Author Archives: Julian Adorney

About Julian Adorney

I write fantasy, romance, and economics. My first novel, The Dragon's Curse, is coming soon.

In National Security, Obama Minimizes Role of Courts

Image

In matters of national security, the Obama administration’s disrespect for the courts can be seen in three examples.

  1. In 2012, the relatives of two United States citizens killed by drones filed a lawsuit charging that the deaths were unconstitutional. Defending the government in court, deputy assistant attorney general Brian Hauck argued that the courts have no role to play in judging political assassinations. Americans’ right to life, he claimed, cannot be enforced either before or after the targets were killed.  He further argued that “Courts don’t have the apparatus to analyze” issues such as political assassination, and that such decisions must be handled entirely by the executive branch. As Glenn Greenwald put it, you have rights, “It’s just that nobody can enforce them or do anything to us (the government) when we violate them”.
  2. In July 2012, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, learned that the FISA court had ruled at least part of the administration’s surveillance to be unconstitutional.  When the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act request for said court opinion, it was given the run-around by the DoJ.  The DoJ took four months to respond to the request, and their eventual response was that the opinion was classified.  Apparently even when the administration is caught red-handed doing something unconstitutional, the American people aren’t allowed to know what it is.
  3. If the NSA wants to gather information on a target, they have to go through the FISA court—but they can determine for themselves when the court’s requirements have been met.  They submit the general guidelines for their request—not including the specific targets—and the FISA court then approves those guidelines.  The NSA then determines, for itself, whether or not its investigation stays within the bounds of the guidelines.  Now it’s possible that they are Constitutional hawks who stay strictly within the bounds of the FISA court’s guidelines.  But, given the Obama administration’s willingness to redefine key legal language, I’m inclined to doubt such a claim.  And it seems unlikely the NSA will be coming forward anytime soon to add more transparency to their dealings.

I’m not going to venture into hyperbole and start calling our president “King Obama”.  I’m not penning any sort of broad expose of the relationship of the executive branch and the judicial branch.  But these three cases do indicate that, when it comes to national security, Obama prefers to keep the courts out.

Three Degrees of NSA

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 8.07.01 PMIn the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA-related links, defenders of the program are claiming that the program’s narrowly tailored and only targets terrorists and associates.  For instance, Marc Thiessen of the Washington Post described the NSA’s surveillance as putting together a “field of dots”, where each dot represents a person.  “If you are not communicating with (a) terrorist”, he writes, “your dot is not touched”.   This same claim has been repeated a dozen times by different defenders of the program.

But statements like these are only true if you’re willing to radically redefine “communicating with”.  Testifying to Congress, National Security Agency Deputy Director Chris Inglis discussed how the NSA might use a “three-hop” query to decide who to investigate.  What this means is that the NSA can examine people who communicate with the terrorists (one hop) and then everyone who communicates with that person (two hops) and then everyone who communicates with anyone in that second circle (three hops).

Here’s how that might play out in the real world.  Let’s say your buddy’s a journalist who interviews—not a terrorist—but the friends and family of a dead terrorist (as the New York Times did when they ran a story on Samir Khan).  That right there is two hops.  So they’ll automatically investigate your buddy’s data, even though he didn’t actually talk to a terrorist.  But because the NSA uses a three-hop system, they would then examine your data, as well as that of anyone else your buddy happened to call, email, or IM.

But let’s take this farther.  Let’s say that your buddy happened to actually interview a suspected terrorist.  That’s one hop.  You’re the second hop, along with everyone else your buddy spoke to.  The third hop is all of your friends and family, and the friends and family of everyone else who ever spoke to your buddy.

Washington’s Blog lays out the math: “If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist”.

This is like that old game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”: it’s “Three Degrees of NSA”.  Only, if you win, you get to have your phone calls (and emails, and Facebook chats) monitored by the government.  Is the NSA’s dragnet spying a program we want to live under?

Good Speech, Mr. Obama–If Only It Were True

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.42.56 AMI’ll give President Obama credit: he’s a heck of a speaker. Speaking to the National Defense University this past Thursday, Obama preached a deep concern for human life and civil liberties. It was a great speech. There’s only one problem: very little of it is true.

Let’s go through the speech and compare rhetoric to reality:

Rhetoric: “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose—our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.

Reality: The news that Obama respects state sovereignty must come as a surprise to Pakistan. Their elected officials have repeatedly claimed that US drone strikes violate their sovereignty. Indeed, a Peshawar high court claimed the strikes are illegal. And yet Obama has made no plan to stop these attacks.

More broadly, Obama’s rhetoric implies that his strikes are geographically constrained—that he cannot strike “wherever we choose”. But how geographically constrained can they really be? Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan have all suffered drone strikes. Outside of the Middle East, he has targeted Mali, Somalia, and North Africa. The drone war now rages on 2 continents and at least 7 countries; if Obama truly cannot strike “wherever we choose”, than where on earth can he not strike?

Rhetoric: “And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set”

Reality: According to the New York Times, the Obama administration reclassifies all victims of drone strikes as “militants”, provided they’re males age 18 or older. That means male shopkeepers, bakers, and fathers are declared “militants” just because they died in a military strike. Obama has embraced the same classification we used in Vietnam: “How do we know they’re militants? Because they’re dead”.

Obama can claim that his administration tries not to kill civilians, but his changing the definition of the word renders this claim meaningless. I try hard to avoid references to George Orwell’s most famous book, but to reclassify any male killed as a “militant”—be they bakers, shopkeepers, etc—and then to claim that we try not to kill civilians is, frankly, doublespeak.

Rhetoric: “That means that – even after Boston – we do not deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence”

Reality: Obama signed the 2012 NDAA, and the indefinite detention provision therein (Section 1021) expressly allows the government to “throw someone (ie a US citizen) in prison in the absence of evidence”. Admittedly, Mr. Obama has not used this power yet. But by signing both bills, he gave not only himself but also every future president the power to throw US citizens in prison without evidence.

One could argue that Obama had no choice but to sign the bill, since it was passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses. But given the obvious unconstitutionality (not to mention unpopularity) of the indefinite detention provision, Obama could certainly have used his bully pulpit to rally the people and convince Congress to strike Section 1021. Alternatively, he could have backed up a veto threat with Congressional lobbying, and probably convinced at least 1/3 of Senators or Congressmen to vote against the bill. That would have allowed Obama to veto the bill and protect US citizens’ right to trial. Put simply, the most powerful man in the world could have taken a stand and won. The fact that he refused to do so says much more about his respect (or lack thereof) for the 6th Amendment than does his speech on Thursday.

At the very least, Obama could have abstained from suing to keep the indefinite detention provisions in place.

Rhetoric: “a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways”

Reality: According to Obama officials, the war on terror is already perpetual.  According to Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, the war will continue “At least 10 to 20 years” after 2012. Admittedly, Obama cannot be blamed for getting us into the war on terror. But rather than end it, his administration had made plans to perpetuate the conflict into the 2030s. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman put it, “Welcome to America’s Thirty Years War”.

One reason the war on terror will go on for so long is because the US creates its own enemies through blowback. For those unfamiliar with the term, “blowback” is the idea that when we bomb a village in (say) Pakistan, the survivors don’t like us very much. Children who lose parents grow up to hate the US; fathers who lost children sign up to wage war on the nation that bombed their home. By bombing villages and killing civilians, the US fuels hatred and inadvertently insures a steady supply of recruits for our enemies. Obama’s wartime policies are probably undertaken with the best of intentions; but they are inadvertently sowing the seeds for the sort of perpetual war that he condemned on Thursday.

Rhetoric: “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process”.

Reality: Obama has, to date, ordered drone strikes that have killed at least 4 US citizens. He has done so without trying these citizens and without judicial approval; his idea of “due process” seems to consist of him reading over someone’s file and deciding whether or not the target merits death. No doubt he takes this responsibility seriously. But still, if that—an executive unilaterally deciding whether or not to kill a citizen—represents due process, than every tyrant in history has exercised due process just by having final approval on who their regime assassinates.

This is not to say that Mr. Obama is a tyrant; it is only to point out that due process means more than executive decision on assassination targets. Due process means the rule of law and trial in court. Under no definition of the term can Obama claim that’s what he exercised.

And, of course….Gitmo.

Rhetoric: “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility (ie Guantanamo Bay) that should never have been opened”

Reality: Obama cannot close Guantanamo Bay alone, but his actions have actually expanded—rather than diminished—the human rights abuses going on inside. For instance, he approved holding 47 prisoners indefinitely, without charge or trial, in the facility. Similarly, according to MSNBC his Justice Department, “has routinely fought court orders to release detainees who won their habeas cases in the D.C. Circuit”. Many of these fights have been successful, leaving detainees behind bars.  If Obama is serious about ending Guantanamo Bay, he shouldn’t be so active in expanding the abuses that occur inside.

Obama is right to blame Congress: it takes a Congressional act to close the facility, and Congress’ failure to do so is shameful. But Obama is far from powerless in this fight; if he were serious about ending the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay, there is a laundry list of actions he could take. While Obama can shell out some blame for what happens at Guantanamo Bay, he should reserve the lion’s share for himself.

*   *   *

I was excited when President Obama took office in 2009; I looked forward to a more humane approach to the war on terror. I looked forward to a president who understood and valued civil liberties. But while Mr. Obama proved on Thursday that he can talk that particular talk, his walk tells a very different story.

The Case Against Background Checks

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 2.14.27 PMIn the aftermath of the Senate’s failed push to stop universal background checks, Obama and the liberal media attacked those who voted against the bill. Obama called their actions “shameful”; Pierce Morgan called them “Pathetic, gutless cowards”. But these insults aside, background checks are a terrible idea. We should be fighting to eliminate them, not expand them.

Background checks in theory prevent three categories of people from buying a gun: convicted felons, those convicted of domestic abuse, and those with a dangerous mental illness.  On the surface that sounds fine. But, because of the mess that is our criminal system, background checks mostly prevent innocent citizens from buying a gun to defend themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, most convicted felons aren’t violent. In many states, for instance, smoking marijuana in certain areas is a felony. This is something Obama apparently overlooked while attacking opponents of background checks. As a teen, he smoked marijuana in high school; in Hawaii, that’s a felony.

Let’s pretend Obama hadn’t gotten lucky, and had been caught smoking. Forget presidential aspirations; does Mr. Obama honestly believe his youthful mistake should disqualify him from even owning a gun?

This is the unpleasant truth: the definition of ‘felony’ is so broad that background checks stop millions of citizens from exercising their 2nd Amendment rights. It’s a felony, for instance, to snort cocaine. I’m not advocating drug use, but a lot of students in college try hard drugs at least once. Should we deny them their right to defend themselves, based on what they once did at a party?

Selling raw milk is also a felony. So is working on a farm without authorization. So is indecent exposure if you do it three times. We’ve all heard cases of late-night streaking dares. They can be either funny or stupid, but should streakers really be stopped from ever owning a gun?

6.5% of the US population, or around 19 million citizens, have a felony conviction. Less than a quarter of these are violent convictions. Do we really want to stop 19 million citizens from ever defending themselves, in many cases because they smoked marijuana or made some other trivial mistake?

Of course, critics contend, many felons are actually violent. About 5 million felons were put in prison for good reason—assault, murder, rape, etc. We absolutely do not want these people to have guns, and background checks do stop some of them. But only some. Background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Columbine shooters (who were underage and used a straw dealer) or the Newtown shooter, who had no criminal record or history of mental illness. Not every would-be murderer has a violent history. And even for those that do, straw dealers and other workarounds allow many criminals to circumvent background checks.

That said, background checks absolutely do stop some violent criminals from buying a gun.  Not every criminal has access to straw dealers. Obama claims that background checks stopped 2 million people from buying guns in the past 20 years. Most of these were probably non-violent felons—pot smokers who wanted to defend themselves, for instance. Some were hardened criminals, who bought their gun on the black market when the legal market denied them. But some of these 2 million people were probably criminals who tried to get a gun and, thanks to background checks, couldn’t arm themselves.

Background checks are often put in place with the best of intentions—most gun-control advocates are sincere in their desire to bring down gun violence. And they do some good, even if it’s nowhere near as much as Obama claims. The problem is that, by stopping millions of non-violent felons from defending themselves, background checks do much more harm than good.

The other two categories of people stopped by background checks—domestic abusers, those with a history of mental illness—are admittedly not in the same class as felons. No-one was ever declared mentally ill because they streaked. But while keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is a good idea, once again one must wonder at how broad the prohibition is. If you’re suicidal, for instance, a court could rule you mentally ill. Ten years later, should you still not be allowed to own a gun?

For domestic abusers I have no sympathy; they absolutely should not own guns. But they’re a relatively small demographic being punished by a too-broad law.

Guns are the best tool for self-defense we have. If you’re walking alone at night and someone assaults you, a gun can save your life. If a criminal breaks into your house, a gun can stop him while the cops are still miles away.  Why are we preventing innocent citizens from defending themselves, because they once smoked marijuana?  Why does someone who streaks and is caught no longer have the right to arm himself?

We should be fighting to roll back background checks, not expand them. The 46 Senators who voted against universal background checks should be commended for standing up for our right to defend ourselves.

If you would like to get involved with opposing future background checks, these are the best groups to contact. Like many interest groups, their rhetoric can be extreme; but they are extremely effective at getting things done:
http://www.gunrightsacrossamerica.com/, which has individual state chapters like this one for South Carolina and this one for Colorado.
http://www.nationalgunrights.org/ for gun rights at the federal level.                                         
Colorado Gun Owners                                                                                                                     And if you still believe background checks are the best option, I’d recommend the Brady Center. Just don’t tell them I sent you…

The Case for Cutting Tax Expenditures

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 3.51.53 PMOur tax code right now is, simply put, a mess. At 73,954 pages, the 2013 tax code is a monstrosity of loopholes, central planning, and giveaways for the well connected. We have ‘tax expenditures’ (ie special deductions) for those who: are married, own private jets, and operate race tracks (Yes, NASCAR gets $20 million/yr in industry-specific tax exemptions).

This is not to say that tax expenditures are pure crony capitalism. After all, your loophole is my well-earned tax break. Many of the larger expenditures—like the mortgage interest rate deduction—were put in place with the best of intentions.

Nonetheless, we should radically simplify the tax code by eliminating tax expenditures. All of them.

Let me point out that this is not a new idea. The FAIR Tax repeals all 73,000 pages of the tax code in favor of a single 23% sales tax. Americans for Tax Reform proposes a single flat income tax. Next week, I’ll be laying out my own proposal for a revenue-neutral tax code with no loopholes.

It’s important to note that none of these proposals mean more federal revenue; they’re deliberately designed to be revenue-neutral. Tax expenditures come out to $1.3 trillion per year, and economists on both sides agree that taking that much money out of the economy would be suicide. Moreover, even prominent Keynesians recognize that raising taxes during a recession is a bad idea.

But for now, let’s just focus on the case for eliminating tax expenditures.

First, there’s the economic cost of compliance. With a tax code longer than a Stephen King novel, navigating it can take days even for professionals. You get a deduction if you have a child in college, but only if you make under a certain amount; and if you have capital gains income, but only if you do X and Y with it; and on and on.

The IRS says that compliance takes 6.1 billion man-hours annually. That’s 3 million people working full time for a year, just on taxes.

To look at this another way, we spent around $163 billion on the tax compliance industry. That was back in 2008. Admittedly, that’s a pretty rough estimate, because it includes a percentage of the economic cost of record-keeping, and some of the record-keeping you take advantage of for your taxes is something you’d have to do anyway for another source. Still, the cost is enormous. Even if $163 billion is a high estimate (estimates vary widely, and it could as easily be a low one), the federal government’s massive tax code created so many problems that a $100-billion-plus industry emerged to fix it.

Of course, not all expenditures are boondoggles. For instance, the largest expenditure is the exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance. It saves businesses $177 billion annually and gives a lot of people access to health care. The charitable contribution tax deduction saves charitable citizens $43.9 billion annually and promotes giving.

However, for every ‘good’ loophole, there are a dozen that are either poorly thought out or the work of special interest lobbying.  And all combined, the system is tremendously expensive.

If we eliminate tax expenditures, some tax attorneys (at H&R Block, and also at the IRS) will be out of work. But they’re talented people with advanced degrees, and most of them will find work with different businesses. But in return, we’ll save the country $163 billion. Per year. That’s more money businesses can use to hire workers. More money you can use for car repairs or a family trip instead of paying a tax attorney. If you do your taxes at home, a simpler tax code will mean less time filling out Form 41-C and more time to play with your kids.

Those with more complicated taxes will benefit more from reform. But everyone who’s ever had to file taxes—including plenty of small businesses—will still win.

The second case for eliminating expenditures is crony capitalism.  There are plenty of ways Congressmen can dole out special favors to lobbyists, but tax expenditures are one of the big ones. If you own a private jet, for instance, you get a tax break. This comes out to $300 million per year. NASCAR owners get $40 million per year in special tax breaks. In the fiscal cliff deal, the railroad industry got $165 million in tax credits and Goldmann Sachs made their new headquarters tax-exempt.

More broadly, corporations receive $121 billion in tax expenditures per year. And, as a rule, the bigger you are the more you save, because you can hire lobbyists to write the rules and tax attorneys to navigate them. What we have is essentially subsidies for large corporations by a different name.  Admittedly, these tax breaks help keep people employed and promote lower prices. But they also raise barriers of entry and keep bad companies in business. Many smaller businesses have a hard enough time competing for customers without the state throwing its weight behind major corporations.

To be fair, some tax expenditures help small businesses. For instance, start-ups can deduct $5,000 of their first-year costs. But these benefits to smaller companies pale beside the handouts we give to larger corporations.

Tax expenditures that go to businesses rarely help the little guy. By aiding large corporations, we’re raising barriers of entry and stifling competition. It’s time we stopped.

You can make a similar case against many individual tax expenditures: regardless of their good intentions, they help those already at the top. The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID), for instance, is intended to help middle-class folks buy a house. However, the reality of this deduction is a little different. Only 22% of Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID) benefits go to households making less than $100,000 per year. Households making $40,000 to $75,000 only receive $523 average from the deduction; families making $250,000 or more make 10 times that.

But the real tragedy for deductions like the MID is that they raise prices. The National Association of Realtors argues that reducing the MID would lower home prices by 15%. So what we have is a system that drives up costs, hurts every home buyer, and that then helps those at the top with large deductions. Because the system drives up costs, it ends up costing a lot of less wealthy home buyers more than it saves them.

The MID definitely helps some middle- or lower-class homeowners; let’s not paint this as black-and-white. If you’re lucky, MID deductions might help you more than MID-induced higher prices hurt you. But mostly, the MID benefits the housing industry and wealthy homeowners.

And this is, sadly, the case with most tax expenditures. Even the well-intentioned ones can hurt those they’re intended to help, through the law of unintended consequences.

This brings us to the third reason for reform: even well-meaning tax expenditures have unseen economic consequences. This is a large subject, and impossible to cover in one blog. In brief, however, when government pushes you to do X instead of Y, it distorts the free market. Government picks winners and losers by subsidizing some. Even for those like Jon Stewart who claim government does a great job of this, the issue is a moral one: freedom of choice. Consumers should be picking winners and losers, voting with our dollars for the companies that best serve us and the world at large. Governments, often victims of lobbying and backroom deals, should not be making our choices for us.

There are some tax expenditures that are well-intentioned and help those they’re intended to help. For instance, the tax deduction for charitable contributions saves people money and encourages giving. More importantly, there’s not really a charitable ‘market’ to distort; unlike the MID or many similar deductions, this one can’t drive up prices.  An argument could be made for keeping one or two deductions, but the problem with this is that it becomes a slippery slope. I want to put my deduction in, so I let you put yours in as well, and then we let Congressman James put his in so that he’ll vote for the overall package, etc.  It’s easier and simpler to cut all tax expenditures.

Tax expenditures are not all bad: they’re not all crony capitalism or loopholes. Your ‘loophole’, after all, is my well-earned tax break. They save real people real money. Sometimes they even help those they’re intended to. But tax expenditures as a whole promote central planning and often help special interests or those with money to pay. Even the ones that are well-intentioned, like the MID, often hurt those they’re intended to help.

So let’s reform the tax code. Not to raise new revenue; economists on both sides agree that you shouldn’t raise taxes in a recession. Let’s reform to create a leaner, simpler system. A system that promotes fairness instead of crony capitalism.

Next week, I’ll delve more into different ways of changing the tax code, including my own proposal. But for now: the tax code is a monstrosity. Let’s change it.

If you’d like to get involved with this issue or learn more, here’s how:

To learn more about crony capitalism (of which tax expenditures are a big component): Against Crony Capitalism

To learn about economists who support a more even tax: Friedrich Hayek Society 

To learn how crony capitalism differs from real capitalism: Crony Capitalism = Phone Capitalism 

To learn about the FAIR Tax (currently the most popular alternative to our system): FAIRTax 

All four of these are great sites. They offer the opportunity to learn more, but also to get involved politically and turn thought into action. While I cannot endorse everything they say or might say, I’m very glad to receive regular updates and information from all four.

Want to Help the Economy? Spend Less on Defense, Not More

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 3.28.14 PMIn the past year, leading political figures from John McCain to Mitt Romney–and even unto Paul Krugman–have claimed that military spending can spur economic growth. Here’s why that’s a fallacy:

First, military spending does actually create jobs. Huffington Post points out that it doesn’t create as many jobs as, say, investment in business; but it’s statistically impossible for a government to pump $931 billion a year (most recent estimates for all 2013 ‘defense’ spending) into a sector and not yield some jobs. The question is: what do those jobs produce?

And the answer is: not much.  This is something that many Progressives instinctively recognize; you cannot just build tanks and fighter jets until we have so many sitting around that we’re all rich. It doesn’t work.

In this, Progressives have an unlikely ally: Austrian economists (if you think that term refers to people in Austria, click here). Austrians are the ones who originally claimed that military spending might sometimes be necessary for national defense, but economically it’s dead weight.

It’s important to note that I’m not attacking all military spending. Governments need a military for national defense; you can’t grow an economy if you’re being invaded. Similarly, there are international arguments to be made: one could argue that having only one superpower makes the world a more peaceful place. But I’m not talking about international or defensive strategy. My point is narrower: no matter how strategically useful (or useless) military spending it, it’s an economic drag.

Consider the F-35 (which, even at a price tag of $1.5 trillion, will never be used); the tax dollars at work, and the productivity of the men and women designing it, are wasted. Or consider Congressmen who want to build $3 billion of tanks that the military says it doesn’t want. That’s not economic growth. That’s largesse for defense contractors.

Building tanks that the military doesn’t want would be like building laptops and then burying them in a ditch somewhere.  Either way, we’re building something that we’ll never use. When you build a laptop and sell it, you create value for everyday Americans. The person who buys your laptop will use it to start a business, or do better at her job. But the tanks that we build will never be used. They will never contribute to society. Neither will those expensive F-35s.

No-one in their right mind would say building and burying laptops could spur economic growth; so why do we say that doing the equivalent with tanks can?

Real economic growth means producing what consumers demand. It means making corn and apples, laptops, housing, cars. Making more of those things improves every American’s life by growing the economic pie. Military spending just doesn’t do that. If the government produced 10,000 F-35s (at a cost of $130 million apiece), that would be government spending on a scale to make Paul Krugman faint from pleasure. And it wouldn’t do a thing for everyday Americans.

But what about the boom after World War II? Wasn’t that created by military spending?  Refuting this claim would take a whole book but in brief, there are a lot of factors that went into the post-war boom. The lessening of wage and price controls created market flexibility. Millions of US soldiers returned home, lending their considerable skills to rebuilding our economy. Many of them went to school and built businesses; others became productive employees. It’s a complex subject that deserves much more space than one blog, but we shouldn’t use a post-war boom to justify increasing our bloated Pentagon budget.

Of course, all of this military spending does produce a multiplier effect: government pays a Lockheed employee to build tanks, he takes that money and buys flowers, which gives the florist money to expand operations, etc.  To be sure, this gives real people jobs and money to spend. So we cannot call military spending completely useless.  Rather, all those bloated defense contracts that government gives to companies like Lockheed are the equivalent of welfare. Our government is writing them a check to do nothing economically useful.

Any multiplier effect achieved is no greater than it would be if we cut Lockheed a huge check to have its employees sit at home.  If we did that, they could still use the funds to buy flowers, or suits, or a car; and help those industries.  But no-one would claim that we can give everyone a welfare check and end up in a boom. By the same token, we can’t just pay people to build tanks until we’re all rich.

If we want to provide welfare to the poorest among us, that’s a discussion we can have. While I’m personally opposed to it, I recognize that social safety nets help real people put food on the table. But let’s not extend welfare to already-wealthy defense industries. Let’s not pay them to do nothing for us.

And the fact that Lockheed is doing wasted work is a shame, because companies like Lockheed employ some of the smartest people in the world. Rocket scientists, engineers, advanced chemists. Can you imagine the good work they might do for all Americans if they didn’t have to spend their days making F-35s that will never be used? 

To be sure, military spending has led to some cool new technologies, like GPS, the internet, and radar. These side benefits shouldn’t be dismissed, because they’ve resulted in great things. Any concentrated R&D is going to produce technological wonders, and military R&D isn’t exempt from that rule. But while defense companies were designing GPS, they were primarily focused on helping the military. Can you imagine what other technologies would have been created if defense companies had been free to pursue their own (non-military) projects, instead of spending the bulk of their time and energy building fighter jets?

Every dollar spent on military spending is a dollar not spent making something that will help all Americans. I’m not suggesting we replace that spending with domestic government stimulus. What I am suggesting is that, by pursuing military-based stimulus programs—what Krugman praises as “weaponized Keynesianism”—the government does worse than just nothing. It gives welfare to giant defense companies, and stops them from producing things real Americans could actually use.

You want to grow the economy? Try cutting military spending.

How Guns Make Us Safer

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 12.28.29 PM

As the United States grapples with guns in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, too often we only ask, “do guns promote gun violence?” The answer to that is an obvious “Yes”. It’s been trotted out time and again. But that question is not the whole story.

What we need to do is ask the broader question:  “How do guns affect violent crime overall?” As a society, we should be worried about all types of crime—burglaries, rape, assaults that leave people broken and bleeding on their way to the hospital. While every homicide is a tragedy that robs us of someone we can never replace, we cannot focus exclusively on gun deaths and ignore other violent crimes. They, too, have terrible costs.

That is why most defenders of gun rights—though by no means all—are so ardent about the right to bear arms. Because the truth is that guns actually discourage violent crime.

Let’s compare the violent crime rates of two countries we hear a lot about in the news: the United States and England. Both have a similar culture and both probably have similar people; but while the United States owns 50% of the world’s guns, the United Kingdom banned almost all handguns in 1997.

So what do the data say?

According to a comprehensive Civitas report, England is far more violent than the United States. Granted, they have a lower homicide rate: they kill 1.1 people per 100,000, we kill 5.0. Most of the new stories you hear—Piers Morgan, the Washington Post—point this out. What they fail to also show is that in 2006 (the year of the Civitas report), England had almost three hundred more burglaries than the US per 100,000 people. On violent assault—the kind involving serious bodily harm—the record was even worse. The United States had 262 per 100,000 people. England had 730.

Look at the assault data again. 730 violent assaults per 100,000 people means that, with England’s population of 53 million, they had around 386,900 violent assaults in 2006. An England-sized patch of the US only had 138,860. England had 250 thousand more violent assaults than a similar-sized patch of the US.

I’ve frequently heard that the US tops the charts in gun homicides; for instance, the Brady Center points out that the US had over 12,000 gun homicides in 2006. No-one denies that that’s a tragedy, and England should be commended for having gun homicides below 100. But bear in mind that England also had hundreds of thousands more violent assaults.   Hundreds of thousands more stabbings, more hospitalizations, more people beaten within inches of their life. Do guns really make the United States less safe?

Granted, there are differences between the two countries. England has a higher population density than the US, and density is linked to crime. That’s one reason you see more crimes in cities than in rural towns.  But urban density can’t be the only factor, because Los Angeles has a much higher population density than England but barely over half the violent assaults. You see the same story in Chicago: even America’s densest, most violent cities have less violent crime than gun-free England.

There’s another difference that matters: how tough the justice system is. The United States has tougher punishments for criminals than does England, and that means you can’t chalk the difference up only to differences in gun laws. The United States’ tough stance on crime plays a role in explaining why England is so much more violent than the United States. But in England, criminals don’t have to fear their victims will pull a gun and turn the tables. Robbers don’t have to fear the house they’re breaking into could be guarded by an assault rifle. Might that also play a role?

Even looking at England before and after the gun ban—which lets us ignore the differences between England and the US—doesn’t help England’s case. The ban on handguns was passed in 1997. In the next four years, violent crime more than doubled. 

My point here is not to take a stand on Obama’s recent gun-control executive orders, or Senator Feinstein’s assault weapons bill. My point is broader. Across towns and across states, legislators and interest groups are proposing all sorts of gun restrictions. They’re bolstered by the conviction that more guns mean more gun deaths. But these people, while undeniably well-intentioned, only see half the picture. More guns also mean less violent crime, fewer assaults and fewer burglaries. Let us not start down the path that England has, lest we too become the victims of higher crime.

If I’m walking home and someone tries to assault me, I want a gun. Even if I never use it, simply brandishing your weapon can stop an attacker in his tracks. In England, law-abiding citizens don’t have that right. And, unfortunately, you can see the results.

If you would like to get involved with protecting our right to defend ourselves, these are the best groups to contact. Like many interest groups, their rhetoric can be extreme; but they are extremely effective at getting things done:
http://tenthamendmentcenter.com/ for state-based opposition to new federal gun laws.
http://www.gunrightsacrossamerica.com/, which has individual state chapters like this one for South Carolina and this one for Colorado.
http://www.nationalgunrights.org/ for gun rights at the federal level.                                         
Colorado Gun Owners                                                                                                                     And if you still believe more gun control is the best option, I’d recommend the Brady Center. Just don’t tell them I sent you…