Welcome to another installment of This Week in America, where the week's news and informed opinion are offered up for your reading pleasure. Occasional reminder: unless otherwise specified, any references to unnamed "Democrats" and "Republicans" refer to elected officials, not regular voters. Don't forget to spend some time following links, because they're informative and entertaining.
This Week in Gun Safety
Last week, we posted a rant about the NRA's desire that any person should be able to acquire any gun at any time. This week, there was a tragic reminder of the folly of that approach, in the person of Aaron Alexis, America's newest mass murderer. Alexis killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. before a SWAT team killed him. Alexis had a history of firearms-related incidents, including one in Seattle in 2004 in which he shot out the tires of a vehicle in what was described as an "anger-fueled blackout," and one in Texas in 2010, when he was arrested (but not prosecuted, for what he claimed was a gun-cleaning accident) for discharging a firearm in his apartment. He also had serious mental health issues, for which he was being treated. Despite these facts, he had a concealed-carry permit in Texas, and he was able to legally purchase the shotgun he used at the Navy Yard, where he brought a premature end to 12 innocent American lives .
Alexis bought a shotgun because state law in Virginia prevented him--because he was not a VA resident--from buying the AR-15 he wanted. One of his first victims was a guard, armed with a semi-automatic handgun, which Alexis took and used to continue killing. Had he been able to get a semi-automatic rifle, who knows what his body count might have been? In this case, though 12 people died and more were wounded, it's very likely that a simple and reasonable restriction on gun purchases saved lives. (A lawyer for the gun shop disputes the New York Times and CBS News reporting, claiming that Alexis tried to buy a handgun, not an AR-15. Since Alexis has a history with handguns--and in fact, used one in his massacre--that rings true.)
Looking back at mass shootings the size of this one--12 or more fatalities--we see that there have been 12 in American history. The first 6 took place over the 50 years between 1949 and 1999. The other 6 have all taken place between 2007 and Monday of this week. In that first 50-year span, 100 people were murdered. In the last 6 years, the body count is at 108.
What's behind this spike? Overall, violent crime in the country is down*, so it's hard to argue that we're becoming a more violent society. But the ability to kill many people easily and quickly is growing. The assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and it's no coincidence that bigger mass murders started happening after that. During the same period, the NRA has been pushing their "anyone should have any gun at any time" line harder than ever. And we're seeing the results of that push, painted in blood on our streets.
In their District of Columbia v. Heller ruling in 2008, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court decided (politically motivated, some of us believe, but unlike those still trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act, we're willing to live by the SCOTUS decision) that the Second Amendment to the Constitution allows private ownership of firearms. But the court explicitly stated that such ownership was not without limits. They said certain categories of firearms could be controlled, as could accessories (high-capacity magazines, for instance). The NRA and their pro-gun death apologists want it both ways--they want anyone to be allowed to buy any gun and any accessory, and they cite that 2008 ruling to back up their case. But that's a deliberate misreading of the ruling, conveniently leaving out the part where limitations can be set when it's in the public interest to do so.
There is no absolute Constitutional right, therefore, to own semi-automatic rifles. There is no Constitutional right to own 30-round, 50-round, or 100-round magazines. To claim such a right exists is to carry water for the gun manufacturers who fund the NRA. Follow the money: dead Americans are good for their bottom line. Yes, people can own guns. But not anyone can own any gun at any time. And the right of everybody to live with a reduced risk of a bullet to the head should be more fundamental than the right of anybody to own a weapon designed for war.
What I wrote here remains true. We have, as a society, decided that mass murder is an acceptable fact of 21st century life. When we decide it's not acceptable, there are measures--perfectly Constitutional ones, according to what is probably the most conservative Supreme Court ever--that we can take to curb the plague.
Until we make that decision, anyone who supports the NRA position--that anybody can have any gun at any time--shouldn't pretend they're sorry the next time a dozen or so Americans are massacred. We can change this, but not as long as people hold that unsupportable belief.
Also, this, because Aaron Alexis and his 12 victims were far from the only people killed by guns this week: "LaPorte County Prosecutor Bob Szilagyi said Monday the boyfriend of the victim's mother told investigators he forgot the handgun was loaded when playing a gun game with the boy." The boy, incidentally, was three years old. He'll never see four.
And this, because sometimes the people with guns are the good guys, but that doesn't prevent other good guys from dying: "Ferrell, a 24-year-old former Florida A&M football player, crashed his car early Saturday morning. After climbing out, he ran to a nearby home for help. The resident, a woman waiting for her husband, opened the door and—realizing it wasn’t him—closed it. She then called 911 to report a man trying to break into her home. Three officers arrived and found Ferrell about a block from the house. During the encounter, according to the police report, Ferrell ran toward them and at least one opened fire, killing him."
And this, because fortunately sometimes nobody dies, but that doesn't mean some people aren't taking their "rights" to ridiculous extremes and endangering lives in the bargain: "'In a post Aurora-Newtown environment, it's a reckless and irresponsible stunt to strut around in public with an assault-style weapon and think police should assume you're well-intentioned,' Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said Thursday, referring to mass shooting incidents in Colorado and Connecticut.
"'It's just absurd,' Flynn said. 'This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. These characters and those who support them should be ashamed of themselves.'"
And this: Starbucks is asking people not to bring guns into their locations. That's a perfectly reasonable request, since people who have been shot seldom pony up for a second Salted Caramel Mocha Frappucino. There's already been a backlash from people so pathetically fearful that they won't leave their house for a cup of coffee without packing heat.
And this, from a brand new study that confirms what we reported here last week: "Conclusions. We observed a robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates. Although we could not determine causation, we found that states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides. (Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print September 12, 2013: e1–e8. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409)"
More guns equals more dead Americans. Period, dead stop. The math is inescapable, and no amount of NRA bullshit can change that.
*Side Note 1: In the latest FBI crime statistics, the violent crime rate in the US remained near 20-year lows in 2012, but among developed countries, our murder rate is behind only Brazil, Mexico, Estonia, and Russia.
Side Note 2: Some on the right immediately started claiming that Alexis had picked the Navy Yard because it was a "gun-free zone." This claim is absurd on its face--one of his first victims was an armed security guard, from whom Alexis took the handgun he used to kill more people, and DC police and Navy security were on the scene within minutes. But the greater truth is that mass murderers don't select their killing grounds on that basis. They go to places that have some special meaning to them, usually someplace related to the disintegration of identity that they've experienced. Whether other people will be there with guns is not a consideration. (The right's also trying to claim that President Clinton is responsible for the lack of guns on military bases, which is equally absurd.)
Disgusting Side Note: Alex Jones, right-wing lunatic (who mainstream Republican politicians, including members of the United States Senate who are likely to run for president, still deign to appear with), ventured the bizarre, repugnant opinion that the Navy Yard shootings were a "false flag operation" committed by U.S. government agents, in a plot to restrict liberty. Why does this guy have an audience? Why do people like Rand Paul give him the time of day? It's truly sickening.
Personal Note: Yes, I am emotional about this topic. That's in large part due to the fact that I put myself through the difficult, draining task of learning a lot about it, so that I could speak with authority when I was invited to. Having been so invited and having so spoken, I feel a personal burden of complicity when there are more and more mass murders. If I spoke more forcefully, if I had a bigger audience, if I could more clearly describe what I know to be true, wouldn't they stop? Why can't I reach through the noise, and the fortunes the merchants of death throw around to protect their bottom lines, and be more convincing?
The truth is that we're all complicit. We could demand better mental health services, demand improvements in education and in responses to domestic violence situations, demand more effective safeguards on firearms and ammunition, and although we couldn't stop every mass murder, we could stop many, or most. Other countries have done it. We are not morally inferior to those other countries, are we? But we don't. Some of us have convinced ourselves that someone's right to own guns is more important than someone else's right simply to live. Some believe the lies of those who profit from death. Some just wring their hands, hopeless in the face of escalating horror.
We could do it, but we choose not to. And my lone voice can't change that, and the voices of the 90% of Americans who want to see more reasonable gun safety laws can't change it. I can't speak for all those people, but for myself, when I see the bodies on the ground, I see my own failure, writ large.
So yes, I am emotional. Yes, I take it personally. I failed to save those lives.
We all did, but I can only take responsibility for my own failure. I should be able to stop this, but I can't.
We could stop this, and we won't.
This Week in Separation of Powers
Five years ago this week, we suffered the worst economic calamity since the 1929 stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression. Fortunately, we had, as a nation, learned some lessons from that depression and we handled this one better. We had a Great Recession, but the Bush administration prevented the global economy from crashing down around us completely by propping up the banking and automotive industries (the millions more jobs that could have been lost from those businesses would, most experts agree, pushed us from recession into depression).
Rescue and recovery efforts continued under the Obama administration (the incoming administration had worked closely with the Bush White House to ensure continuity of these efforts, and once Obama was in office more steps were taken, quickly). A stimulus package, comprising mostly tax cuts, was ultimately too small but still reversed the plummeting employment figures. Recovery has been too slow, but it's been happening, and still is.
Since then, we've seen improvement in almost every area of the economy. Manufacturing is up. The rash of foreclosures has stilled and housing prices are up. Millions of jobs have been created. The stock market has been more than restored, it's reached new heights. Corporate profits are up, as is consumer spending.
There are still some troubling signs. The labor market is weak, and because unemployment is so widespread, labor doesn't have much influence; therefore, many of the new jobs being created are at considerably lower wages than before. That's a drag on consumer spending, and therefore on the economy as a whole (since consumer spending is the engine that drives more than 70% of our economy). The sequester--and the emphasis, pushed so hard by the right, on lowering the deficit--is another drag. Virtually every serious economist agrees on the simple precept that when you're coming out of a recession, government spending needs to increase, not decrease--the deficit and the debt aren't going anywhere, but they will be addressed by fuller employment and better salaries (and hence, higher tax revenues). Once the economy is on sound footing again, then you tackle the debt. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warns that debt remains a danger--but also that the debt can't be addressed until growth is stronger (and that repealing the Affordable Care Act would make the debt problem worse, not better).
On top of those kitchen-table issues is the fact that the finance sector--Wall Street--has been resisting regulation all the way. Congress passed Dodd-Frank to try to rein in some of the craziness emanating from that area, but many of its rules have yet to be written, and the billionaires who wrecked the economy in 2008 have very high-priced lobbying firms working to make sure they never are. Some of the "too-big-to-fail" banks are bigger now than they were then. And many of the "regulators" watching over that sector are private businesses themselves, paid by the very banks they're supposed to be regulating.
Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan was a firm believer that the markets would regulate themselves--basically, item number 1 in the libertarian economic creed. He was wrong about that, as he admitted in congressional testimony in 2008, after the deregulation he had championed had blown a crater in the global economy. Markets are not natural constructs; they're made by human beings. The more complex they are, and the more potential wealth is there for the taking, the more they'll be intentionally abused or simply go haywire. Complex manmade systems need steady hands at the controls--to believe they'll be self-regulating, or work for the good of anyone except those at the top pulling the strings, is the height of naivete.
But now we're at risk of heading right down that same road, as the financial sector argues that regulation is unnecessary. Greenspan wasn't alone in pushing for deregulation, but as Fed chair he was one of the most powerful voices. The results of his efforts are still with us, and they still mark Greenspan as one of the worst Fed chairs ever. Libertarian laissez-faire principles are not just misguided in this context, but dangerous, and as long as they're with us, the economy will remain poised on the brink of disaster. Bush appointee Ben Bernanke was--fortunately for the nation--a Great Depression scholar, and he understood what needed to be done to claw back up from the hole Greenspan and his ilk put us in.
As evidence of Bernanke's grasp of the issue, note his decision this week to continue economic stimulus instead of "tapering off," as many expected. This Bush-appointed Republican said--and not for the first time--that congressional Republicans are threatening economic progress. "Upcoming fiscal debates may involve additional risks to financial markets and the broader economy. In light of these uncertainties, the committee decided to wait for more evidence." He went on to add, "A government shutdown, and perhaps even more, a failure to raise the debt limit, could have very serious consequences for the financial markets and for the economy, and the Federal Reserve's policy is to do whatever we can to keep the economy on course. Make sure the government is funded … that the government pays its bills and that we avoid any kind of event like 2011." The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500--whose traders understand the economy better than the average Republican voter or member of Congress, apparently--shot to record highs on the news of the Fed's decision.
But today's Republican Party refuses to acknowledge basic economic truths. In much the same way that they deny climate change and evolution, they deny the truth of economic science that has known and knowable outcomes, and block any attempts to put that economic science into action. As Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine:
"The right has consumed itself with a lively internal argument about the direction of conservatism and the Republican Party — libertarian populism, conservative reform, and all that. But this discussion has ignored the front and center economic questions. Do conservatives still think cutting short-term deficits will increase rather than retard growth? Academic support for that position has almost entirely collapsed. I don’t even see many conservative intellectuals defending it in columns. And yet the Republican Party marches on, opposing any effort to lift short-term austerity policies that economists almost all believe are holding back the recovery. It’s as if the head of the austerity monster has been sliced off, but the body lurches forward regardless.
"Meanwhile, however Republicans resolve their long-term vision debate, they have coalesced around a short-term vision. It is to repeal Obamacare without a replacement, maintain short-term austerity, weaken labor laws, loosen financial regulation, and defend every tax deduction enjoyed by the affluent. I don’t see how this policy mix could be remotely defended in light of actual circumstances. Almost nobody on the right seems to want to defend it. But nobody seems interested in placing even the slightest pressure on the Congressional party to alter its stance, either."
I would argue that it's worse than that. Not only are they unwilling to cooperate with the president or the Senate in passing any legislation that would create more jobs and more middle class growth, but they're preparing--despite the fact that it was an economic disaster last time, that almost kicked us back into recession--to once again hold the debt ceiling hostage, in a foolish, ultimately losing effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. Radical congressional Republicans won't let their leadership act in a sane and reasonable fashion to keep government running and raise the debt ceiling (which used to be a simple, bipartisan bit of bookkeeping procedure). They want to deny Obamacare funding, without having any plan in place to create a substitute, and therefore throwing tens of millions of Americans off the health insurance rolls. That in itself would do damage to the economy, so what they're saying, in effect is, "For the first time ever, we'll destroy the full faith and credit of the United States of America, causing untold damage to the American economy, unless you allow us to deny millions of Americans affordable health care, causing untold damage to the American economy."
The fact is, the Senate and the president will never agree to defund Obamacare, nor should they. The program is already working, already saving Americans money and saving American lives. It's the culmination of efforts going back 100 years, by both Republican and Democratic administrations, to get closer to universal coverage. The greatest long-term driver of debt is the broken health care system, but the ACA addresses that issue, and turns it around--it saves the taxpayers money. It's a law that incorporates many elements conservatives loved until this president agreed with them. It passed through Congress, was signed by the president, and was upheld by the Supreme Court. The president and congressional Democrats would love to work with congressional Republicans to refine and improve it, but Republicans won't consider that.
Instead, they want to block the normal raising of the debt ceiling. We've said it before, but apparently it has to be repeated frequenty--raising the debt ceiling does not cost us a nickel. All it does is allows the government to pay bills it has already incurred. Congress spends through appropriations. When the bills come due, that's when the debt ceiling has to be raised, to pay those bills. To refuse to pay them throws us into default, which would be a disaster in the short and long terms, and would increase our borrowing costs, and would cost the country billions.
What we're really talking about here is this. We have had, for well over 200 years, a tripartite system of government. The legislative branch--Congress (divided into two houses, with different organization and functions)--passes laws. The executive branch--the White House--enforces laws and has responsibility for the daily administration of the country. The judicial branch--the courts, and particularly the Supreme Court--interprets and rules on the constitutionality of the laws that Congress passes. What House Republicans want to do is to use a commonplace congressional action--raising the debt ceiling--to seize all power from the other house of Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court, and to make their will the only controlling force in the long-settled debate over the ACA. And in fact, it's not even all House Republicans--the House leadership, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, know it won't work, know it would be political suicide for their party to shut down the government or refuse to raise the debt ceiling, but 40 or 50 hard right fanatics are calling the shots. Backing them are various right-wing advocacy groups, who don't really care about the fate of the country, but are finding the "defund Obamacare" message to be great for fundraising.
Our separation of powers--our system of checks and balances--was designed to prevent any individual or any piece of government from exercising tyrannical rule over the country. A group of radical House Republicans are demanding that we overturn that long history, and let them have sole control. They can't be allowed to have their way. And they should be voted out of office, at the first opportunity, for even trying.
Side Note: Five years after the crash, there are still 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, and 4 million more would be poor, except that food stamps lift them above that level. This is, for the most part, not their fault. Most of them work. Most of them try. But they live in a country in which we've decided that every advantage should go to those already well off, instead of one where everybody can get a shot at improving their lot. For many people mired in poverty, there are no ladders out. Lack of opportunity is structural, and is largely the result of intentional policy choices we've made. It's time to look at those choices again.
This Week in Health Care Confusion
And what about the ACA? It's unpopular, right?
Yes--but as it turns out, what's far more unpopular are congressional attempts to sabotage it. Those who want it to fail are mostly people who vote in Republican primaries--in other words, the most conservative, most activist, ideologically driven Republican voters. These are not the folks the party needs to win general elections, but they're the ones candidates need to impress so they can get to those general elections. Therefore, the 41 votes they've already taken to repeal the ACA will not be the end of it.
And what do people dislike about Obamacare? A lot of things that aren't real, mostly. In their words, they're worried about:
"It’s not going to lower the cost of premiums. We’re going to get worse healthcare, and it’s going to increase the debt. There are death panels in there, and they’re going to decide whether people get treatment or not."
Hint: No, there are no death panels, and whether people get treatment is up to them, their doctors, and their health insurance company--just like before the ACA. And for many, many people, premiums will be lower.
"From the things I hear about how the cost is going up and people cannot afford it. We are going to be paying for everyone else. Not very good. The fact that we really do not have a choice to elect it. Congress decided we are going to do it and I do not think that is fair. Because the people do not get to vote on it. If Congress decides what’s going to be what are we going to. Congress has their own plan. If they were on the same plan I would back it."
Hint: They will be on the same plan. And the whole point of Congress is that they write laws.
"Because it’s just making more people dependent. It’s bankrupting our country, destroying the future of our young people, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, who aren’t willing to work for themselves. It’s going to cost everybody a lot more money, everyone who works for a living."
Hint: It actually improves the country's financial position, because health care costs are the biggest driver of future debt. It doesn't destroy anybody's future (but it could help, because even young people can get sick, or have accidents). It doesn't take from the rich and give to the poor--and incidentally, most of the poor are people who work full-time jobs.
And interestingly, Republicans like the "Affordable Care Act" better than they like "Obamacare," according to a new Fox "News" poll. Maybe if we'd all been told the truth about it from the beginning, we'd all be much happier with it.
This Week in the Presidency
President Obama is under a lot of fire this week for how he handled the Syrian chemical weapons situation--despite the fact that his goal of preventing the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again was (unless it falls apart mid-stream) accomplished without a single American firing a single shot. This week we also learned that Lawrence Summers, who was reportedly Obama's first choice to replace Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve (despite considerable opposition from the left, who feel that Summers is too closely linked to the financial industry deregulation that played a large role in causing the Great Recession), has withdrawn his name from consideration. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out, there are two ways to look at these events:
"The negative spin on this is that Obama is proving indecisive in his second term. Leaders need to lead. Instead, Obama is letting himself be led. If he thought striking Syria was the right thing to do, and appointing Larry Summers made the most sense for the country, then he should've simply made the decision, executed the policy, and sold the American people on the results.
"The more positive spin is that Obama is avoiding a common second-term trap. One problem with the rules around the presidency is that two-term presidents can quickly lose touch with the voters, as they don't have the threat of reelection forcing them to consider public opinion. Obama, however, is choosing, unusually, to create space for public opinion (as channeled through Congress) to enter the process, and he's actually redirecting policy because of it. That's not a lack of leadership. It's change we can believe in."
Having lived through the "my way or the highway" Bush years, I think the latter interpretation is the soundest, and it's refreshing to see.
This Week in the Flood Zone
Colorado faced what was described as "biblical" flooding this week. Here at TWiA World Headquarters, we've had our own problems with flooding this summer. It's impossible to tie climate change to any individual weather event, but not impossible to connect patterns of weather events to the fact of an increasingly warmer planet. We're seeing more extreme weather events, worse storms, damage figures in record numbers. With 97% of the world's climate scientists in agreement that we've got a major problem on our hands, naturally congressional Republicans are stepping up to meet the challenge.
Or, no, in fact, not. Instead, science-denying Republicans are pushing ahead with a plan to block efforts to deal with climate change. Because, apparently, Exxon-Mobil profits are more important than the lives lost in Colorado, and during Hurricane Sandy, the heartbreak of those who've lost everything they own, and the billions of dollars in damages.
This Week in Awesome
Possibly the best, sweetest political ad you've ever seen.
This Week in Bears