The Second Amendment

protesters with guns and confederate flags
Protestors with guns and confederate flags. (Photo from dailymail.co.uk.)

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

As a result of the sideshow over the Confederate flag that has replaced any substantive debate about racism and gun violence in the US (something had to, right?) I ended up having a bit of an argument with a pro-gun commenter on an Economist article suggesting that it may not [just] be guns that are the problem in the US.

This isn’t a particularly novel argument. People generally assume Bowling for Columbine is a standard left-wing anti-gun polemic, but at the end Michael Moore — a card-carrying member of the NRA — ends up discussing Canada, which is nearly as well-armed as the US and yet has a far lower homicide rate, and concludes that there’s something paranoid at the heart of American culture that may be the real problem. Well, this blog post isn’t about the flaws in American culture — it’s about the right to bear arms.

Anyhow, my anonymous adversary argued that the point of the second amendment is that it has kept the US safe from the kind of ethnic cleansing and other large scale atrocities that afflicted Europe and Asia during the 20th century. In other words, for the enormous benefit of not having large scale ethnic cleansing occasionally we pay the price of having a high murder and suicide rate. “A well regulated militia” is meant to be understood as “The regulation of the militia by civilians”.

OK, I get it. My adversary is right. The NRA is right. The right-wing militias are right. The purpose of the second amendment is to allow us to regulate the militia — i.e. to overthrow the government so as to maintain our “free state”. Their interpretation is correct.

My adversary is wrong, I think, on his history.

The US has had plenty of opportunities for unjust government or corporate actions to be prevented by the armed populace — consider Douglas Macarthur’s use of cavalry and tanks against the Bonus Marchers — unemployed veterans no less! Or the Battle of Blair Mountain (John Sayles’s movie Matewan depicts the prelude to it). Oh yeah, and slavery. Where is there an example of real government excess being prevented by the right to bear arms? There are plenty of examples of government excess being resisted by the right to bear arms, the largest and most depressing examples being the resistance of some American Indians to the government, others (such as Ruby Ridge and Waco) simply being unsuccessful.

Perhaps the best example in favor of this argument — i.e. the one case where people bearing arms were able to inflict a defeat on the over-reaching Federal government — is Little Big Horn (and that victory was Pyrrhic).

And if you believe that the Confederacy was right, then that’s the largest example of the populace (including a large proportion of the military) being unable to prevent government overreach, no?

On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi defeated a superpower without using weapons. And when the injustices that were not prevented by the right to bear arms were mitigated (Congress paid the Bonus Army, Roosevelt allowed the miners to unionize), it wasn’t the right to bear arms that made it happen.

It seems quite clear that given the intent of the amendment, we should have the right to nuclear submarines, tanks, nerve gas, atomic warheads, and so forth. After all, how can we credibly regulate the militia with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns? The disparity in power between the government’s forces — military and paramilitary — and ordinary citizens has never been greater and shows no sign of narrowing. Even when the gap was considerably smaller, the second amendment proved of little use in preventing horrible injustices (or defending slavery). The only real conclusion is that we need to abolish the second amendment — it fails to provide the promised benefits; it costs us too much and gives us nothing.

How to fix the United States

The problems of the United States are entirely self-inflicted. Fixing them is a huge political problem, even though solutions are easy to see. Here are ten ideas (that are probably politically untenable) that would address major problems in the US.

  1. End the War on Drugs. Triage recreational drugs based on whether they’re harmless, mostly harmless, or harmful and regulate them accordingly (available over-the-counter, like aspirin; available with restrictions, like booze and cigarettes; available with some kind of precaution (e.g. sign a risk waiver)). This will have a huge positive impact on inner city decay, deny organized crime, our enemies in Afghanistan, and various insane guerilla groups in South America their funding, reduce prison overcrowding, and free up the police, FBI, and judiciary to deal with stuff that actually matters. By all means allocate some of the wasted money to rehab, public education, and so forth. But let’s stop pretending that (a) this war is worth fighting, (b) it’s winnable, or (c) illegal drugs are categorically worse than legal ones.
  2. End the War on Terror. Let’s rename and rethink it. Terrorism can’t be beaten by fighting wars (indeed, wars tend to create terrorism).
  3. Pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Get out with indecent haste. Call it defeat. Call it victory. Call it “peace with honor”. It doesn’t matter. In the long run we will lose in both.
  4. Nationalize Health Care. Probably the best way to do this is go 100% public, then rebuild private insurance so that it doesn’t suck. Public health care can unsnarl the bizarre and evil relationships between insurance companies, hospitals, and other parts of the healthcare clusterfrack that costs the United States more per person than anywhere else on Earth and delivers third world results.
  5. Make Preventative Health Care a Priority. E.g. if you don’t get an annual checkup, all your co-pays go up by $25.
  6. Reduce US Military Spending to Sane Levels. No less a publication than the Scientific American once said the US could reduce military spending to 1/3 of current levels and still be more powerful than the next two most powerful countries put together.
  7. Tax Gasoline More. It only took a month of cheap gas to restore pickup sales to former levels.
  8. Slowly Ramp Up Energy Prices (via Taxation). The best alternative energy is energy conservation. Get people to cut power consumption or use alternatives by increasing the cost of energy, especially fossil fuel energy.
  9. Tax Speculative Money Market Transactions. George Soros recommended this after the Asian market meltdowns of the 90s. It’s still a good idea.
  10. Break the ISP Monopolies. I don’t care how you do it, but eliminate local ISP monopolies. In my neighborhood I have two choices — DSL or Cable, each with one possible provider. This isn’t competition (as evinced by the fact that the prices are indistinguishable). Nationalize it or break it up. Or do a bit of both.
  11. Break the TV Monopolies. Why do I have to buy channels bundled? TV as we know it is dying. Kick it in the head so that it evolves into something less retarded.
  12. Eliminate Local School Boards. Teach biology in science classes. Teach religion in religion classes. Having a national or even just state standardized syllabus would allow economies of scale in education that simply can’t exist in the current mess.
  13. Use the Internet to Fix Assessment. Use national testing schemes or have educational institutions assess students from other educational institutions. Professors should be graded on how well they are able to impart knowledge to students, not on how easy their courses are. Students should get grades based on what they know and can do. Eliminating the assessment feedback loops (where students grade professors and professors grade students) will help fix the US college system. If your professor isn’t grading you, then suddenly you want the professor to teach you.
  14. Use the Internet to Fix Teaching. This is already happening. You can download lectures from Harvard and UC Berkeley from iTunes. Why listen to your professor if another professor covers the same material better? What century is this?
  15. Force Retailers to Display Actual Prices. Pretty much everything in Economic theory involves actors having good information. In the US you generally need to perform mental gymnastics to figure out how much the simplest things cost. Fix it. The benefits will be incredibly huge.

Obama

If you haven’t read the transcript of his victory speech, you should. If not for pro-forma requirements (thanking Joe Biden, etc.) and gratuitous insertion of campaign slogans (“Yes we can”) this is a speech — at least in written form (I’ve only heard clips) for the ages, Gettysburg Address quality (and of course, pretty much no-one heard the Gettysburg Address).

But, of course. the Gettysburg Address is nothing without context. Had it not been uttered at that time and place it would not be significant. If Obama’s speech is merely the prelude to epic failure, it will not be well-remembered, or remembered at all.

Still, it’s a great speech. It’s not terribly long, and manages to draw together threads of societal and technological change (the way he uses the changes in the life of a 106 year old voter is brilliant), put our current situation in an historical context, transcend political divisions, begin the all important task of expectations management, and even manages to be pretty humble.

Perhaps even more remarkable, Obama appears to draw his oratorical rhythm from the secular 19th century rather than the increasingly liturgical 20th century. Unlike Clinton or Martin Luther King (two excellent speakers of recent memory) he doesn’t sound like a Southern Baptist preacher (of course, MLK actually was one).

In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.

Let’s remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.

Those are values that we all share. And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.

As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

Great stuff. I just never like it when a speaker tells me he’s being humble. It’s ok to say we “must be humble” but it’s simply not humble to say you “are being humble”.

Anyhow, having run the best election campaign in living memory, the easy part is done.

Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch…

Anyone with any amount of political radar knows that Letterman leans Democrat and Leno leans Republican, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Letterman is a little more critical of McCain than another talk show host might be but it’s not like Letterman doesn’t get along with McCain or give him a lot of slack when he’s on the show. (After all, McCain announced his run on Letterman.)

McCain has screwed the pooch so many ways here it’s not funny. First, as Letterman points out in no uncertain terms, he doesn’t even trust Palin to run an election campaign, let alone anything of consequence. Second, he isn’t rushing to Washington to save the country, but to Katie Couric for a sympathetic interview. Third, if you’re going to ditch a talk show to “save the country”, don’t go do another interview on the same network so that the talk show host has live footage of you getting makeup applied while you’re “rushing to save the country”.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

It’s official: Paris Hilton > John McCain

You’ve probably already seen this video but in case you haven’t, well there it is.

Paris Hilton’s energy policy is actually better than McCain’s. It’s probably not intended to be taken seriously, but it’s worth noting that the two things it adds to Obama’s policy comprise an environmentally friendly version of McCain’s offshore drilling proposal which, itself, will not yield significant results in the short term, and an electorally attractive but pointless and perhaps expensive proposal to give US automakers tax incentives to do what they should have been doing all along, and are now scrambling to do without incentives — i.e. build fuel efficient cars.

US car makers spent the last twenty years bribing congress to block improvements to the CAFE fuel economy standards which would have helped make them ready for the current crunch and possibly averted it in the first place, and bailing them out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into is just a waste of time and money since all they’ve achieved in this period is to become almost economically irrelevant.

There’s been discussion lately of removing GM from the Dow Jones index since it is by far the lowest market cap member (5.8B as of writing; compare this to Caterpillar (makers of tracked earth moving equipment, among other things) with a market cap of 42.7B) and — some argue — technically insolvent. It might be replaced by Toyota (131.6B) and/or Honda (57.4B), both of which are solvent, profitable, and currently manufacture and sell reliable, fuel efficient cars in the US without special tax incentives or subsidies.

So, Paris’s energy policy is better than McCain’s since it’s essentially McCain’s existing policy (which achieves almost nothing in the short term) tempered by environmental considerations (which will prevent it from achieving much good or damage in the long term) plus Obama’s policy (which is what we should have been doing all along) plus an electorally attractive, but vague, bad idea (giving more money to failed US automakers). If she were a real candidate, I’d read this as (a) triangulating McCain’s offshore drilling proposal by saying “sure we’ll do it, but in an eco-friendly way” either turning it into a non-issue or forcing McCain to differentiate himself by saying he’d do it in an eco-hostile way, (b) co-opting Obama’s policies which are basically good, and (c) proposing a vague, but probably popular, “US worker-friendly” policy that can be disposed of after the election because it’s “no longer necessary”. I’d actually say this is better packaging than Obama’s campaign has managed for, essentially, identical policies, but Obama can’t afford to pull stunts like (c) because he’s taken more seriously than Paris Hilton (or McCain) and he’s likely to be required to put dollar amounts on it. Still, not bad for a bimbo.