Archive for December, 2014

Citi’s open door in Washington

December 18, 2014

imrs

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently complained about Citigroup’s influence on the congressional budget and legislative process.   This chart from the Washington Post shows Citi has a strong voice in the executive branch as well.  So do Goldman Sachs and other big Wall Street firms.

Vermont gives up on single-payer health plan

December 18, 2014

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin announced that he has given up on a plan to introduce a single-payer medical insurance plan—Medicare for everbody—by 2017.

medicareforall_nThe plan, known as Green Mountain Care, would have cost too much in payroll taxes and would not have generated big savings in medical and insurance costs, he said.

I don’t think the Affordable Care Act is satisfactory, and I would have liked to see Vermont prove that single-payer is a workable alternative by launching it successfully on the state level.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe single-payer, despite the success of Medicare-for-all in Canada, isn’t feasible in the USA.  But I hate to think that Obamacare is the best we Americans can do.

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Vermont bails on single-payer health care by Sarah Wheaton for Politico.

Shumlin Ends Single-Payer Push by Dave Gram for Valley News of White River Junction, Vermont

Vermont’s Giving Up on Single-Payer Health Care Over Ballooning Costs by Sarah Hurtubise for The Daily Caller.

Shummy’s Surrender: Democratic governor of Vermont goes south on single-payer by Steve Early for Portside (hat tip to Bill Harvey)  [added 12/19/14]

A happy surprise: Gov. Cuomo bans fracking

December 18, 2014

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decsion to ban hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas in New York state was made for the right reason – the Precautionary Principle.

fracking-diagramThat is, he banned fracking not because it was proven to be harmful, but that there were good reasons to think it might not be safe.

I misjudged Cuomo.  I thought he intended to approve fracking, but was postponing this unpopular decision until after the election.

With falling oil and gas prices, the economic benefits of fracking are even less than before.  The oil and gas locked underground in the Marcellus shale will not go away.  It will still be there if someday the USA is so desperate for energy that fracking is necessary.

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“This Will Have a Ripple Effect Across the Country”: State of New York Bans Fracking by Cole Stangler for In These Times.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Pakistan horrified by Taliban school attack

December 18, 2014

The Pakistan Taliban massacred nine teachers and 132 children at a school in Pakistan.

Even other terrorist organizations denounce the murders.

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Will school attacks finally change Pakistani attitudes toward the Taliban? by Shashank Joshi for The Interpreter (Australia).

Problems Pakistani Politics has to Resolve after Grisly School Attack by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.

The Justification For Torture That No One Wants to Confront

December 17, 2014

Torture did work. It provided support for the lies about Al Qaeda links to Iraq, and a war that claimed more than 100,000 lies.

Mike the Mad Biologist

oldantitortureposter

For those who have followed our reign of torture closely, in 2005, videotapes of torture sessions were destroyed. Most people assume this was done because the tapes were so horrifying, no one wanted them released. In light of last weekend’s Torturers on Parade that blanketed the Pious Sabbath Gasbag TV shows–and how unrepentant those monsters were–we might want to rethink the motivation for destroying the tapes (boldface mine):

The truth is that torture did work, but not the way its defenders claim. It worked to produce justifications for policies the establishment wanted, like the Iraq war. This is actually tacitly acknowledged in the report — or one should say, it’s buried in it. Footnote 857 of the report is about Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invasion and was interrogated by the FBI. He told them all he knew, but then the CIA…

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Russia’s economic crisis and the danger of war

December 17, 2014

Russia is in an economic crisis—the result of U.S.-led sanctions, the Saudi attack on oil prices and the underlying weakness of the Russian economy.

With the collapse of the Russian ruble, Vladimir Putin has been backed into a corner with few options—all of them bad.

World-Nuke-Graph-with-Info-082814

Click to enlarge.

My question is:  Is it a good idea to deliberately bring about a crisis in a nation with 8,000 nuclear weapons?

Only a small fraction of Russia’s nuclear arsenal would be needed to reduce American cities to rubble.   Yet the U.S. government treats Russia with less caution than it does North Korea.

I do not think that Vladimir Putin would intentionally launch a nuclear war, any more than Barack Obama would.  But I think their policies bring about a situation in which an unintentional nuclear war is highly possible.

I think President Obama is more to blame for this than President Putin.  For the United States, the stakes are geopolitical advantage.  For the Russian Federation, the stakes are the independence of the nation.

The United States command and control systems are much more lax than they were in the era of Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command.  I don’t know about the Russian Federation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if things were just as bad or even worse over there.

Nuclear war was narrowly averted several times during the Cold War through good luck and cool heads both on the US and Soviet sides.  The world can’t count on being lucky forever.

And even if the worst is averted—this time—the world will never be safe until the world’s nuclear powers disarm, starting with Russia and the USA.   The current crisis has eliminated the possibility of disarmament for at least a generation.

President Putin is a tough and ruthless statesman, but a sane one.  If he is driven from power as a result of the crisis, his replacement may not be so sane.

I do not think that President Putin would throw his nation on the mercy of the US-dominated International Monetary Fund for a financial bailout.  The history of IMF bailouts shows that they involve a loss of national independence, and public sacrifice in order to pay off international creditors.

I think it far more likely that he would throw Russia on the mercy of China.  This would throw open Russia as well as Central Asia to be hinterlands of natural resources to support China’s growing industrial power.

President Putin some years back, which he was seeking recognition of Russia as a respected great power, proposed an integrated European market stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.   That’s no longer on the table.   Now the most likely prospect is a Chinese-dominated integrated Eurasian market stretching from Beijing to Berlin.

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Russia Tries Emergency Steps for Second Day to Stem Ruble Plunge by Ksenia Galouchko, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Olga Tamas for Boomberg News.

It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy: It’s Putin by James Miller for The Interpreter.

The bleakest winter by Ed Conway for Medium.  The six downward steps in a typical currency crisis.  Russia is at step four.

Eurasian Integration vs. the Empire of Chaos by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.  (via the Unz Review)

The global rise of Putinism

December 16, 2014

What do the following leaders have in common?

  • Vladimir Putin of Russia.
  • Xi Jinping of China.
  • Narendra Modi of India.
  • Shinzo Abe of Japan.
  • Recep Tayyip Erodogan of Turkey.
  • Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Putin-ModiThey all reject the ideals of democracy and human rights as historically understood in the United States, Great Britain and France, and instead embrace authoritarianism, nationalism, state capitalism and religious and social conservatism.  For want of a better name, call the new ideology Putinism.

Other names arguably could be added to this list.  Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, like Putin and Modi, is an ethnic and religious nationalist who turns a deaf ear to advocates of universal human rights.

I wouldn’t say any of these people are movements are exactly the same as Hitler, but neither to I think it is a coincidence that Nazi symbols keep popping up in unlikely places, because the Nazis are the polar opposite of liberal and democratic values.

The Taliban, al Qaeda ISIS and other radical Salafists represent a different kind of anti-democratic backlash.  They’re not Putinists.  They hate Putin, Xi, Modi and Erdogan.  They aren’t nationalists.  Their leaders don’t care whether you’re an Arab, a Afghan, a Chechen, a Uighur, a Somali or even a European, so long as you accept their religious dogma and hate people of different religions.

I think we Americans and others should resist the temptation to take sides in quarrels among freedom’s enemies.  The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

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Welfare for big banks gets bipartisan support

December 15, 2014

Conservatives are opposed to government welfare, and liberals are opposed to big business, so you would think that one thing they would be able to agree on is opposition to government welfare for big business.

But Democrats and Republicans in Congress are just the opposite.  They just enacted a budget bill stuffed with benefits for big business, including a provision that allows big banks to gamble on  with government-insured deposits.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, in a speech recorded in the video above, told how Citicorp leveraged its influence in Congress and the executive branch to bring this about.

Letting a bank such as Citicorp put insured deposits into inherently risky speculations, such as swaps and derivatives, is the equivalent of me wanting to bet my saving Las Vegas casinos and expecting the government to compensate me for my losses.

This is not was federal deposit insurance was intended to do.   Deposit insurance was intended to cover normal banking activity in the real economy, such as home mortgages, auto insurance loans and business loans.

Federal deposit insurance never was intended to cover swaps and derivatives, which are just bets on which way the markets will go.  They are not backed by real collateral and they do not contribute to the real economy.

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On my 78th birthday

December 14, 2014

December 14, 1936Via simonandfinn.

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John Stuart Mill on knowing both sides 2

December 13, 2014

john stuart millHe who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.  His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. 

But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion … 

Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.  

He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

==John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

 

Nicholaus Wegner’s Stormscapes

December 13, 2014

Time lapse photography of storm clouds over the American Great Plains

Hat tip to kottke.org.

These are best enjoyed full screen with the sound turned up.  Awesome!

Can Democrats win back white working men?

December 12, 2014

From Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was the party of white working men, with all the good and bad things that phrase implies.

Now a majority of white Americans vote Republican and the Republicans are especially strong among blue-collar white working men with high school educations—people who in FDR’s time would have been the backbone of the Democratic Party.

which-side-are-you-onI think there is a very obvious way that the Democrats (or, for that matter, the Republicans) could win the votes of the majority of white working people, and it is the same way they could win the votes of the majority of black, brown, yellow and red working people.

It is to put the United States on the path to a full employment, high wage economy.   I admit I do not have a blueprint on how to accomplish this, but there are a number of obvious things that would be both popular and beneficial to the vast majority.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans favor (1) a higher minimum wage, (2) prosecution of financial fraud, (3) breakup of “too big to fail” banks and (4) higher taxes on millionaires and billionaires and lower taxes on middle class and working people.

Polls also show a majority of Americans are opposed to (1) NATA-style trade pacts and (2) chipping away at Social Security and Medicare.   In all these cases, the American people are wiser than the decision-makers in Washington.

I think the AFL-CIO has some good ideas.  But I don’t think the problem is lack of good ideas, or even the inability to convince the public of good ideas.

The problem is that certain financial institutions and corporations are so entrenched in the federal government, in lobbying and in the political parties’ nominating process that they have the power to block good ideas.

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Hillary Clinton Presidency Could Have the Same Problems as Obama’s by Norm Scheiber for The New Republic.

Can We Talk?  Here’s Why the White Working Class Hates Democrats by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Have Democrats Failed the White Working Class? by Thomas Edsall for the New York Times.

Our real white male problem: Why Fox News beats Bruce Springsteen and liberal moralizing every time by Jim Sleeper for Salon.

Germany on the same path as the USA

December 12, 2014
Wage and productivity growth in Germany

Wage and productivity growth in Germany

Via VoxEU

Some years back I wrote a post holding up Germany as a role model for the United States.  I said Germany’s policies showed that a nation can have a strong labor movement and a strong social safety net and yet have a growing economy and success in world markets.

I failed to recognize that Germany was and is following the same path as the United States—high profits, wage stagnation and financialization.  Germans are better off than Americans only because their starting point was higher when they started on the road to decline.

The chart shows that German productivity is increasing, just as in the United States, but German wage-earners aren’t getting the benefit of it.

Just like in the USA.

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Who’s in charge of U.S. financial policy?

December 12, 2014

goldman_sachs_obama_administration_3-14-12Via Ed Driscoll

I think this chart provides as good an explanation as any as to why the Obama administration does not prosecute individual bankers for financial fraud, does not propose breaking up the “too big to fail” institutions and protects bankers from the consequences of risky speculation.

‘Even if torture works, it cannot be tolerated’

December 11, 2014
John Kiriakou

John Kiriakou

Even if torture works, it cannot be tolerated — not in one case or a thousand or a million.  If their efficacy becomes the measure of abhorrent acts, all sorts of unspeakable crimes somehow become acceptable.  
I may have found myself on the wrong side of government on torture.  But I’m on the right side of history. …
There are things we should not do, even in the name of national security.  One of them, I now firmly believe is torture.
        ==John Kiriakou, former CIA officer.

We probably don’t know the worst about torture

December 11, 2014

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Via The Real News Network

Every time something has come out about torture by Americans, starting with the original Abu Ghraib reports, it has been worse than I thought it was, and I have felt I did not know the whole story.

guardian.senatetorturereportThat’s how I feel about the Senate torture report.  It gives official confirmation to a lot of things that have been reported, but some of the details are worse than I would have imagined.

I don’t have anything important to say about torture that I haven’t said before and I can’t imagine that making another post on my web log is going to make much difference in the total scheme of things.

I post partly out of a sense of honor.  I don’t want people in the future to be able to say that no American in this era spoke out against crimes against humanity.  I realize this is a pretentious thing to say.

I don’t believe I am a dangerous enough truth-teller to draw the wrath of the U.S. government, and reading and writing about torture will not, in themselves, change anything.  But it is better than not doing or saying anything.

We Americans must not let ourselves accept torture as the new normal.  If we do, the torturers will have won.

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The Ethics of Torture 101 by Ian Welsh.  The moral issue defined.

10 Craziest Things in the Senate Report on Torture by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Torture report highlights consequences of permanent war by Andrew Bacevich for the Boston Globe.

The American people have a right – indeed a responsibility – to know what was done in their name by Senator John McCain on the Senate floor.   I disagree with Senator McCain about a lot of things, but he knows from personal experience what torture is.

Torture and the Myth of ‘Never Again’: the Persecution of John Kiriakou by Peter Van Buren.  President Obama is doing more to deter truth-tellers than torturers.

Thoughts about the Senate torture report

December 10, 2014

Cowardice is the mother of cruelty.
        ==Essays of Montaigne

When I was younger, I liked to watch action movies about World War Two.  The heroes would fall into the hands of a Nazi officer who would say in a thick accent, “Ve have vays of making you talk.”

Years from now action movies will be made in which the villainous torturer will be an American.

CIACROP-480x270I have always understood that the United States has a history of vigilantism, lynching and lawless violence, but I never thought, until 10 or 12 years ago, that Americans were capable of the cold cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition or the Soviet and fascist dictators.

Torture is the ultimate crime against human dignity.  It is worse than the taking of human life, because it is aimed at killing the human mind and spirit while keeping the body alive.

The Founders of the United States understood this well.  That is why the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that no one can be “compelled” to testify against themselves and the Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.”

I remember conversations 10 years back with friends of mine who call themselves liberals.  What if there were an atomic bomb under Manhattan Island attached to a timing device to blow it up, and what if I had the person who knew about the bomb in custody?  Wouldn’t I torture the person?

I would rather live under some small risk, or even a great risk, than live in a country that institutionalized torture, like some European dictatorship in the 1930s.   I would be ashamed to be part of the generation of Americans that gave up the Constitution out of fear.

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Heaviest snowfall, warmest winter in 46 years

December 10, 2014
201401-201410

Temperatures colder and warmer than average

Via Washington Post

As odd as it may seem, this past September and October were the warmest on record worldwide and this past November was the second warmest on record, while, at the same time, the Northern Hemisphere has had the heaviest snowfall on record (that is, in 46 years).

Except that most of the United States is experiencing both unusually cold temperatures and unusually heavy snow fall.  Lucky us!

Meteorologists have various theories as to how this can be so, which are explained in the linked articles below.  Snowfall can happen anytime the temperature is nearly or below freezing, and it is likely to be heavier when temperatures are slightly below freezing because there is more moisture in the air than when temperatures are way below freezing.

All that’s known for sure is that overall global warming won’t make winter go away.  Some theories say that it can make winter worse.

Naturally, living in upstate New York, which historically is known for severe winters, I’d prefer this not be the case.  Mother Nature, however, is not in the habit of catering to my wishes.

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Fall snow cover in Northern Hemisphere was the most extensive on record, even with temperatures at high mark by Jason Samenow for the Washington Post.

Snowed under and frozen over: U.S. weather is off the rails, but why? by Jason Samenow for the Washington Post.

There’s growing evidence that global warming is driving crazy winters by Chris Mooney for the Washington Post.

How did Washington lose touch with reality?

December 10, 2014

When I was younger, I thought the great competitive advantage that democracy had over dictatorship was the reality check.

An absolute dictator such as Stalin did not have listen to what he does not want to hear—such as, for example, that his ally Hitler is planning to attack him.

Leaders of a democracy, so I thought, were saved from disconnect with reality by a loyal opposition forcing them to justify their actions, and by the fact of being accountable to the voters every so often for the state of affairs.

How is it, then, that the leaders of the United States have become so committed to a foreign policy that manifestly does not work?

Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov, on his ClubOrlov web log, listed all the ways in that American foreign interventions during the past 15 years have led to the opposite result from what was desired.

With his usual sarcastic wit, he said the USA has added Defeat Is Victory to George Orwell’s War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery and Ignorance Is Strength.

The elder George H.W. Bush, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, stated that the United States would use its unchallenged power to create a “new world order”.  But everywhere that the United States has intervened, the result has been death, destruction and arenas of lawless violence in which terrorism can thrive.

Albert Einstein allegedly said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Why do policy-makers in Washington keep doing the same thing and expect different results?

One minor reason is the “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” mentality.  Too many people in government fail to look beyond their own personal careers and the next term of office.

Another is the drift away from the idea that American patriotism is loyalty to the Constitution rather than loyalty to the government.

Yet another is the unquestioned assumption that cruelty and ruthlessness are inherently more realistic than obedience to law and to codes of honor.

The most important reason, I think, is that the United States of America is too rich and powerful for our own good.

Wealth and power shield you from the consequences of your actions—up to a point.  If you’re rich enough or powerful enough, you can do stupid and morally wrong things and get away with them—up to a point.

Power not only corrupts.  It makes you stupid.  But no person and no nation, no matter how rich and powerful, can escape the consequences of stupidity forever.

 

An American named Ukraine’s finance minister

December 9, 2014
Natalie Jaresko

Natalie Jaresko

Natalie Jaresko, an American citizen of Ukrainian heritage, was appointed Ukraine’s minister of finance last week, a news development I’d probably have missed except for Joseph Cannon’s Cannonfire web log.

She worked in the U.S. State Department in the 1990s on Ukrainian and economic policy.  In 2001, she started an investment fund, Horizon Capital, which invested in Ukraine with funds lent by the U.S. government.

Last week she renounced her American citizenship to join the Ukrainian government.

The Ukrainian government said the reason they appointed a foreigner is because she would be better able to clean up corruption.

Maybe so.  I’m curious to know more about what she’s been doing in Ukraine, and specifically whether her activities were part of the $5 billion that Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, said that the U.S. government spent since 1991 trying to influence Ukraine politics.

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An American Abroad by Joseph Cannon on Cannonfire.

Meet and Greet Natalia Jaresko, U.S. Government Employee, Ukraine Finance Minister by independent reporter John Helmer.

Ukraine’s Made-in-USA Finance Minister by Robert Parry for Consortium News.

Which side are they on?

December 9, 2014

The Republican Party leadership is explicitly anti-union because they recognize that unions are a key support for the Democratic Party and a key opponent of the right-wing corporate agenda.

It would seem logical to think that President Obama and the Democratic leaders would defend organized labor, one of the pillars of their party, but they don’t.

RTW_protestAs Thomas Edsall pointed out in his New York Times column, the Democratic leadership has been not only indifferent to labor’s goals, but sometimes actively hostile.

Republicans such as Scott Walker and Chris Christie have persuaded the public that low wages, job insecurity and lack of benefits are normal, and that a policeman who gets a pension enjoys an unfair privilege at the public expense.

Democratic leaders do little or nothing to counteract this.

The problem is not that Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or the other Democratic leaders are naive or weak, or that the Republicans are obstructionist (they are, but that’s not the problem).

The problem is that the goals of the Democratic leaders are different from what they say and from what their core supporters want.

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Non-compete contracts and the right to quit

December 8, 2014

dilbert1239.strip

“Non-compete” agreements were originally, at least in theory, a means by which companies protected inside information.  Now they’re being used to prevent employees from exercising their right to quit.

blog_noncompete

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Top executives and key researchers in big corporations have long been asked to sign “non-compete” agreements, forbidding them to go to work for a competing company within a certain number of years after they leave their original employer.  The idea is that they possess inside information that the competitor would pay well to know.

But now fast-food workers, dog handlers, camp counselors and workers in other mundane jobs are being required to sign “non-compete” agreements.  It is unlikely any of them know any crucial trade secrets.  The purpose of such agreements is to limit their freedom to change jobs.

The Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shop chain, for example, has a “non-compete” contract that forbids sandwich makers, for the first two years after leaving, to work in any restaurant that makes sandwiches and is within three miles of a Jimmy John’s.  Since most fast-food restaurants are located near other fast-food restaurants, this locks the ex-employee out of much or probably most of fast-food jobs.

IMG_2237High-tech workers have another problem.  If they’re prevented from working in their fields, even for only a couple of years, their skills may become obsolete.

“Non-compete” agreements discourage entrepreneurship.  I know of a number of founders of successful businesses who started out in large corporations, had an idea they couldn’t convince top management to accept, and left to pursue it on their own.  Under some of these agreements, the former employer might sue to stop them.

Another problem is that such agreements make it hard for a start-up company to hire new employees.

Employers say that the cost of training employees is so high it is necessary to lock them into their jobs to prevent them from taking their training elsewhere.  But this is to overlook another way of winning employee loyalty:  Just treat employees decently and respectfully.

There’s some question as to just how enforceable “non-compete” agreements are, especially for low-level employees who don’t know trade secrets.  But in the absence of definite rulings, the employees and their possible new employers are likely to treat them as if they are.

This is a good reason for fast-food workers, and all workers, to join together in unions to represent their interests, including in court.

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Amelia Earhart on the decision to act

December 7, 2014

2014-11-05-earhartVia Zen Pencils.

This reminds me of the Japanese movie, My Neighbor Totoro, by the great animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Why rivers almost never run straight

December 6, 2014

‘I was scared’ is never an excuse for homicide

December 5, 2014

a

“I was afraid” is no more a justification for the taking of a human life than “I was drunk” would be.

The right of self-defense should only apply to those whose lives are in actual danger, not those reacting to an imaginary danger.

People who kill by reason of irrational panic, like people who kill in the heat of anger, should be charged with a lesser degree of homicide than those who kill in cold blood.   That’s mitigation, not an excuse.

If you are driving an automobile, there can be circumstances—say, a pedestrian jumping out right in front of you—when there there is nothing you can do to avoid a fatal accident.  But pulling the trigger of a firearm is always a choice.

No one who takes an innocent life with a firearm, whether deliberately, by accident or by mistake, should be allowed to own or handle a firearm ever again.

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