Gun Culture as Rampant Consumerism

Nina Berman Gun Rally - CroppedThis image is cropped from a picture in an article by photojournalist Nina Berman, Gun Rally Fashion Then and Now. She went to the Come and Take it Rally in San Antonio last month. It’s one of these relatively common rallies where people walk around with loaded guns. The article is really interesting because she’s able to put it into perspective having photographed similar events in the early 1990s. And things really have changed, although I can’t make up my mind if it was obvious or not.

She notes that in the 1990s, there was the occasional person dressed up as Uncle Sam or a confederate soldier. But now that kind of stuff is completely overshadowed by the “happy consumers flaunting their bling.” And in describing it that way, she isn’t just talking about the “red bustier” and “matching lipstick” of the young woman in the picture here. She’s also talking about the “black rifle across her chest.” She even writes, “At the Alamo that day, I saw a whole new generation of gun owners who wore their weapons like Madison Avenue socialites wear their Hermes bags.”

Guns can be surprisingly cheap. But most of the guns you see on display are pretty expensive. And all the gun aficionados (you might call them “nuts”) are very eager to tell you how much they spent on this or that gun. As is well reported, fewer and fewer Americans own guns even while the total number of guns goes up. Of the people I’ve know, they either own no guns or they own a lot. And here I’m not even talking about the five or six that a hunter might reasonably have. People often have twenty, third, forty or more guns—collections worth tens of thousands of dollars.

So I think Berman is definitely onto something. Men have their reasons for stockpiling guns. And I understand them. I’m as much aware of the dangers of governments as they are. (However, they are mostly clueless about so many other threats to their life and liberty.) But after a while, the gun collection stops being about any concerns for one’s safety. If you have forty guns in a box in your closet, you’re a consumer—no more or less than a grammar school kid collecting Garbage Pail Kids.

But when you dress up like a Captain America ripoff and strap your assault rifle on with its “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker, you aren’t protesting. You are strutting your stuff. You are showing off. And that’s great! Just keep that bolt blocked by that colorful plastic straw. Safety first!

How to Catch a Cheetah

Captured CheetahCropped from a photo most likely by Aden Bishar.

Not that I could do it, but it isn’t that hard to chase down a gazelle. The issue is that these really fast animals cannot keep those speeds up for a long period of time. Humans are one of the relatively few animals that can run long distances in the heat. In fact, that’s how we used to hunt: run down animals until they were exhausted so we could easily kill them.

The same thing is going on with cheetahs, which can run up to 64 miles per hour. But I still think you’d have to be crazy to chase one. I mean, they’ve got huge, sharp… They can leap about… Look at the bones![1]

But Nur Osman Hassan knew he had to do something when two rogue cheetahs decided that it was a whole lot easier to just kill and eat from his trip of goats.[2] After 15 kills, he finally got a group of neighbors together and they chased the cheetahs. This was done in the middle of the day when the cheetahs’ reletively poor temperature regulation would be their undoing. They chased them for just four miles. Then, according to the BBC, “The cheetahs got so tired they could not run any more.”

This is where the story gets interesting. “The villagers captured them alive and handed them over to the Kenya Wildlife Service.” I’m amazed by this because this doesn’t strike me as the way we would have done it here. I know, cheetahs are threatened species. But in America, the farmers would have just killed the cheetahs and dared the authorities to do anything about it.

I suspect that Hassan especially wanted to catch the cheetahs and turn them over to the authorities, because he wants to be compensated for his 15 goats. But I still think these farmers are better people than we are. And this has nothing to do with any ideas of the noble “savage.” It is just that Americas have been so rich for such a long time that we have a real attitude about what we are supposedly owed.

In the case of Hassan, I suspect that he is none too certain that he’s going to get compensated for his loss. The report does not indicate just how big a farm he has, but I figure he’s a fairly wealthy guy by local standards because he wasn’t even around to manage the situation when it started. So he could easily have taken a more vindictive approach to the cheetahs. Regardless, the situation worked out well for everyone, including the cheetahs. And I hope that Hassan gets his money.

[1] In case you don’t recognize it:

[2] A group of goats is generally referred to as a herd, tribe, or trip. I picked the most oblique.


GOP Filibuster Games May Be Ending

Jonathan BernsteinThe days of the Senate filibuster may be numbered—at least nomination filibusters. I say this because Jonathan Bernstein seems to have given up on saving the filibuster. He knows more about the filibuster than anyone I read. And for the last couple of years, he’s always claimed that not only is the filibuster a good thing, but that it wasn’t going anywhere. He always thought that the two sides would work out their differences. But he concluded his article today, “I’m not as optimistic as I was last time that they’re going to strike a deal.”

More than predictions, however, Bernstein doesn’t seem to think that the Democrats have any choice but to destroy the filibuster. The whole article is a response to those who are wondering what the Democrats are thinking in all of this. According to him that’s clear, “It seems to me that Democrats will have little choice but to threaten majority-imposed rules change and, if necessary, carry out that threat.” Given this, why are the Republicans acting in such a way as to force a response?

He offers four theories, but I don’t find them particularly compelling. For example, he claims that some Republicans may actually want the filibuster destroyed but they don’t want to have to take the political hit by doing it later themselves. I don’t see that. For one thing, “What political hit?!” In 2005, even though filibuster use was actually down from where the Republicans had driven it, they claimed that the filibuster was “unprecedented.” What’s more, I don’t see the Republicans particularly concerned about what people say when they are in power. You see: I lived through the Bush Jr years.

The one theory I most believe is that the Republicans just don’t think the Democrats will do anything. And it isn’t at all clear that they are wrong. There are still Democrats in the Senate who somehow think they that they can maintain this antiquated and anti-democratic institution. My Senator Diane Feinstein continues to be appalled by the behavior of the Republicans, remarking two weeks ago, “The judiciary is too important to play partisan games with. And that’s exactly what’s going on here.” But when it comes down to it, she demurs.

But above all, I don’t think the Republicans are thinking anything at all. They are just playing with the power that they have, figuring that they can always work out a last minute deal with the Democrats. But Bernstein may be right that it is different this time. I saw Harry Reid as angry as I have ever seen him during the last battle. And this time it is so much worse. The Republican use of the filibuster reminds me very much of high school jocks picking on nerds. They do it because they can and because it is in their natures to be dicks. Why are the Republicans filibustering? Because that’s what they do. And if it brings an end to the terrible practice, that’s just great.


Bernstein is a hardheaded political scientist, but on this issue, he has been something of a Pollyanna. Rather than saying the filibuster is just flawed, he’s hoped that the Republicans would come to behave properly. But as I showed in January, over the past 50 years, Republicans Caused All Filibuster Abuse. Their nature is to push whatever political advantage they have. The Democrats seem to behave in accordance with norms. Republicans always try to expand them. That isn’t going to change.

The Best Healthcare in the World!

HealthcareThe United States is in the midst of the most sweeping health insurance expansions and market reforms since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Our 2013 survey of the general population in eleven countries—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—found that US adults were significantly more likely than their counterparts in other countries to forgo care because of cost, to have difficulty paying for care even when insured, and to encounter time-consuming insurance complexity. Signaling the lack of timely access to primary care, adults in the United States and Canada reported long waits to be seen in primary care and high use of hospital emergency departments, compared to other countries. Perhaps not surprisingly, US adults were the most likely to endorse major reforms: Three out of four called for fundamental change or rebuilding.

—Schoen, Osborn, Squires and Doty (Abstract to Access, Affordability, And Insurance Complexity Are Often Worse In The United States Compared To Ten Other Countries)

H/T: Aaron Carroll, Best in the World! (at Crappiness)

The Structural Unemployment Canard

European Industrial Production Then and Now

Paul Krugman offered the graph above that I think is really important. What it shows is the economic recovery in Europe following the beginning of the 2008 crisis and the beginning of the Great Depression. The results are stark: even though the downturn isn’t nearly as bad, Europe is only doing as well now as then. Even more important, the trend was great then and terrible now.

It isn’t a completely valid comparison. But it is something that conservatives everywhere should be ashamed of. What’s so dangerous about it is that more and more we hear conservatives making the most specious of arguments to explain it. According to this line of thought, the new economy ain’t like the old economy. There is a new normal and it sucks, so there’s just nothing we can do. This is brought up most of the time to explain why unemployment is so high. It isn’t that we are in a prolonged depression; it is that companies aren’t hiring because there aren’t enough mechanical engineers who are willing to work for $12 and no benefits.

No one has done better work on the “structural unemployment” canard than Dean Baker. But it just takes a bit of thought to show how wrong the idea is. If I had a business and I knew that I could make a killing if only I had more mechanical engineers, then I would hire them. To do that, I would offer more money to people who came to work with me. This would cause a pay spike in people who have the right skills—in this case, good mechanical engineering skills.

We don’t see this in the data at all. There is no area of employment where wages are going way up. Instead, we get anecdotal evidence that this or that employer just can’t find qualified people. And in every case, what find is the “$12 mechanical engineer” problem. As at any time, employers are desperate to hire employees who will work for far below the going rate. So there is no structural unemployment—just employers who are trying to cut costs so they can make more money.

Let me address one other side of this issue. I can hear libertarians complaining that the mechanical engineers are clearly not worth more than $12 to this employer. I agree! But clearly mechanical engineers are worth a lot more than that to most employers. So the problem here is that this employer either doesn’t have good enough ideas to justify hiring mechanical engineers or is too inefficient to afford to hire them to implement his good ideas. Regardless, libertarians shouldn’t turn him into a hero. He’s just one of those whinny takers they hate so much.

What is behind what’s going on in Europe (and to a lesser extent here) is that the economy lacks demand. It is entirely understandable that people in the 1930s didn’t understand what was going on and so responded to the depression in many bad ways. But before the crisis of 2008, it was unthinkable that our response to such a crisis would be even as bad as it was in the 1930s. I remember sitting in economics class in college and thinking, “I’m glad that we won’t have to live through that again!” I was assuming that we would use the combination of fiscal and monetary policy that easily fixes such problems. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the actual science of economics wouldn’t matter in the least. The depression goes on because there are many rich and powerful people who want it to go on.

Update (15 November 2015 3:01 pm)

Krugman wrote a followup to his piece:

The response I get from a lot of people is that things were different then, because Europe was rearming.

Um, and your point is?

There’s nothing special that makes military spending a better stimulus than other kinds of spending—actually the reverse, because spending on useful stuff can enhance the economy’s long-run potential as well as giving it a short-term boost. So when you attribute European recovery in the 30s to military spending, you’re saying that what the economy needed back then was expansionary fiscal policy—and it needed it so badly that even destructive spending had a positive effect.

This time around, the good news is that we have peace. The bad news is that Europe’s leaders, lacking the incentive to build up their armies, have listened to prophets of austerity, and cut spending when it should have been going up. And the result is a depression that is well on track to be worse than the 1930s.

I run into this all the time, “Roosevelt only got us out of the Depression by getting us into World War II.” These people just aren’t thinking; they’re grasping at straws to justify what they just “know.”

Skewed Focus and Libertarian Conspiracy

Libertarian Glenn BeckThis morning Capt Fogg brought my attention to yet another faux right wing scandal, Liberterrorism? The whole story is very simple: JPMorgan Chase is putting a limit of overseas money transfers for their small business account transfers—$50,000 per month. But this isn’t an actual limit on “small businesses”; it is a limit on “small business accounts.” It’s like a bank that says you can only make 5 account transfers on your economy personal checking account. If you want to do more, you pay for a more expensive checking account. You can get more details on the kerfuffle at Forbes, No, JPM Isn’t Banning International Wire Transfers, No Limits on Withdrawals Either.

I’m not sure that Capt Fogg is quite right to blame this right wing freak out on libertarians, however. It’s true that most of the conspiracy nuts do think of themselves as libertarians. There’s a natural link that runs the other way too (libertarians tend to gravitate toward conspiracies). Most libertarian thought is built on a misguided use of the slippery slope. If the government can demand taxes from people, what can’t they demand? Murder?! But in cases like JPMorgan Chase, most libertarians are especially not concerned.

One of my biggest complaints about libertarians is that they don’t actually care about liberty. They define it in such a way that one can end up a slave as long as one is not a slave to the government. I can’t tell you how many times libertarians have told me that corporate power over individuals doesn’t matter because the corporations don’t have armies. They can’t force you to do as they want. This is a bizarre claim. It assumes that threatened murder is the only kind of coercion that matters. (For more on this, see my article, Property Rights.)

So the idea that JPMorgan Chase might be abusing their customers is no problem at all. The standard libertarian argument goes like this: if the customers don’t like it, they can go with a different bank; if there is no other bank offering it, a great market opportunity will open up and it will become available; and even if not, they don’t have a gun to your head! I actually accept that argument in this case. The problems start when they talk about healthcare or a living wage.

Where this story really impacts with the libertarians is with the Federal Reserve. I’ll admit, what the Fed does is kind of mysterious. But for libertarians, it turns into a kind of Dan Brown novel. For these people, rather than trying to keep the economic system working efficiently, the people at the Fed are just trying to cause inflation to destroy the wealth of the “makers.” (Insert evil laugh here.) The fact that if anything, the Fed too much looks out for the interests of the rich, doesn’t seem to occur to them. As Matt Yglesias said, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” Yes it would! Because it cares a whole lot more about those with money than those without it.

Forbes noted, “The fear is that banks, and indirectly, the federal government have too much control over individuals’ money which sits in the form of deposits.” Of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with this change at JPMorgan Chase. But it feeds into what is overwhelming ignorance on the part of libertarians about how our monetary system works. Regardless of what conspiracies libertarians may believe in, all their thinking is distorted by focusing on imaginary or at least marginal problems and ignoring huge liberty-killing problems that we face right now.

Juggling and Calla Lilies

Francis BrunnOn this day in 1887, the great painter Georgia O’Keeffe was born. I don’t actually know how big a deal she is in the world of art. But here in the west of the United States she’s huge. And her work is quite compelling with big (sorry) sensuous lines with wonderful use of those pastels that one rarely sees in painting. On the other hand, just like Monet yesterday, her work is over exposed and I swear I see it in motel lobbies.

Other birthdays: playwright Gerhart Hauptmann (1862); poet Marianne Moore (1887); actor Ed Asner (84); actor Sam Waterston (73); musician Kevin Eubanks (56); and actor Jonny Lee Miller (41).

The day, however, belongs to the great juggler Francis Brunn who was born on this day in 1922. You’ve probably never hear of him because, hey, he’s a juggler. It’s a rarefied kind of art form. But he is quite simply amazing. What people immediately notice is that he juggles a very large number of objects. He was, for example, the first guy to ever juggle 10 rings. In the following clip he is juggling six and it looks more natural to him than drinking a glass of water is to me. But what is most remarkable about him is his ball work. He often works with just a single ball and it is fascinating. He’s like a jazz musician. Watch how he plays with the rhythm. He also does some things with spinning balls that defy belief. This video segment is a bit long. (Over 7 minutes.) But it is filled with lots of very funny stuff that he does with Jack Benny, including a final payoff that kills.

Happy birthday Francis Brunn!