Today we have Blow, Nocera and Collins. Mr. Blow, in “Dear College Graduates…” says congratulations and good luck, Class of ’13. You’ll need it. Mr. Nocera has a question in “2 Killings and 2 Guns, Unattended:” Why is it that a reckless driver can be prosecuted but not an irresponsible gun owner? Gee, Joe, I don’t have a clue. Why don’t you ask the NRA? Ms. Collins, in “An Ode to Helium,” says forget the hot air jokes, people. Who said that Congress hasn’t been getting anything done lately? Here’s Mr. Blow:
I’m scheduled to deliver the commencement address Friday at my alma mater, Grambling State University in Louisiana, so I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought to the America into which these students are graduating.
I must admit that finding hopeful, encouraging things to say has been exceedingly difficult, in part because the landscape at the moment — particularly for young adults — is so bleak.
Here are some of the facts that I’m up against rhetorically and that these students will be up against more literally.
1. Being a college graduate is becoming less exceptional. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in November, “Record shares of young adults are completing high school, going to college and finishing college.” College graduation rates are growing even more in other countries. And Anya Kamenetz noted in The Atlantic magazine in December, “During the past three decades, the United States has slipped from first among nations to 10th in the percentage of people holding a college degree, even as the job market has eroded for Americans without one.”
2. Graduates are emerging with staggering amounts of debt and entering a still-sluggish job market. This is causing them to delay major life decisions, like marriage or buying a home or even moving out of their parents’ home.
A Pew report from February 2012 found that:
“Since 2010, the share of young adults ages 18 to 24 currently employed (54 percent) has been its lowest since the government began collecting these data in 1948. And the gap in employment between the young and all working-age adults — roughly 15 percentage points — is the widest in recorded history. In addition, young adults employed full time have experienced a greater drop in weekly earnings (down 6 percent) than any other age group over the past four years.”
3. Emerging markets, like China and India, have become major competitors for exportable jobs.
4. Income inequality between top earners and the rest of America has risen. And the recovery since the Great Recession has essentially been a recovery of the rich. A recent study by Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, found that:
“From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.”
This was similar to a finding by the Pew Research Center last month:
“During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.”
5. At the same time, the cost of basic goods has soared. For example, when I graduated from college the average price of a gallon of gas was about $1 (adjusted for inflation, that would still be less than $2), and it’s currently nearing $4. Some people now have to make desperate choices: a tank of gas, a bag of groceries or a bottle of medicine.
6. Our politics have become polarized to the point of paralysis. A Pew poll last June found that Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”
What gives me hope is that despite this dire environment, young people remain more optimistic than anyone else. Some of that may simply be the intrinsic glow of youth, but I believe that with this generation, something more is afoot.
This is a generation of people who have come of age in an era of overlapping traumas — terrorism and wars and recession. They have also come of age in changing times, and are more tolerant and less punitive in their social view. They see this country, and the world, differently than we older folks do. Theirs is an America waiting to be made better, not one that is simply, and irreversibly, getting worse.
According to a CNN/ORC poll released last month, young adults (those 18 to 34) were the most likely to think that things were going well in this country.
I plan to tap into that optimism on Friday, and I hope to reflect some of it back at those beaming faces under square hats.
Dear college graduates, this is your moment and your America. Both need your vision and demand your efforts. Keep your head up and your hopes rising. Congratulations and good luck. You’ll need it, and I’ll be rooting for you. (Flip tassels.)
Next up we have Mr. Nocera:
On the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2012, Greg Imhoff — a big, friendly 61-year-old construction superintendent from Madison, Wis., who had moved to Florida with his partner, Shari Telvick — went to check on the home of a neighbor.
The neighbor, Richard Detlor, was a friend, someone Imhoff had known back in Madison, where the Detlors still lived for part of the year. Whenever the Detlors went back to Wisconsin, Imhoff would look in on their house, something he did for many of his neighbors.
It is impossible to know whether, on that August afternoon, Imhoff ever saw the stranger in the house with the .22 caliber revolver; all we know for sure is that Imhoff was shot in the head. When Telvick and a friend found him that evening, he was lying in a pool of blood, dead.
The killer turned out to be a man named Billy Ray Retherford, who was on the lam after killing a woman two weeks earlier and was hiding in the Detlors’ empty home. The next day, Retherford was killed in a shootout with the police. He was using the same .22 handgun.
The gun, however, was not his. It belonged to Richard Detlor, who, according to the police report, had left it, loaded, in the nightstand by his bed before departing for Wisconsin several months earlier.
When Imhoff’s murder was brought to my attention recently, I was stunned that a supposedly “responsible gun owner” would leave a loaded gun in a house that was empty for months at a time. Yes, the odds of someone breaking into the house and using the gun were small, but they weren’t zero. That the Detlors didn’t take the simple precaution of unloading their gun and locking it up struck me as incredibly negligent.
Not surprisingly, that’s how Shari Telvick sees it, too. “I think the Detlors had a responsibility to secure their weapon,” she told me when I spoke to her earlier this week. “I think they should be held accountable.” But when she talked to a lawyer, she discovered, to her dismay, that leaving a loaded gun in an empty house doesn’t violate Florida law. As Arthur Hayhoe, the executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, explained to me, “Safe storage laws in Florida only apply if a minor lives in the house. If it’s adults, you can do whatever you want.” (He added, “In Florida, there are more laws to protect guns than people.”)
For all the protestations by gun owners that most are responsible with their weapons, I have been struck by how many killings take place because people do careless, stupid things. In the gun report that my assistant, Jennifer Mascia, and I compile on my blog, I see daily examples of children accidentally shooting other children with a gun found in the house.
Just the other day, in Burkesville, Ky., a 5-year-old boy shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a small rifle that had been given to him as a present. Who gives a 5-year-old a gun? (The rifle is called a Crickett; incredibly, it is marketed specifically to children.) Who leaves the room where their children are playing without checking whether the rifle in the corner is loaded? For that matter, who puts a shotgun within such easy reach of a child?
Gary White, the county coroner, was quick to say that no charges would be brought because it was an accident — and, after all, “accidents happen.” But it was a completely preventable accident. When a passenger dies in a car accident that is the result of negligence, there are usually serious legal consequences for the driver. If we really want to reduce gun violence, there must be consequences for negligent gun owners, too. The entire culture of gun ownership has to begin emphasizing safety in a way it doesn’t now. It is as important as universal background checks, or limits on magazine rounds.
Shari Telvick couldn’t live in Florida after Imhoff’s death. “It was unbearable to be in that house without him,” she said. She remains devastated. Two months after Imhoff died, she told me, his first grandchild was born.
Telvick had never been friendly with the Detlors, and she made it clear that she didn’t want to see them. But she’s been surprised, she said, that they’ve never reached out to Greg’s children, whom they’ve known for years.
I decided to call the Detlors. The woman who answered refused to put Richard Detlor on the phone.
“Do you think he is sorry?” I asked. “Sorry for what?” she said, before hanging up on me.
A few days later, I called again. The same woman picked up. This time, she said, “We are as much victims as anyone else in this.”
Then, once again, she hung up the phone.
And, according to the NRA, the obvious answer to any problem at all is MOAR GUNZ!!! Here’s Ms. Collins:
We have not been paying nearly enough attention to helium legislation.
Seriously. We’ve been complaining about the way Congress fails at everything except scheduling vacations. So it seems only fair to salute the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. The way things are going, it could be the most significant piece of legislation to make it into law this year.
The issue is our helium stockpile, which is scheduled to go out of business. The House approved a bipartisan bill to save the program just before the members — yes! — left town for vacation. The Senate seems inclined to go along, unless, of course, Ted Cruz decides it’s a United Nations plot.
The House debate took two days, which some people felt was way more than enough time, given the fact that the final vote was 394 to 1. The lone “nay” came from Representative Linda Sanchez of California, who accidentally pressed the wrong button.
Democrats complained that the House could have taken care of helium in an hour, if the Republicans hadn’t been afraid of discussing anything else. It’s been a tough stretch for Republican leaders, who had set aside several days to debate a plan to improve the Obama health care act, before the rank-and-file rejected the idea on the grounds that it might improve the Obama health care act.
So, helium. “I’m pleased to support this bill, which shows that this Tea Party Congress will make the tough choice to keep children’s birthday parties on schedule and give industries that rely on helium the lift that they deserve,” sniped Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia.
The second most popular theme for speeches, which Johnson ignored, was: look, helium is not a joke.
“Despite what many think, helium is not just used for party balloons,” said Representative Doc Hastings of Washington, the Republican who brought the bill to the House floor.
Actually, if you’d heard the entire debate you would have been so impressed with helium that you would be wondering whether it should be wasted on balloons at all. It’s used in M.R.I. machines, scientific research, fiber optics, aerospace technology. And it’s not all that easy to come by, being the product of slow radioactive decay deep in the earth.
“It’s liquid down to absolute zero. You can pour it on M.R.I. magnets. It’ll cool those superconductive magnets down. There’s nothing else like it,” said Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, a physicist who has very strong feelings about helium.
The United States began stockpiling helium after World War I because Congress was worried about catching up with the Germans in the race to build a fleet of dirigibles. Miraculously, despite the Pentagon’s affection for continuing to build things that have no earthly use in modern warfare, the government eventually cut back on the blimp program. But it kept the stockpile going at a helium reserve near Amarillo, Tex.
In 1996, during the Newt Gingrich era, Congress voted to go out of the helium business and let private enterprise take over as soon as the reserve paid off the money the government had sunk into it.
Hasn’t quite worked out. The debt is almost paid off, but the magic of the marketplace hasn’t kicked in. If the reserve closes now, the country loses 40 percent of its helium supply. So, last week, the House voted to extend the program. “Many people don’t believe that the federal government should be in the helium business, and I would agree,” said Hastings, as he pushed the bill to keep the government in the helium business.
There are two ways to look at this story. One is that it’s about the impossibility of ever actually stopping any government program. Former Representative Barney Frank, who said in 1996 that if Congress could not manage to get rid of the helium reserve “then we cannot undo anything,” hasn’t changed his mind. “Everybody is against waste, but strongly defends this or that particular piece,” Frank said in a phone interview.
He’s right. I have fond memories of listening to protests after Congress managed, with great effort, to end a totally useless subsidy on mohair. Most of the howls came from lawmakers from Texas, land of many mohair goats. “I have a mohair sweater! It’s my favorite one!” cried Republican Lamar Smith. The subsidy came creeping back a few years later.
But there’s another possible moral. The helium program is great; it provided the country with a crucial product that business wasn’t prepared to produce. It spurred economic growth and scientific research and made enough profit to pay the taxpayers back.
Maybe the only mistake was trying to pull the plug in the first place.
“The federal government going into helium in the 1920s I think was a fine thing,” said Holt. He looks upon the current bill not as a temporary fix but as “a validation” of government’s role in looking after things that the private sector is reluctant or afraid to take on.
The helium reserve, by the way, is still going to run dry in five or 10 years. Maybe private enterprise will step up to the plate. But if not, somebody’s going to have to organize one hell of a balloon recycling program.