Sunday, October 28, 2012

I'm seeing a lot of discussion of the possible impact of Hurricane Sandy on voter turn-out. I have yet to hear any comment on the potential impact on voter preferences of the experience of Sandy. As I see it, there are two ways this could help the Obama campaign:  

1) Pushing climate change and environmental issues higher on voters' priority lists and/or pushing voters off the climate change fence onto the side of science.

2) Reminding people that, when times get tough, they don't actually want small government, they want a competent FEMA and an actively engaged president. Obama's meeting with FEMA, DOE, etc. and his statement today was well calibrated to emphasize that message.

 I can't think of any ways this could play into the Romney message, but I might be missing something.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The HCR notUnprecedented Mandate

The basic arguments against the constitutionality of the health care reform are that the individual mandate is unprecedented in forcing individuals to buy something and that it goes against the intent of the founders. So, for example, Allen West in The Washington Times stated that, “The 2012 Supreme Court must determine whether the Founders had any intention of mandating the behavior of private enterprises and individuals. To me, the answer is obvious: absolutely not.” Likewise, Paul Gigot argued that, “the Affordable Care Act represents the first time Congress has required Americans to purchase a product. "I do think the question is novel enough -- the compelling of commerce by the federal government."”

There’s been a lot of comment in the past few days on the applicability of the 1792 Second Militia Act, everywhere from the Yale Law School News and Events page to Yahoo News. That was the law, passed by the second Congress and signed by President Washington, that mandated that all able-bodied men purchase muskets for the purpose of being ready and able to serve in the militia if called. That would seem to answer both questions rather conclusively, but for those who see too many differences between an obligation to be prepared to serve in the nation’s defense and buying health insurance, there is another, more relevant precedent.

Just six years later, in 1798, then president John Adams signed An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen that required, among other things, that private individuals who wanted to take employment as sailors on merchant ships buy health insurance. Unlike the Militia Acts, this had very specific mechanism for collection and specified penalties for failure (namely, not getting a job). Rick Ungar reported on this in Forbes over a year ago, in an article that answers every critique I’ve seen about the applicability of the Militia Act. If you missed it the first time around, it’s well worth a look now.

Monday, March 12, 2012


There is a move in my state (Virginia) to try for the Personhood Amendment to the state constitution. This has me thinking about some of the implications of fetus-personhood, and the more I do, the less I think that it's supporters have thought things through.

For example, could a fetus-person donate to a political campaign? Vote? Open a bank account? And would a fetus-person have the same legal rights as a corporate person, namely, to enter into and enforce contracts? Children don't have these rights, but the Personhood Amendments don't define fetuses as children. Hmmm. I guess all the personhood-states are going to have to tinker with the definition of a fetus-person to differentiate it from other kinds of persons. But, if you take away some rights from fetus-persons, what other rights could they lose?

The case of children is illustrative. Western society started, back in Roman times, with the notion of children as property of their fathers or guardians. There wasn't much change until the 19th century, when the first real rights were granted to children as individuals separate from their parents in the forms of compulsory education and child labor laws, innovations that conservatives, then and now, decry as unnecessary intrusions of the state into familial life. Since then, there have been numerous debates and developments in children's rights, in the US most notably over health and welfare issues. To create a new category of fetus-persons, protected from their parents by the state would open up a similarly complex set of issues that would not be resolved quickly or easily, and that would undermine fundamental conservative principles.

If the state has a declared interest in the well-being of the fetus-person, can pregnant women smoke? Drink? Can the neighbors play loud music? Fetuses are far more vulnerable to toxins, which greatly increase the risk of miscarriage; would fetus-personhood create a higher burden on industry to maintain environmental standards? On food manufacturers to limit additives in foods consumed by pregnant women? All of these questions would be raised, and probably litigated. Have the supporters of these measures considered these possibilitiesprobabilities? Besides the ones who are lawyers; I'm sure they are well aware of what a huge financial bonanza this would be to the legal profession.

Then there's the issue of taxes. The fetus-person would, arguably, be a resident. If the personhood-states determine that they are, somehow, legal, then under the US tax code, they could be claimed as a dependents by their mothers. Every expectant mom in a personhood-state gets a tax deduction! Even with the current makeup of the bench, I can't see the Supreme Court allowing individual states to define an entirely new category of federal tax deductions. At the very least, the definition of personhood would have to be modified to 'personhood for the purposes of' something or other, which would fundamentally undermine the premise that the fetal-person's rights should ever be considered equal to those of a full citizen.

Which brings up the question of fetus-person citizenship. We can answer that one. In the US, one of the ways we define persons is by whether or not they are US citizens. We grant citizenship in three ways:
1) By birth to a parent who is a US citizen,
2) by birth on US soil, or
3) by naturalization.
A fetus-person, not having been born, would be ineligible for methods one and two, and thus not inherently a citizen.

This has some interesting implications. Every pregnant woman in a personhood-state would be harboring an illegal alien and subject to prosecution. To avoid this without amending the US Constitution, all those fetuses would have to be naturalized, a process they could, arguably, be eligible for as immediate relatives of US citizens. This process is, of course, the responsibility of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a federal agency. In 2010, around 675,000 applications for naturalization were processed, but it jumps around a lot - the highest number in the last decade was over a million in 2008. There are about six million pregnancies in the US each year, with just under two million of those ending in miscarriages. Even leaving out the miscarriages, that would, at the very least, quintuple the workload for naturalization services, requiring a significant expansion in the workforce. That being the federal workforce, you understand. Not to mention the trouble the states would have dealing with what to do with their growing illegal-fetus-aliens during the six months it takes USCIS to process each of these requests.

Far more likely is that the federal government would decide that USCIS will not accept naturalization requests for pre-born future-citizens. In that case, personhood-states would simply have to revise their immigration laws to accommodate large populations of temporary, illegal-fetus-aliens by defining them as some other category, like 'future citizens'. But, any fetus that can reasonably expect to be born on US soil is a future citizen. It would be very tricky to write that definition in a way that did not automatically grant temporary immunity from deportation for all pregnant women.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

notmarriage history

Mitt Romney: I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. I will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution to make that expressly clear. Of course, basic civil rights and appropriate benefits must be available to people in nontraditional relationships, but marriage is a special institution between a man and a woman, and our constitution and laws should reflect that.

Newt Gingrich: The sacrament of marriage is based on a man and a woman, has been for 3,000 years, is at the core of our civilization and is worth protecting and upholding.

Rick Santorum: The Ninth Circuit decision yesterday said that marriage — if you believe in traditional marriage — the only reason that you can possibly believe that is because you are a bigot ... Your belief of marriage between a man and a woman is purely irrational based on hatred and bigotry. That’s what they just wrote. Four thousand years of human history. Irrational hatred and bigotry toward a group of people is the only reason you can be for marriage between a man and a woman.”

I usually start with the easy shots and work my way up to the more complicated stuff, but this time there is no complexity.

It is flat out not true that, for 3,000 years or 4,000 years, marriage has been between a (fully adult) man and a (fully adult) woman. There have been many child brides, and still are some today, but there have been child grooms as well, most famously Ptolemy XIII, who married his older sister (by 7 or 8 years, depending on the source) Cleopatra (yes, that Cleopatra) when he was just 10.

It is flat out not true that, for 3,000 years, marriage has been between a (singular) man and a (singular) woman. Polygamy, the marriage of a man to more than one woman, was common in the ancient world and was widely practiced by Mormons in the US not that long ago. Mitt Romney’s own great-something’th-grandfather fled to Mexico in 1884 to avoid US legal restrictions on polygamy. Polyandry, the marriage of a woman to more than one man, has been less common, but has existed in in a number of times and places, including the present day in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada.

It is likewise not true that marriage was, throughout recorded human history, either based on or between a man and a woman. Historically, marriage has most often been a matter between families or communities, negotiated and settled between parents, heads of households, or village elders.

And finally, it is flat out not true that marriage has been either a “special institution” or a sacrament for 3,000 years, particularly as the word 'sacrament' only applies to Christian practices and Christianity hasn't been around that long. In fact, in the early Christian church, marriage wasn't sacred at all, it was a private, civil matter and priests were forbidden from performing marriage ceremonies. This policy was not reversed until the 11th century.

Some days, it's just too easy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Rick Santorum's response to the SOTU speech included this gem:

It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. The indoctrination that occurs at American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America — and it is indoctrination...As you know, 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it. And I bet you there are people in this room who give money to colleges and universities who are undermining the very principles of our country every single day by indoctrinating kids in left-wing ideology. And you continue to give to these colleges and universities. Let me have a suggestion: Stop it!

He doesn't cite any evidence for that 62% figure, but I'm willing to believe that, once upon a time, someone did a survey of "faith convictions" of incoming freshmen versus graduating seniors. The real question is, did anyone do a comparable survey of entering freshman-aged non-college attenders and graduating senior-aged non-college attenders? An entering college freshman is typically 17-18 years old. A graduating senior is typically 21-22 years old. It is a critical transition time, from being a teenager to a young adult, from being your parents' child to being your own person, from dependence to independence. How many teenagers with a faith conviction become young adults without one, regardless of their educational experience? Without that information, that 62% is notstatistics.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Keystone confusion

So the Republicans are going to take another shot at forcing through the Keystone pipeline project. The arguments for the pipeline are pretty popular ones. Here are a few examples:

According to Investors Business Daily: The 1,700-mile TransCanada Keystone crude oil pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast is a no-brainer. Canada's oil sands are the largest source of crude oil outside the Middle East and the 700,000 barrels of black gold per day the pipeline would bring would mean hundreds of thousands of new jobs, lower gasoline prices, less U.S. dependence on Mideast oil and hundreds of millions of dollars in increased revenues for the states.

Oil and Energy Investor says that : [Keystone] represents a new North American-centered initiative to lessen reliance on Middle Eastern imports and would create thousands of new jobs.

Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, spoke to Fox News Radio about the possibility that, if the pipeline isn’t approved, all that crude will go to China, saying, “It makes the United States more vulnerable to rely on outside sources for our energy.”

And Mark Green, over at EnergyTomorrowBlog upped the ante with this line: “[In] his rejection of the Keystone XL the president is rejecting jobs – 20,000 of them in the pipeline’s construction phase and up to a half-million more over time.” Where did the half-million number come from? He quotes Jack Gerard: “But the Keystone XL pipeline would create 20,000 new U.S. construction-related jobs over the next two years. More importantly, it would help support the creation of half-a-million new jobs by 2035.” There does not seem to be any other source or evidence for this number.

So, the arguments for the pipeline are:
• It would create thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, half-a-million jobs,
• It would reduce our dependence on “outside sources” of energy, also referred to as Mideast oil,
• And it would lower gasoline prices.

There are already lots of analyses of those jobs numbers, all of which agree that the reality would be a few thousand jobs for the two years of construction followed by maybe a couple of hundred long-term maintenance jobs. I want to look at the other two arguments, both of which are very effectively and convincingly disproved by a rather interesting source: The corporation proposing to build the pipeline.

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline GP Ltd. argues that the pipeline will have no impact on imports from the Mideast and would simply displace US imports from Mexico and Venezuela with imports from Canada. (Yes, Mr. Gerard, Canada is an “outside source”.) Not only that, but the sale of Canadian crude to refineries in the Gulf Coast will also displace the refining of US produced crude in those facilities, forcing domestic producers to transport their product over greater distances and thereby increasing the cost of domestic energy supplies. They further state that this will increase the price of gasoline for US consumers. Where do they say all this? In their application to the National Energy Board of Canada for a permit to go ahead with the project.

First, let's tackle the question of our dependence on “outside sources” of energy.

Let’s just gloss over the fact that Canada actually is a foreign country and accept that ‘foreign’ and 'outside' here are actually code for ‘Arab’. The Gulf Coast refineries are pretty busy, and no one is building new ones, so where do the Canadians think the capacity for processing all their crude is going to come from? Will they be displacing imports from the Middle East? Not so much. Here’s their explanation of where the processing capacity comes from:

Heavy crude runs fell from 2004 to 2007 due to reduced supply of heavy crude, especially from Mexico, as shown in Figure 7. In the first eight months of 2008, heavy crude supplies from Mexico and Venezuela fell another 300,000 B/D (31.8 103m3/d) approximately. Heavy crude imports from other countries increased, but there was a net reduction in heavy crude use of approximately 200,000 B/D (31.8 103m3/d).

Their projections show Canadian heavy crude replacing imports from Mexico and Venezuela, leaving the amount of crude from ‘other’ foreign sources unchanged. So there is no anticipated reduction in US dependence on oil from the Mideast, just a switch from Latin American sources to Canadian ones. Net impact on our dependence on “foreign” oil = zero.

Now onto the question of domestic gasoline prices.

We'll need some vocabulary for this one:
• USGC = United States Gulf Coast
• PADD = Petroleum Administration for Defense Districts
• PADD II = the Midwest (15 states, from the Canadian border down to Oklahoma and from the Dakotas to Ohio)
• PADD III = the Gulf Coast (6 states)

Let’s start with a key takeaway from the summary section at the top of the report:
Existing markets for Canadian heavy crude, principally PADD II, are currently oversupplied, resulting in price discounting for Canadian heavy crude oil. Access to the USGC via the Keystone XL Pipeline is expected to strengthen Canadian crude oil pricing in PADD II by removing this oversupply. This is expected to increase the price of heavy crude to the equivalent cost of imported crude. Similarly, if a surplus of light synthetic crude develops in PADD II, the Keystone XL Pipeline would provide an alternate market and therefore help to mitigate a price discount. The resultant increase in the price of heavy crude is estimated to provide an increase in annual revenue to the Canadian producing industry in 2013 of US $2 billion to US $3.9 billion.

In other words, the Midwest currently gets cheaper gas because they get their Canadian crude at a discount, based on an excess of crude available in the area. If the pipeline goes through, that excess will disappear and the price of Canadian crude will, therefore, go up, increasing revenues.

If you look into the more detailed body of the report (developed for Keystone by independent experts), you find that there are a number of projections as to the impact on PADD II, in most of which supplies actually increase. But, the only one that the Keystone management considers is the one that maximizes their revenues. Is this legitimate? Actually, yes. The only variable that affects the supplies to PADD II in these projections is the amount shipped to the Gulf Coast. Since Keystone will control the pipeline that does the shipping, they can choose the scenario that makes them the most money by restricting supplies and raising gas prices for the American Midwest.

But what happens to the Midwest? They've got that covered: “With lower Canadian deliveries, PADD II refineries would need more domestic crude or other imports to sustain crude runs.” And where does all this crude come from? “The PADD II refineries also use U.S. domestic crudes produced mainly in PADD II, Texas and Louisiana, and they import crudes via pipelines from the USGC.” Unless they have some way of increasing production in their own states, they're going to be piping it in from the Gulf Coast. That's the plan. To pipe Canadian oil all the way South to the Gulf Coast and have Gulf Coast crude be piped North to the Midwest

Why does any of this make sense? Because Title 50a of the US code, section 2406d, bans the export of domestically produced crude. In other words, crude that is pumped out of the ground in the US cannot leave the country in any form. The Gulf Coast refineries can make more money refining Canadian crude piped in from thousands of miles away than they can from crude originating in Texas, because they can export it.

Today, Canadian crude is piped a relatively short distance to PADD II and most Gulf Coast crude is refined locally. Under the Keystone plan, Canadian crude will get piped to the Gulf Coast and Gulf Coast crude will get piped to PADD II states. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary transportation, which takes energy, making the total energy production less efficient. Nor is the oil in question is destined for US markets. But both Keystone and the Gulf refiners will make more money, while consumers in the American Midwest will pay the price. Not to mention that, with increased energy costs, all the agriculture in the Midwest will become more expensive, raising the cost of food for the whole country.

Friday, January 13, 2012

historical equality

According to Rick Santorum,
... America was born great. … What makes the saying on the Great Seal — e pluribus unum — true? Out of many one, what is the one? It is that, that we are a people who are children of God. We are seen as equal. I mean, the idea that all men are created equal, that was unheard of. Women created equal to men? No way! What society did that exist? Rights? Equal? No way. Why was that? Because we are children of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we were all made in His image.

Others have already pointed out the lack of equality in the original Constitution, and the struggles it took to change that.  I'd like to address a different point.

"What society did that exist? Rights? Equal? No way."

Sorry, Rick, but you are as wrong about world history as you are about our own.  Let me introduce you to the ancient Persians, who made equality a cornerstone of their society until religious fundamentalists took over and messed it up for everyone. 

It all started with a guy named Cyrus.  Not the first Cyrus, he was okay, but it was the second Cyrus who was The Great.  First he built an empire, the big challenge being taking out the Babylonians, the super-power of their time, by finding the one vulnerable porthole in their superfortress and destroying their capital.  Seriously, it was a total Star Wars move and he didn't even need the force, just his (one and only, monotheistic) god, Ahura Mazda.  While he was there he set their slaves free and sent them back to their homes.  (Your guy Jesus?  We're pretty sure his ancestors were part of that group.  No telling if the Jews would have survived in Babylon long enough for him to be born if it wasn't for The Great, but if they did, without The Great's help, it's hard to see how they would have managed to make the trip back to Palestine in time to be conquered by the Romans.  In which case, Jesus would have been born in Iraq, Paul would have spread the word in Iran and India, and Christianity would have been an Eastern religion.  But I digress.)

The Great didn't earn his name just through conquest, though, he earned it as a ruler, and particularly through law.  This one:
 That's the original Bill of Rights.  Written in Akkadian around 539 BCE, it reads in part:

Now that I put the crown of kingdom of Iran, Babylon, and the nations of the four directions on the head with the help of (Ahura) Mazda, I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them while I am alive. … I never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs , I will take his or her right back and penalize the oppressor. … I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation. … I prevent unpaid, forced labor. … everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other's rights. ..No one could be penalized for his or her relatives' faults. I prevent slavery and my governors and subordinates are obliged to prohibit exchanging men and women as slaves within their own ruling domains. Such traditions should be exterminated the world over.

So, freedom of religion and culture, civil liberties, property rights, freedom of movement, and the abolition of slavery. Not too shabby on the equality front.

But wait! There's more!

What about women, you ask? Well, truth is we don't know all that much about the condition of women in The Great's empire. In fact, the only records we have that address the status of women are those of the royal court and the (equivalent of the) federal payroll for the capital city.

We know court women controlled their own property, which in some cases included extensive estates throughout the empire; they traveled freely, on their own, to visit their properties; they competed with men in athletic events; they sponsored religious rituals on an equal footing to men. And while there weren't any ruling empresses, the second in command throughout the empire (after the emperor himself) was a woman - the ruler's mother - and when he was off fighting wars or otherwise unavailable? She had authority equal to his.

That payroll record is even more interesting. Women were paid the same as men for the same job classifications except for the very lowest: the women who worked as pack-mules, carrying heavy loads, made less than men who did the same work. But for jobs where brain matter mattered, the pay was the same. And women were found all the way up the payscale, as engineers, managers, and artisans. Also soldiers; there were women in the Persian army throughout the imperial period. The only exception to equal pay was the bonus paid to pregnant women. Oh, and they had paid maternity leave.

One last point. That bit about, "No one could be penalized for his or her relatives' faults." You might want to discuss that with your church leaders. They could learn a lot from The Great.

You see, Rick, the ancient Persians were not the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though they were very nice to those children. But they had rights and a better record on tolerance and equality than we do. To pretend otherwise is nothistory.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Recent weather history

Nine months ago, April 14-16 2011, a massive tornado outbreak hit the American southeast, killing over 40 people.  There were at least 178 separate tornadoes in 16 different US states.  Two weeks later, April 25-28, there was an even larger outbreak, with at least 359 tornadoes and 343 deaths.  That time, they hit 21 states.

Both times, South Carolina was on the list of states hit.

When the candidates head down to SC on Wednesday, they may find voters who care a great deal more about climate change than those in Iowa or New Hampshire, and may not be as willing to support politicians who flip flop, censor books, pretend the evidence isn't clear enough for action, obfuscate with accusations of left-wing conspiracies, or flat out lie on the subject.*  It is even possible that experience of extreme weather will have turned voters liberal on environmental issues

I'm stocking up on popcorn for this one.

* If you don't feel like following the links, those are (in order): Huntsman, Gingrich, Romney, Santorum, and Paul.