Archive for May, 2011

On Violence in Homewood

On_Violence_In_Homewood  <== PDF version

The Rachel Maddow show (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/) aired an extended segment on 6 May 2011 featuring the Reverend Ricky Burgess, a member of the City Council in Pittsburgh, PA.  The segment detailed the large problem of violence in Councilman Burgess’ district, the Homewood neighborhood of east Pittsburgh.  The segment was prompted by the fact that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was holding it’s annual convention in Pittsburgh that week, and Ms. Maddow wanted to demonstrate to her viewers the damage inflicted upon neighborhoods by “gun violence”.

Ms. Maddow did an excellent job interviewing Councilman Burgess.  We learned, among other things, that Homewood is the poorest, most violent, and most drug-infested district in the area; that many bystanders have been killed in shootouts between various local residents; that the local business district has been ruined because of all the shootings; and that the only remedy is to end the shootings.  He elaborated on the immediate causes of the gunfights: “colors”, “territory” (the “owning of streets”), and girls: what would normally be fistfights sometimes turn into shootouts.  It turns out that Councilman Burgess has lost several family members to these violent crimes, in addition to several victims in his church congregation.   But he also noted that Homewood was at one time a fine neighborhood, dominated by Irish and Italians, most of them steelworkers, and that there had been very little of this type of violence in those past decades.

Mr. Burgess noted at one point that the “Constitution gives the right to own a gun”, but the lobbying effort by the NRA has in practice imposed a “death sentence” on Homewood.  Therefore, he said, it is important to pass some “reasonable” gun restrictions to bring the neighborhood back to its former greatness.  He informed us, however, that the state legislature is “controlled” by the NRA and that because of state pre-emption laws, Pittsburgh is unable to pass “common-sense” gun control laws attendant to its needs.  In response to a question by Ms. Maddow, he mentioned the type of laws that are necessary: a) a prohibition on assault rifles; b) stronger background checks; c) no guns from gun shows to be permitted; d) to create a lost and stolen gun registry; and e) regulations on possession, maintaining, and training to own a handgun.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Councilman Burgess and his family.  It must be a terrible thing to see and hear about people you know and love be killed or injured in this type of widespread violence.  But, I shall explain why his proposals cannot work, and why the NRA rightly resists any weakening of the right to keep and bear arms.  Just as an aside, the Constitution does not “grant” the right to own a gun, or any other rights.  The rights mentioned in the Constitution predated it; the Constitution only states that those rights exist, and that the government has no power to contravene them.  But let’s consider his recommendations.

First, the rate of gun ownership in America has remained fairly constant over the decades.  It’s not as though the neighborhood was peaceful when the Irish and Italians lived there because they were completely unarmed.  They were probably as fully armed as the current residents of Homewood.

Secondly, he proposes a prohibition on “assault rifles” and various other regulations.  Now, would that be the same type of prohibition we have had for 90 years on the possession of cocaine?  You know, the same cocaine that is available in nearly every neighborhood in America, including Homewood?  How will one distinguish a gun that is purchased at a gun show from one that is stolen?  How will a registry of stolen guns prevent the next robbery to be committed with it?  New York and Chicago have prohibitions on handguns now; does that work for them?

In short, does the Councilman really believe that people who are so morally debased that they would shoot people because they are wearing the wrong “color”, unafraid of the laws against murder, will be deterred by some gun-control laws?  Of course not — he knows full well that such laws will have no effect on retards and professional criminals.  Such laws are designed to fail, and once the failure thereof is evident, he will be leading the charge for even stricter laws, leading eventually to a complete prohibition on firearm possession — for the law-abiding, that is.  No prohibitions faze the professionals (look up “mafia”, “yakuza”, “Crips”, “KKK”, “MS-13”, or “Hell’s Angels”).  I suspect that is why no rational person or organization that advocates the security of a free state could support the Councilman’s proposals; they would only lead to a complete loss of all the citizen’s rights sooner or later.

I do have two experiments to suggest.  Suppose all the people currently living in Homewood were moved to some prosperous neighborhood, and were replaced by NRA members?  If Councilman Burgess is correct, two salutary things would happen: the current residents of Homewood would be safe and secure in a good neighborhood (that’s only fair), and the evil sinister inanimate-object guns would be randomly killing NRA members in Homewood (that would be fair too).

The second experiment is equally unlikely.  How about those convicted of killing innocent people get hung by the neck until dead, not in some prison, but at the scene of their crime?  How about we require that the body remain in place on the rope for 90 days, right there under the streetlight?  One never knows — it is possible that a few derelicts fed to the crows might make some impression on the other mental rejects shooting up Homewood.   Until we find a way to deal with the thinking of men, regulating the possession of things will not matter.  But I am sure the good Reverend already knows that.

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A Comparative Scale of the National Debt

Comparative_Scale_of_the_National_Debt  <== PDF version

We are all aware of the enormous national debt that has been accrued by Congress over the past 35 years or so.  For those too young to recall, the national debt began to accelerate in the mid-1970’s, and has continued to increase steadily since then except for a few years in the late 1990’s.  In this paper, I will relate the total debt to median household income, and calculate the total indebtedness in terms of number of years of median income owed per household, if every household were held to account equally.  This calculation will be done for 2010 and for 1784.  The year 1784 is instructive because that was the year Congress (then under the Articles of Confederation) defaulted on the national debt as it then existed.

The mark of an educated mind is to be content with an approximation as Aristotle informs us.  We do not have the data necessary to make a computation to nine decimal places, but we can, with a few assumptions, get a reasonable sense of the relative magnitude of the indebtedness in 1784 compared to the current total national debt.  To start, we shall use round numbers as shown next.

In round numbers, according to the 2010 census, the median household income is about $50,000, the total national debt is about $14,000,000,000,000, the total population is about 310,000,000, and the total number of households in the U. S. is about 110,000,000.  If we divide the total debt by the number of households, we obtain an average indebtedness per household of about $125,000 in round numbers.  If we divide this by the median income per household, we obtain 2.5 — this is the number of years of total income the median household would have to pay if each were held equally responsible for paying the national debt.  How does this compare to 1784?

The census closest to 1784 is the one in 1790, which showed that the total population was 3,893,635, of which 694,280 were slaves.  There was an influx of people in the few years just prior to 1790, so, as an approximation, we will assume the population in 1784 was about 3,500,000.  The census collected data on households, but they were mixed in with the number of males and females above age 16.  To avoid this problem, we will assume that the ratio of households to population was the same then as now, that is, about 1:2.8.  This gives, in round numbers, about 1,250,000 households in 1784.

The median income data is a little more difficult.  McMaster [1] reports that the median wage in Boston for a typical workman was 12 shillings per week, which is 60% of a Massachusetts pound.  The Massachusetts pound was set at 1289 grains of silver.  For convenience, we will convert the Massachusetts pound to Spanish Milled Dollars (SM$), which was the de facto currency of that time; the milled dollar was reckoned at 386.7 grains of silver.  Hence, the weekly wage of a workman was SM$ 2 Spanish milled dollars (surprisingly, an exact number).  Therefore, at 52 weeks per year, the median annual income was approximately SM$ 104.

It may be objected here that most people in 1784 did not work for money wages.  That is true; but it is also true that a money-wage is nothing more than a convenient conversion factor that represents the amount of labor necessary to procure the necessities of life.  So, the typical household had to expend a certain amount of labor whether it was paid in money or not, and if held responsible for a fraction of the debt, that payment would have to be made either in-kind, in-labor, by taxation on land, or by converting a portion of labor to money.  In the end, the debt is paid by the proceeds of labor and land, whether represented directly in money or not.  We may therefore convert all households, whether agrarian or wage-earners, to the equivalent of money.

The total debt in 1784, converted from colony pounds, French livres, depreciated Continentals, and hard money was SM$ 68,000,000 at the above-mentioned conversion rate [2].  Performing the same calculations as before, we obtain a per-household share of the national debt as SM$ 55, which is 0.5 years of median income per household necessary to pay its share of the debt.

Now compare our two results.  In 1784, the total debt translated into about a half-year of median income per household; now, it translates into two-and-a-half-years of median household income — a factor of five larger.

It may be objected that the dollar is worth a lot less today than in 1784, and this comparison is not valid.  But note that I have compared debt in 1784 with income in 1784 in consistent units, and likewise for modern times.  I have not tried to compare dollars now with dollars then; had I done so, the objection would be perfectly justified.

The Congress in 1784 could not pay that debt because of a defect in the Articles of Confederation: the Articles did not give Congress authority to raise a direct tax or to levy import duties.  It could only ask the states for money, and often did not receive the amount requisitioned.  Now, Congress has arbitrary power to tax, yet we will have great difficulty paying this debt because of a defect in the members of Congress: they believe they have a power to spend borrowed money on anything they want, whether authorized in the Constitution or not.

[1]   John B. McMaster, A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1900, p. 96.

[2]   Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1928, Vol. 24, pp. 206-210 and 276-287; Vol. 25, pp. 954, 955

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Benjamin Franklin Asks For Prayer

Benjamin Franklin Asks For Prayer   <== PDF version

Benjamin Franklin is widely regarded as an atheist, or at most a deist, when the topic of the religion embraced by the founding fathers comes up.  Only God knows the true beliefs of any person.  Deism, for those not familiar with it, is the concept that God exists and created the universe, but takes no interest in the affairs of mankind; that God is completely impersonal and uninterested in the fate of His creation.

I will relate a short debate in the Continental Congress in which Franklin discusses his beliefs, not because I have any interest in advancing any theory about Franklin, but because it runs so contrary to what is commonly taught about him.  The members of the Convention had spent many days arguing about how the states would be represented in Congress; in fine, how the small states could guard themselves against the expected predations of the larger states, and how all the states could guard themselves against the national government.  They were not making much headway.  By late Jun 1787, they had agreed to two branches of a national legislature, but could not come to terms with how they should be constituted or how representation therein was to be allocated.  On 28 Jun 1787, Dr. Franklin gave a short speech in Convention that sparked a debate on the usefulness of daily prayer.  No such thing can be tolerated today in our public offices.  But here is the incorrigible Benjamin Franklin [1].

            “Dr. Franklin.  Mr. President, the small progress we have made after four or five weeks’ close attendance and continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes — is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding.  We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it.  We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those republics which, having formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist.  And we have viewed modern states all round Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

            In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark, to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have no hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the father of lights to illuminate our understandings?  In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.  Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.  All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor.  To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity.  And have we now forgotten the powerful Friend?  Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?  I have lived, sir, a long time, and, the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men.  And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable than an empire can rise without his aid?  We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.”  I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed, in this political building, no better than the builders of Babel.  We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word to future ages.  And, what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom, and leave it to war, conquest, and chance.

            I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or two or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.”

There followed a short debate, in which the proposition was not brought to a vote, and as far as I know, never adopted.  Now, (only God knows) maybe old Ben was as cynical as they come, hoping the religious types would be pacified by prayers every morning that would serve to soften them up and make them more willing to give up their rights to the sensible atheists.  Maybe (only God knows), he was a true Christian, that is, personal belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ, the God-man.  Maybe he was somewhere in between.  But let’s admit, given what we have been told these many years about Franklin’s alleged dim view of Christianity, he made a speech that would get him kicked out of most schools, legislatures, and courthouses today.

[1]   Jonathan Elliot, Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution in the Convention held at Philadelphia in 1787; With a Diary of the Debates of the Congress of the Confederation; As Reported by James Madison, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1881, Vol. 5, pp. 253, 254.

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On Federal vs. State Powers

On Federal vs. State Powers    <== PDF version

What is the proper division of state and federal powers with regard to the funding of education in America?  The Arizona Republic published an article on 1 May 2011 by Pat Kossan and Ronald J. Hansen called “Money Gap for Charter Schools”.  In the article the authors mention that funding for charter schools is declining owing to reductions in state and federal revenues.  It turns out, according to the authors, that the charter schools actually receive less per-pupil funding from federal sources because the charter schools have fewer disabled and lower-income pupils than typical public schools.  Apparently the great planners in the federal government are willing to meddle in the funding of local schools, but not on an equal basis.  No doubt this formula was achieved with the usual amount of political negotiation and compromise.  But it is evident that federal funding of education was not intended by those who debated and ratified the U. S. Constitution.

First, no powers regarding the establishment or promotion of education were granted to the federal government in the U. S. Constitution.  Secondly, we need only look to the debates in the Constitutional Convention to observe that the topic of federal funding for education never came up.  The founding fathers were wary of giving too much power to the federal government on the grounds that those powers would be abused; they believed it was necessary, as a check upon the federal government, to leave many powers at the state level.  A few examples will suffice.

In the debate of 7 Jun 1787 in the Convention, George Mason, a delegate from Virginia stated, “Whatever power may be necessary for the national government, a certain portion must necessarily be left with the states.  It is impossible for one power to pervade the extreme parts of the United States, so as to carry equal justice to them.”

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina stated on 25 Jun 1787: “No position appears to me more true than this; that the general government cannot effectually exist without reserving to the states the possession of their local rights.  They are the instruments upon which the Union must frequently depend for the support and execution of their powers, however immediately operating upon the people and not upon the states.”

We have seen the unfortunate consequences of federal activism in many aspects of our daily lives.  Funding of education is only one of them.  It would be better by far for the states to resume their traditional role of providing for the education of its citizens, as the state governments may be more closely regulated by the people thereof.

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