March 31, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party, for President of the United States of America: Because Why the Hell Not?

Brought to you by Peet's Coffee...

Okay, in today's email:

Wally --

I need you with me on this one.

Tonight's deadline is our biggest yet, and I need everyone pitching in.

Give $75 or whatever you can:

Let's go,

First of all, I like the hip, colloquial language. Why shouldn't these solicitations be fun? They should be. But can I tell you what I thought when I read it? I thought, first of all, that throwing some money into Barack Obama's campaign might be a good way to get me on a different kind of list. You know what I'm saying? Mr. Obama, for all his wonderful qualities, claims the right to assassinate American citizens (a) with no prior warning, (b) with no charges filed, (c) without due process of any kind, and (d) without revealing the official reasoning, apparently contained in a memo written by his Office of Legal Counsel, that permits him to whack Americans according to subjective standards of his own making. So far, it seems, this awesome power will only be exercised against Americans who happen to be out of the country, but logically speaking (to the extent that such a qualifier means anything in such a context), there's no reason the power needs to be so limited.

Thus, your faithful blogger, who enjoys the fairly regular ramble along the sylvan byways of his home town, might one day find himself, as he walks along the shore of the muddy slough we call a creek, trailed by a strange, ungainly aircraft which releases Hellfire upon his person; and then, there where once your faithful blogger stood, is a smoking crater. Waldenswimmer has been vaporized, along with two or three other exercise enthusiasts, a lady pushing a baby stroller, and the local high school crew team who just happened to be rowing by at that unfortunate moment. All of these Americans are "collateral damage" of the Predator strike, and will not be spoken of again.

Seventy-five bucks seems like pretty cheap insurance against such a turn of events. I pay a lot more for car insurance, and I have some control over what happens to me in my car. Yet I can't help but feel that this is a pretty unhealthy way for an American citizen to think about the relationship between himself and his Commander in Chief. Freaking sick, in fact. Should I use a campaign contribution to buy protection from Obama, Inc. ? Plus, Barack Obama doesn't really need my money for his campaign. He's asking for it because he needs cover for the absolutely gargantuan corporate donations he's going to receive. It looks bad (it looks like Romney, in fact) if he's seen as a sort of political NASCAR driver, emblazoned with decals from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase and Raytheon, and without any real money from the American commoners behind him. You know? So cash from individuals puts a better spin on things. That's what I would be contributing toward: spin control. Either way, the President will spend about one billion dollars in his campaign. He'll set "a new record."
I think we can all be proud.

It sounds as though Dr. Stein thinks the way many of us do. She worked on campaign finance reform in Massachusetts, succeeded in passing an initiative, and then the legislature repealed the measure. She then had an epiphany: you can't change political problems by working on single "issues" from the outside. You have to become involved in politics and throw the bums out. She's also a "sick care" reformer and an environmental activist; for example, she realizes that every human being on Earth now carries around pesticide residues in their living cells, carcinogens that sit there like time bombs. Whether they go off and become cancerous tissues is strictly a matter of chance. Maybe your immune system is a little depressed on the day a mutation occurs in a major organ. So long, but at least the wheat field was bug free!

I think I'll send the money to Dr. Jill Stein. Here's a question I have for myself: how big a mistake could this possibly be? Is it preferable to vote for the Republican Vulture Capitalist or for President Whack-A-Citizen? With or without me, one of those two guys will be the next President. Seriously, how much does it matter which one? I think it matters to two people: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. That might not be justification enough for my support.

March 28, 2012

Obamacare in the Dock, Day Two

President Obama's lawyer apparently had a rough day during oral argument yesterday as the conservative judges on the Supreme Court reportedly ganged up on him and demanded to know whether there were really any limits to the reach of the Commerce Clause. This approach, coming from the Supremes, certainly takes some chutzpah; after all, the Supreme Court has no problem with federal control over the right of an American citizen to grow marijuana in his own back yard, on the theory that the dreaded weed might enter "interstate commerce," and thus subject the activity to federal jurisdiction.

Judge Antonin Scalia, now in his fourth decade (he was appointed by Reagan in the 1980's) of fun and games on the High Bench, weighed in with this when Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Obama's lawyer, sought to explain the government's right to force a purchase of private insurance by an individual citizen in order to support the cost-sharing scheme of Obamacare. The theory being, according to the Obama Administration, that entering the health care system is not really some remote possibility; it's an absolute certainty, so the government is merely "anticipating" the inevitable "commerce" which results and providing a means to pay for it.

Justice Scalia discussed the universal need to eat.

“Everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food,” he said. “Therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.”
This may give a suggestion of the dorm-room-bullshit-session nature of learned discourse at the highest court. It all seems so rarefied, so controlled by "precedents" and "statutory construction" and "canons of interpretation" and the rest of it, but at base it's just a bunch of mostly old guys and women making shit up as they go along.

Broccoli? I know that Antonin Scalia is positively in love with himself and holds his own brilliance in the highest possible regard, but this is a very stupid analogy. Yet I imagine beat reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post will be citing this dumb example as yet another instance of Scalia's matchless legal genius.

To deconstruct this idiocy very quickly (Verrilli apparently had problems with it because, understandably, he was nervous and shaken by all the hostility): the federal government does regulate food, Tony. It's called the Food & Drug Administration. The federal government says it can regulate food because it's in interstate commerce precisely because people buy it and it's shipped across state lines. But the Commerce Clause is subservient to the Necessary and Proper Clause, which controls the kind of laws Congress is supposed to pass; to wit, those that are necessary and proper. So the right question is, is it necessary and proper for the federal government to dictate the precise foods which people should eat?

Even Scalia should be able to see the difference between government-mandated broccoli buying and the attempt to fix a broken national healthcare system by applying an insurance mandate. So Scalia's diversion isn't really the fun issue; the fun issue is the French Existential argument, as detailed in the last post about this issue, which recalls the philosophical musings of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness, or the contemplations of the Absurd by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Yes, oui, c'est la seule chose intéressante! Also redolent of a Zen koan: what is the sound of one hand not reaching into a wallet to buy insurance?

Agreed, it's totally ridiculous for something like this to go off on a point of such silliness. The Corporate Judges (Scalia, Roberts, Alito, Thomas, usually Kennedy) are of course torn by conflicting loyalties. One of the things they must like about Obamacare is that it forces millions more Americans into the waiting, untender clutches of the merciless private health insurance industry. There's not much these Big Business shills like more than that. Yet the chance to pretend to a precious Conservatism, and oppose the reach of the federal government into yet another cranny of our private lives! They like that, too, along with a chance to deal a death blow to President Obama's Signature Piece of Shit Legislation.

So much to love, and seemingly so little time. One cold comfort we might take: Obamacare is not really scheduled to kick in until 2014, and since the Democrats (and especially Obama) have never had the political courage to increase federal revenue by, at the very least, rolling back the never-expiring "Bush tax cuts" and allowing the top marginal rate to float back up from about 35% to 39.6%, there is absolutely no way to pay for this boondoggle. It just isn't going to happen. When it was passed, we had not really seen that the federal budget was locked into a more or less permanent 40% shortfall. The existing entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, are already in negative territory; the government's solution is to add a huge third program, without finding a dime of additional revenue to pay for it other than forcing cash-strapped Americans to buy insurance which they may or may not be able to afford, and which they may or may not feel they need.

I sense that this sucker is going to go down because a Supreme Court which leapt at the chance to elect George W. Bush sees a similar chance to deal Obama a major setback in an election year, and if Romney is elected, the Corporate Junta on the bench can look forward to another fellow Torquemada joining them in chambers when Justice Ginsburg inevitably retires.

March 26, 2012

Obamacare in the Dock

In order to settle a dispute among various federal courts of appeal in various circuits, the Supreme Court has taken up the question of the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act, known colloquially as "Obamacare." At the heart of the cases bearing on the issue the Supreme Court will decide is this point: is it constitutional, under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, for Congress to order American citizens, on pain of a fine or penalty, to purchase health insurance from private insurance companies in order to "spread the actuarial risk" and make the whole scheme work?

I think the first thing to realize is that "the law" bearing on the question does not matter. The Commerce Clause is sort of the Swiss Army Knife of Congressional power. It's been used to make sure lunch counters in Alabama are open to all races, it's been used to build the Interstate Highway System, it's been used for everything Congress wants to do. When Congress can't find clear authority for exercising its jurisdiction over something that looks kind of local, Congress sends in the Commerce Clause.

The Clause itself looks pretty innocuous: Article I, Section 8, Clause 3: " To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." So what does that mean? Well, it means pretty much what anyone wants it to mean. You might think that it would enable the federal government to do things that only affected trade or travel between states, and not matters that were purely within a single state, and that's certainly an innocent and understandable mistake to make, because the Clause does sort of read that way. But you see, unlettered legal scholar that you are, you are not seeing that things that go on within a single state can nevertheless have an "effect" on interstate commerce, and this gives the federal government license to do more, much more, than otherwise meets the eye.

Actually, the subject of national health care is so vast, so huge a component of American fiscal concerns (it's about 20% of total GDP, after all), that deciding whether it's a matter of "interstate commerce" is really a no-brainer. If it's not, then the hundreds of Mickey Mouse things the feds regulate under the guise of the Clause would surely go right out the window. So I would not expect the Supreme Court to spend a lot of time with the argument that issues of national health care are not within the purview of the Interstate Commerce Clause. I think that one's a gimme.

Leaving the truly contentious issue, the Achille's Heel of Obamacare: Can the federal government force you to buy a policy from Blue Shield, and levy a fine against you (empowering the IRS as its bill collector) if you don't cough up? While the issue will be presented to the Supremes in a couple of different ways, that's really the crux of the case. The anti-Obamacare faction has framed the question existentially, in a way: does the Commerce Clause cover a "non act?" That is to say, does the federal government have the right to regulate a person's "inaction" where buying health insurance is concerned? A person is sitting at home in suburban Chattanooga, tilted back in the Barcalounger, taking in the latest from Sean Hannity, not buying insurance. Can the federal government regulate that? It may sound like sophistry (most law is, after all), but a couple of key Circuit Court decisions have been decided on that very Sartre-sounding basis.

Obamacare is an ugly-ass contraption, a long, convoluted, windy, complicated, bureaucratic nightmare of a piece of legislation, exactly the kind of statutory Frankenstein we should expect from the coven of frauds and pretenders who infest the Capitol Building. Neither Obama nor Nancy Pelosi had the guts to really fix the totally broken health care system, and the Republicans, it goes without saying, would not fix health care even for their own dying mothers. As hostages to the fate of Obamacare, Congress threw in a couple of good ideas, forcing the insurance companies to take all comers without regard to preexisting conditions and outlawing the insurance industry's sociopathic practice of dropping insureds in the middle of life-and-death treatment because the insureds had the temerity to submit a claim for their Stage IV cancer. These provisions might stand even after the Supreme Court decision, but if the "mandate" to buy insurance is struck down as unconstitutional, then the whole edifice collapses in a Rube Goldberg pile of cogs, gears, springs, buckets, flywheels and probably hamsters, because those are usually found somewhere in a Rube Goldberg device.

To simplify the issue even more, all depends on Justice Kennedy, in his usual role as "swing vote." I think that Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts would love to see Obama take it on the chin, and will probably find some incomprehensibly involved and complicated legal reason that the "mandate" must be struck down. I imagine Scalia will be the one to write this opinion if it is that majority. The liberals (the four judges other than Kennedy -- Breyer, Kamen, Ginsburg and Soto-Mayor) will probably vote to uphold it and will regard the essential argument against the mandate as a bit of existential silliness.

I don't really care, personally. There is nothing to love in Obamacare, and, as is increasingly obvious, I have tired of all huge nationalistic projects which are just simply too complicated, too unaccountable and too too-everything to provide any help to actual human beings. I would prefer to see a system where doctors must accept as legal tender, for any form of medical service from removing a wart to a quadruple bypass, the gift of a cow or pig or a bushel of tomatoes.

March 25, 2012

The Box, Thinking Outside Thereof

Despite frequent wailing and gnashing of teeth from conservative politicians, I don't think that Social Security and Medicare are really in immediate danger of any wholesale modification. It is true that the current charlatan and talented actor occupying the White House, Barack Obama, has proved more right wing than even most Republicans with respect to Social Security, since reports have it that he has always been willing to "compromise" on this granddaddy of all social welfare programs in the course of "budget" talks with Congress. But that's just Barack being Barack, since he always bends over backwards to please the Republican authority figures in his life (such as the ghost of Ronald Reagan, whom he venerates above all others). I don't think, however, the Republicans are going to take him up on it.

My reasons, naturally, are pretty cynical. Any sort of major curtailment of the two big entitlement programs would, in fairly short order, cause massive numbers of Baby Boomers, and the generation born within, say, ten years of the cutoff Boomer birth year (1964), to ask themselves a gnarly question: just what the hell is the federal government good for then?

The people in Congress, who have very good, well-compensated jobs, especially with respect to their actual skill levels in comparison to people in the country who are genuinely educated and talented, do not want the American voters ever to ask this question. If Medicare and Social Security become so attenuated that they are no longer interesting to the general public, then Congress (and Washington, D.C. generally) are only going to have one excuse for existing: keeping America "safe." Given the general public attitude about all of these nonsensical wars America keeps starting, maintaining, surging and never ending, that won't get the job done. Americans put up with the insanity of imperial wars and the crushing burden of the military-industrial complex because these seem to be the counterweight to the freebies the government hands out in the form of Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, welfare and unemployment. The "transfer payments" among these programs account currently for about 20% of total "income" of the American people; in other words, a full one-fifth of what appears to be "earnings" of the American commoner is actually just recycled money.

Not that the federal government can actually afford all this stuff. Let's look at the current numbers for the fiscal year 2012, which began on October 1, 2011. The first 5 months are now available (October through February) and they tell the usual story. Rounding off (which is reasonable, since much of the accounting is fake anyway), the feds have taken in about $900 billion and have spent $1.5 trillion. Taxes, in other words, continue to furnish about 60% of what the federal government actually spends, and it has been this way for about 5 years. This is not Obama's fault, although the Republicans, of course, try to blame it on him. The real "culprit" is the American economy: it doesn't produce enough to finance the federal government at its current cost, which continues at pre-crisis levels despite the obvious lack of wherewithal to do so.

The problem could be mitigated (but far from solved) by raising taxes on high income earners, but the oligopolic nature of American politics makes this a nonstarter: the wealthy owners of Congress, in other words, are not going to increase their subsistence payments to the commoners. With that 20% income figure noted above, and the 45 million Americans on food stamps, the rich feel as though they've done enough, especially when one considers that the top 20% of all taxpayers are already funding about 2/3rds of all income taxes. Neither party will cut defense for fear of being branded "soft on terror" by the other party, plus it is the MIC which offers the wealthy a return on their investment in the federal government.

It has become fairly obvious that all the new "jobs" being added to the American economy are not the sort of occupations which we traditionally thought of as "real" jobs in the bygone era of American prosperity. Rather, they tend to be temp service jobs which barely move the needle on government revenue and do nothing to improve the labor participation rate, which remains stuck at the same level as ten or fifteen years ago.

This is a picture of a completely dysfunctional system, economically and politically. The Media-Military-Industrial Complex continues to set the agenda concerning (a) what can be talked about and (b) how the issues can be framed, but increasingly this agenda has little or nothing to do with the well-being of the vast majority of American citizens. Since the citizenry cannot think cohesively (that is, as a political force) outside of this frame of reference, the creaky, unwieldy contraption staggers forward under its own momentum, and its fate will be determined by Reality rather than by conscious choice. The political operatives of the Republican and Democratic Parties, the well-connected corporations which benefit from government largesse (Wall Street, the defense industries), and the mass media which control the national conversations (cable news talking heads on Fox and MSNBC, the two big newspapers, TV networks and their Sunday talk shows) will continue to dominate all discourse. Thus, in the fall the American citizens will see their fate as being determined by whether they vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and whether they check the box for a D or an R on the Senate and House ballots. None of these choices will have the slightest effect on the underlying problems described above.

I keep awaiting the visionary genius who can fully elucidate the interplay between human consciousness, electronic media and the anomie of modern life which produces this bizarre, stagnant impotence in the face of impending disaster, but the problem must be even bigger and more complicated than I can imagine, because no one has done it yet.