Monday, April 30, 2012

The Life of the Number-Crunching Analyst, Visualized in 18 Figures

So, I am mostly better, but I'm still trying to catch up on being sick last week. But, I came across a very entertaining bunch of visualizations from the same source as the very popular economist Valentine's Day cards I posted in February and wanted to share them with you.

From, via Freakonomics, I give you "The Life of the Number Crunching Analyst, Visualized" - and as a number-crunching analyst myself, I can vouch for the veracity of these visualizations:

The Learning Curve

The Motto

The Lifestyle

The Job Description Generator

The "Balance"

The Mindset

The Brief Respite

The Roadblocks

The Work

The Bonds Created by Time of Day in Office

The Evolution of Relationships with Other Employees

The Jargon

The Overlap of Programs (This is Supposed to be a Venn Diagram)

The Data

The Marry/Date/Kill Game, Microsoft Office Edition

The Heart Attack

The Two Week Extension

The Entire Process

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Banks v. Credit Unions, Visualized - Is It Time to Make the Switch?

I continue to be sick (this virus I have is being irritatingly persistent), so I'm reserving most of my higher-order brain functions for getting my actual work done. But, I did come across this interesting infographic, via Daily Infographic, that spells out many of the key differences (and benefits/drawbacks) between banks and credit unions, so I thought I'd throw up a quick post.

[Disclaimer: I am a member of a couple of credit unions myself, though I also remain a customer of a couple big banks and a couple of smaller banks. So, I've yet to make the big switch permanently. Would anyone who has like to share his/her experiences in the comments?]

What I found most interesting is that credit unions tend to charge lower interest rates for loans (and pay slightly higher interest rates on deposits) than big banks, except for mortgages - though the requirements for getting a mortgage from a credit union are often lower than from a bank. Check out the rest of the differences for yourself:

Click on the above infographic for the HUGE version.

Monday, April 23, 2012

4-Year-Old Gets Terrorized by the TSA Because She Hugged Her Grandma

I'm sick (again - what the hell ...), so posting will be light until I'm well. But, I came across this story, which is so horrible that it made my blood boil, so I wanted to throw up a quick post.

Here's the key part of the story, from a Facebook post, via Consumerist:
My two young children, aged four and six, were particularly excited their Grandmother was catching the same flight out of Wichita. Since she lives in California, and we live in Montana, they've never had a chance to fly with her. Tired and eager to return home, we began passing through security. My children and I went through without an incident. My Mother, however, had triggered the alarm. She was asked to go through the scanners again, and when the source of the alarm could not be identified she was told to sit aside and await a pat-down. All of this was perfectly routine.

When my Four-year-old daughter noticed her Grandmother, she excitedly ran over to give her a hug, as children often do. They made very brief contact, no longer than a few seconds. The Transportation Security Officers(TSO) who were present responded to this very simple action in the worst way imaginable.

First, a TSO began yelling at my child, and demanded she too must sit down and await a full body pat-down. I was prevented from coming any closer, explaining the situation to her, or consoling her in any way. My daughter, who was dressed in tight leggings, a short sleeve shirt and mary jane shoes, had no pockets, no jacket and nothing in her hands. The TSO refused to let my daughter pass through the scanners once more, to see if she too would set off the alarm. It was implied, several times, that my Mother, in their brief two-second embrace, had passed a handgun to my daughter.

My child, who was obviously terrified, had no idea what was going on, and the TSOs involved still made no attempt to explain it to her. When they spoke to her, it was devoid of any sort of compassion, kindness or respect. They told her she had to come to them, alone, and spread her arms and legs. She screamed, “No! I don't want to!” then did what any frightened young child might, she ran the opposite direction.

That is when a TSO told me they would shut down the entire airport, cancel all flights, if my daughter was not restrained. It was then they declared my daughter a “high-security-threat”.
That's right - you hugged your grandmother, little girl? You must be a terrorist. That's obviously the most likely explanation, TSA agents.

Amazingly enough, they eventually managed to make their flight, though they had to endure even more harassment from the TSA.

But all of the above isn't even the most ridiculous part of the story - after all, there are tens of thousands of TSA agents, and with so many employees, some of them are bound to do stupid things from time to time. No, the most ridiculous part of the story is that the TSA said, in response to this incident, that the agents did everything according to "proper current screening procedures":
TSA has recently implemented modified screening procedures of children 12 and under that further reduce — though not eliminate — the need for a physical pat-down for children. In this case, however, the child had completed screening but had contact with another member of her family who had not completed the screening process. TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper current screening procedures in conducting a modified pat-down on the child.
Dear TSA:

We hate you.

The American public hates you.

This story is one reason why. I've also posted previous posts - one infographic and one personal story - explaining in greater detail why we hate you. You are so ludicrously disconnected from the actual security threats facing the flying public and from the desires of the public you purport to protect that I fear your idiotic procedures, inhuman "agents," and radiation nude-o-scopes far more than I fear an actual attack on a plane I'm flying in - because there is an absolutely miniscule probability that I will fall victim to a terrorist attack, but there is a 100% chance that I will fall victim to the TSA every time I fly.

You can't protect the public when the public hates you. I don't view the TSA as an agency trying to protect me that I want to cooperate with; I view it as a threat to my person and property. I'm not going to cooperate more with you than the absolute minimum required by law, and I'm guessing most people agree with me - and this decreases our collective safety. You've made us hate you, and this decreases our collective safety.

The TSA is so obviously and completely broken that it should simply be scrapped. I don't know whether the solution is a new government agency or to re-privatize airport security, but the current system as implemented by the TSA is beyond ridiculous - a system in which 100% of flyers, 99.999999999% of which are utterly innocent, are harassed, abused, and/or irradiated by an unaccountable government entity in the name of useless security theater. Furthermore, when thinking about how to spend government dollars, is it a better idea to spend an extra dollar on childhood education, research, or bridges, or on paying the TSA to troll Tennessee highways for non-existent threats?

End the TSA. If you work for the TSA, quit. Don't apply for TSA jobs. Don't fly, if you can avoid it. Enough is enough.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The New Hungarian Secret Police(s), Or, Why I Continue to Boycott Hungary

Hungary's right-wing prime minister has gotten himself his own little private army.
How nice for him. Source.

For the most part, not much continues to happen in the world (at least, not much that inspires me to blog), but this did catch my attention, as it is a rather startling follow-up to my previous post about how Hungary is turning into a right-wing paradise by destroying the independence of the judicial branch of government, silencing dissenting voices in the media, and enshrining conservative Christian ideology as state policy in the constitution.

Apparently eager to prove that he really can establish a police state in the heart of democratic Europe, Viktor Orban, Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister, has established his own little private army / police force, accountable to no one except Orban. Kim Lane Scheppele (via Paul Krugman) tells the story:
TEK was created in September 2010 by a governmental decree, shortly after the Fidesz government took office. TEK exists outside the normal command structure of both the police and the security agencies. The Prime Minister directly names (and can fire) its head and only the interior minister stands between him and the direct command of the force. It is well known that the head of this force is a very close confidante of the Prime Minister.
TEK was set up as an anti-terror police unit within the interior ministry and given a budget of 10 billion forints (about $44 million) in a time of austerity. Since then, it has grown to nearly 900 employees in a country of 10.5 million people that is only as big as Indiana.
Why was TEK necessary? When it was created, the government said that it needed TEK because Hungary would hold the rotating presidency of the European Union starting in January 2011. During the six months it held this office, Hungary could be expected to host many important meetings for which top anti-terrorism security would be necessary. But even though Hungary’s stint in the EU chair is over, TEK has continued to grow.
Eyebrows were raised when János Hajdu, Orbán’s personal bodyguard, was appointed directly by the prime minister to be the first head of this new agency. Since TEK’s job also included guarding the prime minister, some believed that Orbán had set up the office to get his trusted bodyguard onto the public payroll. Patronage turns out to be the least of the worries about TEK, however.
TEK is now the sort of secret police that any authoritarian ruler would love to have. Its powers have been added slowly but surely through a series of amendments to the police laws, pushed through the Parliament at times when it was passing hundreds of new laws and when most people, myself included, did not notice. The new powers of TEK have received virtually no public discussion in Hungary. But now, its powers are huge.
What can the TEK do?
TEK can engage in secret surveillance without having to give reasons or having to get permission from anyone outside the cabinet. In an amendment to the police law passed in December 2010, TEK was made an official police agency and was given this jurisdiction to spy on anyone. TEK now has the legal power to secretly enter and search homes, engage in secret wiretapping, make audio and video recordings of people without their knowledge, secretly search mail and packages, and surreptitiously confiscate electronic data (for example, the content of computers and email). The searches never have to be disclosed to the person who is the target of the search – or to anyone else for that matter. In fact, as national security information, it may not be disclosed to anyone. There are no legal limits on how long this data can be kept.
Ordinary police in Hungary are allowed to enter homes or wiretap phones only after getting a warrant from a judge. But TEK agents don’t have to go to a judge for permission to spy on someone – they only need the approval of the justice minister to carry out such activities. As a result, requests for secret surveillance are never reviewed by an independent branch of government. The justice minister approves the requests made by a secret police unit operated by the interior minister. Since both are in the same cabinet of the same government, they are both on the same political team.
Fan-f*@king-tastic. Way to go, Hungary.

Just how bad might these guys be? Well, this is a video produced and distributed by the TEK itself:

If this is the video of stuff that the TEK wants you to see, how repressive are the activities that they don't want recorded for posterity?

As if that's not enough, Hungary's parliament is trying to one-up Orban, passing a law just this week to create their own paramilitary, a Parlia-military, if you will:
As if the powers of TEK are not enough, though, Parliament yesterday authorized another security service with the power to use police measures against citizens and residents of Hungary. The cardinal law on the Parliament itself contains a provision that gives the Parliament its own military, a Parlia-military.
The Parlia-military is an armed police unit outside the chain of command of the regular military or police structures. Its commander in chief is the speaker of the house, László Kövér, who served as minister without portfolio for the Civilian Intelligence Services during the first Orbán government from 1998-2002. The Parlia-military has the power to guard the Parliament and the speaker of the house, as might be expected. But if the Parlia-military is only supposed to guard the Parliament and the speaker, why does it need the powers that the cardinal law gives it?
The law gives the Parlia-military power “to enter and to act in private homes.” That’s literally what the law says. It is unlikely that the Parliament will want to conduct a plenary session in someone’s living room, so one must then wonder just what the Parliament will do if its armed military enters someone’s home to “act.” In addition to this power, the Parlia-military may also make public audio and video recordings of people. It can also search cars, luggage and clothing. It can use handcuffs and chemical substances (which I assume means tear gas and nothing more, but the wording make it sound like the Parlia-military may use chemical weapons!). The draft law seems to imply that the Parlia-military would have to operate under the constraints of the police law, which would mean that it would need judicial warrants to conduct these intrusive measures. But that is not completely clear. What is clear is that Hungary now suffers from a proliferation of police that are under direct political control.

So, Hungary continues it's slow slide into right-wing paradise-dom, and things just continue to get worse and worse for anyone living in the country who isn't good personal friends with Viktor Orban.

And that, my friends, is why I refuse to go back to the little country in central Europe with the funny language that holds such a special place in my heart. As I've said before, I am greatly saddened to see Hungarian democracy deteriorating in this way. Until things change, I probably won't even visit Hungary, let alone toy with the idea of moving back there. As a foreigner, I would never subject myself to the whims of the kind of semi-lawless and anti-democratic regime currently in power in Hungary. I wish the Hungarian people the best, and I hope they find the power to undo these changes peacefully, if the majority does not want Hungary to go down this dark path.

(Offhand comment: my previous post on Hungary drew such persistent right-wing trolling [from a Hungarian, I'm pretty sure] that I had to shut off comments for that particular post. We'll hope something similar doesn't happen with this post.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The AT&T/Verizon Duopoly and How It Hurts You, Visualized

Sorry for the slow posting this week - there hasn't been much in the news that I've found terribly interesting, but I'll try to pick up the pace soon, when interesting things start happening again.

For today, however, I did come across this interesting infographic about how the AT&T/Verizon duopoly hurts almost every consumer in America (I'm reminded of how local monopoly rights make me pay more for my Internet service than I should). For all of America's bluster about competition, we really don't do much to promote competition in the telecommunications sector:

Via the Simple Dollar.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Whom Does Your Wallet Say You Should Vote For? This Website Tells You!

Though this extremely fun tool has been online a couple of months, I only came across it this week. If you put your basic demographic information into this website (annual income by source, age, ZIP code, tax filing status, number of children, and whether any of your children go to college), it will spit out the exact dollar amount increase or decrease you would see in your personal income and in the services that you receive from the federal government resulting from the implementation of the policies proposed by each of the different Presidential candidates (Obama, Romney, Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum, though I don't know how much longer Santorum will stay on the site, since he's out of the race now).

Here are the top two results from a household earning the median income for households in the US (as of 2010):

Click here to be taken to the tool to run your own numbers.

The tool sorts the results by the candidates that are best on your wallet - meaning that Gingrich's, Paul's, and Santorum's policies are, from an economic perspective, even worse for the median household than Romney's. It's interesting to see that the median household would receive greater tax benefits under Obama than under any other candidate. The tool also shows how a candidate's policies would affect revenues to the government.

(Spoiler alert - unless you are at the high end of the income distribution, Obama usually does the best for you, by at least $10,000/year. Also, all of the Republicans' proposals would drastically reduce revenue to the government, either causing massive deficits or requiring massive cuts to all aspects of government.)

The website authors also seem to be refining the tool as new policies are proposed or new data becomes available - in the past few days, the numbers I get from the tool have been changing as new data have been fed into the tool. I'll hope that the authors continue to update the tool through election day.

This tool severely personalizes the outcomes of each of the candidates' policies and makes it abundantly clear whether you are voting with or against your own economic interests. I doubt this website will have a big effect on the general election, but it's a fun exercise in personalizing the economics of politics and the outcomes of elections, and I thank the website authors and wish them all the best.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Our Crappy Supreme Court, Last Day - Can We Do Anything About It?

Seriously, Supreme Court, what do we have to do to ensure that you no longer hand down
amazingly, jaw-droppingly bad decisions like these?

We've come to the last day of my miniseries on the Supreme Court. In my previous posts this week, we've seen specific examples of recent, bad Supreme Court decisions made along 5-4 party-line, partisan votes.

When I review the trajectory of the Supreme Court over the past dozen years, I see a very troubling pattern emerging. I see the Supreme Court's 5 conservative justices making political decisions that are best left to the people's representatives in Congress, which could then be overturned by later Congresses if the people's democratic representatives deem it wise and prudent. I also see a pattern of the Supreme Court siding with the powerful against the powerless, and unfortunately, I see both of these trends continuing for the foreseeable future. For example, when the cases about Republican states trying to suppress Democratic voter turnout through repressive laws that are justified by totally bogus allegations of voter fraud reach the Supreme Court, I fully expect the 5 conservative justices to uphold the new repressive laws, siding with powerful and partisan interests in Republican states, rather than supporting the rights of the powerless - minorities, students, low-income voters, and the elderly - in the face of voter suppression by the powerful and partisan.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's record shows that it's not exactly a beacon of hope and justice for those suffering injustice at the hands of the powerful.

At its best, the Supreme Court is slightly ahead of the times when it comes to advancing the human condition in the United States - a good example was its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed segregation in all US classrooms. Of course, there was already a substantial anti-segregation movement by the time the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and segregation was already outlawed in many Northern states. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court gave constitutional legitimacy to the deployment of the National Guard in some Southern states that refused to desegregate otherwise - but it was the National Guard (or the threat of the National Guard) that finally forced desegregation in these areas, not the Supreme Court. So, that's nice and all, when the Supreme Court is slightly ahead of the times, but it's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the usefulness of the institution in American democracy.

At its worse, the Supreme Court is a primary source of sustained resistance against righting social ills - and unfortunately, throughout its history, the Court seems to have more often been a barrier to social progress than a promoter of it. In a surprisingly thoughtful article about whether we should start impeaching Supreme Court justices (which was only tried once, by Thomas Jefferson, who failed), David Dow gives an example that is far too representative of the Court's role in the US's government:
The problem with the current court is not merely that there is a good chance it will strike down a clearly constitutional law. The problem is that this decision would be the latest salvo in what seems to be a sustained effort on the part of the Roberts Court to return the country to the Gilded Age.

During that period—which ran from the years after of the Civil War to the start of the 20th century—wealth became highly concentrated and corporations came to dominate American business.

At the close of the Gilded Age, the U.S. infant mortality rate was around 10 percent—a number you find today in impoverished Central African nations. In some cities, it exceeded 30 percent. Women could not vote, and their lives were controlled by men. Blacks lived apart from whites and constituted an economic, social, and political underclass. Corporations exerted an unchecked and deleterious influence on the lives of workers.

All these ills were ultimately addressed by the federal government, but the strongest and most sustained resistance to fixing them came from the court.
As I noted on Day 3 of this posting miniseries, one of the more terrible Supreme Court decisions was made during the Gilded Age - the decision in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) to overturn a federal ban on child labor and to nullify a federal minimum wage.

Even though the Supreme Court is a storied institution, its actual history demonstrates that it has upheld the social ills plaguing the USA as often (or even more often) than it has fought against them. The current Supreme Court once again seems to be engaging in partisan political quackery and in expanding the power of the already powerful at the expense of the powerless - all the while using the Constitution as a cover, when the reality is that the Founding Fathers could have never imagined the world that we live in today. Therefore, the Court should be more conservative in deciding which cases to take, as the political desires of the people of the USA should probably carry more weight in the conduct of the country than trying to use the Constitution as some kind of divination pool that the justices use to project their own (biased) understanding of the Founders' intentions on the modern world.

I will admit that I don't know what to do to improve the situation, however. The Supreme Court has done and can continue to do much damage to civil liberties, the social fabric, social progress, and individual and collective rights, but it's difficult to imagine a democratic system without an institution like the Supreme Court. At least one constitutional scholar argues that the USA has not been served particularly well by judicial review, finding it difficult to point to many cases when judicial review has actually benefited the country.

While pondering this post, I came up with a few different possibilities as to how we might change the current suboptimal situation, though I don't think any of them are particularly good - nor am I sure that any of them would be better than the system we have now. But, I'll still put some ideas out there, as I don't think that the current system is optimal or sustainable, since it is obvious that it can be gamed relatively easily for the political benefit of a particular faction.

Here are my possible changes to the Supreme Court, ranging from the simpler / easier to the more difficult / outlandish:
  • Establish term limits for Supreme Court judges. This would ensure that the justices turn over more often, meaning that the Court would be slightly faster to respond to changing morals and views among the people. However, this would also make the Supreme Court's preferences more closely match those of the current President, for better and for worse.
  • Declare that, in order to overturn a law passed by Congress or overturn established precedent, some kind of super-majority would be required. I don't know what the super-majority threshold would be - it could be 6-3, 7-2, 8-1, or even require a unanimous decision - but I do know that it's bad for our democracy that so many important decisions are being made by 5-4 decisions along party lines in the Supreme Court. But, this would have all kinds of problems - who/what decides when a case requires a super-majority? What do you do about cases like Florence's, when there's an individual involved who must receive a yes-no answer, if the vote is 5-4?
  • Expand the number of judges to dilute the importance of any particular judge - but that might not solve anything. Just ask FDR.
  • Make impeaching Supreme Court judges easier / more politically acceptable. This, however, might have the perverse effect of making justices MORE partisan, not less, especially if one party came to dominate the legislature to such an extent as to be able to bring impeachment proceedings without any input from the other party. I'm thinking of the Republican impeachment of Clinton in 1998, or the calls by many Republicans to impeach Obama for no reason whatsoever.
  • Eliminate the Supreme Court's ability to pass judgment on federal laws at all, essentially making the Supreme Court subordinate to Congress. The Supreme Court would have final decision-making powers on cases brought against state laws, but Congressional laws couldn't be challenged (or, perhaps could only be challenged at the President's request) - Congressional laws could only be overturned by later Congresses.
  • Eliminate the Supreme Court entirely and replace it with a series of district Supreme Courts that have jurisdiction over only a limited number of states, not the entire country. That way, people in the Northeast could have liberal interpretations of laws to match their preferences, and people the Southeast could have conservative interpretations of laws to match their preferences. People could move to a district where the interpretation of the laws matched their personal preferences and would have to be informed of the differences in laws between the districts (e.g. "it is illegal to carry a concealed handgun in the Northeast" or "You may be shot if someone feels threatened by you in the Southeast") to facilitate travel. This would probably lead to the balkanization of the US.
Of all the ideas I came up with, only the first two are probably feasible/reasonable, though they come fraught with considerable problems of their own, both constitutional and logistical.

Anyone else out there have any brilliant ideas as to how to fix our crappy, antiquated Supreme Court? I think it's obvious that something has to be done, but I'll admit that I'm rather at a loss as to what that might be.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Our Crappy Supreme Court, Day 4 - Strip-Search Anyone at Any Time Edition

Get ready to bend over and spread 'em, everybody! (Source.)

Today, we come to perhaps the most ridiculous recent case decided by the Supreme Court - a ruling handed down by the Court just a few days ago. This is actually the case that inspired me to write this miniseries of posts on the Supreme Court. I definitely support the ACA, but it's this case that really made my blood boil and got me to thinking about how the Supreme Court has begun to endanger American democracy rather than protect it.

The case in question:

Florence v. County of Burlington (2012)

In deciding this case just a few days ago (again by a 5-4 party-line vote), the Supreme Court declared that officials may strip-search individuals who have been arrested for any crime before admitting the individuals to jail, even if there is no reason to suspect that the individual is carrying contraband. The 5 conservative justices stopped short of allowing the police to anal probe anyone and everyone, but anyone and everyone could be made to strip naked, bend over, and spread their butt cheeks wide in front of several police officers.

See NPR's coverage for a summary of the case. Here's a summary of each side's arguments:
Upon entering the jail [after being wrongly detained], [Albert Florence] was ordered to take a delousing shower, then inspected by a guard who was about "an arm's distance" away and instructed Florence to squat, cough and lift up his genitals. [Note: Florence was actually forced to do this twice - a second time when he was transferred to a different jail, in case he'd somehow managed to hide contraband under his testicles while at the first jail.]
Florence subsequently sued, contending that automatically strip-searching a person who is arrested for a minor offense violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches.
But on Monday, the Supreme Court disagreed by a 5-4 vote. Writing for the court's conservative wing, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that jails are "often crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous places," and that, therefore, the courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials in order to prevent new inmates from putting lives at risk with weapons or contraband that they may "carry in on their bodies."
The dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, argued that when a detainee is brought in on a minor charge that involves neither violence nor drugs, correctional officials should have to cite some reason to justify a strip search, as opposed to a less invasive screening with a metal detector or even an inspection of a detainee in his or her underwear. There are some 700,000 arrests for such minor offenses each year, and most of those arrested are brought before a judge and released pending resolution of their case. But an undetermined number have found themselves behind bars because there is no judge on duty, because of a bureaucratic snafu, or an error — as in this case.
Breyer noted that people have been detained and strip-searched for offenses as minor as driving with an inoperable headlight, having outstanding parking tickets, violating a dog leash law, and riding a bike without an audible bell. None of these people could have anticipated being arrested, he said, and none would likely have hidden weapons inside their body cavities.
But Kennedy said that given the number of total arrests each year — 13 million — it would be unworkable for correctional officials to exempt one class of prisoner from strip searches. Indeed, he added, even people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be "the most devious and dangerous criminals."
Or, you can watch the Daily Show's interview with Florence's lawyer to get the back story, if you prefer:

It's hard to see how 5 supposedly intelligent people came to the conclusion that allowing the police to strip-search anyone who's been arrested for any reason doesn't violate the 4th Amendment, which in theory (if not in practice anymore, it seems) protects persons in the USA from unreasonable searches.

But, thanks to this case (and to the conservative justices' fear of anyone and everyone), you can now be strip-searched any time you are arrested, purely on the whim of the police officer. As the NPR story notes, people have already been arrested and strip-searched for such horrifically-threatening-to-society offenses like:
  • driving with a broken headlight,
  • having outstanding parking tickets,
  • violating a dog leash law, and
  • riding a bike without an audible bell.
In practice, this ruling is actually a license for the police to strip-search anyone they want at almost any time, because it's almost impossible to live in the modern U.S. without violating some law that can get you arrested somewhere. In addition to the above offenses (better hope your car's lights don't go out without you noticing!), here are more things that can get you arrested (and now strip-searched) in the good ole US of A:
  • protesting somewhere that a cop doesn't like (even though this is often 100% legal),
  • driving without a seat belt,
  • jay-walking,
  • speeding, even 1 MPH over the posted limit,
  • failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign,
  • selling lemonade without a permit,
  • selling raw milk to a neighbor,
  • videotaping the police (even though this is 100% legal),
  • giving out water without a permit (in LA),
  • operating a train that does not have an "F" painted on the front,
  • collecting rain that falls from the sky on to your own property,
  • not recycling cat litter (in DC)
  • giving a tour of the monuments in Washington D.C. without a license,
  • defacing a milk carton (in MA),
  • selling pumpkins or Christmas trees that are grown outside city limits (in Lake Elmo, MN),
  • being "annoying" on the Internet,
  • registering with a false name on MySpace or Facebook,
  • selling girl scout cookies in the front yards of your own home (in Hazelwood, MO),
  • bringing a plastic butter knife into a school (FL),
  • holding a home Bible study without a "conditional use permit" in San Juan Capistrano, CA, and
  • making even a single dollar from a blog in Philadelphia, PA unless you buy a $300 business license.
The US has become a nation in which so many things are illegal that most people do something illegal every day, whether they know it or not. That itself is a big problem, but when combined with the now-unrestricted power of the police to strip-search anyone they arrest for any reason, the US continues to slide down the dangerous slope towards a police state. And that's not me being hyperbolic - serious constitutional scholars are whipping out the "police state" rhetoric over this blatantly bad Supreme Court decision.

So, yes, thanks to the ongoing wisdom of the current Supreme Court and its 5 conservative justices, you too can be strip-searched by the police at pretty much any time for pretty much any reason. (Begin chanting.) U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! (End chanting.) Someone should hook up some dynamos to the Founding Fathers' graves - this Court must have them spinning so fast that we can wean ourselves off burning coal for electricity.

This last case is a little different from the cases outlined in my previous posts on the Supreme Court, as this case doesn't involve what I consider to be a purely political decision - there were obviously serious constitutional rights at stake in this case as well - but I happen to agree with the other 4 justices that the 5 conservative justices are on the wrong side of the law and of history here. In this case, as with so many other cases, the 5 conservative justices on the current Supreme Court decided to side with the powerful (the police) against the powerless (a citizen wrongly arrested by the police).

Shame on them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Our Crappy Supreme Court, Day 3 - Obamacare Edition

Some of the justices need to get their information on health care economics from sources
other than insurance industry lobbyists and right-wing blogs.

Today, we continue with recent cases either decided or being looked at by the Supreme Court that have made me further lose faith in the Supreme Court as an institution that supports American democracy. This case is (likely to be) another in which the Supreme Court will make a fundamentally partisan, political decision and wrap it up in the legacy of the Supreme Court in a way that makes this partisan decisions unchallengeable by anyone - not the President, not Congress, and not even the people of the United States. And that is seriously dangerous - both for the Supreme Court as an American democratic institution, and for the soundness of American democracy itself.

The case today is one that has been in the news a lot in the past few weeks:

Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services (2012)

This is the case that was just argued in front of the Court last week and that will decide the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), derisively known among conservative circles as Obamacare.

I'll say that I think that the ACA is constitutional, and that I think it's quite straightforward to argue that it's constitutional. The mandate to buy health insurance is, economically speaking, the exact same as a tax incentive, only implemented in the reverse and framed as tax penalty instead of a tax break. If it is constitutional for the government to tax you $1,000 and then give you a tax credit of $1,000 if you do X, it is functionally the same as making you pay a penalty of $1,000 for not doing X. Alternatively, it is constitutional for the government to tax you and turn around and give you a pension and health care in the forms of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, so why would it not be constitutional to forgo the runaround and charge a penalty for not having insurance directly?

If you say the ACA is unconstitutional, I don't see how you can defend the constitutionality of ANY tax incentive - and it seems to me that declaring all tax incentives unconstitutional would provoke a serious constitutional crisis in this country.

But, we'll see what the Supreme Court decides to do - this is a serious turning point for Chief Justice Roberts, as it will proclaim "whether he views himself as a member of a political coalition that is in power to impose its will on its country, or if he’s at least somebody that can rise above partisan politics." Personally, I don't have a lot of hope that Roberts will rise above partisan politics. Unfortunately, Roberts is in a unique position to impose his partisan views on the rest of the country, even though he's in a job that should shy away from political decisions.

Again, I would argue that whether the USA wants the ACA is a fundamentally political decision - Congress's ability to tax and provide tax incentives is long-established, and different Congresses may have different ideas about how best to go about doing that. But, the fundamental ability of Congress to tax and provide tax incentives is obvious, I would think - so I don't see what role the Supreme Court has to play in this fundamentally political decision. If Americans don't like this law, they can elect politicians who promise to repeal the ACA - I don't really see what the Court should have to say on this issue.

Aside from being another case that will likely (and unfortunately) be decided along purely partisan lines, the case about the ACA has demonstrated the extent to which the Supreme Court is too ignorant of the issues at hand to be able to deliberate intelligently about them. Unfortunately, ignorance about important topics is not limited to Congress - who are gleefully ignorant of how the Internet works yet still pass laws that govern the Internet, which is not OK. Similarly, it's obvious that many of the Supreme Court justices are too ignorant about health care to rule intelligently on a case about health care.

During oral arguments, it was obvious that some of the Supreme Court justices do not have even a basic understanding of the economics of health care, which in an ideal world would probably disqualify them from rendering a judgment on a case which is in large part about the economics of health care. Several different economists noted this obvious (or even willful) lack of understanding (particularly among the conservative justices) - I'll let Paul Krugman summarize:
Given the stakes, one might have expected all the court’s members to be very careful in speaking about both health care realities and legal precedents. In reality, however, the second day of hearings suggested that the justices most hostile to the law don’t understand, or choose not to understand, how insurance works. And the third day was, in a way, even worse, as antireform justices appeared to embrace any argument, no matter how flimsy, that they could use to kill reform.
Let’s start with the already famous exchange in which Justice Antonin Scalia compared the purchase of health insurance to the purchase of broccoli, with the implication that if the government can compel you to do the former, it can also compel you to do the latter. That comparison horrified health care experts all across America because health insurance is nothing like broccoli.
Why? When people choose not to buy broccoli, they don’t make broccoli unavailable to those who want it. But when people don’t buy health insurance until they get sick — which is what happens in the absence of a mandate — the resulting worsening of the risk pool makes insurance more expensive, and often unaffordable, for those who remain. As a result, unregulated health insurance basically doesn’t work, and never has.
There are at least two ways to address this reality — which is, by the way, very much an issue involving interstate commerce, and hence a valid federal concern. One is to tax everyone — healthy and sick alike — and use the money raised to provide health coverage. That’s what Medicare and Medicaid do. The other is to require that everyone buy insurance, while aiding those for whom this is a financial hardship.
And as I outlined earlier in the post, I don't see how there is a legal difference between the two approaches - there's certainly no economic difference.

So, the case about the ACA demonstrates both 1) that the Supreme Court butting into what is essentially a political question, not a legal one, and 2) that the justices are too ignorant (at least on some topics) to render an intelligent judgment. Scalia in particular seems to take some of his legal briefings from right-wing blogs. He even pulled out the old one-liner about the bill being 2,700 pages long - "You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?" he asked, adding: "Is this not totally unrealistic?"

Yes, Mr. Justice, we actually do expect you to go through the whole law before deciding its merits - you are a Supreme Court Justice, for Pete's sake!

[Another interesting historical side note - the last time the Supreme Court stepped in to overturn an economic law passed by Congress, it nullified a federal law outlawing child labor and establishing a minimum wage, citing reasons very similar to those posited by Scalia during oral arguments. I wager that, if the Supreme Court does the same here, history will look back on this case with about the same amount of sympathy.]

Of course, this case isn't decided yet - it's possible that Kennedy will come down on the right side of history in this case, but I'm not holding my breath. If the Supreme Court overturns the individual mandate or the ACA, it will be yet another example of a partisan Court making partisan political decisions that should be left in the hands of the political process rather than the judicial process.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Our Crappy Supreme Court, Day 2 - Unlimited Corporate Money in Politics Edition

In yesterday's post, I gave the backstory as to why I initially started to doubt the usefulness of the Supreme Court in upholding American democracy, and I gave the punchline to this entire series of posts on the Supreme Court: the current Supreme Court routinely makes fundamentally partisan, political decisions and wraps them up in the legacy of the Supreme Court in a way that makes these partisan decisions unchallengeable by anyone - not the President, not Congress, and not even the people of the United States. And that is seriously dangerous - both for the Supreme Court as an American democratic institution, and for the soundness of American democracy itself.

In my next few posts, I'll discuss very recent cases from the Supreme Court's docket that have only made me more skeptical - and in many ways, these more recent cases have eroded my faith and confidence in the Supreme Court far more than the one-off decision in Bush v. Gore.

Today's case:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

This case rather famously overturned a century of judicial precedent limiting the influence of corporate money in politics, declaring that the government cannot restrict political expenditures by corporations.

As demonstrated by this case, this Supreme Court has essentially decided to give all of the benefits (unfettered free speech [in the form of money], strong property rights, etc.) of personhood to corporations, even though corporations don't face any of the drawbacks of personhood (mortality, the ability to be jailed, etc.).

However, the Founding Fathers probably could not have envisioned corporations as they currently exist - there's no reason to think that they had crystal balls and could see so perspicaciously into the future. Therefore, although I know many people would disagree with me, I don't think the Constitution has a lot to say of the matter of corporate personhood.

Rather, I think that corporate personhood (and the concomitant range of rights we, the people, want to extend to corporations) is a fundamentally political question and should be resolved through a political process, most likely through laws passed by Congress and signed by the President, which later Congresses and Presidents can change if they see fit. I have a hard time seeing the justification for letting the judicial branch of government have the final say over this particular matter, after which no one else gets any more input, unless a later Court decides to reverse this decision.

Instead, it seems quite obvious to me that the rights that we, the people, want to extent to corporations is obviously a political question, not a question involving rights - because corporations have no rights, other than the rights bestowed upon them by the laws passed by Congress. Congress passed laws allowing corporations to exist in the first place, and Congress should have the power to decide which rights corporations enjoy, including rights to which speech and in which contexts.

This Supreme Court decided to side with the powerful and rich against the rest of the citizenry, unleashing huge floods of unlimited corporate money to further twist the American political discourse, lie to voters, and consolidate power.

Through this action, the Supreme Court has deeply damaged American democracy - when the Court should instead seek to protect it. And now, there's nothing we can do about it, except try to pass a constitutional amendment - which will never happen, in this polarized political environment.

Has the Supreme Court Outlived Its Usefulness? It May Be Time for Reform

It may be time to rethink this storied (or crusty, depending on your
perspective) institution's place in U.S. democratic system.

I will be the first to admit that, for partisan reasons, I have been highly skeptical of the United States Supreme Court ever since it handed George W. Bush the Presidency in Bush v. Gore. I am not alone in thinking that the Supreme Court decided the outcome of the case on partisan grounds, in a 5-4 partisan vote (with the 5 conservative justices voting to give the victory to Bush and the 4 liberal justices dissenting), rather than by a process of thoughtful jurisprudence. I think Justice Scalia demonstrated the brazen partisan nature of the ruling when he stated:
It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the Court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success. The issue is not, as the dissent puts it, whether "[c]ounting every legally cast vote ca[n] constitute irreparable harm." One of the principal issues in the appeal we have accepted is precisely whether the votes that have been ordered to be counted are, under a reasonable interpretation of Florida law, "legally cast vote[s]." The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner Bush, and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election. Count first, and rule upon legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires.
 This statement is remarkable on several levels:
  • It means that this decision can never be cited as precedent; the Supreme Court itself admitted that this was a one-off decision.
  • The Court didn't base its decision on the merits of the case, but rather on the majority's intuition as to who would win.
  • The Court admitted that they might be throwing out a bunch of legally cast votes (they simply didn't know and didn't investigate the matter further).
  • In spite of all these unknowns, the conservative justices gave the Presidency to Bush, because they could and because they thought he should/would win.
My favorite sentence from the above quote: "The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner Bush" - well, yes, Justice Scalia, it would, since establishing the votes as legally cast might prove that Bush lost the election, which would cause Bush harm - but isn't that the point of counting votes, to find out who won?

But, most of that is water under the bridge now - Bush was President and is no longer, and even though he might have done irreparable harm to the U.S. (I think it will be a while before we know for sure), we've all moved on and tried to adjust to our current circumstances.

However, my skepticism of the usefulness of the Supreme Court in its current form has only continued to grow in the past dozen years. It doesn't help that the current Supreme Court is probably the most conservative Supreme Court in modern history, but that's not my primary complaint.

No, my primary beef with the current Supreme Court is that it continues to make fundamentally partisan, political decisions and wrap them up in the legacy of the Supreme Court in a way that makes these partisan decisions unchallengeable by anyone - not the President, not Congress, and not even the people of the United States. And that is seriously dangerous - both for the Supreme Court as an American democratic institution, and for the soundness of American democracy itself.

So, that's the background to my current skepticism of the usefulness and viability of the Supreme Court. I'll get to the current cases that actually sparked this series of posts on the Supreme Court tomorrow.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Only One Person Has Any Control Over What You Pay for Gas - YOU

Sticker shock at the pump? Only YOU
have the power to change that.

In case you've been living under a rock, know that gas prices in the US have been on a steady rise the past few months, and gas prices have just about doubled from the lows in prices we saw during the depths of the last recession.

I've pointed out before on this blog that people in general (and Americans in particular) have a bizarre, irrational relationship with gas prices - people tend to flip out when gas prices increase, and they flip out disproportionately to the effect that rising gas prices actually have on a given family's budget, since the average American family spends less than 5% of their annual income on gas.

Nowadays, gas prices are rising again, and people (and the media) are once again in full-on flip-out mode. Unfortunately, the flipping out is probably only going to get more intense in the next few months, since gas prices are likely to continue to rise, on account of the switch to the summer gas blend and the improving U.S. and world economy.

I pointed to early flip-out signs last month, noting how FOX News had moderately intelligent coverage of the dynamics behind gas prices in 2008 (when Bush was President) but how FOX News now seems to think that President Obama has the ability to set gas prices at will.

Well, things have only gotten worse since then, with none other than serial liar Mitt Romney - a man who was smart enough to know better in 2006 but is now pandering to the most ignorant and paranoid wing of the Republican party - claiming that the current high gas prices are the product of a nefarious Obama Administration plot. It would be funny, if this man weren't going to be the Republican nominee for President. And the Republican disinformation machine is working - the public doesn't know who to blame for high gas prices - but 85% of Americans want Congress and/or the President to take immediate actions to control the rising price of gas.

Well, I have bad news, 85% of Americans - neither Congress nor the President can exert any meaningful control over the price of gas. The only person who has any control over what you pay for gas is you.

Richard Thaler, a renowned economist, has a simple yet thorough explanation of why the President has no control over gas prices. Most obviously, the price of gas is set by the price of oil:

The U.S. has to buy much of its oil on the world market, so the price of oil in the U.S. is set by the world market by the laws of supply and demand:
Oil is a global market in which America is a big consumer but a small supplier. We consume about 20 percent of the world’s oil but hold only 2 percent of the oil reserves. That means we are, in economics jargon, “price takers.” Domestic production has increased during the Obama administration, but it has had minimal effects on global prices because, as producers, we are just too small to matter much. And even if domestic oil companies further increased production, they would sell to the highest global bidder.
So it doesn't matter how much more oil the U.S. produces domestically (and I'll note that domestic oil production is at its highest level in more than a decade right now), because all oil is sold on the world market. And barring any economic disasters (and cheap gas isn't worth going through another economic disaster, I hope you'd agree), gas prices are going to stay high, because of:
  • increasing demand from developing countries, especially India and China;
  • increasing difficulty in extracting oil from the ground, since we've already gotten much of the "easy" oil;
  • political instability in oil-producing countries; and
  • ongoing war-mongering in the Middle East (especially against Iran).
There are other reasons, but those are the main ones.

So, what can you do? Well, you're the only one who can control what you pay for gas, and you can decrease what you pay for gas by using less of it. You'll have to make like FedEx and maximize your energy efficiency - get a more fuel efficient car, make fewer trips, switch to alternative fuel cars (like electric cars), and use alternative modes of transportation (like walking, biking, or public transit).

You're the only one who has any power to lower your gas bill - there's nothing that Congress, Obama, Romney, or Newt Gingrich can do (even though Newt's promised to somehow lower gas prices to $2.50/gallon, though I don't see how he'd manage to do that other than by crashing the world economy again).