Can you imagine if all the casual sociopaths that you knew in school, the sort of lads that you’d generally give a wide berth, could buy guns with the same ease as they buy Mars bars or laptops? Imagine if all the small time psychopathic drug dealers, not the big ones, but the two-bit lads starting out in their ascent of the criminal ladder, had assault rifles in the back of their pimped Honda Civics? Can you imagine how terrifying that Ireland on a Friday night would be?
Now consider that large sections of this imaginary Irish population thought that the best way to combat this gun epidemic was to provide more guns to more people so that we could all be ready for a gunfight at the drop of a Stetson?
After yet another unfathomable gun massacre, after yet another week when one more haunted, disturbed-looking young man stared out of the front page of the papers, after another week when more wailing parents buried their innocents, how is it possible that Americans don’t act to rid their country of guns? How come having a gun in the United States is treated as an issue of a person’s “rights” rather than an issue of other people’s “health and safety”? These questions sum up why many Europeans have difficulty understanding the US.
But it’s not just Europeans, millions of Americans are in despair. What will be done? Writing this week on his blog, David Simon, the creator and the writer of the Wire, made the point that while President Obama called for flags to be at half mast to mark this “extraordinary” event, the killings were not extraordinary but in fact fairly commonplace in the US. For example, in 2008, there were 12,000 gun killings in the US. In Ireland, there were 59 in 2009, which is far too high but it is 1.2 deaths per 100,000 people as opposed to 11 per 100,000 in the USA. This means you are ten times more likely to be shot dead in the States than here.
After all the shock and trauma, America will move on and guns will not be banned, nor will they be much harder to buy. It is a truly shocking realization.
In the US it seems that along with “one man, one vote” democracy and “one man, one dollar” capitalism, we can now add “one man, one gun” as a fundamental, immovable pillar of the American way.
So if America is not going to ban guns for fear of upsetting the gun lobby and the right wing maybe it could deploy economics to reduce the incentive not so much to own a gun but to fire it.
The wonderful black American comic, Chris Rock had a great skit a few years ago about how increasing the price of bullets to $5,000 would reduce drive by killings and the like. He of course was being humorous and, as a black man from Brooklyn, he knows more than most about the prevalence of guns in the ghetto. But this idea of making certain bullets more expensive tallies with the late great Irish American politician Patrick Moynihan who, in the early 1990s, proposed a tax on bullets.
Moynihan suggested a 10,000% tax on certain types of bullets. Of course the initiative went nowhere because the vast proportion of gun-owning Americans fall into that category which tends to go together with God fearing, loyal, patriotic citizens.
And this is where America becomes increasingly complex for Europeans to get a handle on and vice versa.
At the moment, not two months since we thought that President Obama won the ultimate American culture war — the US election- the culture war still rages. This week it is over guns but simmering all the way through this anaemic recovery is the culture war over the economy.
Interestingly, as a general rule, those who believe in the freedom to bear arms fulminate at the huge one trillion dollar deficit that President Obama is presiding over. Meanwhile, mention the name Ben Bernanke to members of the NRA and they are likely to react violently because Bernanke has undertaken to print as much money as necessary to prevent US unemployment from rising.
To many Americans, government spending and the Fed’s aggressive easing of monetary policy through quantitative easing is a much greater threat to a person’s liberty and freedom than a deranged young man having access to an assault rifle.
For many of us Europeans this is a hard circle to square. But maybe the best way to examine it is through the prism of one of the golden rules of macroeconomics — the paradox of aggregation. The paradox of aggregation alludes to the notion that when something is good for the individual it is not necessarily good for the collective.
In the same way, what might make the individual with the gun feel good about himself or even more secure and safer, this contrasts with the situation where we all have guns as it makes us all less safe because the chances of getting shot rise exponentially. And we end up in the situation like in the US where many people buy guns in order to make themselves feel more safe and you end up in a society where you are ten times more likely of getting shot dead than a society like Ireland.
So the pursuit of personal security and freedom makes you less secure and ultimately less free.
Now think about the economy. The reason that President Obama and Bernanke are trying to expand the economy is precisely because of the same paradox of aggregation. When a society, like the US or Ireland, is trying to recover from a credit splurge, people try to save money and sell some of the stuff they bought in the boom. If I as an individual save more and try to off load a flat bought in the boom, it makes my position better as long as only I save and only I sell.
But if we all do it at the same time, what happens? If we are all saving, no one is spending and we all suffer and if we are all selling houses, the price of all houses fall and the very act of trying to get out of debt, puts us in more debt relative to the asset we bought because the price of assets is falling while the debt remains the same.
So in the process of trying to be more financially secure, we become more financially insecure.
Similarly the man who buys a gun is only made safe if no one else buys a gun. But is everyone buys a gun in order to make themselves more secure, everyone becomes more insecure and more likely to get shot.
This is why the pursuit of extreme individualism whether it is in the arena of personal security or in the area of financial security and economics can lead to everyone being worse off.
David McWilliams’ new bookÂ The Good Room is out now.