Monday, December 31, 2012

NRA's latest lie: More silencers keep us safe

I learn something new everyday. Today I learned there is actually something called the American Silencer Association, supported by that other famous firearms association, the NRA.... Because the Founding Fathers obviously would have wanted to keep their muzzle-loaded powder-and-ball muskets quiet when fighting King George's lobster backs. 

Again, the only good use I can think of for silencers is in case of a zombie apocalypse, because we all know that zombies are attracted to gunfire.

Got flashlight? Got silencer.

Silencers could give the next Adam Lanza even more time to kill -- but to the NRA, they protect kids' hearing
By Alexander Zaitchik
December 30, 2012 | Salon

5 myths about U.S. charities

Below is a must-read article for all you far-right conservatives who believe the U.S. safety net should be torn down... and then magically replaced, somehow, by a flood of charitable, Christian giving that will meet the needs of the poor instead.

Herein I'm re-stating Stern's 5 myths in my own words, with comments that may seem very bah-humbug and un-Christian, but so be it:

1.  Charities and non-profits are founded, primarily, to meet the ego needs of the rich and emotional needs of the aggrieved, and secondarily, to help the needy. 

How many celebrities and professional athletes have their own charities? How good do you think most of them are? Enough said.

And then think about what happens when a tragedy like a deadly illness strikes a well-to-do family: they immediately establish a memorial foundation or charity to help fight that illness, or help other victims of that illness. It's more about making those people feel like their loss wasn't in vain, and that they must save somebody else since they couldn't save their loved one. Sorry for being so un-PC; and I acknowledge that such charities do some good; but such non-profits are usually more about the grief and "making sense of it all" of the aggrieved family than they are about curing diseases and social ills. The government is better at both -- the Centers for Disease Control, government-funded research universities, passing commonsense laws, etc.

2.  It doesn't really matter what your charity does, as long as it's "good," or how effective it is in its stated mission, as long as it does it cheaply (i.e., low overhead).

We don't judge businesses or government agencies by this yardstick, so why should we think that a charity's primary mission is to do things on the cheap?  I'll tell you why: because we're cheapskates who are quite comfortable with our (mostly small) private charities working on the fringes and margins of our society, making feel-good, good-faith efforts to do things but not really succeeding. 

If we really cared about effectiveness, we would acknowledge that there is way too much overlap/redundancy in charities, and that size and economies of scale matter -- and we would actually demand monitoring of results by charities! ... But if we were to acknowledge that economies of scale matter and demand accounting for results, then we'd be forced to acknowledge that our government is better in both regards.

3.  It is a truism that higher income taxes discourage charitable giving; and charitable giving should be deducted from the giver's income taxes because he is partially replacing the government safety net (that depends on his income taxes) with his wise and effective choice in how to help the poor.

Except both of these assumptions are empirically false.

4.  It's OK for a charity to have hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank as long as it's not-for-profit; meanwhile, the median salary of a U.S. charity's executive director is $133,000.

I'm not actually saying that big charities are bad, I'm just saying that most charitable givers don't like to think about it. In fact, many prefer giving to "small" charities for the exact reason that they are resource-starved. But think about that logic for a moment. Does "smaller is better" make any sense if the idea is to muster a lot of resources and deploy them in the most efficient way to achieve desired results?

Again, neither business nor governments tend to think this way. Very few analysts say that McDonald's needs to be smaller in order to feed more people cheaply. The Pentagon doesn't tell Congress it can keep us safer if our armed forces are "leaner" and "hungrier."

5.  Good luck finding an effective and worthwhile charity to support -- it ain't easy!

Since there are so many registered charities out there and scant data on their effectiveness (because no donors demand it), unless you know the charity personally and its work... you're probably just shooting in the dark, making yourself feel good.

By Ken Stern
December 27, 2012 | Washington Post

The last few days of the year may be a time of celebration and indulgence, but it is also when many people think about helping others. Though much of the roughly $240 billion in individual charitable contributions comes in December, these donations are often made hastily, based on poor information. Before writing those end-of-the-year checks, here are some things to remember about how charities work and how to evaluate them.

1. Charities are principally dedicated to serving the poor and needy.

The term “charity” is associated with helping the poor and downtrodden, but American charities — 1.1 million organizations with $1.5 trillion in annual revenue — make up a large, rapidly growing economic sector that includes health care, higher education, scientific research, social services and the arts. There is incredible diversity among charities, from tiny neighborhood food banks to multi-state hospital chains boasting lavish concierge services and million-dollar salaries for executives. In fact, hospitals are the largest component of the U.S. charitable sector, but they are more likely to be profitable than for-profit hospitals and aren’t much more likely to serve the needy.

It’s also astonishingly easy to start a charity. The Internal Revenue Service approves more than 99.5 percent of charitable applications, often in very short order. Because of this, the sector includes more than a few organizations that have little connection to common notions of doing good: the Sugar Bowl, the U.S. Golf Association, the Renegade Roller Derby team in Bend, Ore., and the All Colorado Beer Festival, just to name a few.

2. Donors should reward charities that have low overhead.

The notion that charities should put as much money as possible into services and as little as possible into overhead expenses is widely accepted. Overhead ratios, which measure the relationship between a charity’s income and expenses, are one factor in popular rating systems such as Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. Charity Navigator, for example, suggests that administrative spending greater than 30 percent is unreasonable, and it rewards its highest ranking to organizations that put less than 15 percent of their resources toward such costs.

Low overhead has become a point of pride — and marketing — for charities such as the Brother’s Brother Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based relief organization whose Web site boasts that “less than 1% of the value of donations [is] used for overhead.”

But charities need to spend on research, training and financial systems, all classified as “overhead,” to be effective. Those that shortchange these investments — and many do — are less likely to achieve their goals. The American Red Cross, for instance, struggled during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in part because it hadn’t invested enough in the infrastructure necessary to handle complex emergency relief.

That lack of investment is partly due to public pressure, rather than a shortage of funding. When then-Red Cross chief executive Bernadine Healy tried to appropriate unused money from the 9/11 Liberty Fund to correct weaknesses in the group’s broader emergency response capacity, she was forced to resign.

3. Tax incentives are critical to charitable giving.

People with income in the lowest quintile give a higher percentage of their earnings to charity than do more wealthy Americans. This pattern persists despite the fact that low earners have less disposable income and rarely take advantage of itemized tax deductions for charitable donations. Sure, some contributions are tax-driven: Almost a quarter of online giving occurs in the last two days of the year as taxpayers rush to qualify for deductions. But Americans’ generosity may be more resistant to changes in the tax laws than most people think.

According to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, the charitable tax deduction will cost the federal government $230 billion from 2010 to 2014. Some economists believe that charities would lose less than that amount if the exemption were eliminated or modified, since people give for many reasons unrelated to tax incentives. Because of the perceived unfairness and inefficiency of the current system, many analysts, including at the Congressional Budget Office, have begun to look at substantial changes, from establishing floors or ceilings for deductions (sometimes in combination with making incentives available to non-itemizers) all the way up to eliminating the deduction.

4. Nonprofits are not profitable.

In 2010, U.S. charities reported more than $2.7 trillion in assets. Even putting aside the multibillion-dollar endowments of Harvard and Yale universities, many lesser-known charities have substantial war chests. In 2007, Ascension Health, a large Midwest charity hospital chain, reported reserves of $7.4 billion, more than twice the cash on hand at the Walt Disney Co.

Some donors look for small, underfunded charities, thinking their gifts will make a bigger difference. But that is not necessarily an effective strategy. Many of the charities with strong track records in delivering results — organizations such as Youth Villages of Memphis and the Nature Conservancy — are also quite good at building financial reserves. Charities like these identify clear goals and have third parties evaluate their work, practices that are more important than how much they have in the bank.

5. It is easy to find a good charity to support.

In fact, it is enormously difficult. Not only is there considerable confusion among charities — for example, there are more than 60,000 with the word “veteran” in their names — there is little information on groups’ effectiveness. The mutual fund industry employs 159,000 people to help investors make good choices. But there are fewer than 100 people nationwide whose jobs are to help the giving public make wise donations. So what is a conscientious donor to do?

Put in the work. On average, Americans spend more time watching television in one day than they do researching charities in an entire year. Finding good charities takes time. It means using the few organizations, such as GiveWell, that do in-depth studies of charities’ effectiveness. And it means remembering that the best organizations, charitable or otherwise, are built on more than a good story or a charismatic leader.

As Warren Buffett once said: “I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will.” That’s good advice when trying to make sure donated dollars actually do good.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Zogby: Arab world giving Obama a 2nd chance

I know, I know: the United States is not supposed to care what other countries think of us, especially the Middle East, unless it's to learn that they fear us, but...

... nevertheless, I consider this a little free bonus of re-electing President Obama. It's goodwill toward the USA for doing nothing. Not a bad deal.

I mean, jeez, even 65 percent of Palestinians, whom we routinely screw over in favor of our "friend with benefits" Israel, believe that the "U.S. is contributing to peace and stability in the Arab World!"  Terribly hard to believe, but I'll take it.

By James Zogby
December 29, 2012 | Huffington Post

Friday, December 28, 2012

Locke, Hobbes and history v. Gun nuts

Paul Rosenberg is absolutely right in his philosophical argument that lasting liberty is incompatible with individual gun ownership; but he spends most of his time refuting the less deeply held belief of the pro-gun crowd: that freedom-loving individuals need guns for their own security.  

Rather, the gun nuts' main argument against reasonable gun control is that we the people need more and deadlier guns to overthrow our government if it ever becomes tyrannical.  

This is a bad and eristic argument in favor of individuals' unrestricted access to all types of deadly guns. Yet it's difficult to refute using purely inductive logic because something similar has never happened -- especially in the most powerful country in the history of the world with a military of 3 million and all the wizz-bang futuristic weapons you can think of.  For argument's sake, such a nation has never gone from democratic to tyrannical and tried to oppress its own people.

And so we liberals can only make reasonable, rational arguments to the effect that we the people wouldn't stand much of a chance fighting such an evil government. And in the meantime, 30,000 gun deaths a year (including 9,000 gun murders) is a high price to pay for the "freedom" to defend ourselves in such an unlikely what-if scenario. (I actually think flesh-eating zombies taking over is more likely, but that's just me....)

What's more, as I told my Uncle T. (who subscribes to this argument) over Christmas, if the United States government ever did become so murderous and tyrannical, then it would mean there were at least 1,000 lapses in our democratic vigilance leading up that moment that had nothing to do with our weapons or guns. It would mean we the people largely had ourselves to blame for it. *

Apropos, Rosenberg points out that John Locke and the Founding Fathers had no idea how important peaceful protest would become in securing the freedom and civil rights of so many millions of people, starting about 160 years later.  (That's yet another thing they never imagined, in addition to AR-15 semi-automatic rifles in the hands of madmen....). 

And so despite the Founding Fathers' lack of prescience...

... that doesn't mean that Locke's underlying logic has died. To the contrary, the issue of the consent of the governed has never been more alive than it has been in the last few decades. But what's most interesting is that it's taken such a strong turn toward non-violent, unarmed revolution, seen most recently in the peaceful successes of the Arab Spring. Of course these did not succeed everywhere, and violent struggle emerged in several countries, yet it should be remembered that nothing remotely like this was even conceivable at the time that Locke wrote. And yet, the underlying thrust of his logic has been supremely vindicated by the non-violent lineage of Thoreau, Gandhi, King and Mandela - a lineage that stands directly opposite to the gun-crazed vision of the NRA. [Emphasis mine - J]

What I should have added to Uncle T. was that, as Mark Ames recently pointed out, gun ownership actually decreases our democratic vigilance since guns give far too many Americans an unearned sense of complacency, or a sense that the mere act of owning firearms is a "rebellious" thing in and of itself... and meanwhile they sit at home on their couches while the plutocrats corrupt our government and screw the Average Joe's of the country who "cling to their guns and religion," instead of those gun owners being politically active. (And no, being an NRA member does not make somebody politically active.)

... (Sigh) But these are all reasonable things to say to unreasonable people. That's why I'm mostly preaching to the pro-gun control choir here.

* And I added to Uncle T. the unoriginal thought that a better defense of our liberty against government tyranny than the 2nd Amendment is our professional, all-volunteer military and the esprit de corps instilled in our troops who vow to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. It's one thing for them to shoot armed baddies overseas; but it's quite another thing for them to obey orders to shoot and kill their fellow citizens at home, armed and unarmed alike. To defend their countrymen is the exact reason most of them sign up in the first place!  And so, this argument in favor of the unrestricted right to bear arms is quite insulting to our U.S. servicemen and women.

It's the exact inability of guns to secure our freedom that establishes the foundation for our civil government.
By Paul Rosenberg
December 27, 2012 | Aljazeera

Our Founding Fathers: No fun at all

Get to know your Founding Fathers -- those prudish elitists who despised the majority of their fellow Americans and thought the nation was going to hell in a hand basket:

But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom. During the War of Independence, deference to authority was shattered, a new urban culture offered previously forbidden pleasures, and sexuality was loosened from its Puritan restraints. Nonmarital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was rampant and unpunished. Divorces were frequent and easily obtained. Prostitutes plied their trade free of legal or moral proscriptions. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes danced together in the streets. Pirates who frequented the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced wild dances, nightlong parties, racial integration, and homosexuality. European visitors frequently commented on the “astonishing libertinism” of early American cities. Renegades held the upper hand in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Charleston, and made them into the first centers of the American pleasure culture. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America’s leaders been less pleased by it.

But the Founding Fathers invented a way to make Americans think fun was bad. We call it democracy.

And for those of you who think we tipple too much today, check this out:

During the War of Independence, Americans drank an estimated 6.6 gallons of absolute alcohol per year—equivalent to 5.8 shot glasses of 80-proof liquor a day—for each adult fifteen or over.

And that included drinking on the job, paid for by the boss!:

It was not only accepted but also expected to mix drinking with work. Laborers of all sorts drank beer throughout the workday and took frequent breaks for liquor and lounging. Construction workers and shipbuilders expected employers to provide them with beer at breaks. According to the historian Peter Thompson, even highly skilled artisans, the managers of early American manufacturing, “jealously defended heavy drinking as a right and a privilege.”

Bars and taverns were in more abundance then than today; and they were the first racially integrated public spaces:

Lower-class taverns were the first racially integrated public spaces in America. Black, white, and brown Americans came together through mutual desire centuries before the federal government brought them together by force. Although the law in all the colonies barred blacks from public houses, the law was often ignored by tavern keepers, white patrons, and by free blacks and even slaves. Early court records tell of drinking establishments across the colonies that disregarded the color line.

By Thaddeus Russell
December 23, 2012 | AlterNet

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grieving over Newtown - without God

Here's a brave voice! To see this on CNN shows that the times they are a-changin'. It's no longer shameful to proclaim your non-belief.

But back to Krauss's argument: if God causes everything, or at least in His infinite goodness allows everything, having been forewarned, to happen, then God wanted these 20 children to be murdered. Then, in our grief, we are obliged to pray to Him lovingly, seek solace and give thanks. GWTF?

Sums up Krauss:

If instead of automatically assuming that prayers to a deity callous enough to allow this sickness, or worse, to encourage it out of divine retribution, are what families in grief need from their president and from the media, that we focused on rational grief counseling and community support, including better mental health care combined with sensible gun control, we as a society might ultimately act more effectively to stop this madness.

By Lawrence M. Krauss
December 26, 2012 | CNN

The ONLY way to end gun slaughter

OK, so here's some sobering reality for those on the Left who think that banning some assault-type guns or large magazines will do much to prevent gun crime and shootings rampages.

Unfortunately, U.S. history has proven that firearms producers are quite adept at dealing with changes in state and federal law and they can easily adapt their firearms' designs to be legal and yet retain a lot of their killing power.

So what is the solution then?  "You do not partially treat an aggressive cancer," answers Cooper.  Read on!....

By Douglas Anthony Cooper
December 26, 2012 | Huffington Post

Left & Right agree: NRA is calling for a police state

It's not often that lefty liberals and far-right libertarians agree -- and in opposition to the NRA, no less!  

Robert Parry sees even farther than Ron Paul: he asks if armed police are what's needed in our schools to "meet a gun with a gun," then why stop there, why not put federally funded police in shopping malls, toll booths, you name it?

By Robert Parry
December 23, 2012 |  Consortium News

December 24, 2012 | FoxNews

Starbucks' surplus of hypocrisy on deficits

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is asking Americans to gather (at Starbucks, of course, over coffee) to petition national politicians to "Fix the Debt" and "find common ground" on the fiscal cliff.  More:

Schultz told CNN earlier this month that he believed the failure to reach a deal has created uncertainty among consumers and businesses and risks hurting the economy. "This single issue has a seismic effect on the rest of the world," he said.

Now, we all know that debt comes from two things: too much public spending and/or too little tax revenue.  And the fact that Starbucks is a notorious tax dodger means that it increases government deficits around the world. What a self-serving hypocrite! 

Boycott Starbucks!

UPDATE (01.01.2013): Thank goodness Paul Krugman was having none of Howard Schultz's inspid insistence on "bipartisanship" to solve the "fiscal cliff" dilemma, pointing out that all the concessions have been one-sided -- from Democrats. 

Any parent with children knows what happens when you give in to their irrational demands and tantrums: the tantrums never stop, and you continually lose ground in an attempt to be "reasonable."  Today's Congressional GOP is like an unruly, spoiled child who doesn't know what's best for itself, much less the country.

By Poppy Harlow and Rich Barbieri
December 26, 2012 | CNN

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ames: Big backers of 'gun-nuttery' have ulterior aims

As usual, Mark Ames has a unique take on events, usually describing how Big Business tries to dumb us down, rile us up, or lull us to sleep at the right moments. He sees the NRA and the larger "gun cult batshittery" as another example, and it's not about guns:

[I]t’s now so deeply ingrained that owning guns is a form of radical subversive politics, the people who still engage in real politics have the pick of the litter. That first became really clear in the depths of the 2008-9 collapse, when a lot of people who thought of themselves as radicals and anarchists made a lot of feckless noise about how they were arming and preparing for the collapse and revolution. They could’ve gone out and organized something and maybe built a politics of people power or even a politics of what they call revolution, a politics that actually changed things. But instead, they locked themselves in their homes and apartments with their guns and fancied themselves political revolutionaries just waiting to be swept up. But no one came. No one bothered or cared. And really, why would any plutocrat or evil government agency bother with the suckers, all harmlessly atomized and isolated and thoroughly neutralized by the false sense of political empowerment that their guns gave them, while you do the real work of plundering budgets, bribing politicians and writing laws even more in your favor?

So while everyone was hiding out in their homes armed and ready for Hollywood finales that never came, in the real world political power was concentrating at warp-speed with zero resistance.

From the oligarchy’s perspective, the people were thoroughly neutralized by the false sense of political empowerment that guns gave them. Guns don’t work in this country — they didn’t work for the Black Panthers or the Whiskey Rebellion, and they won’t work for you or me either.

It takes years to cultivate a political mindset that voluntarily neutralizes itself by convincing itself that its contribution to world revolution comes down to purchasing a few guns at K-Mart, then blogging about it. That’s what reactionary plutocrats like the Koch brothers understood about the deeper politics of gun fanaticism, and why their outfits like the Cato Institute have been at the forefront of overturning gun regulations and promoting "Stand Your Ground" vigilantism as a substitute for political engagement: That by poisoning the political climate, it poisons the minds, which circulates back to the external environment, and back into the minds, until you lock the culture into a pattern in which you always get more and they always get fleeced, which makes them more fanatical and you more powerful...

This is what I missed or ignored about gun control: The longterm view that the Koch brothers and the Scaifes and everyone backing gun-nuttery understood about how gun laws or the absence of those laws can completely transform the surrounding political climate.

By Mark Ames
December 17, 2012 | NSFW CORP

The REAL gun debate is spiritual

If the gun control debate were factual and reasonable, then liberals would have won it a long time ago. There simply is no debate.

Apropos, Jill Filipovic taps into something deep and disturbing about American culture, and that is the prevailing conservative belief that we live in a "fallen world" filled with evil and dominated by bad people. Conservatives think that there is nothing we can do to make this a better world; we (meaning our nuclear families) can only try to be one of the chosen few good people defending ourselves and our values against the immoral hordes storming the gates.

By contrast, liberals believe that human civilization can and should be perfected, and that most people are fundamentally good and decent, therefore near-perfection is achievable, eventually. No issue is more emblematic of that philosophical -- I would say, spiritual, divide than the gun control debate. If you believe, like I do, that most people are kind and trustworthy, then you naturally question why everybody should need so many deadly guns to protect themselves against... whom? Other kind and decent people? It doesn't make sense.  

Even in the conservative/Red State conception, the justification for possessing lots of deadly guns presents a contradiction. For they are the first ones to point out, post-Sandy Hook, how rates of violent crime in Chicago and Washington, DC are higher than in Small Town, USA; they always have been, well before recent RTC and concealed-carry laws. Yet conservatives are not quite ready to credit their small towns' relative tranquility to the abundance of their guns; nay, they truly consider themselves to be better morally. Meanwhile they see immorality and bestiality in the multicultural, multi-class structures of our growing, bustling, complicated urban areas. Pro-gun conservatives may pay lip service to "An armed society is a polite society," but indeed, the presence or absence of guns is a distant second, in their minds, in terms of what distinguishes them. 

That is why these shooting rampages at schools throw conservatives -- and all of us, really, since we all go in for this nonsense to some extent -- for such a loop, because they are usually committed in suburbs and rural areas. Moreover, shooting rampages are overwhelmingly white-on-white crime.  Yet statistically, we know that our chances of falling victim to a deranged, heavily armed mass murderer are tiny. For conservatives, the main thing is to stay focused on the real threat and stay armed in case they come for them: blacks, Muslims, Latinos, OWS hippies and anarchists, godless atheists, activist gays, poor people -- all the alleged marauders storming their Gates of Goodness.  

And so, there are articles of faith in pro-gun conservatives' minds that no amount of statistics or facts can alter. That is why our gun debate never goes anywhere, we always start at zero, and nothing much will happen this time (after Sandy Hook) either:

As we've seen in the debates on issues from climate change to gender equality to foreign policy, facts, statistics and rational arguments don't really matter if the goal of offering them up is to improve things in the here and now. It's a deeply pessimistic view of humanity that projects a strong sense of fatalism.

The point of being "good" isn't because goodness is valuable unto itself or because goodness is widely beneficial. The point of being good is to earn heaven points. Goodness, then, is defined according to a very particular set of religious and cultural values, and is highly "in-group" focused. Goodness means going to church, marrying early, submitting to a husband-in-charge family structure, having children out of obligation and upholding the social pillars that organize society to keep a particular group on top.

Goodness isn't necessarily helping other people or taking steps that are proven effective at decreasing violence or working to create a more accepting and happy world for our children. Goodness is upholding the power structures that have traditionally benefited the small group of men who think they have a monopoly on defining "goodness."

[...]  It is certainly true that "good" people don't walk into a classroom and shoot a group of six year-olds. It's also true that good people don't murder their wives and girlfriends – yet five times more women are killed by intimate partners every year than by strangers, and 95% of the women who are killed with a firearm are murdered by a man. If there's a gun involved, an incident of domestic violence is 12 times more likely to result in death. And while mass shootings understandably capture our national attention, the more than 30,000 American gun deaths every year (and their $37bn price tag) should spur us to action.

It's easy to read those figures and conclude that conservatives are right: we are a world of awful, violent people who are going to keep on being awful and violent no matter what, so gun control serves no purpose and we'll all be better off in Heaven anyway. But as is true with almost anything that makes life on Earth brutish and miserable, we have the power to change thatGun deaths are lower in the states with the strictest gun control laws. And the majority of US gun deaths actually comprises suicides – acts committed not generally by evil, murderous people, but by individuals who are sick and hurting and need help.

Legal WMD that we love and die to keep

Focusing on mental health or our "culture" in an attempt to stop more shooting rampages is a red herring meant to distract us. (And if you want to give all America's mentally ill proper medical care -- support Obamacare or shut up about it.)  Writes WaPo's Caputo:

Since the Newtown, Conn., massacre, there has been a good deal of vague chatter suggesting that people like Purdy or Lanza or Jared Loughner can be identified before they act on their monstrous fantasies and can be prohibited from purchasing firearms. A kind of early-warning radar will detect a disturbed personality on a trajectory toward slaughter.

How would this be accomplished? Are disgruntled workers, loners or anyone who says or does bizarre things going to be examined by psychiatric boards? If it’s determined that they are potential dangers to themselves or others, would they be placed on some sort of national watch list? Compelled to undergo treatment? Locked up?

Even if such a system had been in place, it would not have stopped Lanza, who, as we all know, obtained his weapons by stealing them from the collection of his gun-enthusiast mother.

Again, it comes back to the guns themselves. And no, more guns or armed security guards in our 100,000 schools (as the NRA lamely suggests) are not the answer: recall that an armed security guard traded shots with Klebold and Harris before they shot and killed 13 people and shot and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School in 1999. The school security guard's main safety contribution that day was calling in local police. 

But what’s more wrong are the guns themselves. A 9 mm semiautomatic handgun with a 30-round clip isn’t a pistol; it’s a weapon of mass destruction. Jared Loughner proved that by killing six people and wounding 13 others in not much more time than it took you to read this sentence.

Today, tens of millions of such firearms are in circulation in the United States. If it were up to me, they would be regulated as strictly as fully automatic weapons, such as machine guns, have been for decades. All citizens, except those with federal firearms licenses, would be required to surrender them to law enforcement authorities (with fair compensation). And then I’d destroy them.

But sensible gun buy-back like what happened in Australia won't ever be attempted in the U.S. Why? It's our dirty little open secret. We all know that the backwards Red States would be in uproar, especially the South. There would be individual and organized acts of terrorism. Officially, some states might seek to secede.  And all this to defend the right of Americans to commit the equivalent of three September 11th attacks against each other every year!

By Philip Caputo
December 21, 2012 | Washington Post

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Don't forget that special someone this Christmas: You

Go on, you deserve it!  Santa Claus and Baby Jesus want you to be happy. That's the true meaning of Xmas.

Seriously though, this may just be pent-up recessionary demand that has waited all year for the big holiday sales in order to buy necessary items.

By Lynn Stuart Parramore
December 19, 2012 | AlterNet

This year, self-gifting has hit an all-time high. Shoppers are rushing to sales racks and frantically loading up on everything from tablets to trendy sneakers for that very special someone known as Me.

According to the Wall Street Journal, market research company NPD has discovered that the trend is a prime driver of holiday shopping growth this year. Before the recession, the firm found that around 12 percent of shoppers said they’d purchased items for themselves during the holidays. Last year the figure was up to 19 percent for surveys that went out before Christmas. And the post-Christmas surveys showed that 26 percent of respondents had made holiday purchases for Numero Uno. This year, the figure is already up to a whopping 32 percent.

The National Retail Federation has also predicted a big jump in self-gifting. In fact, it found that 59 percent of holiday shoppers plan to spend an average of $139.92 on items not meant to be shared. Young adults, especially, have hit upon a handy formula for shopping during the season of giving: “one for you, two for me.” Promotions on electronic items and clothing have worked particularly well with this age group, even given the fact that young people typically have less to spend: 71.5 percent of Millennials who caught the big Black Friday sales got a little something for themselves.

What is going on? Are we becoming more self-oriented? Maybe not. NPD posits that the self-gifting trend could be more about hard economic times. The idea is that the trend has increased as retailers address the crappy economy by vigorously promoting Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other discount opportunities. So consumers have learned to wait to buy that new TV until the holidays roll around. Taking advantage of special deals may be more a sign of economic prudence than narcissistic extravagance.

There’s also a pervasive feeling that, damnit, we deserve it. Americans are horribly overworked compared to other nations. In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. That’s even more than the notoriously nose-to-the-grindstone Japanese. In every industrialized country except Canada, Japan and the U.S., workers get at least 20 paid vacation days. Guess what they get in France and Finland? 30 days. A whole month off. Paid.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the productivity of American workers has jumped 400 percent since 1950. We should be working fewer hours, but we most assuredly aren’t. We’re working more. And most of us are not profiting from it, either. Americans who get paltry vacations and face stagnant wages can hardly be blamed for wanting to do something for themselves when the holidays come around. And there’s a big advantage to self-gifting: you'll get something you really want.

Unionized teachers: The heroes of Sandy Hook

No further comment necessary:

There will be a lot of lip service paid to the courage of Sandy Hook's staff. But the real measure of who's not just paying lip service will come when we see which of the politicians and so-called reformers who've been waging political attacks on teachers look at how teachers responded to a deadly physical attack, check themselves, and stop trying to demonize teachers in the push for corporate education policy.

By Laura Clawson
December 18, 2012 | Daily Kos 

Dinesh D'Souza on 'transactional' Christianity and 'welfare'

What a load of baloney!  Of course there were no dissenting voices on the stage, so I'd expect nothing less from D'Souza.

"Stripping the virtue from a [charitable] transaction"!?  This is just what I've been saying: for a certain type of Christian, charity has nothing to do with the suffering person, it's just an optional opportunity for the good, well-to-do Christian giver to earn some brownie points with God, plus get that "good Christian feeling" from helping somebody else.  This view on charity totally disregards the suffering and dignity of the person in need, reducing him to an "opportunity" for the better-off person and nothing more.

Likewise, the very word D'Souza chooses, "transaction," implies an exchange of value between the charitable giver and the needy person.  Jesus Christ never spoke of helping the poor in transactional terms, i.e. "what's in it for me?"  He said it should be born of love and out of Christian moral duty, which ideally are one in the same.  

Christianity is not about a system of charitable debits and credits which add up to... Paradise, or happiness on Earth, or whatever. Christ threw the money changers out of the temple; and he certainly did not preach that God was an accountant.

Sorry to teach the Christian faith to some of you, but millions of you have obviously forgotten it, or never learned it in the first place!....

Further on, "the guy with gun" here is our duly elected representative, fulfilling our wishes. He is not some hereditary Hobbesian king. If we don't like what he's doing, we can unelect him every two years. 

So to say our taxes are "coerced" is untrue and not at all what the Founding Fathers thought about the system that they established, whereby only directly elected representatives could levy taxes and incur spending.  Which is a long way to say that: if you don't like the results of our democratic elections, then nobody is forcing you to stay in America, you can love it or leave it and find someplace you like better!  

D'Souza demonstrates that real conservatives are inherently anti-democratic whenever the result of democracy is to "steal" from the rich or lucky via the tax system. He's entitled to his point of view; but he must recognize that there are precious few countries on Earth remaining where the majority shares his view. 

And this is the problem with conservative Republicans and debates on taxes: we always start at square one, i.e., taxes are "stealing" and so how can higher taxes, i.e. greater stealing, ever be morally permissible? It's a faulty premise logically and morally to start with.

Next: "It's kind of nicer in the [welfare] wagon"?!  Yes, which is exactly the message we get from all the reality TV shows, music videos, best-selling novels and books, self-help seminars, life coaches, etc., about the joys of welfare.  What's that you say, there is no such thing?  There is no general yearning in America to be a dependent, non-working, non-productive person who barely gets by?  Well then, now you're talking sense, now you're recognizing the world as it is, and not as some professional pundit like D'Souza would like to sell it to you.  People still aspire to things, and they realize, rationally, that welfare is not the means to any kind of material or personal aspiration, it's just bare survival.  And that doesn't inspire or attract hardly anybody.  

But on to D'Souza's next point: that the people "pulling the [economic] wagon" deserve more credit from, well, government and everybody. OK, fine, they are rich, famous, comfortable and feted and on and on.... But don't try to tell me that they would willingly pay more in taxes, or support Obamacare, if only Obama would "give them more credit," if only Obama told them "thank you," more often. No, that's not what their beef is; they are not upset about being "demonized" rhetorically. They want to keep more of their money, plain and simple. 

Finally, back to Michael Whatsisname's original point that "universal coverage" or health insurance, is a political not a moral issue, in the sense that, morally, we should all be in favor of it [agreed], but politically, we should look at the "the most efficient way that everybody gets that coverage." In that case, then there's really no debate: countries with universal coverage demonstrate better health outcomes with lower costs and greater coverage than the United States. Politically, there is no debate for anybody who is not cherry-picking statistics. Morally, you can invent whatever twisted reasoning you like to avoid helping your fellow man, your fellow citizens... it's just completely disingenuous to label such moral contortions as "Christian."

Uploaded by republicunited

October 12, 2012 | YouTube

Congressional hypocrites should let guns inside Capitol

Great point by Womack!  Indeed, I can't count the number of times I have received that conservative chain e-mail urging a federal law or Constitutional amendment stating that, "Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people," so pro-gun conservatives should be all in favor of allowing private citizens to carry guns into the Capitol. 

And if Rep. Boehner, et al feel the need to protect themselves, then they should carry firearms too at all times, including on the floor of the House -- you know, in case somebody's shooting at them from the observation gallery. Then we would have real freedom and our elected officials would all be safe!.... Right?

Even old St. Nick gets checked for packing heat in the Capitol

Another great point: kids all over the world are watching the same violent films, playing the same violent video games, and attending church even less often than American kids, with no mention of God in their schools; and the incidence of mental illness is no higher in the U.S. than in other countries; and we don't have much more crime than other developed countries when it comes to burglaries, assault, etc.... and yet these other countries don't have all the deadly shootings and mass killings that we do.  So what's the difference?  It's "blindingly obvious," as Fareed Zakaria wrote yesterday on the same topic.

This line by Womack pretty much sums up America's gun-rights idiocy: 

It's as if every time a white suburbanite picks up a gun, half the country suddenly becomes your crazy grandfather, claiming that the same violent films and video games that kids in Australia, Ireland and Britain are watching and playing are somehow compelling only Americans to go on shooting sprees.

By Larry Womack
December 19, 2012 | Huffington Post

The last major gun control effort passed by Congress was the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a largely toothless effort it has since allowed to expire. Since that came and went, there have been more firearm massacres in the U.S. than we care to count. Through all of those, the federal government has sat silently by while states passed laws allowing people to carry guns onto playgrounds and into movie theatersschools, bars and churches. Vermont even allows 16-year-olds to purchase and carry concealed handguns legally, without so much as a permit. So long as that 16-year-old isn't carrying it into a bar or R-rated movie, of course.

Or into the U.S. Capitol. Members of Congress, it seems, are very much in favor of controlling the flow of deadly weapons into their workplace. And by "controlling," I mean completely barring the entry of guns into the building -- unless they are worn by someone paid to protect them, of course. If you or I visit the U.S. Capitol or any congressional office building, we can expect to pass through a metal detector.

In fact, it's almost as if the U.S. Congress believes that someone without a gun would have a harder time murdering people. The city surrounding their place of work banned handguns in 1975, too (I'm going to guess that the reason was Virginia), but the courts overturned that law in 2007. Still, you can rest assured that while they're hard at work not doing anything about the flow of guns into your workplace, or your children's school, your local movie theater or even your house of worship, your legislators will be well protected from the threat of gun violence. Unless they happen to be working outside your local supermarket that day, of course.

It's easy to see why they would be so concerned for their own safety. The United States currently has, by a wide margin, the highest number of gun-related deaths of any highly developed country. In fact, our number of firearm-related deaths is nearly three times that of any other nation ranked as "very high" on the Human Development Index. (Or perhaps merely 40 percent higher -- we'll get to that soon.)

If you compare the two lists linked above, you will find that just three nations share the distinction of being ranked "very high" in human development and having unusually high rates of gun-related death: The United States, Canada and Switzerland. You might also note that since the mass shooting on Friday, Switzerland's rate of gun-related death (as listed on Wikipedia) has been updated to a number that cut its previously listed level in half.

The timing is no coincidence. The sudden interest in controlling information about gun violence in Switzerland probably has something to do with the fact that opponents of gun control actually point to Switzerland as evidence that gun proliferation prevents crime. Because of the way its militia is organized, nearly every Swiss household has a gun. Switzerland offers the second highest quality of life on planet Earth. Just 3% of its population is working poor and a mere 3.3 percent is dependent on some form of social welfare. So, opponents of gun control are asking us to believe that the easy availability of guns is what's keeping crime down... in an otherwise idyllic nation with none of the markers we associate with violent crime that still somehow manages to generate three and a half to seven times the gun-related deaths of, say, Ireland. Makes perfect sense, right? Guns for all! Frankly, it doesn't matter which number is correct. Both stink.

It turns out that guns, outside the hands of the military or law enforcement, just aren't any good at preventing crime and, in fact, their presence is associated with an increase in the likelihood of tragedy. Stepping briefly outside the statistics and into the realm of anecdote, we might be wise toremember that access to seven firearms did nothing to save Kassandra Perkins. Access to one, however, was enough to facilitate the murder of Phil Hartman in a moment of rage. That is, it seems, how guns too often equalize power between victim and perpetrator.

That's probably because guns aren't made to shield you from someone else's bullets. Nor are they made to deter, catch or frighten criminals. Guns are made to kill.

Some are designed to kill one thing at a time. In the right hands, these can be pretty useful, because some Americans live in areas in which they face genuine threats from dangerous animals. Even more live in areas where there used to be dangerous animals which have now been driven out by man. That removal of natural predators leaves some animals (like deer) to multiply unchecked and, without the relatively more humane option of allowing hunters to fill that void, can leave entire populations literally starving in the streets come winter. Some people in this country need these guns.

Some also just enjoy them, because they can be used for other things, too -- like punching holes in far away objects, relieving stress and making you feel like a big man. Most people in favor of gun control have no problem with people owning these.

Unfortunately, there are also guns and magazines designed for killing many things quickly and easily. The availability of these weapons outside of the military is something that should bother any sane person a great deal. It doesn't seem to bother our representatives on the other side of the metal detector so much, but I assure you that some of us are pretty concerned.

An AR-15 is "just a tool," they say as if it were designed for gardening, rather than killing as many people as possible, in as little time as possible, with as little effort as possible.

"Cars kill people, too," they say, as if the efficient extermination of humans is exactly what a Ford Focus was designed for, or you didn't need a license to operate and a registration to own one.

"Guns don't kill people, people kill people," they might even say. Like how high speed rail doesn't move people from central to southern China in under three hours, people move people from central to southern China in under three hours. It turns out that having a device specifically designed to do something you could not otherwise achieve kinda helps when you have an urge to do that thing.

And then there is, "criminals will just find another way to do it," which, well, is total bullshit. (There will be more on that later.)

Eventually, people resort to, "If we start banning guns, they'll ban everything! We will have no freedom!" Because responsible levels of gun control will make us just like the totalitarian state of... almost every other free, developed society on planet Earth!

What's especially painful about the slippery slope fallacy is that it's being employed by people who seem fairly oblivious to the fact that they are living in a nation that bans pretty much any object designed to perform an illegal task that does not happen to also be a gunIf the server at your favorite restaurant legally owns a device that can store your credit card information, it is an outrage.  If he has one that could kill you and your entire family in a matter of seconds, why that is freedom.

And, finally, there is the truly absurd suggestion that, "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." (Oh no! That means only outlaws havehand grenades!) The people who parrot this ask us to believe that the twenty-year-old suburbanites who tend to carry out these mass shootings have easy access to black market gun runners and that it is simply an astonishing coincidence that the wealthy, industrialized nations with thelowest levels of gun violence also happen to be the ones that most tightly control the ownership and operation of firearms.

The left is nearly as bad when it comes to swallowing the lie that limiting availability is not a staggeringly obvious solution. Michael Moore -- who I am quite certain is very much in favor of reasonable gun control -- made Canada his model of responsible gun ownership in Bowling for Columbine. Yet, you are nearly five times more likely to die of a gunshot wound in Canada than in the UK. This is what we are to aspire to? Thanks, but no thanks. (To be fair, I haven't seen this film in years and he may well have pointed out that Canada's death-by-gun numbers are pretty atrocious, too.)

If we are to believe that the correlation between strict gun control and low rates of gun violence in other industrialized nations really is some sort of incredible coincidence, events in Australia must be taken for nothing short of a miracle. In the 18 years prior to 1996 gun control reforms, that nation saw 13 mass shootings. In the 16 since, they have seen one -- which usually isn't even counted, because the shooter was only able to kill two people before he had to stop to reload (because: gun control) and was apprehended. That wouldn't even count as a mass shooting in the guide to American massacres I linked to earlier. Still, after that incident, Australia reviewed and tightened its gun laws again. Ten years later, there hasn't been another.

Before the gun fetishists start freaking out (as if they hadn't already): it didn't take some sort of total authoritarian prohibition in Australia to achieve this kind of result. It just took common sense gun laws. In fact, there are more guns in Australia now than there were before the 1996 reforms. But, magazine size is limited, weapons designed for war zones can only be owned (in a non-operational state) by collectors and people who own any gun need to be over 18, have a license and keep them stored safely. Exactly what part of that sounds so unreasonable to the average sportsman?

And if you're a gun enthusiast still clinging to the based-on-nothing belief that people will just find other ways of committing gun homicides, here'sa little something more from our friends down under:

After the introduction of gun laws, a significant downward trend was evident in total homicides, and the ratio of pre‐law to post‐law trends differed statistically from "no effect" (p = 0.01, table 33).). We conclude that the data do not support any homicide method substitution hypothesis.

In short: when gun homicides declined, all homicides declined. People did not simply commit them another way.

I actually disagree when they conclude that no method substitution occurs, however. There is some evidence to suggest that people who want to go on a violent rampage do try to find other ways when guns are not available. Of course these people do not, in fact, slyly poison 20 school children when a Glock isn't handy or mix up some kind of crazy Joker laughing gas. When guns aren't handy, they seem to use the next best thing: a knife. We've seen this over and over again in China lately. The major difference is that, even when a knife-wielding maniac is able to reach dozens of victims, often every single victim survives. These events aren't showing up as homicides perhaps because homicide wasn't achieved, because it wasn't as easily achievable. Ever hear that expression about taking a knife to a gunfight? It exists for a reason.

Still, too many Americans -- including our lawmakers -- insist on remaining astonishingly obstinate when it comes to any suggestion of responsible firearm regulations. Instead of common sense solutions, they repeat bizarre myths and offer idiotic distractions. It's as if every time a white suburbanite picks up a gun, half the country suddenly becomes your crazy grandfather, claiming that the same violent films and video games that kids in Australia, Ireland and Britain are watching and playing are somehow compelling only Americans to go on shooting sprees. It's an... unique idea, to say the least. (Let's not even talk about what they're watching in Japan, which has -- through strict gun control efforts -- virtually eliminated gun violence altogether.)

Not that it would matter if these things were somehow magically compelling only Americans to shoot up their local malls. Contrary to popular belief, sometimes the most effective solution is not, actually, attempting to remove every underlying motive or eliminate every contributing factor. Sometimes it's just using the most effective solution at your disposal.

To be clear, I am definitely not saying that our health care system doesn't need a top-to-bottom overhaul. It does. What I am saying is that by far the most effective, proven solution at our disposal is a major, common sense reform of our gun control laws, and that there is no good reason not to do it.

In the meantime, try carrying a violent video game or film into the Capitol. Go ahead, I've done it before. They let you right in.

So I have a challenge for members of Congress: if you truly believe that gun proliferation, not gun control, is the best way to combat gun violence, remove the metal detectors from the Capitol entrances and don't bring them back until you've changed your mind. If criminals will just find another way, they're nothing but a waste of taxpayer money and visitor time. If gun control gives criminals all the power, then those metal detectors are threats to the safety of everyone behind them. If reasonable, common sense security measures are violations of our civil liberties, then those metal detectors, located at the heart of our democracy, are an affront to the personal liberty of every American.

After all, it seems only right that members of Congress should be as safe as the average child they represent.