Monday, April 30, 2012

The New Media

Through my volunteer work with Common Cause, I have gotten involved with the New Haven Votes Coalition here in Connecticut. While the primary purpose of NHVC is to increase voter registration and turnout, the overarching theme of the organization's work is increasing overall civic engagement in the community. Working with the Civic Health Index formulated by the Secretary of State's Office, we are seeking to encourage greater citizen participation in local community and faith-based civic organizations, municipal and state advisory boards, issues forums and so forth. This type of civic involvement (as well as other factors) is statistically correlated to higher voter turnout.

In our meetings, a recurring theme has been the lack of participation among the young – specifically college students. While there are several factors accounting for this, the primary one is a sense that the individual is powerless against large, organized monied interests. This sentiment is not surprising, given that in six months we will all be choosing between Romney's billionaires and Obama's billionaires. Harshly negative attack ads funded by obfuscatory Super PAC's are indeed discouraging for those who care about our nation's future yet feel that a place at the table is reserved only for those with deep pockets. I completely understand the sense of futility.

However, I am also struck by the power and effectiveness of organizations like United Republic. If you've read recent news stories about major corporations withdrawing from the American Legislative Exchange Council, and are happy about that, you need to thank United Republic. The people there used their passion and their bully pulpit to call out these corporations for their support of a cabal seeking to suppress voting and impose other nefarious change on ordinary and financially-outmatched citizens. The people at United Republic are not part of “the elite”; they are concerned citizens who care and want things to change. When I was growing up, if a story didn't make the six o'clock evening news or the front page of the New York Times, nobody knew about it. The world is a very different place now. While there are certainly more major news outlets, specifically on cable television, there are also a plethora of internet-based media operations, many of which sprang from small, humble roots. The capital barrier to entry in this market has been virtually eliminated. Furthermore, the advent of social media networks such as Twitter has enabled individuals to disseminate information and organize like-minded people around a cause in a way that has never been possible until a few years ago. The barriers to organizing a political movement and effecting change have never been smaller.

As the smallest ripple can eventually create an enormous wave, so too can the voice of a lone individual create a massive political and social movement. To those who feel they are powerless to compete with large monied interests, I say this: All you need is passion and an internet connection. Si,se puede.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Trading Liberty for Security

Just when you thought the Bush administration was over, it appears Karl Rove is ghost-writing for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Not only is the language of Kennedy's opinion in Florence v. Board of Freeholders positively Orwellian, it displays utter disregard for minor constitutional concepts such as probable cause, due process and the prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

In case you missed it, Florence is the case of Albert Florence, who made the grave mistake of committing DWB in New Jersey (if you've ever driven the Jersey Turnpike, you know exactly what I mean) and getting hauled in on a voided warrant despite having paperwork showing the warrant was no longer valid. To paraphrase Bob Dylan's Hurricane, “In New Jersey, that's just the way things go. If you're black....” Simple incarceration wasn't enough; Mr. Albert was forced to submit to a strip search.

I'm not a constitutional scholar, and, unlike President Obama, I don't play one on TV; but it seems to me that the Supreme Court turned three constitutional guarantees on their heads in order to create one guarantee afforded only to prison officials. As Kennedy wrote, “In addressing this type of constitutional claim, courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials unless the record contains substantial evidence showing their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security.” I wasn't aware it should be the purview of corrections officials to judge constitutional matters. Thankfully, Kennedy explains for us that these officials “offer significant reasons why the Constitution must not prevent them from conducting the same search on any suspected offender who will be admitted to the general population of their facilities.” I don't mind impinging on the rights of CONVICTED offenders, but I thought SUSPECTED offenders actually had Constitutional rights. Lyle Denniston showed me the light in SCOTUSblog on April 2, 2012: “The Court explicitly refused to limit the authority to use strip searches only to situations in which a specific individual gave officers a reason to consider that prisoner to be dangerous or likely to be carrying a concealed weapon or drugs.” Nazi Germany, anyone?

I'm not sure how the court can stand three separate parts of the Bill of Rights on their heads and still pass Constitutional muster, and apparently Justice Alito shared my concern. More from Denniston: “Justice Alito, with apparent support from the Chief Justice, suggested that a general search policy might not always be reasonable under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. 'The Court,' Alito wrote, 'does not hold that it is always reasonable to conduct a full strip search of an arrestee whose detention has not been reviewed by a judicial officer and who could be held in available facilities apart from the general population.'” They shared my concern, just not enough to keep them from shredding the Constitution.

The decision in Florence is bad enough on its own. What is even scarier is the lengths to which it might be taken in other circumstances, especially given Kennedy's language. Here's a gem: “There is a substantial interest in preventing any new inmate, either of his own will or as a result of coercion, from putting all who live or work at these institutions at even greater risk when he is admitted to the general population.” Using Kennedy's logic, why not strip searches at TSA checkpoints, sports stadia, train stations, public schools and grocery stores? If you don't believe these things begin on a small, limited basis, let me introduce you to the Patriot Act.

Stand Your Ground, Justice Kennedy. Sieg Heil!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Real Healthcare Issue

Now that the Supreme Court has completed hearing arguments on the Affordable Health Care Act, I'm hoping for a 2 to 3 month reprieve from all the online carping about 9 unelected officials deciding the fate of the health of millions of Americans. Don't blame the Court for doing its job, or the founders for adopting a system of checks and balances. Rather, place the blame equally with the two parties responsible for writing a horrible law to achieve a noble, yet misguided, goal: an obstructionist, “our way or no way” Republican party, and an absolutely spineless, passive-aggressive Chief Executive.

While the large number of uninsured Americans is problematic, insurance coverage in and of itself is not the root problem. When a 5 minute visit to the surgeon's office to have an abscess drained costs over $1000 out-of-pocket, after insurance pays the doctor, the problem is cost itself. Adding more people to the ranks of the insured will help, but it fails to address the real issue. Yes, part of the problem is that the insured ultimately pay for the care of the uninsured. The real factors driving massive cost increases are malpractice litigation and lack of competition on prescription drugs.

When I was growing up, a physician was the top of the socioeconomic food chain. Everyone aspired to be a doctor, and every mother aspired to have her daughter marry a doctor. Now, doctors are abandoning their practices due to outrageous malpractice insurance premiums. You can thank trial lawyers and their friends in Congress and the White House for that. We are also at a stage where seniors often face choosing between buying food or buying medication because they can't afford both. You can thank the FDA and big pharma lobbyists for that.

It should come as no surprise that President Obama's legislation ignored these issues. It is true that the legislation would have passed constitutional muster and never reached the Supreme Court if it had been written as a tax. Yes, the GOP would have raised a fuss over anything remotely resembling a tax. That's when an executive should act like an executive, use the bully pulpit and take the case to the people. Our feckless leader prefers to play passive-aggressive, let Congress take the initiative and control the dialogue, then play woe-is-me.

Why does no one in Washington have the cojones to identify publicly and then address the problem? Simple: trial lawyers and big pharma companies are huge contributors to BOTH parties. Since 2008, pharma money has been split evenly between both parties. Trial lawyers contribute heavily to both sides, with an advantage going to Democrats. When our President and Congresspeople are consumed by greed and self-interest, you get the Affordable Health Care Act instead of a real solution to the real problem. Stop whining about the Supreme Court and address your outrage where it belongs, and do so in November.