Thursday, June 28, 2012

Justice Roberts pivots and lets individual mandate stand, as a "tax"

By now, everyone has heard that the Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, through the back door.  Around 10:08 AM, CNN started reporting that the individual mandate had been struck down as far as “Commerce Clause” logic was concerned. By about 10:12, the interpretation of the Opinion had switched. Justice Roberts kept reading, and then pivoted, saying that under the federal government’s power to tax, it may assess a tax and then exempt someone who purchases health insurance as specified by law.
Earlier this morning, I had tweeted a speculation that the Court could overturn the individual mandate, but say that the states were free (following Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts) to implement their own, one by one.  Pressure from insurance companies and otherwise uninsurable voters would practically compel  every state to do so.  (Curiously, the Court dismissed the first challenge that the law couldn't be heard until 2014 because it was a tax, which the Obama administration had opposed.) 

The  case (“National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Selebius”) slip opinion is already available at the Supreme Court website here.

Of course, libertarians have challenged the authority of federal government to tax at all for decades.
Do I think that Mitt Romney would eliminate the mandate if elected? No, look what he did in Massachusetts.  I don’t think he will change it.  And ten years ago, it was common for Republicans to support individual mandates.

A deeper point is the question of the government’s requiring sacrifices, differentially, from individuals to suit the common good.

The male-only draft is still constitutional (1981), and would have to overcome a precedent if ever reimposed.   More recently, the obscure concept of filial responsibility laws (which can affect the childless hard) has surfaced in the media after a notorious case in Pennsylvania. I suppose this (the PA law and similar laws in 30 states) could wind up before the Supreme Court for a due process challenge. 

Mandatory health insurance, even through a backdoor  (or “trapdoor”) “tax”, could set examples for other kinds of mandatory insurance, even for Internet publishing and use.

Let’s face “it”, too, that most of our notions of religious morality have a lot to do with a positive requirement to contribute to the “common good” outside of those areas involving transactional markets.  Vatican notions of sexual “morality” (however filled with potential contradictions) have a lot to do with notions of fruitfulness or  generativity and  the idea that everyone should have a stake in others who will follow after one is gone.   There is also an idea that the responsibility to care for the disadvantaged and vulnerable (even health problems) comes from families and communities, not the government.  Indeed, the loud demonstrations on the Supreme Court grounds before the ruling was read (from people who had camped out all night) sounded as if they were demanding that everyone does his fair share to carry the burdens of others.

Just one other point on the health care debate.   I had a serious hip fracture from a convenience store fall in 1998 in Minneapolis, and got a new kind of operation, with a new device, at the University of Minnesota almost immediately, and healed quickly.  I had good employer health insurance from ReliaStar, and was not charged for the actual operation because a new medical device was being used during the FDA approval process.  I have been told that had this happened in Britain, or perhaps even Canada, I could have lay in traction for three months and died of pneumonia.  In countries with balanced private systems with mandatory insurance (Switzerland, Germany, Taiwan) I probably would have gotten the operation.   If Detroit wants to rebuild its economy, build a lot of hospitals to treat patients on waiting lists in Canada. 

Michele Bachman, as expected, went on one of her ideological rants on CNN.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Colorado -- a firestorm equivalent to Katrina? What about a "response"?

The reports from Colorado, with the recent loss of homes close to Colorado Springs, due to wildfires (especially the Waldo Canyon Fire) is indeed alarming, with the evacuation of tens of thousands. 

We really don’t know how many homes are (or will be) lost  yet, or whether this is headed to become a Katrina-sized loss, involving the Red Cross and long term temporary shelters and relocations.   It’s also not clear if homes not in forested areas are still at risk.

I do have one “distant” friend (ex-DC) from the 90s with a home in Colorado Springs, in a newer, treeless area. I don’t know how he has fared yet.  I visited the area in 1994, when Colorado was the battleground for "Amendment 2" and there was a gay paper "Ground Zero News", in which some of my articles had been published, in Colorado Springs (where Focus on the Family is located). 

Will Air Force Academy cadets be recruited as fire fighters?  A lot of city people hardly think about the burden taken by “volunteer fire fighters.

One obvious issue in drought-exposed states is requiring homes to be built with high standards of roof fire resistance, even to prevent bird nesting.  California has a lot regulation in this area, such as in this link. I remember the controversy over untreated wood shingle roofs back in the 80s. 

Is this disaster the result of climate change?  I remember that 1988 was a bad fire season but people had started to notice warmer weather in the 80s. This time, a beetle, killing so much vegetation in the Rockies, is partly to blame.  But was the lack of snow pack.

At the same time, the Washington Times published an op-ed by Knight trying to connect health care issues with lack of social capital and the tendency of media saturation to make families less cohesive.  I could hardly follow his logic – personal responsibility has become a very nuanced topic, intermixed with the “common good”.  Fifteen or so years ago, libertarians could have credibly claimed that people who “choose” to live in risk prone areas are responsible for their own losses.  It doesn’t take too much tought to see that this position is hardly defendable now.  Unpredictable calamities could well test our “social capital” and force interdependence on a lot more of us.   

In 2005, I actually volunteered a while on the Red Cross phone banks taking calls from Katrina victims. And all we could do for most of them is to tell them to call an 800 FEMA number and wait on the phone for 24 hours for an operator. 

Picture (mine): aftermath of fires near Bastrop, TX, taken Nov. 2011

Monday, June 25, 2012

Arizona governor Brewer looks at SCOTUS today as a home field loss, snipes at president; will FEC have less to do?

While the “heart” of immigration law might have survived the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision today – the right of police officers in Arizona to demand identification of status when stopping someone and there is some sort of reasonable suspicion – the Obama administration has rescinded an agreement between Arizona and DHS anyway, according to CNN. Gov. Jan Brewer is already complaining about the “assault” on Arizona.  Maybe the Diamondbacks gained a split on this one.

The CNN story and video are here

The “Arizona v. United States” slip opinion is here.

The American Bar Association criticized Scalia's dissent (he's called an "intolerable blowhard") here.

CNN's Jeffrey Toobin discussed Scalia's attitude -- and his idea that the Union might never have formed or that Arizona could secede -- in the New Yorker.  Remember Abraham Lincoln as a vampire killer (according to Tim Burton as producer).  Check the link here.

The Court also implied that the constitutionality of police actions under the section that it upheld could face further case-by-case examination in court. 

The Supreme Court also ruled that it won’t reconsider a Citizens United decision (2010) which would prevent a state (Montana) from limiting corporate spending on elections and creating super PACs.
The interesting question is the possible interaction with campaign finance reform (2002), which could have made ordinary blogging about political candidates subject to regulation, until the FEC finally decided in 2006 not to apply it that way.  The Court majority seems unconcerned about letting citizens and corporations alike support candidates in any way they like. 

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of DBacks Chase Field in Phoenix (I was there in 2000).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Political candidates beg for money and ask me to do the same; more on taunts

Today, I received a snail-mail campaign letter from Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, begging for money.  Maybe that's because I did vote on the Democratic side of Virginia's congressional primary -- but, wait, I did the GOP side (Ron Paul) in the presidential run earlier this year.

I’ve never been one for partisanship, and I’ve never been someone to raise money for people or expect people to raise money for me.  Funny thing, isn’t it.  In the glory days of the Dallas Gay Alliance in the early 1980s, we had a female activist for whom everything was about getting out the vote. I also recall getting a funding letter from the Mondale campaign in 1984 just saying how much money I was morally obliged to contribute!  Who do “they” think they are?

No, I’d rather analyze and self-publish “the Truth” and let people find it, than bang on doors or approach people on the streets or cold call.  But, it sometimes get pressure from people, who say that if you want to make a difference, you have to compete (that is, run for office), not just kibitz. 

I also don’t like to be disrupted by  telemarketing calls or by narrow appeals for very specific causes and needs, no matter how worthy. 

Of course, all of this electronic self-sufficiency has a downside:  we are less sociable.  We guard our privacy – not just our personal information but our personal space – with attack dogs.  It used to be acceptable to approach people for sales (“always be closing”) or contributions.  Even door-to-door was at one time acceptable.  Remember home-service life insurance agents?

I heard some more today about that bullying incident on the school bus in upstate New York.  I was struck by how cruel it can become to taunt people with statements about them that are objectively “true”.  I also thought about my own background again – if others would try to oust me from “the game” because I wasn’t personally perfect enough, I might well join in the daisy chain and “pass the trash”, although my own behavior was more about speculating and diagnosing that attacking or criticizing.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sinkholes, wildfires lead to insurance questions, hasty evacuations and loss of business records and valuables even in undamaged areas; middle school kids find that their bullying goes viral.

A recent story, about a homeowner on the Florida west coast who lost her home suddenly to a sinkhole that formed while it was being inspected, illustrates the perils that are very hard to prevent or insure against. 

Half her home fell into a sinkhole quickly, and the house and perhaps property are a total loss.  In some parts of the country, sinkholes are grouped with earthquakes and not covered by standard homeowner’s insurance.   (That seems to be true in Virginia.) In Florida, the situation is complicated, with a recent state law requiring that payouts for sinkhole problems be used to repair damage, according to a Tampa Bay Times article by Susan Taylor Martin and Dan Dewitt, link (web url) here

In many cases, contractors can repair unstable ground from a sinkhole (like repairing a cracked foundation); the cost can be up to $200000. 

But when a sinkhole opens suddenly, a house can lost within minutes.  The homeowner and neighbors may be evacuated or  ordered out of their homes (even from nearby homes not damaged), and not allowed to pick up personal belongings (perhaps work or documents) that could be very valuable.

Sinkholes are more common in Florida, where there is a lot of calcium in the soil. They are common in some other areas, as upper Michigan, and NE Pennsylvania.  And in some cases (as after heavy rains), they can appear suddenly and don’t seem to have been detected by inspections so they could be repaired.

The MSNBC story about the retiree’s home in Hudson FL  is here

Homeowners may usually be covered after a wildfire, according to a California insurance information page hereThe Denver Post has an article on fire coverage in Colorado by Steve Raabe, here

In California and some other states (not Colorado), homeowners may be required to keep space within certain distances of their dwellings free of trees, brush or combustibles. 

On another matter, the recent event in or near Rochester NY where seventh graders bullied and made fun of a 68-year-old female bus monitor certainly proves the power of the Internet to make people into pariahs quickly.  Twelve-year-olds cannot see around corners and have no clue as to what can happen, and tend to follow peer pressure.  The kids involved could face whole year suspensions from school, meaning possible placement in an alternative school.   I was actually involved in a "rumor mongering" incident at the end of Ninth Grade in 1958 (school below), and was reprimanded by a school nurse, but it went no further.  But I am not proud of this at all.  In an Internet age, my own situation could have gone much worse.

For the monitor employee involved, this has certainly turned out well.  There were interviews on AC360 tonight (link). 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chicago lawsuit against restaurant shows that pregnancy, motherhood discrimination is still an issue sometimes

Marzena Castillo, a manager and waitress at a Chicago restaurant claims she lost her job for having a baby, and is suing her employer (the Chicago Northside Bar and Grille) for discrimination.

She says she also was harassed about breast feeding, during a time when the media has published a lot of material on breastfeeding.

The Huffington Post has a story by Jessica Samakow here

Chicago’s CBS Channel 2 also has an account here.

Employers do worry that they will have to accommodate downtime by new mothers.  When I was working in mainframe IT, back in 1993, I spent a whole weekend at work taking care of on-call end-of-month problems without compensation when the regular person had a baby.  But I did get a larger raise a few months later than I would have gotten without the episode.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Obama heckled by conservative reporter while announcing administration's deportation policy

A reporter from the Daily Caller, Neil Munro, rudely heckled President Obama during a press announcement, before questions were taken, yesterday, as Obama announced his administration’s policy of not deporting certain young adults, under 30, who had been brought here by their parents illegally before age 16 and who had been here at least five years, stayed out of trouble, and stayed in school, worked, or been in the Armed Forces.

The Huffington Post has an account here.

Neil Munro has his own account of the incident in the Daily Caller (website url) here, “Obama ignores questions about controversial de facto amnesty decision.”.  Munro is White House correspondent, according to the site.   Obama said that this is not amnesty.  

Republicans are complaining that Obama acted like a dictator, and will hurt jobs for Americans, particularly in states like Arizona (Jan Brewer) and California. The administration says that this is an administrative prerogative on the use of law enforcement resources. 

An individualist would believe that someone who had been brought here by his parents and remained productive should have the same chance as everyone else.  It’s interesting to ponder this issue when you talk about “family values” and Santorum’s “common good”.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Pickens Plan: Debate on fracking and quakes heats up

According to CNN, in a story by Matt Smith and Thom Patterson, the debate on the public safety concerns over hydraulic fracking (or fracturing) in natural gas operations is getting more heated. Small earthquakes, and maybe not-so-small ones, have occurred in areas with fracking, as in Ohio.

The CNN link for the story Friday is here

But fracking could be the magic bullet that promises relatively low cost fuel for another century, without dependence on foreign oil from unstable countries.  Automobiles and busses (even now) can be designed to run on it.  It seems to be cleaner than oil.  T. Boone Pickens has advocated natural gas development. 

In my own case, I’ve seen bills for winter natural gas fall by 50% as supplies increase. Natural gas is the main fuel to power generators that could have to run for a long time after major storms take down power lines.

But the earthquake issue raises ethical and policy concerns, and will certain attract the attention of the property insurance industry.

Premiums for homeowners’ insurance have risen sharply all over the country in the past two years because of widespread disasters, including wildfires and long-tracking tornadoes, and flooding and damage from hurricanes, but not so much from quakes.  When it comes to the risks on flood plains, from heartland tornadoes, and earthquakes -- everyone pays.  Not everyone can live where it's "safe".  

Picture: Oberlin, Ohio (2010), about 100 miles from most of the fracking, but gas wells operate nearby down Rt. 58.  Near my boyhood "summer home".  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

History of loan officer in subprime era shows the problems of "working for others"

Wednesday, the Washington Post offered a detailed front page narrative by Ylan Q,. Mui, “Fighting a system that made her rich; subprime-loan broker left Wells Fargo, recast herself as a champion of consumers,” link here. Online, the story is titled “Ex-loan officer claims Wells Fargo targeted black communities for shoddy loans”.

Now, out of her home in Easton MD, itself barely out of trouble, she runs a business “Professional Compliance Examiners” (link). She has been testifying against her former employer in a lawsuit filed by the City of Baltimore.

What’s interesting is the way, as a loan officer, she had to network and socialize with churches and community groups to “get business”, something I would never see myself doing. She could never lead a double life.  Yet, in pursuing a career with interests defined by others, she lost her own moral way.
She also describes a period when her employer did not want her to approach the black churches.  They wanted other African-Americans to pursue that business.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sandusky trial brings sports culture into question

The trial of Jerry Sandusky with respect to the Penn State “scandal” has renewed the concern on bullying.  “Victim #1” apparently was chased from his high school by bullies after peers found out on the web in 2011 that he had turned in Sandusky back in 2008. The details are on “Pennlive” in this story (story by Sarah Ganim from the Patriot News).

It’s a very poor reflection on our schools that administrators do not handle these situations firmly.  USA Today, on Wednesday,  has an article by Greg Toppo on increasing pressure on police and prosecutors to treat bullies as criminals, link

As for the Sandusky matter, of course, some people would have thought that Sandusky was being blackmailed, before the extent of the scandal became fully public.  In practice, it is very difficult for victims or third-party witnesses to bring themselves to report incidents until they know that abuse is widespread. That has certain been the case with the Catholic priesthood scandals.

It seems very strange that the culture of college athletics (as at Penn State), however, could tolerate or protect the abuse of minors, for as many years as it “knew” or strongly suspected. 

Pro and college sports are coming under scrutiny these days, as with the lawsuit against the NFL over head injuries and dementia of retired players.  I remember being pushed toward football as a child and resisting out of a fear of “getting hurt”.  I was viewed as a coward, a burden on the tribe.  Team sports became viewed as a surrogate for the ability of men to protect others in their families and communities, in a war weary world.  As I noted yesterday, we had the male-only draft in the past.

Baseball (and perhaps basketball) has been viewed as more “civilized” that football, but it has its rhubarbs and beaning battles.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Supreme Court dodges action on whether federal government can fire men who fail to register for Selective Service

Robert Barnes has a curious story on p. A15 of the Tuesday June 12, 2012 Washington Post, about male federal employees who were terminated for failing to register for Selective Service.  The case revolved around Michael B. Elgin, who was fired from the IRS in 2007 after a background investigation instigated for an expected promotion turned up (in 2002) that he had failed to register for Selective Service.  There is some question whether the failure to register needs to be willful, or whether lack of knowledge of the law is an excuse. It usually isn't, and US post offices wide distribute fliers on the issue. 

The Supreme Court ruled that they cannot challenge their dismissals in federal district courts, but must go to federal circuit courts.  The WP link is here. But the ruling Monday dealt with technical aspects of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, not with the constitutionality of the draft itself, which Elgin might challenge.

In 1981, in Rostker v. Goldberg, the Supreme Court upheld the male-only draft.  At the time, this still only applied to male-only mandatory Selective Service registration, since the actual draft had stopped in 1973, although a resumption was threatened in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The Supreme Court then held that military need trumped over due process or equal protection, an idea that might have been significant had the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy been decided by the Supreme Court before it was repealed.
Today, with no active draft, it’s unlikely the Supreme Court would hear the case again, although (as we know from Lawrence v. Texas) the Court sometimes changes its mind.

Were Congress to reinstitute the draft (and there have been sporadic calls to do so ever since 9/11, especially in view of repeated deployments and “stop-loss” policies that amount to a back-door draft), it probably would apply to both sexes, as a political necessity, and might be part of a national service package.  Is this a morally acceptable thing for Congress to do some day?

I'm not quite done yet!

As another little anecdote -- today I went into a 7-11 store and found all the cash registers down, with employees writing down purchases by hand and making change out of a box.  What flashed into my mind was the warnings about prolonged power outages that could result from geomagnetic storm -- my June 1 posting here.  A premonition?

Federal Reserve study documents the mauling of the middle class; also "ordinary people" stiffed by FDIC on deposit insurance

Saturday, on the way to Pride 2012, I passed McPherson Square in Washington and saw the last of the tents, which the media reports as having been removed now (Tuesday).

One tent sign spelled out the message “Capitalism is the disease”.  Sounds like the People’s Party of Benjamin Spock in the 1970s.

In the past few days, the major media have reported how the Middle Class is still hammered by the fallout from the collapse of 2008.  Families have less credit card debt (sometimes), but have lower incomes and still much less net worth because the values of their homes have not recovered sufficiently from the real estate collapse.  (A few places, such as the Washington DC area, were much less affected, whereas southern California, Nevada, and Colorado still have serious problems.)

An article on “MyBudget360” gives some details from a Federal Reserve study, here. The average loss of net worth from 2007 to 2010 seems to be 40%.  The Federal Reserve link is here

Ylan Q. Mui has a story on the front page of the Tuesday Washington Post, “Americans saw wealth plummet 40% from 2007 to 2010, Federal Reserve Study says” with a particularly graphic picture of a child’s bedroom in an evicted Colorado family’s home, here

Often overlooked is the idea that families with children, or “sandwich generation” families with filial responsibility for parents, have much less discretionary income.

In a distantly related matter, Chuck Neubauer reported in the Washington Times Monday that a lot of moderately well-to-do depositors lost deposits (over $250000?) when the FDIC discounted a settlement with the failed Superior Bank of Hinsdale IL, which had failed in 2001 in a preview of a future housing crisis with subprime lending, story here. The TWT story makes a lot of the connection with the wealthy Pritzker family and its supposed ties to Obama's campaign.  I'm surprised to read about "ordinary" people getting "stiffed" on deposits when banks fail.  The FDIC's link on deposit insurance (as of 2011) is here

Friday, June 08, 2012

AOL features video on how works by Ben Rattray

AOL greeted me this morning with a video by Ben Rattray, and his  He speaks about the possibility of one individual’s making a difference – he says, through petitions and social media.  I’ve done this more just with "compendiums".

The link is here  (the video is titled "You've Got Ben Rattray").

In the video, he gives two specific examples: opposing anti-gay bias, in the case of his brother, and opposing a fee charged by banks at ATM’s.

The site  has the instrument to start a petition, and gives some more history on the Bank of America’s fee.
I see some current petitions, such as reinstating a boy scout leader who was booted for being a lesbian, and another one that recently was a big topic on CNN, health care for military families, particularly at Camp LeJeune, NC.

There are also petitions about gun control (access by the mentally ill) and the inability or disinclination of some pharmaceutical companies to maintain availability of orphan drugs that don’t provide profits but that some specific patients need badly. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Occupy DC protests forceful eviction of renter from foreclosed home in DC; why won't the bank rent to her?

WJLA is reporting a case in NE Washington DC where a woman, Dawn Butler and her mother are being evicted from a rental home when Chase foreclosed on the owner. 

Members of Occupy DC tried to block the eviction with force.

Butler says she has put $250000 into the home in lieu of rent and had offered to buy. She claims the eviction is illegal. And it’s unclear why Chase would not let her stay and pay rent on the foreclosed home.

Marshalls and police removed the protestors with force, and there were some injuries.

Friday, June 01, 2012

NatGeo warns us in June 2012 issue about catastrophic solar storms; have utilities made much progress in shielding?

Timothy Ferris has a major article in the June 2012 National Geographic Magazine about solar storms, with the link (paywall, website url) here.  The forecast is for increased storms during the current sunspot cycle, and has the caption “are we prepared?”   Solar flares produce “coronal mass ejections”.  The most recent storm was in mid May this year, but it wimped out, this time  (Richmond Times Dispatch, link here . I saw the NatGeo magazine issue randomly in a barber shop this morning.

It’s not so clear that the current increase in activity is more dangerous than other recent periods. But Ferris warns that a Carrington-like event (from 1859) could fry power grids and leave civilization in many parts of the world without electricity for weeks or months.

Space gear and satellites are shielded, but so far power grids on Earth are not well protected yet.
Dan Vergano has an article in USA Today, Oct. 27, 2010, “One EMP burst and the world goes dark”, here. The dangers from solar superstorms and terror EMP blasts are similar, but have differences.  It’s probably possible for utilities to shield the grid from large coronal mass ejections with large grounding “dampers” and by stockpiling transformers (which ran short in the DC area after Hurricane Isabel in 2003).  Use of dampers might require deliberate, planned blackouts of 24 hours or more given advance warnings of huge space storms.  

The cost is hundreds of billions, but less than a catastrophe.  Shielding against high altitude blast sounds harder, involving Faraday apparatus, which the military does now.  Geomagnetic storms might cause bigger and more prolonged outages in polar latitudes than closer to the equator. 

Utilities have not discussed the problems of CME's and EMP with the public with any candor, as far as I can see online. 

In October 2010, NASA wrote about a pilot “Solar Shield” project, which would temporarily disable power during extreme storms to protect transformers from GIC, geomagnetically induced current.  Deliberate blackouts could become an accepted Homeland Security procedure, but they’re some way off.
Another report from 2010 from Aurora Generators painted a scary picture even for 2011 (past now), here

It's ironic to make this post on a day when meteorologists are making dire predictions or severe thunderstorms and maybe tornadoes?  Climate change, maybe?