Archive for the ‘Decline and Fall’ category

Annals Of The Military Industrial Complex

February 4, 2014

Via exceptionally sharp young journalist Taylor Dobbs, this story of the efficiency and national security value of military procurement:

The Dayton Daily News reports that the Air Force has spent some $567 million to acquire 21 new Spartans since 2007, but has found that the Air Force does not have missions for many of the aircraft.

The planes had originally been acquired because of their ability to operate from unimproved runways. But sequestration forced the Air Force to re-think the airplane’s mission, and it determined that they were not a necessity, according to an analyst with the Project for Government Oversight.

…An Air Force spokesman said the program was “too near completion” to be able to terminate the program in a way that does not cost the taxpayers more than building the airplanes and sending them immediately to the boneyard.

Jan_van_Kessel_(I)_-_Birds_on_a_Riverbank_-_WGA12131

An alternate headline would  — should, in fact — go something like this: “Legislators Find Alternatives To Food Stamp Cuts”

Yeah…I’m dreaming.

One more thought: the fetishization of (genuinely brave and self-sacrificing) members of the military is cover for sh*t like this.

Image: Jan van Kessel, Birds on a Riverbank,  1655.

Republican Health Care Plan (Die Sooner) Implemented Via Shutdown — Salmonella Outbreak edition

October 9, 2013

Ok.  That title is a bit of hyperbole (you think?–ed.).  No deaths have yet been reported from this:

This evening, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture announced that “an estimated 278 illnesses … reported in 18 states” have been caused by chicken contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg and possibly produced by the firm Foster Farms.

Vincenzo_Campi_-_Chicken_Vendors_-_WGA3826

The news and its context (and lots of links, now updated) comes from the invaluable Superbug blog written by the equally prized Maryn McKenna (known to her friends as the internet’s Scary Germ Girl, perhaps for books like this one.)*

That’s not the punch line, though.  Something else makes this latest demonstration of the risks inhering to the US food supply system so infuriating and so scary — something with a distinctly GOP reek wafting through it:

 [The Food Safety and Inspection Service] is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period,” the agency said in an emailed alert. “The outbreak is continuing.”

This is the exact situation that CDC and other about-to-be-furloughed federal personnel warned about last week.

As Maryn emphasizes:  we are confronting a potentially deadly public health crisis with legally enforced ignorance:

 At the CDC, which operates the national foodborne-detection services FoodNet and PulseNet, scientists couldn’t work on this if they wanted to; they have been locked out of their offices, lab and emails. (At a conference I attended last week, 10 percent of the speakers did not show up because they were CDC personnel and risked being fired if they traveled even voluntarily.)

To mix metaphors — when you have a political party determined to spin the cartridge on the whole country, eventually the hammer will find a loaded chamber.

Go read the whole of Maryn’s reporting.  This isn’t skittles. It’s illness and misery, the possibility of life-long diminishment…and maybe deaths too, as always with the most vulnerable, kids and the elderly, squarely in the cross hairs.

Even if, as I deeply hope, the current outbreak passes with minimal harm to our fellow citizens, that just means we got lucky.  As long as Republicans see the shut down as a game in which they must put “points on the board” we’re on the hook for the news we know will come.

To take it one step further:  the dominant view within the modern Republican party is one that in essence denies the existence of society.  In the Tea Party view — the one shaping the entire party’s vision — the US is and must be a nation of individuals, atoms; there is no concept that we might act in concert to ends other than those we can address one by one.

From that perspective deciding we don’t need food safety inspectors makes sense.  It’s my job or yours to make sure we cook that chicken breast all the way through, that we sterilize our cutting boards, that we never forget to soap off our knives between cuts, that we never eat with friends less cautious than ourselves. (I’m following Maryn’s argument here, btw.)

One could choose to live that way.  Kids would die, from time to time, and maybe grandpa too, before he needed to go.  Such deaths would be the price of my freedom, a definition of liberty renders every other person around me a kind of ghost: there, but not so much so that I need act as if they are just as real as me.

That’s what’s at stake in the current impasse in Washington.  I don’t want to live with ghosts. I want friends, I want colleagues, I want a society — civilization.  Hell!  I want chicken inspectors, and it’s a privilege, not a burden, to live within a system that’s figured out how to  have them.  That the Republicans don’t seem to get that is why the current version of the party (no longer) of Lincoln must be ground into the dust.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Update:  Per Mike the Mad Biologist, this news:

A sweeping salmonella outbreak has become so serious that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called back 10 furloughed staff members to monitor this and other outbreaks.

Progress.

*You can get the word directly from Maryn via my conversation with her on the Virtually Speaking Science podcast.

Image:  Vincenzo Campi, Chicken Vendors1580.

Somalia On The Rio Grande

May 10, 2013

If it were just a matter of Texans killing Texans — with the victims embracing their fates — then I might be willing to let it all go with an “everyone to hell in their own handbasket”  reaction.  But, of course, the generalized Gresham’s Law tells us what follows from this kind of thinking:

Five days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled a wide swath of this town, Gov. Rick Perry tried to woo Illinois business officials by trumpeting his state’s low taxes and limited regulations. Asked about the disaster, Mr. Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation’s worst industrial accidents in decades…
Alfred_Rethel_001

This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents here. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation’s most business friendly.

Even in West, last month’s devastating blast did little to shake local skepticism of government regulations. Tommy Muska, the mayor, echoed Governor Perry in the view that tougher zoning or fire safety rules would not have saved his town. “Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said.

Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins — brothers who were volunteer firefighters — in the explosion, said, “There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations.”

I’d be surprised, except for the fact that there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, if you look at matters like a (certain kind of) Texan:

Texas …is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

Hold on a moment there, buckaroo!  No fire codes? That’s a reason to locate in Texas?

I guess the goal here is to reduce the incovenience of contracting with Bangladesh.

Seriously — if you think it an act of social responsibility to demand clothing retailers to demonstrate proper work place safety for their imports, shouldn’t we demand the same of, say every oil and gas company, refiners and all, that deliver products from Texas to the rest of these United States?

Anyway — guess the inevitable consequence of such “pro-business” concern. No prize for correct answers:

But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

As I said at the top…if this were a problem for Texans alone then there is a part of me that says that they voted for this government (and regulatory regime), and they should enjoy what they’ve gotten — good and hard.  But (a) this ignores the fact that those most at risk are those with the least access to the levers of power, and even in a deep red state like this one, there are lots of folks who don’t want to be blown up in their back yards.  Some solidarity seems in order.

More broadly there’s (b):  Texas’s drive to hold harmless private businesses for any consequences of their decisions puts pressure on every other state.  There are alternatives, and lots of non-feral players recognize that there’s more to a positive business climate than crap schools, an immiserating approach to health care, a failure to provide worker and public safety, and an incentive structure that rewards environmental malice.  But to the extent that Texas is successful in attracting enterprises to its let-any-harm-happen frontier, the downward pressure on other states exists.  Bad laws, bad regulatory frameworks drive out good, just like Gresham could have said.

National Republicans are, of course, complicit in this drive to put ever more Americans at risk.  In the context of weak state protection for its citizenry, the onus falls on the federal government, through agencies like but not limited to OSHA and EPA.  But they aren’t meeting that task, and won’t.  There are lots of reasons why not, including some an Obama administration could address (and that we should push for), but a big part of the reason lies with the long-running effort by the GOP to hollow out government from within.

So, yeah, Texas remains too small for a country and too big as an asylum.  I know it’s a near impossible task to imagine dragging it, kicking and screaming, into the Century of the Anchovy.  But for our own sake, if not for theirs, we gotta try.

The first step is to remember:  Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Alfred Rethel, The factory Mechanische Werkstätten Harkort & Co, c. 1834

A Reminder: What the Hagel Farce Was Actually About – Outsourced to Peter Beinart

February 27, 2013

I don’t generally link to the Daily Beast (for many and various reasons) but led by Bruce Bartlett’s twitterizing, I got to Peter Beinart’s clear, succinct description of what was really at stake in the Hagel nonsense:

The right’s core problem with Hagel wasn’t his alleged anti-Semitism. From Jerry Falwell to Glenn Beck to Rupert Murdoch, conservatives have overlooked far more egregiously anti-Jewish statements when their purveyors subscribed to a hawkish foreign-policy line. The right’s core problem with Hagel was that he had challenged the Bush doctrine. Against a Republican foreign-policy class that generally minimizes the dangers of war with Iran, Hagel had insisted that the lesson of Iraq is that preventive wars are dangerous, uncontrollable things. “Once you start,” he warned in 2010, “you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops.”

Sweerts,_Michael_-_Soldiers_Playing_Dice_-_c._1655

The point isn’t that Hagel “favors” containment and deterrence. Like virtually everyone else, he’d much rather Iran not get a bomb. But by reminding Americans of the potential costs of preventive war, Hagel was implying that containment and deterrence might be preferable. He was suggesting that if the U.S. can’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons short of war, it should make the same tradeoff that Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy made when they allowed the Soviet Union and China to get the bomb. This horrifies hawks for two reasons. First, some of them, echoing Benjamin Netanyahu, claim Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. But were that their sole concern, they’d pay more attention to the near-consensus view among top Israeli security professionals that although Iran poses a threat, it does not pose an existential one, in large measure because Iran’s regime, while vile, is rational when it comes to preserving its own existence.

The second reason hawks find Hagel’s view so frightening is that it concedes the limits of American power. Although Bush said that after 9/11 the United States no longer could afford to rely on the deterrence and containment of hostile states, what he really meant was that the U.S. no longer needed to rely on deterrence and containment, because it was now strong enough to prevent nuclear proliferation via force. For many hawks, conceding that the U.S. can’t do that means conceding American decline.

Beinart goes on to point out the absurdity of the neo-con fear that acknowledging the fact of limits to power equals American decline.* That’s another way of saying (a) read the whole thing and (b) there is a very depressing realization (familiar to readers of this blog) that sinks in should yo do so:  Beinart has achieved here nothing more than a well-stated penetrating glimpse of the obvious.

Or to put it another way: if America is in fact in decline then the cause isn’t that some of our leaders have noticed that the capacity to blow up any building anywhere in the world is not the same thing as exercising power to an end beyond rubble.  Rather, it is that so many in our media and political elites can’t or won’t.

*The concept of imperial or superpower decline is tricky.  Are we in decline if we continue to grow in wealth and capability, but other nations do so with enough vigor to approach levels that in the unique circumstances of the post-World War II decades we could occupy on our own?  Britain, shorn of empire, is wealthier, more equal, more comfortable now that it has ever been for the great bulk of its citizens, for all that Cameron and Osborne are trying to undo some of that.  Are we impoverished if we advance into a world in which the Chinese middle class, still a small proportion of that country, may soon achieve economic status equal to our own?

As I say, tricky.  One more thing, though. Such caveats to the threnody of decline do not in themselves mean that we cannot in fact propel ourselves into an actual, unmistakable loss of power, influence and so much relative economic standing that the conditions of national autonomy and agency the US now possesses will erode.  Could happen; may be happening.  But not because Chuck Hagel thinks it makes sense to ask first what one gets out of sending 100,000 American troops to the far side of the world.

Image: Michael Sweerts, Soldiers Playing Dicec.1655.

Putting Out Fires With Gasoline

August 18, 2012

[Blogger's note:  The following is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious, at least to this readership.  But consider this one more in the cataloque of facts useful for dealing with your wingnut contacts]

If you care about federal deficits,* then, of course, the Republican Party is the last one you want to trust with the budget.

Those of us with a capacity for memory better than that of goldfish may remember the simplest confirming instance:  Bill Clinton raised taxes, created a surplus, and famously presided over peace and prosperity.  George W. Bush (remember him ?– Mitt Romney doesn’t)…not so much.

But now, we are told, we have the new improved Republican Party, in which the very serious man of numbers and ideas, Paul Ryan, will lead us to fiscal sanity and the promised budgetary land of liberty-induced-prosperity.

Or not.

Over to you, KThug:

So if we look at the actual policy proposals, they look like this:

Spending cuts: $1.7 trillion
Tax cuts: $4.3 trillion

This is, then, a plan that would increase the deficit by around $2.6 trillion. [over the first ten years]

How, then, does Ryan get to call himself a fiscal hawk? By asserting that he will keep his tax cuts revenue-neutral by broadening the base in ways he refuses to specify, and that he will make further large cuts in spending, in ways he refuses to specify.

And this is what passes inside the Beltway for serious thinking and a serious commitment to deficit reduction.

The Republican Party is not simply a bunch of kleptomaniac sociopaths; they really will gut the Untied States of America.  They are the party of decline and fall.  For Romney, read Romulus Augustulus.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image: Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Innocence Preferring Love To Wealth1804.

*And one would be reasonable to do so, sort of, under some time horizon.  But not in the midst of the Great Recession…

The Dog that Ain’t Barking

August 14, 2012

GOS’s Laura Clawson is getting here before me, but there’s an overwhelmingly obvious truth unsaid within the now-notorious Politico piece on Republican campaign operatives’ despair over the Ryan pick.

The piece channels keening over the fact Ryan plan screws up what was presumed to be the Republican’s best tactical approach to winning the White House, by shifting focus from Obama’s record on the economy (however distorted or outright BS-ed the Romney characterization of that record was and would be) to one in which we will confront a choice between to sharply distinct policy and moral visions for the future.

That is:  the Politico folks take the usual horserace approach to the latest twist in the campaign.

But that approach buries the lead. Yes, the economy ain’t that great and Romney could build traction there, again, however disengenously.  But the real story here is something that we’ve been talking about more or less overtly for the last several days — and that’s the bit  Politico and its GOP sources really want to avoid talk about.

Consider:

“I think it’s a very bold choice. And an exciting and interesting pick. It’s going to elevate the campaign into a debate over big ideas. It means Romney-Ryan can run on principles and provide some real direction and vision for the Republican Party. And probably lose. Maybe big,” said former President George W. Bush senior adviser Mark McKinnon.

Another strategist emailed midway through Romney and Ryan’s first joint event Saturday: “The good news is that this ticket now has a vision. The bad news is that vision is basically just a chart of numbers used to justify policies that are extremely unpopular.”
These are technical doubts:  how is Romney going to win an election in which he has to defend very specific proposals that voters actually loathe.
But the real point isn’t that Ryan’s presence on the ticket  makes it harder for the GOP to figure out how to write ads or get out the vote come November.  It is that Ryan’s presence brings into sharp relief exactly what the party and its backers has spent decades trying to obscure.  Republicanism doesn’t work. It sucks.  Really, truly, deeply.
That is to say, as everyone reading this already knows — but too many in the country haven’t grasped, yet — the basic policy presumptions of the Republicans  either have been tried and been seen to fail (see, e.g. tax cuts and economic growth, George Bush II edition) or can be analyzed and recognized as disastrous. (See, e.g., the GOP and Ryan plan to return health care to the status quo ante of the pre-Obamacare universe, only worse, with no cost controls and the burden of paying for health care inflation shifted from a national insurance pool to an individually aging population, AKA You and Me).
It never gets better.  With every attempt to look at actual empirical evidence, the basic inadequacy of the low-tax/deregulated/War of All Against All approach to the social contract becomes more obvious.  The voters get this — which is why the Ryan plan is seen as literally intolerable when described accurately to just folks.
That’s the real story.  Not the horse race stuff.  No.  The GOP as “led” by Romney and actually headed by the forces behind him and Ryan is committed to a program that is literally destructive to America.  Not just most Americans — but to the overall health of the economy, the environment, and all the physical, human, and moral infrastructure that makes somewhere a good or bad place to live.
Put this another way.  As Politico likes to report, political tacticians worry about now to the election:
….

Republican consultant Terry Nelson is hoping that a big debate on the presidential level will make it tougher for Democrats to mischaracterize the debate down ballot, where many Republican candidates in the House and Senate have already taken votes in favor of the Ryan plan. The more Romney and Ryan have to defend Ryan’s plan in the presidential race, the more they’ll provide air cover for other candidates.

Well, perhaps.

But if that “defense” forces voters to think hard about what the Republican approach to America’s future actually means…well that’s Obama’s job, and ours, isn’t it?

Images: Edgar Degas, Race Horses in a Landscape, 1894

Pieter Breughel the Elder, Portrait of an Old Woman, c. 1564

Anatomy of a Zombie Lie…

July 23, 2012

Within less than a day of the Aurora shootings, a BJ reader sent me word of the absolutely predictable gun-nut push to claim that guns prevent more crime/save more lives than gun-use takes.

We’ve seen plenty of that in the days since, with the blame-the-victim, where-are-our-John-Waynes trope getting its usual airing, as it always does after such tragedies.

I wrote on this topic after the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy referencing some of the actual research that shows, over and over again that more guns = more gun tragedy.  Go check it out if you want to be further depressed by the American gun-fetish eternal return of the same pathology.

Here I just want to deal with one zombie lie — the one my BJ correspondent passed on to me:

Guns used 2.5 million times a year in self-defense. Law-abiding citizens use guns to defend themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year — or about 6,850 times a day. This means that each year, firearms are used more than 80 times more often to protect the lives of honest citizens than to take lives.

That’s from a “factsheet” produced by Gun Owners of America.  GOA helpfully footnotes the two sentences above, claiming independent scholarly support for the claim, which, they assert, is backed up by official federal government research:

Even the Clinton Justice Department (through the National Institute of Justice) found there were as many as 1.5 million defensive users of firearms every year. See National Institute of Justice, “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms,” Research in Brief (May 1997).

And your guns shall set you free, I guess.

But wait just a minute.

One of the things we do at the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing in which I have the honor to teach is to make sure that our students develop a nose for funny numbers.  Your olfactory neurons should be firing pretty hard right now.  2.5 million instances of gun defense? 1 for every 12 120 or so US citizens, infants at the breast, gaffers spooning their soup and all and sundry in between?Almost 7,000 a day, and nary a mention on the nightly news? No blog of “Real American Heroes” or some such?

But what the hell.  It’s documented, right?

Right – by a study from 1994, confirmed, allegedly, by a US government-sponsored analysis in 1997.  So let’s do something radical. Let’s read the referenced material.  Here’s the relevant passage from “Guns in America…[pdf]:”

Private citizens sometimes use their guns to scare off trespassers and fend off assaults. Such defensive gun uses (DGUs) are sometimes invoked as a measure of the public benefits of private gun ownership. On the basis of National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data, one would conclude that defensive uses are rare indeed, about 108,000 per year. But other surveys yield far higher estimates of the number of DGUs. Most notable has been a much publicized estimate of 2.5 million DGUs, based on data from a 1994 telephone survey conducted by Florida State University professors Gary Kleck and Mark Gertz. [the study the GOA "factsheet" references in its claim]  The 2.5 million figure has been picked up by the press and now appears regularly in newspaper articles, letters to the editor, editorials, and even Congressional Research Service briefs for public policymakers.

The NSPOF survey is quite similar to the Kleck and Gertz instrument and provides a basis for replicating their estimate. Each of the respondents in the NSPOF was asked the question, “Within the past 12 months, have you yourself used a gun, even if it was not fired, to protect yourself or someone else, or for the protection of property at home, work, or elsewhere?” Answers in the affirmative were followed with “How many different times did you use a gun, even if it was not fired, to protect yourself or property in the past 12 months?” Negative answers to the first DGU question were followed by “Have you ever used a gun to defend yourself or someone else?” (emphasis in original). Each respondent who answered yes to either of these DGU questions was asked a sequence of 30 additional questions concerning the most recent defensive gun use in which the respondent was involved, including the respondent’s actions with the gun, the location and other circumstances of the incident, and the respondent’s relationship to the perpetrator.

Forty-five respondents reported a defensive gun use in 1994 against a person (exhibit 7). Given the sampling weights, these respondents constitute 1.6 percent of the sample and represent 3.1 million adults. Almost half of these respondents reported multiple DGUs during 1994, which provides the basis for estimating the 1994 DGU incidence at 23 million. This surprising figure is caused in part by a few respondents reporting large numbers of defensive gun uses during the year; for example, one woman reported 52! [That's once a week, for those of you keeping score at  home. Even if you're living in a truly bad neighborhood, that's impressively bad luck as far as being targetted by crime goes.--ed.]

A somewhat more conservative NSPOF estimate is shown in the column of exhibit 7 that reflects the application of the criteria used by Kleck and Gertz to identify “genuine” defensive gun uses. Respondents were excluded on the basis of the most recent DGU description for any of the following reasons: the respondent did not see a perpetrator; the respondent could not state a specific crime that was involved in the incident; or the respondent did not actually display the gun or mention it to the perpetrator.

Applying those restrictions leaves 19 NSPOF respondents (0.8 percent of the sample), representing 1.5 million defensive users. This estimate is directly comparable to the well-known estimate of Kleck and Gertz, shown in the last column of exhibit 7. While the NSPOF estimate is smaller, it is statistically plausible that the difference is due to sampling error. Inclusion of multiple DGUs reported by half of the 19 NSPOF respondents increases the estimate to 4.7 million DGUs.

Some troubling comparisons. If the DGU numbers are in the right ballpark, millions of attempted assaults, thefts, and break-ins were foiled by armed citizens during the 12- month period. According to these results, guns are used far more often to defend against crime than to perpetrate crime. (Firearms were used by perpetrators in 1.07 million incidents of violent crime in 1994, according to NCVS data.)

Thus, it is of considerable interest and importance to check the reasonableness of the NSPOF estimates before embracing them. Because respondents were asked to describe only their most recent defensive gun use, our comparisons are conservative, as they assume only one defensive gun use per defender. The results still suggest that DGU estimates are far too high.

For example, in only a small fraction of rape and robbery attempts do victims use guns in self-defense. It does not make sense, then, that the NSPOF estimate of the number of rapes in which a woman defended herself with a gun was more than the total number of rapes estimated from NCVS (exhibit 8). For other crimes listed in exhibit 8, the results are almost as absurd: the NSPOF estimate of DGU robberies is 36 percent of all NCVS-estimated robberies, while the NSPOF estimate of DGU assaults is 19 percent of all aggravated assaults. If those percentages were close to accurate, crime would be a risky business indeed!

NSPOF estimates also suggest that 130,000 criminals are wounded or killed by civilian gun defenders. That number also appears completely out of line with other, more reliable statistics on the number of gunshot cases.

The evidence of bias in the DGU estimates is even stronger when one recalls that the DGU estimates are calculated using only the most recently reported DGU incidents of NSPOF respondents; as noted, about half of the respondents who reported a DGU indicated two or more in the preceding year. Although there are no details on the circumstances of those additional DGUs, presumably they are similar to the most recent case and provide evidence for additional millions of violent crimes foiled and perpetrators shot.

…..

The key explanation for the difference between the 108,000 NCVS estimate for the annual number of DGUs and the several million from the surveys discussed earlier is that NCVS avoids the false-positive problem by limiting DGU questions to persons who first reported that they were crime victims. Most NCVS respondents never have a chance to answer the DGU question, falsely or otherwise.

[All bold emphases added by yours truly.]

Sorry for such a long block quote, but there is method to my tl;dr madness.  There is a figure out there that has been enshrined as “fact.” Guns prevent crimes — and in such great numbers as to outweigh any tragedy.  13 dead and 48 wounded?  Sad, but merely sacrifices to the greater good of an armed society…

Except, of course, it isn’t true.  The lie persists because the liars rely (soundly, it appears) on the certainty that almost no one will go back through the literature and see if anything they say is actually, you know, true.  The very piece of government research GOA cites as support explicitly and at length debunks the core claim.  But no matter. Who reads fifteen year old reports anyway?

You do, if you’ve stuck it this far.  Lots of other folks — including media makers — have not, at least as suggested by the persistence of this zombie lit.

And so we permit zombies to continue to suck our brains out, as such lies become public policy fact.  Such failure — the failure of folks within the gun community to speak honestly, and the disastrous failure of the media to report the story clearly and accurately — costs lives.  People die.  Kids die, old folks die, time and again real people, not mere tallies on a false record of those lost against those saved…ripped from their families, their loved ones, their own selves.  We can do better, but we choose not to.

Just to drive that last claim home  let me point you to one study from those cited in my Giffords post referenced above:

PHILADELPHIA – In a first-of its-kind study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. The study estimated that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

I’m not a gun-ownership absolutist.  I don’t think we could (politically) or should remove guns from every hand and every home.  But, as Bernard wrote this morning, there’s a lot of room between such a ban and where we are now — and I’d move a long way through that space of possibility.

Which we can’t, as long as the media permit the gun nuts to lie with impunity. I’ve written before about imposing a strict insurance scheme on gun ownership, and I still think that’s a step that could be made possible over time.  But not that nor any other useful idea while we permit the argument to be hijacked by stuff its partisans know to be so, but isn’t.

Images:  Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Francisco de Goya, Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off, 1806

Faith vs. Reason: Stand Your Ground/Violent Crime Edition

March 23, 2012

Last night the PBS News Hour program held a roundtable on the Trayvon Martin murder.  Ta-Nehisi Coates was on, as were Reihan Salem and Donna Britt.  So was Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who co-authored the Stand Your Ground law under whose cloak George Zimmerman stalked and gunned down the 17 year old Martin.

Baxley said — and appeared to mean — the right things about Martin’s death, that it was a tragedy, and that nothing in the law he helped enact should be interpreted to authorize someone to pursue, confront and shoot another.  But Baxley rejected the notion that the law itself might have contributed to the catastrophe, arguing instead that it is a force for good, a way, in his words, a law intended “to empower law abiding citizens to stop violent things from happening.”

What’s more, said Baxley, the law has done just that:

Since ’05 to 2012 we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Florida.  And what I’ve learned from it is that if you empower to stop bad things from happening they will and they do and they have.

Except, of course, those bad things that happen because people are able to claim that a “feeling” of danger constitutes authorization to use deadly force more or less at will.

But snark aside, what of the claim about crime rates in Florida.

Here, I’ll take a cue from Rachel Maddow, and say that Dennis Baxler is lying.

Check out Florida’s crime statistics.  Two things stand out.

The first is that the number of violent crimes has not dropped from 2005 through 2010 (where the data series ends); rather it has jostled about in the noise.  From 2005-2008, violent crime totals exceeded the 2004 tally of just over 124,000; in 2009 and 2010 the totals dropped below that figure. If there’s a clear case for correlation with the Stand Your Ground law, it must exist at some much finer grained level that the invoked violent crime catch-all

So what about murder?  That is, after all, the crime of crimes, and the one for which I think most of us would be most comfortable in giving deference to claims of self defense.  Those numbers make Baxley’s story worse:  the murder total in Florida dropped from 946 to 881 from 2004-2005, and have exceeded the 2004 total for each year reported since, peaking at 1,202 in 2007 — or about a 26% hike from the 2004 number.

The shorter: violent crime numbers do not support a claim that the SYG law has consistently reduced violent crime incidence since 2005.

The other key fact to leaps out from this chart:

The slope of the rate/100,000 (blue) line has been pretty consistent for twenty years.  It gets a little steeper from 2008-2010, to be sure, though not as much as it did from 1997 to 1999 or 2000.  But this picture is consistent with the story in the rest of the country: violent crime is a much less severe problem now than it was decades ago. Any explanation for this ongoing process cannot have anything to do with a law enacted in 2005.  That longer history alone makes a mockery any sudden 9mm ex machina explanation for Florida’s recent and welcome continued reduction in rates of violent crime.  And, of course, any monocausal explanation  is almost certain to be wrong.

Hell, I’ll go further and say that a priori, such accounts are always wrong.

Consider instead another story.  Sometime in a leisure-filled future, (hah!–ed) I do plan to blog this really smart Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker examining research into  what drove crime rates down in New York City over the last several decades.  But for now in this context, take this home:

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” [Wrote Franklin E. Zimring]…Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

All of which is to say that when Baxley asserts that Florida is experiencing a respite from violent crime because it now allows citizens to act as amateur law enforcers, empowered to use deadly force as their judgment drives them, he’s not telling the truth.  He’s lying, saying something that is false as a mundane fact and wrong as a causal inference.

Which is why this from Baxley is a type specimen of moral cowardice:

This kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute.

If you enact a law that carries with it a predictable budget of unintended, undesired consequences that result from the application of that law in daily life, then you’re not talking about “unfortunate” events, nor “misapplications.”  You’re talking about a murder that was a probabilistically predictable result of enacting a crap law.

I’m sorry Mr. Baxley.

I’m sure you mean well.

I have no doubt that you did not wish the particular child, Trayvon Martin any harm — how could you? You never knew him.

But what you feel in your heart, that regret that someone didn’t behave under your law as you think they should?  Not an excuse. No absolution.  Trayvon Martin is dead because someone empowered in his own mind by the terms of your law stalked down a street, confronted him, and shot that 17 year old kid down.

You own your part of this.

An Exaltation of Larks, A Surfeit of Targets

February 1, 2012

Maybe it really is too late.

Classical empires lasted centuries:  the Han Dynasty held sway for 400 years, barring that brief unpleasantness with Wang Mang.  The Romans had a similar run, depending on how you choose to bracket the rise and fall.  The Mongols were a little less permanent, but for all their brutal kin-slaughter approach to succession, they still managed to dominate Eurasia for a century and a half.  That empire on which the sun never set rose twice, in the eighteenth century, with British imperial ambition centered on North America, and then again in South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa from the latter half of the 1700s onwards, for quite a run.

The American Imperium?  Well if you count the continental expansion from Plymouth Rock and the Chesapeake west to San Francisco and the northwest rain belt — that’ll stick around for a while, I’m sure.  But our 100 years as the global power?  I’ve got no good feelings there.

That may not be so terrible.  Empires are not what you’d call friendly institutions.  But what depresses me even from within the comfort of my luxe corner of Faux America is the way the Wormtongues of our modern media village are working so hard to persuade us just to give up, to accept a world in which Mitt Romney is plausibly a President.

Others here and amongst our friends have written about just about everything that’s caught my horror-and-despair sensor in just the last 24 hours.  Brooks’ call for the running dogs of liberalism to take their turn growing turnips in the camps.  A breast cancer advocacy group choosing to kill women (welcome back ABL!) rather than suffer the taint of some of their dollars rubbing shoulders with other dollars that might pay for an abortion.  Theocrats with bully pulpits screaming victimhood unless the rest of us keep giving them tax breaks to discriminate.*  I’m exhausted by the very existence of Mitt Romney, and the fact that his whole candidacy is premised on the relentless repetition of the whatever distortion of the fabric of reality seems to play best at the moment.

But, as I say, the good folks that write this blog have been on the case — which is great, as it leaves me for now with just this little bit to add.

That would be that for all the willed and conscious bad faith that folks like Brooks sling so readily and so constantly; for all the sense that there was indeed something of an American promise, now betrayed by the figures celebrated and defended by our Village idiots; for all the three a.m. night-terrors at the thought of the world my son may inherit…for all of that, the real world of fact and reasoning can still rise up to bite the bozos in the ass.

Recall that Brooks called Murray’s book an account of “the most important trends in American society.”

And yet, strangely, that society for Murray, and hence for Brooks, includes only White Americans.  Which vision, if you are trying to study trends of significance for the next few decades, poses just a wee difficulty.  As I’m sure readers of this blog know, the numbers about these matters ain’t what they used to be, demographically speaking.

Via the US Census Bureau, we find that right now, the White non-Hispanic fraction of the US population comes in at roughly two thirds of the total.  You’d think that number counts as a datum in an important trend given that the proportion was around 88% in 1900, and remained as high as 75% in 1990.  Already, California is majority-minority, as are Texas, Hawaii and New Mexico — and most important, the entire nation will achieve that status sometime between 2040 and 2050.  And behind those blunt numbers lies a wealth of particular ways in which different people have figured out how to make it through each day; to take pleasure in life; to cook this or that flavor that would never have made it across the border when I was my son’s age; to make cultures that we may, if we’re far luckier than we seem at present to deserve, continue to weave into what we call American culture.

All of which is to say that daily, we live in a different country.  That’s more or less how I think of the current election:  either we try to work with that country as it continuously rearranges itself — or we live with the delusions of folks like Brooks who want to pretend that the last 50 years didn’t happen and the next 50 won’t.

In my better moments, I can see past the bluster and the facile assertions of this or that immutable trend — and smell the fear lies behind every word.  I have no idea what the United States of my dotage will be like; I do know that it will not resemble whatever fantasy tthat Brooks uses to sent himself off to sleep each night.

Which, amidst all the mounds of steaming horsesh*t that we mush navigate each day, still gives me hope.  And schadenfreude.

*Why yes.  I am trawling for a Moore Award.  Why do you ask?

Image:  Albrecht Dürer, Emperor Maximillian I, 1519

Another Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us…

January 5, 2012

….this, presented without further comment, via TPM:

Former New Life Church pastor and self-described “bisexual” Ted Haggard swapped wives with actor and self-described “church” Gary Busey for the ABC reality show Celebrity Wife Swap.

Uh.

What?

Speechless, me.

Really.  The Mayans might just have bee on to something. 2012 could be it for our species, or at least for any culture that could spawn Celebrity Wife Swap. (Which is, I suppose, perhaps the perfect habitat for the guests mentioned above.)

I say we throw in the trowel and await our Vogon overlords.

Image:  Lovis Corinth, In Max Halbes’ Garden, 1899

 


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