Owning choices

Cassandra links to a Bookworm piece lampooning the incoherent conspiracy mutterings about Chief Justice Roberts, whose Machiavellian prowess enabled him to pull off a plot so intricate, so varied, so internally contradictory that it simultaneously outraged everyone from one end of the political spectrum to the other.  And the piece is very funny.  To tell the truth, though, I enjoyed another of Bookworm's Obamatax pieces even better.  She follows Charles Krauthammer in stressing Roberts's insistence on leaving a political mess in the hands of the voters who must remedy it:
The American voters, by putting Democrats into Congress and the White House, broke the American system.  They now own that broken system and it’s up to them to fix it.  In this case, if the voters are smart enough, they’ll elect Republicans by a large majority.  If they’re not smart enough, we’re in for a lot more breakage. 
Viewed this way, Roberts did the right thing.  He protected the Supreme Court’s integrity and he made the American people responsible for their own stupidity.
Even so, like me, Bookworm worries about the principle that, even if Congress must not regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause, it can still tax inactivity to its heart's content.  I would prefer to see taxes returned to their revenue-raising function.  We should stop using them as a coercive tool to implement one utopian scheme after another, generally involving a redistribution of wealth from "them" to "us."

Nevertheless, the honest truth is that my strongest objection to Obamatax is not a Constitutional one.  If I believed that single-payer healthcare made sense, in the same way that I believe a unified and coherent national defense makes sense, I'd have no problem financing the system with a tax that fell most heavily on free-riders who weren't already bearing their share of the tab.  How is that much different from making people pay for a police and fire department?  The problem is that I think a single-payer health system is a good way to destroy what's left of the rational part of our healthcare system.  Competition and other private-sector tools are the only way to fix the mess we've already gotten ourselves into by flirting with top-down solutions.  So naturally I don't want to fund the healthcare system with a tax, or to see Congress take any other action that tends to get the government even more deeply involved by any means it can dream up, Constitutional or otherwise.

But that is a political choice reflecting values and opinions about what works.  So get to the polls this November.  There are lots of issues we can't and shouldn't expect the Supreme Court to resolve for us -- either because that's not its proper role or, if you don't believe that, then because it's too likely to disappoint us.

And in the meantime, if you are inspired to attend some spirited town hall meetings, go for it.


Grim said...

My objection -- aside from the 10th Amendment requirement that the states do it, or else that we establish this single-payer thing with an amendment to the Constitution -- is that we can't possibly afford it. At a time when the difference between future revenues and outlays is over $200,000,000,000,000, I just can't imagine taking on a new huge program without reforming the old ones first.

Last night I talked with my very favorite liberal in the world, though, and she assures me that I've got that wrong. Economic growth is going to pull America out of that debt, and enable robust new government activism as well. When I insisted that even 10% annual growth probably couldn't do that, and the actual growth rate was unlikely to approach 10%, she told me that she believed in America and its ability to do what needed to be done.

We used to run into that problem in Iraq, too: we called it the "Man on the Moon problem." The Iraqis were quite sure that, since America could put a man on the moon, it could fix the Baghdad power grid (or whatever else they wanted us to prove to be able to do). In a way that makes sense, and in another way it overlooks all the actual problems that stand in the way of being able to do it (like the fact that most of the equipment was ancient and Soviet and no longer made, or the fact that people would blow it back up as soon as we fixed it, or the fact that people were shooting at us while we worked on it).

So it may be, in a sense, faith in America that is the problem here.

Grim said...

Although there is also, as Raven said, a difference in priorities. When I insisted that some things (like the underfunded Federal pensions) would have to be cut, she told me that she would rather take care of the immediate problem that someone is sick and needs care than the potential down-the-road problem of not being able to pay for someone's pension. That problem might not even come up. (Calvin Coolidge would be proud!)

I can understand the sense of that argument, except for one small point: the pension owner worked their whole lives to earn the pension. It seems to me worse to deny them what they have earned, than to refuse to take on a new duty while we still can't fulfill the old ones.

But I am wrong about this too, she told me, because I didn't understand that the government already has the moral duty to make sure that all Americans have the health care they need. Since the economy is going to grow enough to pay for it anyway -- at least, if we don't destroy the economy by cutting the government spending that is so critical to economic growth -- the dilemma is a false one in any case.

An enlightening conversation, all the way around. But, you know, she is intensely pleased; and she wants to do good for people in need, and is brimming with faith and confidence in America. There's not a single wicked or vicious impulse in her -- or, I assume, most of the supporters.

MikeD said...

That, Grim, is one of my pet peeves. People who assume that the other side (regardless of the political aisle they occupy) assumes that EVERYONE on the other side MUST be either stupid or evil. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for pointing out that good people can disagree without being stupid or evil. Now, mind you, I think your friend is overly optimistic to the point of being naive, but never stupid. I cannot picture you engaging a stupid person in conversation (except in internet comments... I still admire your infinite patience there).

RonF said...

February 10, 2013. The Texas legislature examines publicly available data and finds that violent crime rates drop in municipalities and states where gun ownership by law-abiding citizens is relatively un-restricted. It then enacts a law taxing everyone who does not own a gun, with the money put into a fund that poor people can use to subsidize gun purchases.

Gunophobes - people who have a phobia (an unreasoning fear) of guns - file suit. It goes to the Supreme Court. On the basis of this ruling I should expect that the Supreme Court would uphold such a law.

Grim said...

Well, guns are a different issue because there's actually an enumerated power related to regulation of the militia.

Clause 16. The Congress shall have Power *** To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

So as long as Texas structured its law as a state militia act -- and especially if they required mandatory training on the firearm they required you to buy -- I don't see how it isn't an explicitly Constitutional action. They're not infringing the right to keep and bear arms, but rather regulating the state militia in accord with Article I, Section 8, Clause 16.

Texan99 said...

Gunophobes -- I prefer to label them gun deniers.

As for whether we can afford things like healthcare, I think that's like asking whether we can afford housing or food. Practically everyone in the U.S. is getting some kind of healthcare from time to time during his life, some paid for by the patient himself and some by his neighbors. Is there enough money to pay for it? Sure, but the money is spread out among the citizenry. Theoretically, you could figure out what percentage of GDP is needed to cover everyone's healthcare, collect that in taxes, and redistribute it. What stops us from doing that is not that there isn't enough money. Let's say healthcare is 30% of GDP. Obviously 30% of GDP exists. But maybe people would rather not send 30% of everything to a central authority for redisbursement.

So I don't see it as a question of the resources being inadequate, but as a question of who should decide how all of our resources will be spent on healthcare for each or all of us. It's also a question, of course, of to what extent we will redistribute wealth among ourselves so that no one will ever go without. And on that last question, what I don't get is why we'd stop with healthcare. Why not also food, housing, college education, clothing, utilities, and transportation? Aside, of course, from the dismal record of every society that's tried to collectivize too many basic human needs.

Grim said...

Well, indeed, track records are the problem. Thirty percent of GDP is five trillion dollars. Do you think the government would be responsible with an additional five trillion dollars of our money, given its track record?

But it's also not clear to me that you're right -- forgive my putting it this way -- that the money exists whether the market or the government spends it. It seems to me that five trillion dollars (that's $5,000,000,000,000) out of the private sector means vastly reduced growth even if the money is spent by the government. That is because (as von Mises and others point out) centralized planning systems include tremendous inefficiencies compared to price-signal markets.

To take your analogy to food, is there enough money to feed everyone? There must be, since everyone exists and people who exist need to eat. Yet somehow, governments that move this to central planning always end up with famines.

Grim said...

And Mike, you're welcome; but it's only my duty to her to try to represent her position fairly. She's neither stupid nor evil; in fact, she's one of the most morally continent people I've ever met. I can't recall her ever doing something that she believed to be wrong, or that violated her principles.

I don't always agree with her about what the correct principles are, but I know she'll keep to hers faithfully.

Texan99 said...

Exactly. The resources are there now, but we can certainly make ourselves collectively much poorer by misallocating them, as centralized economies inevitably do.

Now, whether there's enough wealth in our society to make sure every single American gets A-level care such as what's available to Steve Jobs or the average visitor to the Mayo clinic, I don't know -- maybe not unless we give up everything and make healthcare not only the #1 priority but essentially the only goal in life. (OK, maybe we can eat, too, and sleep indoors on alternate weeks.) I think that by forcibly equalizing healthcare, we can ensure that no one ever again gets that level of care, and in fact that the level of care gradually deteriorates instead of moving up every generation or so, so that this generation's average care is superior to what rich people got 50 years ago.

We also have to decide how much of our national wealth we want healthcare to consume. Shall we all live in houses half as big so that everyone can get new hips every 10 years?

These are not so much questions of whether there's enough money, but how we'll make a lot of difficult trade-offs, and who will bear the cost for other people's choices.

E Hines said...

To pick some nits:

If I believed that single-payer healthcare made sense, in the same way that I believe a unified and coherent national defense makes sense, I'd have no problem financing the system with a tax that fell most heavily on free-riders who weren't already bearing their share of the tab.

This commits the all-too-common error of subsuming health care and health insurance into the same thing. They're not. Health care and health insurance are entirely separate things--this is most evident from the simple fact that health care is available without health insurance, but health insurance has no meaning without health care.

It's contaminated further by the misnomer "health insurance." It hasn't been insurance for decades; it's government mandated, privately funded welfare. The "premiums" allowed to be charged have nothing to do with the risks being assumed, and the coverage mandates have nothing to do with a voluntary exchange of some measure of risk for some measure of fee.

Then there's that "free rider" claim. When my wife had her biopsy and bilateral mastectomy, we were uninsured, by choice. Off whom did we free ride when we paid cash for both procedures?

There's another conflation, to which Grim alludes, and that is a blind faith in America. I have a great deal of faith in the wisdom and abilities of the American people. That's not the same as believing that because, as a nation we solved one problem, we can, perforce, solve another. In the moonshot case, we acted alone. If we act alone on the other problems, I have no doubt we could apply a workable American solution. But we don't work alone--often enough--on the global stage. That holds us back as a nation.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

There's been some renewed talk of pushing for a constitutional convention. What do you folks think?

Rand Simberg has some thoughts, and there's always Randy Barnett's Bill of Federalism.

E Hines said...

I don't see a need for a constitutional convention. There's a whole lot more room to make ours worse than there is to make it better. What we need, instead, is a more involved electorate--lots of repeats of the 2010 involvement (besides, a constitution cannot save us from ourselves; only we can do that)--and more conservative judges on the Supreme, and lower, courts: men and women who understand that the constitution isn't a "living document" for judges to alter at will according to the interpretation or social justice meme of the day, but a hard, limiting document that only We the People can change.

The only amendment we really need is one I proposed in another thread addressing term "limits."

In particular, I don't like Simberg's two amendments: his offer addressing the 9th Amendment is already what the Taxing Clause says; see above about better judges. His offer concerning the 10th is just plain wrong: the Federal government shouldn't be sending money to the states at all, for any purpose.

Nor am I impressed with Barnett's Bill. There's nothing wrong with an income tax, it just needs to be a low-rate flat tax with no deductions, credits, subsidies, loopholes, etc, and everyone pays it. A consumption tax is either going to be hugely regressive, or it will become so full of loopholes and exceptions in its own right that it'll be the Byzantine tool of favoritism that the current tax structure is.

There's no need to try to enumerate limits on the Commerce Clause; see above about better judges and a more involved electorate. Besides, as soon as we start enumerating stuff, the things left off become assumed barred (or mandated), and there's no room for improving technology to be incorporated.

There's no need to disallow unfunded mandates--the 9th and 10th amendments cover this. See above about better judges and a more involved electorate. Besides, my attitude about sending funds to the states notwithstanding, that and unfunded mandates are political decisions that need to be able to change more often than a constitutional limit would allow.

There's no need to allow 3/4 of the states to rescind a law they don't like: that's the people's choice, not one for state governments, and the current Art V allows for the people of 3/4 of the states to do that (which, incidentally, lets the state governments do the acting).

Don't need a line-item veto. Sign the budget bill or veto the whole thing. Line item veto disfavored projects, or projects in disfavored states, or just screw over a congressman? No.

Reinforce the 9th with a longer list of enumerated rights? No. ...not delegated to the United States...are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people is both exhaustive and clear. Moreover, recall FDR's Economic Bill of Rights for a recent attempt at enumeration.

And so on.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

I agree about a more involved electorate, etc.

However, relying on the original text of the Constitution doesn't work, and hasn't for decades. Due to precedents set from Wickard on, it doesn't mean those things anymore, and it's impossible for the people to understand the Constitution today.

Barnett's bill is rather like a reset button; it gets rid of a lot of 'living Constitution' case precedent from the last 75 years in one fell swoop and, more or less, makes the Constitution mean what it says again.

If I could have just one amendment, it would be his Commerce Clause amendment. The original text of the clause is meaningless in the light of Wickard, etc. Because it has been interpreted so broadly, the liberal side can argue all sorts of silly things fall under it. Take the argument out of it by clearly defining 'interstate commerce'.

If I could have a second, it would be to put the Constitution above treaties.

I prefer your term limits amendment to his, so make that my third.

As for the rest, I also like his 9th and 10th, but am more lukewarm about them. I'm not sure about the rest.

E Hines said...

...relying on the original text of the Constitution doesn't work, and hasn't for decades. Due to precedents set from Wickard on, it doesn't mean those things anymore....

It still means those things; it's the erroneous "interpretation" of them that has changed. This won't be solved by changing the Constitution as drastically as Barnett wants; judges will only re-intrepret extempor anew. The key is better judges and, above all, an involved, vigilant, jealous electorate.

Reversing the prior Jones & Laughlin as well as Wickard is the better, faster way to correct the current problems. And it is possible. We reversed both Dred Scott and Plessy.

And none of Barnett's ideas address the destruction of our private property rights that resulted from Berman, Midkiff, and Kelo. These need to be reversed, also.

...and it's impossible for the people to understand the Constitution today.

You and Ezra Klein. [g]

But seriously, that's all the more reason to keep it simple, short, and clear, a document of principles, not of specifications. The Constitution of the People's Republic of China runs 33 MS Word pages, and it badly overspecifies. And it's just as ignored at convenience, due nearly entirely to a lack of involvement by a vigilant, jealous electorate. The difference here, though, is our lack of involvement is wholly voluntary.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

I disagree. Effectively, interpretation at the USSC level changes the meaning. If you don't look at all the applicable precedents, you don't understand it.

But it did occur to me that the only important amendment in Barnett's list is the last one. Let's call it the "Yeah, The Constitution Really Means What It Says" Amendment. That effectively resets the Commerce Clause and some other key things.

And the one that clarifies the priority of Constitution vs. treaties would be nice as well.