The fault is not in our stars

Congress is back in Washington—a warning that reminds me of the comment many years ago by then-mayor Jeff Friedman of Austin, Texas, who, when asked for his thoughts about the fact that the state legislature was coming back to town soon, said “Lock up the kids and dogs.”

The legislative branch and the president are back in town, in theory, to deal with the prospect of more than $600 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect next week. They’re not making much progress, as you might imagine.

Remember, the “fiscal cliff” is a threat the legislative and executive branches imposed on themselves a year and a half ago. To resolve an impasse over extending the debt ceiling so the government could continue to borrow money and pay its bills, our “leaders” set this time bomb of higher taxes and cuts to federal programs to force themselves to come to agreements on taxes and spending and debt ceilings before the “unthinkable” happened. Well, now we’re on the doorstep of the unthinkable, and look what they’re doing. (By the way, the Treasury department says we’re going to hit the debt ceiling next week!)

Perhaps more annoying than our elected leaders’ inability to govern—for that is what it really comes down to, their inability to do what they were sent there to do—is the realization that the focus on the fiscal cliff isn’t what’s really important anyway. Not to say that higher taxes and program cuts don’t matter, but that the real cause of the government’s economic problems—spending more than we take in—still isn’t being addressed.

The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress’ own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren’t addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.

We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country’s finances.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy recently offered another on-target analysis that reminds us the real problem isn’t the fiscal cliff, it’s the historic lack of honesty on the part of the political parties.

The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We’ve funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties’ control of the White House and Congress.

At the same time, we’ve cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.

For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party’s over.

But they do want to admit—they’re desperate to admit—that the other party is causing the problem. As for the immediate issue, after the House speaker and the president couldn’t come up with a deal last week John Boehner has insisted that the Senate must come up with a plan and then the House will consider it, while the Democratic leadership in the Senate “stands strong” insisting that the House approve a measure it’s already turned down…or else.  (Or else what?) And just while I’ve been writing this, CNN reported that President Obama is about to make a new offer, until it reported that he won’t.

As disheartening as it is to see our national leadership apparently incapable of acting in the nation’s best interests, the situation becomes damn near depressing when you recognize who is really to blame: it’s us. You; me; them; those guys over there, too—we are responsible for the evolution of a system in which ideological extremists representing the view of a minority of citizens are able to reach positions of national power, and we are responsible for not holding our leaders to account for not putting national interests first, and we are responsible for taking more and more from our government but not being willing to pay for what we take.

The solution to our government’s economic problems won’t come out of Congress this week or next; it won’t come from refusing to reduce spending on government programs (which, frankly, no one is doing), nor from refusing to raise taxes and threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue (which, candidly, more than one are doing). It will come, when it comes, with the realization by Americans that America can’t keep putting its everyday expenses on a credit card and only make the minimum payments indefinitely and still expect to remain fiscally healthy.  It doesn’t work like that, and we have the national debt and the federal budget deficit to prove it.

Calvin’s dad explains it all

Only a few more shopping days left…thank God.


Thanks, Calvin and Hobbes and

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.

Gay marriage news, the Anglo-American edition

It was only in passing that I mentioned last month’s election results that put another four states on the side of the angels in the fight to legalize gay marriage. There’s been an important development since then: the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in two cases on the issue, opening the possibility of a legal precedent that will apply to every state in the union.

Supporters of giving same-sex couples the right to marry are enthused, since this decision comes in relatively close proximity to (1) President Obama announcing his support for gay marriage, (2) another appeals court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (Windsor v. United States), and (3) people in more states voting in favor of same-sex unions. Emily Bazelon writes in Slate with some great background on the two cases themselves, and offers a warning: don’t assume that because four justices agreed to hear the cases that there are five of them who will rule in favor of gay marriage. Conventional wisdom has it that the court follows the people, but I’m trying not to get overly optimistic: it could be that the justices who said yes to taking up the matter are predisposed to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act or to defer to states on the whole thing…and 39 of them have outlawed gay marriage either by statute or in their constitutions.

I wish we could get some of those states, or Congress, to think about this issue in the way Britain’s government proposes: legalize same-sex marriage in civil law, and make the clear stipulation that religions which object cannot be forced to perform gay weddings.

Face it: most of the objection to same-sex marriage in our country claims a basis in religious teaching. I sympathize with people who are afraid that legalizing a practice condemned by their religion would somehow infringe on their own religious freedom, although I don’t think that would happen in this case. But the core issue as I see it is not one of religious freedom, it’s a question of equal protection under the law. To try to put it simply, it’s not fair that only some citizens can enjoy the benefits of being married under law; if it’s OK for some it must be OK for all, assuming it doesn’t hurt society at large. And let’s don’t get sidetracked on age limits—we already prohibit minors from entering contracts—or possible plural marriages or bigamies, which might be seen to have built-in disincentives and punishments. (Remember the old joke—what’s the penalty for bigamy?  Two wives.)

Think of any given religion as a private club: no one of us is required to join that club but we each have the freedom to do so, and those who do join should be prepared to follow the club’s rules. If one club’s rules prohibit same-sex marriage, that is the club’s prerogative; but the rules of any one club or other are not binding on those of us who didn’t join the club.

The civil law is what’s binding on everyone in the civil arena, and it must be applied equally and fairly to all. The British plan makes it clear that each club/religion retains the right to apply its own rules to its members while inside its clubhouse, but that there is a civil law applicable on the broader scale to the rest of society regardless of the rules inside Club A or Club B.

So, there’s a lot to keep an eye out for on this issue, what with the courts and the lawmakers getting involved. There’s one more front, too, but in this case there’s a possibility that America’s emerging embrace of same-sex marriage, and perhaps of homosexuality in general, could have unintended and disastrous consequences. I refer, of course, to Choire Sicha’s discovery of just how gay marriage could lay waste to the quaint vacation industry:

Yes, America will have to rise up against the menace of bearded gay schoolteacher couples who like to weekend and all those inn-going lesbians with lawyers. With the end of small businesses in America, we’ll just go state-by-state and repeal these gay marriages and everything will be fine. That’s exactly how this will shake out.

Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.