PERVERSE INCENTIVES

Posted in Rants on January 18th, 2011 by Ed

Bob and Mary live in rural northern California. Neither graduated college and they struggle to make ends meet in the economic wasteland that prevailed after the logging and manufacturing industries pulled up stakes in the 1980s. But a new industry swept in to take their place – the California Department of Corrections threw up a lot of prisons in which to house the bounty of Orange County's war on the state's underclass, and state governments know from experience that the best places to build a Big House are A) far away from the suburbs and B) in areas so desperate economically that they'll accept state dollars in any form with open arms.

Being a prison guard pays more than anything a person with limited skills and education can find in rural areas, so Bob is happy to have the job. But it's brutally difficult work. Violence, paranoia, and the constant threat of more violence tend to wear down even the most mentally stable people. Bob isn't well equipped to handle it. He starts to drink quite a bit in his off hours. He becomes more violent and difficult to deal with; a few times he even slaps his wife around.

Everyone understands that there is a problem here. Bob knows he drinks too much and needs help. Mary knows that she should call the cops on her abusive husband. The problem is that if Bob is named in a domestic violence call, he'll lose his job. And she knows how much both of them need his paycheck. Alternatively, if he tells the CDC that he is an alcoholic who needs help with anger and violence, he goes on suspension and the possibility of future advancement disappears. So a system designed to help people – there state funded resources available for domestic violence victims and employees like Bob who have psychological problems – ends up driving them away. The incentive to get mental help is never going to be stronger than the incentive to remain employed.

This is not an isolated example. Just this past summer the FAA finally changed a longstanding policy of barring commercial pilots on antidepressants from the cockpit. The primary effect of the regulation was to prevent pilots who thought about getting psychological help from getting it. This is a lesson the FAA should have learned from its earlier experience with the issue of alcoholism, wherein a ban served mostly to make pilots really good at hiding their heavy drinking.

Now that we have predictably concluded that having 200,000,000 firearms circulating in our society is not a contributing factor to firearm-related violence, 2nd Amendment Patriots have succeeded in re-framing the argument to focus on mental illness. Are we really Doing Enough to ensure that a few Bad Apples like the Tucson shooter don't end up with guns they shouldn't have? Obviously we collectively accept that a mentally disturbed person shouldn't be able to walk into a gun shop and buy whatever he wants. Nonetheless, the focus on the shooter's apparent craziness fits the NRA gameplan to a tee. Aside from the likelihood that "tougher" restrictions on guns for people with diagnosed mental disorders will just encourage a larger number of people to deny that they need help, the NRA knows that:

1. Any discussion of the mental illness issue reduces the focus on guns themselves
2. A crackdown on mental health issues feeds directly into the paranoia that is popular among the hardcore NRA crowd ("Some librul judge and some Jew psychiatrist is gonna decide that yer crazy, and then the FBI and the Army and the Police and the surviving members of the Warren Commission are gonna come and a-take yer guns!")
3. We already know that laws banning individuals from owning guns are terribly effective
4. In the end everyone will talk in circles for a week or two and nothing at all will happen, and the status quo is always their preferred outcome

Good times. At best we'd end up with an easily circumvented system after a lengthy witch hunt against the mentally ill. More realistically we'll just get a whole lot more of the same.