Saturday, December 15, 2012

Is it finally time for a conversation about guns?

Well, if not now, when? Anytime there's a high profile gun crime, we're sold this line about the importance of mourning and that politicizing the event to further a gun control agenda is improper. I think The Washington Post's Ezra Klein has a good take on this strategy:
Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.
Jon Stewart and the folks over at The Daily Show had a similar take, though a bit more biting in its satire:

So to hell with this false decorum. Let's have a little dialogue.

As the Pew Research Center reports, support for protecting gun ownership rights is actually on the rise, despite the recent shootings in Colorado and now Connecticut. My guess is that reflects a desire to protect the right to own guns, not necessarily an opposition to stricter laws about the nature of gun ownership.

Americans do support some restriction, particularly on felons and the mentally ill, which ties in closely with background checks.

Federal background checks for firearm purchases stem largely from the Brady Act, implemented in 1994.

Unfortunately, that act only requires licensed dealers to conduct background checks. Private sellers aren't covered under that legislation, meaning many guns bought and sold at gun shows or online are sold without any meaningful paperwork. 

Simply put, gun laws haven't even caught up with the widespread public use of the Internet, which started almost two decades ago. 

I'm not saying we should ban guns all together. Hell, I own a gun. Still, I think there are some things we should consider. Obviously extending background checks is one. Limiting the sale of handguns, assault weapons, and high-capacity magazines are others. Requiring licensing and education for gun owners are others.

These are conversations that, as adults, we should at least be able to have -- even if we choose to take no action. But for some reason we can't even get that far. It's truly a sad state of affairs, and unless we find some way to address potential systemic causes of these mass killings, that sate of affairs will likely continue.

If you're interested in pressing Congress and The White House on beginning a gun control conversation, there are several petitions you can peruse and sign if you're so inclined. Thoughts and prayers only go so far, and action always goes further.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Feasibility of Secession

Recently The Huffington Post reported on 34 states that had signed petitions to secede from the United States following Obama's reelection. 

Apart from the general silliness of the idea, the reasoning for why such a thing is feasible struck me. Consider the following from the Texas petition:
"Given that the state of Texas maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union..."
Assuming a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility provides reason to secede (which it doesn't), let's see how all the offending states fare.

State Federal Spending per $1 Paid in Federal Taxes 


Alaska  $1.84
Louisiana  $1.78
West Virginia  $1.76
North Dakota  $1.68
Alabama  $1.66
South Dakota  $1.53
Kentucky  $1.51
Montana  $1.47
Arkansas  $1.41
Oklahoma  $1.36
South Carolina  $1.35
Missouri  $1.32
Tennessee  $1.27
Arizona  $1.19
Kansas  $1.12
Wyoming  $1.11
Nebraska  $1.10
North Carolina  $1.08
Pennsylvania  $1.07
Utah  $1.07
Indiana  $1.05
Ohio  $1.05
Georgia  $1.01
Florida  $0.97
Texas  $0.94
Oregon  $0.93
Michigan  $0.92
Colorado  $0.81
New York  $0.79
California  $0.78
Delaware  $0.77
Nevada  $0.65
New Jersey  $0.61
Average  $1.21
Red Average  $1.38
Blue Average  $0.85

This table is based on 2005 data from The Tax Foundation, so it may be a bit outdated, but I think the point still stands.

Essentially, if the dollar amount on the right exceeds $1, that state is taking more federal funding than it contributes through taxation. I've ordered the table from greatest takers to greatest givers, or to borrow recent Republican lingo, entitlement states to job creators.

I've also color-coded the states based on their electoral college vote in the 2012 presidential election -- red for Romney and blue for Obama. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of the secessionists went for Romney.

On average, these states take in $1.21 of federal funding for every $1 in tax revenue provided. However, the Democratic leaning states receive $0.85 of federal money on the dollar while the Republican leaning states receive $1.38. 

Texas is the only red state that's actually in the black, while Pennsylvania and Ohio (notable swing states) are the only blue states in the red.

The point: for all the states' rights and small government machismo, red states don't seem to have a problem cashing a federal government check. If I were most of these states, I'd think twice on this one. And Texas, best of luck. Third time's a charm.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A real debate on Obamacare

The Obamacare debate may be the most egregiously dishonest thing I've seen in some time.

Consider this Reuter's poll from June: people dislike Obamacare, but they like it's provision.

All this really means is that when the program is described accurately, it rates well, but typically it's misrepresented as a socialist government takeover. This false debate point on Obamacare (looking at you Mitt) is dangerous and insulting.

Normally I find similar misrepresentations mildly annoying, but I've always felt that the health care issues should be treated with more respect. Health care is serious for obvious economic and moral reasons, so let's treat it as such.

Despite his opposition, Romney's Massachusetts administration is arguably the architect of Obamacare. Not surprisingly then, Romney appears to like many of the provisions:

  • Eliminating lifetime maximums
  • Eliminating bans on those with pre-existing conditions
  • Allowing kids to stay on their parents plan until age 26
In last night's debate, I heard no real objection from Romney concerning the individual mandate either, which is arguably both the linchpin of the program and its most hotly contested and least popular aspect. Just ask John Roberts.

Romney criticized Obamacare on two main points. The first is that it "put in place a board that can tell people ultimately what treatments they're going to receive." This statement is simply untrue. The Independent Payment Advisory board to which Romney refers does not have to power to ration health care as he implies.

The second point is that Obamacare drives the cost of insurance up resulting in job loss. This claim is also shaky. Premiums have gone up, but benefits have as well. Moreover, large group plans have seen almost no change in premiums and small group plans have seen only modest change. Obamacare is not a likely job killer because of added premium cost.

However, so long as insurance operates as a for-profit industry -- which I believe is immoral -- insurance companies have a moral responsibility to generate returns for shareholders. Adding new people to the insurance coffers probably means adding the sickest among us who had no access to health care before, and those added payouts will change how insurance is provided in order to maintain profit.

My guess is that the trend in recent years of replacing PPOs and HMOs with high-deductible plans will continue. In short, you'll be covered and get group rates, but if you need to be hospitalized for any reason, count on dropping around $2,500+ out of pocket in addition to your premium.

If you want to attack Obamacare honestly, this cost shift is where you do it.

Still, regardless of the election result I don't see repeal as likely. And frankly I welcome a large scale shift to high-deductible plans because it will finally force us to a fundamental decision about health care: Should insurance be a private good for corporate profit?

If the answer is yes, then our choice will likely be between high-deductible plans for all or dropping the chronically ill from coverage in order to maintain private profit at public expense. After all, that's what these cost shifts represent.

If the answer is no, then we will likely face a more progressive public-sector approach to health care reform as opposed to the conservative private-sector approach of Obamacare.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Heart of a Fan

I love college basketball, in particular the University of Louisville. I love it so much that it's probably unhealthy -- or maybe so much that it actually is healthy.

A friend recently criticized me for, when talking about U of L basketball, using the word "we" because I haven't done anything to create successes or failures for the program. I could probably make a counterargument about the importance of fan support, but I generally accept the criticism. I have no direct impact on whether the team wins.

Still, it got me thinking. I can remember a game a few years back that I watched with my dad. U of L lost and we were both a little drunk and pretty upset. After awhile, he leaned over and said, "You know, it's pretty stupid to get so worked up over something like this."

I think the sentiment of the two comments is the same. But I'm not apologizing for it, as we (U of L) are in the Elite 8, one game away from a Final Four and a potential match-up with rival Kentucky.
Needless to say I'm excited. But I've never played a single game in a U of L jersey; I couldn't even make my high school team. And yes, maybe I'm not a part of the program's successes or failures, but they are certainly a part of me.

After 26 years of attending games and cheering on the Cards, I think those successes and failures are arguably as much or more a part of me than they are of anyone currently playing, and I think the same goes for a lot of long-time fans.

Louisville is an interesting place. There's a lot of diversity here, and while there are several transplants, many of the citizens are born here, live here, and die here without every truly having left. U of L sports, particularly basketball, are a cornerstone of the community, a common thread (and the same is true of UK, though I hate to admit it). I don't mean to say that I live completely vicariously through the team, but there's a sense of community, connectedness, and camaraderie in their achievements that's just not there in any personal triumph.

Sport brings that out in people. Consider the Dodger's 1958 move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Brooklyn was devastated, and not just because they struggled through half a century of loss to finally win the World Series and 1955 just to have the team ripped away three years later. The loss of a common community bond was simply crushing. The borough gradually became absorbed into New York and lost that much more of its identity, independence, and unique spirit.

I feel much the same way about the Louisville Cardinals. It's just a part of who I am, from a personal level to a community level. In truth there's no apologizing for co-opting the team as my own because there's nothing I can do about it. I'll be rooting for us through victory or defeat, but like Dodger fans of old, I'm just hoping this isn't another "wait 'til next year." Louisville fans have seen to many of those...26 straight to be exact.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Land of the used-to-be-free

Stereotypes have notoriously bad PR. We tend to think of stereotypes negatively, but they’re useful mental shortcuts that are often accurate and without malice.

For example, politically conservative individuals favor strong national defense, small government, and a return to constitutional values.

It was no surprise to me, then, that the Supreme Court chose to hear an appeal to the constitutionality of the recent health care reform act.

At the heart of the challenge is whether the interstate commerce clause, which gives Congress the right “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,” grants the federal government enough power to mandate individual health care.

Traditionally this clause has been broadly interpreted to centralize power within the federal government. Personally, I think that is typically a responsible interpretation. The founders believed the Articles of Confederation too weak to hold the states together and the Civil War outcome set a pretty clear precedent that federal authority trumped that of individual states.

Moreover, I think it’s important to consider what the framers could have reasonably anticipated when delegating state and federal power. In the 18th and 19th centuries, rule under smaller principalities would likely have been more efficient, but with modern advancements in communication and transportation infrastructures, strong, centralized governance over a country as large as the United States is much more feasible.

Still, I admit that such an interpretation is clearly arguable. What I find interesting, however, is that for all the clamoring about an overreaching government trampling the constitution over health care reform – most of which seems to come from those who know little or nothing about “Obamacare,” let alone its actual name (it’s the Affordable Care Act by the way) – little has been said about the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act.

A defense appropriations bill is passed each year to set annual defense budgets. The president is pressed to sign this legislation, particularly during election years, lest he seem weak. That’s why earmarks that typically would not pass on their own merits are often attached to this legislation.

The controversial caveat this year is the “legalization” of indefinite military detention of suspected terrorist without trial, which may include American citizens arrested on American soil.

This bill is a gross overstepping of constitutional privilege. Article One, Section Nine expressly forbids unlawful detention except in cases of “invasion or rebellion,” which, however devastating, a handful of terrorist attacks does not constitute. Also, there’s the Sixth Amendment to consider, which guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial by jury as well as proper legal counsel.

So far this bill has been largely unchallenged though legal channels.

Obama did issue a signing statement in which he said he approved the act “because it authorizes funding for the defense of the United States and its interests abroad, crucial services for service members and their families, and vital national security programs that must be renewed.”

Still, if defending our nation and our interests means sacrificing the very rights and principles we claim to defend, it’s hard to see the point in it all.

In all likelihood the defense act will go unchallenged and there’s a damn good chance that the Affordable Care Act will be repealed or overhauled to the point of ineffectiveness, all in a hypocritical defense of the Constitution.

What’s ironic is, if I’m right about the fate of these two laws, suspected terrorists under indefinite military detention will likely have better access to health care than many free Americans. Fewer freedoms to hate us for I suppose.