Too Simple

The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled. — John Kenneth Galbraith (1975)

This week everybody was talking about guns again

In an effort to save their party from its lunatic fringe, even Republicans were talking about gun control. Frank Luntz:

The Second Amendment deserves defending, but do Republicans truly believe that anyone should be able to buy any gun, anywhere, at any time? If yes, they’re on the side of less than 10 percent of America.

Mark McKinnon lists some of Mayor Bloomberg’s gun-control proposals, notes that they don’t affect “hunting, recreation, or self-defense” and then asks:

[I]f the ideas are reasonable and don’t limit legitimate activities, then why not consider them?

But gun-advocate rhetoric takes place in a binary frame where (1) no restrictions and (2) total confiscation are the only real options. So when Vice President Biden said that some action might happen through executive order, gun-nuts went nuttier: Obama was threatening confiscation by executive order! Alex Jones:

1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms! It doesn’t matter how many lemmings you get out there in the street begging for them to have their guns taken. We will not relinquish them. Do you understand?

No, it won’t by 1776 again. It will be 1791.

I wonder if Luntz and McKinnon have noticed something that the NRA hasn’t: The binary frame used to work in the NRA’s favor, because the NRA would win an all-or-none choice. But maybe we’ve hit a tipping point, where if you force the public to choose between the status quo and confiscation, confiscation might win. Maybe the NRA should be the side looking for reasonable compromise.


The most extreme part of the gun debate isn’t about hunting or home-defense at all. It’s about the right of the People to overthrow the government by force — even if it’s the government the People just elected. As Kevin Williamson put it in National Review:

There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear.

This was Myth #6 (“The Second Amendment Allows Citizens to Threaten the Government”) in Garrett Epps’ recent constitutional law book Wrong and Dangerous. The Economist’s “Democracy in America” column characterized it as “the right to commit treason” and noted that

Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. In Lebanon, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, we see that militias of armed private citizens rip apart weak democratic states in order to prey upon local populations in authoritarian sub-states or fiefdoms. Free states are defended by standing armies, not militias, because free states enjoy the consent of the governed, which allows them to maintain effective standing armies.

Undeniably, this is not how the Founders expected history to play out. But that’s how it has played out. A popular militia resisting authoritarian takeover and restoring democracy

is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes that the conservative movement that promotes this Second-Amendment myth shows no inclination to support rights that actually do deter tyranny.

If you were a malign leader intent on imposing tyranny, what would you find more useful, banning high-capacity magazines… or a vast archive of the bank records, phone calls, texts and emails of millions of citizens that you could access in secret? Would you, as a malign leader, feel more empowered by a background check requirement on gun purchases… or the ability to legally kill anyone in secret on your say so alone? The powers the Republican Party has given to the presidency since 9/11 would obviously enable far more grave abuses in the hands of a would be tyrant than any gun control legislation with even a miniscule chance of passing Congress. So why are so many liberty-invoking 2nd Amendment absolutists reliable Republican voters, as if the GOP’s stance on that issue somehow makes up for its shortcomings? And why do they so seldom speak up about threats to the Bill of Rights that don’t involve guns?

In reality, the greatest threat to our democracy are the Alex-Jones and Sharron-Angle types who want to take up arms because their candidate lost the election.


Jon Stewart characterized the attitude blocking reasonable gun control as the fear of “imaginary Hitlers”. Gun-nuts’

paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present.



Like climate change and voter fraud, the gun-policy debate takes place largely in Bizarro World, as gun-rights advocates freely make up whatever facts they need and cite each other as references for them. Here are two debunking articles to keep bookmarked:

  • The Hitler Gun Control Lie (Salon). No, Hitler did not take away the German people’s guns. Actually, the Nazi regime weakened the gun restrictions it inherited from the Weimar Republic. (Stalin wasn’t big into disarming the public either.)
  • Mythbusting: Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias (WaPo). Gun advocates point to Israel and Switzerland as “societies where guns are reputed to be widely available, but where gun violence is rare”.  In non-Bizarro-World, American gun-control advocates would love to have the laws of Israel or Switzerland.

The NRA’s Wayne La Pierre says, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I guess he never saw Witness.


And let’s give the last word to The Onion:

Following the events of last week, in which a crazed western lowland gorilla ruthlessly murdered 21 people in a local shopping plaza after escaping from the San Diego Zoo, sources across the country confirmed Thursday that national gorilla sales have since skyrocketed.

… and trillion-dollar coins

This idea has been bouncing around since before the last debt crisis (and I’ve linked to explanations of it several times), but this week it crossed over from a fringy what-if to a policy option that Serious People need to have an opinion about.

I collect a number of those opinions in The Trillion-Dollar Coin Hits the Big Time. (Most boil down to: It’s nutty, but it’s better than defaulting.)

A side-effect of this discussion is that more and more of the public is coming to understand how money really works. Long-time Sift readers have had cause to remember my review of Warren Mosler’s book in the summer of 2011.


James Fallows suggests The Two Sentences That Should Be Part of All Discussion of the Debt Ceiling:

  1. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
  2. For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

An analogy I’ve used before: It’s like eating out when you don’t have cash, but then refusing to pay with your credit card because you’re taking a principled stand against running up more debt. The time to take the principled stand is when you decide what you’re going to do, not when the bill comes.

… which once again brings up the issue of unraveling social norms

The coin and the debt-ceiling hostage crisis it’s supposed to avert are both examples of something I’ve tried (and mostly failed) to describe before: unraveling the norms that make society governable. Maybe Chris Hayes expresses it better:

Behavior of individuals within an institution is constrained by the formal rules (explicit prohibitions) and norms (implicit prohibitions) that aren’t spelled out, but just aren’t done. And what the modern Republican Party has excelled at, particularly in the era of Obama, is exploiting the gap between these two. They’ve made a habit of doing the thing that just isn’t done.

He goes on to give examples: filibustering everything the Senate does, refusing to confirm qualified candidates to positions because you think the position shouldn’t exist, and now “using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip with which to extract ransom”.

He might also mention the proposal that Republicans should rig the Electoral College in states where they control the legislature. The point, pretty clearly, is to be able to win presidential elections even if the People vote for the other guy. (That’s what would have happened in 2012 under at least one plan: Obama gets 5 million more votes, but Romney becomes president.) It’s all perfectly legal, but this is the United States. We don’t do things like that. Or at least we didn’t used to.

The meta-question of the trillion-dollar coin is whether Democrats should strike back with their own inside-the-rules-but-outside-the-norms actions, recognizing (as Chris puts it) that “There is no way to unilaterally maintain norms.”

We need to get a handle on this trend somehow, because it doesn’t go anywhere good. That’s one of the themes in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series: Ultimately, even respect for the written law is just a norm. At some point you start to think, “Why shouldn’t I stick my enemies’ heads on spikes and display them in the Forum?”

… and racism

Republicans hate it when you point to the implicit racism in the intensity of their hatred for Obama and all his works. But Colin Powell went there Sunday on Meet the Press, talking about the “dark vein of intolerance” in the Republican Party. He pointed to voter suppression, to racial code phrases like “shucking and jiving” applied to Obama, and to Birtherism.

But racism is also part of the willingness to violate previously accepted norms (that I was just talking about). Republicans feel justified in doing things that just aren’t done because (until now) electing and re-electing a black president just wasn’t done. Racism is the ultimate root of the Tea Party certainty that we are in uncharted waters that require unprecedented means of resistance. Just voting and campaigning and giving money to your favored candidates isn’t enough any more. We need to arm ourselves and prepare for “Second Amendment solutions” because … because why, exactly?

If you doubt the racial subtext here, think about how different it would sound for a black CEO to threaten that if a white president’s policy “goes one inch farther, I’m gonna start killin’ people.” Fox News would play that clip 24/7 for weeks.

… and you also might be interested in

Mitch McConnell might face a primary because of the fiscal cliff deal. Good news for Democrats? An Aiken/Mourdock Tea Party wacko is much more likely to lose this otherwise safe Kentucky senate seat to a Democrat (Ashley Judd?). Or bad news? If the minority leader goes down in a primary, no Republican will ever again compromise or negotiate.


The Greek economic crisis has taken on symbolic importance in this country; in any discussion of the deficit conservatives are bound to say that overspending is turning us into Greece. But Foreign Policy provides a seldom-mentioned tidbit:

the [Greek] state is facing a revenue crisis, in part because of rampant tax evasion. In 2012, the European Commission estimated the size of Greece’s shadow economy to be 24 percent of GDP, resulting in an annual $13 billion loss in revenue.

And the Center for American Progress amplifies:

when Greece is properly placed in the context of its EU partners and neighbors, it becomes clear that its spending is very much in line with European norms. … In fact, total government spending for the European Union as a whole equaled 50.7 percent of GDP, actually a bit higher than Greece.

So Greece spends less of its national income on government programs than its sensible cousin Germany. And the Greek people work more. Maybe the lesson for the U.S. to learn from Greece isn’t that the safety net is unsustainable. It’s that you’ve got to collect taxes.


No matter how many disastrous gaffes they suffer, Republicans just can’t stop talking about rape. This Democrat is no feminist prize either.


Remember Roy Moore, the “ten commandments judge” who lost his job as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court by defying federal court orders? He’s back. The people of Alabama elected him chief justice again in November, and he was sworn in Friday. Remind me why we didn’t let Alabama secede.


The White House’s We the People project promises that if an online petition gets enough support

White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

Well, 34,000 people signed a petition asking for construction of a Death Star to begin by 2016. So the head of OMB’s Science and Space Branch responded with these criticisms: The Death Star project would increase the deficit. It has a fatal design flaw exploitable by a one-man ship. Plus “The administration does not support blowing up planets.”


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  • By Themes of 2013: Minority Rule | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 10:20 am

    […] new year brought an obvious issue to focus on first: gun violence. (The first Sift of 2013 started: “This week everybody was talking about guns again.”) Sandy Hook was still […]

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