Guns and butter: The oligarchs against the people on two big issues

There are numerous parallels between the battle over gun safety and the battle over preserving the US welfare state.

U.S. Gun Sales Reach Record Levels In 2012
Even if the US were removed from the picture, "there is still a clear international relationship between gun availability and gun deaths" - the exact same relationship that's seen at the state level within the US [Getty Images]

In America, as in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the Arab world, the battle of the age pits the insular power of oligarchs against the great mass of the people. This holiday season in America, that battle is most evident on two seemingly quite different fronts. One front is the battle over guns in the form of seeking gun safety laws to stem the plague of gun deaths America suffers from. The other front is the battle over butter – the generic term for material sustenance – in the form of Tea Party-inspired attacks on America’s already notoriously weak and undersized welfare state. 

The latter battle is considerably obscured behind layers of political warfare back and forth over the past two years and more. But make no mistake, while the Democrats simply want some rather limited tax increases – returning to the Clinton-era rates for a tiny sliver of high-income Americans – what Republicans are after is a systematic dismantling of the welfare state, turning public programmes like Social Security and Medicare into private programmes, with the federal government staying on as the collection agency only. 

And thus, the “grand bargain” that President Obama is so obsessed with will inevitably mean taking the first few steps down the road to dismantling the welfare state that Republicans have already mapped out. That is what’s really at stake in the battle over the so-called “fiscal cliff”. 

There is a distinct parallel here with the gun safety debate, which also pits a small minority – the gun industry lobby and its front group, the NRA – against the vast majority of the American people. The parallel between these two political battles is anything but superficial. In fact, they can be grouped in terms of six broad points of similarity, as described below, all of which have their origins in the fact that they pit the interests of the oligarchs against the well-being of the people as a whole. Here then, are the points of similarity in how these battles are played out: 

1. Conservative majorities hold positions to left of the oligarchic Beltway consensus. 

In my previous column, ” The gun-owners Gun Safety Act of 2013: A blueprint for sanity? “, I proposed a comprehensive piece of legislation composed entirely of measured supported by a majority of gun-owners. That list began with a list of measures enjoying supermajority support from gun-owners – three of them over 90 percent and five more over 80 percent. For brevity’s sake, here are just five of them: 

  • Requiring gun-owners to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen (94 percent support among all adults and gun-owners).
  • Fixing the gaps in government databases that are meant to prevent the mentally ill, drug abusers and others from buying guns (90 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
  • Requiring federal agencies to share information about suspected dangerous persons or terrorists, in order to prevent them from buying guns (91 percent among all adults and 93 percent among gun-owners).
  • Fully funding the enforcement of the law Congress passed after the Virginia Tech massacre to prevent people with a history of mental illness from buying guns (89 percent among all adults and gun-owners).
  • Require all gun-buyers at gun shows to pass a criminal background check (89 percent among all adults and 85 percent among gun-owners).

Inside the Beltway, such proposals are routinely equated with “gun control advocates”, on the rare occasions when they’re even considered – implicitly identifying them as a left-wing special interest concern. This is the same sort of way that advocates for protecting welfare state programmes, like Social Security and Medicare, are treated. 

  Obama calls for gun law reform

And yet, the polling shows high levels of support even among conservative constituencies which are supposedly opposed to gun control. This completely mirrors the conservative support for the welfare states that I’ve written about before in several columns ( here , here and here .) 

2. The public seems conservative, when asked abstract questions in terms of broad generalities, but turns out to be quite liberal when asked in more specific detail -which is precisely what matters in crafting legislation. 

It’s been widely noted that overall support for “gun control” has declined significantly since the early 1990s, and that it doesn’t even change much after mass murder incidents. As pollster Mark Blumenthal recently wrote in Huffington Post

“Thirteen years ago, the  shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado  briefly increased support for stricter gun laws, a rise in public favour that soon gave way to a sustained long-term decline.” 

He provided a chart showing trends from Gallup and three other pollsters dating back as far as 1990. This declining trend is hardly surprising, given that Democrats have largely gone silent on guns, in the mistaken belief that it’s a cause of their electoral woes. But broadly-phrased questions – especially ones asking people to choose between “stricter gun control” and “gun rights” – are rather obviously disconnected from attitudes towards specific measures, as shown above. 

There’s a clear parallel here to attitudes on social spending, which I’ve written about before, most recently in ” A grand bargain is a grand betrayal “. The General Social Survey – which began in t1973, and has added more questions over time – regularly finds substantially more people favouring increased spending on a wide range of priorities. 

Over a period of roughly three or four decades, self-identified conservatives saying we’re spending “too little” outnumber those saying we’re spending “too much” on education by 58.7 percent, on crime-fighting by 59.7 percent, on health by 48.1 percent, on the environment by 44.7 percent, on assisting the poor by 36.6 percent, on drug addiction by 48.7 percent, on Social Security by 40.5 percent. 

On these seven items, conservatives favoured more spending by 48.1 percent on average, compared to 58.4 percent for the population as a whole – still is very hefty amount. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – the three largest domestic spending items that budget-cutters have set their sights on – are all covered on this list. 

In contrast to these specific priorities – supported by conservatives as well as liberals – if one asks about spending in the abstract, the picture is much more conservative: When asked if government should do more or less, views are almost evenly divided, with a slight tilt toward doing less, over the course of almost 40 years of polling. This directly parallels the much lower level of support for “gun control” in the abstract. In both cases, the relatively low level of abstract support is completely misleading, if not downright irrelevant, since actual legislation always involves concrete specifics. 

3. Popular progressive proposals are routinely marginalised or ignored. 

The proposals listed above in point #1 are examples of proposals so popular that many enjoy supermajority support even among gun-owners. Yet, they are, for the most part, infrequently mentioned, even in passing, and rarely discussed at any length. Even policies which are popular enough to be law in several states – and with a clear record of success (as reported by Richard Florida at the Atlantic , for example) – seem to always hover at the margins of national-level debates, never coming close to framing the central debate.  

Instead, the gun-safety side is far more frequently characterised in terms of the NRA’s paranoid projections, as pushing for sweeping, indiscriminate gun-banning, which would target people like hunters, whose guns are clearly not the concern of gun-safety advocates, except in a very minor way. 

This, too, parallels the situation with respect to welfare state debates. For example, the US is the only advanced industrial nation without any mandatory paid annual leave or vacation days. Twenty days of paid annual leave is the international norm, with countries like France and Finland going as high as 30. 

Only Canada and Japan – at 10 days each – fall below the 20-day standard and Canada has eight paid holidays as well. The US alone has none of either. But what’s the last time you heard the lack of paid time off discussed as an economic policy issue in the US media? Probably never. Yet, it’s a well-known fact that worker moral, productivity and company loyalty all increase as a result of time off from work. 

Dramatically increased infrastructure spending and targeted programmes to revive the US industrial sectors are two other examples of popular, but routinely welfare-state policies in the wake of the Great Recession. Both have been infrequently polled, but when the public is asked about them, they show broad bipartisan appeal. And, of course, as I’ve written before, the welfare state itself remains hugely popular with the public, even though the leadership of both parties is now united in wanting to cut it back. 

4. Basic data is routinely marginalised or ignored. 

In the case of gun safety, there’s a real problem with data, since the NRA has devoted so much energy to preventing it from being collected in the first place. However, despite that fact the basic data clear: more guns mean more gun deaths, and more laws that require safe and responsible actions mean fewer gun deaths. (See the next point for how international data adds further support.)  

 A history of mass shooting in the US

As I mentioned in my previous op-ed, ” Locke and Unload “, there is both a clear state-level correlation between the number of guns and the level of gun violence, there is also an individual-level correlation: gun possession makes one 4.46 times more likely to be a victim of gun violence. If this basic information were at the centre of the gun safety debate, then the onus would be on the NRA to come up with equally effective methods of saving lives. Instead, such information is scarcely ever mentioned. 

The situation is quite similar with respect to the welfare state. Welfare state spending is responsible for lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty. In 2011, for example , Social Security lifted over 21.4 million people out of poverty, including 1.1 million children. The Earned Income Tax Credit lifted almost 5.7 million people out of poverty, including almost 3.1 million children. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) lifted almost 3.9 million people out of poverty, including 1.7 million children. Unemployment Insurance kept 2.3 million people out of poverty, including 621,000 children. Supplemental Security Income lifted more than 2.0 million people out of poverty, including 311,000 children. 

Medicare not only lifts millions out of poverty – the over-65 poverty rate fell from around one in three before Medicare was passed to less than half that within 10 years – it quite literally saves people’s lives every day. Without Medicare, most seniors simply could not get health insurance at all. 

Yet, the central facts of what social spending programmes do to meet human needs is routinely missing from public policy discussions, where all such spending is frequently demonised as waste – or even worse, is misrepresented as contributing to poverty. The fantasy that we would do just fine if only we got rid of all such programmes is belied by international comparisons, as described in the next section. 

5. International comparisons are routinely marginalised, ignored, or replaced with wild-eyed fantasies. 

The US is an extreme outlier with respect to gun violence in international terms. One study found that the rate of gun deaths in the US was eight times that of other high-income countries. Another study , comparing the US to 23 other high-income countries found that the US accounted for 80 percent of all firearm deaths and 87 percent of all firearm deaths for children aged 0-14. 

Even if the US were removed from the picture, there is still a clear international relationship between gun availability and gun deaths – the exact same relationship that’s seen at the state level within the US. Yet, these basic facts rarely get more than a brief mention in gun safety debates. 

Instead, whenever an international perspective is invoked, two things tend to happen: First, there’s a tendency to misrepresent a few exceptional international examples -particularly Israel and Switzerland – even though these countries have less gun ownership and stricter restrictions and are included in the data set showing that more guns correlate with more gun deaths. 

Second, there’s a tendency towards wallowing in conspiracism – the very hint of taking on an international perspective seems to trigger fears of an international take-over (a classic example of projection, since it’s the US which has an outsized influence on the rest of the world, not the other way around) or accusations that the rest of the world is “socialist”, thus invalidating anything that might be learned from their experience. 

This same exclusion of international comparisons also dominates welfare-state political debates. In contrast to the gun safety debate, there is a super-abundance of data to draw on for this purpose, most notably from the OECD (such as the paid-vacation comparison noted above) and from the LIS Crosss-National Data Centre (formerly Luxembourg Income Study), which has generated hundreds of working paper studies over the years.  

For example, LIS Working Paper No. 419, ” Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective” (PDF) by Timothy Smeeding (October 2005), has two charts showing the US as an outlier in poverty rates, with two different correlations. The first shows rising non-elderly poverty correlated with increased percentage of low-wage workers. The second shows falling non-elderly poverty correlated with increased cash social spending.  

In both charts, the country closest to the US is Ireland, but the gap between the US and Ireland is larger than the gap between Ireland and the next country. This shows that US poverty is a result of both a highly unequal wage system and an inadequate social safety net – and it shows that the US is far outside the mainstream of modern industrialised nations. 

Another LIS working paper, also by Smeeding, “Government Programs and Social Outcomes: The United States in Comparative Perspective” (PDF) , adds further detail, showing how the US is relatively close to other countries in the poverty rates its market system produces, but that it falls far behind in reducing poverty through “Social insurance” (universalist benefits, such as Social Security) and “social assistance” (targeted means-tested programmes, like food stamps). Compared to seven other country, the overall US poverty reduction is just 28.3 percent, less than half the average reduction of 61.8 percent. 

Things are even worse, for families with children. For single-parent families, the US poverty reduction is 14.8 percent, roughly a quarter of the average 52.6 percent reduction.  For two-parent families, the US poverty reduction is just 5.8 percent, roughly one eighth of the 47.8 percent average. 

  ‘Fiscal cliff hurts US economy’

In short, compared to the rest of the advanced industrial world, the US hardly even has a welfare state at all. But you’d never know that from listening to the public policy debates in the US media. The same can be said about gun safety laws – compared to the rest of the world, the US barely has any at all – at least in terms of what they actually do

6. Partly as a cause and partly as a result of all the above, in America, the public discourse pits the lunatic rights against the establishment centre-right. Three common features of this discourse are: 

  • A great deal of attention is paid to anecdotes, conventional narratives and second-order effects, taking up the space that ought to be devoted to 3, 4 and 5 above. 

In the gun safety debate, anecdotes are often imaginary or hypothetical, having to do with armed civilians stopping mass murderers, for example. The fact that such things never happen in real life does not seem to matter one bit. 

This is directly analogous to the imaginary ” welfare queen ” that Ronald Reagan described in the 1980 campaign: 

“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” 

Although the description was vividly specific, one minor detail was left out: the supposed woman’s name. No such person was ever identified, nor is there any record of a case remotely comparable. 

In both these cases, fantasy anecdotes are used to express and supposedly validate conventional images, stereotypes and characterisations of good versus bad sorts of people, distracting attention from the fact that powerful moneyed special interests have a much larger impact on the policy outcomes than relatively powerless lower- or middle-class individuals, no matter how good or bad they might be. 

  • The official conversation is dominated by people who are demonstrably ill-informed. 

The fact that anecdotes – often fabulist ones – play such a large role, amplifying empirically-unjustified sweeping moral judgments about large numbers of people, is itself evidence that those dominating the official conversation lack either the will or the information – or both – to put a stop to the nonsense. Most commonly, the typical participants are actively engaged in perpetuating the lies and distortions. 

Thus, for example, we often hear from Democrats as well as Republicans that “welfare reform” was a great success (a myth I refuted here ) – reflecting the fact that welfare recipients are supposedly bad people, and the fact that there are far fewer of them now therefore represents a “success”, even though it’s actually the case that poverty has increased, and the much smaller welfare rolls simply mean that millions of needy people are not getting the help they need. 

  • Special interest representatives are routinely allowed to participate masquerading as public interest actors. 

In the gun safety debate, the NRA presents itself as representing the rights and interests of gun-owners. But as I’ve pointed out previously , the NRA’s positions are deeply at odds with those of most gun-owners. Who the NRA really represents are gun manufacturers and dealers – including plenty of unlicensed ones who sell online, at gun shows, or on the street. They are a special interest industry lobby, period, end of story. 

Something very similar is going on with the long-term campaign to dismantle the welfare state. The super wealthy have no need for the welfare state and the economically most dynamic subgroup of them – the Wall Street-centred finance sector – stands to make an enormous amount of money from privatisation, both of Social Security and of Medicare. 

At the crossroads connecting conservative ideologues with the pure money grubbers stands Peter Peterson , a Wall Street billionaire who has poured a billion dollars of his own money into a self-named foundation devoted to attacking the welfare state. With so much money behind the push to dismantle the welfare state, it’s probably quite difficult to find anyone attacking the welfare state who hasn’t gotten special interest support, directly or indirectly. 

These, then, are the six points of similarity between the battles over guns and butter that are currently raging in America. But I dare say that the same points can be found in almost any such political battles, simply because of who the two sides are. I dare say something roughly similar can be said about most major political battles elsewhere around the world as well. The people versus the oligarchs is the battle of our time. 

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.