Sunday, December 8, 2013

Time for a Basic Living Stipend?

Can we afford to guarantee an income for all citizens? (Photo: SPIRAL)

In her seminal science-fiction novel Beggars in Spain (William Morrow & Co., 1993), Nancy Kress describes a futuristic American welfare state wherein 80 percent of the population survives comfortably, if somewhat squalidly “on the Dole,” rather than engaging in productive employment. This largess is financed by patent royalties from an energy-production breakthrough, but the actual United States of the early 21st century A.D. is a fantastically wealthy country and already provides extensive public benefits to its poorest citizens. However, these benefits are delivered through hundreds of different programs that are administered under a variety of political conceits, making the American welfare system both inefficient and condescending.

According to the Cato Institute, federal, state, and local governments spent over $950 billion on welfare benefits in 2012. That’s over $20,000 per poor person or nearly twice the federal poverty threshold. Of course, a significant portion of these funds are lost to bureaucratic overhead. Therefore, as bleeding-heart libertarian Matt Zwolinski asks, wouldn’t it be better to put the money directly into the hands of poor people rather than passing it through layers of government administrators and social workers?

That’s where a basic living stipend comes into the picture. While fictional, Nancy Kress’s version of universal welfare is broadly similar to historical proposals such as the basic income guarantee or the negative income tax. Under such proposals, governments would provide all their citizens with a certain minimum income, either as an outright grant or as a variable tax credit, in order to keep them above the poverty threshold. In theory, minimum-income schemes would replace inefficient, paternalistic welfare states with streamlined transfer-payment systems, maximizing benefits to recipients and minimizing costs to taxpayers.

A “heartless libertarian communist” myself, I am generally skeptical of welfare schemes, both social and corporate, but before I indulge that skepticism here, I should note that, as Dr. Zwolinski points out, the idea of income guarantees also has origins and support in modern libertarian thought. He offers three reasonably compelling arguments in support of such proposals. These include the aforementioned efficiency improvements, approximate reparations for historical injustices, and necessary requirements for democratic legitimacy.

I find the last argument, advanced previously by none other than free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, to be the most morally compelling. Though I would advocate for the voluntary society, the fact remains—and may always remain—that all human beings live under the rule of coercive states. Since it is the political tendency of both left and right authoritarian regimes to institutionalize relative poverty, it becomes morally imperative for governments, in order to maintain their own legitimacy, to ensure that their citizens do not fall into absolute poverty.

Moving as that argument may be, I remain highly skeptical of income guarantees for two reasons. First, I doubt that they would reduce relative poverty at all. There would still be plenty of comparatively poor people, but they would all have food, clothing, housing, and entertainment. Their numbers would also seem likely to expand due to the free-rider problem, though this could be mitigated to some extent if the system were implemented correctly.

The second reason follows from the first and is significantly more disconcerting. If free riders or economic disincentives lead to an expansion of relative poverty, how much of an increase in income transfers (and concomitant decrease in productivity) can the general economy absorb before collapsing? Assuming that the threat of such a collapse is considerable, the risk will increase with the sensitivity of income guarantees to normal political processes. This latter concern is why Dr. Zwolinski rightly suggests that income guarantees should be enacted only at the constitutional level, though the controlling economic indices would no doubt still be subject to political manipulation.

Nevertheless, I’ve begun to think that it’s a risk worth taking. One reason that the byzantine welfare state is so pernicious is because it effectively conceals the diseased portions of the political organism, allowing otherwise good people to support programs that while ostensibly intended to help the poor actually perpetuate their relative poverty. Though income guarantees would probably do no better at reducing poverty, they would cast off the veil, exposing both the free riders, who would no longer have anything to hide, and bringing greater transparency to the political kinesthesis that institutionalizes poverty. Presumably, once these problems were open to ready observation, rational political actors would move to address them.

On a more optimistic note, public stipends should sweep away paternalistic welfare schemes by treating recipients as adults responsible for their own financial decisions. This would also be a step toward the moral courage required to accept individual failure as a natural and occasionally healthy part of human development. Furthermore, though this may mostly be Marxist wishful thinking, it is possible that even free riders might contribute some unexpected dividend to justify the productive members of society carrying their general slack. In fact, savvy free riders who were wise with their public stipends could eventually save enough money to channel into private investment, profiting for themselves while financing real economic growth. Finally, since guaranteed incomes would effectively remove low-end workers from the labor pool, competition in the labor market should become more robust, leading to increased wages and salaries for those who remain in the workforce. Both of these would be examples of Keynesian economic policies properly applied.

Welfare reform remains the key to unlocking and resolving many social problems, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, basic income guarantees might just be the kind of reform we need. In the end, I find myself swayed by the argument that we have a moral duty to the beggars in Spain, not out of guilty compassion for their relative destitution but because our coercive states are largely responsible both presently and historically for creating them. When that is done, perhaps we can continue the journey away from the coercive state and toward the voluntary society with greater alacrity.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spending Fallacies

Seemingly profligate, the yachting industry contributes billions of dollars to the global economy. (Photo: Canadian Business)

It’s no secret that people spend their money in different ways, depending on whether they are comparatively rich or poor. The poor will usually spend a larger portion on basic necessities, while the rich will typically spend more on luxuries. The latter never fails to cause consternation and concern among many observers.

Naturally, “liberals” are quick to condemn the “excesses” of the rich, but even self-styled free-market “conservatives” will express dismay at how the affluent use their wealth. Both political factions seem to think there are better, more beneficial ways to spend all this money. That betrays their fundamental misunderstandings about economics … or at least shows that their own emotional responses can blind them to economic realities.

For example, the lavish wedding of a wealthy heiress will employ caterers, florists, photographers, and the other creative and service professionals whom “liberals” supposedly want to help while also feeding the free market that most “conservatives” claim to support. Would these funds be better spent on charity? Or should they simply be taxed and redistributed as welfare payments? Then the recipients would know well enough to elect Democrats, I suppose.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan (Wit Studio, 2013)

I don’t usually write reviews, but in this dreadful new era, here’s the second in a row. Furthermore, though I’ve also touched upon my interest in and involvement with anime (Japanese animation) in the past, I haven’t written much about it. Recommended to me by friends and acquaintances, this example seemed worthy of mention for both enthusiasts and those unfamiliar with the medium.

Attack on Titan (Japanese: Shingeki no Kyojin) is a science-fiction/fantasy television series adapted from the ongoing manga (graphic novel) of the same name by Hajime Isayama. Thousands of years in the future, presumably, human civilization has been all but destroyed by the onslaught of a mysterious race of humanoid giants, the Titans, who seem to exist solely to kill human beings. The survivors eke out a kind of pre-industrial existence behind a series of concentric walls. These walls have kept the Titans at bay for a century … until that day when they don’t.

The protagonists then find themselves in a renewed fight for survival and soon realize that they must also begin to unravel the mystery of the Titans and their origins if humanity is to prevail.

Mikasa Ackerman executes her signature attack.

Like any other medium, anime ranges from the cheap and formulaic to the artful and innovative. Attack on Titan has proved to be an example of the latter. It manages to achieve unusually beautiful and consistent animation for an episodic television production with detail that is not too simplified to distract from the viewer’s enjoyment. The plot and characters are equally engaging. The ensemble cast carries the viewer through emotions that run from terror to courage and from grief to hope. The story is intriguing and engrossing, combining mystery, dramatic (and sometimes brutal) action, philosophy, and palpable dread. The viewer is always left eager for the next episode … or the next season.

Of course, the series isn’t entirely without flaws. Setting aside the central technological conceit that has the protagonists fighting the Titans in an entertaining but farfetched form of aerial, sword-based combat, the show suffers from some of the usual storytelling crutches. For example, the Titans almost always appear at the speed of plot, rarely interrupting important conversations between the protagonists. Many of the characterization clichés that often plague anime are avoided, but the seemingly obligatory scenes of angst and self-doubt are occasionally indulged for interminable moments. The computer-aided animation is very well done without clumsy CGI inserts, though still pans and other low-budget motion-avoidance techniques are employed with annoying frequency.

In conclusion, Attack on Titan is well worth watching and stands as a perfect example of what anime can be. It is currently available for subtitled viewing via both Crunchyroll and Funimation. A home-video release is expected next year … hopefully along with a second season.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The e-Book Revolution

2312 (Kim Stanley Robinson, 2012)

The e-book revolution has arrived! Actually, it arrived a few years ago, but now that I’ve purchased my first e-book, I can finally make this belated announcement with some confidence. Previously, I had been waiting to see how well the first waive of dedicated e-book readers (namely the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook) would fare in the marketplace. They did reasonably well, though the recent popularity of tablet computers probably deserves most of the credit for mainstreaming the e-book market.

Originally, therefore, I had thought to muse about the utility of tablet computers. However, while e-readers may well be the killer application for tablets, one rail trip was enough to prove to me that the portable convenience of the compact multifunctional device (namely the so-called smartphone) still trumps the comparative luxuries of the bulkier tablet.

For my first e-book, I selected 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson’s transgendered romp across the solar system of the 24th century A.D. I had enjoyed his Mars trilogy, which serves at least implicitly as the historical background for 2312, so I wanted to see Robinson’s vision for a fully fledged interplanetary civilization and all its political and economic implications.

However, instead of a realistic interplanetary economy, I found a fantastical iteration of centralized planning. Robinson himself seemed somewhat unsure how such an economy might operate in practice, and his protagonists apparently pay their way on interplanetary voyages by washing dishes. (Then again, perhaps Robinson had merely described the perfection of each-according-to-his-abilities communism.) He suggested that a socialist utopia could be achieved with advanced computers running the economy, if only capitalism would stop resisting.

Space travel would be easier, too, if only gravity would stop resisting our attempts to fly.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Avoiding the Question

It's time to raise the black flag of defiance.
The U.S. Supreme Court made an unconscionable mistake today. In declining to review the matter of Woollard v. Gallagher, which questioned the constitutionality of requiring “good and substantial” cause for the issuance of a permit to carry a handgun, the high court has signaled with dread certainty that it will do nothing to protect the civil right to bear arms for the nearly 100 million Americans who reside in prohibitionist states. Moreover, this shirking of responsibility will doom the nation at large to suffer the consequences of decades of frustration that must soon be released.

Though several right-to-carry challenges still remain active in the federal courts, we have no reason to expect different outcomes for these cases. Those subjects of California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and the other gun-control bastions are now left with only two choices: flight or defiance.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Stop the Ban on Semi-Automatic Rifles in California

We are heading into danger.

I usually don’t write about prospective legislation in detail, but this example is so egregious that I feel obligated to do so. California Senate Bill 374, which was sent to the Governor last night, would prohibit the trade in all centerfire semi-automatic rifles without fixed magazines beginning next year. Rifles lawfully acquired before this time would be retained by their current owners but would have to be registered as “assault weapons” and would thus also be subject to more stringent transportation and usage restrictions.

The definitions involved are so broad that virtually all self-loading rifles would fall under the new law. This includes not only rifles that merely resemble modern military firearms, such as civilian ArmaLite-Stoner (AR) and semi-automatic Kalashnikov-action (AK) rifles that are currently legal with magazine locks installed, but also many target and hunting rifles from most major manufacturers, not excluding the very popular Springfield M1A rifles (and all other civilian versions of the U.S. M14), the Ruger Mini series, the Kel-Tec SU-16 series, surplus and commercial variants of the U.S. M1 carbine, nor arguably Garand rifles and Simonov carbines (Russian SKS, Yugoslavian m1959, etc.). Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lawful gun owners would be affected, though many might not realize that fact until they were arrested for possession of unregistered “assault weapons.”

SB 374 appears obviously unconstitutional under the common-use test referenced in D.C. v. Heller, so I don’t expect that it would survive a constitutional challenge in court. Semi-automatic rifles are not more dangerous or unusual than other firearms and, in fact, are very rarely used in violent crime, so there is also no utilitarian justification for the would-be law. Nevertheless, we citizens must still do our part to voice opposition to misguided, unconstitutional legislation.

Therefore, if you value the right to arms and/or the civil rights of your children or possible children, I urge you to contact Governor Brown and encourage him to veto this bill.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Political Hypocrisy and Civil Rights

Last week, my brother and I squabbled via e-mail. I had held up the mirror of political hypocrisy in the form of an opinion piece from the National Review that I shared on Facebook. My brother caught his own reflection, which surprised me, and complained. I called him on it, he took offense, and we were off to the races.

Ironically, I had originally withheld my own comments precisely to avoid offending anyone. You see, if I simply tell someone that he’s wrong, then I’m being insulting, but if I instead try to let him see his own mistakes, then I apparently look condescending … or so I’ve been told. What rhetorical device can I use to make my point without risk of offending or worse yet being ignored?

However, since this will be ignored anyway, I may as well expound on the issue, since I already did most of the work for my brother’s benefit. My words will be out here in the wilderness at least.

Now, the point of the National Review piece was about hypocrisy in the treatment of civil rights, namely conflicting support or defense for discouraging the right to arms through gun-control laws and discouraging the right to vote through voter-authentication laws. If restrictions are justified on one of these to avoid certain perceived harms, then they must also be justified on the other to avoid its perceived harms. Put simply, it is hypocritical to insist on unfettered exercise of one right that may cause harm but demand restrictions on another right that may also cause harm.

My brother, of course, simply denied the equivalency, which is what disappointed me and angered him. After all, guns are bad, right? They’re just used to murder people. But votes are good. They’re used to help poor people get welfare benefits and affordable health care. Never mind that votes have been responsible for far more murders than have privately held firearms.…

I contend that the issues are very much equivalent in that important and/or fundamental civil rights are implicated in both examples. In fact, the methodologies of restriction are eerily similar, so I would argue that the voter-authentication efforts have been informed by the history of gun-control legislation. The next step might be to require background checks prior to each election, since felons are also prohibited from voting.

I could make a case for why the electoral franchise is too widely available, but that isn’t my point here and implicates too many other tangential issues. For the sake of this argument, I accept that voter disenfranchisement is a bad thing, assuming that easy access to ballots correlates to increased rates of voter fraud no more than easy availability of firearms correlates to increased rates of murder. In other words, let’s assume that there is no real problem for voter-authentication laws to solve.

I recognize these voter-authentication laws for what they really are (just like I recognize gun-control laws for what they really are). Though I could make a good-faith argument that these laws are wise and benevolent and not disenfranchising at all—like a right to arms limited just to your own home, you aren’t really disenfranchised as long as you can still vote between 1:30pm and 2:00pm in the state capital on election day—I suspect that they are less about preventing electoral fraud than they are about discouraging casual voters. Casual voters are the only group who will respond to get-out-the-vote drives, so these laws will undercut the effectiveness of such drives and thus threaten the political power of the party that most relies upon them.

I’ve seen with my own eyes just how easy electoral fraud can be, but I will oppose these voter-authentication laws and support the inevitable legal challenges. Assuming the laws are eventually stricken, the resulting jurisprudence can be used against very similar gun-control laws. In the same manner, again assuming victory for the pro-rights argument, the jurisprudence that results from the ongoing right-to-arms litigation will eventually be used to protect and expand other civil rights. What weakens one weakens all, and what strengthens one strengthens all.

And this is why I wish that I could win “liberals” over on the right to arms and “conservatives” over on private morality issues, but if I can’t convince my own brother of the importance and interdependence of all civil rights, then whom can I convince?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Friend for Woollard

Justice delayed is justice denied.

I’m no lawyer, but I doubt that I could construct a stronger legalistic argument in support of the right to carry a handgun under the Second Amendment than that presented in the Cato Institute’s amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court advocating its review in the matter of Woollard v. Gallagher. The high court must take up this case and settle the underlying constitutional question. To do otherwise would be to shirk its duty and expose the entire body of our civil rights to potential abuse under the same methods used to deny the right to bear arms.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bricklayer Tacos

All the ingredients for bricklayer tacos, except the tortillas.

I adapted this recipe from Pati’s Mexican Table. My version is spicier and uses more vegetables. It’s an attempt at one-skillet cooking, wherein the meat and salsa cook together—though I always end up transferring the ingredients from skillet to wok along the way. Different quantities and varieties can be easily substituted (ground beef in place of chopped steak, for example).


1/4–1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, sliced
1 lb. beef, chopped or sliced
salt, pepper, and oregano to taste
4+ cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, sliced
6+ jalapeños (or other chilies), chopped
1 lb. fire-roasted tomatoes, diced.

All the ingredients cook together in a large skillet or wok.

Fry the bacon until it is nicely browned and most of the fat rendered. Tip off or drain the excess, depending on how lean the beef is. Add the beef and garlic. Season with salt, pepper, and oregano. Cook until the beef is slightly seared.

Add the sliced onions and mix them in gently. Once the onions begin to soften, add the chilies. Cook for several minutes, then stir in the tomatoes. Continue cooking the mixture until the vegetables have reached the desired texture and any excess liquid has been reduced.

A bricklayer taco ready to enjoy.

Serve with warm corn tortillas, top with crumbled cotija cheese, and garnish with chopped cilantro or lettuce. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Justice Done in Florida

Victims and perpetrators.

Or was it?

As it turned out, young George Zimmerman wasn’t standing his ground when he fired that fatal shot in Sanford, Florida, but being beaten into it by younger Trayvon Martin. At least, given the evidence and testimony presented at trial, the state failed to prove otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, leaving the jury to presumably accept that self-defense had justified the defendant’s actions.

Like many, I at first thought that the defendant must be guilty of something. He had surely confronted the victim and provoked the fight that led to the fatal shooting. (In some respects, I had perhaps even wanted him to be guilty, because I am a person who avoids unnecessary confrontation and could not reasonably see myself in the defendant’s place.) Unlike most, though, I also wanted the local police and prosecutors to do their jobs without political interference, so I was dismayed when the case was pushed as a racial cause célèbre.

I was also willing to change my opinion as the actual facts emerged from the cloak of propaganda. Two currents swayed me both before and during the trial.

First, the state brought an unsustainable charge against the defendant. In Florida, second-degree murder requires that the perpetrator act with hate or a depraved mind, motives that were clearly absent even before the trial commenced. I wondered about this overreach, until the answer struck me. The state had to win on an accusation that couldn’t later be turned against its own agents. A loss would be preferable to exposing constables on patrol to potential murder charges merely for contacting suspicious individuals.

Second, at trial, the most compelling evidence and testimony supported the defendant’s version of events. While the defendant may have initiated contact, the facts strongly suggested that the victim was the aggressor in the fight that followed. That is reasonable doubt right there, even if you feel or believe that there is still guilt lurking somewhere. Confronting a suspicious individual in your neighborhood may be foolish, but it is not a crime and does not justify battery upon your person.

In the end, most of us might never have heard of the incident if the mainstream media hadn’t initially jumped to the conclusion that an old Jewish man had shot a 12-year-old black boy without provocation. Maybe the outcome would have been different then.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Right to Carry for Illinois

The right to carry in 2013.

In Illinois, the legislature has enacted a shall-issue concealed-carry licensing bill over Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto. This brings the state into compliance with the orders from U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the Moore and Shepard cases. Illinois thus becomes the final state to provide some legal means for the people to exercise their right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

Accordingly, Attorney General Lisa Madigan has moved to dismiss Moore and Shepard as moot under the new law and will not petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review these cases. That will leave one right-to-carry case, the matter of Woollard v. Gallagher from Maryland, presently ready for the high court’s attention. Cases out of California, New Jersey, and Hawaii are still waiting for decisions from their respective appeals courts.

With Illinois’ narrow no-issue example mooted, the Supreme Court will have to accept one of these challenges to may-issue licensing schemes … if it intends to rule on the right to carry at all.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Of Family and Political Philosophies

The Van Norman men … some years before Sept. 11th.

I was asked how my brother and I ended up with such differing political views. It was a pointed question that deserved a considered answer. I will pour myself another drink and answer it again here.

I would describe my brother as a highly intelligent modern “liberal.” He has intentions as noble as anyone’s and may not be as ideologically inconsistent as most, but his consistency is at least soft, and I suspect that he can be swayed fairly easily by appeals to “social justice” or political utilitarianism. He studied computer science and now works in the well-paid programming field—when he can.

Our father is a self-described bleeding-heart liberal and was born to working-class parents who came of age during the labor movement. He would even consider himself a communist at times, but in practice, I find him to be a garden-variety Keynesian—which would be perfectly reasonable in a fiscally responsible regime. He studied engineering and followed his father into the trades as a machinist. He has been a modestly successful small businessman, weathering the ups and downs of the industrial economy in southern California.

Our mother has wandered more both politically and geographically, but she has trended slightly more “conservative” throughout the years. She wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother but found herself a single parent working at low-paying clerical jobs. She eventually left the crowded, regimented world of suburban California for the open, semi-rural environment of Cache Valley in Utah.

I can be described as a libertarian or as a classical liberal, someone who advocates equality before the law and individual freedom for all. In fact, I would make a better communist than my father, but I keep my communism in storage next to my perpetual-motion machine. I studied history, wherein I discovered that humanity has not changed at all in the last 20,000 years, despite the historical chauvinism that visits every new generation. I have also worked in academia for almost two decades now, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see the dark side of the ivory towers.

My parents taught me to be financially responsible and to respect others. Why those qualities should be expected of an individual but not of the governments constituted by individuals at large, I cannot say. However, it is that fundamental hypocrisy that irks me so.

It took me 30 years, but I ultimately confronted and rejected utilitarianism. Until then, I was surely as self-important and chauvinistic as anyone. I made a very conscious decision on that day in September. The ends do not justify the means. My previous worldview was destroyed utterly, and my grief is still as raw and primal as ever, but I am a better and more moral man for it—shamed and humbled though I may be.

Philosophically and morally, that decision left me with only one ideologically consistent path to follow. I would like to think that, when shown the same historical facts, any intelligent person would reach the same conclusions, but that is simply not the case. Utilitarianism is an incredibly seductive philosophy, appearing to offer the collective power to do great good—though the underlying causes of various social problems are often misunderstood—and too few will look beyond that promise to see that it can also be used to justify great evil. Indeed, regimes that I would die fighting have accomplished very great things.

I could say more, namely about the moral courage required to allow others to fail, but I think that I’ve answered the question. Different political philosophies are valid and have been proven so by their historical success, but that doesn’t make them necessarily moral. I chose objective morality for its own sake—or perhaps because the alternatives too horrified me. Everything else is mere detail.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mr. Kashalsky Doesn’t Go to Washington

We are heading into danger.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the matter of Kashalsky v. Cacace, which unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of New York’s discretionary handgun-licensing regime. There are several more right-to-carry cases in the queue, so the rank speculation is that the high court would prefer to hear one of those examples instead, since the justices have already telegraphed their intent to review further Second Amendment litigation in the near future. However, the danger inherent to avoiding Kachalsky lies in the timing. The longer these important issues go undecided, the more likely that longstanding frustration will turn into anger … and anger into defiance or even violence.

In other words, we’ve moved frighteningly closer to constitutional crisis.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Loss for Woollard

A mid-sized handgun.

Regressing to the mean, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has reversed the district-court decision in what is now Woollard v. Gallagher. Ruling for the state, the court held that while Maryland’s requirement of “good and substantial reason” for a permit to carry a handgun in public does burden the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, it is still “constitutionally permissible.” However, as Eugene Volokh notes, “a constitutional right that can be trumped in nearly all its applications, under whatever level of scrutiny, is not really a right.”

Meanwhile, we wait to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court will take up Kachalsky v. Cacace and if Illinois will petition the same for review of its loss in Moore v. Madigan.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Relative Frequencies and Magnitudes of Bolide Explosions and Impact Events

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972.

In light of the destructive bolide explosion over Chelyabinsk in Russia earlier this month, I have reviewed the recent history of meteoric events. From A.D. 1908 to 2013, there have been 11 confirmed events with potential explosive equivalencies greater than or equal to 10 kilotons of TNT. These are summarized below and suggest an observed frequency of such incidents that is somewhat higher than previous conservative predictions.

Eight of the observed explosions or impact events occurred over the greater Eurasian expanse. This continental zone includes just over 10.3 percent of the planet’s surface area. Extrapolating from these data yields an estimate of about seven such intermediate incidents per decade, which is not much lower than the number allegedly observed by military satellites. During the 105-year period bracketed by the Tunguska and Chelyabinsk explosions, there were also at least four bolides that exceeded 100kt equivalencies.

1908 Tunguska Event 15 Mt
1930 Curuçá River bolide explosion 5 Mt
1932 Arroyomolinos de León bolide 190 kt
1947 Sikhote-Alin impact 10 kt
1972 Great Daylight Fireball 80 kt
1993 Lugo bolide explosion 10 kt
1994 Marshall Islands Fireball 11 kt
2002 Eastern Mediterranean Event 20 kt
2004 Antarctic bolide explosion 12 kt
2009 Sulawesi bolide explosion 50 kt
2013 Chelyabinsk bolide explosion 500 kt
2016 South Atlantic fireball 13 kt

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972 was caused by a near-Earth asteroid that passed harmlessly through the atmosphere over North America at least 35 miles above the surface. Estimates of its potential damage vary wildly, but I have selected a number in the upper range. Given the speed and luminosity of the bolide, had it grazed the planet at a more acute angle, I expect that the results would have been spectacular and potentially devastating.

As the Chelyabinsk explosion has proven, these intermediate objects present a very real danger. They are smaller, harder to detect, and much more common than the potential doomsday asteroids we can spot now. And we still lack the infrastructure to stop either of these threats.

Updated to include the South Atlantic fireball of 2016, which exploded several hundred miles southeast of Brazil (

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Right-to-Carry Litigation in Summary

Map of the U.S. federal court system.

While the police finished murdering each other in southern California, and the President prepared “massive” proposals for the Congress, the case of Piszczatoski v. Maenza [now Drake v. Jerejian, 1/09/14] was argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. With an en banc review of the decision in Moore v. Madigan looking unlikely, a victory in Piszczatoski would deepen the circuit split created by the loss in Kachalsky v. Cacace and thus make the conflicting jurisprudence even more difficult for the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid reviewing. Here is a summary of the major right-to-carry cases for those keeping score.

Kachalsky v. Cacace New York Lost on appeal at USCA2.
Moore v. Madigan Illinois Won on appeal at USCA7.
Palmer v. D.C. D.C. Won at U.S. District Court.
Drake v. Jerejian New Jersey Lost on appeal at USCA3.
Peruta v. San Diego California Petitioned to U.S. Supreme Court.
Richards v. Prieto California Lost on rehearing at USCA9.
Woollard v. Gallagher Maryland Lost on appeal at USCA4.

There is a host of other right-to-arms cases that are working their way through the federal court system, but this is the vanguard litigation. A historical turning point is at hand, though some people can’t or won’t see the important civil-rights implications at work here. Few people need to carry guns, they argue, but then very few people needed to abort pregnancies … or to marry the spouses of their choice … or to ride at the front of the bus.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Propaganda in Review: VPC’s “Concealed Carry Killers”

Florida Concealed Weapon License

The Violence Policy Center recently pushed out its latest version of “Concealed Carry Killers,” a review of all presumably unlawful homicides between 2007 and 2012 that were allegedly perpetrated by individuals licensed to carry concealed firearms.1 I needed something to cheer me up, so I decided to evaluate this study in detail here. Fortunately, doing so didn’t take very long, since the total number of incidents was very small—which tells us something already. Following along as I deconstruct the propaganda may take a few minutes, though, so pour yourself a drink, get comfortable, and enjoy the show.

Before I parse the numbers and draw comparisons and conclusions, I should comment on the relative validity of the VPC data. With three exceptions,2 it is drawn entirely from news reports, so certain details are probably incorrect, though I have assumed their validity for this analysis. (For example, I could argue that the licensing status presented in many of the cases amounts to hearsay evidence, but I won’t.) As usual, suicides and unintentional killings are conflated with intentional homicides to produce a higher number of fatalities. I will redact the suicides in my analysis below but not the unintentional fatalities.3 Finally, that the perpetrators were licensed was germane to relatively few of the cases. Many if not most of the incidents occurred at private residences or businesses, where non-licensees could have been legally armed, while others involved obvious premeditation and were clearly not the result of the perpetrators spontaneously killing someone just because they had legally carried weapons at hand. However, this study is about the propensity of licensees to commit murder, so the fact they were licensed cannot be dismissed even on its irrelevancy to their crimes. What I will redact are the included homicides that were actually committed by non-licensees, police officers, and security professionals.

The VPC study details approximately 370 incidents that occurred between May 2007 and November 2012. These resulted in a total of 500 fatalities and led to 168 individuals being convicted on homicide charges.4 These figures suggest that licensees kill about 89 people per year unlawfully. With an estimated eight million licensees in the United States,5 that works out to an annual homicide rate of 1.11 per 100,000 licensees. I will put that rate in context a bit later, but let’s parse the numbers a little more accurately first.

To begin, we shouldn’t count the killings that were actually committed by non-licensees or by those who were licensed only pursuant to their employment (such as cops and security guards). Redacting these reduces our total number of fatalities to 453. That leaves us with 81 presumed homicides per year or an annual rate of 1.01 per 100,000 licensees.

Next, many of the cases were unresolved. While some of these may eventually result in convictions, the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty—despite the blood lust of the lynch mobs. Redacting these alone reduces the total to 427 fatalities. The annual rate then becomes 76 unlawful homicides or 0.96 per 100,000 licensees.

Lastly, a full third of the 500 fatalities were actually suicides, which have nothing to do with concealed-carry licensing. Redacting just the suicides, gives us 332 bona fide homicides. Including negligent shootings, that is 59 murders per year or 0.74 per 100,000 licensees.

Of course, if we were to remove all the suicides, the presumptively lawful killings, and the homicides committed by non-licensees, the rates would become lower still. I won’t split these hairs, because none of the numbers mean much in isolation. We need to compare them to other homicide rates to see if licensees present some unusual threat to public safety, which is what the VPC report implies that we should believe.

First, let’s establish the overall homicide rate. From 2006 to 2010, there were nearly 71,000 murders committed in the United States.6 That’s about 14,200 per year or an annual homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000 residents. In other words, all other things being equal, you are over six times more likely to be murdered by a non-licensee than by someone licensed to carry a concealed weapon.

Now, I’m going to frighten, anger, and possibly sadden you.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 794,300 police officers employed in 2010.7 In the same year, the Cato Institute reports, police officers caused 127 fatalities in association with credible excessive-force allegations.8 Ladies and gentlemen, that is a homicide rate of 15.99 per 100,000 cops. You are over 21 times more likely to be murdered by a police officer than by someone licensed to carry a concealed weapon … all other things being equal.

But all other things are not equal. In 2010, approximately 3,800 black men were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges, representing about 45 percent of the total for such arrests that year, though black men comprise only about six percent of the general population. Black men were also killed with disproportionate frequency, making up over 42 percent of murder victims that year.9 In other words, black men are killing each other at an appalling rate—well over 20 homicides per 100,000 men.10 A black man is over 35 times more likely to be murdered by another black man than anyone is to be killed by a concealed-carry licensee.

As the above examples have shown, even the VPC’s most inflammatory numbers indicate that individuals licensed to carry concealed firearms are less dangerous than the average citizen and considerably less dangerous than certain other sub-populations. Nevertheless, the report should serve as a reminder that every population has its bad actors. The concealed-carry community may be more scrupulously law-abiding than most, but it is still not immune to evil or insanity.

About 2.5 percent of Americans are currently licensed to carry firearms.

I want to conclude with a thought experiment that explores how licensed concealed carry might intersect with a mass-shooting incident and VPC-style propaganda. Below, I will present two scenarios, one essentially fantastical and one frighteningly plausible. First, the fantasy …

A man wearing a long coat and a backpack walks into a crowded shopping mall. He approaches the balcony overlooking the food court on the floor below and produces an AR-15 rifle from under his coat. Leaning over the railing, he begins to fire indiscriminately into the lunchtime crowd.

A few yards away, a concealed-carry licensee is sitting on a bench waiting for his wife and daughter to finish shopping. His first impulse is to run toward the nearby emergency exit. He was trained to avoid confrontation when he applied for his license, but he isn’t sure if his family is safe … and he immediately recognizes that a mass shooting is in progress. After scant seconds of indecision, he acts, drawing his semi-automatic pistol and firing two shots at the deranged gunman.

The shots connect, but the murderer is wearing ballistic armor under his coat. He flinches and turns his rifle toward the licensee, firing wildly. The licensee adjusts his aim. He manages to get off a third shot, striking the gunman in the head, before he himself is hit in the thigh.

The shooter collapses, unconscious. The licensee calls for help, but he is already bleeding badly. In the chaos and confusion that follows, medical and law-enforcement personnel take several minutes to arrive on scene. The licensee bleeds to death.

The would-be mass killer succumbs to his wounds several days later. Two more of his victims also die, but dozens recover from the injuries left by his small, high-velocity bullets. No one has a clear idea of what happened.

The news stories report that two shooters were killed in a gun battle at the mall, along with two innocent bystanders. One of the gunmen, the reporters note, was licensed to carry a concealed handgun. The Violence Policy Center records the incident as four homicides attributed to a licensee.

Now for the reality …

A man wearing a long coat and a backpack walks into a crowded shopping mall. He approaches the balcony overlooking the food court on the floor below and produces an AR-15 rifle from under his coat. Leaning over the railing, he begins to fire indiscriminately into the lunchtime crowd.

In a nearby store, a concealed-carry licensee is buying a pair of shoes. She hears the sudden burst of shots and thinks about the compact revolver holstered in her purse. Unsure of the situation or the gunfire’s origin, she decides to wait and avoid conflict if possible, as she was trained to do when she received her license. The manager quickly locks down the store and ushers the shoppers into the relative safety of a back office.

Outside, the deranged gunman continues shooting. His rifle malfunctions multiple times due to the cheap high-capacity magazines that he chose mainly for their wicked appearance, but he manages to reload again and again, pulling magazine after magazine from his full backpack. He hits scores of people as they attempt to hide or flee.

In the chaos and confusion that follows, medical and law-enforcement personnel take several minutes to arrive on scene. The police order the shooter to drop his rifle, but he turns it on them, firing wildly. One officer is struck in the head, dying almost instantly.

The other officers return fire, hitting the suspect multiple times. He drops his rifle and collapses. He is arrested and taken to the hospital for treatment.

The police secure the area, while paramedics attempt to evacuate the wounded. The mall is locked down for several more hours as the police interview witnesses and search for other possible suspects. They eventually make their way to the shoe store.

When contacted by the officers, the licensee informs them that she is licensed to carry concealed, as she is required to do under her state’s law. The officers ask if she is armed, and she replies affirmatively. Exercising caution, the police take the licensee into custody on suspicion that she may be an accomplice.

The licensee is later released without charges. Almost two dozen victims die that day, and dozens more eventually recover from their injuries. The shooter himself survives his wounds but is ruled incompetent to stand trial.

The news stories report that 22 shoppers and one police officer were killed when a gunman opened fire with an “assault weapon.” The reporters note that a woman licensed to carry a concealed handgun was also arrested at the scene but has yet to be charged. The Violence Policy Center records the incident as a mass shooting associated with a licensee but pending resolution.

A concealed-carry licensee may [rarely] stop a mass murder in progress, but licensees do appear to provide some deterrence. The pattern is already clearly visible. Would-be mass killers preferentially target unsecured locations where firearms are prohibited by law or policy, ensuring that they will face the least possible resistance. Of course, eliminating gun-free zones and embracing the deterrent effect of lawfully armed citizens may simply compel future murderers to modify their tactics … but that’s a discussion for another time.

  1. Violence Policy Center, “Total People Killed by Concealed Carry Killers” (2012).

  2. The VPC also includes data from various reports published by the Michigan State Police and the Minnesota and Texas departments of public safety, which are no doubt inclusive of the news data. In other words, some of the results for these three states have probably been counted more than once.

  3. Modern firearms don’t “go off” accidentally, so an unintentional shooting is almost always the result of negligence.

  4. I have extrapolated the number of convictions to include perpetrators who likely would have been convicted if they hadn’t been killed during the commission of their crimes, committed suicide, or been ruled incompetent to stand trial. However, more than one of the actual convictions appear unjust to my eyes.

  5. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Gun Control: States’ Laws and Requirements for Concealed Carry Permits Vary across the Nation (2012). Looking at the statistics another way, concealed-carry licensees comprise about 2.5 percent of the population but are allegedly responsible for only 0.4 percent of all homicides.

  6. As usual, I take most of my crime statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012).

  8. National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, 2010 Annual Report.

  9. Uniform Crime Reports.

  10. The only “epidemic of violence” in the United States is largely confined to certain minority communities. It has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with institutionalized poverty and the war on drugs.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

On High-Capacity Magazines

Law-abiding subjects of California are restricted to building low-capacity magazines.

It always pains me to point out the obvious, so I omitted mention of so-called high-capacity magazines from my recent comments on reasonable gun control. However, much of the latest gun-control discussion (including President Obama’s own disingenuous remarks) has focused on the notion of limiting magazine capacities. Therefore, I am forced to point out the obvious.

Limiting magazine capacities for firearms would be difficult both practically and constitutionally. I will deal with the constitutional side first, since that may be less obvious for those who haven’t studied the history of gun control or U.S. constitutional law. To begin, though, we must define just what exactly a high-capacity magazine is—and that is a big part of the problem in itself.

An ammunition magazine is a device for feeding cartridges into a repeating firearm.1 The capacity of that magazine will vary depending on the type and size of the gun and the size and weight of its ammunition and will generally be limited by how reliable and convenient it is in normal use. What is high capacity for one firearm may be low capacity for another. For example, magnum revolvers commonly have five- to eight-round cylinders, mid-sized semi-automatic pistols are often designed for 15-round magazines, and many small-bore rifles (such as the AR-15) are usually equipped with 20- or 30-round magazines.

In D.C. v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court established a common-use test for firearms protected by the Second Amendment. Since the guns described in the above example are all in common use for lawful purposes, their standard magazines will most likely be ruled protected as well. For what it’s worth, this fact may leave true high-capacity magazines constitutionally vulnerable.

What are “true high-capacity magazines”? These are the gimmicky and awkward products designed to separate gun owners from their money. They may hold scores and scores of cartridges, but they push the material limits of the magazines themselves and the endurance limits of the shooter, making them both unreliable and uncomfortable. In fact, the failures of such magazines appear to have foreshortened some recent mass-murder incidents—which leads off on a tangent that I will probably explore in the future.

Setting the Constitution aside, controlling high-capacity magazines is impractical, because doing so is essentially impossible. An ammunition magazine is little more than a box with a spring inside of it. Any high-school dropout could make one in his mother’s basement, and in a few more years, so-called 3D printing will enable anyone to manufacture all the necessary components save the steel springs. In other words, the technology is too simple to control without sending our civilization back to the Stone Age.

This is also why existing and proposed magazine restrictions bother me mostly for their idiocy. In California, it is currently illegal to manufacture or sell magazines with greater than 10-round capacities. While this law is effectively unenforceable and has no impact on violent crime, law-abiding citizens such as myself dutifully follow it, but I offer this detail with a caveat. I may have no personal or immediate need for high-capacity magazines, but should such need develop, I expect that they will be easy enough to come by.

Now for your bonus tactical argument! Why are high-capacity magazines actually good for lawful defense but mostly irrelevant to criminal offense? The gun-control theory goes that when a would-be mass killer stops to reload, his potential unarmed victims have an opportunity to tackle him safely, but this is the exception rather than the rule.2 When faced with imminent violence, those not properly prepared or trained to respond in kind will naturally tend to flee or hide, leaving the murderer with ample time to reload or switch weapons. On the other hand, the defensive shooter is already in the fight by definition. Her attackers will be pressing their assault and not cowering or running, so she won’t have the luxury of calmly reloading her weapon with another low-capacity magazine.

Magazine limitations are pointless and probably unconstitutional and like other unreasonable gun-control schemes hinder only law-abiding citizens and not the violent criminals they supposedly target.

  1. It’s worth noting that repeating firearms (capable of more than one shot before reloading) have been around for nearly 700 years, though they didn’t become economical to manufacture widely until the mid-19th century.

  2. The garden-variety violent criminal needs to fire only a couple shots while trying to murder a rival gang member.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

American Violence

Despite recent dramatic incidents, violent crime has been steadily declining in the United States. The reasons for this are as varied and complicated as the sources of violence. In fact, they are still hotly debated among criminologists and economists, but the fact remains that the general risk is much lower than it once was.

Furthermore, as the Baltimore example shows, the vast majority of murders are perpetrated by career criminals against other criminals. Though murderous spouses and rampaging lunatics grab headlines, they are the rare exceptions. Those citizens who can avoid the culture of criminality face even less risk of falling victim to violence.