Saturday, April 28, 2012

Virginia Supreme Court rules that "climate change" is not like a typical insurable peril in liability law; DC gas station's outrageous prices

The Washington Times ran a front-page story Thursday April 27, 2012 about a ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court, which would not protect an Arlington energy company AES Corp (link) from possible liability for climate change in a lawsuit filed against many companies by low-lying Alaska coastal town Kivalina.   The Virginia court ruled on a second suit brought by a liability insurance carrier for AES.  The article by David Sherfinski is here

Could suits follow from Bangladesh or the Maldives?  The island town says it is already uninhabitable.
The court said that global warming was not an “accident”  that can be insured against by normal liability insurance carried by businesses.

What if one said that about tornadoes linked to global warming?

One wonders if this idea could be applied to liability insurance for libel, as in Internet reputation cases starting to develop.

As for climate change and gas prices – they are coming down, but not at this Exxon on M Street in Washington DC.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Passengers quarantined on tarmac in Chicago under frivolous circumstances

Passengers were quarantined on the tarmac at Midway airport Thursday for two hours. The details ar a bit confusing, but a child on the plane had a rash and the crew somehow thought she and/or her mother had monkeypox (related to smallpox) based on a cabin conversation overheard by crew.  The woman had been adopting a special-needs child from Uganda.

Photographs of the rash were transmitted by Internet to CDC, which determined the cause to be bedbug bites. Bedbugs are not known to transmit any diseases, but they have caused major uproars by appearances in hotels and apartment buildings, even theaters, in many big cities.  

Nevertheless, for about two hours, passengers faced the possibility of long-term quarantine, which has happened in other countries in this sort of situation.  I was surprised to hear that something like this could happen in the US so “frivolously”.

I don’t know if there has ever been a long-term quarantine on a commercial airliner or train in the US (like the situation on the train in the 1977 movie “The Cassandra Crossing”, disaster movies blog, March 3, 2010). 

Could this happen with something like H5N1?

Passengers were doing their own research on smartphones on the plane, looking up diseases like Ebola.
The CDC’s link on Monkeypox, milder than smallpox, is here

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Obama tricks GOP on student loan issue; bill in Congress would protect student loan family co-signers in event of student death

AOL’s Huffington Post, in an article by Lorin Berlin, points out the potential compounding of tragic consequences for families when college students with student loan debt die, as in accidents.  The specific case is that of Christopher Bryski, a Rutgers student who died in 2006, is instructive. The private lender, Key Bank of Cleveland, has been pursuing the parents for the loan balance, and did not have a clear policy as to what happens in the case of a death.  (Couldn’t a life insurance product be designed to deal with this?)  Lending companies vary on what happens with (family or parental) co-signer liability in such events. 

Congress has a proposed Christopher Bryski Student Loan Protection Act, which would require lending institutions to specify clear procedures, but would not necessarily negate the loan.  In the 111th Congress. it was HR 5458, with govtrack reference here, John Adler, D-NJ. In the 112th it's S 1748, here, introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
The media is saying that President Obama has set a “trap” for GOP ideologues on the student loan issues.  The student loan interest is set to double, but the Democrats win brownie points against the GOP if it does, a change to strike at GOP ideology that doesn’t like handouts or subsidies. The story is on Tiger Droppings here  and was aired this morning on ABC’s News Channel 8 in Washington.

Suze Orman, "the financial planning guru of the world", has repeatedly warned viewers that student loan debts are never forgiven.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More voices call for "valuing family work"

Nancy Folbre has an important column today in the New York Times, "Valuing Family Work", proposing that mothers (or dads) with kids under certain ages be able to use "unpaid" child care at home as an equivalent to having a "within-the-economy" job in terms of applying for assistance. The link is here.   

Mitt Romney, recall, had proposed that mothers have to have jobs before getting assistance (or at least apply for them, just as with unemployment benefits).

One could ask the same question about eldercare or disability-care, and the "sandwich generation".  Put that way, the issue impacts the childless, too.

The  sustainable intentional community (Twin Oaks) that I reported about on April 7 gives full "work credit" for child and personal care.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Earth Day on DC's Mall almost a rainout; but the CO-2 levels continue to rise remorselessly, according to NOAA

I must confess, I overlooked Earth Day (link) myself, so I don’t have personally-taken juicy photographs of science-fair exhibits from the Mall this year.  I had thought it was April 29, and then when I caught my mental lapse, the Nor’easter was upon us.   (The weather was the opposite of that great March on Washington in 1993, also a last Sunday in April, with sunny dry weather and a temperature of about 80).

This year, 2011-2012, the Northeast had big snows in late October, and now late April, and nothing in between (well, a little icy crust in January and a lake effect event  for Lincoln’s Birthday). 
The conservative bloggers are bragging that “Earth Day has lost its ‘mojo’”, as with this entry on Politico by Tim Mak (link)

Tim Graham on News Day claims (link) that the Washington Post hides the fact that only about 40 people came to the events on the Mall in the drenching rain (which had conveniently washed out the Nats, letting Ryan Zimmerman and stalled Michael Morse rest).  Is Tara Bahramour’s Post story an exercise in denial (link). 

My own Earth week observance comprised seeing two important environmental films in FilmfestDC, “The Island President”, and “Blood in the Mobile”, as well as “Surviving Progress”.
Al Gore’s official video is a bit underwhelming:

NOAA has an interesting article, showing that globally March was warmer than most of the 20th Century (the 16th warmest since 1888), but still the coolest since 1999, link here.  

And MOAA’s PDF graph showing the concentration of Carbon Dioxide on Mauna Loa in Hawaii shows an apparently alarming rise in parts per million, rising from 385 in 2008 to about 392 (adjusted) in early 2012, link

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA aerial photo of Mauna Loa, Hawii .   A friend actually went on a 3-week expedition on the slopes of this mountain in 1990 to study a rare bird.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Does religion mix well with egalitarianism?

This morning, I visited another sanctuary from the last years with my mother, the Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA.  One of the most politically liberal of “mainstream denomination churches” in northern Virginia, its congregation and Pastor, David Ensign, despite (or maybe because of, ironically) consisting mostly of “traditional families”, has vigorously supported same-sex marriage rights.

Rev. Ensign was said to be running a marathon in the "Noreaster" rain in North Carolina today, but the visiting message struck a certain chord, before moving on to the subject of “man of action” apostle Peter in the Book of Acts.  That is, it talked about Christianity, as practiced underground after the Resurrection and Ascension, as becoming a political and social system where people shared and held things in common. 

At the same time, the Romans were developing a “private” oligarchy, responsible for pressuring the state and the empire for even more aggressive behavior toward “subjects” in the empire, to tax their wealth to pay supposed “debts”.  It may be the overreaching of that “top 1%” that led to the eventual collapse of the empire.

What strikes me odd is to compare this message to what I heard just two weeks ago when I visited Twin Oaks, near Mineral VA.  The tour guide there emphasized a belief that any specific religious doctrine tends to lead to inequality and oligarchy, and that an egalitarian communal society needs to be sectarian, humanist.  That was somewhat the belief of the Ninth Street Center in NYC back in the 1970s.

Wikipedia, in fact, has an entry describing the “Federation of Egalitarian Communities”, here.  I didn’t mention in the writeup April 7 here that there is a sister  (or daughter) community, Acorn, near Twin Oaks, and this smaller community runs a Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  The community is said to be somewhat less structured with “rules” than Twin Oaks.  But all egalitarian communities find they need structure and rules, just like the “capitalist” outside world.  In fact, they may need them more. 

Curiously, though, the early Christians have usually been presented as socially rather unstructured.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

DOJ doesn't share evidence of questionable convictions with defendants

The Washington Post, in print and online, has a major story Tuesday, reporting that (possibly) wrongfully convicted defendants are not told about flaws in forensic evidence used to convict them.  The Justice Department has informed only prosecutors and not the defendants.  The story by Spencer S. Hsu has this link

The Post has an analysis of commonly used components of forensic evidence, like fingerprints and ballistics, and they are surprisingly vulnerable to error, depending on the skill of the examiner. Even DNA evidence can have issues.

Eyewitness identification of suspects can be error prone.  Just a perusal of photographs at many social events shows how easy it would be to misidentify people.  Tagging by others on social networking sites could obviously be inaccurate. 

See also story on TV blog about "CNN Presents" report March 25, 2012 about inadequate compensation for wrongfully convicted defendants.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Romney would subsidize child care so that poor women go back to work (January)

The Huffington Post has unearthed some of Mitt Romney’s comments back in January about mothers and work, in a story with this link. He said that poor women who stay at home with children should be given assistance in child care, including with day care placement, so they can go back to work, even if the children are as young as 2.   Such women should learn the “dignity of work” he said.

I think Bill Clinton said something like that back in the 1990s. But, then again, Bill Clinton became a "Republicrat". He had to. 

Of course, we all are familiar with the “culture war” over issues like whether raising kids is work (it is), and whether men really want their wives to stay home (if I were straight, I wouldn’t).  The lost buzzword is “patriarchal family”.  Another one is “family wage”.

Remember back around 1957, a women’s magazine said, “who would you rather have a college degree, you or your husband”.  That was just before Betty Friedan.  

Picture: Yes, that is a real poster in the Washington DC Metro system, sponsored by Richmond, VA.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Romney can use Santorum's family values as a wedge in the 2012 election; "Is it scary? Is it safe?"

We all know that Rick Santorum “suspended” his campaign, and now Mitt Romney can say “I am the nominee”.   Michele Bachmann goes on Sunday Morning press shows and now supports Romney, whom she used to despise.  Is Santorum an “obvious choice” for Romney’s running mate? Maybe it’s a scary thought.

Ralph Reed has an opinion Sunday in the Washington Post Outlook, “Romney can win with Santorum’s playbook”, or online, “To beat Obama, Romney must channel Rick Santorum”, link here. To Reed, it’s natural to combine Santorum’s claim that economic recovery depends on “strong families” (and the common good) with Romney’s free market.

It sound’s scary.  Santorum’s emphasis on family is not so much just that people must raise the children they choose to have (hopefully getting and staying married), an idea that’s not controversial.  (Back in 1992, that's how Barbara Bush explained the concept: "If you have children, they come first in your life", but the "If" is a very important conjunction.) It’s that people are getting less social, less interested in making the kinds of emotional commitments it takes to have and keep families and the first place.  And that doesn’t wait for “choice”.  Family, after all, is the only way to give value to “the least of us”, he keeps saying.

The Post, on the same page, has a book review by Colin Woodard on Edward O. Wilson’s new book “The Social Conquest of Earth” (Liverlight), which I will order and read later. The review link is here.    

Wilson posts the idea of “eusociality”, as a transformation of social Darwinism for some species, a concept that used to be seen as “kin selection, or ‘inclusive fitness,’” where “altruism evolved among closely related individuals as a way to ensure the survival of the shared portions of their genetic heritage”.   Instead, Wilson modifies the idea as “group selection”, where many members sacrifice themselves for (Santorum’s) common good.  (Military service and dangerous occupations come to mind.)

Family certain fits in to this idea. With social insects (and sometimes social carnivores, like lions and wolves), individuals sacrifice differentially so that the strongest in the group reproduce.  In human families, parents used to have a lot of hold even on childless adults, who often wound up taking care of them (out of filial responsibility).  But in humans, the question of “socialization” is more complicated than just the health of the family.  In many cases, people come to see their individuality as tied to family, and instead the challenge becomes to reach out into other communities.  

Woodard makes a comment about sin and virtue.  I would say that virtue encompasses more than just group-oriented altruism.  It has to do with personal fitness and preparedness, and that's still an individual asset. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

The "Buffett Rule" would seem to just add another higher tax bracket; is it such a big deal?

On April 11, Ezra Klein provided an explanation of the proposed Buffett Rule, in the Washington Post, here on his Wonkblog. 

 Not many writers have made this clear (not even Wikipedia does (website url) here), but the 30% tax rate starts with AGI over $1000000.  It effective would add another tax bracket.  But it would not apply to the entire AGI, effectively penalizing someone for making $1000001 instead of $999999.  It would eliminate some shelters and deductions (but remember in 1986, with the Tax Reform Act, such strategy backfired, and may have contributed to the S&L meltdown).

The bill at issue is the “Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012”, S2230, govtrack reference here  introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Thursday April wealth African American Whitney Tilson, on p. A17 of the Washington Post, argued, “Please, raise my taxes”.  His organization is Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, link.

The White House has an emotional argument for the bill here.  But the tone reminds me of the days of the early 70s when the Far Left (like the People’s Party) wanted to eliminate all high incomes and inherited wealth.

One can ask other principled questions.  Conservative ideology claims that it is up to individuals and families and volunteerism to care for the poor, and that stronger marriages would prevent poverty. The far left could claim that total net assets, not just recent income, should be looked at for minimum taxation. That would affect me, and force me into the dreaded hucksterism, maybe. Another question: how would this interact with the Alternative Minimum Tax?

Richard Rubin of Bloomberg BusinessWeek claims that the Buffett Rule still has plenty of loopholes (here), and many policy experts say that the Rule won't do that much for the deficit or debt problem (but Tilson disagrees). 

The Buffett Rule would make a good video material for the Khan Academy to explain. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My own recent experience with profiling

About a week ago, as I was driving to the store through an upscale neighborhood in north Arlington, VA, I noticed two African American males, somewhat unkempt, approaching properties.  As I drove back on the same route, I noticed them again, approaching a different property.  They were near two churches.

When I got home, I called police, the non-emergency number.  Did I give in to “stereotypes”?  They could have been legitimate door-to-door solicitors working for a charity.  But they were dressed poorly for the job.

I was out of sight from them, and I do not carry a weapon.  But did I give in to prejudice, or act to protect the community, and maybe my own property later?  Leaving the scene (being out of sight ) and calling law enforcement sounds like it follows the “see something, say something” idea. 

Of course, door-to-door sales used to be a legitimate and socially accepted way of doing business.  At one time, even life insurance was sold that way.  Cable companies still advertise to hire salesmen to sell door-to-door in new developments.  However, as a “individual people” we have indeed become more suspicious and more protective of our privacy, and less willing to deal with disruptions and possible threats, either from unannounced visitors or from telemarketers.  This is all happening even before we get into online safety and privacy.

So does our tendency to react to seeing “people who don’t belong” mean loss of social capital, or a shift in our kind of social capital as we experience it?


George Zimmerman has been charged with 2nd Degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.  Check with CNN tonight for legal commentary.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player 

CNN discusses the charge:  Toobin ("She threw the book at him"). Gerragos

Monday, April 09, 2012

U.S. experiences warmest March on record

The United States experienced its warmest March on record, 8.6 degrees F above normal, with at least one daily record in every state.  The biggest gain in warmth was in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes area. March also had about three times the usual number of tornados.

NOAA has a detailed report here. Although observers have pointed out the cold spell in Alaska and Europe, no state in the lower 48 had an average from January-March below normal.

The Rocky Mountains have about half their usual snowpack.  It is true, thought, that there were some odd snowstorms; a brief hit in central Virginia around March 5, and a big storm around Flagstaff, AZ in March. And west Texas had a couple of snowstorms in December. 

Is this a grim sign of the “inconvenient truth”?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

"Twin Oaks", in the Virginia Piedmont, is an "Intentional Community" of shared living (with manufacturing businesses); report on my visit today

Today, I visited the Twin Oaks Intentional Community, about ten miles SW of Mineral, VA, about 40 miles NW or Richmond, in the Virginia Piedmont, about 500 feet above sea level.  By chance, it is located fairly close to the epicenter of the Aug. 23 Virginia earthquake but sustained little damage. The website is (website url) here

The Community is one of about a thousand “communities” in the United States built around group living.
From a “policy” viewpoint, these kinds of places are important because they represent a new effort toward local sustainability, and they could become very much a way of life if the whole country ever had a huge catastrophe.  I must add here, that I think there is a trade-off or balance between local sustainability and individual innovation, when it comes to the progress and good of society as a whole. 

Back in 1980 and again in 1984 I had visited the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, while living in Dallas.  Lama is somewhat dedicated to spiritual practice that crosses all major faiths. I remember a leader there named Marigold who said, “she came here to come to the woods, not be away from something.”  It is located at 8600 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, north of Sante Fe and Taos.  It had a huge wildfire fire in 1996 but has since rebuilt.

By comparison, Twin Oaks is entirely secular.  It has about 95 members, including some children.
The three hour tour was conducted by “Wizard”, 60, who has actually lived at Lama and dropped out of “middle class” life in the 1990s.
The Community follows a principle of shared income, and allows residents a very modest allowance (in addition to room and board) for excursions outside the property.   The medium of exchange is actually work hours, in “.1 hour” increments, almost as if they could be represented by a currency.  An adult resident (up to a certain age) is required to put in somewhat more than 40 hours of work a week. Much of the work is performed in the Community’s main businesses, which largely comprise hammock manufacture, tofu preparation (from soy), and indexing academic books.  The hammock and tofu “plants” are extensive, if relatively simple and straightforward in technology. They are quite impressive to see.  Jobs in these plants tend to be repetitive and “hard” but are done equally by men and women.  (Women outnumber men slightly, and there are some families with children, which get larger housing spaces.)  Work credits are also given for cooking (in the common kitchen, which is large), cleaning, childcare (for others), etc.  Some kids are home schooled and some go to college. Health care insurance (and even dental) is provided inexpensively through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (about 35 miles away).  That makes me wonder if there is something to learn from this in the health care debate. 

There is even a hospice under construction.  There are a couple of common recreational areas where DVD movies are shown and music is performed. There is Internet access.  Use of media used to be frowned on as interfering with socialization (or “social capital”) but now is much more accepted.

There is a solar panel facility in the fields, and some of the larger housing units have solar panels. 

The property is large, almost a square mile, and the tour probably involves about two miles of “hiking” along many wooded trails on the property.  Buildings, a mix of residences and factory spaces, appear at regular intervals, making the property seem like a “kingdom” as if it could be diagramed on a board game space. 

Many of the residences have a rustic appearance. (One of the recreation rooms actually had a board game out called “class warfare” and I had never heard of it.)  The tour imparts the feeling of “being on another planet” (but Lama conveyed that impression, too.)

It may come as a surprise to some people to find manufacturing done domestically by “intentional communities” where assets are shared in common.  (No, the hammocks and tofu won’t be outsourced to China.)

There is a waiting list for residency, which is partly explained by the economy. Someone can do a “try out” visit for three weeks.  The application and interview process is lengthy, with many questions.

The community says it is committed to the principals of absolute equality with respect to gender.  There are or have been a few gay and transgendered residents in about the same proportion as the general population.
The community may have different ideas about modesty and appropriate appearance than the world at large.  There is a common “lend library” for clothing.

When people live in the community, they surrender their vehicles.  They must rent vehicles to leave the property.  Many bicycles are also available.

Of course, it’s impossible to have a “moneyless” shared-living community without some kind of local political structure.  There seems to be a lot of “bureaucracy” and a lot of “rules”, some of which are necessary because of the dilution of the use of money in a conventional sense.

Besides Lama, I also recall a quasi-community called Understanding, in Arizona and southern California, in the 1970s, which I have discussed in my blogs and books.  It had been founded by Dan Fry.  One of its concepts had been “The Area of Mutual Agreement”.

Update: April 9, 2014

There is a directory of these communities.  Here is the link on the "Fellowship for Intentional Community" on the Acorn Community Farm, nearby.  

The Acorn's own link is important to visit, and has many pictures on its blog.  I don't understand how the bonfire was cultured to imitate a human form. The values of the group become more apparent in the posts about their events and celebrations.  This seems more "radical' than Twin Oaks, but that's just an outside anthropologist's first impression.
Last picture: an intentional community on a space station, itself part of a model railroad. The wood chips outline the boundaries of the community, which lives with 19th century technology. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

Older fathers raise the risk of autism

Genetic changes in some autistic boys may be found in older fathers, especially those over 50, according to recent studies.  For example, Elizabeth Lopatto has a story in Bloomberg Business Week here

There’s a more detailed story on Medical Daily by Christine Hsu,(website url) here

A fully detailed article will appear soon in Nature.

There is a social concern that economic pressures on families are encouraging couples to wait much longer to have children, meaning a higher probability of genetic issues. 
My own father was 39 (mother 28) when I was conceived, and I understand that I was a “planned” pregnancy. But I was an only child.

The ABC News report follows: 

Update: April 9:

New media reports discussed the role of maternal obesity in autism. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Would decriminalization or legalization of "drugs" lead to public health problems? A quasi-libertarian response

George Will (on almost the first day of his favorite sport – baseball, for 2012) takes up one of the ultimate questions for libertarians on p. A15 of the Washington Post, “Should we end the war on drugs?”  Online, it’s called “the drug legalization dilemma”, link here. The late Harry Browne, Libertarian Party candidate in the 1990s, used to focus on stopping this “War on Drugs” as the third evil, after income taxes and gun control.

Will starts out by admitting that the mind-altering capacity of many plant fluids is simply an everyday fact of nature. 

Will points out that what we called “Prohibition” of alcohol in the 1920s was really “decriminalization”.  It was not illegal to possess or drink booze, just to make it.  He says that as a public health measure, Prohibition “worked”, even as it led to widespread cynicism and disrespect for law. 

Some progressives and quasi-libertarians advocate “decriminalization” for all illegal substances today.
Will believes that wholesale legalization will increase use, as the stigma will no longer be there.  Public health problems would increase.  But he admits that law enforcement tends to move the problem around.  Parts of Mexico are in lawless shambles now – a real security threat to the US (as perhaps demonstrated in the recent film “Act of Valor”) – because enforcement interdicting traffic into Florida from Central and South America was so effective in the 80s and 90s.

So even from a “common good” approach like Santorum’s, solutions are not so simple.  Will promises a novel “economic” approach in a future column.

My own father once called George Will “one of the smartest men alive”.  That was back in the 80s.
As for tobacco use, my own attitude is “don’t ask don’t tell”.  I don’t peek out onto outdoor pavilions in discos to see who smokes.  I don’t take pictures of people smoking.  I honestly don’t want to know. 

And in the 90s, I was once at a LP gathering in a hotel room (city unnamed) where someone started passing out some weed.  And a lot of the guys still disapproved.  They didn't want to go near it.  

I think I've tried "it" exactly once in my whole life.  

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Northern Virginia health care college shuts down, stranding students with spent tuition and teachers with unpaid salaries

Here’s a case of real injustice.

A private, for-profit college specializing in health care training, ACT College, with campuses in Arlington, Alexandria and Manassas, suddenly closed two weeks before the end of the school year, without paying teachers and leaving students, who had paid tuition (perhaps with student loans, never forgivable) in limbo.  Students don’t know if they will be able to transfer credit to other trade colleges.

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The College shut down abruptly when the Department of Education cut off funding after audits found serious financial misbehavior. But DOE seems to have no idea how to help the affected students.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Could the Supreme Court turn the "individual mandate" question back to the states? Is that what federalism is for?

So, what’s the big picture on the Supreme Court’s “waiting period” now on the health care debate? Is Jeffrey Toobin of CNN right, that we really can read the "tea leaves" from the oral arguments this past week?

It seems to me there are really “Two Big Questions”.  One of these concerns the interpretation of the powers of Congress under the Commerce Clause.  The second is broader, and concerns the power of Congress (and states) to regulate behavior “for the common good”.

The Obama administration has tried to argue that health care is “different” because, if some people don’t purchase health insurance (when they could afford to), others may wind up paying for their catastrophic and unexpected medical claims.  True.  But does it stop here?  I can think of other examples where, in the future, it may be possible to make a reasonable case to make individuals “engage in commerce” and buy other kinds of insurance.  As I noted on my retirement blog this morning, one example could be Long Term Care insurance.  Another, down the road, could be liability insurance for bloggers, because there are so many ancillary problems associated with “free entry” into self-publishing and social media. It is true, that the property insurance industry so far has not made much progress in offering reliable products in this area (because it would be so difficult to price and underwrite and so prone to anti-selection). 

One way for the Court to punt would be to strike down the individual mandate, uphold the rest of the law (accept “severability”), and send a supplementary message that it is OK for the states to pass their own individual mandates (like Massachusetts under “RomneyCare”).  To be able to allow their citizens to have reasonably priced health insurance (without discrimination for pre-existing conditions), states would quickly assemble special sessions of their legislatures to pass their own individual mandates.  Even Virginia and Florida, plaintiffs in this case against “ObamaCare”,  would have to do so.  From the viewpoint of federalism, this might not be such a bad outcome.  States would have some flexibility in experimenting with ways to tackle health insurance, but it would be important that people could cross state lines to buy less expensive coverage. 

We already have similar precedents for this sort of thing. Many states have mandatory auto liability insurance, and in a practical sense, driving is a necessity (if a privilege) for most people, and the courts don’t seem to object to force people “into commerce” to buy auto insurance.

Some of the other arguments made by conservative justices sound a little more canard-like.  Could the federal government (or states) force purchase of health club memberships?  The obvious answer is that some people are perfectly healthy and active enough without such memberships.  Still, the analogy is disturbing.  Today, I had asparagus at brunch, and I remembered the example of eating broccoli, which the first president Bush doesn’t like. 

Where this gets really disturbing is when we get into the “common good”, especially the way Santorum talks about it.  Could the government require smokers to purchase smoking cessation services?  Eventually, you can get back into arguments about regulating sexual morality, possibly for public health reasons (as was argued for a while with AIDS in the 1980s by the right wing), or possibly to control health costs, or maybe even to promote family formation and population replacement.  It does sound like it can become a slippery slope.  What happens to our “right to privacy”, which we’ve litigated for decades (even Lawrence v. Texas)?

It's only fair to add that practically every other western country has an individual mandate, or taxes for health insurance, or both.  (It's been said that the Court could leave in place the power to "tax" for health insurance, "forcing" Congress to turn to a Canadian-style single payer system in lieu of sending the mandate question back to the states.)  It's also only fair to point out that in these other countries, slopes into erosion other areas of individual liberty have not happened (although social conservatives will have a lot to say about the "welfare state" and low birth rates).  Could the experience of other western and Asian democracies apply to the government's arguments?

Picture:  Ice Palace, the Cato Institute, Mass Ave., Washington DC