Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What does Justice Kennedy think? Bam! Pow!

JUSTICE KENNEDY:  And the government tells us that's because the insurance market is unique.  And in the next case, it'll say the next market is unique.  But I think it is true that if most questions of life are matters of degree, in the insurance and healthcare world, both markets – – stipulate two markets – – the young person who is uninsured is uniquely proximately very close to affecting the rates of insurance and the cost of providing medical care in a way that is not true in other industries. That's my concern in the case.
          -- Page 104 of 133, transcript of Tuesday's oral argument in Department of Health and Human Services et al. v. Florida et al.
This is US Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy hinting that he thinks uninsured healthy young people may, possibly, could come awfully close to affecting interstate commerce.   And if he thinks that something affects interstate commerce, he most assuredly thinks that something can be regulated by Congress.  As I said, Bam! Pow!  It's all over but the writing up of the excruciatingly boring legal opinions to support it and oppose it.
By the way, I read all 133 pages of the transcript of today's oral arguments so you don't have to, but it's linked above if you want to.
The arguments were tough going for the government with justices on both sides, including Kennedy, raising serious questions about how the far government can go in regulating commerce, even  if it means forcing you to exercise, buy broccoli or arrange your own funeral.
But this one comment by Justice Kennedy may be all you need to know about the three days of oral arguments under way in the U.S. Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The whole issue may very well come down to this one 76-year-old man's opinion.
We're not supposed to infer anything from the questions asked at oral arguments as we could be horribly wrong.  Too true.  I will infer away anyway.
The four "liberal" justices were plainly searching for arguments to justify upholding the individual mandate.  At least one of the four "conservative" justices, Samuel Alito, will overturn it.  Anton Scalia seems to be leaning in the same direction and Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to be pretty skeptical as well.  Of course, as usual Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions and it is not clear whether he was even awake.
(If it's a 5-4 decision to uphold, Justice Roberts may cross over and make it 6-3 so he can write the majority opinion -- eye on the history books or whatever.)
The whole argument seemed to come down to the question of whether Congress can force those who are not in the market – – in this case healthy young people – – to enter that market before they will have need of health insurance.  Even a lot of the argument on the opposing side seem to raise the question of when, not whether Congress can force people to buy health insurance.
Can it be long before they need it?  Which would lower the health insurance rates for everybody else but force them to buy a product that they do not yet need.  Or can it only be at the point when they enter the health care market, such as when they show up in an emergency room?  At which point health insurance would be prohibitively expensive for them and we would end up paying for it anyway like we do now.
Or, could we just throw them out on their motorcycle-crushed heads and let them die in the street, as some conservatives seem to favor?  As one justice noted, the provision of health care does seem to be a well-established social policy in this country, no matter who ends up paying for it.
Because the court is hearing the issue now, it must issue a decision on the ACA (it's okay to say Obamacare, he owns it) on or before June 30.
Whether the court will make a well-reasoned legal decision (the pro-Obamacare side) or a crazy political one (the right wing nut side), its opinion will have a profound effect on the presidential election.
If the ACA is upheld, that will galvanize the far right base of the Republican Party.  If it is overturned that will energize the left-wing base of the Democratic Party.
I'm sort of secretly hoping for that.  Many on the left, including myself, don't like the idea that the ACA is subsidizing the private, for-profit health insurance industry by forcing people to purchase its products and we don't like  the idea that anybody, except maybe doctors, actually make a profit off illness and death.   We would prefer a single-payer system or, if you will, a real "government takeover" of the health care system, like every other civilized, developed nation in  the world.  Yeah, that's the (socialist) ticket! 
So if the ACA is overturned, I think many of us can live with that, and Congress can find other ways to pay for health care, but only if we re-elect President Obama and do not give both houses of Congress a Republican majority.   If we do that, we can kiss Medicare, Social Security and all of the gains of the 20th century goodbye. 
Just something to think about, all you young, healthy people out there.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sorry about your jobs, it's just business

Get your cheap oil right here.  Midwest refineries booming.  East Coast, not so much.
Whoever thought that freeing ourselves from foreign oil -- if you don't count Canada -- would be a bad thing? Turns out, it is.
I went to Rep. Pat Meehan's big hearing on the closing of the Delaware River refineries this morning and while the testimony of the four witnesses, two oil industry spokesmen and two government analysts, was anything but clear, here's my take-away:
  • The country is awash in oil, particularly from Canada and North Dakota. The problem is, there is no way to get it from there to here, other than a few rail cars.  No ports up there, you know, although the Great Lakes are not that far away.
  • Prices are sky high again (though still only half the $8 a gallon Europeans are paying) because supply is way up and demand is down.  This is, of course, the complete opposite of how the law of supply and demand works in the real world, as U.S. Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) tried in vain to point out at the hearing, but never mind.
  • We need the Keystone XL pipeline so we can get the oil down to Texas refineries where we can refine it and/or sell it abroad.  This will not help the 36,000 people who are going to lose jobs, homes and businesses here in Delaware County one tiny bit, but it will sure as hell help the global oil industry, which in turn will help our economy, etc., etc., and so forth..
  • The problem with the Delaware River refineries (and the Hovensa refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands) is that they've been refining very, very expensive sweet crude oil shipped in from Europe and Africa.
  • Whoopee, we don't have to do that any more because we have all that oil flowing south down the middle of the country.  
  • There is a role for maybe one of our three Delaware River refineries to play in the future, as terminals to receive the refined oil from the Midwest to distribute here, just as Sunoco's newly reopened Eagle Point refinery terminal, will do.  
  • Obama is to blame. That goes without saying.  Well so are all our presidents going back to Nixon, who created the EPA, and those senators and congressmen who enacted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water act and forced the auto industry to develop high-mileage cars and those cornbelt pols who subsidized ethanol and the tree-huggers who made Detroit invent reinvent electric cars.
  • The Republicans are to blame too, with all that "drill, baby, drill" stuff, or, as it turns out, "frack, baby, frack."  We have been freed from foreign oil as we now get less than 50 percent of our energy needs from elsewhere.
  • The oil industry is a "resilient" industry, a "flexible" industry, a "highly competitive" industry, but apparently our local refineries were not resilient enough or flexible enough to expand, repair their infrastructure and save themselves from destruction.   
  • But don't worry, the oil industry will make sure we get gasoline, diesel and home heating oil here on the East Coast, even if it ends up being refined in India and we have to pay far for it than those lucky Midwesterners.  
  • Our U.S. environmental laws are too darn strict and after all, the industry has already cleaned up it's act (thanks to those laws), and India doesn't have the same standards and .... and ....
Well you get the idea.  If you don't, here are the statements of three of the speakers at this morning's hearing.   Howard Gruenspecht, U.S. Department of Energy, Charles T. Drevna, Charles T. Drevna, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and Robert Greco, Downstream and Industry Operations
American Petroleum Institute.  Read them for yourselves.
The fourth speaker, Brandon Wales of the Department of Homeland Security didn't post his remarks but I can tell you, nobody at the hearing seemed much worried about terrorists disrupting our oil pipelines, except Pat Meehan.