Friday, July 6, 2012

It's called "growing up."

In 2009, then 13 year old Jonathan Krohn created a sensation at the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting with a fiery, impromptu speech about what conservatism means.   The video went viral on the internet, amid predictions that we were seeing a future star of the Republican party.  His book Defining Conservatism was published with much fanfare.

Today, the 17 year old Georgia native says he was naive, just repeating a lot of stuff he'd been hearing all his life.   Then he began thinking about these things, realizing how complex the issues are.  He became interested in philosophy, read Nietsche, Wittgenstein, Kant, as well as contemporary philosophers    The first to go were the social issues that conservatives hold so dear, and then he began to rethink such issues as health care and economics.

Jonathan now supports gay marriage, abortion choice, Obamacare.   His favorite TV shows:   The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.   He still has another year before he is old enough to vote;  but, if he could, he would vote for Obama.  Meanwhile, he's heading off to NYU this fall to study film-making, not exactly a bastion of conservatism.

He doesn't yet call himself a liberal, because part of his personal evolution is to get away from the confines of categories and political labels.

Johnathan is still a very bright, articulate boy -- but he has grown up a bit, read more widely, had more experience -- and has begun to think for himself.   He may still have a bright political future, if he chooses.   But it won't likely make him popular at the CPAC meetings.  In fact, he's probably not even welcome there anymore.

It's tempting to say, "Of course."   Any bright person who reads a lot, who gains a wider world view, and thinks for himself, is naturally going to be more liberal.   I know that's not necessarily true, but it is my prejudice.   And it is why I really have no sympathy for those who claim universities discriminate against conservatives in hiring faculty.   I just can't quite fathom a well-educated, widely read, thinking person with an open mind being a conservative of the current stripe -- at least not in the academic world of the humanities.   Perhaps in some of the more fact-based and technical fields.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

To be a tax, or not to be a tax: that is the question

Well, SCOTUS really threw the Romney camp a curve ball by upholding the individual mandate on the basis that it is a tax.

See, Romney's very similar health care bill in Massachusetts also has the individual mandate with penalty.  And at the time he insisted that it was a penalty, not a tax.  And he still does.

He's been cagey since last Monday's decision was announced, saying he "agreed with the dissenters" that the mandate was unconstitutional;  and he disagreed with the majority that it is a tax.   Well, at least that was consistent with previous statements.

But then one of his main advisers yesterday said, "It is a penalty, not a tax."   OK, that also seemed consistent with his boss's prior position.

Then yesterday Romney says, "It is a tax."  Confused?    Don't be.   Wait for the explanation, which is too clever by far.

Even the Wall Street Journal this morning says that Romney "is squandering an historic opportunity" by his confused response to the health care ruling that it is a tax.

Romey tried to be clever -- and have it both ways.  But people didn't seem to get it (like all his jokes;  they are lame).  He tried to finesse the issue by saying:  Yes, I know it is a penalty;  but the SCOTUS majority says it is a tax.   So that makes it official.  It is a tax.

Notice, he's not saying he has changed his mind;  just says we have to accept SCOTUS's ruling.   He was trying, apparently to avoid doing a flip-flop on this, but nobody sees it that way.   The end result is that he and his campaign just look confused.

Whew.   Is this the man we want to answer the red phone at 3:00 am?   What do you think, Madame Secretary of State?


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thoughts on patriotism

July 4, 2012

Last Sunday, because someone I know was playing in the Atlanta Wind Symphony, I attended the annual concert celebrating "Patriotism" at the Roswell United Methodist Church.   I had been warned that there was going to be a lot of flag-waving and patriotic singing (it was a combined performance with their excellent church choir) -- but that there would also be some good music (Saint-Saens' Organ Concerto, a John Rutter choral work).

This popular annual series, now drawing nearly 4,000 people to two performances, turned out to be a slickly produced, multi-media production.  This year their emphasis was on nostalgia and the patriotism of the World War II era.   There were big screens where film clips showed not only scenes of war and the civilian wars efforts -- but also the music of the era -- Tommy Dorsey, Irving Berlin, the Andrews Sisters.   When the audience joined in singing "God Bless America,"  I could almost hear Kate Smith's warm rich voice belting it out.

That song, along with "When the Lights Go On Again, All Over the World," always bring back for me the anguish and the fear, but also the hope and pride we all felt as we pulled together as a nation.

I was 9 years old when it started, and our family -- like almost everyone's -- was touched directly by the war.   My father was just above the age limit for the draft, but he had three younger brothers in active combat missions, and we often didn't know for weeks at a time if they were all right (one was severely wounded).  Three other brothers worked in vital industries making war equipment.   And each of us, children included, participated in some way.

Our nights were spent glued to the radio, listening for Gabriel Heater's news from the front, hoping he would begin with that lilt in his voice that said, "There's good news tonight, folks."  We collected balls of aluminum foil, saved from chewing gum wrappers and cigarette packs;  and I still have a tiny scar on my thumb I got while cutting both ends out of tin cans so they cold be flattened for shipping off to be recycled as a vital resource.  We knew which homes had those banners in the window with the blue star for each family member on active duty;  and we watched with dread when one was replaced by a banner with a gold star.

To my surprise, I found the concert quite moving, probably because it was focused on this era.  A couple of times there were tears in my eyes from the memories. 

This came as a surprise because, since the Viet Nam war, and especially as our right wing politicians and pundits have co-opted what "patriotism" means (Rush Limbaugh's and Sarah Palin's divisive references to who are "the real Americans"), I have felt that all those good feelings about flag and country were taken away and tainted to mean something else.

I still don't like the partisan political aspects of patriotism;  but that's just the point:   this was a time when it wasn't partisan, and there was a deep sense of everybody pulling together for our country.

We'll never have another war like that one.  The ways of war have changed.   But does that mean nothing else could bring us together?   There were a couple of days, perhaps, right after 9/11.    Does it only happen under great threat from outside?     Could it be from inspiration?

Some of us felt it when Barack Obama was inaugurated.   But the rest weren't going to let that last, of course, and immediately set out "to make him a one-term president."

I don't know.   But for an hour on Sunday afternoon, I felt it again.   And it felt good.


A huge shift in support for marriage equality

The African-American middle class, and especially its black preachers, have always tended to be intensely homophobic and were strongly opposed to marriage equality for same-sex partners.

Obama's recent endorsement of gay marriage has had a profound shift in this group, at least in Ohio where this poll was conducted.

Last October, Public Policy Polling surveyed black Ohio voters on same-sex marriage.  Asked "Do you support the legalization of same-sex marriage?"  The results:

     approve       16%
     oppose         63%

A new poll (just 8 months later)
     approve        42%
     oppose          35%

This is a huge shift, from a difference of  -47% to  +7% -- a full 54% shift.

In addition:  in the new poll 76% either support full marriage or, if not, civil unions.

The other important thing to note here is that this issue isn't likely to diminish the black vote for Obama, as was feared.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Aunt Minnie on the American medical care system

Mitch Mcconnell

I'm sorry.   I just can't help myself.  Every time I see a picture of Mitch McConnell, with his chinless, droopy jowls and his creepy skin, I think:  "Put a lace boudoir cap on him, and he looks just like everybody's Aunt Minnie, a grim dowager sitting over in the corner in a long black dress with white lace collar, knitting -- all the while sharpening her acid tongue to denounce those she disapproves of.   It's her ilk that says "Let them eat cake" -- or, more likely, "take your castor oil."

OK.   So much for my sarcasm and dislike of the Senate Minority Leader.

There's also plenty of room to oppose him on rational, policy grounds.   He has a talent for bluntly saying what his cohorts try to spin with euphemisms.    Remember his saying that the Republicans' agenda consisted solely of making sure that Obama was a one-term president?

Well now he's done it again.   On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked him how the Republicans planned to provide health care coverage for 30 million uninsured Americans.
McConnell:  "That's not the issue . . . . The question is how to go step by step to improve the American health care system. It is already the finest health care system in the world."

Wallace:  "You don't think 30 million uninsured is an issue?"

McConnell:  "We're not going to turn the American health care system into a western European systemThat's exactly what is at the heart of Obamacare. . . .

Wallace:  If you repeal Obamacare how will you protect those people with pre-existing conditions?
McConnell:  "Over half the states have high-risk pools that deal with that issue."
Where to begin?   First, the finest health care in the world is available to those who can afford the high price tag of "boutique medicine" offices or at tertiary treatment centers for serious problems.   But it is far, far from the best system in the world for the vast majority of the poor and many middle class families.   Our general health indexes, like rates of infant mortality, premature births, life expectancy, obesity, diabetes, put us just ahead of third world countries, behind some Eastern European countries, and way behind Western European countries that have some form of national health services.

But to Aunt Minnie McConnell, 30 million uninsured Americans is not an issue to be concerned with.

Let them eat cake.   Let the states take care of them.   After all, he said, over half of states already provide these high risk pools where they can purchase insurance specially set up for people with pre-existing conditions.   What he didn't say is that the rates are so high, most of the uninsured can't afford them and just go without -- until they wind up in emergency rooms, and everybody else pays for their care, driving up medical costs.

But McConnell and his ilk can't be bothered with actual people and their needs.  First we have to take care of the businesses and the wealthy people who own these businesses.


Monday, July 2, 2012

"Not a tax"

Flash news !!!!

An adviser to Mitt Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, has just agreed that, if you can afford insurance but choose not to purchase it, you will be charged a penalty -- and it is not a tax.

Here's the dialogue between Fehrnstrom and Chuck Todd on MSNBC:

TODD: It sounds like Governor Romney though agrees that it’s not a tax. So what you just said is that Governor Romney agrees that it’s not a tax. You guys called it a tax?

FEHRNSTROM: The governor disagreed with the ruling of the court. He agreed with the dissent written by Justice Scalia which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.

TODD: Okay. Which -- so I guess -- we're -- I think we're talking around each other. The governor does not believe the mandate is a tax? That is what you're saying?

FEHRNSTROM:  The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty and he disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax. .

TODD: But he agrees with the president that it is not -- and he believes that you should not call the tax penalty a tax, you should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine?

FEHRNSTROM:  That's correct.
Let's wait and see how long it takes to walk this one back and try to reconcile the contradictory position Romney finds himself in.    All the other Republicans want to scream about a "huge tax increase," but that just doubles down on Romney's Massachusetts health care law that had a similar penalty, which he insisted was not a tax.

I suspect at this point Romeny would rather this just went away as a campaign issue.  It can't help him, in my view.   Although it may help some running for Congress on the platform of overturning Obamacare in convervative districts.


Another bit of info to counter the hyperbole

Alongside the inflated bemoaning of the "huge tax increase" that is nothing more than a small penalty for not buying health insurance, we now hear about the Republican governors complaining about the expectation that Medicaid rolls will be expanded.   Their complaint is the federal government mandates a program and then forces states to pay part of the cost.

Now we find out that the ACA will pay 100% of the cost of expanding Medicaid at the beginning, and then it will gradually fall to 90% in 10 years -- meaning even in the long run states will pay only 10%.    And SCOTUS has now removed the penalty to states for not doing that -- so that now it is an option for each state.

Sounds like a pretty good deal to me -- give medical coverage to 17 million more citizens and states only have to pay 10% of it at most.    Yes, I know it comes at a time when states are strapped and having to fire teachers and police.

The Republicans also want to use it as a campaign bludgeon -- the big bad federal government dictating what they have to do.

This information has to be part of the Democrats'message -- how generous the federal plan is.    Why didn't we know this?   Following it as closely as I do -- admittedly, without having actually read the whole ACA text -- it does seem strange that none of the commentators has clarified this fact.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Not a big tax hike #2

Yesterday I tried to clarify the facts about the "tax hike" that Republicans say will be the largest one in history -- you know, that little penalty if you don't buy insurance.  They're trying to confuse people with misinformation -- since they have nothing better to swing votes their way.   

It's not the mandate to purchase insurance that is the "tax;"  it's only the teeny little penalty.    The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the amount with be about $27 billion over a decade.

From the perspective of our family budgets that may seem huge;  but in government budgets, it is very very small.

Try this for perspective:  The Congressional Research Service has estimated that making the Bush tax cuts permanent would result in a loss of revenue over the next decade at $3.5 trillion.

The Bush tax cuts would cost us 130 times as much as the tax penalty would bring in.

Forbes magazine list 130 people whose individual net worth is each more than that $2.7 billion per year.

Still think it's "the largest tax hike in history?"


More on Roberts' ACA decision

[For those readers who have had enough of this, I'll return to other subjects soon.   But this is one of the major decisions in decades and will be the defining legacy of Barack Obama's presidency.   Besides, I find it fascinating to try to understand the inside workings of SCOTUS.]

Conservative pundit David Frum continues the speculation that Roberts either changed his vote or withheld it until he read the opinion the conservative bloc wanted him to join.   He quotes a former appellate court law clerk as saying "any informed reader would conclude after reading the first three pages [of the dissent] that it was written to be the majority opinion."

Added to that is the fact that all references to the prevailing majority opinion are tacked on at the end;  and there are 15 references within a few pages of the body of the text that refer to Justice Ginsburg's opinion as "the dissent."   Likewise, Justice Ginsburg's opinion is sharply critical of "the Chief," which she would not likely have done if she were trying to keep him on her side.

Further evidence from David Bernstein, writing on the Volokh Conspiracy, a blog written by law professors:  the dissent contains a whole section explaining why they do not accept the separability argument -- which is totally irrelevant, given that severability was not part of the Roberts explanation.

Another theory advanced by Ed Whelan on the Volokh blog:  Roberts began writing the opinion when he was planning to over-turn the law, then changed his mind and switched his vote, using the tax option as justification.   The dissenters then took what he had written, added to it, and turned it into their dissent.   This would explain why the dissent was not signed.   Part of it was written by the author of the majority opinion, who then changed his vote.

But back to what Frum writes: 
"I imagine the dissenters either had Roberts's vote or that Roberts left the post-argument conference without commiting to a side and saying something to the effect of "let me see how it writes." He certainly didn't trust the dissenters, as he clearly instructed his law clerks to begin working on an alternative majority opinion (the final product was too polished and too long to have been written at the last minute). And he waited to see what was written.

"What was written was not measured judicial analysis, but rather an opinion that started with a goal --- throw the bill out --- and then figured out how to get there, blowing by any precedent in its path."
Important for Roberts was probably the fact that the dissenters were not interested in upholding some parts of the law while over-turning others -- ie, the "severability" option.  They insisted on skuttling the whole law.   Frum continues:
"So Roberts was left with a choice: engage in the severability analysis himself (a messy task indeed) or find some other way to uphold the bill. He chose the latter, and the result is what we have today.

"That dissent intended to get his vote. It might have, had it only struck a portion of the law. But Roberts correctly realized that he couldn't jump off that cliff without precedent or logic supporting him. Kennedy, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas went all in. And they lost their bet. Just like the conservatives in Congress."
It seems pretty clear from all this that Roberts is the key to this whole decision.   Not only was he the swing vote -- but perhaps he himself swung from 'no' to 'yes' during the process.

I find it completely uncredable that the dissenting justices would have allowed the release of such a cobbled together, messy dissenting opinion -- unless they intended for it to show clearly that Roberts had "betrayed" them.   

It's interesting that some of the good writing about the decision is coming from conservatives themselves -- who would have once been considered "moderates."   Maybe this will mark their return to respect and the decline of the know-nothing right fringe.