The salacious relationship between a man and his gun

In April, a series of gun control bills, including bipartisan legislation designed to expand background checks, were euthanized in the U.S. Senate after each failed to receive the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass. The votes by the world’s greatest deliberative body were a body blow to the campaign to pass legislation to curb gun violence.

Maybe it’s time to admit what the gun debate is really all about, even though it’s a topic not discussed in polite society.

The gun control bills would have banned the sale of certain military-style assault weapons, outlawed high-capacity magazines and expanded criminal background checks on gun buyers. This latter provision is supported by 91 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll.

Guns are pervasive in America. The FBI estimates that about 60 million Americans own over 300 million guns and the number is climbing. More than ever, guns are in. There is practically a gun for every man, woman, and child in the country.

Nearly all of the mass shootings in recent years- Aurora, Tucson, Columbine and most recently Newtown, Conn., where a one-man army tragically abbreviated the lives of 20 children, were committed by deranged white males. These bloodbaths, which could happen again any day, were not sufficient to make firearm possession more difficult or even enforce existing laws more faithfully. In the end, they have changed nothing.

The subjects of guns and violence always elicit emotional responses from gun haters and gun lovers and generate heated debates among well-meaning people for whom democracy is a burning faith rather than a belief based on reason. The main arguments are stale by now.

Let’s get beyond what philosophers call the “habit of abbreviated thinking.” What is the fight over guns really about? Maybe it is time to consider the association between firearms and phallic (Freudian) symbolism.

Back in the late 1960s, Mad magazine did a hilarious article based on the idea of combining a gun magazine with a hot romance magazine. The result was called “Passionate Gun Love.” One of the articles was titled “Field-Stripping the M-1 Rifle.” The content and writing style is left to your imagination.

The point, of course, was to emphasize the enormous amount of aggressive sexual sublimation there is in the emotional involvement with firearms of the average American gun enthusiast, which only seems to have become more intense over the years and rules the psyche in an effort to overcome a sense of lost virility or “shooting blanks.” Yes, sublimation between guns and sex, more phallic symbolism.

Some gun owners do seem to get a little too much fun out of fondling and firing guns. Obviously inanimate objects such as the business end of a long-barreled assault weapon have agency that may compensate for just average manhood. And when you have something that large, you are right to be concerned that the government may want to nationalize it.

Does this suggest that the only feasible way to pass serious gun control legislation is to first pass legislation fully legalizing every variety of sexual activity involving consenting adults and rebrand guns as sex toys as well as intellectual companions? Call this Freudian psychobabble if you want. But American men – and the legislators who represent them – are proving that Freud was right.

originally published: June 29. 2013

The resurgence of Gatsby on Wall Street

Gatsby mania is back with a new film adaptation of the novel, a music hall version of the book in London, last year’s off-Broadway play and several new books on the protagonist and the author. Perhaps the reason for the buzz around “The Great Gatsby” is that the book is such an accurate reflection of modem America.

Bad guys are often the most interesting fiction characters. Psychologists who claim to know about these things tell us that male readers can’t help admiring fictional bad guys because they have the minerals to go after what they want without being hung up by laws, social rules or moral constraints.

They see. They want. They take. Simple as that.

Female readers can’t help admiring bad guys either, but for different reasons. Deep down, psychologists insist, every woman is attracted to men who seem able to give them superior children. In our rarified social world, “superior” means children who can make themselves rich and celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is one of the classic bad guys of American fiction. He runs a successful bootlegging operation- so successful that he’s able to buy a bay-front mansion on the upscale north shore of Long Island, just east of New York City, staff it with servants and a yellow Rolls Royce, and throw enormous parties every weekend – all while circulating artfully mysterious stories about being the lone survivor of an aristocratic West Coast family.

Gatsby is different from most bootleggers. For one thing, he isn’t a standard urban-slum ethnic type like AI Capone. Instead, he grew up in a small Midwestern town and experienced the kind of semi-rural near-poverty that was the lot of so many WASPS in those days.

He burned with a desire to “improve himself’ borne of the popular copy book maxims of the day that promised upward mobility and the American Eden. He took a critical step toward achieving his goal when he became an Army officer during the First World War.

As a handsome young military officer whose down-market penury was hidden by a well-tailored uniform and Army paychecks, Gatsby found it easy to gain entry into the aristocracy’s social world in the small southern city where he was assigned for training. That’s how he met Daisy, the beautiful, callow, capricious daughter of an upscale local family who became the love of his life and personification of all his ambitions.

After Gatsby was posted to France just in time for the Armistice and found his return to the United States delayed by red tape, restless Daisy let herself be married off to the smirking son of an aristocratic Chicago family. It left Gatsby emotionally shattered and driven to make himself as rich as possible by any feasible means so he could “buy back” Daisy from what he convinced himself was a mere “marriage of convenience.”

Hence the lucrative bootlegging business, the mansion right across the bay from the one where Daisy  and her husband live and Gatsby’s made-up stories about his aristocratic background. But all to no avail. His pursuit of the American Dream fails and he is ultimately killed.

If the media is to be believed, Wall Street sharks like Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff- one of the few who’s actually been sent to prison- are currently America’s leading bad guys. They manipulate other people’s money to serve their own ambitions, oblivious to how the resulting economic disaster has affected ordinary Americans.

Wall Street trickery helped drive America into an economic abyss from which we can’t seem to emerge, despite a Gatsby-like stock market rally. The result is disillusionment with the American dream and its promise of social and economic mobility.

“The Great Gatsby” is a reflection of our own time. The richest one percent received the preponderance of income during the Jazz Age, and the same income inequalities exist in America today. The party of the Clinton-Bush (rhymes with tush) boom years ended long ago, replaced by the Great Recession- just as the Jazz Age obsession with conspicuous consumption ended with the stock market crash in 1929.

The novel stands as an endorsement of Balzac’s comment that “behind every great fortune is a great crime.”

originally published: June 15, 2013

Student-loan problem has nothing to do with interest rates

A recent New York Federal Reserve report suggests the mounting burden of student-loan debt is undermining economic growth. That’s probably true, but policy makers should focus on the underlying problem.

Those in their 20s and 30s account for nearly 70 percent of student-loan debt. Buried under loans, they are unable to participate fully in the economy, putting off major purchases such as homes and new cars.

At least 37 million Americans owe nearly $1 trillion for outstanding student loans. One-third of those borrowers are delinquent on repaying, and more than 10 percent of them by more than 90 days. The highest delinquency rates are among 30- to 39-year-olds. Their average personal debt is about $33,000, compared to the overall average of $25,000. Student-loan debt now exceeds aggregate auto loan, credit card, and home equity debt balances, placing it second only to mortgages.

Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, much like tax debts, child support and alimony, and unpaid debts continue to accrue penalties. It is a classic Catch-22. Defaulting on a student loan damages a person’s credit and job prospects, and it can keep a person out of the mortgage market for years. The federal government has the power to collect on defaulted student loans by garnishing wages and withholding tax refunds and Social Security payments.

Student-loan debt that young people struggle to repay and continues grow even in bankruptcy is not exactly a ticket to a better life and upward mobility. These debtors are, in effect, semi-indentured servants. It is an arrangement that would put a smile on Ebenezer Scrooge’s face.

It is reasonable to assume that this level of student debt burden will adversely impact household formation and decrease the number of first-time home buyers. First-time home buyers with a median age of 30 usually make up more than 40 percent of the home-buying population; now their share is about 30 percent. student-loan debt has many either renting or back living with their parents, trying to make a go of it, their hopes abridged.

Congress is once again trying to agree on an extension of the current student-loan interest rate. In 2007, Congress cut the statutory interest rate of 6.8 percent on federal student loans in half to 3.4 percent for five years. Last year, Congress averted a July 1 doubling of interest rates by agreeing to a one-year extension. student-loan interest rates are again slated to double for more than seven million people by the end of the month if Congress doesn’t act. Democrats and Republicans say they want to head off an increase to 6.8 percent, but they disagree about how to best manage the interest-rate trajectory.

The Republican-led House passed a measure in mid-May that would link the federal student-loan interest rate to that of 10-year Treasury notes, plus 2.5 percentage points. The measure would cap interest rates at 8.5 percent and allow them to vary annually.

This was greeted with Bronx cheers by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which proposes to extend the government -subsidized rate of 3.4 percent for the 7.4 million students with subsidized loans for another two years at an annual cost of $6 billion. The President proposes to set interest rates for subsidized federal student loans each year based on the Treasury note, but to then keep the rate fixed for the life of the loan.

But the dirty little secret about student-loan debt has nothing to do with the interest rate. It is about college costs, which have been rising faster than inflation for the past 15 years. Since the 1980s, the cost of college has increased by more than 400 percent while the median income has only risen 150 percent.

Getting to the bottom of the student-loan problem and its negative impact on the overall economy will require figuring out just where all that tuition money is going and how we can bring college costs under control. 

originally published: June 8, 2013