Friday, January 18, 2013

An Unfair Gunfight

It has been five weeks since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut.  Perhaps surprisingly, the ensuing national dialog about gun responsibility following that slaughter of 26 innocent people is still actively continuing.  The far Left has reacted predictably by calling for a ban on virtually everything guns – a both inappropriate and ultimately unsuccessful position.  The far Right anticipates a federal seizure of public arms and is seemingly ready to shoot the next federal law enforcement officer that comes their way – an equally inappropriate and ultimately unsuccessful position.  Meanwhile, the vast middle class has collectively said “enough” to this indiscriminate violence, and wants at least something done about it.  But as usual, the substance of “something” can have many meanings, so we await a consensus on definitions, and are then dependent on some ONE(s) to actually do that something.

Most responsible people are coming to the same three overall conclusions on this topic.  Our gun violence centers around: 1) the weapons involved; 2) the people involved; and 3) the cultural atmosphere that disseminates and glorifies violence.  So the search for solutions involves looking into all three aspects to find the pieces needed for an overall reduction in the violence.  Good and new creative ideas are coming forth, as well as some very bad ones.  But as that search for substance continues by many, the purpose of this blog entry is not to debate specific proposals (although that might be appropriate for a future blog).  Rather, this blog is about looking ahead and saying, whatever ideas and proposals are arrived at, what is the chance of anything actually changing?  Sadly, I confess I believe the answer is “No.”  Why?  For several reasons.  And all of those reasons spell m-o-n-e-y.

The Constitutional arguments are not the problem.  The Supreme Court has clearly pronounced that the First Amendment protects free speech (and hence media/entertainment violent content), but that freedom has limits and is subject to some practical restrictions.  They have said that the Second Amendment protects the right to own firearms, but that right also has limits and is subject to restrictions.  So the Constitutional questions will be around where the limits can be set.  The action issue for Americans is simpler than complex legalities: it is, simply, who has the most money to demand the greatest influence on the outcomes of our discussion?  That answer is a) gun manufacturers and b) the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA) – as distinguished from the NRA rank and file.

Virtually all meaningful and substantive responses to gun violence will require action by Congress.  States can choose to be more or less active on this issue, but state laws are virtually meaningless with today’s cross-border gun trafficking and mobile buyers.  In today’s dysfunctional and ineffective Congress, there is simply too little interest in the national will or the national best interest.  It is all about personal political power and status.  Personal power starts with being elected and getting reelected.  And elections – as we have so recently seen – are all about raising money.  Lots of money.  And one gold mine for election money comes from appealing to gun corporations and their surrogate, the NRA.

Create enough fear of an adversarial federal government and gun sales will skyrocket.  Organizational groups stoking that fear and vowing to fight that threatening government will similarly watch donations and memberships rise.  Plus, in this economy, corporations can choose to play the “jobs card.”  The Colt gun corporation situated outside Hartford, Connecticut has already threatened to move its operation out of state if new regulations are passed, and Connecticut lawmakers have stalled consideration of such new regulations.  Similarly, the Remington corporation in upstate New York has threatened to move elsewhere if New York threatens their manufacture of the assault weapons used in the Sandy Hook and other shootings.  In this rural Republican county, job losses carry weight.  So once again we see that “hell hath no fury like a corporation whose profits are jeopardized.”

In addition to these overt corporate threats are the more subtle (and hidden) support gun manufacturers give to the NRA leadership team.  The NRA claims to have signed up 200,000 new members over this past month, but fail to mention the 70% fee discount offered to stimulate enrollments.  Nor do they mention the various polls that show a majority of their general membership favor reasonable new gun controls.  (They have spouses and sons and daughters, too.)  NRA leaders versus rank-and-file members should not be seen as all of one mind on these issues.

Nevertheless, the dollars speak.  Exact numbers are hard to come by.  But for 2012, the NRA and its PAC affiliates had approximately $200M in revenue, a $300M budget, spent $2+M for lobbying, and spent roughly $18M to influence political decisions and elections.  By contrast, the leading gun control organization – the Brady Campaign – had a paltry budget of $4M, and spent $60,000 on lobbying and $50,000 on political initiatives.  This is not a David and Goliath battle.  This is a baby David versus a whole army of Goliaths.  So when a Democratic or Republican Congressperson – who often may care less about the 2nd Amendment versus getting reelected – goes looking for campaign money, who do we think they will be listening to?

Until the financial rug is finally pulled out from under this dead weight of the NRA that has stifled considerations of any reasonable steps for reducing gun violence, then all the planning discussions will be for naught.  Vice President Joe Biden talked to all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions about gun violence.  But he never talked to the fundraisers of America about how to even the political odds for doing “something.”  The shame of our time is not our self-inflicted violence from killings.  Our shame is that we have reduced it to a financial argument over clout, a financial argument that will wait in line behind Congressional impasses over a debt ceiling, sequestration cuts, federal budgets, and a list of other issues.

The truth is that guns will always be a part of America’s heritage and cultural life.  And that can be perfectly OK.  Does any reasonable person really believe that banning weapons designed specifically to kill lots of people quickly is going to prevent my friend Larry from shooting a deer so that his family can eat venison all winter long?  Regrettably, some people will on occasion be killed by an angry or sick person or a criminal; our reality is that we have no absolute protection of safety over our lives.  Yet in today’s environment, there are far more controls, protections and tracking systems for buying and operating an automobile than in buying and owning a lethal weapon – yet in spite of such controls people are still able to successfully own and drive their cars.

This fight is only minimally about the Second Amendment; it is really yet another fight about the horrors of our political campaign financing.  Until gun safety forces raise enough cash to create a level (or better) playing field, the stark reality is that there will be no reduction in our gun violence.  No change in our environment of private one-person armies.  And where that non-action may continue to take us is ever more scary to contemplate.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Decline Of Leadership

Remember once upon a time when “America” and “Leadership” were virtually synonymous?  For our first 150 years, America was pretty much a rogue upstart in the family of nations.  An object of curiosity, an attraction to many who would come here, yet a model that few nations cared to emulate.  Instead, they were busy playing out their historical roles of kings and empires, living on the myth of a past history of leadership that was in steady and irrevocable decline.

Then came World War II.  America stepped into that chaotic horror as the sleeping giant now awakened, acknowledged by all as the latest big kid on the block.  Even America’s one-time ally, the USSR, would ultimately capitulate after 45 years of competition with America for supremacy.  By demonstrating its economic and military supremacy, America’s unique governmental and social forms became the ideal to follow, the model to copy.

America led.  Led the way in such things as human rights, economic growth, manufacturing, distribution of wealth across its citizenry, entertainment forms, republican style of government, rules of fair play and social conscience in the workplace, and in science and technology.  Almost as proof of our leadership, we landed two men on the moon; fantasy became reality, expanding our collective soul while fulfilling the imaginations of eons of dreamers.  We were a nation, and individual persons, that seemingly could achieve anything we put our mind to.

In fairness, it was not done without some stumbles, mistakes, wrong turns, and great resistance along the way.  We inappropriately meddled in other people’s governments too often.  We fought a stupid war in Viet Nam, learned little from it, and fought two more stupid wars two generations later.  Realizing the promise of equal rights had to overcome frightening and recurring violence, and these efforts to make these things right still continue.  Government irrevocably lost its aura of idealism late one night in a dark office building called Watergate.  And economic growth repeatedly veered in and out of downturns as large American corporations became increasingly more concerned about executive wealth and short-term corporate earnings than providing good products and services inside strong, long-term balance sheets.  In spite of the shortcomings, we still led.

Thirteen years ago, we passed into a new year, a new century, a new millennium.  With the occurrence of such a rare event, we could not help but collectively expect that a time of big change might likely be beginning.  And in fact, the last decade has proven itself to be such a changing time for Americans.  Unfortunately, it has mostly been a time of negative change.  Two wars have exhausted and nearly bankrupted us.  A constant threat of danger from external terrorists and internal psychopaths, both armed to kill innocent bystanders in large numbers, have left us in an ongoing, often-times irrational, fear of each other.  We have had an extreme economic collapse that has harmed versus rewarded people with no sense of fairness, nor accountability for those who caused it.  The “can do” America we have known has become the “can’t do much of anything” we know now, paralyzed by an inept national government representing a country divided in its sense of direction and solutions.  It is not clear we are even unified in our goals, hence no common ground seemingly can be found in our proposed solutions.

Yesterday, America fell over a cliché called the “fiscal cliff.”  The cliff was a self-imposed, suicide bullet of artificial legislation that was supposed to force unwilling lawmakers to come together and do something together in spite of themselves.  Instead, it has simply declared for all to see how far we have fallen from our high place of leadership.  Leadership by example has been replaced by Failure by example.  The small-minded thinkers who now occupy our Congress and statehouses will likely stumble and bumble their way to some small countermeasures to mitigate some of the possible consequences of this fall.  But they will be actions of retreat, not actions of leadership.

We have been so quick to arrogantly criticize other nations as they have grappled with their economic struggles, their governmental changes, their Arab Spring revolutions.  But we have very visibly lost our claim of a leadership role either internationally or here at home, because we have become a nation of problem makers, not problem solvers.  It is all our separate parts continually fighting with each other in a “no surrender” death spiral that has crippled our country.  We must stop this madness, and come back to our overriding commonality that honors and benefits all.  A shared willingness to let each person have a piece of the action and the reward, and to leave each other alone towards finding their own form of happiness.  Doing nothing, staying on this course, American leadership will continue a steady march into irrelevance.  Like the European nations of a hundred years ago, we will become another nation living on its fading past history instead of being an energized, driving force toward greatness.

This is the leadership cliff.  It can be a long fall from a high place of honor, respect and emulation.  Leadership, like reputation, is a fragile thing.  So very hard to first achieve; so easily and quickly lost if not cared for highly responsibly.  Today, we are treating our leadership highly irresponsibly.  It is reversible.  But our margin of time to do so is getting shorter with each day.  We will likely not even realize that it has passed us by until well after the fact.  Turning around this big ship of state to a new course will not be easy.  It will not be quick.  And it will require a great number of us to accomplish it.  But it all needs to be soon.  This is the challenge of, and the needed resolution for, this New Year of 2013.