like the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the rioting in the streets of Berkeley during an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos give vivid support for the meme. Some surveys of the attitudes of millennials about tolerance and free speech lend some further credence to the snowflake characterization. When the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked college students whether diversity or free speech was more important, a slim majority chose diversity. When a Brookings Institution fellow asked college students whether it was acceptable to use force to silence a speaker making “hurtful” statements, a surprisingly large number said yes.

Should we be worried about the children? Perhaps not. Context matters, and some of the current hand-wringing over events on college campuses has tended to ignore the broader context. In particular, when told that the current generation of students do not seem fully supportive of free speech and tolerance of disagreement, we are rarely told in comparison to what. Compared to a perfect ideal of American values, the current generation of students might fall somewhat short—but so do the generations that preceded them. We aspire to realize our beliefs in tolerance and liberty, but we muddle through without a perfect commitment to our civil libertarian aspirations.

It would be a mistake to be overly complacent about American public support for civil liberties, including free speech, but we should also be cautious about rushing into excessive pessimism about the current generation of college students. It has been a routine finding in the public opinion literature going back decades that Americans express high levels of support for the freedom of speech in the abstract, but when asked about particular forms of controversial speech that support begins to melt away. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, one study found that more than three-quarters of a sample of lawyers thought that university students should have the freedom to invite controversial speakers to campus, but less than half of the general public agreed. When asked if the government should be allowed to suppress speech that might incite an audience to violence, less than a fifth of the leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union said yes, but more than a third of the members of the ACLU were ok with it. In the 1950s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Communists should be restricted. In the 1970s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of racists should be restricted. In the 2000s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Muslims and atheists should be restricted.

Current American college students say that speakers with whom they strongly disagree should be allowed to speak on campus. But a majority of liberal college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be racist, and more than a third of conservative college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be “anti-American.” Fortunately, the evidence suggests that only a tiny minority of college students favor activists taking steps to disrupt speaking events on campus. Those numbers are not ideal, but it is important to bear in mind that the college-educated tend to be more tolerant to disagreeable speakers and ideas than is the general public, and that is pretty much as true now as it has been in the past. Public support for the freedom of speech has not always stood firm, and campus debates over the scope of free speech are likely to have large consequences for how Americans think about these issues in the future.

We should draw some lessons from recent events and surveys, but the lesson should not be that current students are delicate snowflakes. First, we should recognize that the current generation of college students is not unique. They have their own distinctive concerns, interests, and experiences, but they are not dramatically less tolerant than those who came before them. Second, we should appreciate that tolerance of disagreement is something we as a country have to constantly strive for and not something that we can simply take for granted. It is easy to support freedom for others in the abstract, but it is often much more difficult to do so in the midst of particular controversies. The current group of college-age Americans struggle with that tension just as other Americans do and have before. Third, we should note that there is a vocal minority on and off college campuses who do in fact question liberal values of tolerance and free speech. They do so not because they are snowflakes but because they hold ideological commitment at odds with values that are deeply rooted in the American creed. Rather than magnifying their importance by making them the avatar of this generation, those who care about our democratic constitutional commitments should work to isolate them and show why theirs is not the best path forward and why diversity, tolerance, and free speech are compatible and mutually reinforcing values and not contrasting alternatives. It is an ongoing project we hold in common to understand and reaffirm the principles of free speech that underlie our political system. Today’s college students are not the only ones who could benefit from that lesson.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

Hilda Sabato: The dilemmas of political representation

SabatoSince the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word “populism” has gained increasing space in the media, initially associated with political events in Latin America. The term is far from new, but it has reappeared to label very different regimes—from that of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, to those of Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and the Kirchners in Argentina. Unlike the spread of populist regimes in the postwar era, however, this latest wave has reached well beyond that continent, to include political and ideological movements all over the world. And while the success of the former was often explained by resorting to the long history of caudillos in Spanish America, it is quite obvious that such an argument cannot be applied to this new spread of populism across the globe. Both moments, however, share some common features that may better account for the flourishing of populism than any reference to a past tradition of caudillismo.

The end of the twentieth century heralded an era of political change on a global scale. Some of the main institutions and practices that had long reigned unchallenged in Western democracies have come under heavy scrutiny. The key political actor of the past century, the party, is in peril of extinction—at best, it will survive in new formats. Analysts talk about the crisis of representation, while most individuals feel foreign to the men and women in government, who they sense operate as a closed caste rather than as representatives of the people. In the words of Federico Finchelstein, “Democracy is confronting challenges that are similar to those it encountered during the Great Depression….” In that context, therefore, “Populism offers authoritarian answers to the crisis of democratic representation.”[1]

We are then, once more, at a critical turn in the history of modern politics, as it developed since the revolutions of the eighteenth century succeeded in introducing the sovereignty of the people as the founding principle of the polity and shattered the edifice of the ancien regime in several parts of Europe and the Americas. Within that framework, a key step in the actual organization of the new was the adoption of representative forms of government. In contrast to former experiences of direct popular rule, in the late eighteeth century the introduction of political representation offered a theoretical and practical solution to the challenge of making operative the principle of popular sovereignty.

Yet such a step posed dilemmas that have persisted throughout the centuries. Thus, the tension between the belief that power should stem directly from the people (an association of equals) and any operation whereby a selected few are set apart to exert power in the name of the many has run through the entire history of self-government. Modern representation did not overcome this quandary, although it offered a partial solution by combining democratic and aristocratic means: elections by all to select the few. Yet the attribute of distinction that marks those few—however chosen—keeps challenging the principle of equality, a value reinforced with the consolidation of democracy in the twentieth century. Besides this conceptual conundrum, the actual relationship between the representatives and the represented has always been, and remains, a crucial matter in the political life of modern times.

A second dilemma involved in representative government has posed even more challenges to the functioning of the polity. At the beginning of this story, although representatives were chosen by individual citizens embedded in their actual social conditions, they embodied, above all, the political community (the nation) as an indivisible whole, thus materializing the unity of the people. For almost a century, this issue informed the public debates around the unanimity or the plurality of the polity, and permeated the discussions on the forms of representation, which found one of its more heated moments late in that period in the controversies around the figure of the political party. By the 1900s, however, parties had become key institutions in the prevailing paradigm of representation, so much so that they were usually considered inseparable from democracy as it consolidated during the twentieth century. But today that whole edifice is crumbling, a clear sign that the challenges and dilemmas of political representation persist.

Republics of the New World addresses these issues at the time when modern representation appeared as a viable solution to the difficulties of instituting forms of government based on the principle of popular sovereignty. It traces the conflict-ridden history of representative institutions and practices in an area of sustained experimentation in the ways of the republic: post-colonial Spanish America. Two hundred years later, political representation remains problematic, and some of the same questions posed by the founders of those republics keep coming up, defying our democratic era. Today, like in the past, the way out of the crisis is uncertain and depends upon our own choices. In this context, populism offers a particular response to this predicament, while other political proposals resist its authoritarian features and seek to address the current dilemmas by enhancing the pluralistic and egalitarian elements of our democratic traditions.

Hilda Sabato is head researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Argentina and former professor of history at the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America.

[1] Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, p.29.

Andrew Scull: On the response to mass shootings

ScullAmerica’s right-wing politicians have developed a choreographed response to the horrors of mass shootings. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s massacre of the innocents, President Trump stuck resolutely to the script. Incredibly, he managed to avoid even mentioning the taboo word “guns.” In his official statement on this week’s awfulness, he offers prayers for the families of the victims—as though prayers will salve their wounds, or prevent the next outrage of this sort; they now fall thick and fast upon us. And he spouted banalities: “No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school.” That, of course, was teleprompter Trump. The real Trump, as always, had surfaced hours earlier on Twitter. How had such a tragedy come to pass?  On cue, we get the canned answer: the issue was mental health: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed.”  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a mental health problem don’t you see, not a gun problem.

Let us set aside the crass hypocrisy of those who have spent so much time attempting to destroy access to health care (including mental health care) for tens of millions of people bleating about the need to provide treatment for mental illness. Let us ignore the fact that President Trump, with a stroke of a pen, set aside regulations that made it a little more difficult for “deranged” people to obtain firearms. They have Second Amendment rights too, or so it would seem. Let us overlook the fact that in at least two of the recent mass shootings, the now-dead were worshipping the very deity their survivors and the rest of us are invited to pray to when they were massacred. Let us leave all of that out of account. Do we really just have a mental health problem here, and would addressing that problem make a dent in the rash of mass killings?

Merely to pose the question is to suggest how fatuous this whole approach is. Pretend for a moment that all violence of this sort is the product of mental illness, not, as is often the case, the actions of evil, angry, or viciously prejudiced souls. Is there the least prospect that any conceivable investment in mental health care could anticipate and forestall gun massacres? Of course not. Nowhere in recorded history, on no continent, in no country, in no century, has any society succeeded in eliminating or even effectively addressing serious forms of mental illness. Improving the lot of those with serious mental illness is a highly desirable goal. Leaving the mentally disturbed to roam or rot on our sidewalks and in our “welfare” hotels, or using a revolving door to move them in and out of jail—the central elements of current mental health “policy”—constitutes a national disgrace. But alleviating that set of problems (as unlikely as that seems in the contemporary political climate) will have zero effect on gun violence and mass shootings.

Mental illness is a scourge that afflicts all civilized societies. The Bible tells us, “The poor ye shall always have with you.”  The same, sadly, is true of mental illness. Mental distress and disturbance constitute one of the most profound sources of human suffering, and simultaneously constitute one of the most serious challenges of both a symbolic and practical sort to the integrity of the social fabric. Whether one looks to classical Greece and Rome, to ancient Palestine or the Islamic civilization that ruled much of the Mediterranean for centuries, to the successive Chinese empires or to feudal and early modern Europe, everywhere people have wrestled with the problem of insanity, and with the need to take steps to protect themselves against the depredations of the minority of the seriously mentally ill people who pose serious threats of violence. None of these societies, or many more I could mention, ever saw the levels of carnage we Americans now accept as routine and inevitable.

Mental illness is an immutable feature of human existence. Its association with mass slaughter most assuredly has not been. Our ancestors were not so naïve as to deny that madness was associated with violence. The mentally ill, in the midst of their delusions, hallucinations, and fury were sometimes capable of horrific acts: consider the portrait in Greek myth of Heracles dashing out the brains of his children, in his madness thinking them the offspring of his mortal enemy Euryththeus; Lucia di Lammermoor stabbing her husband on their wedding night; or Zola’s anti-hero of La Bete humaine, Jacques Lantier, driven by passions that escape the control of his reason, raping and killing the object of his desire: these and other fictional representations linking mental illness to animality and violence are plausible to those encountering them precisely because they match the assumptions and experience of the audiences toward whom they are directed. And real-life maddened murderers were to be found in all cultures across historical time. Such murders were one of the known possible consequences of a descent into insanity. But repeated episodes of mass killing by deranged individuals, occurring as a matter of routine?  Nowhere in the historical record can precursors of the contemporary American experience be found. It is long past time to stop blaming an immutable feature of human culture—severe mental illness—for routine acts of deadly violence that are instead the produce of a resolute refusal to face the consequences of unbridled access to a deadly form of modern technology.

Claims that the mowing down of unarmed innocents is a mental health problem cannot explain why, in that event, such massacres are exceedingly rare elsewhere in the contemporary world, while they are now routine in the United States. Mental illness, as I have stressed, is a universal feature of human existence. Mass shootings are not. Australia and Britain (to take but two examples) found themselves in the not-too-distant past having to cope with horrendous mass killings that involved guns. Both responded with sensible gun control policies, and have been largely spared a repetition of the horrors routinely visited upon innocent Americans. Our society’s “rational” response, by contrast, is to rush out and buy more guns, inflating the profits of those who profit from these deaths, and ensuring more episodes of mass murder.

The problem in the United States is not crazy people. It is crazy gun laws.

Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Masters of Bedlam: The Transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade and Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine.