Guns, Knives, People and Tragedy

What is the difference between 22 children in a school attacked by one man with a knife in China and the massacre, almost simultaneously, of 20 children in a school by one man with an assault rifle in the United States? Answer: no deaths in China.

The mantra by gun lobbies for years has been that “guns do not kill; people do.” Guns and knives are both lethal in the wrong hands. The obvious difference is that guns can massacre more people faster. The amazing coincidence of the Chinese tragedy and the Connecticut slaughter illuminates and illustrates this vital point to all those who have denied the fact — especially to elected members of Congress.

To make the subject more complicated, we must take into consideration (at least until a possible amendment to the Second Amendment might be achieved) the existence of the somewhat uncertain meaning of “the right to bear arms” in the Second Amendment in its present form. In the meanwhile, there are excellent precedents that can be better used for “reasonable” restrictions on ownership and use of guns such as an outright ban on assault weapons, which was in effect from 1994 until 2004. This Newtown tragedy hopefully will lead to such renewed and tougher restrictions.

Given the very nature of humans — random and difficult to predict — it may be impossible to eliminate tragedy entirely in any realistic and reliable way. That said, the statistics of countries with tight versus light controls show that there is a clear correlation between easy access to guns and causes of death by shooting. Therefore, access to guns has to be restricted, not just to remove guns in general, but to establish categories of people who must first be recognized as risks and second monitored continuously and carefully to seek to prevent their access to guns. These two goals have to be coordinated.

Teachers and other staff in schools across the country know their kids very well. They know, for example, when kids are ‘outliers’ in various ways. It should become essential to bring such kids to the attention of appropriate professionals for assessment, monitoring and treatment. This is where the present system is breaking down for two reasons: resources are skimpy (and need to be beefed up) and it is seen by too many people as stigmatizing kids, which is seen as antisocial. Which is worse: to stigmatize or to allow people to be at large with a risk of doing serious harm to others?

We have a twin problem — access to guns at large and access to guns by deranged actors, who are, or should be, known by society to exist.

One problem without the other would be a lesser problem. Therefore they really have to be dealt with together or neither may happen. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the hardest problem is the people problem because no one wants to find people guilty without evidence of intent to commit a crime and that is very difficult to have before the fact.

How to draw those these complex lines and take effective, serious steps, coupled with fair enforcement is the bigger challenge facing the nation.

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Sumo Wrestling

Waiting and watching the pulling and tugging among the president, the Speaker and their respective parties conjures images of Japanese giants seeking advantage in their sumo rings. A pull here, a tug there and one or the other tumbles for a moment, but with a sudden motion, amazing for beasts their size, they are back on their feet yanking again at their adversary.

Apparently Japanese aficionados of sumo understand a lot of the loaded moves and even know how to tell who is winning or losing. It is too bad that there is no one around who has the code to interpret the current sumo game being played out for us in Washington, D.C. in front of the world.

Yes, we now all seem to know that there is a real deadline with potentially serious consequences. However, as we approach that so-called ‘cliff’, we now hear some murmurs about “well maybe we have to go off the cliff — a little bit? — to test the waters.”

What is the matter with us? Indeed the issues are many and complicated, though they do boil down to basically three elements: tax rates, debt ceilings and budget cuts. They have been raked over several times by highly trusted and competent experts; the broad outlines of formulas for compromise and how to proceed have been out there for a long time.

So what is the sumo match all about? It can only be about a few things. Which side is ‘heavier’? Which side is quicker? Which side is smarter? And, which side is tougher and has the political staying power?

HEAVIER: That one should be easy. The president has just won a tough election by a healthy margin and has a clear mandate from the people to deal with taxes his way. To deny that reality requires a magician.

QUICKER: The Speaker is quicker with quips and flips; but the president has been quick with sticking to his long-held positions. Call speed a draw if you like.

SMARTER: The Speaker is not a dumb man. At least he seems smart enough to maneuver in any way to hold his position until the midterm elections, when he is now most likely to be toast. The president is off-the-charts smart and he is no longer worried about job security. I put my money on the president for political smarts and having the substance right.

STAYING POWER: This element is more based on being right and having history on your side. It looks increasingly clear that the Speaker’s position is weakening because his far right is already fading as a result of the recent election. It also looks clearer by the day that intelligent centrist Republicans are swinging in behind the kind of compromises that have been out there for months.

No one could possibly want to be blamed for pushing the nation off a cliff into another recession/depression. So why don’t we all rise to our feet, give a smashing round of applause to our friendly sumo contestants and tell them, “game over, good show; now let’s get back to real life and business.”

Confronting Extinction: Lessons from the U.S. Mail

Everyone over the age of 50, but particularly those scattered in small towns across America, has long experienced the routine, even mundane act of going to the post office to send and receive mail. And the romance of the postal service is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, the stuff of Rockwell paintings, valiant tales of “sleet or snow,” and the country’s famous “frontier spirit.” Any idea of closing all such post offices would almost certainly set off a thunderous cacophony of protest. But, given the need to ask what the U.S. Government can cut without harming bone and muscle, perhaps it is time to rethink the role of this prized institution in the 21st century.

Despite a lot of well-conceived and even well-executed modernization efforts, the U.S. Postal Service continues to bleed billions of dollars every year. If the U.S. mail was seriously supporting economic and social needs throughout our society (and especially in small-town America) the money would be at least well-spent, but that is not the case.

It’s also obvious to all sentient beings that private-sector developments in the last 20 years have vastly undermined the Postal Service’s business, and redefined the very concept of “post” in the modern era: Email has long since supplanted “snail mail” as the primary first-class delivery vehicle. And while we can loudly mourn the death of the handwritten letter, any modern executive would be hard-pressed to build a profitable business around delivering thank-you letters to grandparents and the like. Yes, there are good reasons not to use email for everything (just ask General Petraeus); such reasons are behind only a minuscule fraction of all communications and could be quite easily performed by the private sector. Illicit liaisons and etiquette really don’t warrant a multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidy.

Private delivery services, such as FedEx and UPS, along with their networks of retail offices across the country, have taken over and made extremely efficient what was historically one of the most important functions of the post office — rail express dedicated to helping citizens receive and send their parcels and mail. When was the last time a package you ordered online showed up via the U.S. Postal Service?

The Internet has become the main platform for the dissemination and solicitation of nearly everything imaginable. Few people call the IRS for tax forms anymore (that would then be mailed to the taxpayer); instead, they download what they need online.

Once you eliminate personal correspondence, parcel service and information dissemination, all that’s left are the detritus: catalogs, flyers, the occasional bill, and suspect solicitations destined for “Resident” that have an estimated seven-second lifespan from the time they’re plucked from a mailbox or a post office box to the time they meet their demise in the trash bin. Pity the poor treehuggers!

What then, does the USPS do that is essential to the functioning of modern society? While it certainly employs a lot of people who need jobs in post offices and on the street, the basic answer is “nothing.” Instead, the U.S. mail provides a diminishing service to an ever-declining number of people who have not yet fully joined the modern world.

Although tempting, the real and psychological issues beneath the surface of this anachronistic service argue against approaching it with a meat hammer and “one strong blow.” It should be possible to phase out post offices in a calm and rational way, which would avoid putting too many people out of work at once, and would give the private sector some time to pick up the slack for needed services, and to protect the people who still rely on U.S. mail.

Or maybe we keep the post offices for a good long while, but ditch the costly carriers who deliver each day’s detritus to our doors. A return to a “general delivery” system — prevalent in the first centuries of the service — would dramatically reduce costs, eliminate the inefficiencies inherent in visiting every household every day, and still allow people ready access to the mail. A “Mail on Wheels” program or private delivery services could address the needs of homebound residents and be available to others who are willing to pay for the convenience of home delivery.

The basic point of this piece is not to single out post offices. The struggles of the U.S. Postal Service hold lessons for a number of government functions that have been, or could/should be, supplanted or enhanced by the private sector and charitable organizations. A coordinated, collaborative approach can perform fairly and efficiently, letting the government focus on its core responsibilities while relying on the private and non-profit sectors for ancillary and special services. The real point is that once businesses move in to cherry pick the lucrative parts of a government operation, it’s time to rethink our approach. “Evolve or Perish” must be the mantra of every government bureaucrat, or systems like the U.S. Postal Service will inevitably go the way of the dinosaurs.

“Money Is Like Manure”

Fear not! You are not about to be subjected to a boring dissertation about agronomics or even foreign and domestic tax laws.

Suffice it to say, for the purpose of this piece, that all good CFOs and CEOs who run global businesses are obliged, for the benefit of their owners, to take optimal and appropriate steps to minimize taxes on their companies. The consequences of such perfectly legal actions (that is, those within all applicable laws) is that quite a lot of money sits quite still in banks around the world, doing nothing of consequence for anyone’s economy or jobs. Some estimates calculate the amount of this “lazy money” in excess of $1 trillion at the moment.

Some early 20th century wag once declared that “money is like manure,” because when it is left alone in a pile, all it does is stink, but if it is spread around it makes things grow.

That is where we are now, a delicate moment in U.S. history when it would be highly desirable to free up more money across the economy to rebuild infrastructure, promote innovation and advance educational endeavors. Instead, too much of our money is stinking up too many offshore tax havens and overseas accounts.

Given the enormous need, it’s remarkable that we haven’t yet pursued a solution which is simple, fair and has proven results: a “tax holiday” on a one-time, never-again basis for at least ten years on corporate earnings held overseas.

It’s an approach that has been considered previously by the U.S. and other countries. Most recently it has been used very successfully by Spain, which was increasingly desperate to generate economic activity.

This can be done in a variety of ways. One formula is to say if you bring it back by x date and pay, say, 10 percent of what you bring back in lieu of any other tax or penalty, you get to pass Go with no further liability, allowing a company to spend the full repatriated amount (less the 10 percent) however it sees fit, except that it, or an equivalent amount in excess of any existing annual dividend, cannot be distributed as dividends to shareholders for at least two years.

A tax holiday benefits the Treasury and thus all taxpayers — and quickly to boot. If, for example, the total amount repatriated were $1 trillion, a 10 percent tax would generate $100 billion — not chump change; corporations would have even more to invest, and the country would get a nice shot in the arm at a crucial time. With the holiday the Treasury would obviously have to pledge not to do anything similar for at least another ten years, or companies might not take it seriously enough and perhaps wait for another better offer.

If the $100 billion were earmarked for a new infrastructure stimulus program, we could also address a pressing need and help grow the economy and jobs.

To do the tax holiday right this should be a one-time reduced corporate tax rate coupled with other significant corporate tax improvements designed to give companies the right incentives to make forever global tax games a loser’s game.

How can such a good and timely idea remain so obscure at a time like this? Perhaps Speaker Boehner and the president, in an effort to give something to everyone, should include something along these lines in their Grand Bargain next week.

Three-Dimensional Billiards

This past weekend there was a meeting of around 100 folks — about half Americans and half Israeli — with more than a smattering of sitting, as well as former, very senior officials of both governments, plus bunches of NGO types from both countries’ think tanks as well as leading members of the press and a handful of observers full of amateur curiosity like this writer, plus a few Palestinian Israelis, Jordanians and other Middle East nationals. The subject obviously was the Middle East in general and U.S./Israel relations in particular. This was the ninth year in a row the meeting was held. The rules of attending prohibit revealing names and attributions, though everything else is free game.

If there was any consensus resembling a conclusion, it was that things are just as confusing as they were nine years ago and, according to several people who had attended all nine annual meetings, probably more complicated and risky to all parties. But, that it is just as important to keep talking — about what?

Naturally a lot of timely events drew a lot of talk: settlements on the heels of the UN Palestinian vote? The role of Egypt, Clinton, Obama and Morsi in the ceasefire in Gaza? The connections or lack thereof between Turkey and Israel? The Syrian uprising and what role of the U.S. and Israel? The January elections in Israel and who are the serious players? How to deal with Iran and their nuclear plans and ambitions? Where do Russia and China fit in the whole picture?

You do not want me to walk you through all those issues because, after listening for about 15 hours of fascinating detailed discussion, my mind was swimming in confusion. It does take a lifetime to become fully familiar with that collection of historical animosities, political and occasionally military conflicts, economic and cultural entanglements, and the bewildering cast of characters that is, uniquely, the Middle East. It also seems that it is likely to take more than my lifetime to understand them. Hence the image of three-dimensional billiards came to mind. Three dimensional chess is actually playable. I suspect no one has ever tried something similar with billiards — or even thought about trying. It seems to me, however, that it’s a fitting metaphor for the realities of the Middle East today. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me about how the subject could be framed, without being constrained by excessive familiarity with the historical stories.

It is fatuous to say that if it were not for the existence of oil and nuclear weapons, the subject of the Middle East would not be of much interest to the rest of the world today. Yes, the Middle East was and remains the cradle of the modern world — with or without oil and nukes. Yet, without those things the peoples there would simply be a largely unmelted pot with tribal and religious distinctions and histories, constantly at each other’s throats, yet with increased visibility in the world because of modern telecommunications and other forms of modernization.

But with oil and nukes in the picture the rest of the world inevitably gets drawn into their tribal and religious issues and angers, as if it were an integral part of that past and present.

“So what?” you may be thinking. Well, if we all go back to basics and strip the billiards game back to pre-oil and nukes and then analyze how it got to now, we all might begin to see some things more clearly.

For one thing oil surely is on the way to becoming less influential. As the U.S. becomes increasingly rich again in hydrocarbon energy with massive gas reserves, the calculus will begin to change a great deal well ahead of the ultimate changes. If, and when, we all get through the knothole of restraining the Iranian nuke issue, that general overhang is bound to recede in importance, as the world is bound to/has to adjust to a nuclear world.

If the Israelis could bring themselves to thinking bigger, they hopefully could begin to think better about the smaller issues.

As this weekend’s meeting was drawing to a close, in a somewhat frustrated mood, one of the most senior Americans present, with no official connection to the issues, but with perhaps with the biggest and most insightful brain in the room, asked in a very brief compelling way, in substance as accurately as I can recall it, “How can you expect us Americans to forever keep backing you in this vexing situation if you do not make clear a rational plan for how you intend to proceed. It is not enough for you to keep telling us we are inevitably your Siamese twin who cannot be split; we need to know how you propose to solve these problems in a way that can make sense for all concerned.”

That was the unexpected dramatic moment of the weekend.

Perhaps that question may reverberate and start a process that could lead to a plan and help us all lighten the burdensome load called the Middle East.