Acceptable Risks — a rant

April 25, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Apparently it’s not easy to think like a social scientist. Most people prefer to think in terms of individuals and absolute certainties. But social science doesn’t deal in certainties, at least not about individuals. We think in terms of probabilities or risks. For example, we don’t know precisely which smokers will get lung cancer and which will not; we know only that lung cancer rates will be higher among smokers than among non-smokers. That is, smoking raises the risk.

If you smoke, you are saying in effect that lung cancer is an “acceptable risk.”

Many of the stories in the press after the Virginia Tech shootings were about what the school might have done after the first killings to prevent the ones that occurred later. Many others were about “the mind of the killer.” Behind these stories lay the assumption, the wish really, that somehow it was possible to have predicted what Cho would do, and therefore the killings could have been prevented. The trouble is that such prediction is impossible. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around with minds very similar to Cho’s, but who will never kill anyone.

But we could have reduced the probability that such a person could kill on such a large scale. If automatic handguns hadn’t been so easy to get, we would have greatly reduced the risk. Not eliminated it—a determined killer would find a way— but reduced it.

By allowing such easy access to weapons, we are saying that the Virginia Tech killings were an “acceptable risk.”

We cannot predict campus or workplace will be hit; we cannot predict which crazed person will be the shooter. But we can no longer dismiss such a shooting as a one-of-a-kind event — not after Columbine and the many other school shootings, not after the many cases of an employee “going postal.” (Only a few days after Virginia Tech, a NASA worker, upset over a performance evaluation, killed a supervisor and then himself.)

Legislators have been proposing stricter handgun laws for nearly a half century now. But congressional majorities have either voted these down or diluted to then insignificance. If they had been passed, we cannot say that there would be no mass shootings. But we can say that there would have been far fewer of them.

2. A week after the Virginia Tech shootings, the New York Times ran an article on infant mortality in Mississippi. In order not to raise taxes, the governor, Haley Barbour, cut state spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). “Locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent. As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years.”

The infant mortality rate in Mississippi rose from 14 per 1,000 births to 17 per 1,000. It’s possible that Gov. Barbour didn’t know what effect his policy would have, but he knows now. If he continues this policy, he is saying in effect that those additional 481 dead infants are an “acceptable risk.”

Gov. Barbour is strongly “pro-life.” But don’t bet on him restoring the cuts to Medicaid and CHIP.

The Times also cites a private church-run program in one county where the population is poor, rural, and largely black. Yet the infant mortality rate is only 5 per 1,000, and it has remained that low for the past 15 years. If similar programs were instituted state-wide, it would save the lives of 1,600 infants per year.

If a parent starves an infant and deprives it of medical care, and the child dies, that’s a crime, probably some level of manslaughter. If a governor and legislature deprive thousands of children of food and medical care, and several hundred of them die, that’s just good tax policy.

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