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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

 

How to Stop the Madness?

The heart wrenching murder of first graders, their teachers and their principal in Newtown Ct. has galvanized the country, unified not merely in mourning but in the reality that enough is finally enough, as President Obama declared with eloquence unusual even by his standards.  The curse of disturbed young men murdering indiscriminately with assault rifles has visited the U.S. too many times over the last two decades, but also Norway, Finland, Scotland, and several Asian locales.  Murder is, at this point, a daily event in war torn Arab lands.  So what can be done?

The laws vary from country to country, and I for one, am of the opinion that the Second Amendment means what it says.  That said, it doesn't guarantee that EVERY kind of weapon is the subject of a civilian ownership right.  Surely, we can draw the line somewhere. No one in his right mind would claim that civilians need and have the right to bear arms in the form of chemical, biological, or other weapons of mass destruction. 

So the answer to what can be done surely can't be "nothing."

I would start by saying that assault weapons, such as the Bushmaster used in Newtown, are not appropriate for civilian defensive purposes, and should not be legally available for sale to anyone but uniformed services.  I think Congress must give serious consideration to reinstituting the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, and making it more effective this time.  That means that clips and magazines carrying over 10 bullets should be banned for all but the uniformed services too.  By the way, I think those who say that automatic weapons are hard to define are obfuscating the issue.  If you can fire more than one shell with a single trigger pull, that's an automatic weapon. 

The argument is often made that since criminals by definition don't obey the law, they will be the only ones with advanced weaponry in schools, shopping centers, movie theaters, etc.  True enough, but I don't know any teachers, theater managers, or store managers who routinely bring assault rifles to work, so law or no law, that's where we are.  We can at least make it harder to obtain those weapons, and remove the temptation for your neighborhood schizophrenic to achieve his 15 minutes of fame on a killing spree where he is able to get off over 100 rounds in a matter of minutes.

But gun advocates have a point concerning the danger and temptations that exist because of "pretend weapons free" zones.  The typical Adam Lanza is a coward who commits his crime in a setting where he believes he will have the only weapon and where his victims will be defenseless.  Typically, as soon as he hears the police coming,  he quickly turns the gun on himself.  So sad as it may be, I believe schools will need to have an armed guard on duty during the school day to discourage these acts.  I know, when we do this, the terrorists and criminals have "won," but we have become quite accustomed to having reservists (with assault weapons, no less) posted in Penn and Grand Central Stations every day.  It is a price we are paying for whatever in our world is causing these events to keep happening.

The other debate going on concerns what we can do to get a better hold on the mentally ill among us, and I agree that closing all the institutions and being so concerned about stigmatizing mental illness has been counterproductive.  This is a really difficult issue to confront, but sadly, it is part of the solution too, if there is to be one. As for the theory that violent movies and TV, as well as video games, are desensitizing youth, I think there is something to that.  Clearly, the vast majority can handle those things without going off the deep end, but those with mental and behavioral problems may be susceptible.  There is clearly a lot of copycat in these incidents, and the internet may be part of that.  Hollywood will defend its choices in the name of artistic expression, but I would ask those responsible to think about whether graphic scenes of violence really add to the artistic value of what they are creating.  My suspicion is it is much more about the commercial than the artistic.  Lord knows, I am not against commerce, but again, there should be standards that we observe.
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On Long Island, the public is still riled up about LIPA's Sandy performance. LIPA is the local utility, but more accurately, the authority in charge of providing utility services.  Residents did not understand why the out-of-state crews reportedly on their way to help, took so long to be deployed.
A good part of the reason came out in Newsday's November 10 issue when it was revealed that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers would not let outside workers in unless union dues were deducted from their pay and forwarded to the IBEW.  In effect, the IBEW insisted that these workers become temporary members of the union, even though they would never benefit from that union.  These deductions were non-trivial, (as actuaries like to say).  Start with 22.5% of gross salary to the IBEW annuity fund, add 9.75 an hour to the union's health and welfare fund, 3% of gross salary to the union's "craft division skill improvement fund" and 3% to the National Electrical Benefit Fund, and smaller amounts to other funds.  Well, why work at all under those conditions?  Until the Authority got the union to stand down on these demands, no one showed up.

And you wonder how "right to work" passed in Michigan?  The wonder is that there are any closed shop states left anymore.
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So, we were not surprised to see R.A. Dickey get traded.  On the one hand, with his low salary due for 2013, the deal he wanted was not unreasonable.  On the other hand, he is 38, and though most knuckleballers can pitch into their 40's, how effective he will be in the future when he relies on such a hard knuckleball (usually in the 80's) is something we don't know.  Not surprisingly, the Mets are gun shy about long term deals for anyone given their history with them.  By trading him now, rather than waiting for the season to begin, they were able to land another two good prospects, one at a position where they had a desperate need, catcher.  Besides, if the Mets have a strength, it is starting pitching depth.  So the logic was there for both teams.  That's what makes for good trades - both teams may benefit.
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The market continues to treat us well, fiscal cliff or no cliff, despite the ineptitude of everything Washington.  One of the reasons is that corporations, flush with cash, can't think of anything better to do with it than accelerate dividends (to beat higher tax rates next year) and buy in gobs of their own stock.  Regular readers know how much I hate buybacks, but they do provide demand and reduce supply of shares, temporarily juicing prices.  What we really don't have are companies increasing sales and profits.  I guess you can't have everything.

On 12/10, we bought 50 shares of old favorite Schlumberger (SLB) the crown jewel of oil service stocks.  We paid 71.92 per share.  On 12/13, we bought 100 shares of Protective Life Insurance preferred (PLP) for the IRA at 23.76.   On 12/17 we bought 100 shares of Bunge Foods (BG) at 72.15 for the IRA.  We also sold 400 shares of TAT Technologies (TATT) at 5.86.  We are still recording losses on this stock, since we paid 12.26 for 200 on 4/9/08 and 10.74 for 200 on 5/5/08, when it was Limco Piedmont.  These losses are in the IRA so no tax relief is provided either.  We paid a lot less for the shares we still have.  

 

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