Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Banning Assault Rifles as a Class of Weapons

By now, readers will have heard of the shooting in Newtown, where a killer armed with an AR-15 rifle killed over 20 children and several adults.

Amidst the renewed debate on gun control, at least two commentators have said that there is no point banning assault weapons as an entire class of guns, as they are not that different from hunting rifles. Writing on Businessweek, Paul Barrett says that

Although they may have a tough military look, semiautomatic assault weapons, shot-for-shot, are no more lethal than Grandpa’s Remington wooden-stock deer-hunting rifle. Arguing about whether a particular rifle is an assault weapon makes no sense.

Megan McArdle, writing for the Daily Beast, says that

You don't need a special kind of gun to shoot civilians.  You just need a gun. A handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle are all pretty deadly at close quarters, and Lanza went to the school with all three.  (He left the shotgun in the back of a car).  You don't need a military style rifle, or a high-powered scope, or a pistol grip, or a detachable stock, because concealment is not a big issue, and you don't need much aim to put a bullet into someone at ten feet.  Nor can you stop these shootings by restricting people to hunting rifles, which for some reason people seem to think are less deadly than regular guns.  The truth is the opposite: it takes a lot more wallop to bring down an elk than a person, and a couple of rounds of buckshot or a .30-06 would have had the same, horrible results.  Even a ban on semi-automatics is no panacea in a world full of powerful shotguns.

These assertions are incorrect on some points:

1. I don't hunt, but my understanding is that many hunting rifles are bolt action, which means you fire, you pull the lever to chamber another round, and then you fire again. You have to take your eyes off the target. Even for semi-automatic hunting rifles, their magazines would be a lot smaller than 30 rounds. An AR-15 can fire more rounds and it can fire faster.

2. Rifles like the AR-15 are designed so that the firer can freely maneuver them in close quarters to engage multiple targets. Many hunting rifles may be more unwieldy (e.g. longer barrel). So, again, a shooter can engage more targets faster with an AR-15.

3. As to shotguns, they are also lethal against human targets at close range, but many hunting shotguns have even more limited ammunition capacity. Many shotguns are pump action, where you must work the lever after firing to reload. Many are semi-automatic, of course, and they may have magazines up to 10 rounds.

In other words, there is an argument for banning rifles like the AR-15 as an entire class of weapons. They are sufficiently more lethal than other rifles to consider banning as a class, and people are incorrect to assert that they aren't. The previous assault weapons ban was full of holes, and it mainly focused on cosmetic features, so of course it didn't work as manufacturers just redesigned their rifles to comply with the cosmetic features (e.g. they removed bayonet mounts). One could define any semi-automatic rifle with the ability to accept military standard magazines as a class, and ban that entire class of weapons. I imagine one could work out something similar for shotguns.

As both Barrett and McArdle allude to, though, this may not be politically possible, and even if it were, you would somehow have to get the guns and magazines off the market. So, it could be more feasible to restrict magazine sizes, perhaps to 10 rounds for rifles, and lesser for handguns and shotguns.

And banning these weapons would only reduce the lethality of mass shootings, which are only a small minority of firearm deaths in the US. I think we might as well start somewhere, though.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Four More Years Of Socialism

Four years ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.

He made some attempt to be conciliatory to his opponents. He tried to include some Republicans in his Administration. In two of his signature legislative attempts, which were capping and trading carbon emissions and health reform, he based his proposals off ideas that conservatives had previously pioneered (health - Massachusetts under Romney and with the Heritage Foundation endorsing the idea) or been involved in (cap and trade - the EPA applied this to SO2 emissions under Reagan).

He was reviled as, variously, a socialist, a Kenyan anti-colonialist, un-American, non-American. Some insinuated that he only got into Harvard because of affirmative action, others that he was in over his head. Others insinuated that he had a plot to forcibly disarm the country and to destroy capitalism.

A few days ago, he was re-elected. His opponents' platform contained proposals that would have dismantled Medicaid, severely damaged Medicare, and destroyed most means-tested aid programs.

Christians are supposed to urge conciliation. Christians are also called to resist evil with every fiber of their beings. So, let us work together. We are all Americans (most of us, anyway, as not everyone reading this may be in the US). But let us also remember that the Republicans in Congress would have signed on to a budget that an analyst I respect called "Robin Hood, in reverse - on steroids". Matthew 7:16 says, "You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?"  And the modern Republican Party exhibits no compassion for the poor, no regard for the future of our nation and the planet. Internationally, its policy would be belligerence and recklessness. Domestically, they've tried their best to suppress the votes of people of color and young people - people who tend to vote against them. The fruit of the modern Republican party is toxic.

I have neighbors and relatives who are conservatives. If they hadn't been fed a bunch of lies by the Republicans in Congress, they would probably still be more cautious about expanding health care to the entire population. They would be afraid that Medicare cuts would compromise the care they and their parents get. They would be worried that cutting carbon emissions might compromise their standards of living. That's fine. I'm not worried about those things, but we can deal. God made some of us conservative, some of us progressive, and some of us in between. God did this for a good reason, because not all changes are good, and caution can save your skin. Unfortunately, the national Republican party has fed my neighbors, relatives and friends a bunch of toxic lies. Conservatism is a movement and a philosophy that contains much wisdom and that progressives can deal with. But the national Republican party in the United States serves only Mammon. It deserves to die.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Today is Livestrong Day and Lance Armstrong Was Doped to the Gills

Today is Livestrong Day, which commemorates the day that Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer. He came back from cancer, to re-enter the world of professional cycling. Helped by testosterone, EPO and blood transfusions, he won the Tour de France seven times. Lance, with his tainted winnings, established the Livestrong Foundation, which supports people with cancer.

This is not a simple ad hominem attack against Armstrong.

I am blunt because there are many who have bought into his claims that he has not really been convicted, that he is the victim of a witch hunt and a massive conspiracy, that he won seven Tours clean. He did not. All the second and third place finishers in all those Tours have been linked to doping cases. Many have confessed. Joseba Beloki, a second place finisher in 2002, was cleared by Spanish courts, although he was linked to a major doping case. Armstrong said he has passed hundreds of drug tests, but Marion Jones also passed hundreds of drug tests. They learned to evade the tests. Other cyclists learned too, but they were simply less meticulous than he.

Armstrong's continued lies deserve condemnation. But he's not alone. Cycling, my sport, has a sordid history of doping, and a code of silence still reigns over the professionals. American Major League baseball has its problems with steroids and human growth hormone.

Part of the problem lies with us, the viewers of sports.

We laud sporting heroes. We demand a spectacle. We pour billions of dollars in. Well, when there's money and fame at stake, people have an incentive to behave badly ... but then we sweep things under the rug. We say, OK, these are just rumors. This guy was found guilty, but he served his time. And he did raise substantial doubts about the testing methods - I did this with Tyler Hamilton, a colleague of Armstrong, who wrote and published a detailed confession. We all do this.

It's not practical to say that we should boycott professional sports, that we should take the all money out of them. It might well be an appropriate Christian response. But it won't happen in this world. Here are three things we can do.

1. If politics among cycling's governing bodies permit, is to have a truth and reconciliation commission. Confess fully. Tell us when, where, how. Who sold you the dope, who else you know did it. Do this and you're forgiven. But the sport has to be clean from now on, and if you're caught, or if you don't confess, then you're punished. Preferably heavily.

Pros: it's a very Christian thing to do.

Cons: it's going to be hard. Frankly, the doctors and others who enable the doping will stand to lose money, so they'll threaten riders. Riders will stand to be shamed, so they'll threaten their colleagues. But if we don't do this, there's little hope for actual transparency.

2. Continue refining test methods. Cycling now collects longitudinal blood data, multiple times a year, on all cyclists.

Pros: It's intrusive but it can help detect doping, and experts contend that it's really made things better.

Cons: It doesn't eliminate doping completely. People will always be ahead of the tests.

3. These idiots are just the sideshow. Get off your fat ass - you being the reader. Exercise. Take up a sport. You don't have to be good. Just get moving.

Pros: Sports are supposed to teach discipline and perseverance as well as keeping people entertained. You cannot learn discipline and perseverance from your couch.

Cons: None.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A NY Times Op-Ed by a Retired Police Officer on Guns

Michael Black wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that reinforces some of the points I made in my last post.

The last shooting incident I was involved in happened at 3 in the morning on Dec. 26, 2010, my last Christmas before I retired. We responded to a report of two men arguing, one threatening to shoot the other. My radio blared, “Shots fired! Man with a gun.” When I reached one man, running in the darkness between two houses, he had already been shot by another officer. When the officer had ordered the man to stop and identify himself, the man had pointed a pistol at him. The officer ducked behind his car door and fired half the bullets in his Glock 21 before finally hitting the offender once in the left buttock. We eventually found the shooter’s silver semiautomatic deep in a snowdrift.

The suddenness and confusion of that moment points out the folly of the politician’s belief that an armed civilian could have easily taken out James Holmes. Imagine the scene: speakers blasting, larger-than-life heroes and villains on the screen, and suddenly real gunshots, a man in a gas mask firing one of three weapons — a shotgun, handgun and rifle, with extended magazines for extra ammo capacity — into the panicking crowd. Even a highly trained, armed police officer would have been caught off guard. Try adding a bunch of untrained, armed civilians into the mix — this type of intervention could have made things much worse.

"The politician" he refers to in the second paragraph above is Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who made similar points to the firearms instructor I referenced. Black makes the point that even experienced law enforcement or military personnel will probably be caught by surprise in a scenario where someone opens fire. They may respond inappropriately. The officer's response in the first paragraph above was probably appropriate - but it was of a higher level than ultimately necessary, precisely because confrontations tend to be confusing, a point I mentioned earlier but didn't emphasize enough. This gives lie to Black's confidence that he could easily and quickly taken Holmes down. It gives lie to the stance that we can expect armed civilians to quickly and easily dispatch armed criminals with no collateral damage.

Black also speaks of the heavy responsibility that attaches to owning a weapon. "Despite what many people think, it’s not something to be taken lightly," he says. He is to my right on gun control, but he talks favorably of weapon registries and tracking of purchases:

Illinois is routinely called the “most repressive state” by gun rights groups. It requires everyone to obtain a firearm owner’s identification card before purchasing firearms and ammunition. This gives the police another tool to work with if an armed crook is caught without a card. It also creates a paper trail for repeated, in-state purchases. Perhaps if some kind of effective tracking safeguard had existed in Colorado, James Holmes’s purchases — all of which were legal — might have been flagged.

The pro- and anti-gun groups need to sit down and let common sense rule. We register automobiles and require proof of driving proficiency before granting driving licenses. Is it so unreasonable to consider a national or state-by-state registry for firearms? While I’m not totally opposed to concealed carry laws, why not require comprehensive background checks, psychological screening and training? And while it might be considered un-American to prevent an ordinary citizen from owning an assault rifle, would it be too much to ask why he needs to have a specially modified 100-round magazine?

The only true disagreement I have with what he said is that he implies that both pro- and anti-gun groups have not let common sense rule - when in fact it is mainly the pro-gun groups' fault.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I could have stopped the Colorado massacre if I had a concealed weapon, BUT...

David Weigel, writing for Slate, asks if a brave citizen with a concealed weapon could have stopped the Colorado massacre, where 12 people died and 59 were injured. Wiegel is skeptical. However, he also interviewed a firearms instructor and NRA member, Greg Block, who says that yes, he could have stopped James Holmes.

Block says that if he were armed, he could have drawn and returned fire in just over a second. He would have ducked between the chairs for concealment. Holmes was armored, but Block would have gone for a head shot or the pelvic girdle. Of course, Block points out that the theater policy was to forbid concealed weapons - a vulnerability in his view. In his view, people should be armed, so that they can defend themselves.

It's true that being armed will improve my safety in any single encounter. Like Block, I have some military training. His proposed tactics are sound. But they miss the big picture.

Let's specify a simple equation: in considering firearms control policy, we want to think about

Deaths from mass shootings + deaths from individual confrontations + deaths from suicide or accident

Deaths from mass shootings
In a world where carrying weapons for self-defense is as common as the NRA wants it, there is likely to be more than one friendly responder at the scene of a shooting. In Colorado, it turns out that Holmes had his back to the screen, so no risk of a crossfire. However, consider the Gabrielle Giffords et al shooting, where Jared Loughner fired from within a crowd. A responder could have other civilians in his or her sights when sighting on Loughner. And if there were multiple responders, there would have been an instant crossfire. Other responders might be confused as to who was a friendly and who was the shooter. Very bad.

It's not just about being able to shoot straight. It's about knowing how to respond under fire - how to identify a target, how to remain calm under incoming fire, how to discriminate between enemy and friendly. The last bit is very hard. Even elite counterterrorism units don't always manage to save all the hostages. Less trained individuals will have even poorer performance in confused situations like a sudden firefight. They might hit friendlies.

And in this case, Block frankly sounds overconfident. His resume doesn't appear to indicate he has any actual combat experience. Neither do I. Even if you were an experienced combatant, though, you do not know for sure that you would have stopped Holmes. You'd have a good chance. But it's not a sure thing. Consider, Holmes had a vest. You return fire to his torso, knocking him back. You notice he is not being incapacitated, and you switch to the head, but heads are small. There is gas. People may be running. Holmes has no restrictions on returning your fire. And what if you were in the back of the theater, out of easy range of a pistol? Is the solution that everyone carries AR-15s around?

Furthermore, in a world where firearms are more common, then leakages from legal channels are more common. It is easier for criminals and people with mental illnesses* to acquire firearms. The number of total mass shootings increases. Even if you assume that friendly mortality per single mass shooting decreases, there are more mass shootings. Total mortality could well increase.

Deaths from individual confrontations
In a world where firearms are common, there will be more individual confrontations as well. These could be domestic disputes. These could be bar fights. These incidents would have been settled with fists or knives prior to this. In the NRA's world, it will be a lot more common to have these incidents settled with firearms. And firearms are more lethal than knives or fists.

If the accusations that George Zimmerman stalked and killed Trayvon Martin out of a sense of vigilantism are correct, then this is one example. But I don't think we need the accusations to be right: "justifiable homicides" are generally up significantly since the advent of the infamous "stand your ground" laws in several states. In a number of cases, the police have been unable to investigate the incidents since one of the witnesses is dead. The living witness - the person who shot first - may well have had reason to fear for his or her life. But the threat may not have been lethal. The incident may have been a mere accident, as in the drunk person who showed up by accident at Gregory Stewart's door and got shot (first paragraph of the last link). Or, frankly, it may have been a homicide but now there's no real way to know. Police are trained in proportionate use of force - your responsibility is to protect the peace, and lethal force is a last resort, and you respond proportionately. By the way, police are not always to good at proportionate use of force. They, too, misidentify threats or use disproportionate force.

Or, the individual incidents could be bona fide incidents of self-defense. An intruder breaks into your house. He or she has a knife or a gun. In that situation the first thought would be, if I had a firearm, I could defend myself better. And again, that's probably true for each individual incident. But in the NRA's world, it's probably a lot easier for those criminals to get guns. So, more criminals would be armed. And perhaps individual criminals or gangs of them would be more careful about going in armed, since anyone they find is more likely to be armed. You have an arms race. As with the mass shooting scenario, it may make you safer per individual incident, but it probably makes society less safe in aggregate.

In other words, in the NRA's world, there are likely to be more individual confrontations, and the mortality rate per incident is very likely to increase. Some of these will be entirely justifiable, like self-defense. But some of these will be escalations of a situation that should not have been escalated. And some of these will be entirely unjustifiable.

Deaths from suicide or accident
Many suicidal crises are short-term and self-limiting. Between 30 and 80 percent of suicides are impulsive. Most suicide attempts do not succeed. But in a world with firearms readily available, there will be more successful suicides.

Firearm accidents will also be more common.

Being armed would improve my chances of survival, and the chances of those around me, in each single encounter with a gunman bent on a mass shooting. But I am not on SEAL Team Six. I am not on a SWAT team. I am not stupid enough to think that I would necessarily stop a shooter within the first few seconds, and if one or more other people started to return fire, things would get bad. And if many people armed themselves, thinking that they would be safer as a result, the effects on society would be completely unacceptable.

Mass shootings are fortunately not that common. The United States  is becoming safer, in terms of violent crimes. We do not generally need to be armed to protect ourselves. The other option is that we don't carry firearms, we rely on the police and we carry non-lethal products like Mace. The alternative to the NRA's world is what they do in Singapore and Japan: it's impossible or nearly so to acquire firearms, so there are very few shooting deaths (and Singapore has the death penalty if you so much as discharge one, outside of police or military duty).

Or, given that individuals in the U.S. have the Constitutional right to have firearms, we restrict assault weapons, body armor and high capacity magazines. We impose stricter licensing, like we require background checks and regular testing. Fewer citizens will be armed. But so will fewer criminals. The mass shootings will at least be someone with a .22 caliber pistol and an 8-round magazine - .22 caliber pistols are significantly less lethal, and when the shooter is reloading he or she can be jumped by a bystander, or people can run, or something. Shooters will be less likely to have body armor. There will be fewer ancillary deaths. And, by the way, there are the police. We've put centuries of toil into building a civilization that can stand the test of time, one that has a functioning democracy and functioning institutions of public safety. We should trust them. We are not on the frontier.

Whether individually or societally, guns do not make you safer.

* Most people with mental illnesses are not dangerous. The issue is what happens when the ones who are dangerous get firearms, especially ones with high capacity magazines.

PS: A blogger critiques some responses to the shooting, saying that AR-15s are not as dangerous as hunting rifles in that while they can fire more rapidly, the bullets are individually less powerful. This blogger states that AR-15s are not military weapons. The latter point is true as far as it goes, in that AR-15s are semi-automatic (one trigger pull, one bullet, whereas the M-16, which is basically the AR-15 for the army, can fire fully automatic, albeit the rounds will hit the ceiling as the rifle kicks up with recoil).

However, contrary to what this guy implies, the AR-15 is demonstrably more dangerous than a hunting weapon. In an infantry engagement, especially one at the ranges we are talking about, what matters is how many bullets you can put on the target in the shortest time. Many hunting rifles are bolt action, where you have to reload the rifle by working the action before firing again. Further, the .22 caliber bullets from the AR-15 tend to tumble inside a human body when they hit. They can be very lethal. A .458 Winchester Magnum round has more muzzle energy as this guy states, but rifles firing that round will fire a LOT more slowly. Such rifles could, I suppose, legitimately be used for hunting (albeit this is a big game round, and a lot of big game is endangered). One could make the case that there is no legitimate need for law-abiding civilians to have AR-15s. They can be used to kill multiple people within a short span. If you are a law-abiding civilian and you expect to be caught in a gang fight, get out of dodge and call the police.

I mentioned in the last paragraph that a .22 caliber pistol is relatively non-dangerous. One might ask why, if the rounds are the same caliber as the AR-15. The answer is that AR-15s shoot bullets at 975 m/s. That's almost three times the speed of sound. .22 caliber pistols have muzzle velocities under the speed of sound, or about 330m/s.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

President Obama was evolving two days ago, and he finished yesterday

President Obama hedged his bets on same-sex marriage while campaigning in 2008, saying that he favored civil unions only, but that his views on the subject were still evolving. Not long ago, the famously blunt Vice President Biden said that he was comfortable with same-sex marriage. The President's press secretary dissembled at a press conference, and got figuratively disassembled by the press.

This put the President in a quandary. Yesterday, he endorsed same sex marriage.

So, Mr. Obama was evolving two days ago (his press secretary, Jay Carney, reiterated that the President's views were evolving at that conference). By inference, Mr. Obama finished evolving yesterday.

North Carolina voted on an amendment to ban same sex marriage, which unfortunately passed. The amendment would likely prohibit civil unions and like arrangements, for same-sex and opposite-sex couples, and there is evidence that voters were not aware of that. Now, the President said that he would like to leave the issue up to the states. However, there's another contradiction he needs to address: leaving the issue to the states would have some states taking sweeping steps to ban same-sex marriage so as to "protect" the institution of marriage, while some states would allow it. This is a bit like him saying he's all for interracial marriage himself but it should be left up to the states - and then idiots like North Carolina and Virginia go and ban it.

So, maybe Mr. Obama's evolution is not complete.

North Carolina is a Southern state, and in many ways is more conservative than other states (although it is one of the more moderate Southern states). It is perhaps unsurprising that this amendment passed. It is also unfortunate: the Republican legislators who introduced it and the people who voted for it have put themselves on the wrong side of both God and history. By the way, the last time North Carolina amended their Constitution was to ban interracial marriage.

If you are conservative, consider that the LGBT community, having been excluded from the institution of marriage, has arguably had a higher prevalence of less-monogamous relationships than the heterosexual community. There has been no demonstrated harm to heterosexuals from allowing same-sex marriages. If you think monogamy is good, open the institution of marriage up.

Your other option: stigmatize LGBT folks in the hopes that they will all go back into the closet and marry people of the opposite sex. The problem with this option: people in the closet will do stupid, destructive things. Like Ted Haggard and like the Hon. Larry Craig. This disrupts marriage. It also drives HIV infection rates - consider that the disproportionately high HIV rate in the African American community is mainly driven by men who have sex with men - men in the closet. Folks in both the closet and in traditional marriages are the real threat to marriage. To save marriage, we should get them out of the closet.

And if you are conservative, consider that on this issue, the long-term trends are not in your favor.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You cannot serve God and Ayn Rand - and Christians should decry Mr. Ryan's budget

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Chair of the House Budget Committee, released a budget yesterday.

Budgets reflect the publisher's values. I don't specialize in budget analysis, but President Obama's first budget was one of the best I've followed (in overview, at least). It expanded assistance for the poor. It curtailed tax breaks that disproportionately benefited higher-income folks. That budget reflected good values. One could criticize its technical or political practicality. But it reflected good values. It reflected values that Christians can generally agree on.

Paul Ryan's budget does not reflect good values. I do not typically vet people for how compatible their budgets are with Christian values. But Mr. Ryan's budget does not, in my opinion, reflect values that are compatible with Jesus'.

The Budget
Mr. Ryan's budget would make large and severe cuts to most areas of government. Lay readers may think that there's a lot of waste in government - and they'd be right, just as there is waste in any large organization. But the U.S. government is essentially a large insurance conglomerate, protected by a large standing army. Its main insurance lines are health (Medicare, Medicaid) and income annuities (Social Security). It has a charitable foundation (Food Stamps, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, Earned Income Tax Credit - these all are subsets of 'other' below). And it runs miscellaneous stuff - unlike an insurance conglomerate, it tries to do things like make sure your houses are up to code (HUD), regulate the environment (EPA), other things like that. Hat tip to Ezra Klein for the chart below, and for the description.

Mr. Ryan's budget makes large and indiscriminate cuts to most government programs. He exempts the military. He lowers taxes on the wealthy. By a lot.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected how much the nation would spend on Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and insurance subsidies for workers under health reform under present law, and under Mr. Ryan's proposal. Medicaid and CHIP insure low-income folks.

Basically, Mr. Ryan's budget says that he would have the poor pay for his tax cuts and to maintain military spending. He would cap the Federal subsidies for Medicaid and CHIP at inflation - but medical costs have grown at 2 percentage points above GDP growth in the past, and GDP typically grows faster than inflation. It's likely that medical cost growth will slow a little in the future, but most likely not below GDP + 1.5 percent without additional government action. Mr. Ryan's actions on Medicare are less troubling than last year's budget. However, his proposal would likely weaken the program.  Medicare costs too much, it is true. But that is solely because medical care in the U.S. costs too much. Seniors and the disabled, who are Medicare's beneficiaries, have very high medical utilization. This should not be mistaken for waste, because commercial insurers too must deal with waste, fraud and abuse.  Mr. Ryan's would also harm many other important government programs, like education, social services and infrastructure spending.

He says that his budget will strengthen the safety net. Mathematically, this doesn't hold - the government would be forced to cut the money going to the safety net. That will weaken it.

I can specifically critique the aspects of his budget that deal with Medicaid. Mr. Ryan claims that allowing the states to run Medicaid will make it more efficient. In his world, Federal restrictions prevent states from organizing their systems more efficiently. He is completely and totally wrong. Medicaid covers poor women and children, it covers the disabled, and it covers seniors. For the latter two, it pays for long-term care services, which are personal care services like having someone come to help bathe and dress you, or paying for assisted living or a nursing home stay. In all cases, Medicaid covers health care services, unless the beneficiary is already covered by Medicare, in which case Medicaid will merely cover the copays and deductibles. The women and kids are actually fairly cheap to begin with. The seniors and disabled folks are very, very expensive. Even if they're eligible for Medicare, they're expensive to Medicaid because they need long-term care and sometimes mental health services that Medicare doesn't cover.

Long-term care services in nursing homes cost an average of about $60,000 a year to Medicaid, and probably a quarter of that for home-based care. Assertive Community Treatment, for mental illness, probably costs $9,000 to $12,000. Medical care would average upwards of $10,000 for disabled beneficiaries. All those numbers are per person. The numbers for medical care and institutions go up faster than inflation. In contrast, the average cost of medical care for an average family of four, two working adults and two kids, was about $19,400 in 2011. That's a bit less than $5,000 a person. 

There is no magic bullet that will make the cost of care for Medicaid beneficiaries go down. And yet if you ask Mr. Ryan, if you ask the people at the conservative Heritage Foundation or the National Center for Policy Analysis, or any of the conservative politicians, states and/or the private sector could somehow magically make do with less. A lot less. If you ask these so-called thinkers how exactly they would reform Medicaid, exactly how they would change the delivery and financing systems, they won't tell you because they can't, and they can't tell you because either they are lying or they have no clue about how health care works on the ground.

Mr. Ryan has cited the deficit as a national threat. In the long run, it certainly is. And yet, one could make the argument that his budget will force the poor to pay to reduce the deficit. 

I say, 'one could make the argument', because it is not clear how much his plan will actually reduce the deficit. Right now, Federal taxes are about 15 percent of our Gross Domestic Product, which is all that our economy produces. Because our population is aging, taxes will have to rise to maintain Medicare, probably to 22 to 23 percent of GDP. Mr. Ryan asked the CBO to assume that his plan would raise taxes to 19 percent of GDP. However, a tax plan with the outlines he proposed would collect around 16 percent of GDP in taxes. He still has a big hole to fill, then. He'd have to find $700 billion in 2012 revenues to fill the gap, and while he's said he'd close tax loopholes, he's not said which ones. Now, I would argue that we should gradually close the tax preferences for employer sponsored health insurance, for 401(k) retirement plans, and for mortgages. Closing them all tonight would probably do it for his plan. But he does not propose to do so, and closing those preferences immediately would be very disruptive to the economy. Mr. Ryan's budget assumptions, then, are unrealistic.

The Values
Mr. Ryan is not an overt Christian. Nonetheless, some conservative Christians who have flocked to him. Like this guy. And these guys.

Mr. Ryan is a devout disciple of Ayn Rand (pronounced Ann). Rand's seminal work, Atlas Shrugged, exalts selfishness. It exhorts the rich, allegedly the creative class, to take their money and run, and let society suffer. Rand herself scorned the poor as parasites, and she scorned compassion for the poor as weakness.

Ms. Rand also scorned Christianity and Christians. I actually don't care what Mr. Ryan and Ms. Rand think or thought of Christians. But the fact is that Mr. Ryan's Rand-inspired budget would cause significant harm to the most vulnerable among us. It would even cause significant harm to the middle class, who rely on Medicare to protect them from medical expenses and on Social Security as a significant part of their retirement benefits. I don't like to cast things in Manichean terms, but time and time again, Mr. Ryan has written budgets that would harm the poor, and he has advocated for policies that would harm them. He has advocated for budgets and policies that would direct wealth towards those who are already wealthy.

Mr. Ryan's budget, which the Republicans in the U.S. Congress have rallied around, is completely inconsistent with Christian values. Christians should oppose his budget unconditionally. Many of the Republicans above consider themselves to be devout Christians. They should be advised: fiscal prudence is a virtue, but so is care for the poor. It's not actually all that certain how fiscally prudent Mr. Ryan's budget is, and it is certain that it will harm the poor. Support Mr. Ryan and Ms. Rand, or call yourself a Christian - but not both.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

God have mercy on Robert Bales' victims, and on Bales himself

This post discusses the shootings in Afghanistan that left 16 Afghans dead. I would like to make three points.

First, the Western media hasn't named the victims. When we pray for them, God surely knows their names, but it's a bit less personal. Now, the Afghan government might not have released their names. But journalists would do well to find out. It's harder for us to muster compassion for an abstract class of people. But, may God have mercy on the victims and on Bales himself.

Second, America has started to reflect on what may have driven Bales. This is good. But perhaps we should also reflect on what drives Afghans, and others, to kill in acts of terrorism. It is wrong to kill civilians deliberately, and Christians and Muslims have established criteria for just wars that al-Queda most emphatically did not meet. But we are occupying Afghan soil. We have killed civilians inadvertently - but that inflicts very real costs on Afghans. People lose their children. People are orphaned. Do we think it matters to them that the deaths were accidental? Would we like heavily armed men and women patrolling our streets, enforcing curfews and searching houses? To empathize with Afghans, and Iraqis, does not mean condoning acts of terrorism. But Christ would demand empathy. It would help us understand why some hate us. It would maybe get us to put more effort into non-military efforts in Afghanistan - not that that's a panacea.

Third, I do not believe that God can bless any wars. Even wars that are potentially justifiable. People die. People break, and they kill civilians. People are left broken, physically, mentally and spiritually by warfare. The sixteen dead Afghans should be playing in the fields, or caring for their children, or whatever - except that they were massacred. Bales should be able to go home and raise his own children - except that he killed wantonly, and will most likely face the death penalty (or maybe life in prison, and in the military that's probably going to be even harsher than in the civilian world). Bales still committed murder, responsibility falls on him personally, and he must pay for it. But political leaders who send their troops lightly into combat also bear responsibility. 

Too many politicians in the US make loose talk of war. They act as if belligerence is their core doctrine. They act as if God has given this country the right to do so, and they act as if God is sanctioning war. I don't mean to turn this into a partisan screed, but I think one can objectively say that a lot of those politicians in the US are Republicans, and that they are wrong.