Monday, April 2, 2012

'They want it': The Obamacare defense that wasn't

Liberals’ stomachs have been collectively churning for a week, ever since Solicitor General Donald Verrilli failed Tuesday to make a credible case for the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate. Given that it’s such an easy case to make, it’s a matter of course that opinion pages and blogs have recently been littered with commentators’ descriptions of the reasoning that Verrelli should have used. But one key argument I haven’t seen gives ample cause for hope that universal health care is not doomed, as some experts suggest.
            To begin, the Supreme Court justices seem to take for granted that dealing with the problem of forty million plus uninsured Americans is well within Congress’s purview. Moreover, the logic necessitating (as in ‘Necessary and Proper’) the individual mandate—which offsets the costs incurred by insurance companies covering more sick people—likewise was not challenged.
            But admittedly, forcing someone to buy a product is a seemingly extraordinary step, and it’s perfectly reasonable that Justices Roberts and Kennedy would like an assurance that there is some limiting principle in what Congress can do to regulate ‘pre-existing’ markets. And so came the questions about Congress’s mandating the purchase of cell phones, broccoli, gym memberships, and so on. The justices justifiably want to know why forcing someone to purchase health insurance is unique and that some limits remain on Congress’s authority.
            Verrilli could have provided a clear and compelling distinction by correcting the false assertion made by Paul Clement, who argued in favor of striking down the mandate—and the entire Affordable Care Act. Clement told the justices that the mandate “forces somebody to purchase an insurance policy whether they want it or not.” But that’s not quite true.
            Everyone wants this product—at least in some sense. That’s the difference that makes health insurance exceptional. They may not want to pay for insurance now, but they do want insurance. For example, they want the ‘insurance’ of knowing that if an unpredictable accident happens, they will receive life-saving medical care. And they have it—only others may pay for it.
As further proof of a universal desire for coverage, take a simple hypothetical situation: On Tuesday an uninsured man notices symptoms that likely indicate the presence of a cancer that runs in his family. Does he simply shrug and continue to go uninsured? Or does he enroll tomorrow and claim that he has no disqualifying pre-existing conditions? Of course he’ll do the latter. So when did he experience the change of mind from not wanting insurance to wanting it? Well, there was no change of mind. Monday, he wanted insurance just as badly as on Tuesday, he just bet that he wouldn’t need it. So why should he pay? But a willingness to pay premiums only on the condition that you know you will need coverage is not how insurance works. The desire to pay for insurance for one’s entire adult life is certainly not universal; but a desire to be covered when trouble comes is.
So health insurance is fundamentally different than the silly, unrealistic hypothetical mandates proposed by the justices. People don’t buy broccoli because they don’t want broccoli. They don’t buy a gym membership because they don’t want a gym membership. They don’t buy a cell phone because they don’t want a cell phone. But they don’t buy health insurance because, though they want it, they don’t want to pay for it now.
As bad as the optics of this week’s oral arguments were, if at least five highly intelligent justices can identify this rather obvious distinction, the health care law will stand.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Descendants: A Lesson in Christian Love

Despite my trepidation about unduly influencing the Academy’s choice for Best Picture, here is the The Catholic Left’s first foray into film review.

King and his daughters are a motley crew.

Alexander Payne’s beautiful film, The Descendants, is a profound tale of redemption, forgiveness, and selfless love, making its themes apt for Christian viewers—and for anyone else. But don't yawn yet.
The story is predicated upon lawyer Matt King’s recent discovery that his comatose wife had been having an affair with an unknown man—this is after learning that she is about to die. King (played effortlessly by George Clooney) now needs to summon the strength to shepherd his two unruly daughters through the process of saying goodbye to their mother while he simultaneously chooses a buyer for his extended family’s substantial Hawaiian landholdings.
Without giving away any crucial details, a brief sketch of a few moments from this film illustrates the touching, yet utterly un-sentimentalized manner in which Payne treats this emotionally laden material.
Payne knows a lot about the complexities of human behavior—and that traumatic epochs in our lives can achieve there own weird normalcy very quickly. Early in the film, we see that King has brought files and papers with him to his wife’s hospital room. While contemplating his past mistakes and resolving to make his marriage better, he’s seemingly logging quite a few hours of work. At some level, anyway, life goes on.
In the same room, his ten-year-old playfully prances about her mother’s hospital bed. Oddly carefree, she’s become used to seeing her there; for now, there’s no apparent grief or anxiety. Few directors would portray a young girl’s reaction to such tragedy in such an unexpected and understated way, but it comes across as quite authentic.
In a later scene, the hapless father strolls with his daughters down a conspicuously idyllic Hawaiian beach, seeking out the man who has cuckolded him (to do who-knows-what). A mélange of conflicting, wrenching emotions has been simmering inside of him, sometimes boiling over. But when the younger daughter, who is oblivious to the affair, asks him what his first impression of her mother was, King doesn’t skip a beat: “She knocked me out,” he says with conviction. It’s an unexpectedly happy memory of a woman who’s caused King enormous pain, and so typical of this strange and beautiful movie.

As the comatose woman’s death draws near, King’s father-in-law angrily lets King know that his daughter deserved better than he provided. He doesn’t know that it’s a defense she doesn’t exactly deserve. The dramatic irony is tender. We feel deeply for the father-in-law, even if he’s wrong. King’s magnanimous response (which I won’t share) is priceless.
The secondary conflict, centered on his cousins’ desire to become rich off the sale of their land, is more formulaic but still skillfully told. King's growing awareness of the meaning of the land in question is inextricably bound up with his journey as grieving husband and father.
This is in no outward way a religious film, but the main characters undeniably experience spiritual growth. You’ll have to see the film to find out more, but suffice it to say it’s not earned easily.
            The Descendants is a heart-wrenching movie, but I left the theater in high spirits meditating upon its many laudable traits: gorgeous cinematography, a great ensemble performance, a soundtrack with lilting Hawaiian melodies, and a remarkably honest portrayal of deeply flawed human beings becoming imperfectly heroic for one other.
            In short, The Descendants embodies the illogical, transcendent love that is at the heart of being Christian. It's well worth seeing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

His Deftness Left Him: Obama's mistake on the contraceptive mandate

Perhaps Obama should have taken the vice-president's advice over Sebelius'.

Six months ago, things looked grim for the president’s reelection prospects. Obama seemed politically impotent after the summer’s lose-lose battle over raising the debt ceiling; speculation was rampant that the U.S. economy might be headed for a double-dip recession; unemployment hovered above 9%; Obama’s approval rating was mired in the low 40s.
            This last fact I take as the ultimate proof of Obama’s enormous political acumen. With such a disastrous set of circumstances, and after having more abuse heaped upon him than any modern president, what else could account for such a relatively high approval rating? I would suggest it was his deft approach to the job: take calculated risks, remain even-keel in the face of setbacks and criticism, know when to press the gas and when to let up.
            Presently, the same equanimity, reasonableness, and patience that kept Obama’s prospects afloat during the worst times make him the presumptive favorite in November. After a steady stream of positive economic data and a bruising fight for the Republican nomination, Obama’s approval is at 50% in some recent polls, and he leads all of the remaining GOP contenders in head-to-head match ups.
            So what explains this preternaturally deft politician’s grave misjudgment on the contraceptive mandate? The administration’s original decision not to exempt Catholic institutions like hospitals and charities gave substance to what had been a reflexive and hollow critique of Obama-style liberalism: any expanded government role in society—even when it helps ensure health care for more people—will inevitably lead to the infringement of your individual liberties. With the announcement of the original HHS rule, even Catholic liberals wholly sympathetic to the goal of expanding access to contraception cried foul—loudly. Could Obama and his team really not see this coming?
            Andrew Sullivan suggested recently in Newsweek that all of this may have been a trap: goad the conservatives into pouncing on an issue ultimately not in their favor, then quickly retreat to a reasonable compromise position that the vast majority of the public finds acceptable. Certainly, if the general election is about culture war issues, Obama will have the advantage. And after reading James Fallow’s thorough and complex analysis of Obama’s first term performance, in which he makes a strong case for Obama as chess master (one he doesn’t himself definitively endorse), it certainly gives me pause.
            But I hope Sullivan is wrong. If this was political gamesmanship, it was archly cynical—even if it worked brilliantly. Did Obama really anticipate the ire this decision would raise among a Catholic left that has defended him so vociferously? Did he really think a modest long term advantage was worth it to so anger a valued group of supporters? It’s unlikely.
            I’m inclined to think Obama simply misread the tea leaves. He probably thought that with studies showing a vast majority of Catholic women using birth control, and the public broadly supporting access to the same, he couldn’t really lose. His miscalculation was that, while for the Catholic Bishops this was about contraception, for most of us who were shocked by the original policy, it was about religious freedom—or even more, a basic respect for religious institutions and their guiding principles. Catholic hospitals and charities do copious good. Let them operate according to the dictates of their consciences.
            One nice upshot of the contraceptive mandate imbroglio is that a broad coalition, transcending ideology, party, and even sect, was able to effect change quickly and decisively. (Even if the Bishops aren’t satisfied, most of us are.) My regrets about this campaign are these: first, that it doesn't happen more often on issues of social justice, and second, that a president I admire provided the impetus with a shocking lapse of deftness.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gingrich and Obama on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, Respectively: A Study in Contrasts (Oh, and Love Your Enemies)

If Ralph Waldo Emerson is correct in asserting that, "There can be no high civility without a deep morality," Newt Gingrich may have provided us with some priceless insight into his character at last weekend's Thanksgiving Family Forum in Iowa.
     The nastiness of modern American politics might fairly be compared to a football scrum, and no one emerges with the ball, so to speak, without throwing a few elbows. But still there remain some standards of decency--however relative they may be. For example, Rick Perry's bald-faced lie that Obama called the American people "lazy", would probably hurt his campaign if it was still viable. And Representative Joe Walsh recently learned that screaming at constituents is generally looked down upon. Another rule is that one should save his harshest punches for fellow pols, treating more magnanimously groups of citizens who don't share your philosophy.
     Which brings us to this demonstration of incivility from a man who will, thankfully, never be the president of the United States:

In comparison, President Obama's analysis of the Tea Party's significance certainly seems like "high civility":

     But since Obama is indeed a politician, and not without his own transgressions, let's conclude with some pertinent advice from a more pristine source:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
-Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-48

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gingrich's Climate Change Reversal is Not at All "Inexplicable"

Until very recently, it's been easy to ignore the two Catholic Republicans running for president. That's largely because Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum so tidily fit the stereotype of conservative Catholics: faithful to the Church on social issues, and at odds with the Church on just about everything else. Add to this cliché the fact that neither will be the next president, and it becomes difficult to gather the inertia to pay them serious attention.
     But now that recent polling has confirmed Gingrich's status as the right's flavor-of-the-month, his questionable character and penchant for making objectionable statements take on added import.
     While earning the distinction of 'the intellectual' amongst a field of candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michelle Bachmann may be somewhat dubious, the former House speaker did demonstrate passing intelligence (and decency) when he urged bold action on climate change in this 2008 ad with Nancy Pelosi:

     Last week, however, Gingrich seemed markedly less brilliant as he tried to explain this conservative heresy on Fox News:

     His explanation for the "the dumbest single thing" he's done is that it was simply "inexplicable." But the decision to film a commercial advocating-- alongside a political nemesis--a policy violently at odds with a majority in your party is not the result of a momentary lapse in judgment. It's a decidedly deliberate decision--and actually quite explicable.
     Gingrich is an intelligent human being who, when unbound by the pressure of appealing to an anti-science conservative base, is capable of seeing what is demonstrably true: that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is substantially contributing to a markedly warming planet. Gingrich rightly points out that the "vast majority" of the National Academy of Sciences' members hold this view; he could have also mentioned the plethora of other national science academies that concur, or made note of the lack of a single national or international body that dissents. In any case, there is no rational cause for the 99% of us who are non-experts in climate science to deny the probability that the experts are right.
     This is why Gingrich made the ad with Pelosi. It is why John Huntsman advocates this position even though it reduces to zero his chances of making a plausible run for the Republican nomination. It is why Mitt Romney and (former candidate) Tim Pawlenty once advocated regional cap and trade programs. Like Gingrich, they've subsequently seen the light.
     Gingrich will never reclaim the power he once held as Speaker of the House, but if he tells the truth about his noble motivation for making this ad, he can recover some of his integrity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Did Thomas Merton travel through time to witness this year's Republican primaries?

Any blogger worth his salt will quote extensively from far superior writers to buy a little time until his next post. Thomas Merton's body of work may represent the most poetic, world embracing, and broadly appealing Catholic rhetoric of the 20th Century. I'm not sure if anyone like him exists today. If so, let me know.
“We have to recognize that a spirit of individualism and confusion has reduced us to an ethic of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ This ethic, unfortunately sometimes consecrated by Christian formulas, is nothing but the secular ethic of the affluent society, based on the false assumption that if everyone is bent on making money for himself the common good will automatically follow, due to the operation of economic laws.

An ethic of barely disguised selfishness is no longer a Christian ethic. Nor can we afford to raise this to the national level and assume that the world will adjust itself if every nation seeks its own advantage before everything else. On the contrary, we are obliged to widen our horizons and to recognize our responsibility to build an international community in which the right of all nations and other groups will be respected and guaranteed. We cannot expect a peaceful world society to emerge all by itself from the turmoil of a ruthless power struggle – we have to work, sacrifice and cooperate to lay the foundations on which future generations may build a stable and peaceful international community. Every Christian is involved in this task, and consequently every Christian is obliged to seek information and form his conscience so that he may be able to contribute his own share of intelligent political action toward this end.” - From Peace in the Post-Christian Era

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In Indifference (Almost) to Occupy Wall Street and in Praise of Alec Baldwin

Not my favorite Occupy Wall Street tactic
    Here are a few reasons why I won't share many words about Occupy Wall Street. First, I'm a big fan of coherent arguments. I can sympathize with them, learn from them, or be enraged by them (perhaps enjoying that last option too much). But I, along with everyone else, can glean no clear set of positions or demands from these protesters. Perhaps this will come with time.
    Second, I'm actually quite a fan of capitalism. While I am dumbfounded by the intensity of the faith many have in the free market, in the absence of any semblance of a credible alternative, I'm willing to give capitalism its due.
     My next point works in tandem with the last: I advocate arguments and movements that--resting on the premise that most people we disagree with are fundamentally decent--avoid needlessly demonizing groups or individuals. Offering up the richest 1% as scapegoats for all that ails us is a tantalizing proposition. But I won't assent to it.
     And last, as a person of deep faith, whenever I come across a complex issue or situation, one question guides my response: "What would Alec Baldwin do?" Okay, I'm mostly joking about this one, though after his polished performance in the midst of a thicket of Zuccotti Park squatters, I may be ready to endorse him for president in 2020 (giving him ample time to first make the requisite run for U.S. Senate).

    One minute and twenty-four seconds in, Baldwin hits the nail on the head: "Capitalism is worthwhile." It's not perfect. It's not a panacea. It's not precious or holy. It's worthwhile. And sometimes worthwhile endeavors need course corrections--or someone to "throw the flag," as Baldwin puts it.
     While the Occupiers so far lack lucidity and reasonableness, they have accomplished something really important. They have finally highlighted a long known, but little reported fact: income disparity in the United States is far greater than the average citizen would guess--and it has only been growing. It's not demonization therefore, to suggest that the 1%, whose combined wealth is substantially greater than the entire bottom 90%, should pay marginally higher tax rates as one element of a deficit reduction program. This new appreciation of the wealth gap has likely contributed to the possible softening of congressional Republicans' absolutism regarding new revenues.
     Not all have been made aware of this reality, though. I'll end by linking to yesterday's post by the Atlantic's James Fallows, who highlights what a sweet deal Rick Perry and Herman Cain offer the ultra-wealthy with their flat(ish) tax plans. It's not so sweet for the rest of us, as you'll see. Fallows also provides the following chart from the Congressional Budget Office, which demonstrates the inequality of income growth over the past three decades: