Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Stapilus”

Benchmarks

stapiluslogo1

While much of the nation watches rapt on election night to see who wins where, what will Idahoans have to watch?

Idaho, by and large, is commonly regarded as a baked-in done deal: If an “R” rather than a “D” is attached to the name, then - with some exceptions, as in the city of Boise and a few other places - that candidate will win. The Republican for president, for Senate, for legislature and so on. For example, the FiveThirtyEight website, one of the most careful numbers analysts around, never assigns 100 percent probability to almost anything but does put (dryly) the likelihood of a Donald Trump presidential win in the Gem State at more than 99 percent.

That’s not quite the end of the story. In cases like Idaho, and other places - this applies to both parties - part of the story is in, not just who wins, but by how much, and where. These details have their own stories to tell.

To tell them a little more clearly, it helps to set some benchmarks against which the numbers on election right, or election week, can be measured.

For example, four years ago, Trump won in Idaho with 59.2 percent of the vote. That left a little more than 40 percent for others, but Democrat Hillary Clinton accounted for just 27.5 percent of it. An independent, Evan McMullin, got much of the rest. (Four years before that, Mitt Romney got 64.5 percent.) With no third party candidate on the ballot this time, what’s Trump’s percentage? Well above 60 percent, more like Romney, or below it?

The state hasn’t been polled a lot. The most frequent polling has been by SurveyMonkey, which is not a highly rated pollster; its numbers in September and October have put Trump at around 58 percent and Joe Biden at around 41. But that’s not a lot to go on.

At the U.S. Senate level, Republican Jim Risch, like Trump, gets a 99-plus percent chance of winning in Idaho. One poll from late summer by Spry Strategies showed Risch at 53 percent and Democrat Paulette Jordan at 28 percent, an advantage of about two to one, with a large chunk of voters undetermined. Six years ago, Risch received 65.3 percent of the vote (and six years before that, 57.7 percent). How does this year’s percentage stack up to those earlier numbers?

You can pose similar questions for the U.S. House members. In the first district, Republican Russ Fulcher two years ago received 62.7 percent of the vote against a low-key Democrat (and a tribe of independent and other candidates); Fulcher’s opponent this year, Rudy Soto, has been highly energetic and visible. And in the second district, Republican Mike Simpson in 2018 took 60.7 percent against Democrat Aaron Swisher (his opponent again this time), which was actually his lowest general election number since he won the office in 1998. How well will Fulcher and Simpson do this time? Are the numbers from recent elections indicators of a crack in the wall, or just minor fluctuations in the status quo?

The Idaho Legislature, overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans as it has been for close to three decades, is not likely to change much: The odds are that the Senate, with its six Democrats and 29 Republicans, and House, with its 11 Democrats and 59 Republicans, will not shift dramatically.

But there may be changes, and probably will. At least one Senate seat, in west Boise, is a strong prospect for flipping from Republican to Democratic control, and a few House seats (I’m watching a couple in Moscow and Idaho Falls especially) are also prospects. Republicans are not sitting still either, and the party’s new chair, Tom Luna, has made clear that winning back some now-Democratic seats is a high priority for the state party, and in Idaho few Democratic office holders are really safe.

On the local level, a number of county offices (I’m keeping an eye here as well on Ada County, where two commission seats flipped Democratic two years ago) merit watching.

So it shouldn’t be said of Idaho a week from Tuesday that there’s nothing to see here. The drama is lower, but the lessons could be meaningful.
 

Voter suppression

stapiluslogo1

For most of my adult life, the elections officials and political people I've been around - people of both parties - were advocates both visibly and privately for getting people out to vote. Candidates and parties always recognized that some groups of people were more or less likely to support them, and their answer to this was to try to encourage as many of those likely to back them to get to the polls.

I own and have read a number of books on political campaigns, accounts of them and how to run them. When it comes to voter turnout, they all have said much the same: The answer is to be found is getting as many of your supporters as possible to the polls (or the ballot box, as the case may be).

The election officials I've known were serious and dedicated to the principle that everyone legally allowed to vote should do that, and doing that should be as easy as we can make it.

It's worth restating all this because somehow, in the last decade or so, this basic, core, obvious principle has been increasingly abandoned by one of our major political parties, the Republicans. There are stray cases among Democrats, but nationally active voter suppression - a term once rarely used, and seldom greeted with anything other than an instant and fierce denial - has become a commonplace, and in many parts of the country Republican officials seldom even both any more to deny it.

The American Civil Liberties Union describes on one web page "Suppression efforts range from the seemingly unobstructive, like voter ID laws and cuts to early voting, to mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement. And long before election cycles even begin, legislators can redraw district lines that determine the weight of your vote. Certain communities are particularly susceptible to suppression and in some cases, outright targeted — people of color, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities."

In Texas, counties with populations larger than the state of Idaho have to make do with a single advance voting box. In Ohio this week: "In Columbus, the line stretched for a quarter of a mile. In Cuyahoga county, the hours-long wait began before polls even opened. All of this was entirely predictable. Thanks to an Ohio state law passed in 2006 by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Republican governor, the number of in-person early voting sites is limited to just one per county."

The League of Women Voters, traditionally a good-government organization dedicated simply to participation in our system of self-governance, now is in the middle of a political fight: "Voting rights are under attack. In recent years, politicians in dozens of states have erected intentional barriers to our right to vote, including forcing discriminatory voter ID and proof-of-citizenship restrictions on eligible voters, reducing polling place hours in communities of color, cutting early voting opportunities and illegally purging voters from the rolls."

The subject has - appallinglly - become far too vast for a single column. The point here is to say just this:

Anyone in politics who makes voter suppression happen, allows it to happen or simply stands by when it happens and could do something to stop it, should forfeit any public trust or responsibility. It should be an absolute disqualifier for that person from holding any public office, now or ever.

We need a suppression, for the generations to come, of anyone who engages in voter suppression.
 

Are we listening?

stapiluslogo1

Whatever else you think about Democrat Rudy Soto’s campaign for Congress in Idaho’s 1st district, whether you approve of him and his platform, this much is clear: He’s doing what a candidate should do.

Soto is traveling the first district - no small place, 500 miles or so from top to bottom - intensively, and getting some news coverage. He’s holding events, and has made himself available to voters. He’s issued a pile of press releases (not in unreasonable numbers, but plenty of them) on pertinent and sometimes thoughtful subjects. He’s held his incumbent opponent - Republican Representative Russ Fulcher - to account, dissecting his record in some detail.

There are candidates who file for the office and then maybe show up for the debate but mostly just wait for the results on election night. Soto isn’t one of those: He’s a serious candidate.

There are other serious candidates out there, too, and these days, many of them - those running where they’re in a partisan or other minority - often feel frustrated, and often for good reason.

So my question, pointed not at the candidate but at the constituency: Is anyone listening?

That’s not a call for simply accepting his campaign case. It’s a call for giving it some serious consideration, something that’s probably not much happening.

Back a generation and more ago, more of us probably did listen more. When the heated Senate race between Democrat Frank Church and Republican Steve Symms was underway, both of them campaigned everywhere in the state, and people heard them out. Minds sometimes were changed. Many people resisted the urge to simply hop on Team A or Team B, and actually struggled with what they should do.

Now many of us live in a bubble, and we tend to dismiss people and arguments from outside it. Ask a Republican running in Seattle or Portland (there are a few) what kind of a listen they get in those places. You’d probably find the same for Democrats in Idaho outside of Boise and a few other small places: A reception that's ordinarily polite, but effectively dismissive.

This is not the way we the people are supposed to do politics: Take in one simplistic label (that of a party, usually, but sometimes something else) and decide that’s enough information. It isn’t, not if we’re correctly doing our jobs as self-governing citizens .

It’s a sad turn of events. In generations past, getting information at all about candidates, about the issues before us, was far more difficult than it is now; today, our access is broad. Our wisdom in making use of that access is what seems to be falling short.

We have no lack of useful options.

During the fall seasons of odd-numbered years, our household television is tuned mostly to C-SPAN and its showing of candidate debates around the country (the only kind of reality TV I can abide). They’re plenty dramatic and educational as well. When you hear arguments from South Carolina or Iowa reprised in Idaho, you get a fresh light on them; which make sense, and which don’t. You get a larger, broader picture than you might from a single local debate in which many of the issues may be personalized.

Debates and forums are well worth watching, and we watch as many as we can. (On the presidential level, I watched my first general election debate in 1976, and haven’t missed one since. This next week’s, if it happens, may be especially noteworthy.)

That’s one option, and there are many more. On the flip side, we try to be careful in parsing what we see in social media and other places where agendas often drive facts, rather than the other way around. It’s easy to drown in misinformation.

But one way to make smarter choices is - and this is actually not too hard to do in this season - to listen to the candidates. To Rudy Soto, and Russ Fulcher. And all the others. If they’re willing to put themselves out there to do your work, you can put forth a little effort to listen to them, and think about what they have to say. And then make up your mind.
 

An endorsement: Joe Biden

stapiluslogo1

In approaching a half-century of writing about politics, I’ve never written a candidate endorsement before. Now, in this fearsome fall of 2020, it’s beholden on us all to speak up.

This is an endorsement of Joe Biden for president.

I’ll try to keep this as short and simple as I can. The case can be made best at length - whole shelves, maybe libraries, of books make the case either for why Biden should be elected on November 3, or - especially - why the incumbent, Donald Trump, should not. But there seems little point in rehashing all of it; I’d be writing and you’d be reading (if you were that determined) for weeks.

You could argue that I made an endorsement - or, actually, anti-endorsement - four years ago. Then, I published a series of 100 posts outlining 100 leading reasons - not the only reasons, just those I thought most crucial - why electing Trump would be an enormous mistake. Nearly all of it, I think, holds up; the negatives those 100 posts pointed out then have sprouted over the last four years into much of the walking catastrophe we’ve seen since. Still, that was only an argument against, and it applied only to what might happen: Once in office, Trump should be judged primarily on the basis of what he has done there.

And we should remember a few of those reasons …

Trump has been the most dishonest public figure - not just president, not just political figure, but the most dishonest public figure of nearly any sort - in recent generations. Nothing he or the people who work for him can be relied upon, and that has been the case since day one. The outright lies alone number in the thousands.

Trump cannot be depended on to protect our country. We cannot even tell, from the weight of his actions and statements, whether his loyalty is primarily to this country. He repeatedly has taken the side of dictators and adversaries of the United States over our own people, over the troops he commands and the intelligence agencies that work for us. We know that he has held secret conversations - under unusual, even unprecedented conditions - with leaders of countries adversarial to us, and not reported back to us what was said. He and his family have had business dealings with several of them. He owes, we are told (and this appears to be undisputed) hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, we know not to whom.

Trump has done whatever he can to turn the government of this country - the government we pay for and that operates under our authority - into a service bureau for his personal benefit. He sees the Department of Justice not as an agency to deliver legal service for the country, rather as a personal legal service for him. One agency after another is seen in a similar light: The Department of State, in one atrocious example, has been perverted for use as a political dirty tricks operation. (And let it be remembered: The case for impeachment from a year ago was and remains rock solid.)

Trump has divided this country more than any president before him. The election of Abraham Lincoln may have helped trigger the Civil War, but he spent his whole presidency in a crusade for union and unity. In contrast, Trump has declared flatly his loyalty to people who “like” him and virtually declared war on everyone else. He has tried to start baseless criminal actions against his political opponents, leading supporters in chants calling for imprisoning his opponents. He has tried to undermine and damage one institution in this country after another, including the news organizations which are among the few checks on him. He has found one group after another to serve as a target to inflame his base, to the point of repeatedly encouraging white supremacists and their activities. He has lent implicit egging-on support to the id of his base to attack other Americans - which led with easy predictability to the recent conspiracy to kidnap and possibly kill a state governor; to which his response was to blame that conspiracy on the governor. The Trump Administration's own FBI has called groups like this one of the top threats facing the country today; Trump offers them comfort and support. (The frequently extremist court appointments many of Trump’s supporters like so much also have contributed, badly, to this nation’s divisions.)

Trump has demonstrated no awareness or understanding of the principles of justice and liberty this nation always has aspired to. He does not even give lip service to such concepts as freedom and the aspirations of individuals. He has made clear that in his world view, only one individual matters - himself.

Trump has undermined our ability to govern ourselves by making repeated statements and actions aimed at undermining our elections - most notably the next one, and perhaps worst of all by refusing to say he would accept the verdict of the election results. Or maybe worst of all his (and often his party's) efforts to jam, manipulate or suppress the vote - to deprive Americans of their right to choose their leaders. Either way, his statements and action show he is uninterested in a government of, by or for the people: He is a dictator wannabe, and will be if he can get away with it.

Trump is hopelessly incompetent. He was a vastly overrated businessman - by many accounts failing badly and needing his 2016 presidential campaign as a personal marketing gimmick - but as president he has been much worse. “I alone can fix it” was a lie from his first nominating convention; like a large wild animal in an antique shop, he has demolished or damaged nearly everything he has touched, not least the reputations of the people so unwise as to work in his administration, and the once-proud political party whose banner he carries.

Trump has turned fact and science into an irrelevancy. In a universe of "alternative facts," we have a government of only incoherence, whether the subject is climate change, foreign policy, education or almost anything else.

Trump has damaged our standing internationally. He has mindlessly torn up useful agreements and damaged our key alliances, and given priceless assistance to almost every nation around the world that wishes us ill. He has managed to get wrong almost everything about our most complex relationships - notably China.

Trump has damaged and continues to try to further damage the well-being of our people. The most obvious example is in his thoughtless and self-centered approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, a weak and counterproductive miasma that has made him the reason tens of thousands of Americans have died. Not content with that, his administration has moved aggressively to take health insurance coverage away (formerly through legislation and now through a still-alive legal case his administration is backing) from tens of millions of Americans - a breathtaking attack on his fellow Americans at any time, but bad almost beyond belief in a time of pandemic. He has damaged the governmental agencies he is supposed to manage; his attempts to wreck the Post Office, on an apparent mission of personal spite and for his attempted political benefit, is only one recent example. Trump’s base likes to credit him for an economy faring well pre-Covid-19, but that was simply a continuation of the economic structure set in place during Barack Obama’s second term; the economy’s collapse this year (by no means over) would have been far less painful under reasonably capable administration.

Much else - many other issues or concerns that ought to be disqualifying for a president or any other office of public trust, and probably ought to be included here - may be debatable. But these points are clear, established and for all meaningful purposes irrefutable. You need no more than the public record and Trump's own statements and actions to anchor them. There is no substantial positive case, for anyone other than a true believer, for the incumbent.

These problems are not ideological: They do not relate to a “liberal” or “conservative” point of view (whatever those may be). These problems are worse. Each and every one of these problems should constitute a clear disqualifier from the presidency.

Donald Trump is by a very long shot the worst president in the nation’s history, and whoever your choice for second place was a whole lot better.

And the subtext of all this, across the board, is that all of it would get much worse in a second term.

But enough about the incumbent. I write here to endorse Joe Biden.

The first point in doing that is to emphasize that none of what I just said about Donald Trump is or would be true of Joe Biden. Unlike the incumbent, he is not ignorant of the nation, its operating principles and aspirations, the needs of its people, or the functioning of its government. His loyalty to the nation and its people is without question. How successful he would be at healing the divisions is an unknown, but he would at least try, rather than deliberately become the human wrecking ball the incumbent is. He would almost instantly improve our standing in the world and our relationships with other nations. He would re-establish some stability and an ability to practically cope with problems (Covid-19, for one example), an ability the current leadership lacks completely.

But the case for Biden doesn’t rest just on a relative absence of negatives.

He is deeply experienced in governing, and he has a good track record. He was a loyal and from all appearances highly capable vice president, and a central advisor in the Oval Office for eight years; he knows how the place runs, and could step in competently on day one. He served respectably in the United States Senate for decades. His own state - during periods both when it was dominated by his own and by the opposing party (it has shifted over time) - approved of the job he did. He chaired two major committees, and was commonly spoken of positively by members of both parties. Republican John McCain famously was a close friend. Biden has not served in the military (and neither did Trump) but family members have, and he has had a close tie to the national defense (and he does not trash it, as the incumbent so often has).

Probably more important than all this, you can hear in Biden’s speeches and his interactions with people - not just now, in the campaign, but through the decades - his awareness and understanding of what the United States is, the principles that animate it and make it a special place. He understands those things and internalizes them.

Biden also has an understanding of the substance of the presidency, the serious problems and the changes coming, foreign and domestic. He does have a grasp of the real world, not the construct of fantasy-conspiracy illusions so sadly popular in his opposition.

Biden has shown a level demeanor, a calm temperament and an ability to cope intelligently and appropriately with setbacks and problems. He has shown that he understands the office of the president and the federal government are not about him but about the people of the country, and he has not only said explicitly but demonstrated that he can and will act in the office in the larger good, not on the narrow behalf of himself and his most intense supporters.

Oh, and while this ordinarily wouldn’t be so big a point of distinction between two presidential candidates, it is in this case: Joe Biden, from all appearances, history and description, is a decent guy who cares about other people. When that quality is so completely absent in the opposition, it does matter.

Much of this does not, in itself, make Joe Biden a super-spectacular choice for president. Many people I have known, including quite a few politicians of both parties, have had many of these qualities too. They are not on the ballot. Joe Biden is. And he has what it takes to be a good president.

Some elections I have seen over the last half-century have involved difficult choices. This is not one of them. Considering the alternative - and don’t delude yourself that anyone other than the Democrat or the Republican is a real option - this should be the easiest presidential choice of our lifetimes. Of our nation's history, for that matter.

So here’s the endorsement: In the general election, vote for Joe Biden for president.

(photo/Gage Skidmore)
 

What needs protection

stapiluslogo1

Responses to presidential tweets aren’t typical material for this space, but this was an Idaho-focused tweet, and it seems worth a few more than 280 characters.

President Donald Trump’s missive, part of a Wednesday tweetstorm, said, “DEMS WANT TO SHUT YOUR CHURCHES DOWN, PERMANENTLY. HOPE YOU SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING. VOTE NOW!” For reference, it was attached to a video showing arrests at Moscow of people involved in a “psalm sing” held by a local church.

Arresting people in the midst of religious activity sounds, on its face, pretty bad. But before you judge, you need to consider a few facts, as the president should have and probably didn’t.

Moscow city’s rules about wearing masks in public places (where distancing is not possible or unreliable) have changed over time, but they are not arbitrary. Latah County, mostly meaning Moscow, has reported more than 600 cases of Covid-19. The city describes its intent: “A combination of physical distancing and face coverings in Moscow is required when in public. In public spaces, social distancing is the most challenging piece of the puzzle to define. For instance, while any patron may fully intend to physically distance themselves from another in a store aisle, sometimes the best intentions don’t work out. These instances are when face coverings or masks are a great tool to help protect our friends and neighbors.”

The point is respecting and avoiding harm to other people, which I learned in Sunday School as a core principle.

Moscow Christ Church took exception. Moving beyond online activities (which many churches use as a prime option), and even moving well outside its church building, a group of parishioners parked themselves in front of Moscow City Hall and started a maskless and loud “psalm sing” - the kind of activity that has been shown, in hundreds of cases around the country, to spread Covid-19.

If the Christ Church group had simply wanted to engage in worship, they could have done that at their church, or another private location, and almost surely would have been left alone. (We’ll leave aside that these kinds of events, too, have been super-spreader incidents.) Choosing the location at City Hall was a political provocation much more than a religious activity, evidently intended to draw a response from city officials. A few arrests, including one of a county commission candidate (you can get a hint of the political purpose here), gave them what they presumably wanted.

A pastor of the church was quoted, “We wanted to make a statement we’re ready to head back to normal.” Deliberately engineering a street confrontation with local police sounds like an innovative way to do that.

The Christ Church building and organization have been unaffected; they were not shut down, or threatened (as they shouldn’t be).

But what some of its parishioners seem to have forgotten - as many anti-maskers have - is that the restrictions and rules around the pandemic are not just about their own freedom and even their own willingness to risk sickness and death. Personally, I don’t have a problem with their willingness to do those things as long as they don’t affect other people.

The problem is that events like a “psalm sing” in the middle of downtown in the middle of a pandemic do affect other people. It’s not just their own lives these singers were putting at risk: They were risking other people’s health and lives as well, and they have no right whatever to do that. They are making the same argument as (I’ve remarked this before, and probably will again) a drunk who wants to drive and justifies it with, “If I want to take the risk, why not?” The why not is that everyone else on the road is at risk too.

So the president’s tweet fails on two grounds.

First, no churches were shut down in Moscow. Christ Church continues to offer worship. Worship continues in America.

And second, the president fails to account for all the people put at risk of immediate harm. Public safety is one of the core services governments, local and national, are supposed to provide, and doing that is supposed to be part of the president’s job.
 

The third wave is here

stapiluslogo1

After long enough, a change in conditions often are taken for granted or dismissed as not meaning much, and for some people the Covid-19 epidemic may fall into one category or the other. A significant number of people, having survived intact over the last half-year or so, may decide enough is enough: Is this still a big deal?

It’s an understandable question. But yes, it is a big deal.

The retired CEO of St. Luke’s Health, David Pate, who has been watching the situation closely, last week remarked, “I think we are a week into our third spike that is going to be bigger than either of the ones before it. … Every week we are opening up another school and we are putting more kids in classrooms.” And he appeared to be speaking very much with Idaho in mind.

You may be among those thinking that’s just fear mongering.

It isn’t.

The Covid-19 epidemic, with us now since late last winter, clearly will be with us in the next one, and its impact is not slowing down. Historians of pandemics such as this, point out that they tend to come in waves - large bunches of cases followed by smaller numbers, then another large batch. That was the case with the Spanish flu epidemic a century ago, and it seems to be the case with Covid-19 now.

Idaho doesn’t often come to mind as a key pandemic state. It was relatively late to the game in picking up cases, and its population, small among the states, means its raw numbers are lighter than many others.

But Idaho’s ranking among the states ought to be sobering. In midsummer, the state ranked in the 40s (among the 50 states), the bottom in cases per capita and most other measures. Not any more. At present it has the 18th most cases per capita among the 50 states - above the national average (it had been far below) and worse than such long-running hotspot areas as Illinois and the District of Columbia. Idaho has had more cases per capita than New Jersey, and almost as many as New York. Chew on that.

Idaho has more than 8,000 cases more than Oregon, which has more than two and a half times the Gem State’s population.

But Idaho has been a national hotspot for months, and last week it showed signs of picking up again; several areas (especially in eastern Idaho and the Magic Valley) were breaking records for the most new cases in the last day or week. At this writing, Idaho is at 42,561 cases; two months ago, the state was at 21,114. Two months before that - just four months ago - the number was 2,839.

The deaths are climbing steadily. Almost three-quarters of Idaho’s counties now report at least one.

The pandemic is not limited in its spread, either.

Most of the attention goes to the bigger counties, like Ada with its 13,256 cases, or Twin Falls with 2,424, or Kootenai with 2,773. (Last spring such numbers would have sounded fantastical to many people.)

But every county has reported cases, and that may be most striking in some of Idaho’s smallest - by population - counties. The county with the fewest cases at 26, is Oneida. This is a county which came to the pandemic late, and contains only about 4,500 people, which translates to one case per 173 people. But that statistic is actually far from the worst. Owyhee County, as rugged and rural as you can get, has a case of Covid-19 for every 35 people (335 cases). Clark County, with a population under 900, has 35 cases - which means one for every 24 people.

When I think of counties like Camas or Clark or Owyhee or Oneida, I think of wide open spaces and people who already are naturally and almost extremely socially distanced. The idea that Covid-19 has landed significantly in these places comes as a shock.

But there it is.

I wrote months ago that this threat is real and should be taken seriously. I say it again. Just watch the numbers, if you can. Watch them grow.
 

An Idaho case and the Notorious RGB

stapiluslogo1

This is from a column I wrote June 13, 2013, with some seeming resonance now . . .

To most non-lawyers, the Idaho-originated Supreme Court case of Reed v. Reed is a little obscure, not one of those few like Roe v. Wade many people could grasp immediately.

But Reed was a pivot in modern society, and it’s especially worth recalling with the death last week of Allen Derr, the soft-spoken Boise lawyer who improbably pushed it to the highest court in the land and was a central part of changing the law as it applies to men and women in America.

(Disclosure here: Last year I worked for a time with Derr on a book about the case; he apparently was still at work assembling materials for that project at the time of his death.)

Up to 1971, the law often treated the genders differently. Illinois had a law barring women from practicing law; the Supreme Court upheld it. It also upheld an Oregon law limiting work hours for women but not for men, and a Michigan law keeping women from tending bar. There were many such laws around the country, and for decades the Supreme Court had a perfect record of sustaining them.

The Idaho law that got Sally Reed’s, and Allen Derr’s, dander up, seemed just one more of the kind.
In March 1967 Reed’s son, Skip, died and left behind a few personal effects and $495 in a savings account. (That was the treasure over which a nation’s laws would change.) She and her ex-husband Cecil, the boy’s father, each applied in probate court to be administrator of Skip’s estate. Cecil got the appointment, but not, as the judge acknowledged, because Sally Reed was in any way disqualified. It was because the Idaho Code on probate said this: “Of several persons claiming and equally entitled to administer, males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the half blood.” Cecil had an automatic preference because he was male.

It was that automatic preference Sally Reed and Derr wanted to challenge. Early on, Derr decided to attack the statute as unconstitutional, and he got mixed responses in the Idaho courts, winning in district court and losing at the state Supreme Court. Expenses were piling up, but the two headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite its long history of supporting state laws of this type.

Once the case was accepted for hearing, Derr did get help from a number of quarters. One of the central workers on the case with Derr was a then little-known attorney, now a Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it was Derr who personally argued the case before the court.

Changing course, drastically, the court ruled that, “To give a mandatory preference to members of either Sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

It was the first time women had been specifically included in equal protection provisions. Although the case strictly was about probate administration, Reed has turned out to be a major precedent in many Supreme Court and lower cases ever since in the area of women’s rights.

An Idaho case. An Idaho lawyer. Who died last week.

. . . That’s from 2013. Back in the now, a week ago saw the death of another major and essential participant in that story: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court justice.

The attention focused on RBG, and the resulting politics and conflict, in recent days has somewhat obscured the actual work she did and the effect she has had on the lives of specific Americans. This Idaho story seems worth recounting partly by way of pointing out her impact: The Reed case, times many, many more.

And it may sharpen our perspective a little on the decisions of today, when we try to think ahead to consider what life effects on actual Americans her replacement on the court will have had, seen from a perspective of many years hence.
 

Risk and the attachment of strings

stapiluslogo1

Earlier this year, most of us received a federal payment for $1,200 - twice that for many households with two qualifying people - that came about as close as anything does to being free money.

Our tax dollars paid for it, of course, but we recipients didn’t pay taxes on it, and we weren’t limited in what we could do with it. Some people may have put it in a savings account, but many probably used it to buy things, from beer to medical supplies to a household utility.

For some people this may have felt like a simple windfall; for others, who lost work or otherwise saw financial pressures, it may have been a lifeline. From a national, big-picture, perspective, there was another benefit. The economy, cratered by a pandemic, was experiencing a massive loss of circulating money, which in turn hurt businesses and other organizations and the people who were paid by them, and - in another turn of the wheel - damaged the governments and non-profits on which people rely.

That massive infusion of money helped; our economic situation would be worse if it hadn’t happened. In the case of the individual payments, part of what helped was the simple fact that we recipients didn’t have to worry about how we could use the money. Whatever we did, as long as the money was put to use, would help keep the wheels turning.

Another part of the massive federal payout was the part of the CARES Act that, in a somewhat similar way, gave to state governments big piles of money to spend, partly with the same goal in mind - to keep economic activity chugging along. Governments, more than individuals, ought to take care to spend wisely, and the states have adopted a variety of approaches for doing that. Sometime soon, someone ought to analyze those approaches and try to determine what worked best.

In Idaho, Governor Brad Little tried to be deliberate about the money and, as would make sense, get as much value for it as possible. But this federal money didn’t arrive entirely without strings attached. Among the requirements was that the money be used for a purpose that related to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of Little’s efforts was this: Give about $200 million in grants (some of it but not all to counties) as reimbursement for public safety costs linked somehow to Covid-19. The money would be used for public safety budgets (possibly including some public health costs), which account for a significant piece of the cost of a county budget, so you might think the counties would swiftly grab for the bucks.

Some of them have. But not all. A number of counties are turning down the free money, and their reasons don’t relate to simplistic ideology or stubbornness. They do have practical concerns.

Idaho’s second-largest county, Canyon, is turning down about $10 million. Why? The county’s controller was reported as saying, “the U.S. Treasury guidance says funds can be used for expenses reasonably necessary for coronavirus response, while the Office of the Inspector General states documentation for payroll expenses must be available to prove the expenses were related to COVID-19.” It might mean, for example, the sheriff’s office would have to document how its activities have been driven by the pandemic - which costs and how many working hours are specifically related to it. That might be hard to do, and could be easy to challenge.

The county clerk warned taking the money “could be trouble down the road.”

Some other counties, including Latah, have expressed similar concerns.

Others are less worried. Ada County is taking its $16.4 million, and officials there - and in a number of other places - said that normal financial recordkeeping should be enough to demonstrate the money was used for pandemic-related purposes.

They could be right. But the unease is not unreasonable either.

The rules, limitations and restrictions on the spending of the money are there largely to ensure the money isn’t spent irrationally or with an eye to graft or corruption, and that’s fair enough. But if the money is going to accomplish its larger purposes, a certain amount of freedom of action will be needed too.
 

Disruption

schmidt

With no Republican Platform and four more years of “the Disrupter in Chief” looking likely, we better start embracing disruption.

I have argued the health care industry in this country could use it. We have a huge, wasteful medical industrial complex that isn’t serving our “health”. It serves our 401k’s maybe, but we are not getting the health care we pay for.

But we keep buying it.

The Affordable Care Act was not an attempt at disruption, despite what the Freedom Foundation claims. It tightened some insurance industry regulations, it mandated universal coverage through a tax penalty and it tried to make individual coverage affordable. But it was essentially based on the current health insurance system. Democrats howled that the “government option” wasn’t included. Obama tried to buy Republican votes. He didn’t want too much disruption. Maybe that’s really what the Republicans want, major disruption.

Maybe when our President is reelected and his Supreme Court nominees get to hear the Republican lawsuit to overturn the law, they will find it “unconstitutional”. Then we can go back to the good old days when 40 million were uninsured. No doubt it will be many more now, with the higher costs and higher unemployment. Losing health insurance coverage, through loss of a job or unaffordability, or through SCOTUS decision in the middle of a pandemic will be a disrupter. Maybe that’s what America wants, disruption.

This wave of Covid-caused unemployment has given us a few months to see what disruption feels like. A survey back in June when unemployment was at 13% found about a fifth of the people who had lost their jobs were now without health insurance coverage. Even more telling, the majority who had lost their jobs did not have health insurance coverage through that now-gone employment. Like always, disruption hits the poor hardest.

It was amazing that the vast majority (74%), Republicans (65%) and Democrats (80%) thought the government should make health coverage available and affordable for them if they lost employment-based coverage.

You get disruption when you tear down a system. Heck, even minor tweaks can get peoples shorts twisted. Remember the outrage, the Tea Party fervor, the Fox News tirades about the Affordable Care Act? They made it sound like this middle of the road proposal was as threatening to our freedom as fascism. Where was Antifa then?

Even if you have a plan to replace what you tear down, the change can be painful. But the “repeal and replace” bumper sticker is fading on the Trumpwagen; no replacement in the Republican Platform. Actually, there was nothing in the Republican Platform at this year’s crowning, ahem, convention except “we want whatever He wants”.

So, we are experiencing pandemic disruption and it’s affecting people’s attitudes toward healthcare. If Trump and Republicans get what they say they really want, that is the repeal of the Band Aid Affordable Care Act, we might find ourselves in just the state of chaos we need.

Then, since Congress can’t act, can’t govern, can’t deliberate, we might get the miracle “Executive Order”. Halleluiah.

And that will mean the end of our representative democracy. We might just be proving we are incapable of governing ourselves. I hope not. I fear so.

Many times, when talking with patients about their healthcare decisions, I sensed their confusion, their frustration with the uncertainty of a choice their health was placing before them. Often, they would ask me to decide for them. “What should I do, doc?” It’s very tempting. Indeed, I have seen many doctors decide for patients what they thought “was best”.

But experience has taught me, people always do better when they have ownership of the decisions they have to live with. And that’s what our representative government system is supposed to promote, shared ownership of decisions for the common good. Let’s not give up on it.