Tag Archives: U.S. politics

Jeffrey Sachs on (gun) violence

I have just two things to say about the U.S. and guns, both of which I find obvious and evidence-based. First, the U.S. has a violence problem and guns are not the root cause of it. Eliminating guns would not eliminate the problem. Second, guns make our violence problem much more deadly.

I pointed out a really interesting data analysis that was posted on R-bloggers in 2015. What the numbers show very clearly is that the U.S. really does have a violence problem, with rates of violent death much higher than countries with similar economies, including our close cultural cousins like Canada and Australia, and, almost uniquely among richer countries, similar in levels of violence to many developing countries. These are hard numbers, so have a look and draw your own conclusions. My conclusions are backed up by my own personal experiences living in ultra-low-crime developed Asian countries (like Singapore) and significant time spent in developing Asian countries (like Thailand). In the latter, I generally felt equally or more safe on the street than I do in my home city of Philadelphia. Developing countries have problems with gang violence and organized crime to be sure, but it is random street crime that affects ordinary people, business travelers and tourists, and that just isn’t very common in most countries. The two countries I mentioned are actually pretty interesting because in Singapore, there are absolutely no weapons of any kind allowed in the hands of the public, while in Thailand, my impression is there are quite a few guns around.

So that said, here is Jeffrey Sachs talking about violence in the U.S. The rest of the article goes on to make a “states’ rights” pitch for gun control which I don’t feel strongly about one way or another. One thing I would favor though is to let individual cities pass and enforce stricter gun laws than the states they are in, if they want to.

Mass violence is deeply rooted in American culture. America’s European settlers committed a two-century-long genocide against the native inhabitants, and established a slave economy so deeply entrenched that only a devastating civil war ended it. In almost all other countries, even Czarist Russia, slavery and serfdom were ended by decree or legislation, without a four-year bloodletting. When it was over, America established and enforced a century-long system of apartheid.

To this day, America’s homicide and imprisonment rates are several times higher than Europe’s. Several large mass shootings occur each year – in a country that is also waging several seemingly endless wars overseas. America is, in short, a country with a past history and current stark reality of racism, ethnic chauvinism, and resort to mass violence.

Ouch, I certainly think he is on to something. But I also think the modern obsession with guns is fueled by an industry lobby funding political campaigns and saturating all forms of entertainment with guns. I would have to do research to prove it, but I bet the industry provides free guns to the entertainment industry just as the cigarette companies did decades ago. The military certainly does this openly, I believe with the idea of desensitizing the public to the carnage of foreign wars and desensitizing our children so they can one day be recruited to fight in those wars. Guns, fights and car chases are also sort of a lazy, easy and cheap substitute for actual storytelling. So one idea would be for a few movie and TV studios and game companies to make a pledge to go a few months and see if they can tell interesting stories that don’t have any guns in them. Another quick idea would be to adjust movie, TV, and game ratings to make it crystal clear that stories with guns in them are for adults only. If necessary to prop up earnings, sprinkle in some tasteful soft porn to compensate, which I believe would be much healthier for children.

becoming a new U.S. state

Just following up on what the U.S. Constitution has to say about my idea of a metro area seeking to become a state:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

Hmm, so if the Philadelphia metro area (which includes parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) wanted to become its own State, it would need to sell all three existing states and the U.S. Congress on the idea. It sounds far-fetched. Then again, rural voters are often under the mistaken impression that they are subsidizing urban areas, even though the evidence proves that the exact opposite is the case. So if Philadelphia wanted to leave Pennsylvania for New Jersey, and it were put to a referendum, people might go for it. Electoral votes would be a potential sticking point, so getting rid of the Electoral College could help make something like this slightly more plausible. It still sounds implausible under our current (241 years and counting) Constitution. Still, there could be enormous advantages to a metro area controlling its own tax policy, housing policy, infrastructure policy, environmental policy, etc.

European separatist movements

This Project Syndicate post suggests a way European countries and the EU could deal with separatist movements legally.

If there was still demand for statehood and separation from the internationally recognized state to which they belong, the EU could invoke a code of conduct for secession. For example, the EU could stipulate that it will sanction an independence referendum if the regional government requesting it has already won an election on such a platform with an absolute majority of the voters. Moreover, the referendum should be held at least one year after the election, to allow for a proper, sober debate.

As for the new state, it should be obligated to maintain at least the same level of fiscal transfers as before. Rich Veneto could secede from Italy, for example, as long as it maintained its fiscal transfers to the South. Moreover, the new state should be prohibited from erecting new borders and be compelled to guarantee its residents the right to triple citizenship (new state, old state, and European).

The Catalonia crisis is a strong hint from history that Europe needs to develop a new type of sovereignty, one that strengthens cities and regions, dissolves national particularism, and upholds democratic norms. The immediate beneficiaries would be Catalans, the people of Northern Ireland, and maybe the Scots (who would in this manner snatch an opportunity out of the jaws of Brexit). But the longer-term beneficiary of this new type of sovereignty would be Europe as a whole. Imagining a pan-European democracy is the prerequisite for imagining a Europe worth saving.

I could almost imagine something like this in the U.S. No, there aren’t too many regions that would like to leave entirely, even if Texas makes noises about it. But my opinion is that the states are getting less and less relevant in an economic and practical sense relative to the metropolitan areas where the people live and the economic production happens, but they remain politically powerful relative to those metro areas. So I could see metro areas choosing to leave one state for another or seeking a legal and political status equivalent to a state. This would require a radical constitutional rewrite, of course.

September 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
  • In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its  official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton  and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
  • During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.

Most hopeful stories:

  • It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
  • There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
  • Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • In automation news, Tesla is testing automated truck platoons. And there’s a site that will try to predict whether robots will take your job.

estate tax and pants on fire

Donald Trump’s pants are on fire when he talks about the estate tax, according to Politifact.

How about small businesses and farms? The center projected that only about 80 small farms and closely held businesses would pay any estate tax in 2017. That would amount to about 1 percent of all payers of the estate tax that year. And the estate tax revenue from small businesses and farms, the center said, would amount to fifteen-hundredths of 1 percent of the total paid under the estate tax in 2017.

So, getting rid of the estate tax would hardly “protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer,” as Trump put it.

Trump’s claim doesn’t hold up even if you account for small businesses and farms that would potentially benefit from elimination down the road. The number from the Tax Policy Center (80) only refers to the number of small businesses and farms that would have to pay the tax this year.

When Donald Trump opens his mouth, all I see is diarrhea coming out. His words mean nothing to me. He has no interest in even trying to find out if the things he is making up are true. Is it possible he thinks they are true because he says them? It is a sad and embarrassing time to be an American.


Today’s German lesson: lugenpresse translates literally as “lying press”, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to translate it as “fake news”. In fact, the German version was heard at rallies during the Trump campaign apparently. This is a bit of history on the term from the Washington Post:

A decade later [the 1920s], it had turned into an explosive and stigmatizing propaganda slogan, used to stir hatred against Jews and communists. Critics of Adolf Hitler’s regime were frequently referred to as members of the “Lügenpresse apparatus.”

Until today, the word has an anti-Semitic connotation, and it implies hatred not only against journalists but against everyone who opposes the “will of the people.” That abstract concept emerged during World War II when Hitler sought to propagate the idea that Germans were a “master race” superior to all others, especially Jews and Slavic people.

The consequences of that rhetoric — of which the term “Lügenpresse” was an important component under propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels — were horrifying. Millions of people were killed in concentration camps by the Nazis, including Jews, political opponents and homosexuals.

Trump is ignorant of history at a minimum, and I think he has fascist tendencies. But I am only now beginning to think he is using actual, thinly-veiled Nazi-inspired propaganda. It’s evil.


the decline and fall of the U.S. empire

Okay, it is not falling quite yet, but The Intercept has a review of two books that make a persuasive case we are witnessing its decline.

Wright sees the system under threat from a combination of newly emerging powers and recent American missteps. McCoy, for his part, sees the unraveling of the U.S. empire as analogous to the series of events that led to the decline of the British and French empires before it. The first step is the loss of support from local elites in territories under imperial influence, a process that McCoy says is clearly underway for the U.S. in many critical regions of the world. In recent years, America has seen its ties strained with military partners such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, while major U.S. allies like Germany and South Korea have increasingly come to question America’s capacity to continue leading the imperial system that it created.

It is the Arab Spring uprisings against mostly pro-U.S. dictators, however, that McCoy says marked the slow beginning of the end of American imperium. While the revolts are widely judged to have failed in bringing about liberal democracy, they did succeed in unseating longtime American allies in Tunisia and Egypt, while straining U.S. ties with Gulf Arab countries and even Iraq. As McCoy writes, “All modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control.” He adds, “For most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and assert their own agendas was also the moment when you knew that imperial collapse was in the cards.” The British empire famously became a “self-liquidating concern” when local elites across the empire began demanding self-rule, as did France’s far-flung rule when it was forced to wage a grinding war of attrition to keep control over Algeria. The Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed, which have reduced U.S. influence while exhausting its resources to deal with terrorism and migration, “may well contribute, in the fullness of time, to the eclipse of American global power…”

Partly as a consequence of so many self-inflicted losses, China, Russia, and Iran have all mounted growing challenges to American hegemony in recent years, contesting the tenets of the U.S.-enforced order in the South China Sea, eastern Europe and the Middle East, respectively. Russia has successfully annexed territory and asserted its influence along its periphery, in places like Ukraine, while China has moved ahead with plans to put the economically-vital South China Sea region under its control. Instead of a world in which a hegemonic U.S. enforces the political and economic rules of engagement in these regions, its now possible to see a future in which the world is carved up into a “spheres of influence” system that gives regional powers wide latitude to set the agenda in their immediate neighborhood.

Love the republic, hate the empire. Or at least let the empire go and maybe breathe a sigh of relief to let some of the self-imposed responsibility go with it. But if we are going to do that, we need to support and strengthen international institutions that promote peace, trade, and human rights. Instead we seem to be abandoning those institutions at the same time we are abdicating responsibility.

Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat

This surprising study from Boston University and University of Minnesota concludes that military families that suffered casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars might have been the swing voters that put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Kriner, Douglas L. and Shen, Francis X., Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House? (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2989040

America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. There are many implications of our findings, but none as important as what this means for Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.

I acknowledge and am willing to believe the numbers. I am not sure I buy the conclusions these authors draw from the numbers – that communities with ties to the military will vote for candidates they think are least likely to send their children off to war. On the contrary, I would hypothesize that people in these communities might respond more strongly to patriotic rhetoric, and be more likely to support military approaches to geopolitical problems.

the Sanders single payer plan

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others have introduced a “Medicare for All” bill. Introducing a bill doesn’t mean it will become law any time soon, but it may be a good sign that something seen as politically unviable in the past is now at least being seriously discussed by mainstream politicians.

The universal Medicare proposal released this week extends health insurance coverage to every single American free of copays, premiums, and deductibles — and has long been viewed as a direct threat to highly profitable health-related industries and providers.

The bill calls for gradually expanding Medicare coverage, starting with the young and phasing in other segments of the population. The plan would cover all essential services, including routine doctor visits, emergency room care, mental health, dental, outpatient care, and forms of treatment.

Sanders’s office also released a statement this week laying out various financing methods for the bill, including an employer tax, closing tax loopholes, and a variety of progressive income-based taxes.

Taxes are unpopular of course, but we have to remember that workers and employers are all paying enormous health insurance premiums, much of which either gets eaten up by the enormous inefficiencies of the health care industrial complex, or goes into the pockets of insurance and drug companies as profits.

what does North Korea want?

Nobody wants to defend the choices of the North Korean government. They have kept their people in abject poverty for decades, worked people to death in prison camps, and not only threatened neighbors with weapons of mass destruction but contributed to the spread of those weapons, increasing the risk to everyone on the planet. And yet…the story we get from the our supposedly free press is very black and white. Are they so completely irrational and random that there is no possibility of negotiation? Or is there something they want, like assurances they won’t be attacked by their neighbors? A group at Johns Hopkins has a blog called 38 North that does nothing but tackle these questions of policy and how the media is covering them. Here is an excerpt from an article from August 15 on the media coverage:

ABC’s analyst uses fancy graphics to show what North Korea’s weapons could do and potential US military responses. There is no discussion, however, of what North Korea is trying to do with its weapons. ​Is Kim waiting to negotiate only after feeling that he has enough military might? Is he hoping to have cover for skirmishes and other kinetic actions across the border with Korea? Does he think he is deterring the US from toppling his regime? Instead, audiences are left with the overwhelming impression that the North’s growing capabilities are simply to start a nuclear war.

This is amped up by the idea that Kim Jong Un is “crazy” and thus presents a unique threat to the United States. But in reality, Kim is not crazy and there are many learned people available to explain this to people like, say, Joe Scarborough, who refers multiple times to Kim as a “madman” in this segment from last month…

Senator Lindsey Graham’s, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there,” comment is the most egregious expression of the idea that South Korea can be sacrificed in this crisis. When US leaders imply or openly threaten to bring a devastating war to Korea because Pyongyang now may have the potential to hit America with an intercontinental ballistic missile, South Koreans understandably start to view the United States as an unreliable ally and patron. What good is the US nuclear umbrella if it doesn’t stop aggression? What good is the alliance if the mutual prosperity it once supported can be so quickly unraveled?