Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Album, Best Track of 2012

The Best Album of 2012 is Paul Weller's Sonik Kicks. I make no bones about being a Brit Rock obsessive but this record goes far beyond that. With his latest release, Weller continues to explore a multitude of musical styles ranging from Kraut Rock to Chill Out Trance Dubs. There are several nods to his old, Mod days in the Jam as well as acoustic pastorals that would go along wonderfully with a Monet painting.

The track of the year is from this album. "A Study In Blue," featuring his wife, Hannah, is a beautiful, haunting and trippy piece of music that has pretty much been the soundtrack to my year. Check it out and play it loud as you head this evening for NYE festivities!

Best TV Show of 2012

The best TV show of 2012 is HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Season 3 was absolutely wonderful and hit on all cylinders with 100 percent power. The acting, the writing, and directing were all impeccable this year and each week was like watching a mini film to be quite honest.

Steve Buscemi continues to be one of the most underrated actors of our time. Bobby Cannavale's Gyp Rosetti was truly one of the most frightening characters to every grace the small screen. And, like the previous two seasons, the historical context stayed true to the times. Prohibition was a horribly violent time and showed the folly of trying to outlaw alcohol.

Here's one of the trailers for Season 3.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Film of 2012

It's that time of year again for Best Ofs and first up is Best Film. This year, it wasn't even contest.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is the best coming of age story put on celluloid since Rob Reiner's Stand By Me. It tells the story of two young teenagers in the mid 1960s who decide to run away and have an adventure. Their parents, his scout troop, social services, and the law (in the form of the completely hilarious Bruce Willis) pursue them.

Anderson's perception of life has always resonated with me. All of his films are gems, in my opinion, but this one seems a level above that. If you've never seen any of his films, I recommend picking them all up and checking them out. Start with this one.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happily Going Over The Cliff

It's been amusing in a sort of horrifying way to watch Congress try to come up with some sort of plan to avert the tax rate rise and spending cuts that are going to occur on January 1, 2013. I don't think I've ever seen a Republican leader admit that he was powerless as Speaker Boehner did last week. "It's now up to the president and Harry Reid," he said. Unbelievable.

But that's what happens when you have a caucus that is comprised of juveniles who are eternally stomping down the hallway and slamming their doors at what they perceive to be their dad. They're perfectly happy to crash the car in order to sate their adolescent power fantasies. They'd rather cut of their nose despite their faces.

And that's just what is going to happen. If no deal is reached by Tuesday (and it looks doubtful), January 2nd is going to be a barn burner at the New York Stock Exchange. At that point, the GOP will be fucked. If they deal now, they are going to get something for those upper income folks. If they wait, however, the only bill they are going to see is one that makes the tax cuts permanent for those making under 250K and they will have no choice but to sign it as the market drops 500-1000 points.

They're also going to get bloody ears (and possibly more) in terms of the spending cuts and will likely have to give in on those as well. Much of their constituency is old people who love Medicare and Social Security. Any sort of cuts will be viewed with much animosity. This doesn't even take into account the defense cuts which, in my view, if they happen, will basically mean the end of the Tea Party. Democrats learned a long time ago that you don't fuck with defense contractors.

So, this begs the question, do the Republicans want to be the Whigs of the 21st century? Given their intransigent stance on immigration (along with the rest of all of this), I think they do. Bottom line: they need to change. If they don't, Texas will turn blue in 2016 or 2020 and that will be it for them.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Real-Life Test of the NRA School Proposal

Three police officers were shot in a New Jersey police station by a domestic abuse suspect who somehow got a gun. The suspect was killed. One officer suffered abdominal wounds below his bullet proof vest, while the other two were grazed. All are expected to recover.

Yes, another senseless tragedy caused by a nutjob combined with a tragic screw-up.

But this incident shows how flawed the NRA's "more guns" idea is. A police station is the best-case scenario for the "protective" nature of guns. Everyone there is a trained professional. They know exactly who the bad guy is. Yet somehow he got a gun and shot three cops.

This is not the first time this has happened: it happened in Michigan in 2011, again in Michigan this November, in Virginia in 2006, and so on. Then there are the accidental shootings at police stations (Huntington Beach this July). And then there are the "freak accidents," like the woman was accidentally killed in Detroit when she hugged an off-duty cop.
 We know with certainty that more guns in schools will result in some number of additional deaths each year due to accidental shootings and guns being wrested away from guards. The question is: will the deaths caused by the presence of armed guards outnumber the deaths that might be saved from mass shootings?

The NRA would like us to just write those accidental deaths and injuries off as collateral damage, the same way we write off Afghan children killed by drones. Considering how rare school shootings actually are, starting a big program of volunteer armed guards would likely increase the number of deaths in schools.

But the fact is, even in the best-case scenario, an armed guard can't prevent anyone from ever being shot: the hope is that the guard will cut the carnage short by taking the shooter out after he's opened fire. It's the same rationale for banning large-capacity magazines and "assault" rifles: you can't completely stop the killing, but you can minimize it. The problem with the armed guard solution is the bad guys always get a preemptive first strike on the guard, and if it's successful you've just provided the shooter with additional firepower.

Putting real cops in schools isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it's very expensive and it's not a foolproof deterrent, as we saw in Columbine. If even a station full of armed cops can't protect themselves with guns, how can one retired NRA volunteer with a gun protect a whole school filled with kids? Especially if the shooter takes a first-grader hostage and uses her as a human shield while blasting away at the armed guard with a Bushmaster and a 100-round magazine?
The problem is not stopping crazy guys from shooting up schools. It's stopping crazy guys from getting guns in the first place.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Still With The Deafness of Tone

It's been almost two week since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut and the Right is continuing merrily along with their complete deafness of tone. They just don't get it. This one is different and, like the last election, they're are going to learn yet another hard lesson. Even Frank Luntz thinks so.

“The public wants guns out of the schools, not in the schools,” Luntz said on CBS’s “This Morning.” “And they are not asking for a security official or someone else. I don’t think the NRA is listening. I don’t think they understand most Americans would protect the Second Amendment rights and yet agree with the idea that not every human being should own a gun, not every gun should be available at anytime, anywhere, for anyone. At gun shows, you should not be able to buy something there without any kind of check whatsoever.” 

That's right. There are plenty of people that should not own guns. I think this incident (as well as the rest of them this year) illustrate that if you increase the number of people carrying weapons, you are going to increase the chances of irresponsible gun ownership. It shouldn't simply be that people who have criminal records should not own guns. Many people with mental illness or people who live folks who have mental disabilities should not own guns either.

I don't think the gun rights folks (and many others on the Right) realize how Orwellian they sound. The irony is hilarious when you consider how much they rip the left for doublespeak. The answer to gun violence is...MORE GUNS, damnit!!

War is Peace...

What the Right really wants is to (ahem) do it again only harder. They are using this as an opportunity to see if they can gain any ground on what they view as "Slaughter Zones" (AKA Gun Free Zones). They want to be able to carry their guns wherever they want, including schools. It's a chest thumping, juvenile maneuver which serves to further their "fuck you, dad/stomp down the hallway/bedroom door slam" agenda of being pissed off at rules they don't like. Never mind the rest of us.

The only guns I want in schools are the ones carried by police officers (yet another group the Right sneer at as not "having any real training" which is basically code for insecurity and envy). Schools are public property which means that the public gets to decide what goes on in our schools. With private property, gun owners can kindly go fuck themselves if they want to beef about gun free zones. The health club I go to, for example, has a few malcontents who bitch about not being able to bring their guns in when they lift weights (how would that work, exactly?). Perhaps they should choose another place to go rather than gripe.

Doubling down is what they do lately, though, and it continues to cost them elections. This won't be any different. They underestimate the president and worse, the public, who has a growing distaste for some guns, as Mr. Luntz notices above. He's a right wing pollster so if he's saying it, they are in big fucking trouble. And it won't be because (cue high pitched shrieking) Barack Obama is going to be a "gun grabber." Actually, they're not really in "trouble" either...only the way they see it...the world (gasp!) changing and that simply won't do.

In fact, I pretty much guarantee that three things are going to come out of all of this. First, people will get to keep the guns they own (if they choose not to sell them back to the federal government, that is, for a very good price:)). Second, plenty of guns will be available for people to use to defend themselves.

And third, the Right is going to be a mouth foaming pile of apoplexis.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gun Privacy vs. Neighbor's Right to Know

The Journal News, a newspaper in White Plains, New York, published a map of people licensed to own guns in surrounding counties. This has raised a firestorm of protest from conservatives, claiming variously that these people's privacy had been violated (these licenses are a matter of public record), that it would encourage criminals to target gun owners, or alternately to encourage thieves to target homes that are "unprotected" by guns.

The article accompanying the map begins:
In May, Richard V. Wilson approached a female neighbor on the street and shot her in the back of the head, a crime that stunned their quiet Katonah neighborhood.

What was equally shocking for some was the revelation that the mentally disturbed 77-year-old man had amassed a cache of weapons — including two unregistered handguns and a large amount of ammunition — without any neighbors knowing.
On Christmas Eve William Spengler set fire to his house, killed his sister, set fire to the rest of the neighborhood, then ambushed the firemen who came to douse the blaze, killing two and wounding two others. Spengler was an ex-con who killed his grandmother in 1980. He used a Bushmaster rifle to kill the firemen, like the one Adam Lanza used. It's not yet known how he got the weapon: did he get it at a gun show? From a friend? Through a straw buyer? Or by breaking into a nearby house?

I understand why gun owners don't want their names published in the paper. Neither do pedophiles. But guns in the home represent a real risk to society, both from the gun owners themselves or as a form of attractive nuisance for thieves and children

It's not unreasonable for parents to want to know if their children are playing with kids who might have guns at home, or if neighbors like Richard Wilson represent a potential risk to their children.

Hundreds of kids die each year from accidental shootings. Hundreds of kids also die in swimming pool and trampoline accidents. Parents should know if their kids' friends have pools and trampolines. Why not guns?

That newspaper didn't tell potential burglars anything they didn't already know. Thieves casing a neighborhood can read the "gang signs" that mark gun owners: American flags, large dogs of breeds used for hunting, No Trespassing and No Solicitation signs, political bumper stickers and signs for Tea Party and conservative causes, "Protected by Smith & Wesson" bumper stickers and signs (yeah, some people are that dumb), four-door pickup trucks and Hummers, gun racks in the pickups, etc.

Some gun owners envision themselves as defending the Alamo, and think they will be able to fend off the criminals storming their house in a blaze of gunfire. This is misguided: burglars want to break in while you're gone and your cash, jewelry and guns are just waiting there to be stolen.

Therefore, most burglaries are committed when victims are at work, and nearly all occur when the burglars think you're away. Most thieves are unarmed and avoid conflict. More than 50% of burglaries occur within two miles of the burglar's home. Most are smash and grabs, in and out in 12 minutes or less. Many burglars have already been in your house for some other purpose (that may be why Nancy Lanza didn't let people in).

The NRA recommends people use concealed lock boxes or gun safes, as well as trigger locks or cable locks and that guns be stored unloaded. They should demand these recommendations be given the force of law.

Just as importantly, gun owners should have home security systems or a dog. These are better deterrents than a gun. Burglars are much less likely to rob houses without security systems and barking dogs. And even if you do have a gun for "protection," you still need the dog or the alarm to wake you up. The gun is worse than useless if you're asleep when the intruder takes it from your nightstand.

Gun rights advocates should want to be seen as the people who stop crazy old coots from shooting their neighbors in the head, not the wackos who make it possible.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Christmas!!

I've always looked at the celebration of Christmas Day with inquisitive fascination. Why do we honor the birth of Jesus Christ when it's likely he was born in March? In fact, the reason why we celebrate the nativity on December 25th stems from an effort by 4th Century Christians to make their religion more prominent.

These early believers saw the pagan festivities associated with Mithraism as a threat to their fledgling movement and so they switched the birthday of Christ to be on the same day as the birthday of the Invincible Sun God, Natalis Solis Invincti. The Christians of this time were already emboldened by the Roman Emperor Constantine's edict of 313 CE which allowed them to practice their faith so plans were made to supplant Mithraism with Christianity.

They did this by focusing on the festive nature of the sun god cult worship and essentially making it their own. A Christian mass was developed complete with prayers and ceremony-all in the hopes of luring Mithraists away from their religion to Christianity. In short, it was a PR campaign and it worked.

The irony here (for all your scriptural literalists out there) is that the celebration of Jesus' birthday isn't "pure." It's based on pagan ritual and, in the centuries since that time, is a day that has gone through many other twists and turns. Puritans here in America had outlawed any celebration of Christmas until finally losing out on June 26, 1870 when Christmas became a national holiday. Christmas trees were considered pagan and also forbidden  until the late 17th century. Santa himself began as an amalgamation (partially pagan) of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (modern-day Turkey), the Norse god, Woden, and the Celtic Holly King and ended up being the creation of a modern day cartoonist (Thomas Nash) for Harper's Weekly in 1860.

So, as we begin to drift off today from an overdose of tryptophan, let's remember that this is not a rigid holiday and is, as it has always been, free loose, and open to interpretation:)

Monday, December 24, 2012

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.... 

(from "A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Did You Survive the Most Recent Apocalypse?

Did you get your "I Survived the Apocalypse!" T-shirt yet? December 21st was supposed to be the end of the world, according to a dim-witted interpretation of the Mayan calendar. The reality is that the end of the previous baktun of the Mayan calender was no different from the end of December on our calendar, or the end of the fiscal year, or the end of the 20th century, or the end of the second millennium.

We saw plenty of crazies predicting doom on December 31, 1999 (though, technically, the third millennium didn't start until Jan. 1, 2001). There were the typical fire-and-brimstone second-coming loonies, but there were also plenty of technological Y2K doomsayers. And more recently there was Harold Camping, who took two swings at the Apocalypse piƱata in 2011, spending more than $100 million promoting his end-of-the-world predictions. And we're all still here.

What is it about a calendar rolling over like an odometer that turns out the crazies?

Historically prophets have cast catastrophic events like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wars, plagues and droughts as presentiments of the end times, or punishments for our wickedness. Pat Robertson predicted a Gay Days weekend at Disney World would bring a hurricane down on Orlando. Instead Hurricane Bonnie hit Virginia Beach, where Robertson's 700 club originates. James Dobson blamed the Newtown shooting on gay marriage. Did I miss the story about Adam Lanza's girlfriend dumping him and marrying a lesbian?

Climate scientists have long predicted that stronger hurricanes, prolonged drought punctuated by huge deluges, the spread of tropical diseases like West Nile virus and dengue fever — events that we're experiencing right now — would be the result of global warming caused by human-generated carbon dioxide emissions. Many on the Christian Right reject these data-driven observations and computer-modeled predictions out of hand. Yet at exactly the same time they cite these events as evidence of our moral failings, portraying them as God's retribution for our disobedience.

Climate scientists are missing the boat. To gain broader acceptance they need to recast their climate forecasts as apocalyptic prophecies of doom caused by God's ire over the seven deadly sins we are committing:
  • Greed: skyrocketing oil-company profits
  • Pride: Americans who proudly drive gas-wasting Hummers to flaunt their wealth
  • Sloth: people who are too lazy to walk to the corner store contribute to global warming
  • Wrath: the refusal of irate Republican members of the House to renew wind power tax credits
  • Lust: the rape of the earth by oil wells and coal mines
  • Envy: the consumer culture that causes us to compete with the Joneses by buying ever-greater quantities of immediately disposable things that require oil, gas and coal to produce and transport
  • Gluttony: the epidemic of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases resulting from our consumption of high-fructose corn syrup produced on gigantic monoculture corporate farms that use billions of gallons of oil for fuel and fertilizer, as well as damage the environment and our own genetic code with pesticides and herbicides
There's a far better case for divine wrath over excessive oil consumption for the overtopping of seawalls that caused the flooding of New York and New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy than there is for God expressing his anger over gay marriage by having Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders in Newtown. Higher ocean temperatures raise sea levels, causing more flooding. But those kids were not members of the Connecticut Supreme Court who upgraded civil unions (passed in 2005) to full marriage in Connecticut four years ago.

In the case of Sandy there's an obvious cause and effect, and in Newtown there's an "I told you so." God might move in mysterious ways, but if he wants us to get the message, he should be a little more direct, rather than relying on preachers in expensive suits asking for handouts on TV. What's even more incredible is that there are people who would willingly worship a god who wrought a terrifying bloody death upon innocent children who had absolutely nothing to do with the perceived violation of his laws. I just don't remember hearing that any of those kids were gay or married.

Climate change deniers insist scientists are just saying this stuff to get grant money. Just as skeptics insist Harold Camping predicted the end of the world just to get donations from frightened old ladies. Maybe the religious right doesn't believe climate scientists' predictions because they're suffering from a nasty case of psychological projection.

Hmm. What is that odd, rodent-like odor?

Son of the Gun

The New Yorker ran a story in April of this year about guns in America (Maureen Dowd sent me that way). It contained the following revelation about David Michael Keene, the son of NRA president David Keene:
In 2002, Keene’s son David Michael Keene was driving on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when, in a road-rage incident, he fired a handgun at another motorist. He was sentenced to ten years in prison for “using, brandishing, and discharging a firearm in a crime of violence.” I asked Keene if this private tragedy had left him uncertain about what the N.R.A. had wrought. He said no: “You break the law, you pay the price.”
Keene used to run the American Conservative Union (which organizes CPAC), where his 21-year-old son worked as the online communications director at the time of the shooting. Keene was featured in another news story two years ago when $400,000 was embezzled from the ACU. The culprit? His ex-wife, Diana Hubbard Carr. She pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 2011.

It seems the people closest to David Keene lack a certain self control.

Did David Keene commit these crimes? No. Is he guilty by association? No. But fathers have to wonder if they bear some responsibility for their sons' actions. Was Keene a bad parent, as many think Nancy Lanza was? Might he have imparted to his son a self-entitled attitude about not taking crap from anyone, backed up by a belligerent arrogance that comes from packing heat?

The NRA president is a Daily Show punchline. If there had been no gun in the younger Keene's BMW his life would not have been ruined. Keene's own son was sent to jail for exactly the kind of senseless crime gun control advocates say easy access to guns promotes. The NRA's president's son is Exhibit A against everything they stand for.

What's astounding is that Keene can experience this and so utterly miss the point. It's not just his kid who would have paid the price had his aim been truer: the guy he almost shot would have paid a much higher price.

Twenty-six victims paid the ultimate price for Adam Lanza's crimes, and hundreds of parents, relatives and friends who paid a price in grief that David Keene seems incapable of feeling.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Police State

The NRA press conference yesterday was a perfect example of how out of touch the Right is these days. "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun."


I'll set the aside the Jack Bauer fantasy here that the gun rights folks seem to think can be replicated in reality and focus on the word mentioned twice in this quote: gun. Why does it have to be a gun? There are plenty of other ways to disable intruders that school, mall and movie theater staff could use. Using a taser is one option although that could prove difficult. A more obvious solution is to stash some tear gas or something similar and simply throw it down the hallway and knockout the intruder. You might end up knocking out some staff or students but the intruder would be disabled.

Think of that would have worked in this situation. The principal would hear the commotion and grab the gas canister that they have stored in the room they were in. She throws it out in the hallway and Lanza passes out. At least then, we would have known why he was going on a rampage.

Honestly, this is a more realistic solution. I don't think the Right realizes how juvenile they sound when they start talking about arming everyone. More importantly, it strikes me as odd that they want armed security personnel everywhere. Isn't that the same thing as a police state (something they are vehemently opposed to)?

But this is what I mean when I say they are closet fascists. In so many ways, that's what the NRA and their supporters are all about. Do they even realize it?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Boehner's Boner

John Boehner thought he would pull a fast one on President Obama and proposed a bill that would raise taxes only on people who make more than a million bucks a year. He thought its passage in the House would ensure that he would get his way, by forcing the president and the Senate to take it or leave it.

Unfortunately, the Brutuses in the Republican House caucus stabbed Boehner in the back. They refused to back his play and Boehner was forced to withdraw his own bill.

One interesting aspect of this is the reaction of certain pundits. I don't read a lot of conservatives because they generally spend all their time ignoring reality, circling the wagons, repeating talking points cooked up at the Wednesday meeting, and finding lame excuses for whatever nonsense the Republican Party spews out.

But recently some conservatives have started to wake up. Joe Scarborough did so by calling for gun control in the wake of Newtown. And Jennifer Rubin called Republicans in the House to account in the Washington Post. She ended her most recent piece with these paragraphs:
The world of Heritage Action Network, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the other all-or-nothing hard-liners in the conservative media have encouraged and will delight in this sort of fiasco. That said, the fault lies with the spineless members who think they’ll escape blame if they don’t vote for any measure. That is folly, not to mention political cowardice. To govern is to choose, and they apparently can do neither.

This sort of display suggests Republicans are not capable of governing. What was an argument by Democrats (They are unreasonable! They only care for the rich!) is now a political reality.

When I posed the question “What next?” to several senior Republicans, the answer came back, ” I really don’t know” or “Good question.” What we do know is that House Republicans may have confirmed the good judgment of the American people in keeping divided government. Goodness knows none of these people can be trusted.
The reaction from right-wingers in the reader comments was immediate and irate. Once an ever-reliable pillar of Republican dogma, Rubin had now been branded as a RINO. She is a heretic, a leper, an outcast unclean. The conservative tribe must eject her and anyone who dares break with the orthodoxy dictated by the moneyed overlords.

Thus the Republican Party continues to hack itself to pieces, alienating everyone who has an ounce of integrity and honesty. At this rate it will only be a few years until it joins the Whigs and the Federalist Party, and consists solely of Jim DeMint, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Grover Norquist, the Koch Brothers and Wayne LaPierre. And their piles and piles of money.

The NRA's Cynical Ploy

Wayne LaPierre, the president of the NRA, made his long-awaited proposal to reduce gun violence in schools: more guns and more guards. It's a cynical ploy the NRA knows will never happen, simply because it would cost schools hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have.

But even though it's a non-starter, it's useful to point out the practical flaws.

First off, a guard will just be the first victim. If you've ever watched Star Trek or Alias or any other TV show where the heroes infiltrate a secure facility, the first one to die is the red-shirt at the front door.

Second, how many guards are enough? If there's just one, the shooter will pretty much take him out automatically by surprise. So you need at least two guards on each door. But since someone with an AR-15 could easily take out two guards in a couple of seconds, you really need a third guard in a bullet-proof control booth just down the hall. And since guards can't always be on duty, you're going to need at least one more guy who can relieve the guards when they're on break. In a big school with three or four entrances, you'll need a ten-man security team.

Third, who are these guards going to be? Your typical mall security guard is not going to hack it. These people need to be highly competent since they're going to armed around little kids. They're going to require ongoing training to ensure accuracy and quick reflexes. But highly competent, highly aware and highly perceptive individuals are not going to want this job, because it will involve sitting around doing absolutely nothing all the time. Because, while dozens of kids die in school shootings every year, the probability of a shooting at any particular school is basically zero. These guard jobs are therefore going to be difficult to staff. There's going to be a lot of bored, inattentive guards who will make mistakes. And, by the way, like prison guards and cops they're going to want to be unionized.

Unless you use a dedicated guard, they'll constantly be distracted by other duties. The bad guy will only have to wait a minute or two until the guard is occupied with something else, and then shoot him in the back.

Fourth, what kind of equipment are these glorified babysitters going to have? Will they have Glock 17s, or will they carry AR-15s? And what if the crazed shooter has Kevlar body armor and a ballistic helmet? (Which is apparently what the Aurora shooter had.) So should the guards be armed with M16s with armor piercing rounds? And will the guards wear Kevlar body armor, or full ballistic SWAT gear?

Fifth, most schools are open 16 to 18 hours a day. Sports teams practice after school, there are PTA meetings, detention, etc. Schools have plays and host sports events against other schools, which the general public attends. Schools are used by adults for community events like precinct caucuses, open gyms, etc. Guards would have to be on duty all the time and would have to search every person to make sure they aren't bringing weapons in after-hours to cache for an attack planned the next day.

Sixth, because there will be hundreds of thousands of guns knocking around schools, there will be dozens of accidental shooting each year when guards drop or clean their guns. Guards will make mistakes and shoot kids who bring gun-shaped cigarette lighters to school. Kids will get hold of the guard's guns and shoot each other accidentally, as well as on purpose. Mistakes and accidents are a simple fact of life, and the more guns there are the more such incidents will occur. It's an intractable fact of life.

Seventh, many suburban schools are sprawling single-story buildings with windows in every classroom. Could Adam Lanza have come through a window, or simply shot those 20 kids from outside the building? I guess we need to brick up all the windows, or put bullet-proof class and bars on them all.

Finally, and this is the big question: what's this all going to cost? These guards need to be as competent as your average cop, and must be paid accordingly. They're going to need health insurance, vacation time, a supervisor and all the other overhead employees entail. Then they're going to need all that equipment and ongoing training. Then there's the cost of construction for modifying school entrances to accommodate a new security regime.

The NRA did propose that volunteers could be used to ameliorate costs. This is unrealistic: who besides retired old men, little old ladies and stay-at-home moms would be available to guard a school during the day? And then there's the quality of volunteers. Nancy Lanza apparently did volunteer work at the school. I imagine she would have encouraged her son Adam to volunteer for the security detail.

The NRA also suggested we use cops to guard schools. But that'll mean they aren't doing the things they're normally doing. Which means that cities and counties have to hire more cops with money they don't have, or other crimes go undeterred, uninvestigated and unsolved.

These costs could easily add up to hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year per school, and schools are already laying teachers off. Unless the NRA is proposing to pay for school security with new taxes on guns and ammo and steep licensing fees for gun owners, their proposals are utterly worthless.

And all this security won't be foolproof. Someone inside the building could open a window and hoist guns up from a confederate outside. Someone wearing the right uniform will inspire trust and could easily infiltrate close enough to take out the guards. Guards will go mad from boredom and the incessant whining of over-privileged brats and open fire on them.

Under the NRA plan, schools will cease to be schools and will become prisons or concentration camps, replete with armed guards, metal detectors, X-ray scanners, security checkpoints, and so on.

And the crazy thing is, all this security still wouldn't stop a determined madman. The worst school massacre occurred in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927, when a man, crazed by the death of his wife, property taxes and the threatened foreclosure of his farm, blew up a school and killed dozens of kids, school officials, his wife and himself. These days it would be a truck loaded with AMFO instead of dynamite and pyrotol.

The NRA proposal is a completely cynical ploy. They offer this as a distraction they know it will never happen, because of the expense and the fact that it would solve absolutely nothing.

Instead of blowing hot air, the NRA should get in front of this problem by demanding improved gun safety technology and requiring all gun owners be competent: fully trained, certified and licensed. In other words, a well-regulated militia. They should be the first to demand that people with questionable backgrounds be banned from their ranks. They should want to be seen as dedicated conservationist-hunters, ranchers who need weapons for their everyday work, and serious target shooters who value skill and accuracy, and not phallically challenged twits who think guns are toys and just like to shoot stuff and blow shit up.

One or two more Sandy Hooks will convince the American public that the only way to reduce the number of gun deaths is to drastically reduce the number of guns, Australian style. That will doom the NRA to oblivion by eliminating the stranglehold they have on legislators, and they will have no say in what sorts of regulations will be imposed on gun ownership.

Did He Go There?

Police are working on reconstructing Adam Lanza's hard drive after he smashed it with a hammer just prior to going on his killing spree. Thus far, they are publicly saying that they aren't having much success. I have to wonder...why did he smash it? What was on it? What sites did he visit and why?

One possible answer comes from this post over at CNN.

And if you're anxious about your masculinity, if you aren't quite sure whether those around you find you sufficiently strong and potent, the Bushmaster corporation has an answer for you. If you buy one of their semi-automatic rifles -- like the kind Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children and six adults last week -- you may "Consider your Man Card reissued." 

Bushmaster took down this section of their site but you can still see what it looked like here. This is only speculation at this point but did Nancy Lanza think that getting her son into guns would make him less awkward and more of a man? Did he visit this site or others like it?

This is especially disturbing when you consider that he likely had various mental and emotional issues. Being that way naturally coupled with the nurturing of a sub culture that isn't known for empathy and sensitivity anyway is a recipe for disaster. In fact, if you put together some of the words used to describe the Lanza's...doomsday prepper, economic collapse, home schooling, gun collector...the image becomes clearer as to what precipitated this shooting spree.

Of course, it could just be as simple as bad parenting. I've certainly seen my share of moonbat parents and Ms. Lanza seems like one of them. Even though there was a horrible end to her life, we still have to question her wisdom. How could she allow her son access to these guns given what he was like? I can't help but think that this horrible event stands as a testament to why people don't actually know what's in their best interests and, sometimes, make very, very poor choices that affect other people's lives. Or, in this case, take them away.

We don't live on islands, folks.  The things we do affect other people. That's why we have laws. The nature of man is not good. Often, it is confused or downright despicable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

More Government Waste Courtesy of Mitt Romney

Talk about government waste. Mitt Romney spent almost $9 million of taxpayer money on the presidential transition. "What transition?" you ask. "He lost!"

Romney took advantage of an act passed in 2010 to make presidential transitions easier. He spent $2.5 million on office space. Three quarters of a million on office furniture that would be used for a few months. And $5.6 million on computers and communications equipment (some of this will be "recycled" to other government departments).

I eagerly anticipate the passage of a bill from the Republican-controlled House to repeal the act and recover this money from Romney's campaign committee during the lame duck session, right after they get done cutting Social Security benefits for the elderly and making sure millionaires keep their tax cuts.

A Lighter Topic

When I was a delegate to the Minnesota Fourth District Republican convention in 1980, delegates discussed resolutions submitted by precinct caucuses. I've forgotten all but one of these resolutions, though I'm sure the majority of them were about taxes and abortion. The only one I remember advocated the government take steps to prevent the helium that occurred in natural gas deposits from simply being wasted.

"This is a joke, right?" everyone said, laughing. Well, 32 years later, it's not a joke. We're now experiencing a helium shortage.

Helium might be the second most common element in the universe, but it's the second lightest, and that's the problem. Earth's original supply long ago left for space: as a noble gas it doesn't form compounds. When it hits the atmosphere it goes straight up, and the heat of the sun imparts enough velocity to helium atoms to make them escape earth's grasp. Hydrogen and heavier gases such as nitrogen and oxygen escape much more slowly, as they generally form heavy compounds like water, O2, O3, CO2, and NO2. UV  dissociates water vapor high in the atmosphere and sizable quantities of hydrogen also escape — but we've got lots of it. Atmospheric escape is why earth and Venus have thick atmospheres and Mars has a very thin one.

The problem is, helium isn't just for recreational purposes such party balloons, talking like Donald Duck and the Goodyear blimp. It has many uses that save lives, most of which involve cooling. Liquid helium is used in the giant magnets found in MRI machines. It's used in physics research. It's used in processes for making semiconductors for smart phones. It's used in submarine detectors employed by the Navy. Gaseous helium is used for weather sounding balloons, critical for hurricane tracking and climate research.

Helium is found with natural gas, and that's partly responsible for the helium shortage. With fracking the price of methane has dropped through the floor, and that means there's less natural gas production in helium rich deposits, which depresses helium production. New helium is "made" deep underground by the radioactive decay of elements like uranium, thorium, actinium and radium. The decay releases an alpha particle, which is a helium ion (an atom with no electrons). The helium eventually makes its way into natural gas reserves which we extract. That's a very slow and indirect process.

The other reason there's a helium shortage is a Republican privatization effort launched in 1996. The Helium Privatization Act was basically a give-away of America's helium reserves to private industry. Instead of being auctioned, the Republican bill required that all helium in the reserve be sold by 2015, priced with a formula set "in consultation" with the helium industry. That caused artificially low prices, which encouraged over-consumption of helium and discouraged new production.

Republicans will be sure to blame government for the problem in the first place, but the reason Calvin Coolidge approved the National Helium Reserve in 1925 was for national defense, to ensure we had enough for airships (used for aerial observation). Helium was also important for cooling during the Cold War and the Space Race, as liquid-fueled ballistic missiles use helium as a pressurant because it's inert.

The Republican Party of Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and even Calvin Coolidge believed that we should protect and conserve our natural resources. Somewhere in the 1980s the Republicans lost their way and began to equate wastefulness and ostentatious displays of profligacy to freedom and prosperity.

The attitude became "someone could be getting rich today, we shouldn't save this oil — this forest — this helium — for a rainy day." The so-called conservatives decided that conserving things was for suckers and sold out to wastrels and get-rich-quick con men.

Unbridled consumption may enrich the few, but it beggars the nation's future.

Crisis Mode?

Politico has an interesting story up about how the NRA is basically in crisis mode. They weren't prepared for this at all and so far all they have released, statement wise, is an announcement stating that on Friday they are going to issue a plan that "to make sure this never happens again." It will be interesting to see what they present.

It will have to be something very substantive otherwise they risk souring an already steadily eroding view of the gun industry. I think they see the economic writing on the wall and if they do their usual dance this Friday, they're going to lose money. It's just that simple.

People have had it and it really won't matter what the government does or doesn't do.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lessons from Cars Applied to Guns

According to a study from the Violence Prevention Center ten states had more deaths from guns than from vehicle accidents in 2009 (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington). Nationwide, there were 31,236 gun deaths for a rate of 10.19 per 100,000 and 36,361 motor vehicle deaths (both occupant and pedestrian) for a rate of 11.87.

Cars and guns make for an interesting comparison. Both are useful tools and recreational equipment that can be deadly in the wrong hands. Both evoke a sense of nostalgia, freedom and power in America. But while per-capita gun death rates have remained steady, motor vehicle death rates have been declining.

Total annual deaths due to motor vehicles dropped by about 10,000 from 2005 to 2010, even though the population increased by millions. Why? Cars are getting safer all the time, mostly through regulations imposed by the government for safety equipment like air bags and seat belts. Another factor are laws in more and more states that require seat belt use. And younger people are driving less: between 2001 and 2009 the number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-old drivers declined by 23%. Younger drivers have more accidents, and if they drive less there are fewer accidents.

The parallels between cars and guns are simply too strong to keep denying the obvious. In fact, in terms of destructive potential, guns are more similar to aircraft than they are to cars, so one could argue that a better model would be much more restrictive pilot licensing, but we'll restrain ourselves to the lessons we've learned from motor vehicles.

The first lesson from cars is technology. Cars have keys and alarms to deter unauthorized people from stealing and using them. Car stereos frequently have mechanisms that prevent them from working if they're removed.

Cops get shot by criminals using the cops' own guns all the time. Many criminals get their guns from burglars who've stolen them from homes. Every year hundreds of kids pick up their dads' guns and shoot themselves or their brothers. People are constantly shooting themselves or others while cleaning their guns, or when they drop an "unloaded" gun whose clip has been removed.

We have the technology to prevent completely pointless accidents like these, as well as unauthorized use of guns by thieves and family members. Smart gun technology can render a gun useless in the hands of a criminal or a child. It would even be in the interests of American gun manufacturers to advocate legislation requiring this technology, because it would mean millions of new gun sales.

The second lesson from cars is training and testing. Most American drivers go through drivers training programs. All drivers are tested and licensed. Drivers take a vision test every time they renew their licenses. The Second Amendment is couched in terms of a "well regulated militia," so the obvious intent is that gun owners be proficient in the use of their weapons. Every right detailed in the Constitution has a whole host of legislation controlling the conditions under which it is exercised. The Second Amendment is no different.

Just as it makes no sense to let 12-year-olds and the blind people drive cars, it is senseless to put a gun in the hands of an untrained woman who can't handle the recoil of the Desert Eagle she thinks she needs, or an old man who can't see what he's shooting at, or an abusive drunk with an anger management problem.

Therefore all gun owners should be trained, licensed and tested, just like drivers. The testing should be technical (a written exam), practical (testing hands-on cleaning and safety techniques), ensure accuracy (performed on a firing range), and situational (some kind of simulation of a live-fire emergency, the way cops do). Additionally, gun buyers should undergo background checks that not only assess criminal background, but psychological state as well. Background checks should extend to anyone who lives with or has access to the purchaser's home.

Too intrusive? There's ample precedent for psych evals and extensive testing: pilots must undergo physicals, and many states require women to undergo counseling (a thinly veiled psych eval) and invasive ultrasound testing before having an abortion. Since the whole point of guns is to kill people (potentially lots of people), they should be regulated at least as rigorously as one-shot abortions.

Finally, there must be appeals to make sure people aren't denied their rights unfairly or whose circumstances change.

Note that I haven't mentioned assault weapon bans and magazine limits. Because, as the right's mantra of "guns don't kill, people do" implies, the most important thing is to keep guns out of the wrong hands in the first place. Weapons bans and magazine limits would certainly reduce the carnage, but don't get to the root of the problem.

This also addresses the idea that more guns make more people safe. That might be true if the people who wielded those guns were well-trained SWAT team arriving on the scene well-prepped. But even cops suddenly immersed in a live-fire situation make tragic mistakes. A hundred guns in the hands of clueless, untrained civilians in that darkened theater in Aurora would have left many more dead, and in the confusion the guy who started it all might have walked out alive and unscathed in his body armor.

Applying the same kinds of commonsense safety features and rules to guns that already apply to motor vehicles could save a lot of lives, including those of people who own guns. No, we can't save everyone. But if it would have saved the 26 people at Newtown and the 12 people in Aurora, their family and friends would have gladly accepted some extra inconvenience and expense in getting a gun.

The Crazy Uncle and the Cassette Tape

Since the tragedy last Friday in Newton, I've had something percolating in the back of my head. David Frums's recent post on what they president should not do was the catalyst. The president can't fight an ideology so intransigent that even the Lord our God couldn't move them. But I'll tell you who can.

People like our own Nikto.

I don't necessarily agree with everything that Nikto has been saying on gun control but I also haven't heard any adequate defense of why ordinary citizens need to be able to protect themselves with military grade weaponry. Thus far, it's the usual meme of "You're stupid" with a dash of genetic fallacy. They can say why they are against it but not why they are for it. To do so would mean being honest. What is that truth?

They think that these types of weapons are cool and they like to blow shit up. And they have a pathological hatred of the US government and believe think that the NBC television program, Revolution, is likely to happen. The problem with trying to engage these people is that our culture is generally fair minded and the fallout from this puts sanity at a disadvantage. I liken it to what I call The Crazy Uncle.

The Crazy Uncle is the guy in your family that you see at the holidays who doesn't get out much. He spends his days in the bubble of the Drudge Report and other right wing hotspots believing that this is what the world is really like. He is most definitely armed with an array of these types of weapons and, at the holiday meal, will inevitably say something so far off in moonbat land that you question his sanity.

But then a funny thing happens. The rest of the people at the table are polite and start to accept the "logic" of some of his arguments. It's not too long before the moderate conversation gets pulled to the right and now the "middle" is somewhere around the 10 yard line on the right side of the field. This is what happens when we embrace the Cult of Both Sides. This is what is happening on a macro level on our culture. The Crazy Uncles of the world know this and that's why they do it, saying crazier and crazier shit to see how much they can get away with (Hitler's big lie scenario). Never was this more true than with the gun debate.

So, to unfuck this kind of thinking, the government has to stay out of it. I know they are going to try do something anyway but given the power of the gun lobby (and despite the NRA saying that this Friday they are going to unveil plans to make sure this never happens again), it's going to be nearly impossible for them to accomplish this paradigm shift. 

But that's shouldn't stop ordinary citizens from forming a private organization that rivals or even surpasses the gun lobby. Frum's example of MADD is a good one. There are plenty of people right now that have lost loved ones in school shootings and they could form the nucleus of such an organization. And the time has sadly never been better. All they need to do is start talking about the 20 children who had as many as 11 bullets in the bodies.

The Right is quite fond of talking about how the free market should do its thing without interference from the government.  They point to letting people's behavior and tastes dictate supply and demand. Well, stocks in gun manufacturers are plummeting after Friday's shooting. Cerberus is selling Bushmaster. Dick's will no longer carry certain types of guns. A general distaste for guns is starting to grow in our culture. This one was different, folks and things are going to change. This change and increasing distaste will be hastened if a new, private organization like MADD gets to work now.

It may end being that many of these military style guns go the way of the cassette tape.  A few people still have that moldy old soundtrack to 9 1/2 weeks laying in their old Geo Prizm (likely that same crazy uncle) but no one really plays them anymore. Why?

Because they just aren't cool anymore. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our Culture of Fear

I hate the media. They suck. And here's why

No one was nervous at my school or either of my children's schools. No one was afraid and no one was worried for their safety. People were just sad. But this speaks to a very large problem with our culture that was first identified in Barry Glassner's fantastic book, "The Culture of Fear" and later in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." The media needs fear to in order to peddle their corporate owned shit. If people are afraid, they buy more crap.

In so many ways, this is tremendously irresponsible. They are creating a perception here that doesn't match reality. Yesterday, most of America simply went on with their lives and they did so without any trepidation. They didn't spend their mornings panicking and surveying suspicious mini-vans. Where are the stories about that?

All this kind of garbage does is make everything worse.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Usual Three

The Right has reacted to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in their three usual ways. First up was Mike Huckabee who blamed the public schools for taking God out students' lives. This struck me as odd as any student (or person, for that matter) has the right to go to whatever church they want and participate in the many after school and weekend activities. In fact, they could fill up much more time doing church activities than being at school if they really wanted to do so.

Their second reaction was Don't Take Away My Gun. This has never made any sense to me. Neither has the term "gun grabber." Nikto, a contributor here, was recently accused of being a gun grabber when all he called for was a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. He did not call for banning rifles, handguns or other types of weapons that are not semi-automatic capacity. Apparently, the leap from certain types of guns to ALL guns is about an inch. Or less.

Of course, a ban like this will not prevent these types of incidents from happening and this is why I say that the two main sides in this debate, which we are likely to see quite a bit of over the next few weeks, are essentially wrong. By attacking the guns, that side avoids the real issue of mental health and the need for increased security in schools anyway for other issues (drugs, theft, fighting). How about marshals for schools like we have for airlines?

The other side has yet to provide a reason that is not grounded in paranoia and fantasy as to why people should be able to own the type of gun that Adam Lanza used last Friday. Obviously, these same people think that there are number of weapons that should not be owned by average citizens. So why not these? I'd like an answer that is not an emotional and frilled up sermon, please.

The third reaction (and perhaps the most disturbing) is They Should Have Armed Themselves. A completely ridiculous notion when you consider that Nancy Lanza was well armed and got shot with her own weapon! It would be one thing if they were calling for an increased police presence but that's not it. They want teachers wearing guns...a truly stupid idea simply on the basis that teachers don't have time to go through all the training necessary to be safe with a weapon. They are there to educate.

All of these reactions truly suck at a depth that I didn't think was possible to discover. It's been interesting to note that, aside from above, the reaction has largely been quiet from the gun lobby. Perhaps they are finally reflecting on the fact that their usual rag isn't going to work this time. In fact, what they should really be reflecting on is this question: What if the shooter last Friday was a Muslim? What would their reaction have been?

Further, I can't figure out why such a loud and large group of people are apoplectic about Benghazi, where 2 CIA Contractors, a Navy Seal, and a US Ambassador (all of whom were trained for being in massively unstable situations),  were are killed and then turn around be completely laissez faire about this incident where little girls were shot as many as ten times. They fault the president for the former and want him to do nothing for the latter.

And that makes me fucking nauseous.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Dismal Science Advances One Funeral at a Time

There's an interesting piece by Barry Ritholz in the Washington Post about economics entitled "Why Don't Bad Ideas Ever Die?" It summarizes succinctly what's wrong with Republican prescriptions for the economy from zombie theories such as shareholder value, self-interested rational actors, austerity, supply-side economics, and efficient self-regulating markets, to human failings such as greed, sloth, inability to deal with hard data, bias and the failure of incompetent people to recognize how little they really know.

The last point is extremely important: competent people are well aware of their own limitations. Scientists who work in the hard sciences like physics, medicine and chemistry, as well as the engineering disciplines, are good at knowing what they do know, knowing what they don't know, and being aware that there are things they don't know that they don't know. This concept made famous by Donald Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns speech in his push to invade Iraq.

Because economists use numbers and math, they like to pretend their discipline is some kind of hard science. It's useful for documenting the mistakes of the past, but mostly useless for predicting the results of new approaches. That makes it even less of a science than psychology, where they at least run experiments and double-blind studies.

It's not really the fault of economics (dubbed the Dismal Science by Thomas Carlyle) that it's not a real science. Running experiments in economics would be like performing open heart surgery on a runner during a marathon. Economics is therefore at best a form of numerical philosophy.

But sometimes we do run economic experiments. George W. Bush's tax cuts tested supply-side theories. Europe tested drastic austerity measures after the 2008 recession, while Barack Obama tested mild economic stimulus. We now have the results: the Bush tax cuts did nothing to improve the economy after 2001. Europe's austerity measures have resulted in further recession, while Obama's stimulus has yielded slow and steady improvement. Yet Republicans ignore the data from these experiments and continue to push for tax cuts for the wealthy and extreme austerity for the US economy.

Republicans know very little about the reality of aggregate human economic behavior. They don't know their known knowns, their known unknowns or acknowledge the existence of unknown unknowns. In other words, the young and the incompetent always think they know everything.

Now, I have no doubt that Republicans are smart enough to know that supply-side economics and austerity will trash the economy. They just don't care. They want government to shrink and are completely willing to destroy the economy to make that happen. It's for the greater good, they console themselves, while pocketing millions from the billionaires who donate to their campaigns and think tanks while muttering about moochers and the 47%.

Ritholz ends his article with a paraphrase from Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, that perfectly expresses a thought I've long held about problems such as racism, homophobia, and now Republican economic theories: "Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out. Science advances one funeral at a time.”

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Greatest Nation, Impotent Before Madmen

Last month Senate Republicans dragged Susan Rice before a committee, tearing her a new one because Al Qaeda-linked terrorists killed four Americans in a foreign country still rebuilding after civil war. The Republicans were demanding answers because Rice didn't immediately blame terrorists for those murders. She said what she did on advice of the CIA, who was still ascertaining the details and didn't want to alert the bad guys.

For years Republicans have reacted pretty much this same way every time there's been a terrorist attack on Americans. They get irate when suicidal Muslim maniacs murder Americans, and demand immediate retributive action. They have cast aside the rule of law, eliminated habeas corpus, tortured suspects to get information, tapped phones without court-issued warrants, and detained indefinitely anyone they suspect of terrorist intentions, be they foreigners or Americans citizens.

But when suicidal American maniacs commit terroristic acts and kill hundreds of children, movie-goers, shoppers, worshippers, congressional constituents, office workers, and on and on, these same Republicans throw up their hands impotently. They say we are completely powerless to deter suicidal crazy Americans, while at the same time are willing to stop at nothing to deter suicidal crazy Muslims.

Are we, the most powerful nation on earth, completely powerless to stop ourselves from killing each other senselessly? We have spent literally trillions of dollars trying to foil the plans of madmen hiding in mountains and deserts on the other side of the planet, but we can't do a single thing to stop people like Adam Lanza?

Sometimes Republicans do propose solutions, but they are, as they themselves love to say, laughable. If only those teachers had guns, they insist, this tragedy could have been averted. The facts of the incident show what a pale fantasy this is. The shooter's first victim, his mother, was killed with her own gun. Imagine how arming schoolteachers would work, with millions of guns squirreled away in the desk drawers of harried and distracted little old ladies and young women who have zero experience with firearms. Nothing could possibly go wrong there, could it?

And then they trot out that guy in China who just hacked up a bunch of kids at a school. Are we going to outlaw knives too, they demand inquisitorially? But details matter. Technology matters. The death toll from the Chinese knife-wielding maniac: 0. The death toll from the American gun-toting maniac: 26. America wins!

At the time of Revolutionary War weapons technology had evolved very slowly over centuries: the weapons were little different 90 years later during the Civil War. The Brown Bess flintlock musket of the Revolution was not very accurate and had a time-consuming, error-prone, dozen-plus-step reloading process. Misfires were common, powder got wet or slid out of the pan, balls rolled back out of barrels, and musketeers dropped their ramrods and powder horns while fumbling to reload. Even the best infantryman would be hard-pressed to get off more than a couple of shots per minute. The semiautomatic pistols used in Connecticut fire as fast as you can pull the trigger, perhaps two, three or even four rounds per second. You can switch clips that hold 10, 17 or even 33 rounds in seconds.

We already have laws that keep fully automatic weapons out of civilian hands. NRA gun apologists who quote Franklin about safety and freedom and talk about the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution also have to acknowledge that population density and technology have changed drastically in the last 221 years since the Well-Regulated Militia Amendment passed. The semiautomatic weapons the shooter used in Sandy Hook have more carnage potential relative to flintlock muskets than full-auto AK47s have relative to Glock pistols.

Does the president of the NRA, the greatest enabler of on-demand gun purchases in this country, really think Ben Franklin and George Washington would advocate doing absolutely nothing while madmen gun down children in our schools, movie theaters and malls?

The Senate should drag him before a committee and demand some answers.

The Right Question

I have a lot to say about the shooting yesterday in Newton, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School so I'm just going to put out all of my thoughts however they come out regardless of organization.

My first reaction was surprise at myself for how I under reacted when I heard the news. Another school shooting...oh happens all the time now. I guess I'm used to it. I'm used to being revolted at yet another story about how someone walks into a school and starts shooting. Am I just numb to it now?

We run lock down drills at our school all the time. They do at my children's school as well. Will they be enough?

It won't be long now before we find out that the shooter, Adam Lanza, was taking an SSRI. This is the commonality of all of the mass shootings of the last 14 years or so...mental illness and an SSRI. With all this talk about new gun laws, maybe the first new law should be about pharmaceuticals, not guns.

There was no gun law that could have prevented this from happening. The latest information is that the guns were owned by Lanza's mom and not his. Connecticut has strict gun laws and, as a 20 year old, he could not legally own any of them. It's not right, I know, to speak ill of the dead, but she obviously did not practice adequate gun safety. Had these been under lock and key (with only her knowing the combination), this never would have happened.

Of course, should people with mental disorders, even over 21, be allowed to buy guns? Should anyone who takes an SSRI be allowed to own a gun? My thought is no.

The wall to wall coverage in the media for the next week is going to make it seem like this happens everywhere all the time. It doesn't. Violence continues to drop in this country and around the world. Things are not getting worse. They are getting better.

Every other story is about gun control now and how "something has to be done." Again, new gun laws won't help. The problem isn't the guns. It's people. They suck. And they always will.

I don't like the gun control people and I don't care much for the gun rights people either. Where does that leave me?

In my search for a solution, I wonder if haven't taken a moment to think about the children of that school...those who lost their lives and their families and those who have to live with the memories of what was essentially a war zone. I can't even imagine it. As everyone out there has been saying, it doesn't seem real. And I think I have been far too insensitive.

Are any of these questions I'm asking the right ones? Is there such a thing?

Late afternoon yesterday, I had a conversation with my daughter's principal and we asked each other many of these questions. Right before I left, she told me something that her father used to say and it applies here.

Anything that can be fixed is not a problem.

Friday, December 14, 2012

On Stiglitz Part Five

I ran across this piece last week and thought it would make an excellent summation before a return to Stiglitz.

One conservative message on inequality is to say that it doesn't matter, and we should accept rises in both pre-tax and post-tax inequality. This is the implication of studies periodically put out by the Heritage Foundation, arguing that poor people aren't really poor if they have microwave ovens. This isn't an appealing argument. 

The problem with rising inequality is not that lower-income families can't afford ever-cheaper electronics; it's that they can't keep pace with the rising costs of health care, education and (in certain parts of the country) housing. There's also no reason to think that, whatever standard of living we start from, an economy where nearly all the improvements accrue to a small fraction of families is either politically sustainable or morally acceptable.

Excatly. In a nutshell, that is the foundation that is laid in the four chapters of his book. The cost of inequality is no health care, no education (past high school), and inadequate housing. Millions are affected by one, two or all three of these issues in an adverse way. So what's the result?

A Democracy in Peril-the title of Chapter 5 in "The Price of Inequality."

Stiglitz starts off in this chapter talking about the disillusionment, lower trust, and general loss of perceived fairness that has mounted due to inequality.  This leads to an erosion of civic virtue.

Such civic virtue should not be taken for granted. If the belief takes hold that the political system is stacked, that it's unfair, individuals will feel released from the obligations of civic virtue. When the social contract is abrogated, when trust between government and its citizens fails, disillusionment, disengagement, or worse follows. In the United States today and in many other democracies around the world mistrust is ascendent.

No doubt, this is a chief reason why we see less than 60 percent voter turnout. It gets worse.

Social capital is the glue that holds societies together. If individuals believe the economic and political system is unfair, the glue doesn't work and societies don't function well. As I've traveled around the world, particularly in my job as chief economist of the World Bank, I've seen instances where social capital has been strong and societies have worked together. I've also seen instances where social cohesion has been destroyed and societies have become dysfunctional.

Well, that's where we are headed and what makes matters worse are the policies aimed to further this disenfranchisement, most of which are aimed at the poor. Photo ID laws and resistance against extended voting hours and times add to this feeling of disillusionment (which works in the favor of those who support these endeavors) resulting in continued low turnout at the polls.

Stiglitz goes on to talk about how Citizen's United makes matters worse and it is there that he and I part ways in agreement (in fact, this is my least favorite chapter in the book). His book was written before the election this year so he couldn't know that his predictions in this chapter regarding this case were going to be wrong.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured at President Obama in the hopes of defeating him and all of it failed. Certainly, the president had a lot of money behind him. Yet he also had a massive network of people that not only contributed small amounts of money but also formed a very solid foundation of motivated people that got out the vote. So, Stiglitz was wrong. In this case, people triumphed over money.

His analysis of Citizen's United wasn't the only point he made with which I disagreed. The rest of the chapter has to do with globalization and he's far too vague in his criticism of it. He somewhat wrongly assumes that the lack of voter enthusiasm can be entirely attributed to civic disillusionment
and not mere laziness (see: The Michael Jordan Generation). He also leaves out the raised prosperity around the world as a result of the spread of free markets and capitalism. He seems to call of return to protectionism which, in my view, would be a giant mistake. And this chapter is generally far too repetitive regarding disillusionment with our democracy.

He does have two good points that round out the chapter in regards to financial markets and American's place in the global economy. If America is going to lecture countries around the world about economic stability, then it should practice what it preaches. We have indeed lost credibility around the world because of our financial markets.

Proponents of the financial markets like to claim that one of the virtues of open capital market is that they provide "discipline." But the markets are a fickle disciplinarian, giving an A rating one moment and turning around with an F rating the next. Even worse, financial markets' interests frequently do not coincide with those of the country. The markets are shortsighted and have a political and economic agenda that seeks the advancement of the well being of financiers rather than that of the country as a whole. 

Right. Until we chuck the "Wall Street Government," we aren't going to have as much respect around the world and voter disillusionment is going to continue at home. This point also serves to put an end, once and for all, to the notion that a successful business leader would make a successful civic leader (and that a rating from S&P means nothing).

The title of Stiglitz's next chapter is "1984 is Upon Us" and it details how perception is manipulated to continue inequality. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

No Easy Answers

With the passage of the right to work law in Michigan, it's clear that there are no easy answers to protecting the middle class while also protecting a company's right to make money. On the surface, it seems tremendously unfair to make someone pay union dues. If they don't want to pay, that should be OK, right?

Similar to the health care issue, however, the problem arises when the people that don't pay then free ride and enjoy the benefits of what the unions do for laborers. In many ways, unions are all that is left in this country in protecting the rights of the individual versus the billions of a corporation and, more importantly, from keeping inequality from getting even worse. We have many states in this country that have had right to work laws in place for years. Wages have not gotten better and the owners have reaped the benefits. They've stagnated and gotten worse so Governor Snyder is mistaken when says this will help workers. It won't.

Of course, the larger picture says that nothing is going to help laborers because of globalization. When you spread free market ideals and capitalism around the world, this is what you get: a giant pool of cheap labor. In the long run, this is a good thing but in the short run, people are having to make do with less money and it really, really sucks for most Americans. Further, it has inhibited our growth economically and made the middle class a vapor of what it once was.

There are no easy answers and I know that I don't have them. My initial thought is we need some fresh, new ideas in place of the old and stale arguments being fought out in Michigan right now. I was absolutely appalled to see the fights that had broken out and the violence, largely instigated by the union protesters and supporters. There is no excuse whatsoever for this sort of behavior and it only hurts their cause. It's likely going to be worse until some one or several someones put on their contstructivists caps and start answer some questions.

How do we support these laborers who are unintended victims of globalization, if at all? Just tell them to ride it and out it will get better (which it will, eventually)? Remember, that it stands to reason that if people are making less here that some people are making more elsewhere (more, of course, than the absolute shit they used to make). I'm not trying to diminish the exploitation that goes on by MNC's around the world but we shouldn't ignore how they have raised prosperity in many Global South countries. This doesn't help our own laborers, obviously.

And what of the issue of inequality? No doubt, right to work laws make it worse. This is where the federal government could help by eliminating the avenues of rent seeking that so many of the top earners and private firms take advantage of every day. With the fiscal cliff talks going nowhere everyday, this seems unlikely so our march to look more and more like a Third World country is being realized.

I don't know...I really don't. Honestly, I don't think anyone does and that's the problem.

Is It Time Yet?

(Alas, between the time I wrote this and scheduled it for Wednesday morning there was yet another shooting, this time at a mall in Portland. No details as of now, but it only emphasizes the point.)

Last week conservatives went ballistic when Bob Costas talked on Sunday Night Football about Jovan Belcher shooting his girlfriend and then committing suicide in front of his coach. So, as Jon Stewart wondered on the Daily Show, has enough time passed now to talk about this subject?

I guess the answer is no, because this crap happens every damned day:
At this point gun rights activists instantly jump up and down, screaming, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people! And those people were idiots!"

Exactly. That's the point. Why the hell do these idiots have guns?

The three accidental shooters obviously lack the mental capacity to use and store weapons safely. Jovan Belcher and mass murderers like Jared Loughner and James Holmes have a history of domestic violence and/or mental disorders. How are any of these nut jobs qualified to own guns?

Voting is every much a constitutional right as gun ownership, yet conservatives are willing to disenfranchise millions of voters across the country to stop a few incidents of voter fraud. And still they are completely opposed to even talking about reasonable measures to prevent 30,000 gun deaths each year. Those deaths are caused by gun suicide, kids playing with loaded guns, accidental discharge by half-witted gun enthusiasts, cuckolded husbands and cheated-on wives, fired employees, vigilantes like George Zimmerman and Byron Smith executing interlopers, murderous rampages by psychopaths and shootings of bystanders in gang wars and drive-bys. There must be solutions to at least some of these problems.

Our per-capita gun death rate is not quite at the banana-republic rate, but it's two to 100 times greater than comparable countries, including Canada, Australia, Germany, England, Italy, Switzerland, South Korea and Japan. Part of it is the stupidity of the war on drugs (which is partly why Latin American has such a  high death rate), but there's more to it than that.

Instead of yelling "Shut up!" every time anyone brings up the subject, conservatives should instead talk seriously about concrete measures to make guns safer and less likely to kill accidentally, as well as keep them out of the hands of people who are too crazy, too dangerous, too incompetent or too stupid to own weapons that can kill at the merest touch of the trigger.

Or consider this: we spend literally hundreds of billions of dollars on airport security every year, taking off our shoes every time we board a plane, and exposing ourselves to X-ray scans to make sure terrorists don't sneak sophisticated shoe and underwear bombs onto airplanes. People with guns kill ten times as many Americans as died on 9/11 every year: we've spent probably five trillion dollars on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our worldwide war on terrorism and airport security. Yet here in the United States you can buy semiautomatic rifles without a background check at any gun show. Such rifles can hold a hundred rounds and easily be converted to full auto, allowing terrorists -- or kooks like James Holmes -- to pull off a Mumbai-style terrorist attack here. Yet the NRA fought tooth and nail to have the FBI destroy the records of people who undergo background checks for gun purchases.

Even discounting the terrorist bogeyman, consider this: the nitwit who killed his son at the gun store in Pennsylvania could have just as easily shot anyone else in the parking lot. Do you really want dorks like that visiting the same gun store you do?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Minority Rule in the House of Representatives

The other day I wrote about the tyranny of the minority in the United States Senate. Sadly, it's also true in the House of Representatives.

Republicans in next year's Congress, the 113th, will hold 234 of the 435 seats, or 54%. That must mean Republican House candidates that they won the majority of the votes cast, right?

Wrong. Democratic House candidates won 50.5% of the national vote, but took only 46% of the seats. How is this completely undemocratic outcome possible? Two reasons: incumbency and gerrymandering.

Because so many state legislatures were controlled by Republicans in 2010, they controlled the redistricting process. They redrew the lines to give themselves more seats in Congress in a process called gerrymandering. It was particularly egregious in North Carolina, where Democratic House candidates received 51% of the vote, but got only 27% of the seats.

As Republicans and Democrats negotiate over the "fiscal cliff," both sides are claiming that they won decisive political victories. Eight-five percent of House Republicans won re-election with 55% of the vote, with more than half winning more than 60%.

Republicans say this means voters are demanding they carry through on campaign promises. They are wrong: what voters really want is for Congress to do their job and stop screwing around.

Most House members win in "landslides" because their districts are gerrymandered. Running against an incumbent is such a losing proposition that opponents are nearly always unqualified sacrificial goats, placed on the ballot in the hope that the incumbent commits an unpardonable gaffe on the scale of Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment.

But even that doesn't always help. Tennessee Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais is a doctor who claims to be a pro-life family-values conservative. A month before the election it came out that he had affairs with six coworkers and patients (!) and told one of them to get an abortion. Oh, and he and his ex-wife had two abortions. And this guy still won by 18.5 percent!

Results like this show quite clearly that winning any single election says nothing about what the voters want or think about the positions candidates espouse. Winning one particular race only means that you got more votes than the other guy, and that can be for any reason. But the biggest reasons are incumbency and district boundaries.

Ohio is a particularly blatant example of gerrymandering. John Boehner appears to think he won his district by 98% because the voters agree with everything he says. The fact is, he ran unopposed but only got 248,378 votes, the lowest vote total in an Ohio district. A Democrat, Marcia Fudge, ran unopposed in Ohio's 11th district but she got 100% of the vote, with 258,359 votes cast: 4% more than Boehner. Other districts had as many as 368,474 votes, almost 50% more than Boehner's district. Yet the population is supposed to be equal in all districts.

Although Obama won the state 50.1% to Romney's 48.2%, Ohio is sending four Democrats and 12 Republicans to Washington in January. In contested races Democrats won by margins from 42% to 50%; Republicans won by far more meager margins of 4% to 27%. How is that possible? Because the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature packed all the Democrats into four districts. (Pennsylvania is in a similar situation.)

What does John Boehner owe the people in his district that didn't vote for him? What does he owe the people in the rest of Ohio? What does he owe the people in the other 49 states?

Republicans need to get over this idea that they represent only the people that vote for them or donate to their campaigns. If one of Mr. Boehner's constituents was having a problem getting Social Security or veteran's benefits, I am absolutely certain he would help them get it fixed, regardless of who they voted for in the last election.

The legislative process should work the same way. Boehner should take into account the needs and opinions of everyone he represents, and that's not just the people in his gerrymandered Republican district. As speaker of the House, he is in line for the presidency. He therefore represents everyone in the country, and has to consider broader electoral results when formulating national policy.

The fact is, 98% of the people who voted for Mr. Boehner won't be affected by the president's compromise proposal on taxes. In the 2012 election cycle Boehner received at least $11.8 million in campaign donations, almost all of it from outside his district, almost all of it from people who will be affected by the president's compromise proposal on taxes.

Does Boehner really think he owes those donors more consideration than the rest of the people in the country?

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Minnesotan Message

Alright, Minnesotans...

1) After a snowstorm, driving a few miles under the speed limit is prudent. Driving 5 miles an hour everywhere is irritating. And continuing to move at the same (if not worse) snail like pace when you are pushing a cart around Target is massively fucking irritating.

2)Just because we had some snow doesn't mean that every single person who can drive in the seven country metro area should get out and do so...

3) We've had snow here before so enough with the buffoon like confusion. Stop doing stupid things you wouldn't normally do like changing lanes 9 times in the space of five minutes on the highway.

4)Whoever is in charge of stoplights, reset them to normal and not have them be on green for -5 seconds.

5) Whoever is in charge of plowing, say no to that 5th doughnut and actually PLOW THE ROADS!!

(can you tell we just got our first snowfall of the year?)