Archive for August, 2012

Yet More About the Supreme Court’s PPACA (Obamacare) Opinion (Part 3)

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Last time, we talked about whether the federal Anti-Injuction Act barred challenges to the PPACA. All nine justices were united in the view that it did not, which leads us to the question whether the “shared responsibility payment” (“SRP”) provision of the PPACA was within the power of Congress to enact. Here we do not find unanimity.

Justice Roberts, in the lead opinion, concludes that Congress had no power to enact the SRP under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In this conclusion he is joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito, whose reasoning closely follows that of Justice Roberts.

This issue was expected to be the heart of the case by readers of the briefs and observers of the oral argument. The Commerce Clause (along with the Necessary and Proper Clause) was the Government’s primary justification for the validity of the SRP and the primary point of attack for the challengers.

The Commerce Clause is in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution and reads as follows: “The Congress shall have the power to . . . regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. . . .” At least part of the intent behind this provision was to prevent the various states from erecting tariffs against one another (some states had done this following the Revolutionary War). But talking about the “intent” is already, as noted in an earlier entry, to begin to take sides in a controversy about how the Constitution should be applied.

Justice Roberts acknowledges that “it is now well established the Congress has broad authority under the [Commerce] Clause.” He cites the 1942 case of Wickard v. Filburn, which considered a federal quota on the amount of wheat grown per acre (the intent was to increase the price of wheat for the farmers’ benefit). Filburn argued that Congress had no power to regulate his wheat production because he used all of his wheat himself (e.g. for feeding his chickens) and did not sell it in interstate commerce. The Supreme Court upheld the law, arguing that Filburn’s violation of the quota made him less likely to purchase wheat from others. This activity, if aggregated among many wheat consumers, could have a significant effect on the price of wheat in interstate commerce and therefore triggered Congress’s power.

Justice Roberts evidently thinks that Wickard represents an extreme limit on Congressional power. As he says, even if Congress can regulate many kinds of commercial activity on the theory that affects – perhaps indirectly – interstate commerce, “Congress has never attempted to rely on [the Commerce Clause] power to compel individuals not engaged in commerce to purchase an unwanted product.” The dissent agrees, saying that Wickard has been regarded as the “ne plus ultra of expansive Commerce Clause jurisprudence.” (“Ne plus ultra” is what Gandalf says to the balrog in the Latin version of the Lord of the Rings.)

Justice Roberts and the dissent draw two conclusions here. First, no prior case construing the Commerce Clause has ever permitted Congress to require citizens to purchase a commercial product. Second, if Congress can require the purchase of a commercial product, then there is no principled limit on Congress’s power, contrary to the intent of the framers of the Constitution that the federal government was one of only limited powers. As the dissent notes, the Government was invited, at oral argument, to say what federal control over private conduct could not be justified on the same basis as the PPACA mandate. “It was unable to name any.”

The concurring opinion by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan makes an effort to answer the question “if Congress under the Commerce Clause can require citizens to purchase insurance policies, are there any principled limits on its power?” This has sometimes been expressed in a more colorful way: “Can Congress require everyone to purchase broccoli?” That question will be considered in the next entry.

Calculus classes with a live teacher?

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

There are many on-line resources for math students these days.  There are college/university level courses, such as those offered by MIT and Stanford.  There are  YouTube videos suitable for high school level study, such as Khan Academy and others.   There are also many downloadable textbooks and on-line learning aids.  A conscientious parent might ask, “What is the benefit worth paying for in having a live but on-line instructor?”

The question is both easy and hard for me to answer, because of my varied experience.  I have taken classes from teachers in person, via live video links, and on-line.  I have also learned material on my own with no teacher to interact with.  In previous blog entries, the Drs. McMenomy have discussed the virtues of finding things out on one’s own (“Freedom to fail” and “Failure is not an option” below).  So, as a student, why not tackle calculus on your own?

In an ideal context, you would have all the time you needed to explore all of the nooks and crannies, all the dead-ends, of a mathematical subject until you reached the same conclusions as previous generations of mathematicians.  Most likely, you’d be a good mathematician then, too – math certainly requires practice to do well, and you would have had a lot of practice.  But independent exploration takes a long while – unless you are an amazing genius, much more time than a year’s worth of classes.

So there’s the first reason to have a math teacher:  to shorten the time it takes to reach mastery, by pointing out unprofitable dead ends in thought.

As you learn a subject, you must make mistakes.  (This is a lesson I personally resisted for a long time – I wanted to be perfect the first time through.)  Because mathematics has a definite sense of “correct and incorrect”, of “perfect and imperfect”, it’s not so bad as with Greek or history, where there are matters of style and personal orientation.  Proofs, which can convince any sceptic, are not only possible, but expected, at least at times.  However, you have to avoid learning the mistakes you make during learning as if they were true.

So there’s the second reason to have a math teacher:  to point out the errors in your reasoning and understanding, so that you don’t have to un-learn and re-learn the material involved.  This is especially true when there’s very careful reasoning required – and calculus certainly has areas where it has taken centuries for some very bright people to reach an adequate level of care in reasoning!

Anyone who has read a textbook (or any other nonfiction book) realizes that not all the material in them is equally important. That seems pretty blatantly obvious, but not everyone sees that.  I’ve been known to grouse about professors’ pet theories which, while true, aren’t useful, using terms like “academic fantasies”.

So there’s the third reason to have a math teacher:  someone to point out the crucially important parts, and differentiate them from the merely interesting parts.  (OK, I’m not perfect there – but I try!)

But perhaps the most critical reason for an outsider’s presence in the learning activity is embodied in the statement, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  It sounds tautological, until you realize that you can know what you don’t know in some contexts (“I don’t know anything about the aorist in Greek, except that there’s something knowable under that label”), and there are so many situations possibly contrary to fact that you can’t even know them all.  (A recent example:  “Lifetime warranty” – I knew that sometimes it refers to the buyer’s lifetime, sometimes to the useful life of the product – but I didn’t know, in the sense that I really believed it in a way that I could act on it, that it might also refer to the lifetime of the company offering the product…)  There can be holes in your knowledge that you’re unaware of:  intellectual blind spots.

So there’s the fourth reason to have a math teacher:  someone to make sure that your knowledge is reliably complete.

All that said, no one can practice doing math for you, just as no one can do physical exercise for you.  Learning is the goal, and teaching one of many means to the goal.