Monday, December 31, 2012

A tax guarantee for Nike: An attractive bad idea

Governor John Kitzhaber wants the legislature to authorize him to guarantee that the basic formula under which Oregon taxes Nike’s income will not change for a certain number of years.  Initial reports suggest that this idea is a no brainer, or as Kitzhaber put it “an easy call” that will sail through the legislature.  

Looking only at the short term consequences, giving Nike such a guarantee is indeed an easy call.  The company will be building a new facility somewhere and is more likely to do it in Oregon if it knows that the state will not change the current rules under which it is taxed.   The expansion will bring jobs for construction workers and additional jobs at Nike itself.  It will be good for the Oregon economy and will increase tax revenues. 

Basic principles,  however,  suggest that giving this assurance to Nike will be a bad idea. 
The equal protection of the law is a fundamental safeguard against high-handed, discriminatory, arbitrary treatment by government officials.   Granting special treatment to selected corporations flies in the face of the whole idea of equality before the law.  It also widens opportunities for bribery of public officials by private interests.  And over the longer haul,  states which play these kinds of games with corporations will probably not come out ahead financially.

Of course Governor Kitzhaber’s proposal is not as bad as the more usual deals where selected corporations are exempted from paying some of their property taxes as an inducement to build a facility in a given state or city.  Here all Nike wants is to keep on being taxed only on its Oregon sales,  a rule which currently applies to all corporations and not just Nike.  But it still will have a planning advantage over other companies which have not been granted similar assurances against future changes.

Nike’s insecurity here is just one example of  a larger problem faced by corporations and by individuals when the laws are continually being changed.  James Madison wrote about this back in 1788 in The Federalist No. 62:  “The internal effects of a mutable policy are … calamitous.  It poisons the blessing of liberty itself.  It will be of  little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man,  who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow.”

Perhaps Americans spend too much time debating what changes should be made in our tax laws and not enough time worrying about the bad consequences of making constant changes in those laws.  It just compounds this uncertainty problem when even the  rules that currently exist do not apply to all corporations. 

This piece has appeared in the (Portland) Oregonian,  the (Corvallis, Oregon) Gazette-Times, and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review of James MacGregor Burns book

I put my review of this book on back in 2010,  but am posting it here for more convenient access.

James MacGregor Burns' newest book, Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court, will not increase his reputation.

The basic premise of the book is that the Supreme Court invented the power of judicial review out of whole cloth back in 1803, in Marbury v. Madison, without any grounding in the actual Constitution.

It is true that the Constitution does not explicitly grant the courts the power to strike down laws which violate its rules. But it does provide that "This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof . . . shall be the supreme law of the land . . . ." (Article VI.) Note that it only refers to laws which have been made "in pursuance" of the Constitution.

A contemporaneous analysis by Alexander Hamilton, a member of the Constitutional Convention which drafted the present document, can be found in The Federalist Papers, #78:

"The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. By a limited Constitution, I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority; such, for instance, as that it shall pass no bills of attainder, no ex-post-facto laws, and the like. Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of the courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing."

The Federalist Papers were written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay and published under the penname "Publius" in the newspapers of New York, attempting to convince New Yorkers to ratify the proposed new Constitution. They are considered a very authoritative indication of the intentions of those who drafted the Constitution.

The very first Congress elected under the new Constitution proposed what became the Bill of Rights as the first 10 amendments to the new document. They did this to satisfy critics who opposed ratification because the original document did not have a bill of rights. And the very first Amendment, which set the tone for the whole set of amendments, states that "Congress shall make no law ...." doing a whole lot of things.

What possible purpose would have been served by adding this language to the Constitution if the courts were required to enforce anything enacted by Congress no matter how flagrantly it came into conflict with the Bill of Rights?

Judicial review is so firmly established in the clear language and intent of the Constitution and in over two centuries of precedent that Burns is reduced to a desperate recommendation for how to put an end to it. He wants the President Obama to defy the Court the next time it makes a decision he doesn't like and announce (in effect) that "John Roberts has made his decision; now let us see him enforce it." (My wording, modeled on President Jackson's famous fight with Chief Justice John Marshall, not Burns'.) The president would say that he would respect judicial review only if its supporters formally amend the Constitution to explicitly provide for it. Of course this would take years to do.

Obama, who knows a lot more about constitutional law than Burns does, is highly unlikely to follow this recommendation. But I am not sure that Burns himself would care for the uses to which his own logic could be put if we elect a right-wing president sometime.

Such a president could, with much more grounding in the language and history of the Constitution than Burns has, proclaim that Roe v. Wade, the original abortion rights decision, did not have a legal leg to stand on. Our right-winger would announce that Roe v. Wade would no longer be enforced unless abortion advocates formally amend the Constitution to explicitly provide for it. Again, this could not be done overnight, if at all.

Burns needs to remember that we need to be cautious when we articulate principles, since they have a way of coming back to haunt us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tax Increases: Don't Support Politicians Who Say "Never"!

No magic formula can tell us how to vote.   This year, however, we should vote against any candidate who promises never to raise taxes.   Whatever the other merits of Mitt Romney and most Republican House candidates,  we should not vote for any of them since they have accepted the pledge popularized by Grover Norquist that they will never increase taxes.

The Norquist Pledge  makes it harder to reduce taxes when circumstances permit.  No rational legislator would vote for tax decreases if he or she knew that it would be impossible to raise them again if circumstances made increases advisable?   (Perhaps that is why Congress agreed to the Bush tax cuts only if they would “sunset” after a few years.)

The Norquist Pledge also precludes taking advantage of good opportunities.  Barack Obama never took the pledge, but perhaps his  biggest mistake in 2008  was to promise never to raise taxes on the middle class.

Obama was unable to support a single-payer medical insurance system, since it  would require raising taxes on everybody (there not being enough rich people to pay for it just by “soaking” them).    The result was Obamacare,  an administrative mess which leaves millions of Americans uninsured. Obamacare will cost Americans a lot more than a simple Medicare-for-all system would have cost. 

The Norquist Pledge also makes our system more rigid and therefore more likely to break when stressed.  Most people would rather pay higher taxes than to crash the economic system within which we live,  which would impoverish everybody.

Perhaps we should never vote for candidates who make any kind of  iron-clad promises.  As Edmund Burke,  speaking to the electors of Bristol in England classically put it,  “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.  

Better by far to emulate Burke:  “Their  [his constituents’] wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”

President Obama,   in his recent acceptance speech,  didn’t renew his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.  He did accuse Mitt Romney of planning to do so.  Casual listeners might think this was a promise not raise taxes himself,  but he didn’t actually say this.  This is progress compared with his unwise promise in 2008!

Until most Republican politicians reject the Norquist Pledge,   voters should reject them out of hand, at least at the national level.  Who knows, with any luck the 2012 elections may produce another “Goldwater landslide” like took place in 1964, when voter rejection of a perceived extremist produced such a heavily Democratic Congress that it was able to pass Medicare and the Voting Rights Act. 

What could a re-elected Obama and strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress do?  Well,  how about they repeal Obamacare (with enthusiastic Republican support) and then enact Medicare-for-all.   They could name the new insurance program in honor of Grover Norquist, who helped make it possible.    

This article has run in the Portland Oregonian and in the Adrian (Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand: Guilt by Association?

New York Times writer Paul Krugman recently attacked Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, claiming that Ryan “gets his ideas largely from deeply unrealistic fantasy novels.”   The specific novel Krugman had in mind was Ayn Rand’s bestseller,  Atlas Shrugged.

Of course there is nothing surprising about Krugman attacking a Republican,  since his columns in recent years have sounded more like they were written by a Democratic spin-doctor than by a Nobel Prize winning economist.  But his attack on Paul Ryan does a major injustice to the novelist Ayn Rand.

My interest in Ayn Rand and her ideas goes back nearly 50 years.  Krugman, sneering at Atlas Shrugged,  claims “the book is  a perennial favorite among adolescent boys.”  But,  he adds, “Most boys eventually outgrow it.”  However my first encounter with Atlas Shrugged was not as an “adolescent boy”: but as a 22 year old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University

Rand was giving a lecture at Johns Hopkins,  and I read Atlas Shrugged to get some background before her talk.  The book horrified and depressed me.  I was not impressed with Rand as a person, either.  I vividly recall how she got unnecessarily nasty with a student who challenged something she had said, announcing  rather snottily that she had not come to Johns Hopkins to engage in debates.  Years later,  when I learned she was a chain-smoker, this did not take her stock up in my book, either.

But even nasty people can have interesting ideas.  For many years I taught a special class at Adrian College in which students read and discussed Atlas Shrugged. The students were some of the brightest and most interesting on campus.  One of them,  who considered himself a Socialist Workers Party fan,  took the class because his adviser told him it would “test his values.”    And I think it did.

Krugman’s put down of Ayn Rand forgets that all political discourse is a mixture of sense and nonsense.  Learning how to tell which is which is an important skill,  and discussing a book like Atlas Shrugged can be an excellent educational tool because the book is loaded with both a great deal of sense and a great deal of nonsense. 

My own take is that Rand’s ideas about “the virtues of selfishness,”  interpersonal relations, and religion (she was a militant atheist) were quite wrong.  But she was on to something really important in her distinction between the power of the sword and the power of  the purse, a distinction which left wingers tend to ignore or to blur.  The 64 page speech by John Galt, which Krugman correctly identifies as the novel’s centerpiece, does a masterful job of sharpening this distinction. 

Does Krugman really believe in guilt by association?  If so, not only Paul Ryan but also other immensely intelligent people like Alan Greenspan and Hillary Clinton would stand convicted. Both were very interested in Ayn Rand’s ideas in their younger years.  And clearly none of these people swallowed Rand’s ideas uncritically. 

It would be nice if Krugman would go back to being an economist and get out of the spin-doctoring business.  Even as a spin-doctor, however,  he should avoid writing more columns featuring excessive generalizations about an important novelist. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Larsonian explanation of "Entanglement"???

A Larsonian explanation of “entanglement?

Paul F. deLespinasse
Corvallis, Oregon

Author’s note: This tentative analysis  is work in progress.   I put it  forward for discussion and criticism.

The theoretical universe of Dewey B. Larson rests on a scalar space-time progression that,  in the context of a 3-dimensional Space Arrested Reference System (SARS) or a 3-dimensional Time Arrested Reference System (TARS),  moves “outward”  at the speed of light.   A SARS is established by material atoms whose motions cancel the outward progression of space and form aggregates.  A TARS is established by cosmic atoms whose motions cancel the outward progression of time and form aggregates.     

In the Larsonian universe what we conventionally regard as “space” is nothing more than locations in a Space Arrested Reference System.    As in Einstein’s universe,  nothing can change its location in this “space” faster than the speed of light.

Entangled photons, however,  appear to “communicate” with each other instantly no matter how widely they are separated.   This is considered something that cannot be explained since it appears to violate the speed of light limit accepted by Einstein and Larson.

When a photon originates from a location in space,  in Larson’s system it does not change its location in space-time but is swept outward at the speed of light  relative to a SARS centered on the material aggregate from which it originated.  The direction in the three-dimensional SARS taken by a particular photon is determined by probability considerations.

Two photons originating simultaneously at the same space location and therefore possibly entangled will therefore remain at the same location in the space-time progression no matter how widely separated they become in the context of a Space Arrested Reference System.  There is therefore no need for them to “communicate” through the SARS, and no violation of the speed of light limit for such communications, since they remain in the same location in the space-time progression.

Comment:  It is unclear to me how this explanation of entangled photons, if it is correct, could apply to entanglement of  particles which have mass, since in the Larsonian system such particles do change their locations relative to the progression, unlike photons which remain in the same location in the progression and are swept along relative to a SARS or TARS by the speed-of-light  progression.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The dangers of overdoing rational ignorance

In "The logic of willful ignorance" (July 7), columnist David Sirota tries to explain widespread ignorance about our history, Constitution and current affairs. The grounds upon which he tries to justify "willful ignorance," however, are incorrect and, if widely believed, would make things worse.

Sirota argues that ignorance doesn't mean people are stupid. Rather, they have "logically concluded that the information no longer matters." This, he opines, is because "elections are bought and paid for by huge money, ... presidents of both parties ignore the basic tenets of the Constitution, ... the lifetime-appointed judiciary spends much of its time helping Big Business tilt the law against the population, and ... the major parties resemble each other on most policies."

Sirota concludes: "Many Americans so accurately perceive the fraud being perpetrated on them that they have decided to simply tune out."

But public ignorance can be explained on general principles, without relying on any of Sirota's dubious explanations.

At some point, the costs of seeking further knowledge may outweigh its benefits, and at this point, it becomes rational to stop seeking extra knowledge. It is not paradoxical to speak of a "principle of rational ignorance."

This principle has special applicability to politics. Each voter is one among thousands or millions, and can often be outvoted. As a consumer, this same person is one of two parties to every transaction, and because private transactions require mutual consent of both parties, the consumer actually has a veto over every transaction. Knowledge gained about matters subject to private decision -- what car to buy, whom to marry, which church to join, which doctor to go to -- is therefore worth more to the individual than political information costing equal time and effort to acquire. Although many people overdo "rational ignorance" about politics, it is easy to see why the quality of public opinion is not very high.

Sirota lambastes "huge money" but ignores evidence that elections are often won by the lower-spending candidate and that we have had no presidents named Rockefeller or Perot. He ignores the fact that candidates often raise more money precisely because they are expected to win. He cites no examples of presidents ignoring "basic tenets" of the Constitution.

Sirota's complaint about the parties resembling each other suggests that he doesn't understand the logic of competitive elections. Of course they do, precisely because both must appeal to voters whose views cluster around the middle of the road. When a party nominates people too far from the middle (examples: Goldwater, McGovern), they lose big.

When I was a student at Willamette University, a group of us met with Gov. Mark Hatfield. I still remember his comment when asked about the belief that politicians are all crooks: If people believe that, said Hatfield, the honest won't seek office and only crooks will do so. To the extent readers fall for Sirota's cynical analysis, which suggests we are fools if we don't tune out, it will render us even less able to vote intelligently in our own interests than we are now.

Paul F. deLespinasse, who lives in Corvallis, is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College in Michigan. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics," which attempts to teach students how (not what!) to think about politics, is available online for free reading at . He can be reached via this same website.

This piece has appeared in the (Portland) Oregonian.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

Some interesting thoughts from daughter Cobie

Like myself, Cobie thinks things through by writing.  Here is a recent document that I thought was worth sharing more widely.

The Question:

I've kept trying to decide: Do I want to focus almost all my volunteer time on reducing animal suffering? Or do I want to spend some of that time trying to help people learn about political issues in general?

The Tentative Conclusion:

I think I've decided to spend most of my time on animal issues. Yes, I'll want to do a little learning about other issues like any citizen should. And I'd like to keep going to an Unlike Minds meeting once a month – discussed further below. Possibly write a letter to the newspaper sometime about what I've learned from having political discussions with people who disagree on issues (and write a few letters about animal issues too). But I don't think I'll really get involved with teaching people about other issues.


What I had thought about doing to help teach people about political issues: First, learn more about the issues myself. And do some experimenting in our Unlike Minds group (a group of 9 people with differing political views who get together for friendly conversations – one of several such groups here in town). In Unlike Minds, we can try various ways to discuss issues. Later, encourage additional people to learn about issues. Possible ways we can help people learn: Spread Unlike Minds to more people, and/or start a website or social media site that talks about ways to learn about issues. Maybe each person who visited the website could post their own suggestions about how to study issues on a separate webpage.

Maybe many others are already doing the things I've thought about, that would help people learn about political issues? I'd like to know.

The reason I was thinking of helping spread political issues in general, is that I don't know whether there are many people doing things like Unlike Minds, or like websites with suggestions about ways to study issues. Whereas with animal issues, I know that some people have thought very carefully about how to spread animal issues, and they are doing some very effective things.

How important are animal issues compared with other issues? On the one hand, there are a lot more farm animals than there are humans on Earth, so animal issues affect more individuals than any other issue. On the other hand, there are crises to be prevented (wars, enviromental problems, recessions), and some of these crises could make it harder to spread information about animals (and could harm a lot of humans as well).

But my impression is that humans have a lot of incentive to prevent crises that could harm us, less incentive to help animals. A lot of people are working to try to prevent human crises, and most likely they will succeed. In the previous century the world survived wars, the Great Depression, etc., and we will probably make it this time, too.

Maybe environmental problems could sneak up on us and kill us all (I don't really know), but if a lot of people consume fewer animal products, that will help the environment a lot.

Another way to look at it: Wouldn't it be a shame if a lot of us got together to stop the crises that might affect humans, and then we watched as the world went on happily abusing animals?

Possibly by promoting the careful study of all issues, I could persuade some people to learn about animal issues. But I would guess that promoting animal issues is going to do the animals more good than a general promotion of studying issues carefully – this of course is all guesswork. So I'm thinking that I shouldn't spend a lot of time on other angles in the upcoming years. If, in some future decade, all the colleges (and high schools?) in the developed world are saturated with literature about factory farming, then I might start to try other ways to convince people to be more compassionate. (In my opinion, the best way to be compassionate is to move toward a plant-based diet – but that's another discussion.)

If it weren't for all the animal suffering, I would work to work to stop human suffering. But I think the best thing I can do under current circumstances is to work to stop animal suffering. There are so many animals who are suffering, and I think the animals are getting much less attention than the “crisis” issues are.

Asking for Feedback:

My overall goal is to reduce suffering, not to work on animal issues or work on other issues.

Do you agree that working on animal issues is the best way that I can reduce suffering? I'd appreciate feedback.

  • I'm asking several people for feedback on this, because I reached these conclusions after a conversation with just one person. I remember 20 years ago I decided to go to graduate school after a conversation with another student and didn't discuss it with anyone else. I later realized that going to graduate school had not been what I wanted at all (although other people are welcome to go to graduate school.) So for this decision, I'd like to get several people's feedback.
  • I haven't read The World Peace Diet yet. It's someone's opinion about the relation between animal issues and human issues.
  • Does anyone know of other movements that are similar to Unlike Minds, or of websites or social media sites that help people learn about good ways to study issues?
  • I also want to try praying/meditating in case that gives me any insight.
  • I think that for working on animal issues, I'd like to mostly spend my time handing out literature to college students like I've been doing.
  • My understanding of things is always evolving, but this is my current impression of what I should work on.
  • Sometimes I wish the world were different than it is. I wish it were better for both animals and humans.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Our leaders are smarter than they act

Citizens United has become an all-purpose whipping boy for political outcomes disliked by liberals.  Critics  of the Supreme Court’s decision complain that democracy is undermined when corporations are free to spend huge amounts to influence leaders and elections,  benefiting the rich at the expense of the 99%.

Even before Tuesday’s recall election in Wisconsin,  critics were blaming the poll-predicted failure on “outside” corporate money flooding the state with TV commercials defending Republican Governor Scott Walker. 

The Court’s decision in Citizens United was not,  however,  unreasonable.  It took literally the First Amendment’s command that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”   It ruled as proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, not a hotbed of conservative,  corporate-friendly sentiments.  It  frees unions as well as corporations to spend money on political advocacy.  And on many issues,   big corporations can be found on both sides.   

Elections are decided by voters,  not by money.  We have never had a president named Rockefeller or Perot.   Citizens United does not change the fact that  “the 99%” are potentially  99% of the voters, and that they could vote in their own interests if they took the time to inform themselves and to think seriously about candidates and issues.

Critics of  Citizens United  complain that voters can be manipulated.  This is true for some voters some of the time.   But to the extent that voters can be manipulated,  overturning the Supreme Court’s decision would not improve matters.  It would just disadvantage some fat cats to the benefit of other fat cats (like the corporate  newspaper and TV chains, which were totally free to propagandize even before Citizens United was decided).   If voters can be manipulated it doesn’t matter much who does the manipulating.

The true remedy to any problems that may have been created by Citizens United is for Americans to take citizenship seriously,  to actively seek to inform themselves,  and to learn how to think about political candidates and issues so that they cannot be manipulated by anybody.

People often assume that our problems are caused by bad leaders.   Our present leaders do and say many stupid things, but this is not  because they are stupid.  Too often, it is because if they talked sense the voters wouldn’t stand for it and would throw them out at the next election. 

If a substantial number of voters would spend an hour a day boning up on issues and learning how to think productively about politics,  this would make it possible for leaders and potential leaders to talk sense and act wisely more of the time.

There was a famous sign on President Harry Truman’s desk:  “The buck stops here.”    This is true for presidential decisions during emergencies.  But for many important decisions,   Truman’s sign was misleading. The buck ultimately stops with our voters,  not with our leaders.  Our leaders are smarter than they currently can afford to act.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Obamacare: How the Supreme Court could rule unanimously

Many pundits predict  the Supreme Court will decide the Obamacare case  5:4 along partisan lines.  Justices Scalia,  Alito, and Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts,  they assume,  will vote to strike the legislation down,   and justices Breyer,  Ginsburg,  Sotomayor and Kagan will vote to uphold it.  If these predictions are correct,  the outcome will depend on Justice Kennedy,  often considered the “swing” vote between Court conservatives and liberals. 

The guessing is that Justice Kennedy will tip the case to the conservative side.

This is all most unfortunate.  An extremely important decision about public policy is at stake,  and policy decisions are supposed to be made by elected politicians, not by judicial ideologues. 

Still,  policy decisions by elected officials must not exceed the limits posed by the Constitution.  And there are weighty reasons why mandated purchase of insurance could be considered unconstitutional.  

Back in 1954 when the Supreme Court  found segregated public schools to be unconstitutional,  Chief Justice Earl Warren managed to get a unanimous decision of this highly contentious case.  It is generally thought that this unanimity helped gain eventual public acceptance of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  . 

A unanimous decision by the nine justices,  avoiding the appearance of partisanship, would be equally desirable in the current case. A unanimous decision to uphold Obamacare is unlikely.  But a unanimous decision to declare it unconstitutional is not impossible and could be the best possible outcome both from the legal and the policy point of view.  .

The Administration argues that mandated purchase of insurance is essential if everyone is to be insured.  But a unanimous Court could rely on reasoning supplied by an amicus curia brief submitted to the Court on behalf of 50 medical doctors (and other people) who support a single-payer insurance system.   The doctors’ basic argument is that the mandate to buy insurance cannot be justified as the only way to skin the cat, since an alternative exists.  They point out that a  single payer system supported by taxes is clearly constitutional,  exists in a number of countries,  and already exists in the U.S. for people over 65. 

Such reasoning could unite all members of the Court, would  rest on strong constitutional logic and precedent,  and would  help to focus future policy discussions by elected leaders.  And from comments made during oral argument, at least one justice (interestingly,  Kennedy) was familiar with the doctors’ argument.  As the Court’s principal swing voter,   Kennedy  would be in a strong position to lead the Court to a unanimous decision along these lines if he is so inclined.

Such a decision would give everyone something to be happy about.  Conservatives would be happy that the Court avoided setting the dangerous precedent that people can be compelled to buy goods or services.  Liberals could take satisfaction that the Court had drawn favorable attention to  a single-payer system paid for by taxes, their preferred solution all along,  and perhaps helped make such a system politically possible in the near future.    


This piece has run in the Daily Telegram,  Adrian, Michigan,  and on .

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Repudiate "Obamacare"? Here is a radical strategy for Obama

No matter how the Supreme Court decides the medical insurance cases, we face prolonged uncertainty. If it upholds the law, Republicans will sabotage implementation and promise to repeal it when they return to power. If it strikes down the law, the uncertainty will be what, if anything, Congress will do next. Confusion will be even greater if the Court only strikes down parts of the law.

The only way to avoid crippling uncertainty will be to stop the Supreme Court from making any decision at all. President Obama could do this by announcing that he is now convinced—after considering the arguments at the Court---that the 2700 page law is unconstitutional. He would add that he has also concluded the law is unwise: too complex, precarious in its financing, too many provisions added merely to gain votes needed for passage. He can say we must do better than this and ask Congress to repeal the entire mess, depriving the Supreme Court of any opportunity to make a further mess. Congress would undoubtedly comply with this request.

Obama would explain that the obvious solution to our insurance problems would be a single-payer system (“Medicare for all”) financed by taxes, which would clearly be constitutional. Unfortunately he had to rule this out during his first term because he had promised not to raise taxes on anybody but the rich. He would apologize for making a promise that prevented him from doing what he thought best for the country.

Obama would announce that his re-election campaign will focus on showing voters why a single payer system is the best idea, noting that his promise not to raise taxes was only for his current term. He will note that elimination of insurance premiums (now paid directly or indirectly by employees) will make up for the tax increases required by a single payer system. In fact the average person will come out ahead since money now paying for insurance company management will be greatly reduced.

The President’s principal goal would be to convince conservatives and Republican voters, since most Democrats and liberals would already agree. He should stress the simplicity and efficiency of single payer systems and the experience of foreign countries with such systems. He should ask conservatives to consider whether, even if they feel secure with their present insurance, they can be sure that they won’t lose their jobs (and hence their insurance), and whether they can be sure that their children and grandchildren will be equally fortunate.

To guarantee enactment of single payer, Obama would ask voters—including Republicans--- to elect overwhelming Democratic majorities to Congress, “just this once.” If he can convince enough people, single payer could be implemented and not be reversed later on. Republican politicians, if they see overwhelming voter support for single payer, will get religion in a hurry. (Remember George “segregation forever” Wallace, who hastily abandoned this idea after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought large numbers of black voters to the polls.)

If he fails to convince enough people, Obama will lose the election. But he will be remembered as a great president who did his best to lead Americans in a direction he honestly thought desirable and was not afraid to admit making mistakes. And he will have helped educate public opinion so that a single payer system could become politically possible in the future.

Does President Obama have the imagination and courage to repudiate Obamacare? We will see.


This piece has run in the Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan) and on CommonDreams.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Scrap "natural born citizenship" requirement for presidents

Americans often assume the Constitution is perfect. Our founders, however, made no such assumption and therefore made provisions for amending it.

One of the most mischievous clauses in the Constitution is section 1 of article 2:

“No person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the office of president . . . .”

Several presidents and major presidential contenders have been accused of violating this requirement: President Chester Arthur, Charles Evans Hughes (later appointed Chief Justice) , Barry Goldwater, George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father) , and most recently John McCain and President Barack Obama.

Though it disqualified various prominent individuals (including Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger), in earlier decades few people took this clause seriously. Kissinger, asked if he was unhappy to be ineligible to become president, joked that there was nothing in the Constitution that would prevent him from becoming emperor. His ineligibility may have made him a more effective secretary of state, since people interested in becoming president themselves did not have to undermine him in order to enhance their own chances.

Some wits wondered if people delivered by Caesarian section were eligible.

Today, however, “birthers” and conspiracy theory devotees have made this requirement a major distraction from serious issues of public policy and from the actual strengths and weaknesses of presidential candidates. The requirement also conflicts with the widely shared value of equality before the law by establishing two classes of citizens, those eligible to be president and those not eligible.

Of course there are other constitutional requirements to be president, most notably the age requirement. But this requirement has minimal practical impact since few people younger than 35 are likely to be serious contenders.

Foreign-born individuals who are naturalized citizens might even be more qualified than the average natural born citizen. After all, they have been certified by the naturalization process to have actual knowledge about the American political system. Some recent candidates for president and vice president seemed to have some gaps in this regard.

There is an interesting contrast in the Constitution between the eligibility rules for the presidency and the total absence of any rules for Supreme Court members. For Supreme Court justices there is no age requirement, no requirement that they be lawyers, and no citizenship requirement. Mikhael Gorbachev would be a perfectly constitutional justice, as would a 14 year old like Malia Obama.

Our founders apparently trusted presidents and the senators who confirm judicial appointments to do the right thing. Is there any reason to think we cannot equally trust American voters when they select a president?

It is high time to get going on the necessary amendment. If we start soon, it could be ratified before Barack Obama, if re-elected, completes a second term. Eric Sevareid once compared being president with treading water while swatting bees. This amendment will remove a few bees from the bonnets of conspiracy theorists and reduce the number of bees distracting future presidents from getting their job done.


This article has appeared in the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram and in the (Portland) Oregonian.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined

This is an outstanding book, so much so that I’ll probably buy a copy as soon as the paperback version comes out. Since I am a Certified Public Cheapskate, and already having trouble finding bookshelf space, this is high praise! I cannot remember ever buying a book after reading a library copy, except when our book discussion group later decided to use it.

Pinker correctly says that this analysis is “unsentimental history” based on “statistical literacy.”

A great strength of this work is Pinker’s extensive and persuasive documentation of how violent and nasty life in previous centuries was. The massive torture of people and animals in the past, which Pinker does not shrink from describing in gory detail, is sobering and depressing, but very educational.

Pinker admits that we are far from having arrived at utopia. But a number of graphs illustrate how the chances of being murdered or raped over the long haul have been greatly reduced from one century to another, and even the likelihood (expressed as a percentage of the current populations) of being killed in wars has gone way down.

The author capably explores a number of possible explanations for the improvements, accepting some and rejecting others.

Although Pinker’s thesis is very upbeat, he pointedly refrains from arguing that the trends toward improvement he documents will inevitably continue. He says our appropriate attitude should be “gratitude” rather than “optimism.”

This book would make a wonderful basis for reading and discussion in college political science classes, and its 700 pages (before footnotes kick in) would probably mean it would have to be the main text for a one-semester undergraduate class.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Phony Prices Give Corporations a Bad Name

The scandal about outrageous prices ($51 for two minutes!) paid by soldiers phoning the U.S. from a German airport is merely one more example of a more general problem: the proliferation of misleading prices advertised by businesses, or, as in this case, the absence of any announced price at all.

Years ago I was faculty advisor to a fraternity some of whose members cut down and stole a valuable blue spruce to use as a Christmas tree. They got caught. The tree’s owner said it was worth $600 and the guilty brethren coughed up this money to avoid being prosecuted . Buying a tree would have been cheaper.

Afterwards, I pointed out that one advantage of buying things is that you learn the value placed on them by their owners and, if you find that price excessive, you don’t buy. But this advice is worthless if the seller states a false price, or no price.

It is easy to find examples of false prices or no prices. At restaurants, for example, the waiter may announce specials of the day without informing diners of the prices, hoping that some diners will order without asking the price in order to avoid looking like cheapskates to others in their party.

On a grander scale, we find adjustable rate mortgages with low initial interest charges which always seem to go up, sometimes way up, after a year or two. Some of the recent housing meltdown was aggravated by interest increases that homeowners could not afford to pay.

Then there are hotels and car rental agencies which advertise rates without bothering to state the taxes which will be collected on top of these rates, taxes which are often substantial percentages of the advertised prices. Of course the customers are often from out of state and in no position to know what the state and local taxes are in the city in question. This is on top of the unannounced “fees” some even more unscrupulous hotels have been adding to their bills lately.

And how about TV cable or internet service providers offering bargain prices “for 6 months?” Or phone companies whose prices don’t include “taxes and fees?” Or TV commercials offering things for so many dollars “plus postage and handling.” Customers might be able to estimate postage costs, but “handling” is another matter, and sometimes exceeds the advertised price of the goods.

I won’t even comment on advertised airline fares or credit card interest rates!

Most of these practices are currently legal, but that does not make them right. One wonders if business executives are so obsessed with maximizing profits that they don’t care if they are giving their organizations a bad name. They obviously are not living by the Golden Rule.

It would be interesting to see if these problems could be ended by simple legislation without a lot of complications and loopholes requiring prices to be stated before any business transaction can occur, and requiring that all such prices be honest, “bottom-line” prices.


This article has appeared in the (Portland, Oregon) Oregonian, and the (Adrian, Michigan) Daily Telegram.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Excellent article on the need to transport energy

The New York Times just published an excellent analysis about the conflict between our need to move large amounts of energy from where it can be found to where it will be used----whether it be electricity, oil, or natural gas---and obstruction by environmentalists and NIMBYites of efforts to build transmission lines and pipelines. Read it here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This letter was NOT published by the Wall Street Journal

My previous entry (below) about a letter published by the Wall Street Journal has a story behind it. The same day the WSJ ran the op-ed (one of many recently) encouraging us to attack Iran it also ran a piece about the fight between the Obama administration and religious groups about the Administration's decision (since weakened) to require hospitals and universities run by religious groups to provide "free" contraceptives as part of any insurance coverage provided to employees.

I had to pick which article to comment on, since I knew full well the WSJ would not publish two letters from me at the same time. I picked the birth control issue, sent off a letter, and the very next day the WSJ published a lengthy op-ed piece making exactly the same points I had made in the letter!

So obviously they would not use my birth control letter. I thereupon wrote the letter on Iran which they have indeed published.

In order to avoid totally wasted effort in writing the first letter, here it is.


In “Obama Seeks Deal on Birth Control” [WSJ, Feb. 8, p. A5], a Hawaiian model

is suggested as a possible compromise: Religious employers could enroll workers in a plan not covering contraceptives, but a reduced premium for the plan (presumably passed along to the employees in their paychecks) would allow “employees who want contraception to pay for the coverage out of their own pockets directly to the insurer.”

It would make more sense for employees wanting contraceptives to just pay for them themselves, eliminating the overhead associated with all money passing through insurance companies. Since only people intending to use contraception would pay for the extra insurance coverage, the additional premium would have to be more than they would pay for the contraceptives.

A critic of any concessions by the Administration is quoted to the effect that “If people can opt out of [paying for] specific services, the whole idea of of insurance falls apart.” Actually, the idea of insurance has already fallen apart when insurance is allowed, let alone required, to cover something like birth control that is a normal operating expense (like food and clothing) rather than an unusual but financially catastrophic expense (like your house burning down or major surgery requiring lengthy hospitalization).

Much of what passes for medical insurance today is actually prepaid expenses and makes sense only because it allows people to avoid paying income tax on substantial parts of their earnings.

Paul deLespinasse

Corvallis, Oregon

Original version of my letter to the Wall Street Journal

Thomas Sowell once said that the fact that he had never killed an editor was proof positive that capital punishment does (sometimes) deter murders. Most of us who write have probably entertained similar desires.

The February 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal includes a letter-to-the-editor that I recently wrote. I appreciate their decision to publish it, but do not appreciate a few "small" but important deletions.

Here is the original version of my letter:


Charles Robb and Charles Wald claim [“Bolstering the Military Option on Iran, WSJ February 8] that “the U.S. military is capable of launching a surgical air strike against Iran’s nuclear program and its military installations.” Perhaps, but to believe that such a strike could achieve its goal is wishful thinking at its worst.

Machiavelli warned rulers to avoid injuring their enemies without also destroying their ability to retaliate. We must annihilate or conciliate. A “surgical” strike would do neither and would also violate the “Powell doctrine” that in military actions one should never under-do.

To guarantee Iranian inability to produce atomic weapons would require a massive, bloody and expensive military occupation of the entire country, overthrow of the regime, and prolonged forcible repression of insurgent-style nationalist resistance to the occupation. To incur these costs because Iran might develop and use atomic weapons makes no sense and would never get the necessary sustained support from Americans or our allies.

An alternative, of course, would be for us to use atomic weapons to destroy Iran. But this would kill millions of decent Iranians and is unthinkable if done preemptively.

In the end we are going to have to rely on deterrence, employing atomic weapons as a regrettable necessity only in response to actual Iranian use of such weapons. And it is always possible [Mehdi Khalaji, “It’s Time to Bypass Iran’s Supreme Leader,” WSJ February 9] that Iranians might be able to reform their system if given sufficient time and intelligent support from abroad.

Paul deLespinasse

Corvallis, Oregon