Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Silver Linings

Rep. Wendy McKamey is obviously on the right track when she urges Congress, in today’s Missoulian, to address the critical backlog of deferred maintenance in the nation’s national parks.  And folks down the Bitterroot are right to be alarmed by the President’s intention, in the budget he sent to Congress yesterday, to zero out an EPA program which restores degraded waterways and improves water quality. But as critical as these efforts are, the arguments that McKamey and the Bitterrooters are making for them are really pretty perverse.  For McKamey, the “silver lining” in the enormous task of restoring national parks is that it will create jobs - lots of jobs. For clean water advocates and activists in the Bitterroot, it’s the flow of dollars to contractors who repair roads that are sloughing off into creeks, or the nurseries that provide the plant stock for revegetating stream banks.

Now those are obviously good things. Construction workers need jobs, contractors need contracts, and nurseries need to sell plants. But in the final analysis, what the argument boils down to is this: these programs are a good thing because they will cost a lot.  The implication is that if we could somehow contrive to maintain parks and rivers without creating jobs or letting contracts or buying supplies, that is, without cost, these programs would be less worthwhile. 

What’s going on here is, of course, nothing new and it would be unfair to suggest that McKamey or the water advocates invented this fallacy. On the contrary, it’s standard operating procedure, when making decisions about the use of public resources, to choose the use that has the greatest economic impact. It’s far more politically astute and makes you sound far more hard headed and fiscally prudent to defend expensive programs because they will create jobs and sales, than to claim that they will have ephemeral benefits like historical preservation or access to wildlife viewing or healthier riparian habitat. 

But advocating for a public program because it has a fat economic footprint can take you down a blind alley.  There are a lot of environmental activists in Montana, for example, who argue that our stake in combatting climate change is the damage that will otherwise be done to our outdoor, agricultural and tourism economies. Obviously, they know that there is much, much more a stake than the jobs of fishing guides or motel workers or farmers, but it’s those jobs that they hope will get the attention of legislators and editorial writers. But walk down that alley and anyone can follow you. Once jobs become the only thing that counts, the loss of jobs for coal miners or oil rig workers becomes a perfectly plausible and appropriate reason for opposing any effort to arrest climate change.  

Indeed, if we’re going to arrest climate change, what’s to stop us from worrying about the loss of jobs for the construction workers who will move Miami to higher ground if sea levels keep on rising? That may sound crazy, but isn’t it something like what McKamey is implying? One of the “benefits” of neglecting maintenance and letting our national parks go to rack and ruin is the jobs that will be created cleaning the mess up!

What gets lost in this obsession with jobs is the fact that what both McKamey and the Bitterroot water folks are really talking about is the provision and maintenance of infrastructure. Not in tthe limited sense of bridges or roads or airports, but in the expansive sense of the stock of created and natural public capital. It’s stuff that contributes to our wellbeing just like bridges and roads do, and it needs to be attended to for that reason. But it’s not being attended to; it’s being abandoned, at least by the President. And he’s abandoning it at a time when he says, not very convincingly, that he wants to rebuild the national infrastructure. 

Ah well, looking for consistency in the intentions of Donald Trump, now that is a job.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Parting of the Ways on Guns

I like all the candidates who are running for Congress in the Democratic primary. On almost every issue their hearts and brains are in the right places. I’ve worked closely with a couple of them in the legislature and respect their abilities.  Some are personal friends on whom I wouldn’t wish the onerous task of raising money, campaigning tirelessly, winning a primary, and taking on and beating Greg Gianforte.

But when it comes to the issue of guns, we reach a parting of the ways.

At a candidate forum in Missoula last night, when they were asked whether they would support expanded background checks for gun sales, all five Democratic candidates said that they would not.  All of them expressed appropriate alarm about gun violence and advocated for better enforcement of gun laws already on the books. But when it came to background checks for the thousands and thousands of guns sold privately or at gun shows, no deal.  As far as I am concerned, that’s an utterly indefensible position.

There’s no mystery, of course, about what’s going on here. I was sitting next to a veteran and venerable Montana political reporter at the forum, and when I began to gnash my teeth and mutter as one candidate after another caved in on the question, she looked at me like I had lost my mind. Never, in her experience, had a Montana Democrat been willing to risk challenging the NRA. There was nothing new to see here folks, so move along.

She’s probably right and I get that, but I am not convinced that what the NRA wants, and what the public thinks is needed, are the same thing. I’m guessing that for most people it is painfully obvious that tougher enforcement of existing background check laws, which apply to sales by licensed dealers, is going to do absolutely nothing to prevent people who we all agree shouldn’t have them from buying guns on-line, or through a classified ad in the newspaper, or at a gun show. In fact, stricter enforcement of existing laws will only lead to greater resort to those loopholes.

Part of the problem here is that we tend to view the issue of effective background checks through the lens of the terrible mass killings that have become a regular part of our national life. Every time some madman or abuser or deranged high school student shoots and kills churchgoers, or fires into a crowd at a concert or club, or murders  a classroom full of kids, we ask where the guns came from, and too often the answer is that they were purchased legally, or taken from the family gun closet, or bought on the street. And from this we shake our heads and sadly conclude, once again, that expanded background checks couldn’t have prevented this most recent mass shooting.

And it’s true: expanded background checks will not eradicate mass shootings. But that’s not the point. Mass shootings, as terrible and visible as they are, are the tip of the iceberg. There are about 30,000 gun deaths in the United States every year, including suicides. We have far and away the highest incidence of gun violence in the world, except for countries being run by drug gangs or torn apart by civil wars. It’s those countries whose company we keep when it comes to killing people with guns. And killing is just part of the story; there’s also armed robbery, drive-by shootings, road rage, intimidation, and the list goes on.

The fact is that the United States is awash in guns and there is a well documented and well understood process by which those guns flow from the hands of legitimate, law abiding owners into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and will use them to commit crimes. Comprehensive background checks obviously can’t prevent gun crimes, but they can staunch that flow of guns into the wrong hands and reduce the astronomical rate of gun violence in this country. 

And that’s something I would hope any Democrat running for Congress could get behind.