Monday, July 16, 2012

Welcome to Nothing More Powerful

Welcome to my other blog - Nothing More Powerful. The title is a reference to the Victor Hugo quote "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come" because the general gist of this blog is just a place for me to dump many of my crazy and unexplored ideas. Unlike my other blog, this one will not focus on any theme really, except things that interest me. So there will probably be posts on college football, lesser sports, politics, government, Star Wars, star wars, space exploration, reasons why Charles Krauthammer should be punched in the face, history etc...but probably nothing on cooking, Dancing with the Stars,  Harry Potter or Romania. Posts will be infrequent, so I wouldn't check in every day unless you like disappointment. I've started with some edited posts that I original ran elsewhere and one new, original post. 


On the aftermath of the Obamacare decision

The Supreme Court recently released it's decision* on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). In the wake of the decision, which I'm not really discussing here, there has been a lot of spin that's been difficult to sort through. Here are my thoughts on what's being said and specifically what's accurate and what is not
  1. First of all, there's been a lot of discussion about whether or not the "shared responsibility payment" paid by people who can afford health insurance but choose not to buy it is a tax or a penalty. Reading the decision the answer is pretty simple. Basically it is a tax but it's not a tax because it's a penalty. OK...maybe it's not that simple. Chief Justice Roberts basically says that it's a tax in the eyes of the Constitution because "it produces at least some revenue for the Government." So any fee, penalty, tax, royalty etc... that produces some revenue is a "Constitutional tax."  But within the law, Congress called the payment a "penalty" instead of a tax. Within laws passed by Congress "tax" has a specific meaning different from a fee, penalty, etc...and, is treated differently than these others things. For example, the Anti-Injunction Act applies only to a tax. In this case, the Anti-Injunction Act does not apply because it is not a tax - as defined by Congress. That it is not a tax as defined by Congress was a unanimous decision, but that it is a tax as defined by the Constitution was only 5-4. So the confusion comes from one word -tax - being used for two different and distinct but overlapping meanings (similar to the way the word "man" can be used to refer to all people or specifically to men or to an individual male). To more clearly state what I wrote before:  Basically it is a "Constitutional tax" but it's not a "legislative tax" because it's a "legislative penalty."
  2. Some pundits have accused Obama of lying about Obamacare's status as a tax. Back in 2009, Obama, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos said pretty emphatically that it was not a tax. But then he had the Solicitor General argue that it was a tax and was thus a constitutional use of Congress' taxing power. Both of those statements are true, but they are not contradictory. Obama was arguing that it was a "constitutional tax" and not a "legislative tax," which the Supreme Court agreed with in it's entirety.  And, the Solicitor General argued that it was not a tax for the purpose of the Anti-Injunction Act, with which the Court also agreed.  So when he told George Stephanopoulos that it wasn't a tax that wasn't a lie, as long as he was talking about it legislatively.  And not only is that the more charitable position to take, it is the more logical one. Calling the penalty a tax under the Constitution's taxing power is a bit of an esoteric statement, fitting for a courtroom but not every day speech. Colloquially people don't refer to every fee or penalty as a tax. And really this isn't a tax in the classic sense, because it isn't intended to raise money. The purpose is to modify behavior by making it more expensive to live without insurance. Ideally, from the government's standpoint, no one would pay the penalty, because everyone who could afford insurance would buy it. If your goal is to have no one pay it, then it isn't meant to generate revenue and it isn't really a "tax" in the colloquial use of the word.
  3. Others, including Romney, have called Obama a liar because he promised he wouldn't raise taxes on the middle class. Politifact does call this a promise broken, but they're taking a very expansive and literal view of that promise - one that includes increased taxes on cigarettes and an increased tax on tanning services. So if you take that view, then the outcome of the Supreme Court decision calling the payment a 'tax' is irrelevant since he'd already broken it and if you take the view that Obama was only referring to income taxes on people making less than $250,000 it's also irrelevant since this isn't an income tax. He was either already a liar (or he had already broken his promise) or he isn't one now. This decision didn't transform him into a liar. It's also worth asking if breaking a promise is the same as lying. 
  4. Meanwhile, some conservatives are saying they lost the battle, but won the war. George Will called it a "substantial victory" and Charles Krauthammer celebrates that " the Commerce Clause is reined in." But I'm unclear on what behavior they think is stopped. The Obama administration wasn't arguing that the Commerce Clause gives Congress unfettered power. Neither is anyone else. Their point has always been that this was an exceptional situation because the need for healthcare is "unpredictable and involuntary." Much was made of the fact that no one could find a good precedent, beyond a gun purchase mandate from the 18th Century, for this law; and Justice Scalia went to a ridiculous example - having the government mandate the purchase of broccoli [which fails the limiting principle Verrilli gave because purchases of broccoli are never unpredictable or involuntary] - perhaps because he couldn't think of a realistic possible action that the government might take. Even then, Verilli agreed that no, the government can't make you buy brocoli. So everyone was in agreement on that. The Obama administration was saying that in general Congress can't compel you to enter a marketplace, but that health care is a unique exception, and the opposition said that health care wasn't unique, with which the Supreme Court agreed. But that isn't much of a gap between the two sides, making the decision pretty narrow. And I don't know what other laws - current, proposed or existing only as a twinkle in a young legislator's eye - George Will thinks has been stopped by this decision. I don't think there is one. 
  5. Romney's position has been harder to understand, but eventually correct. First, his spokesman said that Romney thought that it was a penalty (which is correct) but that it wasn't a tax (with which the entire Supreme Court disagrees). Romney later said that he would go with the ruling of the Supreme Court, so it was a tax (which is correct). Romney also said that in the law he signed in Massachusetts the mandate wasn't a tax, which is also probably true depending on Massachusetts law. So, it appears that Romney's final position is correct. The federal "shared responsibility payment" is technically a tax, but not in the way that most people actually use the word. It is only a tax as defined by the Constitution in a way that is mostly unused outside of Constitutional scholars. It is primarily a penalty. The Massachusetts law is also a penalty and isn't a "tax" as defined by the Constitution because the Constitution isn't relevant to state taxing. But it may be a tax under a some other definition within state law of which I am unaware.
  6. Paul Ryan, to name one person, has criticized Obama for calling the payment a "penalty" instead of a tax because had it been called a tax, it would never have passed Congress. We can't really know if that is true, but if it is, it says several things. First, it says that Congress isn't using the right criteria  when voting. If calling something a penalty instead of a tax is all it takes to change the outcome of a vote, when the substance of the bill being voted on doesn't change at all (except for how it's treated by the Anti-Injunction Act), then it would appear that Congress is too concerned with syntax. It also appears that Ryan is accusing the President of tricking Congress into voting for the law because "he says one thing to get this past Congress and then another to get it past the Supreme Court" which also doesn't speak well of Congress. Are they really so easily fooled?  The answer to all of this is likely that, yes, Congress is too concerned with syntax. But making a 99.999% trivial change to a law, like what to call a payment, that changes it from dead to passed is not hypocrisy or lying. It's good legislating and good leadership and good politics. So that may be why Ryan finds it "frustrating".
  7. When it appeared that the ACA was going to be overturned by the Supreme Court, there was much hand-wringing about how Obama, a former constitutional law professor, could have a law he championed be overturned as unconstitutional. For example, Chris Wallace asked " How damaging to the President, if in June the Court were to rule that this former Constitutional law professor/President was on the wrong side of the Constitution both on the Arizona law and on Obamacare?" And Haley Barbour said it would be "interesting" for a former constitutional law professor's "signature law" to be invalidated because it's unconstitutional. The implication being that the President should know what the outcome of the Court case will be and if he doesn't it's probably because he wasn't much of a Constitutional scholar. Even before the case was decided, I thought it was ridiculous. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court often holds an opinion that is different from the Court's majority, but no one accuses him or the other Justices of not understanding the Constitution (well, maybe Thomas). How the Court will decide a case is something of a crap shoot, so no one can really be belittled for getting it wrong. Heck, even when they're unanimous they're often overturning a decision by a lower court judge who is probably pretty well versed in the law themselves. So the whole premise is silly. But, what I haven't heard is Wallace or Barbour say "Wow, I guess the President really does understand the Constitution - better than even I do," which while unproven by the events in June, would at least be consistent with their earlier statements. 

    Thursday, July 5, 2012

    Give DC representation in tandem with other territories

    Note: This blog post originally ran several years ago on a different blog.

    The DC voting rights bill is dead, and the unique situation that made a compromise possible is evaporating. But this seemingly devastating setback may be an opportunity to pursue a real solution for a problem the Founding Fathers never foresaw: that some citizens might live in territories so small that they will never be deemed eligible for statehood. To fix this, we need a Constitutional amendment to address all territories, not just DC.

    Let's not mourn the loss of this bill too deeply. While getting representation in the House would given residents some representation in the government, it was at best a fragment of a solution that would still leave DC residents as lesser citizens. It isn't even clear the law would have withstood the constitutional challenge that was sure to follow.

    Even with House representation, DC residents would still have lacked representation in the Senate and the right to vote for or against amendments to the Constitution or vote in any contingent elections.
    Neither of the other popular solutions, statehood or retrocession to Maryland, seems remotely likely. DC is probably just too small (and too heavily Democratic) to be a state in the opinion of many Americans. Maryland is unwilling to take on DC and DC residents are not eager to suddenly become residents of Maryland. Both of these other solutions would likely require a constitutional amendment to nullify the 23rd Amendment giving the District electors in the Electoral College. Additionally, there are some who believe that both statehood and retrocession violate the District Clause of the Constitution. Finally, even if one of those solutions could make it through the vast political challenges and the legal challenges, it would still be incomplete. That's because the problem is larger than DC.

    The problem is not that DC doesn't have a House member, it's that five million American citizens don't have the voice in their government that residency in a state provides. While the District is unique when compared with other territories in which disenfranchised Americans live, it is not unique in the nature of its situation.
    DC Voting Rights activists should work with the residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) (and even American Samoa whose residents are not citizens but rather Nationals. Despite that, they do have a stake in this if they ever aspire to full citizenship) to create a lasting, flexible solution.

    We need a Territorial Representation Amendment. The amendment as I see it would read like this:

    Section 1: Congress may designate any Territory, Commonwealth or District of the United States, or a combination thereof, as a Represented Territory; or add such to an existing Represented Territory, so long as there is no more than one Represented Territory that is less populous than the least populous State at the time of its designation.

    Section 2: For purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, each Represented Territory shall be treated as though it were a State.

    Section 3: If there is at least one Represented Territory as designated under section 1, then for purposes of representation in the Senate, and election of the President and Vice President, the combination of all Represented Territories shall be treated as though it were a State.

    Section 4: For purposes of article V of this Constitution when the mode of ratification is by state legislatures, the combination of all Represented Territories shall count as one State and use a convention where each Represented Territory is represented proportionally.

    Section 5: The twenty-third article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

    Ideally this would pass with a law limiting the federal District to the land immediately surrounding the Capitol Building - those under the control of the Architect of the Capitol - thereby relieving DC citizens of the onerous District Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 17). Or perhaps it would just repeal the District Clause.  But that would not be required. 

    This amendment would enable Congress to grant all U.S. Citizens full representation without having to make tiny Guam into it's own state. And the result would have the combined benefits of upholding America's value for representative democracy, without any question of constitutionality, while being more politically palatable than the other courses of action.

    If it were ratified, the U.S. would likely end up with three Represented Territories. One for DC, one for Puerto Rico and one for all of the rest. DC would get one house member, Puerto Rico would get six, and the other territories would share one. All of these areas would vote for the same two Senators, both of whom would likely come from the larger Puerto Rico. The electoral college votes could be divided up using the Congressional District or proportional vote method.

    The amendment would be more politically viable because it comes with greater political parity and would include many new allies. In Puerto Rico, both parties are competitive. Their Governor is Republican, but their delegate is Democratic. The other territories are more mixed — the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands is heavily Republican, for example — so this would not create two de facto Senate seats for the Democratic Party, as adding DC by itself would.

    Additionally, it would result in a net loss for the District in the Electoral College, where they're over-represented anyway, making the law more appealing to strategy-minded Republicans. Parity has been a key part of adding new states and is the reason they were often admitted as pairs. Furthermore, Puerto Ricans and other islanders become natural allies to the cause and can supplement the national organization needed to ratify an amendment in 38 legislatures in seven years.

    While the idea of having two Senators who are likely from Puerto Rico might not seem appealing to DC residents, it is structurally no different than having two Senators, both of whom are from Maryland, as would happen in retrocession. And DC would still make up one eighth of the combined Representative Territories (CRT) which would make it foolish for office seekers to ignore. Furthermore, if Puerto Rico ever obtains statehood or independence, DC would find itself the largest piece of the CRT.

    The CRT would be able to ratify amendments by electing representatives to a Territorial Convention and would be able to vote as one state in the rare event that there is another Contingent Election.

    Such an amendment would not only make residents of the Nation's Capital full citizens, but it could, once and for all, correct the unseemly problem of having any citizens, in a country that prides itself on its democratic principals, who are not allowed representation — and have no reasonable chance of getting it — solely because of which part of the country they live in.

    The purchase the world plan

    Or "An attempt to achieve world domination by purchasing every other country."

    One of the biggest problems with the world is that so few of its residents are American. We have tried to remedy this situation in the past through widespread immigration. However our ability to absorb foreigners and make them American cannot keep pace with the rest of the world’s ability to make new foreigners.

    Recently it seems that our policy has changed to an attempt to kill all foreigners. This plan has many drawbacks, namely dead Americans, dead foreigners, high cost and again an inability to keep up with the production of new foreigners. Even if carried out successfully this policy will result in the death of many attractive Polish and Czech women and thus cannot be allowed.

    My alternative plan is to purchase each country in the world one by one. Move its citizens to America, split up the money we paid them for their country amongst them, allow them to assimilate, and resettle their country with native-born Americans. Rinse and repeat. We could start with the smallest country (Nauru) and work our way up to China and India. Sure it would take a long time, but not as long as killing everyone; and we get to spare those hot Eastern European women.

    Before everyone says ‘Oh the French will never sell.’ The French are businesspeople like everyone else. They recognize a good real estate deal when the see one (See: Louisiana Purchase). We just need to offer them a euro amount that makes sense.

    Note: This blog post originally ran several years ago on a different blog.

    President Boehner? Statistically unlikely.

    Note: This blog post originally ran in 2008 on a different blog.

    There are several different paths to the White House, but I was trying to determine which ones were the best and which were the worst.

     So I ran the numbers based on history to find out which jobs best position you to win the presidency. In general I shied away from "uncountable" items such as "war hero" or "nominated for President." [Which nominations do you count and which do you not?] I tried to pick from categories that had a small group to start with. Some of the results are a little surprising. And yes, I recognize that these are small sample sizes that give weird results, but that's part of the fun.

    The premise is that first you must do the item in column A. If you do that, then column B shows you what your chances are of becoming president.

    Some people were president, then did the item in column one (like come in 2nd in the Electoral College) but then never became president again. So they would count in column C but not column D.

    Hopefully this all makes sense. Al Gore, by the way, has done 4 of the top 5.

    If true, Marvin Bush has a statistically better chance of being President than Nancy Pelosi does. 

    This is all as of late October 2008.

    Top Ten Zombie Movies of all Time

    ZombiesNote: This blog post originally ran several years ago on a different blog.

    There are a lot of reasons to love zombie movies. The often complicated sub-text about how fragile civilization and civility are. The statements they make on race, consumerism and our incompetent and/or morally bankrupt governments.  The fact that in zombie movies, unlike let's say, vampire or werewolf movies, the characters have no idea what is going on. Usually no one even says the word "zombie" and there are no Scream-style other-zombie-movie references where characters draw upon their zombie knowledge to know what to do - no, they have to figure it all out by themselves. And last, but not least, is that zombie movies are freaking terrifying because - again unlike stupid vampire or werewolf movies - that stuff could really happen. Yes, the reanimated dead walking the streets feasting on our tasty flesh is one bad day away.
    So which ten movie are sure to inspire a lifelong and difficult-for-your-friends-to-understand love of the zombie genre? Here is my list.

    10. Cemetery Man (a.k.a. Dellamorte Dellamore) - This movie is significantly different from the others on the list. It's the only one that isn't a 'zombie apocalypse' movie. In fact it's a zombie romance film. It's pleasantly weird and not scary at all. It's a foreign film and it feels foreign in a good way.
    910. Resident Evil - The zombies don't show up until half way in, but what makes this movie is the mystery, trying to figure out what the heck is going on and the creepily precocious girl computer - The Red Queen. Zombie dogs, Mila Jovovich in a short skirt and the Day of the Dead homage at the end are nice touches too. The sequels continue the homages (mostly to Day of the Dead, which doesn't even make the list) but lack the good story telling.
    9. Zombieland (2009) - Not as good a comedy as Shaun of the Dead, but good. Woody Harrelson's character wasn't as funny as I expected, but the running gag of rules that pop up on the screen and the cameo are two of the brightest spots. They avoid the bunker element of most zombie movies - instead making a road movie - and that was probably a good choice. It's one of the few zombie movies that actually uses the word "zombie," even though they aren't technically undead.
    8. Night of the Living Dead (1968) - The original modern zombie film and a classic. The movie is claustrophobic and tense. It's one of the first major films to have an African-American as the hero, but it's clearly dated in its treatment of women. The ending is fantastic and the conflict among the characters is  what makes the film so watchable. The film borrows heavily from the novel I Am Legend, and, ironically, is better than the three direct attempts to adapt the novel to a movie - much to the chagrin of author Richard Matheson.
    7. Dawn of the Dead (2004) - This remake of a sequel (one of the only ones ever) is technically superior to all the others. It borrows all the best parts and puts it together into a very tight film, but there's nothing new or unique and it can feel a bit hack. But still what it lacks in freshness it makes up for in visuals and acting. Sadly the remake of Day of the Dead, which like Dawn of the Dead also features Ving Rhames but as a different character, is going straight to video.
    6. 28 Weeks Later - A good sequel, with more of the scariest zombies* of them all and without cheating too much. Though it has some silliness (why do we keep seeing Robert Carlyle and how does he get out of the holding cell where Alice is held anyway?) and lacks the easy-flowing structure of 28 Days Later it does well with the hamstrung starting point and ends in a decidedly darker place.
    5. Shaun of the Dead - The best of so very many attempts at zombie comedies (Night of the Living Dead was originally pitched as a comedy called Monster Flick). The movie has a hysterical hook about people who are zombie-like, without being zombies. It's got good lines, good site gags and good physical comedy. And it includes the excellent question "how can you put your faith in a man ...whose idea of a romantic nightspot and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing?"
    4. Return of the Living Dead - A lot of people hate this movie. They call it Zomblotation. But it was the first zombie movie I saw and it scared the bejeezus out of me. Technically a sequel to Night of the Living Dead it takes a more comedic approach. The zombies can talk (though they make for poor conversation since all they want to talk about is eating your brains ASAP), run, think and are basically unkillable making them the most formidable of all zombies. If you can choose, you want to meet Romero zombies (slow, stupid and destructible) and not Russo zombies. The ending of this one is at least as good as Night of the Living Dead. The sequels are all pretty awful though.
    3. Night of the Living Dead (1990) - One of the few remakes to be better than the original. Romero wrote the script for the remake, and in addition to better acting (Tony Todd is better than Duane Jones, I'm sorry, but it's true) and production value it benefits from a better and less pathetic heroine and a significantly better ending (when the original had a great ending to start with).
    2. Dawn of the Dead (1978) - A sequel that's better than the movie it follows (why Scream II never mentions it I'll never know). It has a brilliant premise, even if it distances itself from the previous story, and is the first true 'zombie apocalypse' movies. It makes a great statement on consumerism and the mall culture of the late 70's (making an unofficial trilogy with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Mall Rats) but it suffers from Romero's inability to write bad guys who are anything other than unrealistically evil.
    1. 28 Days Later - I know, technically these aren't zombies (see note below) but this movie is a zombie film that respects the second law of thermodynamics. It brilliantly replaces the crazy flesh-eating Russian engineered plants from the 'comfortable catastrophe' of Day of the Triffids - the book, not the movie - with remarkably non-comfortable flesh-eating infected humans. These blood-spewing non-humans are fast, incomprehensible and the most terrifying incarnation of zombies of them all - partly because they're believable and partly because of the creepy theme song. The love story is weak, but the instantaneous transformation rule and the awesome final act (after Jim is to be executed) more than make up for that. Oh and did I mention that Jim, the hero, is a bike courier?

    * Technically the creatures in the 28 ---- Later movies are not zombies but rather crazy people. But this is my list and while I've discounted the creatures in I Am Legend and Army of Darkness, I'm keeping these.