Tuesday, February 19, 2013

COMEDY & TRAGEDY WITH GUNS (Pub Date: TBD)

Do you know how once you stub your toe it seems like you keep on banging it again and again, constantly reaggravating the injury? Since publishing an earlier column on gun violence and how the presence of guns increases the lethality of conflicts, especially those that arise within families and even within ourselves to produce horrific numbers of murders, suicides, and inevitably compound murder/suicides, I’ve been constantly reminded of the prevalence of gun-enabled horror by a seemingly unending stream of news stories, one of them funny, but the others tragic.

To keep things light, let’s start with the funny one. It was recently revealed that the National Rifle Association maintains a Nixonian “enemies list”, which, due to embarrassment, has since been removed from of organization’s web site, but which has been helpfully recreated by Abby Zimet of Common Dreams. The list contains people and organizations the NRA considers to be “anti-gun”. With over five hundred entries, the list features a “Who’s Who” of celebrities and prominent groups who can be difficult to categorize, but it’s fun to try.

Short people – Danny DeVito, Peter Dinklage, and Dustin Hoffman (Really. Hoffman is so short that while filming the movie “Rain Man” Tom Cruise, who stands all of 5’ 7” used to say, “Thank God for Hoffman. Otherwise I’d be the last person to know when it rains.”)

Divas – Gloria Estefan, Madonna, Beyonce, Shaka Khan, and Barry Manilow

Zappas – Dweezil, Ahmet, Moon Unit, and Diva (who could have been under “Divas”, but family first!)

Won’t make the Hall of Fame, but at least they got some recognition – pitcher Mike Torrez, quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie (who I nearly put in the “short people” category because, when lined up under center, he had to stand on this toes to see the defense. But, I decided to take mercy.)

West Virginians – Mary Lou Retton and Jennifer Garner (Now that this is out, will they be allowed back in the state to visit family?)

Women on whom I’ve had a crush – Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Helen Hunt, and Meg Ryan (pre-work)

Women on whom I haven’t had a crush – Fran Drescher, Bette Midler, Penny Marshall, Rosie O’Donnell, and Meg Ryan (post-work)

The state of Missouri – An array of prominent businesses in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas including the phone company and, interestingly, every major league sports team in the state including the St. Louis Rams, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Kansas City Chiefs (must be lingering resentment over the guns vs. bows and arrows mismatch).

People who have to deal with the tragedy – The National Association of Police Organizations, the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers, and the Police Foundation

People who have to clean up the mess -- Many medical organization including the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Nurses Association.

People who have to conduct the funerals – “American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, the United States Catholic Conference, the Congress of National Black Churches, the Episcopal Church’s Washington Office, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the United Methodist Church General Board & Church Society, and the United Church of Christ Office for Church in Society.

But, as funny or unfunny as the NRA’s enemies list is, there has also been a steady drumbeat of gun-enabled tragedies involving prominent people who are united in having owned guns as a means of protection only to find their protective weapons turned on their loved ones, themselves, and often both.

The Greg Griego family – Greg Griego was a prominent minister in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In January, his fifteen year-old son, Nehemiah, apparently took a gun from the family collection and murdered Griego, his wife, and Griego’s three daughters ages 9, 5, and 2.

The American Sniper -- Chris Kyle, former military sniper and author of the best-selling memoir, “American Sniper”, and a friend were apparently murdered by a fellow veteran who they had invited to a shooting event.

Oscar Pistorius – The famed Olympic athlete has been charged with shooting his girlfriend to death.

Mindy McCready’s Boyfriend – David Wilson was found shot to death at singer Mindy McCready’s home. The death was presumed to be a suicide, but police say the case is still open.

Mindy McCready – Apparently shot herself to death days after her boyfriend David Wilson was shot to death.

Dr. Bruce Foster and Marlise Foster – The prominent Charleston, WV doctor and his wife died from gunshot wounds in an apparent murder/suicide.

As I said, it’s like the stubbed toe you just keep smacking again. Or maybe since writing about the horrific toll of gun violence I’m just more apt to notice these things. But, either way, it reminds me of the absurdity of owning a gun for self-protection. I just pray for those who do and, more than that, for their loved ones and friends that the ongoing litany of tragedies finally begins to penetrate their minds and souls so that they, their friends, and family members won’t end up on this list that sadly is growing even faster than the NRA enemies list.

Monday, February 18, 2013

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY (Pub Date 2/23/2013)

A fellow named Vince recently explained to me that he had once been a Democrat, but finally concluded that his political leanings were the result of an unfortunate personal flaw – a tendency to blame circumstances for his misfortunes. So, Vince resolved to embrace personal responsibility and with it a conservative political perspective that rejects the welfare state and holds individuals responsible for their success or failure.

Vince’s outlook reminded me of a time years ago when I assessed a well-known weight loss company’s business model. The company sold memberships that entitled customers to a given number of meetings by the end of which they were told they would lose the amount of weight they desired and would be trained to keep it off.

In fact, more than 90% of customers failed to meet their weight loss goals and, even among those who succeeded, few kept the weight off. Despite these abysmal results, customers came back again and again, buying on average five memberships before giving up.

More distressing was the fact that the company expected its members to fail. Its business model even depended on it. The company didn’t begin making a profit on a customer until half way through the third membership.

But, why did customers go along? Why did they keep returning to a program that almost always failed to deliver on its promise? Focus groups revealed the answer. Customers didn’t blame the program. They blamed themselves. Their refrain was, “If I had only stuck with it.“

This assumption of personal responsibility would have made sense if most or even many of those in the program had been able to stick with it. But, almost none did, which suggested the program itself was flawed and that it, not customers, should bear most of the responsibility for failure.

Sadly, the same can be said of today’s economy and the inability of many Americans to claw their way to prosperity. As noble as Vince and others are in assuming responsibility for their economic wellbeing, that sentiment should not blind them or us to economic conditions and policies that, like the weight loss program, make success all but impossible for many people including many who try fervently.

America was once “the land of opportunity”. Unlike Europe’s class-bound societies where opportunities for upward social mobility were few, America was a place where anyone from any station in life could become a success. Some say it’s still true. But, it’s not.

For decades, as wealth drained from middle and low income workers and became more heavily concentrated among the wealthiest Americans, one industrialized country after another surpassed us in the share of people able to escape poverty. Americans who are born into the bottom income quintile are 35% to 45% less likely to escape poverty than their counterparts in Canada, Germany, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The numbers who fail are even greater in West Virginia where a third of our children are trapped in the unfortunate bottom quintile.

And the poor don’t fail because we coddle them. All of the countries mentioned above redistribute more income and provide more generous public assistance than does the United States. They also provide universal healthcare.

For years conservative commentators have decried social safety net programs for creating a “culture of poverty” in which generations of families remain mired in dependency. They ridiculed investments in education, worker training, and child nutrition as “throwing money at problems”. And their views carried the day in congress and state legislatures, which cut benefits for poverty-related programs and shifted more of the cost of going to college to students and families.

The money saved by these measures was used to finance tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy whose rates, even after recent increases, are still less than half of what they once were. Meanwhile, in the private sector, although worker productivity has grown for decades, the share of revenue that businesses allocate for worker wages and benefits and investment has reached generational lows while the amount allocated to executive compensation and profits has skyrocketed.

We were told these policies would stimulate job growth and counteract the culture of poverty by restoring necessary incentives to work and invest. But they’ve done the opposite. Social and economic mobility is at an all time low. America’s economy, like the weight loss program, doesn’t deliver for customers, particularly those at the middle and lower end of the income scale, including many who take personal responsibility and “follow the program”. And in economics, unlike in weight loss, there’s only one program from which to choose.

Still, calls persist to slash entitlement programs. In West Virginia governor Earl Ray Tomblin wants to reduce funding for higher education while further cutting corporate taxes, thereby reducing the ability of young people to go to college in a state that’s last in the nation in educational attainment. This despite multiple studies showing that ameliorating childhood poverty and making college affordable are among the most effective actions we can take to lift new generations out of poverty.

President Obama’s proposals to raise the minimum wage and guarantee access to preschool will alleviate some of these ills. Still, more broad-based action is needed to reduce income inequality and counteract the effects of poverty. But, it won’t happen as long as we’re seduced by the myth that equal or at least sufficient opportunity already exists for those willing to assume personal responsibility.

Sean O’Leary can be contacted at seanoleary@citlink.net. A version of this column containing links to references and statistical sources may be found at www.the-state-of-my-state.com.

Monday, February 4, 2013

OFFICE OF FUDDERALISM (Pub Date 2/9/13)

“At wast! The wong arm of the waw is weaching out and cwosing in on you, you scwewy wabbit.” – Elmer Fudd

In this case, the long arm of the law is that of West Virginia Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, and the “scwewy wabbit” isn’t Bugs Bunny, but the federal government, which, in Mr. Morrisey’s view, has a penchant for passing laws and issuing regulations that stifle economic growth, deprive us of freedom, and, at least sometimes, violate the Constitution.

So, Mr. Morrisey is establishing an Office of Federalism and Freedom and charging it with the task of “identifying and challenging unconstitutional laws and regulations”. Mr. Morrisey has also made it clear where he’s going to start looking -- Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency, and any gun control measures that might emerge in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. The effort will be led by attorney Elbert Lin, a former clerk of Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, and a member of the Federalist Society.

But, what is federalism?

The Constitution’s 10th amendment reserves to the states or the people powers not expressly granted to the federal government. In that spirit, federalism is the principle that, to the degree practicable, power should devolve to governmental units nearest the people. Federalism is usually invoked by states that believe federal laws or regulations usurp their powers.

Although federalism was once cited in defense of slavery and is often associated with conservative causes, inherently it’s neither conservative nor liberal. States have invoked federalism to defend liberal policies such as assisted suicide, medical marijuana, greenhouse gas regulations, and campaign finance reform. Here in West Virginia, when natural gas companies sued Morgantown over its ban on fracking, claiming that state law preempts municipal law, the city defended its ban on federalism grounds among others.

Federalism can also be taken to extremes. Texas Governor Rick Perry cited federalism when claiming that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and recent Republican senate candidate, John Raese, wanted to abolish the EPA, the federal Department of Education, and the minimum wage on federalism grounds.

But, while politicians, usually Republicans, profess fealty to federalism, most do so opportunistically and set federalism aside when attempting to impose pet policies on unwilling states. Examples include congressional attempts to limit stem cell research and abortion, the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and nearly annual attempts to enact national medical malpractice reform.

In short, great mischief can be made both under the banner of federalism and in spite of it. Mr. Morrisey, a former congressional staffer turned lobbyist, seems an unlikely extremist, but political opportunism may be within his reach. Mr. Morrisey has earned the right to apply the principles on which he campaigned. But, if he applies federalism on a selective basis to achieve ideological goals that conservatives cannot achieve electorally and legislatively, the results won’t be good. In fact, it won’t even be Federalism. It will be Fudderalism.

Fudderalism, named for Elmer Fudd, the world’s greatest practitioner of monomaniacal fixation (“Kill the wabbit!”), is characterized by a lack of moderation, objectivity, and rigor that usually ends in disaster.

Objectivity may prove challenging for Mr. Morrisey. Ideally the federalism office will select issues impartially rather than cherry-pick them in pursuit of a political agenda. But, Mr. Morrisey has already announced his intention to hit three conservative hot buttons – EPA regulations; Obamacare, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s ruling that the law is constitutional; and gun control, despite the fact that law he pledges to fight hasn’t even been enacted. Meanwhile, Mr. Morrisey, who supports natural gas development, has been silent on the Morgantown fracking ban even though the principle of federalism suggests that Morgantown and not the state should decide the terms of development within municipal borders.

Another test of objectivity will be the reports and opinions produced by the new office. Will they focus narrowly on the legal questions at issue, carefully weighing the arguments for and against? Or will they read like campaign press releases designed to score political points with hyperbolic phrases such as “job killing”?

And how great will be their scope? Will they confine themselves to the legal merits of the laws in question or will they explore economic and social implications as well? If they adopt the broader perspective, how objectively and competently will they do it?

It’s one thing to claim on the campaign trail that EPA regulations kill jobs, but reports issued by the Attorney General’s office should meet higher standards. Claims should be substantiated and quantified and the underlying data made available so observers can verify the claims’ validity. In that regard, Obamacare may pose a problem for the Attorney General because, ideological objections aside, the measure is extremely beneficial for West Virginia, insuring more than a hundred thousand currently uninsured residents and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the state’s economy at very little cost, which is why Ohio Governor John Kasich decided his state should fully expand Medicaid under Obamacare despite his philosophical opposition.

So, will it be the Office of Federalism or Fudderalism? Will it adopt a non-partisan stance that examines laws impartially and reports on them objectively or will it become an ideologically driven, taxpayer funded, conservative propaganda mill?

So far, Mr. Morrisey has been “vewy, vewy quiet” on these questions. Let’s hope it’s not because he’s already out there hunting wabbits.

Sean O’Leary can be contacted at seanoleary@citlink.net. A version of this column containing links to references and statistical sources may be found at www.the-state-of-my-state.com.