The other day, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly (or as he is for some reason always referred to as, "Astronaut Mark Kelly"; I guess if you're an astronaut you get that) announced that they have started a new initiative, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to push for new laws to limit gun violence. I have great admiration for both of them and I certainly hope they succeed, but there was something I heard Kelly say in an interview that was worthy of note, and a bit unfortunate. He noted that they're not trying to take away anyone's guns, and they're gun owners themselves. They just want to make sure guns stay out of "the wrong hands." The problem with this—and I think it's something well-meaning people probably say a lot without giving it too much thought—is that it assumes that the lines are clear between the right hands and the wrong hands, and if we could just make sure no wrong hands got guns, we'd all be safe.
There are certainly some people who should definitely not have access to guns, like convicted felons, or people with severe mental illness, or teenagers, whose ability to make clear, reasoned judgments is extraordinarily poor. But once you get beyond that, the idea that we can make an a priori distinction between people who should have guns and who shouldn't is a fantasy.
This is how much people elsewhere love their health systems. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
If you've been paying attention to debates on health care over the last few years, you're probably aware of how poorly the American system performs compared to other similar countries. We're the only advanced industrialized democracy that doesn't provide universal health coverage to our citizens, and though there are many variations in those systems ranging from the completely socialized (as in Great Britain) to the largely private but heavily, heavily regulated (as in Switzerland), they all do better than we do on almost every important measure you could come up with.
That's the big picture. But a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine compared the United States to 16 similar countries (mostly in Europe but including Canada, Australia, and Japan) on a range of health measures has some fascinating details. Unsurprisingly, the US comes out at or near the bottom on most measures of health. We have the highest infant mortality, the highest obesity rates, and the highest rates of teen pregnancy. And given our current debate about gun violence, this is one data point that will inevitably be noted in stories about this report:
On an April Sunday in 1996, a young man named Martin Bryant went to the popular tourist site of Port Arthur in Australia, and using a pair of semi-automatic rifles, undertook a massacre that spread over several locations and killed 35 people. The crime was so horrific that previously pro-gun politicians changed their positions, and less than two weeks later the government announced sweeping changes to the country's gun laws, outlawing automatic and semi-automatic weapons, instituting lengthy waiting periods and background checks for gun purchases, and creating a gun buyback program that eventually resulted in a fifth of the country's firearms being destroyed. In the years since, the country's rates of gun homicide and suicide have fallen dramatically, and Australia has not had another mass shooting.
What happened in Australia—a terrible tragedy galvanizing public sentiment and leading to a significant change in policy—is something many Americans fervently wish would happen here in the wake of last month's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Details are now emerging on the legal solutions that the White House and its congressional allies will be pushing in the coming days. But anyone hoping for a transformation in America's relationship with guns would do well to be skeptical.
I'm sure there are many reasons why President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, but the fact that Hagel is a Republican surely played at least some part. After all, if he nominated a Democrat to head the Pentagon, congressional Republicans would surely oppose the nomination and charge that the nominee was too dovish. Which of course is exactly what has happened with Hagel (along with some truly despicable phony accusations of anti-Semitism*). I'm not the first liberal to be disappointed with the fact that Democratic presidents seem to feel the need to placate their opponents by picking Republicans for this particular position. As Michael Beschloss observed, Republican presidents have never picked a Democrat for this job, but about half the Secretaries of Defense in Democratic administrations have been Republicans.
What's most important to note about this is that there is no equivalent on the other side. Republican presidents don't feel the need to appoint Democrats to lead agencies whose missions are traditionally associated with Democrats. In fact, they have no problem appointing people whose goal is to fight against the missions of the agencies they lead.
There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era's torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I've never heard any of them answer: How do the defender's of "enhanced interrogation" (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since "ethnic cleansing") actually define torture? I'll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration's torture program on many occasions. Since I haven't seen the film I can't say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: "I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s 'enhanced interrogation' program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture." And why aren't the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of "stress positions," which are used to cause excruciating pain without actually leaving a mark—torture? Here's the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:
Peggy Noonan is, without doubt, America's most hilariously ridiculous opinion columnist, someone forever pleading that we ignore piffle like "facts" and focus instead on the collective emotions that are bubbling just out of our awareness until she identifies them. But in her column today, she does something that we ought to take note of, because I suspect it will become a common Republican talking point. Noonan asks why Obama is so darn mean to Republicans, and answers the question thusly:
Just after the election, I wrote that the reason conservatives were so worked up about the tragic events in Benghazi was scandal envy; they were livid that the president they despise so much had gone an entire term without a major scandal, so they were desperately grasping for whatever was handy. The response I go from many conservatives was vigorous, including assertions that Benghazi was a far worse scandal than Watergate (that necessitated another post explaining, for those who had apparently forgotten, why Watergate was a big deal). But as President Obama's second term begins, we have to wonder: What's the big Obama administration scandal going to be?
John Boehner has held on to his job as Speaker of the House for now, mostly because no one ran against him. That may be because none of his Republican colleagues wants that nightmare of a job, or it may be because they want it, but just think biding their time a little longer is the best play. In any case, Boehner now faces the challenge of dealing with a caucus full of nutbars who would happily send the country off all manner of cliffs, fiscal and otherwise, if it meant sticking it to Barack Obama or those mooching 47 percent of Americans they think he represents. And how do you deal with a group like that? Empty symbolic gestures, of course!
Boehner has apparently made it clear to his caucus that he'll no longer participate in one-on-one negotiations with President Obama, letting them know that just like them, he thinks Obama is such a low-down dirty snake that there's no point in even talking to the guy. But can they still talk on the phone? What about texting? If Obama calls Boehner on Skype, can Boehner take the call but turn off his camera so Obama can hear him but not see him?
In all the attention paid to the drama over the fiscal cliff, most people momentarily forgot that there were a few other important things the 112th Congress was supposed to take care of before its ignominious term came to an end. But yesterday, thanks to a couple of prominent politicians criticizing their own party—something always guaranteed to garner plenty of media attention—everybody remembered that states in the Northeast, particularly New York and New Jersey, are still waiting on federal disaster aid. First New Jersey governor Chris Christie came out and gave a blistering press conference in which he blasted House Republicans for not taking up the relief bill, saying, "There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner." Christie also said he called Boehner multiple times, but Boehner wouldn't return his calls. Then Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York, delivered a rather extraordinary statement on Fox News, not only urging people in New York and New Jersey not to donate to members of his party, but referring to them as "these Republicans," as though they were from a group of which he was not a part. "These Republicans have no problem finding New York when they're out raising millions of dollars," King said. "I'm saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to Congressional Republicans is out of their minds. Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It was an absolute disgrace." Yow!
When Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association made his dramatic statements about the Newtown shooting, he placed the blame on some familiar suspects: not just insufficient militarization of elementary schools, but movies and video games. "Media conglomerates," he said, "compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes." But Matt Gertz of Media Matters discovered that the NRA is actually not so opposed to movies that feature people shooting each other. In fact, the NRA's National Firearms Museum features an exhibit called "Hollywood Guns," in which you can check out the actual guns used in some of your favorite films (go to the end of this post for a video of the NRA museum curator proudly showing off the movie guns).
You might respond that the NRA is full of crap when it points the finger at Hollywood, which of course it is. But let's take them at their word for a moment and examine the claim...
Let's take a momentary break from the fiscal insanity that has possessed Washington of late, and talk about something else you can be afraid of. Question: do you have anti-virus software on your smartphone? Probably not, because while it will take about 10 seconds for an unprotected computer connected to the internet to be infected with all manner of malware, hackers haven't devoted much energy to targeting people's phones. Yet. But Popular Sciencepredicts that phone hacking will be one of the big tech developments of 2013:
After the shooting in Newtown, some politicians who had previously been endorsed by the NRA and long supported nearly unlimited gun rights came forward to declare that they were rethinking their positions. The first and perhaps most notable was West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and nearly every news story about his change of heart mentioned that in a famous television ad when he ran for the Senate two years ago, Manchin not only touted his NRA endorsement but dramatically fired a bullet through a copy of a cap and trade bill. But if you though a candidate brandishing a gun to demonstrate his cultural affinity with rural voters was something unusual, you'd be wrong. We've assembled some of the gun-totin'-est political ads from the last few years.
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have declared victory in fending off the fiscal cliff/austerity trap, and there are certainly some things in the agreement that progressives should be pleased about. But we should also understand what Republicans won.
The great Republican triumph of the current negotiation—and whether it came from hard-nosed negotiating or simple capitulation on the White House's part, I'm not sure—is the fact that an end to the debt ceiling was not part of the deal worked out by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. Nor, for that matter, was the question of sequestration resolved; instead, it was simply put off for two months. That means we'll be facing not one but two more crises, when we get to do this all over again. And when we do, the conditions will be very different.
There have been few more consequential years in the history of health care in America than 2012. This year saw disasters averted, new problems identified, and hope triumphing over despair. The biggest health-care news in 2012 was the dramatic and surprising decision by the Supreme Court in late June to uphold (for the most part) the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Chief Justice John Roberts shocked his Republican admirers by siding with the liberals on the Court to affirm the constitutionality of the law's individual mandate as a tax, though he also gave Republicans a way to fight back by saying the federal government couldn't force states to accept what is arguably the law's most significant feature: its dramatic expansion of Medicaid.
The NRA wants you to think this guy is coming for your family.
It's quite salutary that Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association are getting so much attention, because the truth is that most Americans aren't familiar with their rhetoric and the reality they inhabit. If you didn't know too much about LaPierre but tuned in to see him on Meet the Press yesterday, you probably came away saying, "This guy is a lunatic" (a word we'll get to in a moment).
I'm not talking about his preferred policy prescriptions. I'm talking about his view of the world. LaPierre gets paid close to a million dollars a year, which I'm guessing allows him a comfortable lifestyle. But he seems to imagine that contemporary America is actually some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape a la Mad Max, where psychotic villains in makeshift armor and face paint cruise through the streets looking for people to kill.