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A modest proposal

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings of December 14th, many are calling for reform of gun control laws, stronger gun control laws, a re-introduction of the assault weapons ban, and so forth.

These are worthy conversations that should be had.

To them I would add another idea.

On Saturday, author Maureen Johnson tweeted:

@maureenjohnson: Just a thought about teachers/school staff: I think a LOT of them would throw themselves in the line of fire to save children.

I don’t doubt for a second she’s right. Do you? Contrast that with what we pay to teachers for doing their job.

As a society, we have apparently decided that fostering the future productivity of future generations is worth about $40,000 per year. I think that’s insultingly low, but that’s the situation and I’m not here to take on the question of what quality education is really worth.

But I also can’t help noticing that teacher contracts aren’t ever negotiated with the explicit recognition that teachers may at times be asked to lay down their lives for our children. At least, I have never once heard of that happening. (If you have, leave a comment. I’d love to hear about it and what the outcome was.)

Yet clearly, as Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook now show, teachers clearly deserve hazard pay.

I don’t mean that facetiously at all. These are people who, although that isn’t what they were trained for at all, do at times make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of other people’s children.

How can you put a price on that?

Setting sentiment aside, it’s entirely possible to put a price on that. The only question is what’s that price, and how would we pay for it?

How much?

The question is essentially “how much do you have to pay someone to do a job that may get them killed?” Fortunately, we have a good point of comparison: defense contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to one study commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association, the answer is about $80,000 per year.

Figures vary—some less well sourced numbers I found ranged as high as $100k for truck drivers—but $80k is a reasonable value for this analysis. As a rough calculation, teachers therefore deserve an additional forty grand in hazard pay.

Figures from the 2000 census indicate there were 6.2 million teachers in the United States. Multiply by $40,000, and that’s two hundred and forty-eight billion dollars. Almost a quarter of a trillion dollars. Fair enough.

How would we pay for it?

Well, since the hazard to teachers seems to come primarily from guns, let’s ask the gun-sector of the economy to pay for it.

The rationale for this is simple. Firearms, as a product category, induce a degree of harm on society as a whole. As we saw in Connecticut, at times that harm is monstrous. Yet the gun sector is not required to make good on that harm in any way. The fact that the gun sector is permitted to externalize the true costs in blood and tears of their products represents an almost a quarter-trillion dollar annual subsidy, resulting in gun prices that are far, far lower than their true economic cost.

How much is that per gun? Well, exact annual gun sales figures are hard to come by. The FBI doesn’t track gun purchases directly, but only background checks for gun purchases. Of those, there have been 16.8 million so far in 2012. Granted, this is an imperfect metric–not all background checks result in an eventual purchase, and conversely, one buyer can purchase multiple guns. Searching for “total U.S. gun sales” gives figures anywhere from 4.7 million in 2006, to 14 million in 2009, to 10 million in 2011, from a variety of sources.

Since there’s no way to count, we have to estimate. Given the uncertainty in the available figures, and that the latter number is from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (a group who, one presumes, has some informed basis for that figure), let’s go with 10 million. From there, the math is trivial.

$24,800 per gun

So that’s my modest proposal: 248 billion divided by 10 million. To eliminate this gun industry’s quarter-trillion dollar subsidy; to stop the de facto practice of allowing the gun industry to externalize the true costs it imposes on society; to give teachers the hazard pay they so richly deserve for accepting the responsibility of laying down their lives for our children, all we have to do is institute a $24,800 fee on each and every gun sale in America.

It’s simple, straightforward, and fair. It is quite literally nothing more than asking those who would buy guns to pay the true cost of them.

If you disagree, if you think that’s too much to ask, that’s fine. It’s a free country. Just answer me this: whose lives are you saying aren’t worth it?

Teachers’ or children’s?