Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Of Death and Taxes

As 2012 draws its last breath, my thoughts have been on death and taxes. Those anticipating the world’s end based on misinterpreting the Mayan calendar have gone back into their holes. I’m sure they are busily inventing some other catastrophe to cheer for.

The rest of us watch the slow moving catastrophe we call the United States Congress as it deals, or does not deal, with death and taxes.


With the passing of Daniel Inouye, Congress lost one of its true heroes. If you aren’t familiar with his story, this Wikipedia link can give you the basics. While he certainly looked after Hawaii’s interests and could at times be partisan, he usually had America’s best interests at heart. He worked to get things done. He did not think compromise a dirty word and showed the continued courage to find middle ground. He had friends on both sides of the political aisle—all attributes that these days seems more and more rare.

The latest mass killings, this time of twenty children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, is unlikely to make much of a change in our attitude toward guns in this country. Those afraid they will no longer have the opportunity to purchase weapons and ammunition clips, whose sole justification is that they can fire massive numbers of rounds in a very short period of time, will make more purchases now. The false statisticians (those who claim to prove causality by use of statistics) will be talking heads on a fawning media for a few weeks, neither side providing much value to resolving the real issue.

The second amendment of the US constitution is short, and reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

At the time the constitution was drawn, most of the army was composed of militias paid by the various states. Part of the grand bargain that got us “These United States” rather than “these collective states” was the Federal government accepting responsibility for the individual state’s debts from the Revolutionary War. Having seen England try to impose its will by eliminating the right of citizens to bear arms (and therefore protect themselves against the state) our founders wanted to make sure to inhibit the national government they were forming from taking a similar tack.

The NRA claims this sentence means each of us has a right to carry whatever weapons we choose wherever and whenever we want. I suppose that’s a bit too strong. They would probably agree that tactical nuclear weapons should be limited to our national armed forces. They might agree that those with certain criminal records should not have the right to weapons. But they can’t actually say those things directly, because once they concede that not all arms should be available to all individuals, they have agreed that the discussion is not one of absolute, but of where we draw the line.

And they do not want the public to understand the real issue is where to draw the line. To again distract the public and lawmakers from this real question they presented a straw man: suggesting that by making schools no gun zones it puts a target on our kids’ backs because gunman will be drawn to schools where there is no one to shoot back. Their solution is to make schools armed compounds in order to protect our children.

Many of our schools already have armed guards—not primarily to protect children from outside gunmen, but to protect children and teachers from other students who would carry concealed weapons. This, the NRA conveniently forgets. They also neglect to mention that if schools did become armed compounds, those bent on a mass killing of our children would turn their attention elsewhere—say to ambushing a school bus. There the kids are already confined to an aluminum can with limited exits, a place where a semi-automatic military-style weapon could quickly riddle the entire bus, changing clips before the children (or an armed guard on the bus, since that would be the NRA’s next logical step) could react.

These latest deaths won’t change anything, because they are a blip in the total. Every year we lose about 11,000 Americans to bullets. If there were no guns, there would be no deaths by guns. However, as with automobiles (we lose 36,000 Americans a year to vehicle accidents), guns are a part of American society. We are inured to all these deaths because our individual risk of such a death is low.
To minimize the risk of automobile deaths, we require people to use seatbelts; we require cars to have certain safety mechanism. We test drivers (at least once) to make sure they can drive safely. We should apply all these same considerations to people who own guns.

I am not against guns. I have lots of friends who hunt; I even let them hunt on my property. When hunting, they fire their shotguns and rifles one shot at a time, and that is where we should start. Every rifle and shotgun should be single shot, not even three-round bursts should be allowed. Multiple shot bursts and semi-automatic fire are designed to kill people, not deer.

We already ban certain types of bullets because their only purpose is to kill people. Why shouldn’t we ban magazines designed to kill people? Hunters do not need ten or twenty or larger magazines to hunt. A half-dozen shells before the weapon needs to be reloaded provides more firepower than most hunters need in a whole day of hunting. Larger magazines are designed for killing people, not deer.

Revolvers (a dying breed) are single shot and usually carry between four and ten rounds. We could limit them to six in the future. Pistol clips can similarly be limited to a small number of rounds. Revolvers and pistols are not nearly as accurate as rifles, and as distance increases they become increasingly less accurate.

As with automobiles, all firearms should be registered, their serial numbers recorded and the owner required to acknowledge that they will be charged with a criminal act if they do not safeguard their guns. We require individuals to have licenses and carry insurance to drive a car. We should require all gun owners to pass a safety course in order to be licensed to carry a gun. (The NRA has safety courses, and my recollection is that they are very good. I passed one in junior high school before I was allowed to target shoot at my grandparents’ farm.)

All gun transactions should be conditional on the buyer passing a background check, which also requires them to be licensed. Private transactions must not be exempted. It matters not whether the seller is a licensed gun dealer, a trade show operator or me selling a gun to Josephine Blow. In all cases Josephine must pass the same background check and wait the required number of days before taking possession. The costs for maintaining the database of guns and background checks should be paid by the gun purchaser. If, as the NRA claims, the process is inefficient, charge more to pay for an efficient system. Those who want to own cars and be licensed to drive them pay the costs of the system; so should gun owners.

Obviously these policies cannot be implemented without a transition period; however, a transition period should not be an impediment to implementing strict gun ownership requirements. Nor, turning my attention from death to taxes, should a transition period be an impediment to fixing our budget crisis.


I admit that until I wrote this piece, I had not read the Grover Norquist “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” It reads:
I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the (____ district of the) state of ______ and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

In the 2011-2012 Congress, 236 Representatives (all but six Republican House members, and including only two Democratic House members) and forty-one Senators (one Democrat and forty Republicans) signed this atrocity. Since a majority of the House is 218, this means (unless people break their pledge) no bill can pass to raise income taxes (expect perhaps through subterfuge). Further, since it takes sixty votes in the Senate to vote cloture and break a filibuster (at least in theory; these days it seems any one Senator can put a permanent hold on any nomination without the necessity of formally going through a filibuster, but that’s a different illness of the Senate), Republicans could prevent any increase in taxes in that body as well.

The deficit for FYE 2012 is about $1.1 trillion. Expenses were something on the order of $3.6 trillion. To balance the budget without increasing revenues would require across-the-board cuts of over 30%. Take your own situation and envision cutting 30% from your housing expense, from your food expense, from your clothing expense, from transportation, from entertainment, from supporting your children or parents, from absolutely everything. That’s how far off we as a nation are from a balanced budget.

If you were faced with this scenario, you would probably borrow your credit cards to the hilt rather than cut all the way back on spending. That’s what Congress has done. We took on two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq and charged it all. Republicans wouldn’t raise taxes because of their pledge and for the first two years of Obama’s presidency when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House, the country was in a severe financial recession and raising taxes made little sense.

As someone who thinks the Keynesian idea that when we have a struggling economy we should run some deficits and when we have a robust economy we should run surpluses, I’d suggest that we should currently be running something of a deficit because we have additional expenses caused by the past recession (extra unemployment benefits, food stamps, training costs, etc.) However, those extra costs caused by a lousy economy add up to a few hundred billion at most; nothing close to $1.1 trillion. The difference is our structural budget problem and will not be solved by a robust economy.

Every individual prefers to pay less for government. That is not the same thing as preferring less government. The Republicans (with the complicity of Democrats) have focused their tax efforts for the last two decades on pandering to our preference to pay less for government. The Bush tax cuts decreased annual Federal Government Revenues around $350-400 billion. Had we not enacted them we would have about $4 trillion less in accumulated deficits than we do. Had Bush and the Republicans raised taxes temporarily to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we could lop off another trillion or two.

This disparity is not about the rich versus the middle class. Almost all of us need to pay higher taxes to afford the government we want. Most of us also need to collect less from the government than we desire. On the spending side, we have long-term structural problems with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Defense Department. Republicans are correct that we must look at these areas (well, actually they only want to look at the first three; I added the Defense Department because it is equally broken.)

President Obama is correct that either marginal tax rates must rise or net deductions decrease. He is myopic considering the problem is addressed by focusing on those earning $250,000 or more (or his latest weasel to only increase taxes for those earning $400,000 or more). However, I suppose we have to start somewhere and that’s with the wealthy. Either Republicans must renounce their puerile Norquist pledge or be responsible for a failed government. The president must not give in on this because once there is agreement that changes can be made we can start to have real conversation about the right level of government and how to structure taxation to support it. That’s when middle American has to suck it up and pay more taxes or suck it up and stop asking the Federal government to solve every problem that inconveniences them.

So there we have it. I have run out of patience with Republicans, Democrats, the President, the House, the Senate and the American people when it comes to taxes and spending. With only a few notable individual exceptions not one of them is actually facing reality.

Every empire I am aware of failed in part because they debased their currency attempting to protect their empire while bribing the masses with public goods. I hope we can learn this lesson from history, rather than following those earlier empires’ paths. Nothing this past month has given me a glimmer of hope.

It’s the time of year we celebrate miracles and the beginning of more light in our twenty-four hour days. So despite my best rational judgment, I’ll keep hoping for heroic leaders who will lead us to a better, sustaining future.

~ Jim