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More Guns in US, Fewer Murders; Student Loan 'Debacle' Looming; Cellphone Stealth Taxes

By    |   Saturday, 09 February 2013 10:41 PM

Insider Report

Headlines (Scroll down for complete stories):
1. US High in Gun Ownership, Low in Murder Rate
2. American Advisers Play Key Role in Israeli Elections
3. Student Loans Called 'Federal Debacle'
4. Social Security Issued TWO Cards to Thousands of Noncitizens
5. Poll: Congress Is 'Incompetent,' 'Terrible'
6. Cellphone Taxes Often Top 20 Percent

1. US High in Gun Ownership, Low in Murder Rate

Several reports on gun ownership around the world clearly refute the assertion that the abundance of guns in the United States leads to a high rate of firearm homicides.

Americans are the biggest gun owners by far, with an estimated 270 million civilian firearms, in addition to those used by law enforcement and the military. That's according to the Small Arms Survey of 178 nations conducted by the Switzerland-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

In sheer numbers of civilian firearms, the No. 2 nation, surprisingly, is India with 46 million, followed by China (40 million), Germany (25 million), Pakistan (18 million), and Mexico (15 million).

The United States also leads in gun ownership rate, with about 88 firearms per 100 people, according to the most recent Small Arms Survey compiled in 2007.

That is far ahead of No. 2 Yemen, which has 55 firearms per 100 people. Switzerland is third with 46 per 100 people, followed by Finland (45), Serbia (38), Cyprus (36), Saudi Arabia (35), and Iraq (34).

But when it comes to the firearm homicide rate, the United States doesn't even make the top 25.

According to figures collected by the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime through its annual crime survey, 9,146 Americans were victims of a firearm homicide in the most recent year. That translates to a rate of 2.97 firearm homicides per 100,000 population, only the 27th highest rate in the world.

The highest rate by far can be found in Honduras, 68 homicides per 100,000, followed by El Salvador (40), Jamaica (39), Venezuela (38.9), Guatemala (34), and Colombia (27).

For America's neighbors, the rate in Mexico is 9.9 per 100,000, and in Canada, 0.5 per 100,000.

It is interesting to note that not only does the United States have a relatively low homicide rate compared to its gun ownership rate, but Switzerland, which ranks third in the civilian gun ownership rate, has only the 46th highest homicide rate, and Finland, with the fourth highest ownership rate, is 63rd on the list.

"The most obnoxious liberal talking points on guns involve the idea that guns, in and of themselves, cause gun violence," writes CNS News commentator Stephen Gutowski. "In other words, more guns must mean more gun violence."

But in light of the ownership and homicide figures, he observes: "More guns do not, in fact, mean more gun violence. Guns can be, and commonly are, used in a responsible manner, especially here in the United States."

Editor's Note:

2. American Advisers Play Key Role in Israeli Elections

Two months after the U.S. presidential elections, Democratic and Republican political consultants became winners and losers in another election — the Jan. 22 balloting in Israel.

Mark Mellman, a veteran consultant for many Democratic politicians, served as an adviser to Israeli candidate Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) Party, which surprised observers by winning 19 seats in the Knesset to become Israel's second-largest party.

Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein, a consultant for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, was not so fortunate. Likud was projected to capture 42 seats but won only 31.

All told, six American consultants assisted Israeli parties during the election cycle, according to the Jewish newspaper Forward. They included Stanley Greenberg, who helped the Labor Party win 15 seats, and David Eichenbaum, who worked for Kadima — which won just two seats.

"American consultants bring a fresh perspective" without the emotional involvement that can influence an Israeli adviser's views, said Jim Gerstein, a Democratic pollster who has worked on Israeli campaigns.

They also have to deal with a political system in Israel that differs significantly from the American model. Israeli laws limit donations and funding depends on the government. Similarly, TV advertising time is allocated by the government, at no cost, based on a party's size.

Mellman spent more than a month in Israel prior to the election. One Mellman tactic was to eschew spending on the billboard advertising traditionally popular in Israel and instead focus on an Internet outreach that attracted younger voters.

American political consultants first became active in Israeli campaigns in the mid-1990s, when Netanyahu recruited Finkelstein for his first run for office.

In 1999, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak enlisted several consultants who had worked for Bill Clinton, including James Carville.

After Barak's victory, Carville quipped that the key to winning an election in Israel "came down to who got the all-important Jewish vote."

Editor's Note:

3. Student Loans Called 'Federal Debacle'

With two-thirds of college graduates owing at least $25,000 on student loans and 53 percent of recent grads unemployed or underemployed, taxpayers could be responsible for tens of billions of dollars for loans that won't be repaid.

That's the warning from the Foundation for Economic Education. FEE's publication The Freeman, in an article headlined "Student Loans: Another Federal Debacle," observes: "The same cast of characters that brought you the housing crisis, a post office hemorrhaging billions, and a school system that gets more expensive as it gets worse has now brought us a student loan crisis."

President Barack Obama has set a goal of boosting college enrollment, and total student loans have increased by 75 percent since 2007. The value of student loans outstanding is now close to $1 trillion, making it the largest share of non-mortgage consumer borrowing.

"The federal government has pushed relentlessly to expand access to college by cutting out the private sector in loan programs and by altering repayment terms for borrowers via executive order," The Freeman states.

"It bears an eerie resemblance to the obsession with home ownership that got us into our current straits — like potential homeowners, students have been encouraged to borrow with impunity."

It is increasingly likely, The Freeman adds, that the federal government "and thus the taxpayer will eventually be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars of loans that will never be repaid."

The loan problem will put a drag on the economy as graduates with hefty debt will be forced to put off the purchase of a home or other expensive items.

Federal policy has also led to an inflationary spiral in tuition costs: Since 2000, tuition at public four-year colleges has risen by an inflation-adjusted 72 percent, and when costs rise, government loans rise along with them.

The Freeman concludes: "The government must exit the lending arena and be replaced by an active and innovative private market."

Editor's Note:

4. Social Security Issued TWO Cards to Thousands of Noncitizens

The Social Security Administration Inspector General has found that 4,317 people were able to obtain two Social Security numbers — even though none of them were American citizens.

"We identified 4,317 instances where the Numident record of two SSNs assigned to noncitizens contained matching first, middle, and last names; dates and places of birth; gender; and fathers' and mothers' names," the Inspector General (IG) reported.

Numident stands for Numerical Identification System and is the master file of applications for Social Security numbers.

The errors occurred between 1981 and 2011 because the SSA did not cross-check the names of the people applying for an additional Social Security number.

"In each case, SSA had not cross-referred the records, indicating that SSA either was not aware it assigned two SSNs to the same noncitizen or it believed the number-holders were not actually the same person."

The IG launched an audit after a noncitizen was convicted of defrauding the government out of $55,000 in Social Security and federal housing payments by using two Social Security numbers. The IG report said: "The individual concealed her earnings by obtaining and using two SSNs, one for employment purposes and the other to obtain low-income benefits through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and SSA."

The IG found 514 cases where noncitizens had reported work under both numbers, making them appear eligible to receive twice as much in federal benefits. In 80 of those cases, at least 10 years of earnings had been reported under both numbers.

Incredibly, most multiple cards were issued by the same office. In nearly half of those cases, the second card was issued less than a week after the first card, including 251 on the same day, despite the use of duplicate information.

In 58 cases, the SSA issued two cards despite the fact that both applications contained the same Alien Registration Number (ARN), the identifier issued to noncitizens.

"SSA controls designed to prevent issuance of multiple SSNs to noncitizens have been effective at preventing these occurrences, and the number of such cases has declined significantly over the past 30 years," the report concluded. "However, SSA's records indicated that, on occasion, the controls did not prevent the unauthorized issuance of multiple SSNs to noncitizens.

"Noncitizens who obtain multiple SSNs have used, or could use, the SSNs to defraud federal benefit programs."

Editor's Note:

5. Poll: Congress Is 'Incompetent,' 'Terrible'

When poll respondents were asked how they would best describe the U.S. Congress, the most frequently chosen option was "Incompetent/Inept/Terrible/Bad" — 40 percent described Congress that way.

The Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey for Reason magazine was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International in mid-January.

The second most frequently chosen description for Congress was "Partisan/Uncompromising/Stubborn" (13 percent), followed by "Greedy/Selfish/Corrupt" (11 percent) and "Childish/Immature/Irresponsible" (5 percent).

Only 4 percent chose "Excellent/Good/OK" or "Efficient/Hard-working," while just 3 percent opted for "Honest/Dedicated."

The survey of 1,000 adults also disclosed that 74 percent disapprove of the job Congress is doing, just 17 percent approve, and 9 percent don't know or declined to answer.

Other poll results:

  • 53 percent of respondents believe Congress has had a negative impact on the national economy, just 10 percent say it has had a positive impact, and 32 percent think it has not had much impact either way.
  • Federal spending has increased 39 percent per person over the past 20 years, but 40 percent of those polled think the rise in spending has "reduced the quality of life," compared to 17 percent who say it has improved the quality, while 39 percent say it hasn't had much impact either way.
  • Respondents think at least 47 cents of every dollar paid in federal taxes is wasted.

Editor's Note:

6. Cellphone Taxes Often Top 20 Percent

Cellphone users are "overtaxed," often with hidden charges, and the combined federal, state and local rates can top 20 percent, according to the Tax Foundation.

The number of cellphone subscribers has grown from 48.7 million in 1997 to 321 million in 2012 — more than the official U.S. population — and 34 percent of households now use only wireless phones.

"This trend toward cellphones has not gone unnoticed by state and local governments, many of which have targeted wireless services for higher taxes," the Tax Foundation observes.

American cellphone users pay an average of 17.18 percent in taxes and fees on their cellphone bill — an average of 11.36 percent in state and local charges, plus federal charges.

The highest combined rate is in Nebraska, 24.49 percent, including the state and local rate of 18.67 percent.

The combined rate exceeds 20 percent in six other states — Washington, New York, Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Missouri.

More than half of all states, 26, have an average state-local rate over 10 percent.

Oregon has the lowest combined rate, 7.67 percent, thanks to a state-local rate of just 1.85 percent. Only two other states have a combined rate of less than 10 percent — Nevada (7.95 percent) and Idaho (8.1 percent).

States favor cellphone taxes "because they can raise revenue in a relatively hidden way," according to the Foundation, which points out that Texas "even sued Sprint because the phone company listed a state tax as a line item on its bill rather than hiding it from customers."

In addition to sales taxes on cellphones, seven states also levy gross receipts taxes on wireless service providers, and those taxes are passed along to customers in higher prices.

"Cellphone users are overtaxed relative to consumers of other goods and at risk of double taxation," the Foundation concludes.

"State and local governments should not single out one product for stealth tax increases as they are doing with wireless services."

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Editor's Note:

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