Thursday, June 28, 2012

Supreme Court Upholds Obamacare As Roberts Joins Four Liberal Justices

America's great shame -- and there is much shameful about this once great nation these days -- is that it has been alone among industrialized countries in not offering its citizens access to affordable health care.
Consequentially, over 40 million people have no health insurance, emergency rooms are overwhelmed with people who have no doctor to turn to when they become ill, and the infant mortality rate is unconscionably high because so many women are unable to afford prenatal care.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was a huge step toward bringing the U.S. in line with those other industrialized countries by creating a more rational health insurance market while stopping well short of establishing a government-run program such as those in England, Canada and elsewhere. 

Obamacare would help an estimated 33 million people buy health insurance, cap insurance premiums for the poor, help those under age 26 stay on their parents' health plans, protect those with pre-existing conditions, require insurers to spend most of every premium dollar on medical care, as opposed to administrative and advertising costs, accelerate a decrease in health care costs, and provide generous tax credits to small businesses who provide health insurance for their employees. 
The 2010 law would require adults to pay either a modest $695 or 2.5 percent of their annual income, whichever is greater, through what is called an individual mandate, beginning in 2014. The mandate is a recognition that some people will not be able to afford insurance and aims to keep down the cost down through a mandatory surcharge on people who can afford it. There would be a modest penalty for those who refuse to participate.

But to most Republicans, Obamacare isn't about health care, let alone helping their fellow citizens from cradle to grave. In their view, the law and especially the individual mandate provision is an unconstitutional affront to the almighty free market. In other words, if people have an accident, get sick or contract diseases and cannot afford to be treated, that's their tough luck.  Really tough luck at a time when millions of people remain out of work.  Never mind that the profits-always-trump-patients crowd would never acknowledge that the almighty free market has resulted in a staggering level of health care spending per capital in the U.S. that is the highest in the industrialized world and more than double most nations.

Requiring Americans to buy health insurance is a violation of their "freedom and liberty," according to Representative Michael Bachmann, a vociferous opponent of the law and, with Sarah Palin on the sidelines, a leading peddler of the death panel myth, which has it that under a provision of Obamacare federal bureaucrats would rule on whether you and I should live or die if we are gravely ill.

That was the stark ideological divide -- The Democrats extending a helping hand and the Republicans slapping it away -- confronting the U.S. Supreme Court when it agreed to rule on a lawsuit seeking to strike down the individual mandate brought by 26 states -- all not coincidentally led by Republican governors.

The plaintiffs asserted that the individual mandate is unconstitutional because Congress overstepped its bounds in regulating interstate commerce by requiring people who lack health insurance to purchase it, while the provision in the law expanding Medicaid to cover millions of additional low-income people is an unconstitutional use of power over the states. The Obama administration responded by arguing that because everyone needs medical care at some point in their lives, they already are engaged in the economic activity of deciding how to finance their care and the Affordable Care Act merely regulates how they must go about performing that activity.

Based on the tone and substance of the justices’ questions and comments over three unprecedented days of oral arguments in March, it appeared that the relatively liberal Justices—Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan—would vote to uphold the mandate; Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito would vote to strike it down; and Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy were potentially swing votes.  The cipher Thomas remained mute during the arguments, as has long been his custom, but his vote would be easy to predict.

The court's conservative majority has revealed itself to be a de facto arm of the Republican Party because of Citizens United, a decision that in effect allows corporations and wealthy individuals to buy elections, and other decisions based on ideology and not law.  As recently as Monday it struck down a Montana campaign finance law that would have circumvented Citizens United in an effort to put an end to a deeply-rooted culture of political corruption in that state that allowed ranching and mining interests to . . . yes, buy elections, while in siding with a minority of justices in overturning Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant law Justice Scalia unleashed a vindictive and deeply unethical attack on President Obama's amnesty for young illegal aliens born in the U.S.

The so-called smart money had it that in ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the high court would at least "sever" the individual mandate while letting the rest of the law stand, if not throw out the entire law. A minority, myself included, hewed to the view that a majority would take a more sensible approach and allow the law to stand because it is, in essence, little different from requiring Americans to pay income taxes or contribute to Social Security.  Or to riff on a Republican value, it is about personal responsibility.
I am happy beyond belief to have been correct as the Supremes ruled 5-4 this morning that the individual mandate is not unconstitutional and upheld the entirety of Obamacare with the exception that the federal government's power to terminate states' Medicaid funds is narrowly read.  Chief Justice Roberts, apparently drawing on his background as a strict constitutionalist -- or as "an institutional conservative rather than a radical reactionary," as Andrew Sullivan put it, joined Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
There were not five votes to uphold the law on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices -- Roberts, Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan -- did agree that the penalty that someone must pay if they refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power. ax if they don't. The other justices split 4-4, with four wanting to uphold it as a mandate, and four -- Kennedy, Alito, Scalia and Thomas -- opposed to it in any form.
Lyle Denniston, the dean of Supreme Court journalists, writes at SCOTUSBlog that:

"Essentially, a majority of the court has accepted the administration's backup argument that, as Roberts put it, 'the mandate can be regarded as establishing a condition -- not owning health insurance -- that triggers a tax -- the required payment to IRS.' Actually, this was the administration's second backup argument.  Its first argument was the Commerce Clause, the second was the Necessary and Proper Clause, and third was as a tax. The third argument won."
Because the mandate survives, the court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose new funds if they didn't comply with the new requirements, rather than all of their funding.
The decision, which affirms the greatest achievement of President Obama's first term, is an enormous victory for he and Congressional Democrats. 
In addition to the political reverberations, the case helps set the rules for one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the economy, although it also will be a rallying point for conservatives -- which is to say Republicans.  The health care debate remains far from over and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has promised to undo the law if elected, although his argument that Romneycare was different than Obamacare is now fatally wounded.
Under Roberts, the court has delivered numerous major victories to conservatives in addition to Citizens United. It could take up other major issues to which conservatives are opposed, including affirmative action, same-sex marriage and the Voting Rights Act in its next term.  And while conservatives were angry that Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, had betrayed them, other presidents have regretted some of the decisions made by their appointees, most notably Richard M. Nixon’s appointees forcing him to hand over the Watergate tapes that sped his resignation from office.
David Bernstein, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy, notes that at first glance Scalia’s dissent reads like it was originally written as a majority opinion:

"Back in May, there were rumors floating around relevant legal circles that a key vote was taking place, and that Roberts was feeling tremendous pressure from unidentified circles to vote to uphold the mandate. Did Roberts originally vote to invalidate the mandate on commerce clause grounds, and to invalidate the Medicaid expansion, and then decide later to accept the tax argument and essentially rewrite the Medicaid expansion . . . to preserve it?  If so, was he responding to the heat from President Obama and others, preemptively threatening to delegitimize the Court if it invalidated the ACA?"
Notes Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

"[W]e may learn that President Obama sacrificed his presidency to push through this piece of legislation — the Dems already lost Congress over it. But presidencies are for doing important things not just for getting elected to second terms in office. And I strongly suspect that even if Mitt Romney wins and gets a Republican Congress, they still won’t be able to get rid of this law.

"That counts. That matters."
Reaction from opponents of Obamacare was fast and furious while Democrats seemed more relived than celebratory.

“It’s never been more important that we elect a president who understands the marketplace and will make job creation his top priority,” said Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “By replacing Barack Obama with Mitt Romney, we will not only stop the federal government’s health care takeover, but will also take a giant step towards a full economic recovery.”

Tea Party Express, a group opposed to the law, issued a statement saying it is committed to repealing it.

“The Supreme Court ruled to uphold this unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into our personal health care decisions. The American people still reject this legislation as bad policy and unwanted government interference with their lives."
"We will continue to implement this law and we'll work together to improve on it," said Obama, speaking somberly in the White House East Room, the same setting he used to announce the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden.  "What we won't do -- what the country can't afford to do -- is re-fight the political battles of two years ago or go back to the way things were. . . . It's time for us to move forward."
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, took to the Senate floor to praise the court, saying “the rule of law” had been place “ahead of partisanship.” Reid suggested the law would be tweaked in Congress to address some unpopular elements. “We will do that working together,” he said. “Our Supreme Court has spoken,” he said, cautioning against Republicans’ insistence on legislative repeal.
Michelle Bachmann, attempting to speak outside of the Supreme Court, had to shout over chants of "four more years." 
Click here to read the decision.
Photo courtesy of Garyhe.

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Summer Of Love Reconsidered

America is still suffering the horrible consequences of hippies who thought utopia could be found in joints and intentional disconnect.
It has been 45 years since the Summer of Love and those unlovable right-wingnut Republicans, led by their knuckle-dragging shoot 'em up poster boy, are waging class warfare anew against a favorite target. But is it possible that gun-loving, Obama hating Ted Nugent has a point?

The Summer of Love actually began in January 1967 with the first Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (photo) and ended with the Death of the Hippie March in Haight Ashbury in October of that year. In between, tens of thousands of high school and college kids drawn by media and first-hand accounts of the birth of the so-called hippie counterculture poured into the city.
" . . . [I]ts creators did not employ a single publicist or craft a media plan," writes Sheila Weller in an occasionally overwrought essay in the July issue of Vanity Fair.  "Yet the phenomenon washed over America like a tidal wave, erasing the last dregs of the martini-sipping Mad Men era and ushering in a series of liberations and awakenings that irreversibly changed our way of life."
Yes, I was part of the horde, although I spent most of my brief stay across the bay in Berkeley, which also was awash in free dope, free love, free music and free lentil loaf.
This from a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Nugent, who in his unrelenting bottom crawling recently declared that "I will either be dead or in jail" if Obama is re-elected:
"Turned off by the work ethic and productive American Dream values of their parents, hippies instead opted for a cowardly, irresponsible lifestyle of random sex, life-destroying drugs and mostly soulless rock music that flourished in San Francisco. . . . The bodies of chemical-infested, brain-dead liberal deniers continue to stack up like cordwood. . . . The 1960s, a generation that wanted to hold hands, give peace a chance, smoke dope and change the world, changed it all right: for the worse."  

Wring the hyperbole from Nugent's purple prose and he makes a very serious allegation: Those wild and crazy Sixties ushered in an era of moral decay that my generation has infected America with from family room to factory floor.

If you think you know where I come down on this, you might be surprised that I don't entirely disagree with Nugent, although the kernels of truth in what he says are obscured by his rank blunderbussing.

One kernel of truth is that the Summer of Love and flowering of the counterculture was open season for people who were more adept at changing hash pipe screens than their kids' diapers, let alone the world. This is where I do have a real problem. Driving a VW Beetle until it runs out of oil and blows up is one thing, but screwing up your kids' lives is another. And unforgivable even under the most lax standards of the time.

The vast majority of people who rode the counterculture wave have turned out just fine and arguably better than the right-wing crackpots who are hung up about anyone who won't worship their God, play by their rules and doesn't share their recidivistic intellectual constipation.
Many of us have indeed tried to make the world a better place and succeeded in many small ways. This is because the experience of the Summer of Love and what followed made us more curious, more compassionate, more humble and . . . well, more human. 

I have known a few of the disreputable slacker types, although there is something about human nature that has empowered most of their kids to shun their parents' behavior and grow up to lead comparatively normal lives.

Having dealt with that kernel, let's move on to the big nut: My circle of friends from that era – the folks who went on the road with me to like really far out Grateful Dead concerts, man -- are for more typical of the era.

One became a pediatrician, one a dentist, one a public defender, one a nurse, one a gourmet chef, one a building contractor and two school teachers. All have given back more than they have taken, and all have voted in every election, given to charities, done volunteer work, tried hard to be good parents and helped care for their parents when they became infirm. Yes, one of them died of acute alcoholism, but I believe that he was genetically hard wired for the disease and would have suffered the same fate no matter when he had come of age.

There is one more kernel of truth:

Although Nugent doesn't address it head on, I suspect that many graduates of the counterculture have been remiss in not being candid about their own experiences with their children when the time comes to talk about stuff like sexuality and drugs.  

I come down somewhere in between, although I have been unrelenting in passing on a message that I took to heart in the Sixties: Listen to your elders. Listen to public officials and politicians. But decide what is true and right for you.
Colorized photograph, original by Jim Marshall, via Vanity Fair

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Thompson/Detroit Free Press

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Insidiousness Of Citizens United, Capitalism Run Amok & The Vampire Elite

Is the paltry consideration of a little dirty pelf for a few to be placed in competition with the essential rights and liberties of the rest, and of millions yet unborn?
The U.S. Supreme Court's 2009 Citizens United decision was a perfect storm. As in the destructiveness of a Category 5 hurricane.

In one fell swoop, the court's conservative activists put a stake through the heart of our most cherished civil right -- freedom of speech -- in a ruling that conflated spending with speech and was easily the most twisted in 150 years.  In doing so these justices tacitly acknowledged what I and other clear-eyed observers of of our society have come to understand: America is now ruled by a corporatocracy that in some respects is even more powerful than the federal government, and at its head is a vampire elite represented by Mitt Romneys who thanks to Citizens United can use corporations and so-called Super PACs to buy elections.

And you're naive if you don't think that the Republican Party and its extraordinarily wealthy supporters won't try to buy Romney's way into the White House since Citizens United allows them to raise as much money as they can.  Or to fall back on the Supreme Court, which has become a de facto arm of the GOP, if dirty pelf doesn't do the job.
* * * * *
A five justice majority ruled in Citizens United that the First Amendment prohibited government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations (and by unions, as is less well known) and bestowed on both the free speech rights of individuals.

The insidiousness of Citizens United was on display during the Republican presidential primary season as billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich's cash-starved campaign alive with a $5 million donation through a super PAC that was 1,000 times the $5,000 he could legally give directly to Gingrich before the ruling.

And this insidiousness was on display again when the Montana Supreme Court upheld a tough state campaign finance law designed to put an end to rampant political corruption in the form of corporate mining and ranching interests packing the state legislature by bankrolling candidates sympathetic to their interests.

Opponents of Montana's campaign finance law screamed blue blooded murder, declared that Citizens United voided the law and appealed the state Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, 22 other states and the District of Columbia are siding with Montana as the high court reviews the case.

A striking difference between the Montana law and Citizens United is that the law was upheld by the state high court after a review that determined that political corruption was indeed rampant while Citizens United was conjured out of thin air with no evidentiary record whatsoever.
* * * * *
This brings us in a roundabout way to the vampire elite who run the corporatocracy.  These include the banksters who drove the U.S. into deep recession and the private equity gurus who run firms like Bain Capital, where presumptive Republican president candidate Romney got filthy rich by buying and then gutting companies, most of them community-oriented mom and pop operations, stripping workers of their pensions and then selling the companies for obscene profits.  (Oh, and trickle-down economics, a favorite of Republicans, still doesn't work, and Romney's new best buddy, Donald "Birther" Trump, makes me want to vomit.)

The first people to make a fuss over Romney's tenure at Bain were not Democrats.

They were Gingrich, who declared that "The Bain model is to go in at a very low price, borrow an immense amount of money, pay Bain an immense amount of money and leave. I'll let you decide if that’s really good capitalism. I think that’s exploitation."  He was seconded by Rick Perry, who called Romney as a "vulture capitalist" and said that "There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business. I happen to think that that is indefensible."

It is indefensible, but not when President Obama and his surrogates raise the issue and are accused by Republicans of wanting to destroy capitalism. In fact, there is nothing wrong with capitalism, let alone private equity or so-called free markets.  It is the excesses of capitalism such as insider trading that are wrong as several million out of work Americans can attest to.

Obama is spot on in noting that just because Romney was a buyout king doesn't make him fit to the run the American economy.  Nor does the fact that he became wealthy because the system is rigged, allowing him to pay lower taxes by exploiting Mack truck-sized loopholes.

A president cannot maximize profits for shareholders. He cannot create jobs with a wave of a hand like Romney destroyed them.  And by the way, when Romney finished his single term as governor of Massachusetts the state was ranked 47 out of 50 in job growth.
* * * * *
As noted near the top, Republicans will stop at nothing to try to buy Romney's way into the presidency.
Just the other day, The Politico reported that a confederation of prominent Republicans including Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is another de facto arm of the GOP, plan to spend $1 billion to make that happen with the Koch brothers alone dropping $400 million into the bucket.
By comparison, John McCain raised $375 million for his presidential campaign while Obama raised $750 million.
What we have here, folks, is a political system with national elections that are quickly becoming cage matches between rival billionaires with the GOP continually ratcheting up efforts to suppress the non-white vote.
All of that must stop.

Cartoon du Jour