The Winningest Name: Why Some of Our Elected Officials Should Be Appointed

Money doesn’t always win elections. Just ask Jim Hogan, who finished first this week in the Texas Democratic Party’s primary election for agriculture commissioner. Hogan spent less than $5,000 on his campaign, most of which went to his filing fee. In contrast, the party-backed candidate spent $40,000 and had another $85,000 left on hand – and wound up finishing third behind Hogan and country singer, Kinky Friedman.

At first, the story seems almost quaint, especially at a time when money is flooding into political campaigns: the former dairy farmer who bested his well-known and well-funded opponents. But examining some of the likely reasons behind Hogan’s victory is troubling.

Hogan may have finished first because, well, voters liked his name.

In this post, I’ll discuss both the benefits and unintended consequences of using elections as a means of selecting administrative and regulatory offices (as opposed to legislative and executive offices, which must be selected via election in a democracy). I will argue that many voters are unaware of these types of down-ballot races and use indicators like what a candidate’s name is and where on the ballot her name appears in order to decide for whom to vote. Finally, I will propose that states consider moving to an appointive system for certain offices, similar to what the Founding Fathers established at the federal level, and then conclude by proposing some broad principles for reform.

But first, back to Jim Hogan.

THE PROBLEM

By his own admission, Hogan did not do much in the way of campaigning. He has mainly mounted his campaign by making phone calls and checking his Facebook page. Hogan does not have a campaign website where voters can read about his platform and life story; he decided he does not need a website because “All you gotta do is Google my name—’jim hogan ag commissioner’—and there’s enough on there.”[1]

That is not to say he is unqualified to run for agriculture commissioner. After all, he apparently has more than 30 years’ experience in the dairy farming industry. And he said that he has been studying the position for the past six years. The trouble is, it is very like that many voters knew nothing about Hogan when they cast their ballots for him.

The Texas agriculture commissioner is just one of many statewide positions up for election this year, including U.S. senator, governor and lieutenant governor. When a Texas voter stepped into the voting booth for the primary election this year, he or she faced several pages of candidates.

It is both unlikely and unreasonable to expect that most voters knew anything about most of these candidates.

As much as it would be ideal if voters were fully informed about all of the candidates on the ballot, the unfortunate reality is that people have limited time and resources. People have work, school, families, social lives, and any number of other commitments. When faced with a crowded ballot, they may not know where to even begin. They may not even have a clear idea of which candidates are on the ballot or where to find this information.[2]

As a result, people often prioritize the most high profile races in the election, usually president, senator, congressman, governor, or mayor, depending on the election. The media reinforces this urge by giving people the coverage they demand. Covering the governor’s race will sell papers and boost clicks. Covering the comptroller’s race? Not so much.

Candidates know this. That is why they seek to differentiate themselves in any possible way during the campaign: to stand out in the hopes that voters will remember their name when they walk into the voting booth.

Take former Texas State Rep. Wayne Christian, for example. Christian is currently running for Texas Railroad Commissioner, a position you might wrongly assume had something to do with railroads (it instead regulates the oil and gas industries in Texas). Christian calculated that it might be worthwhile to tout his pro-life credentials as part of his campaign for an office that has no authority over abortion rights in the state.

Whether that helped him or not, Christian finished first in the four-way primary election.

Still, not every candidate is able to differentiate themselves in a way that translates to name recognizability in the voting booth. Instead, they must often rely what a voter sees when he or she walks into the voting booth. That is, when a voter walks into a voting booth knowing little to nothing about the candidates in a given race, he has two choices.

He can either not vote in that race or he can find some way to decide who to vote for given the information he has at hand in the voting booth.

There are three main strategies (other than random choice) our hypothetical voter could use to decide in this situation:

  1. Decide based on party preference.
  2. Decide based on ballot position.
  3. Decide based on the candidate’s name.

The first strategy (party preference) cannot occur in a primary election because by definition all of the candidates belong to the same party. But in the general election, for instance, a Democratic voter may vote for a down-ballot Democratic candidate because they believe that candidate, as a Democrat, may share their values. The same principle applies to Republican voters.

The second strategy refers to where on the ballot a candidate’s name appears.[3] Someone’s name has to come first on the list and research suggests that candidates whose names appear first outperform their opponents. In other words, many voters vote for the first candidate they see. Indeed, the impact of this effect may be large enough to actually swing some elections one way or another.

The third strategy seems to be the one that lifted Hogan from obscurity and into the media spotlight: deciding based simply on the candidate’s name. In his race for agriculture commissioner, Hogan faced off against country singer Kinky Friedman and rancher Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III.

Friedman, like Hogan, spent little money on the race. But unlike Hogan, Friedman likely had fairly good name recognition among voters, known for his music career and his failed 2006 bid for governor as an independent. This name recognition would not necessarily translate into broad support. Some Democrats blame Friedman for playing the spoiler to their 2006 gubernatorial ambitions, while others simply do not see him as a serious candidate.

After ruling out voting for Friedman, a Texas Democrat would be faced with two candidates about whom he likely knows little to nothing. And in this scenario, it is possible that many Democrats opted for the candidate with the more folksy, homey name.

Hogan essentially predicted as much himself in an interview with the Texas Tribune from before the election:

“They either don’t vote at all — now, this is the primary — or they say ‘eenie, meenie, miney, mo,’ or they look at a name. They see Kinky Friedman and think, ‘That looks familiar. … Naw. Asa? Naw. Jim Hogan? I’ve heard of Hogan! Yeah, I think I’ll vote for him! He sounds like a nice guy!”

The name factor may also be a reason why Texas Democrats have decided to run Sam Houston for attorney general and Daniel Boone for the state senate.

Research also supports the idea that voters sometimes use name indicators to decide between candidates, including gender and ethnic cues, as well.

THE SOLUTION

Of course, the fact that some voters select candidates based on party preference, ballot position, or name indicators (and the fact that these effects may be large enough to decide elections) does not necessarily mean we should take these candidates off of the ballot. There may well be compelling reasons why these positions should remain elected. But the discussion as to whether the benefits of electing certain administrative and cabinet-level positions outweigh the unintended consequences is one worth having.

I believe that the evidence demonstrates that the benefits of electing these administrative and regulatory offices do not outweigh the very real negative consequences of the system we see in practice. The main benefit of electing these types of offices is the direct accountability it provides to the voters. If an individual is performing poorly, voters may oust him at the next election.

However, this does not often occur in practice, for reasons I’ve already examined in detail: time-strapped and resource-limited voters are often unable or unwilling to adequately research down-ballot candidates, prioritizing the ‘top of the ticket’ races instead. As a result, many of these important positions are selected on the basis of their party affiliation, ballot position, or name, rather than their experience or performance.

Before I continue, I should be clear: I am not criticizing democracy or the democratic process. I believe very strongly in both. I am simply suggesting that we, as a society, may want to consider whether to transfer the selection process for some of our public officials from election to appointment or merit selection. (I discussed, at length, some of the implications of using an election process over merit selection or appointment in a previous blog post.)

I would propose that the officials we consider this transfer for offices where the primary function is administrative or regulatory, not lawmaking or executive. Essentially, executive branch leadership (governors, lieutenant governors, and mayors) and legislators (senators, representatives, county commissioners, and city council members) should always remain elected while judges and cabinet-level positions (attorney general, agriculture commissioners, railroad commissioners, comptrollers, etc.) may be transitioned to an appointment or merit selection process.

The logic behind this is simple. Legislators and executive leaders have two crucial authorities that these administrative and regulatory officials do not have:

  • Lawmaking Authority. Legislators and executive leaders write, pass, and approve laws, while administrative and regulatory officials function within the boundaries laid out by those laws.
  • Oversight Authority. Legislators and executive leaders oversee these administrative and regulatory officials.

Legislators and executive leaders have these authorities because we defer our self-governing authority to them as our representatives. They govern in our stead, whereas administrative and regulatory officials function within the governing framework legislative and executive leaders establish.

(For judges, the logic is similar, but a bit different, since they are a completely separate branch of government; I laid out my proposal for a judicial selection system in another post, so I will not focus on that here.)

Put another way, I would argue that we elect legislators and executive leadership because doing so is a basic tenet of representative democracy; in contrast, we elect administrative and regulatory offices only as a way to choose who fills these positions. After all, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for election of these latter types of offices. If we accept, then, that the Founding Fathers established a democratic system in the Constitution, then appointment of these administrative and regulatory offices (and judges, for that matter) must be compatible with democracy.

Of course, there are a number of different ways to do an appointment or merit selection process. In general, I believe such a system should meet two basic criteria. It should be a system of:

  • Checks and Balances. Power of appointment or selection should not be concentrated in a single branch of government, but should be spread over two or three in order to provide a check against abuses.
  • Democratic Accountability. These officials should still be accountable to voter, either directly or indirectly.

The federal system that the Founding Fathers established meets both of these criteria. The president appoints members of his cabinet with Senate approval (checks and balances). Voters are able to hold these cabinet members accountable indirectly, through their elected representatives. For instance, public opinion may pressure the president to fire a cabinet member, voters may elect another president who will appoint a new cabinet, and the people’s representatives in Congress may impeach and try a cabinet member.

In this system, the executive has an incentive to appoint qualified and effective individuals to these cabinet-level positions because their performance will reflect upon the executive’s own administration.

Texas — and many other states across the nation — may seek to use this federal model, or try one of their own.

A potential state system, for instance, could mirror the federal system, but also include a ‘triggered retention election’ for direct democratic accountability. Essentially, this system would allow citizens the ability to oust these officials directly. First, citizens would have to gather enough signatures to trigger the retention election. If the number of signatures crosses a certain designated threshold, then a retention question (‘Should X retain his position as Agriculture Commissioner?’) would be added to the ballot at the next scheduled general election.

Unlike most recall election systems in which the state holds a special election to decide the question at hand, voters would decide this ‘triggered retention election’ during the general election. General elections often see larger turnout than special elections and are probably a better venue for deciding such questions.

This proposal and the federal system are only two models for how to address the issue discussed in this post. States could pursue a number of different systems characterized by both checks and balances and democratic accountability. The politics of implementing any system will likely be difficult. Voters will naturally (and rightly) be suspicious of any attempt to remove an office from the ballot. Also, many politicians use these positions as launching pads for higher offices and may not want to remove that opportunity.

Still, it is worth having the discussion as to whether or not to transition cabinet-level offices from elected to appointed positions. Doing so could help ensure a more effective government, while also maintaining a system of checks and balances and democratic accountability.

 

NOTES

[1] Searching ‘jim hogan ag commissioner’ on Google News for results from before the 2014 primary election (all news results from anytime before March 4, 2014) yields about 131 results. By the day after the election (that is, a news search range of between March 4 and 5), there were 820 new hits. Searching Google more broadly for results from before the 2014 primary election yields about 14,600 hits. By the day after the election, there were already 1,790 new hits. (Search conducted on March 9, 2014.)

[2] And while Hogan contends that there’s enough information online about him without him pulling together a website of his own, some voters may not be very skilled at tracking down legitimate sources of information online. Or they may not even realize he is running for office in the first place.

[3] States have different methods for choosing ballot order, ranging from random selection to chronological filing order.

 

FURTHER READING

Byrne, Gary & J. Kristian Pueschel. “But Who Should I Vote for For County Coroner?” The Journal of Politics.

Gaudini, Michael. “Government Officials: Elected vs. Appointed.” Diniverse Major.

Gaudini, Michael. “Justice For Sale: How Judicial Elections Are Corrupting Our Court System.” Baines Report.

Greenblatt, Alan. “How To Pick A Candidate In Texas: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe.” KUT.

Krosnick, Jon. “In the Voting Booth, Bias Starts at the Top.” New York Times.

Matson, Marsha & Terri Susan Fine. ”Gender, Ethnicity, and Ballot Information: Ballot Cues in Low-Information Elections.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly.

Satija, Neena & Jim Malewitz. ”In Crowded Primaries, Names Can Be Everything.” Texas Tribune.

Tilove, Jonathan. “Jim Hogan: Dem Ag candidate may be “some hayseed from Cleburne,” but he’s nobody’s fool.” Austin-American Statesman.

 

Social Security in Three Graphs

For years, Social Security has been known as the ‘third rail’ of American politics: any legislator that touches it risks ending his political life. President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed it this way. Workers pay into the Social Security program via payroll taxes and, in return, expect the program to provide for them when they retire or if they become disabled.

As a result, voters are usually very wary of any changes to the Social Security program. This has protected Social Security from lawmakers who might have wanted to scuttle the program, but it has also made it difficult to reform. Unfortunately, Social Security’s current budgetary trajectory is unsustainable. If lawmakers want to preserve the Social Security program, they should act now to bolster its financial health.

This blog post will examine the Social Security program in three graphs. It will briefly discuss the program’s history, describe the program’s funding structure, and then examine the program’s financial health. Finally, this post will conclude that, given that Social Security’s costs will likely rise faster than its revenue for the foreseeable future, legislators must raise revenue, pare back benefits, or employ some combination of the two in order to meet its obligations to elderly and disabled Americans.

GRAPH 1

The first graph depicts how the number of workers covered by Social Security, and therefore the number of workers paying into the program, has changed from year to year. As you can see, Social Security grew rapidly in its early years, mainly due to Congress expanding the types of workers that the program covers.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, it only covered commerce and industry workers under the age of 65. Congress and President Roosevelt marginally expanded coverage four years later by eliminating the age limit and adding covered workers’ families to the program, but it was not until the 1950s that the federal government began to expand the program in earnest. Presidents Harry S. Truman (in 1950) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (in 1954 and 1956) extended Social Security coverage to agricultural workers, the military and other uniformed services, and to certain state and local government officials (as long as the government in question opted into the program).

Also, in 1956, Eisenhower established Social Security Disability Insurance, which expanded the scope of the Social Security program to include providing benefits to disabled covered workers. Two years later, he extended these benefits to disabled workers’ dependents, as well.

You can see these large expansions clearly in this first graph. Subsequent presidents extended Social Security to other workers, such as to federal and non-profit employees, but the number of active workers paying into Social Security has, on average, grown at a slower rate since the 1950s. This is significant, as the number of workers paying into Social Security at any given time greatly affects the program’s financial viability.

To understand why, we’ll take a look at how the government funds Social Security. It does so in two main ways, through:

  • Tax revenue (roughly 88 percent of current Social Security receipts); and
  • Interest income (roughly 12 percent of current Social Security receipts).

Workers and employers pay the majority of these taxes (96 percent) through payroll taxes.[1] The remaining 4 percent of tax revenue comes from income taxes levied on retirees’ Social Security benefits. Any tax revenue that comes in above what the government needs to pay out to Social Security beneficiaries gets put into the ‘Social Security Trust Fund.’ The government uses this excess ‘Trust Fund’ revenue to buy special U.S. Treasury Bonds from itself and to accrue interest as a second source of revenue for the Social Security program. Additionally, the government can redeem these special bonds at any time, if the Social Security program needs more revenue.

For now, though, we’ll focus on tax revenues. Consider the fact that around 85 percent of Social Security’s total annual revenue comes from payroll taxes that covered workers and their employers pay. This makes Social Security’s finances sensitive to the number of covered workers in the system at any given time. More covered workers means more people paying into the system; less covered workers means fewer people paying in.

This is not necessarily a problem, as long as the money that covered workers and their employers pay into the system still covers retirees’ benefits, as it has for most of Social Security’s existence. However, consider what might happen if the number of retirees grows faster than the number of workers helping pay for their benefits. In this case, Social Security will end up taking in less money than it needs cover their costs because there will not be enough workers to support the number of retirees drawing down Social Security benefits.

The second graph, which shows year-over-year percentage change in the number of covered workers and beneficiaries, illustrates this exact scenario.

GRAPH 2

As we can see, the number of covered workers grew robustly from the 1960s through the 1980s, as the ‘baby boom’ generation started entering the workforce.[2] For much of this period, the numbers of workers and beneficiaries grew at roughly similar rates; at some points, the number of workers grew faster, at other points the number of beneficiaries did.

However, starting in the late 2000s, we see the growth rate of workers and beneficiaries diverge. The growth rate of beneficiaries rises and stays consistently higher than that of covered workers as the baby boom generation retires and the much smaller succeeding generations take their place in the workforce.

Another common way to understand this demographic shift is by thinking about the worker-to-beneficiary ratio. This measures how many covered workers there are in the Social Security system for each single beneficiary, and it can give us a rough idea of how many covered workers contribute to the costs of one beneficiary. Since the 1960s, this ratio has equaled three or four covered workers to for each individual Social Security beneficiary. Within a decade, this ratio is projected to decrease to two workers for every one beneficiary. With the growth of the retiree population outpacing that of the covered workers, Social Security’s financial health with continue to suffer.

The second graph also demonstrates the effect the economy has on Social Security’s financial health. As discussed, payroll taxes constitute the vast majority of Social Security funding. The more workers employed, the more payroll tax Social Security takes in; the higher workers’ wages, the higher Social Security’s revenue. During recessions, however, a fall in business activity can cause employers to lay off workers and withhold raises. When this happens, Social Security’s payroll tax revenue drops — although, unless Congress legislates otherwise, its payouts to beneficiaries remains constant.

The graph illustrates the relationship between Social Security receipts and the economy by showing that the number of covered workers slows or even shrinks (that is, the percentage change becomes negatives) when the economy enters a recession. At the same time, the number of beneficiaries often continues to rise (or even begins to rise at a faster rate). A slow economy and a difficult job market can push unemployed workers who may have otherwise stayed in the labor force for another few years into early retirements. When faced with slim job prospects, they retire and draw upon their Social Security benefits for income. The longer an economy remains sluggish, the stronger one would expect this effect to be.

If a worker is too young to retire, unemployment and slow economic growth can push her or him onto the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) rolls, as well. Congress created SSDI to provide assistance to disabled workers, but tough economic times (and loosened SSDI eligibility criteria) can encourage healthy workers to apply after they have exhausted their unemployment benefits and become discouraged about their prospects of finding a job. A slow economy can also encourage injured workers who otherwise might have found a job that accommodated their medical needs to join the SSDI rolls too. This further increases the number of Social Security beneficiaries and decreases the number of covered workers.

Both demographic and economic forces collided during the Great Recession. The recession began in 2007 and turned into a full-blown financial crisis in 2008. The subsequent recovery has been especially sluggish. The second graph shows a large loss of covered workers during this period. It also shows that the number of beneficiaries grew faster than at any other time since the 1970s, in part because workers retired early and applied for disability. The year 2008 did not just feature the financial crisis, it also marked the first year baby boomers could seek early retirement — and faced with a dim economic outlook, many did just that.

This situation — slower growth in tax revenues and faster growth in benefit payouts — has begun to threaten Social Security’s financial health, as we can see in the third graph.

 GRAPH 3

Since 2010, Social Security has cost the government more than it takes in through tax revenues, forcing the government to rely on both tax revenues and interest income. Although interest income has helped cover the total program cost as tax revenues have dipped below required payouts, using interest income to cover the difference can only be, at best, a short-term solution to the long-term financial sustainability of the program.

If the government continues to operate Social Security in a way that ensures tax revenues are lower than the program’s costs, its corresponding interest income (which is generated from interest on U.S. Treasury bonds — which, in turn, comes from other taxes that the government levies) will continue to dwindle. With the current revenue structure unable to support the program’s costs, the government will be forced to cover the shortfall by cashing in the U.S. Treasury bonds it holds in the Social Security Trust Fund. Eventually, if revenues do not rebound, both the Trust Fund and the interest income it generates will run out and the government will be unable to cover all of its Social Security liabilities through annual program revenues alone.

As it stands, the Social Security Trustees Report projects that without significant changes, the Social Security Trust Fund could run out by 2033.[3]

This government has faced this situation before: the last time Social Security tax revenues fell below program costs was in 1983. In response, President Ronald Reagan and the Congress shored up Social Security’s finances by increasing the payroll tax rate, increasing the retirement age, and bringing more workers into the Social Security system, among other things.

As the third graph shows, Social Security’s financial trends were heading in the wrong direction in the early 1980s. The 1983 Social Security reform boosted the program’s revenue, which allowed it to both cover its annual expenses and bulk up the Social Security Trust Fund.[3] However, the late 2000s saw the Social Security program’s revenue fall, for reasons discussed earlier (the Great Recession and demographic shifts). Revenues have already begun to recover and grow again, but so have the program’s expenses. Social Security’s costs seem likely to continually outpace its revenues going forward, as the number of beneficiaries receiving payouts grows quicker than the number of covered workers paying into the system.

Unless the government acts to restore Social Security’s financial stability (or the economic and demographic situation improve drastically), the government may be unable to fully meet its Social Security obligations in the coming decades. The Social Security Trustees Report estimates that, over the long term, Social Security’s shortfall will be about 4 percent of future taxable payrolls, or 1.4 percent of GDP. Congress and the president will have to decide whether they want to cover this shortfall by raising taxes, cutting benefits, or employing some combination of the two. They will also have to decide whether they want to act now to shore up the program or continue to let its finances deteriorate.

President Roosevelt considered Social Security the crown jewel of his New Deal agenda and he expected it to become a lasting American institution. To that end, he recognized the important role payroll taxes play in sustaining the program, both financially and politically. By requiring workers to pay part of their paycheck into Social Security in return for promised future pension benefits, Roosevelt ensured the program’s survival. Workers would now expect that, after paying into Social Security for years, they would receive their pensions when they retired.

As Roosevelt said, “with those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.” The president shrewdly designed the Social Security program in a way that blocked future politicians from ending it through the legislative process — but not, it seems, from ending the program by doing absolutely nothing at all.

 

NOTES

[1] In 2011 and 2012, the federal government attempted to stimulate the economy through, among other things, a ‘payroll tax holiday‘ that temporarily cut the payroll tax rate workers pay by 2 percentage points (from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent). In order to cover this temporary cut, Congress reimbursed the Social Security program through the general fund. After several extensions, the payroll tax holiday expired at the end of 2012.

[2] The ‘baby boom’ describes the high birth rate that the U.S. experienced in the immediate post-World War II period. Many Americans returned home from the warfront and began to start large families. The resulting rise in the U.S. birth rate can be seen in the graph below.

[3] Total bond holdings in the Social Security Trust Fund started to decrease in the 1970s and 1980s, when the program’s costs were greater than its tax revenues. The Trust Fund then rebounded after President Reagan and Congress reformed the Social Security program and raised its income in 1983. Today, Social Security faces a similar situation: Social Security’s tax revenues have fallen below its costs. Unless this situation changes, the Trust Fund may run out by 2033, as seen in the graph below.

 

FURTHER READING

2013 OASDI Trustees Report,” Social Security Administration, 2013.

Scott, Christine. “Social Security: What Would Happen If the Trust Funds Ran Out?” Congressional Research Service, 21 October 2013.

Nuschler, Dawn & Sidor, Gary. “Social Security: The Trust Fund.” Congressional Research Service, 4 June 2013.

Nuschler, Dawn. “Social Security Primer.” Congressional Research Service, 17 June 2013.

Report of the National Commission on Social Security Reform (Greenspan Commission).” Social Security Administration, January 1983.

The 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook.” Congressional Budget Office, September 2013.

Meyerson, Noah & Dacey, Sheila. “How Does Social Security Work?” Congressional Budget Office, 19 September 2013.

Meyerson, Noah & Topoleski, Julie. “Medicare and Social Security Payroll Taxes and Benefits for People in Different Birth Cohorts.” Congressional Budget Office, 20 September 2013.

Morton, William R. “Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Reform: An Overview of Proposals to Reduce the Growth in SSDI Rolls.” 29 April 2013.

Social Security Issue Briefs, U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Social Security Act of 1935.” Social Security Administration.

Kollmann, Geoffrey. ”Social Security: Summary of Major Changes in the Cash Benefits Program.” Congressional Research Service, 18 May 2000.

 

 

The Media Conspiracy That Wasn’t: How Market Forces, Not Puppeteers, Control the Media

In the waning days of his presidency, as George W. Bush held his final White House press conference, he extended a few kind words to the reporters that had covered his two terms as America’s commander-in-chief.

Through it all, it’s been — I have respected you. Sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship I have felt has been professional. And I appreciate it…

And so here at the last press conference, I’m interested in answering some of your questions. But mostly I’m interested in saying thank you for the job.

Later that day, the New York Times published an article covering the president’s last appearance before the press corps. The tone was critical, echoing the nation’s general opinion of the unpopular president, but it nevertheless remained professional and civil.

The same cannot be said of the Philadelphia Aurora‘s more vitriolic coverage of President George Washington’s farewell. Two days after Washington left office, the Aurora (a newspaper run by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache) wrote:

When a retrospect is taken of the Washington administration for eight years, it is a subject of the greatest astonishment, that a single individual should have cankered the principles of republicanism in an enlightened people, just emerged from the gulf of despotism, and should have carried his designs against the public liberty so far as to have put in jeopardy its very existence. Such, however, are the facts; and with these staring us in the face, this day ought to be a jubilee in the United States.

Many contemporary Americans may be a bit shocked at the Aurora‘s aggressive attitude. On one level, seeing the newspaper rail against President Washington for leading the nation away from liberty toward the waiting jaws of despotism is a bit disorienting given that Washington is considered one of the nation’s best presidents.

But it may also be a bit jarring for those unfamiliar with the history of journalism. After all, today’s media is often criticized as having deviated from their true role as nonpartisan protectors and communicators of fact. Conspiracy theories abound: that every major network is run by a vast, left-wing machine, or by influential right-wing corporations, depending on your personal bias.

The truth, however, is a good bit less exciting. Market forces and other non-financial incentives, not ideological puppeteers, shape how the news industry functions.

In this blog post, I will explain how news organizations choose what stories to cover and discuss why they cover those stories they way they do.

I will describe the main force that has historically impacted how journalism functions: money. I will discuss how the early American news media functioned as an arm of political parties when it was funded by political parties and distributed to niche audiences. I will explain how the news media shifted away from niche audiences and toward attracting as many readers as possible when it moved from political party funding to advertising and reader fees.

Next, I will discuss several non-financial incentives that impact how news organizations conduct themselves, including fulfilling the journalistic mission and enhancing their reputations. I will describe how the new industry’s financial incentives sometimes conflict with its non-financial incentives.

After that, I will describe how the Internet has disrupted journalism’s incentive structure and changed how news organizations choose stories and what stories they focus on. Finally, I will finish by discussing how the huge number of news options available on the Internet has pressured news organizations to focus on niche audiences (such as Democrats or Republicans), rather than trying to attract as many readers as possible.

PARTISAN PRESS

In the early years of the United States, political parties helped finance newspapers. This was especially true of the party in control of government — as holding the reigns of government allowed the party to subsidize friendly newspapers in a number of ways, such as awarding printing contracts to editors of supportive newspapers. Reflecting this revenue stream, news organizations generally supported their party and criticized the opposition.

The Aurora‘s scathing review of the Washington administration can be seen in this context. Although Bache thought of himself as an independent, not a partisan, his Aurora nevertheless ardently supported Jefferson and Madison’s nascent Democratic-Republican Party and relentlessly criticized Washington, Hamilton, and Adams’ Federalist Party.

Madison and Jefferson, for their part, arranged for the creation of the Democratic-Republican Party’s first newspaper, the National Gazette in 1791. Madison encouraged a college friend, Philip Freneau, to become the paper’s editor, and Jefferson rewarded Freneau with a job in the State Department.

PENNY PRESS

The era of partisan press continued until a new funding model began to replace newspapers’ reliance on political figures and parties, starting around 1833. That year, publisher Benjamin Day put out his first issue of The Sun in New York, the United States’ first “penny press” newspaper (so-named because these papers cost the reader a penny to buy). Whereas the partisan press was more expensive and aimed at businessmen and other affluent people, the penny press papers were more affordable and covered a wider range of stories — especially sensationalistic ones.

Numerous trends contributed to The Sun‘s success: advances in technology made printing less expensive, greater literacy rates meant more potential readers, and urbanization concentrated these potential readers in a smaller area.[1]

Significantly, the penny press also brought with it a new way to finance the news industry. The partisan press relied upon party funding, government subsidization, and subscriptions. The penny press, without party funding and with a low price, turned to advertising for funding.

From the 1830s until today, the news industry has more or less functioned under a financial model based on advertising and reader fees, with some changes in other supplemental sources. With both revenue sources, news organizations have an incentive to maximize how many readers they reach, because doing so will bring in more revenue.

The relationship between reader fees, readership numbers, and revenue is pretty straightforward: the more people paying to read a news article, the higher the organization’s revenue.

Also, the more people reading a news source, the more valuable its advertising space will be, because the high readership numbers will provide the advertiser with greater exposure. Accordingly, the more readers a news source has, the more it can charge advertisers.

The financial incentive here is fairly clear: in order to remain financially viable, a news organization must attract as many viewers as possible. This change in financial incentives paved the way for journalism’s ‘objectivity standard,’ the idea that journalists should write neutrally about their subjects. Writing objectively allowed news organizations to reach as broad an audience as possible and avoid alienating any potential readers.

It also paved the way for another longstanding journalistic tradition: sensationalism. Editors quickly discovered that publishing eye-catching stories was a good way to sell papers. This led to ‘yellow journalism,’ the exaggerated and often misleading news exemplified by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s publications.

Yellow journalism was the precursor to today’s tabloids. However, even news organizations that try to focus mainly on ‘hard news‘ (such as world events) often seek to make stories as exciting as possible in order to draw more viewers. Organizations that mostly cover hard news have also increasingly carried ‘soft news‘ (such as celebrity gossip or human interest pieces) in order to broaden their appeal and circulation.

NON-FINANCIAL INCENTIVES

Of course, financial incentives are not the only incentives a news organization faces. Most news organizations take their missions and reputations very seriously. While news organizations have many roles, their most basic mission is to inform their readers.[2] One of the most important ways they do this is through investigative journalism that incorporates months or even years of research and interviews on a certain topic into a comprehensive and in-depth news report.

Dedication to the basic journalistic mission to inform citizens encourages organizations to finance investigative journalism. Additionally, investigative journalism often garner awards for the journalists and news organizations involved, enhancing their reputations and further encouraging them to produce more investigative pieces.

However, these incentives to produce investigative pieces often run up against financial incentives to cut them. Investigative journalism is a time-consuming and expensive process — journalists can take months or years traveling to numerous locations and talking to countless sources to fully complete an investigative piece.

The high costs of investigative journalism often make it first on the chopping block when a news organization needs to cut back on its expenses. With no time for comprehensive investigation and analysis, news ends up being boiled down to the opinions of a few experts who are either readily available because the journalist already has relationships with them or who have written prominently on the subject.

While expert opinions are welcomed, they cannot be a replacement for a more comprehensive analysis that includes primary research and input from numerous other individuals involved in the story.

JOURNALISM IN THE INTERNET AGE

The arrival of the Internet has also fundamentally changed journalism, in several ways. Financially, the Internet has disrupted traditional funding streams, forcing the news industry to look for other sources of revenue.

The Internet has created countless new venues for advertising, driving down the price of advertising and, accordingly, drying up journalism’s advertising revenues. News organizations offering advertising space now also face competition from companies like Facebook, which can target ads at specific consumers, which drives down prices as well.

The news industry also injured itself early on by offering content for free online when the Internet was still young. At the time, people mainly used traditional news sources, such as print newspapers, television, and radio. Now, however, many people not only get their news online, but have gotten used to accessing it online for free. This poses a tricky problem for news organizations. People generally react poorly when they are charged for services that used to be free. And a news organization could lose readership to competitors if they begin charging while their competition remains free.

Falling revenue has had a major effect on the news industry. It has resulted in more layoffs, fewer investigative pieces, increasing reliance on fewer sources, a greater number of soft news stories, and sharper competition (which manifests itself in ways like competing to publish a story as it is happening).

News organizations have laid off much of their staff and closed foreign bureaus. With lighter staffs, organizations do less original reporting and are forced to rely more heavily on the newswires (organizations like the Associated Press which provide news to news organizations), which narrows the number of sources for a story. This means that more organizations are putting out stories based on fewer sources.

As mentioned earlier, investigative journalism is expensive — and strapped news organizations have been forced to cut back on the number of investigative pieces they fund. At the same time, soft news has given news organizations a way to buoy their circulation (though in the long run, this tactic may turn off hard news consumers).

The Internet has heightened journalism’s age-old appetite for a scoop, as well. News organizations want to be the first entity to publish a story, attracting readers and generally enhancing their reputation for being vigilant. Before the Internet, news organizations worked on tight deadlines, but also had some cushion time between an event and when the newspaper went to press.

The Internet’s ability to instantly transmit news across the world has completely changed that. Now, readers expect news updates instantaneously, which gives news organizations little time to fact check and contact expert sources. News organizations must also now compete not only with each other, but with the average social media user as well.

Yet the benefit of instantaneous news updates comes with a huge drawback as well: inaccuracy. Firsthand accounts are often flawed and lack context, which can lead to inaccurate reporting and fodder for conspiracy theorists.[3] The quick turnaround leaves little to no time for journalists to check their facts and consult with a variety of sources before publishing. This inaccurate reporting, in turn, damages news organizations’ credibility.

MOVING FORWARD: NICHE MEDIA

Finally, the Internet has helped bring down the barriers to journalism and encouraged entrepreneurs to enter the field, focus on new subjects, and try new business models.

The fact that readers now have easy access to countless different media sources from around the world has forced news organizations to re-evaluate their strategy of maximizing readership. In order to compete in the news marketplace, news organizations can no longer rest on using objectivity and their reputation to maximize their viewers. Now, they must differentiate themselves from other news organizations in the content they carry and how they deliver it.

For many news organizations, this means dominating a niche market. That is, rather than trying to capture every reader across the country, some news organizations are tailoring their news product to a specific group of people in the hopes of maximizing their readership in that group. To the extent that news organizations seem more partisan today than several decades ago, it is because some of them have shifted to serving a specific audience (say, Democrats or Republicans) rather than a more general audience (the nation as a whole).

A number of forces are responsible for this shift. Shadowy plutocrats are not among them.

NOTES

[1] The average total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers almost quadrupled in the decade after the introduction of the penny press (between 1830 and 1840).

[2] Beyond the basic journalistic mission to inform, news organizations also use the guiding principle set out by early 20th century journalist Finley Peter Dunne with the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That is, news organizations give voice to the concerns of average people who would otherwise not have access to a media platform and also act as a watchdog against unchecked power, whether in the private or public sector.

[3] The tragic Sandy Hook shooting is an example of how inaccurate initial accounts can turn into conspiracy theories. News organizations first identified shooter Adam Lanza as his brother, Ryan Lanza, before correcting their mistake. Additionally, CBS interviewed an eyewitness who saw the police lead a man out of the woods. Later, it was revealed that the man was the parent of a child at the school. Both of these have fueled conspiracy theories.

RELATED READING

The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism.” James L. Baughman. Center for Journalism Ethics (University of Wisconsin-Madison).

 ”The Press.” Peter Andrews. American Heritage Magazine.

Penny Papers Tell All: On the Early Days of the NYC Tabloid Wars.” Matt Levy. The L Magazine.

 

Government Officials: Elected vs. Appointed

A county official in Pennsylvania recently made headlines when he decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, defying a 1996 law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

D. Bruce Hanes, the county official in question, explained his actions by saying that he believed that the law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that he “decided to come down on the right side of history and the law.”

Hanes is the Register of Wills in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.[1] Although many Pennsylvanians may not recognize the position, it is one of several county offices they elect every four years in odd-year elections. Pennsylvania has a history of electing minor offices, such as coroner. The state has done so at least since its 1776 Constitution, and has continued to do so with each subsequent redrafting.

Normally, these offices and the political campaigns candidates for these offices run are fairly low profile, overtaken by county commissioner, mayoral, and city council races.[2] However, Register of Wills Hanes burst into the media spotlight in a big way when he announced he would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Daily News writer Stu Bykofsky succinctly summarized opposition to Hanes’ actions in a column he wrote criticizing the Register of Wills:

Civics 101: The people elect representative who write the laws which are enforced by the state and, if necessary, confirmed by the courts.

Of course, American democracy has never really functioned in this manner. As far back as President George Washington’s administration, the executive branch intruded upon the legislative branch by proposing new laws and pushing it’s own legislative priorities.

President Andrew Jackson even went so far as to ignore a court decision he disagreed with, supposedly responding that “[Chief Justice of the Supreme Court] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”

Today, President Barack Obama’s administration has decided to prioritize which laws it has the resources to enforce more vigorously than others.

In Pennsylvania specifically, the General Assembly officially desegregated schools and public accommodations in the late 1800s, but local governments and officials refused to implement these laws and actively circumvented them for almost a century.

Of course, none of this contradicts Bykofsky’s main point. Bykofsky is not saying his “Civics 101″ lesson of separate branches with separate powers is how government actually works in practice; rather, he is saying that this is how government works best in an ideal world. And, as a columnist for a major publication, it is his role to hold public officials accountable to the ideal.

However, I would also say that any discussion of Hanes should consider the political structure within which government exists. Bykofsky may be correct on a theoretical level that government works best when separate branches do not infringe upon each other’s authority, but ignoring the political incentive structure provides only an incomplete picture of the situation.

Hanes’ actions speak directly to the difference between elected and appointed public officials, and the very different incentive structures they face.

Elected positions are the ones people often think of when they think of government: president, governor, mayor, legislator, county commissioner, etc… These are the officials whose names show up on the ballot on Election Day.

Appointed officials are more insulated from politics than elected officials (relatively speaking, because even appointed officials are not totally insulated). In general, there are two kinds of appointed officials: political appointments and merit appointments.

Political appointments, as the name suggests, are more reactive to the politics of the official who has appointed them and holds the power to fire them. So, for instance, a governor who does not believe in regulating oil and gas companies would appoint a Secretary of Environmental Protection that would be friendlier to such companies when deciding how to enforce the law.

Most appointed governmental positions today are merit appointments, which means that employees are hired and promoted based upon their ability, rather than their political ideology. It also means that they are protected from being fired simply due to their political beliefs. This structure attempts to focus their efforts mainly on administering the law and insulate them from political concerns as much as possible.

The United States used mostly political appointments (also known as the “spoils system,” because the winning party would reward its friends with jobs) until the late 1800s.[3] Today, however, most appointed positions are merit-based.

One of the key differences to keep in mind when thinking about elected vs. appointed officials is who undertakes the hiring and firing and how. Generally, the system works like this (though there is some variation): voters elect the elected officials who appoint political appointments who hire the merit appointments.

The incentives for each of these positions are vastly different. Elected officials must court voters in order to ensure re-election, and are thus responsive to their interests. Political appointments must serve the elected officials’ interests in order to keep their positions. Merit appointments, however, because of civil service laws insulating them more from politics, have more leeway to administer the law in a way they believe is fair.

This takes us back to the Montgomery County Register of Wills. The question I pose here is not whether Hanes was right to issue same-sex marriage licenses.[4] The question is whether we can expect elected officials like Hanes to take these sorts of actions, simply due to the fact that they are elected and respond to very different incentives than other officials.

Can we expect elected officials to respond to what they believe to be unjust and unconstitutional laws in a way they think their constituents would approve?

Or, to put it another way: can we ever reasonably expect elected officials to be mere administrators? To this latter question, history certainly seems to suggest we cannot, unless the electorate wants an administrator.

If we, as a society, then, think that officials like Hanes should only administer the law, then perhaps we should consider either automating these positions (thus removing any judgement calls whatsoever) or else transitioning them to merit appointments.[5]

If we wish to keep these positions elected, then the remedy already exists: other branches and levels of government.

Bykofsky presents an image of governmental branches as confined to separate spheres. I would argue that in America, branches of government were not designed to fill completely separate spheres so much as they were designed to battle against each other for influence — and in doing so, provide a check on the other branches’ power.

In this system, it is not only up to Hanes to police himself. It is up to the county commissioners, to the judicial system, to the governor, to the General Assembly, and, ultimately, to the voters to all check Hanes if they believe he is doing something wrong.

So, if you believe Hanes erred in issuing licenses to same-sex couples when he believed that the law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, then the remedy is for another branch or level of government to push back. And that is exactly what has happened, with the Corbett Administration suing to stop Hanes.

This is not to say that all county officials will take similar actions because they are elected. Many likely will not. But we should not be surprised when elected officials act according to their incentives. Sometimes we may agree with them, other times we may not. Either way, the existing political system already provides the means for opponents to counter them.

NOTES

[1] The Register of Wills, for his part, is responsible mainly for recordkeeping and other administrative services related to wills and marriage licenses.

[2] As an aside, one of the 2011 Montgomery County Coroner candidates pointed out how many autopsies he had performed and how many death certificates he had issued as part of his campaign.

[3] President Andrew Jackson is closely associated with the history of the spoils system in the federal government. Although presidents before him had made political appointments, he did so on a much larger scale. In Pennsylvania, the commonwealth’s second governor, Thomas McKean, introduced the spoils system to his state’s government. Reformers began to pass civil service reform laws in the late 1880s to switch from the spoils system to merit appointments. In 1881, a disgruntled office-seeker assassinated President James Garfield after he was not rewarded with a patronage position. In response, Congress passed and President Chester Arthur signed a major civil service reform bill, the Pendleton Act.

[4] You might think, like Bykofsky does, that he was wrong to do so. You might think, like State Senator Daylin Leach does, that Hanes was right to do so because Hanes swore an oath to protect the Constitution and he believes the same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional.

[5] The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based local government watchdog, has already argued that these roles should be appointed rather than elected — albeit, on efficiency grounds.

RELATED READING

Bruce Castor Gets It Right.” Stu Bykosky. Philadelphia Daily News.

PA Official Legally Right to Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses.” Sen. Daylin Leach. Huffington Post.

Roadmap: Needless Jobs.” Committee of Seventy.

Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.

FURTHER READING

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

 

We Could Use A Man Like Clark Kent Again

I have spent a good bit of time laying out (in several parts, with a couple posts yet to be finished) how Superman comics are our very own American myth — how Superman and his stories often broadly reflect the American psyche at the time of writing. The Man of Steel’s stories can tell us quite a lot about our own strengths, flaws, aspirations, fears, and even a lot about our history. From his days as a New Deal Democrat to his role as a staunch defender of the status quo, Superman comics tell a distinctly American story.

And now, with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we have yet another Superman story to give us a glimpse into our own national values.

“Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner.

But let’s jump back a bit, to 1978, when the Man of Tomorrow burst back onto the scene in a big way with Richard Donner’s blockbuster film, Superman: The Movie. The movie was incredibly successful, and solidified its role as the gold standard of Superman films for decades to come. Today, Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer awards the movie a 93 percent, and describes the consensus view of the film thusly:

Superman deftly blends humor and gravitas, taking advantage of the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve to craft a loving, nostalgic tribute to an American pop culture icon.

Richard Donner succeeded in a way that none of his successors in the Superman film franchise would: Superman: The Movie combined both solid filmmaking with a story that resonated strongly with the American people. The 1970s was a very turbulent decade for Americans, with Vietnam, Watergate, the Nixon impeachment, oil shocks, an energy crisis, terrorism, and stagflation. Americans faced, in the words of President Jimmy Carter, a “crisis of confidence.”

President Ronald Reagan would seek to restore national confidence and represent the hopes of an American renewal, helping usher in a new “morning in America” in the real world. On film, however, Superman would embody the dreams of a resurgent America.

Superman: The Movie hit all the right beats. It was nostalgic, allowing Americans to reminisce fondly about ‘the good old days.’ It had a strong, confident hero who was proud of his American heritage — indeed, he literally clothed himself in the red and blue. And, while oil prices in the real world skyrocketed, the film cast as its villain a greedy speculator who was trying to game the housing market in order to make a quick buck at the expense of millions of Americans.

The film, in short, captured the American desire for renewal and told Americans that they were much stronger than they believed. And it did so with a smile.

“Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder.

Contemporary Americans have also seen their share of crisis, terrorism, and scandal. And while part of me sees the success of such Marvel films as Iron Man and The Avengers as evidence that Americans still appreciate some upbeat ‘can-do,’ I also can’t help but notice that Man of Steel has done incredibly well at the box office, despite mixed reviews.

It seems that this Superman film has resonated with people, perhaps in a way not seen since Superman: The Movie. And that, for me, raises a few discomforting questions.

This blog post won’t discuss any of the merits or flaws of the Man of Steel as a film. That’s another topic entirely. Suffice it to say that the movie did some things well and other things poorly. This post is solely about how Superman: The Movie and Man of Steel resonate with audiences and what, if anything, that says about America.

Beware, here be spoilers.

Man of Steel pays much homage to the idea that Superman embodies the hopes and dreams of a society. The famous “S” shield that the Man of Tomorrow wears on his chest, in this film, is literally the symbol representing the Kryptonian word for “hope.”

The film also makes absolutely, positively certain that you know Clark Kent is a savior figure. Beyond the natural implications of the story and script, the film also has Superman floating through space with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross and, in another scene places a stained-glass Jesus directly behind Clark as he talks to a pastor. (No one will ever accuse Zack Snyder of subtlety.)

Superman, as an American myth, embodies American values.

But throughout the film, we see this embodiment of hope — this American savior figure — partake in the complete destruction of both rural and urban America. At no point does our Superman attempt to, say, lead General Zod or his Kryptonian allies to a less populated location.

At some points, obviously, this is out of his control. The World Machine and the Kryptonian ship both stake out their locations regardless of Superman. But at other points, where the villains are wholly intent on finding and fighting Superman, he does nothing to lead them away from populated areas. Neither does he do anything to mitigate the huge loss of life and property that clearly result from these battles. To the contrary, at several points he is directly responsible for these losses.

By the end of the film, Metropolis has essentially ceased to exist. And while, yes, Metropolis takes a beating in pretty much every Superman incarnation ever, the destruction in Man of Steel is much more complete. (Though, on the other hand, this definitely makes the introduction of Lex Luthor much easier for the sequel, because I can absolutely see why he wouldn’t trust an unstoppable demigod who took part in the annihilation of an American city.)

And then the climax.

General Zod, the movie’s Kryptonian villain and resident exposition machine, says to Superman something to the effect of:

There’s only one way this ends, Kal. Either you die, or I do.

It’s an ultimatum that one might hope Superman, being Superman, would defy. This challenge is set up even earlier in the film, when lower-level villainess Faora tells Superman:

The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage.

All of this makes it that much more painful when Superman proves both of them right and snaps Zod’s neck in order to stop him. Superman kills, rather than defying the odds and finding a way to prove both Zod and Faora wrong.

“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” by Joe Kelly.

In a way, this message that, well, sometimes moral boundaries are gray when you’re keeping people safe is the exact opposite of the message found in one of the best Superman stories, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” (Action Comics #775). In that story, Superman faces a new, popular team of ‘heroes’ who take justice wholly into their own hands and execute supervillains.

In contrast to Man of Steel, the Superman of ”What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” makes sure to take his foes to a moon, in order to avoid any collateral damage. He then defeats his enemies physically, but also wins the moral victory by describing for them and the world the importance of his strong moral code.

At first, in the comic, it appears that Superman has crossed the line and murdered his foes. However, in time, it is revealed that he simply staged it that way so that the world could see just how frightening a Superman sans morality would really be. Here’s what Superman says:

It frightened me. When I decided to cross the line…do what you do…I was terrified. Thought it would be tough—but you know what? Anger is easy. Hate is easy. Vengeance and spite are easy. Lucky for you…and for me…I don’t like my heroes ugly and mean. Just don’t believe in it.

For Superman, it would be easy to kill his enemies. But what makes him Superman is that he always finds another way, even when it seems impossible.

That is because Superman is not just some superhero from the planet Krypton. He is more than that: he is our American myth, the embodiment of our values and beliefs as a society.

And that is why it is somewhat unsettling to me that this film seems to have resonated so strongly with audiences. Because Superman seems almost oblivious to the complete destruction of an American city. Because Superman — while he technically ‘saves the day’ — does so by violating the very code that defines him, by lifting himself above society and taking justice into his own hands. Because Superman failed to find another way.

If Superman: The Movie told the story of a confident, renewed America ready to face its foes on its own terms, then I have to wonder what Man of Steel says about us.

I’ll finish this post with Superman’s last line from “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”:

Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share—I’ll never stop fighting.  Ever.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer

Click here to download my primer on redistricting in Texas. Below, you will find a very brief overview of the process to date.

OVERVIEW

Minutes after the end of Texas’ regular legislative session, Gov. Rick Perry called the House and Senate back for a special session. The focus of this special session: redistricting.

Redistricting is a contentious process — and Texas is no outlier. In addition to the normal political fights and legal challenges, the Lone Star state is also one of several states that  must submit their redistricting plans to the federal government for approval under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Texas legislator passed three redistricting plans (for the Texas House, Texas Senate, and Texas’ congressional seats) in 2011. Yet, due to legal wrangling and federal disapproval, Texas’ redistricting plans have remained in limbo. The state is currently operating under temporary maps drawn by federal judges.

State legislators are meeting in Austin right now to change that and adopt plans that will define Texas’ political boundaries for the rest of the decade.

FURTHER READING

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael, Diniverse Major.

2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Tribpedia: Redistricting.” Texas Tribune.

Texas Redistricting.” Texas Legislative Council.

 

What Prevents Abortions?

A man on the bus the other day made an interesting remark about abortion. He said:

All these pro-choice people are lucky their mothers were pro-life. Because if they weren’t pro-life, they wouldn’t have had them.

Usually, I either completely tune out or else promptly forget any bus lectures I hear from complete strangers. But this one seemed at least a little bit relevant because it strikes to the heart of a misconception some abortion opponents seem to have about those who favor keeping abortion legal in the United States — namely, the (mistaken) idea that pro-choicers want people to have abortions.

Pro-choicers are a diverse group. Reasons for supporting the availability of legal and safe abortion range from women’s health concerns to privacy to the belief that prohibition is simply not a viable alternative. I have never heard anyone say they are pro-choice because they want people to have abortions just for the sake of having an abortion.

Actually, I’ve heard quite the opposite — people saying that they are pro-choice and want to minimize the number of abortions that take place. This is the idea of ‘safe, legal, and rare.’

With that in mind, one would think that though pro-life activists disagree with the ‘safe’ and ‘legal’ parts, they might be amenable to working with pro-choice groups toward the ‘rare’ part. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule.

The thing is, the public health and medical communities have a fairly good sense of what policies tend to reduce abortion: access to contraception, and comprehensive sex education, for example. In other words, policies that reduce unintended or unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

A recent study of more than 9,000 women at risk for unintended pregnancies, for instance, found that providing free birth control lowered both the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions. Abortion rates for this group ended up being less than half that of regional and national rates. Teenage pregnancy within this group was also rarer than the national average (6.3 births per 1,000 teenagers, compared to 34.3 per 1,000 in the nation as a whole).

The Guttmacher Institute also noted contraception’s role in preventing unintended pregnancies in a 2011 testimony to the Committee on Preventive Services for Women. They explain that as unmarried women at risk of unintended pregnancies increased their contraceptive use, their abortion rates fell from 50 abortions per 1,000 women in 1981 to 34 in 2000.

Additionally, they cite studies that show reductions in teenage pregnancy thanks to increased contraception use. Notably:

One study found that from 1991 to 2003, contraceptive use improved among sexually active U.S. high school students… these adolescents’ risk of pregnancy declined 21% over the 12 years. Another study found that increased contraceptive use was responsible for 77% of the sharp decline in pregnancy among 15–17-year-olds between 1995 and 2002 (decreased sexual activity was responsible for the other 23%); and increased contraceptive use was responsible for all of the decline in pregnancy among 18–19-year-olds.

There is also strong evidence that comprehensive sex education (as opposed to abstinence-only) helps prevent unintended pregnancies. Studies show that abstinence-only education can actually be counterproductive, leading to higher rates of teen pregnancy. One review of federally-funded abstinence-only programs found that most of the most commonly used abstinence-only curricula contained “false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.”

Disturbingly, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report notes that the most common reason women who had unintended pregnancies after not using contraception gave for their failure to use contraception was that they did not think they could get pregnant. It bears repeating: a plurality of this group (about 36 percent) actually responded that they did not think it could happen to them when asked why they had not used contraception. Perhaps better education on the subject could have prevented at least some of this confusion.

Yet many pro-life groups reject the recommendations of the public health and medical communities and instead claim exactly the opposite, maintaining (in the face of all evidence) that contraception and comprehensive sex education cause higher levels of abortion.

Take this so-called “Fact Sheet” put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), for instance (and, full disclosure, I’m Catholic). It claims, among other things, that contraceptives fail to prevent pregnancy, and cites this statistic as evidence:

Forty-eight percent of women with unintended pregnancies and 54% of women seeking abortions were using contraception in the month they became pregnant.

At first glance, that seems fairly alarming. Is contraception really that ineffective? Well, no, as it turns out. And I’ll get to that in just a moment. First, though, I need to deal with something the USCCB excised from the reports it cites for these statistics.

This sheet leaves out an important disclaimer that its sources (which you can read here and here) include: even though the women may have been using contraceptives that month, they were likely using them inconsistently.

Another Guttmacher report shows the breakdown of the 48 percent of women who had been using contraceptives the month they got pregnant. As it turns out, most of those women had been using contraceptives inconsistently. The chart below (taken from the Guttmacher report, which you can find here.) shows the breakdown.

"The two-thirds of U.S. women at risk of unintended pregnancy who practice contraception consistently and correctly account for only 5% of unintended pregnancies." (Guttmacher Institute)

So, the two-thirds of women at risk of unintended pregnancies who consistently use contraceptives make up only 5 percent of unintended pregnancies. In contrast, though only 16 percent of such women do not use contraceptives, they account for a full 52 percent of unintended pregnancies.

For women seeking abortions, here’s the key part that was left out of USCCB’s  “Fact Sheet:”

Among those women, 76% of pill users and 49% of condom users report having used their method inconsistently, while 13% of pill users and 14% of condom users report correct use.

Even putting this aside, it really does not make much sense for USCCB to use those statistics the way they did.

The sheet is trying to make the point that contraceptives are not that effective at preventing pregnancy. But to back this up, it uses statistics that only consider the subgroups of women that either have an unintended pregnancy or are seeking an abortion:

Forty-eight percent of women with unintended pregnancies and 54% of women seeking abortions were using contraception in the month they became pregnant. [Emphasis mine.]

It seems odd to use this statistic, which focuses on two specific groups that are already pregnant to back up a broad claim about the efficacy of contraception as a whole. But perhaps even though they are using this in the broader context of contraception efficacy, they are actually trying to make a narrower point that contraception does not effectively prevent abortions (which seems unlikely, because they have a later section dedicated to that, but let’s assume that’s what it is).

Even if this were the actual point, the statistic is still misleading. To keep things simple, I’ll just focus on the unintended pregnancies part. Essentially, the statistic the USCCB sheet used answers this question:

How many women with unintended pregnancies used contraception in the month they got pregnant?

The better question would be:

How many women who used contraception in the month they got pregnant ended up with unintended pregnancies?

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The prior one describes a group of women who have unintended pregnancies and asks what portion of them used contraception. The latter one describes a group of women who used contraception and asks what portion of them ended up having unintended pregnancies.

Unfortunately, because I could not find data on the number of women at risk of unintended pregnancy who used contraception and did not unintentionally get pregnant, I cannot answer this latter question. However, given the actual efficacy of contraception, it is likely that the number would be fairly small.

How effective a particular method is varies, but the two most common choices of non-permanent contraception are condoms and the pill. Condoms are 82 percent to 98 percent effective, while the pill is 91 percent to 99 percent effective. The reason these numbers are given in a range is because of the difference between “typical use” (the lower percentage) and “perfect use” (the higher percentage). “Perfect use” refers to the rate when individuals use a method consistently and according to clinical guidelines. “Typical use” is the number you generally get in real-world use, where people do not always use the contraceptive consistently or correctly.

(As a quick aside, this New York Times blog post notes that a large problem is that women often switch contraception methods or temporarily stop using them for any number of reasons, from they just moved to a new city and need to find a new doctor to they switched jobs and now have to navigate a different insurance plan. Educating women on how to handle such potential gaps — no matter how brief — might be prudent.)

So, contraception is not perfect, but it is significantly more effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies than the USCCB presents, especially when educated on how to use it correctly. I bring this up not to single out the USCCB in particular (and I only discussed one specific part of their “Fact Sheet”), but because this example demonstrated what seems to be a common thread among pro-life talking point sheets I’ve seen. Such documents perpetuate false claims that contraception and comprehensive sex education are either ineffective or damaging and offer confusing or incomplete statistics similar to the ones we just examined.

And that is counterproductive when your goal is to prevent abortions.

FURTHER READING

Intended and Unintended Births in the United States: 1982 – 2010,” Mosher, Jones, & Abma. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 July 2012.

Facts on Unintended Pregnancy in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute, January 2012.

Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute, August 2011.

Use of Contraception in the United States: 1982 – 2008,” Mosher & Jones. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 2010.

Study: Free Birth Control Leads to Fewer AbortionsFOX News, 5 October 2012.

How to Make Birth Control Effective,” Danielle Braff. Chicago Tribune, 1 April 2010.

Contraception: Types of Birth Control.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 September 2012.

Birth Control: In-Depth Report.” New York Times.

Contraceptive Use in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute.

Testimony of Guttmacher Institute.” Committee on Preventive Services for Women, 12 January 2011.

Are You In The Know: Contraception.” Guttmacher Institute.

Switching Contraceptives Effectively,” Jane Brody. The New York Times, 17 September 2012.

Debunking the Right’s Contraception Myths,” Irin Carmon. Slate, 21 February 2012.

Preventing Unintended Pregnancies by Providing No-Cost Contraception,” Peipert, Madden, Allsworth, & Secura. Obstetrics & Gynecology (Vol. 120, Issue 6), December 2012.

Facts on American Teens’ Sources of Information About Sex.” Guttmacher Institute, February 2012.

Surprise! The Abortion Rate Just Hit an All-Time Low,” Sarah Kliff. Washington Post Wonkblog, 23 November 2012.

Some Abstinence Programs Mislead Teens, Report Says,” Ceci Connelly. Washington Post, 2 December 2004.

Why We Keep Accidentally Getting Pregnant,” Lindsay Abrams. The Atlantic, 26 July 2012.

Understanding ‘Abstinence:’ Implications for Individuals, Programs and Policies,” Cynthia Dallard. Guttmacher Institute, December 2003.

Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy,” Kohler, Manhart, & Lafferty. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31 January 2008.

Comprehensive Sex Education for Teens is More Effective than Abstinence,” Carter. American Journal of Nursing (Vol. 112, Issue 3), March 2012.

Abstinence-Only Education Does Not Lead to Abstinent Behavior, UGA Researchers Find,” Chelsea Toledo. University of Georgia, 29 November 2011.

The Efficacy of Abstinence Only Education: Culminating Experience,” Jennie Watt McAdams. Wright State University (Thesis Paper), 2012.

The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Programs,” Committee on Government Reform — Minority Staff. Rep. Henry Waxman, December 2004.

 

To Keep and Bear Arms: Gun Rights Throughout American History

In my previous blog post, I discussed why I think America should revise its gun laws by adding more comprehensive background checks and limiting access to assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

In this post, I will discuss one of the most prominent arguments against gun control: that the Founding Fathers passed the Second Amendment in order to prevent all gun regulations and defend against tyranny.

There are several practical difficulties with this argument. For one, America’s political system may be dysfunctional in various ways, but it is not (and is in no danger of becoming) tyrannical. America has strong civic institutions, watchdog groups, and an independent media. It spreads governmental power across various branches and levels. And for as much as some people complain about the lack of choice in elections, America still has a generally competitive system of free elections in which citizens can select their representatives.

Actually, many common complaints heard today are more indicative of democracy than any nascent tyranny. Tyrannies, by their very nature, rarely have trouble acting. In contrast, today’s American government seems caught in an almost constant stalemate. Even the health care bill, which many Americans dislike, was only passed after Congress had considered the issue for more than 60 years.

But assume for a moment that America is, somehow, teetering on the edge of tyranny. There is no way that assault weapons are going to protect people against the world’s largest and best-equipped military. If the Second Amendment is meant to protect against tyranny, then Americans should have the right not only to purchase assault weapons, but all manner of military weapons, such as rocket launchers and nuclear missiles. Anything less would put the civilian population at a distinct disadvantage against the American military.

This is, of course, fairly ridiculous. Society draws reasonable lines detailing acceptable behavior all the time, such as limiting access to military-grade weapons to the military. I would suggest that we similarly limit access to assault weapons in order to help stop mass shootings.

Far from endorsing violent uprisings against an elected government, some of the Founding Fathers spoke out vigorously against it. In 1794, President George Washington marched to western Pennsylvania to put down a tax revolt. The American Revolution was over and the Constitution had been adopted, guaranteeing a republican form of government. Now that Americans were represented in their government, political struggles had to replace armed conflict. As Washington proclaimed before he led several states’ militias out to confront the rebels:

And I do moreover exhort all individuals, officers, and bodies of men to contemplate with abhorrence the measures leading directly or indirectly to those crimes which produce this resort to military coercion… and to call to mind that, as the people of the United States have been permitted… to elect their own government, so will their gratitude for this inestimable blessing be best distinguished by firm exertions to maintain the Constitution and the laws.

Additionally, gun laws are not unprecedented expansions of governmental power. They have existed throughout most of American history. During the Founding Era, gun laws allowed government to track gun ownership, regulate gun powder storage, prohibit gun use in certain areas, deny gun ownership to certain individuals. A Boston law, for example, prohibited people from bringing loaded guns indoors. Other laws prohibited black people or people who refused to swear allegiance to the revolution from owning guns. In the years following the War of 1812, some states even banned carrying concealed weapons.

That guns were regulated during the Founders’ lifetimes should not be surprising. The Second Amendment frames gun rights in terms of trained militia service, rather than in terms of an absolute right:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens meticulously documents the legal and historical context for a military framing of the Second Amendment in his District of Columbia v. Heller dissent. He notes, among other things, that the Second Amendment’s drafting history discusses gun rights in terms of military service, not in terms of an individual right. At the time, the Framers’ main concern was that Congress would disarm the militias. The Second Amendment prevented that.

Stevens also points out that James Madison was working with numerous proposed amendments while crafting the Second Amendment’s final wording. Some of these proposed amendments were much broader and more clearly established an individual right to own a gun. Madison instead chose the wording that placed gun rights in terms of military service.

So the Founding Fathers were aware of existing gun regulations and also couched the Second Amendment in terms of military service and states’ rights.

However, the history of gun laws in the United States does not end there. Americans continued to pass gun laws where and when they deemed necessary. Take the “Wild West,” for instance. Although films often portray the American West as a lawless place plagued by gunslingers and outlaws, the truth is actually quite different. Gunfights were rare, but gun laws were not. Frontier towns often banned concealed carry and required visitors to leave their guns with the town marshal until they departed.

In fact, according to Adam Winkler, a Constitutional law professor at UCLA:

Frontier towns in the west — places like Deadwood, S.D., and Tombstone, Ariz. — had the most restrictive gun laws in the nation… And these laws were enforced. The illegal carrying of a firearm was the second most common basis for arrests in the old west — right behind drunk and disorderly conduct. Gun violence was also rare, and gunfights extraordinary. Frontier towns averaged less than two homicides per year.

The infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral actually broke out because law enforcement sought to enforce a Tombstone ordinance banning people from carrying firearms in the town.

Americans have passed gun laws throughout history when they felt the situation demanded it. It seems that pragmatic gun regulations are as American as the right to bear arms.

FURTHER READING

Nation’s founders balanced gun rights with public safety,” Adam Winkler, UCLA Today.

The Secret History of Guns,” Adam Winkler, The Atlantic.

District of Columbia v. Heller: Stevens Dissent,” Justice John Paul Stevens.

Gun laws were tougher in old Tombstone,” Bob Drogin, LA Times.

Breyer: Founding Fathers Would Have Allowed Restrictions on Guns,” Fox News.

 

Mass Shootings and American Gun Policy

Most of America’s mass shootings have involved a semiautomatic handgun or an assault weapon. The recent Connecticut tragedy is no outlier. Gunman Adam Lanza apparently had an assault rifle and two semiautomatic pistols on him when he killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. An eyewitness said Lanza “must have shot a hundred rounds,” while the medical examiner has reported that initial autopsies show the victims were each shot multiple times.

It was the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

That most gunmen involved in mass shootings (Lanza included) have used semiautomatic weapons of some kind should not be surprising. The entire purpose of these weapons is to get off multiple shots rapidly. That rapidity can make all the difference for the people recovering and fleeing.

As a point of reference, numerous commentators have noted that a Chinese elementary school also endured an attack a few hours before Sandy Hook. There, the attacker assaulted more than 20 children with a knife. While still horrific, all of the students nevertheless survived the attack. Had the their attacker been armed with a semiautomatic weapon, the Chinese story may have had a very different conclusion. Indeed, China has seen a rash of knife attacks at schools, but the numbers of victims never break the single digits.

Obviously, no law can prevent every mass killing. No matter how extensive a law, some people will always be able to find ways around it. Yet, in America’s case, there is rarely a law that needs circumventing. Most of the killers involved in mass shootings obtained their weapons legally.

Perhaps we, as a society, have decided that we would like to make these weapons readily available with few restrictions. If that is the case, there are several uncomfortable truths that we must face. America, which has a murder rate seven times higher than the average for high-income countries, also has more gun-related killings than any other developed country.

An Economist article on the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado earlier this year put it this way:

If you live in America, you are four times more likely to be murdered than if you live in Britain, almost six times more likely than in Germany, and 13 times more likely than in Japan. These are simple facts on which all can agree; just as it is a simple fact that two-thirds of all murders in America involve guns, whereas in Britain the figure is under 10%.

The relationship between gun availability and homicide rates seems to be fairly robust: more guns often means higher murder rates. And America leads the world in gun ownership, with more than 88 guns per 100 people. Yemen comes in second at about 54. In fact, even though the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has half of the world’s guns.

Lots of things cause gunmen in America to take lives. But it does appear that states with fewer guns and more comprehensive gun laws tend to have fewer gun-related deaths.

Opponents of gun laws often argue that such laws make people less safe. They reason that any law that restricts gun ownership will mainly impact law-abiding citizens, making it harder for them to defend themselves against criminals. However, various studies refute this claim.

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear to me that having other armed individuals present would necessarily have prevented some of the mass shootings America has already witnessed. First of all, the ‘armed defender’ situation has failed to materialize in any of the recent mass shootings, despite relatively lax gun laws. Second, it may actually have made some of these situations more dangerous.

Consider the Aurora shooting, in which a gunman opened fire at a movie theater. It is not entirely clear to me that an ‘armed defender’ in a chaotic, darkened theater would have helped stop James Holmes from killing 12 people. But it does seem very plausible that some of the theater-goers might have, in the dim chaos, been accidentally struck by friendly fire.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing against all gun ownership. I support the right to own guns for legal purposes. However, I also believe that America should re-examine its current gun laws and consider adopting more extensive background checks and tighter restrictions on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines that can hold many rounds of ammunition.

That is, America should consider limiting the supply of military-style assault weapons shooters can use to wreak mass havoc in a matter of moments. Such weapons enable mass shootings by providing gunmen the opportunity to shoot indiscriminately, without the need to stop and reload.

Obviously, some gunmen will always find a way to procure such weapons illegally. This does not mean America should shy away from regulating them. As noted, most of the weapons used in mass shootings were obtained legally. New gun laws limiting access to assault weapons could set clear boundaries for what society thinks is acceptable.

Beyond that, however, restricting access to assault weapons and large-capacity magazines will make it more difficult for gunmen to use them in their assaults. Faced with such obstacles, some of them may simply opt for whatever guns are available, even though if they are less powerful and force the gunman to reload more often.

Although America currently has a large supply of assault weapons, restrictions could, over time, limit this supply. This could, in turn, drive up these weapons’ prices on the black market, making it even more difficult for gunmen to obtain them. It would also help law enforcement counter gang and drug violence (police chiefs around the country have generally favored assault weapons restrictions).

Of course, such laws’ usefulness is limited to the extent that they create loopholes to easily circumvent them. The assault weapons ban Congress passed in 1994, for instance, had mixed success because it contained a number of loopholes and exemptions. A 2004 University of Pennsylvania study described one of the more significant loopholes:

Relatively cosmetic changes, such as removing a flash hider or bayonet mount, are sufficient to transform a banned weapon into a legal substitute, and a number of manufacturers now produce modified, legal versions of some of the banned guns.

If a gun law is to be truly effective, it must limit these loopholes as much as possible.

The types of restrictions I have been discussing — background checks and greater restrictions on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines — have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. President Ronald Reagan, one of the most influential figures in the contemporary Republican Party, supported background checks and waiting periods, as well as assault weapon and large-capacity magazine restrictions.

Reagan wrote a column in 1991 supporting the Brady bill, which provided for background checks and waiting periods in order to purchase guns. In his column, Reagan recalled how a gunman nearly killed him and three other men on March 30, 1981, and described how he marks that grim anniversary every year:

This level of violence must be stopped… If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of [gun-related deaths] (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.

And there would be a lot fewer families facing anniversaries such as the Bradys, Delahantys, McCarthys and Reagans face every March 30.

Perhaps the same could be said of an assault gun ban today.

(To read my blog post on the Second Amendment and gun regulations throughout American history, click here.)

FURTHER READING

To Keep and Bear Arms: Gun Rights Throughout American History,” Michael J. Gaudini, Diniverse Major Blog.

A Guide to Mass Shootings in America,” Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan, Mother Jones.

Can Gun Laws Save Lives?” Emily Sohn, Discovery News.

Time to face facts on gun control,” Fareed Zakaria, CNN.

The Case for Gun Policy Reforms in America,” Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post,” Brad Plumer, WonkBlog.

Analysis: Why gun controls are off the agenda in America,” Jonathan Mann, CNN.

The Geography of Gun Deaths,” Richard Florida, The Atlantic.

Interactive: US, Yemen lead the world in guns,” Mohammed Haddad and Sam Bollier, Al Jazeera.

The Tucson shootings: The blame game,” Economist.

Speed Kills,” William Saletan, Slate.

An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003,” Christopher Koper, University of Pennsylvania.

Firearms Research: Homicide,” Harvard School of Public Health.

Firearms Research: Gun Threats and Self Defense Gun Use,” Harvard School of Public Health.