Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Good Guy with a Gun

Following the events in Paris, I have read multiple right wing commentators who speculated that if only Parisians had had guns, there would have been a very different outcome at the Bataclan.  Well, they're probably correct, but I don't know that the different outcome would have been a better one.

I won't argue whether or not a gun ever helps to deter crimes.  I understand there is good data that points that way but there is also good data that indicates that the very presence of a gun makes things more dangerous.  That is what I expect would have happened at the Bataclan.

Imagine the scene with me.  There is a large crowd of people gathered in a fairly chaotic place when all of a sudden one person pulls out a gun and begins firing.  Then a second pulls out a gun.  Then a third and a fourth.  How would you know who is a "terrorist" and who is not?  A fifth person, whom we know to be a "good guy," pulls a gun and begins to fire at one of the previous four, who then fires back.  If that fourth shooter was actually not a part of the terrorist group, he or she likely thinks the fifth is.  Multiply that by many people pulling guns and beginning to shoot at someone else who is shooting, all the while a number of innocent bystanders have been hit.  (After all, none of these shooters are trained to fire at real people in highly stressful situations while others are shooting back at them.) Then the police arrive on the scene only to see multiple shooters with weapons drawn, shooting at others in the panicked crowd.  How do they know who is a "good guy" and who is not?  So they begin firing as well.  Multiply all of that as the number of "good guys with guns" goes up.   What began as an horrific event has turned into the shootout at the OK corral. 

Recently in less crazy settings we have seen incidents that went horribly wrong.  There is the story of the car jacking victim in Houston a few weeks ago who was shot in the head, presumably by a "good guy with a gun" who was trying to help stave off the crime.  Instead, the victim was shot, the carjackers escaped, and the "good guy" picked up his shell casings and fled the scene, no doubt worried that he would be arrested.

I'm reminded of the meme that went around a few weeks ago... A small boy was throwing stones at other children in the school yard.  The teachers knew that something needed to be done or one of the children would likely be injured so, they handed out more stones to the other children.  That makes sense...

Adding more guns to a terrible situation does change things... but not necessarily in a positive way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear and Religious Freedom

You have likely heard freedom of the press referred to as the "first freedom," because it is central to the functioning of a democracy but also because many folk think it is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights.  While it is part of the first amendment, it is not the first one listed.  The first freedom listed is freedom of religion.   One might argue that the order is irrelevant but I think it is not.  Freedom of religion tells us that the government has no say in the way that we order our values and shape our lives.  Freedom of speech and of the press is rendered impotent if the government first has the power to repress or support that most central of individual functions - the way we shape who we are, what we believe, what we value.  As with all of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights, religious freedom is aimed primarily at protecting those who fall outside of the centers of power - odd groups, minority groups, those who do not

Like all freedoms, freedom of religion comes with risk.  There are religious systems that by their nature are oppressive and destructive.  There are religious systems that by their very nature work against human progress.  There are even some that promote violence.  As a nation we have wrestled with the ways to deal with those issues and have decided - rightly I believe - that before the government can interfere with religious practice, it must show a compelling interest.  Fear is not a compelling interest.

Recently, because of the actions of a very small group of jihadists, Muslims have been the object of
fear and of discrimination.  One piece that comes up regularly is the wearing of burqas or niqabs which cover everything except the eyes (and sometimes even the eyes) by Muslim women.  The arguments go two ways.  One says that such treatment of women is oppressive (that is another post).  The second is more prevalent now in these days following the terrorist attacks in Paris.  It says that these loose fitting garments allow someone to hide weapons which are then easily used to commit violence and prevent others from being able to identify the person wearing the garments.

The fact that the vast majority of terrorists are men and that loose garments that cover the majority of the body are often worn by folk for very practical reasons (spend any time in northern Minnesota in January without everything being covered?) and that in many states in the US, citizens are allowed to openly carry weapons down the center of the street tells us that this is more about fear of the other than about terrorism.

It is worth understanding Muslim discussions and thoughts regarding hijab - modesty of dress for both men and women - in various Muslim cultures and theological traditions but that is basically irrelevant at this point.  Many religious groups including orthodox Jews, the Amish, Sikhs,  some groups of evangelical Christians, and some Muslim traditions have proscribed ways of dress for both women and men.  The question is whether or not the government has the power to define religious expression in terms of dress.   Perhaps a more blunt way to phrase the question is whether or not the government has the power to tell you or me what we must wear?  If some Orthodox Jew finds it offensive that my wife's forearms are showing as she walks down the street or some Amish folk think my dress is too colorful should they be allowed to enforce their religious understandings?  Should a Sunni from Saudi Arabia be able to make my female readers wear a niqab?  We would be up on our hind legs in a second if any of those enforcements were to take place.   We should feel the same repulsion at the idea that the government can make a woman who believes that her religious commitment to hijab requires her to be covered to uncover herself. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Economic Problem

I listened to most of the Republican debate last night and I have to wonder what universe they're living in... for that matter, a similar question can be raised with the Dems.

Again and again, I heard how they were going to rebuild a growth economy that would provide good, well paying jobs for Americans.  Regardless of how I feel about their tactics, the truth is I don't think that is a possibility right now.

Let's imagine the very best possible outcomes... a bunch of these big multi-national companies decide to come back to the US and build big modern factories... The fact is that those factories will hire some folk, but not nearly the number that a similar factory would have hired 50 years ago.  Automation is the word.  Robots and computers would be doing the work that Tom, Bill, John, Jean, and Sally did in the 50's.  Bob might still have a job making sure things are going well but the productivity of the individual worker is way higher which basically means that fewer flesh and blood employees are needed to produce even more goods.  As time goes on, there will likely be fewer of these jobs in the factories with more and more of the work becoming automated.  Even if those few workers did get higher pay (which in today's economy they do not), because of increased productivity, the lions share of income goes up the ladder to those who own the capital.  Labor doesn't count as capital and besides, there are scores of folk who would love to leave the fast food job for a chance at a position that pays closer to a living wage.  Of course we still need folk to design and program the robots... but those aren't blue collar jobs that pay well.

We could use serious work on infrastructure which does require skilled labor and just plain labor... but that requires bigger government and nobody is really talking about the kind of government commitment required to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges all across the country. 

Which leaves us service jobs which have grown.  The Obama presidency produced significantly more jobs that previous Republican administrations but the observation is correct, many are not jobs that provide a living wage.  The reality is that fewer of those service jobs will be needed in the near future.  Retail has rapidly shifted to the internet, putting scores of retail clerks out of jobs and moving those tasks to large distribution centers where much of the work can be automated and even that which is not requires radically fewer workers than your local Macys.  Think of it, there is no real reason that McDonalds really needs more than one or two people.  Virtually everything done at a fast food restaurant could be automated.  You could punch your order into a ouch screen, swipe your card, and wait for a series of computerized robots to provide you with a custom made burger without the possibility that someone overlooked your order or put extra pickles on when you had clearly stated none.  It won't be long until it is less expensive for a new franchise to do just that vs. hiring  real people who make mistakes, get sick, and get weekly paychecks.

So much work can be centralized.  More and more Universities are moving to online classes where a video of a professor who died a decade ago can continue to  "educate" students while, yes, computers can grade the papers.  Surgeons can use robots across the globe to perform surgeries and my insurance is rewarding customers who use online physicians.  Multi-site churches use star preachers and show the sermon on a big screen while volunteer musicians lead the worship.  One of our local wine tasting rooms has a bank of spigots on a wall with a touch pad, a description of each wine, and a card reader.  When you arrive, you receive a card with a computer chip to use at the pouring stations.  You then choose the wine you want to taste, slide your card, push the size of the taste, and hold your glass under the spigot where you receive exactly the pour you ordered.  At the end of your tastings you hand the card to the one person (not really required) who places the card in another reader that then tells you your bill... which as likely as not, you pay with a debit card swiped through another card reader.  The few places where real people are required - wait staff at a high end restaurant, a real pourer at the wine tasting room, artisan crafts, personal care givers for the elderly, etc.  - are luxuries.  We simply need fewer people to do more work... and as the technology improves, we will need fewer yet. There simply are not and will not be enough jobs out there.   And some of the work that does require real people, such as music, art, literature, is becoming devalued by the current means of distribution (digital via the internet) and those folk are less able to make a living at their work.

What all of that adds up to is that the current direction of our economy does not bode well for those without significant capital in the short term and for just about anyone in the long term (owning an automated factory doesn't do much for your bank account if there is no customer base to purchase your goods).

It really does feel to me as if we're headed to a choice between a future that looks like Star Trek The Next Generation where people spend their time doing things that bring meaning to their lives or a world like Blade Runner or The Hunger Games where the vast majority of folk live in dangerous and depressing places, just on the edge while a few reap whatever rewards there might be and live behind walls in gated, protected areas.

Now, I'll get a bit political... those who argue for smaller government push us towards a world like the latter.  That is certainly the world their current patron saint - Ayn Rand - would have advocate (think of the places in the world with "small government" like Somalia and tell me you'd really rather live there).  Even the more left leaning, worker centered views of some Democrats like Bernie Sanders just holds off that new world for a few short years.  As a society we will have to make decisions and a radical rethink of the way our economy needs to be shaped is necessary if we want to avoid that future.