Monday, January 14, 2013

The Background Check

Today, US President Barack Hussein Obama called for more extensive background checks for gun purchasers.

The most extensive use of "background checks" in America has been for many years the Daily Racing Form, the publication that provides for handicappers the past performances of thoroughbreds entered in a day's racing program at each track in the country.  Not only are the details of each entered horse's previous races given but also the animal's workout times, sales history, ancestry, and training connections.  Serious horse players would never bet a race without consulting the  Form or a similar competitor like Today's Racing Digest. But these specialized publications aren't free.  The Daily Racing Form sells for $5 a copy. Even so, there's no sure thing in the handicapping business, the favorite in a race only wins about 30% of the time.  James Quinn, a celebrated horse racing theorist, points out in The Handicappers Condition Book that the most likely winner of a Grade 1 race will be a horse that has already won a Grade 1 race.  This might seem logical but it's nonsense.  Every horse that wins a Grade 1 race has to have done so once for the first time.

The same thinking applies to background checks on humans.  Whatever historical behavior might lead to the failure of a background check can't be used to predict future behavior and a satisfactory background check is no guarantee of a pristine future, after all, every individual that performs an anti-social/criminal act does it for the first time at some point.  This obsession with background checks for gun purchases, jobs, etc. is, more than anything, a source of income for the background check business.  And since historical data can only marginally determine future risk, no firm providing background check information would ever guarantee that its information would provide a 100% accurate picture of future behavior.  They are selling a service of negligible value.  The same is true of the proliferation of cameras recording movement and behavior in both public and private spaces.  Rather than be meaningful in prevention or solution of crime, the cameras and associated recording equipment are a boon for the business that supplies and maintains them.  Offering services that people mistakenly assume increases their security is a license to print money.  

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