Killing legitimate rights to invent progressive rights

The lede to this article intrigued me.

Liberals and Democrats in search of new ideas might surprise everyone by embracing the cause of states’ rights.

I’m sure this would just be an opportunity to play progressive politics locally, instead of the prudishness played out nationally. While I agree that states can work towards better solutions (not best – try private) than the federal government, due to nothing more than closer proximity to the problems (ditto local versus state), I was right to doubt this article. Consider:

Contrast this week in our nation’s capital with the week in Boston, capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Congress was solving the enormously important problem of making sure that wealthy Americans can continue to pay low taxes on their dividends and capital gains.

Phrase the issue that way and I know that ideology is more important than solving the problem, regardless of the rhetoric attached to the proposal. I’ve already addressed this in the past, but here it is again. Just because a tax cut is likely to affect the wealthy, that does not mean it’s inherently bad. Unless you like socialism, in which case you’re doubly wrong. Middle-class Americans own investments and receive dividends. They pay taxes, as well. How you frame the question shows exactly the outcome you want. For me, it would be based on principle. I happen to like “keep what you earn” more than “don’t make too much”.

Still, you can’t require people to buy insurance if they can’t afford it. That’s where Salvatore DiMasi, the Massachusetts House speaker and a Democrat, came in. He suggested combining an individual mandate with an assessment on employers who do not cover their employees. Most conservatives hate “employer mandates,” but why should employers who insure their workers provide an indirect subsidy to employers who don’t?

Why should employers who reach an (implicit or explicit) agreement with their workers that cash is the best benefit be punished for coming to a different conclusion than the socialists? They don’t force other employers to provide health insurance and shouldn’t be punished for having the intelligence to try a better way. The social contract is a larger culprit for our problems than the free market’s “failure” to provide every worker employer-sponsored health insurance. Which brings us to this:

… The federal government should solve problems or, failing that, give states the room, the incentives and the opportunities to solve problems for themselves. It’s amazing what local politicians can accomplish when good ideas and skilled agitators come together.

Only as a last resort should the federal government get out of the way. And only if they get out of the way for state and local governments. Brilliant. This is statism, not states’ rights.

More thoughts at Cato @ Liberty

I’m picturing Dom DeLuise as president

Count me among those not surprised by this news:

The Army Reserve, taxed by recruiting shortfalls and war-zone duty, has adopted a policy barring officers from leaving the service if their field is undermanned or they have not been deployed to Iraq, to Afghanistan or for homeland defense missions.

At the heart of the controversy is whether a law stating that commissioned reserve officers are appointed “for an indefinite term and are held during the pleasure of the President” gives the government the power to force them to serve permanently — as Army lawyers say — or only to discharge them against their will.

It’s an interesting debate, and if we are to continue with an all-volunteer army in which people actually wish to volunteer, the proper interpretation of that phrase seems clear. A reserve officer who has met his obligation should be allowed to resign.

That said, a court will decide, as it must whenever ridiculous, unclear language is used to craft legislation. Is “during the pleasure of the President” the worst phrase ever rendered by a legislative body? Legislative language surrounding obscenity probably trumps that, so let me be more specific. Could there be another law more tailored to fit the grandiose power ambitions of the current administration? I imagine Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzalez commenting that “during the pleasure of the President” is a particularly wonderful phrase. I’m sure it’s being added to all future signing statements. All that’s left to wonder is whether or not they feed grapes to President Bush upon command.

Networks finally understand the Constitution

Even though lawsuits like this shouldn’t be necessary, it’s about time the broadcast networks grew a set:

Four TV broadcast networks and their affiliates have filed court challenges to a March 15 Federal Communications Commission ruling that found several programs “indecent” because of language.

ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, along with their network affiliate associations and the Hearst-Argyle Television group of stations, filed notices of appeal in various federal courts, including in Washington D.C. and New York. Some were filed late Thursday and the rest Friday morning.

The move represents a protest against the aggressive enforcement of federal indecency rules that broadcasters have complained are vague and inconsistently applied. Millions of dollars in fines have been levied based on those rules.

The networks need to fight the censorship coming from the FCC more often every time. That won’t happen, but this gives hope that maybe they’re growing a spine. It’s an infant spine, sure, but it’s a start.

Personally, I like this:

The networks and affiliate groups, representing more than 800 individual stations, issued a rare joint statement Friday calling the FCC ruling “unconstitutional and inconsistent with two decades of previous FCC decisions.

“In filing these court appeals we are seeking to overturn the FCC decisions that the broadcast of fleeting, isolated _ and in some cases unintentional _ words rendered these programs indecent.”

“Unconstitutional and inconsistent with two decades…” Blah, blah, blah. They should’ve just stopped with unconstitutional. Using the less severe, but equally offensive, censorship practiced by the FCC for the last two decades as a defense only invites the court to rely on tradition rather than the Constitution. Given how frequently that seems to be happening lately, I want the courts to use clearly absurd logic to insert tradition into “Congress shall make no law…” Instead, we’ll maybe get the status quo from last year. Big deal.

FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper said Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 20 years ago that comedian George Carlin’s monologue on the “7 dirty words you can’t say on television and radio” was indecent.

“Today, Disney, Fox and CBS challenged that precedent and argued that they should be able to air two of those same words,” Lipper said. “We are reviewing their filings.”

What’s to review? That ruling was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. The Constitution should still prevail over the scared, puritan hacks reading, “interpreting”, and “enforcing” it. At some point, the national mommies and daddies in the Federal government need to stop being nanny-statists.

Is the free lunch vegan?

Interesting transportation news from Northern Virginia:

The region’s airports authority has reached a deal with Virginia officials to take control of the Dulles Toll Road and use the revenue to move quickly to build a Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport, sources familiar with the agreement said last night.

I hope it succeeds because traffic in the Northern Virginia area is ridiculous. However, the details of the plan aren’t important for my discussion. Instead, I want to focus on an informative statement surrounding the deal. Consider:

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the agreement, which was described to him yesterday, “has promise.” But he said the state has ignored the interests of commuters on the toll road.

“I’ve got constituents who will be paying tolls in perpetuity,” Connolly said. “That’s a long time. My constituents want some assurances that there is going to be some cap on the tolls they will be paying.”

“Lost in the haste to accept a proposal are the interests of the commuters,” Connolly said.

What is Chairman Connolly really saying behind his concern for his constituents? The tolls aren’t going away, but no one’s surprised by that. But, if the local authorities figure out a way to make the tolls suddenly stop, who pays for the roads? Fairfax County constituents are happy, but who pays for the roads? Lady Luck doesn’t wave her magic wand for VDOT, pouring new asphalt out of pixie dust. Someone will still pay for the roads. What Chairman Connolly is saying is that he wants someone else to pay for the roads his constituents use. Better to have some poor schmo in Roanoke pay for a portion of the road than the local (voting) soccer moms.

“We get the benefits, but we all pay for the public good” is a popular, winning stance for politicians. Just ask Sen. Ted Stevens. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong. If the Dulles rail line deal is unwise, he should attack it on its merits. He shouldn’t attack it because he expects something for nothing.

The Constitution is for everyone

I’m not an attorney and I haven’t read the opinion, but Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s ruling (as explained in the story) seems weak.

The 5-3 decision put new limits on officers who want to search for evidence of a crime without obtaining a warrant first.

If one occupant tells them no, the search is unconstitutional, justices said.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote his first dissent, predicting severe consequences for women who want police to come in but are overruled by abusive husbands.

It seems like a reasonable concern, and in reality some women may suffer as a result. But do we write the law for exceptions or for basic principles? When Danielle and I bought our house, I didn’t sign the papers with the intent of giving my rights to her, nor did she offer hers to me. That’s reasonable. And the explanation of this case does not indicate any form of domestic abuse, as Chief Justice Roberts uses for his dissent. So I don’t see a problem.

I regularly watch Cops, which I know is certainly not equivalent to a law degree. Yet, domestic violence that can’t be proven sufficiently for an arrest has appeared. The last time I saw it, the officer explained that she couldn’t make the husband leave, but she could protect the wife while she packed her bags. The officer escorted the woman and her child from the home so that the wife could leave safely. It’s easy to say this isn’t optimal, which may satisfy Chief Justice Roberts’ argument, but the Constitution still matters, no?

I reserve the right to later acknowledge (again) that I’m probably talking out of my ass.

He loves the Constitution, except when it gets in the way

More Ben Shapiro goodness, this time on South Dakota’s recent abortion ban. Most of the article is forgettable because he lobs assaults at liberals without realizing that he’s flinging the same attack on himself. One stretch of logic warrants consideration, though. It’s especially relevant considering Mr. Shapiro is currently attending Harvard Law School. His disregard for the Constitution and its place in our legal system is stunning. Consider:

Yet if the past few years of politics teaches us anything, it is that for the political left, end-goals trump American democratic processes every time. “Democracy isn’t democracy,” the left argues, “unless we win.” …

Republicanism cannot survive such all-out assault. The principle of majoritarianism requires that communal decisions be respected, even as minorities try to persuade majorities to change their policies. Constitutional laws created through a legitimate political process are not binding only for those who vote for those laws. …

It’s important to understand the terms Mr. Shapiro uses, in the intended context. First, republicanism is “a political system that has a system of law (as in a constitution or bill of rights) that protects individual liberty from the forces of tyranny with elected representatives governing according to such law.” The United States Constitution certainly fits that description. It describes exactly what the government is designed to do. It places any burden between citizens and their government on the government itself. It reserves all rights not explicitly granted to the government. We can debate the constitutional merits of South Dakota’s abortion ban, but it’s not necessary to understand the fallacy of Mr. Shapiro’s idea. Either the ban is or isn’t constitutional. Ultimately a court will decide that question, with the outcome (hopefully) dictated by the text of the constitution. Either way, some guiding constitutional principle should prevail.

However, an “all-out assault” on republicanism doesn’t result from the challenging South Dakota’s law if it’s found constitutional. It comes from ignorant reliance on the principle of majoritarianism, which is “a political philosophy or agenda which asserts that a majority (sometimes categorized by religion, language or some other identifying factor) of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society.” When Mr. Shapiro says that laws such as South Dakota’s abortion ban are “not binding only for those who vote for those laws,” he’s being disingenuous. The presumed-majority that supports the ban doesn’t want the law so that it may obey it. It seeks to impose that law on those who disagree.

If the law is constitutional, republicanism is sufficient to defend it. However, it’s also necessary to defend against using one victory to infringe upon guaranteed rights. Majoritarianism, with its disregard for the minority opinion, presents a greater threat to republicanism. It ultimately justifies tyrannical rule based solely on desired outcomes. The constitution disappears under the foaming insanity of the majority. And Mr. Shapiro applauds because it matches his desires wishes.

I hope he’s crying the loudest when the pendulum of public opinion swings away from his theocratic dream.

More thoughts on majoritarianism at A Stitch in Haste

Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?

This recent story from The Washington Post reflects what I think is essential surrounding reasonable immigration policy.

Five years after African immigrants began flocking to this former mill town, city officials say they still are not qualified for many of the jobs the city has to offer. In response, Lewiston [Maine] is enforcing one of the country’s most aggressive policies aimed at speeding assimilation: Somalis here often must take English classes, or risk losing some welfare benefits.

“ESL,” said assistant city administrator Phil Nadeau, summing up the city’s English-as-a-second-language philosophy, “is everything.”

It’s virtually impossible to argue that English fluency is not essential to success in America. Sure, some may succeed despite a lack of fluency, but that will result from the nature of a closed community, but the opportunity for growth and new ideas becomes limited with a refusal to stretch beyond a non-English speaking group within the United States.

Accordingly, requiring English lessons for immigrants receiving welfare benefits is legitimate. I’m bypassing the “should immigrants get welfare” aspect because it’s not necessary for the point I want to make. Replace welfare with citizenship in the argument, if necessary. On whatever terms, English is our language. Individuals need basic English skills to function in society. Someone who can’t function isn’t likely to stay off welfare for any extended period. That’s not helpful to any community.

Further in, the article presents a voice of doubt on whether the requirement is useful, since some individuals attend only because it’s required, and as a result, don’t bother to learn. I don’t doubt that happens, but I also assume that such any legitimate program would include some mechanism to prove that the student makes progress throughout the course and can pass some level of proficiency at the end. Given how easily that fear could be applied to many American students wasting their time in high school, should we not require students to attend school until adulthood? Regardless, I think the critical view, that immigrants can’t or won’t learn, is absurd. Requiring an immigrant to know or learn English basic English puts the onus on the individual. If the person doesn’t want to help himself, the majority of the community that accepts responsibility for themselves shouldn’t be burdened. Providing support for the deserving poor shouldn’t be charity without expectations.

Smart immigration policy reflects a truth that should be apparent to anyone watching the cultural conflicts around the world in recent months. Multi-cultural societies don’t work. Not multi-racial, for that’s a benign concept for a culture. A refusal to accept multi-cultural means that assimilation is essential. Individuals can retain pieces of their past and useful cultural associations, but it’s essential to understand that America represents the principles and beliefs imparted by freedom and liberty. America includes cultural aspects from nations all around the world, but our ideas and culture are uniquely ours. Immigrants should expect to become Americans, not citizens of separate entities residing within the physical borders of the United States. English is a common bond, and as such, should be expected.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

As in most cities, traffic is atrocious in the metro Washington area. I missed the train one day last week and my morning commute took me almost two-and-a-half hours. My highway miles, which constitute probably 90% of the drive into the District consist of HOV lanes, whether in the one designated lane outside the Beltway or both lanes inside the Beltway. (I-66 is all HOV once it crosses inside the Beltway.) The area needs a transportation solution.

As a libertarian, this story about some localities in Northern Virginia considering offers from private developers to pay for road upgrades in exchange for zoning approvals fascinated me. I’m certainly in favor of privatizing governmental activities wherever possible, and as I’ve read more, I’m not opposed to private roads instead of public roads. (I’m not rah-rah over the idea yet, but that’s the practical side of me. The intellectual battle continues.) Whether or not this current scenario in Virginia could work is worth discussing, as it provides insight into the debate. Consider:

“This is one of the prices we pay for not adequately funding our transportation system,” said Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “We’re getting into a situation where we’re so desperate for improvements that we’re willing to make deals like this.”

County officials say they are aware that the offers are a Faustian bargain of sorts, since the deals would draw even more cars onto the roads that need fixing. But they are fed up with waiting, they said, and if legislators fail to agree on a funding package in the coming weeks — one with clear guidelines for where the money’s going — turning down the developers will be more difficult.

I read the first quote with a skeptic’s interpretation. For the purpose of today’s debate, I’ll agree that we’re not funding transportation adequately. But where does that simple statement end? Do we raise taxes? Or do we analyze what we’re spending public funds on today? Essentially, it’s worth separating any idea of a causal link between transportation funding and government tax receipts. Mr. Kirby doesn’t carry it that far, so I have no idea what his position is regarding how to fix it. But the natural inclination of legislators is to not eliminate spending if funds aren’t available when new needs arise. That shouldn’t be the automatic leap in Virginia, although I suspect that’s where the plan is going.

Of course, turning over funding and construction to private developers could lead to the Faustian bargain some fear. My morning commute shows that it’s not unfounded. It would be unwise for local politicians to use that theory as the sole deciding factor in the deals. Let the developers present a cost-benefit analysis and present it for consideration. Then review it thoroughly. It sounds simple, but I hold little confidence. A few circuitous re-election campaign donations seem more likely.

Later in the article, more details arise. What I find most telling is this passage:

Some local officials are less impressed by the developers’ largesse than others. Skeptics note that builders are paying for many of the improvements by establishing special tax districts within their developments, thereby passing on much of the cost to the new residents.

That sounds sinister, but how is passing the cost to new residents different than how the state would pay for increased spending on improvements? Leprechauns don’t deliver pots of gold to government coffers every time a rainbow appears. Since I’m certain residents in the new development will know that they’re in a special tax district, they’ll be in the best position to decide if they want to buy a home in the neighborhood, given the tax implications. If the developer over-estimates what home-buyers are willing to pay, it could lose money or go bankrupt. It comes down to two private parties negotiating terms for conducting a transaction. It’s capitalism. Where’s the flaw?

It’s clear that hurdles to privatizing exist. Whether or not this is the place to start is a question worth asking. The debate should be interesting, at least. However, it should teach legislators and the voters who elect them that the private market isn’t scary. Profit motive isn’t dangerous. When private entities seek to get something done, that’s a sign of where the market wants to go. Government doesn’t need to rubber stamp anything just because it’s a private individual or company, but government shouldn’t be a hurdle just to keep its action in the monopoly.

Failed socio-economic policies redux

Sebastian Mallaby’s column in today’s Washington Post is interesting more for the assumptions it proposes than for its specific content regarding President Bush’s looming marketing push for Health Savings Accounts. While mocking President Bush’s term “ownership society”, presumably because he prefers the “social contract” and all it entails, Mr. Mallaby declares these flaws:

A rerun of last year’s [Social Security] debate would show that health savings accounts are harder to defend than personal retirement ones. They are shockingly regressive: Furman’s study shows how a poor family might get a subsidy of $150 while a rich one might get more than $4,000. They have not just a transition cost but a real cost: The tax breaks could widen the deficit by at least $132 billion over 10 years and a lot more after that. And health savings accounts pose a more formidable threat to traditional corporate health plans than personal accounts posed to Social Security. Market forces are already dislodging company health plans; an extra shove could cause an avalanche.

The limited consumer discipline that would come from health savings accounts could not justify these disadvantages. But when you talk to administration officials, they express remarkably few doubts. They believed in the ownership society last year; they still believe in it this year. They believe in individual choice; they distrust collective programs. They don’t worry too much about the risks to the budget. Or to distributional justice. Or to existing safety nets.

Simple administration. Straightforward administration. The Clinton team would never have proposed such a clunker of a policy.

Three paragraphs and I lost count of the intellectual disasters. It’s feasible to argue that Health Savings Accounts aren’t the solution. I won’t argue that they’re perfect, only that something must be done. That doesn’t mean action for the sake of action, of course, which is what I think Mr. Mallaby is partially offering as the Bush Administration’s motive. Anything that fits the ownership society storyline, or something along those lines. To his credit, he challenges the logic of HSAs and offers a suggestion in return. I disagree, but that’s reasonable in such a change with unknown consequences. Unfortunately, his conclusion relies on the assumptions I marked in bold. In order:

  • Income differences matter only in tax liability. Receiving benefits, if tied to income and the resulting spending differences, must be quantitatively equal or they’re unfair and regressive.
  • Market forces are dislodging company health plans, violating the social contract. That’s Bad. The central planners know better, so we must halt that trend, not encourage it.
  • Individual choice is bad. We’re all in this together, so everyone should pay the same (unless he’s poor) and receive the same benefits (unless he’s rich), because the collective nature of government health care is important.
  • Liberals worry a lot about the budget. That’s why raising taxes to meet Dubya’s irresponsible budget is necessary.
  • “Distributional justice” is important above all else. If you don’t have enough, however that’s defined, and however much you do to earn it, you should be given what must be taken from others. Progressive taxes are good. Progressive benefits are bad. Regressive benefits are good. Regressive taxes are bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Existing safety nets are good. Reform must keep those. Remember, that’s why raising taxes is important. Cutting spending would destroy safety nets. Government is the best provider of safety nets.
  • The Clinton team would never have proposed such a clunker of a policy. They would’ve introduced a better clunker. It’s important to focus on better, not clunker. That’s why we need national health care, not individual choice. Everyone will like one-size-fits-all coverage. It doesn’t matter if the rich get worse health care. It’s a fixed pie. You don’t want others to be without. Do you? You’re selfish.

I hope it’s clear that I disagree with Mr. Mallaby’s assumptions. In the future, I hope he’ll put his assumptions in the first three paragraphs instead of the last three so that I may decide whether or not to bother reading his suggestions before I read them. That way, I’ll avoid the socialistic noise and read whatever’s left.

Join the revolution, eh

I wrote a few weeks ago that Sirius would not carry Howard Stern on its Canadian service due to decency standards in Canada revolving around the country having no equivalent to our First Amendment. It’s embarrassing that a democracy in the 21st century has no guaranteed free speech, but at least it gives us some perspective on how much worse our situation could be. Unless our courts decide not to be activist or legislate from the bench and allow Congress to pass laws restricting pay content. But I digress. Yesterday, Sirius Canada announced that it would begin airing Howard Stern’s radio show beginning Monday.

“It’s no secret that Howard Stern’s programming is not consistent with the kind of programming you would find on CBC/Radio Canada’s airwaves, but this is a Sirius Canada decision,” said CBC spokesman Jason MacDonald.

The subscription-based network is 40 per cent owned by the CBC, 40 per cent by Standard Radio and 20 per cent by Sirius in the United States.

“Sirius Canada is a separate company,” noted MacDonald.

“Yes, we’re partners and Sirius Canada made the decision that was right for it based on what the market demands.”

This is obviously a triumph for free speech and free markets in Canada, but I don’t know how long it’ll last. Stern said as much yesterday. He was joking, but this makes me wonder:

[MacDonald] said new technology that allows Sirius Canada subscribers to block out Stern if they so choose was a significant factor in finalizing the deal.

Sirius Canada has said it does not expect Stern to run into censorship trouble this time because his satellite show is a pay service.

“It’s really up to the public to decide whether it wants to submit a complaint, regardless of the fact that it’s a service that is purchasable,” says CRTC spokeswoman Miriam Gennaro.

She couldn’t immediately say, however, whether different standards will apply to satellite radio.

I know Ted Stevens, Brent Bozell, and James Dobson would love to implement such a scheme in the United States, but I’m thankful the First Amendment says what it says. Now, if we just convince those non-“activist” judges to read it with the same deference to the text they would apply to any more favored portion of the Constitution. I know that’s crazy talk, but I can dream, right?