Tag Archives: NPR

Rayguns don’t kill Zorbians, Zorbians kill Zorbians

Driving home tonight I heard a radio story about efforts by gun rights group to “make sure” that “we” don’t overreact and over regulate gun shops and gun sales.  And so, I decided to blog about it.

I know I haven’t written in a while – the combination of the bar exam, a new job and a pregnant wife. All good things.  And meanwhile, I thought I was missing out on commenting on this political story or that one.  On the election. Over before it started.  On the fiscal cliff. But as momma always says, if you don’t have anything nice to say…

And then…Newtown, Connecticut.  

Even though I felt compelled to write, I couldn’t.  It would have been a bad idea.  For starters, it hit really close to home.  Because we live about 15 minutes away from Newtown, almost everyone in our area had a connection to those taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  It was a bittersweet day.  A friend and co-worker’s daughter (a 3rd grader) was hidden by her gym teacher and survived the assault.   Our dear friends lost their nephew (a first grader).  So, it was not a good idea to enter the public discourse.

I think I’m passed that.  I think I have something different to say that is not reactionary and (hopefully) not personal.

Back to that NPR story and the idea that we need to “be careful” to avoid the over regulation of gun sales. I’m going to expand the idea (slightly) simply to make a point.  It’s a market. A market that sells legitimate sporting guns, semi-legitimate recreational guns and illegitimate assault weapons. We left regulation up to the market.  Minimal regulation based in a constitutional right, but nonetheless we committed to minimal market regulation. And the market failed.

The market failed to self regulate.  The market failed to work.  Supply and demand is way off. It’s laughable to me that after a major market failure, the market participants have the nerve to caution the rest of us about knee-jerk reactions and the “ignorance” of supporting gun control. 

Well, I have bad news for you. This is the world we live in. And there is no turning back. Ask Ron Paul.  As much as we want the libertarian world of personal freedoms and strict consequences for violating others’ rights, all we can do is influence the status quo.  The behemoth is lurching forward.  Practically speaking, we work within the system we’re given. There is no revolution.

In this system, when market actors prove that the market cannot regulate itself or the failure is so severe that the survival of a class or economy of people depends on emergency funding, the government steps in. We might not like it, but its reality.

Crude oil tankers. Autos. Investment banks. 19th Century steel mills.

Did the government solve everything? No. Of course, not.  But the government made a difference.  Government acted when no one else would (or could).  Regulation comes in two forms and both are reactive (but only one is retaliatory). The first is emergency stimulus-style spending that aids an entire industry.  The second is Dodd-Frank style oversight that penetrates an entire industry (for better or worse).  

Either way, it is a reaction to a crisis.  And we have a crisis. Gun violence.

The gun industry has proven that it lost control.

Tucson. Aurora. Newtown. Webster.

After a “market crash” like this, there will always be increased regulation.  The NRA (read, all pro-gun lobbyists), the Second Amendment Foundation, common sense American sportsmen and even the (slightly misinterpreted) Second Amendment itself are not enough to stop the tide.  The financial industry, the true market (itself), could not win a deregulation argument in the face of a breach of the public trust.

This is not a liberal agenda.  This is the world we live in.  In the days after the Newtown elementary school shooting, I heard more than one commentator (and some friends) claim that we live in a violent world and nothing we can regulate will stop true evil.  This claim – there is no stopping truly determined child killers – is true (in some sense) but is disingenuous.  We can slow them down, we can make their “goal” much more difficult.  Likewise, I would say, this is the world we live in.  The government is going to get involved in industries that cause (or at least don’t stop) major crises.  There’s nothing we can do.  This is the price of major societal failure. 

We do not have to wait to decide what to do about guns.  We don’t have allow a “cooling off” period.  There was no cooling off period as GM was going out of business.  There was no cooling off period during the bank bailouts and Dodd-Frank negotiations.  And there is no cooling off period today.  (And by the by, when is the last time cooling off worked?)

I know the response to this idea is going to be some variation on “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Government overregulation in one market doesn’t justify the same in another.  I disagree.  This. Is. What. We. Do.

Like it or not, the only legitimate response we have is to add layers of bureaucracy.  Make it more difficult to evade background checks.  Make it harder to get a gun. How? Paperwork. Our answer to everything.

Some people (members of the NRA) don’t believe in a world where background checks and government systems can keep the mentally ill from obtaining dangerous firearms.  Some people (many people who aren’t members of the NRA) don’t believe in a world where good guys with guns have safe, successful shootouts with bad guys with guns and no one except the bad guy gets hurt. So, if I had to err on the side of one imaginary world or the other, I’ll take my chances with government regulation.

We had a major failure, we have a crisis and now we will get government involvement in the market.  If you didn’t want the government to get involved, everyone should have done a better job when they (we) had the chance.  Now, it’s too late. 

And our only savior is a good guy with paperwork (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

 

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NPR: Build a House, Save a Country…Say What?

According to the Commerce Department as reported on NPR today, new-home construction fell over 10% in the last two years.  NPR wasted no time declaring one simple fact, no new homes = bad news.

“Remarkably,” says David Crowe (chief economist at the National Association of Homebuilders), “although our population expanded four-fold since the ’40s, we aren’t building any more new homes than we were in the ’40s.” And that’s bad news for the whole economy. At the end of most recessions, Crowe explains, housing picks up and usually gives the economy a boost.

This is the traditional view (plus what do you expect from the nation’s advocate for home builders).  The traditional view is wrong.  It’s wrong and it’s bad for America.  There is no reason to build more houses.  We have too many houses as it is.  We need to move away from tying the American economy (and the American dream) to building your own home.  The dream is owning a home.  Homes exist.  Buy one.  That’s the dream.  Now, I have other opinions on how we need to scale back that version of the American dream as well.  But for purposes of today’s story on NPR, let’s take this American dream thing one step at a time.

Back to my original point – the traditional view is wrong.  I do not think that our failure to build 1 million homes a year should be indicative of the health of the economy.  Perhaps in years past, that was true.  Today, our generation is buying houses later or not buying them at all.  We seem to be more urban than our parents and not adverse to renting longer (or indefinitely).  I think that in a culture that is recycling, reusing and repurposing all sorts of things; we should be comfortable thinking about housing the same way.  Why build?

My parents built our house when I was three years old and that home has played an enormous role in our lives and in the lives of friends, family and neighbors.  It’s a wonderful and amazing place.  I’m not sure if it was my parent’s dream home, but it certainly is the stuff dreams are made of.  In fact, I can’t imagine our lives any other way.  At the same time, my wife and I do not have the same dream.  We dream about an old house and not just an older house, but a really old house.  Granted, that’s just us.  But I think I’m struggling to articulate a shift in thoughts on home ownership and new home building.

I was disappointed that NPR did not look into this, explore it and/or research it.  NPR took the position that the whole economy could not be restoring as quickly as we thought if we’re not building new houses.  No mention that a smaller pool of home buyers is not automatically a bad thing.  We’ve got all the houses that we built throughout the Boomers’ lives and we have fewer people in our generation as well (I think?). Let’s fill up the houses we’ve got before we worry about building 1 million more next year.

I do not claim to be an economist or a sociologist, but how sure are we that this trend is a bad thing? I agree that we want to promote home ownership just not home construction. And there is a downside. Without home-building we do lose the spending on related products like window blinds, throw rugs and comforters. Even still, I do not think this trend is necessarily indicative of a devastated economy.  Instead, I see it as an important convergence of two facts – the mortgage industry is still correcting and young families might not have the same priorities (such as building a new home) as previous generations.  Not only am I not worried, I think its healthy.  I think its healthy to rethink how we conceive of the American Dream and how approach home ownership (including new home building).

Why not look to the auto industry for a comparison? Just as we realized, the hard way, that the American auto industry’s business model and technology were unsustainable.  Detroit reinvented itself and Chrysler and Ford are on the way back with a fresh approach.  It took a humbling collapse and Presidential reprimand for a major reorganization in the industry.  Likewise, we might be seeing the same in the housing industry.  Except the reorganization that I’m envisioning is consumer-driven and not yet imagined by traditional outposts (in this case, the Commerce Department and NPR.)

Our generation wants stability, no doubt. But I don’t think that we associated stability with the traditional sources like marriage, kids and a house with a white-picket fence.  I know this sounds a bit odd from the guy who got married at 24 years old and talks about buying a 200 year old house in New England.  Seems pretty traditional.  But I don’t feel that those decisions are driven by a desire to play by the rules or achieve these traditional milestones.  Instead, I feel that my friends and I simply explore opportunity in a world that’s much more collaborative and digital than ever before.  We do not depend on a physical community in the same way our parents did.  Our community has expanded.  Urban lifestyles in Boulder, Portland, Silver Lake and Seattle offer the best of urban and rural life (should Brooklyn get a shout out here too?).  We don’t need a house in the suburbs anymore.

Now, I’ve definitely crossed the line into David Brooks (and Bradford Frost) territory.  So, am I making too big a deal out of this housing trend and NPR’s typical and out-of-date reaction to it? Or is there a shift happening in the under-40 set that traditional economists and journalists haven’t realized?  I know I haven’t done a great job articulating my idea or “the shift” very well in this post but I hope that I at least brought up some interesting questions.  I think it’s time to start looking creatively at “traditional” trends and questioning not only whether we really believe in those trends but also whether we should be following old models.

Link: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/17/136389723/home-construction-activity-down-sharply-in-april

Is more always better?

To return to the issue that I touched on yesterday, I am interested in the pros/cons of how American voters consume information, make decisions and engage with their government.  Basically, does it matter if more than half the country doesn’t pay attention, care or vote?

Beginning with the most basic level, we are bombarded with entertainment, information and tasks everyday.  Our lives are complicated, busy and always moving forward.  There’s no reason or way to make people care about what happens to their government, society or lives.  Also, societal changes (other than small increases/decreases in taxes) take a long time to impact our everyday lives.

My friend and political collaborator, Brad, and I were discussing whether or not it matters how many people pay attention.  As long as there is The Atlantic, New Yorker, NPR, The Economist, and others like them, Brad and I can get the in-depth information we want about politics, economics, foreign relations and social justice.  If we can still get quality reporting and analysis we want, who cares how many other people share our interests?

On the other hand, Americans in all industries, businesses and markets have some relationship to the government.  It’s probably smart for people in every socio-economic class and any occupation to be paying attention to the government’s decisions.  As a political science student, contracting analyst in metro D.C. and law school, my peers more than most are probably not the average 20 something level of interest.  So what about everyone else?  Do Americans care as little as the media portrays?

In 2008, if expressed in terms of vote eligible population (VEP), the 2008 national turnout rate was 61.7% from 131.3 million ballots cast for president, according to Wikipedia. Also, the irony is that many people vote in the President election, obviously it’s the big leagues of elections, but fewer people vote in other elections – House and Senate for example – which have a greater chance of affecting their day-to-day lives.

I heard an interesting opinion recently on “Common Sense with Dan Carlin,” a podcast that I’ve only listened to a few times.  Carlin’s theory was we’re going about elections all wrong.  Instead of approaching it the way P.Diddy’s “Rock the Vote” campaign does, which registers voters quickly and in the heat of the election in order to get higher turnout, we should be approaching it like drunk driving.

Friends don’t let friends vote uninformed.

His theory goes that many social groups are pawns to special interests or some people just flat out don’t understand the connection between their vote for a candidate and what that candidate can/cannot do for them.  His idea was that we allow the people who don’t care or who vote for a candidate without any sense of who the opponent even is, to feel free not to vote.  Empower them to let others choose.  Let the country be directed and elections decided by those people who are paying attention and understand the role politicians play in forming and passing legislation.  A radical departure from the comfortable, “oh, well, everyone should vote, it’s a civic duty” mindset.  This let me to think – is possible to do a disservice with a civil duty?

In thinking about this issue, I’m incredibly torn between the feeling that everyone should be involved, attentive and vote for our leaders vs. the reality of the situation, which is that 40%+ of eligible voters aren’t interested.  Do we want more voters or better voters?

This has brought up more questions than it has answered but I hope it gets people thinking. As I continue to deal with these issues, I hope to narrow my focus to better answers and potential solutions as I write and explore the intersection of politics and culture.

No TPS Reports Here: Show me the data

It must be fairly evident by now that I’m a big fan of podcasts and generally use free podcasts to get through my 90+ minute commute to and from New York City each day.  Because of the much acclaimed snow fall this week, today was my first day back at school since Tuesday and I took the opportunity to catch up on NPR’s Planet Money.  For anyone interested in today’s economic and socio-economic issues, I’d like to endorse this 20-minute podcast.  On Tuesday’s episode, the team interviewed an efficiency expert whose references included “the 2 Bobs” from the movie Office Space.  The efficiency expert observes and analyzes business processes within his organization and makes the necessary changes to manage time, save resources and eliminate waste.  Around the 12-minute mark, he made a comment that I immediately picked up on.

“You can’t just move people’s desk or you’ll get physically threatened.”

This was in reference to a story, early in his career, when he moved someone’s desk away from a window and across the room without realizing the implications.   It turns out, the employee had been making many trips across the room throughout the day in the course of his job.  The desk guy ended up threatening and attempting to physically assault him in the meeting about the change.

He went on to say that you have to “bring people along” and explain what you’re doing before they’ll change.  Being who I am, I made the connection to politics.  People are people, no shock there.  However, I think we’ve been treating politics and governing as parenting instead of what it is more like – business and science.  I used parenting (not from a paternal government perspective) but rather from a perspective, which says: “do what I say because I’m your father/mother/authority figure, etc.”  That model is built on experience and trust.  Political candidates ask for our trust believing they will do what’s best for our collective good.

But I realized that trust was not particularly helpful to scientists like Newton or Einstein.  These scientists made observations, conducted research and announced scientific findings but at the time, the human reaction was normal and palpable.  We use common sense and need proof if something changes our world, our reality.   Interestingly enough, I think even academia is split on where government/politics really fits in our understanding and studies.

I graduated from a discipline called Political Science with a Bachelors of Arts.  And it’s my understanding that political science is usually under the humanities or social sciences.   This points to our general confusion regarding a category for both the study and practice.  Now, as the corporate world relies heavily on data and the scientific community on repeatable results, it is time for our politicians to move away from “trust me” and toward “and here’s why…”

The American people are living in a world of proof and lack of trust.   It seems to me that a trend beginning (at least in my memory) with Clinton, continuing (to some degree) with Candidate Bush’s MBA experience and fulfilling (thus far) with Obama is to treat government as a business process with the focus on efficiency.   This requires data, analysis and should result in evidence to the American people.  When a politician offers a solution or the answer, we should look to how changes will improve the outcome, the result or we should be very hesitant to undertake them.

This might be my generation or just me, I don’t know.  But I’m ready to shift governing out of the liberal arts and humanities world and into the business world of measurable data and scientific methods.   This way, we can accelerate the cultural changes, which can take years or even generations to materialize naturally, if at all.  Americans will be more likely to move their proverbially desks when they see the efficiency and time-savings in their lives.  Assuming politicians care about efficiency and “resource”-saving, it would make sense to begin appealing to voters on this level.  And if they don’t, in this era of limited resources, we should find some who do.

NOTE: For politicians/candidates in addition to President Obama who are talking within these efficiency and economic terms, I heard Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota describing this theory, or something similar to it, during the lead up to the Republican National Convention in 2008.  He was comparing the government to Costco or Sam’s Club and explaining that the most important part of the Republican party moving forward is to show the consumer (voter) value in their purchase (vote).  Interesting stuff and probably on the right track.