Americans Fear Refugees Because We’re Bad At Math

Add this to the list of disturbing reasons for America’s panic over refugees: fewer and fewer of us can do the basic math of calculating the true risk.

But really, it’s not that hard — and understanding it is crucial to avoiding being conned.

Here it is, made as easy as I know how.

Lightning bolt over Mojave Desert

Photo: Jessie Eastland via Wikimedia Commons

1. Every year, as reported by the libertarian Cato Institute, Americans have about a one in 14,000 chance of being murdered.

2. The odds of being killed by a terrorist — who by the way is likely to be homegrown — are one in 3.6 million. This alone should suggest to you that the threat of terrorism is being overplayed — you’re three and a half times more likely to be struck by lightning.

3. But now let’s look at the risk of being killed by a refugee. The odds are… one in 3.6 billion. That means you are three and half thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a refugee. Contrary to what our demagogue-in-chief wants you to believe, refugees are already very carefully screened.

Do you still think abandoning our values, giving ISIS a recruiting bonanza, and demoralizing our Muslim military allies (all results of banning refugees) is worth it?

Then I assume you plan never, ever to leave your house again, for fear of the far greater risk you face of being struck by lightning.

Ah, some say, but any risk is too much. We should do whatever it takes to stop even one death (never mind that zero Americans have been killed by refugees since 1975).

OK, this makes no sense already, given what I just laid out. Plus, considering we’re supposed to be the Home of the Brave, it seems awfully, well… non-brave.

But I hear it a lot, so on we go.

This argument is an example of negativity bias: we fear negative consequences so much that it clouds our judgment. This is why, even though seat belts greatly increase the odds of surviving an auto accident, some people still refuse to wear them. They can’t stand the thought they might have been one of the tiny number of people who make it out alive because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt.

There’s no other way around it, though: these people are choosing a much lower chance of survival. It’s impossible to know ahead of time whether this might have been that rare fluke accident. So the only smart choice is the one with (much) better odds.

It’s the same with admitting refugees to the United States. Fear wants us to focus on the minuscule chance one of them will be a terrorist (and dumb enough to go through the long refugee screening process before coming here).

But adding refugees actually makes each of us safer: as we add more people who are less likely to be terrorists, each of us has lower odds of encountering a terrorist.

Nine green marbles and one red one with the face of a troll

Illustration by author, emoji by EmojiOne (open source)

You can picture it like this. Let’s say you have 100 marbles in a jar: 90 green ones and 10 red ones, mixed together. If you reach in, you have a 10 in 100 chance of getting a red marble, right? Now add another 100 marbles, but this time 99 green and one red. Your odds of getting a red marble are now lower: 11 in 200, which is about one in 18.

Even though you added a red marble, your odds of getting a red marble went down. It’s the same with adding refugees to the US population, except that the odds are, year after year after year, none of them would be a red marble.

Now I expect some will still argue that if even one refugee ever kills one American, that’s an American who otherwise wouldn’t have died — ban all refugees! Well first, if we followed that absolutist logic, we’d have to prevent anyone at all from coming into the United States.

I’m OK with that, too, some will say.

Well, we’d also have to stop Americans from crossing state lines: anyone from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona — all the way to Wyoming — is far more likely to kill you than a refugee is. Come to think of it, by this logic maybe we should stop Americans from having babies, or just require that they be raised in captivity. After all, every addition to the population has a small chance of turning out to be a killer, and even one is too many, right?

But we don’t need to resort to this reductio ad absurdum. One last time, let’s just do the arithmetic.

In exchange for avoiding the extremely small risk from refugees, a ban helps ISIS recruit actual terrorists, while pushing away allies and weakening our ability to fight.

You add a tiny bit of safety, but take away a lot. That’s a bad deal, as someone might say.

And note what’s missing from this equation: our values. It assumes that preserving them is worth nothing at all.

A ban against refugees, in America?

Any way you look at it, it’s the wrong answer.

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Is Bannon Just “Defending American Culture?” Without Immigration, It Wouldn’t Exist

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Some readers have challenged my assertion that Steve Bannon is an ethnic nationalist, on the premise that Bannon is just defending the Judeo-Christian culture that has helped make America what it is.

I maintain that his ethnic nationalism is proven by his own words and actions.

But I also want to push back on the popular argument that America’s culture is both essentially Judeo-Christian and needs to be defended from foreign influences. American culture is of great value, but this view of it is ahistorical, and encourages the same intolerance that drives ethnic nationalism.

Statue of Liberty at night

Photo by 0X010C via Wikimedia Commons

To argue for it is to dispute that America was founded on Enlightenment reason and religious tolerance. That means you have to fight the founders themselves. Here’s Thomas Jefferson, who with James Madison led the writing of the First Amendment:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State. (Letter to the Danbury Baptists.)

That “wall of separation” has been cited in Supreme Court rulings on church and state ever since.

That’s not to say that Judeo-Christian values didn’t inform American culture. Of course they did. For example: Old Testament teachings on justice and the law, and Jesus’ teachings on equality and caring for each other — especially strangers.

But centuries of immigration have shown that American culture can be, and is, adopted by anyone who believes in American democracy, whether or not they’re Christians or Jews. (Not that it looks likely Jews would really be given equal status by Bannon, who propounds a distorted version of the Church Militant.)

And there’s more to it than that. Immigrants don’t just assimilate into our culture, they create it.

Without immigrants, there is no American culture.

For example, without African-Americans (whose original immigration was actually an abduction), our music, art, literature, drama, dance, and movies would be very, very different. Even country and bluegrass music — identified so strongly with people of white, Northern European origin — wouldn’t exist without the blues.

So it is with the contributions of cultures from all over the world. The addition of new and different people has continually renewed American culture, making it what it is — a big part of which, in this future-facing land, is what it will be.

If we think of the founding of America as a statement, its subject was Equality.

Its predicate is the history of a nation where all are welcome who swear allegiance to the Constitution.

The Constitution is our true creed.

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President Bannon Wants to Make America an Ethnic Homeland

[Also published at Huffington Post.] As reporters dig into Steve Bannon’s past and present, it’s becoming clear that he’s perfectly aware we face virtually no threat from the carefully vetted refugees his Executive Order turns away, over the signature of his protegé Donald Trump.

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon, 2010. Photo by Don Irvine (Creative Commons)

Bannon sees the real threat not as terrorist attacks, but as the dilution of ethnic identity. From USA Today:

“These are not Jeffersonian democrats,” he said of immigrants to Europe from Muslim majority countries in April of last year. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming up here.”

“To be brutally frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise,” he said in an interview in January 2016 with a Breitbart reporter.

During an interview in February 2016, Bannon expressed alarm about China and Islam…. “You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian West is on the retreat.”

Bannon, impresario of the alt-right hub Breibart, is an ethnic nationalist. He believes American culture is inherently Christian, and that it is bound to the “DNA” of Europeans.

That belief is inherently Un-American — because “American,” unlike “Chinese,” “German,” “Italian,” “Russian,” or so many others, has never been an ethnic identity.

You’re not an American because you’re a member of a tribe. You’re an American because you’re loyal to the Constitution.

That’s it. That’s the point.

That’s the miracle that generations of Americans, from all over the world, have built, and have fought and died to defend. Anyone who supports what Bannon is trying to do is betraying that legacy of sacrifice, and betraying what truly makes America great.

Many who do support Bannon are sure they’re not bigots — they just value the culture that gave us what we have, and think it’s worth preserving. Of course it is. But that culture isn’t found in skin color, headgear, or religious observance. It’s found in hearts, inspired by a shared idea. E Pluribus Unum.

America is not an ethnic homeland, it’s that idea. It’s precious, powerful idea —but not an indestructible one.

We must defend it.

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Whatever Happened to Sharia Law? And Other Questions for Right Wing Media Fans

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Whatever happened to declaring Sharia law? Obama’s almost done, and it’s really beginning to look like he may not get around to it.

And how is he going to fit in taking our guns away? Jan. 20 will be here before you know it; he’s really gonna have to hustle.

Now that I think of it, where are the death panels? We were guaranteed death panels as part of Obamacare. So far they can’t seem to get organized.

Whatever happened to Sharia law?

And when do we get going on the runaway inflation? It’s been stuck at historically low levels since 2008.

And the soaring unemployment? That hasn’t showed up either — instead we got the longest job creation streak in history, unemployment cut in half, and now wages are rising. Sheesh.

And the New Black Panthers? Two of them showed up outside a polling place in Philadelphia for a few hours in 2008, and that was that. They were supposed to be running the White House with help from the Muslim Brotherhood — what the heck happened there?

Has Common Core made any progress in turning all our kids gay?

When exactly do we get taken over by the UN?

Anyone seen the FEMA concentration camps?

And how come the US Army hasn’t got around to invading Texas? When do we use all those tunnels under Walmarts? Talk about a snafu.

You know, as hard as it is to imagine…

It’s almost like the right wing media was full of it.

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Putin Wins Simply by Showing That a Clown Can Be Elected President of the United States

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Is our next president a Russian agent? Because of Donald Trump’s relentless shilling for Vladimir Putin, that once unthinkable question is being asked seriously by major news outlets.

To at least some degree, the answer, obviously, is yes. An agent is someone who acts on behalf of another, and wittingly or not, Trump does exactly that for Russia.

Photo of Donald Trump

Donald Trump, Aug. 19, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

But looked at from Putin’s point of view, it hardly matters what Trump might or might not be up to.

Because if Putin’s goal is to delegitimize American democracy, he’s already won.

How better to delegitimize democracy than by showing that an utter clown can be elected president of the United States?

Trump doesn’t have to do much more of anything for Putin in order to be counted as one of the most successful Russian agents ever.

All he has to do, starting January 20, is show up for work every day.

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The 2 Reasons This Is the 1 Time We Needed the Electoral College

(Also published at Huffington Post.) I could hardly have been more shocked and disappointed that Donald Trump won the election. But I strongly opposed the idea of the Electoral College overturning the results.

Certainly Trump seemed to fail the fundamental test defined by Electoral College inventor Alexander Hamilton: he was unqualified.

[The Electoral College process] affords a moral certainty,: that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union….” (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper 68)

Almost sounds like Hamilton and Trump had already met.

But democracy means you have to live with other people’s opinions, and that would usually include their opinions of what “qualified” means.

But then came the deal breakers — and my support for the Hamilton Electors:

  1. Corruption.
  2. Foreign control.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull, 1806 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


Here’s what else Hamilton warned about:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?

Consider — and I mean really, think about the fact that we’re actually facing these things:

1. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, refuses to divest himself of his global business interests, and insists on involving his children in both his businesses and the business of government. Foreign governments that want to corrupt our government have only to do favors for one or more of Trump’s businesses or children. Foreign governments are already doing that. And that means that Trump has corrupted the White House before he has even moved in. Furthermore, he is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which means he will be (or should be) vulnerable to impeachment the day he takes office.

2. Trump continues to display a bizarre and frightening loyalty to Russia’s thuggish autocrat, in opposition to America’s national interests. We know that:

  • Russia waged a cyber warfare attack on our election in favor of Trump.
  • Trump encouraged them to do it, and repeatedly exploited it during his campaign.
  • Trump hired as his former campaign manager a person with deep ties to the previous Russian puppet regime in Ukraine, and continues to consult with him.
  • Trump’s campaign removed language from the Republican platform calling for the arming of Ukrainians resisting Russia’s invasion.
  • Trump has steadfastly praised Russia’s thuggish, murdering autocrat while aggressively rejecting the U.S. intelligence community for its consensus finding Vladimir Putin hacked our election.
  • Trump’s son Donald has said this of the Trump Organization’s deep ties to Russia: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” And remember, this Organization has repeatedly gone bankrupt, and has trouble getting loans.
  • And see point 1: Trump refuses to do the things that might, possibly, clear all this up.

If Trump could clear all this up, I’d support the Electoral College playing its traditional role, and simply ratifying the election result, no matter how awful I think it is.

But Trump won’t clear all this up.

And as long as that’s true, he isn’t just unqualified.

He’s a threat to democracy.

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Should Real News Be a Utility, Like Water and Electricity?

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Like people in towns across America, I’m watching my local newspapers die.

Every few months, it seems, they lay off more staff, while announcing a new digital initiative that’s somehow supposed to make up for the fact that they just can’t afford to report the news any more.

No one wants to pay for it.

After all, look at all the “content” we can get for free, much of which looks like news.

The trouble is, though, so much of it isn’t. Real news can’t be created by digital magic. It requires the time-consuming work of humans — trained ones — digging into what’s going on, weighing competing versions of the truth, and giving the rest of us their best version.

It’s never perfect, and sometimes it’s very far short of that. But it’s so much better than any alternative. Democracy literally depends on it, as Thomas Jefferson said:

The way to prevent [errors] of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…

Do not be too severe upon the people’s errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I and Congress and assemblies, judges, and governors, shall all become wolves.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

But in our modern, digital world, news doesn’t pay, and so, especially at the local level, it’s going away.

That could be seen as good news for people like me, whose job it is to try to get stories into the media. With fewer reporters in the way, that’s getting easier all the time. More and more papers will run a well-written press release unedited.

But I hate it. I don’t want an easier job, if it comes at the expense of a functioning democracy.

To save democracy, we must save news. We can start with local news, which is what matters most to most people (nationally, we have some government funding of public broadcasting, but it’s unlikely we’ll see that expand any time soon).

I have an idea: why not make local news a utility? Charge a small user fee to all the people in a city or county who benefit from more honest institutions – and that’s everybody, of course. The money collected would fund an independent news utility, charged with doing what healthy newspapers always did: holding the powerful accountable.

If this only funded one such organization per locality, that wouldn’t be as good as what we used to have: cities often had several daily papers. But it would be a lot better than what we’re heading towards in city after city — no newspaper worthy of the name.

What about TV news? That business is struggling too, but it’s still better off than newspapers are. And as TV has traditionally done with newspapers, it could leverage the original reporting done by the news utility.

We can’t do without clean water or reliable electricity. Maybe it’s finally time to recognize that the same is true of accurate information.

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Skip the Gut Check, Democrats: The Problem Is Hiding in Plain Sight

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Following a shock loss to what looked like the worst presidential candidate in history, many Democrats are agonizing over what policies they need to change in order to win back voters.

They needn’t bother: policy has almost nothing to do with it. Democrats can go left, right, more populist, less populist, or stay put.

Because for policies to make a difference, voters have to know what they are. And in every election, Republicans begin with a big gimme: millions of people are voting for and against things that don’t exist.

We’ve heard a lot over the years about the right-wing media bubble, and, more recently, the plague of fake news in social media feeds.

But for some reason, most analysts — and many Democratic politicians — seem to assume all this misinformation magically disappears in the voting booth. Most of the post-election debate seems to be about substantive factors that supposedly explain why otherwise reasonable people voted for Trump, like economic anxiety, fear of terrorism, or resentment of elitism. It’s like we have a rational investors theory of voter behavior.

But missing from the discussion is the big bloc of voters who were simply making a mistake, based on bad facts.

Consider just some of the reasons some people cite for rejecting the Obama legacy that Hillary Clinton ran on: “soaring deficits,” “job-killing economic policies,” “uncontrolled borders,” and “rising crime.”

None of these things is real.

Graph showing dramatic decline of violent crime since 1992.

  1. “Soaring deficits.” Actually, the deficit under President Obama has plummeted in every fiscal year except the most recent one. But in 2013, according to Pew, only 12 percent of Republicans knew the truth, and only 29 percent of Democrats – misinformation is leaky. The debt has in fact gone up, but that’s inevitable all the while you’re reducing deficits until you get them to zero, like Bill Clinton did.
  2. “Job-killing economic policies.” In fact, Obama holds the record for uninterrupted job growth, with more than 15 million jobs created to date, and has cut unemployment in half from its 2010 peak. But a 2015 Bloomberg survey found that 53 percent of Republicans believe unemployment has gotten worse. No doubt many are also unaware that corporate profits have set new records, the S&P 500 is up more than two and a half times, and inflation has been less than half the post World War II average, among other good economic news.
  3. ”Uncontrolled borders.” The truth is that illegal immigration has declined under Obama, while border enforcement, including deportations of criminals, has greatly increased. Meanwhile the data show that first generation immigrants, including ones here illegally from Mexico, commit less crime than native born Americans. But Pew found that 50 percent of Trump supporters believe undocumented immigrants are a serious crime threat that calls for more border security.
  4. “Rising crime.” In the real world, violent crime has been falling steadily since 1992. It’s now at the lowest level since 1970. But 79 percent of Republicans (65 percent of Democrats) think it’s rising, according to Gallup.

There are lots of other examples, like the fantasies that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, climate change is a Chinese hoax, or Hillary deliberately let our people die in Benghazi.

Millions of Americans have been convinced of such things. In other words, millions of Americans are casting misguided votes.

If ballots were being altered, that would be a big story. In effect, they are.

As Obama told Bill Maher recently, “If I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either.”

What to do? Obama provides a clue here too.

Because despite facing the same reality handicap, he won twice.

That means he was able to connect with some voters who otherwise would have voted against him based on faulty information (it goes without saying that some who did so were well-informed and just honestly disagreed with him).

How? By out-communicating the opposition.

People believe falsehoods because they feel true – Trump gets away with all his whoppers because they sound (and probably are) so authentically unfiltered.

What makes Obama a great communicator is that he can make the truth feel true: he connects the head and the gut.

And that’s the gut check Democrats need.

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How to Win Every Argument You Ever Have: Be Willing to Lose

Bust of Socrates

A bust of Socrates at the University of Western Australia, Crawley (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

As we mark the first post-Trump Thanksgiving, the best advice about arguments might be to try not to have them, at least for today.

But knowing they’re probably inevitable, now seems like a good time to share the ultimate secret to winning them. In fact, with this secret, I can promise you that you’ll win every single argument you ever have, from here on out.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Be willing to lose, and you never will.

Surprise! Winning is not actually the point of an argument. The point, although it can be hard to guess from our Facebook feeds, is to advance knowledge. And if your goal is more knowledge – and why wouldn’t it be? – you’ll never lose.

Because even if you lose, you win.

On the other hand, if you never lose, you never learn.

And how could that be a real victory? “Hurray! I’ve never learned a thing! In me, knowledge remains stalled forever!”

If you want to be a great arguer, emulate one of the greatest, Socrates: focus on questions, not answers. The answers will take care of themselves.

Now maybe you think I’m just asking you to be impossibly virtuous. So let me divulge that this practice also has a sneaky side benefit: if you can be genuinely open to new facts, if you can – and this is crucial – change your opinion in the face of those new facts (stay with me now), you’re likely to become more well-informed.

And the more well-informed you become, the more reality is going to be on your side.

And that’s the best ally you could have.

Because reality – even in the age of Trump – has a way of winning in the end.

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Branding Bannon: How to Protest a White Nationalist in the White House

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Democrats in Washington have registered strong objections to Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his senior White House adviser.

Will their protests make any difference? So far, it looks like no: as the minority in both houses, Democrats have little leverage, and media attention is already fading.

But here’s something that might work, and it borrows a page from Trump’s own playbook: brand Bannon.

Democrats, and everyone who cares about equality, should give him a new name: White Nationalist Steve Bannon.

And pledge never to refer to him as anything else.

This idea is of course similar to Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” — but with an important difference: it’s not an unsupported slur, it’s a simple statement of fact.

Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News has become a hub for the bigots of the white nationalist alt-right, running stories such as this one:

Headline and image of confederate flag from Breitbart news story praising the Confederacy

A Breitbart News story repeated the racist lie that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.

Some people who know Bannon — sorry, I mean White Nationalist Steve Bannon — claim that he personally is not a bigot (though his ex-wife, among others, disagrees).

I might say that’s a distinction without a difference — but what White Nationalist Steve Bannon does is actually worse than just being a garden variety bigot. Most bigots are ignorant. White Nationalist Steve Bannon, an alum of Harvard, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Navy officer corps, knows exactly what he’s doing.

Imagine what he could do in the White House.

The great thing about always and only saying “White Nationalist Steve Bannon” is that it’s a protest that would meet him every time he appears anywhere, and need never end.

Unless, let’s hope, his term in government ends, hopefully before it starts.

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