Friday, August 31, 2012

Romney Remakes the Blues Brothers

Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican convention last evening reminded me of a scene that has been in so many movies. The audience is gathered, but when the lights dim, for some reason the starring act isn't ready to start the show. Maybe the star performer is caught in traffic, passed out from drinking too much, or just suffering from a bad case of nerves. Stalling for time, someone takes the stage and tells some jokes, or draws out the introduction until the crowd grows restless. In the movies, at the last minute, the performance begins and everything comes out OK.

Last night, Mitt Romney took the stage and tap danced through his entire speech. He kept telling us he had a plan, but he never told us what it was. He kept telling us he would do better than Obama has done, but he never told us how. For nearly an hour, he sounded as if he was waiting for someone to run up to the podium and hand him the notes he had forgotten to bring with him which spelled out what he was going to do if he was elected president.

As Romney concluded his speech, I half expected him to tell the audience in the convention center that he was going to take a little break and that they should order another round of drinks and come back for the second set when he would tell them what his plan was. But, of course, he didn't. He smiled and waved as the balloons dropped and the band played, apparently hoping that we wouldn't notice that he never told us what we wanted to know.

The pundits say that all Romney was trying to do was convince us he was a nice guy. He almost succeeded, as he told us stories about his wife, parents, and kids. But when he went on to attack Obama for not fixing the economy and told us that he wished that Obama had succeeded because he wanted America to succeed, Romney reminded me of the bully who trips a kid in school and then smirks at him, “Gee, sorry you fell down.” Romney's party announced at the beginning of Obama's term that their primary goal was to make sure Obama failed so that they could defeat him when he ran for reelection. If Romney had really wanted Obama to succeed, he should have scolded the delegates he was speaking to for sabotaging their country's economy just to gain a political advantage. Instead, he grinningly affirmed their strategy. Not a nice guy.

Romney promised to put ten million people back to work. He promised prosperity. He promised to reduce the deficit without raising taxes or cutting military spending. He promised and promised and promised. But he never even came close to giving us even the slightest idea of how he was going to accomplish any of these things.

Romney is telling us we should elect him because our country is failing and he knows how to fix it. I would hope that before banks loaned Mr. Romney millions of dollars to take over companies, they would have insisted that he show them a business plan for how he was going to make failing companies succeed. It seems to me that we have at least as much right to insist that Romney explain his plans to us before we trust him with our future.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Small Business Baloney

Throughout their convention, Republicans have been heaping adulation on small business owners. They have gotten teary-eyed talking about people who work seven days a week and late into the night, every night, to build restaurants, retail stores, and security firms. They have been telling us that small businesses need tax breaks so that they can create new jobs and that owning a small business is the American dream.

I am a small business owner. I own a corporation that employs exactly one person, me. That's not unusual these days. A lot of people who lost their jobs when people like Mitt Romney bought and destroyed their companies and derailed the entire U.S. economy have gone into business themselves, because they had no choice. Some people went into business for themselves because their employers were pushed out of existence when Costco (where Romney wants us to believe he shops) or Staples (which Romney boasts of having created) moved into their towns and crowded out smaller stores. Some lost their jobs because Romney sent the jobs overseas.

It's odd to hear the Republicans, whose convention is financed by the largest of the large corporations, tell us how important small businesses are. If small businesses are so important to Republicans, why do all of their economic policies so directly benefit companies that build nuclear power plants, warplanes, and oil pipelines? The small business people I know are free-lance editors, designers, and writers; solo practitioner lawyers, architects, and doctors; artists, tutors, shop owners, musicians, landscapers, and just about anything else a person could be if they have to support themselves. I have never met a small business owner who builds power plants.

I can't believe that the Republicans haven't noticed that far fewer independent retail stores even exist these days, unless you count franchises. But the Republicans' policies aren't designed to help the guy who runs a donut shop. They are designed to help people like Romney, whose company made a fortune on the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins corporations. Republicans help corporate raiders like Bain Capital, which bought Domino's Pizza, Toys R Us, Burger King, and Burlington Coat Factory, not the thousands of little mom and pop shops that used to sell the same goods and services that the big corporations now do.

The reality is that Republican politicians, just like a lot of Democratic politicians, cater to the people and companies with the most money. That isn't the “small business owner,” who, perhaps with the help of a handful of documented or undocumented workers, cuts grass. It's the real estate development company which owns corporate office complexes in several states and contracts with the biggest corporate landscapers they can find.

For all the talk about who “built that,” there hasn't been much talk about the fact that Romney and his buddies built hardly any of the companies that brought him his fortune. He bought them after someone else built them. So if the Republicans think that I and my fellow small business owners are going to feel insulted by Obama pointing out that whatever success we have is due in part to having reliable electricity, clean water, good roads, public libraries, reliable fire protection, and a whole host of things that government provides, he is wrong. We know darned well that we are dependent upon not just our government, but upon our customers, suppliers, and if we have employees, the people who work for us. We know that luck has a lot to do with whether we succeed. Sure, we take pride in what we do, but we are not so arrogant as to think that we do it all ourselves.

In all of his years of buying, plundering, and bankrupting businesses, there isn't any indication that Mr. Romney had any interest in small businesses. I guess I should be grateful for that. It's hard enough running a business without having to worry that some jerk will come along and destroy everything you have done, just to fill his own pockets.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New Boogie Man

For a number of years, Republicans blamed federal bureaucrats for airplane delays, slow mail delivery, and just about everything else that they didn't like. At their last convention, Republicans blamed trial lawyers for rising health care costs and high premiums for product liability and worker's compensation insurance, all of which were said to be ruining the business climate in the U.S. In our lifetimes, Republicans have also blamed pointy-headed intellectuals, liberals, gays, women who want equality, and other uppity people for destroying our country.

Last evening, the Republicans rolled out a new boogie-man: teachers' unions. They blamed teachers' unions for under-performing schools, high taxes, big government, and a few other things. I think they said teachers' unions are the reason beer goes flat and car seats get hot in the sun, but I could have imagined that. The Republicans love having a boogie-man to blame for their failures and to frighten their constituents.

Why blame teachers' unions? Teachers unions are just the voice of teachers. Wouldn't it make more sense to blame the teachers themselves? If Republicans think teachers are paid too much, get overly lavish retirement plans, or have too short a school year or work day, why don't they just come out and say that our nation's teachers are lazy and greedy? For that matter, why not blame the school boards who agree to pay the teachers and give them benefits? Why not blame the voters who elected the school board members?

The answer is pretty obvious. The whole purpose of creating a boogie man is to distract people from what is really causing their problems, not to focus attention where it belongs. If the Republican Party really wanted to do something about the national debt, they would have to make large cuts in military spending. And if the Republican Party were to look at what really needs to be changed in order to improve education, they would have to look at what caused it, which to a very large extent is racism.

Inner-city schools aren't inherently bad. But schools tend to suffer in neighborhoods that were abandoned by white people who moved to the suburbs, taking with them their money, influence, jobs, and tax revenue just so that they wouldn't have to live next door to minorities. Republicans aren't any more guilty of white flight than Democrats, so Republicans don't have any reason to avoid the historical truth. But today's Republicans are firmly committed to not spending any money to remedy inner-city school problems, so they blame the problems on the boogie-man, teachers' unions. It doesn't make any sense that teachers' unions would want schools and students to fail, but sense is not what guides Republicans.

There are also problems that were caused by racism in schools that aren't in inner cities. In some rural parts of the country, separate but certainly not equal schools were established and the inequality was never really erased after the courts ordered an end to segregation. Unequal schools were perpetuated by building private academies for whites and by building entire new suburbs which were segregated by income and practice, not by law. There are also problems in schools that were not primarily caused by racism, but the Republican party doesn't want to spend money to solve any of our country's problems, including the problems that schools have, so they need a boogie man.

What would happen if we got rid of teachers' unions? Teachers would be paid less, have to work in more crowded classes, and have no job security. As any Republican free-market capitalist economist will tell you, as pay and work conditions deteriorate, fewer people will be interested in becoming teachers, so the quality of the labor pool from which teachers are chosen will decline. Our nation's students will get lower quality education, so they will learn less. Our industries will have more trouble finding qualified workers, so they will import more workers from abroad and send more jobs overseas, which will lead to higher unemployment in America. All of this will hurt the American economy and the people who the Republicans are trying to convince to vote for them. The Republicans' attack on teachers' unions is really an attack on America. That's why they need a boogie-man.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gun Logic Part 5 - You Can't Control Guns, So Don't

People who like guns say the U.S. shouldn't enact stronger gun control laws because the weak gun control laws that we have don't work. The basic premise, that gun control laws don't work, is questionable. Our experience with gun laws indicates just the opposite. In states where people aren't allowed to carry concealed weapons, hardly anyone does. In states that barely control guns at all, lots of people have guns, and lots of people get shot. When there was a ban on assault weapons, hardly any such weapons were in circulation. As soon as the ban was lifted, gun dealers reported that they sold large numbers of the weapons.

Obviously gun lovers know that gun control laws can work. If gun lovers really thought that gun control laws didn't work they wouldn't care if we passed all the laws we could think of, because they would still be able to get and carry all the weapons they wanted.

Gun lovers argue that gun control laws only keep law abiding citizens from getting guns. That wasn't the case with the assault weapon ban. It kept just about everyone from getting the guns. Sure, a few of the banned weapons slipped through the cracks. No law is perfectly enforced. But we haven't gotten rid of stop signs just because some drivers don't always stop at them. Instead, we try to educate people about the importance of obeying the law, and we step up enforcement when we see that there is a problem.

The gun lovers also oppose gun laws because they believe that every such law is simply a step towards totally banning all guns. Because of this opposition, laws that would prevent accidental shootings of children by requiring safe storage of guns have been blocked, laws that would reduce the number of impulsive shootings by requiring waiting periods for buying guns have been blocked, and laws that would prevent defective guns from unintentionally discharging have been blocked. In their zeal to stymie laws that would make guns more safe, gun lobbyists have put their own lives and their family's lives at risk.

From a political viewpoint, the gun lobby's strategy has been to force gun safety advocates to work for every advance, and then, when the public's furor over some shooting tragedy has died down, to try to repeal whatever gun control laws got passed and make the gun control side work for that same law all over again. It is the equivalent of forcing an enemy to keep fighting for control of a hill. It exhausts and discourages the opposition and results in a stalemate where neither side wins. In the context of the gun control debate, this war of attrition has resulted in maintenance of the status quo, which means almost no control over guns.

The argument that gun laws don't work is directly contrary not just to the concept that the government should strive to make laws that represent the will of the people and further their general welfare, it is a rejection of the whole idea of work. “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again” is replaced by “Give up, don't bother, what's the use?”

The most peculiar argument that the gun lovers make is that we don't need more gun laws, we just need to punish people who use guns to commit crimes. They assert that tough sentencing will discourage people from using guns to commit crimes. Isn't that pretty much admitting that gun control can work?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gun Logic Part 4 - White Men Don't Matter

Gun enthusiasts are happy to say they need guns to defend themselves, but they go out of their way not to acknowledge that more people use their guns to kill themselves than to kill anyone else. More than half of all gun deaths in the U.S. every year are caused by people deliberately killing themselves. Most of the rest are caused by people shooting other people for malicious purposes, and a small number of people are killed each year by accident. Almost no one is actually shot to death by police who are enforcing the law or by people defending themselves.

The curious racial overlay on this data is that almost all of the suicides are committed by white males. White guys shoot themselves to death far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. Neither white, black, or Hispanic women shoot themselves or anyone else in any significant numbers. Black males get shot in greater numbers than their proportion of the population, usually by other black males. Hispanic males do some shooting too – mostly at other Hispanic males.

When the pro-gun lobby tries to frighten people into buying guns, they focus on the homicide statistics, which disproportionately implicates and affects minorities. The pro-gun lobby doesn't even want to acknowledge gun suicides, so they ignore more than half of the gun death problem, and most of the white victims.

Though there are racial overtones in the gun-lobby's rhetoric, hiding the white victims does not seem like classical racism, until you consider that they are also hiding the white perpetrators. By looking only at the homicides and not the suicides, the gun lovers create an impression that gun violence is mostly a problem that is caused by minorities in our urban ghettos. If we look at all the gun deaths, we see that gun violence is mostly a white male phenomenon and is not confined to the urban poor.

The effect of this distortion is that most of the problem of gun violence does not get fixed. When we set out to eradicate polio and other diseases, we didn't just vaccinate minorities and leave the majority white population unprotected, we went after the disease wherever it was. When we endeavor to prevent and treat AIDS, we put our efforts into the population segments which are most at risk. Why are we being encouraged to pay no attention to the white people who are most of the people involved in gun violence both as perpetrators and victims?

Part of the answer is that the pro-gun lobby promotes the idea that people who get shot deserve to get shot because they are criminals. This supports the gun lovers' view that the people who do the shooting are good people, and that shooting bad people is a good thing to do. They don't want to admit that most of the people who get shot, and most of the people who are doing the shooting, are just depressed and could be helped rather than being killed. They don't want anyone to realize that the people who kill themselves are just like the majority of gun lovers – white guys. They certainly don't want to think about the fact that the person who a gun owner is most likely to kill is himself. “Buy a gun, join us, and shoot yourself,” would be a pretty peculiar recruiting slogan for the NRA.

It is pretty easy for the pro-gun lobby to perpetuate its charade. Although white guys have traditionally been the biggest political force in this country, they have usually organized against women and minorities. They haven't been pointing the finger of blame at themselves. But that is what they need to do. White guys need to ask themselves why they are killing themselves, and why the gun lobby is making it so easy for them.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Gun Logic Part 3 - Guns Kill People and Make People Safe

Of all the reasons gun lovers give for having guns, the argument that guns make them safe is the hardest to understand. Decades of research has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that people who have guns are more likely to be injured and killed by guns than people who don't. They are more likely to be shot accidentally, to shoot themselves in suicide attempts, to be shot by someone who is angry, and even to be shot by someone who is trying to attack them. On a larger scale, the more guns there are in a community, the more people who will be shot. Why, then, do gun lovers cling to the disproved notion that guns make them safe?

It is unlikely that gun owners are simply unaware of the studies that prove the dangers of guns. They may not have studied them, and they may reject them, but the arguments they make to rebut the truth show that they know the truth is out there and that other people acknowledge it.

Part of the explanation is that some gun lovers desperately want to feel safe and they are willing to believe that guns will provide them with the safety they seek. Once they accept gun ownership as a solution to such an essential need as safety, they let gun ownership become so important to them that they are willing to defend it regardless of how nonsensical their defense is. Gun ownership becomes a matter of faith for them which is not vulnerable to attacks that are based on what is real. It is like the magic feather that Dumbo the elephant thought helped him fly.

It might seem that, if gun ownership has become akin to a religion, its adherents would not feel the need to defend it against reality-based arguments. Religious adherents don't generally feel they need to prove the existence of a deity to non-believers. Faith, after all, is beyond objective proof. I think that gun lovers try to defend their love of guns because they don't want to admit to themselves or anyone else that they are trusting their fate to something as mundane as an inanimate piece of metal. They don't want to think of their guns as being their idols. They want to think that their belief that their guns will protect them is rational, not supernatural, spiritual, magical, or superstitious.

Some gun owners get more than a feeling of safety from their guns. Guns make them feel powerful, and even dangerous. With guns they don't have to feel intimidated; they can be intimidating. Guns change them from thinking of themselves as potential victims to potential heroes who might be able to protect not only themselves but also other vulnerable people. They can be the bully, not the wimp. If they have to sacrifice intellectual integrity for such an intoxicating transformation, they are willing to pay the price.

Many gun owners also get a new sense of identity when they become part of the gun community, and a feeling of belonging. Gun owners are very affirming of other gun owners, and people who demonstrate that they are pro-gun by renouncing the facts about the dangers of guns gain instant acceptance in gun-loving groups.

The reasons why gun lovers turn a blind eye to the facts is that they get what they want from guns, despite the facts. If they faced the fact that guns make them less safe rather than more safe, they would no longer have anything that would make them feel safe, they wouldn't be able to feel powerful, they wouldn't feel like they belonged. They would be back to feeling vulnerable to the uncertainties of life. Who wants that? Sure, they could develop more faith in their fellow human beings and in their god, but that takes some effort, and there is no well-funded, powerful, national lobby comparable to the NRA to assure them that everything will be OK if they embrace humanity and life. For gun owners, it's easier to just buy a gun and ignore the truth.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gun Logic Part 2 - Wrong or Not, Guns are a Right

People in the U.S. who like guns are quick to say that they have a right to have guns. Sometimes they say that it is a God-given right, because some parts of the Christian Bible can be read to suggest that people have a right to defend themselves and their families. Of course, other parts of that Bible say that people should turn the other cheek if they are attacked, and the main thrust of modern Christianity favors peaceful resolution of conflicts. Gun lovers do not talk about the parts of the Christian bible that advise people to obey the civil authorities in civil matters. They also don't pay a lot of attention to resolutions favoring gun control that have been adopted by many mainstream Christian churches.

Gun lovers don't usually talk about whether non-Christians are granted rights to have guns by a Christian god, and they certainly don't seem concerned that someone who does not believe in a Christian god might argue that Christians don't have any rights to guns because there is no Christian god, or because some other god or understanding of god says there is no right to guns.

Sometimes gun lovers say that their right to have guns comes from nature, because humans are animals and self-preservation is instinctive. They ignore the larger picture – that social animals naturally protect the entire group, even if the individual must be sacrificed in the effort. They also pay no attention to the differences between humans (which have developed sophisticated technological ways of organizing and defending their complex societies) and other creatures which must rely on whatever tools their genes provide them.

Some gun lovers say that their right to have guns comes from the Second Amendment to the Constitution. After a couple hundred years during which the Supreme Court held a contrary view, the gun lovers finally have a Supreme Court that has said the amendment gives them a limited right to have guns, subject to regulation by the government. The gun lovers accept the part of the court's decision that they like, reject the part about regulation that they don't like, and vow that regardless of what the court says, they insist that there should be no limitation to their Second Amendment rights.

Whatever the gun lovers profess to be the source of their right to have guns, they don't acknowledge that the right could be taken or interpreted away. The Second Amendment could be repealed or a court in the future could disagree with the recent decisions and again hold that the right to bear arms only refers to a well regulated militia, which we don't have and have never had. Even if the Second Amendment remains intact, other parts of the Constitution could be construed as being in conflict with it, permitting severe limitations on private gun ownership.

Gun lovers who think their right to have guns has a divine origin forget that although the U.S. Constitution guarantees that right to freely practice one's religion, there have been plenty of unsuccessful religion-based challenges to laws. It is clear that the U.S. government, its courts included, has the power and the right to enforce its will on its people regardless of what some of those people believe their religion dictates. Everyone has to pay taxes, even people who think god tells them they don't have to.

What gun lovers really mean when they talk about their rights to have guns is that they want to have guns, despite all of the evidence that private ownership of guns has made people in the U.S. much less safe and free than places where there aren't so many guns. The gunners talk of rights, because they think that rights are superior to reason and reality. So long as they can convince people that they have a right to guns, it doesn't matter whether, for the sake of the entire country, they shouldn't be allowed to have them. Rights, to gun lovers, are just a way of getting what they want, regardless of the harm they do to others. The entire American experience has shown that no one has any right under God, nature, or the Constitution, to act in such a manner.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gun Logic Part 1 - All Government is Evil, God Bless America

One of the favorite themes of the pro-gun (pro-death) lobby is that Americans need guns so that they can rise up against the tyrannical federal government and overthrow it by force. In order for this to be a reasonable argument and not just an outdated vestige of our colonial past, the gunners feel they need to demonstrate that the government is always on the verge of becoming so intolerable that revolution could be necessary at any time.

Contrary to what the gun lovers say, there isn't a lot of evidence that the U.S. government is taking over every aspect of our lives and destroying our freedom. In fact, for more than thirty years it has been in the process of deregulating, privatizing, and disengaging from our lives. Polluters, monopolists, bank and investment fraudsters, and tax cheats are all much freer to commit their crimes without fear of prosecution than they were before Ronald Reagan announced that government was the problem, not the solution to our problems.

Lacking any real evidence that the government is taking over everything, the gun worshipers stitch together small government actions into a crazy quilt that they think reveals a pattern. Whether the government proposes to provide health care for people who don't have any or to tax rich people at rates they used to pay, the gunners see it as a first step towards taking away their guns. It's a mindset that was developed over the years by groups like the John Birch Society, which opposed fluoridation of water as a step towards communism, or other groups that opposed vaccinating children against deadly diseases, seeing it as an interference with individual liberty. To people who are infatuated with guns, whatever our government does is evil and it is their right and obligation to be ready to overthrow that government.

Except, of course, when the government does something they like. In those instances, the gun devotees are quick to praise the government and to castigate anyone who questions its actions and brand them as unpatriotic. Mostly the gun lobby likes the government to fight wars, because the fighting is done with guns and other weapons, validating their belief that guns and violence are good and necessary. Gun lovers support our military and police but almost no other part of our government. But when the law enforcement arm of our government goes after people who illegally keep or use guns, the gun lobby says the government agents have become tyrannical jack-booted thugs and must be resisted.

Although the pro-gun arguments seem illogical, they are consistent. No matter what the facts are, the gun fetishists find a way to construct a view of reality that affirms their fundamental belief that they should have guns. That is why they can simultaneously say that the U.S. government is great and that it is evil, and that they must be armed and ready to kill both agents of the government when the government gets in their way and people who oppose the government when the government is doing what they like. The thread tying their world view together is that they are the good people and have the right to kill anyone who they decide is bad. It all makes perfect sense, at least to people who have decided that guns should be an available answer no matter what the question is, and that their judgment is superior to the judgment of any other person or any government.