Friday, October 30, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – III

This post concludes a three-part series.  On October 16 I wrote about the public health problem of too many Americans being shot to death, identified it as needing a solution catering to both conservatives and liberals, and set a series of ground rules.  Last week I examined changes put forth by those on the left, made a case for some, and rejected others.  Today it is time to look at what the conservatives have been proposing.

The single most powerful argument for more gun rights is not freedom, superior ideology, or the Second Amendment.  Yet it is still powerful.  It is that it is dangerous for people to be known to be unarmed.  Although deterrence does not generally work for crimes of passion, or for those with unbalanced assailants, it does have value when dealing with perpetrators who are sane, which a higher share will be if the tighter gun ownership measures proposed in last week’s post are implemented.  As well, when prudent people actually do turn up with guns at shooting scenes, lives, often many, can be saved.

Accordingly, concealed carry of legally registered firearms should be allowed.  When combined with all transfers of guns being reported, I see that as comparable to the higher speed limits we have enjoyed since stronger penalties for drink-driving were implemented.  That would best also apply to state-owned schools as well as to public places in general, although there is a cultural problem that calls for one restriction.  Since high school and college students often experiment with mind-altering drug use and alcohol overuse, undergraduates should not be allowed to carry firearms on campuses.  I know that is unfair to those who stay sober and straight, but, as discussed two weeks ago, that is no more than another unfortunate but uncorrectable case of miscreants spoiling a privilege for others.  The possibility that any teacher, administrator, or other school employee eligible to own a gun might have one, almost regardless of how many actually do, should be sufficient to eliminate anyone’s assumption that if they shot or even threatened people with weapons they would not encounter anyone else armed.  Government workplaces should be the same, but private ones, as well as any buildings not open to the public, should instead be free to establish their own policies.

Another area which should move in the direction of more freedom is the firearms, ammunition, and related hardware allowed.  If such would be firmly identified with their legally liable owners, there is little need to prevent people from owning weapons more powerful than those now allowed.  There would obviously be a limit of some sort, if only for physical dangers associated with huge weapons or arsenals, but they could be much higher than they are now.

On the minus side for conservatives, one suggestion I cannot accept is to leave the current situation as it is.  It’s no better to say, as did presidential candidate Jeb Bush, that “stuff happens,” than it would be to condone a disease annually killing over 30,000 Americans.

How should we deal with the current 350 million privately owned guns?  In deference to the massive majority being safely controlled by legal owners, we should not require anything more to be done with them.  The exception would be new carrying permits, which should require specific identification of the firearms involved along with proper registration. 

Overall, the proposal in these posts has the potential to greatly reduce the number of American gun deaths.  It allows law-abiding firearm owners without disqualifying issues or histories more freedom in which guns they can own and how they can use them, while formalizing their legal responsibility when their weapons are involved in tragedies.  It caters to a true difference in American culture not present in other advanced countries, while addressing one of its worst aspects more decisively than has ever happened.  It comes closer than our current set of laws to delivering consequences to those abusing this aspect of national trust, while giving more rights to those who have proven themselves responsible.           

We cannot go back to the time when people, even the most civilized of us, can do anything with guns they would like, as they could with the first cars over a century ago.  We also cannot attempt to ban them, as some radicals also propose we do with automobiles.  Both cars and firearms have their places in our huge, diverse country.  The number of American motor vehicle deaths peaked in 1969, when our population was 37% less than today, with deaths per 100,000 vehicle miles 4½ times 2013’s rate.  To decimate that problem we used a judicious and even-handed combination of more freedom and more regulation.  We can and should do the same with guns.  There is no time like the present to start.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – II

Last week I introduced the public health problem of too many American gunshot victims, and said I would dedicate the next two weeks’ posts to evaluate suggestions for dealing with it made by both conservatives and liberals.  This post considers the latter.

The main idea espoused by those advocating more gun control is that if we reduce the number of firearms, less damage will be done by them.  That is not completely true.  As per the second point I made last week, showing that if the American rate of fatal shootings, per privately owned firearm, was the same as in the four countries arguably most comparable to the United States, about a third fewer people would die without a single gun being removed.  However, the left does have some logically sound proposals.

The best ways of improving the public health concern are those that minimize the fatal shootings while limiting damage done to those owning and using guns responsibly.  That, unfortunately for them, does not mean avoiding any inconvenience completely.  Although cars are safer and drivers are more conscientious than half a century ago, both must now meet higher standards, which costs money for the vehicles to conform and impedes drivers from doing what they once did legally, such as going out after having a few drinks.  We cannot avoid moving in the same direction with our gun laws.  However, as with stricter driving-under-the-influence statutes not disturbing teetotalers, such statutes should be designed to have the smallest effect on those least likely to abuse their firearms. 

Accordingly, some liberal suggestions stand out as worthy of full national implementation.  Most valuable would be a requirement of an electronic background check for any personal gun purchase.  That would apply to all settings, from private sales (with the buyer obtaining approval online or over the phone), to people buying firearms at gun shows (with sellers using point-of-sale machines) to permanently located dealers.  The background check would, after the technology is in place, take no longer than credit card approval does today.  Convicted felons, anyone found guilty of threatening or committing violence with guns, those with certain mental health histories and medical judgments of being currently dangerous to others, and perhaps others convicted on domestic violence charges would be prohibited from buying firearms.  
Consistent with the requirement for background checks, other laws should be passed as well.  The transactions as approved above should include tracking information, at least manufacturer and serial number, and would constitute an electronic title for the gun in the buyer’s name.  Any theft of a firearm would need to be reported promptly, the exact interval required to be negotiated, to police, whereupon the gun’s title would be marked.  Gun sellers would be legally liable for using proper procedure, and subject to prosecution for violations.  Transferring firearms without reporting, including buying one in your name for another person, would also be a crime.  Legally, guns would be considered extensions of their owners, as dogs, rather than “the darlings of the law” such as cats and small children.

Along with the above ideas, which are constructive and entail as little of a burden on law-abiding gun owners as they can reasonably expect, many bad ones have been put forth.  Written and practical tests before anyone can buy or own a firearm, or other licensing requirements, sound reasonable to many, but would be, as well as expensive and cumbersome to administer, made superfluous by the current and above proposed laws, which hold gun owners accountable anyway.  The same goes for requiring regular inspections, which has questionable merit even for cars.  Buy-back programs have failed, as they bring in almost exclusively weapons which don’t work or are unwanted anyway, and should not be restarted.  Mandatory waiting periods endanger people with urgent needs, so are too detrimental to require.  The legal liability of gun manufacturers should be restricted to their products working improperly, and not invoked when people use them as they are designed but for the wrong reasons.  And accusations or arrests without convictions should never stop anyone from being able to buy firearms, as we are innocent without being proved guilty. 

One other large area of gun control suggestions should also be eliminated.  There is no point in banning guns over a certain capability, ammunition in quantities over specific amounts, clips larger than a predetermined capacity, or the like.  As too many mass shootings have shown, shooters need not have extraordinary firepower to kill.  When people with guns are held to the recommended standards above, they will be liable, whether they are using one-bullet muskets or 75-round-capable military rifles. 

Three further gun control measures I see as flawed but worthy of consideration.  One is requiring liability insurance, which would help shooting victims get financial help but would end up being a real burden on the masses whose guns only come out for cleaning or target practice.  Another is encouraging that guns be “smart,” in other words fireable only by their registered owners – that would be a good option for buyers where theft is a real problem, or maybe a requirement in cities whose citizens want it, but would be bad for, for example, farms and ranches where weapons are available but shared, and would inhibit one of the best settings for learning gun safety, parents teaching their children how to shoot.  Requiring bullet microstamping, or other technology to conclusively show which firearm it came out of, would help such identification, but might be too expensive to implement and be covered predominantly by ballistics analysis anyway. 

Next we move to the other side.  In what ways should the ownership and use of guns be freer than it is now?  I will post that, along with the series conclusion, a week from today.               

Friday, October 16, 2015

Toward Bipartisan Gun Control Reform – I

For the next three weeks, I go off the topic of jobs. 

As Americans, we have a major issue which badly needs attention from the center.  Except for possibly abortion, it is the most divisive one in the United States, with what seems like every commentator and almost every citizen exclusively in one camp or the other.  Both sides are passionate, both sides are entrenched in their beliefs, and, as is so often the case with complicated political, governmental, and cultural problems, both sides espouse not only truths but excellent talking points.  Unfortunately both sides are also wrong, and neither seems to have taken the effort to understand the other. 

In its simplest form, the problem we face and need to resolve is not one of ideology, freedom, or civil rights.  It is a public health issue.  Too many Americans are being shot to death.  

Why do I say “too many”?  Let us look at how American gun deaths compare with other countries.  In 2013, 10.64 per 100,000 died from gunshot.  That ranked 13th of the 75 tracked by Wikipedia, with the only one worse that could be called first-world being Uruguay, 11th with 14.01.  The next highest developed country was Finland, with 3.64 (92% of which were suicides, compared with 63% in the United States), followed by France (3.01), Austria (2.95), Switzerland (2.91), and Estonia (2.54).  The countries usually thought of as most comparable to us, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Great Britain, had gun-death rates of 2.22, 1.24, 0.86, and 0.26 per 100,000 respectively.  The average of these four numbers is less than one ninth that in America.  Unlike deaths from automobiles (of which there are now fewer than from guns) or other violent sources, more and more here are dying that way, up almost every individual year from 29,569 in 2004 to 33,636 in 2013.  That is what makes it a concern for public health.    

Recently, mass shootings at schools and workplaces have brought attention to the problem.  The liberal side has made proposals of various sorts, with essentially all parts being in the direction of more restrictions, and conservatives, many of whom will accept no changes at all, have unsurprisingly rejected them.  Yet liberals are getting increasingly intolerant of the gun situation the way it is.
We are clearly in need of a truly bipartisan solution.  Accordingly, liberals as well as conservatives need to concede some things.  That is the first principle.  What others should form the foundation?

Second, the number of guns alone does not explain the damage done with them.  The United States now has 112.6 privately owned guns per 100 residents; the 2014 rates for Canadians, Germans, Australians, and Britons were 30.8, 30.3, 15, and 6.6.  Dividing the numbers above by these gets us one 2013 American death per 10,583 2015 guns, with the other countries better (and one less year apart) at 13,873, 24,435, 17,442, and 25,385.  If the 2013 United States rate was the 20,284 average of these four, with no change in the number of guns there would have been 10,686 fewer people dying that way.  

Third, even with the most optimal set of gun laws, United States murder rates, in particular, would be higher than in comparable countries.  That is because of several factors less prominent in the likes of Great Britain – to name only three, a more heterogeneous population, a more aggressive national character, and traditions of more freedom and fewer laws in general which in combination lead to economic inequality.  For better or worse, we do not have the same national disposition as Britons, and may never. 

Fourth, following from the last principle, as harsh as it sounds there are acceptable levels of gun violence.  The ability to stop every person from ever shooting anyone is beyond any solution other than complete elimination, which is not a reasonable, let alone possible, solution.  We can debate what those levels should be, but they will, in deference to realism, be more than zero. 

Fifth, the Second Amendment does not guarantee a complete lack of gun laws, any more than the First allows any speech of any kind in any setting, or assures your right to practice a religion involving, for example, the torture of animals.  In fact it could be modified or even repealed, or, as has been the case with other amendments, interpreted differently by a future Supreme Court. 

Sixth, guns remain the easiest and surest way for people with average capability to destroy anyone, including themselves.  Several decades ago, women attempted suicide three times as often as men, but actually killed themselves only one third as much – that was because they generally used seldom-lethal pills, whereas the men most often chose firearms.  It is true that people and not guns themselves are responsible for what happens with them, but people with guns can kill much easier. 

Seventh, per the old business principle, cost should go to the cost-causers.  That rule means that if something we own has the potential to damage others, we are liable for that.  Firearms are no special exception.

Eighth, and most sadly, at times some people ruin things for everyone.  Some areas, such as owning and managing guns, are matters of trust, and if too many abuse that, innocent people will be inconvenienced.  There are numerous other examples of this principle from daily life:  your new car brakes do not mean you are allowed to follow others more closely; your great sense of humor does not stop your joking about bombs in the airport security line from being a crime; fireworks easily managed by your conscientious 10-year-old are still often judged too dangerous to be legal, and so on.  We can and should debate the value of laws stemming from this principle, but the fact is that they are commonplace. 

Given these ground rules, what further restrictions on firearms should we accept or reject?  That will be the subject of next week’s post, followed by freedoms we should and should not implement, and more, the week after.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Keep Your Sanity While Job Hunting: Nine Rules

Finding work is hard, but with 149 million Americans employed it can be done.  How can those looking for jobs avoid being overwhelmed and bewildered, and instead focus on what’s important?

First, when deciding among careers, consider which fields are not only suitable for you personally but will still be around and doing well after 10 to 20 more years of globalization, automation, and business efficiency.  Positions with primary tasks that can be done cheaper by foreign workers or machines, or that can be done in much less time than they are today, are usually poor choices.  Massage therapists and plumbers will be around for decades to come, but insurance underwriters (following algorithms that computers can also do) and most manufacturing machine operators (susceptible to being replaced by robots) will not.       

Second, be aware that what you need most to get hired are specific, not general, experience, and being personally, not professionally, liked by the interviewer.  Information technology project managers, regardless of how deeply they understand their work, will rarely be hired for the same in construction.  And those working ever-longer hours do, right or wrong, want people around them they might choose as friends.

Third, limiting your search to applying for widely advertised positions is unlikely to get you working, even if your résumé looks like Mark Zuckerberg’s and your interviewing skills resemble Oprah Winfrey’s.  Although electronic job boards have great value, applicants should seek out and pursue local and word-of-mouth opportunities as well.   

Fourth, realize it’s not enough to avoid massive blunders, such as saying in your cover letter that you want to take over the world, or, at interview time, openly lusting after your would-be coworkers.  Not perpetrating something similar will only put you in a not-so-elite group of 99% of all jobseekers, most of whom are not being hired.  Being well-behaved and well-intentioned, along with your credentials, will often be enough to get you in the door, but after that, nearly all of your competition will match you on those counts.

Fifth, be ready for nontraditional job interview venues and practices.  Unusual settings, such as a restaurant or even a hotel lobby, are becoming more common.  Per relatively recent literature, the range of questions has widened, with such old saws as “sell me this pen” joined by the likes of “how many gas stations are in the United States?”  The idea here is to keep on an even keel, do the best you can, and don’t worry about being perfect – your competitors probably won’t be either.

Sixth, if they show you in a good light, consider adding a career objectives or hobbies and interest sections to your résumé.  After many years of undesirability, both are becoming more common, as are mentioning gradepoint averages if better than 3.0. 

Seventh, don’t believe the recent nonsense about skipping cover letters.  An article in Bloomberg last month said they are unnecessary, since interview behavior is more important.  It missed the point that cover letters are designed to get interviews, not the other way around.  Almost any human, even one spending only a few seconds on it, will expect and appreciate a smoother introduction than the beginning of a résumé. 

Eighth, consider temporary help agencies.  Since they are being paid by their clients, who can reject you with little or no penalty, and your work represents something the agency will make money to resell, you are an automatic asset to them, so they can be much more relaxed about whom they accept.  They also offer a chance for you to audition for permanent positions, at which you can prove yourself through how you actually perform at the job, a more powerful draw for employers than the usual hiring process. 

Ninth, take it easy on yourself!  Very few jobs are lost by choosing the wrong reasonable interview, résumé, or workplace behavior tactics.  It is all too easy for unsuccessful applicants to obsess about what they did wrong, and what they could have done differently that would have got them hired.  Unless you were obviously disastrous, don’t sweat that sort of thing.  In the huge majority of such cases, you probably, as cruel as it sounds, had no chance from the beginning.  So much depends on finding a hiring manager with enough in common with you to like you personally, and, unless you are Pol Pot or Vlad the Impaler, you’ll come across one sooner or later.  Accordingly, take a day or two off from the search, if you want, after a once-promising opportunity craps out.  As radio talk show host Bruce Williams used to say, “it’s not easy out there, but give it your best shot.”  And keep your head together – you’ll need it once you’re back on the job.         

Friday, October 2, 2015

AJSN: US Now 17.4 Million Jobs Short on 7.6 Million Officially Unemployed, As More and More People Leave the Labor Force

Beyond the unchanged 5.1% marquee jobless rate, a lot happened in September.

On the good side, unadjusted unemployment hit an almost eight-year low at 4.9%.  The economy added 142,000 net new jobs, the lowest since March but still a bit more than our increasing population needs.  The number of people working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting full-time positions while holding ones less than that, plunged 447,000 to 6.0 million, best since the Great Recession.  Those officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer also fell, down 100,000 to 2.1 million.   The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, showing how many new positions America could absorb if they were readily available, hit another post-2008 low, down 666,000 to 17.4 million, as follows:

What was not so rosy about last month?  Well, everything else.  The two best indicators of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, plummeted 0.2% apiece, to 62.6% and 59.2%.  Understand that as little as that sounds, for numbers which move as slowly as these, anything more than one tenth of a percent in one month is a lot.  The employment-population ratio is higher than it was half a year ago, but that is due to the drop in official joblessness, and is hardly good by historic standards – it was at least 60% each month for the 24 years ending February 2009.  Labor force participation reached another post-Reggie-Jackson (October 1977) low, to about the same as when only half of United States women were there.  That was also reflected in the number of people reporting they did not want a job at all, which gusted up from less than 87.8 million to over 89.1 million, another all-time high.  Adding the other employment statuses gets us now to 94.7 million Americans neither working nor technically jobless.  That is why over 60% of our job shortage would be covered by those not in the 5.1 percent we heard about this morning.   

Compared with a year before, the AJSN dropped almost 1.3 million.  Yet all but 89,000 of that was due to lower official unemployment, and conceals the growing effect of those claiming no interest in work, who added up to 2.6 million more than in September 2014.

Another failure was in average hourly earnings, which did not budge from August, and, with adjustments and rounding, may have actually fell.  That, in relation to inflation, nearly neutralized August’s 4% annual gain.  That alone should end serious speculation, based too much on that 5.1 percent, that the labor market is getting tight. 

Overall, even though we are in the seventh year since the last recession, the footfall of people walking away from pursuing work continues to be louder than that from those finding jobs, with September standing as an extreme example.  That, not large numbers of new positions or even an improved economy, is the story behind the 5.1%.  For now, the turtle is stationary.