Guns versus butter?

Well, the dismal discipline of economics is rich with quirky-sounding theories and postulations; the ‘guns and butter model’ is one of them. It basically compares two goods that are important for a country’s economic growth, and explains how the nation should prioritise its spending on them.

For instance?

Take spends on guns (defence) and butter (civilian goods). A government has to choose between these two when spending its finite resources. The choice will be an indicator of many things, including how a nation wants to spend its money. Some economists think this idea has philosophical and political moorings.

As in?

This is also a statement on where a government places its people, especially in times of a financial or military crisis, when the pressure on the government to spend scarce resources on non-civilian needs are high. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, infamously said in 1936: “We can do without butter, but, despite all our love of peace, not without arms. One cannot shoot with butter, but with guns.” Nazi Germany’s priorities were clear then.

So what about America now?

The US is forced to make such a choice now, not just in terms of spending less on arms and more for civilian needs and social welfare. Economists and sociologists think the country is paying a big price for its obsession with guns and not butter, given the rising number of school shootings. Just last fortnight, 17 people were killed by a gunman at a high school in Parkland, Florida, triggering, once again, a heated debate on the need to control the sale of guns and tame America’s arms industry, which has a nefarious give-and-take relationship with the US government.

But why can’t the Government just ban these for civilian use?

Not that easy, if you look at the history and geography of America. Self-protection has been an important element in American society’s evolution, especially during a time when there were no state or administration to take care of farmers, workers, grazers and other communities. They all carried guns to keep out intruders. This right to be armed crept into the Constitution. A big chunk of society believes, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!” Now, there are 101 guns for every 100 people in America.

Oh dear!

So, gun-related deaths continue to rise in the US. In 2018 alone, 2,322 people have died so far in such incidents, according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive. Mass shootings have claimed 35 lives so far this year. Activists and policymakers across the globe are tracking the gun debate in America since the outcome can influence policies in their geographies, but the US experience offers no respite. As journalist Tom Diaz observes in his book The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It, “every year, more Americans are killed by guns in the US, than people of ‘all nationalities’ are killed worldwide by terrorist attacks.”

Quite revealing!

A much-quoted paper ‘The Political Efficacy Of Lobbying and Money: Gun Control in the U.S. House, 1986’ by Laura Langbein and Mark Lotwis in the Legislative Studies Quarterly shed light on how the gun lobby influences policy. Its efforts succeed in making politicians hide truths about the impact of guns. Diaz, also author of Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, feels the problem is political and economical, not social. “Our perception of the relative dangers of terrorism and gun violence is distorted,” he writes in a Washington Post article. “We don’t know it, and our leaders don’t bother to tell us. Indeed, they conspire with the gun industry to hide it.” This is, in a sense, America’s guns-and-butter moment. It should choose where its money goes (and comes from). The world is watching.

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