Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Let's Ban (Most) Guns, Repeal Second Amendment

After several days now of reading about and reflecting on the horrific Newtown massacre and the various commentaries thereupon, I have come to the conclusion that we need to abandon the incremental approach and instead advocate for a more drastic shift on gun policy in America: the banning of most guns except appropriate and limited firearms for hunting and other strictly regulated purposes. Yes, I am talking, seriously, about banning most guns in America and implementing a program to buy back those in private hands, followed by outright confiscation if needed. I realize this will sound highly implausible and impractical to many readers--not to mention potentially counterproductive in seemingly driving away some allies--but hear me out. We are evolving as a society, and we have to open ourselves to the possibility of rapid shifts. For example, legalized gay marriage seemed hopelessly out of touch idealistic not that long ago, yet now it is becoming a reality. The resistance to gay marriage was deep, culturally and morally charged, and fierce (still is, in many places, though thankfully as a dwindling minority viewpoint). Admittedly, gun control faces a daunting Constitutional issue, which I will address shortly, but I think we need to face these challenges squarely, courageously, and unflinchingly. The carnage has simply become too great--already was many years ago, but I have new hope that we may be on the cusp of a gestalt switch that will transform the gun debate. (1) First, we simply must address the "second"--Second Amendment, that is. It will sound like anathema to the advocates of incremental change, because of its potency, but it must be said that the (gun rights) emperor has no clothes. The Second Amendment does not, has not, and will not protect any fundamental human or civil rights in the manner that is fantasized about by pro-gun zealots. It may have theoretically served to guard against tyranny in the early days of the United States, before we had an immensely powerful standing military force--although even then, historical research has suggested that it was less a high-minded or principled statement than an expedient to resolve the state vs. national militia power debates of its day--but it is ludicrous to suggest it could ever serve any such purpose today. The Second Amendment is archaic, barbaric, and has been tragically perverse in its consequences. It is time to REPEAL the Second Amendment, completely, unreservedly, and with our only regret being the carnage and bloodshed caused by our failure to come to our senses sooner. I think a major factor in our reluctance to do so, beyond the fear of sounding immoderate, is the sacredness with which the entire "Bill of Rights" is treated, and I will admit that I myself have felt squeamish about tampering with the Bill of Rights, so potent has been the air of sacredness that permeates the First Ten amendments to the Constitution. Indeed, so many of the other First Ten (as I shall call them instead) are rock-bottom principles I would be loathe to ever compromise, and are indeed sacred to the preservation of democracy. But it is time for us to abandon the idea that this flawed historical construct of the First Ten can ultimately be conflated with "civil rights" or "human rights," or that sacredness inheres in all of the First Ten just by virtue of them being passed through some political machinations in the early days of the American republic. There is much in the First Ten that must be protected at all costs, and such things as free speech, assembly, press, and religion, as well as protection from cruel and unusual punishment, habeas corpus, etc., are indeed sacred to democracy, but we must protect these specific rights on their own merits, as core principles of universal human, civil, and democratic rights. "Gun rights" do not meet this standard (nor, I might add, are all the crucial rights we should strive to enshrine and preserve even in the First Ten!), and in fact, given the tremendous killing firepower now available for those who threaten mass murder in public places, arguably the Second Amendment does more to threaten these other crucial human and civil rights (particularly freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion) than to protect them. It is time to push for full repeal of the Second Amendment. (I realize I have sidestepped entirely the pivotal debate over the meaning of the "well-regulated militia" clause, but given the Heller decision a few years ago, I am not inclined to trust the Supreme Court to interpret the Second Amendment in any way that would allow the necessary gun restrictions I am advocating. And so I am essentially saying we need to grasp the nettle and pull it out by its roots.) This will not be easy, but we must begin the struggle in earnest. (2) A second point that should be made, underlining the necessity of pushing for full repeal, followed by strict federal (and even stricter state and local) gun regulation, is that incremental and piecemeal reform is unlikely to fully address the problem. Closing gun sale loopholes, better background checks, limiting magazine sizes, and banning certain assault-type and semiautomatic weapons are certainly all well worth doing--and if advocacy for Second Amendment repeal does nothing more than make these approaches easier to swallow, then it will have at least served that purpose in the short term--but the truth of the matter is that America is awash with guns and there are too many ways around these partial measures. For example, in the case of background checks, it is too difficult to keep weapons from falling into the hands of the wrong person. (3) But "wrong person" doesn't even quite capture the fullness of the danger we face from guns. It is time to abandon the simplistic idea that we can somehow divide the population into the "good" and "bad" people--or even that, if such categories existed, we could reliably tell them apart. The truth of the matter is that good people do bad things, and people who are having difficulties in their lives, for whatever reason (mental illness being just one) often do terrible things. We don't always know why, and we certainly can't predict it with anything close to certainty. So unfortunately having the killing power of a gun so widespread and accessible means that heated arguments, boiling anger and rage, mistaken identities, and countless other reasons have produced violence on a grotesque scale. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we all have to admit that we are imperfect creatures--we are all sinners, after all!--and, if we had more humility, we would do whatever we can to prevent ourselves from turning our moments of weakness into deadly tragedies. (And I haven't even mentioned the suicide risk posed by guns, which dominates the gun statistics.) The only real solution is to dramatically reduce the number of weapons by criminalizing them and removing the vast majority of the guns from circulation--in the first stage, with a buyback program during a transition period, followed by law enforcement action to arrest violators. (And, yes, there will be lots of them initially, but with enough determination and social pressure, I believe we can make it happen.) Once most guns become prima facie illegal, then it will be quite obvious when anyone has one that it is in violation of the law. Manufacture of the vast majority of gun types will be shut down as illegal, and only hunting rifles and other strictly permitted, registered, and regulated uses will exist, according to very narrowly drawn laws adopted without fear of Second Amendment objections or of the whole (undeserved) aura of sacredness that therefore permeates such discussions. It will be so much easier to track the relatively small number of guns. (Not to mention, it will be make it much easier for other countries as well, such as Mexico, much of whose drug war weaponry comes from the United States.) (4) And speaking of other countries, it is about time that we call out peculiarly American pro-gun attitudes for what they are: the height of nationalistic arrogance. Dozens of other industrialized countries exist in conditions of very high freedom without anything like our Second Amendment "gun rights" in place. They strictly control guns and have dramatically lower gun violence rates. If we forego the arrogance, we can learn from them. Their experiences are relevant to ours, and vice versa. We are all part of one big world, we are all human beings, and we are more alike than different. America's peculiar gun culture is not immutable and can be changed--so let's make it happen!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

A $140 Billion Solution?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the whole "fiscal cliff" debate isn't just about rich people trying to force the mass public to accept an awful "grand bargain" compromise to shred the social safety net, and let us further assume that those participating in this discourse are trying in all sincerity to simultaneously achieve long-term deficit reduction while propping up economic growth in the near term. (Okay, I agree that both of those assumptions are very shaky...but let's play along.) But then shouldn't this CBO chart be the starting point for all serious discussions of how to balance deficit reduction with GDP growth? What the CBO chart basically shows is that, due to widely divergent fiscal multipliers, the tax cuts--particularly the high end tax cuts, which have a truly miniscule GDP effect--provide much less "bang for the buck" than government spending, payroll holiday, or unemployment benefits. Of course, we knew that already, but it is nice to see it confirmed and depicted in a simple chart created just for the occasion. This suggests to me that anyone truly concerned with avoiding the negative fiscal effects scheduled for Jan 1, 2013, would restore all government spending first and foremost (including, alas, defense spending--hey, maybe that is something the GOP can "get" in the negotiations?) by undoing the ridiculous "sequester," as well as preserving payroll holiday (or something equivalent) and extended unemployment insurance. The tax cuts, on the other hand, have an underwhelming and disproportionately low impact on GDP, even though they consume the lion's share of the government funds (66% if I have calculated correctly!) Indeed, letting all the income tax cuts expire actually would have less GDP impact than the other components together, even though the latter cost much less. And, hey, while we're at it, since government spending has such a high multiplier, why don't we just go ahead and let all the Bush tax cuts expire ($330b), then redirect a portion of the savings sufficient to generate an equivalent GDP--and if nondefense spending of $40b is associated with 0.4% of GDP, as the chart indicates, then we will only need about $140b of the $330b--and then we can bank the rest as deficit reduction! (Not that we need deficit reduction desperately right now anyway, but since that's what they say they want...) And $140 billion could buy a lot of important things, either directly at the federal level or through subsidies to state and local government: K-12 education, state universities, alternative energy research, environmental conservation, infrastructure spending, you name it--everything we've been watching get pummeled since the 2009 stimulus bill started winding down. So it seems that Obama's whole strategy may be wrong, despite his strengthened bargaining position. Maybe he needs to be asking to allow the whole tax cut to expire and then to spend half of the money on government programs that people value even more than the tax cuts, which are, it must be said, disproportionately skewed towards those closer to the top--whether Obama's "top" of $250k or GOP's "top" of infinity. (And am I the only one who finds Obama's whole "My2K" gambit aggravating??) How about, instead of My2K, "Our $140B"? (I also happened to notice that Medicare and Social Security are not on this "fiscal cliff" chart anywhere. And I sure hope Obama realizes how desperately most Americans want to keep it that way!)

Friday, April 20, 2012

The "Buffett Rule" Rule

I would like to humbly propose a new political rule, which I am dubbing the "Buffett Rule" rule. Given all the whining from Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, about how "little" money the Buffett Rule would raise by taxing the very rich--$46.7 billion over 10 years--here is the new rule: Anyone who opposes the Buffett Rule on the grounds that it doesn't raise a significant amount of money and is therefore a "political gimmick" must henceforth be forbidden from complaining about any government expenditure less than $4.67 billion per year (the 10 year figure divided by 10). If this simple rule of argumentative consistency is observed, it should save us all a lot of conservative whining. To be sure, the Buffett Rule is only a small start in improving the fairness of our tax system. I am no great fan of the Obama Administration's timid approach to policy. The Buffett Rule is really the bare minimum we should be doing. I don't see how anyone who claims to be concerned about the long-term budget deficit could possibly oppose raising $46.7 billion over ten years from the people most able to afford it. But, even if this timid yet sensible proposal fails (which it seems destined to do, at least in the short term) from now on I hope we can enforce the "Buffett Rule" rule against anyone who claims $46.7 billion is a gimmicky, insignificant sum.