It is a depressing characteristic of government today to loudly enact legislation and impose regulations of little utility, while neglecting to address the root causes of truly serious problems. We do not know to what degree a Sandy Hook or a Columbine is caused by improperly treated mental illness, violent video games, Hollywood’s saturation of the popular culture with graphic mayhem — or access, by hook or by crook, to semi-automatic “assault” rifles. But we do know that the latter play almost no role in Chicago’s horrific annual tally of 500 murders — and account for less than 1 percent of the gun-related deaths in the United States each year. Yet we also confess that taking on Hollywood, the video-game industry, or the mental-health establishment would be far more acrimonious and politically risky than demonizing the National Rifle Association.
In the case of big-city murdering, serious talk about the culture of gangs and the causes of the pathology of thousands of minority males, who are vastly overrepresented as both victims and perpetrators of gun violence, is a no-win proposition, given the politically correct climate and the existential issues involved. Can one imagine any politician decrying the violent lyrics of rap music, the culture of dependency on government, or the absence of stiff incarceration for the use of a gun during a crime with the same zeal that he has shown in going after the NRA?
The result of such selective and easy morality is that we are now engaging in banning certain types of guns with little understanding of how they work. Take your grandfather’s semi-automatic .22 varmint gun, beef up the round a bit, add some scary-looking black plastic M-16-like adornments, and you now have a demonic “assault rifle.” The gun debate will cause needless divisions and acrimony, but in no measurable way will it either prevent another Sandy Hook or reduce the yearly slaughter of young males in our cities. When the next Columbine occurs — with the perpetrators using pump shotguns, or multiple ten-shot magazines, or sticks of dynamite — we will pat ourselves on the back and say it would have been worse had an “assault rifle” been used. And if the latter is employed, it will probably not have been legally acquired and more likely than not will be used by someone long recognized as unhinged.
After all the fighting over the fiscal cliff, and all the demagoguery over the rich paying their fair share, we have achieved almost nothing tangible in terms of reducing the debt. The president offered no budget freeze, no curtailment of entitlement costs, no adjustments in age or other conditions of eligibility — nothing at all that would have addressed the astronomical rate at which the government has been spending since 2009. Obama is therapist-in-chief, and he avoids any tragic admission that there are sometimes just a bad choice and a worse one — in this case, between cutting back and going broke.
We used to talk of going back to the “Clinton tax rates” — a campaign sound bite that of course meant that we most certainly would not increase the once-hated but now-popular Bush rates on the 99 percent, much less return to Clinton-era spending levels. In other words, we taxed the 1 percent more, felt great about it, declared success, and now still face financial Armageddon — terrified to tell the 99 percent that either their taxes must go way up, or their entitlements must go way down, or more likely both. What we have failed to do would solve the problem and cause a national outcry; what we have actually done is as widely popular as it will do nothing.
Note that the war is not between the easily caricatured 1 percent, who pay almost 40 percent of aggregate federal income taxes, and the put-upon 99 percent; rather, it is a far more messy fight between the struggling 53 percent who pay income tax and mostly do not receive food stamps, unemployment insurance, or disability coverage, and the 47 percent who do not pay income tax and are more likely to receive state and federal assistance.
Keeping small residual forces in Iraq and Afghanistan might well have allowed the provisional consensual governments in those two countries to remain viable and not be transmogrified into tyrannies. To do so might have ensured that the terrible cost in American blood and treasure over the last decade at least had offered Afghans and Iraqis — and the world — something better than the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Yet to keep small bases there would also have angered American voters, sick of both wars and of the seeming ingratitude of those we did so much to help.