What does it mean, anyway?

There’s an excellent article over at The Washington Post, that points out — accurately — that we need to stop throwing around the word “treason” in the context of any parts of the political scandal that currently engulfs the White House, or any aspects of what is increasingly looking like many illegal activities that culminated in Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November.  Whatever crimes were committed in the greater process, treason is not one of them.   

The definition of treason is outlined in article 3 of the Constitution. And nothing done by anyone associated with the Donald Trump campaign — even if every allegation against everyone happens to be true — rises to the level of treason by simple virtue of the fact that we are not at war with Russia.   

So yeah, there are lots of crimes worth exploring.   They range from campaign finance violations to conspiracy, to obstruction of justice, to perjury, to countless other crimes I can’t even begin to guess.  But treason is not one of them.   So we really shouldn’t bandy that word around in the context of the election or the Trump White House.   

But at least the word “treason” has a practical working definition.  There’s another word — a phrase actually — that is being used a fair amount that doesn’t even have that.   The phrase is “constitutional crisis.”  I’ve always interpreted the phrase to mean a situation that the constitution doesn’t address in terms of how to govern (and Wikipedia seems to back me up on this) but all too often we see it in the capacity of infighting within the government and when there are scandals that could affect the day-to-day performance of government activities.  When Bill Clinton was impeached a lot of people called it a constitutional crisis and I thought back then that it wasn’t a crisis.  Indeed, it might have been a personal crisis for Clinton himself, but the constitution definitely allows for it.   

That’s not to say there haven’t been constitutional crises in American history:

  • In 1841, William Henry Harrison died a little over a month after taking the oath of office, and the constitution didn’t have any provisions as to what should happen upon the death of the president.  There was no shortage of people who argued that his Vice President, John Tyler, didn’t automatically become president, and the appropriate title would have been interim president or caretaker or, mockingly, “His Accidency”.  From a purely legal perspective, this question wouldn’t actually be resolved until more than 120 years later with the passage of the 25th Amendment (after the death of the most recent president to die in office).
  • In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, several states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.   The constitution did not (and still doesn’t) provide for any circumstances under which a state may secede from the union and even before the election there were actually three schools of thought with regard to secession: those who felt that states have the right to secede, those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede but the federal government has no authority to prevent it, and those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede and the federal government is empowered to prevent it.   (If that second school of thought sounds wishy-washy to you, welcome to the presidency of James Buchanan.)
  • In 1876, the actual electoral vote count was in dispute and it was only actually resolved with a compromise tied to the end of the post-Civil War reconstruction.   

There have been others, but they were usually resolved relatively quickly.   Whatever is going on at the White House, at all levels, it’s not a constitutional crisis.  There’s certainly no real leadership going on, and I’m actually quite thankful that Trump isn’t actually getting much of his racist, xenophobic, sexist, myopic agenda to pass, but it’s not a constitutional risks.   

I do wonder, though, if the people who are truly in legal trouble (and I include Trump Jr in that group) realize the trouble they’re in.   There’s a scene in the recent HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, in which Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro) goes off the rails on his eight year old granddaughter because she was asking simple questions about Wall Street.  Madoff was a man who knew for years the damage he was going and the stress finally got to him.   I can picture Don Jr acting the same way right now…

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One subset of the greater healthcare debate

Healthcare has been a topic of discussion — and in many cases strong disagreement — in American political debate for more than eighty years now.  FDR, who profoundly altered the direction of the US economy during his tenure as president, was unable to make headway on healthcare.  LBJ got the first meaningful changes in healthcare thirty years later with Medicare and Medicaid.  Then no meaningful changes until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (also known as Obamacare).  

I want to believe that the best analogy to Obamacare, whatever becomes of it, is that of a stepping stone.  A step forward from what we had but not the end solution.   Not unlike, for example, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy towards gays in the military.   While preferable to completely disallowing gays from military service, it still was too small a gesture and was destined to be discontinued.   

It seems to me that, given the current state of debate on health care, the democrats and republicans are trying to appeal to two very different constituencies.   I haven’t seen statistics that demonstrate which constituency is larger but my gut tells me that the group targeted by the blue team is larger.  And I am actually sympathetic to both groups of people.  

At the heart of this divide is the individual mandate provision in the ACA.  Insurance companies recognize that covering pre-existing conditions would be something that will yield more outlays (pretty much by definition) so their choices would be to deny coverage or find something that will increase the money they’re bringing in.   And there are basically two sure  ways of doing that: increase individual premiums or get people who might not need insurance onto their rolls of the insured.  

So the democrats are, generally speaking, in favor of the individual mandate.  People don’t want to lose their healthcare simply because of a pre-existing condition.  This also has the added benefit of driving down premiums for everyone since the health insurers are bringing in more money from everyone required to have it.  

The republicans are against the individual mandate, seeing it as unnecessary government intrusion into people’s day to day affairs.   Outside of the libertarians who would get rid of every piece of government regulation, this is appealing to the young and healthy individuals who, given the choice, wouldn’t have any health insurance at all because they’d perceive it as a drain on their already limited financial resources.  

There may be some room for criticism of the people who don’t want health insurance because of its cost, in that they’re clearly not thinking of a future when they won’t be so young and healthy, but that criticism can definitely wither against the argument that thinking of the long-term future is meaningless if they can’t afford dinner today.  And I’m not unsympathetic to this problem.  

Neither is the ACA, which has provisions to help those who can’t afford health insurance, to buy it.  But these provisions are also problematic because the bar might be too low for qualifying, or other regulations could limit the amount people might be entitled to, in the form of assistance.  And the current White House has shown little interest in making it easier for those people to have quality health insurance.  

So we have two very clearly delineated sides in this debate and the two parties have chosen their sides.  Whichever side emerges on top in this debate, they will rightly continue to have grievances against the other side.  The solution to this problem is both straightforward but fraught with other problems: take the mechanism for paying for health care out of the hands of the individuals and insurance companies by incorporating it into the tax structure (not unlike the disposal of garbage in many municipalities).   That’s what they do in Canada, France, England, and many other countries…

Before we do that, though, how many jobs would be lost in such a massive disruption of an industry as large as health care?   Most hospitals employ more administrators than nurses, after all, because they’re needed for dealing with the insurance companies.