More Gun Control or More Gun Fights at the OK Corral?

The Aurora Colorado killings have focused media attention on gun control and gun violence which is always the case following a killing spree by a deranged soul.  This has prompted a lot of “soul searching” in the words of Fareed Zakaria on his  Global Public Square show this past Sunday morning.  He wants to move past the soul searching and come to terms with “the fact” that we have so much more gun violence in this country than in most others because we have so many more guns.

English: This is the semi-automatic civilian v...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

En route to making his point, he dismisses David Brooks’ argument in a NY Times column last week, that when it comes to these mass killers “it is about psychology, not sociology”.   Brooks, a  supporter of gun control laws though conservative,  argues these killers are uniquely deranged and “if they cannot find an easy way to get a new gun, they’ll surely find a way to get one of the 200 million guns that already exist in this country.  Or they’ll use a bomb or find another way.”

Zakaria sees it differently:  We have no more “nut cases” than other countries, but many more guns, so we should have better gun laws.   Though I respect them both I mostly agree with Brooks and not with Zakaria.

Zakaria conflates two issues that should be kept separate.   One is overall gun violence and the other is killing-spree violence.  We certainly do have a huge amount of guns in private hands,  an eye-popping estimate of  250 million to 270 million.  That’s nearly one for every American (estimated to be about one-fourth of privately owned guns world wide)(*1).   Of course, some of us have many and many of us (including me) have none, but around 50%  of households report owning a gun.

Since our gun related death rate is  around 20 times that of England/Wales, which has relatively few privately owned guns, one imagines a connection to overall death rates.  But there seems no clear cut connection to mass killings.    An article in the conservative National Review describes numerous incidents in several European  countries that have much stricter gun laws than ours, including England.   While making it tougher for the demented to  stockpile guns and ammunition makes sense  –  like keeping sharp objects away from children – Brooks may be right that these safeguards will seldom be enough to deter the diabolically demented.

As for the effectiveness of gun control, the facts are not as clear as Sakaria seems to think.  Justice Steven Breyer is a liberal justice on the Supreme Court who was on the losing end of a 5-4 decision that struck down a Washington D. C. gun control law.   Even so, after Breyer surveyed the vast body of empirical research on the effectiveness of gun control he concluded, “The upshot is a set of studies and counter-studies that, at most, could leave a judge uncertain about the proper policy conclusion.”

If, after a careful study of the issue,  Justice Breyer is uncertain about “proper policy conclusions” when it comes to gun control, shouldn’t all of us who know much less, be careful about jumping to our own conclusions?

Also, rather than more gun control,  studies show an increasing public support for less.   Many have bought into the NRA’s idea that the only real prevention is for each of us to pack iron ourselves.    In Colorado more than in most states.  Last March the  Colorado Supreme Court struck down the University of Colorado’s campus gun ban, saying the CU Board of Regents overstepped its authority in blocking students from carrying licensed concealed weapons.

Tied to that, it has been argued by those on the right that one armed innocent at the theater in Aurora may have saved many others (of course, another imaginable scenario is that the  armed innocent could have  panicked and started firing wildly adding to the carnage.  Also, how do we know whether someone in the the theater did carry a gun but just froze?).

Of course, the distinctions I have tried hard to make may all prove irrelevant in terms of the foreseeable future.   Recognizing the public’s leaning towards less, the Democrats have little enthusiasm for more gun control.  And, though Obama made a statement in support of another assault weapons ban in a recent speech, I don’t take it seriously (*2).   It is simply more political rhetoric to appeal to his base.   Nothing will come of it if he is re-elected.  There are too many bigger fish to fry.

The NRA has won the gun control debate for the time being.  Of course, given the increase of gun toters, one day we will  have a real shoot out like that of the OK Corral, and who knows if the innocents who are packing will act like heroes or panic and make things worse.   I just hope that the NRA’s  gun-use training programs are really good, as I do not have confidence in the ability of the average gun toter to handle things well if suddenly confronted by a well armed demented sort who doesn’t give a flying  “F” what will happen to him or anyone else.

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(*1)  One stat that troubled me in Zakaria’s report was his indicating that Americans own  50% of the world’s  privately held guns.    The information I have found indicates around 25% in 2007, and I can’t imagine it doubling in the past five years.  I think Zakari’s staff just got it wrong.

(*2)   The nature of “assault weapons” seems misconstrued by gun control advocates.  They are not automatic weapons, which are outlawed already, and fire only one shot with a squeeze of a trigger, not many, though they do fire faster than other non-automatics.   They can be fitted with magazines that hold numerous bullets, but that’s true of some other guns as well.  One source of confusion is that what are dubbed assault weapons usually look like they are automatic.   The photo above is an example of that.  And some are knock offs of actual automatic weapons, but without automatic firing capacity.

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Killer X and Our Latest Slaughter

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.   A white guy g0es into a school, or place of work or political rally with guns and blows away as many people as he can before killing himself.   The latest of these stories played out in Aurora, Colorado a few days ago, but this time the killer surrendered, perhaps after almost escaping since his outfit resembled that of a SWAT officer .  Also, the theater scenario was novel, the blending of real evil with a  fantasy movie format by a killer who told police he was “the Joker,”  the diabolical antithesis of the caped crusader in the Batman saga.   Killer x died his hair red like the Joker’s.

united states currency eye- IMG_7364_web

(Photo credit: kevindean)

The scrutiny is now in full swing, of course.  Just how crazy is this guy and is there any way this could have been prevented?   If one plans for months to devastate others while choosing a scenario that makes real a movie fantasy of good vs. evil, by playing the part of  evil incarnate, is that man really insane?  Or has he just given up on good and chosen evil?   I don’t know.

And as for prevention?   I am at a loss to say.  All I  know is this did not shock me.  And I don’t believe it shocked most of you, either, unless you know the victims.  It has become part of our  way of life.   Back in 1966 when this kind of rage was expressed by a sniper who shot people at random from a 300 foot tower at the University of Texas…..NOW THAT WAS SHOCKING?   It was something new and incomprehensible back then.

Now it is old hat.   On the other hand, if you were shocked, maybe I’m speaking only for my jaded old self.   Still, I’m not so jaded as to sit stone faced watching the  Aurora, Colorado prayer vigil Sunday evening.

Tears welled up hearing of the death of  six year old Veronica Moser-Sullivan and the heroism of three others.  A TV reporter  interviewed Chantel, the  “estranged” wife of one of the heroes, 26 year old Jonathan Blunk,  another of the twelve who were murdered.   The navy veteran died shielding a woman friend  who survived.  He had wanted to reenlist in hopes of becoming a Navy Seal.  Chantel said he was a good guy who “wanted to die as a hero.”  He did.

President Obama was there and told of the bravery of two young friends, Allie Young and Stephanie Davies.   After the gunman threw a smoke bomb on the floor of the movie theater Allie was shot in the neck as she rose to notify others of what was happening. Stephanie placed her finger over Allie’s neck where she had been shot and  called 911.  She refused to leave her friend’s side, even as the shooting continued around them.  She may have saved Allie Young’s life by applying pressure to the wound.

I was touched by both the courage and loss.  Speaking of the actions of these people and others as well as the large gathering and numerous expressions of sympathy, someone said:  “It is amazing that one bad person has brought out so much good.”

Adding to the “good” was the President’s not mentioning the name of the killer as requested by a relative of one of the slain.  Of course, we will hear his name often in upcoming days, but I will keep thinking of him as killer x.   They keep showing that same photo  on TV and in the papers, and I can’t tell if his smile would look so creepy if I did not know what he had done.  I would like to see no pictures of him.   While there are reasons to try to understand him better, can we somehow limit the notoriety in the process?

Another man who never wants to see another photo of killer x is Tom Teves, father of Alex, another who died shielding a woman friend from the killer’s bullets.  A regular reader of USA Today, he has stopped because they show that photo regularly.   Mr. Teves urged CNN and all networks to “move on” and not dwell on the killer.  Instead focus on the heroes, victims and survivors.   Anderson Cooper of CNN was respectful of that in his interview.

In a divided  society that has lost the traditional distinction between the famous and the infamous, blurred by the rise of THE CELEBRITY, can we all at least  agree not to celebrate a murderer with our attention?    Not mentioning his name at the vigil was one small step in the right direction.   Tom Teves suggested another.

Hopefully we will learn how to do this better since this is part of our way of life now.

Affordable Care Act – The Heart of the Matter

In my previous post I indicated I would write about Medicaid today, but I changed my mind after the recent hullabaloo over President Obama saying:  “If you’ve got a business you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”   Though it was just more political game playing, it also reflects a key difference in perspective between the two parties.

President Barack Obama and Warren Buffett in t...

President Barack Obama and Warren Buffett in the Oval Office, July 14, 2010. (Wikipedia)

Some time ago I read about a study of attitudinal differences between Democrats and Republicans, and the point I best recall was that Democrats tend to see life in terms of luck or the lack of it, while Republicans tend to see life more in terms of personal credit or fault.

When you think of your successes how much gratitude do you feel to others for helping you achieve?  And when you see the troubles of others, how much fault do you accord them?  Did they not work hard enough?  Were they just too foolish to deserve better?

In other words, when something bad has happened to someone else a Democrat is more likely to think that  could have happened to him:   “When you hear about all these people who’ve lost all this money, you can’t help thinking there but for the grace of God go I.”  A Republican’s inclination would be to think:  “If they lost their money they probably deserved to (*1).”

The recent flap over Obama’s words above reflects this difference in viewsIf you read what he said in total (quoted in the article at the bottom) rather than words the rabid right, always eager to smear him, took out of context, you will see he is not denigrating independent entreprenures, but only pointing out that “no man is an island”, that whatever we accomplish is tied to contributions made by others to our success, sometimes in the form of government.

In other words, he is expressing a Democrat’s  tendency of thought, just as the rabid right is expressing a Republican’s emphasis on individual responsibility – credit or blame – albeit in a totally unfair depiction.   Not that they care.  The more foreign, less American they can paint Obama, the better off they think they will do in the election (*2).

Rushbo, as he likes to call himself, the high priest of the rabid right, has jumped all over that out-of-context comment saying it is now “undeniable” that Obama “hates America”, and others on the right just shake their heads at the President being woefully “out of touch” with how the economy works.   What I find interesting is that no one would suggest Warren Buffet is out of touch with how our economy works, yet he is a strong supporter of Obama.   Has he secretly gone insane?

An avid capitalist, Buffet has made billions in investments with his understanding and acumen of how our economy works.  He exemplifies the Republican creed, but he doesn’t identify with it.  Born middle class but now the third richest man in the world, he  could claim credit for it all, and few would object.  But he doesn’t think that way:

When questioned about his success in a Time interview, he said:  “I’ve had all this good fortune…. It starts with being born in this country, though.  It starts with being born male in 1930.” With a bit more thought, I’m sure he would have added “white” to his list.   Buffet feels gratitude for what the American system has given him and feels it is duty to give back.   A successful Republican businessman would more likely think:  Give back?  I didn’t take anything from anyone.  I created something that benefitted others as well as myself.

Returning to the Affordable Care Act, backing or not backing a plan to extend health insurance to 30 million largely depends on which view of life you hold, that of Warren Buffet or, let’s say, Donald Trump.  Are those who lack insurance mostly responsible for that?   Shouldn’t they have just been smarter and tried harder?  Or has bad luck played a key role for most of them, including being born less fortunate than most, beginning life lodged in a cycle of poverty?

That is the deciding question.  That is the heart of the matter.

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(*1)   I wonder how many Republicans invested heavily with Bernie Madoff and to what extent they hold themselves to blame for their losses.

(*2)  The eagerness to smear Obama as un-American at heart prompted a firestorm of misinformation placing Obama in France on July 4th referred to in my July 6  Smatterings post.

Affordable Care Act – Some Sifting and Winnowing

The Affordable Care Act can be viewed as the most noteworthy achievement of Obama’s tenure as President, or as others would have it, a huge, costly mistake which should be repealed as quickly as possible.  Check back with me in 10 years for a better assessment, but for now I will try to sort out some of the issues and likelihoods from information I have garnered from various sources.

English: Official photo cropped of United Stat...

Senator and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First is the curious situation of the ACA being, from a Dem perspective, the greatest achievement of Obama’s term, but not pushed hard in his reelection campaign.   A problem they created in passing the act was that most of the benefits do not begin until 2014, so few have experienced its benefits and most don’t know what they are.   This has made it easy for the Republicans to portray the ACA as something nobody wants (*1).

But let’s move on to an actual shortcoming in the plan.  The ACA will not greatly alter our ever rising costs of healthcare, in which we pay 2, 3, or 4 times what other advanced nations pay for similar services.   The passage of the ACA required making concessions to many interest groups,  such as drug and insurance companies and individual Democratic Senators.  As such, the overall problem of increasing healthcare costs was not really addressed in the act, one more reason not to herald it as an achievement.

What the ACA will provide, however, is insurance coverage to some 30 million or so who do not have it now.   In contrast, the Republican have no plan to do that.  They say they do, but health care expert Stuart Altman describes it as “little dibbles and dabbles”.   And that “plan” would at best provide additional insurance coverage to three million people, not 30 million.

What is less clear is what will be the costs of the ACA over time.  Again, according to Stuart Altman, about 100o pages of the 2700 page document deal with ways to save money to counterbalance added expenses, so it can be argued it will pay for itself.    However, we all know the tendency of costs to overrun estimates, even when one plans to remodel one’s house.

One big question percolating is the additional costs that states will have to pay with the expansion of Medicaid by the ACA.   Initially, in 2014 the Fed Gov will pay 100% of those costs but that will change over time, so the question is how much it might change.  I will table that issue until my next post.

While the Obama people don’t stress the ACA in their campaign, neither does the Romney team (other than vowing to repeal it).  Trashing the act in detail would remind everyone that it was largely based on  Mitt’s own plan as Governor of Massachusetts.   The big deal made of the individual mandate –  prompting everyone to buy insurance  – decided in favor by the Supreme Court recently, was no big deal when Romney was pushing his insurance plan in MA.

The mandate idea was developed by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, reflecting this Republican value:   Reduce the number of “free riders” allowed to live off  the efforts of others.   Romney portrayed those not willing to do their share by buying insurance as “free riders” clogging hospital emergency rooms.

However, the “free rider” aversion was later trumped by another aversion of the right,  big  government oppression of individuals.  When the Obama team came to embrace the mandate, it became even more clear to Republicans that it was a bad idea, even unconstitutionally so.

Amidst all of the political spinning and dodging, this much is clear:   Expanding health care insurance is important to the Democrats and not to the Republicans, as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made clear on the Fox News  Sunday, July 1.   Given my center/left bias it might surprise that I consider FOX’s Chris Wallace the toughest political interviewer on TV.  He’s  a chip off the  old block Mike, of 60 Minutes fame.

Since the Republicans promise to repeal what they like to call Obamacare if given the chance, Wallace asked McConnell what they had in mind to expand coverage to the 30 million.  McConnell tried to dodge the question a few times by saying things like “we already have the best healthcare system in the world”, but like a junkyard dog, Wallace dug his teeth into the issue and wouldn’t let go.  Finally, an irritated McConnell said “That is not the issue. The question is how you can go step by step to improve the American health care system.”

And Wallace responded:  “You don’t think the 30 million people who are uninsured is an issue? ”  And McConnell rejoined:   “Let me tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to turn the American health care system into a western European system.”

Tough luck, 30 million.

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(*1)  It seems the Democrats did not want the plan to cost more than a trillion over 10 years,  which was easier to achieve if little was spent until 2014.

Affordable Care Act – Some Perspective

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the U...

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Affordable Care Act is reportedly about 2700 pages.    I wonder how many people have actually read the whole thing:  1,000, 10,000, ten?  Given its complexity, how can John or Jane Q Public hope to understand the issues at all?  It seems good to start with someone whose life’s work has been in the area of health care reform,  Stuart Altman.  He has been an adviser and architect of health care reform policy for five U.S. presidents — both Democrat and Republican.

In short, he figures to know as much as anyone about our health care controversy, so I have linked you to an 11 minute video interview of him, which figures to be more illuminating than anything I have say.  Still, that will not prevent me from adding my two cents (or maybe four if you figure inflation in) in future posts.

Here are a few points Altman makes in the video:

  • Developing a uniquely American health care system has been an evolutionary process beginning with President Teddy Roosevelt over 100 years ago.
  • While the Obama plan is based largely on the Romney plan in MA, both have their roots in a plan Altman worked on during the Nixon administration, which Senator Teddy Kennedy almost backed.
  • Most of the Obama’s program’s costs and benefits do not kick in until 2014.  Over a 10 year period additional costs are “projected” to be counter balanced by additional savings.
  • Even if  the ACA plan is rolled out as projected, more changes will need to occur in our health care system to really get costs under control.  A key to real savings is to replace the “fee-for-service” model now used, which rewards providers to simply do more. We need a model  with incentives to be more efficient and make better choices.

So, at your convenience take a gander at the video and I’ll see you Tuesday or whenever you get back.

A Letter to London

(The “post” below is an email to DZ, a friend of mine, dating back to the early 70s, who has lived in England for over 40 years after marrying an English woman.   Recently, he has contributed summaries of three books to this blog, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haight, One Way Forward by Lawrence Lessig and We Can Do Better by Bill Bradley, the last-named pair referred to below).

Just read over your summary.  Good job.  Bradley’s approach seems the most comprehensive that I’ve seen.  Of course, being so raises lots of questions and things to quibble with.  Still, he seems to touch all the bases and could be sort of a initial blue print for change to rework or tweak here and there.

In the States we seem to have three huge interconnected problems (at least until I think of a fourth):  1) our polarization.  2) the corrupting influence of big money 3) our lack of commonly respected sources of knowledge.  As to the last point, I know several guys who can’t stand Obama just because they have swallowed the negative image the Republicans have ginned up  over the past four years.

They call Obama a “socialist”.   Both Warren Buffet and Paul Volker would say that those  accusations are unfounded.   Warren Buffet  has been Mr. Super Investment Guy for years,  and Paul Volker is a former Federal Reserve Chief and generally well respected banking type.   Does it make sense that either of these guys would welcome a socialist as president?

Rather than being a socialist, Obama could be accused of being soft on the big banks which are still too big too fail.  Though Obama isn’t getting as much money from them for this election as before, he has been getting more money than Romney…….which may also reflect the bankers’ belief that Mitt is not likely to win and/or simply a hedging of their bets.

Speaking of  money, the influence of “Big Money” has gotten bigger since Citizens United which I discussed in two recent posts.  And their role in this election is largely the production of negative ads from both sides.  I just saw a Republican ad strategist  on FOX compliment an ad from the Obama campaign that makes Mitt look like a heartless guy sacking workers while at Bain Capital.  One hired gun complimenting another.  Our election is all attack ads and sound bites.

Finding the unity to do things while lacking a base of commonly recognized knowledge and restricting the influence of big money (which seems to prosper with keeping things just the way they are) seems so difficult that  it is hard to imagine a solution.

I have come to have doubts about the possibility of a third party that makes a big impact in our life times.   While I think the internet makes it a possibility, it is a very tricky situation to make work.   Bill Bradley refers to Americans Elect which I wrote about in a post, and is now dormant.    It is a sort of Catch 22.  For something like that to attract backing it needs to convince people it has real potential and to convince people it has real potential it needs to attract backing.

Lawrence Lessig, who you reported on, (I figure at your advanced age you might need a reminder) has initiated a web site called rootstrikers that urges people to take several steps to fight money corruption, including signing a pledge to back several actions  (you don’t have to back all of them).   This has been around for months I think,  and they have only about 5,400 signed up.

Lessig urges me and others  to spread the news to friends and I will at some point mention the site, but not with vigor.   If I don’t see something working, I am  not going to ask readers to back it with enthusiasm.    If the numbers stick round 5000, I’m not going to push it, even if I sign up myself.  That Catch 22 I mentioned.

While what I have written must seem pessimistic, I just think of it as realistic.  We cannot figure out a way forward without seeing clearly all the obstacles we face.

SMATTERINGS – July 6, 2012

While working on this blog I come across all sorts of information.  I would like to share more of it than can be squeezed into a couple of posts a week, yet not so much as to  overload readers’ psyches,  so periodically I will have posts that combine a little of this and that.

UPDATE ON THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION (this section was rewritten July 7, due to my misstatement of Silver’s “odds”)

I mentioned Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeightblog in my previous Smatterings and his picking the winner of all but one state  in the 2008 presidential election.   Even though the cable chatter often makes this seem a close race, Silver has consistently given Obama a “chance of winning” in the 60s percentage-wise.

After the jobs report that came out yesterday (tepid for the third month in a row) Silver reduced Obama’s “winning chance” from 68.9% to 66.9%, but still a solid advantage.

Speaking of  winning chances, yesterday I checked some Vegas odds on the race at an online site called Bovada.  A $100 bet on Obama will net you $58.82 if he wins.   Romney gives you better odds if he wins,  your $100 netting $140, but you get a better payoff  because he appears less likely to win.

IT’S EVEN WORSE THAN IT LOOKS

That’s the title of a book by two well respected centrists, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein.  One reason I judge them as centrists is because other centrists, like former Republican Senator Chuck Hegel and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker have praised the book.   It takes one to know one, as they say.  However, since the book blames a right moving Republican party for the lion’s share of our congressional gridlock, the authors are obviously liberals to those they criticize, if not socialists or, in the case of Representative Alan West, communists.

This weekend Mann and Ornstein are slated to be on UpwithChrisHayes, my favorite political discussion show which is on MSNBC on both Saturday and Sunday from 8-to-10 ET, which makes it 5-to-7 my time and one reason why I record it.  Another reason is it allows me to watch it in segments during the rest of the week, instead of watching a number of programs that are not nearly as illuminating.

Being on MSNBC, it is no surprise that most of the guests are liberals, though there is often a conservative in attendance and Hayes does a good job of keeping the conversation flowing as opposed to verbal head butting.

I’m not sure which day the authors will be on, but that’s another reason to check the program out on both days  this weekend.

OBAMA CELEBRATES FOURTH OF JULY IN FRANCE

Not really, but that was the story that went through conservative social media like the Colorado forest fire.  It is worth examining, as Ezra Klein did on MSNBC, as it illustrates the eagerness of the right to immediately circulate anything that smears Obama, accuracy be damned.

According to Klein,  the Hollywood Reporter had a piece about the European branch of the Obama campaign having a fundraiser in Paris for American x-pats on the 4th.  Seeing that, Ben Shapiro wrote about the Paris fundraiser in the conservative Breitbart.com, ending with:  “That also may be the only place Obama can still find cheering throngs.”

Shapiro didn’t say Obama was in France, but apparently Andrew McCarthy of the National Review thought he did when he wrote the following :

“Final Jeopardy – Category is OBAMA: The answer is: Fundraising in Paris….with a link to Breitbart.  Carl Rove saw that and ever the eager beaver when it comes to smearing Obama, tweeted it to his legions of followers, who replied with responses such as:  “Fitting. Comrade Obama to celebrate the 4th in socialist France.”

And Lars Larson,  a conservative talk show host, ran with it like “wrong way Corrigan”:  “What would you expect the president do on our day of independence? Perhaps give a speech or visit wounded warriors. At least something in America. Not this president. Not Barack Obama.”

Well, actually, on the 4th Obama was meeting with active duty U.S. service members who are becoming naturalized U.S. citizens at the White House.

I agree with conservatives that our media tend to reflect liberal biases, but at least they also have a journalistic tradition of checking the facts.  And they do seem embarrassed when they get the facts wrong.

Not so with the parade of verbal henchman listed above beginning with McCarthy who is further taken to task in the article below.