How Party of Budget Restraint Shifted to ‘No New Taxes,’ Ever

By BINYAMIN APPELBAUM, New York Times, Dec 23, 2012

WASHINGTON — On a Saturday afternoon in October 1990, Senator Pete V. Domenici turned from a conversation on the Senate floor, caught the eye of a clerk by raising his right hand and voted in favor of a huge and contentious bill to reduce federal deficits. Then he put his hand back into his pocket and returned to the conversation.

It was the end of an era, although no one knew it then. It was the last time any Congressional Republican has voted for higher income taxes.

The conservative revolt against that 1990 legislation — and against President George Bush, who violated his own “Read my lips” vow not to increase taxes — was a seminal moment for Republicans. The party of balanced budgets became the party that opposed tax increases.

When conservatives sank Speaker John A. Boehner’s plan last week to acquiesce on tax increases for the most affluent Americans as part of a potential broader deal with the Obama administration to avert tax increases for everyone else, several said that 1990 accord was a reason. They regard Mr. Bush’s broken promise as a major reason he was not re-elected, and they say the budget agreement proved that such compromises do not restrain the growth of government.

But the 1990 legislation also highlights a basic challenge now facing the party, which the chaos within the House caucus helped bring into public view on Thursday night.

Republicans continue to embrace the no-new-taxes stand as a centerpiece of the party’s identity, even in the face of public opinion that strongly supports tax increases on high incomes. And some Republicans fear that the party’s commitment to prevent tax increases more and more is coming at the expense of those other, older kinds of fiscal responsibility.

“Republicans used to be interested in not running continual rivers of red ink,” said former Representative William Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican who as the ranking member of the House Budget Committee in 1990 helped to negotiate the deficit deal. “If that meant raising taxes a little bit, we always raised taxes a little bit. But nowadays taxes are like leprosy and they can’t be used for anything, and so Republicans have denied themselves any bargaining power.”

The resulting debate has created perhaps the greatest test of the tax stand in the last two decades. Republicans who are willing to accept tax increases as part of a broader deal are pitted against a conservative wing, restocked by the Tea Party wave of 2010, that insists that opposition to tax increases is particularly important at times like these, when the temptation is greatest to avoid spending cuts by asking Americans for just a little more. Many in the antitax camp come from deeply conservative districts and were re-elected by wide margins.

They were not even swayed by Grover Norquist, the activist and arbiter of antitax orthodoxy, who has pushed politicians for the last 25 years to promise that they will not vote to raise taxes, a pledge a vast majority of Congressional Republicans have signed. Mr. Norquist said Mr. Boehner’s proposal was not a tax increase, but he could not convince the generation of politicians he helped create.

“We know that our big problem is too much spending,” Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, said on Fox News last week, explaining his opposition to Mr. Boehner’s plan. “We know that President Reagan fell into the trap and President George H.W. Bush fell in the trap of ‘Here, just raise taxes on somebody, and we’ll come along with the cuts later.’”

The Republican Party’s embrace of tax cuts is often traced to the 1970s, when conservative thinkers began to argue that cuts were not just politically advantageous but also fiscally responsible. The economist Arthur Laffer advanced the theory that cuts could even be self-financing, because they could generate enough economic activity to increase revenue.

Others said that cutting taxes would force the government to cut spending too, an idea colorfully described as “starving the beast.”

But the movement did not truly take hold until the early 1990s. Some Congressional scholars argue that opposition to tax increases offered a new kind of ideological glue after the cold war. Others cite changes in the political landscape, including the rise of advocacy groups like Mr. Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and the purification of Congressional districts through gerrymandering, which led House members to fear primaries more than general elections. And the electoral success of the political strategy — many voters are swayed by promises of a lower tax bill — became its own justification.

In the early 1980s, majorities of Congressional Republicans voted for a pair of deficit deals orchestrated by President Ronald Reagan, even though tax increases accounted for more than 80 percent of the projected reductions. But by 1987, a majority of Republicans opposed a third deal, even though only 37 percent of the reductions came from tax increases.

The 1990 battle echoed the present situation. The economy was struggling. Deficits were growing. Congress had enacted automatic spending cuts that it was racing to avoid. Republicans did not want to raise taxes. Democrats did not want to cut spending. Mr. Bush, convinced that the government needed to balance its books, reluctantly agreed to break his no-new-taxes pledge. Once again, less than 40 percent of the money came from tax increases. Once again, a majority of Republicans voted no.

By 1993, not a single Republican would vote for a deficit package drafted by the Clinton administration and Congressional Democrats that laid the groundwork for the first balanced budget since the late 1960s.

Instead, in 2001 and 2003, Republicans passed tax cuts that more than reversed the increases during the Clinton administration.

“When I entered politics, the frame of reference was a balanced budget as the principal conservative precept,” said former Representative James Leach, an Iowa Republican who served from 1977 to 2007. “Today, it’s the level of taxes.”

In order to maintain that commitment, Republicans need to develop a similar consensus about how to reduce federal spending. The federal budget, particularly spending on health care programs, is projected to grow rapidly as the country ages and as medical costs continue to rise, leaving Washington in need of more revenue.

The party’s conservative wing wants to circumscribe those benefit programs, despite their popularity among voters. The goal of balancing the federal budget has all but vanished, replaced by the idea that deficits should be reduced to sustainable levels.

The 1990 deal still won the support of 47 Republicans in the House and 19 Republicans in the Senate. Only 4 of those 66 are still in Congress, and Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Representative Jerry Lewis of California both will be gone at the end of the current session, leaving just two: Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Representative Frank R. Wolf of Virginia.

Mr. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who played a significant role in negotiating the 1990 deal, which he regarded as necessary to reduce federal deficits, left the Senate in 2009. But he has continued to advocate a similar approach as a co-chairman of a commission organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center that called for a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts to stabilize the federal debt.

He said he was frustrated by the reflexive opposition of conservatives to any kind of tax increase, but he added that Democrats had also shown little willingness to negotiate necessary cuts in spending on federal entitlement programs.

“There has been a hardening in the Democratic line, too,” he said. “There isn’t any Democrat in here that is going to help with these cuts.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/us/politics/how-party-of-budget-restraint-shifted-to-no-new-taxes-ever.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121223

History of gun-control legislation

Washington Post, December 22, 2012

1934

Spurred by the bloody “Tommy gun” era ushered in by Al Capone, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, seen at right, President Franklin D. Roosevelt mounts a “New Deal for Crime.” One part of it is the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal gun-control law, which levies a restrictive $200 tax on the manufacture or sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. All sales were to be recorded in a national registry.

1938

Roosevelt wins approval of the National Firearms Act of 1938, which requires the licensing of interstate gun dealers, who must record their sales. It prohibits sales to individuals under indictment or convicted of crimes of violence.

1968

Spurred by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson renews the fight for gun control. He wins passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which becomes the primary federal law regulating firearms. It prohibits all convicted felons, drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns; raises the age to purchase handguns from a federally licensed dealer to 21; and expands the licensing requirements to more gun dealers and requires more detailed record-keeping.

1986

Prompted by complaints that the federal government has been abusing its power to enforce gun laws, Congress passes the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. The law limits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from inspecting gun dealers more than once a year, with follow-up inspections allowed only if multiple violations are found. An amendment is also passed banning civilian ownership of machine guns manufactured after May 19, 1986. Weapons made and registered before that date are not affected. The law specifically forbids the government from creating a national registry of gun ownership.

1993

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 mandates background checks of gun buyers in order to prevent sales to people prohibited under the 1968 legislation. Checks would eventually occur through a new system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), maintained by the FBI. But records of such checks cannot be preserved because federal law prohibits the creation of a national registry of gun ownership. Sales by unlicensed private sellers who are not engaged in gun dealing as a business are not subject to the checks under federal law, though they are required by some states.

1994

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 produces a 10-year federal ban on the manufacture of new semi-automatic assault weapons. The law specifies 19 weapons that have the features of assault rifles, including the AR-15, certain versions of the AK-47, the TEC-9, the MAC-10 and the Uzi, several of which had become the preferred weapon of violent drug gangs. The act also bans large-capacity ammunition magazines, limiting them to 10 rounds. The law does not apply to weapons that were already in legal possession, and there are easy ways to adapt new weapons to avoid the prohibitions.

2003

In a victory for the NRA, Congress passes the Tiahrt Amendment to a federal spending bill. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), prohibits law enforcement from publicly releasing data showing where criminals bought their firearms.

2004

The 10-year sunset provision of the assault weapons ban runs its course, and the law is not renewed by Congress. Repeated efforts to renew the ban fail.

2005

President George W. Bush signs the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which grants gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits filed over crimes committed with firearms. The law killed a legal strategy being pursued by gun-control advocates to hold manufacturers responsible for the negative effects of their products. A similar strategy had proved effective against tobacco companies.

2008

The Supreme Court in the District of Columbia v. Heller holds that Americans have an individual right under the Second Amendment to possess firearms in federal enclaves “for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The ruling strikes down a local law banning handguns in the District.

2012

Eighteen years after the Brady law is passed, the 156 millionth background check is performed under the law. The number of gun sales rejected through federal denials reaches nearly a million. President Obama vows to impose new limits on guns and ammunition in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/history-of-gun-control-legislation/2012/12/22/80c8d624-4ad3-11e2-9a42-d1ce6d0ed278_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

 

The Price of Our Freedom

by George Lakoff – Author, ‘The Political Mind,’ ‘Moral Politics’ and ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant!’ – Huffington Post. December 27, 2012

“Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” — Barack Obama, Newtown Address, December 16, 2012

That sentence, uttered by President Obama in his Newtown Address, may turn out to be a turning point in American history. The president, in one sentence, turned the beautiful faces of the 20 first-grade children murdered brutally by assault weapons into the moral measure of our nation. Conservatives have argued that guns = freedom, and that there should be no limit on such freedom. The president trumped their argument: The price of not protecting the nations’ children is too high. Permitting the mass murder of our children is not freedom.

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

Democracy, as the president has said, begins with the people taking care of one another responsibly, importantly through government as an instrument of freedom. That how we get our public schools, our roads, our sewers, our patent office, our scientific research, our energy, communication and transportation systems, our food safety, our protectors, and all the rest that we need to be free in our private lives. It is a truth: the private depends on the public. We, all together, constitute the public. Unless we take care of one another and one another’s children, we can’t get democracy — and freedom — right.

The gun lobby rests on conservative ideology: Democracy supposedly gives each of us individually the “liberty” to seek our own self-interests with no responsibility for the interests or well-being of anyone else. After and Obama’s Newtown Address, the whole idea of such “liberty” makes no sense.

The time is ripe to end the conservative grip over nearly half of America. That starts with an all-out effort to put in place responsible gun safety laws. Total registration, just like with cars. An end to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. And an end to blaming massacres on crazies. Gun massacres require guns that can massacre. Eliminate them.

The president set just the right tone. We’re in this together. We bear joint responsibility for one another and all our children. If you accept this, really accept it, you can’t keep conservative ideology, not just on guns, but on anything.
George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is co-author, with Elisabeth Wehling, of The Little Blue Book.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/the-price-of-our-freedom_b_2314658.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=121712&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

President Obama’s speech at prayer vigil for Newtown shooting victims

By Washington Post Staff, Published: December 16

Full transcript of President Obama’s remarks at a Dec. 16 prayer vigil for victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

OBAMA: Thank you.

Thank you, Governor. To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests, scripture tells us, “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day.

“For light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all, so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.”

We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America.

Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts.

I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight.

And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown, you are not alone.

As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch. They did not hesitate.

Dawn Hocksprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Russeau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy, they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances, with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.

We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms and kept steady through it all and reassured their students by saying, “Wait for the good guys, they are coming. Show me your smile.”

And we know that good guys came, the first responders who raced to the scene helping to guide those in harm’s way to safety and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and their own trauma, because they had a job to do and others needed them more.

And then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do, one child even trying to encourage a grownup by saying, “I know karate, so it’s OK; I’ll lead the way out.”

As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other. You’ve cared for one another. And you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered, and with time and God’s grace, that love will see you through.

But we as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. You know, someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around.

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.

They will suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments, and we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. And we know we can’t do this by ourselves.

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?

Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

You know, all the world’s religions, so many of them represented here today, start with a simple question.

Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?

We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.

The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger, we know that’s what matters.

We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

That’s what we can be sure of, and that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, God has called them all home.

For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory. May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort, and may He bless and watch over this community and the United States of America.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/president-obamas-speech-at-prayer-vigil-for-newtown-shooting-victims-full-transcript/2012/12/16/f764bf8a-47dd-11e2-ad54-580638ede391_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

In Public ‘Conversation’ on Guns, a Rhetorical Shift

By NATE SILVER, December 14, 2012

Friday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has already touched off a heated political debate. Opponents of stricter regulation on gun ownership have accused their adversaries of politicizing a tragedy. Advocates of more sweeping gun control measures have argued that the Connecticut shootings are a demonstration that laxer gun laws can have dire consequences. Let me sidestep the debate to pose a different question: How often are Americans talking about public policy toward guns? And what language are they using to frame their arguments?

There is, of course, no way to monitor the conversations that take place in living rooms around the country. But we can measure the frequency with which phrases related to gun policy are used by the news media.

If the news coverage is any guide, there has been a change of tone in recent years in the public conversation about guns. The two-word phrase “gun control” is being used considerably less often than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But the phrase “gun rights” is being used more often. And the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is being invoked more frequently in the discussion.

In the chart below, I’ve tracked the number of news articles that used the terms “gun control,” “gun rights,” “gun violence” and “Second Amendment” in American newspapers, according to the database NewsLibrary.com. (Because the number of articles in the database changes over time, the figures are normalized to reflect the overall volume of database coverage in any given year, with the numbers representing how often the gun-related phrases were used per 1,000 articles on any subject.)

The usage of all four phrases, but particularly the term “gun control,” has been subject to sharp but temporary shifts based on news events.

In 1993 and 1994, when Congress was debating a ban on assault weapons, the phrase “gun control” was used about three times per 1,000 news articles. Use of the term was even higher after the mass shootings in Columbine, Colo., peaking at 3.7 instances per 1,000 articles in 1999. It reached a low point in 2010, when the term “gun control” was used 0.3 times per 1,000 articles — less than one-tenth as often as in the year after the Columbine shootings.

Averaging the frequency of usage over a five-year period reduces the effect of these news-driven fluctuations and reveals a reasonably clear long-term trend. In recent years, the term “gun control” has been used only about half as often as it was in the 1980s and about one-quarter as often as in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But other phrases related to gun policy have become more common in news coverage.

The term “Second Amendment” was rarely employed in the 1980s, but it has become much more commonplace since then. (Since 2008, the term “Second Amendment” has been used more often than “gun control.”) A related phrase, “gun rights,” has also come into more common usage.

The term “gun violence” peaked in 1999, the year of the Columbine shootings. But it has also been on a long-term increase. Since 2010, it has been used 0.33 times per 1,000 news articles — far more often than during the 1980s, when it was invoked 0.02 times per 1,000 articles.

The change in rhetoric may reflect the increasing polarization in the debate over gun policy. “Gun control,” a relatively neutral term, has been used less and less often. But more politically charged phrases, like “gun violence” and “gun rights,” have become more common. Those who advocate greater restrictions on gun ownership may have determined that their most persuasive argument is to talk about the consequences of increased access to guns — as opposed to the weedy debate about what rights the Second Amendment may or may not convey to gun owners. For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/in-public-conversation-on-guns-a-rhetorical-shift/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121215

How the Right Has Twisted the 2nd Amendment

Consortium News [1] / By Robert Parry [2] December 15, 2012

The American Right is fond of putting itself inside the minds of America’s Founders and intuiting what was their “original intent” in writing the U.S. Constitution and its early additions, like the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” But, surely, James Madison and the others weren’t envisioning people with modern weapons mowing down children in a movie theater or a shopping mall or now a kindergarten.

Indeed, when the Second Amendment was passed in the First Congress as part of the Bill of Rights, firearms were single-shot mechanisms that took time to load and reload. It was also clear that Madison and the others viewed the “right to bear arms” in the context of “a well-regulated militia” to defend communities from massacres, not as a means to enable such massacres.

The Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus, the point of the Second Amendment is to ensure “security,” not undermine it.

The massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, which followed other gun massacres in towns and cities across the country, represents the opposite of “security.” And it is time that Americans of all political persuasions recognize that protecting this kind of mass killing was not what the Founders had in mind.

However, over the past several decades, self-interested right-wing “scholarship” has sought to reinvent the Framers as free-market, government-hating ideologues, though the key authors of the U.S. Constitution – people like James Madison and George Washington – could best be described as pragmatic nationalists who favored effective governance.

In 1787, led by Madison and Washington, the Constitutional Convention scrapped the Articles of Confederation, which had enshrined the states as “sovereign” and had made the federal government a “league of friendship” with few powers.

What happened behind closed doors in Philadelphia was a reversal of the system that governed the United States from 1777 to 1787. The laws of the federal government were made supreme and its powers were dramatically strengthened, so much so that a movement of Anti-Federalists fought bitterly to block ratification.

In the political maneuvering to assure approval of the new system, Madison and other Federalists agreed to add a Bill of Rights to ease some of the fears about what Anti-Federalists regarded as the unbridled powers of the central government. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative [3].]

Madison had considered a Bill of Rights unnecessary because the Constitution, like all constitutions, set limits on the government’s power and it contained no provisions allowing the government to infringe on basic liberties of the people. But he assented to spell out those rights in the first 10 amendments, which were passed by the First Congress and ratified in 1791.

The intent of the Second Amendment was clarified during the Second Congress when the U.S. government enacted the Militia Acts, which mandated that all white males of military age obtain a musket, shot and other equipment for service in militias.

The idea was to enable the young country to resist aggression from European powers, to confront Native American tribes on the frontier and to put down internal rebellions, including slave revolts. There was nothing particularly idealistic in this provision; the goal was the “security” of the young nation.

However, the modern American Right and today’s arms industry have devoted enormous resources to twisting the Framers into extremist ideologues who put “liberties” like individual gun ownership ahead of all practical concerns about “security.”

This propaganda has proved so successful that many politicians who favor common-sense gun control are deemed violators of the Framers’ original intent, as essentially un-American, and face defeat in elections. The current right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has even overturned longstanding precedents and reinterpreted the Second Amendment as granting rights of individual gun ownership.

But does anyone really believe that Madison and like-minded Framers would have stood by and let deranged killers mow down civilians, including children, by using guns vastly more lethal than any that existed in the Revolutionary era? If someone had wielded a single-shot musket or pistol in 1791, the person might get off one volley but would then have to reload. No one had repeat-firing revolvers, let alone assault rifles with large magazines of bullets.

Any serious scholarship on the Framers would conclude that they were, first and foremost, pragmatists determined to protect the hard-won independence of the United States. When the states’-rights Articles of Confederation wasn’t doing the job, they scrapped it. When compromises were needed – even on the vile practice of slavery – the Framers cut the deals.

While the Framers cared about liberty (at least for white men), they focused in the Constitution on practicality, creating a flexible system that would advance the “general Welfare” of “We the People.”

It is madness to think that the Framers would have mutely accepted the slaughter of kindergarteners and grade-school kids (or the thousands of other American victims of gun violence). Such bloody insecurity was definitely not their “original intent.”

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/how-right-has-twisted-2nd-amendment

Links:
[1] http://www.consortiumnews.com
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/robert-parry
[3] https://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1868/t/12126/shop/shop.jsp?storefront_KEY=1037
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/2nd-amendment
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/connecticut
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/sandy-hook
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/shooting-0
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/security-0
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/safety-0
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/protection
[11] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

The Freedom of an Armed Society

By FIRMIN DEBRABANDER, New York Times, December 16, 2012

In the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the resulting renewed debate on gun control in the United States, The Stone will publish a series of essays this week that examine the ethical, social and humanitarian implications on the use, possession and regulation of weapons.

The night of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., I was in the car with my wife and children, working out details for our eldest son’s 12th birthday the following Sunday – convening a group of friends at a showing of the film  ”The Hobbit.” The memory of the Aurora movie theatre massacre was fresh in his mind, so he was concerned that it not be a late night showing. At that moment, like so many families, my wife and I were weighing whether to turn on the radio and expose our children to coverage of the school shootings in Connecticut. We did. The car was silent in the face of the flood of gory details. When the story was over, there was a long thoughtful pause in the back of the car. Then my eldest son asked if he could be homeschooled.

That incident brought home to me what I have always suspected, but found difficult to articulate: an armed society – especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country – is the opposite of a civil society.

The Newtown shootings occurred at a peculiar time in gun rights history in this nation. On one hand, since the mid 1970s, fewer households each year on average have had a gun. Gun control advocates should be cheered by that news, but it is eclipsed by a flurry of contrary developments. As has been well publicized, gun sales have steadily risen over the past few years, and spiked with each of Obama’s election victories.

Furthermore, of the weapons that proliferate amongst the armed public, an increasing number are high caliber weapons (the weapon of choice in the goriest shootings in recent years). Then there is the legal landscape, which looks bleak for the gun control crowd.

Every state except for Illinois has a law allowing the carrying of concealed weapons – and just last week, a federal court struck down Illinois’ ban. States are now lining up to allow guns on college campuses. In September, Colorado joined four other states in such a move, and statehouses across the country are preparing similar legislation. And of course, there was Oklahoma’s ominous Open Carry Law approved by voters this election day – the fifteenth of its kind, in fact – which, as the name suggests, allows those with a special permit to carry weapons in the open, with a holster on their hip.

Individual gun ownership – and gun violence – has long been a distinctive feature of American society, setting us apart from the other industrialized democracies of the world. Recent legislative developments, however, are progressively bringing guns out of the private domain, with the ultimate aim of enshrining them in public life. Indeed, the N.R.A. strives for a day when the open carry of powerful weapons might be normal, a fixture even, of any visit to the coffee shop or grocery store – or classroom.

As N.R.A. president Wayne LaPierre expressed in a recent statement on the organization’s Web site, more guns equal more safety, by their account. A favorite gun rights saying is “an armed society is a polite society.” If we allow ever more people to be armed, at any time, in any place, this will provide a powerful deterrent to potential criminals. Or if more citizens were armed – like principals and teachers in the classroom, for example – they could halt senseless shootings ahead of time, or at least early on, and save society a lot of heartache and bloodshed.

As ever more people are armed in public, however – even brandishing weapons on the street – this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.

And yet, gun rights advocates famously maintain that individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty. Deeper reflection on their argument exposes basic fallacies.

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence – and the threat of it – is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name – that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly – not make any sudden, unexpected moves – and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment – they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate – though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech – and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate – definitively.

The very power and possibility of free speech and assembly rests on their non-violence. The power of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the Arab Spring protests, stemmed precisely from their non-violent nature. This power was made evident by the ferocity of government response to the Occupy movement. Occupy protestors across the country were increasingly confronted by police in military style garb and affect.

Imagine what this would have looked like had the protestors been armed: in the face of the New York Police Department assault on Zuccotti Park, there might have been armed insurrection in the streets. The non-violent nature of protest in this country ensures that it can occur.

Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases – these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism – I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings – and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that – community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power – and one another – and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly – and everything conducive to that.

Firmin DeBrabander is an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore and the author of “Spinoza and the Stoics.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/the-freedom-of-an-armed-society/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121217

Bubble on the Potomac

By ANDREW FERGUSON, Time,  May. 28, 2012

The passenger bar, about 12 blocks from the White House, is just beginning the first seating of the night in its Columbia Room, a semisecret speakeasy behind an unmarked door in the back. Speakeasies are very fashionable in Washington at the moment–bars within bars, inner sanctums set aside for the most discriminating palates. But the Columbia Room is a particularly hot ticket. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a reservation a few days in advance. For $67 a head, an expert bartender serves a three-course tasting of cocktails. He carves a thick slice of lemon rind, places his hands slightly above and 10 inches back from the cocktail glass and with a snapping motion sends a scattering of lemon drops across the icy surface of what one magazine calls “the best martini in America.”

The Passenger’s motto? “God save the district.” The sentiment is easy to understand, for these are good times in Washington and the seven counties that surround it. Even as the nation struggles, the capital has prospered, making it a magnet for young hipsters but leaving its residents with only a tentative understanding of how the rest of the country lives. “It’s nice,” goes the old joke about Miami, “because it’s so close to the United States.” Well, Washington is very nice these days.

Every week brings fresh evidence of continuing prosperity: a new restaurant, a new nightclub, another restored 19th century townhouse in a previously dodgy neighborhood selling for $1 million or more. Start-ups are hiring through Craigslist, and just opened lobbying firms have no trouble collaring clients. Storefronts that stood abandoned five years ago fill with pricey gourmet-food shops like Cowgirl Creamery, a cheesemonger that has opened its only store outside Northern California on F Street downtown. Its Mt. Tam cheese goes for more than $25 per pound. It’s organic.

Another Northern California import, a limousine service called Uber, launched in December after great success in San Francisco and New York City. “The growth here has been unique in our experience,” says Rachel Holt, who oversees Uber’s burgeoning D.C. operation. Uber is Web-based and cashless: customers call for limos with a smart-phone app and pay with a credit card on file. It’s also deluxe. Riders expect nothing lower on the limo food chain than a Town Car, with offerings going up to Mercedes and beyond. Holt says with some surprise that locals are using Uber as everyday conveyance for commuting and shopping. Uber exploits Washington’s unique combination of heavy use of social media, a young and often carless population and customers with fistfuls of disposable income. When the D.C. taxi commission made a move to shut down Uber earlier this year, Twitter erupted in indignation under the hashtag #Nevergoingback. Welcome to ber-Washington.

The Good Life

Other big cities, of course, have made it through the recession in one piece. But few eased through the crash as lightly as D.C., much less prospered so widely on the rebound. The local unemployment rate, at 5.5%, stands well below the national figure of 8.2%. The region’s foreclosure rates have always been significantly lower than those elsewhere, and now housing prices in D.C. and across the river in the Virginia suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria are close to their precrash peaks. The Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate–in Washington, everyone has an association–ranks the region as one of the best investments in the world, right after London and New York City. The cost of office space in Washington rivals New York prices, averaging $50 a square foot.

How’s a country to make sense of a national capital whose day-to-day life is so much more upholstered than its own? Increasingly, it cannot. Recently Washington passed San Jose in Silicon Valley to become the richest metropolitan area in the U.S. Since the 1990s, says economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University, the region has led the nation’s metropolitan areas in overall employment rate. The median household income in the metro area in 2010 was $84,523, according to calculations by Bloomberg News, nearly 70% over the national median household income of $50,046. Nine of the 15 richest counties in the country surround Washington, including Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5. Per capita income in D.C. is more than twice that in Maine. All this explains why Gallup’s Well-Being Index rates D.C. as the most satisfied large metropolitan area in the U.S. The pollsters were especially impressed with the region’s low smoking rate (15%) and the 72% who visit the dentist annually for a checkup. Washingtonians are skinnier, exercise more, eat more vegetables and are more likely to have health insurance than the average American. They’re also more optimistic–about the economy and about the future in general.

The riches reflect a regional economy as resilient–and as strange–as any in the world. “We don’t make anything here,” Fuller says simply. Washington is one of the few metropolitan areas in the country that have no significant manufacturing sector, placing it alongside Atlantic City, N.J.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Ocean City, N.J. “There isn’t any single major industry,” says Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “We’re just very diverse.”

The District of Contracting

Yet the diversity of the Washington economy is an illusion, for each of its business sectors is to some degree a creature of the region’s single great industry–the federal government. According to a 2007 report by the Tax Foundation, for every dollar in taxes Washington sends to the federal government, it receives five in return. Fuller says that over the past 30 years, the federal government has spent $860 billion in the D.C. region, two-thirds of that since 9/11.

Why the boom? The size of the nonmilitary, nonpostal federal workforce has stayed relatively stable since the 1960s. What has changed is not the government payroll but the number of government contractors. It’s estimated that, thanks to massive outsourcing over the past 20 years by the Clinton and Bush administrations, there are two government contractors for every worker directly employed by the government. Federal contracting is the region’s great growth industry. A government contractor can even hire contractors for help in getting more government contracts. You could call those guys government-contract contractors.

Which means government hasn’t shrunk; it’s just changed clothes (and pretty nice clothes they are). The contractors are famous for secrecy; many have job titles that are designed to bewilder. What is it, after all, that an analyst, a facilitator, a consultant, an adviser, a strategist actually does to earn his or her paycheck? Champions of the capital’s Shangri-la economy like to brag of Washington’s knowledge workers.

Peter Corbett isn’t so sure about the wisdom of D.C.’s version of the knowledge economy. Corbett heads a social-media marketing company, with corporate clients that have famous names. Most of his work involves nonprofit foundations that have flocked to Washington to be close to the fount of grants and tax breaks. He did a single project for the federal government and then swore it off for good. He describes his first meeting at the Pentagon. “There are 12 people sitting around the table,” he says. “I didn’t know eight of them. I said, ‘Who are you?’ They say, ‘I’m with Booz Allen.’ ‘I’m with Lockheed.’ ‘I’m with CACI.’ ‘But why are you here?’ ‘We’re consultants on your project.’ I said, ‘You are?’ They were charging the government $300 an hour, and I had no idea what they were doing, and neither did they. They were just there. So I just ignored them and did my project with my own people.”

Aside from its wealth, the single defining feature of ber-Washington is its youth. Most of the people who have moved to Washington since 2006 have been under 35; the region has the highest percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds in the U.S. “We’re a mecca for young people,” Fuller says. One recent arrival says word has gotten out to new graduates that Washington is where the work is. “It’s a place where a liberal-arts major can still get a job,” she says, “because you don’t need a particular skill.”

The Conveyor Belt

The young fill entire neighborhoods with an undergraduate air. On a warm night in Clarendon in northern Virginia or in the H Street NE corridor, with the crowded sidewalks and lines outside the door-to-door bars, you might think you’ve landed on fraternity row in Chapel Hill, N.C., or Charlottesville, Va. They’ve brought the college lifestyle with them–group houses, hookups, late-night cram sessions and lots of drinking. The local drugstores seem to devote more shelf space to condoms and pregnancy tests than diapers and formula. (Another big seller at pharmacies: Pedialyte, used as the ultimate hangover cure.)

No one doubts that the kids are changing the city. When Shana Glickfield, founder of a social-media firm, arrived in Washington in the early 2000s, one of her ears was triple-pierced. “I had to go up on [Capitol] Hill, and everybody said, You can’t do that, not if you’re going to the Hill!” she says. “Now I see Hill staffers with nose rings.” The 20-somethings have helped Washington shed its image as an uptight, work-first, party-later town. “Happy hour is the most important hour of the day,” says Emily Schultheis, a Web editor and recent arrival. “It’s how you meet people, how you get jobs, how you find roommates, how you get tips for stories and how you get in trouble.” Hill staffers devote Thursday nights to “wheels up” parties. “Congress goes out of session on Thursdays,” says Abra Belke, a lobbyist and blogger who calls herself Belle and writes the popular blog Capitol Hill Style. “Most of the bosses go home for the weekend. So you put your boss on the plane, wheels up, and then–freedom!”

ber-Washington has its own career pattern that is becoming as routinized as that of a 1950s organization man. A student graduates and goes to Washington for an internship, usually unpaid, which qualifies her for another internship, perhaps paid, until an entry-level job is offered, as it almost always will be. “Then you work for a few years,” Glickfield explains, “and then you go off and get the next degree, law or business, and then you come back for a better job.” Colleges and universities have figured this out and moved quickly to get a place on the conveyor belt. Big state schools and smaller liberal-arts colleges occupy office buildings in the city, where they run sophisticated internship programs designed to place their graduates (and soon-to-be graduates) in one of the country’s few hot job markets.

As national politics makes it impossible to expand government explicitly, these interns–often underpaid, usually overworked and frequently subsidized by their parents–have become vital to keeping government going. At the same time, they contribute to a feature of ber-Washington that too often goes unremarked: the capital has one of the most lopsided distributions of wealth of any major metropolitan area in the U.S. Along with a higher per capita income than any state and one of the nation’s lowest rates of unemployment, Washington has a poverty rate of nearly 20%, above the national average of 15%; a public-school system that is often called the worst in the nation; and a crime rate that remains higher than in any other rich community. In the district, whites enjoy a per capita income nearly three times that of African Americans.

You can often see the maldistribution of Washington’s riches block by block–even on the same block, row house by row house–as young, well-to-do high achievers move into neighborhoods that real estate agents label hot, buying up properties, planting flower boxes and tending little squares of lawn behind wrought-iron fences, next to an abandoned building or a vacant lot or a home where a fatherless family is just scraping by. Most ber-Washingtonians say they like the urban grit. The crime and decay amid the plenty, says local activist Danny Harris, “are the price you pay if you want to live in an urban environment.” The disequilibrium especially bothers Harris, he says, when it signals a civic detachment among his fellow young strivers. “You can have people who know every nuance of our policy toward Burma,” he says, “but they don’t know the name of the public school down the block.”

Greener than Thou

Socially and culturally, life in ber-Washington can seem as insular as its economy, and the insularity has consequences for the rest of the country. ber-Washingtonians, for instance, are intensely concerned about the environment. The local economy bristles with company names like GreenBrilliance and SkyBuilt Power. But the unreal character of that economy makes it easy for Washingtonians to overestimate the ability or the desire of their fellow Americans to live as they do. In ber-Washington, the private automobile is looked on as at best a necessary nuisance and at worst a morally suspect source of sprawl and climate change. Many Washingtonians are eager to tell you they don’t own one, preferring a highly subsidized commute on the Metro system’s carpeted (if often unreliable) subway cars. Even Uber, the limo service, has been hailed on blogs as a green innovation, notwithstanding its emanations of conspicuous consumption. Bike-share racks have sprung up downtown and in the close-in suburbs to take advantage of the newly painted bike lanes that have squeezed grand thoroughfares like 14th Street down to two lanes. Local authorities have reserved hundreds of parking spaces exclusively for Zipcars, which customers rent for an hour or a day in place of buying a car of their own. The Zipcar motto: “Cars with a conscience.”

No doubt the conscience thrives as much in Youngstown, Ohio, as it does in Washington, but you don’t see many locals there trading their minivans for Zipcars or rent-a-bikes. Fracking for natural gas is regulated from Washington, where it is viewed with suspicion; in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, it is a source of potential riches and a better life. The sight of an oil platform may lift the heart of a worker struggling on the Gulf Coast; ber-Washingtonians have a different impression. In D.C., if in few other places, half a billion dollars lost to a solar company like Solyndra can seem to be the price of being conscientious. At the same time, life in Washington is so comfortable that it is easy for those living there to imagine that the rest of the country is doing just fine too. Aren’t restaurants in your hometown packed at 10 p.m. on a Monday? No? Really?

No End in Sight

How long can such a culture of complacency last, even one as heavily subsidized by a country as rich as the U.S., in the face of awesome government debt?

It is a soft spring evening. The office buildings downtown are emptying out, and the bars are filling up for happy hour. Uber cars are out in force, Town Cars and Benzes rolling down 14th, up Ninth, under the overspreading oaks of Logan Circle and back down Vermont, past the Churchkey, where 555 kinds of beer are on offer. Its list gives each beer’s alcohol content and country of origin, the hops used to brew it and the temperature at which it will be served. The menu offers nibbles from the other America, served with the requisite irony: disco fries, a staple of the Jersey Shore, and a deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese stick familiar to fans of Midwestern state fairs. There’s also pricey charcuterie for those who don’t get the joke. Seven blocks east and a few blocks south, at the edge of the Penn Quarter neighborhood, six diners take their places at Minibar. In a city quickly becoming famous for tony restaurants, they are the luckiest feeders of the night: Minibar takes reservations a minimum of a month in advance for six seats from supplicants who must call precisely at 10 a.m., usually for several days in a row, sometimes for weeks. The meal they savor has 25 to 30 courses. The cost: $150.

The optimism of ber-Washingtonians so far survives the unspoken worry about a coming age of austerity, in which government spending cuts would end the high life that Washingtonians have come to expect. They are right to be optimistic. The two most plausible deficit-reduction proposals–one by President Obama, the other by the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee–each calls for the government in 2021 to spend a trillion dollars more than it spends today.

 

Some Better Targets for the People Who Hate Government

by Paul Buchheit, December 10, 2012 by Common Dreams

One of the pleasures of a weekend away from the city is visiting with people who express points of view that are different from my own. A lot of them hate government. Their comments are sprinkled with colorful references to taxes, waste, and socialism.

Countering with facts and statistics doesn’t seem to work. Instead, listening to their rants can be educational for a progressive, because the anti-government sentiment highlights the masterful job done by conservatives and the wealthy over the years, as they have basically convinced much of America to argue against themselves on matters of politics and the economy.

It would make more sense to take on the real villains.

1. Medical Providers

They’re taking a lot more of our money than Medicare does. According to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, medical administrative costs as a percentage of claims are about three times higher for private insurance than for Medicare. The U.S. Institute of Medicine reports that the for-profit system wastes $750 billion a year on waste, fraud, and inefficiency. As a percent of GDP, we spend $1.2 trillion more than the OECD average.

That’s an amount equal to the entire deficit wasted on private medical care companies. One out of every six dollars we earn goes to doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and insurance companies. All good reasons to redirect our hatred.

2. Retirement Brokers

Various reports have concluded that administrative costs for 401(k) plans are much higher than those for Social Security — up to twenty times more.

It would be difficult to find, or even imagine, any short-term-profit-based private insurer that is fully funded for the next 25 years. Social Security is. It works for all retirees while private plans work for a limited number of investors.

3. Banks

Government is often blamed for local budget shortfalls, but cities and towns around the country have been repeatedly victimized by a “bid-rigging” process that diverts billions of dollars — a few thousand at a time — from numerous unsuspecting communities to the accounts of a few big banks.

Individual homeowners, especially minorities, have also been victimized by the banks. Because of the housing crash and the corresponding decrease in home values, black households lost over half of their median wealth, and Hispanic households almost two-thirds.

There are scandals and scams galore: the privately run Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) headed up the illegal foreclosure business; the banking association LIBOR was guilty of interest rate manipulation; and plenty of financial institutions have engaged in the subtle art of imposing hidden fees. Credit cards are loaded with “gray charges” like surprise subscriptions and auto-renewals that cost the average consumer $356 a year.

Yet we’re forced to keep paying. Shockingly, it has been estimated that 40% of every dollar we spend on goods and services goes to banks as interest.

Public banks, on the other hand, focus on the needs of communities and small businesses rather than on investors. The most well-known example is the Bank of North Dakota (BND), which has successfully worked with local banks throughout the state, promoting business growth through loans that a larger bank might be reluctant to make, while managing to turn a profit every year for the past 40 years.

4. Higher Education Operators

Outside of the banking industry, there may not be a more egregious example of public abuse than the expropriation of higher education by profit-seekers who have subjected underemployed young people to years of student loan obligations. The collection of outstanding student debt is managed in good part by big banks like JP Morgan and Citigroup.

In most countries tuition remains free or nominal, but in America, as noted by Noam Chomsky, the belief that education strengthens a country is giving way to a philosophy of paying for your own educational benefits. Meanwhile, the “corporatization of universities” has led to a dramatic increase in administrators while relatively expensive programs like nursing, engineering and computer science are being cut.

But the easy loans keep accruing interest long after college ends. With a hint of foreboding, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Department of Education reported that the student loan debacle has been fueled by the same forces that led to the subprime mortgage collapse.

5. Big Box and Fast Food Companies

Smaller government is promoted by the very companies that make record profits while forcing their employees to accept public assistance.

While McDonald’s enjoyed profits of 130 percent over the past four years, and Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC) made 45 percent, and while the Walton family made $20 billion in one year, the median hourly wage for food service workers and Walmart employees is about $9 an hour. Many workers are stuck at the $7.25 minimum wage, which according to the National Employment Law Project is worth 30 percent less than in 1968.

Food service and big box store employees, among the fastest-growing job segments in the nation, are making barely enough to stay out of poverty. And it’s not just the employees who are subsidizing their bosses. We all are. Low-wage employees are more dependent on the food stamps and Medicaid that are paid for by our tax dollars.

Some Alternative Targets: Panic, Poison, Plowing, Postage, Prison

What is the incentive for private companies to deal with tragedies like Hurricane Sandy? The Pacific Standard aptly stated that “the free market doesn’t want to be in the flood business.”

What is the incentive for private companies to keep the poisons out of our drinking water? Without sufficient government regulations the Clean Water Act was violated a half-million times in one year.

What is the incentive for private companies to plow the county roads? Or to reduce the number of prisoners in profit-seeking prisons? Or to allow you to send a birthday card for just 45 cents? Or to simply treat its customers with respect rather than as a source of profit?

The “invisible hand” of the free market is unable, or unwilling, to satisfy the needs of society in all these areas. For that it is worthy of our contempt.

Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, an active member of US Uncut Chicago, founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org, RappingHistory.org), and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

more Paul Buchheit


Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/12/10

Yuletide’s Outlaws

By RACHEL N. SCHNEPPER, New York Times, December 14, 2012

Lexington, Va.

EACH year, as wreaths and colored lights are hung on any structure that can support their weight, another holiday tradition begins: the bemoaning of the annual War on Christmas.

The American Family Association has called for boycotting Old Navy and the Gap for, out of political correctness, not using the term “Christmas” in their holiday advertising. Parents have criticized schools for diminishing Christmas celebrations by giving equal time to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. And the Catholic League used to have a Christmas “watch list” for naming and shaming “Christmas kill-joys.”

Anxiety over the War on Christmas is, in other words, an American tradition. But few realize how far back that tradition goes. The contemporary War on Christmas pales in comparison to the first — a war that was waged not by retailers but by Puritans who considered the destruction of Christmas necessary to the construction of their godly society.

In the early 17th century in England, the Christmas season was not so different from what it is today: churches and other buildings were decorated with holly and ivy, gifts were exchanged and charity was distributed among the poor.

Also much as it is today, it was a period of carousing and merriment. The weeks around Christmas were celebrated with feasting, drinking, singing and games. Mummers would blacken their faces and dress up in costumes, often in the clothes of the opposite sex, to perform plays in the streets or in homes. Carolers, too, would sing door to door as well as in the home. Wealthy lords threw open their manors, inviting local peasants and villagers inside to gorge on food and drink. Groups of young men called wassailers would march in and demand to be feasted or given gifts of money in exchange for their good wishes and songs.

Puritans detested these sorts of activities, grumbling that Christmas was observed with more revelry than piety. Worse, they contended that there was no Scriptural warrant for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Puritans argued (not incorrectly) that Christmas represented nothing more than a thin Christian veneer slapped on a pagan celebration. Believing in the holiday was superstitious at best, heretical at worst.

When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I, inciting the English Revolution, the popular celebration of Christmas was on their hit list. Victorious against the king, in 1647, the Puritan government actually canceled Christmas. Not only were traditional expressions of merriment strictly forbidden, but shops were also ordered to stay open, churches were shut down and ministers arrested for preaching on Christmas Day.

The Puritans who came to America naturally shared these sentiments. As the Massachusetts minister Increase Mather explained in 1687, Christmas was observed on Dec. 25 not because “Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian” ones. So naturally, official suppression of Christmas was foundational to the godly colonies in New England.

On their first Christmas in the New World, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony celebrated the holiday not at all. Instead they worked in the fields. One year, the colony’s governor, William Bradford, yelled at visitors to the colony who, unaware that Christmas was celebrated more in the absence than in the commemoration, were taking the day off. He found them “in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the barr, and some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports.” After that incident, no one again tried to take off work for Christmas in the colony.

The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony would be fined five shillings.

Well into the 18th century, those who attempted to keep the tradition of wassailing alive in New England often found themselves arrested and fined. Indeed, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted up to 1870, when Christmas became a legally recognized federal holiday. Until then, men and women were expected to go to work, stores were expected to remain open, and many churches did not even hold religious services.

So the next time someone maintains that they are defending traditional American values by denouncing the War on Christmas, remind them of our 17th-century Puritan forefathers who refused to condone any celebration or even observance of the holiday. In America, our oldest Christmas tradition is, in fact, the War on Christmas.

Rachel N. Schnepper is a junior faculty fellow in history at Washington and Lee University.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/opinion/the-puritan-war-on-christmas.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121215