November 30, 2004
Ooh - "reform"!
As we all know, His Excellency the Governor considers himself quite the "reformer." We know this because he says so: the Governor's Message accompanying his Fiscal Year 2005 budget proposal uses the word "reform" ten times! Wow, he must really mean it!
This commentary, posted at Mass. Insider by Midnight Rambler, appears to predate Finneran's departure (it's not dated so it's hard to tell exactly when it was written), but it's nonetheless an excellent appraisal of His Excellency's claim to be a "reformer."
The brief summary of his assessment: Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha.
Prediction: 8-1 on medical marijuana
You heard it here first: the Supreme Court will vote 8-1 to reject California's effort to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Only Justice Clarence Thomas will vote to uphold the California law. Thomas is the only Justice to have openly advocated that the Court abandon its expansive Commerce Clause jurisprudence that has been in place since the New Deal. In this case, he will conclude that even if those cases are not overruled (as he believes they should be), growing marijuana for personal medical use cannot be regulated by the federal government on the theory that it affects interstate commerce. Everyone else will more or less go along with the feds' argument, despite some misgivings expressed at oral argument.
There is an excellent summary of and commentary on the oral argument here, and additional commentaries here (by the lawyer who argued for California) and here. (Hat tip to the Volokh Conspiracy for these links.)
November 29, 2004
60 Minutes on steroids
I disagree with Oliver Willis that CNN should become a liberal Fox News. Nope, what we really need is a bad-ass, take-no-prisoners, Joe-Friday-just-the-facts-ma'am, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, old time Woodward-'n-Bernstein, [insert cliché here] real investigative journalism channel. And no John Stossel/Geraldo creeps, either; we want the real G's: Sy Hersh, Kevin Sites, the entire production team of Frontline (tremendous, tough show), etc. It's time for the comeback of hard-nosed, courageous journalism.
And I'll bet it would get terrific ratings. Is there not enough scandal going on for everyone these days? The truth is the most provocative thing of all.
The Press and the Prosecutors
The Washington Post has this summary of the state of the Valerie Plame affair (in which, as you'll recall, anonymous administration sources illegally disclosed Plame's identity as a CIA operative to columnist Bob Novak, and Novak promptly published the information, causing Jon Stewart to deem Novak a "Douchebag of Liberty"). Still no word on why Novak himself has apparently not been subpoenaed. There are suggestions that Novak has pled the 5th - but since the criminal statute only reaches people with "authorized" access to a covert operative's identity, and Novak doesn't fall in that category, it's not obvious what crime Novak might have committed (and thus on what basis he might be able to claim constitutional protection from self-incrimination). Curiouser and curiouser.
The bigger issue here is how to balance freedom of the press (in particular, the press's need to rely on confidential sources for certain information) against the public interest in prosecuting crimes. In the view of some, reporters should essentially have an absolute right to maintain the confidentiality of their sources, regardless of the circumstances. But the Plame case strikes me as unique in that the disclosure of her identity served no public interest whatsoever - it was simply a political vendetta, and Novak was used as part of it. The Plame case therefore seems very different from the Wen Ho Lee case or the case of Providence reporter James Taricani (in those cases, it was at least arguable that publication of the information in question served the public interest).
Along those lines, here's part of a letter I wrote to the NY Times a few months back in response to an editorial urging the prosecutor in the Plame case to back off:
Re: "Journalists Face Jail Time" (editorial Aug. 11, 2004): What sets the Valerie Plame affair apart from "the typical case involving a reporter's right to protect a source" is the total lack of any public benefit in disclosing Ms. Plame's identity as a CIA operative. Most cases involving confidential sources present some degree of tradeoff - the public interest in prosecuting illegal leaks is balanced against the public interest in learning about information that the press can only get by using confidential sources. But when publishing the information serves no public interest (as here, where it served only a political vendetta), it's hard to see what legitimate interest is served by continuing to protect the source.
It's no surprise that the Times, part of one of the largest media companies in the world (and one that relies heavily on anonymous sources), takes an absolutist view on protecting confidential sources. But the Times would do well to remember that a free press is not an end in itself; it has value only to the extent that it benefits the public, so the press has a responsibility to be sure that its special protections are utilized in the public interest. In this case the public benefit of the disclosure was nonexistent.
I've had a couple of letters published in the Times, but they didn't run this one. (In fact, I didn't see any letters published disagreeing with the Times's editorial - but maybe I missed them.) I continue to think, though, that if the press wants an exemption from the obligation that the rest of us would face if we furthered the commission of an apparent violation of federal law, it is reasonable to ask the press to invoke that exemption only in the service of a greater good. Helping the Bush administration exact political revenge doesn't seem to me to qualify.
Windbags and wind farms
The Daily Howler calls our attention to the fact that Nantucket's rich-and-famous ranks have swelled yet again with the addition of NBC's Chris Matthews and his wife Kathleen. As the media elite continue to swarm over the island, it will be most interesting to watch coverage of the battle over the proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound. As we have already noted, the rich-and-famous are concerned that the wind farm will adversely affect the view from their McMansions (and have enlisted His Excellency the Governor to carry water for them), despite the farm's promise of unlimited and pollution-free energy for a region that has chronically bad air. So how will the media cover this story? We'll be watching, and you should too - keep your conflict-of-interest detector handy!
November 28, 2004
E-saving "The Listings"
The NY Times's Public Editor reports that the Times is reconsidering its recent abandonment of the Sunday "Arts & Leisure Guide," otherwise known as the "listings," in response to thousands of letters protesting the change. The listings were several pages of small-type descriptions of hundreds of cultural events in and around New York. They appeared in the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday NY Times every week for many years, and it was the only way smaller organizations and events could appear in the Times (ad space is of course prohibitively expensive).
This is very good news on the merits. For the Times to decide (via its new "selective" listings) which cultural events are worthy of mention, rather than tell its readers what's out there and let them decide, reeks of (in the Public Editor's words) "journalistic arrogance." The Public Editor reports that the ultimate form the listings will take is still under discussion, but one can certainly hope that they will allow readers to make their own judgments.
This turn of events is also very good news in terms of process. Apparently, most if not all of the signatures protesting the departure of the listings were gathered on the internet, probably at www.savethelistings.com. And so it appears that a campaign that relied heavily on forwarded emails (I received several emails from different people urging me to visit the site and sign the petition) has made a real difference at the highest levels of the mighty New York Times.
So keep blogging, keep emailing, and keep signing those petitions! In at least one case, it has actually worked.
November 24, 2004
Gay Marriage Gains a Fan
The Boston Globe reports that Mass. Senate President Travaglini gave a "beautiful and moving toast" at the wedding of State Sen. Jarrett Barrios and political consultant Doug Hattaway, including a reference to Barrios, Hattaway, and their two sons as "a true family."
This has the anti-gay marriage crowd worried. Ex-House Speaker Tom Finneran is gone, and his replacement, Sal DiMasi, spoke powerfully in favor of gay marriage in the last constitutional convention. Trav sponsored the "compromise" amendment that would ban gay marriage and create civil unions, but if his words at Barrios's wedding were from the heart, he may no longer be interested in that position. And if no one in the legislative leadership is pushing the amendment, its chances of making it to a vote in 2006 suddenly look pretty shaky.
His Excellency the Governor has taken the position that a same-sex marriage is not, in Trav's words, "a true family," but instead represents a grave threat to society as we know it. Well, it's still early, but society in Massachusetts has not shown any visible signs of decline since same-sex marriages became legal on May 17. We're waiting....
November 23, 2004
The Next Chief Justice (part 1)
Taylor's argument, basically, is that Bush is unlikely to appoint Justices of the activist Scalia/Thomas sort (don't let anyone tell you that these guys are not judicial activists), because the overruling of Roe v. Wade is actually the Republicans' worst nightmare. Taylor cites polls showing that most of the country would be horrified if Roe were actually overruled, and argues that the backlash at the polls would likely be swift and substantial (and Karl Rove knows it), so Bush is more likely to nominate Justices who are not on a mission to undo the last 75 years of constitutional law.
This is an interesting theory, and there may be some truth to it - but we will only know for sure if a moderate retires. For now, it is important to remember that in light of Chief Justice Rehnquist's failing health, the Chief Justice's seat is likely to be the first one to come open. And Rehnquist has long been on the far right of the Court (including being willing to overrule Roe). So replacing Rehnquist with a Scalia/Thomas clone doesn't much change the balance on the Court - in fact, replacing Rehnquist with a less aggressive conservative would actually move the Court back toward the center (and you can be sure that the radical right understands this). That fact, combined with the symbolic importance of the Chief Justice's seat, leads me to think that Bush will try to replace Rehnquist with a conservative activist, either by elevating Scalia or Thomas, or by naming someone from the outside that will make the radical right happy.
And that is exactly what the left should hope for. Why? More later....
The FrankenCongress Monster
We all remember Mary Shelley's story of the mad scientist who brings his creation to life, only to find that he can't control it - the monster eventually murders its creator's brother and wife and generally wreaks havoc before destroying itself.
Something like this seems to be happening with the newly-energized House Republicans, not even three weeks after the election. Their first order of business was to gut their rule that would have required Tom DeLay to step down from his leadership post in the likely event that he should be indicted. It has been widely reported that many members who "secretly" opposed the rule change nonetheless voted for it because they didn't want DeLay to be mad at them. (Profiles in Courage! I got yer Profiles in Courage right here!)
Then, having abandoned ethics, the House Republicans abandoned national security. The bipartisan bill that would have implemented many of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations has enough votes to pass both the Senate and the House easily. But House Speaker Denny Hastert, after publicly stating his support, refused to allow it to come to a vote after a couple of his chairmen said that they didn't like it after all (speaking of Profiles in Courage, Mr. Speaker...). Even the personal intervention of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney could not sway these guys.
What makes this particularly astounding is that the Republicans' relatively small pickup in the House (4 seats) is due almost entirely to Tom DeLay's probably-illegal redistricting scam in Texas. To call that a mandate for anything (other than gerrymandering) is ludicrous, yet the wacko wing of the Republican party seems more energized than ever, and seems determined to advance the wacko agenda even when it directly conflicts with what Bush wants.
Well, Bush wanted to solidify Republican control over both houses of Congress, and that's what has happened. But be careful what you wish for, Mr. President. Like Mary Shelley's monster, it appears that FrankenCongress cannot be easily controlled, and there's no telling how much havoc it will wreak before it finally self-destructs.
Return on Investment
Looks like Mitt tried to get out in front of the health care issue, with the support of some small business groups. I haven't yet seen his plan, but I'll be looking at it in the context of the report by the Urban Institute for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation. The BCBSF report has a manageable executive summary, with these critical paragraphs:
Expanding coverage to the uninsured in Massachusetts would result in economic
and social benefits due to improved health of $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion. These benefits are based on estimates of the effect of the lack of health insurance on health, including lower mortality and morbidity and lower wages and productivity. We relied on work conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that estimated the value of a year of healthy life as well as the number of years the uninsured would lack coverage. The IOM estimated the annual discounted present value of lost health up to age 65 due to lack of insurance ranged from $1,645 to $3,280 per uninsured person. Applying the midpoint of this range to the two estimates of the number of uninsured in Massachusetts results in an estimate of the total value in improved health from covering the uninsured in the range of $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion.
These estimates of economic and social benefits, i.e., the value of better health, including the higher wages and productivity that the newly insured would experience
if fully insured, exceed the incremental cost of expanding coverage by a ratio of about 3:1. The many other benefits that would come from universal coverage are difficult to quantify. They include reduced financial uncertainty and depletion of assets such as bankruptcy; improved workplace productivity and higher tax payments; improvement in the quality and availability of personal health services, particularly emergency room care; reduced pressure on the public health system; and lower costs of other public programs such as Medicare and state and federal disability programs.
So there's a significant upfront investment, with a big monetary and moral payoff in the future -- i.e. healthier people create more economic value, and it's just the right thing to do.
Is the Governor willing to make this big step, or is he too timid? I know how I'm betting... More on this later.