Monthly Archives: January 2013

Debate on gun control necessary

The gun-control debate wages on, but it seems that both sides refuse to listen.
Those pushing for tighter gun controls ignore a legitimate question: Would they help? Certainly a complete ban on guns would reduce gun-related deaths, but few Americans would support such a ban and the Second Amendment prevents it.
A ban on assault weapons seems to make sense, but statistics are inconclusive. A 10-year ban, from 1994 to 2004, seemed to have little impact on the number of mass shootings. Would it have been more effective with aggressive buy-back measures or more stringent registration requirements? We don’t know.
We know that universal background checks would have prevented many mass shootings, but probably not the one in Newtown, Conn.
Advocates of stricter gun control need to answer a fundamental question, whether politically feasible gun controls would reduce mass shootings. The case for universal background checks is compelling and has popular support, but other restrictions are problematic.
Opponents of gun control also struggle. Why, exactly, do they need semi-automatic rifles with extended magazines? They don’t need them for hunting, and the case for target shooting seems trite when compared to massacres like those in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown. If a ban on assault rifles has any chance of reducing violence, why not try it?
Gun-control opponents point to one of the historical purposes of the Second Amendment, to resist tyranny. There is a disturbing overlap, however, between those who insist on access to military-style guns and those who irrationally call the president a tyrant. People who don’t understand the difference between tyranny and democracy can hardly be trusted with weapons that kill with every twitch of the finger.
Both sides of the gun-control debate should calm their rhetoric.
Even if they want to, gun-control advocates cannot prevent sane people who are not criminals from getting guns. Despite the horror of Newtown, a Democrat-controlled Senate appears incapable of renewing the assault weapons ban.
Responsible gun enthusiasts have nothing to worry about.
But opponents of gun control would do well to calm their rhetoric, too. America has a serious problem with guns, both as a tool for murder and suicide. Within the boundaries of the Second Amendment, Americans are right to consider ways to change the gun culture that makes the United States the most violent of developed nations.
Those who are overly emphatic about their claimed right to possess semi-automatic rifles make everyone else nervous. Ownership of assault-style rifles is not a constitutional right.
The issue is how Americans best protect themselves in an unusually violent society. The goal is a more civil nation, and the best way to get there is through civil debate.

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This time, no joy in gender equality

Living as I do with a remarkably talented wife and daughter, I should have applauded Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to allow more women to serve in combat roles. Instead, I was horrified.

My wife recognizes me as the head of the household. There are certain things, she tells me, that I am just better equipped to handle. Here is the complete list: rodents and garbage.

I also do the dishes, but that has less to do with my head-of-household status than my ineptitude at cooking.

Even though it did not go too well that one month in 1992, my personal suspicion is I could do a darn good job at paying bills and doing taxes. Given that my wife has a master’s degree in business and used to be a tax lawyer, however, those chores go to her. To my neighbors’ chagrin, I mow the lawn, but that’s only because when I do the laundry everything ends up pink.

At 17, my daughter is vastly more talented — and a whole lot wiser — than I was at the same age.

In large part because of the competence I see in my wife and daughter, the “glass ceiling” that inhibits women infuriates me. The fact that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes is an indictment of our society and a tragic waste of talent.

That same gender discrimination also keeps women out of politics. The 2012 elections were historic for women, yet out of 537 federal elected officials, only 100 are female.

And this, I realize, is part of the reason I did not welcome Panetta’s decision.

The most recent war America entered was in Iraq. The ideal U.S. military presence in Iraq would have been devoid not only of women, but of young men. It would instead have consisted of the folks that got us into the war, who invariably were white males over the age of 50.

Despite the unfortunate experience of the hunting partner he accidentally shot, it would have been Vice President Dick Cheney brandishing a rifle at the forefront of the invasion of Iraq. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should have been flying a bomber over Baghdad. With canes in their left hand and machine guns in their right, our esteemed senators could have led the infantry charges. When they needed to thump their chest and crow about American dominance, they could have dropped the cane and leaned on the nearest tank. Instead of grinning under a “Mission Accomplished” banner on a ship near San Diego, former President George W. Bush should have been driving a Humvee through Fallujah.

Call it chauvinism or call it respect, but I don’t believe we would have as many wars if the same percentage of women occupied the White House and Capitol Building as reside in our nation. When two-bit dictators make empty threats, I like to think many women would respond not with a burst of testosterone that leaves thousands of young Americans dead, but with wisdom and an awareness of the consequences of intemperate action.

Most of the women I know would fight to the death to protect their homeland from an aggressor, but would not have the hubris to send teenagers into combat for undefined goals. War is not always avoidable, but it always is tragic. We need leaders who can focus on the tragedy before the first shot is fired, not just after the coffins come back.

When women have an equal say in whether America goes to war, I will understand the logic of increasing their role in combat.

Thoughts of my son, in college, also increase my distress at Panetta’s decision. As a father, I of course taught him those things at which I excel. You know, rodents and garbage. More emphatically, though, I taught him what I learned from my own father: to respect women. I see my son opening the door for a woman he does not know. I see him reacting to female tears with warmth and kindness. I see him worrying more about his sister’s safety than about his own. And when I see these things, I am overwhelmed with pride.

Chivalry is dangerous, because it has contributed to the glass ceiling that is such an obstacle to women and to a society that needs their talents. When devoid of condescension, though, it brings out the best qualities in men.

I have no doubt that women are every bit as capable as men in modern combat. Thousands have proved it and many have died in the process. Forgive me, though, if I choose not to rejoice at the latest advance in gender equality.

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Brooks has good ideas, lousy tactics

U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, wants a balanced budget amendment. Many Democrats and Republicans agree with him.

Brooks also favors a reduction in foreign aid the United States pays to further strategic and humanitarian goals. Here again, many in both parties agree.

Brooks is in a distinct minority, however, if he believes either of these goals can be reached in a few days or weeks.

Most in Congress recognize there are many situations in which maintaining an annual balanced budget would be catastrophic. Had the most common versions of such an amendment been in effect as recently as 2008, the banking system would have collapsed. Wars and recessions are known justifications for exceeding a budget. Creating flexibility for Congress to exceed spending limits when necessary without undermining the amendment’s purpose is problematic.

None of this is to say Congress should not be working toward a balanced budget amendment, only that the process is complex. A simplistic amendment would not pass, and shouldn’t.

The same complexities apply to foreign aid. Cutting off foreign aid to some countries — Pakistan, for instance — might require increased military expenditures. Reducing aid to Israel would ignite political controversy. Cutting aid to other countries would result in widespread starvation.

A worthy solution requires input from many sources, domestic and foreign, and will require time-consuming compromise.

Brooks would be a valuable member of Congress if he was seeking bipartisan consensus on the details of such deficit-reducing plans. Instead, he is using the plans as wedge issues.

Brooks was the only Alabama representative to vote Wednesday against suspending the debt ceiling until after upcoming budget negotiations. He would only vote in favor of suspending or raising the debt limit, he told a national television audience, if it was coupled with a balanced budget amendment. The nation would have defaulted on its debt payments or other obligations, however, in about three weeks.

The many Social Security recipients and defense employees in north Alabama can be thankful Brooks’ proposal was rejected.

After being ridiculed nationally for voting against supplementing the flood insurance program with $9.7 billion to assist victims of superstorm Sandy, Brooks was indignant. He had proposed more than double the proposed funding, he said, and simply tied it to equal reductions in foreign aid.

The thousands of Alabamians left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 tornadoes can be thankful they did not have to wait for federal assistance until contentious and unrelated issues could make it through Congress.

If Brooks would seek consensus rather than the publicity that comes with brinkmanship, he could be a positive force for fiscal reform in Washington. He apparently believes his constituents in north Alabama enjoy his tactics. No doubt, some do.

Those who are tired of a Congress that prefers bickering to compromise, however, should ask him to become part of the solution.

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Filed under Debt ceiling, Mo Brooks

Federal debt not at panic level

The federal debt is a serious problem that requires attention, but perspective is in order.

America’s ratio of debt to gross domestic product is about 73 percent — uncomfortably high, but not out of line with other healthy nations. Canada and Germany, for example, have higher ratios. Greece is close to disaster with its debt-to-GDP ratio of 163 percent.

Debt always rises in times of recession. As anemic as the U.S. recovery has been, the deficit has fallen every year since 2009. Most of the reduction has been from tax revenue that comes with economic growth. In 2012, the deficit fell by $200 billion. Americans can expect it to fall more as revenues increase and unemployment falls.

Spending needs to come down, but our debt level should not inspire panic. America needs careful tax and spending reform, along with policies designed to promote revenue-generating economic growth.

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A winning strategy to dupe voters

Why should north Alabamians care about Alabama Power rates?

Because those rates are a symbol of how easily state politicians dupe voters.

The three members of the Public Service Commission hold statewide elected offices. Their role is to ensure Alabama Power does not abuse its state-created monopoly by overcharging ratepayers.

That role, of course, requires a healthy tension between the regulators and the regulated. The people of Alabama effectively have said Alabama Power can have its monopoly, but rigorous overview is needed to ensure rates are as low as possible.

The Mobile Press-Register — whose subscribers are within Alabama Power’s service area — on Sunday published a careful report concluding that, even though Alabama Power can produce power less expensively than its sister company, Georgia Power, it charges much higher rates for residential and commercial customers.

A simple explanation for the disparity is that Alabama Power-affiliated political action committees contribute massive amounts of money to politicians in the state.

That’s not a complete explanation, though, because it takes more than campaign money to win an election. It takes votes. If clear-eyed voters understood Alabama Power’s influence on state officials and believed that influence was inflating rates, PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Jeremy Oden — who this month rejected a formal review of the monopoly’s rate structure — would have short-lived political careers.

While Alabama Power rates have little impact on north Alabama, Cavanaugh’s response to accusations — that she was more cozy with the utility than with the consumers who voted for her — followed a common strategy.

The proposed rate review, she said, was a plot by radical environmentalists. It was part of President Barack Obama’s plan to undermine coal production. It would involve “fancy San Francisco lawyers” in the process.

She did not bother to explain how a simple rate review — part of PSC’s job and proposed by a Republican commissioner who opposes Obama policies — had any connection to these horrors, because she does not believe voters require an explanation. She is convinced she can push the hot buttons — environmentalists, Obama, lawyers — and Alabamians will reflexively support her.

Politicians throughout the state use the same strategy. The state GOP agenda released last week was little more than an anti-Obama rant. If voters despise Obama enough, state politicians figure, they won’t pay attention to bad policies that invariably help corporate contributors while hurting a struggling state.

Most Alabamians oppose Obama’s policies. That’s fine. The problem is that Cavanaugh and others have figured out they can get away with anything, as long as they bash Obama in the process.

A healthy suspicion of government is laudable. By fixating on Obama, though, voters are giving state government a free pass.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Environment, Obama

Buck up, folks: Every election has a minority

The inauguration of President Barack Obama that took place Sunday — the ceremonial event was Monday — was not greeted with many cheers in Alabama.

Only 38 percent of the state’s voters chose Obama, with 61 percent going for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In Morgan and Limestone counties, Obama snagged only 27 percent of the vote.

Some Alabamians are taking it hard. Within days of the election, they began calling for secession. They are predicting a socialist nation. Obama will take our guns, impose gay marriage, bankrupt the nation and make abortions routine.

Obama, some say, is a tyrant.

We hope the inauguration prompts some introspection.

Being in the minority is no fun, but in a democracy there always is a minority. Most Americans concluded Obama was the best candidate. Alabamians were part of the majority in the presidential elections when former President George W. Bush served two terms; now they are not. That’s how democracies work. In order for a democratic republic to function, the minority has to be able to accept it cannot call all the shots.

Also worth remembering is that Obama’s power is limited. While most Alabamians voted in the national minority on the presidential election, they voted with the majority in selecting House members. The GOP-controlled House is extremely conservative and its members oppose Obama on almost every issue. No law or budget can pass without House approval.

The importance of this fact is apparent in the debate of the day, gun control. To the horror of many Alabamians, Obama announced 23 executive actions designed to reduce mass shootings. Anyone who bothered to read them, though, realized they were anemic. Obama believes there should be more controls on guns, but he has almost no ability to implement them. Significant changes require legislation, and that requires an affirmative House vote.

Even if liberal thought is contagious and a majority of House members catch it, another branch of government has a check. Any limitation on gun access must survive a Second Amendment analysis by the U.S. Supreme Court, a governmental branch that tends to reflect Alabama views.

If none of that provides comfort, keep in mind Obama is a long way from the extreme left of his party. As a columnist in The American Conservative magazine put it last week, “Obama, in short, is not a socialist or even a social-democrat, just a good old centrist Republican.” Many liberals agree.

Obama’s most controversial ideas — from health reform to environmental regulation to foreign policy to gun control — represented mainstream Republican thought a dozen years ago.

If the celebration of America’s constitutional democracy cannot survive among those who occasionally find themselves in the minority, it is disturbingly shallow. Most Alabamians are not rejoicing over the inauguration this week, but we hope they can find time to acknowledge the wisdom of the constitution that made it possible.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Election 2012, Gun control, obama

How gullible are Alabama voters?

A brief dispute at the Alabama Public Service Commission demonstrates the manipulative tactics of Alabama politicians.

Alabama Power Co. enjoys a guaranteed rate of return of between 13 and 14.5 percent, higher than the return enjoyed by many utilities.

The formulaic rate of return, in place for three decades, is not necessarily a bad thing. It deserves regular review, however, and that is one of the functions of the PSC. The regulatory agency’s role is to maintain rates that are fair to both the utility and consumers.

After decades in which PSC’s dealings with Alabama Power have been in informal meetings closed to the public, Republican Commissioner Terry Dunn reasonably proposed the first formal review of the rate structure. He did not claim Alabama Power’s rates were too high, he merely suggested it was time to study them. A formal review would require public testimony, rather than back-room meetings.

PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh, former chair of the state Republican Party, relied heavily on tea party enthusiasm in securing a commission seat in 2010 and its presidency in 2012. She went to rallies. She spoke little about the actual functions of the PSC, instead focusing on political issues over which the PSC has no control. She alternatively bashed President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No surprise, it worked.

The tea party in Alabama is consistently opposed to Obama and federal regulatory agencies, but its members also claim to resent crony capitalism. They have been passionate about a frustration common to many voters: Companies too often convert political contributions into profit.

Alabama Power plays politics well. It has contributed more than $3 million to state political campaigns since 2003, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The rate review Dunn proposed went nowhere. Cavanaugh said it would benefit lawyers and cost jobs. A vice president for United Mineworkers entered the fray, claiming bizarrely that Dunn’s proposal was “a ploy of radical environmental groups.”

Dunn made a motion for the formal review Jan. 10. Neither Cavanaugh nor newly appointed Commissioner Jeremy Oden — a Montgomery fixture whose campaigns have received thousands from Alabama Power over the years — seconded the motion. Dunn’s sensible request died a quick death.

Dunn says he was summoned to the office of House Speaker Mike Hubbard — another recipient of Alabama Power’s political largesse — and told he was taking his job too seriously.

It’s time for Alabama voters to wake up to the fact they are being played.

Dunn’s proposal had nothing to do with Obama or environmentalists. It had to do with PSC doing its job. It had to do with how much money goes from Alabama ratepayers to the pockets of Alabama Power shareholders.

Alabama politicians believe voters are gullible. It’s time for the people to tell them otherwise.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Regulation, Tea party