Nora Harris

Oct 022013
 

Shutdown, blah blah.

The whole web is full of dumbass articles with screenshots of federal agency websites like this:

Due to the US government shutdown, this website has died.

I’m not an expert, but I know a thing or two about websites. For example, I know these bastards don’t rent server space by the day.

I mean, come on! One day without a budget and they can’t leave their fucking websites up? Is this some kind of joke, or are federal government agencies so shite they can’t keep a website running for ONE FUCKING DAY without a budget being passed?

And these are the people who run the free world. Jesus wept.

Jan 212013
 

So, the Daily Mail has an article about the 50 things the average person wants to achieve during their lifetime, along with the caveat that the average person only actually does five of the 50.

There aren’t even 50 things on the list, but here goes:

1. Become a millionaire—Would like to do.

2. Travel the world—Would like to do only once no. 1 has been achieved.

3. See the Northern Lights—Would like to do.

4. Trek the Great Wall of China—No thanks.

5. Be mortgage free—I’m mortgage-free now, but about that student debt…

6. Go to the Inca Trail—No thanks.

7. See all seven wonders of the world/8. Visit the Egyptian Pyramids—You can’t visit all seven wonders these days, and the pyramids are one of them anyway. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing the ones that are left.

9. Invent something that changes lives—Meh.

10. Visit Antarctica—Definitely not.

11. Go on the Orient Express—Would like to do.

12. Go on an African Safari—No thanks.

13. See the Taj Mahal—Meh.

14. Learn to play the piano / guitar / drums—Done two of these, ish.

15. Stay a night at the world’s best hotel—No thanks.

16. Build your own house—No thanks.

17. Drive Route 66 in the US—Meh.

18. Go to Lapland—What the heck? Does the average person really want to do this? I have no idea where Lapland even is.

19. Swim with dolphins / sharks—Would like to swim with dolphins. Not so much with the sharks…

20. Emigrate—Done it.

21. Learn to speak another language—Done it.

22. Own an island—Too much hassle.

23. Dine at a Michelin star restaurant—Done it.

24. Write a novel—Would like to do. Need a plot first, though, and maybe some characters…

25. See Gorillas in the wild—No thanks.

26. Live and work abroad—Done it. This is the same as no. 20, anyway.

27. Hot air balloon ride—Done it.

28. Fly a plane—No thanks.

29. Travel New Zealand in a Winnebago—Again, do people really want to do this? Seems really specific. Anyway, it’s a maybe for me.

30. Start and run your dream business—No thanks.

31. Ride a Segway—Okay, this one would be fun.

32. Go to Disneyworld—Done it.

33. Gamble in Las Vegas—No thanks.

34. Act as an extra in a Hollywood film—Meh.

35. Dedicate time to volunteering—Done it.

36. Try out an F1 car—Meh.

37. Learn to fly a plane or helicopter—No thanks. Same as no. 28 anyway, surely? I definitely don’t want people flying planes who haven’t learned how to do it first.

38. Have a family—Um. Someday.

39. Be an extra in a movie—This is the same as no. 34.

40. Climb a mountain like Everest—No thanks.

41. Buy a yacht—Only once I’ve achieved no. 1. Even then I might prefer just to rent.

42. Meet your idol / favourite celebrity—Done it. Ask me about meeting Robert Plant if you want your face bored off.

43. Run a marathon—No thanks.

44. Watch a World Cup final—I watched one on television, does that count?

45. Meet the Queen—Nah, don’t give a crap. She’s not my queen.

46. Learn to surf—Done it.

47. Go to Harry Potter World in Florida—Would like to do.

48. Abseil down a mountain—This could be fun.

49. Do an army assault course—No thanks.

50. Deep sea dive—Definitely not.

So I’ve done 10, maybe 11 of these. Twice the average. Not bad.

Jan 172013
 

…comes from Heresy Corner’s latest, ‘Screwed by the state‘:

You’d think, though, looking at it from the outside (as I do) that the actual fucking police literally fucking duped activists and then using an obscure legal procedure to deny their victims open justice would interest people who call themselves radical and progressive rather more than a throwaway remark made by one self-identified feminist journalist, or even the genuinely offensive comments made by another high-profile feminist journalist a few days later in her defence, which is at the end of the day just words. You’d think so.

Nov 112012
 

Ah, those weeks following an American presidential election. Tempers calm, fanaticism wanes, and wishful thinking becomes wistful thinking. The news is all about deconstruction of the results, and peace reigns until next year (when everything ramps up again before the mid-terms).

So what is the deconstruction?

Both sides are postulating the existence of a permanent Democratic majority in the American populace, a turning point reached wherein there are no longer enough people in the country who benefit from Republican policies to be able to elect them. Talk on blogs is of the 47% plus the 1% in permanent coalition (though that still only makes 48%).

Looking at the results on the map, though, I’m not sure I get that. Obama won in the states the Democrats usually win in, and Romney won in the states Republicans usually win in.

Why, then, is there all this talk of Republicans never taking the presidency again? Why is Janet Daley writing in the Telegraph about the Europeanisation of the American electorate when all that happened was that a Democratic incumbent won again? They sometimes do, you know. Clinton did. The pendulum swings back.

Maybe it’s something to do with why people voted the way they did. Election analysis, pre- and post-, loves to delve into “what the election is all about.” I remember in 2004, people were saying the election was being fought on values: patriotism, Jesus, and the American Way. Bush won because Americans were still proud of themselves and thought America was the greatest place on Earth. Kerry lost because he was “too European” and considered a dweeb who had never done an honest day’s work.

That certainly wasn’t what the election in 2008 was about. You don’t vote for hope and change unless you feel hopeless and stuck, so there was something wrong with the brand already.

What happened to the brand? Did people stop believing in the American dream? Is the United States still the land of the free, where an honest day’s work gets you an honest day’s pay?

I’m not sure what people thought in 2008, but I’m pretty sure I know what they think now: the American Way is a clapped-out clunker. If you’re an Average Joe, working in an average job, paying down a modest mortgage, bringing up a modest family, and modest town somewhere, you don’t expect your country to fail you. After all, you’re doing your bit. When, for no reason you can divine, your company goes bust, you lose your job, your house is repossessed, and you have to go on food stamps, you kinda lose that patriotism, don’t you? You definitely lose your pride.

And here comes this Romney guy, talking about how he stands for hard-working Americans and the virtue of honest toil, and you probably hate him just a little bit for it. If his American Way is so great, how come your life sucks so much?

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame for the economic situation in the US and around the world. What mattered in this election was the number of Americans who knew it wasn’t their fault, and who couldn’t understand this dude effectively telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. If that worked, they might have thought to themselves, they’d have done it already. But just as they clearly had no power to prevent the collapse, neither did they feel like they had the power to recover from it through their own efforts.

And I think that’s basically why Obama won. He acknowledged that these average people were both blameless and powerless, and suggested that as it was the government that got them into this mess, thus it was the government’s duty to get them out of it again.

So all of the chatter in the aftermath that this election was fought on how Americans feel about the role of their government is right; I just think the commentators have it backwards. American voters haven’t embraced big government as the way to a fairer society (although maybe some of them have). They’ve looked big government in the eye and said “You sons of bitches broke it. Now you fucking fix it. We’ll just sit over here and wait until you’re done.”

There’s a degree to which I sympathise with this point of view, but I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed. There’s a reason people say “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always wins.” The solution to the problem isn’t more of the problem, and if you feel like the much-abused little guy getting stomped all over by the powers that be, you’re crazy if you think a nice guy like Obama is going to be able to put a stop to the stomping.

Obama probably is a nice guy, and probably wants to help, but fundamentally he is one guy amongst hundreds of thousands of government apparatchiks, special interest groups, think tanks, and corporate donors. And he is certainly one guy who said he was going to put a stop to the stomping in 2008, and totally failed. But I agree that he probably had more credibility in claiming this than Romney.

There is one outcome from this election that nobody seems to have made much of yet, and that is the announcement of Ron Paul Kenobi’s retirement. Americans, he says, would rather have the Empire than freedom, and least he can retire and not, like Cato Uticensis, feel compelled to put a sword through himself.

This article is not so much Lucas or Plutarch, though, as it is Seuss:

The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he hoisted himself and took leave of this place
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks with one word…UNLESS.

Nov 072012
 

Last time we spoke, I had some predictions for ye olde election, and they all came true. Just call me Cassandra. Allow me to refresh your memory.

(1) Obama will win.*

He did.

(2) It won’t matter that Obama has won…Republicans don’t have to vote for Romney to piss in Obama’s cornflakes, they only have to vote for Republican congressional candidates, which they will do.

They did. The Republicans have kept the House. I HOPE Obama is looking FORWARD to the total absence of CHANGE in the House’s attitude toward his policies. It’s going to be a hard four years for the guy, and I hope all of those people who said he would use this second term to really fix his slice on the golf course are right, otherwise we might see the first presidential suicide in history.

If Obama thinks he’s had a hard time up to now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when his apologists melt away because they don’t have to care about getting him re-elected any more. They’ll be looking for their 2016 candidate at 8am on 7th November.

Turns out I was late to the party on this one. This New York Times article from 6 September states:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Whether President Obama wins or loses in November, one thing is certain for Democrats on the morning after Election Day: the 2016 auditions begin.

A buncha people I’ve never heard of are in the running, plus Joe Biden (not fucking likely), Hillary Clinton (okay, maybe) and Andrew Cuomo (he’ll be lucky if he’s even still governor of New York by that point).

Then, the prediction I was most certain would happen:

(3) Paul Ryan’s career in the big-time is over.

He didn’t even carry his home state.

Ryan is toast.

*Looking on the bright side: at least I don’t have to retire my “oops! Obama” tag.

Sep 302012
 

(1) Obama will win.

Not even Romney’s own party likes Romney all that much, so any vote for Romney is essentially a vote against Obama. And while there are a lot of people out there who would enjoy sticking it to Obama, all of the presidential elections I’ve been alive for suggest that “voting against” is vastly inferior to “voting for” as a source of motivation.

Just ask Mondale, George HW Bush, Dole, and Kerry. Especially Kerry.

(2) It won’t matter that Obama has won.

If Obama thinks he’s had a hard time up to now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when his apologists melt away because they don’t have to care about getting him re-elected any more. They’ll be looking for their 2016 candidate at 8am on 7th November. Republicans don’t have to vote for Romney to piss in Obama’s cornflakes, they only have to vote for Republican congressional candidates, which they will do.

I think the Republican party knows this, and therefore haven’t really exerted themselves to put up a compelling candidate. As Andy Parsons put it on “Mock the Week” the other night, they’ve decided to run a guy who lost the nomination to the guy who lost the nomination to George W Bush. Many critics from within the Republican camp attribute this to an “it’s his turn” mentality, but I think it’s probably just that the party bigwigs don’t give a crap this time around.

Any Republican who won this year would probably be a one-term president, because the economy is in the shitter and you can bet that the media—who are ignoring this point at the moment to help out Obama—wouldn’t be ignoring it in 2016 if the incumbent were a Republican.

Much better to give Romney his way, shrug sadly when he loses, and proceed to torment the ever-loving shit out of a now-friendless Obama for four years, thus paving the way for a charismatic Republican to win in 2016 and 2020.

(3) Paul Ryan’s career in the big-time is over.

There is nothing more damaging in American politics than being the VP candidate to a guy who loses. I mean, apart from their VP run, do these names mean anything to you?

  • Geraldine Ferraro
  • Lloyd Bentsen
  • Jack Kemp
  • John Edwards

Okay, that last one might mean something to you because he’s now known as the guy who was indicted for using campaign funds to cover up the affair and love child he had while his wife was dying of cancer. But if that hadn’t happened, John Edwards would be a total nobody.

I won’t be voting in this election because I don’t believe in this faux-democratic bullshit and I don’t support either party. But I’m going to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve used this presidential election, which it wouldn’t benefit them to win, to purge the lunatics, also-rans, and has-beens from the nomination slate, and are gearing up to stick it to their weakened, herdless prey.

I mean, it’s what they did to Clinton, and that turned out pretty well, no?

Sep 172012
 

So, archaeologists from the University of Leicester think they may have found Richard III’s earthly remains under a council car park in Leicester, although the DNA tests they’re conducting won’t be finished for another 3 months.

This is a subject rather close to my heart: I even used to be a member of the Richard III Society and everything. If those remains do turn out to be Richard III’s, I will probably have to have a private moment. Ten years ago, when I was first studying all this, it was a source of pain to all Ricardians everywhere that, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, Richard’s bones were sleeping with the fishes in the river Soar thanks to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Now that might change, and Richard III will get the site of cultic worship his supporters have always wanted.

However.

That site might be, of all places, in the Anglican cathedral in Leicester. Which—really? This deeply Catholic man is going to have his final resting place in the Anglican cathedral of the city where he was freaking bludgeoned to death? And all because the University of Leicester, who dug him up, and Leicester City Council, whose car park he was found in, would like to reap the benefits of Ricardian tourism?

How insulting.

I’m not going to claim I can read the mind of a man who’s been dead since 1485, but there are probably a lot of better alternatives which might have been more palatable to the man himself. It’s not his fault he didn’t have the luxury of specifying his wishes about a final resting place, so I’m not sure it’s particularly tasteful to be treating the poor man’s bones like the private property of the institution that dug them up.

If the royal family themselves don’t get involved—I mean, come on, if those bones are really Richard III’s, he’s basically their cousin forty times removed or something—it really ought to be up to whoever’s paying for the interment, which I suspect will be the Richard III Society, to decide where the burial is located.

If I were still a member of that society, I’d certainly be arguing for some alternative place that had something to do with Richard III other than being the place where he was done to death by his own allies. York, maybe, which bravely paid tribute to him in their city annals after the battle of Bosworth, or one of the castles where he actually lived, or even Berwick-upon-Tweed, which he won back from the Scots.

I mean, of all the places the dude probably would have hated to be buried, the only place worse than the Anglican cathedral in Leicester would be in Henry VII’s lap at Westminster Abbey. Geez.

UPDATE: @Fat_Jacques points out that Leicester Cathedral was Catholic in 1485, as indeed were all of the lovely ecclesiastical buildings at the time that the Church of England later stole. Which is a good point, but of course it’s not the building that’s the problem, it’s the funeral rite itself. What medieval Catholic would want an Anglican funeral service?

There’s also the political point to think about; Richard III isn’t any medieval Catholic, he’s a medieval Catholic who was snuffed by the father of the man who founded the Anglican church. Which is kind of why the title of this blog post is “Give the poor man a break”—he’s suffered enough indignities without piling this one on, too.

Sep 162012
 

Chris Dillow asks:

One remarkable feature of the Conservative party since the late 19th century has been that it has been the party of most of the rich. It has more or less successfully represented the interests of land-owners, rentiers, industrialists and commerce…

What I am doing, though, is raising a question. It’s long been a cliche that Labour’s class base – industrial workers – is shrinking and fragmenting. But might the same be also true for the Tories?

In the context he mentions—that of commerce’s interests conflicting with the land-owners’ interest, particularly regarding a third runway at Heathrow—I think he’s right, but in answer to the greater question he poses, I think he’s also right.

Which is unusual, because a lot of the time, I don’t agree with Chris Dillow.

However, sometimes—especially when he writes about managerialism and where the major parties go wrong—I find myself nodding along.

The majority of people in Britain today are neither land-owners of the old sort, rentiers, industrialists, ‘commerce,’ or industrial workers. Relying on these groups, singly or in combination, is not going to give any major party enough votes to stay in power (though it might provide enough financial support to keep a party going). Thus the never-ending race to the centre ground, and the fact that both the Conservatives and Labour have seen their traditional class bases shrinking and fragmenting.

When society is no longer divided along the traditional class lines—no matter how much people want to cling to this way of looking at life’s great pageant—the political parties can’t work that way either, and when they try to keep at it, as they so obviously are, they end up pissing off their voters, which they have.

It would be interesting to see the opinion-formers shake off the old dogma about class and try to identify where the lines are really drawn these days—private vs public sector workers, maybe, or workers vs non-workers, or even (god forbid) British vs foreigners—but I don’t really see that happening anytime soon. For one thing, it’s widely socially acceptable to fulminate against rentiers, industrialists, unions, etc., whereas it’s generally unacceptable to fulminate against your average worker, non-worker, or foreigner (although interestingly, in the case of foreigners, this only applies to non-whites—apparently you can bitch about Polish people all you like without being considered racist). For another, to acknowledge new class-based groups is to redraw the distinction between left and right, which probably suits neither the left nor the right, and is why the opinion-formers don’t do it and why the political parties in this country have such schizophrenic views.

A lot of people seem to approve of this schizophrenia (“It’s, like, not ideological, man”), but I think there’s something seriously wrong with it: if you’re a voter who cares about the actual, stated policies of political parties, it’s impossible to really like any of them because there’s always some conflict. For example, I really like the Lib Dem policy of raising the personal tax allowance, but I really dislike their policy on Lords reform. It’s not that I think Lords reform is an inherently bad idea, it’s just that I think their particular proposal is the wrong one.

And the end result is that this contributes to the huge voter apathy people are always banging on about. It’s not the only contributor, by any means, but it certainly is one of them. I’m not a land-owner, rentier, or industrialist, so the Conservatives aren’t looking out for my interests. I’m not an industrial worker, so Labour isn’t either. I’m employed, so everyone’s trying to represent me, but one day I might be unemployed, so everyone’s still trying to represent me. You see? How does your average person even choose these days?

These modern class divisions, unlike the old ones, are fluid, and I might be on one side today and the other side tomorrow. It’s no wonder the political parties are suffering fractures.

Maybe, instead of trying to represent specific classes or groups, it’s time for the parties to return to ideology, and let the chips fall where they may. That would, at least, be internally consistent and supply an actual framework for how parties might respond to unexpected issues, rather than the bizarre pendulum of expedience we get now. Then people could decide whom to vote for based on actual value systems rather than tedious detail about e.g. government funding for house-building in the green belt.

(Incidentally, can anybody think of a political issue that is more crazy-making than housing? It’s like this great battle between those who think everyone should have a chance to get on the property ladder, those who don’t want estates built near their village, those who want more social housing built to ease the housing shortage, those who don’t want the environment ruined by paving over the nation with suburbs, those who don’t want the value of their own homes to fall due to increased supply, and those who only want houses built in places where there is enough public transport to stop people driving cars. I would hate to hold the housing brief for any of the major parties and try to tread that minefield.)

UPDATE: Here’s another take on Chris’s thesis, with more of a focus on reducing the conflict-based nature of party politics.

Jun 032012
 

Punk is dead,’ asserts Chris Dillow today.

In this, music reflects a wider social fact—that today’s young people are much less gobby than we were. Last summer’s riots, for example, contained less political motive than their 1981 equivalents. And much as I love them, today’s “voices of their generation” are pretty tame…This is not because of a lack of cause. Today’s youngsters have the same grievances as my generation – youth unemployment and police harassment—and then some.

So why are young folk so passive?

He presents a number of possibilities: today’s oldsters are more tolerant, today’s youth are the captive slaves of mega-materialist capitalism, etc.

At no point does he consider that today’s youth are passive because that’s how Chris Dillow’s generation taught them to be.

I’ve written about this before…

But we live in a curiously dishonest world, wherein baby-boomers hold all of the power and then complain that the youth are disaffected and disengaged, unlike themselves when they were ‘the youth.’ In fact, most of the policies advocated by the baby-boomers in power seem deliberately designed to keep ‘the youth’ dependent on them, which is a perfect recipe for further disaffection and disengagement.

Let us consider recent proposals in Britain dealing with ‘the youth.’

(a) Compulsory education or training to age 18. This keeps ‘the youth’ under the control of the state (read: baby-boomer run) education system until legal adulthood.

(b) Sending more of the population to university. This keeps ‘the youth’ under the control of the state (read: baby-boomer run and operated) education system until well into adulthood.

(c) Government-provided work and training for graduates who can’t find jobs. This keeps ‘the youth’ (who are now into their twenties) dependent on the state (run by baby-boomers) for sustenance and the acquisition of skills.

(d) Parent training courses. This sends the message to ‘the youth’ who have dared to reproduce that despite their biological fitness for the job, they are mentally and emotionally unfit to raise offspring without guidance from the state (i.e. baby-boomers, those proven experts in child-rearing).

All of these policies could not make more perfectly clear the belief of baby boomers that ‘the youth’ of today are unfit to make decisions for themselves, support themselves, or support other humans; and yet still the baby boomers complain that ‘the youth’ don’t take responsibility for themselves and agitate for their own benefit.

…more than once:

Mind you, our ex-hippy [ex-punk?] overlords seem particularly distraught that the voice of the new generation is a weak one. A couple of days ago, I wrote that it was a key feature of the baby-boom generation to strangle the life out of today’s youth and then demand to know why it wasn’t trying to breathe.

And lo, what should be in the newspaper on Monday but the results of a poll showing that today’s youth are ‘more boring’ than their parents.

Having been told from birth to shun smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, and pretty much anything else that could be interpreted as either exciting or ‘interesting,’ the yoof turn out to be rather hard-line Puritans. Quelle surprise. And for this, the baby-boomers have the nerve to complain that their kids are no fucking fun.

If you want angry, empowered youth, then don’t spend the first 25 years of their lives teaching them that the bland, unquestioning, isolating conformity which suits your desire to retain cultural and social dominance is for their own good.

Your methods of upbringing are what created today’s 23-year-olds who fret over whether they can afford to buy a house in Barnes. Your parental indulgence is why others of your children still live in your council house with three kids of their own, no spouse, and no job.

You didn’t teach them to see the value in standing up for their future because you didn’t want them to do that—because it might hurt yours. You’ve told them all of their lives that somebody else would sort out their problems, take their part, and make the world right for them; you’ve taught them that dependence has no cost and entitlements have no price and one’s desires are automatically others’ debts to pay—why should they not believe you now? You have no right to complain. You promised them the earth; they’re just waiting patiently for you to provide it for them.

Mar 272012
 

I’ve been reading the transcripts of and commentary about the US Supreme Court arguments taking place this week about the constitutionality of the “individual mandate” and associated penalty contained within the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010).

Before I get into any analysis, a seeming triviality: many of the news reports about this case are noting the fact that its opponents refer to the act as “Obamacare,” as if this were some kind of novel piece of slang. It’s not. What’s new is that, ahead of these oral arguments, the Act’s supporters have started embracing the term instead of discouraging its use, as if Barack Obama himself has delivered this manna to the unhealthy. Frankly, I don’t think Obama has even read the full text of this legislation, so I refuse to give him sole credit (or blame) for it, and will refer to it by its acronym PPACA, which is the norm when referring to legislation of the American Congress. (What, did you think PATRIOT Act was capitalised because it’s a big deal? No: it’s because it’s the Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. American politicians are nothing if not massively cheesy.)

Now let’s address why I’m writing this blog post. This case is an extraordinarily big deal, and you will have a hard time understanding why if all you read is the news media accounts of the arguments. The American media does not want to go into any great analysis of the issue, for fear that you might draw your own conclusions, and the British media does not understand the significance. In the British media in particular, you will find reporters utterly baffled by what appears, to them, to be a sneaky, underhand challenge of the president himself under the pretext of a legal technicality.

Whether or not a law, or a part of a law, is constitutional is simply not a legal technicality. The Constitution is the basis for all federal government in the United States. The federal government simply may not make laws that contravene, or surpass, what the Constitution allows it to do. The law, or the provision within the law, cannot be imposed upon the American people if it is not constitutional. And one of the basic rights Americans have is to challenge the federal government about the constitutionality of its laws. That British journalists don’t seem (or want) to grasp this, simply because they personally think the PPACA is a good thing, makes them shitty journalists.

So. What is the issue at stake?

The challenge to the PPACA is about the provisions in section 5000A, which require Americans to be covered by health insurance (whether purchased individually or through their employer) or incur a penalty. These parts of the law are collectively referred to as the “individual mandate” or the “minimum coverage provision.”

The challengers, in this case, are a number of American states and some associated individuals. Their basic contention is that the US Constitution does not permit the federal government to compel people to purchase health insurance when they are not purchasing health care services.

In this case, you have two participants: the challengers, and the US federal government (as represented by the Solicitor General). This case has gone through the federal courts already, and the Supreme Court agreed at the back end of 2011 to hear it. This is significant: the Supreme Court can choose not to hear cases, so the fact it has chosen to hear this one means the Court believes that there is enough doubt about the matter, or enough importance about the question at hand, to make it an issue worth settling. The Court’s decision is binding and, in this case, may also be precedent-setting. (This is kind of what puzzles me about the position of many British journalists; if the high court of the US thinks it’s important enough to discuss, who are you to call it a trivial technicality?)

But enough about British journalists. Part of the reason reportage about this case is so crappy is that there are lots of different strands of argument involved, not all of which make a lot of sense if you consider them in isolation.

For example, yesterday’s arguments centred around whether or not the Court could even hear the case. Here’s the background: as the case has made its way through the lower levels of courts, the government’s position has been that the penalty for not purchasing health insurance is, effectively, a tax, and taxes do not come under the jurisdiction of any court until the complainant has paid the tax, requested administrative redress, and been refused. Then, and only then, can the complainant bring suit. (Challenges to tax are covered under a law called the Anti-Injunction Act.) The government’s argument has been that, since the mandate and penalty/tax do not come into force until 2014, the law cannot be challenged on those grounds in 2012, because nobody has yet paid the tax and therefore nobody can at this point bring suit.

Interestingly, once the Court agreed to hear the case, the government switched positions, and yesterday argued before the justices that the penalty is not a tax subject to the Anti-Injunction Act. Because the challengers were making the same argument, the Court had to appoint independent counsel (the amicus curiae) to argue that the penalty is a tax. Ultimately, yesterday, the Court appeared to accept that the penalty is not a tax subject to the Anti-Injunction Act. Nobody was surprised by this; why would the Court schedule three days of argument about the matter if it envisioned recusing itself after the first day?

So. We proceed to today’s arguments, which were about the constitutionality of the mandate itself. I have read the transcript, but I am not a lawyer, so take what I am about to describe with the understanding that I am both ignorant and naive to a certain extent. However, you can read the stuff yourself on the SCOTUS website; the arguments were very accessible to the layman.

The government argued as follows. In the Constitution, the federal government is allowed the power to regulate commerce, and issues affecting commerce, between the states (the “Commerce Clause”). There are two commercial markets at issue: one is for health care services, and one is for health insurance. All people in the US are participants in the health care market, because all people in the US will require health care at some point. Health insurance is the method by which people finance their health care in the US, and therefore all people are technically participants in the health insurance market also. Ergo, Congress has the right to regulate both, as both constitute interstate commerce, even to the point of requiring people to purchase health insurance at a given point in time, because their failure to do so is an issue that affects commerce within that market.

(There is also a whole bunch of stuff about how the penalty for not buying is a tax, but I didn’t follow that part too well, and since the government argued yesterday that it is only kind of a tax, I’m not sure how germane the point is anyway.)

What it is important to understand about the government’s position is that, in the US, even if you do not have health insurance, you cannot be refused health care. So what happens is that people without the means to pay for their health care nevertheless receive it, which drives up the cost of care, which in turn drives up premiums for those people who are insured. So the government is arguing that because some people’s failure to insure themselves affects the price of everyone’s health care and insurance, Congress has the right to interfere in the purchasing (or not) of health insurance under the justification of the Commerce Clause.

By compelling people to purchase insurance (and penalising/taxing people if they don’t), the government’s aim is to reduce the free rider problem and thus lower the cost of care and insurance premiums.

If you read the transcript, Solicitor General Verrilli does a lot of waffling about the “40 million Americans who don’t have access to care,” but the upshot of what he’s saying is this: actually, these people can get care, they just don’t pay for it. So in order to cover the cost of people who can’t pay for the care they definitely do get, everyone has to be insured. That way, the insurance companies can use the premiums paid by the healthy to subsidise the cost of the care for unhealthy people who can’t pay for it themselves. Thus, because everybody is affected by this way of ensuring poor people can still get health care, Congress can do what it chooses, including compelling purchase, to deal with the problem.

So far, so clear. The system envisioned in the PPACA is one of the healthy subsidising the unhealthy.

The challengers argument was somewhat more complicated.

First, they disputed the “everybody is a participant” claim. Many of the Americans who do not have health insurance are young, healthy people who choose to spend their money on something else, believing themselves to be at low risk of requiring health care. Thus, these people are not, at a given point in time, participants in either the health care or health insurance market. The Commerce Clause, they say, does not give the government the right to compel people to participate in these markets when they otherwise would not choose to do so.

Second, they disputed that the health care and health insurance markets are so intertwined as make eventual participation in the one the justification for forced participation in the other. There are, they said, other means of subsidising the unhealthy who cannot pay for their care than compelling the purchase of health insurance. Social Security was brought up: a general tax, linked to income, levied on everyone, which the federal government then disburses to those requiring the payments, would be constitutional in a way the mandate is not, because the Constitution does give the federal government the right to levy taxes. (This is, in fact, how Medicare and Medicaid work at the moment.) The challengers also pointed out that the problem the provision is attempting to solve is one created by the government in the first place: namely, the government forces emergency rooms to treat those who cannot pay, and it forces insurance companies to insure high-risk individuals. If it did not do those things, there would not be a free rider problem, and so there are other solutions than the mandate imposed by the PPACA.

During the arguments, the justices focused particularly keenly on two problems with these issues: (1) are the health markets unique, and if so, what specifically is the limiting principle that will stop the federal government from engaging in compulsory purchase in other markets? and (2) if the challengers concede that the federal government can force people to purchase health insurance at the point of purchasing health care itself (which, apparently, they do concede), what is the problem, precisely, with moving that point of compulsion forward in time, when it will have the most beneficial effects?

A lot of today’s commentary was along the lines of “Obamacare in danger of being struck down,” because the justices seemed particularly pointed and hostile in their questioning, but I think this is premature. The mandate may be ideologically horrific to the average American mindset, but that does not mean it is unconstitutional. And the role of the justices is to pick holes in the arguments and expose the weaknesses; that doesn’t mean those weaknesses are fatal. The most aggressive questioning came from Justice Scalia, and I admit the Solicitor General didn’t seem particularly articulate in his answers—at one point, Justice Sotomayor summed up his argument for him much better than he had done, and he didn’t seem to notice—but that doesn’t mean his points are invalid.

There were a lot of other issues and sidelines in the arguments, but there was one point that came out pretty strongly to me, and it was made by Michael Carvin for the challengers. What he argued, in effect, was that the government’s own argument is self-contradicting. At the moment, people with insurance effectively subsidise those without. Under the PPACA, people with insurance will effectively subsidise those without. There is no difference in where the cost is borne; it is always borne by the people with insurance. What the PPACA proposes to do is to increase the pool of insured people to pay the subsidy, thereby spreading the cost over a larger base. The PPACA itself, and the government, admit this is the entire purpose of the mandate: to make healthy people who do not currently purchase health care purchase insurance in order to cover the cost of those people who cannot pay for the health care they purchase.

Therefore, the government is implicitly admitting that there are some people who are outside the market, who need to be drawn into the market in order to spread the cost of subsidy around—and since that is the whole purpose of the mandate, the existence of the mandate demonstrates that not everybody is a participant in these markets, and therefore are not engaging in commerce that can be regulated in this way by Congress.

It’s a neat little argument, and I wish he’d been more explicit about how circular it is. He does call it “bootstrapping,” though, and it’s true. If everyone was a participant in these markets, which is the government’s justification for this falling within the power of the Commerce Clause, there would be no need for the mandate; but because the point of the mandate is to make everyone participate, it is itself an admission that not everyone does, and therefore it can’t be justified by the claim that everyone is already a participant, because if they were, the government wouldn’t need to mandate that they participate.

The only other interesting thing to point out is that, although everyone involved seems keen not to get into the merits of the law as a whole, with the whole, y’know, making sure people don’t bankrupt themselves in order to stay healthy, the people who are most prone to talking about the merits of the law appear to be the justices themselves. This is why I think the commentators are premature: while it’s nice to think that Supreme Court judges are impartial, they’re not. They’re perfectly capable of allowing their approval of the aim of the PPACA to bias their views on its constitutionality—and by the same token, of allowing their repugnance at the methods of the PPACA to affect their judgment of its intention.

And that’s true of a lot of people right now, I think. Health care in the United States is totally fucked up, and I don’t think it’s really possible to dispute that. However, the PPACA is not the only possible solution to the problems, and my personal view is that it’s about the worst one, in fact. But people on the right are in danger of defending a really shitty situation when they attack this law, and people on the left are in danger of defending a really shitty law when they attack the current situation.

This is why, going back to the beginning, the label “Obamacare” is so pernicious. Would people really be as blindly and tribally partisan about this law if it didn’t involve a cult of personality and were, instead, the boring old PPACA?

Read the transcript for Monday’s arguments.

Read the transcript for Tuesday’s arguments.