Gun-ownership in America.

There are a lot of firearms in the United States. Roughly about one per person. What percentage of Americans own these firearms?

Survey data suggests a range of answers. A study done by a Harvard University team suggested that 38 percent of Americans own guns.[1] A study done by a Columbia University team suggested that about one-third of Americans own at least one firearm.[2] A study done by the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey suggests that the figure is 30 percent.[3] Arguably, there’s a broad convergence of estimates around the one-third figure.

The studies revealed interesting disparities in gun-ownership. There are big differences between states and between regions.

5.2 percent in Delaware.

5.8 percent in Rhode Island.

19.6 percent in Ohio

20.0 percent in California (the lowest rate of Western states).

28.8 percent in Vermont.

47.9 percent in North Dakota.

57.9 percent in Arkansas.

61.7 percent in Alaska. (D’uh.)

An article in Mother Jones[4] elaborated on the findings of the Columbia study.

Almost half (46 percent) reported having received a firearm as a gift.[5]

Only about one-third (34 percent) had taken a formal gun safety class.[6]

A table in the Mother Jones article shows the link between rising levels of gun ownership and rising levels of gun deaths. However, is it possible to have high rates of gun-ownership and low rates of gun violence? Yes. About 45 percent of Hawiians own guns, but it has a rate of gun deaths comparable to Massachusetts, where fewer than 25 percent of people own guns, and lower than New York, where only about 10 percent of people own guns. Is it possible to have low rates of gun-ownership and comparatively high levels of gun deaths? Yes. Only about 5 percent of Delawareans own guns, but it has a rate of guns death comparable to Texas, where 35 percent of people own guns. What explains these divergences from the norm?

Almost half (45 percent) of men own a gun, but only one-ninth (11 percent) of women own a gun. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of gun-owners own at least a handgun. Almost half (48 percent) of gun-owners have at least four guns.

So, is gun violence at high levels here to stay? Probably not. Gun ownership peaked at 53 percent in the crime-ridden early 1970s, then fell to about 33 percent today. Now the person most likely to own a gun is a married white man over 55 with at least a high school education. Gun-ownership may be like smoking: eventually, it may fall out of fashion in a changing culture.

[1] Lisa Hepburn, Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael, and David Hemenway, “The US gun stock: Results from the 2004 national firearms survey,”  Injury Prevention. 2007 13:15-19.

[2] Bindu Kalesan, Marcos D. Villarreal, Katherine M. Keyes, and Sandro Galea, “Gun ownership and social gun culture,” Injury Prevention, June 2015.

[3] Reported in “The Blaze.”

[4] See:

[5] Requiring back-ground checks for personal transfer weapons is going to meet a lot of open opposition and covert defiance.

[6] No, instead, their fathers taught them. That’s been true for centuries.

Machine minders.

Employers have always wanted a productive and committed labor force, especially if it didn’t involve paying higher wages. Modern technology is supposed to improve productivity in ways that are well understood. However, technology also allows employers to measure productivity in other ways.[1] Software has been developed to track, measure, and analyze all sorts of employee actions. Today, 66 percent of American companies track employees’ internet use; 45 use key-stroke logging to track productivity; and 43 percent track e-mail. Employer-provided cell phones allow tracking through their GPS chips. In addition, computer systems connected to cash registers can track speed of customer purchase processing. UPS has fitted its trucks with a host of sensors that accomplish the same thing in measuring the delivery drivers. The information measures how hard an employee is working and, thus, their marginal value to the employer.

Beyond that, new software allows companies to engage in “sentiment-analysis” on the part of workers.[2] Companies have been using annual surveys and internal blogs to gain insight into the expressed beliefs of workers. New software purports to be able to measure the emotional content as well. (One study revealed that, in spite of the positive terms used to describe a diversity-enhancement initiative, workers felt threatened and fearful for their own jobs.) Other programs assess the salience of issues in the minds of workers.

People who value a degree of privacy might also be alarmed by the recent development of an employee badge that contains a microphone, location sensor, and accelerometer. For the moment, the company that produced the badge claims not to record conversations, but only to use the data to discover valuable patterns among workers.

All this undoubtedly spurs productivity. For example, after four years using the sensor system, UPS delivered 1.4 million packages using 1,000 fewer drivers. Using another technology, Bank of America call centers found that tightly knit groups of workers were less likely to quit and more productive on the job. The bank introduced common coffee-break times. Turnover fell by 70 percent and productivity increased by 10 percent.

It also violates a certain un-spoken assumptions about work held by many employees. Partly this has to do with how much work one should do for how much pay. “People get intimidated and they work faster,” complained one UPS driver. This isn’t really different from the “speed-up” on an assembly-line in the old days. Similarly, work-life and non-work-life are increasingly interpenetrated. Sometimes people have to take care of personal business while at work, just as they sometimes have to bring work home. They expect the employer to understand this reality. When employers complain about time use, employees resent it.

Partly this has to do with revealing employer attitudes about employees. “Right at the heart of all of this [monitoring] is trust,” confessed one management consultant. Modern human resources management talk about creating a sense of community or teamwork in the work-place is revealed to be so much drivel. Hence, Twitter has explicitly fore-sworn analyzing the e-mail of workers and focused on internal blogs (where workers can have no expectation of privacy). Then, will the information be used to cull employees who have what is seen as a bad attitude?

All this is compounded by the fact that good supervisory help is just as hard to get as is other types of employees. One supervisor told an employee that the GPS chip in her company issued cell phone allowed him to track her location 24/7. This could sound like being stalked.

[1] “The rise of workplace spying,” The Week, 10 July 2015, p. 11.

[2] Rachel King, “Companies Want to Know: How Do workers Feel?” WSJ, 14 October 2015.

On the Road to Damascus.

For a guy who played a lot of Chicago rec league basketball, President Obama seems to get taken to the hoop a lot by Vladimir Putin. First it was the Ukraine crisis. Now it is Syria. Tomorrow …

A couple of “realist” Republicans—Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates–have recently spelled out the foolish notions that have guided President Obama in dealing with Russian actions.[1] It appears to come as a surprise to the Obama administration that other countries have foreign policy goals that are different from those that the United States wants to establish as the norm.[2] It appears to come as a surprise to the Obama administration that not everyone views Nineteenth Century great-power politics as “bad old days.” The United States does not want to launch a military intervention in Syria. Consequently, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry insist that there is no military solution possible. Both Russia and Iran beg to differ.

In contrast to the president’s derision of Russia as “just a regional power,” the “fact is that Putin is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well because he knows exactly what he wants to do.” In the view of Rice and Gates, the Russians are using military power to bolster the situation of their Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. As a first order of business, they plan to tip the balance in favor of the regime and against the non-ISIS rebels. Whether Russia and Iran will then extend the campaign to crush ISIS is an open question. What the Russians can hope for is to insure Assad’s grip on the western, more heavily populated parts of the country. Russian intervention has also startled the Turks, who have been living with two civil wars (Iraq, Syria) and a Kurdish insurgency on their southern border for years.

Implicit in this analysis is a harsh judgement by Rice and Gates about the United States: it is playing a strong hand badly because its decision-makers have no idea what they want to do. The two critics see “a vacuum created by our own hesitancy to engage in places such as Libya and to stay the course in Iraq.” They favor creating “no-fly zones and safe harbors” in Syria to protect the civilian population from harm. They favor “providing robust support for Kurdish forces, Sunni tribes, and what’s left of the Iraqi special forces.” In short, the U.S. needs to do what Russia is already doing: “create a better military balance of power on the ground on the ground if we are to seek a political solution acceptable to us and to our allies.”

At first glance, this sort of hard-headed thought can only be welcomed by anyone who has studied Nineteenth Century diplomacy. (See: “What Would Bismarck Drive?”) However, the Rice-Gates polemic raises as many questions as it answers.

First, the op-ed piece reads like a “realist” Republican manifesto for the coming election. (That supposes that a “realist” Republican will get the nomination, rather than one of the exhibits from a political Mutter Museum[3] who now crowd the stage.) “Who lost the Middle East?”

Second, “no fly zones” enforced against whom? Just Syrian military helicopters dropping barrel bombs, or Russian strike jets as well? Lot of “de-confliction” will have to go on.

Third, Rice and Gates totally ignore the reality of a Shi’ite-Sunni civil war now ablaze. For the moment at least, the Russians have picked the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle the divide, which it did so much to create by its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Back when Condoleezza Rice served as National Security Adviser.

[1] Condoleezza Rice and Robert M Gates, “See Putin for who he is,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 October 2015, A15.

[2] Woodrow Wilson had the same sense of unreality at encountering Great Power politics at the Versailles Conference in 1919. However, a sense of unreality is not a legal defense.

[3] See:

Annals of the Great Recession XII.

Does History teach “lessons”? Amity Schlaes certainly thinks so. Her book on the Great Depression of the 1930s is both history and prophecy.[1]

Standard histories of the Great Depression focus on all those millions of people whose lives were destroyed by the economic collapse of 1929-1932, and who were rescued by the policies of the New Deal of 1933-1940. Schlaes takes a different approach. She focuses on the people who found no solution to their problems in the New Deal or who found themselves stifled by the New Deal. Some of her cases are fascinating, but ridiculous. “Bill W,” the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Father Divine, a now-forgotten campaigner against racism, undoubtedly pursued solutions rooted in individual behavior rather than in collectivist action. But the New Deal wasn’t trying to deal with alcoholism or racism.[2] It was trying to deal with a mind-bending economic collapse.

Schlaes is on more solid ground when she deals with political and economic issues. On the one hand, Schlaes is undoubtedly correct that the New Deal utterly failed to revive the American economy. Unemployment remained high throughout the decade, while the stock market—a barometer of activity in the real economy, regardless of what one thinks of brokers—remained low. Only the massive deficit spending for the Second World War and the sequestering of much of the earnings for later consumer spending restored prosperity. Still, the New Deal put a safety net under a collapsing economy.  Both this achievement and the role of deficit spending in long-term prosperity are ignored or under-played by Schlaes.

On the other hand, she brings out the essential pessimism of the New Deal—FDR’s smile aside. Schlaes argues that many New Deal figures had been influenced by foreign authoritarian and collectivist models in the Twenties. Mussolini’s Italy and Bolshevik Russia had impressed intellectuals who went on the shape the debates of the Thirties.[3] These people tended to be repelled by the supposed chaos and injustice of the market economy. The National Recovery Administration tried to regulate prices, wages, hours, and even processes.[4] Schlaes insists upon the New Deal’s emphasis on redistribution over economic growth; its creation of a regulatory state with bureaucrats run-amok; its early commitment to creating a planned economy; its creation of constituencies tied to the government by economic interest; and its attempt to judicially punish the representatives of an alternative vision.[5]

Curiously, the book came out in 2007, before the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama as President. Since 2008, Americans have witnessed—cheering or hissing—the flight from Keynesianism by both Republicans and Democrats; the President telling Americans that the person who own a business “didn’t make that” business; and the attack on “millionaires and billionaires” who “tanked the economy.” Seems like old times.

[1] Amity Schlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: HarperCollins, 2007)

[2] Indeed, the New Deal was founded on racism. Much of its electoral base was in the South, where Democrats both excluded blacks from voting and counted blacks for purposes of representation. Hugo Black, appointed to the Supreme Court by FDR, had been a Klansman. Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” much decried by all right-thinking progressive people, amounted to catching the Democrats skinny-dipping and running away with their clothes.

[3] Schlaes is hardly alone in doing this. See: Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba 1928-1979 (1981) for many funny or revolting stories.

[4] Like the justices of the Supreme Court at the time, Schlaes has a good deal of fun with the “straight killing” of chickens in the Schechter case.

[5] Examples include the “show trials” of Samuel Insull and Andrew Mellon and the disparaging of Herbert Hoover.

Climate of Fear XIX.

Once Mao had died and his myrmidons had been shoved aside, Deng Xiaoping launched China on a drive for industrialization and integration into the world economy. Over the last twenty years, that effort has born remarkable fruit: China has the second largest economy in the world; millions of people have been dragged out of dire poverty and living standards have risen for all Chinese.[1]

However, all progress comes at a cost. Some 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal-fired generators. China’s energy consumption rose by 50 percent just between 2008 and 2013. In 2014, China’s per capita emissions of CO2 passed those of the European Union. Twenty years of industrialization have turned the air over Chinese cities into thick dark clouds of smog.

The health effects have been devastating, with half a million people a year dying of pollution-related causes. There may be economic effects as well. It is getting more difficult to move people out of the comparatively healthy countryside to work in industrial cities that are themselves “dark, Satanic mills.” Perhaps most serious, from the point of view of China’s Communist leadership anyway, is that the pollution is stirring low-level political unrest. There have been an estimated 50,000 environmental protests a year in recent years. Many are of the “Not in My Back Yard” variety, protesting the actions of local factories or generating plants. However, these have the potential to grow, to coalesce, and to turn into a more general criticism of the Party’s leadership.

The convergence of these forces is driving China to limit carbon emissions. In 2009 China committed to reducing the role of carbon emissions in its energy production by 45 percent by 2020; China has invested $90 billion in renewable energy in 2015 alone[2]; China has announced the implementation of a cap-and-trade policy for emissions by 2017; and China has agreed to cap its carbon emissions by 2030.[3]

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems to be solved. One problem is how to connect the “green” generating sources with the consumers of energy. Most of the non-carbon generating capacity is located in remote areas, distant from the main industrial cities. As the crow flies, it is 1,200 miles from the southern edge of the Gobi Desert to Shanghai, and almost 1,400 miles to Guangzhou. Power lines aren’t going to run as the crow flies. So, there is a big engineering project there. Another problem is how to match generated energy with timely use. That’s a storage problem. The Chinese haven’t been any better—so far—than have Western countries at developing reliable storage batteries.

China’s drive is easing co-operation with President Barack Obama’s push for an international agreement to curb climate change. China’s agreement to limit carbon emissions breaks from its refusal to do so that torpedoed American ratification of the 1991 Kyoto Protocol.

Two worries remain. First, can China’s leaders solve the technical problems of storage and transmission? Second, can China expand green energy in pace with the demand for rising living standards from it citizens?

[1] “China’s green revolution,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 11.

[2] China has built solar farms in the Gobi Desert. This year alone it has increased the generating capacity of these farms by 18 gigawatts. That’s equal to total US solar generating capacity. China already leads the world in wind power generation, but plans to double the generating capacity by 2020. Half of the world’s hydro-electric dams are in China, but the Chinese are still building at a rapid clip. .

[3] The efforts now under way make it likely that China will be able to reach peak carbon emissions by 2025.

Miss Celany 2015.

The US Navy has spent a lot of money developing a spy-fish. It’s five feet long, weighs a hundred pounds, looks like a blue-fin tuna, and swims. It’s loaded with all sorts of intelligence gear.[1] Now all we have to wait for one of them to end up in some fishing boat’s trawl net. There’s a funny movie in this.

Back in 1977, 56 percent of people aged 18 to 29 said that they had tried marijuana. In 2013, 36 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 said that they had tried marijuana. So, in a sense, it’s a generational thing. You wouldn’t understand. A 2014 academic study concluded that 76 percent of the marijuana consumers in the U.S. were people who never went to college or never finished, while about 17 percent of consumers were college graduates.[2] Whoa, dude.

In Summer 2007, almost 40 percent of births were to un-wed mothers. This was the highest level ever recorded.   The rate had risen among all racial groups. The biggest increases were among women in their twenties.[3] Then, between 2010 and early 2015, abortion rates in the US fell by 12 percent in both “red” and in ‘blue” states.[4] Fewer unwanted pregnancies or more children? Well, from 2010 to 2012 alone, the teen birth-rate dropped by 6 percent.[5] So, it looks like fewer unwanted pregnancies. Condoms are a dollar each at the CVS.   If it hasn’t been burned down or you have a thing about “taking a shower in a raincoat.”

Americans have gotten a lot bigger over recent decades. In the early 1960s the average man weighed 166.3 pounds; today the average man weighs 195.5 pounds. American women have kept pace, with the average woman now clocking in at 166.2 pounds. As a result of the increased size of real dummies, crash-test dummies have had to be scaled-up as well. Current dummies are based on the average weight of Americans back in the Sixties. One recently-developed prototype is based on a person who weighs 273 pounds.[6] How is this public opinion, you ask? Well, public opinion polling is about discovering beliefs. Apparently, a lot of Americans “believe I’ll have another helping.”

People have begun to complain that “radiation from cellphones, Wifi systems or smart meters causes them to suffer dizziness, fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness or heart palpitations.”[7] We are seeing the rise of “Electrosensitive people” and of “Electro-Americans.” (Kind of like John Boehner being the spokesman for “Orange Americans.” Can learning accommodations be far behind?

Back in 2013, Former President-in-Exile Al Gore was reported to be worth $300 million. That put him ahead of Never-Was-President Mitt Romney, who was reported to be worth between $190 and $260 million.[8] One of the chief criticisms made of Romney by Democrats was that his work at Bain Capital often led to job losses. I haven’t found any overall total for these job losses. One story on just four companies put the total at about 6,000 jobs lost.[9] As an environmental activist, Al Gore opposes burning coal. There are about 174,000 working-class jobs in the coal-mining industry.[10]

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 20.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 16.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 20 July 2007, p. 18.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 14.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 27 September 2013, p. 16.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 26 June 2015, p. 14; “Noted,” The Week, 14 November 2014, p. 18.

[7] NYT, 31 January 2011, p. A12.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 8 February 2013, p. 18.



Cautionary tales about gun control.

About 106,000 people a year get shot in the United States. About 31,000 die of their wounds and 75,000 survive.[1] The sufferings of the survivors is not much noticed in the media. About 58 percent of the gunshot fatalities are suicides. This is not much noticed in the media either. The vast majority of the rest are homicides.

Some gun owners will kill. How many? Well, fourteen thousand gun homicides in a country with 310 million firearms. OK, much more realistically, 14,000 gun homicides in a country with 100 million hand-guns. (Only a few hundred deaths result from “long guns” (rifles and shotguns).) Then, it’s a safe bet that some hand-guns are used in multiple homicides.[2] So, fewer than 14,000 guns from a stock of 100 million hand-guns are responsible for most homicides. I think that means 1.4 percent of hand-guns cause virtually all of the homicides. It is really difficult to build a case for general gun regulation from this evidence.

In the wake of the December 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for stricter gun regulations.[3] That plea brought no result from Congress. However, it did bring a response from gun-owners. Fearing that the government would limit gun-sales and demand registration of new purchases, gun-owners flocked to the stores to buy up all the guns and ammunition they could get their hands on. In the nature of a market economy, manufacturers responded by increasing production to meet demand. In 2009, American firearm manufacturers produced 5.6 million firearms. In 2013, they produced 10.9 million firearms. If one wants to be perverse about this, then it is possible to argue that President Obama’s efforts led to an additional 5 million guns sold.[4]

The “war on drugs” allows us to regard half the murder victims in the United States as criminals killed by other criminals. We can be effectively indifferent about these deaths. However, it is the “war on drugs” that turns all these Americans into “the enemy.” When is the last time you heard of someone killed in a quarrel over alcohol (which happened all the time during Prohibition)? When is the last time you heard about someone who died from a botched “back alley” abortion (which happened all the time before Row v. Wade and Planned parenthood)?

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans. However, 12.2 percent of the population is African-American. That means African-Americans get killed at four times their share of the population. In contrast, while use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[5] So, “Black Lives Matter,” but not to juries.

A majority (more than 50 percent) of mass murders happen when someone—almost always a man—wigs out and kills his estranged spouse or former spouse and her family.[6] The pre-occupation with random mass killings obscure this terrible truth. Getting guns away from people who have a restraining order against them is a necessary first step.

What is striking is that we can’t talk to each other about this complicated and painful subject.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 16.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 14.

Immigration Politics.

After the Civil War, the stream of European immigrants to the United States turned into a flood. By 1890, 14.8 percent of the people living in the United States had been born abroad. Many “old-stock” Americans found this deeply disturbing. While the First World War temporarily choked down on emigration from Europe, a powerful movement for immigration restriction had sprung up. In the early Twenties, new laws imposed a system of quotas on future immigrants. Decades later various new laws eased restrictions on legal immigration, while a large number of Mexican and Central American immigrants had entered the country illegally. By 2015, 13.7 percent of the population had been born abroad. Demographers now project that this share of the population will grow. By 2015, 14.9 percent of the population may be foreign-born.[1] Is there some kind of “saturation point”?

Today, Americans aren’t opposed to immigration. OK, I have to qualify that a bit. As recently as 2013, a huge majority of Americans (73 percent) thought that immigration was good for America, while only 24 percent thought that it was bad.[2] However, one recent Pew poll found that only 45 percent of Americans believe that immigrants improve America—over the long run at least.[3] A majority (55 percent) of Democrats and a minority (31 percent) of Republicans believe that immigrants improve America. On the other hand, that means that 45 percent of Democrats either don’t think immigrants make the country better or they’re not sure. In addition, 34 percent of Democrats think that immigrants are making the economy worse. Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Tommy Carchetti should think about this. (See: Donald Trump in the general election.) On the other hand, the vast majority of Republicans either think that immigrants don’t make the country better or they aren’t sure. This is pretty bizarre within my own notion of what the Republican Party should be: an opportunity society that creams off the best and the brightest from all those sweat-soaked hell-holes around the globe. Of which there are a great many.

In a discombobulating perception, while at most (69 percent) Republicans (100-31=69) think immigrants do not make the country better, 71 percent of Republicans think that immigrants are making the economy worse. Apparently, at least 2 percent of Republicans think that immigrants are making the economy worse and also believe that this is good for the country. Probably some kind of sampling error. As in: Pew interviewed a bunch of idiots. Well, they get to vote so I suppose they deserve to be polled.

Still, there are intricacies to the issue that don’t always receive adequate discussion. For example, one tricky bit appears to be the difference between legal and illegal immigration. In November 2013, 63 percent of Americans favored a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. In contrast, 18 percent want all the illegals rounded up and shipped home.[4] In June 2014, the great majority (62 percent) of Americans favored granting full citizenship to illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements; 17 percent favored granting “green cards,” but not full citizenship; and 19 percent wanted them all deported.[5]

Also, the composition of immigration has been changing. In 2010, Mexicans amounted to 45 percent of the immigrants to the US. In 2012 this fell to 14 percent of immigrants. Who picked up the slack? India sent 12 percent, and China 10 percent, while other Asian countries sent 23 percent. That makes Asia, at a total of 45 percent, the current chief source of immigrants to the United States.[6] According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 alone, 147,000 people of Chinese origin migrated to the United States. This puts China in first-place in the list of countries sending migrants to the United States. In 2013, Mexico sent 125,000.[7]

Liberals are counting on Hispanics to vote en mass Democratic. It may not happen. About one-sixth of Hispanics (16 percent) now identify as evangelical Christians (who lean Republican). Another 18 percent express no religious affiliation. Religious Hispanics remain overwhelmingly Catholic (55 percent) but that number is noticeably down from where it was in 2010 (67 percent).[8]

In one sense, Republicans have little to gain from seeking to the Hispanic vote. Only about 16 percent of Congressional districts held by Republicans have at least 20 percent Hispanics in their populations.[9] However, would swinging the Hispanic vote allow Republicans to make further inroads in currently Democratic districts?

Then, if one is to judge by the attacks on Asian shop-keepers during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, or the off-hand comments of people I know, African-Americans don’t much like Asians or Hispanics. Much of the traditional Democratic base is concentrated in a handful of major cities and in the South. The Democratic obsession with affirmative action is going to alienate the Asian and Hispanic voters.  In sum, the Democrats have some long-term problems cooking.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 9 October 2-15, p. 18.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week,

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 17.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 6 December 2013, p. 17,

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 20 June 2014, p. 17.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 14.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 23 May 2014, p. 14.

[9] “Noted,” The Week, 19 July 2013, p. 14.

No Strings Attached.

In 1930 the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp created the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS). The tasks of SIS included the interception and cryptanalysis of the radio communications of foreign powers. Over time, SIS evolved into the current National Security Agency (NSA).[1]  It employs something between 30,000 and 40,000 people.[2] That’s more than double the number of people working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[3]

Several decades of dramatic advance in communications technology has allowed the NSA to extend its reach. When more and more communications began to pass through satellites, the NSA built parabolic dish aerials to snatch the messages out of the ether. When communications shifted to fiber-optic cables, the NSA both tapped the cables and accessed the data hubs of telecommunications companies.

Huge amounts of data flow through these systems, with useful intelligence buried in among the innocuous rest. How does the NSA find the needle in the haystack? It has a program called Echelon that searches the huge mass of collected messages for names, phone numbers, addresses, and even phrases that have been submitted by the intelligence community. Its computers look for patterns of interest to the intelligence community in among all the other patterns that are created by global business and migration.[4]

This powerful tool in the struggles waged in the shadows has raised concern about threats to the privacy of American citizens. Already in the 1970s it was revealed that NSA had files on 75,000 Americans. Well, it wasn’t against the law. Congress then passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Act barred the NSA from collecting data on Americans at home and required approval from a special (secret) court before carrying out foreign interceptions that might involve Americans.

The came 9/11. President George W. Bush signed a (secret) executive order allowing the NSA to engage in wiretapping of Americans who fell under suspicion of being in touch with foreign terrorists. Not even a FISA court warrant was required. Eventually, news did leak out. Instead of the outrage that had accompanied revelation of the NSA surveillance of Americans in the 1970s, however, the shock of 9/11 made Congress confirm the new course. In July 2007, Congress passed a new law that made legalized the work done under the secret executive order.

Much of what we know about the NSA comes from two sources. One is James Bamford, a former intelligence analyst-turned-journalist. He has written a series of books on the agency based on troves of information acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. The other is Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who published immense amounts of information stolen from NSA computers.[5] Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. But is civil rights or vital intelligence the baby?

[1] Beginning in 1943 the SIS intercepted the radio communications of America’s then-ally, the Soviet Union. The code in which the messages were sent could not be broken, but the messages were archived. Subsequently, code-breakers found a way to read the messages. This led to a hunt for Soviet agents in the United States. The Rosenberg ring were among the agents captured as a result. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a secret executive order creating the enlarged and empowered NSA.

[2] Once upon a time, being gay or even being suspected of being gay got one discharged from the U.S. government as a security risk. Now, NSA has an LGBT club.

[3] “America’s most secret agency,” The Week, 31 August 2007, p. 9.

[4] For example, cash flows to the Cayman Islands or Indonesians calling home on Friday evenings.

[5] Curiously, both Bamford and Snowden worked in Hawaii. Makes me wonder what goes on in the Haleakala Observatory on Maui.

On your own.

Once upon a time, each individual person in the Americans society and the American economy bore all sorts of risk associated with their life.[1] Then came the Great Depression of the Thirties.[2] Under Democratic auspices in the New Deal and the Great Society, mass-unionized workers got defined-benefit pension systems, “Cadillac” health insurance plans, unemployment insurance, near-full employment, and ever-more generous Social Security. In essence, risk became shared as if in an insurance model.

Then, beginning in the Seventies, international competition eroded the complacency of the post-war decades. Coincidentally, at the same time, the mythic “American work ethic” eroded to the point where, for example, American-manufactured cars ceased to be stolen. OK, somebody might want to buy German cars or Japanese cars, but Americans cars? Who would steal a K-Car or a Gremlin? The car companies and the UAW pressured Washington into imposing quantitative limits on the number of Japanese cars imported into the United States. Again, the assumption of risk fell on the group or community rather than on the individual.

In the Eighties, risk began to be shifted back toward the individual. Both corporations and governments “de-leveraged” by cutting their formal obligations. Defined-benefit pension systems gave way to defined-contribution systems; health insurance slid toward high-deductible plans; a minimum of 5 percent unemployment became the definition of “full employment”[3] Rather than tolerate poor workmanship for high labor costs, companies began to shift their production overseas. American consumers got better products at a lower price.

All the same, those consumers were also producers. The new systems eroded both job-security and labor compensation. Several aspects of contemporary political radicalism (both Bernie Sanders and the Tea Party) may arise from this disorder.[4]

At the core of Hacker’s work is a life-cycle interpretation of political success and failure.[5] The 45 year-old Hacker believes that victory goes to the young, energetic, and imaginative. (People like him or Paul Ryan.) The Democrats were young and vigorous once. Then, over time, they turned into a party of old buffers. Meanwhile, licking their wounds in exile, the Republicans became a party with “that lean and hungry look.” They figured out how to market their ideas and developed an acute understanding of how the political system worked. Democrats fell in droves before the sword of Ronald Reagan. According to this narrative, old-guy Democrats thought that they could get by splitting the difference with fine young conservatives. Alligator Republicans just ate their lunch. Now what was needed, in the mind of Jacob Hacker is a younger, more dynamic Democratic Party.[6]

The possibility that labor costs (wages + benefits) relative to price and quality of the goods produced has gone beyond what is sustainable in a competitive global economy is not something that Democrats desire to discuss. Nor Republicans either.

[1] Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford UP, 2006).

[2] The New Deal is what the Left has I n place of a revolution. Polemicists will debate whether it was a new American Revolution or a watered down Russian Revolution.

[3] Unemployment had sunk below 3 percent in the pre-management of the economy Twenties.

[4] Democrats are inclined to regard one—Sandism—as legitimate, if misguided, while they regard the other—what, evangelical Republicanism?—as illegitimate as well as unhinged. I’m not sure I see a real difference.

[5] It isn’t much different from Ibn Khaldun or Ma Joad.

[6] In the world of ideas, this meant people like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz; in the world of the communication of ideas—or at least of notions and punch lines—it meant people like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.