Friday, March 30, 2012

Individual mandate constitutionality would depend on a "limiting principle"

Eugene Robinson argues, in the Washington Post, that if the Supreme Court does strike down the Affordable Care Act (most of all, the individual mandate), then a Canadian-style single payer system in the US is inevitable.  Now I’m not sure how that would be constitutional of the current law is not. But the Post link is here

Robinson writes that Judge Roberts gave US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli 15 minutes extra to make his case, and that Anthony Kennedy seemed to be looking for a “limiting principle” that could allow the government to require an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, but not other things. Verrilli said that the limiting principle comes from the fact that health insurance and health care itself are intermingled.  Almost everyone uses health care at some point. But not everyone eats his vegetables. Not everyone has children.  (But almost everyone has parents.) 

Robinson thinks that Verrilli made his case.

How many US government teachers are making kids write themes on the "commerce clause"? 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

CDC reiterates increase in autism, but it's hard to say if it's more reporting or loss of "social capital"

Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) tweeted a link to  CDC report showing a marked increase in reported autism in the past few years, now up to 1 in 88 kids or 1 in 54 boys.  The link is here

There’s some confusion because of shifts in the definitions recently.  And the circumstantial evidence suggests that most of the increase comes from greater awareness of pediatricians, parents, and teachers to recognize the signs.  But there is real controversy over how the mildest forms (much of Asperger’s) should be met.

Could a greater amount of media and a tendency toward weaker social capital in many communities contribute to autism?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Individual Mandate probably doesn't represent a steep, slippery slope (maybe a gentle one); Toobin says that mandate appears doomed

The New York Times has a commanding editorial today, “The Supreme Court’s Momentous Test”, link here, where the Times questions whether the Court can put the brakes on its own authority and uphold a “well-founded” public policy choice by Congress, mainly, the individual mandate, upon which healthcare reform seems to depend.

I would say, forget the abstractions about commerce and explicit powers.  Congress is imposing a mandatory obligation on all citizens.  When may Congress do this for the “common good”, even when it might trample an abstract or absolute notion of individual rights?  Generally, in other case law about rights, only when there is a compelling state interest.  That’s more or less a “due process” argument.

Here, it’s true that health care consumption is fundamentally different from almost all other consumption. The failure of a person to purchase health insurance, if reasonably priced, causes the cost of his care to be subsidized by others in many cases.  That’s generally not true of other things.  That’s the best reason for the Court to uphold the mandate.

There could exist a slippery slope. Similar thinking can justify a military draft, for example.  Could it justify mandatory national service?  In the absence of a compelling external threat, I hope not.

But “common good” arguments have been used against homosexuals, both in the public health area (in the 1980s), and more generally with the idea that adults need to be incentivized, with sticks if necessary, to get married and raise children.  Accepting the individual mandate could make it hard to draw a line about “compelling state interest” in a common good in other situations in the future.  One logical brake is that the “compelling interest” needs to be backed up with real facts, not chains of theories. 

The transcripts for the Oral Arguments before the Supreme Court on Wednesday March 28 are here.     The judges expressed skepticism that “Obamacare” could survive gutting the individual mandate, because of serious anti-selection risks. 

On the Charlie Rose show on PBS Wednesday night, Jeffrey Toobin (CNN legal adviser) said that the individual mandate was likely to be struck down, and he admitted he was astonished that it seems to be in so much trouble, even with the "moderate conservatives" on the Court.   Byron Tau has a story on Politico, here. The title of the article is "Toobin: Individual mandate seems doomed".   This was President Obama's main accomplishment in his first term, and could certainly seriously affect his re-election. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Public is cool to the idea that school systems require community service for graduation; students spend Spring Break meeting graduation service requirements

The Washington Post covered the topic of public schools requiring community service recently, on March 24.  In the DC area,  only  Maryland requires it as part of state law (going back to 1992), according to the Corporation for National and Community Service ( website url link).  The Post reports though that the District has a 100 hour requirement (75 in MD).  In Virginia, schools require it in certain circumstances (like National Honor Society).  George Washington University has a “National Day of Service”, a Saturday in September, for incoming freshmen.

Seniors are actually scrambling to put in the required hours during spring break (which would have been for “fun”), and some volunteer agencies actually have waiting lists.  

But readers writing to the Post said today “Community service for students should focus more on community”, here

Monday, March 26, 2012

Supreme Court publishes opening oral argument, on whether the "individual mandate" can be litigated now

The Supreme Court has already published Monday’s oral arguments in the Health Care case.

The introductory question would affect whether the three remaining questions can be decided, at least during this term.  CNN’s Bill Mears has a big overview here.  

The “gateway” question concerns the Anti-Injunction Act, as to whether  a claimant can block a tax (or ask for a refund) before a tax is collected and paid.  That question makes sense only if the “penalty” part of the individual mandate is viewed as a “tax”, which could not even be “levied” until 2014.  The concept is called “Pay first, litigate later”.  Therefore, the rest of the case could be held up for at least three years. 

The Supreme Court’s own transcript of today’s (Monday) argument is (website url) here

The “question presented” document seems to have two parts: (1) does Congress under Article I have the power to enact the Minimum Coverage Provision, and (2) Is the suit against the Minimum Coverage Provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in violation of Anti-Injunction Act, 26 USC 7421  (text on Cornell Law database, here).  The Question Presented has a separate document, (website url) here

Nadine Strossen on NYU Law School explains on Bloomberg News why the Anti-Injunction part matters.

An individual would have to report the penalty on his tax return.

The Obama administration has abandoned this argument (to delay challenge based on this “regulatory” tax.)
There is a legitimate argument that this provision is a “penalty” and not a “tax”. 

Update: March 27

The oral argument on the individual mandate is here.  Kennedy said, "In the law of torts, our tradition, the law has been that you don't have to rescue someone if that person is in danger. The blind is walking in front of a car and you do not have the duty to stop him absent some relation between you."  I'm a little surprised at his statement, although it wouldn't apply to filial responsibility (p. 31). 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Manhole fire in NYC last night reminds us of the danger when utility companies don't keep up with infrastructure maintenance

Last night, at a pricey (by my standards) hotel in midtown Manhattan, I was reminded of how exposed we all are to “other people’s mistakes”.

I was returning to the Park Central Hotel at 55th and 7th Avenue  from the bars (near the “Black Party”) when I saw an assemblage of fire trucks in front of the building that 55th street was closed.  The police let me in the building OK, and let me go up the stairwell (nine flights) to my room. That's not easy at age 68 but I was able to do the climb without significant stopping to rest.  (What if I wasn't?) Pretty soon the intercom was buzzing all the time with orders to people to stay in their rooms and not use stairwells or elevators.  Alarms went off.  But the fire department was repeatedly saying that the problem was a manhole explosion outside the building.  Clearly, in this post 9-11 world, authorities thought that people would expect to be evacuated. In fact, a car near the manhole caught on fire from the explosion (I don’t know if anyone was injured).  Con Ed was on the scene.  There had been a brief spring thunderstorm earlier, and the sudden cold water on the circuit after days of warm March weather had shorted something out. 

Lesson?  When utilities don’t maintain all their facilities steadily (and cut corners for the bottom line), we can all pay.   This time, lack of infrastructure maintenance by a utility company caused a serious auto accident, damage (maybe injury) and fire (after a minor "Cold Front" storm, typical for the climate in the mid-Atlantic).  There was no fire in the building,  but it’s conceivable (from the minor amount of smoke in some areas) that sprinkler systems could have tripped, ruining guest property (like computers).  

To the hotel's credit, power stayed on in the building, and cable and Internet were restored by Sunday morning.

I recall that there was a serious manhole fire in DC (and power loss for a couple days) about a month before 9/11 in 2001, in the Dupont Circle area. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Does "Obamacare" really set a precedent for government say "I can do whatever I want"?

The Washington Post has a story by Matt Dellinger today, “5 Myths About the Health Insurance Law”, as is likely to be discussed before the Supreme Court very soon. The link is here.

The core of the “liberal” argument is that the government is not forcing people to buy something they wouldn’t use anyway.  True.  And ideas like community rating are at issue. 

And Fareed Zakaria has pointed out the ideas like an individual mandate have worked out pretty well in Taiwan and Switzerland (and I think Germany) with lower costs than we have.  

It’s interesting that at one time Social Security was objected to on the grounds that Congress could set the retirement age anywhere, and force very young men to support everyone.  Instead, what evolved, is that Social Security became a quasi-annuity, more or less funded by one’s one taxes, which would make it hard to means-test now. 

I remember a famous line in the short film "Bugcrush" when the archenemy says "I can do whatever I want". But that's not what ObamaCare (or RomneyCare) say. 

This looks like important reading.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cherry Blossoms peak on March 20: it's happened before, but this year it seems eerie and sinister

I did visit the Cherry Blossoms today, March 20, 2012, and, yes, the weather was almost perfect, low 70s and low humidity.

Actually, I can remember a few other years when the blossoms were near peak by March 20.  I think that was the case in 1990, when we had 88-degree weather in March (in a high-rise apartment that didn’t have reversible heating and ac), and there a couple of two-inch snows the last week of March after a warm period from Jan. 1 to mid March. 

Is this warm winter for the eastern two-thirds of the country (remember, we had snow in West Texas in December) due to the Arctic Oscillation? There’s an explanation here

Right now, the jet dips deep into the West, from a bitter cold Alaska.  There’s a frontal boundary in the Plains that would sound bound to create more storms as it moves East, even though “they’re not telling us”.   The scariest fact may be the record high temperatures up north, 80 deg. in Minnesota in March. Does the very warm March suggest a very hot summer or a very violent tornado season?   Probably not both.   But the handwriting seems to be on the wall with climate change.  When I was growing up, we didn’t “worry” about tornadoes in the East, and when we went to Ohio for the summers, the Midwestern storms always seemed more violent. As kids, we would sit on grandma’s porch and watch them.    

Here’s another explanation of La Nina and the Arctic Oscillation from NASA Science:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Newspaper readers, reacting to multiple military deployments, recommend conscription and "shared sacrifice"

On Monday, March 19, 2012, there are three LTE’s in the Washington Post on p A14 under the heading “Where’s the shared sacrifice?”, link (website url) here

The letters refer to Post op-eds about Arlington Cemetery and military redeployments for multiple long wars.   The first two writers mention the idea that most of us have no real concept of the sacrifices others may, particularly in the military, and how we depend on them. The third writer, reacting to the deployments, bluntly recommends that we restore the military draft, including women.    Of course, Charles Moskos and Michigan Senator Carl Levin were saying that right after 9/11.  It’s never gone anywhere.

But there’s plenty of prologue. Back in 1992, independent Ross Perot talked about “shared sacrifice”.  I did get drafted, and escaped the worst, because I had my graduate degrees first.  Back in graduate school, in 1966, I remember going to debates on campus (KU) as to whether the draft should be abolished.

One feature of our moral debate, that particularly impacts those of us who are different,  is that when we are growing up, there’s the opportunity for our parents and community to impart the idea of pre-existing obligations to community and family.  You have to consider whether what you want to do will do good for others, before you choose it – no matter how talented you are.  This got to be “the moral idea” in the 1950s and early 60s for me, partly because the possibility of making the “wrong choices” (like causing unintended pregnancy) did not exist for me and could not exist until I was old enough for some independence (whether gay or straight).   Moral debate was about natural roles and accepting risks for others; it wasn’t about bad choices.  So I understand where the moralizing of Santorum and his ilk comes from.  I disagree, respectfully enough, with Catholic ideas that you can encapsulate morality (or make a proxy of it) in traditional marriage (and procreation within marriage), and I think that this sort of thinking can lead to authoritarianism.  Those charged with minding the store of “common purposes” often abuse their power.  On the other hand, hyperindividualism can lead to its own breakdown and inability to sustain itself.  I don’t know if the highly separated life I have enjoyed will be available for others a whole lot longer.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Obama's short film "The Road We've Traveled"

I watched the president’s 17 minute short film “The Road We’ve Traveled” this morning, available at this link.

I wonder if the president recalls the book by Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled”.  (I hate to say, but there’s another book by Peck, “People of the Lie”.)

The documentary starts with the 2008 economic crisis and spends some time on the auto bailout. Mitt Romney has written, “let Detroit go bankrupt” (just not the Tigers and Lions).  I bought a Ford Focus in mid 2009, and a conservative friend of my mother teased me for betrayal, until I reminded her that Ford did not take the bailout.

The film briefly covers the take-out of Osama bin Laden.
Toward the end, it covers again the social achievements, including the Affordable Care Act (which conservatives call “ObamaCare”, but is “RomneyCare” so different?)  It also mentioned the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, where the president says you will not be disqualified from military service by whom you love (period).  But all of this is under attack from GOP ideologues and can be undone.  (A president can restore the military ban on his own as Commander-in-Chief without Congress.  But there could ensue another court battle. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time magazine traces Santorum's becoming a "religious warrior"; Social capital really matters

Michael Crowley has a hard-hitting article on p. 26 of Time Magazine, March 19, 2011, “The Crusader: Where Santorum gets his missionary zeal and why he won’t give up” and “Santorum’s transformation: From moderate conservative to religious warrior”.  Subscription is required to see the entire article (partial here).  The article mentions the influence of British philosopher Alastair MacIntyre (“After Virtue” (1981) and “Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), both “teleological”) “who argues against the primacy of individual freedom in society”.

I don’t know if this is hype (the liberal media trying to scare voters), but certainly I have found a disturbing authoritarian perspective in Santorum’s book which I do not find in a similar one by Charles Murray, who raises similar concerns about the loss of social capital.  That is, Santorum makes me uncomfortable, but Murray makes me interested and engaged, in talking about the same problems. But, after all, Murray is a libertarian. He can reach constructive conclusions on secular concerns alone (even as he praises the practice of faith). 

The Time article places particular emphasis on Santorum’s concern that society is trying to find ways not to have to love (or even tolerate) the “disabled”, and this goes way beyond the usual abstract arguments against abortion (that is, the unborn child is already a person), to concerns about  hyper-individualism, aloofness, and what he sees as an expanding disinterest in marriage and child-rearing because other “expressive” or work (career) opportunities occupy many people.  This could explain some of his anti-gay comments, too, as one in 2003 (none of it is pretty to think about). 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Northern VA high school for gifted students has controversy over faith-based community service

Greta Kruez of station WJLA in Washington DC reports a controversy over required community service as a prerequisite for membership in the National Honor Society, in Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax County VA.

A student performed her service as a Sunday School teacher in a class with students with disabilities, And the school disallowed credit because of the religious connection.

Fox News reports that the student’s membership has been restored, link .

Should public schools require community service as a prerequisite for graduation or various memberships?  Should faith-based activity count? Fairfax County Public Schools (VA)  now says that the critical test will be secular applicability (for which service to people with disabilities would surely qualify). 

Friday, March 09, 2012

Virginia schools won't scrap tenure

The Virginia state senate, with the help of just three Republican votes, sent back a bill that would have effectively wiped out tenure in Virginia public schools.

The probation period would have increased from three to five years, and the contract period would have gone down to three years, allowing administrators to remove teachers without cause. 

Teachers unions feared that principals could dismiss teachers for non-work-related reasons. Virginia would have has the weakest protection of teachers in the nation. I can say from my own personal experience as a sub, that Virginia has a way to go in defining its online social networking and blogging policies for teachers.

I spent quite a large part of the previous decade wondering if it was "worth it" to pursue certification, in my 60s. I did not.  But it could have been a close call, particularly if I had thought this through right after my 2001 layoff, and had been pointed toward teaching by outplacement counselors, who could have been better informed on the issues than they were. 

The Metro Section story in the Washington Post on March 9, by Emma Brown, is here

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Major solar storm could cause disruptions March 8 or 9

The Sun fired off several “solar flares” (more property, coronal mass ejections) Tuesday, the strongest at about 7 PM EST, following a number of smaller ejections that had started Saturday. Fox News has the latest story as of this writing, here
The latest information suggests that Earth will pass through the edge of the strongest ejections as it revolves around the Sun, late in the day March 8. 
The strongest storms can disrupt power grids on Earth.

NOAA’s report on the flare is here has a photo gallery on the largest solar storms in history, the biggest being the Carrington event in 1859, another large one damaging power grids in Quebec, Canada in 1989, here

MSNBC has a story later Wednesday indicating that the peak of the ejection reaching Earth could occur around 5 AM EST Thursday March 8, earlier than had been expected, link.

If you ever find your power out, and your car won't start, and neither do your neighbors', suspect an electromagnetic pulse attack, which could happen with a high altitude nuclear explosion, or even some top secret military microwave emitters, in the wrong hands.

Monday, March 05, 2012

New site "Honest Appalachia" could track coal company behavior, mountaintop removal

The Washington Post, in the Metro section Monday,  has a story by Susan Svrluga, “In Appalachia, a push for openness; Wikileaks-type site encourages whistleblowers to expose corporate and government wrongdoing, linked on the “Honest Appalachia” blog itself, here

I’m hoping that the site will track the issue of mountaintop removal. I plan an auto trip in the area this spring and want to see this for myself. (It’s hard to see; the coal companies keep vistas of the mines, huge as they are, out of sight from public highways, mostly down in valleys.  I’ve seen them from prop planes, flying to Charleston one time from Cincinnati.

Appalachia extends as far as mid-Ohio.  A cousin says her home near Fredericktown is right on the geological boundary of “Appalachia”.   

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Family de-centralization comes with technology

I’ll take “thou” to a Washington Post LTE this morning, “The Religious Right plays a part in weakening families”, link here with its direct link to a Feb. 23 op-ed by George Will, “Santorum and Romney are miscast as candidates”. 

Of course, too many kids are raised in homes other than those of married parents, and too many are raised without fathers.  The libertarian idea has always been fairly simple, personal responsibility. Don’t have kids until you’re ready.

And that’s some of the problem. We’ve made it so expensive to raise kids.  But it’s even more than that.  We’ve made it seem as though there are more important or “worthy” things to do with life than marry and have and raise children.

I’ve just started reading Santorum’s “It Takes a Family”, and I can see that he is joining the “Natural Family” crowd.  He has argued that we need a simple constitutionally defined definition of marriage (one man and one woman) so people don’t get confused.  We all remember the fiasco in 2004 before the Senate. (He talks about demographic winter, even in the spite of European benefits for parenthood, and he also argues that the discourse in school systems that will follow legitimatization of same-sex relationships will de-incentivized young people further into having their own families later as adults.)  But the divorce rate started rising decades ago, and it was always higher among the wealthy and privileged.  Back in the 1950s, divorce was an everyday fact of life in Hollywood. As technology advanced, even, with say, the appearance of television as an everyday source of stimulation in the home in the 50s, people began to perceive their need for commitment (into the future, and back into the past) lessened, and tended to focus more on their own purposes.  Same-sex marriage is almost too late to be responsible for any of this.