Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Constitution versus Brocco-Tyranny

The mandate to purchase health insurance is the primary legal issue in the case soon to appear before the Supreme Court. Does the Federal government have the authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to make people buy something? What, opponents of the bill frequently ask, is to stop the government from making everyone buy broccoli?

This  argument ignores the fact that state governments already have this power. There has been no constitutional challenge, after all, to the mandate in the Massachusetts health care law. So why is it that, over the last 220 years, not a single state has passed a law requiring citizens to buy broccoli?

The answer can be found in the U.S. Constitution. Not in Article I, Section 8, where the Commerce Clause is found, but in Article IV, Section 4: "The United States shall guarantee to each state a Republican Form of Government." States don't require their citizens to buy broccoli, because they are democracies and voters don't want a broccoli mandate.

This is the ultimate security for citizens in general. It doesn't protect minorities against tyranny by the majority; the Bill of Rights does that. But the intended protection of citizens against tyranny by the government is representative democracy.

Of course, citizens don't want an insurance mandate, either. But they overwhelmingly do want a ban on exclusion by insurance companies for preexisting conditions. It's up to the advocates of a mandate to explain that having one without the other would be like telling people they could wait until after the accident to buy auto insurance.


What is one to make of all these claims by right-wing pundits that the coverage of Herman Cain's alleged boorishness represents racism? On its face the charge is absurd. Senator Bob Packwood and Rep. Anthony Weiner are among  the prominent white boys who have had their careers derailed by evidence of inappropriate behavior towards women.

What I think lies behind the charges is a variant of a ploy widely practiced among elementary-school students when insulted: saying "I know you are, but what am I?" Republicans get tired of being called racists and start itching to turn the tables. Thus, after Obama's election in 2008, there was a spate of comments on right-wing websites about how blacks were racists for supporting Obama just because he was black, as if they hadn't overwhelmingly supported John Kerry and Al Gore. And let's not forget Rush Limbaugh's charge of racism against Sonia Sotomayor.

But it's even better when, instead of accusing a member of a racial minority of being racist, you can really stick it to the liberals by accusing whites. Republicans don't get such an opportunity very often, but Clarence Thomas employed this strategy with notable success.

Another favorite table-turner is sexism. Thus, if people criticize Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin, it's not because Bachmann and Palin are unqualified (in both senses) ignoramuses. It's because the people criticizing them are sexists.

The larger advantage of this ploy is that it preemptively devalues things people might say about you. A past master was Yasir Arafat, who never let an opportunity pass to accuse Israel of antisemitism (Arabs are Semites, get it?) and terrorism.

The danger to Republicans in using the IKYABWAI Ploy, of course, is that it can so easily be turned against them, and with much better reason. For example, Republicans in Congress are unanimous that there should be dramatic cuts in programs helping the poor and middle class, and that no sacrifice, no matter how slight, should be demanded of the rich. What can one call this but "Republican class warfare"? The ever-polite Democrats have not called it that, of course.

And what about accepting American decline? What better exemplifies that than the Republican attitude that we can't afford to do anything big, and so we must just hunker down and try to avoid losing ground?

I never considered myself terribly astute as a politician. But when I see how bad professional pols are at doing obvious things, I have to wonder.

Pitching "The Matrix"

After seeing it again on TV:

"See, basically it's a Philip K. Dick story, but he didn't write it, so we don't have to pay for rights.

"No, not 'Minority Report' or 'Blade Runner.' I mean the books where it turns out that everything we see is a carefully constructed illusion, and reality is much worse than anyone realizes. OK, you haven't read them. Who has? They're depressing. But we put in a happy ending. Think 'Total Recall.'

"Only our target is high school and college kids, so the illusion is ... digital!  And the hero is a computer hacker. Instead of Arnold, I see Keanu Reeves.

"Then we just plug in some teenage angst, and basically we're done. The hero feels there's something wrong with the world, but he can't put his finger on it. But it turns out he's the guy everyone's been waiting for, the only guy who can save humanity and awaken people to reality!

"And there's small group of underground fighters who are the only people who can see reality and realize the hero's importance. One of them, of course, is a hot chick who falls in love with him.

"And the good guys have a computer program that instantly makes the hero incredibly good at--wait for it--kung fu! We toss in a ton of martial arts flying-through-the-air special effects.

"Oh, and lots of gunfire and stuff getting destroyed.

"No, forget about Arnold. This will be twice as big as 'Total Recall'. Think 'Terminator 2'. Oh, and did I mention we've got a men-versus-machines plot?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Health Numbers We Can Do Without

I was looking forward to reading Ezekiel Emanuel's opinion piece in The New York Times online about health-care costs. Looking forward, at any rate, to banging my head against the wall as he made the arguments that brother Rahm should have suggested to his boss two years ago. I was disappointed.

Instead, Emanuel first tries to give an idea of the size of health care costs with the hoary old stack-of-dollar-bills image so dear to Ronald Reagan. Can we please stop doing this? You can use it about virtually any number concerned with the US economy, and it sounds huge.

Actually, all it shows is that we're a big country. In population we're now the third-largest country in the world: there's China and India, and then us. If you stacked  up all Americans head to foot they would reach from here to the moon and beyond (assuming an average height of 4.5 feet, which seems conservative). If you put the whole U.S. GDP into one dollar bills, it would make a stack from the earth to the moon, back to the earth, back to the moon, and halfway back to earth. Or we could put it into pennies, and then it would go from here to Saturn and halfway back. Does this actually tell us anything? Americans' spending on things to read would form a pile of dollar bills four times the height of the International Space Station. Is that a lot or a little?

Emanuel has more comparisons, and again, all they prove is that the US is a big country. We spend as much on health care as France spends on everything. But we spend as much on cosmetics as Iceland spends on everything. Again, so what?

Here is what you need to know about health care spending in the US in a nutshell:
  1. Over the next ten years, we'll spend about $30 trillion on health care. 
  2. The cost of the health care reform bill is about 3% of that. Since almost half of all health care spending goes through the Federal government, the cost of Obamacare is about 6% of current Federal spending on health care.
  3. We spend about $2500 more per capita than the next-most-expensive health care system in the world. That's $10,000 for a family of four. The next-most-expensive health care system in the world has universal care and better health statistics than we do.
  4. Implication: It's not at all hard to believe that Obamacare, while covering tens of millions more people, could improve efficiency enough to decrease total Federal health care spending (and, a fortiori, total US health-care spending).
Throw in the fact that we rank between 30th and 40th in the world in life expectancy and infant survival, and you've got everything you need to hold your own at your next cocktail party.

[Notes: A dollar bill is about 0.1 mm thick. A penny is 1.5 mm thick, so a dollar in pennies is about 1,500 times as thick as a dollar bill. The average distance from the earth to the moon is about 384,000 km; the minimum distance from the earth to Saturn is 1.2 billion km. The 2010 US GDP was about $14.5 trillion.]

For Marijuana Prohibition

We often hear the laws against marijuana compared to Prohibition, usually alluding to their futility and their encouragement of violent criminal gangs. Actually, though, proponents of legalization should be advocating placing marijuana under a regime similar to the Volstead Act, the harsh implementing legislation of the Eighteenth Amendment.

Here are some things that were legal for alcohol under the Volstead Act:

  1. Possession in one's own home
  2. Serving to a bona fide guest
  3. Purchase for medical purposes, with a bona fide prescription
The slogan for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws should be "Prohibition Now!"

Of course, legalizing home cultivation would mean a drastic cut in revenues to criminal gangs, as well as making it safe again to hike in national forests, but let's start small and see how it goes.