Please focus any reading you do on the next post below. However, after rereading that post (written in anger, albeit justified IMO) it is fair to make one more point that does more than blame one small group of people. It takes more than just passionately anti-gun control citizens and politicians to stop all efforts to prevent future horrific mass shootings. It takes a general public that, in between high-profile massacres – places gun safety measures low down on its list of priorities and completely off the list of reasons why they vote how they do.
For more on this point, see here.
The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999. (Some estimates are lower.) About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.
At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:
- Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
- Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
- Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?
Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics. They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control. Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.
Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.
The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –
- Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
- Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
- What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
- At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
- How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.
Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)
A reminder: All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Political system obstacles –
- “Happiness is a worn gun.” Among the fetishists. Harpers 2010, 7pp.
- Americans’ anti-govt gun fantasy. Book excerpt in Slate, 2017, 12pp.
Recommended to read 1 of those 2.
- The NRA is morphing into an even more paranoid and purely-partisan far-right-wing group. Short.
- A list of restrictions on guns Republicans are busily dismantling.
- The real problem: A deep partisan divide on a wide range of intensely-felt cultural issues of which guns may be the worst. A must-read for our discussion.
What (if any) gun control might help?
- None; gun restrictions do not reduce crime. Direct rebuttal here.
- We must:
- Wrong. Only large-scale gun control would do any good, and USA must decide if we want it, says this conservative convert to gun control.
- Key: Keeping guns away from the mentally ill is hard. Recommended NYT.
NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.
This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.
We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.
What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.
- The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
- Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.
For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.
I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The case against the Electoral College. Recommended, or see here for more.
- Why we even have it by a historian of the Constitution. Recommended.
- A conservative says abolish it.
- In defense of the Electoral College:
- National Popular Vote initiative:
- The Republicans’ current structural advantage in American politics. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?
Welcome back from our two week break! It was nice for me to get off of the treadmill for a while. But, given how important this first topic of 2018 is, I’m glad to be back hampstering away.
That the United States has been a victim of foreign interference in the 2016 election it is now pretty much beyond dispute. This is true even if there is no way to know whether Russian actions significantly swayed the outcome, and no matter the degree of collaboration by the Trump campaign the special prosecutor eventually finds. Moreover, the issue of election tampering will intensify over the next few years.
Of course, Russia, the United States, and other countries routinely try to sway politics in other countries, including electoral outcomes. We make key concessions in negotiations to help a friendly government win its next election. We fund the development of civil society institutions overseas and even opposition political parties. During the Cold War, both sides conducted elaborate propaganda and disinformation campaigns. And, yes, we have a sordid record of facilitating regime change, including of democratically-elected governments.
What is new to worry about? From what I read, mainly two things: The tools used to interfere in elections have evolved in dangerous ways, and some of our major adversaries (notably Russia) have a strengthened interest in sewing chaos and public feelings of illegitimacy in Western political systems. In other words, interfering in elections themselves, not just in politics, is becoming easier and it’s being done to us. For the moment craven Republicans in Congress don’t seem to care much. But, people at all levels of American government are working furiously on this problem
Which types of threats should we most worry about, and what can be done to stop them? I think a good start would be to distinguish different types of interference tools and objectives so we can better distinguish the same old same old political meddling from actual attempts to sabotage our electoral institutions and systems. So, on Monday I will open our meeting by trying to do just that. Then we can talk about Trump/Russia, propaganda in an age of social media, and how best to protect our democracy from these news threats.
I don’t see how we can avoid the astonishing specter of the Trump campaign’s collaboration with a foreign power and the GOP’s spineless acquiescence to it. But, I hope we can talk about larger issues, too.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Russia and Trump: What do we know (so far from the public sources)? What remains unknown? Will GOP ever take it seriously? Endgame.
- Types of election “interference?” Overt v. covert. Legal v. illegal. Influence v. sabotage? Campaigns v. electoral systems?
- History lessons: How common has this sort of thing been – including by USA? Does it work? Morality/backlash issues.
- Vulnerability: How vulnerable are we now and why? Federal? State/local? News media? Social media? The voters?? Why has so little been done?
- Policy: What are best ways to prevent improper interference? Modernizing election systems? Deterrence with offensive capability? Negotiations?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The startling breadth and depth of its 2016 interference. Recommended.
But, no evidence hackers changed any actual votes cast.
- The GOP itself (RNC) may have collaborated.
- Will Trump and the GOP let it all happen again in 2018 and 2020? Recommended.
- History: Election interference during the Cold War.
- The startling breadth and depth of its 2016 interference. Recommended.
- Our current vulnerability:
NEXT WEEK: The Electoral College and a workaround.
Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.
First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?
- A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
- Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
- Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
- Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
- Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
- Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?
That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.
A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.
I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.
To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.
Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?
I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?
A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
How Democratic is the USA –
- Two big expert surveys said we’re doing pretty well but some reasons to worry – especially with Trump’s election. Recommended.
- Wrong. We are an oligarchy, another study said (in 2014!)
- Our political system has become biased against one major party and that’s bad in a democracy.
- Important: Healthy civic institutions matter more than just having elections.
Do we have too much democracy?
- USA has too much democracy and it may destroy us. , center-right author Andrew Sullivan. Related: The voters are the problem; ignorant, erratic, etc.
Recommended to read one.
- Conservative POV: Too much democracy + unconstitutional expansion of govt are the real problems.
Threats to US democracy –
- Three big threats: Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and Big Money in politics. Recommended;
by a Republican. More on the GOPs assault on voting rights.
- Economic inequality, because it reinforces political inequality. Recommended.
- Our Constitutional system was not built for this level of economic inequality. Interesting.
- Protest is being criminalized by GOP governments.
- How to deepen U.S. democracy.
- Obama’s farewell entreaty to protect our democracy from what is coming.
NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.
That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.
We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?
I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
- Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
- Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
- Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
- Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
- Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
- Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)
- Overall summaries of problem:
- Corporate lobbying is the real problem. Recommended.
- California: In CA its the Democrats that dominate the money.
- More facts and figures:
- [Update Sunday]: Politics is NOT all about the money, this liberal argues. Recommended.
- Conservative POV: All of this is highly misleading, part 1 and part 2. Convincing?
NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?
What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.
Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.
We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:
- Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
- Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
- Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
- Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.
Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).
But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).
Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:
- Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
- Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
- Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
- Depressing innovation and R&D;
- Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
- Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.
Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Easy reads:
- Harder: America needs more competition. The Economist magazine.
- Hard: Market power in the U.S. economy today.
- The other side POV: Let’s be skeptical of how bad this problem is, especially in the tech industry? Easy.
- Political monopolies: Summary of Dark Money , a book on the raw political power of hyper-concentrated industries.
NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.