Paul Waldman

How the Gun Lobby Encourages People to Amass Arsenals

Flickr/bobasonic

In the last six months I've written a lot about the politics of the gun issue (see here for example), and one of the key data points I keep trying to get people to understand is that gun ownership is actually declining in America and has been for a few decades. Yet there are just as many guns as ever (around 300 million by the best estimates), which means that on average, your typical gun owner now owns more guns than they used to. While no one that I know of has actually figured out the distribution, my guess is that most gun owners still have only one or two guns, while the numbers are being elevated by enthusiasts who think they really haven't guaranteed the safety of their family unless they have enough weaponry to fend off an assault by an entire battalion of the Red Army.

And it's important to understand that the gun lobby (by which I mean the National Rifle Association, similar groups, and the gun manufacturers) are doing everything they can to encourage existing gun owners to buy as many guns as they possibly can. I discuss this in a piece I wrote today for MSNBC's "Lean Forward" blog:

USA! USA! USA!

Do not allow these horrifying monsters to dissuade you from watching the Olympics. (image from London 2012)

You may not be following the Twitter feeds of Wenlock and Mandeville, the terrifying claw-handed cylcops Olympic mascots soon to be starring in the night terrors of children the world over, but if you're like me, you're getting excited about the fact that the Games begin this weekend. There are a couple of reasons why I'm a huge Olympics fan. The first is that I enjoy the simplest competitions, the ones that test the limits of the human animal and harken back to the earliest athletic endeavors.

The Power of Shame

Ink-stained wretches at work. (Flickr/thoth92)

Last week, The New York Times revealed that "quote approval" has become standard practice when reporters deal with both the Obama and Romney campaigns as well as with the Obama administration. The way it works is that a reporter interviews an official, then submits the quotes she intends to use in her stories back to the campaign, which only appear if the campaign approves them. Not only that, the campaign often edits the quotes to make them more to their liking.

Lo and behold, news organizations are now announcing they will no longer submit quotes for approval. The National Journal says it won't. McClatchy says no more. The New York Times is thinking about it. To tell you the truth, I'm a bit surprised. But I guess shame is a powerful thing.

While You Were Distracted, Romney Won the Battle over His Tax Returns

Take that, you insolent peasants! (Flickr/Austen Hufford)

Any time a politician faces pressure to do something he doesn't want to do, there's a calculation involved about the arc of the story and the cumulative effect of the two courses he could take. I can take the slings and arrows of the moment and hold out, in the hopes that the story will go away, or I can succumb and hope that by getting the pain over quickly, the damage will be minimized. The conventional wisdom has become that any time there's damaging information about you, you have to get it all out as soon as possible, and there are certainly plenty of cases in which a politician didn't do so and ended up suffering both from the information itself and his initial stonewalling against releasing it. But that need not always be the case. Mitt Romney may just have bet correctly that he could stand firm against releasing his tax forms from any year before 2010 and get away with it.

Romney Accidentally Makes Liberal Case for Taxation

What? What'd I say? (Flickr/davelawrence8)

Last week, Mitt Romney had some kind of weird brain freeze and accidentally stumbled into agreement with President Obama on the fact that entrepreneurs actually do benefit from the efforts of other people, and even get help from the government. You may have heard about it, as a number of bloggers took note. But there was something else he said that was even more interesting, and I wanted to point it out because we do seem to be having a discussion about the fundamentals of capitalism and government. It sounded extemporaneous, so perhaps Romney didn't think through the full implications of it, but here's what he said:

There are a lot of people in government who help us and allow us to have an economy that works and allow entrepreneurs and business leaders of various kinds to start businesses and create jobs. We all recognize that. That's an important thing. Don't forget, by the way, government doesn't invent those people out of thin air. We pay for those people with our taxes! We're paying for those resources that we receive.

Friday Music Break

Big Country, "The Crossing"

Today we're continuing with the '80s nostalgia, for no particular reason. So for this edition of Songs By Scottish Bands With Titles That Include the Band's Name, we have Big Country, with "In a Big Country." As they say in the song, "Ha!"

Yes, We Should Keep Talking about Our Gun Laws

Flickr/Brittany Randolph

When an event like the mass shooting in Colorado happens, it's a fair bet that people on every side will take the opportunity to say, "See? This just reinforces what we've been telling you all along." But that's easier for some than others. I looked around some conservative web sites today to see what their reaction was, and much of it ran to this: Awful liberals are going to use this to push their anti-gun agenda, and they should be ashamed of themselves (see here or here). But is there really anything wrong with taking the events that occur in our country, even horrible ones, and making the connections to our policy and political choices? Isn't that what people who write about politics are supposed to do?

Your Guide to "Ending Medicare As We Know It"

Paul Ryan is very sincere.

Yesterday, President Obama went to Florida and told seniors that Mitt Romney wants to end Medicare as we know it, and it appears that this argument (and some related ones) will be a central feature of the Obama campaign's message in the coming days. It's entirely possible, as Jonathan Chait has suggested, that all the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's finances and record at Bain Capital are the first stage of a two-stage strategy that culminates with an attack on the Ryan budget. Since we'll be talking about this a lot soon, I thought it might be worthwhile to refresh our memories on what this is all about, particularly with regard to Medicare, and how it relates to the current campaign.

First: Is it fair to tar Mitt Romney with the Ryan plan? No question.

The Rich Really Are Different

Not actually Mitt Romney (image from richkidsofinstagram.tumblr.com)

In the last couple of years, we've occasionally seen stories where Wall Street types justify their enormous compensation packages by saying they work really, really hard. They stay late, they work weekends, they just keep their noses to the grindstone, and that's why they get paid what they do. Sure, $30 million a year is a lot of money. But the hedge fund manager who made it probably worked 1,000 times harder than the electrician who made $30,000. Right?

I thought of those Wall Streeters and their rhetoric about hard work when considering the question of Mitt Romney's tax returns. One of the things we've found out in the whole when-did-Romney-leave-Bain controversy is that even after he retired/went on a leave of absence, he was being paid at least $100,000 a year for doing what he swears was absolutely nothing. That's a lot of money for doing nothing, at least to people like you and me, but remember that to Mitt Romney, it's peanuts. According to the information he has released, he made over $42 million in 2010 and 2011 without doing any actual work. He hasn't held a job in five and a half years, since he left the Massachusetts governor's office. Tens of millions of dollars just keep pouring into his many bank accounts, without him lifting a finger. And of course, he pays a far lower tax rate on all that income than people who work for a living.

But it really seems that Romney has a hard time understanding why that would rankle people.

In the Beginning Was the Word

Flickr/nofrills

I'm beginning to wonder whether Mitt Romney and all of his supporters weren't linguistics majors in college. After all, the thing you choose to study reflects what you think is important. If you major in physics, it's because the laws and operation of the universe are what you find most important. If you major in economics, it's because you find money to be the prime organizing force of human activity. And linguists, like the Republicans of 2012, believe that language is the key to understanding who we are as humans.

Here's what I mean. Let's say you wanted to indict not Barack Obama's handling of the economy but his beliefs about the economy to get at the very essence of who he is. How would you do it? Some of us would say, we can determine who he is by looking at his actions. If he's a committed Marxist undertaking the dismantling of capitalism, surely we could find the evidence in what he has done. Did he nationalize the steel industry? Well, no. He (and George W. Bush) kind of temporarily semi-nationalized the auto industry, but that worked out well for everyone and saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, so let's not talk about that. Did he make it impossible for wealthy "job creators" to prosper? Hard to make that case, since corporate profits and wealth concentration at the top are near all-time highs—there's never been a better time to be a capitalist overlord. How about that tsunami of initiative-crushing regulation? Well, you can throw out some names of laws that involve regulation—Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act—but if you want to make a strong case that Obama hates capitalism, you'd have to talk about what's actually in those laws, and conservatives don't really like doing that, just as they might rail against the tyranny of the EPA but they don't want to talk much about what exactly it is they find so objectionable about making sure our air and water are clean.

So the linguists on the right say: Don't let the actions distract you. The key to understanding Obama is in the words.

If Only They Knew

If only we could go back in time and get Barack Obama to write a candid book about his youth!

For a long time now, Mitt Romney and the people who work for him have seemed like the reasonable people in the Republican party. That isn't to say that Romney's policies or rhetoric were particularly reasonable, but we all accepted that when he started breathing fire, it was an act. Buffeted by the winds of extremism, he made a bargain with his party's base: I'll pretend to be as crazy as you, and you'll learn to live with me as your nominee.

But now, Barack Obama has finally opened the can of whoop-ass on Romney that many of us had long been expecting, and as McKay Coppins reports, both Romney himself and his people don't like it one bit. Their reaction indicates that maybe they were never that different from the Republican base after all.

The Meaning of "That"

Barack Obama, out hating America. (White House/Pete Souza)

Mitt Romney is, without doubt, a representative of contemporary capitalism, a spectacularly rich financier who got his money not by making things but by buying and selling companies, exploiting leverage, and a whole bunch of other things folks like you and me will never have the privilege of understanding. So it isn't surprising that this campaign has featured a debate about the nature of our economic system. That debate could be a salutary and educational discussion that leaves us all more informed and aware. Or it could be an occasion for some of the most vile demagoguery you could imagine. Do you need to ask which course it will take?

By now, we can all agree that a large portion of the Republican party has created in their minds an imaginary Barack Obama, one who is either a literal or philosophical foreigner (Romney has begun dropping the word "foreign" in as often as he can when discussing Obama), who hates America (here's Rush Limbaugh on Monday: "I think it can now be said, without equivocation -- without equivocation -- that this man hates this country"), and one who hates success, hates rich people, and hates capitalism itself. And if you can't find any actual evidence for these propositions—if "Barack Obama hates job creators so much he actually wants to increase the top income tax rate by 4.6 percentage points!" doesn't have quite the ring you'd like—then it isn't hard to find words you can twist around to make your point.

Which brings us to the word "that."

Mitt's Troubles Never End

I'm comin' fer ya, Mitt! (Flickr/akseabird)

It's looking like Mitt Romney might name his VP pick pretty soon, which is probably a good idea given that the release of the pick will result in a few days of positive coverage when the news media is consumed with something other than what Bain Capital did when, or what juicy nuggets might be contained within Romney's hidden tax returns. But there's a downside: once we do get to the Republican convention, the VP nominee will be old news, so the media can pay much more attention to intra-party squabbling. And nobody likes a good squabble more than Sarah Palin. Remember her?

Good Ads and Bad Ads

Vivid evidence of the Romney campaign's skill.

By now you've probably seen the Obama ad that uses Mitt Romney's tender rendition of "America the Beautiful" juxtaposed against information about Romney's extra-national financial activities, including Bain Capital's involvement in outsourcing and the worldwide distribution of Romney's personal accounts. The ad has been praised for its skillful sound design and powerful message, so in attempt to hit back, the Romney campaign countered with its own ad featuring Barack Obama singing.

Unfortunately, the Romney ad is no longer viewable—it has been taken down because of a copyright claim, since Obama is seen singing a line from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." But it's pretty simple—it shows Obama singing that line, then displays information about Obama allegedly rewarding his political contributors and cronies with government contracts and such, while ignoring the middle class. They obviously put it together quickly, but nevertheless, the difference between the two ads provides an excellent demonstration of what makes some political ads effective and others complete duds. Let's look at some of the differences:

Why "Knowing How the Economy Works" Is Not Enough

George W. Bush has the answers.

This week will see the release of The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs, a collection of essays from the George W. Bush Institute with a forward by the former president himself. It's true that annual GDP growth never actually reached 4 percent during Bush's two terms in office and averaged only 2.4 percent even if we generously exclude the disastrous year of 2008. But look at it this way: Who knows more about what the president ought to do about the economy than Dubya does? After all, there's only one living American (Bill Clinton) with as much experience being president, so Bush must have the answers we need.

A ridiculous argument? Of course. That's because experience only gets you so far. It's obviously a good thing, all else being equal, for the president to know a lot about the economy, just as it's a good thing for him to know a lot about foreign affairs or domestic policy. But the truth is that although the government has to solve many practical problems and it's important to have smart, knowledgeable people in government to work on them, the presidency is not a technocratic position.

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