Money not argument is the answer to NRA

AFTER the Florida shootings, Australia was again mentioned sporadically as an example of how to do gun control. Buy back the guns and destroy them. Ban a huge range of high-powered guns. And strictly control purchases of weapons and how they are stored. Too easy, you would think. The vast majority of Americans know what is needed. But getting there is far more difficult in the US than in Australia. Nonetheless there is another aspect of Australian political life which could be quite helpful in the US.

Protest rallies, anguished hand-wringing, candle vigils, and even solidly rational argument backed by conclusive evidence simply do not cut any ice with US politicians and the US military-industrial complex.

The response is merely offers of prayers and thoughts which never do anything, as proven by the inevitable next mass shooting.

The trouble is that the military-industrial complex makes the weapons for public (as distinct from military) sale and profits immensely from it. The civilian arms industry in turn gives large amounts of money to the National Rifle Association which adds its own donations to pour an estimated $60 million a year into candidates’ election campaigns.

You cannot argue with that. You have to match it. We have to face the sad fact that in Australia and more so in the US, money drives politics – not good policy, the people’s welfare or the national interest.

Enter an Australian political phenomenon – GetUp!

GetUp! has more than a million members. Translated to the US, that would be 15 million members. GetUp! campaigns against large business interests in favour of fairness, the environment, and equity in health and education.

A US GetUp! would almost certainly make gun control a top priority.

A US GetUp! could counter the financial power of the National Rifle Association and instill the fear of democracy into the hearts and minds of US political candidates. Gutsy TV ad campaigns suggesting that Senator Bloggs supports child murder, or that Representative Smith sells himself to the arms industry backed up with the prospect of cash donations from US GetUp! to wean them off the NRA tit is going to be more effective than mere rational or emotional appeal for action.

You have to match the large donations of the few with the small donations of the many.

In Australia 97 per cent of GetUp!’s donations are under $100. In the past year it has raised $53 million, all completely disclosed, unlike the NRA’s finances which have to be tweaked from multiple sources. Translated to the large US population, the $53 million would come to $800 million. Watch out NRA.

That might at least get the US to the maximum level of gun control that the Constitution permits, and even beyond that to either a constitutional change or better funded legal support to defend gun control measures against Supreme Court challenges, particularly an attempt to put the “right to bear arms” in its proper context. The full wording is: “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.”

Well the US has got a “well-regulated militia”. It is called the US Armed Forces, not to mention the police. So there is no need for the people to “bear arms” to secure the state. To the contrary, people wandering around with assault rifles makes the state less secure.


EDUCATION budgets in Australia and the US are suffering enough without people like Princeton Professor Bryan Caplan chiming in with his new book: “The Case against Education. Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money”.

In the US it is worse than here. Students without wealthy parents graduate with a mountain of debt. At least in Australia there is a reasonably orderly and affordable system of repayment through the tax system.

Caplan, quoted in these pages last weekend by my usually lucid and insightful colleague Peter Martin, argues that students do not learn a great deal at university; that most of them would be better off learning on the job; that the only thing a degree is worth is as a signal to a prospective employer that you are the sort of person who perseveres and knuckles down; and that what is learnt at university is of little use to employers.

But graduates earn more money over their lifetime on average than non-graduates. The question is why.

In an ideal world, students would go to university and learn lots of things that are useful to employers and increase their productivity. Thus society has a bigger cake to share.

In Caplan’s world, on the other hand, the degree is just a signal to an employer who then pays the graduate more even though their degree is pretty much worthless and does not add to the size of the economic cake. In this model graduates get an unjustly larger share of the same finite cake at the expense of everyone else.

If only employers could do their own sifting rather than relying on the signal of the degree, society would be better off because it would not have to waste money on all that useless education, Caplan’s argument runs.

Martin, and to a lesser extent Caplan, at least acknowledge that students at least learn some useful things in vocational courses like law and medicine.

Even so, getting an education as a means of getting a job is less than half the story.

Even from the view of an economist, a job and the income from it is only half the story. What about the spending side? How do you spend the money you get from this income? And how do you spend your time when you are not earning this income? Education, especially higher education, helps people answer those questions.

Indeed, answering those questions draws on education more than the question of how do you earn your income. Earning income is invariably a fairly narrow occupation. Spending income and spending time are far more varied, more complicated and in many ways more difficult.

Nearly all disciplines at university require and understanding of some or all of the following: the scientific method, logic and the marshalling and testing argument, critical thinking and statistics.

These things help people engage with the world; contribute to public, private and corporate life; and arm them against being duped by people selling goods, services or themselves.

It might not make for a bigger cake, but it certainly means that there are fewer rotten bits in it.

There is more to life than jobs and growth.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 24 February 2018.

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