Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Political felony murder

In the laws of 46 states, there is a provision known as the "felony-murder rule." Essentially, the way it works is this: If an offender commits a dangerous felony, and a person dies during the commission of the felony, the offender can be charged with murder, even if the act would not otherwise be considered murder.

The classic example of this is the person who robs a bank by sticking a gun in the face of a teller, who dies of a heart attack as a result of the stress brought on by the situation.

In about half the states, felony murder is a capital offense--an offense for which the death penalty may be imposed.

The concept of felony-murder is older than the history of the common law. The rule was in place in England before the 12th century. Although it has been abolished in the UK and Canada, and although it is subject to certain limitations in the U.S., felony-murder has survived for more than 9 centuries because it reflects something that most humans understand intuitively: If you choose to act in a certain way, and there are negative consequences for another person as a result of your choice, you bear at least a moral responsibility for those consequences.

I have been thinking about this concept a great deal in recent days because of the GOP's attempts to repeal or otherwise undermine the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, commonly known as "Obamacare." The Republicans have been complaining about Obamacare since before it was passed, and they have made numerous efforts to undermine it through the court system. The GOP-led House has voted more than 50 times to repeal the law entirely, although it has never managed to get the Republican-led Senate to agree.

In recent days, the Senate has come up with a revision to the law, not an outright repeal, which it has euphemistically named the "Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017." Some people are referring to the collective efforts to modify Obamacare as "Trumpcare," but, consistent with my refusal in most instances to use the name of the buffoon who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days, I have adopted the name "Buffooncare" for these efforts. I encourage the use of "Buffoon" anywhere you might use the buffoon's name, as it is the most apt and complete description of that guy that I can imagine.

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report on the effects of Buffooncare. A few of the notable highlights (or perhaps lowlights) of that report and of the law:

  • By 2026, more than 22 million people will be uninsured who would otherwise be insured under the current law. In the nearer term, the effect is rather stark: 15 million would lose their coverage in 2018.
  • Medicaid spending would be cut by $772 billion over 10 years, and benefits would be capped.
  • Premium subsidies under Obamacare would be cut by $408 billion over 10 years.
  • Taxes associated with Obamacare, which primarily hit businesses and high-income individuals, would be reduced by $751 billion over 10 years. Most of the cuts would favor individuals who make more than $1 million a year, and virtually no one who makes less than $200,000 per year would receive a tax cut.
  • Anyone with a gap in insurance coverage would face a 6-month waiting period for coverage for any pre-existing condition (under the current law, coverage is immediate, even for pre-existing conditions).
  • Premiums for older individuals could be rated at 5 times the premium charged to the youngest, healthiest individuals (the current law allows 3 times higher premiums).
  • Insurers would be able to sell plans that do not include the 10 essential coverages required for Obamacare plans to qualify as insurance.
  • Insurers could impose lifetime caps on benefits, which they cannot do under Obamacare.

The health aspects of this proposed law are genuinely atrocious. Buffooncare would insure fewer people; it would cut benefits for lower-income Americans who rely on Medicaid; it would cut the subsidies available for those who make too much to qualify for Medicaid; it would cause premiums and deductibles to rise for virtually everyone; it would remove key protections for people who live with pre-existing conditions; and it would allow insurers to impose lifetime benefit caps that effectively render some people with serious, chronic, expensive health conditions unable to obtain care.

For many years, I assumed that the GOP's principal motivation against Obamacare was to destroy the achievements of a black man they couldn't beat at the ballot box, who was generally very popular and who avoided the hint of scandal for 8 years. After all, Obamacare is essentially the same plan that Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts several years before and that the conservative Heritage Foundation designed in the 1990s. It is in many respects the conservative ideal: It accomplishes a beneficial societal goal (greater health insurance coverage) by leveraging the private sector to provide that coverage. And they were willing to destroy it because it came from a Democrat.

(From a progressive standpoint, it is a disaster because it's unwieldy and demonstrably less efficient than a single-payer system--even if you were to implement an optional single-payer system that allows people to buy insurance from the government or from the private sector, the "public option" that I advocated for in other spaces for several years before Obamacare was proposed. Even though it is a disaster in that sense, Obamacare is a wildly successful improvement over the previous largely unregulated system. The problems should be fixed as best they can be, or it should be replaced with some flavor of single-payer.)

But the details of Buffooncare have made it clear that the GOP's motivation isn't about destroying Obama's legacy. Whatever complaints the Republicans have about Obamacare, this bill is mostly lacking in any attempt to address those complaints. As per usual, Buffooncare is instead mostly about putting more money in the pockets of wealthy people. In the process, the GOP is perfectly willing to destroy as many lives as are necessary to enrich their donor base.

Which brings me around to the concept discussed at the outset, felony-murder. Follow along with me:
  1. If the Senate version of Buffooncare becomes law, next year, 15 million people who currently have health insurance will lose their health insurance outright, and millions more will see significant reductions in coverage or increased deductibles that render their insurance nearly worthless.
  2. Some fraction of those 15 million people will have life-threatening illnesses that are treatable but not eligible for mandatory treatment at an emergency room (cancer being the most obvious, but hardly the only one).
  3. Without insurance, those people will be unable to get care.
  4. Without care, many of them will die. Those who don't die will almost certainly encounter severe, lasting effects that will significantly shorten their lives and reduce their quality of life.
These are foreseeable effects of taking health insurance away from people who have it, with no plan to replace it.

It is difficult to believe that even the GOP would be so craven as to trade these people's lives for a tax cut for wealthy people. I would love to believe that they have some grand plan that would make this all make sense. But I'm just not seeing it. It looks for all the world like Mitch McConnell and his crew lust so heartily to create and support an aristocracy that they genuinely don't care whom they kill in the process.

Perhaps it is impolitic to say it, but this looks one hell of a lot like murder—maybe not legally, but certainly on a moral level. I doubt very much that the GOP wants the victims of its plan to die, per se. Rather, it's more of a depraved indifference as to whether these people live or die. And that's still murder.

All for a tax cut.

Exactly how does this create that "culture of life" the Republicans are so fond of advocating for?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Due process on campus

In 2016, Thomas Klocke was a business student at the University of Texas at Arlington.  On May 19 of that year, Klocke found himself seated next to Nick Watson, a fellow student, in one of the last classes Klocke needed to take to earn his degree.

What happened that day is in dispute.

According to Klocke's account, Watson told Klocke that he thought Klocke was beautiful.  Using his open laptop, Klocke says he typed "Stop it--I'm straight."  Watson responded on his laptop, "I'm gay."  As the class proceeded, Watson allegedly continued to glance at Klocke, who rebuffed the advances, asked Watson to leave, and eventually took another seat across the room. 

Watson's account differs significantly.  He claims that after he made a comment about privilege in today's society, Klocke opened his laptop and typed "gays should die" into the browser bar.  Watson then responded with "I'm gay."  He claims that Klocke then feigned a yawn, then stated, "well, then you're a faggot."  Watson says that he asked Klocke to leave, and that Klocke responded by saying "you should consider killing yourself."

Watson complained, first to the professor, then to a staff member in the UTA student services office.  Student Services responded by banning Klocke from attending the remaining sessions of the class and from contacting the professor or any student in the class, which resulted in his failing the final exam and the class, and in turn prevented him from graduating on schedule.  Klocke was not afforded a hearing before he was disciplined, nor any accommodation for his class attendance such as videotaping of the lectures.

Faced with academic and potential financial ruin, Klocke killed himself two weeks after the incident.

His estate is suing UTA for civil rights violations and Watson for defamation.  A copy of the complaint can be found here.

I have no dog in this fight.  I have no connection to UTA.  I didn't know Thomas Klocke or Nick Watson.  I'm not a college administrator.  I don't even have kids.  But something about this story bothers me on a deep level.

It's difficult to know what went on that day.  It's possible that Klocke harbored extreme animosity toward homosexuals.  It's also possible that Watson felt jilted by a boy he liked and decided to do what he could to ruin that boy's life.  I don't know what's true, and I'm not sure that it matters to what I'm writing about.

We are engaged in an increasingly politicized struggle over how colleges manage the interpersonal relationships of their students--not merely sexual matters, but also political conflict, free speech issues, and the discomfort that arises when young people encounter views that challenge them.  Free speech in particular is a core value of the traditional university culture, but as our society has become more polarized, and as conservatives in particular have become more radical in both the messages they push and the icons they uplift, there has been a backlash against certain types of speech that are deemed hateful, misogynistic, or otherwise not in keeping with other values that universities wish to uphold.

Sexual harassment (together with more aggressive forms of sexual violence, up to and including rape) is a hot-button issue on campuses these days.  A series of incidents of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by male athletes at Baylor University came to head last year and cost the popular and successful head football coach, Art Briles, and the prominent university president, Kenneth Starr, their jobs.  By contrast, allegations in a 2014 Rolling Stone article regarding fraternity rape culture at the University of Virginia had to be retracted when they turned out to be based on a fabrication.

When a person accuses another person of sexual misconduct, be it harassment or rape or anything in between, the allegations should be taken seriously.  Steps should be taken to protect people from sexual violence or harassment.  Colleges and universities have a special obligation to intervene to provide this kind of protection because even though their students are adults, physically and chronologically, they often lack sufficient experience and emotional maturity to take steps to protect themselves.

But because these matters can often turn on issues of credibility in a he-said, she-said (or he-said, he-said, as in the case of Watson and Klocke) scenario, when either party could be lying, how can we responsibly administer discipline or other countermeasures to protect victims, when those countermeasures can have the effect of damaging the academic, financial, or emotional standing of the alleged perpetrator?

There are no easy answers--or, at least, the easy answers are unsatisfying.  In a macro sense, sexual violence on campus is intolerably prevalent.  But in particular cases it can be difficult to know whether a specific rape actually occurred.  While I am unapologetically feminist in my outlook, I do not think it does women any favors when a man has his life destroyed by a false allegation, acted on capriciously by a university that's desperate to be seen as being tough on sexual violence.  (I also don't think it does men any favors when a woman has her life destroyed by the double victimization of rape in the first instance and a justice system, be it criminal or university-based, that devalues her.)  We need both:  more vigorous efforts to control and eliminate campus sexual violence, and a greater degree of certainty of guilt before discipline is imposed.  These concepts work at cross-purposes to some extent because in most cases we can't have perfect knowledge.

Nevertheless, I believe that what happened at UTA can teach us something important about how to deal with these situations.  It seems unlikely that what happened was the sole cause of Klocke's suicide; suicide is rarely the result of a single negative cause, and there were almost certainly underlying factors in this case that cause Klocke to end his life.

But the imposition of discipline without a hearing, particularly by a state-run institution, is troubling at best.  And the failure to provide Klocke with accommodations that would allow him to finish out the class seems extremely short-sighted and indicative of an effort to punish Klocke for expressing an unpopular, even hateful, view.  As abhorrent as I find his casual, cutting use of a sexual slur and his suggestion that Watson should kill himself to be (if he even said those things), I also believe that the remedy for speech you don't like is speech that you do like.  Disciplining Klocke under those circumstances seems arbitrary and well outside the bounds of appropriate handling by the university.