The Washington Post has a ridiculously amazing article on people who think that the “tan tax”, a provision of the health care reform bill charging a 10 percent surcharge on the use of tanning beds, constitutes racism against — yeah, that’s right — pale-skinned people (or is it pigment-challenged Americans?):
The case can seem deceptively simple: Since patrons of tanning salons are almost exclusively white, the tax will be almost entirely paid by white people and, therefore, violates their constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
But does the argument have any merit? Not remotely said Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School specializing in racial conflict and law. “There is no constitutional problem at all, because a plaintiff would have to show that the government intended to disadvantage a particular group, not simply that the group is disadvantaged in effect…. To say that this health rationale was a mere pretext for wanting to stick it to white people is completely implausible.”
Photo by Flickr user Whatshername? used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
The Washington Post has an interesting article about a constitutional requirement in 14 states according to which voters must decide at least once a generation whether or not to rewrite the constitution. The provision goes back to the founding of the nation and the idea that in a democracy, it is healthy to not just allow but to actively encourage citizens to rethink the constitutional underpinnings of the state. In fact, Thomas Jefferson claimed that laws naturally expire after 19 years. Writing to James Madison, he said “The earth belongs always to the living generation… If [the constitution] be enforced longer [than 19 years], it is an act of force and not of right.”
In Maryland, the focus of the article, opponents of a constitutional convention claim that the state runs just fine on its current constitution and a convention would be a time and money drain on state lawmakers, with special interests inevitably influencing the process. Some proponents, on the other hand, say that a constitutional convention would invigorate democratic citizenship: “People should be concerned about what the Constitution says and what it means,” Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland’s state archivist said. “The whole central issue of democracy is paying attention to the body [ ] of what constitutes our government. And I think one of the problems that we have today is that we do not pay enough attention to the structure of government . . . or what the framework should be.”
This whole idea of a mandatory generational constitutional convention is new to me and entirely intriguing. So what do you think? Should we be required to occasionally rewrite the constitution? Or are our politics too polarized and special interest-driven for this to be a beneficial exercise? Maybe the original constitution is as timeless a document as we could hope. But wouldn’t it be fun to dress in wigs and period clothing and speak in Aristocratic accents while using words like “tis” and “whilst”?
Photo by Flickr user Phil Scoville used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
The breaking news yesterday about the FBI infiltration and arrest of a Russian spy ring left me wanting. The spies were not sent to obtain U.S. government jobs and access to classified information. They were sent to mingle with elites and think tankers and get juicy gossip and rumors about U.S. politics and foreign policy. Um, hello FBI? Have you met any 30-something policy wonks over happy hour? This rumor mongering is what they live for. Take a gander at Laura Rozen’s Politico blog or “The Cable” on Foreign Policy. There’s a whole media industry of political gossip. Is it really illegal to pass this stuff to foreign governments. Hell, Russia could have saved itself a ton of money and the trouble of, you know, a diplomatic crisis by just reading Wonkette. Could have had a laugh while gaining much more valuable intelligence from them than a “New York-based financier described as a fundraiser for a major political party” is going to get you.
Photo by Flickr user Anonymous9000 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
On Tuesday Jamaican drug lord and gang leader Christopher Coke was arrested in Kingston. The next day, his mugshot photos were all over the Jamaican (and international) news. The kicker: Coke was dressed as a woman — wig and all (photo here). It’s increasingly common for criminals on the run to masquerade as women…and for their captors to let the world know they were dressed as such. Given that such pictures causes a huge amount of public embarrassment to the suspect and that they are, remember, just suspects, should governments be allowed to release cross-dressing mug shots? embarrass
Foreign Policy in Focus has an emotional article on how we value Iraqi and Afghan lives as compared to those of Americans. The article begins:”When a U.S. civilian is murdered in a foreign land or in the United States, we rightfully feel angry, sad, and some of us demand vengeance. These are normal, primordial, and instinctive feelings of group loyalty and herd mentality that have bound communities and countries for thousands of years.” And yet, they are in some sense completely irrational. Why should I feel any more for a stranger I have never met who is American versus one who is Afghan or Chinese? And yet most of us do and most of us find no problem acting on this emotion. I’ve written before on this priority thesis, but take a read of the article for a argument on how we might have taken this idea too far in our current wars.
Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog has a fascinating discussion on programs that encourage people to become and stay healthy. A panel that includes policy analysts, a doctor and a professor of bioethics consider whether incentive programs work and whether they raise ethical questions or alter the sacred doctor-patient relationship. Check out the full debate here.
I’ve written on risk and moral responsibility a few times on this blog. Like many good ideas we have, the mainstream media has followed suit. In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, economics columnist David Leonhardt considers who is responsible for preventing low likelihood, high consequence events like the Deepwater Horizon spill. Leonhardt writes: “When the stakes are high enough, it falls to government to help its citizens avoid these entirely human errors. The market, left to its own devices, often cannot do so.” He goes on to claim that, in passing a law after Exxon Valdez to limit the liability of the spiller, the U.S. government actually encouraged oil companies to underestimate the odds of a catastrophe. Check out the full article here.
The market, responsibility and perfectionism
The New York Times has an article from last week on a duo of internet filmmakers, known as the Internet Celebrities, who use humor and YouTube to spread a unique brand of social criticism. One of their most watched videos has them entering the world of Bronx food bodegas to highlight the diverse, yet disgusting food options available to many New Yorkers.
Beyond the humor – for example, the bodega food pyramid – their video raises important normative questions about the availability of healthy foods in low-income communities.
It is a well documented fact that middle- and upper-income communities have many times more supermarkets than low-income neighborhoods. As a result, people in these communities are forced to purchase food at corner markets, convenience stores and bodegas. And these food providers have little in the way of healthy options. This matters because a diet short on healthy foods increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and other illnesses. So if healthy foods have such a direct impact on the life of individuals, whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone, including those in low-income communities has access to them?
Morally wrong or just politically stupid?
Last week The New York Times reported that Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic nominee for Senate, Richard Blumenthal, lied about his Vietnam service. He spoke about when he “served in Vietnam” and the national mood when he “returned”, though the closest he got to war was serving in the Marine Reserve, which it was known would never be deployed. Yesterday, it was revealed that Lucas Baumbach, a Republican candidate for state Senate in Idaho, plagiarized almost word for word from then-Senate candidate Obama’s 2004 DNC speech.
Leaving aside the obvious inquiry of why candidates say silly things, the public philosophical question is whether or not it is wrong. I don’t ask this question from an individual ethics point of view. There is plenty of literature on the morality of lying and plagiarism. I’m more interested in whether it is wrong for candidates, as candidates for political office, to lie and plagiarize. Read more
Jake and I have both posted about Rand Paul’s political philosophy and the challenge he faces in the political sphere. On Sunday, RNC Chairman Michael Steele told Fox News that “Rand Paul’s philosophy got in the way of reality.” This is a common critique of ideal philosophy: it may have something interesting to say, but it is of little practical use when it comes to the real world. This, of course, is not true. As my advisor, Adam Swift, writes: “we need fundamental, context-independent, normative philosophical claims to guide political action even in non-ideal circumstances.” Check out his whole article from Social Theory and Practice for an informative take on the role of philosophy in the face of reality.