Three Heads, We Lose: Gun Control Without Equality Means More Massacres, Not Fewer
Although the massacre in Newtown is not the type of rebellion-like rampage massacre that I usually write about — where employee attacks his workplace and his co-workers, or middle-class school kids attack their school and fellow students — a few things about the culture around this crime stand out.
First, Connecticut has the second worst rate of income inequality in the US, thanks to all the Wall Street fundies and insurance executives who live secluded from some of the starkest poverty outside of the Deep South. Even more telling is the way Connecticut degenerated from the late 1970s, when it was one of the most egalitarian states in the union, to today’s banana republic-levels of inequality. One study ranks Connecticut as having the fastest-growing rate of inequality since Reagan took office of any state in the union.
Since those Reagan years, there have been a number of mass shootings in Connecticut. I profiled some of them in Going Postal — the most recent (and most spectacular) workplace massacre in the state took place just two years ago at Hartford Distributors, leaving nine people dead.
This is a point that has gone largely unconsidered during the post-Newtown furore: gun control without broader social justice is pointless. And the two apparently separate proposals that Obama and the Democrats are floating this month— gun control laws simultaneous with austerity measures including an inexplicable assault on Social Security — are worse than pointless: It’s rancid neoliberal politics at its sleaziest and nihilistic worst. And if history is anything to go by, it’s only going to increase the chance of future massacres.
Obama's proposals are the very opposite of the sort of transformative gun politics I wrote about in my last piece on the history of gun-fanatic politics: rancid shock doctrine politics that exploits the tragedy of the Newtown mass-murder as cover for slashing Social Security benefits to those who need it most, transferring that plundered wealth into the pockets of Wall Street bond-holders. Targeting gun-owners while taking away their benefits can only lead to one outcome: even more keenly focused hate, rising paranoia and a public even easier to manipulate than they already are. Hard as that is to imagine.
This is gun politics guaranteed to fail, as doomed to failure as libertarian gun-nut politics which combines austerity and rising inequality with flooding guns into the population and pushing vigilante laws.
For one thing, the Democrats tried this already in 1994, when Clinton signed a federal law banning 19 assault weapons. Not only did employee workplace massacres — a new type of mass-murder crime that first appeared in the late 1980s — continue unabated after Clinton’s ban, but they spread a few years later to another setting once thought safe: middle America’s schoolyards. A few years after Clinton’s assault weapons ban, school kids — mostly white, mostly middle-class — were massacring their fellow students, most famously in Columbine.
Clinton and the Democrats blamed their 1994 election blowout on the gun control law, and many still push that myth today. (A more obvious explanation is Clinton’s neoliberal politics, pushing through the NAFTA free-trade pact that kneecapped what was left of labor power, and making deficit reduction a priority over everything else in those first two years.)
By the time Clinton left office, he’d abolished welfare, deregulated financial markets, and left a legacy of inequality that made Reagan look like a social democrat by comparison. In 2000, CEO’s earned 531 times what their average employees were paid. Even pro-business publications like Businessweek started getting queasy about Clinton’s politics of oligarchy, as the magazines's 2001 article, "We’re Back To Serfs and Royalty," shows:
'The huge disparity between the compensation of CEOs and the people who really make most companies function is starting to raise questions of fairness. For instance, look at how CEO pay has skyrocketed -- by 434% since 1991, according to BusinessWeek's annual survey of executive compensation. Meantime, the paycheck of the typical worker grew only 34%. "We're back to serfs and royalty in the Middle Ages," declares Edward Lawler, professor of management at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. And that's before the passage of President Bush's tax-cut plan, which would widen the advantage of the upper crust on an aftertax basis.'
That was Businessweek way back in 2001 — but no one in DC took it seriously.
In 2004, with the NRA bragging that it owned President Bush, Clinton’s assault weapons ban was lifted, and the inane theory that more guns equals greater safety was given another try. The result: Rampage massacres migrated from workplaces and schoolyards to a new setting, college campuses. And why wouldn’t they? The same underlying politics of concentration of wealth and political power accelerated further under Bush than they did under Clinton. The differences are minor: neoliberal politics is inequality plus gun control, libertarian politics is more inequality plus flooding the population with guns and setting them against each other.
Income inequality is wrong for all sorts of obvious reasons, but also for a few less obvious ones, including health and longevity. Studies prove the obvious: that greater inequality leads to higher rates of mental illness. Psychiatric drug prescriptions for children and adults have been soaring over the past few decades — between 1987 and 1996, prescriptions doubled for children; and from 1996 to 2006, psychiatric drug prescriptions for children jumped another 50% (while prescriptions for adults soared 73% in that same 1996-2006 period). Meanwhile, the adolescent suicide rate soared 400% from the 1950s through 1999.
And that is why Obama’s politics — the politics of austerity, cutting deeper into the most sacrosanct program, Social Security, a program that doesn’t even affect the deficit and is fully funded, but which has been a top political priority for the oligarchy for decades now — combined with feckless gun control laws and increased mental health care (which will barely cover the increase in mental illnesses caused by greater inequality) — is worse than failure, it’s nihilism and treachery in their purest rankest form. This is the sort of politics that creates worse and even more shocking rampage massacres — and while that’s bad for all of us, it’s good for the dominant politics of our age, because it means we’ll stay stuck in the same idiotic shouting matches pitting neoliberal calls for gun controls against libertarian calls for a nation of armed vigilantes. So long as both agree on the economic politics — and neoliberals and libertarians always have — the gun politics remain a shrill diversion.
Another under-reported element to the Newtown massacre involves the Bushmaster assault weapon. While most attention has focused on the weapon itself and whether or not it should be banned, surprisingly little has been written about the private equity firm, Cerberus Capital, that currently owns Bushmaster. I say "currently" because the firm is vowing to sell Bushmaster, having suddenly been struck with a conscience. (By coincidence, Martin Feinberg, the father of Cerberus' founder, lives in Newtown. He told Bloomberg that the shooting was "devastating" and "horrendous, truly horrendous." That has to make for awkward dinner table conversation this Christmas.)
Cerberus is the sociopathic embodiment of everything wrong and fucked up with our financialized economy — and, until recently, it didn't even try to hide this fact. For one thing, Cerberus is named itself after the mythical three-headed watchdog-monster with a serpent’s tail that guarded the gates of Hell (Hades), and devoured anyone who tried to escape. That's what we journalists are supposed to call a "red flag."
The billionaire who founded Cerberus is Stephen Feinberg, one of those right-wing populist blowhards who makes a big deal out of all the Harleys and Ford pickups he owns, and the hunting guns he used to kill deer, and his alleged "blue collar background." Feinberg made a lot of Galt-ian noise about his commitment to free-market principles, or lack of any principles that implied duty to his employees, especially after Cerberus took control of Chrysler in 2007. He hired Dan Quayle and Bush’s Treasury Secretary Jack Snow, and together they formed the three heads of the Cerberus beast from Hell.
By late 2008, wouldntchaknowit, Feinberg had to crawl to Washington with hat in hand for a bailout, yammering about how he still considered himself a "patriot" and how sorry he was that he destroyed Chrysler and needed government moochers to bail him out of that investment (along with his investment into GM’s finance arm).
A New York Times profile of Feinberg in 2009, capturing the Cerberus sociopath in a brief moment of affected humility, is worth recalling for a laugh:
MR. FEINBERG, a longtime free-market enthusiast and a Republican who never envisioned himself needing the government for help, suddenly found himself running a company that needed federal support to stay alive. By early last December, with Chrysler bleeding cash, he had become a vocal presence in Washington, circulating around Congressional offices to get his story out. ...Cerberus now values its Chrysler stake at 19 cents on the dollar. It is a humbling and embarrassing figure for Mr. Feinberg. But it’s better than zero cents on the dollar, which is what his stake might have been worth had the government not bailed him out. Mr. Feinberg and his colleagues at Cerberus maintain to this day that their time at Chrysler was, in part, a reflection of their patriotism — a view that some analysts find hard to swallow. "It’s hard to believe that any of these firms — including Cerberus — will be viewed as patriots in 10 years," said John Rogers, a private equity analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, "because I don’t think their impact on any of these companies will be seen as so positive for the overall economy." Mr. Feinberg still begs to differ, saying his experience at Chrysler has left him feeling like a good citizen. "There were times we could have been tougher and pushed harder and gotten more," he says, "but it wasn’t the right thing for the country."
While pretending to be humbled in front of the cameras, the Cerberus founder was busy building up one of his most lucrative — and shocking — business ventures ever: Cerberus Plasma. Not "plasma" as in plasma TVs, but as in "human plasma."
In 2005, Cerberus made its initial $82 million investment into a human plasma firm called Talecris. In October 2009, Cerberus Plasma sold off Talecris and collected a total of $1.8 billion, 23 times its original investment.
The reason human plasma was so lucrative for Stephen Feinberg’s Cerberus Capital is that supply is limited: most countries around the world ban the farming and marketing of human plasma for profit. Not in free-market America, however. Cerberus wound up cornering the human plasma market, jacking up prices to the point where human plasma was worth more than twice its weight in gold.
Pumping human plasma is much trickier — and more painful — than human blood. It takes a good hour to pump a human plasma cow of her plasma before she starts to drop off, and she can’t come back for another milking until her plasma grows back. Cerberus Plasma overcame that supply problem by setting up rows of human plasma farms along the US-Mexico border, splashing impoverished Mexican border towns with ads about getting paid for donating blood, then arranged human plasma busses to bus in poor Mexicans across the border to US-based pumping stations, sucking out their plasma, then dumping the donors back across the other side of the border with 30 dollars in their pockets (plus a ten dollar bonus for Mexicans who roped other Mexican plasma cows into joining them). It’s worth reiterating this point: human plasma farming for profit is illegal in Mexico, so Cerberus Plasma bussed Mexicans to the US for milking.
But while it was sucking the blood from Mexicans at thirty bucks a pop, Cerberus jacked the price of their human plasma treatment so high that patients whose lives depended on it — hemophiliacs, severe burn victims, others suffering from autoimmune deficiencies — were priced out of the only treatment that kept them alive, as insurance companies refused coverage. All this sparked an FTC lawsuit and charges of price gouging.
So it’s not much of a leap to go from sucking impoverished Mexicans’ blood for profit to Cerberus’ investment in a firearms manufacturer, Bushmaster in 2005. (The company became part of Cerberus’ "Freedom Group".)
The layers of political rot pile up: the California Teachers Retirement Fund had invested $600 million into Cerberus. Teachers! Investing in a firm whose plasma sucking operation profits off of poverty and exploitation, and whose guns business profits from the very same right-wing politics that targets teachers’ unions and public schools. They’re making noise about it now, of course, but why the fuck didn’t someone in the teachers’ retirement funds community look at what they were investing into?
And now we have President Obama, fresh off an election victory campaigning on social justice, making his first order of business to carry the wishes of the same sorts of Wall Street vultures who demand austerity and the dismantling of the last social justice programs. Only with fewer guns — because Obama’s sad. Not so sad that he won’t slash benefits to the elderly and veterans and disabled from a fully-funded program with zero fiscal problems... but sad anyway, sad enough to replicate Clinton’s totally ineffective gun restrictions.
And if you don’t like Obama’s politics, there’s always the other choice: libertarian austerity, meaning even severer cuts and even greater acceleration of inequality... but with guns. Lots of guns. And laws protecting gun-stocked vigilantes to act out their political powerlessness on someone else who looks funny.
So the choice comes down to getting fucked without a gun, or getting fucked with a gun — and when you look at it that way, you realize that the guy who chooses to hold onto his gun while getting fucked is not the problem here.