Saturday, July 21, 2012

Renewed Calls for Gun Control

I recently did a count, crunched some numbers, and came up with an estimate that in this blog I have written one third of a million words, not counting the comments section ("oh, you can't count the comments!" David  Bordwell said to me when I reported this factoid to him).  

By now I must have written on every single topic that I find interesting or important.

I was thinking of blogging about the renewed calls for gun control in the wake of the Aurora CO murders, but I realized I had already written about renewed calls for gun control in the wake of a mass murder.  That was in April of 2007, when another maniac killed even more people on the campus of Virginia Tech.  Here are some of my comments.  I think that with some obvious adjustments they are applicable here.

(Warning:  Some of the ideas expressed below will shock and offend some people.  At least, they did the first time I posted them.)

The idea behind theses calls for more gun control is pretty simple:  we have a problem here, and the problem is guns. The guns are the problem.

In a way, this is obviously true. Those people were killed with a gun. What may be a little less obvious, though, is that guns might be part of the solution as well. Notice that not one of the thirty three murder victims was armed. Is there any doubt that if even one of them had been, the outcome would have been less horrible than it was?

This a particularly poignant question, because in 2005 there was a bill in Virginia that would have allowed students with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns on campus, but it died in committee. (Hat-tip to historian David Beito here.) The victims of this atrocity had been deliberately disarmed by their own government. Adding horribly to the irony of this is the fact that one Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesperson, praised the death of this bill:
"I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions," Hincker said on Jan. 31, 2006, "because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.
"Feel safe," maybe. But isn't being safe more important?

Notice that these shooting sprees are only ever seem to occur in places like schools, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, post offices. Why is there never a huge murderous rampage in a bar? Bars are full of people with poor impulse control. They have been working for hours at reducing their impulse control, shrinking their profit-horizons, and trashing their ability to distinguish right from wrong. Why don't you ever see the headline, "33 Killed in Saloon Rampage"?

There is a pretty obvious answer. The people in a bar may not be the nicest or most rational people in the world, but they all know that the bartender probably has a gun and a baseball bat behind the bar. They also know that he (or she!) would be happy to use them in order to maintain good order and public peace.

These killers go into schools and playgrounds because they feel safe there. Don't you think it is time to interfere with their government-given sense of security? If an armed professor or student had brought the Blacksburg killer down, it would have saved innocent lives immediately. It would also have given the next insane murderer reason to pause and go elsewhere, or maybe just to either seek help or keep his evil thoughts to himself.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"If You've Got a Business, You Didn't Build That..."

People in the right-o-shphere are going ballistic over the argument that the president gave yesterday for the governmemnent's taking back, through its power to tax, some of what society has gaven you over the years.  I agree that this argument is a bad one, but it I am used to hearing it.  I have seen it in many, many places.  Here is a post I wrote on the occasion of Tax Day (April 15th) 2008 about it.  I wrote it when I discovered that Herbert Simon, of all people, had given the same argument.  (Simon must be the smartest person ever to use this argument.  Must be.)

Happy Tax Day! I hope you are enjoying the one day of the year when most people feel the same way about the state that I feel on the other 364. God knows I am not.

I was shocked to learn recently that the late Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate and former colleague of mine, once recycled, in a published essay, what is probably the worst of all moral justifications for taxation. As far as the morality of taxation is concerned, he is supposed to have said, the state would be perfectly justified in taking away 90% of the income of the people in the developed countries, as this is the amount of your product that is due to certain features of our social system. The most important of these features are probably these three: a relatively efficient and decent legal system, a government that (unlike most) is not simply a kleptocracy, and the vast stores of knowledge long accumulated by other participants in the economy. The government's taking 90% of what you own away from you, according to Simon, would merely be a matter of returning it to its real owners, which presumably is the people who comprise the state.

I can hardly believe that Simon said something so silly. He must be the wisest and smartest person ever to repeat this ridiculous argument. That is no doubt why we often see this idea attributed to him. It did not originate with him. Like many a bad joke, it is truly anonymous.

It is true of course that an enormous part of my income is made possible by the fact that I live in a half-way just, semi-free society, instead of one of the horrible Hell-holes in which many human beings have to live out their lives. If I taught philosophy in Russia or Mexico, instead of Madison Wisconsin, I would earn a very small fraction of what I earn here, even though I would be doing the same brilliant job that I am now doing. Why? Well, the people in those societies are working within political and legal systems that have been devastated by centuries of horrible government and rotten laws. As a result of this, the other participants in those economies have less powerful ideas, theories, methods, and skills -- in a word, less knowledge -- and are less productive than the people I deal with over here. In a system in which the government does not stop them from doing so, people come up with new and better ideas, year after year. Because of the human capacity for memory, the discoveries and inventions of past generations remain here after they have left the scene, and in some cultures the resulting total reaches truly staggering dimensions. Even though my brain contains the tiniest fraction of this total, living among these highly knowledgeable people is very beneficial to me. In general, it is to my advantage to trade with more prosperous, more productive people rather than less wealthy, less productive ones. (In case this is not obvious, think of it this way: those less prosperous people are going to pay me for my contributions with ... what?)

There is no harm in summarizing what I have just said by saying that a lot of my product is possible because of "the contribution of society," as long as we remember what that means. It means that a lot of fine people worked hard at developing good ideas about things and implementing those ideas by building institutions that endured after they departed. I owe these people my eternal gratitude. Gratitude, not cash.

The reason is very simple. They all made their contributions in return for compensation, which they were paid by others. They may have wanted more in return than they actually got (don't we all?) but they regarded what they got as sufficient to offset all the trouble they went through to make their wonderful contributions to our way of life. We know this because we know that they did decide to actually take that trouble and make those contributions.* Why should you lose 90% of what you produce in order to compensate them for what they did? They have already been paid! (Not to mention the fact that the great majority of them are now dead.) This would mean paying them twice.

By the way, doesn't this mean that I should be paid twice too? I contributed something too. It may not have been much, but I am still alive and can actually be compensated. Come to think of it, doesn't it also mean that I get my 90% back? But then where is all this money going to come from, now that we are paying everyone twice what they produce?

Actually, I should say that Simon would be proposing to pay everyone twice, if the money were really going to the actual contributors, the heroes who make this wonderful life possible. But of course it isn't. Simon wants the state to get it. Why on Earth should it get any of this money? Insofar as the state makes any contribution to my product, this contribution was the work of individuals who have been compensated** and at any rate would never see any of Simon's vast pile of loot.

So this argument is rotten for two reasons: 1) the real contributors have already been compensated, and 2) the alleged compensation would actually go to the wrong people anyway. Like I say, worst argument yet.
* For simplicity, I am ignoring the fact that some contributors were defrauded or coerced. Some were literally enslaved. Those people were not adequately compensated. Maybe we should compensate their heirs. But this is not the sort of compensation that Simon is talking about. It would not justify payments to the state, but only to the heirs of victims. (Also, note that most of these past injustices were actually committed by the state -- and its hangers-on, such as slave-owners.)

** Furthermore, their contribution consisted in large part in restraining the power of the state, which becomes predatory and extremely destructive if not restrained, and subjecting it to the rule of law. If it weren't for them, the state would mainly be pursuing its ancient calling of conquering, pillaging, and murdering. Moreover, these brave men and women were often paid by the state for their efforts with torture, imprisonment, dishonor, and death. Maybe the state owes them, and their heirs, something?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Meet My Little Friend, Crotalus viridis

I almost stepped on this Prairie Rattlesnake last night around sunset.  In fact, I would have if it weren't for his sudden and furious rattle.  What a startling sound!  Literally:  It gave me a huge startle response.  It starts out like a triple forte blast on some weird kind of percussion instrument and just keeps going.  I jumped back before I knew what was going on.

Odd that exactly the same thing happened to me almost thirty years ago, in almost exactly the same spot.  This little fella is cooling off on the floor of Indian Creek, Bufflalo Gap National Grassland.  Last time, it was much bigger one, who was slithering through the prairie grass, about 100 yards away.

That was also at sunset -- rattlesnake time!  That's when the are out and about.  Though I should have been wary, both times they took me completely by surprise.

BTW, this one isn't as big as he probably looks to you -- a little bigger in girth than my index finger.  I wouldn't want to be bitten by him just the same. Even if a rattler bite doesn't kill you, it will leave you gruesomely maimed and disfigured if you don't get antivenin soon.  The nearest hospital to where I was at this moment is probably in Rapid City, about 40 miles away, and some of those miles on some really bad roads.

So the best medicine in this case is not to get bit in the first place.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

'The Penaltax: A Problem Here?

As I was driving through western South Dakota yesterday evening, this blog post by Dave Birge set off such a mental fugue in my head that I forgot to look at my fuel gauge and almost ran out of gas.

Here is what I haven't quite figured out.  First, the facts:

The Affordable Care Act at one time, so they say, had language that described the penalty for refusing the buy health insurance when the government says you can afford it as a "tax."  That was taken out, many people think, because the bill could not have become law if this charge, cost, impost, whatever it is, is a tax. If it was, it wouldn't have gotten through Congress. It had to be a penalty, not a tax.

Then, in the Supreme Court, it became a tax again.  Why?  If it were a penalty, it would not have gotten through the Supreme Court.  This is certain.  Unless Chief Justice's discussion of the Commerce Clause argument was a blatant lie, he was bound to side with the three other conservatives and Anthony "Swing Vote" Kennedy and strike down the individual mandate.

So in order to get through Congress, it was a penalty, and in order to get through the SC, it was a tax.  All the Republicans seem to have to say about this (not including Romney in this case) is something like "Aha!  So you did raise taxes!  So there!! Nyah nyah!"  Am I the only one who sees a deeper problem here?  Does anybody see any "checks and balances" issues here?  Something about the rule of law?  Anybody?  Anybody?  Hello?

I haven't quite put my finger on it yet, but I think there's a problem here:  A law means whatever it has to mean in order to get passed and stand.