I complain on this blog a lot about bad political analogies. Today let’s try a twist on that: bad political analogies that are criticized for the wrong reasons.
Step one – find a bad political analogy. Welp, there’s Trump’s now-infamous "skittles tweet". If you click through to the link, you’ll see a picture of a bowl of skittles with the following caption:
If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you that just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.
Like most manipulative political analogies, it captures the part of the problem the originator is interested in while studiously distracting from any counterarguments.
It’s right, for example, that there’s inherent risk in bringing Syrian refugees into the country. As a group "Syrian Refugees" are indeed more dangerious than other groups. Taking on large number of them does entail risk of terrorism and criminality. This is partly because they are not trained in our cultural norms (are often downright hostile to them), partly because they tend to be young and male, and partly because they are sometimes neither Syrian nor refugees – actual non-syrian terrorits have been known to pass themselves off as Syrian refugees to gain access to the West. It is not wrong to weigh the costs and benefits to society of allowing them admission in droves. The caption also correctly captures the fact that this is a concern even though the troublemakers may make up only a small minority of the total. It is trying to frame the risk assessment in a way that people can relate to. The benefits of eating a handful of skittles are dubious. You get a brief sugar rush, and that’s about it. If there’s a small-but-real chance that eating them will kill you, all but the most pathetically sugar-addicted will demur. The analogy also gets right the inevitability that there will be terrorist elements in the refugees we accept. We really are rolling the dice on this one. We know that terrorism is a problem in this region, we know from experience that terrorists will try to infiltrate this group and exploit the crisis in Syria to further jihadist aims, and we know that the United States is in many cases their first choice of targets. So, we really do know that some of the skittles are poisoned, even if it’s only a few. And we know that Syrian refugees of the kind we’re taking in are not likely to benefit the US much. They’re by and large not skilled, not adapted to life in the west, and not eager to integrate. They have no money and lots of medical problems. The analogy correctly captures that the cost-benefit is a highely skewed one: little-if-any benefit for a small-but-potentially-costly risk.
Now let’s talk about what it gets wrong. For one thing, the bit about actually dying from the poison is overly dramatic. In fact, any terrorists who manage to mix themselves in aren’t likely to destroy the US, they’re just likely to cause some damage in the form of mass murder. That’s distressing, but it’s not the existential trheat that the analogy makes it out to be. No doubt Trump would point out that it could be you that a Syrian refugee kills. That breaks his analogy (because it’s the US taking in these "handfuls" of "skittles," not any individual person), but never mind – because it’s still trying to mask just how small the real risk to any individual is. Your chances of being killed by a Syrian refugee are like WAY more unlikely than 3 out of … actually, that’s a good question.
How many skittles are in this bowl? Well, reference.com tells me that there are 54 skittles in a 2oz bag, which is the normal size (2.17oz to be exact). I don’t know how many of those it takes to fill up Trump’s bowl, but Wal Mart sells a 41oz bag, which might be the right amount? To keep it conservative, let’s say it takes twice that – so 40 2oz bags, meaning 2160 skittles. How many can you grab in a handful? I’m guessing about half a 2oz bag – so we’re going to grab 20. The chances of one of them being poisoned – which is apparently all it takes to kill me – are 3/2160. Now, I’m drawing against those odds without replacement, so actually the first time I draw it’s 3/2160, the second time it’s 3/2159, etc. I mean, unless I’ve already pulled one of the poisoned ones, in which case it would be 2/2159. But you get the idea – 20 times 3/2160 is a reasonable (if not entirely accurate) estimation, so it’s 60/2160 which is between 2 and 3%. No fucking way is anyone going to grab a handful of skittles if there’s a 2% chance it will kill him! No sugar rush is worth that. Fortunately for desperate Syrian refugees, the chances that taking them in will kill you personally is MUCH MUCH lower than that. President Obama has proposed taking in 10,000 – which is crazy modest compared to the number there are – but it would give us a baseline of about 14 bad apples, even if we buy Trumps out-of-ass skittles numbers. How many people can one bad apple Syrian terrorist kill? Experience to date shows … not many. I mean, Europe has accepted many, many more, and they’ve managed to kill only in the hundreds. To keep the number "in the hundreds," let’s say each bad apple kills 10 – 140 people total. Welp, there are 310million in the US, so you’re talking a rate of something like one ten thousandth of a percent. That’s a lot lower than 2%. A LOT lower. And the neato thing is with numbers that small, it really doesn’t matter what my multiplier is. Even if I go WAY out of plausibility and assume that each bad apple kills a hundred people, then my personal chances of being one of the victims is still in the thousandth of a percent range, so it’s still so small I can reasonably ignore it. Question: would you grab a handful of skittles if there were a 1 in 100,000 chance that doing so would kill you? You would, and you do – because that’s about your chances of choking to death on one if you toss them back into your mouth, as people frequently do.
Now, obviously it’s a really different story if anyone starts proposing that we take in millions, like Germany does. But fortunately for us – and unfortunately for Trump’s scare-mongering – no one is proposing anything like that. The currently proposal is less than a thousandth of that. I think we’ll survive it.
But that doesn’t make the cost-benefit analysis go away. What, exactly, do we get out of accepting Syrian refugees? Why should we do it at all?
Here’s where the bad counteranalogy comes in. Some twit named Eli Bosnick is making the rounds on Facebook by suggesting that the right answer to the question is to GORGE yourself on skittles – basically just keep eating them until you’ve consumed all the poisoned ones, and then count on posterity to laud you for it, because you will have saved literally thousands of lives for your one life. Lots of people I know on Facebook are sharing this (it’s here by the way), implying that they are personally willing to keep taking in Syrians until one of them goes and murders them, because in the balance it will have been worth it.
Yeah, count me out.
As I said, I’m willing to take the 1 in 100,000 risk (extremely roughly estimated) posed by the current suggested level. I’m not willing to amp it up to where my risk is 2%. Because getting it up that high – let’s not mince words here – requires massive changes to American society. At that point, it wouldn’t be just about me and my 2% chance of dying. Rather, it would be like saying "grabbing a handful of these skittles entails a 2% risk of death, but something like an 80% risk of lifelong diabetes or other debilitating medical condition. But Eli Bosnick wants to go even further than that. He wants to keep eating until he’s consumed even the bad ones, because he’s just that great of a guy!
Only he isn’t. And neither is pretty much anyone else. When confronted about it on Twitter – about whether he would really "GORGE [himself] on (metaphorical) skittles" – he gives exactly the dodge you might expect. Apparently, he’s involved with some charity that’s designed to help people in poverty, and he posts about this charity on Twitter. As a result of his and others’ publicity efforts, this charity has recently raised $14k. So, Eli expects us to believe that there is a moral equivalence between eating potentially posioned candy until you die, and … wait for it … sharing links to charities on Twitter that result in donations to the tune of a fraction of his yearly earnings.
I think we all know how to react to that: Eli Bosnick is a shitty, duplicitious coward with the moral authority of a hyaena.
Let’s make him an offer: if he actually kills himself on live TV, we’ll take in twice as many Syrian refugees as has been proposed. So, his life in exchange for 10,000. Will he do it?
Maybe you would. The point is that the kind of person who would is not the kind of person who points to $14k donated to charity by other people as evidence that he would. That fools no one.
If Eli Bosnick actually cares about Syrian refugees, there’s a lot he can do to help them – and he doesn’t even have to kill himself to do it! But we know from his response that he doesn’t give a fig about Syrian refugees. They are useful to him primarily as a way to convince people on social media that he is a fantastic person. He sees suffering on the news and thinks "I wonder if I can use that to draw some attention to myself?" I think it’s safe to say that Eli Bosnick is a monster, and that anyone who shared his post on Facebook without actually doing anything substantive to help Syrian refugees is also a monster.
Trump’s skittles analogy is a pretty bad one, but for all that it’s still less duplicitous than Eli Bosnick’s response to it. Because while Trump’s analogy is intentionally overstating the danger with Syrian refugees, it at least gets right that there is a tradeoff in accepting them, and that we need to be real about what level of risk we’re willing to accept to take them on. Ironically, phrasing it that way calls attention to how little risk there is in accepting the numbers we’re accepting, and highlights how we could, and probably should, reasonably accept more, effectively arguing against the point Trump thinks he’s making with it. But let’s be clear – Trump is not wrong that there is a number above which it’s just not worth it anymore, and healthy discussion on that point about immigration in general is not a bad thing.
By contrast, there’s absolutely nothing of redeeming value in Bosnick’s response. He is not Jesus, it is not up to him to personally save tens of thousands of lives, more to the point he isn’t even trying to. All he’s trying to do is get credit for it all while not even remotely doing it.
And in that, I think you have a microcosm of where Trump support comes from. Trump is exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis to draw attention to himself for personal gain, and Eli Bosnich is likewise exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis to draw attention to himself for personal gain. If it’s easier to stomach with Trump, it’s because it’s always easier to stomach self-promotion in the service of realpolitik than it is when the charlatan is trying to convince you he’s the kindest, bravest, warmest person since Raymond Shaw. And that’s in part where Trump’s support comes from – because people have had it up to here with sanctimony.