Monday, January 21, 2013

A Tribute Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s work and writings were inspirational to many people from many different walks of life, but not always for the same reasons. Congress has devoted an entire holiday to commemorate his legacy, but there remains considerable debate about what exactly that legacy should be. Part of the debate stems from the apparent ambiguity of King's writings and speeches on "equality", such that it is common for people on opposite sides of the same policy issue to quote King's work as plausible evidence that he'd have agreed with them. From affirmative action to gay marriage, politicians and activists of all kinds love to hijack King's fame in order to advance their cause. The result is that determining what King really stood for can sometimes get pretty contentious.

But at its root, Dr. King's greatest and most enduring message is not political in nature. MLK probably held political opinions that many of his admirers would oppose today, and vice-versa. What made King a true hero was not what he believed in, so much as his willingness and ability to stand up for it. Despite immense odds and tremendous danger, he was willing to do what he felt was right. And through his brilliant nonviolent resistance, his eloquent and passionate speeches, his unparalleled leadership and unending courage, he was able to beat those odds and achieve justice. In the process, he sacrificed his safety, his time, his freedom, and eventually his life. 

It is often said that we should learn to accept the things we cannot change. If your goal in life is to be as happy as possible, that's probably good advice.
Adopting that mindset reduces the stress in life, which allows us to concentrate on the things we enjoy and better appreciate the things we take for granted.

But if your goal in life is to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of others, that mindset invites weakness and failure. If we truly wish to make the world a better place, then that mindset is a cop out, because it allows us to hide from the unsettling guilt we feel when we witness an injustice. It is so much easier to reassure ourselves that what's wrong with the world is beyond our control than it is to get off the couch and do something about it, because only the first option vindicates our prior inaction and frees us of any future responsibility. That mindset allows us to avoid daunting challenges by convincing us that success is impossible.

Only a select few have the courage, selflessness, and strength of character to face those challenges. Even fewer have the conviction, determination, and mettle to succeed at the endeavor.
Those few are leaders and heroes, because they inspire the rest of us not to accept the things we cannot change, but to change the things we cannot accept. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of those few.

Here are a few of my favorite MLK quotes:
“A man can't ride your back unless it's bent.”--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
“A right delayed is a right denied.”--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
“The goal of America is freedom.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
“I have a dream today. That one day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
 “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Anyone interested in reading more of King's brilliant, inspirational writings may be interested in the below link. This was a letter King wrote while incarcerated in a Birmingham Jail to some fellow black pastors who had criticized his protest tactics. A bit long, but truly worth the read: what a leader!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Breaking Down President Obama’s 23 Executive Orders on Gun Control

Earlier today, President Obama announced 23 highly anticipated executive orders in a highly publicized press conference on the issue of gun control. I was initially very worried about the contents of these orders, fearing he would bypass congress and simply legislate his will. For the most part, those fears were overblown: most of the executive orders operate within the spirit of existing legislation. Still, I’d like to assess each one individually from two perspectives. First, is it a good idea? Second, is it constitutional? Keep in mind that technically, I’d consider all of it unconstitutional, because it’s being done at the federal level and the federal government has no enumerated power to legislate such matters (don’t even try to bring that commerce clause argument). Gun control is a state issue. But that’s not the angle of constitutionality I’d most like to address here – I’m more interested in the constitutionality of Obama’s executive orders. Even presuming Congress were granted power to legislate on gun control, the president is not allowed to do it on his own. All Obama can do is enforce existing legislation, not make his own. Did he overstep his bounds in that manner too? Let’s find out (list of orders is taken from The Atlantic, in bold).
“Today, the President is announcing that he and the Administration will:
1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system. – No problem with this. It doesn’t seem like they’re collecting new data that wasn’t already being collected, but simply alerting federal agencies to make existing data ready for compilation in the event of federal
2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system. – I don’t really know what “address” entails, but I don’t like that the president decides which privacy measures  in any law are “necessary” and which aren’t. Still, in the absence of more detail, I can’t pass judgment on this one.
3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system. I don’t know what those incentives were or are now, but the only incentive I can think of that the federal government has over the state governments is withholding federal funds for the failure to comply. In which case that’s stupid, but already commonplace and hardly something new.
4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks. – Who counts as a dangerous person, and why does the Attorney General get to decide who counts instead of Congress? But once again, granting authority to review those categories is not the same as granting the authority to prohibit additional categories. A simple review seems harmless enough.
5. Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun. – I don’t like this one because it seems like just another inconvenient hassle to delay people getting back what they already own. But in the bigger picture I don’t think it will have much of an impact, and if the law says that all gun owners must be subject to a background check, I suppose “double checking” is legal.
6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers. – Offering guidance is not a use of power or force, so I have no problem with this one either.
7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign. – I think this one goes too far. National educational campaigns are not free, which means unless Congress has passed some law that I don’t know about granting funds for the purpose (perhaps in the ATF’s creation?), Obama just deciding that we need one is unconstitutional. Even if it is legal, it’s just silly, because national education campaigns on just about anything are rarely effective, and sometimes counterproductive.
8. Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission). – Again, “review” seems harmless. Action verbs are what we’re scared of here.
9. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations. – Why do you need to trace them if they’ve already been recovered? Does the government resell the guns after confiscating them, or just give them back to the owner? I’m not sure how imp
10. Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement. – Releasing reports, analyzing information, blah blah blah. Honestly, who cares? All this stuff seems to be doing is making it possible for more restrictive measures to be implemented in the future. But those measures haven’t come yet, and they need Congressional approval to ever come, so I’m not too worried about a few repots.
11. Nominate an ATF director. – The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should not exist. But while it does exist, I don’t mind it having a director.
12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations. – Fine. School attendance shouldn’t be mandatory, but while it is, I’d rather force kids into a safe environment than an unsafe one. Once again, however, this should be done on the state level, because education is a local issue.
13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime. – Enforce the existing laws. Prosecute existing gun crimes. This is what the executive branch is supposed to do. No problems with this, legally.
14. Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence. – The Centers for Disease Control? What do they have to do with gun control? Perhaps they’ll be analyzing the impact of mental health, but even that I’d hesitate to call a “disease.” This same order could have been given to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and it would have made more sense, but this just seems like executive overlap to me.
15. Direct the Attorney General to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies. – I don’t think the problem with gun violence is a lack of gun safety. The number of accidental gun deaths pales in comparison to accidental deaths from other causes, such as pools, falling, or car accidents. Even if it were a problem of gun safety, I don’t think the problem is the lack of safe technology. For the most part guns do exactly what they’re designed to do – the problem is the people operating them.
16. Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes. – Okay. Clarification is good. Not sure why any doctor would choose to ask me if I have a gun in my home, because I’m not sure my decision to own a gun or not is any of my doctors business. But asking the question shouldn’t be prohibited, and if some people thought it was, that should be clarified.
17. Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities. – See #16.
18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers. – I presume a “resource officer” is a type of police officer or other type of security personnel. If my presumption is correct, then good! The NRA is getting what it wanted. I have no problems with added security in schools.
19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education. – Again, I have no problems with added security in public schools (although again, this should be done at the state level). Churches and colleges seem like private institutions perfectly capable of developing their own emergency response plans, and as Aurora’s movie-theater shooting showed us, mass-shootings can happen anywhere where lots of people congregate. It doesn’t seem necessary for the president to order the creation of emergency response plans for every single locale that a mass shooting could possibly happen – this is just more red tape that people probably wouldn’t pay attention to in the chaos of an actual shooting. The idea that the federal government has to micromanage all this stuff makes me roll my eyes, but it’s still not overly concerning.
20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover. – Once again, clarification never hurt anyone (so long as what he’s clarifying is the original intent of the law, and so long as he’s not adding new mental health services that Medicaid didn’t previously cover).
21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges. – There’s a new word. Finalizing something makes it seem as if these regulations were already in the process of being drawn up (presumably from Obamacare, which was passed nearly four years ago. Forget reading the bill, they still haven’t finished writing it!) Any law which says government should be in the business of deciding which health benefits are “essential” and which aren’t is a bad law. But if it is indeed the law, enforcing it is not only legal, but obligatory.
22. Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations. – See #21.
23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health. – For those who don’t know, Kathleen Sebelius is the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education. But anyway, a national dialogue, huh? Hasn’t that been exactly what the nation has been having ever since Sandy Hook? It strikes me as hilarious that politicians now think they get a say on what the nation talks about and when, that executive permission is required before people think it is okay to start talking about an issue. What does “launching a national dialogue” even entail? Posters? TV ads? Press conferences? Who knows, and who cares? Like many on this list, it’s a stupid and pointless order, but it’s mostly harmless.
The point is that these executive orders, however pretentious and grand they may seem, are essentially meaningless as it relates to gun freedom in America. The president stayed mostly within his constitutional powers by simply stipulating how existing laws shall be enforced, without attempting to change the law via executive fiat. They will have a minimal effect on policy or gun violence, and the White House knows this. They are designed not to actually make much of a difference, but to a) make it appear as if the President is “taking action” on the issue to appease democrats, and b) divert pressure on Congress to “take action” as well. As the purely cosmetic assault weapon ban proposals demonstrate, both branches care much more about how their actions are viewed than they do about what they really entail.

Can money be a form of speech?

In the wake of Citizens United (which deserves a blog of its own), there has been tremendous public outcry over the ideas that "corporations are people" and "money is speech." Today on Reddit the top story was a Q&A with Bob Edgar, founder and President of Common Cause, whose aim is to pass a constitutional amendment clarifying that money is not speech and corporations are not people. I'd love to engage the corporations argument at a later time, but this is what I commented in response:

"If I go to the local courthouse and start chanting "Tax the rich!", we'd all agree that's free speech. And if I decide to yell into a megaphone so more people can hear me, that's just a classic protest tactic, right? Still free speech? Ok, well what if my voice gets hoarse from yelling, so after awhile I go to the courthouse with a cardboard sign I fashioned from cheap art materials that says "tax the rich"? Of course, we all know that's free speech too, even if I'm not actually speaking with my mouth. What if I decide to get a little more creative and construct a bigger sign out of plastic and neon flashing lights and carry that out to the courthouse to protest? Maybe not everyone knows how to make such a sign or has access to the materials to do so, but that's still free speech, right? It's just a bigger sign. Then what if my arms get tired, and instead of carrying that sign, I decide to stick it in the ground in my yard. I now have a billboard. You see where I'm going. Maybe instead of neon flashing lights on a billboard I invest that same time, energy and money into filming an advertisement that runs on loop in the 40 inch LED screen I mount in my yard. And then maybe I get that ad to run on a TV station and all of a sudden my message is no longer speech? Each step in that progression - from the megaphone to the art materials to the neon flashing lights to buying the airtime - required a little more money than the last, and priced a few more people out of communicating that message in the way I did. But ALL of them are free speech. If you disagree, it becomes your burden to draw the line somewhere in that progression. I highly doubt you'll be able to do so in an ideologically consistent manner."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Statist Hypocrisy on Judicial Precedent

"We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress & the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution." - Abraham Lincoln

A lot of modern politicians love to talk about how the constitution should be a “living document” (which, to them, means it should be ignored). They argue that this is necessary to keep up with the times, because people today shouldn’t be locked into the opinions of people who lived centuries ago. They’re right about that last part: we shouldn’t be locked into old opinions, which is exactly why we’re allowed to amend the constitution. The process for updating the government’s powers to maximize legitimacy (which I described in detail in this post) is built directly into the US constitution. So what’s the problem?

Essentially, the problem is impatience. For many people, the amendment process simply isn’t fast enough to get them the powers they want, when they want them. The framers wisely felt that such amendments should only occur in response to lasting shifts in the public mindset (the sort necessary to clear the 2/3 and ¾ hurdles the constitution establishes), rather than in response to fickle fluctuations in popular opinion (the sort that clear only the 50% necessary in a pure democracy). Unfortunately for those who crave “progress” (however they define it), those lasting shifts require more time to develop. Powerful people don’t feel like waiting.

Unfortunately, the courts have tended to agree with those powerful people. For the better part of the past century, the judicial branch has assumed this broad interpretation of constitutional power. Again and again, the courts allow and affirm the government’s new power grabs without striking very many down. Even in the rare cases in which laws are struck down, the ruling usually draws a line far ahead of the line initially drawn by the constitution, legitimizing the power grabs permitted by prior courts. And each successive generation of lawyers and judges spend years in law school studying these decisions – far longer than they study the actual words the constitution contains.

So whenever somebody like myself argues for an originalist interpretation of the constitution, statists from both major parties are quick to cite “precedent”. For instance, if I argue that Law A is unconstitutional because it exercises powers not granted to the federal government, my debating partner often replies by showing me a court case in which the court justified a similar action. Therefore, I must be wrong.

My response is the same every time: so what?

Who cares what that court thought?

What if that court was wrong?

Why is showing old, dead people who disagreed with me evidence that I am wrong?

And more importantly, why should today’s judges be prevented from deviating from the opinions of yesterday’s judges?

This brings to light an enormous hypocrisy on the part of big-government supporters. When asked why they interpret the constitution as broadly as they do, they say because the framers lives 200 years ago, and old opinions may not apply today. But when that interpretation is challenged, they cite other old opinions to legitimize their stance!

So which is it? Should old opinions restrict what things we’re allowed to do today, or shouldn’t they? To me, the answer is no, they shouldn’t. I don’t believe in limited government simply because James Madison also believed it; I believe in it because I, independently, have come to the conclusion that it’s a pretty smart idea. There are also things the framers (and prior supreme court justices) believed in that I find appalling and evil, like slavery and the oppression of women. Thankfully, many of these things have already been amended, proving that the process eventually works. I’d support even more amendments to the constitution in the future. Each of these amendments would make our government different from the way the framers wanted and imagined it, I won’t let the fact that some old dead guys disagreed with me change my opinion.

The same goes for precedent. On a legal level, if a judge today thinks a judge who ruled yesterday was wrong, he should say so, and rule accordingly. If he disagrees with a judge who ruled ten years ago, he should say that too. And he should do the same for rulings 20 years old, or 30, or 50, or 200. Ideas don’t have an expiration date. Federal judges are not tasked with interpreting precedent; they’re tasked with interpreting the constitution. They should do so however they personally believe the constitution was meant to be interpreted.

The judiciary seems to be the only branch of government that is at all resistant to calling its predecessors wrong. The other two branches do it all the time. Bad laws are repealed. Bad executive orders are undone. Policies are changed, and sometimes changed back. So why do modern judges bend over backwards to avoid contradicting the opinion of the judges who came before them? Why is precedent viewed as a sacred, untouchable building block of thought, rather than as the subjective opinion it really is, while the constitution they’re actually bound to interpret is brushed aside? Haven’t the courts screwed up before? What about the Dred Scott decision, or Plessy vs. Ferguson? Perhaps if the courts hadn’t been so reverent of precedent, those decisions would have taken less time to be revoked.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A trillion dollar coin is just as preposterous as it sounds

Most people are naturally suspicious of an unexpected idea. We all recognize that thinking outside the box is a valuable problem solving skill: many old problems have been solved by adding a new perspective. But nevertheless, many remain hesitant to break out of a familiar mindset. This is especially true when we’ve been turning an issue over in our heads for a long time, such that we become entrenched in our way of seeing the problem. When we encounter a surprising approach we had not yet considered, our first reaction is usually to identify why we hadn’t considered it, as if to justify our omission and write off the new suggestion. Because of this process, it’s common for people to have an initial resistance to unconventional ideas. Sometimes, this suspicion is unfounded, and the idea turns out to be an ingenious, insightful solution to the problem at hand.

But other times, those natural suspicions serve an important purpose. Sometimes, ideas initially seem outlandish and silly because they are outlandish and silly. When this happens, our natural reluctance to embrace these ideas serves as a filter between the reasonable and the absurd. It’s important to keep an open mind, but it’s equally important to pass new ideas through this vetting process.

So earlier this week, if you heard a chorus of liberal commentators explain that the solution to America’s debt problem was to mold a cylindrical block of platinum, slap twelve zeroes on it and place it in the Federal Reserve, there was probably a little voice in the back of your head that wondered if that was really a sensible plan that should be taken seriously. If you heard that voice, then congratulations: you’re not a moron. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a growing group of pundits that now includes New York Times blowhard Paul Krugman.

When the White House announced it did not view ignoring the fiscal cliff as an option, but simultaneously refused to negotiate on raising it, spend-happy liberals grew desperate in their search for a way out of the legal borrowing limit. Their scouring finally paid off when they uncovered an obscure 1997 law that allows the Treasury Secretary to print off a coin of any denomination, so long as that coin was made of platinum. The idea of the original law was to further the collector coin industry. However, since there was no upwards limit placed on the value of that coin, someone cannily figured out that the  could theoretically make the coin worth massive amounts of money. By crediting the coin to the US Federal Reserve, the Secretary could therefore reduce the debt by $1 trillion, bringing the US back within the debt ceiling.

Unlike the last proposal, this idea may have actually been legal. But in their excitement to have found a constitutional avenue to bypass Congress, liberals forgot that a legal idea is not synonymous with a good idea. Anyone with even a basic understanding of economics should know that when the government has run out of money, simply creating more is not a wise or to the problem. And anyone with even a basic knowledge of how fast our debt is currently growing would know that even adding $1 trillion to the government’s pocket is not a permanent solution, as it would merely postpone the day we go over our debt limit by a few months! When that day comes, what do we do then? Simply mint another trillion dollar coin? Or, as comedian Jon Stewart noted, why not mint a $20 trillion coin?

Stewart found fodder for comedy in this idea because it made his job easy; the proposal practically ridicules itself. If the President actually adopted such a strategy, he would become the laughingstock of the entire world. Foreign leaders would laugh at him The American public would laugh at him, which would be harmful to his party’s favorable ratings in the polls and throw a life vest to the floundering Republican party. Those Republicans themselves would laugh at him the next time he asked them for compromise, such that he’d be forced to mint another coin whenever the debt ceiling was pressed again. Most importantly, investors would laugh at him, public faith in our currency would plummet and the value of the dollar would fall alongside it on the international market.

That this idea has been brought up with a straight face on almost every major news network is a testament to the left’s incredible hypocrisy. The same people who call Republicans insane for wanting to balance the budget deem it more sane to pull a stunt like this? The same people who lament the denigration of American political dialogue and who call for bipartisan compromise now think it fair for the president to bypass congress entirely on a budgetary matter? I’m sure the president’s theft of the purse strings would do wonders for fueling that reconciliation with congress. The same columnist who whined about how Republicans use obscure loopholes like the filibuster to get their way is now endorsing the use of a 1997 collector coin law to settle the budget crisis?

Thankfully, the Federal Reserve appears to have put the nix on this idea, saying they would not accept the coin as legal tender. The White House appears to have begrudgingly accepted no for an answer. The debt ceiling will have to be heeded, which is a good thing because it serves a worthwhile purpose. The fact that we’re continually bumping up against it is a continual reminder that the debt is piling up way too fast. This is not only dangerous for the economy and unfair to my generation, but simply immoral when the majority of things government is borrowing to pay for are unconstitutional in the first place. The longer we kick the can down the road, the more we postpone and exacerbate the inevitable economic downturn this debt will create. And of all the ways politicians try to kick that can, the platinum coin idea may be the stupidest I’ve yet encountered.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

That’s a Negative, Nancy: Ignoring the Debt Ceiling is Unconstitutional and Unwise

Modern democrats complain that the national debt is a “manufactured crisis” which will simply go away so long as it’s ignored. So it should come as no surprise that Nancy Pelosi, a prominent cheerleader from this crowd, recently asked President Obama do just that: ignore it. The Minority Leader wants the president to overrule congressional borrowing limits and continue spending away on the grounds that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. As this article explains, she claims that due to the 14th amendment, which says the debt of the US “shall not be questioned,” the expenses Congress has incurred by the laws it passes must be paid. Prominent Keynesian Bruce Bartlett, former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and many other talking heads agree with Pelosi that any debt ceiling legislation is unconstitutional due to this amendment. Frequent readers of this blog might snicker at the progressives newfound concern for constitutionality, but do they have a case?

Consistent with my originalist interpretation of the constitution, the meaning of the 14th amendment depends on its author’s intent. Determining that intent requires knowledge of the context and circumstances in which it was passed. The 14th amendment was passed in the wake of the civil war, just after the Confederate States of America had printed their own unique currency, sold their own bonds, and issued their own debts. For example, several large banks in Britain and France had lent money to the Confederacy in support of their efforts to secede (although both nations had banned slavery, they benefited from the cheap textiles the discounted cotton slavery provided, and thus had an incentive for American slavery to remain). The primary intent of the amendment was to clarify which wartime debts were valid and would be paid back (those held by the Union), and which were not (those created by the illegitimate Confederate government). In the process, the amendment reassured the many who had lent to the government during the war that they would be repaid.

So Pelosi is correct that due to the 14th amendment, the validity of the existing debt of the US cannot be questioned. But that is very different from saying that the amount of debt the US is allowed to accrue cannot be limited. Debt is created when money is borrowed, not when it is agreed that money shall be spent in the future. A congressional apportionment saying that X amount of money shall be spent on certain programs is not the same as actually borrowing the money necessary to make those expenditures. The actual borrowing happens gradually over the course of the year as the money is needed. The 14th amendment does not say that projected increases to the debt cannot be preemptively limited; it refers only to the existing debt.

Democrats seem to be confusing two different types of legal obligations here. If Congress passes a law that says “We will employ 10,000 postal service workers this year,” then what Pelosi is arguing is that Congress has incurred a “debt” due to its legal obligation to pay those people. Since this “debt” cannot be questioned, she claims that any law which calls into question the government’s ability to pay those recipients (such as a debt ceiling) is unconstitutional. But those pending outlays are not the kind of “debt” the 14th amendment refers to. The 14th amendment refers to the debt the government incurs when individual lenders actually give their money to the government (often through federal bonds), with the understanding that this money will one day be repaid. To put it another way, they’re confusing the people we’ve promised to pay with the people we’ve promised to pay back. As the historical context of the 14th amendment reminds us, the debt which cannot be questioned refers to money we have to pay back.

Since the debt ceiling does not violate the 14th amendment, it is a constitutional law of congress pertaining to the explicitly enumerated power of the purse. The president must enforce and abide by those laws. Ordering the treasury to borrow money which Congress has prohibited him from borrowing would therefore by unconstitutional. That the Congress has apportioned more money to be spent than they’ve granted the president the power to borrow is irrelevant. Apportioning funds without specifying where those funds are to come from does not grant implicit permission to get them by whatever means necessary, and it does not give permission to break other laws. Just because there is a contradiction in the laws which Congress has passed does not mean the President gets to decide which one trumps the other, thus assuming the Congressional power of the purse for himself.

I’ve heard it said that in the presence of apparently contradictory laws, the most recent law should trump. As it relates to the debt ceiling, this is incorrect for two reasons. The first is that it is perfectly okay for Congress to make a law that restricts its future lawmaking flexibility – that happens all the time. If they change their mind and later want that flexibility back, they’re free to repeal the original law. But until they expressly do that, the old laws have equal weight as the new. Federal budgets clearly do not repeal the debt ceiling, so they must be enforced within the scope of debt ceiling legislation. But secondly, even if the most recent laws did trump, the debt ceiling was raised (and thus reestablished as an intended legislative priority) more recently than Congress has actually bothered to pass a budget! Unlike debt ceiling legislation, Congress is legally required to pass a budget for every fiscal year, but that responsibility has been simply ignored for the past three and a half years due to the inability to reach a consensus. It’s particularly dubious to say that the Omnibus Spending Bill passed two-congresses ago in April of 2009 should trump the debt ceiling established in 2011.

The debt ceiling has existed for a century, and nobody has questioned its constitutionality until now. Nancy Pelosi and crew had no problem with the debt ceiling until it became a political inconvenience, which explains why their argument is so hastily constructed, shoddy and unfounded. Thankfully, the Obama administration is being reasonable on this proposal. White House Spokesperson Jay Carney announced a few weeks ago that the administration does not think an executive order voiding the debt ceiling would be constitutional. That’s not a common admission from the White House these days, but I still have to give him credit when credit is due. Obama deserves props for resisting the pressure from his party in the name of constitutionality.

Progressive Representative Keith Ellison recently blamed Republicans for using the debt ceiling to “hold Democrats hostage” in negotiations. Only in Washington is it considered hostage taking to make the other party obey the law. 

Some much needed perspective on the debt ceiling debate

Ever since the fiscal cliff was averted postponed, the media's political coverage has shifted to the newest upcoming budget battle: the debt ceiling.

For those of you who don’t know what this is, let me catch you up to speed. The debt ceiling (also known as the debt limit) is a piece of legislation that limits the amount of money the US federal government is allowed to borrow. The idea of this legislation is to check each generation’s ability to saddle its expenses on the next, and to ensure the government keeps its fiscal house in order. As Greece recently demonstrated, accruing too much debt can have calamitous economic consequences, so the debt limit is designed to prevent that from ever happening here. As a result of this legislation, the maximum amount of money the government is allowed to spend in a given year is equal to the sum of government revenues plus the cumulative debt ceiling, minus whatever outstanding debt there was at the start of the year. If the government ever promises to spend more money than this figure, it must either raise revenues, raise the debt ceiling, or break those promises. Breaking those promises is called a “default” on our debt, and it means we can’t pay the people we agreed to pay. Not only is defaulting immoral, but it’s also bad for America’s credit rating because it proves the government is broke and dysfunctional (and, therefore, a shaky investment). When the credit rating goes down, borrowing becomes even more expensive because the interest rate goes up, which doesn’t make the task of lowering the debt any easier. For these reasons, (and also because it shows our leaders are inept) neither party really wants the US to go over the debt limit.

Since the its creation in the early 20th century, the debt ceiling has been raised dozens of times with very little fanfare. However, with the unprecedented debt accrued by the government over the past decade becoming an issue of political contention, the government almost went over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011. At that time, the preferred Democratic solution was to simply raise the debt ceiling to whatever would cover our expenses, or to raise tax revenues. Meanwhile, House Republicans wanted to use the leverage provided by the debt ceiling to enact spending cuts. Eventually, Republicans agreed to allow a raise in the debt ceiling on the condition that 1.2 trillion dollars of spending would be cut.

However, as is too often the case, the bipartisan task force assigned with making those cuts never wound up cutting a dime of spending. As per the law, those cuts were postponed to January 1st, 2013 (to be enacted by sequester). This set up a “fiscal cliff”, which politicians were scared of because it would cut specific programs across the board (and thus actually fulfill one of their promises). The recent fiscal cliff deal postponed these cuts for another two months, when the US will once again surpass its debt ceiling. At that time, some minute portion of those same cuts will doubtlessly be re-offered to Congressional Republicans in exchange for even further concessions. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Anyway, both parties are currently gearing up and strategizing for this inevitable confrontation. How does each party propose to solve the situation? Fiscal conservatives think the debt ceiling serves a worthwhile and necessary purpose, while progressives view it only as an impediment to their designs for perpetual spending increases. The conservative solution, therefore, is to simply cut spending by however much is necessary to bring federal borrowing within the legal limit. By contrast, the liberal proposals are much more complex – and preposterous. I would like to rebuke the two most prominent Democratic proposals being floated around, but I’ve decided to do so in two separate posts to isolate the issues. You can find the links to these separate posts below: (hyperlinks will appear when the post is completed)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Peaceful Medical Marijuana Provider, Compliant with State Law, Sent to Jail for 10 Years Under Federal Law

If anyone out there has ever wondered why I'm so passionate about politics, this is why. Injustice makes my blood boil, and makes me want to do something about it. How can anyone with a pulse hear this story and not be outraged?

There are dozens of reasons why this is wrong, but you don't need to be a political science major to understand why. Let's forget states rights for a second. Let's assume marijuana is actually that dangerous, pretend it has no medical benefits for desperate patients in debilitating pain, pretend banning it is effective at keeping it off the street, ignore the personal freedom to take it and the economic freedom to sell it, ignore the cost of enforcing these laws and assert that it's mild health effects are sufficient reason to make it illegal. Even if you're okay with all of that rubbish, something about "10 years in jail for growing a plant" should just set off an alarm bell in your head. This  is a peaceful, innocent man who has never harmed a soul, but the judge deemed it just to ruin his life. Who benefits from this? Not the defendant. Not his family. Not the patients he was selling to. Not the overburdened police departments/court systems wasting their time with this frivolous crap, nor the overcrowded prisons he'll be crammed into. Not the taxpayers who must pay for his incarceration - indeed, you and I are being force to pay for his punishment.

Aaron Sandusky is a hero and a patriot. Locking up the judge (who apparently has a history of misconduct: would be a more just use of taxpayer money.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What Counts as Torture?

A few months ago a Massachusetts judge ordered the state’s taxpayers to pay for the sex change operation of an inmate, which generally cost between $30,000 and $80,000. You can read the full story here. The inmate suffers from gender identity disorder (‘he’ was born male and was male at the time of ‘his’ crime, but has now changed ‘his’ name to Michelle and refers to ‘himself’ as a woman. The link above uses female pronouns to describe the inmate based on the gender ‘he’ self identifies with, but I found that confusing because ‘he’ was male when ‘he’ committed the crime, and ‘he’ has not yet had the surgery. For the purposes of continuity, simplicity, and minimizing confusion, I will refer to ‘him’ with male pronouns throughout this entry). He is currently serving a life sentence for murder; apparently, his wife came home early one night and caught him trying on her clothes, and in what he claims was a panic he killed her. Since admission to prison, he has twice tried to castrate or kill himself, and was receiving psychiatric care/hormonal supplements (also at taxpayer expense). The judge ruled that because his psychological condition was so severe, imprisoning him without adequate medical treatment for his ailment constituted cruel and unusual punishment, thus violating the eighth amendment.

My initial reaction to this story was to roll my eyes, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Most people (myself included) have never met somebody with gender identity disorder, making us naturally suspicious of whether it really counts as a “sickness” that taxpayers should be on the hook for. Honestly, I’m suspicious about psychiatric illnesses in general, which are often obscure, subjective, constantly changing, ever-expanding, culturally biased, unreliable and difficult to distinguish. For example, some of them seem to apply only to Japanese people who visit Paris. Others have only ever been confirmed among people who had a history of prior mental illness, suggesting they may just be offshoots or symptoms of some deeper mental problem. Homosexuality used to be considered a psychiatric disorder, and some still contend that it is. Gender identity disorder itself is often not permanent; psychiatrists admit that the vast majority of children with its symptoms eventually “outgrow” it. This cynicism is compounded by the deep financial ties many psychiatrists have to pharmaceutical companies; as I’ve noted on this blog in the past, there’s a lot of money to be made by telling healthy people they’re sick. Perhaps from a medical perspective it makes sense to keep track of every possible offshoot of a disorder and distinguish their symptoms, but from a legal perspective it’s tempting to just say “these people went crazy.” As Obamacare demonstrated, taxpayers are being placed on the hook for an increasingly broad definition of “healthcare” (do glasses count? Condoms/birth control? Abortion? Nutritional supplements? Healthy foods? Pregnancy tests? And now I’m legally required to pay for insurance coverage on all of this, whether I need it or not?) Because we libertarians are even more resistant to taxpayer extortion than most people, it’s no surprise that at first this seemed like another ridiculous example.

But after some thought, I realized this issue brought up some much deeper, more interesting questions about what counts as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the eighth amendment. That phrase is so open, ambiguous and subjective that it’s difficult to know exactly what the framers meant by it. Considering how much social standards have evolved since then, I suspect the framers would not have found this particular case to be cruel and unusual punishment. But the fact that those standards have indeed evolved makes originalism even harder to justify without explicit proof of that intent. So while I still don’t agree with the judge’s decision, I don’t know that I can really rebut it, because I don’t think the judge was objectively wrong. Besides, even if I’m right about its constitutionality, just because withholding this surgery is constitutional doesn’t make it a wise or humane policy.

There are two potential reasons I could see justifying the use of taxpayer money to pay for this surgery: effectiveness of punishment, and mercy. Is providing this treatment necessary in order to accomplish the objectives of the criminal justice system? If not, is detaining the man in such a distressed state tolerable for a sympathetic society?

The answer to the first question depends on what you feel the most important objectives of the criminal justice system are. On the one hand, prison is designed to create some level of anxiety, discomfort, and psychological distress. It’s not supposed to be a fun place. On the other hand, how much stress and suffering is necessary or tolerable depends on the goal the incarceration is trying to accomplish. If the goal is merely keeping the individual off the street to prevent them from harming others, the conditions don’t much matter so long as the facility is secure. If the goal is deterrence, then adverse conditions serve an important purpose. If the goal is rehabilitation, more favorable conditions conducive to introspection and self-improvement might be preferable. If the goal is retribution, the level of suffering should depend on the crime committed. Ideally, the justice system should aim for all four of these goals simultaneously, in different amounts depending on the individual case.

As it relates to this case, neither denying nor providing the treatment seems to be critical to the end objective. Protecting the populace from a murderer is of the utmost importance (as opposed to, say, protecting them from someone who owes back taxes), but accomplishing that doesn’t require keeping the murderer in a psychologically uncomfortable situation. Deterrence is always up for debate, but it might not be applicable in this case: although we certainly want to deter murder in general, the fact that this man appeared to have gone crazy suggests that he and others like him could not have been deterred. Rehabilitation may not be necessary because the individual is on a life sentence (although in the event he gets out early, it would seem this operation is a necessary step to leading any type of normal life). And retribution strikes me as an insufficient justification for torture. Perhaps if his victim was my sister or mother I might feel differently, but vengeance doesn’t seem like a good reason to keep someone in a suicidal state. The answer to the first question seems inconclusive. But since there’s no pragmatic advantage either way, there’s no pragmatic justification for making taxpayers foot the bill.

The other way this might be justified is mercy. There is broad consensus that torture is wrong, and cannot be justified even if it’s cheaper than the alternative. So, does this count as torture?

To some extent, there is a distinction between deprivation and infliction. When it comes to the 8th amendment, I believe the framers were primarily concerned with the latter. Actively inflicting pain on someone with a weapon or tool or device of some sort seems different to me, and more cruel, than the failure to give them something which might relieve existing distress. Another distinction is that infliction requires the forcible expropriation of additional resources from the taxpayers, whereas deprivation prevents it. It is a very different thing to make law abiding citizens pay for a torture device than it is to not make them not pay for healthcare, especially such broadly defined healthcare as a sex change operation.

At the same time, it is clear that deprivation can sometimes count as cruel and unusual punishment. Withholding a basic level of subsistence like food would cause starvation, which certainly seems like torture. Usually, we distinguish between necessary and superfluous provisions by distinguishing between “wants” (like caviar or luxury linens) and “needs” (like food, water, shelter, and basic healthcare). But these are not concrete terms. Incarcerating somebody with such scant food or water that they begin to starve is probably cruel. Giving them meager food and water, sufficient for bodily function but not enough to really fill them up, probably isn’t. Withholding expensive healthcare (like a brain surgery) for illnesses with a terrible prognosis, or unreliable healthcare (like an alternative, herbal remedy for cancer) seems borderline. Withholding frivolous, non-survival-related healthcare (like Listerine or condoms) is even more borderline.

Drawing this line is difficult, and it’s important to consider the impact of where we draw it on state budgets (and taxpayer wallets) across the country. If the line is drawn to include sex change operations and psychiatric disorders, what precedent would this set? Is that really a “need” that you cannot live without? If all prisoners are entitled to as much healthcare as they want, it leaves the door open to giving them just about anything. Do we have to pay for their vitamins to ensure they get enough calcium and don’t develop osteoporosis? Must we provide dental floss and foot powder and rash ointment and chapstick and Vaseline and Tylenol? These things are “healthcare” in that they improve one’s health or alleviate irritating health symptoms, but they’re still inaccessible luxuries to most of the world’s inhabitants. If an inmate wants to use his own private funds or insurance to pay for a medical treatment while in prison, that should be permitted. But it’s not right to force taxpayers to pay extra for those perks, and a sex change operation seems inessential to that minimum level of sustenance.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Police Abuse

(This is an accidental repost of an old entry. It was written more than two years ago, but since it coincidentally had to do with the war on drugs I just finished decrying, I figured might as well leave it up instead of deleting it.)

I am usually not much of a whistle blower on cops. I think the extent to which they abuse people is overstated, and that they have a very difficult job in which they're bound to make mistakes from now and then. But while I sympathize with their plight, that does not mean they shouldn't be held accountable when they abuse their power. This is one such incidence.

Let alone for a second the fact that marijuana shouldn't even be illegal. I've done some research behind this case, and apparently the man was a suspected drug dealer. The cops had no proof of this outside of an anonymous tip they received and some marijuana residue they had found in his garbage. They obviously either did no research to learn there was a child in the house, or they just didn't care. It turned out the guy did have  a tiny amount of weed, but only for personal consumption; he was not a dealer after all. That does not justify a SWAT team, it does not justify kicking down his door in the middle of the night with fully armed automatic weapons, terrifying his son, and shooting his two small, unthreatening dogs (one was killed, the other wounded). This is an injustice, as most who watch it will agree, and I loathe injustice.

But there are many more incidents that are far more graphic, and result in far more human pain, death and suffering than does this one. People are killed needlessly in a similar fashion, and I could find far more graphic videos on Youtube than this one. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen too much, and shrinking the government's power means keeping the cops honest, just like all other government officials.