Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It's Not About the Guns

My apologies to both sides of the current gun control debate - but in my opinion, it is not about the guns.  Guns are a symptom - and a symbol - of a deeper problem.

Let's look first at the argument that guns guarantee our freedom - that guns, and the right to own guns, are a bulwark against a totalitarian government.  In other words, when the federal troops are sent in to put down dissent and popular rebellion, the people will have the means to fight back.

In practice, however, this has not worked so well.  In large part, this is because government repression in the US generally does not involve sending in troops.  When the government passed the Patriot Act, with widespread abridgment of rights, did anyone take to the streets with their guns to right this wrong?  What about when we found out about the NSA's domestic spying?  When we found out that the justification for the Iraq war was a lie?  When we found out about waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib? Did we grab our guns to rise up in defense of Edward Snowden and Bradley/Chelsea Manning, who took huge risks to inform us of government lies and overreaching?

Another problem is that repression usually starts with attacks on those who are unpopular.  I do not recall hearing about armed resistance by the general population when the US shipped its own citizens of Japanese descent off to internment camps.  Where was the armed resistance to protect Blacks and Chinese against lynch mobs (often encouraged by local government officials)?  Was there armed resistance to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act? Hitler started with the Communists and Gypsies and homosexuals and Jews, the Puritans in Salem went after "witches," and now political figures in the US are arguing that we should exclude or expel Muslims. In none of these cases did guns in the hands of citizens stop the repression.  In fact, citizens with guns sometimes showed up to assist in the repression, such as the lynching of Blacks and Chinese.  The main recent beneficiary of an arms-bearing citizenry appears to be Cliven Bundy, the rancher who is resisting paying fees for grazing his cows on federal land.  Grazing fees - yes, that is the type of government repression so extreme that it cries out for armed resistance.

Let's look at the argument on the other side - that the ready availability of guns, and especially military-style guns, are a major cause of violence, and particularly mass shootings.  In other words, if we significantly reduced or eliminated access to guns we could also significantly reduce or eliminate violent attacks, and particularly mass shootings.

The problem with this argument is that there are plenty of societies (including the US) that have historically had plenty of guns, and yet did not have nearly so many shootings (mass or individual).

In Israel, almost every 19 and 20 year old is in the Army.  But when they are off duty, they are still in uniform and they still have their military weapon with them.  So in the mall food court, on the bus, walking down the street, most of the male 19 and 20 year olds are carrying an M16.  In womens' restrooms my wife liked to see the various ways that women soldiers answered the question, "What do you do with your Uzi while you fix your makeup?"  The installer at the local art museum wore a pistol, the family on the kibbutz near Gaza kept the Uzi on top of the refrigerator (so the grandkids couldn't reach it).  While Israel certainly has many issues, domestic mass shootings are generally not one of them.

As Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, Canada (at that time) had a similar level of gun ownership as the US, but a much lower homicide rate.  Likewise, Switzerland has a high rate of gun ownership and much lower homicide rate.  Historically, it has been easy for people to acquire guns in the US as well.  So while the US has lots of guns and lots of gun violence, it does not seem to be the guns themselves that are the problem.  In other words, limiting access to guns will likely not solve the problem.

Michael Moore attributed the problem to a culture of fear, and I think he may have something there. Israel and Switzerland have high levels of military participation, which means a couple of things.  First, gun owners there are likely to have significant training in proper gun handling.  In Israel, the soldiers never had a clip in their M16 (except those on guard duty in very dangerous locations, who also had on flak jackets, and tended to look very unhappy).  They were not parading around the fact that they had an assault rifle.

Second, that higher level of military participation may contribute to a feeling of belonging to a larger society, as opposed to the US emphasis on the individual.  The NRA, in its efforts to further the interests of gun manufacturers, has gladly helped stoke the fears of those already afraid because of job losses, economic uncertainty, rapid societal changes, and a black President.  Their pitch: "Are you scared? Buy a gun!" seems to be working, especially when coupled with the extra dose of fear ladled out by Fox News.  Gun sales skyrocketed as the odds improved that Obama would be elected President.  The fear drives the gun sales, meaning that the guns are the symptom, with fear being the underlying cause.

So how to counter fear? With confidence and community, and with actions that address (at least some of) the root causes of fear.  Reducing the economic pressures on the middle and working class would be helpful - if you know that you will have a secure, well-paying job that will allow you to buy a house, support your family, and send your kids to college, you will be a lot less scared.  Making health insurance and college education affordable and ceasing to threaten social security would help, too. Addressing climate change would be helpful - given that there are a lot of credible people saying we have a serious problem, the fact that we are not doing much about it creates anxiety.  Taking steps to increase community and reduce isolation would be helpful - maybe we could have universal service (not just military service) for all high school graduates, where they not only do work for the public good and contribute to local communities, but they can also develop connections and friendships. And finally, turn off the scary movie - don't watch Fox News and the other similar "news" sources whose real message is to be afraid.  We must be able to think rationally and calmly, instead of reacting in fear, which drives bad decisions and lashing out in violence.

If we don't get rid of the fear and isolation, neither buying guns nor banning them will solve our problems.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Congress Gives Gifts to Corporations (at our expense) Again.

Congress, as part of the omnibus spending bill, just voted - on a bipartisan vote - to repeal the oil-export ban.  This is only good for the oil companies (and maybe a minor help to oil-importing countries), but bad for the US and the world.  It confirms that Congress is fundamentally a corporate kleptocracy.

Here are the reasons why repealing the oil export ban is a bad idea:

1) It will become harder to leave oil in the ground.  If you don't leave oil in the ground, you can't prevent it being burned.  If it is burned, it contributes to climate change.

Even if the US goes to mostly or exclusively electric or hydrogen powered vehicles, US oil could be (and most likely would be) exported to countries that are still using gasoline or diesel powered vehicles, as the oil companies look for new markets.  The pressure on those countries to switch away from fossil fuels is reduced, as US oil would provide an additional source of supply, and likely put downward pressure on global oil prices.

The result: more money for oil companies (who make most of their money by just pulling crude oil out of the ground), more oil burned, and an additional contribution to climate change.

2) More trashed and ugly places. By increasing the demand for US oil (because there would suddenly be many more potential buyers), there will be an incentive to extract more oil from US sources.  But since oilfield production declines over time, you can't just turn up the flow from existing fields - you need to drill more, and in new places.  Resource extraction activities, like oil and gas production, mining, and timber production, tend to trash the local environment, creating scarred and desolate wastelands.  So if you increase oil production (which is the intent of this legislation) you trash more of the US landscape.

In addition, resource extraction is generally a low-value activity. Think of coal towns, other mining towns, lumber towns, oil towns - those are not the places with high-value economies like Silicon Valley or Los Angeles or New York.

3) Energy security.  If you believe that it is important for the US to have domestic supplies of oil that it can turn to in case of a disruption of overseas sources, the repeal of the export ban eviscerates that.  Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource.  Oilfield production declines over time, and we have already depleted many of our domestic fields, in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California.  If US oil prices are competitive (and they likely will be), Japan and Korea and China and India and Germany and Italy and France will be buying US oil.

With that increased demand, US oilfields will be depleted more rapidly.  Once they are empty, they are empty, and are no longer available to provide oil to the US if there is a disruption in overseas supply. (You could try to drill more - but see #2.  And then those new fields would be depleted as well.) So energy security from domestic oil will be reduced.

4) Corporate kleptocracy. The trade-off that the Democrats got for supporting repeal of the oil export ban is an extension of tax credits for renewable electric generation; while these tax credits have helped expand the use of renewable resources, they are also a corporate subsidy (albeit for renewable energy developers rather than oil companies).

So instead of doing something of real benefit, such as passing a carbon tax, or a federal requirement for a minimum amount of renewable generation, Congress just added one corporate subsidy onto another corporate giveaway. Feh.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

After Santa Barbara

After the (most recent) mass shooting in Santa Barbara, I posted the following on facebook; I am reposting it here for continued accessibility.

So we live in a surveillance/military state, where the NSA knows who we are talking to and when and for how long, where to get on a plane we must leave our water bottles and put our toiletries in clear bags, where our bus passes and bridge passes and phones track our whereabouts, where the local cops have armored personnel carriers and assault weapons, where we spend massive amounts of our tax dollars on the most advanced weapons ever made.

But are we safe? All of this "war on terror" - at a huge cost to our finances and our freedoms - has done nothing to protect the victims of attacks at Sandy Hook or Washington Navy Yard or Santa Barbara.

Maybe that is because we looking for terrorists in the wrong place - all of our money and resources are focused on protecting us from "the other," those bearded and turbaned 9/11-style terrorists. But these terror attacks (a "mass shooting" must count as a terror attack) are not by others, but by us - the fellow student, the co-worker, the neighbor, the relative.

Yet we keep focusing on and fearing the other, taking action to counter the latest moves (that we deem suspicious) by Iran or Russia or China or North Korea or al Qaeda or Venezuela or Cuba, and doing little to even think about the source of the domestic shooters (or bombers) who have killed far more Americans, and most of whom having boring, "American" names like Harris or Rodgers.

There is a problem with our society (and it is deeper than, but connected to, guns and misogyny), and I think Michael Moore was partially on the right track when he focused on an American culture of fear. (Which is ironic given our wealth and power.)

But it is not just that - the erosion of a sense of community, or society, or civilization has added to that. The emphasis on the individual, the cult of celebrity and wealth worship, the "greed is good/grab what you can" mentality, the naked use of power and influence, all erode social cohesion and remove barriers to profoundly selfish, fame-seeking acts that harm others, with the killings being an extreme form.

If we were less isolated from each other, less encouraged to victimize each other for our own personal gain, we would be less afraid. There would be fewer guns, less misogyny, and most importantly, fewer killings. Let us strive for connection and overcome fear. Peace to all, and peace to ourselves.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Nanny State

Some folks on the rightward end of the political spectrum seem to like to use the phrase "the nanny state," and while their application of that label seems to somewhat arbitrary and scattershot, I actually kind of like the phrase.

It seems to me, however, that we get most into a "nanny state" when dealing with social welfare programs for low-income folks.

For example, you can get what used to be called "food stamps" (now WIC), but there are very detailed requirements about what foods you can and cannot buy.  For example, only certain species of canned mackerel can be purchased, and no olives or pickled vegetables or imported cheeses are allowed.  Check it out: http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/wic-food-packages-regulatory-requirements-wic-eligible-foods

Likewise for housing assistance or "Section 8" housing.  You have to provide the government all sorts of information about your family and income, and they have to inspect the housing you find to make sure it is acceptable.  http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/topics/housing_choice_voucher_program_section_8

For unemployment insurance, you need to provide the government specific information about why and how you left your last job (among other things), and then they will determine if you are eligible for unemployment: http://www.edd.ca.gov/Unemployment/FAQ_-_Eligibility.htm#Whataretheeligibilityrequirements

So we have all these huge bureaucracies that exist to look in detail at every person who wants help buying a can of mackerel or renting an apartment, and will tell that person what food they can buy and what apartment they can rent and if they left their job for the wrong reason.  If you want small government that is not intrusive into peoples' lives, it would make sense to eliminate these bureaucracies.  It would certainly reduce the "nanny state."

So how can we do that?  Provide a basic minimum income to everyone - enough money for basic housing, food, clothing, medical care, utilities, etc.  And then leave it up to the recipients how they want to spend it - they can spend it smart or spend it stupid, just like everyone else, with no government oversight over what food they are buying, what apartment they are renting, or why they left their last job.  And we could get rid of all of those administrative "nanny" bureaucracies...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A New Tax System

I have been thinking about taxes, particularly about what we tax.  And I have been listening to some of the right-wing criticisms of classic liberal tax concepts, such as the progressive income tax.  And frankly, I think the right-wingers have some valid criticisms, although they don't seem to have any actual solutions. ("No new taxes" is not a solution, unless you think the existing tax system is perfect.)

First, it seems odd to tax things that we want to encourage.  It is generally a good thing for the economy if people have an income, and if that income goes up.  So why would we tax income?  Similarly, like it or not, we have a consumption-based economy - we want people to buy stuff.  So why would we tax sales of stuff?

Second, it seems like we should tax things that we want to discourage.  We already do to a small extent  with "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol, but that is not really my focus.  I would prefer resource extraction taxes - you take something out of the ground, like oil or gas or minerals or lumber or water, and you pay a hefty tax for doing so.  After all, once you have taken it, no one else can take it, and eventually we will run out of those things.  It seems like a good idea to discourage folks from depleting resources too easily and cheaply.

Similarly, I don't have a problem with property taxes.  Real property is finite, so the more you accumulate, the less there is for anyone else.  Maybe property taxes should be progressive, so owning a little property to live on doesn't cost you much, but the more you own the higher rate you pay.

In addition to resource extraction and property taxes, I would like toxics taxes.  Less poison in our food, water, and air would be good.  Hey, it might even reduce the incidence of cancer. (I would really like it if fewer people died of cancer, wouldn't you?)  So if you produce or use a toxic substance, you would pay a hefty tax for doing so.  That would likely reduce the number of toxics that are used just because it is cheap or easy to do so.

One right-wing complaint about high income taxes is that the people who are making those high incomes deserve those incomes because of their unusual hard work or special skills - in other words, they have earned that money, and it is not fair to take it away.  (Presumably lobbying skills count, too.) To ensure that this is in fact the case, it would make sense to have a high estate tax, at least on larger estates (whatever large is).  After all, inheriting money does not entail much work or skill (stay alive, don't annoy your relatives too much), so those who inherit large chunks of money have not earned that money.  And besides, Thomas Paine and Warren Buffett both support this idea.

So here is the basic outline: no income tax, no sales tax.  Progressive (with quantity of land) real property tax.  Sharply progressive estate tax.  Steep resource extraction and toxics taxes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

We Are Rich!

Really, we are rich.  As a country (USA) and as a state (California).  You can tell just by looking around - the expensive restaurants are crowded, there are BMWs and Range Rovers on the street, there are lots of high rises cloaked in polished stone, we have Armani and Tiffany and Hermes stores, houses in San Francisco and Marin and La Jolla and Malibu are still expensive, everyone is using an electronic gadget unknown just a few years ago, from smartphones to tablets to ebooks to flat-screen monitors and TVs.  There is money here - lots of money.

If you look further, it only becomes clearer how phenomenally rich we are.  Not just stuff - we have resources: human resources, natural resources, design and engineering and manufacturing resources.  California produces oil and gas, tons of food, wine, clothing, biotechnology.  Apple and Google and HP and Chevron and Levi's and Disney and Pixar and Tesla are here.  We have world-class universities and research institutions and art schools.  In short, we have a lot - money, assets, and resources.

But Stockton and San Bernardino have gone bankrupt, Oakland laid off police officers, Berkeley closed two public swimming pools, 20,000 teachers got pink slips earlier this year, course offerings at community colleges and public universities have been cut, state parks have been closed and infrastructure is not being maintained.  This only makes sense if we are poor.  Why would we want to lay off teachers and police, not maintain our roads, and reduce the quality and quantity of education?  These things - education and infrastructure and public safety - are investments, not costs.   You would only not invest if you did not have the money to invest.  But we have the money.

There is enough money for another dinner at Gary Danko ($75-100) or a Hickey Freeman suit ($1500) or a BMW X5 ($60,000) or tearing down and rebuilding a La Jolla oceanfront home ($12 million).  But there is not enough money to pay for police officers or school teachers or college professors?  Nah, there is enough money.  It just is not in the right place - it is an issue of how the money is distributed, rather than how much there is.  The problem is with how the pie is sliced, not the size of the pie.

More later on re-slicing the pie...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ballot Measures - The Tricky Ones: 31, 33 and 35

These ones are a bit trickier, for various reasons.  Two are well-meaning, but likely to create problematic unintended consequences.  The third one looks innocuous, but is a narrow special interest move.

Proposition 31
This one is an attempt to reform and reshape the (dis)function of California state government.  It does a whole bunch of things, the effects of which are hard to predict.  Some of them I kind of like, others I am not so sure about.

It would move the state from a one-year budget cycle to a two-year budget cycle.  I like this idea, as it would presumably result in more stable funding levels, and avoid the annual budget fiasco.  Except that a big part of California's budget problem is that the state (post-Prop 13) is highly dependent upon income and sales taxes, both of which are highly volatile and hard to forecast.  How can you do a longer-term budget when you don't know what your revenues will be even over one year?  So this is nice in theory, but unlikely to work in practice.  The way the Proposition addresses this is to give the governor more budget cutting authority if revenues are falling short.  I have concerns about this, and it undercuts the additional certainty a two-year budget cycle would provide.

Proposition 31 also rearranges the relationship between the state and local governments in fairly sweeping ways.  I can't figure out exactly how this would work in practice, except that there would be a lot of confusion and probably litigation.  Again, the idea is interesting, but it is not clear that this has really been thought out well.  Whatever you think the appropriate balance should be between the state and the locals, right now it is relatively clear (and there is still litigation over it).  If this passes I am concerned that the chaos and uncertainty would outweigh the possible benefits.

The proposition also has a number of provisions that attempt to add discipline to the budget process.  Again, this seems like a good idea, but the reality is more likely to be an increase in bureaucratic box-checking rather than real reform, so once more the costs might outweigh the benefits.

Finally, it requires that bills be published at least three days before the legislature votes on them.  (Yes, the legislature often does not have time to read the bills they are voting on.)  This is a great idea, that should have been put in place long ago.  

I like this provision, but it is not enough to overcome my concerns with this proposition.  I am reluctantly going to vote no on Proposition 31.

Proposition 33
This is the latest attempt by Mercury Insurance to undo prior legislation limiting what car insurers can charge.  On its face, its looks innocuous, as it just allows insurance companies to give a discount in certain situations.  The reality is much nastier, as it would allow Mercury (and other insurance companies) to charge significantly more money to many customers.  Vote no on Proposition 33.

Here is a good description of what is going on here: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/21/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20121021

Proposition 35
This one is difficult.  This proposition has the support of well-meaning and knowledgeable people, who are legitimately concerned with human trafficking.  They want to bring attention to the (very real and thorny) problem and crack down on it.  On the other hand, it does this in large part by increasing prison terms for human trafficking, just when we may be starting to move away from the "more years in jail is better" model (see Proposition 36) as being expensive and counterproductive.

It also has the potential to significantly increase the number of people required to register as sex offenders (a practice I already find disturbing), and the opponents to the proposition argue that the spouses or children or roommates of prostitutes could be considered guilty of human trafficking, and have to register as sex offenders.  To the extent that this proposition would have prostitution arrests or convictions require registration as a sex offender (as argued by some similarly well-informed and well-intended opponents), it may actually re-stigmatize the very victims it is trying to help.

I am concerned that the side effects will be more damaging than any good that it might do.  There must be better ways to address human trafficking. I am going to vote no on Proposition 35.

Here are a few editorials on it: