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Category: Dave Brockington

And Here Was A Good Guy With A Gun. Now What?

[ 94 ] January 14, 2014 |

Now that I’ve returned alive (*) from my three-week multiple city jaunt through the United States, and emerged from a jet lag induced haze, I was planning on writing about something also depressing, albeit in a different way. However, as Rob discusses below, we have this.

An equally fascinating and frustrating aspect of the gun issue is the sheer fatuousness of the pro gun-lobby argumentation. It comes across as random seat-of-the-pants theorizing, with all the internal consistency such post-hoc rationalization affords. That said, there is a pattern to it. The first response is to arm everybody and their teachers. That solves everything. When it is clear that this argument won’t fly, then individualise the issue. It’s not a cultural problem, or something that society is responsible for or can possibly address, but rather it’s the result of a deranged individual, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

I haven’t found anything on the right wing blogosphere on it yet, but that’s not surprising; it’s difficult to organise a pro gun-lobby defence for this one. “All we needed was a good guy with a gun” doesn’t quite work when the alleged shooter was a pissed off “good guy” himself, which is what I imagine a well trained former police officer represents to gun nuts. Also, given it was a dark movie theater, it would be a stretch for those in favor of an armed society to attempt a variant of this by suggesting we needed more good guys with guns to take out the good guy gone bad with a gun. It might look something like this, to liberally quote a good friend of mine:

But if everyone were armed, than another good guy could have taken out the good guy who went bad. Then another good guy could have taken out that good guy because he isn’t sure who the good guy is, but he knows people are shooting each other. And then another good guy could have taken out the confused good guy, because, well, somebody needs to take out the guy shooting people in the theater.

Call it the fog of self-defense.

I like to believe that even the gun lobby might see the problem with this line of reasoning.  (Incidentally, “the fog of self-defense” is my new favorite phrase).

So, it must be individualised. To quote a different fb friend rushing in to defend the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment (because clearly it’s besieged):

And most of the anti-gun laws being pushed would not have prevented this, as in most states there are special exceptions for retired police officers, who can take weapons into places the rest of us who can carry can not take weapons. Any senseless death is a shame, but making this one part of your anti-gun argument just doesn’t work, as none of the proposed laws would prevent this one.

This is a variant of the “lone crazy” defense. Not only can we not do anything about the lone crazy, since this particular lone crazy has “special exceptions” as a retired police officer (also known as one of those good guys we so desperately need) we really can’t do anything about it. These mythical proposed laws aren’t capable of dealing with the extant laws already on the books. Or something.

Oh, and senseless death is bad, and by implication, my politicising aforementioned senseless death is likewise bad.

(*) During a 36 hour window in New Orleans, the NOPD might have shown up in a neighborhood dive bar five minutes after my arrival at the same bar (great bar btw), I might have been cordially invited to spend some time in an ER, and I might have been out all night drinking with SEK. I assure you that these three events were completely unrelated.


War on Christmas

[ 70 ] December 25, 2013 |

Here you can find a growing archive of letters sent home to the UK (of Great Britain and Ireland) from the western front in 1914/15,detailing first hand accounts of the Christmas truce that occurred organically in some areas of the front.

The following was published in the Exeter Express & Echo on 2 January 1915:

Corporal Leon Harris of the 13th battalion London Regiment (Kensington) who has been serving at the front for eight weeks with one of the last batch of Territorials sent has written a letter to his parents residing at Caradon, Monks Road, Exeter, giving remarkable particulars of how some of the British lines spent Christmas at the front. “This has been,” he says, “the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.”

My Christmas is prosaic in comparison, but over all it will take me from Oregon to Seattle to Kitsap County back to Seattle then on to New Orleans and Atlanta. If you’re celebrating, either ecumenically or religiously, Merry Christmas; if not, I hope you’re having an atypically excellent Wednesday.

Friday Soccer Blogging: The Sublime Fairness of the World Cup Draw

[ 28 ] December 20, 2013 |

When the draw for the World Cup finals happened, there was much hilarious moaning in England. Since FIFA hates England, the English received the most difficult group imaginable. England FA chairman Greg Dyke was filmed making a cut throat gesture at the time of the draw (which of course has caused controversy).

England is in Group D with Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.  Group B includes Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia.  Group G, Germany, the USA, Portugal, and Ghana. B has the two finalists from 2010. Each of the four sides in G made the knock out rounds in 2010. From the perspective of a USMNT supporter, the range of success I’m hoping for is from 0-6 points, with 2-4 most likely. I’ll make more robust foolish predictions closer to the tournament itself, but here in December I’m thinking a loss against Germany (the 4-3 home friendly win in June regardless), and one win plus one draw against Portugal and Ghana.

On Wednesday, The Guardian published something I’ve wanted to do: it analysed the strength of each group, using FIFA ranking points as the quantitative measure. Of the 32 sides, the USA has the third most difficult schedule (Australia and Ghana are more difficult by their measures), England’s is 10th. Group G is the most difficult, with England’s Group D third. So the English did have some legitimate whinging, but from the perspective of an American, get over it.

In terms of the difficulty of each match, the Spain v Netherlands match is measured the most impressive. But, “It’s no surprise that Spain versus the Netherlands is the strongest individual match in the group stages, but USA have two matches in the top seven and England have two in the top 10.”

If the goal of seeding teams is to ensure roughly equal competition across all the groups, there should not be appreciable qualitative distinctions in strength. FIFA does not operate that way, of course. The top eight were seeded, ensuring they’d be kept apart, but then the remaining “pots” were based on geography. While the Guardian didn’t illustrate the distribution, I’ve done that here:

The four “weakest” groups are all relatively equal, but then there’s a sharp, progressive increase in competitive strength from C (Columbia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan), D (Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica), B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia) and then America’s Group G.  58 points separate the bottom four groups, while 196 between the toughest and the 5th toughest.

This is how we get some arguably unfair results. The English have complained about France (because it’s tradition) being placed in the relatively easy Group E even though they barely qualified for the tournament, having to win by three clear goals in the second leg against the Ukraine after losing in the opener 2-0. Mexico were stupendously lucky to qualify, as we know, on a stoppage time American goal against Panama in the final match of the CONCACAF hexagonal.

How did the Americans benefit from this? They’re placed in a group 196 points more difficult than Mexico’s Group A (or depending on how one measures this, 22% more difficult), and the US has the third most difficult schedule, while El Tri the 21st. The geographic distribution of teams into groups isn’t a matter of fairness, but rather it’s a matter of ensuring as many European sides get into the knockout rounds as possible.

Of course, if the US does manage to progress from its group, it will arguably be the best performance in a World Cup finals since finishing third in 1930 (or perhaps 8th in 2002).

Relatedly, Jurgen Klinsmann has signed a four year extension as national team manager. I approve.

Improper Use of Opinion

[ 65 ] December 19, 2013 |

Can get tenured faculty sacked.  Shorter University of Kansas: if you tweet or Facebook or Linkin or Flikr or Youtube anything that somebody powerful might disagree with, we can sack you. Or, put another way, we value the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment higher than any interpretation of the 1st.

This new policy was crafted in response to a tenured professor at Kansas, who had the temerity to articulate his dissatisfaction with the state of gun control regulation in the United States:

In September, the University of Kansas suspended David W. Guth, a tenured journalism professor, after he responded to the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard with this comment on Twitter:  “#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

The rules that the Kansas Board of Regents adopted are overly squishy and expansive, and for the less brave will have a chilling effect on speech. They appear to be specifically designed to constrain the ability for faculty to opine on issues of national, regional, and institutional importance, because disagreement is scary and might just negatively impact the “brand” of the institution.

I think here at LGM we should refer to such guidelines as the “Loomis Rule”.

UPDATE: Duck of Minerva does better.

Guest Post: A Republican In Support of the ACA, and Struggling With The Direction of His Party

[ 222 ] December 15, 2013 |

DB: The following was written by Ken McGlothlen over the course of the last couple of weeks. I’ve known Ken since my undergraduate days. We both attended the University of Washington, in Seattle, and met in 1988 or 1989 on this thing called, variously, “bb” or “kcbs”, which was just as it sounds: a bulletin board system limited to UW staff and students. It, along with Usenet, was our introduction to what we now call “social media”.  Politics were discussed at length, as one might imagine.


I just want to say this up front: It’s gotten acutely embarrassing to be a Republican and a conservative.

Both terms have been usurped by a party which doesn’t adhere to them anymore.

Instead, that party tossed aside most of its ideals in favor of an increasingly and relentlessly dystopian, hypocritical, mean-spirited and hysterical polemic that denigrates anyone who does not conform to narrow religious, ethnic, and economic standards.

So you can imagine my difficulty with moving into an area of the country that’s saturated with Tea-Party juice.

I’ve been avoiding reading the local newspaper for some time, but I had wanted to follow the local election results, and cracked one open—and my head promptly exploded.

It’s not like I didn’t know the general attitude in this area. I mean, I am conservative. I was raised conservatively. But these people don’t seem to know what the blithering blinketyblank “conservative” actually means.

Among other things, it means basing one’s view on actual fact, reasoning that view out using a logical process, and not making completely wild claims. (I know you haven’t seen conservatives like that for a while now, but we’re out here.) Healthy skepticism runs in our blood. We aren’t denialists—if anything, we accept that reality is what it is (though perhaps we occasionally get a bit complacent about that).

Yes, I understand that there are people that are uncomfortable with the government stepping into what they see as private enterprise. Never mind that this has been a fact of American life since before the Constitution was ratified; never mind that this has been upheld by the courts for centuries now. I understand why people are upset about that . . . and yet, the bottom line is that, when corporations create powerful conglomerates, reduce competition using dodgy means, and misbehave, do you really expect private enterprise to solve a problem that private enterprise created?

I’ve worked in businesses, large and small. I also spent some time working with some really remarkable people at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Yet I am constant regaled with the axiom that “private enterprise is always more efficient and cost-effective than government.” I’ve worked for both, I can definitively tell you that incompetence and waste is a universal problem. I have seen private enterprise waste millions of dollars on political strife and petty quarrels. I have seen talented government scientists come up with new understanding for how ocean currents work for a few tens of thousands of dollars, which could lead to billions of dollars in additional commerce and transportation improvements.

Sure, people like easy answers, but that was never a Republican ethic. We were known for embracing hard truths and understanding subtlety. We were known for careful analysis and cost-effective intervention, for a lightest possible effective tread on difficult-to-manage problems.

But then, it’s not like we didn’t have black marks against us. McCarthyism. Nixon. But it wasn’t anything like the Teapot Dome scandal, right? Or the perpetration of segregation? We were about trying to maximize freedom while trying to watch for any undue imbalance of power, right? We reined in corporate abuses . . . for a while, and when we didn’t, we paid for it with The New Deal and no Republicans in office from Hoover to Eisenhower—and we were lucky with Eisenhower, frankly.

So when I cracked open that newspaper, and read the headline “Obamacare is the most oppressive legislation ever” on the second page, my brain detonated.

It was a letter to the editor from one “Robert Wassman,” and it led off, right there, in black and white, “Obama’s 2,700 page Obamacare is the most oppressive legislation our government has ever passed.”

Really, Mister Wassman? The most oppressive? More than sending Japanese into detention camps? More than depriving Americans of habeus corpus? More than warrantless wiretapping? More than the Alien and Sedition Act? REALLY?

It takes such a breathtaking lack of perspective and historical knowledge to write this, and such an astounding absence of common sense that I’m amazed he had any neuron ticking over at all.

In addition, the scent of serial liar Betsy McCaughey is redolent here—she’s the one who came up with the false claim of 2,700 pages (it’s around 900 in its finished form), and she’s the one who’s still flogging that “death panel” nonsense.

In his screed, Mr Wassman writes “Obama claimed it would reduce health care cost $2,500 per family. Instead the cost is up about $3,000.” Turns out? Totally false. Seriously, totally false. False. Not true. False. Falsy falsy false falsity false false.

Here’s an example, one I’m reasonably familiar with: me. Three years ago, I was paying $550/month for a health-care plan with a $10,000 out-of-pocket annual. Now, thanks to the PPACA and the health-insurance exchanges, I can pay less than $300/month for a health-care plan with a $6,600 out-of-pocket annual.

Lessee . . . that saves me . . . oooh, carry the four . . . $7,400 a year, should I reach the out-of-pocket annual limit. Even if I didn’t require anything at all, it would save me $4,000 a year.

Of course, that’s just the health insurance; what does the PPACA cost me per year at the moment in taxes? Turns out that in my case, that would cost an extra $2,000 a year. So even if I required no medical care, I’d save $2,000 a year.

If it came with, say, budget cuts in the military (do we really need to outspend the next ten-highest military budgets—Russia, China, the UK, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil? can’t we leave Brazil out of it?), it wouldn’t even cost that much.

But even the original claim Mr Wassman makes is questionable. Yes, in 2007, Barack Obama had a plan to reduce health-care costs around $2500 per family; I have little reason to doubt that. He talked about it frequently on the campaign trail. I don’t know what that plan was, but I know it wasn’t the plan that passed, which represented a considerable compromise, more closely paralleling conservative preferences for keeping the health-insurance industry in private hands rather than push for a single-payer plan (though it added some necessary reformatory regulation into the mix).

All this took me around ten minutes to find out—time which Mr Wassman didn’t care to spend. No, he’d rather parrot talking points written by someone else, and hold the president accountable for a figure predicated on a different proposal entirely. It would be like hearing someone claim that they can drive from Seattle to LA in under 12 hours in a car they’ve designed, handing them a 25-year-old Volvo that has two or three of the cylinders that occasionally shut down, and then complaining that it took longer than twelve hours.

I hear from many, many of my friends about how they are going to save money thanks to the PPACA. I hear from several of my friends how relieved they are to be able to afford health insurance after going several years without.

There will be some people in borderline cases that won’t save money, that’s true—it happens with every system change. But that doesn’t negate the tens of millions of Americans who will actively benefit from this.

And it’s certainly not enough reason to flagrantly shriek hyperbolic lies to vilify it.

Compared to a single-payer plan, the PPACA is actually a fairly conservative plan. Hysterical cowards like Mr Wassman want to believe that it embodies the end of our nation.


Good Guys With Guns, and 194 More Dead Children

[ 177 ] December 15, 2013 |

Relentless in bringing to light the problems with limited regulation of firearms, on Friday Mother Jones discussed the 194 children killed by guns since Newton. They break it down as 103 homicides, 84 accidents, three suicides, and four “unclear” (but just as dead). 127 were killed in their own homes:

And the vast majority of them were killed in homes—127 in their own, and another 30 in the homes of relatives, friends, or neighbors.

In 39 cases, children were shot intentionally in their own homes by their parents or adult guardians, accounting for more than a third of the 103 total homicides. And out of 84 total accidental shooting deaths, at least 49 involved kids handling a firearm left unsecured inside a home.

And worse, in “accidental” cases, adults are rarely held responsible:

Moreover, when it comes to the accidental gun deaths of children, adults are rarely held criminally responsible. In 72 cases in which a child or teen pulled the trigger, killing themselves or other kids, we found only 4 cases in which an adult was convicted. (Charges may still be pending in some cases.) In part that may be because only 14 states and the District of Columbia have strong negligence laws with respect to children and firearms.

Given my pessimism about progressive change on this issue, one of the best things we can do is what Mother Jones has been doing: stubbornly publicise the issue, every aspect of the issue (including the obvious political economic links between the firearm industry, the NRA, and an unwillingness as a society to confront this issue) and hope for marginal, yet consistent, change in public opinion.

One step we can take as a society is to eliminate the concept of accident when a child has access to a gun in an unsupervised situation. Regardless of where or how or why, if a child gets his or her hands on a firearm, it’s not an accident. It should be legally characterised as reckless negligence, and the responsibility for the resulting injury or death should rest with the adult.

In other words, a child gets your gun and does something stupid? It’s your fucking fault, and you are criminally negligent.

And of those 194 dead children, where the hell were all the good guys we’ve been promised?

Post-script: (A girl’s seven year old voice, in a beautiful English accent).”What are you writing, daddy?”

“Nothing you’ll need to worry about any time soon, sweetheart. You can go back to sleep.”


Ashes Open Thread: Third Test, Australia 385 v England 180-4

[ 23 ] December 14, 2013 |

Given that the 2013-14 series is in Australia, I’m not following it as closely as 2005, 2009, or this past summer. Instead, I’ve been waking up each morning to the first two words I learned about cricket: “England collapse”.

And collapse they have. All they need(ed) to retain the Ashes was a series draw: any combination of five results that did not give Australia an advantage in test wins would suffice. However, going into the third series, they’re down 2-0, and in neither test was the result in doubt after the first day. In the third test, Australia’s 326-6 was the highest first day total at The Waca in Ashes history.

To retain the Ashes, England need to win no fewer than two of the remaining three tests, and do no worse than draw the third. At the time of writing, they closed Australia out for 385, and are on 180 for 4. In other words, they’re not in great shape. Indeed, the current odds at one on-like bookie is 22/1 for an England Ashes series win, and 9/1 for a series draw. 9/1 is stingy. An Australian series win is paying out 1/20. Meaning, if I rushed out and placed a £200 bet on Australia winning the Ashes, I’d make an entire profit of £10.

So, what the hell has happened to England? They’ve won four of five Ashes series dating back to 2005, losing only 2007 (by an embarrassing 5-0) in Australia. 2005 was one of the best sporting series that I’ve experienced, in any sport. 2013-14 is basically over already. Going into this series, most assumed an easy England victory. Australia’s squad was in disarray, they hadn’t rebuilt following some key retirements over the past six years (think Warne, McGrath, Ponting), and their ICC world test ranking was falling fast (currently fifth). There were some warnings in the uneven 2013 series in England, but most chose to ignore them.

It should also be noted that Kevin Pietersen, in two and a half test matches (five innings total), has scored 18, 26, 4, 53, and today was out for 19. It’s not just his fault of course, this has been a top to bottom, attack and batting, collapse.

It was a good run, winning four of five Ashes. But now, maybe we can return to the warmth and security of an American’s understanding of cricket being a bunch of numbers and meaningless words strung together, followed by “and England lose”.

Crazy Archaic Laws, UK Royalty Edition

[ 35 ] December 14, 2013 |

It’s illegal to be a (small-r, not batshit crazy R) republican in the United Kingdom. Indeed, it’s illegal to so much as imagine a United Kingdom without the, you know, Kingdom bit:

If any person whatsoever shall, within the United Kingdom or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose our Most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, or royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, or of any other of her Majesty’s dominions and countries, or to levy war against her Majesty, within any part of the United Kingdom, in order by force or constraint to compel her to change her measures or counsels, or in order to put any force or constraint upon or in order to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament, or to move or stir any foreigner or stranger with force to invade the United Kingdom or any other of her Majesty’s dominions or countries under the obeisance of her Majesty, and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them, shall express, utter, or declare, by publishing any printing or writing … or by any overt act or deed, every person so offending shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable … to be transported beyond the seas for the term of his or her natural life.

This is part of the Treason Felony Act of 1848. I can understand why such legislation hit the books in 1848. I can’t understand why it’s still on the books.  I really can’t understand why the government, noting that it was on a list of old laws to be repealed, removed this from said list this past week. Because I guess we really need to protect the royal family or something.

But hell, if the sentence is “to be transported beyond the seas for the term of his or her natural life”, does that mean a free ticket to Australia to watch England lose the Ashes?

Fortunately, my own legal position has recently improved:

Among 327 offences that have recently been purged from the statute book was that of “being an incorrigible rogue”, under the Vagrancy Act 1824.

NB: Nothing in the post is meant to explicitly or implicitly suggest that I am opposed to sovereignty residing in the British royal family.  For good measure, I am open to being convinced that the British should reclaim their lost North American colonies.

Some Local Voices: Austerity, Homophobia, and Britain’s Waning Global Presence

[ 30 ] December 11, 2013 |

Plymouth Labour Party activist John Petrie has some unequivical things to say about the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and the Conservative Party:

Following the two World Wars, successive governments expanded the state to create a fairer society that distributed wealth more equally and looked after its citizens, particularly those in need. With this new Post-War Consensus the UK gradually became a more equal place, with higher social mobility, less income inequality and state owned infrastructure that was run for the benefit of the people of our country. This state, which Cameron so gleefully discards, was earned by the suffering of many people over many years and it is sickening to see it dismantled for no other reason than ideology and greed, the very same ideology and greed that caused the crash from which we are still recovering.

Kate Taylor, a Plymouth City Councillor (also Labour) took issue with a local dinosaur who wrote a letter to the local paper proudly claiming that he is dropping his patronage of the Plymouth Evening Herald because . . . they did their job by covering local Olympic medallist diver Tom Daley’s “coming out” as being in a sam-sex relationship. The Herald is a local paper. Tom Daley is a Plymouth Olympic medallist. Mr John J Jones is a local bigot who is a regular contributor of letters-to-the-editor:

I don’t know why you have the views that you do, Mr Jones. I don’t know why you think it is fair to call me, or members of our gay community, “abhorrent”, when in my opinion, the only abhorrent thing is the fact that you pigeon-hole me as “perverted” for being attracted to, or having feelings for, another woman rather than a man. It goes without saying that those views are extremely offensive to the LGBT community, and whilst I hope you delay your boycott of The Herald for long enough to read this letter, I must admit I am somewhat relieved that I will no longer have to read such opinions in my local newspaper.

Finally, this morning I revisited a nuanced piece written by my colleague Dr. Jamie Gaskarth. He suggests that the House of Commons rejection of intervention in Syria is evidence of further British retreat from the world stage:

Lacking the capacity, and the desire to act, Britain is retreating from its role as an interventionist power. Two further developments are feeding this process. One is the democratization of war powers; the other, the juridification of foreign policy decision making.

[. . .]

In sum, reduced military capacity, public opposition, the widening of decision making to the legislature and the emphasis on international law and high standards of evidence have all combined to stop Britain intervening in Syria. If these processes continue and harden, then it is difficult to see the UK being able to act out the great power role of ‘global policeman’ in the future.

All Tragedies Great and Small

[ 95 ] December 11, 2013 |

Don’t seem to be making much of a difference. In the year since Newton, CT, the states have been busy with gun legislation. On balance, they’ve relaxed restrictions, rather than making more sensible legislation that balances the rights and responsibilities of owning a firearm. 109 bills have become law in the states, of which 39 tighten regulation, while 70 go in the opposite direction.

The trend seems to be to embrace the notion that what we really need are more “good guys with guns” protecting us from the bad guys.

To break this down a little, permits are easier to obtain (28 laws loosen restrictions, while only one, Colorado, passed a law tightening regulation, and that was to prohibit on-line training for a concealed weapon permit), public carry is a lot easier (22/0), it’s easier to carry weapons in schools (nine bills passed to precisely zero! making it more difficult to carry a gun in a school), and four states have attempted to nullify federal law on the subject. There were some minor victories: Mental health is taken marginally more seriously (15 restrictive laws, versus one explicitly making it easier to restore gun rights to the formerly mentally ill), background checks (12 more rigorous, two laws easing background checks), and assault weapons are more tightly regulated in CA, CO, CT, MD, NY), while Louisiana has repealed legislation regulating “machine guns”. I’ll be spending something like seven nights in Louisiana later this month, so I’ll be sure to check this out on the ground.

It appears that we have reached something of a consensus in response to tragedy: more guns will save more lives. Except for, you know, all the empirical evidence to the contrary, which is, pretty much, all of it.

And where was the good guy with a gun to save this three year old boy in Indiana on Saturday? Presumably that good guy was his father or mother who left the loaded firearm on the countertop within easy reach. But I bet at least that they had their outlets protected.

This is one of those (many) issues where I am growing to believe that the prospects for progressive reform are bleak indeed. We can win battles in some states on marginal issues, but that appears to be it. If Newton foments change in the direction opposite to good policy, I’m not sure what can be done. There is a partisan dynamic to it of course; of the 70 bills that passed relaxing regulation, 49 were in states with unified Republican control, and 18 mixed (with only three in Democratic states). Solid Democratic states are responsible for 25 of the laws tightening regulation, while five of those bills passed in mixed control states, and nine in unified Republican states. I’m a proponent at focusing on the state level for progressive change (indeed, precinct level) in order to build from below, and this is yet another reason why we should spend more time hoping for Democratic state legislatures and governors rather than worrying about the fate of the national tea party.

Or maybe we get three million people to join the NRA and take that over from within.

Universities as Commercial Enterprise, an Ongoing Case Study

[ 153 ] December 10, 2013 |

This essay on the current experience at the University of Michigan published on Inside Higher Ed, made the rounds last week. Titled “Corporate Values”, it includes several quotes that speak directly to my ten year experience at my current institution. To wit:

America’s public research universities face a challenging economic environment characterized by rising operating costs and dwindling state resources. In response, institutions across the country have looked toward the corporate sector for cost-cutting models. The hope is that implementing these “real-world” strategies will centralize redundant tasks (allowing some to be eliminated), stimulate greater efficiency, and ensure long-term fiscal solvency.

As I’ve argued in the past, the experience in Britain serves as both a model and a warning to my colleagues in the United States. Decisions are taken purely on a revenue-stream criterion. If eliminating one undergraduate program will allow resources to be shifted to another, thus resulting in a marginally enhanced revenue stream on a per-student basis, then such a move has appeal. Those of us providing the “content” are treated as interchangeable parts, have superficial input in decision making (which is typically window dressing as one of many “stakeholders” in the institution, designed to assuage concerns of consultation). Management decisions are conducted with no transparency, and handed down as edicts. There’s no entertainment of feedback, let alone constructive criticism.  Again this resonates:

They frame departments as “customers” of centralized services, perpetuating the illusion that the university can and should function like a market. This premise devalues the local knowledge and organic interactions that make our units thrive. Indeed, it dismisses any attribute that cannot be quantitatively measured or “benchmarked.” Faculty members who reject these models quickly become characterized as “change resisters”: backward, tradition-bound, and incapable of comprehending budgetary complexities.

Adopting the corporate model is analogous to Margaret Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” policy prescription of neo-liberal economics in response to “globalization”, however one defines the concept.

Of course, if there’s a need for “retrenchment”, “streamlining”, “doing more with less”, or whatever cliche du jour masks the reality of “layoffs”, it’s never the fault or responsibility of senior management. Rather, we need to continually reposition the institution in the face of a dynamic “sector” in order to retain our position as a world leading university. More recently, the fault is placed solely at the feet of the government, and the policy to eliminate central government funding for higher education at once, and allow for the trebling of tuition fees. The degree to which tuition was increased was left up to each institution. Of course, all but a handful increased tuition from around £3000 per year to the maximum of £9000, mine included. I’m not arguing that the universities are to blame for government policy, which simply did in one day what has been a gradual erosion of state support in the US for the past decade or two. However, I think that there might have been an opportunity to price ourselves marginally lower than the overwhelming majority of our “competition”, thus limiting the need for the ongoing layoffs which have characterized my institution since 2008. A google search of my institution and redundancies finds stories every year between 2008 and 2012, including two on our own web page celebrating the lack of resorting to compulsory redundancies in 2009. The VC is quoted: “I consider that the University is now much better placed to achieve its strategic objectives and vision to become a first-choice first-class university serving the city and region and I am confident that we can now look towards a bright and sustainable future.”

That was 2009.  After I wrote most of this post yesterday morning, an email was sent to staff at noon outlining the need to “reshape our academic offer” which will “drive our investment strategy with investment in some areas, and divestment in others, which we think may include some redundancies”. Said email was also couched in the usual fuzzy business speak about sustainability, strategy, and the need to be “fleet of foot”.  Revealing here is, to my knowledge, that this is the first time one of these memos from senior management explicitly admitted that there might be layoffs. It’s already hit the local media here, and here. So, in addition to 2008 through 2012, we can now include 2013 on the Google count of media stories about redundancies at my institution. I think we did not have any compulsory redundancies in 2009, but we did have over 200 voluntary redundancies during the “strategic review” from 2008-09.

Let’s look at that 2009 statement again:

“I consider that the University is now much better placed to achieve its strategic objectives and vision to become a first-choice first-class university serving the city and region and I am confident that we can now look towards a bright and sustainable future.”

Now let’s compare it with that released yesterday:

“From January 2014, we will be commencing the combined Academic and Research Review with the objective of shaping a new and sustainable academic business model.”

Bluntly, a university run along its interpretation of a commercial model will feature employment insecurity as a daily reality. Again, every year since 2008, employees at my institution, be they academic, professional services, or support staff, have faced the prospect of getting sacked.  Maybe this is understandable if it only has to happen once. However, either the original plan failed — and we have to call this a failure as that bright and sustainable future didn’t last very long at all: during 2011/12 a large number of professional services staff were made redundant, and now we have the prospect of sweeping redundancies among academic staff (in addition to what my colleagues in sociology are experiencing right now). If the original plan did not fail, then this is the new normal. And again, it’s not only my institution. A google search reveals a dozen or so institutions in England that are experiencing similar chaotic insecurity in search of the elusive business model that is both sustainable and bright.

Yet, a university is not a business. We do not have shareholders, nor do we sell a product. Universities are a public good, which add value to individuals and society writ large. Assuming that this is the new reality, why in hell would one want to pay the opportunity costs involved in earning a Ph.D. in order to work in an industry where your job security isn’t that far removed from Dominos Pizza, and where your pay is significantly lower than a similar position in the private sector?  Why go into this “sector” when the fickle year-to-year interests of students, or the shifting business models of senior management, can render your contribution redundant?

The flyer attached to this post was sent out by the local branch of our union last week, and those potential redundancies in question are in Sociology (not to be confused with the prospect of additional redundancies released yesterday). The union of course over-states the case; what I’ve heard indicates total redundancies expected by the university can be counted on two hands[*]; regardless, we’re dealing with academic positions held by human beings, and it’s not their fault that the university in general and their subject in particular is in this situation at this point in time. The School of Government is barely four months old, and our Director was hired from abroad and promised a two year grace period to ensure an operative business model. However, after he accepted the position, Sociology were lifted from a different faculty entirely and added to the new school. Sociology used to be in the same school as my department, then in 2009 the social sciences were disaggregated and sent off to three different faculties. And now at least sociology is back with us, for the time being at least. This is a problem created by the complete lack of institutional stability, or as we joke, a Mao-esque permanent revolution. I’m in my 11th year at my institution. Since I was hired, my department has been part of two faculties, was an independent department before those unites were amalgamated into “schools”, of which we’ve now been in four, have had five Heads of School, and our fifth department chair in that period has just retired. Between the seemingly permanent threat of redundancies and the reality of annual institutional reshuffles, it’s amazing that we’re able to get any work done with even a modicum of positive morale, which is especially critical when an important aspect of one’s job is facing students nearly every day during term.

Again, as I’ve written in the past, I don’t believe the entire manner in which my institution responds is down to poor or uncaring management specific to my institution. A part of it is the corporate world view adopted by those running this institution specifically, and most others across the UK. The institution does not exist as a public good, for the creation or dissemination of knowledge, but rather as a business, where success is measured in profit (or loss) and revenue streams. Indeed, it’s going to get worse before it gets better; I learned yesterday that from 2015 there will no longer be a cap on enrollment at any university. What this means for us is our neighbors up the road on the A-38, with a Russel Group reputation and an international ranking significantly higher (at 148) than our 300th, will be able to recruit the level of student that is our bread and butter, for the same tuition fee. As there’s too much pride at stake for senior management to lower our tuition fee, the email sent out yesterday has a compelling logic as a result of the latest restructuring: wholesale scrapping (divestment) of departments, and concentrating on the few subjects where we are competitive with Russell Group institutions. Universities, aside from the handful at the very top of the reputation tables, will specialize in a mere handful of subjects. If this comes to pass, they really won’t be universities any longer, at least not in the classic sense the way the concept is understood.

Three further paragraphs from Michigan essay deserve quotation:

The absence of consultation with regard to the plan is particularly galling given that academic departments previously have worked well with the administration to keep the university in the black. Faculty members are keenly aware of our institution’s fiscal challenges and accordingly have put in place cost-cutting and consolidating measures at the micro level for the greater good.

Whether or not the collective protest initiated by a critical mass of faculty will result in change or reversal remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the past few weeks have been a wake-up call. Faculty must educate themselves about the basic fiscal operations of the institution in these changing times and reassert their leadership. Gardens, after all, require frequent tending.

Otherwise, we remain vulnerable to opportunistic management consultants seeking to use fiscal crisis as a source of profit. Public institutions that remain under the spell of misleading corporate promises will ultimately save little and lose a great deal.

It’s not too late for my American colleagues to ward off some of the excesses of commercialization that are negatively impacting the British system. For starters, the system of governance is still significantly different. American professors have considerably more autonomy, there remains shreds of the model of shared governance, and tenure. Over here, we do not have those advantages. We are fully corporate, and indeed, the onus for recruitment (of students) is largely up to individual programs. (Over one hour of our two hour school faculty meeting yesterday afternoon was spent on ideas surrounding how to enhance recruitment). Yes, there are faculty and even university level initiatives, and “open days” are organized along those lines, but if there is a decline in recruitment for any given program, senior management places the blame on the academics in that program. If we were an automobile company, each of us would be expected to contribute to the literature on advancing fuel cell and hybrid technology, yet also design, build, and sell the car. Yet, to strain the analogy, if gas prices suddenly double, those of us responsible for SUVs all get the sack.

At least we were given a shred of feel good phraseology: “We’re a successful University which has dealt with the volatility of the higher education sector with confidence in who we are and what we do.” However, I find it astonishing that we can continue on “with confidence” when our reality has been the threat of being made redundant for five years running.

I should add that like my colleagues, I take pride in my job, my department, and my university, but it would be nice if the “sector” returned that favor.

[*] As I now occupy precisely zero administrative positions, following nine straight academic years of holding at least one, and for several years two, I’m out of the loop, hence the reliability of that comment should be treated as not 100%.

[**] An unintended consequence of the relatively new “branding” of my institution, conducted several years ago and requiring the help of two private consultancies, is the scope of creativity allowed to precede the “With Our University” to fit different contexts. Let hilarity reign.

Guns, Masculinity, and Insecurity

[ 229 ] December 5, 2013 |

I get atypically angry — seriously pissed off — at the discourse surrounding gun control in the United States. This, in part, explains the colourful language I employed while digesting the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook, and why I’m happy that my daughter is growing up and going to school in England (note, she is proud at being half English and half American, but she is completely unaware of the gun culture in America.) I come to this anger from a position not opposed to guns in general, and I come from a family that has had (and still has) more than a few. Rather, I find it utterly astonishing that a society more enamoured with and dependent upon motor vehicles has no problem regulating the hell out of cars and those who drive them, yet cherishes a laissez fare approach to firearms.

Cars are designed for transportation (aside from perhaps the 1967 Ford Mustang that I owned for a few years in grad school, which was inconsistent at best in getting me from point A to point B, but it did have a 289, four barrel carb, dual exhaust, enhanced suspension, and it was a beautiful British racing green, so it looked great even when I was interminably broken down somewhere inconvenient), not for killing things.  However, we regulate safety features, gas mileage (somewhat), what comes out of the exhaust (again, somewhat), and the speed at which cars can be driven in various contexts. We also regulate drivers, who have to be of a minimum age, pass both a theory and practical test before allowed to drive alone, and if drivers consistently violate the laws governing the safe operation of their vehicle, can lose their license for a string of misdemeanours. There have been excesses, as one Mr. Hagar points out, but the regulations are largely justified.

Guns are designed to kill. Why is it that we have no problem regulating cars, but a significant segment of society gets paranoid, ignores empirical reality, and generally becomes apoplectic whenever we might possibly consider ever so slightly regulating these things designed to kill? Again, I am not in favor of banning all guns in America; not only do I honestly believe that the majority of gun owners are responsible and not averse to training, it’s also a stupendously impractical exercise. However, I’m completely baffled that we have no problem regulating automobiles, yet rather than accept and adopt sensible controls on freaking guns, the response to frequent massacres such as Sandy Hook is to arm the (already underpaid and overworked) teachers!


The first wave of comments to my post yesterday on the 72 year-old man with Alzheimer’s shot and killed in a stranger’s yard in northwestern Georgia touched on masculinity, control, and manliness as one explanation for the fetish of guns for a subset of gun owners. There’s a strong “no shit?” dynamic at work here, one I’ve considered, but never considered it well enough to articulate it beyond fumbling some words together to make “compensating” not sound like “small dick problem”.

Fortunately, that’s why we have Amanda Marcotte, who nailed it yesterday:

That men “prove” their manhood by having guns, by acting tough, by seeking out violence, by pretending they don’t care about anything but creating more opportunities for violence.

More critically, and mapping onto the Georgia case well (the fiancee was on the phone to the police, the man was prowling his yard, ultimately firing his Glock four times to ward off a 72 year-old):

In other words, the only way a legitimate man can “care” about people is as objects that you fantasize about bad guys trying to steal from you so that you have an opportunity to shoot them.

Obviously, this does not describe all gun owners in the US, nor does it exhaust the explanations for the paranoid response to gun control legislation, but I’m confident that it does identify the subconscious motivations for a segment of gun owners.

Yet, it still doesn’t address how we can regulate the hell out of cars (which can also serve compensatory functions for a segment of the male population) yet not guns.

(Apologies for linking to my own stuff on a regular basis in this post.  Without knowing it, I’ve written about this topic more often than I recalled).

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