The Unfortunate Politics of Gun Control

Gun control is unnecessarily wrapped up in politics in much the same way as climate change.

Republican politicians’ stances on those issues are used as important standards for their acceptability as candidates, regardless of the fact that there is technically nothing inherently conservative about either gun ownership, or rejecting the conclusions of climate scientists. To take a strong stand for limiting gun ownership, a Republican politician would have to do so with the understanding that they likely won’t get re-elected, and that most of their Republican colleagues won’t go along with them.

Democrats are also culpable. They’ve taken only half-measures in response to these incidents. Since gun ownership is not inherently a conservative phenomenon (despite the fact that Republicans seem to “own” the second amendment as their cause), they do not want to appear to take too strong a stand against gun ownership for fear they will lose moderates and Democrats who own guns. So, Democrats have crafted proposals that tweak gun ownership regulations only slightly. Many of their recent proposals would not have prevented the Las Vegas shooter’s ability to obtain the weapons he used to carry out his attack.

Guns are not the whole story. Guns are the means, but the shooter’s mindset provides the impetus to commit mass murder. As such, there are, at least, two ways to approach this problem.

We can try to make almost impossibly large strides in understanding why people commit these acts so that they can be prevented in the future. This research-intensive approach, however, is made more difficult by the fact that the perpetrators often commit suicide, or they are killed by police. Furthermore, the subsequent methods to monitor and identify prospective shooters, and to intervene before they commit murder, would likely infringe on suspected individuals’ rights. (It brings to mind the concept of “PreCrime” from the film and short story, Minority Report.)

The other option is to more strictly regulate the guns murderers use to commit these acts of violence. This option is comparatively simple, in a vacuum, but, in reality, it’s difficult to implement because of the politics involved.

I doubt that anything will change regarding gun ownership. No amount of tragedy seems sufficient enough for the 535 members of Congress to work cohesively towards defining what the right to bear arms should mean in the twenty-first century. If we are serious about eliminating mass shootings in this country, however, inaction is not an option.

Conservatives and Health Insurance

Allowing conservatives to meddle with a concept (health insurance) that is inherently socialist appears to be unwise. They don’t get it, or they don’t want to get it because they’re too busy making sure they appear to be following their conservative ideology. That is fine for many issues, but it is simply untenable regarding health insurance.

Liberals and Health Insurance

Liberals’ proposal for a single-payer (i.e., “Medicare-for-all”) health insurance system is impractical at this juncture. Improving the ACA is more prudent. Resisting the GOP’s disastrous ideas for healthcare is more important.

Democrats are not being smart by embracing the extreme left. I would rather the country err on the progressive side, but embracing Bernie Sanders’ extreme proposal is going to cause problems for Democrats in future elections. (Full disclosure: I don’t belong to any political party. I like good ideas from any side.)

It’s no surprise that health insurance companies despise the idea of a government single-payer health insurance system. A very high-level executive at UnitedHealth Group (UHG) once admonished me for even mentioning single-payer in a discussion we were having about why UHG was exiting the ACA exchanges. I was not even arguing for single-payer, I merely mentioned the word.

One of the main reasons health insurance companies don’t like the single-payer model is because they would no longer be able to sell their insurance plans to employers. Employers knew that they needed to offer health insurance coverage to hire and retain employees. (If there were any doubt before, the ACA made it compulsory for many businesses.) The health insurance companies know this, and they possibly collude with one another, so the plans they offer are overpriced. (Anyone who sees the premiums charged for continuation coverage under COBRA after leaving a job knows this. Your employer usually pays a significant portion of the premiums for you.)

The best way to contain health insurance-related costs and improve the system, in my opinion, would be to separate health insurance from employment. Your health insurance plan should be portable. Health insurance companies should have to compete for business with the individuals who are impacted by the decision to purchase health insurance, not by competing for business with corporations who have no choice in a market where pricing is not regulated.

Single-payer is an idealistic distraction; not a solution. The health insurance industry in the US is an efficient, profitable juggernaut that employs hundreds of thousands of people. No sensible politician would enact laws that damages the health insurance industry into obsolescence. We need the health insurance industry for whatever comes next for health insurance coverage in the US.

Besides, insurance companies nowadays are less insurance companies than they are repositories of intelligence on the health of the nation. Simply put, they know how to make the system more efficient. The government just needs to force them to do it.

The health insurance system would work more efficiently for individuals if the government enforced smarter regulations on how we obtain and pay for health insurance coverage. Improving the ACA and separating health insurance coverage from employment decisions are the two best ways to start.

I do think liberals’ intentions are in the right place in proposing a single-payer system. The most important thing a government can do for its people is adopt healthcare policy that ensures fair and comprehensive access to healthcare for all. How the US makes that happen is the trillion dollar question. The ACA was a good start, but there’s more work to be done. Single-payer, however, is not the solution right now.

Postscript

I am not advocating for sparing the health insurance industry and its employees at the expense of the greater good. I agree that the greater good is more important (sorry erstwhile coal miners—but that’s a different discussion). The point I was trying to make there is that rendering the entire industry obsolete is a waste of resources. The health insurance industry has institutional knowledge that should not be wasted. I don’t believe that a government-run Medicare-for-all system would be more efficient at running a health insurance program than a health insurance company.

Regarding the impact of separating health insurance from employment, I think this is where carefully constructed regulation is necessary. Obviously, the devil is in the details, but I think it would involve regulating the insurance entities to place reasonable caps on plan premiums that solely reflect the economic realities of the risks inherent in the benefits provided, perhaps setting up a clearinghouse for plan offerings that allows insurers the flexibility to offer different kinds of plans while ensuring that the plans are fair and reasonable, and providing premium subsidies for low-income taxpayers.

There are good arguments for a Medicare-for-all system that haven’t been made. I’m not even philosophically opposed to single-payer, I just think it’s too extreme and potentially more wasteful and inefficient than the current system, especially if not implemented properly, which is a significant risk given the politics involved.

Pace of Play in Major League Baseball

Pitch Clock

Implementing a pitch clock to improve the pace of play in Major League Baseball will not work as intended, nor will it improve the game. Players, umpires, and managers will ignore the pitch clock the same way they currently ignore all the existing time-related aspects of the rule book.

The pitch clock has already proven to be a farce in Triple-A professional baseball. I’ve never once seen an umpire take any action on pitch clock-related violations in Triple-A over the course of dozens of games I’ve attended since they installed pitch clocks.

Ostensibly, the impetus for the pitch clock is casual fans’ complaints that the wait between pitches has caused them to become disinterested in the sport. Indeed, it can be a drag when the pitcher, the batter, or both, are unnecessarily taking too much time between pitches. But in more consequential situations, and, especially, in more consequential games, the irresistible build-up of anticipation is contained in that lull between pitches. It’s one of the unique things about baseball that makes it special. Altering the development of that anticipation by enforcing a time limit between pitches is misguided.

Changes

There are three changes that I think Major League Baseball should consider to shorten the length of the games: limit catchers’ visits to the pitcher’s mound, shorten mid-inning pitching changes, and reduce the time between innings.

Limit Catchers’ Visits to the Mound

It seems that catchers visit the mound now more than ever. Major League Baseball should limit timeouts for catchers’ mound visits to, perhaps, one or two visits per inning, otherwise incur a ball or a balk.

Shorten Mid-Inning Pitching Changes

Mid-inning pitching changes should not be long enough to allow for a commercial break. Relief pitchers entering the game in the middle of an inning have already warmed up in the bullpen (unless they are replacing an injured pitcher). They shouldn’t need more warm-up pitches. I do understand that they need to get a feel for the pitcher’s mound, but three pitches should be sufficient for that purpose. Move the game along.

Reduce the Time Between Innings

Baseball primarily makes money by selling tickets and selling advertisements during the broadcasts of its games. Depending on the broadcast’s distribution (local vs. national), the time between half-innings for advertisements is either 2:05 or three minutes, respectively. With two commercial breaks per inning (except the ninth), that’s up to 51 minutes of commercials per baseball game.

The time between innings could be used more efficiently, however. Pitchers warm-up during the commercial break, which is necessary; however, they don’t need to warm up for as much time as they are provided. It’s time for Major League Baseball to innovate ways to reduce the amount of downtime between half-innings while maintaining its revenue, and without intruding on the presentation of the game.

Removing just 30 seconds (approximately one advertisement) from each break between half-innings would instantly save 8.5 minutes per game. Removing one minute (two advertisements) would save 17 minutes per game. Let’s make that happen.

The American Health Care Act

The most important thing a government can do for its people is adopt healthcare policy that ensures equal access to healthcare for all of its citizens. Healthcare is the only thing that is non-negotiable. Everything else is negotiable.

Health insurance is a simple, overtly socialist concept. A large group of people shares the cost for healthcare for the whole group so that no individual is overburdened by those costs. It is, essentially, systemic altruism.

The American Health Care Act denies certain people the opportunity to participate in sharing their healthcare costs. It is a policy that fails at the most basic levels of decency and conceptual rigor. It represents the prioritization of political ideology over the health and well-being of fellow citizens. Obamacare is definitely not perfect, but it only needs to be improved, not replaced.

Elizabeth Warren’s Persistence

I don’t know much about Jeff Sessions’ track record, so my point here is not to defend him or criticize him. Instead, I argue that a 30-year-old letter regarding Jeff Sessions—even one written by Coretta Scott King—is not relevant on its own. It’s argumentative. It’s the opinion of one person (albeit an important person) from a long time ago. For sure, it should be considered alongside other aspects of Mr. Sessions’ track record, but Elizabeth Warren standing up there and reading the whole letter like it’s a decree from god is a waste of everyone’s time. (Set aside the debate on whether or not Mr. McConnell was right in silencing her—my opinion would be the same if she was allowed to finish reading the whole letter).

Furthermore, people change. People sometimes learn the error of their ways. (I don’t know if Mr. Sessions has, or not.) What’s his recent track record? If she thinks he’s still racist, show us recent evidence. Build a case, of which the letter is just one of many pieces of supporting evidence. How did she conclude that he cannot do a fair job as attorney general today?

For better or worse, Mr. Sessions was the nominee. If Ms. Warren didn’t want him to be attorney general, a better approach would have been to try to persuade people who disagreed with her. Instead, she spoke only to people who already agreed with her. It was pointless. But I think Ms. Warren got out of it exactly what she wanted: I think she wanted a forum to convey her righteous indignation. She wanted to show her supposed moral superiority by using someone almost universally accepted as a person of high character in attacking Mr. Sessions’ character. It didn’t work.

Meanwhile, people on Ms. Warren’s side are high-fiving themselves for what amounts to her doing a terrible job of persuading Republican senators to change their votes. While I understand the significance of Coretta Scott King’s opinion, it’s simply not damning enough (on its own) to be persuasive 30+ years later.

A Practical Issue Facing the United States

One of the concerns I have for the future of the country is the public debt, which is $19.6 trillion as of September 30, 2016. Donald Trump rarely touches on issues of practical consideration, and I don’t know of any well-defined ideas he has for addressing the public debt. His political naiveté and perceived lack of genuine curiosity is a concern regarding this issue, and many others.

Using debt to fund the government usually doesn’t cause problems when the economy is expanding and interest rates are low and involatile. Economic growth also fuels tax receipts (currently about $2.2 trillion), which fuels the ability to service increasing debt, especially in a low interest rate environment.

Market interest rates and the Federal Reserve’s managed Federal Funds target rate, however, have increased recently. A shock to interest rates and/or inflation will greatly increase the government’s borrowing costs. I don’t see any imminent danger on the horizon, but it’s not hard to imagine the problems that debt can cause in adverse conditions.

Real wages and real personal income have steadily increased for over thirty years, but the hard-fought organic growth in GDP and personal income pales in comparison to the growth in the government’s public debt outstanding (see the chart below). (It’s also worth noting that the debt has increased under both Republicans and Democrats.)

Real Personal Income, Real GDP, and Real Public Debt
The graph shows the changes in GDP, personal income, and public debt outstanding over time compared to their respective baseline levels in 1984.

Over the past 15 years, the government has paid for several wars, spent its way out of The Great Recession, and passed into law the heavily subsidized Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). We’re passing the invoices for all that spending on to future generations because most politicians are reticent to advocate for higher tax rates and/or reduced spending, one or both of which are necessary to reduce the debt.

I don’t expect the fiscal health of the government to become a focus in Washington, D.C. any time soon because addressing it requires nuanced discussions and, ultimately, compromise. Rather, the political climate today calls for staunch partisans to exert their will over political opponents in an effort to claim absolute victory. This political climate is counterproductive to getting things done, and until the political climate improves, the public debt will continue to be the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about—until it’s too late.

Gay Marriage

Gay marriage opponents’ arguments are moot because, like it or not, the United States government is in the marriage business; therefore, equal rights are compulsory. The conflation of church and state that our forefathers warned us about created this unfortunate and unnecessary debate.

In addition to a religious sacrament, marriage is also a legal relationship recognized by the government. In fact, marital status is an important legal designation that impacts people’s lives significantly, from taxes to health insurance to renting a car.

Gay couples’ legal marital status doesn’t impact anyone else’s marriage, and it doesn’t impact any religion’s definition of marriage. In fact, religious marriage can continue unchanged while the government also provides equal legal marriage rights to gay couples. There is absolutely no acceptable reason to prevent gay couples from obtaining the rights and privileges associated with marriage.

Manufacturing in the United States

While the number of people employed in manufacturing jobs has declined consistently for decades (most due to automation and other technological efficiency improvements), automation continues to add jobs in robotics, engineering, computer science, et al. Companies don’t want to eliminate jobs, they want to produce and ship products more efficiently—same as always.

The concept of a factory, itself, was also borne out of a desire to produce products more efficiently. Factories and other bulk manufacturing processes once eliminated the livelihoods of people who produced goods one at a time. (Anybody know any blacksmiths these days?) Efficiency is progress. Progress is good.

Progress has always made certain economic activities obsolete. People must adapt by growing skills and adding knowledge. The economy will move forward with or without you. Education, training, and re-training (oft-ignored) are keys to ensure everyone participates in a healthy, growing economy. They should be the policy focus, not protectionism.

Donald Trump indirectly forcing taxpayers in Indiana to subsidize those Carrier jobs is, ironically, a very liberal tactic. A thousand people keeping their jobs is never a bad thing at its most superficial face value, but the way in which those Carrier jobs were maintained is troublesome in a world where resources are scarce.

Should we subsidize every manufacturing job that becomes obsolete? We literally can’t afford to do that. So, where does it end? Why were these 1,000 manufacturing jobs chosen over 1,000 jobs in any other place? It doesn’t seem fair. I surmise that these jobs were chosen as nothing more than an opportunistic publicity stunt in a state recently governed by Trump’s running mate.

President Trump

I’m not surprised that Donald Trump won the election. This result is about the intense hate many people have for Hillary Clinton (even if unfair or unfounded). Even those hopeful for a Clinton victory knew that the hate was there and possibly more prevalent than they could comprehend. It’s also the result of the fearful, hateful, uneducated, and uninformed factions of this country voting for the candidate who appealed to their fear and hate.

But Trump will disappoint his constituents. Trump will appease only Trump. His narcissism has been on display to the public for over thirty years. Who expects him to change? Who expects him to be magnanimous? It’s not happening.

My hope for the next four years is that this experiment perpetuated by the underbelly of this great country will get tested and exposed as completely inadequate in addressing the needs of his constituents, and the country. Perhaps if this Trump experiment fails spectacularly, we will be able to seize the opportunity to return to the healthy political debate and decorum we’ve had for hundreds of years before this year.