Nuclear weapons and guns: comrades in arms

Which is more of a threat to a nation’s safety ― untrammeled gun “rights” or a nukes program?

NuclearWarheadAuthor’s note: I first published this essay on Kindle in autumn of 2013, then at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points. It is now my pleasure to present it to Scholars & Rogues readers.

A nuclear weapon and a gun may be far apart on the arms spectrum, but they’re more alike than not. They’re both designed to kill by setting off detonations – one massive, the other miniaturized. Both depend, also to different degrees, on deterrence for their effectiveness. What’s more, the imperative to “go forth and propagate” seems to inform both nuclear proliferation and the profusion of guns. But nuclear disarmament and gun control are difficult to enact in the United States because nuclear-weapons advocates and pro-gun campaigners twist the law, in the form of treaties and the Constitution, to their own ends.

Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) calls for negotiations on “measures relating to nuclear disarmament,” as well as “a treaty on general and complete disarmament” (an umbrella term that covers conventional weapons and the arms trade, as well as nuclear weapons). While nuclear disarmament and gun control run on different tracks, it might be useful to compare and contrast them in hopes of shunting nuclear weapons and guns to the same rail yard. Once there – if on timetables reflecting their force differential – they can finally be decommissioned.

Deterrence, which holds that keeping your enemies at bay requires arming yourself with weapons equal to or more powerful than theirs, is the official raison d’etre of the U.S. nuclear-weapons program. It works less well for private citizens defending hearth and home because, by law, we’re denied military-grade weapons such as rocket launchers. Also, since your neighbor may not know what weapons you’ve stockpiled, the other requirement for effective deterrence – that one’s arsenal be public knowledge – can’t be met.

But guns would become more effective deterrents if their advocates were to succeed in their quest to impose their interpretation of the Second Amendment on the courts. In their eyes, it guarantees the right to possess weapons of sufficient strength to fend off the state in the event it attempts to exert absolute power. Also, with those weapons legal, gun owners could make their presence in their arsenals known.

Regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it’s been substantially curbed thanks to the NPT. Along with the United States, the other nuclear-weapon states that signed the NPT maintain them mainly as deterrents. But states that succumbed to the urge to proliferate without signing (Israel, India, and Pakistan) or that withdrew from the NPT (North Korea) seem more disposed to view nuclear weapons as offensive weapons as well as deterrents. Equally as alarming, according to a September 2012 Ploughshares Fund report, over the next decade, the U.S. nuclear-weapons program will account for approximately $640 billion of the federal budget. Does anyone really believe that funding it in perpetuity instead of disarming, as required by the NPT, is lost on non-nuclear-weapons states, such as Iran, which are expected to observe the letter of the nonproliferation law?

The profusion of guns, meanwhile, has been more difficult to rein in because of their ubiquity and affordability. Furthermore, the logic of nonproliferation is lost on many gun owners, who see it as limiting their ability to defend themselves on a playing field tilted to criminals and the mentally ill, many of whom obtain guns illegally.

As for a treaty such as the NPT, nuclear-weapon states that signed pay little more than lip service to its articles when they don’t dovetail with their defense policies. First, they ignore Article IV, which recognizes the inalienable right of the treaty’s signatories to nuclear energy and to either enrich uranium or purchase it on an international market. True, the article turned out to be, in the words of former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei, the “Achilles’ heel” of the NPT because enrichment and reprocessing are dual-use technologies capable of fulfilling military roles. But Western nuclear powers refuse to acknowledge the inequity presented by denying a signatory such as Iran enrichment.

Second, the aforementioned Article VI requires that each signatory “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating” to achieve the disarmament cited above. Even though the International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that the phrase “and bring to a conclusion” is implied by “pursue negotiations,” its absence tempts nuclear-weapon advocates, such as a George W. Bush-administration official, to pretend that making conclusion binding wasn’t an unrealistic goal to insert into a treaty that was already ahead of its times. Acting as if “and catch” isn’t implied by “pursue” is legalism at its most petty.

Yet, another Bush administration official maintained that “general and complete disarmament” doesn’t hinge on concluding the negotiations for a final nuclear-disarmament treaty first. Obviously, general and complete disarmament is not in the cards for another millennium, while many believe nuclear disarmament attainable within a century. A major overhaul of the NPT can’t help but lend some much-needed clarity to the issue of enrichment and the extent to which nonproliferation and disarmament depend on each other.

Meanwhile, gun advocates seek to appropriate the Constitution to their own purposes by lobbying for a reinterpretation of the Second Amendment. To help citizens defend themselves against a despot, the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to bear arms to state militias, though not individuals. But, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) rose to prominence in the 1970s, it mounted a campaign to extend Second Amendment rights to individuals.

Towards that end, in 2002, a Cato Institute fellow filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a District of Columbia law forbidding residents from owning handguns. In a qualified victory for gun advocates on the case known as District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for such purposes as self-defense within the home.

NRA Chief Wayne LaPierre has made defense against autocracy a linchpin of gun rights. In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, he told a Senate Judiciary Committee that “our Founding Fathers,” who had “lived under the tyranny of King George … wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again.” Of President Obama, LaPierre wrote: “Many people are, indeed, warning about tyranny ‘lurking just around the corner.’ ” But even a nominal rebellion would require automatic firearms and other weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles, which were upheld as illegal by Heller.

Nevertheless, since that decision, gun advocates act as if they’re playing with house money. Realistically, the ability to protect themselves from a totalitarian government isn’t a goal that they believe they can achieve. But, along with opposing universal background checks, it does push the envelope of gun rights which, snapped back into shape by reality, still leaves gun advocates with their lowest common denominator – an “AR-15 in our home, and a 30-round mag to go with it.”

The path to security is fraught with danger

Ultimately, a significant drawdown of nuclear-weapon stockpiles and gun arsenals can’t be achieved until we accept two principles. One, the harder we try to slam shut our window of vulnerability, the more likely it is to spring back open. Two, leaving a safer world to future generations requires that we summon up the courage to take a leap of faith.

Gun advocates maintain that those who hold that a safe society is a product of gun control put the cart before the horse. To reiterate, they believe it requires law-abiding citizens to be at least as well armed as lawbreakers. But, to expect mothers, for example, to be “packing” to defend their children and head massacres off at the pass makes gun advocates sound like they’re not listening to themselves.

Nuclear-weapons advocates are also susceptible to the logic that beginning to relinquish your arms before your adversaries do is foolhardy. Not only do they believe nonproliferation should precede disarmament. But many of them insist that a nuclear-weapon state attempting to demonstrate leadership on disarmament by divesting itself of nuclear weapons exerts no salutary effect on the nuclear-weapons aspirations of non-nuclear-weapon states. Whether or not that’s true, it’s tough to deny that a nuclear-weapon state that dodges its disarmament obligations while insisting have-nots remain that way breeds resentment.

In truth, a safe society is impossible when guns continue to flood the market. Nor is any nation exempt from extinction as long as nuclear weapons, with their risks of detonation – whether by “accident, miscalculation or design” – exist. Put the two together and our children can’t help but be bewildered by the message we’re sending them. The conclusion they draw may look like this: “If deterrence fails, a nuclear war may break out during your lifetime. But, at least we’re leaving you guns to help you navigate the post-apocalyptic world.”

Absolute security may be our ideal, but in fact it’s a false idol to which we sacrifice the future of our species. If vulnerability is a window, it’s as difficult to keep weather-sealed as it is to keep radiation from a nuclear blast out by duct-taping the windows of our home.

On the other hand, neither do gun control and disarmament provide surefire routes to total security. Deprived of a concealed-carry permit during the interlude between legislation of substantive gun control and its implementation, we’re at a disadvantage during an assault or robbery. A disarmament agenda such as the Global Zero Action Plan may be meticulous, but all the phasing and verification in the world can’t guarantee an opportunistic state won’t be tempted to sneak in a nuclear attack. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote: “Most of what we call civilization depends on reciprocal vulnerability.”

It’s inescapable: both making society civil in more than just name only and rendering foreign relations harmonious require a leap of faith. What’s called for is the rarest kind of courage: resisting our natural inclination to resort to overkill under the illusion that it will protect our children today and instead seeking to make the world safer for future generations.

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26 replies »

  1. “Untrammeled, not deprived of freedom of action or expression; not restricted or hampered.” I’d say there’s been quite a bit of trammeling of gun rights over the last two centuries Russ, some of it quite reasonable as our society urbanizes and some of it pure gobshite.

    If we wish a kinder gentler safer world and I for one agree we do, then we must raise kinder gentler smarter children. Humans are tool makers and if you take away their tools without removing underlying purpose they’ll just make more and/or invent new ones.

    Feeding and educating our children will take us much further than futile attempts to confiscate all the sticks and stones in the world.

  2. Nuclear weapons make the original goal of being stronger than the military impossible. However, we can still keep the spirit of that ideal by ensuring that (1) The military is forbidden to get involved with domestic law enforcement, and (2) The general public is allowed to have all the kinds of weapons that domestic law enforcement is allowed to use.

  3. Much like nations are not obliged to help other nations unless there is a direct alliance in place, police are not legally obligated to protect citizens. We are on our own.

      • A federal court ruled in Warren v. District of Columbia ruled that police are not legally obligated I protect individual citizens unless they are acting in an official capacity (.gov officials getting police protection details).

        The US Supreme Court ruled in Castle Rock v. Gonzales that there is no right to police protection for private citizens even if there is a restraining order in place.

  4. As I have argued elsewhere, Russ, I think guns have more in common with alcohol, pornography, prostitution, heroin and muscle cars. They’re things people want despite knowing deep down they’re not good for them, and thus people will make up all sorts of bullshit reasons why they “deserve” them. I think there is likely a small cadre of “Dr. Strangelove” militarists who feel the same way about nuclear missiles, but suspect most nuclear proponents do not get the same erection when they see a tipped missile that gun nuts do when they clean their 9 mils.

  5. I suspect I speak for the majority of shooters when I say cleaning guns is about as much fun as recovering from a hangover after a night of heart partying, changing oil on a muscle car, or getting a penicillin shot after visiting the corner hooker. Anyone who finds those sort of chores sexually arousing is likely a danger to themselves and society.

    Why would critical thinkers feel keeping nuclear armaments around is a good idea? Well, despite a relative few decades of calm, international relations can deteriorate in a heart beat and in the great game, having an upper hand is a decidedly comforting thought. There is also the possibility of using them to deflect an earth killing asteroid, and while slim the chance is real enough that NASA studies it constantly.

    And firearms follow a similar track. As Mr GSP above points out, the Supreme Court has affirmed police have no legal responsibility to protect us. Most of us will never need to use a firearm in self defense but there are situations where nothing else can protect us. Call it a manifestation of the survival instinct.

  6. well, since i nver actually end up cleaning my guns, I’m not much of an expert. some day they’re gooing to blow up

    having said that and notwithstanding my hyperbole, people love guns. i dont get it, but they do. they buy them, play with them, clean them obsessively, hoard them, etc, etc. ownership is emotionally driven, not rationally driven. i genuninely don’t care, but i think unless you live on a farm, or in a high crime neighborhood, most rational arguments for gun ownership are tripe, like the guy I knew who lived in palo alto and owned nine 10 mil glocks. one for every floor in his houses, one for every car and one for his small sailboat. home invasion in a gated neighborhood in palo alto? seriously? piracy in sf bay? really?.

    • I’ve learned to take your hyperbole with a smile Otherwise, the underlying content is always worth the small concession. And yes, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know some people, men and women, who are armed to the teeth and absolutely certain society as we know it is going to crumble to chaos at any moment. I consider them to be fringe and in no way mainstream gun owners but I understand you perceive things differently.

      As to why one might want to own a gun in upscale urban/suburban environments I’m always reminded of Dianne DeGette, a vociferous if not down right rapid anti-gun Colorado State Senator. Her house in Washington Park, an old but upcoming yuppie enclave, was burgled one evening back in the 90’s while she was home alone and she immediately ran across the alley to her neighbor’s house, a man who she knew owned guns to call the police. When questioned about it later by the Denver Post she became defensive but admitted she felt he could protect her. Rather like Nancy Pelosi and her concealed carry permit, good enough for her but not the rest of us?

      Oh, and your guns won’t blow up from lack of cleaning, malfunction perhaps but not blow up. If they rust though you’re killing the resale value. Which leads into another reason to own more than one gun. Carefully chosen they are an appreciating asset and hedge against inflation. I think I’ve probably annoyed you enough for one morning 8^)

      • I never heard that DeGette story, but very early in her career I read her stance on guns and concluded on the spot that she was a dingbat. I’m proud to say that in all the years I lived in her district I never voted for her once. Not that it mattered, of course….

      • Yeah, my wife’s cousin was killed in a home invasion where a gun might have made the difference. Junkie breaking into apt next door. She thinks it’s her’s (she had some issues,) calls police, panics, tries to open door and run past intruder, he shoots her in the back. Terrible story, terrible event. Still, as I remember, home invasions and the like are far, far rarer than accidental gun deaths, suicides and intra-family deaths due to guns.

  7. militia in any old dictionary was any able bodied man in the community was to gather at the sounding of an alarm to protect the community from indians gangs the a lone sheriff or constable could not handle. the definition in the dictionaries has changed, but it you find an old one 30 or 40 years old you can read it for your self. secondly when the constitution was written there were no standing armies or state militia as you stated george washington had to assemble an army.
    when the ussr invaded afghanistan most of the people resisting had black powder weapons to fight the might of the ussr. when you are fighting for your home land it gives you an advantage. also the use of big weapons would destroy a lot of structure that would not be acceptable so the use of big weapons would be minimized. plus i would think there would be a lot of mutinies from the armed service and they would bring there weapons.
    switzerland has never had a standing army and that country has never been invaded. why? well everyone in the country is there army and they actually tale there automtic weapons home with them so they are available.

  8. one more thing prohibition has never worked any where any time in history. alcohol, drugs, murder and anything else you would like to name. what makes you think you can magically make them disappear. it would make the cartels rich and the law abiding people at risk, besides give the criminals a green light to apply their trade. yes crime would go up. in fact the places with the worst crime rates are those that have the strictest gun control measures.

    yes women need guns even more then men and infact it is one of the fastest growing markets in the sale of guns. someone has to protect themselves and the courts have ruled that the police have no responsibility to protect you as an individual. that is the way the justice department looks at it. the police can not be everywhere and protect everyone so the government does not want lawsuits to take all the money from the law enforcers. plain and simple you are the only one responsible to protect your self. should you not want to that is you right and i can respect it, but to take my right away from me i will not tolerate. concealed hand gun permit holders are the most law abiding individuals in the nation. they have to be or they would lose the right to protect themself. when they do, they can be subject to a lot of legal fees for protecting themselves from someone trying to kill them. wow what a bunch of crap.

    it is illegal for the federal government to keep a registry of gun owners, which obama instigated after the illegal fast and furious crap that the atfe did under eric holder who is directly under obama. that little escaped has cost at least one american life and 100’s of mexicans life in what appears to be a political ploy to start an illegal gun registration. it seems the anti gun people do not care how many they kill to further their cause. so this is the war on guns. anytime you hear the war on…, like alcohol, drugs, terrorism, and even tobacco, it means they are taking more of your rights away to “protect you from yourself or some fanciful evil”. no knock search warrants to fight drugs are against the constitution, that is one of the main reasons it was written. i have yet to hear an out cry because of the people that were killed because the had the wrong address. this country is becoming a lot like animal farm. the 10% with 90% of the money want to control everything, and tell us how to live and if we do not punish us. this is not the america i was taught about ion school.

    no matter what you say guns make us safe, it can be proven and has (John Lott- More Guns Less Crime), get rid of all nuclear weapons and there will be an iran that will become very bold. sure the building them can be over done it has in the past. i was a down winder and have had cancer. the government knew what it was doing to some of the people but it was for the good of the country. is that a government you want to trust. they put soldiers in trenches with goggles and set off an atomic bomb just to see what the effects were. around my area a whole flock of sheep ended up dead, by germ warfare testing and the own lost his legal battle and lively hood. i do not trust the government why should i, they have not proved they deserve it. a leap of faith what crap. if you believe god would protect you you could jump off a cliff and be protected. there will always be a small percentage of people that need to be controlled or killed. nothing is perfect and it is all revolving around a statistical curve. even in
    physics. the norm is pretty good people, some are exceptional and great, and some are absolutely terrible and should not be on this earth. a leap of faith, not me i believe in freedom and self protection. freedom to do heroin, have more then one wife or husband. the freedom to do what i want as long as i am not hurting anyone else especially children. religion has step in and controlled the law making to take away my freedom because they know what is best for me. perhaps they do but it is my freedom to chose and make mistakes not the governments or you. it is my freedom.

    controlling guns now with 3 d printing is a mute problem now. you can only take them from the law abiding people and if you try there will be so many criminals you will never build enough jails. hell the jails are full of heroin addicts still doing heroin and learning how to be better criminals. we jail more people then anywhere in the world. we need to decentralize not centralize. less laws including gun laws.

    • Art, thank you for your service and thank you for the occasional line break in your posting, both are very much appreciated. And you are absolutely right it is our freedoms that are being parlayed away one smidgen at a time.

      The good news is we’ll get to keep most of what we’ve got even as the rights of the next generation are shaved before they are born. Each generation starts with a little less freedom but they don’t know any different because that’s what they’re born into.

      There will come a point eventually though, when there’s nothing left to shave and that’s usually when things crumble to chaos and mayhem before a new order arises.

      Nice chatting with you,

      Frank D
      Humanist, Husband, Father, Business Owner, ex-Marine, NRA Endowment Member

  9. We just have to make our peace with guns and massacres, no matter how much it tears up the families, just like those of suicide bombing victims in the Middle East. Americans love their guns.

    • Here’s an interesting blurb from Bloomberg’s Businessweek which suggests that it is not at all unreasonable to conclude that personally owned firearms wielded by law abiding citizens prevent several hundred thousand assaults, robberies, and potential homicides every year. And in most cases merely brandishing the heinous killing machine does the job nicely. No shots are fired, no blood is shed.


      Successful defensive use of firearms always seems to get left out of discussions such as this and to me that’s defective thinking. How can we possibly hope to know the truth if we don’t look at all sides of the question? Or is it naive of me to think that truth even matters?

      • Frank: While I have no doubt that crimes are discouraged by guns on occasion – and let’s remember, I’m a gun-owning progressive – Kleck’s data is ludicrous. Methodologically, I pretty much ignore self-report surveys on highly charged and emotional issues that are likely to elicit responses that sacrifice strict factual accuracy in favor of answers that support an agenda on principle, no matter what the issue or result is. And that’s before you even get into the specifics of this particular “study.”

        What I’d like is a study that does a better job getting at the real number so we could have a more factually informed discussion than is possible right now.

        • Sam I think it’s quite reasonable to make an educated guess, as does the Bloomberg reporter, that between Kleck’s hard right “2 million defensive uses of a firearm each year” and Hemenways hard left “100,000 defensive uses of a firearm each year” lies a middle ground of several hundred thousand defensive uses of a firearm each year.

          Christ, when even Bloomberg’s minions admit the reality of an offsetting dialog to “guns are only for killing” it’s rather hard not to notice. Pulling back to Russ’ post above, the mere ownership of nuclear weapons also presents a strong defensive deterrent to being over run by conventional forces and munitions. Israel being a perfect example, if it disarmed itself “for the greater good” how long do you think it would continue to exist as the Jewish homeland?

        • Ask yourself a question, as I have. How many people do you know? How many do you interact with in a year? Now, how many cases, among those people, are you aware of where people pulled a gun to ward off crime?

          If you buy Kleck’s numbers, then we’d expect an instance of roughly one case per hundred adults per year in the US. Now, over the course of my adult life – I turned 18 in 1979, so this would be 35ish years – I’d probably say I interacted with what, 1000 people a year? Let’s be conservative, because the subject wouldn’t come up with just anyone. So being really conservative, let’s call it 200 folks a year where the subject might come up in a stray conversation (because this is a situation that’s going to be a big deal for most people).

          So that would be 7000 possible cases, maybe. Which means, on average, I should have heard of 70ish instances in my life of people using guns to deter crime.

          The actual number of times, to the best of my recollection, is zero.

          Now, this is hardly definitive science, but it does strike me as a fair sniff test reaction to a proposition that’s plagued with … questions.

          This leads me to yearn for more reliable data, as I said, and to suspect that the actual number of cases is dramatically fewer than what the gun lobby and its supporters would like me to believe. 100k seems a lot more plausible to me, and I’m not sure I’d even buy a number that high without more proof. In essence, this says that I should expect, on average, 2000 cases per state per year. The passion of the issue being what it is, and the motivation of the pro-gun segment of society to use any evidence it can find to support its point, I’d expect that I’d be seeing more stories on the news. After all, we’re talking about nearly 5.5 instances per state per day.

          Again, I don’t have a definitive study to point to, but I am being asked to believe a proposition that in no way comes close to squaring with my experience of social reality.

  10. I really thought by linking to a questionably neutral verging on anti-gun source and pointing out that even they believe there are most likely 250-370k defensive gun uses per year that it might stimulate a different perspective in this discussion Sam. Your doubt of even Hemenway’s base figure astounds me.

    Oh well, interesting discussion even if we can’t quite reach each other’s point of view. And not that anecdotal evidence can be extrapolated in any way to larger generalities but yes I have had the unfortunate opportunity to use a handgun defensively twice in my life with no shots fired but I was damn glad I was armed. Once was my fault for being out late at night in a bad neighborhood, the other in defense of a young lady leaving work just after dark being accosted by two punks after her purse.

    • Okay – now I know of two cases. And I’m damned glad you didn’t have to shoot anyone. There was one time in the late ’80s when I thought I might have to pull my gun, and I had it at the ready, but it turned out that I had misread a situation and all was well.

      Listen, I’m not trying to suggest that it never happens. Nor am I prescribing policy. I’m just saying that I’m suspicious of the research, which tells me things that do not seem plausible.

      I just went and had a look at the Hemenway report here. Hemenway is certainly a credible investigator. Examining the methodology and results, I find myself still uneasy about even the more conservative numbers (I think this is saying 60-120k per year). As I said earlier, if it’s happening over five times a day in every state, I’m stunned I’m not hearing about it more often.

      Two other things about it that bug me. First, by the definitions they use, my case above would count – they count cases where the “bad guys” never knew the respondent had a gun. If I’m following those guidelines, I’d have to report that yes, I have done it. But never by any reasonable definition would I think that. Also, I found myself scratching my head at this part:

      On the 1996 survey, 14 civilian respondents reported using a gun in self defense in the past five years, accounting for 54 incidents. On the 1999 survey, 29 civilian respondents reported using a gun in self defense, accounting for 92 gun uses. For both surveys combined, a total of 146 self defense gun uses were reported by 43 people who were not police, military personnel, or security guards (table 2).

      Now, I tend to think of something like this as being a pretty darned rare occurrence – as in, it probably never happens for most people and it would be extremely rare for it happen more than once, right. But … this seems to suggest that it happens a LOT for these respondents. As in, nearly once a year?

      I’m not sure what perspective you want to promote in this conversation, exactly. If anyone thinks I’m anti-gun or that I’m dismissing valid evidence or whatever, I really encourage them to reread this. I have packed, and for reasons that struck me as imminently reasonable.

      All I’m saying is that we do not, as of yet, have research on the incidence of self-defense usage that gives me evidence I trust. You seem to want to say that if we accept a higher number, that would change the tone of the policy debate. Well, yeah, absolutely. But before I do that, I need a reason to believe that the number is credible. If I don’t do that, then I’m not basing analysis on data, I’m accepting or rejecting data based on my desire to promote an agenda.

      There are pro-gun types who absolutely do this. There are probably gun control advocates who would deny that it happens more than three or four times a year. (Not citing anything specific here, but we both have likely encountered anti-gun types who border on rabid.)

      I just want to know what the actual number is so I can develop a more informed opinion.

      • It is awfully squishy Sam I agree. And the offset to defensive uses is the unlawful assaults and intimidation’s commissioned with a firearm.

        More unbiased data would be very helpful!

        • Yes. The problem is that it’s a question that’s inherently hard, if not impossible to get at. I can’t really think of a good objective way of getting at the true data. And the obvious route – the survey – is inherently unreliable.

          Sadly, some things are simply hard to quantify.