Monday, December 28, 2015

The M&P Project

My unmodified M&P9 Pro Series pistol.

The polymer-framed handgun was pioneered by Heckler & Koch in the 1970s but wasn’t popularized until Glock began manufacturing its series of pistols a little over 10 years later. By the turn of the century, they were everywhere. Military and police forces around the world adopted the new weapons readily, and they soon found a place among recreational and defensive shooters in the civilian market as well.

Today, almost every major firearms manufacturer has plastic-framed offerings. Even the first generation of such weapons had some obvious benefits. They offered high ammunition capacities at lighter weights than comparable steel or alloy-framed pistols, and Glocks in particular gained a reputation for unbeatable reliability. They were also bulky and, to some eyes, ugly.

The Glock 19 is blocky but ubiquitous.

The former problem was why I eventually dismissed my own Glock 19. The pistol’s awkward, oversized ergonomics simply didn’t suit my smaller hands. I wasn’t alone, and by the mid-1990s, pistols with modular frames began to appear in the marketplace. These guns provided a degree of built-in customization, allowing the weapon to be adapted to the user rather than demanding the opposite.

The Heckler & Koch VP9 employs a multipart modular grip.

Smith & Wesson was one of the first major manufacturers to adopt this innovation. The new Military & Police series (recalling the M&P revolvers introduced at the dawn of the 20th century) features an interchangeable backstrap insert. A shooter can select small, medium, or large inserts to modify the overall size of the grip. In short, the M&P pistols implemented the Glock-style striker-fired action and passive safety mechanisms in a more elegant, ergonomic package.

This is what had intrigued me about the M&P pistols for several years. I even handled them at gun shows to confirm their favorable ergonomics, but I could never justify the restricted-capacity, dumbed-down (and possibly less safe) versions “legally” available in my native California. Meanwhile, aftermarket solutions also began to appear for some of the platform’s known weaknesses.

When I effected my escape from California last year, the legal barrier was removed. After a few months, I finally succumbed to curiosity and purchased an M&P9 Pro Series pistol, which supposedly has an improved sear over the standard models. As usual, though, I compared the new pistol to my dimensionally similar SIG-Sauer P220, which serves as my standard all-around sidearm. With the slimmest grip options installed on both pistols, the 17-round, 9mm-NATO M&P9 felt almost identical in my hand to the eight-round, .45-ACP P220. (In fact, the grip circumference differed by only about an eighth of an inch, favoring the big-bore, single-stack pistol for trimness.) With magazines loaded, the P220 outweighed the M&P9 by less than two ounces, contributing to the similar feel. (The pistols both weighed less than 2.5 lbs.) The Pro Series’ trigger break was also comparable, only slightly stiffer than the SIG-Sauer’s advertised 4.5-lb. single-action break.

The P220 and M&P9 are dimensionally similar.

However, trigger pull and trigger reset are the primary known weak points of the M&P pistol. Its standard trigger tends to feel mushy, and its geometry pulls the sights off target too easily—at least for me. The reset is also nearly imperceptible, which can slow down followup shots or cause the shooter to short stroke the trigger. Luckily, the marketplace has already provided some solutions.

Investing a couple hundred more dollars, I installed three components from Apex Tactical Specialties: an aluminum trigger, competition springs, and their reset-assist mechanism. The Apex kit replaced the highly curved S&W hinged trigger with a flatter, Glock-style trigger (complete with pivoting safety lever), which improved the trigger geometry, in my opinion, and gave a cleaner break. The new springs also reduced the overall trigger pull weight, further enhancing control. Finally, taking ingenious advantage of the unused channel for S&W’s internal locking system, the RAM provided the pistol with a tactile and audible trigger reset.

My upgraded M&P9 Pro Series.

When the northwestern weather produced a warm, dry winter day, I finally headed to the local wet, muddy shooting range for some live-fire testing. Again, I put the M&P9 up against my trusty P220. Both guns performed well in my somewhat out-of-practice hands, shooting 2⅛-inch groups at approximately 10 yards, and that’s where the comparison ended. While the P220 may have slung the vaunted .45-caliber slugs very effectively, the S&W pistol put more than twice as many bullets down range and did so more easily.

This review, such as it is, would have been completed much earlier, but I also wanted to evaluate potential holsters for the pistol. As a mid-sized handgun, I thought that the M&P9 could prove suitable for everyday concealed carry. I tried variations of Kydex and hybrid holsters but found them lacking for my needs. In the end, I returned to traditional leather, selecting a highly canted inside-the-waistband holster that kept the pistol easily accessible but conveniently out of my way.

My M&P9 in a Garrity IWB holster paired with a Nightingale magazine pouch.
Now that I’m involved in the business of selling firearms with Dancing Giant Sales, I will be even more curious to see how the Smith & Wesson compares to other competing offerings from the latest generation of polymer-framed pistols, but the M&P series has demonstrated that the technology itself has improved from its rough beginnings. While not perfect out of the box, the M&P is meeting demands for a flexible, ergonomic pistol in effective calibers. These requirements will persist well into the future, if the defensive handgun continues to take its rightful place in civil society.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

November 13th

The flag of France.

The barbarians have drenched another date in blood. Democratic theory aside, innocent people were again murdered for no discernible reason beyond provoking general warfare—and again I reject the genocidal military solution that is so emotionally tempting. That said, it’s time to face some hard truths.

There are philosophical and cultural ideologies that are never going to exist in peace with one another. I live, breathe, and procreate multiculturalism, but I have to admit that its limitations fall far short of my own broad philosophical horizons. For all the many failings and shortcomings of my people, we still occupy the moral high ground of human history under principles of individual rights, equality before the law, political self-determination, and scientific reason. Despite our modernly fashionable self-doubt, it is our culture that brought light and prosperity to the world.

The enemy of my culture is anti-humanism, whether it stems from dogmatic religion, totalitarian rulership, or mere bad public policy. I’ll be honest; these enemies are presently growing in strength at home and abroad. There will inevitably be conflict, some violent. I want my culture to continue to survive and prosper, and that means some of its enemies will have to be destroyed—but this must be an option exercised only in self-defense, only to the extent absolutely necessary, and only in keeping with our higher principles.

If we cannot survive and prosper under these moral principles … then we shouldn’t survive or prosper …

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ending Gun Violence in the United States

Cynical reasons aside, I still don’t understand why “gun violence” is worse than any other kind of violence. Nevertheless, let’s talk about reducing or even ending “gun violence” in the United States, but let’s also be honest about the means that would be used and the ends that would be achieved.

“Gun violence” has already been declining for about 20 years now, while the supply of firearms has steadily increased, but with each new highly publicized shooting, there is always an outcry for more “reasonable” or “common sense” gun controls. In fact, though, we are beyond this point. All reasonable controls have been in place for many years. Americans have already accepted violations of their Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendment rights in this pursuit.

Frankly, the only real options that remain are prohibition and confiscation. Obviously, if all firearms were removed from the country, there could be no more “gun violence” in the U.S., right? In the long run, this would mean disarming the police and military and closing the borders, but we can ignore those fantasies for this discussion.

So let’s get started!

First, we would have to repeal the Second Amendment. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and other lawful purposes, we can no longer pretend that “the people” therein were the regular military or even the militia. However, this is a big hurdle to leap.

The Democratic Party has reliably supported stringent gun controls for decades now. Democrats will probably also gain solid control of the federal government in the near future, so passing a proposed Constitutional amendment may not be that hard. Getting it ratified by 38 states would be a much more difficult proposition. Though several of the most populous states are stalwart gun-control bastions, over 40 states have enacted legislation and policies that strongly support the right to arms.

Therefore, repealing or modifying the Second Amendment would likely fail.

Second, even if repeal were successful, additional legislation would be required to actually start prohibiting guns and removing them from society. While less difficult than a Constitutional amendment, federal legislation would face many of the same problems. Pro-gun states would no doubt refuse to go along with prohibition schemes.

This secondary crisis could logically lead to the dissolution of the United States. Assuming the right political processes were followed, such an event needn’t result in civil war or even lesser violence, but a great deal of social and economic disruption would be unavoidable. Populations would be displaced, and North America would likely find itself with several new republics.

Third, assuming that the United States remained intact following federal prohibition, approximately 400 million firearms would still have to be confiscated. (There are about 300 million in circulation right now, but the number would drastically increase during the repeal and prohibition processes.) General confiscation could be eschewed, allowing for a slow attrition process to remove firearms from American society. However, firearms are durable goods, so “gun violence” would persist for centuries without active confiscation efforts.

Of course, confiscation would raise additional Constitutional problems. The Fourth Amendment would have to be repealed or ignored in order to effectively search for and seize firearms from recalcitrant owners. The Fifth Amendment would demand that those who did comply should be justly compensated for their surrendered property—and if everyone complied, this would cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. If both were ignored …

Fourth, compliance with any confiscation regime would certainly be incomplete. Historical examples have proven this even in countries without such strong right-to-arms traditions. Nevertheless, even if only a third of American gun owners were actively non-compliant, that would represent over 100 million firearms remaining at large … in the hands of people highly motivated to resist and confound enforcement efforts.

The results would be bloody. With the Second Amendment gone, the Fourth Amendment suspended, and the Fifth Amendment ignored, the previously law-abiding resisters would face death or imprisonment for their non-compliance. With this final violation of their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment, why wouldn’t they turn to violence? Why shouldn’t they?

The resistance and bloodshed might last generations—decades more of intensified “gun violence,” moved from its former home in the criminal underground into the front yards of polite society. Police would be killed on confiscation missions. Prohibitionist politicians and other political enemies of the resistance would be assassinated. The resistance fighters—now branded domestic terrorists—would themselves be killed or captured. They might be defeated in the long run … or they might not be. Constant, low-grade domestic warfare could be maintained indefinitely. Again, firearms are durable goods capable of lasting for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, and the technology behind them is actually quite simple. How many more technological restrictions could our civilization accept or endure in the crusade to rid it of “gun violence”?

Finally, after many, many years and considerable costs in blood and treasure, we might succeed in removing all firearms from the United States. There would be no more “gun violence.” We would have addressed one of the hows of violence … but still not have touched any of the whys. Therefore, people would still become the victims of murder, rape, robbery, and other crimes of violence—just as the unarmed or disarmed always have.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

On the Tactics of Mass Murder

In a world populated by more than seven billion persons, the tiny minorities formed by the willfully evil and dangerously insane will number in the millions. Therefore, as I’ve noted before, it is not surprising in a concurrent era of global information networks that we will hear of their horrific deeds all too frequently. How we respond to such events is a measure of our own rationality—but that’s not directly what I want to discuss now.

To tell the truth, I’ve avoided this discussion for a while. However, not naming a potential danger does nothing to mitigate it. Furthermore, the evil and insane can benefit from the information revolution just as easily as the rest of us, so they will find no shortage of terminal inspiration or instruction when the time comes. In the end, our best policy prescription may simply be to not make risks of mass murder worse than they already are.

Misery loves company. This aphorism may explain as much as anything else why certain individuals choose to end their own lives while inflicting as much collateral damage as possible. Garnering the wide recognition they feel they deserve but have never received may be another motivation—which is why I refuse to name perpetrators of these atrocious crimes. In the end, though, I can’t answer the why. A very few broken human creatures stare into the abyss of grief or envy or rage and see mass murder as the best course of action toward even the pettiest of goals. Others in the vast majority of semi-rational human beings who may look into that same abyss will reject violence as unjustified no matter how noble the ends might seem—even when they lack the self-awareness to articulate doing so.

The how is what I want to discuss here. The means and methods of mass killers are so often what drives the public-policy debate … at least after the fact. That’s where the prevention efforts are usually focused. Those efforts are misguided at best.

The entertainment media have made a fetish of the personal weapon, be it a gun or a knife or some other type of sidearm. It has been transformed into a talisman of power in the popular imagination, though its actual lethal capabilities are much more modest. In fact, personal weapons are not the most effective choice for mass slaughter, but deranged individuals embrace the mythology and select them anyway, no doubt indulging in cinematic fantasies of the carnage they will cause. There are deadlier and more destructive methods to exact social vengeance, but if these means are presently used with greater frequency, then we certainly don’t hear about that fact from the politically motivated news media.

The typical American arguments for and against the right to bear arms don’t really matter in this case. Even if guns and knives were completely prohibited, the ban would always be incomplete. If all responsible adults were legally authorized to carry defensive weapons at all times and in all locations, the armed citizen would still be the exception rather than the rule. Actually, we could indulge in the fantastical extremes of these positions … and we would still fail.

All weapons more dangerous than a plastic sippy cup could magically vanish from existence, but mass killers would still arise and still carry their crimes to completion. Conversely, all responsible adults could be armed and ready to defend against any and all direct attacks, but this wouldn’t stop mass murder either. Would-be killers would simply change their tactics, and the results would probably be worse.

Personal weapons are essentially precision tools, best suited for defensive purposes against no more than a few discreet targets. A single bullet isn’t terribly lethal. A blade can be much deadlier but has a more limited threat radius. By choosing a personal weapon for his crimes, a would-be mass murderer has already limited the amount of damage he can do.

Impersonal weapons are by far the more dangerous selection. Explosives, fire, poison, these are just a few things that can be used to kill both indiscriminately and on a large scale. Deployed with insidious planning, the results of such attacks can be truly devastating—and they give the killer not bent on suicide or imprisonment much greater opportunities to escape and repeat his crimes again and again.

The will to commit atrocious acts is and has always been the greatest threat. We’ve learned that lesson over and over again throughout history, but as rational, compassionate people, we want to forget that horrific evil can and does exist in the darkest corners of the human heart. When it escapes into the world through willful intent or insane delusion, the innocent will always be its victims. With billions of human souls sharing life today, these incidents will occur with chilling regularity and frequency—and yet they are still vanishingly rare in absolute terms.

We might mitigate the risks posed by certain strains of this social violence, perhaps at great cost to liberty and prosperity, but in so doing we might only clear the way for more virulent strains to manifest themselves. The how that we can see and discuss won’t give us the solution to this problem. That answer—if there is an answer—still lies within the why. If we can find a solution, I do know that it won’t be political or tactical. It will have to be emotional or spiritual … or, dare I say it, moral.

Meanwhile, to make public policy in anguish is … and always will be … folly.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Parable of the Ditch Digger

Homme appuyé sur sa Beche (Jean-François Millet, c. 1848)

Let us consider the plight of the lowly ditch digger, the stereotypical example of the unskilled laborer. He is barely literate and so bereft of other talents that he is probably unemployable in any other vocation—or at least that’s the way many of us treat him. What is to become of such a marginal worker in our modern globalized economy?

“We must help the poor ditch digger,” says the altruist. “Society should provide him with food, housing, and medical care, so he can live in good health and security. We can’t let the wretch starve to death on the street while others live in luxury and dine upon the finest fare! Everyone must sacrifice to save this poor soul from himself.”

“No, no!” replies the interventionist. “Instead, the government should pay him to dig ditches and fill them in again. The money he spends will stimulate economic activity. No new goods or services will be produced, since we’ll only be moving resources around, but everyone will be employed.”

“I have a better idea,” offers the capitalist. “I could employ several ditch diggers on my construction projects. Their labor would add real value to my investments! I would pay them small wages, but they would enjoy honest remuneration, the dignity of productive work, and the opportunity to learn new workplace skills and advance their careers. If my investments succeed, there will be more goods and services available, and everyone will grow a little bit wealthier, including the ditch diggers.”

“You can’t pay him small wages!” the altruist says in horror. “How would he support his wife and children on such a pittance?”

“The ditch digger needs a fair wage—a living wage,” the interventionist adds. “The government should mandate minimum wages that guarantee workers won’t live in poverty.”

“Frankly,” the capitalist responds, “his labor isn’t worth more than that. If higher wages were mandated, I would be better off dismissing the ditch diggers from my employ and acquiring mechanized entrenching equipment to enhance the productivity of my more skilled workers. The ditch diggers will be out of work, my projects will be a little less profitable, and we’ll all be little bit less well off than we might have been.”

“Have you no heart?” laments the altruist. “Will you let the poor ditch digger suffer and perish for your greed?”

“I certainly do have a heart!” retorts the capitalist. “When I can, I donate to charitable organizations that support the victims of disaster and indigence. You do the same, I’m sure.”

“Well …” the altruist hesitates. “I pay my taxes.”

“Indeed!” the interventionist says. “Contribution must be mandatory in order to maintain the public welfare in an equitable manner.”

“Don’t worry,” a politician slyly interjects. “I can fix everything. I’ll write laws setting a minimum wage for all workers and providing food stamps, housing vouchers, and free health insurance for the unemployable. Of course, we’ll have to levy higher taxes or borrow money to pay for all these benefits. Grateful for the public largesse, the people will reward me with their votes, and I will win re-election!”

“You do realize what will happen?” asks the capitalist. “Costs will rise throughout the market until the buying power of the higher wages has been reduced to their real value. Meanwhile, the ditch diggers and many other unskilled workers will be driven from the workforce. Some will never return, permanently relying on public benefits for their survival. In other words, your policies will actually perpetuate poverty!”

“So much the better!” enthuses the politician. “I can legislate for higher wages and increased public benefits again and again. I’ll have those ditch diggers voting for my party for the next 200 years.”

So what will become of the benighted ditch digger? Will he be allowed to contribute his value, however meager, to the economy at large and to share in the concomitant opportunity for advancement toward prosperity? Or will he be consigned to live in unemployment and relative poverty forever—or at least until other people’s money runs out?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Single-Stack Trifecta

Compact pistols from Walther, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger.
Presently on hand at Dancing Giant Sales are three of the premier single-stack, polymer-framed, striker-fired pistols available on the market today. Slim, lightweight, and chambered for the capable 9×19mm Luger cartridge, these pistols are all intended as concealed-carry weapons for authorized civilians or as backup sidearms for police officers. Today’s trifecta includes the Ruger LC9s Pro, the Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield, and the Walther PPS.

Though they share similar design philosophies, each pistol brings some noteworthy differences to the table. First, though, let’s look at their similarities in size, weight, and capacity. Clearly, the designer’s goal in each example was to create a defensive pistol so easy to carry that it would never be left behind as an inconvenience.

The pistols are all compact and slim—slimmer even than the U.S. m1911-series and the Kahr P-series pistols. These trim slide and frame widths make the guns easier to carry concealed, since overall thickness and grip length are the two dimension that most hamper concealability. Slim grips can also help shooters with smaller hands to wield their weapons more securely and effectively.

Unloaded, each weighs under 20 oz., well under the weight of a typical full-sized handgun. As small as they are, though, these pistols probably still won’t fit in the typical pants pocket—with the possible exception of the Ruger and its optional flush-fitting magazine. That nod still goes to Kahr and the recent crop of subcompact .380-ACP pistols.

The Ruger LC9s Pro is the smallest and thinnest of the three pistols.

That said, the Ruger LC9s is the smallest and thinnest of the three. The Shield is slightly larger in all dimensions, and the Walther PPS is larger still. Which is the most comfortable arrangement would depend on the individual shooter. All three are up to the task when concealed carry is required.

And that brings us to magazine capacity. Single-stack guns aren’t known for the impressive amount of firepower they can deal out between reloads, but these pistols all deliver at least seven rounds from their standard magazines, which puts them on par with the vaunted U.S. m1911 pistol. (Modern 9mm hollow-point bullets, such as the Federal HST, are also dreadfully effective, even out of short barrels.) Larger, eight- or nine-round magazines are included or readily available. The Walther also has an extra-small six-round magazine available.

With limited magazine capacities, accuracy is all the more important, and ergonomics are central to how easy it is to shoot a pistol effectively. However, ergonomics can be personal and subjective. What is comfortable and natural for one shooter may not be for another. These three pistols all differ noticeably in their grip size and shape and their trigger geometry and actuation.

The Shield has the same lines as the larger M&P pistols.

The S&W has an oval-shaped grip with a gentle palmswell. It has some texturing, but that doesn’t seem to add much traction. The grip frame of the PPS is flatter and more rectangular. It incorporates textured finger grooves, which combined with the grip’s other rough textures do seem to aid traction. (Of the three, the PPS is also the only with interchangeable small and large backstrap inserts.) The LC9s has a narrow, waisted, almost triangular grip. Its fine checkering feels good but also appears to have dubious utility.

The Walther and Ruger both share Glock-style triggers with integrated safety levers, while the Shield utilizes a hinged trigger safety. The S&W has a relatively short pull with a somewhat stiff break. Its highly curved geometry leads the shooter to pull the sights slightly off target when using the modern technique. (Fortunately, aftermarket upgrades are available.) The PPS has a similarly short pull but a very stiff break. However, its flatter trigger shape helps the shooter keep the sights aligned while pressing the trigger home. The LC9s is entirely different. Its trigger pull feels very long, but it is also fantastically smooth and light, with a crisp, surprise break.

Despite recent price drops, the Walther PPS is a more expensive choice.

Price also differentiates these three pistols. The LC9s Pro is the least expensive at retail, selling for $30–$40 less than the Shield. However, the Ruger ships with just one magazine, which explains the otherwise favorable price difference. By contrast, the PPS is over $100 more expensive than the Shield.

Finally, let’s consider aesthetics. Looks may not be important for the utilitarian concerns of a concealed-carry piece, but they do say something about the overall care invested in a given design and about the craftsmanship that goes into its manufacture.

The Shield shares the handsome lines of its larger M&P brothers. The PPS has that angular European look, but its sloped slide lends it some elegance over more blocky designs. At a glance, the Ruger appears to be the most boring of the three, resembling any number of other subcompact pistols, but the lines of its various components all flow together in subtle, curvilinear refinement. In short, I would call none of them ugly.

Though the gun-control bastions of California and New England are unlikely to reform without a federal mandate, over 40 states allow their citizens to lawfully carry concealed firearms. As a result, more and more responsible Americans are making the decision to carry a handgun for self-defense. Walther, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and many other firearms manufacturers are meeting this growing demand, producing defensive sidearms in convenient, effective packages.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Benefit of Labor Unions

The humorous picture says it all, doesn’t it? Thanks to labor unions, we enjoy five-day workweeks, break time, overtime pay, and so forth. It sounds great on the surface … except for the little problem that it’s not really true.

While labor unions certainly did champion these things—a point I will return to shortly—it was employers who first implemented such reforms. They did so for one very simple reason: to improve productivity. Efficiency studies conducted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries AD demonstrated that a worker’s effectiveness would decline quickly after a certain length of time without ample rest periods. Why pay one worker for 16 hours of labor, when two eight-hour employees can produce significantly better results for the same price?

As an aside, vacations and other extended leave times were a touchy subject for historical reasons. In the early years of the industrialized economy, employers faced the problem of workers who would simply disappear after several weeks or a few months. This was a holdover from earlier impermanent employment traditions. Historically, agrarian laborers had to work regularly only during the planting and harvesting seasons, saving enough money to last them through the winter or other down times. This cultural mindset took a good deal of time to change in the continuous-production environment of the industrial economy, so employers were equally slow to allow latitude for time off and continued employment.

Nevertheless, the competition between corporate management and organized labor was having synergistic effects within the free market, improving working conditions, increasing profits, and generally enriching everyone. That’s when things went too far. While the labor unions hadn’t brought about the workplace reforms on their own, what they did manage to do was to get them mandated by law.

Today, this legislative achievement is commonly presented as a great benefit for working people. In fact, labor laws have simply limited workplace flexibility, often to the detriment of the worker. Younger workers—those just getting started in their careers—are particularly handicapped. Eager and full of energy that their older compatriots may lack, these workers are often willing to work harder for longer hours at lower pay rates. Doing so would allow them to increase both their income and experience much more rapidly, but labor laws prevent employers from “exploiting” their enthusiasm and productivity—making it that much harder for young people to build solid financial futures.

Similarly, union shops tend to encourage mediocrity in the name of protecting workers from arbitrary employers. The least competent workers get to retain their jobs, but the best workers see little reward for their efforts. The consumer ultimately gets a less satisfactory product or service at a higher price.

Labor unions have become an entrenched part of the political system, just like any other moneyed corporate interest group. The unions themselves can easily become focused more on expanding their own influence than on improving the lots of individual members. However, as they are co-opted and subsumed by political parties, the unions actually lose power. When a given party can take their members’ votes largely for granted, what else can organized labor accomplish?

None of these problems mean that labor unions are a bad thing. Like any corporate entity, they have strengths and weaknesses. Unions are at their best when it comes to collective bargaining, which can give employees as a whole the same short-term advantages enjoyed by an employer over an individual worker. Of course, both employers and union members can still suffer in the long term, when they misjudge market conditions.

The fundamental problem faced by both unions and corporations is their desire to use the political process and the coercive power of the state to advance their own interests. The result is stagnation and inefficiency. The corporations protect established businesses by making it more difficult for entrepreneurs to enter the marketplace. The unions protect the positions of veteran workers at the expense of fewer opportunities for those entering the workforce.

While labor unions can be an asset to the worker at the bargaining table and have had and can still have an important voice in establishing the healthiest and most productive working conditions, they certainly don’t deserve all of the credit for workplace reforms and improvements. Furthermore, the dangerous excesses of unionism also have to be recognized—just like the dangerous excesses of large corporations and other powerful commercial interests. All of these entities will be tempted to use government authority for their own selfish goals. When this happens, we all pay the price.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dancing Giant Sales

Dancing Giant Sales

When I fled California in pursuit of relative freedom, one of the factors that brought me to Washington was the Evergreen State’s more reasonable set of gun-control laws. Therefore, you can imagine my chagrin when, just a few months later, the people elected to surrender their legal rights to privacy and property and to subject themselves to “universal” background checks even more stringent than California’s own regime. Admittedly, the voters were probably duped into passing Initiative 594 through propaganda financed by Michael Bloomberg and other plutocratic prohibitionists. No surprise that one-percenters would prefer to see the 99 percent armed with nothing more than torches and pitchforks!

In any case, though I voted against it, the measure became law, and essentially all legal firearm transfers in Washington are now subject to criminal background checks and thus require the agency of a licensed dealer. Rather than just grumbling about this development, I decided to turn the situation to my financial advantage by becoming a firearms dealer myself. So shortly after the November election, I began the long process of obtaining the various necessary licenses. After all, if I can somehow profit from the law, then it will surely be defeated in court or at least be blunted by corrective legislation. Meanwhile, I can earn some economic rent while making it incrementally easier for would-be gun owners to legally acquire their firearms from the most affordable sources.

Today, after eight months, four licenses, two inspections, various background investigations, several hundred dollars in fees, and numerous fingerprints and photographs, Dancing Giant Sales is officially open for business.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)

[H]ow little anyone cares to separate wheat from chaff, when all anyone wants to do is burn a field.”

Science fiction has become so political, or at least I keep selecting works that have political implications. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is another such example. Set after a global-warming catastrophe, the novel uses that context to explain its essentially steampunk background. As a result, environmental politics play a central role in the plot, culminating in a literal battle for supremacy between the trade and environment factions in a future Thailand.

Bacigalupi weaves his plot with threads from five viewpoint characters: a rising capitalist, a fallen capitalist, the incorruptible champion of the environment faction, his somewhat less noble second-in-command, and the eponymous windup girl, the illegal, genetically engineered “new person” whose actions trigger the novel’s climactic turn of events. His tapestry is richly colored by the sights, sounds, and smells of latter-day Bangkok. Street markets, urban filth, and sweltering heat all come to vivid life—but then something will jar the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Part of this problem is technological and part political, though these aspects are obviously related. Bacigalupi uses environmentalist conceits to justify his steampunk setting, but he struggles in the attempt. The world is so far beyond peak oil—or petroleum usage is so strictly regulated—that human and animal power is commonly needed to generate electricity, and draconian carbon-dioxide limits are still enforced long after the damage has been done. Scarcely a solar panel or wind turbine is to be seen, while advanced genetic engineering is widespread.

The cast of character is well rendered in shades of gray, but the so-called capitalists and their allies are the obvious villains by default. Their behavior inevitably borders on crime or even acts of war, and that is somehow treated as normal business practice. The heavy-handed states presumably required to enforce the overbearing environmental regulations of Bacigalupi’s windup world would never tolerate such behavior unless they were sponsoring it, but the foreign corporations that threaten the Thai kingdom seem to be free agents.

Whether the author was writing from his political heart or simply playing with a fictitious fancy, there is a glimmer of rational hope in the novel’s closing acts. Hock Seng, the Chinese refugee who has seen his entire family murdered in previous pogroms, arms himself as Bangkok dissolves into civil war, learning at last that it “is possible to prepare for chaos.” Notably, though, in a story haunted by the environmental evils committed by humans upon the “natural world,” the definitive declaration that humanity is itself natural is put in the mouth of the archvillain Gibbons, a man possibly responsible for creating the worst of the genetically engineered plagues.

Almost everything is political these days, so we probably shouldn’t expect our fiction to be any different. The Windup Girl is a good example of the trend. Though Bacigalupi reaches too far with his political conceits, he does so with delightfully pungent, if awkwardly immediate prose and a good deal of baroque charm. His novel is hard not to enjoy, even if you occasionally have to put it down and shake your head.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rehearing for Peruta and Richards

Photo credit: Associated Press.

As suspected from the outset, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has voted to rehear both Peruta v. San Diego and Richards v. Prieto, which had established that California’s handgun-licensing regime was unconstitutional as applied. The earlier victory in these lawsuits came as something of a surprise but was really just the result of a lucky draw for the original three-judge panel. The full court is heavily populated by Democratic appointees, so in all likelihood, the initial ruling will be reversed by this “rare” en banc review.

Civil-rights proponents on the court may have delayed this moment for as long as possible. Many thousands of licenses have been issued for the good cause of self-defense since the original decision, including within the jurisdiction of my former home, Orange County. The jurisprudence from Peruta has also been incorporated into other important right-to-arms cases, most notably Palmer v. D.C., which overturned the capital district’s no-issue law. Nevertheless, the end result was predictable.

When Peruta is reversed and transformed into a copy of the Kachalsky (USCA2), Woollard (USCA4), and Drake (USCA3) rulings, one question will remain. Will the U.S. Supreme Court take up the case and settle the matter constructively? Thus far, the high court has declined to review all of the right-to-carry cases that have come before it, so there is little reason to believe that the same dereliction won’t be visited here.

The boundary of the present inflection point may be growing near, and I can almost see the threads of historical probability coiling just beyond its veil. I’ve said before that we can’t return to that polite middle ground where the disparate factions pretend to ignore each other’s intentions. Outside the inflection point, linear progression becomes hyperbolic change. What that will do to the American nation remains unclear.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Myth of Peak Oil

Shale drilling site in New Brunswick, Canada.

More accurately, perhaps, this post could be titled “The Myth of Steady-State Technology” or “The Myth of Zero Marginal Utility.” In short, though, the concept of peak oil is that petroleum production will reach a maximum point and then decline as global reserves are rapidly depleted, leading to a shock in the energy economy and an overall contraction in the general economy. For the alarmist, this idea can have dire implications, while the optimist may see little more than some minor inconvenience.

However, at either extreme, the idea is still seriously flawed. There is certainly a limit to the terrestrial supply of petroleum, but peak-oil alarmism often, if not almost always ignores the technological innovations that overcome various extraction problems and the economic forces that spur those innovations. Techniques such as hydraulic fracturing have made the extremely large ancient deposits easier and less expensive to access. Simply stated, as long as “fossil fuels” remain economically desirable, technological development will continue to open previously unobtainable reserves for centuries to come.

Of course, none of this is without controversy. Concerns about environmental pollution have moved to the forefront of public discourse, even as geopolitical problems have begun to retreat. Luckily, cleaner fuels and more efficient mechanisms have been steadily mitigating pollution problems for several decades now—unless, as many today do, we consider carbon dioxide to be a pollutant. In the developed world, particulates and toxic byproducts have been drastically reduced, and the air quality has noticeably improved.

Human health and prosperity have reached unparallelled heights in our petroleum-fueled modern age This situation is historically exceptional, so it’s impossible to say whether our current population is sustainable or whether any potential correction would be catastrophic and painful or gradual and painless. What we can say is that the lack of access to oil won’t be the cause of any contraction in the near future. The only barriers that we face are political, not technological or economic.