Saturday, January 23, 2016

Government regulation in our lives -- too much?

Here in one state, Michigan, we have two stories that focus the question of how much regulation should the government exercise over our personal lives.   One has to do with clean drinking water provided by a city;  the other has to do with regulating individual behavior for safety.   The idea of government control over our lives is a hot political question right now.

Michigan used to be one of the more progressive states.   The dominant auto industry meant strong industrialists and their capitalismIt also meant workers with far more votes;  and, when labor unions still had power, it mean progressive policies.   Some sociologists say that Michigan is where the middle class arose.

But Michigan has fallen on hard times, economically as well as politically.  Declining domestic auto production, bankrupt cities, high poverty rates -- and Republican state leadership in the form of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has become villain of the month for the Flint River pollution and lead poisoning of the citizens of Flint.

 Lead Poisoning
Over 8,000 children under the age of 6 now have the potential for developing lifelong brain damage from the lead in their drinking water -- all to save, we now learn, a mere $1 million by diverting river water through old pipes that contained lead, which leached out into the drinking water.  This is the result of inept oversight from all concerned.  One environment official has resigned, and there have been calls for the governor to resign, as it's learned that his office knew of the risk months ago -- and didn't act.

Motorcycle Helmets
Here's another example, reported by Madeline Kennedy, of how the Republicans' mania for shrinking government controls hurts people.   Three years ago Michigan repealed its 35 year old mandatory motorcycle helmet law.   Since then, deaths and head injuries at the scene of crashes have more than quadrupled, while deaths later in hospitals have tripled.    The American Journal of Surgery reports that head injuries increased overall and that the injuries are more severe.

According to Dr. Carlos Rodriguez, lead author of the study reported in AJS, their research compared a period in 2011, before the law was repealed, with the same months in years 2012, 2013, and 2014 after it was repealed. 

They found that, among riders who died at a crash scene, the proportion not wearing helmets rose from 14% before the law change to 68% afterward.   Riders also drank more alcohol, had more severe injuries in general, and life-threatening head injuries in particular.  Hospital stays were longer, requiring more intensive care, and costing more.

Dr. Ben Zarzaur, a surgeon who studies motorcycle helmet laws, said that riders may choose not to wear a helmet because they say it is less restricting and they may claim to see or hear better without one.   It's understanding that the sense of freedom in riding without a helmut may be desirable -- especially to those who choose motorcycles over cars.

But Dr. Zarzaur points out that the study shows the cost of injuries and deaths from motorcycle crashes is extremely high, and taxpayers and other insurance payers often bear this cost"So, choosing not to wear a helmet has consequences for many more people than just to the person who decided not to wear the helmet.”

Just how much should the government control out lives?   That raises philosophical and practical questions that must be decided politically when it comes to making laws.   I think, at least, when the rights and safety of others are at stake, more government regulation is better than less.  But where is the limit?

In both the Flint River contamination and the motorcycle helmut law, there is an argument that third party costs to the public are involved.    Some might agree with water quality control, arguing that the ordinary citizen has no choice in its water supply and must be protected by government regulations;   and, at the same time, the same person might reject helmut laws saying this is too much regulation of individual personal choices about risk, and that it does not impact others except very indirectly in small increased costs to the general public.

I tend to argue against that latter part and think we do need some regulation of bad behavior that impacts our society overall.   But there must be limits, and where to draw the line is the questionObesity mostly affects the individual;   but it does also affect the family directly in direct costs and increased health problems and early deaths.   It also affects our culture generally in myriad ways -- even including things like increased jet fuel costs for airlines to carry heavier people.   New York Mayor Bloomberg tried putting a limit on the size of sugary sodas that could be sold in his city.   It caused a big outcry and was eventually repealed.

So what do we want the government to regulate and how much?   These two Michigan causes offer two ends of a spectrum;   where would you draw the line?  We have an election coming up.   It's a good question to ask the candidates.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Another court victory for Obama

A three judge panel for the D. C. Circuit federal appeals court has handed the Obama administration a victory on climate change.   A group of 27 states had sued to block the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

The case still has to be litigated before the appeals court, but this panel rejected a request from the 27 states, thus denying their request to stop the rule from going into effect until the case is decided.  This is a favorable harbinger of the eventual outcome.


The high cost of Sarah Palin's endorsement

Let's look at what Donald Trump actually got from Sarah Palin's endorsement this week beyond a sharp kick in the groin to Ted Cruz, whom she had endorsed in his 2012 senate campaign.

Here's what Trump's got so far:  two days and counting of being upstaged by Palin and her dysfunctional family.   First, Palin's whole appearance and her shrill, incoherent speech left The Donald standing off to the side, keeping a bland expression on his face, hands folded in front of him, and nodding from time to time.    The Donald playing second fiddle?What must that have cost him in self-control?

Meanwhile, there stood screeching Sarah, wearing a black and white jacket that had little spangly things all over that caught the sunshine and shimmered constantly -- described by the inimitable Charlie Pierce as "looking like she had shot a disco porcupine."

But that was only the visual.   Two things being talked about from her endorsement speech:   (1)  Its greater than usual incoherent gibberish, which prompted Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show the next day, to provide a translation of what she was trying to say.

(2)  The latest Palin family scandal involving guns and violence.  Just hours before her speech, son Track was arrested on charges of domestic violence and handling a firearm while drunk.   OK, so Sarah gets a pass for being a little less coherent than usual that day.   But then the next day, she addressed "the elephant in the room" at a Trump rally in Oklahoma.   Only it wasn't so much about her family troubles.   See, Track is an Iraq war veteran, so Mama Grizzly turned the whole matter into President Obama's fault.**

Amazingly, she turned it into a victim story, not of the poor girlfriend beaten by drunken Track, but of Track himself -- who, like other veterans "come home a little bit different," affected by the war.    Then she brings up PTSD, implying without actually saying so that this is Track's problem and why he did what he did.   And that's Obama's fault, because all these brave men come home wondering if he really understands what it's like for them.

OK.  Stop right there.    If Track has PTSD, she should be trying to get him some help, not politicizing his problems.   And take away his guns.   Did we mention that he threatened to kill himself with the rifle he was holding after he beat the girlfriend?   This happened in Sarah Palin's own home, where Track is living.   So she has a drunk son who has demonstrated his violence who may or may not have PTSD or some other mental problems -- and she's letting him have access to guns in her own home?

This is the woman whose judgment was potentially the next in line to have her finger on the nuclear weapons if she and McCain had been elected in 2008?

There has been swift and loud backlash from veterans and PTSD victims, saying even if he has such a diagnosis, it's no excuse for such behavior.   In fact, they are far, far more likely to commit suicide (22 of them do every day) than to harm anyone else.  And they resent Palin's turning their traumatic pathology into a political sleight of hand trick to deflect attention from domestic violence in her family.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, I suppose, is still standing off to the side, with hands folded and a bland smile on his face, nodding while
 * * * Sarah Palin becomes the show* * *    

All for the price of a dubious endorsement.  Ted Cruz should thank his lucky stars.


** I suppose it's also Obama's fault that daughter Bristol has recently had her second child without being married to either of the fathers -- although I don't see even Sarah's twisted logic working that one out.   Perhaps there just wasn't time to work that one into the bash-Obama speech.   BTW:  What happened to Bristol's position as spokesperson for the Campaign Against Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy?   That was before the second pregnancy.  Didn't she listen to herself?   I'm just saying . . . 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Health care policiy defines the difference between Sander's idealism and Clinton's pragmatism

Paul Krugman writes that "Many, perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer, a Medicare-type program covering everyone."   Hillary Clinton has in fact said that is what she wants in the long run.

But how to get there is where she and Sanders differ.   And this issue, as much as anything, defines the difference in their approaches to government and their campaigns for the presidency.   Sanders is promoting a grass-roots movement to overhaul the way we do things -- the economy, health care, etc.   He inspires particularly young people, who tend to be more idealistic than practical.   But he has a wider appeal to people who feel the government is working for wealthy people and corporations and not for them.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the experienced policy wonk who has concluded that you get more of what you want by compromise and making incremental changes toward your goal.    Rather than replacing Obamacare with a single payer plan, she would work to improve it, starting with restoring the public option that was in the original plan.

Obamacare is the cumbersome jumble that it is for several reasons:

1.  It was the best possible plan that was politically feasible.   Even so, it did not get a single Republican vote but was passed through a process that required only a simple majority.   A slight tip the other way, and it would have lost moderate Democratic votes.

2.  The reason private insurance and pharmaceutical companies were not scrapped is because they have powerful lobbies that would have killed the whole thing, as they did when Hillary Clinton tried to reform health care in 1993.   So this time, they brought insurance and pharma into the plan and made it worth while to them -- and got their support.

3.  A single-payer, government run health care plan will require big tax increases, as Sanders acknowledges.   His explanation -- that the taxes will be more than offset by not having to pay health insurance premiums and thus will save people money -- is very reasonable and works for me.   But in this political climate of a presidential election, there is no way that Republicans are not going to yell "raising taxes on the middle class."   And it will be hard to get people to hear the reasonable explanation.

So here's the bottom line, as Krugman summarizes:
"You might say that it's still worth trying.   But politics, like life, involves trade-offs.

"There are many items on the progressive agenda, ranging from an effective climate change policy, to making college affordable for all, to restoring some of the lost bargaining power of workers.   Making progress on any of these items is going to be a hard slog, even if Democrats hold the White House and, less likely, retake the Senate. . . .

"So progressives must set some priorities.   And it's really hard to see, given this picture, why it makes any sense to spend political capital on a quixotic attempt at a do-over, not of a political failure, but of health reform -- their biggest victory in many years."
*     *     *
That seems very clear.   Why spend limited capital fighting to re-do something that was your biggest victory in many years?   Indeed.    

It might be different if we had a Democratic congress.   But, at most, we could have a slight majority in the senate.   Much as I like Bernie Sanders and want his idealism to keep pushing the Democrats and Hillary to the left, I don't think this is the time to try to overhaul everything.    Let's stick with Obamacare for a few years and try to get some of the other things done -- including Sanders' even bigger agenda of addressing income inequality and reining in Wall Street.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Good news #20. SCOTUS refuses to hear two cases

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it would not grant an appeal hearing to two cases, thus leaving in place lower court rulings.

1.  They declined to hear the appeal of another challenge to the Affordable Care Act, this one based on the method by which it was passed in congress.   This is the third time that the court has made a decision that upholds the basis of the health care reform law.   As one news source put it: "The justices already ruled the law constitutional.  They're done for now."

2.  They also rejected a hearing for the State of Arkansas that wanted SCOTUS to overrule lower court decisions that struck down their law banning abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy.    The court has already, however, scheduled hearings for a Texas case that set unreasonable medical requirements that would result in the closing of as many as 3/4ths of abortion clinics in the state, leaving large parts of this large state without any.