Guns and Gays and Hypocrisy, Oh My!

Phil Robertson and Dick Metcalf were both fired for expressing their views.
Phil Robertson and Dick Metcalf were both fired for expressing their views. Only one inspired outrage.

This is a tale of two men. Both men had TV shows, both men expressed their opinions. Both men’s employers cut ties with them. But only one inspired outrage for being discriminated against for speaking out.

By now, everyone has heard about Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson. He said some rather hateful things about homosexuals and African-Americans, which prompted the A&E Network to place him on “indefinite hiatus”. This prompted an immediate backlash from conservatives who were apoplectic that Robertson’s First Amendment rights were somehow being violated. This story dominated the news cycle and even launched petitions such as that argued:

“…the notion that a free-thinking American should be discriminated against simply for expressing a perspective that is in conflict with another is patently un-American and flies in the face of true tolerance and civility.”

In a parallel universe, Dick Metcalf had a similar experience. Metcalf is one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists. He was a columnist for Guns & Ammo, and had a TV show on the Sportsman channel called Modern Rifle Adventures. This is a guy with some serious NRA credibility.

However, in late October, Metcalf penned a column titled “Let’s Talk Limits”. In the column he stated, “The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” The column doesn’t advocate for much beyond proper training for anyone having a gun. Still, the column inspired the ire of gun manufacturers who primarily sponsor both the magazine and the TV show on which Metcalf appears. The gun companies threatened his employer that Metcalf needed to be fired or they would take their money elsewhere. And so Metcalf was let go.

So the question is, where is the outrage? Why is there no petitioning for the return of this gun enthusiast? After all, the issue with Robertson was that his right to express his opinion was being stifled… right?

The similarity of these cases, down to both victims being conservative icons of sorts, leaves only one interpretation for the relative silence from the political right over Metcalf’s dismissal. This wasn’t ever about freedom of expression. This was about support for a position. Those rallying for Robertson’s return were behind him because he expressed views about gays and blacks that resonated with them. They supported those positions, but lacked Robertson’s “courage” to say them aloud. Metcalf got no support because he was advocating a position that was anathema to that same group.

This was never about freedom of a man’s speech. It was always about support for a man’s views. I’m all for everyone getting to express their views directly, or indirectly by expressing support for others’ views, but can we at least be honest about our motivations? I have respect for anyone with the courage to stand by their convictions. But it’s simply cowardly to hide your true convictions behind other espoused ideologies you think are more socially acceptable.

The Real Obamacare “Tax”

“It’s a TAX!”

I was watching Fox News yesterday as the SCOTUS ruling upholding Obamacare’s individual mandate came to light.  Commentary was all over the map for the first 30 minutes, but then began to rapidly zero-in on the accusation that this was now a tax on the middle-class. They had found their message, and from then on sang out in perfect harmony. It was kind of amazing.

“(Americans will) like it even less when they understand it’s a tax,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told Fox News.

One curious element is that nothing related to the mandate is different today than it was last week—excepting the label. The notion that people’s view of the mandate will change as a result of a renaming is a blatant play to the ignorance of the audience.

Still, even if we accept the new label of “tax”, is it really a new financial burden on the middle class as conservatives are saying?

For those who are currently uninsured and financially able to afford healthcare, Obamacare will impose a new financial drain. Although, in return they get health insurance. We can call that a tax if you like.

But on the flip side, those who are currently insured are presently picking up the tab for the uninsured through higher insurance premiums and medical costs. Getting the uninsured into the pool lowers policy rates for the rest of us. This is even more true as other popular provisions of Obamacare, such as preventing coverage denial for pre-existing conditions, comes into force. The net result of this is a lowering of the financial burden on the currently insured, which is a significant majority of citizens.

If forcing the uninsured into the pool is a tax increase, then it only seems fair the reduced costs to the insured be considered a tax cut.  At worst, this is a wash. At best, the tax cuts for the majority will significantly outweigh the tax increase to the minority.

Will there be individuals who will pay more as a result of Obamacare? Sure. But many more of us will pay less. So it’s pretty hard to argue in aggregate that this is a tax increase on the middle class.

Tea Party flip-flops on infallibility of the Constitution

The Tea Party believes in an infallible unambiguous Constitution (Photo by Susan E Adams on Flickr)

At the behest of the incoming Congressional Tea Party coalition, legislators led by Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte read the entire Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives this morning.  Except they didn’t.

It seems the group decided to omit any parts that have since been overturned by other parts.  These omissions include Article 1, Section 2, which counted black slaves as three-fifths of a person.  Also omitted were the original method of having Senators appointed by state legislatures and the vice-president being the second place finisher in the election.  And there’s no point in bringing up Prohibition either, since it just gets rescinded shortly thereafter.

It might be reasonable to argue that this streamlining was just an effort to make the process efficient.  However, the motivation for the reading in the first place was because the Tea Party Coalition believes there is some magic wisdom in the words written by our founding fathers.  Inasmuch as the bible is viewed as the infallible word of God, the Constitution is viewed as the infallible word of the creators of the USA.

Reading evidence aloud that the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Congress in 1787 were fallible human beings who did a pretty good job, but still made a couple of colossal blunders does not fit with the narrative of the demi-gods who graced us with our founding document.  Curiously, mostly the same guys who drafted the Articles of Confederation as our very first founding document.  But that didn’t work out too well.  Apparently, infallibility takes practice.

Meanwhile, other Tea Partiers are working fervently to get the court to reinterpret the 14th Amendment such that birthright citizenship would be eliminated.  Granted, the 14th Amendment wasn’t written by the founding fathers, but it’s 150 years old and the statement, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States,” doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for reinterpretation.

Still, there are reasonable arguments that we no longer live in the same times we did a century and a half ago, and maybe granting everyone citizenship by virtue of being born within the borders doesn’t make sense any more.  But the larger point is, the Tea Party is arguing on the one hand that the Constitution is infallible and unambiguous, and on the other that it needs to be changed or reinterpreted because times have changed.

Both these cases illuminate a pretty clear history.  The constitution has evolved as the country has evolved.  A dynamism still ongoing today.  The Tea Party admits as much in their actions—actions contradicted by their semi-religious rhetoric.

They can’t have it both ways.

Healthcare reform needs everyone in the pool

Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: Everyone in the Pool (Photo by Lauren Nelson on Flickr)

Republicans are crowing over the recent district court ruling declaring the individual mandate part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.  This ruling will be appealed and also stands against four previous district court rulings that threw out similar cases as having no merit.  The likely outcome being an eventual hearing of this issue by the Supreme Court.

The core issue is whether or not the Commerce Clause may be stretched to require individuals to make a purchase.   That’s arguably pushing the envelope, but the Commerce Clause has certainly been stretched and distorted before in many creative ways.  For example, it was the basis for implementing No Child Left Behind as a federal program.  Regardless of the eventual court decision, it’s worth considering the impact if the individual mandate should be ruled unconstitutional.

Polls show the requirement of everyone to buy health insurance is far and away the unpopular element of the bill.  Meanwhile, prohibiting companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions, closing the donut hole, and eliminating lifetime coverage caps are very popular.  This amounts to people liking all the benefits, but not liking the method of payment.  At issue then is how would the popular reforms be paid for without the individual mandate.

Under the current plan, it is only by forcing everyone into the insurance pool that private companies would be able to abolish things like pre-existing condition clauses and lifetime caps.  Removing those restrictions without everyone in the pool would cause rates to skyrocket, and make coverage unaffordable for many more people.  If that were to happen, count on the GOP to tout how Obamacare made the healthcare problem worse.

Another alternative would be to make up the difference by providing large government subsidies to private insurance companies.  This money would have to be raised through new taxes or add to the already unmanageable national debt.  Again, a political victory for Republicans as they would roast the Democrats for being fiscally irresponsible.

Democrats might also recognize the impossibility of Obamacare moving forward without an individual mandate and move themselves to repeal the rest of the programs.  Again, the GOP would claim victory for forcing repeal, and possibly also strafe the Dems for taking away popular benefits.

Note that none of the above scenarios have a positive effect on you as the consumer of healthcare, but they all have a political upside for the Republican Party.  The individual mandate was initially a Republican invention.  It was explored by Presidents Nixon and Bush Sr. and was a key element of the GOP counter-proposal to Clinton’s plan.  It was the way to keep healthcare insurance a private industry and eliminate the need for an unarguably constitutional public option such as Medicare for all.

Any substantive reform of healthcare insurance requires everyone in the risk pool one way or another.  A public option brings everyone in via taxes while the private option requires the mandate.  Notably, employer provided healthcare already recognizes this as all employees are in the plan.  Businesses could not afford to provide a healthcare benefit if healthy people could opt out of the coverage and take the cash instead.

There simply are no other reasonably affordable options to having us all in the pool.  Healthcare is too expensive for the cost to be borne directly by any but the very rich.  Yet Republicans stand opposed to any incarnation of this key reform element—not because it’s what’s good for you, but because it benefits them short term at the polls.

The only potential upside for citizens in declaring it unconstitutional for the federal government to mandate the purchase of a private sector good is that it would also make the privatization of Social Security unconstitutional.  After all, if they can’t make you buy health insurance, they can’t make you buy retirement investments.

A Second look at the Fourth Amendment

AirportSecurity (by redjar on Flickr)
Airport Security (Photo by redjar on Flickr)

The TSA has been taking an enormous beating this past week over the new enhanced security measures.  Whether you believe all the sordid tales of naked pictures, groped breasts, and fondled genitalia are the unfortunate exceptional case we endure for our safety, or the overreaching rule of a government agency overstepping its authority, let’s at least take a moment to feel pity for the TSA agents themselves.

These hard working front-line employees not only need to deal with the irate and discourteous among us, but they are condemned to spend eight hours a day staring at bad pictures of naked fat people, and running their hands up and down our cottage cheese laden thighs.  It’s a small wonder the suicide rate for TSA employees hasn’t gone through the roof.  If there’s blame to lay here, it’s on the Homeland Security policy that created this mess.  Not the poor people who are stuck implementing it.

There are a lot of valid questions about the safety of the backscatter and millimeter wave scanners, and many more about the efficacy of the scanning technology at preventing terror attacks.  Yet the major unanswered question is, does this sort of scanning technology violate our fourth amendment rights.  The Fourth Amendment assures us a right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.  As I’ve written about before (here and here), the laws defining how new technology can and cannot be used in the context of the Fourth Amendment are decades behind the engineering work.

The current TSA situation makes it clear the so-called naked scanners are the equivalent of searching your clothes, pockets, and body.  Something courts have historically ruled cannot be done without probable cause.  That technology enables the search to be conducted at a distance doesn’t make it less an invasion of privacy.

If you were walking down the street minding your own business and a cop pulled up and told you to empty your pockets and submit to a full pat down, you’d have a lawyer and a lawsuit filed before he got on his latex gloves.  It shouldn’t be a different case if he had a portable scanner that accomplished the same purpose without actually touching you or even stopping you.  The time to decide the legality of these issues is now, before the handheld scanners are developed and deployed.

Although, even with the existing scanners, we are copping to probable cause based solely on the evidence that we purchased a ticket for Toledo.  Would such scanners be as easily accepted in bus stations, movie theaters, or shopping malls?  Probably not.  Clearly airports are different.  We willingly give up rights in airports we would not allow to be infringed anywhere else.

The reason being that collectively we have an irrational fear of terrorists.  It’s not that terrorists don’t warrant our vigilance and attention, but the size of the fear is irrational.  The 9/11 attacks have forever bound airplanes and terrorism together, and it is often argued that we simply have to give up some of our rights at airports in order to be safe.  But we don’t actually live like we believe that.

Over the last decade, terrorists have killed about 3000 Americans on or with airplanes—almost all of them on one day.  Meanwhile, according to the CDC, there are over 30,000 deaths each year caused by firearms.  That’s 300,000 people over that same decade.  For scale, that’s about the same as a medium size city or half the population of the entire state of Alaska.  While outlawing guns would clearly not have saved all those people, if there were no guns many tens of thousands of them would undoubtedly be alive today.  Yet we would never remotely consider a gun ban.  This clearly isn’t a rational decision based on preserving our actual safety and well being.

The point is, we accept some level of risk every day.  It’s not completely safe to drive to the supermarket, and it’s certainly not safe to be around Dick Cheney when he’s got a loaded gun.  But we take those risks anyway.  Sure, we drive cars with airbags and buckle our seatbelts.  We try not wander into urban gang territory at night wearing spandex and singing show tunes.  We lock our doors, but we don’t bar them and hire perimeter guards to walk the yard at night.  We take reasonable, but not oppressive precautions.  There’s no reason airports can’t be handled the same way.

Yes, I’d just as soon the guy sitting next to me on the plane wasn’t packing heat.  But I can live with him having nail clippers, a pocket knife, and 5oz of shampoo.  And yes, that leaves open the possibility that he has a rectum full of C4 and the cool disposition to detonate it.  Although the TSA scanners wouldn’t have picked that up anyway, so at least I’d have gotten to spend more time at home before the flight rather than waiting in line for a security inspection.