Guns Don't Kill People, Inequality Does, Opines Thom Hartmann

What a shock it's not -- liberal radio host Thom Hartmann responding to last week's unspeakable atrocity in Newtown by demanding redistribution of wealth.

That the rampage occurred in a leafy bedroom community in one of the most affluent states in the country has apparently eluded Hartmann, as has the fact that Connecticut is among the states with the most stringent gun laws. (audio clip after page break)

No matter -- Hartmann has found the answer to it all and he's sticking with it: Guns Don't Kill People, Inequality Kills People (h/t, audio, Brian Maloney at mrctv.org) --

The gun folks are out there saying guns don't, you know, guns don't kill people, people kill people. I would say, OK, guns don't kill people, inequality kills people. Why is it that the United States has this horrible problem? We are one of the most unequal countries in the world. And we didn't so much have this problem when we were less unequal, in the '50s, '60s, '70s, we were a very egalitarian society.

Really? Imagine a conservative suggesting that equality reigned in America a half century ago. Indignant liberals like Hartmann would quickly complain that this was true only for white males.

Before making his claim, Hartmann cited research by Richard Wilkinson in 2004 published  by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, titled "Why is Violence More Common Where Inequality is Greater?"

According to an abstract for the paper, "The most well-established environmental detriment of levels of violence is the scale of income differences between rich and poor. More unequal societies tend to be more violent."

A graph accompanying Wilkinson's research shows the US in one corner, representing high rates of homicide and income inequality, and Japan in the opposing corner, with numerous western countries between them.

But what Wilkinson's research and Hartmann's commentary gloss over is that low income doesn't equate with poverty anymore. In an editorial titled "Poverty, Inequality Aren't as Bad as You Think" last September, Bloomberg editors elaborated on this --

The Census Bureau doesn't count safety-net benefits, including food stamps, housing aid, school lunches and other non-cash transfers. Adding the cash value of food stamps alone would lower the poverty population by 3.9 million people. Census data also overcompensate for inflation by ignoring discount prices at big-box outlets such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where many low-income families shop. The figures don't even factor in Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

But tax credits are the most overlooked numbers of all. One, the Earned Income Tax Credit, is refundable, meaning that some low-income bread-winners get a check from the Internal Revenue Service even if their earnings are so small that they owe no income tax. Counting the tax credit would decrease the number of people living in poverty by another 5.7 million.

The Census Bureau defines a family of four with income less than $23,021 as impoverished. But a better portrait of poverty in America would count all government benefits and tax credits, raising many households' income considerably. An even truer picture of deprivation would measure consumption (how much a household spends on rent, autos, food and other items) rather than income (how much a household admits to bringing home in earnings). Incomes are unreliable because people are reluctant to reveal how much they make.  They are less reticent when asked if they have television sets, cars and air conditioning, or if they eat out and go to the movies.

When adjusted for these flaws, the level of poverty is much lower, says a new paper by economists Bruce D. Meyer at the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan at the University of Notre Dame. Instead of 15 percent, it is only 4 percent to 5 percent. And instead of being higher than it was in the 1980s, poverty has declined by two-thirds.

Hartmann is narrowly correct, though not in the way he intends. The bloodbath at Sandy Hook Elementary School resulted from a huge inequality -- that in power possessed by the assailant compared to his victims. Expect more such obscene episodes of inequality as long as the abject lunacy of "gun-free zones" continues.

One small sign of hope -- few liberals are suggesting more such alleged safe havens in response to the murders in Newtown. And I'm still waiting for signs stating "gun-free zone" in front of houses with Obama bumper stickers on cars in the driveways. Something tells me it will be a long wait.

Hartmann's commentary also begs the question -- if equality of income is such wonderful, democratizing policy, why have the most murderous regimes in history been characterized by forced equality through redistribution of property?

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts