$100 Billion or Thereabout

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In
his September 15, 2000, piece for the New York Times entitled
"2 Economists Give Far Higher Cost of Gun Violence" Fox
Butterfield reports the findings of two economists that "gun
violence costs Americans $100 billion dollars a year". The
economists in question, Philip
J. Cook
of Duke University and Jens
Ludwig
of Georgetown University, came to these findings for
their new book Gun Violence: The Real Costs, to be published
next month by Oxford University Press.

According
to the article, the researchers "departed from earlier approaches
that looked only at costs like the medical expense of treating gunshot
wounds and the lost productivity of gunshot victims. Those are only
a small part of the real total, the authors say." Butterfield
continues, "The much larger price, they say, involves u2018the
devastating emotional costs experienced by relatives and friends
of gunshot victims, and the fear and general reduction in quality
of life that the threat of gun violence imposes on everyone in America,
including people who are not victimized.' These include all manner
of costs, from the time lost waiting in line at airports to pass
through metal detectors, to the difference between actual property
values in violent neighborhoods and what those values would be if
there was no gun violence."

Now,
at this juncture, you may be asking yourself "How did these
esteemed economists arrive at this figure of $100 billion dollars
from such a large pool of data?" According to Mr. Butterfield,
they used a method called "contingent valuation", in which
they ask people how much they would pay to avoid a problem, in this
case gun violence. To arrive at their conclusion, the authors of
the study executed "a nationally representative telephone survey",
in which "1,200 people were asked how much they would pay per
year to reduce criminal gunshot injuries. The authors applied the
results to the nation’s entire population to reach a figure of $80
billion." What of the remaining $20 billion? Butterfield writes,
"As for accidental shootings and gun suicides, the authors
drew on previous studies of losses in the workplace and on jury
awards to determine the statistical value of life and the costs
of nonfatal injuries. That sum came to $20 billion."

Or
thereabouts. Give-or-take. Plus-or-minus. In the vicinity of.

Now,
I get a lot of calls during the dinner hour from folks doing their
best to sell me time share condos, switch my long distance carrier,
or get me to donate to the Police Benevolent Association, but I
have got to admit, I have never received a call like the aforementioned
"nationally representative telephone survey". If I were
to receive a call in which the first question is "How much
money would you pay to avoid gun violence?" I can assure you,
I would come up with a pretty damned big number. On the other hand,
if the question were rephrased, "How much would you pay so
that somebody-you-don't-know-two-hundred –and-fifty- miles-from-here-in-another
-state could avoid gun violence?" well, that figure might slip
just a tad.

I
must also admit, right up front, that I don't have an advanced degree
in economics like the gentlemen in question, so I don't know how
to cut through all the subtleties of such polling to arrive at "the
hard numbers." Still, I have to think that there is something
amiss here.

Using
the "contingent valuation" methodology, I would think
you could come up with all kinds of amazing statistics. For example,
let's say I get a call while I'm eating my Hamburger Helper tonight,
and a gentlemen on the other end of the line asks me how much I
would pay per year to avoid dealing with my mother-in law. I give
him a figure of, say, $1,500. If she had just done something to
really get me steamed, I might up it to $2,000, so there is a variable
right there. But, for the sake of argument, let's stick with the
$1,500 number for now. I have to assume here that the callers would
now proceed to dial up 1,199 other hapless diners and ask the man-of-the-house
the same question.

If
my fifteen hundred dollars was representative of the average figure,
the total amount that American husbands (using 1998 U.S. Census
figures for married couples) would be willing to pay to avoid their
mothers-in-law would top $82 billion dollars! Even if I were to
allow that some guys would probably not be willing to cough up the
fifteen hundred, I would have to think that the number would still
be in the tens of billions! We could then refer to that downsized
number of, say $60 billion, as "a conservative estimate."

These
expert researchers would now be able to publish a book called Mothers-In-Law:
The Real Costs and officially declare that the adverse cost
to Americans of mothers-in-law is in excess of $60 billion, because
that is how much American men are willing to pay annually to avoid
them based, of course, on a "nationally representative telephone
survey."

What
baloney.

The
truth is that no one can arrive at an accurate number for the intangibles
that these individuals are tying to measure. How much is a human
life worth? What is the quantitative effect of a life lost, especially
a life lost early. You might be able to get close to guessing lifetime
earnings, but that's about it. Would the deceased have had children?
What would those children have accomplished? What was the deceased's
occupation? Did the deceased's lost life impact others directly
or indirectly in terms of their financial productivity? If an individual's
life were saved through the use of a gun, would you add some figure
back in as an offset to the $100 billion, just to keep things honest?

The
other problem with this type of analysis is that is assumes "either-or"
absolutes. It deals with the concept of "gun violence",
as though that were somehow worse than "plain old violence"
of the generic sort. You know, the kind of violence that doesn't
frighten people. Stabbings, beatings, strangling — that sort of
thing.

Also,
does a violent neighborhood suddenly become nonviolent in the absence
of firearms? One could argue that it might become more violent,
since the weak and infirm would have no chance against the predators
in society. If there were no guns, would airports eliminate metal
detectors? Hardly. If there were no guns, would we no longer require
a Secret Service, or security personnel for our elected officials?
Fat chance.

These
researchers, Cook and Ludwig, are the same individuals who have
spent vast amounts of energy attempting to debunk the findings of
Dr. Gary Kleck
(Florida State University) that 2.5 million Americans use a gun
defensively against a criminal attacker each year (Kleck and Gertz,
1995). The primary argument against Dr. Kleck's study is to attack
his methodology, which was — surprise! — a survey! Why would Dr.
Kleck's survey be suspect? Because you can't count on people to
tell the truth in a survey! Unless, apparently, the survey is to
ask you how much you would pay to avoid gun violence.

The
reality is that this study was created for the sole purpose of pumping
a bogus, astronomical figure regarding "gun violence"
costs out to the public just in time for the media lapdogs of the
Democrats to regurgitate the numbers ad infinitum prior to
the 2000 election.

Wait
and see. My bet is we'll be hearing a lot more about this study
before November 7th rolls around.

September
18, 2000

Jef
Allen is a technology professional in Georgia. As a reformed Yankee,
who has lived in the South for roughly twenty years, he has very
little tolerance for Northern sanctimony, or the erosion of individual
liberty.

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