Monday, December 24, 2012

Gun Control: Illustrating the policy paralysis of the US govt.

Dec 24, 2012

Guns and poses: A barrel of deceptions

By gail collins

WELL, the Mayans were sort of right.

The world didn't implode when their calendar stopped on Dec 21. But the National Rifle Association (NRA) did call for putting guns in every American school in a press conference that had a sort of civilisation-hits-a- dead-end feel to it.

And we learnt that negotiations on averting a major economic crisis in the US had come to a screeching halt because House Speaker John Boehner lost the support of the far-right contingent of his already-pretty-damned- conservative caucus. We have seen the future, and everything involves negotiating with loony people.

Mr Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, has major sway in Congress when it comes to gun issues. So his press conference, in which he read a rambling, unyielding statement in a quavering voice, while refusing to take any questions, could not have inspired confidence that the national trauma over the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school was going to be resolved anytime soon.

Mr LaPierre immediately identified the problem that led to a young man mowing down children with a semi-automatic rifle: gun-free school zones. ("They tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem.") Then he demanded a police officer in every American school. Or maybe a scheme to recruit armed volunteers.

At around the same time he was speaking last Friday, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three people after shooting up a rural church. We will await the next grand plan for arming ministers.

The idea that having lots of guns around is the best protection against gun violence is a fairy tale the NRA tells itself when it goes to sleep at night. But an armed security officer at Columbine High School was no help. History also shows that armed civilians tend to freeze up during mass shootings - for good reason, since usually the only way a crazed gunman gets stopped is when he runs out of ammunition. So what remains is an excellent argument for banning weapons that spray lots of bullets.

However unhinged Mr LaPierre might have seemed to the casual observer, he sent a clear message to members of Congress who fear the wrath of the NRA: No compromise on banning assault weapons or any gun control issue. That made it hard to imagine any reform getting past the great, gaping maw that is the House of Representatives.

The magic of the House Republican majority was on show when the Tea Party forces blocked Mr Boehner's plan to continue the Bush tax cuts for incomes under US$1 million (S$1.2 million) a year. This was around the time the Speaker recited the prayer, much beloved by 12-step programmes, about seeking the serenity to accept things you cannot change.

Mr Boehner's Bill was mainly a political ploy, so in a way, its defeat was meaningless. Except that it would be comforting not to believe that one of the critical players in Washington was always at the mercy of the loopy-extremist wing in his caucus.

Like Kansas congressman Tim Huelskamp who, last Friday, represented the House resistance forces on MSNBC's Morning Joe, in an appearance with great Mayan overtones. First, he gradually acknowledged he was never going to vote for anything that raised taxes on anybody, even if it was understood by the entire world to be a negotiating tactic to win massive spending cuts and avert massive tax increases on 99.8 per cent of the population.

Then the discussion turned to the Connecticut shooting, and Mr Huelskamp quickly announced that the US did not have a gun problem. "It's a people problem. It's a culture problem," he insisted. Anyone who disagreed - like President Barack Obama - was, he said, using a tragedy "to push a political agenda".

In conclusion, the congressman announced that he had an 11-year-old son, "and I have a choice whether he's allowed to play those video games. What I would suggest to mums and dads across this country is look at what your children are doing... And I'm not saying to pass a single law about that, because I think that would be politicising the issue". Which we really hate. Politicising.

There are so many ways we'd rather be celebrating the holidays. We would like to be gathering around the tree with loved ones, discussing current events in the form of that story about the theft of six million pounds of syrup from the strategic maple syrup reserve in Quebec.

But we are where we are. Mr Obama bid a Merry Christmas to the nation after announcing that he would try to re-avert the feared "fiscal cliff" with a Bill that resolves virtually nothing but avoiding tax rises for the middle class. "At the very least, let's agree right now on what we already agree on," he said. This is what currently passes for a wildly optimistic statement.

Meanwhile, a congressman from Wisconsin, angry about the failure to pass a farm Bill, warned that the nation was about to fall over "the Dairy Cliff". At least there's still eggnog. God bless us every one.


ST Editorial:
Finding courage to act on guns

MOST of the civilised world would be amazed at the parsing of the gun debate in the United States, so soon after the Connecticut school massacre had pricked the nation's collective conscience. Surely, revulsion over the killing of children in their classrooms would instigate resolute action to curb easy access to firearms, even though past mass shootings barely affected gun ownership. Moreover, tighter controls, over which President Barack Obama should push harder, could reduce crimes other than murder in which firearms are often used as an aid, like robbery, rape and grievous assault.

But far from fostering a moral distaste for guns, Americans are rushing to stock them in the event of selective proscription by Congress. How the gun lobby has tried to turn the agenda around, after an initial burst of citizen and political activism for controls, shows it knows the American people will concede that the issue is more complex than it seems. Take away half the guns in private hands, pro-gun people are suggesting, and see if the rate of violent crime will fall proportionately.

The dreadful thing is that they may have a point. Disturbed people primed to go on a shooting spree will obtain what weapons they need. One statistic has it that murder by firearms in America is 20 times worse than in 22 other rich countries with a comparable crime variety. Ready availability, surely, is implicated. But the US rate for murder by means other than guns is also higher, by seven times. The case against guns is then less than clear-cut, although anti-gun advocates will counter that this is semantic relativism. It well may be. But psychologists and criminologists advise that consideration of laws on gun ownership cannot be detached from the issue of violence depicted in films and video games that desensitises people to violence. Young people interface with peers via a computer more than face to face. How this might affect the psyche over the long term is still being studied, but ill effects are feared. There is a case for personality maladjustments to be considered too in analysing American gun culture.

Rather than let the debate get tied up in knots, good sense should prevail. After Connecticut, the Norway mass murder of teenagers and periodic knife attacks on schoolchildren in China, it is amoral to let policy paralysis set in. The issue the US faces is one of political choice. Gun lovers led by the National Rifle Association have sway over federal elective choices in many rural states. America is poised on a pre- and post-Connecticut divide. Public opinion abhors the permissiveness, but it is up to elected leaders to rein it in by changing laws in the public interest.

[Gun Control in the US is highly politicised issue. However, the majority of US citizens are in favour of some form of gun control regulations, because very simply, it is the obvious thing to do. BUT, the very powerful gun lobby, fronted by the National Rifle Association (NRA), has blocked the will of the people.

Similarly, the looming "fiscal cliff" is an issue that the US govt needs to urgently address, but the issue has been politicised. Most US citizens are in favour of raising taxes on the very very rich (top 1% or 2%), but the Republicans are blocking the will of the people.

There's democracy for you.

Democracy is about expressing the will of the people. The other part of democracy is accepting the will of the people. Except in the US, where no one has to accept anything he doesn't agree with.]

Friday, December 21, 2012

Commentary: The case for Gun Control after NewTown/Sandy Hook

21 Dec 2012

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook/Newtown shooting where 20 children were shot, some several times, the US is looking at the issue of gun control again.

And again, the gun-right advocates are fighting public opinion and common sense and rallying around the 2nd Amendment. Their argument is that more guns is the answer. That if the teachers were also armed, the killer would have been stopped earlier. That the principal tried to stop the killer even though the principal was unarmed. What if she were?

The fact is that in a gun-fire scenario, it takes skill to make a proper and safe tactical assessment of the situation to decide what is the proper action. Case in point is the action of Joe Zamudio in the Tucson, Arizona shooting where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

That's what happens when you run with a firearm to a scene of bloody havoc. In the chaos and pressure of the moment, you can shoot the wrong person. Or, by drawing your weapon, you can become the wrong person—a hero mistaken for a second gunman by another would-be hero with a gun. Bang, you're dead. Or worse, bang bang bang bang bang: a firefight among several armed, confused, and innocent people in a crowd. It happens even among trained soldiers. Among civilians, the risk is that much greater.

More guns? Not the answer.

Transforming an island from nothing

Dec 21, 2012

How did Singapore build a "paradise" island from "nothing"? The key is good public administration based on a realistic understanding of human nature
By wen quan

SINGAPORE'S success is nothing short of a miracle.

From a small country with no hinterland or huge domestic market, no natural resources, and not even a natural freshwater river, it managed to enter the ranks of the world's developed countries after more than 40 years of hard work.

People of different races, religions, languages, cultures and lifestyles co-exist in harmony and progress in today's Singapore.

Even though an illegal strike by China bus drivers took place recently, the tripartite partnership of Government, employers and workers is a consultative and cooperative relationship which shares the fruits and challenges of development.

Singapore today is politically stable and peaceful. It is also dynamic, vibrant and prosperous. While other places in the world are facing debt and fiscal crises, corruption, racial hatred, terrorist attacks and extremism, this small island-state would seem to be a paradise.

How did Singapore create "something" out of "nothing" and develop into what it is today? What is the recipe for its success?

Understanding human nature

MANY people feel that the key reason is Singapore's public policies and management. But which public policy is the most important? Which policy is fundamental to the country's success?

I feel that the main reason for Singapore's successful implementation of its public policy and administration is that its leaders and government have a comprehensive, deep and objective understanding of human nature.

The policies and laws they formulate take into consideration basic features of human behaviour so that as far as possible, they prevent public policies from bowing to the weaker side of human nature, while at the same time fulfilling and reacting to its reasonable needs and desires.

For example, there is almost no free public service in Singapore, whether it is going to school, seeing a doctor or even applying for an identity card (IC). Singaporeans call it co-payment. The Government feels that services will be abused if they are free.

While many developing countries are implementing, or hoping to implement, totally free education, few people believe that in Singapore, a developed country where the gross domestic product per capita is more than US$50,000 (S$61,000), its citizens still have to pay school fees (albeit at low rates).

Fees differ for services. For example, a person who loses his IC has to pay $100 for the first replacement and wait for one month. For second or subsequent losses, the fee is $300 and the waiting period is three months.

Such policies reflect an understanding of human behaviour. Singapore's leaders understand the human tendency to seek gains and avoid risk or trouble. They put to full use this aversion to risk or inconvenience in their formulation of policies.

For example, many people call Singapore a "fine city" in jest, as "fine" can mean both "good" and "fine" (as in a financial penalty).

For example, you can be fined for eating on public transport, smoking in public places and littering on the streets. Such fines use the attitude of "risk aversion" to regulate people's behaviour.

One example in this area is the fact that Singapore still retains two very traditional punishments - caning and hanging. According to those who have experienced caning for crimes committed, the pain is beyond words, and they say they do not want to go through such pain again.

Singapore's Government and policymakers understand that it is insufficient for policies to have a deterrent value only. People also desire justice and fairness. For example, no one is above the law when it comes to law enforcement. People who break the law will be punished severely regardless of who they are.

A classic instance was in early October when an official from the National Trades Union Congress posted derogatory remarks about Malays on her Facebook page. Within hours, she was fired by her employer and the outcome was made public.

In the interest of fairness, senior government officials receive high pay, but the Government does not give them any additional allowances, housing allocation or health-care benefits.

The poor have access to various assistance and support schemes, but access requires stringent checks and is limited to prevent abuses. These policies reflect fairness and justice.

Realistic view on gambling

SINGAPORE'S policy management also reflects the Government's ability to be objective and rational, and to act with courage when dealing with human nature.

In the past, Singapore's leaders used to object to the setting up of casinos on the island, fearing they would lead to social and moral problems.

But they realised later that they should regulate gambling instead of banning it altogether. Granting casino licences on a limited scale allows not only a closer regulation of the industry, but also the education and monitoring of gambling addicts, and helps prevent the emergence of illegal casinos and related organised crime.

In any case, many countries have eased restrictions on the gaming industry, so some gamblers have the option of going to other countries to gamble.

The Singapore Government decided to open two integrated resorts (IRs) after thorough debate, and allowed these two IRs to each set aside a small area for a casino. The two casinos have brought huge economic benefits to Singapore, and allowed the Government to streamline and mobilise efforts to tackle gambling addiction.

Strict penalties are in place to deal with those who flout the rules, and the Government is in the process of formulating even tougher regulations.

The traditional moral view is that gambling is not good. But given human nature and the fondness for taking risks and trying to make a fast buck, the simple act of slapping an "illegal" label on gambling may not be the most effective way to solve the problem.

The best way is to allow such actions to be regulated by law and reduce its negative social influence as far as possible, helping the public to boycott certain forms of gambling and curbing their urge to gamble, while involving society in regulation and education efforts.

Singapore can do this as it has a comprehensive and objective understanding of the human tendency to take risks.

High pay for public officials

STRONG determination and political will is necessary to maintain such a stand and allow the spirit to permeate public policies. Not every government can do it.

Take, for example, the high pay for senior officials in Singapore. It must have been a very difficult decision to implement the system because many people will think that those in public service, especially the senior officials, should embrace the public interest and not pursue private gain.

Giving high pay to government officials gives people the impression that a job in the public service is a way to get rich.

But public service is also a type of service and the people involved are normal people like us with families, relatives and friends. They face livelihood issues, pay for their children's education, and buy their own houses and cars. In other words, they have economic needs too.

So when people engaged in other services feel justified in getting their pay, especially in senior management, then it would be unfair if government officials do not receive salaries commensurate with their responsibilities.

This may then result in officials' rent-seeking behaviour as seen in many countries, or their using various allowances and benefits to boost their pay. Talented people may also shun politics for the business sector.

In the general election held in Singapore last year, some voters grumbled that ministerial pay in Singapore was too high.

After the election, the Government made a decision to lower salaries while generally maintaining the high pay structure. Such decisions need courage.

This realistic understanding of human nature, which permeates Singapore's public policies, is the essence of its management and the definition of its success.

It comes from the Singapore Government's acknowledgement that its people are its most valuable resource. With such understanding and respect, Singapore ensures that everyone in the nation maximises his potential and does his best in whatever he is doing.

This, in turn, transforms Singapore from a small island without any natural resources into a dazzling garden city.

The world should learn from Singapore its people-oriented spirit and imbue it in every public policy whenever possible.

The writer is assistant dean of the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration, Nanyang Technological University. He was formerly head of the International Exchange Centre of China Foreign Affairs University. This commentary appeared on Xinhuanet, a website of the Xinhua News Agency, on Dec 11.