Monday, June 30, 2014

Future of the Supreme Court

An actuarial look

Those disappointed in recent Supreme Court decisions will, I hope, refrain from simply accepting defeat. Issues like corporate personhood and religious privileges for family businesses are not settled for all time. In the Hobby Lobby case, for example, anti-abortion and anti-contraception groups will be trying to maximize the family-owned business exception from the Affordable Healthcare Act's coverage mandate. Defining the limits of this exception will inevitably result in future court cases that will gradually percolate to the level of the High Court, giving the Supremes an opportunity to revisit the issue.

Since the justices are normally loath to overturn their previous decisions, especially recent ones, opponents of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby need to be patient, even while striving to correct the injustices. Also, we need some time to elapse so that the best of all possible reversal opportunities can arise: new justices. The following chart displays the current ages and the years of service of the nine justices. Scalia and Kennedy are the longest-service justices, while Ginsburg is the oldest.

Nothing in this chart, however, is as important as how much longer the individual justices are likely to serve. To that end, let's turn to Table 7 (Life expectancy at selected ages, by race, Hispanic origin, race for non-Hispanic population, and sex: United States, 2010) in the CDC's Volume 61, Number 4, of National Vital Statistics Reports. Looking up the life expectancy for each justice and interpolating between tabular values when necessary, I created the following chart.

As you can see, Ginsburg, Scalia, and Kennedy are estimated to have about nine years left. Of course, this is not a hard number, but it suggests that even if they decline to retire to spend more time with their families—as the traditional explanation goes—we can reasonably expect a number of vacancies in the vicinity of 2023. Thus the president elected in 2020 would have some openings to fill. It's entirely possible that the president elected in 2016 would have no opportunities to nominate a Supreme Court justice, just as Jimmy Carter did not in his single term, nor Bill Clinton in his second term and George W. Bush in his first.

Patience, right? In other words, Hillary Clinton would need a second term to make it really likely that she could select successors to Ginsburg, Scalia, Kennedy, and perhaps Breyer.

What is missing from this scenario? The obvious, of course. A Democratic president elected in 2016 would encourage Ginsburg and Breyer to step down with the assurance that their seats would not go to nominees dedicated to overturning their judicial records. Scalia, by contrast, would hunker down and strive to outlast the Democratic administration (assuming he can continue to withstand the toxic overproduction of his bile gland).

The case of Sotomayor is special, and I made no attempt to take into account her diabetes, which argues against her supposed expectation of lasting till 2040. I also have no idea whether Roberts, who came to the Chief Justice's position at an unusually young age, will strive to set a new record at the top of the court's hierarchy. That would require that he serve more than the 34 years and 5 months achieved by John Jay. Whatever occurs, it seems unlikely that the string of Republican-appointed Chief Justices will end anytime soon. Harry S. Truman was the last Democratic president who enjoyed the privilege of appointing the Chief Justice when he nominated Fred Vinson in 1946.

Patience. Probably quite a lot of it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hard data

Make up your own numbers!

My in-box is an unending source of delights. I really should unsubscribe from right-wing mailing lists, but how else would I learn shocking facts about the Muslim Marxist Dictator in the White House? For example, The Political Insider breathlessly informed me that Speaker John Boehner has boldly moved to bring President Obama to account—by filing a lawsuit accusing him of exercising his executive authority. In the comments section the most common response ran along the lines of “about time!” and “I'd rather have impeachment!” Of course, these comments were accompanied by solid, reality-based arguments and supporting evidence:
Jim: He has what well over 1,000 executive orders now? While the most any president before him had like what 45? Which I think was FDR, in his 16 year term.. It took congress long enough.. Talk about being asleep behind the wheel…
Since I am aware that Obama has been remarkably self-restrained in his use of executive orders, I knew immediately that “Jim” was full of crap. I clarified the matter for him:
Zeno: The reality is a little different. Obama has issued fewer executive orders than any president in the 20th century except for one-term presidents Ford and Bush. Obama has 180 to date. Reagan, for example, issued 381. More recently, George W. Bush had 291.
I included a link to the Wikipedia page where a tally of presidential executive orders is displayed. Nevertheless, I was quickly put in my place:
Mitch: Wrong Zeno.
(I presume he meant “Wrong, Zeno,“ but the appositive comma has fallen on hard times, so perhaps “Mitch” was merely being conventionally illiterate.) A most excellent and compelling refutation, no?

Whence came Jim's egregiously wrong but confidently cited numbers? It was as easy to discover that as it would have been for Jim to learn that he was ridiculously incorrect, but that would have ruined his argument. I got the details from Snopes, the indefatigable debunker of Internet nonsense:
The President signed 923 Executive Orders in 40 Months. It is all over the net. These sites include commentary on what the executive order is for and what it does. If this is the truth, I'm scared to think about it. Most of the past presidents have allegedly signed around 30 of them. At the end of the day an executive order circumvents the congress and senate. Fill in the blanks. Someone credible needs to research and report on this.

[Here follows a list of specific executive orders attributed to Obama, but almost all of them were actually issued by John F. Kennedy in 1962. —Z]

Feel free to verify the "executive orders" at will ... and these are just the major ones ...


Teddy Roosevelt: 3
Others Prior To FDR: NONE
FDR: 11 in 16 years
Truman: 5 in 7 years
Ike: 2 in 8 years
JFK: 4 in 3 years
LBJ: 4 in 5 years
Nixon: 1 in 6 years
Ford: 3 in 2 years
Carter: 3 in 4 years
Reagan: 5 in 8 years
Bush 1: 3 in 4 years
Clinton: 15 in 8 years
Bush 2: 62 in 8 years
Obama: 923 in 3+ years!

During my lifetime, all Presidents have issued Executive Orders, for reasons that vary, some more than others.

When a President issued as many as 30 Executive Orders during a term in Office, people thought there was something amiss.



Even some Democrats in the House have turned on him, plus a very small number of Democrat Senators question him.


This is exactly the sort of Internet spam that credulous right-wingers like my father immediately swallow whole and proceed to pass it along to their e-mail lists of fellow travelers and family members (although usually not me anymore, since I tend to respond with unappreciated but detailed refutations that irk my male parental unit). Although it's a tissue of lies, this denunciation of the president appeals enormously to those who have already decided that he is some kind of evil mastermind and would-be dictator, so it is not subject to any sort of critical examination before being further disseminated via the Intertubes. And thus the lies spread.

I think it's fair to quote Ronald Reagan, that great conservative icon, in this context: “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.” Turnabout is fair play, right? Reagan said this in 1964 while campaigning on behalf of Barry Goldwater (who in retrospect doesn't look half so insane as today's teabaggers).

Of course, Reagan stole it from Josh Billings.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stay of execution

City College gets an extension

The biggest community college in California will not have to shut its doors this year. All of that work in preparing a schedule of classes for fall 2014 was not in vain. As announced this week, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is promulgating a rule change that will grant the City College of San Francisco a two-year extension in its efforts to resolve the deficiencies identified in the college's most recent accreditation reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed the news with a front-page headline and a detailed article by Nanette Asimov, who has been closely documenting the years-long story.

The innocent bystander may be unaware that the arguments in the City College controversy were as much about the deficiencies of the accrediting agency as they were about the college itself. Make no mistake: City College had plenty to answer for. The ACCJC found that City College was deficient in its planning, accounting, and management processes. The institution's teaching mission was threatened by its inability to track its assets, collect student fees, and address developing needs. Furthermore, CCSF had been warned about its shortcomings in a previous accreditation process but had not bothered to correct them. The college was begging to be disciplined.

Unfortunately for everyone, including itself, the ACCJC proceeded to demonstrate its own inability to manage a difficult case. It imposed the death penalty on CCSF and then stubbornly refused to cooperate with the attempts to implement an emergency rescue of the institution. Nothing underscored this more clearly than the ACCJC's insistence it could not grant an extension even after the federal Department of Education released a stated confirming that it could. As Asimov reported
Last month, [commission President Barbara] Beno and commission Chairwoman Sherrill Amador and Vice Chairman Steven Kinsella refused to extend the revocation deadline despite public assurances from Lynn Mahaffie, a senior accrediting director with the Department of Education, that federal regulations permitted doing so. Nevertheless, the full commission, which meets just twice a year, changed its policy during its meeting June 4-6 in Sacramento. The agency is private and details about its internal decision-making aren't known.
Despite the Chronicle headline, “victory” is too sanguine a conclusion. City College has a lot of work to do before it can be considered fully compliant with ACCJC accreditation standards which other community colleges (like my own) are required to meet. At least the reprieve gives it the opportunity to continue the process under the new leadership that took over in the midst of the debacle. I also expect a painstaking internal review by the ACCJC of its punitive practices. At least, I hope so. If the ACCJC fails to do so, it is merely mirroring the failings of the institution over which it sat in judgment. Anyway, the internal review is necessary in terms of self-defense. Rigorous external review will be imposed by California's state legislature and the Department of Education, so the ACCJC had better get ready.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Dear Abby, dinner party planner

An apple distance record?

I have always read Dear Abby for the humor. I still do. Of course, when the column's originator, Pauline Phillips, was writing it, I felt as if I were laughing with the columnist. These days, however, it's more often that I laugh at the columnist. This morning, Jeanne Phillips struck again:
DEAR ABBY: I just found out my husband was arrested for being with a hooker. My in-laws (whom I love and adore) bailed him out of jail. No one said a word about it to me. I don't know how to confront all of them with the fact that I know about this “dirty little secret.” What should I do? — BETRAYED WIFE

DEAR BETRAYED: First, visit your gynecologist and ask to be treated for every STD known to man. Then invite your in-laws to a “family dinner,” tell them the cat is out of the bag and ask why this was kept from you. And while you're at it, ask your mother-in-law (whom you love and adore) how SHE would feel if your father-in-law had possibly exposed her to an STD and it had been kept from her. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
This is extraordinarily good advice, no? No. Give it just a second's thought. A second second shouldn't be needed. Just imagine Betrayed's adored in-laws sitting down for a cozy family dinner at Betrayed's invitation, only to discover that the first course is an accusation, served with a side of recrimination. Will we ever get to the just desserts*?

The notion of raising the topic at a family dinner is just absurd. Jeanne is apparently not bothering to read her own advice before publishing it. Can't she afford a competent minion to save her (and her advisees!) from herself? Surely Betrayed would be better off in a less structured setting, like sitting down with the guilty parties for coffee (perhaps even at a coffee shop, if a public venue were desired in hopes that fear of “making a scene” would keep reactions mild and voices low and under control; Betrayed knows her family better than Dear Abby). Once everyone is settled, Betrayed could share “good news”: “All of the lab tests are back and I'm pleased to announce that each one was negative. George didn't infect me with any sexually transmitted diseases, so I'm much relieved!” Alternatively, Betrayed might instead need to announce, “Good news! My gynecologist says that the gonorrhea I contracted from George is responding to treatment.”

In either case, the rest of the script writes itself. And there's no danger of leaving a lovely roast untouched on the dinner table. There's also less risk of having edged cutlery too close at hand.

Jeanne concluded her misbegotten advice with the homey aphorism that “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.” Maybe so, Jeanne, but there appears to have been quite a bit of rolling in your case.

*Yeah, I know all about “just deserts” versus “just deserts,” but when it comes to lost causes ... So don't even bother.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Tea Party is not dead!

Just very, very sick

One of the joys of Facebook is stumbling across long-lost friends or relatives and renewing acquaintances. The downside is the discovery that an old friend or cousin has gone completely around the bend. Last year I ran into an nth cousin I hadn't seen since we were both teens. It was nice to swap family photos and do some catching up. But what do I find on her Facebook timeline? Stuff like this:

 Now THAT was a commander in chief

Yeah, one hell of a commander-in-chief, all right. Did he also hug the many widows and widowers he created with his military adventurism?

Of course, my cousin pays tribute to our current president, too:

Hilarious! This implies, of course, that Obama's economic record is nothing to brag about. His job-creation record must be much worse than that of his glorious predecessor, right? Funny thing, though, about reality. George W. Bush took two terms to eke out a job increase of 0.21%. (Actually all the growth was in the second term, because it was 0.0% for Bush's first term.) Obama managed 0.23% in a single term, and it's still increasing during his second term.

This naturally inspires a question: Who from among the GOP's leading lights could be as great a president as the much-missed George W.?

Who would you like to see as a presidential candidate?

Frankly, the gray silhouette strikes me as the most qualified and inspires the most confident. Of course, my cousin wants a Republican president who will finally get to the bottom of the Democratic president's many, many scandals. Like Benghazi:

It would be much too easy for the GOP merely to accept the many answers they've already received. Besides, they didn't like those answers. Obama and Clinton have simply refused to cooperate. They stubbornly won't admit that they deliberately arranged to have Americans killed by Muslim terrorists. If they would just confess and volunteer to go to jail, we could finally put Benghazi behind us. So clearly it's the Democrats' fault that this just keeps grinding on.

It appears that my cousin is concerned that her children are targets for terrorists—probably foreign, but possibly domestic. You can also tell, quite clearly, that the guards in the photo are packing heat. I presume it's merely a detail that these guards (a) are not at the Sidwell Friends school attended by Obama's daughters and (b) Sidwell guards do not carry firearms. My cousin, you see, has a strong aversion to fact-checking, which is likely to destroy an otherwise perfectly good story, just like most of the other posts that my cousin “liked” and “shared” from The Tea Party page on Facebook. (Today's special treat: Nutcase Allen West calls for Obama's impeachment. What? Again?)

My cousin intersperses saccharin pieties among the right-wing memes. Apparently God loves us (at least since 1954) and wants us to be happy, which is in odd conflict with the many miseries he's visited upon us, all “documented” by the right wing. Perhaps we're in the End Times!

One Nation, Under God

The end.