Thursday, July 26, 2012

Teletubbie Leadership

After the Twin Towers were destroyed, President Bush told us that we should go shopping. It was seen by many as a grotesquely inappropriate response to a national tragedy. Now, President Obama may have outdone him. When talking from the hospital in Aurora, Colorado, where victims of a horrific shooting in a movie theater were being treated, Obama spent ten minutes saying nothing at all about the issue of gun violence. The only ten minutes of television that I can ever recall seeing that had so little content was the children's show Teletubbies, which was aimed at kids who are so young that they haven't learned to talk.

The entire nation was waiting to hear what Obama would say about the violence that plagues our nation. He said nothing. To make sure that everyone understood that Obama was not simply waiting for another moment to announce how he would lead the government's response to the violence, White House spokespeople stated that Obama did not intend to do anything to change the law. He plans to leave in place the loopholes in our gun laws. He will allow virtually anyone to arm themselves, as the Aurora shooter did, with high-capacity, high-powered, rapid-firing, military-style weapons, bullet-proof apparel, smoke grenades, pump-action shotguns, and pistols. He will make no effort to make things better.

It wasn't surprising to see that Obama once again failed to lead. Nor was anyone surprised that Mr. Romney didn't say anything other than that it was too bad that so many people got shot. What was surprising, though, was that the pro-gun chorus was so quick to promote their philosophy that guns are good. They didn't pause for a moment to reflect or mourn or just show respect for those who are grieving. Immediately, they were filling up the airwaves and the Internet with their usual praises for instruments of death and people who use them. The gun-control advocates were also quick to respond, so although little new was said on either side, at least the conversation was not one-sided this time.

What we just witnessed was a business-as-usual response from our President, his political opponent, and people who are active on both sides of the gun violence issue. As far as they are all concerned, this was just another shooting. They know that there will be more, and they seem to think that we pretty much accept that this is the way life is these days.

What we don't know yet, though, is the extent to which, instead of becoming numb, the majority of the American people are becoming increasingly upset with the violence. I suspect that is what is happening, because I can't believe that people are unaffected when they hear the stories of the innocents who were slaughtered.

Almost everyone in America knows what the inside of a movie theater looks like. We can imagine ourselves sitting in the dark when shooting breaks out. We know what it is like to wait for our children to come home from the movies, and the anxiety we feel if they are late and we have not heard from them. Even more than we were able to picture what it was like to be trapped inside the Twin Towers, we are able to visualize a suburban theater parking lot as hundreds of people come running out screaming, some bleeding.

We were all able to identify with the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech shootings, and other recent shootings. Although we did not come together with one voice after these tragedies to demand an end to the violence and the guns, neither were we unaffected.

The polls can't tell us how close we are coming to the day when we will insist on a safer world in which to live. We don't even know that ourselves. But I believe that each shooting brings us closer to that day, because it is too depressing to believe that we will just continue to accept the mayhem.

When soldiers die, we are always told that they did not die in vain, no matter how pointless their mission was. We have no such viewpoint about the victims of the Colorado shooting. They lived however they lived, and they did not attend a Batman movie in order to further any cause. How we react to their shooting does not reflect on them. It does, however, say a lot about us. I hope we do not follow Obama's and Romney's examples and fail to respond to these shootings in a way that will prevent future shootings, because if we do, we will have lived in vain.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Good People Shouldn't Have Guns

Everyone, even the NRA, says it wants to prevent more shootings like the one that just took place in Aurora, Colorado. But the NRA and its opponents have different views on how to prevent future violence. The NRA's proposals won't work, but neither will most of the proposals that are being championed by the other side.

The NRA's position is that the shooter had every right to have the guns that he used to slaughter twelve people and injure dozens more, but that he shouldn't have done it. They offer no suggestion on how to prevent future massacres, other than to say that offenders should be punished in order to deter other people from committing shooting crimes in the future. This proposal has proven to be totally ineffective.

Over the past decades we have vigorously prosecuted shooters and have repeatedly increased the sentences for their crimes, and yet the shootings go on. People who shoot up theaters don't care about the laws. The NRA also says that if more people carried guns, movie patrons would be able to protect themselves. Not only wasn't the Aurora shooter deterred by the possibility of armed defense, he anticipated it. He wore bullet proof clothing and tossed a smoke or teargas grenade into the crowd to blind anyone who might shoot back. He also carried multiple rapid-fire weapons. In preparation for the prospect that some of the movie patrons might shoot back, the shooter made himself more lethal.

The anti-gun lobby's major position is that we should screen people before permitting them to own guns, so that people who might shoot up a movie theater won't have guns. The problem is that no one has been able to figure out how to identify beforehand who might shoot up movie theaters, schools, workplaces, shopping centers, congressional meet-and-greets, or anywhere else. The rest of the anti-gun lobby's proposals, like trigger-locks, waiting periods, limits on the number of guns a person can purchase, and stamping identification on shell casings are totally irrelevant to most people who shoot up theaters.

The only way to prevent future catastrophes is to get rid of the guns. Very few other places in the world, maybe none, have as many privately held guns as the US has, and very few places, maybe none, have as much gun violence, other than in times of war. The recent shootings in Aurora have highlighted our problem, but every day people in the U.S. are shot to death – about 30,000 each year. The shootings take place in states where there are strict gun laws and in states like Colorado where there are almost no restrictions on guns. People can argue about what various studies of guns prove, but one fact that has been established beyond dispute is: more guns, more shootings. No guns, no shootings.

It will not be easy for us to get to the point where we no longer have to live in fear of people with guns, but we can do it. I suggest that good people start by getting rid of their own guns. I realize that both the pro-and anti-gun advocates have assumed that we need to do just the opposite – get the guns away from bad people. But until good people are willing to live without guns, they will not take the steps that will be needed to make sure bad people don't have them either.

Since everyone considers themselves to be a good person, if we can just get the good people to voluntarily live without guns, most of the problem will instantly be solved. The NRA thinks that its members are good people, so they should be the first to agree to give up their guns. But they won't, because they are afraid of bad people. Who do they think are the bad people? The NRA defines bad people as anyone who is caught and convicted of unlawfully shooting someone else, unless the NRA disagrees with the verdict, in which case they call the shooter a good person who was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. According to the NRA, until you are convicted, you are good. So, all we have to do is to get the guns away from people who aren't in jail. The people in jail already have had their guns taken away.

Actually, the NRA doesn't really believe what they say. They know that there are people who have not yet behaved badly but who might in the future. These are the ones the NRA's members want to defend themselves from. They are also the kinds of people who are members of the NRA. The NRA almost gets it right when they say that “guns don't kill people.” They forget that the rest of the phrase is, “people with guns kill people.”

It seems pretty obvious that the best way to protect everyone is to make sure that people don't have guns to use when they want to do bad things, and the only way to do that is to make sure that people never have guns. Of course, it will be hard, maybe impossible, to get rid of all guns. No law is perfectly enforced. But we have done a pretty good job of keeping people from owning and using tanks, cannons, grenades, missiles, and other weapons. We could certainly make it a lot harder for the sort of person who shoots up a movie theater to get the kind of firepower that will make him feel he can intimidate hundreds of people.

Gun lovers will insist that the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees them the right to have guns. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. The Supreme Court recently seems to be changing its mind on that and other questions. But so what? We don't need the guns, and we don't need the second amendment. We have repealed parts of the Constitution, and we can do it again. We haven't had a well regulated militia in at least a hundred and fifty years, we are long past the time when people with handguns would be able to defend themselves against the might of U.S. armed forces if the government became tyrannical, and white people no longer need guns to suppress slave rebellions or to murder Indians. Those are the reasons we got the second amendment, but times have changed, and we need to change, too, or we will doom ourselves to living in constant fear and inescapable violence.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Romney's Tax Returns

Mitt Romney says he won't let people see his tax returns because it would give the Obama campaign material to use against him. That's just another way of saying that if people knew how much money Romney made, how he made it, and how little he paid in taxes, they would vote against him.

If Romney wasn't refusing to show us his tax returns, I wouldn't be particularly interested in seeing them. But his refusal to let people have the information makes me curious about what could possibly be in them that he is afraid to show us. We already know that he is fabulously wealthy, that he made his money by buying companies, tearing them apart, pilfering their assets, drowning them in debt, sending jobs overseas, and then selling the companies, some of which ended up in ruins. We already know that he paid a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than almost any working person in the U.S. How much worse could his tax returns make him look? Did he claim fictitious children or a teddy bear as dependents? Did he use a phony Social Security number? Did he pay taxes on illegal drug deals?

What I'd really like to see, though, is the corporate records for Bain Capital. Romney told the Securities and Exchange Commission that he was the sole shareholder, president, and CEO of the company, so he can show us those records if he wants. It is his company to do with as he wants.

I'd like to see the memos, letters, emails, and minutes of meetings that discussed sending jobs overseas. I'd like to see the correspondence between him and his investors that advised them on how they could avoid paying taxes on the money they were making by investing in the deals that his company put together. I'd like to see what the corporate accountants were doing to shelter money from the IRS. These are all the sorts of things that routinely are discoverable in court cases . They often are very revealing and they can all be easily produced. Corporations produce these sorts of records every day when they are involved in litigation. If we had this information we could compare what Mr. Romney was actually doing and thinking with what he now tells us he was up to, and with what he is telling us he wants to do with the country.

The law requires that publicly traded corporations reveal a good deal of this sort of information so that investors can make informed decisions on whether to invest in a company. Mr. Romney's company was not publicly traded – he owned the whole thing. So he never had to let anyone know what he was doing, except that he should not have been deceiving his investors or breaking any laws. But he would have kept all these records, because you can't run a company as big as Mr. Romney's without keeping those records. The records are there, ready for us to look at.

Mr. Romney brags about his success at Bain Capital. He wants us to think that his work there prepared him to run our country, create jobs, and revive the economy. I can't think of any reason why he wouldn't want us to see the records. He should be proud of them, if they show that he really was a brilliant businessman and that his outrageous fortune was actually earned and not just a reward for taking advantage of working people. So far, Mr. Romney hasn't released those records. I wonder why.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bouncer Rahm

Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, said in an interview on the CBS evening news that gang members shouldn't shoot children on the streets. He said they should take their disputes into the alleys. It was the kind of thing you might expect a bouncer to say as he threw unruly patrons out of a bar.

Rahm doesn't seem to realize that there are already plenty of shootings in Chicago's alleys, and in the parks, parking lots, and pretty much everywhere else – at least in certain neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, people aren't just afraid to walk on the sidewalks at night. They are afraid during the day. They are afraid in their cars. They are afraid in stores. They are even afraid in their own homes, because the bullets come right through their windows.

Rahm doesn't seem to understand that what is going on isn't like a fistfight among drunks, where the only people who get hurt are the combatants. The shooting in Chicago is a danger to everyone, including children and adults who are innocently minding their own business.

If Rahm is suggesting that we would all be safe if the gangbangers would just take his advice and shoot each other in the alleys, he doesn't understand that gangbangers aren't just interested in just shooting each other. They are shooting to make everyone around them afraid. They want to control their turf and establish their reputations. They want the public to notice them.

What would make Rahm think that the people who are doing the shooting care what he wants? Is he going to get them jobs? Is he going to provide them with the same level of city services that people in his neighborhood get? Is he going to give them private school educations like he gives his own kids? He has been in office more than a year already. Are the gangbangers' lives better than before he came?

Rahm pointed out to the news interviewer that the shootings aren't happening all over the city – just in a few areas. The shooters know this. They live in those areas, where jobs are scarce, police protection is inadequate, schools are substandard, and there are so few stores that people have trouble buying groceries. Does Rahm fail to see the connection between the conditions in those neighborhoods and the violence?

Rahm may think that he sounds righteous and tough when he tells the gangbangers to move their shooting from the streets to the alleys, but I doubt many of the gangbangers were impressed or were even watching the evening news. Maybe Rahm could get them to pay attention if he would stand on a sidewalk on the south or west side, without his bodyguards, and tell the gangbangers to go away, like a real tough guy. But he hasn't done that, and he won't. Because it's dangerous out there on the streets, and he knows it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

God Particles

An acquaintance tried to tell me why I should care that scientists have verified the existence of Higgs Bosons. He explained that the discovery had nothing to do with bison, which didn't help his cause because I do care about bison. He tried to explain that the particles are important because they have something to do with something else, none of which made any sense to me, even after he repeated the analogy he had heard on the radio that the particles acted like gravel under a bicycle tire. His explanation left me convinced that he didn't understand the particles any more than I did.

What did finally convince me that I should care was when he told me that the discovery would enable physicists to move forward with their research and theorizing. I think that's great, but not because I expect physicists to use their knowledge for the good of mankind. They have a pretty mixed record on that. Nor do I expect physicists to use their knowledge in a way that will benefit me personally. We already have sticky notes and X-ray machines. I'm content. I don't need any more ingenious devices and I don't need to know more about how and when the universe was created. I'm just glad it was.

However, I was pleased to hear that the discovery would make physicists happy. Goodness knows we don't need more unhappy physicists. They can be just as disagreeable as disaffected economists or dissatisfied biologists.

Anything that makes life better for other people is probably a good thing all around, even if it doesn't improve my lot. So if teeny tiny particles make physicists want to sing and dance, let the party begin.

Whether we should pour billions of dollars into particle physics is a whole other question. Those dollars could also be spent on things that would have a pretty obvious benefit. We could feed, clothe, educate, and house people. That would make a big change in a lot of people's lives a lot quicker than anything the physicists are likely to be able to build out of particles that vanish as soon as they are detected.

Sure, someday the Higgs Boson discovery might be useful. You never know. If we weren't in the midst of such tough economic times, I wouldn't hesitate to pledge support for more giant magnets or whatever else would continue to make physicists happy. I might even get behind whatever new space vehicle NASA wants to build so they can keep playing Buck Rogers and Hans Solo. But for now, I think we ought to keep our focus on more down-to-earth projects.

Higgs Boson were hard to find because they are so small. Our problems are so big that it is tempting to ignore them. Fortunately, we don't need any fancy lab equipment to see what we need to see. All we need to do is open our eyes. Then we need to act.