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  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 12:48 pm on April 17, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , health care, healthcare reform, language of politics, Obamacare, politics,   

    How the language of politics could doom Obamacare 

    For politicians there are lots of topics that are simply too hot to handle. Social security reform, abortion, gay marriage — these are all crucial issues, but many politicians hate taking strong positions on them. It’s not hard to see why: Do so, and there goes the vote of an entire demographic.

    But if there’s one word, particularly in recent years, that is anathema to more than just one or another segment of the voting public, it’s the “T” word: taxes. At all costs, don’t tell people you’re hitting them with new taxes. Especially if you’re already trying to pass a controversial new mega-suite of laws like . . . say . . . Obamacare.

    That’s precisely what Obama and the Democrats did with their healthcare reform package. They took great pains to tell people that reform did not mean new taxes.

    One of the centerpieces of the bill is what the government calls the “minimum care provision.”  Its opponents prefer to call it the “individual mandate.” Whatever you want to call it, it means (almost) everybody must obtain at least some health insurance by 2014. The government claims this is necessary to keep premiums down once insurers are forced to cover people they otherwise would not.

    So far so good. But once 2014 rolls around, anybody that fails to get minimum coverage will be taxed . . . er, “penalized” . . . to cover their share of the expense. Here’s where things get tricky: Is this sanction a tax (gasp!)? Or is it a penalty? Well, in the law itself, Congress prefers to call it a penalty. This “penalty,” though, is assessed on a person’s tax returns, and the provision is even part of the tax code. It bears all the markers of a tax on those without minimum coverage, but, presumably for political reasons, Congress chose to call it a penalty instead.

    What they perhaps didn’t realize was that their refusal to call the tax a tax might cause problems for the law’s constitutionality.

    Congress has a broad authority under the Constitution to raise taxes. It uses this authority all the time to make people pay for things they might not otherwise want. Whether it be farm subsidies, alternative energy, or national defense, Congress’s tax power let’s them force us to buy things, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But Congress cannot constitutionally impose a penalty on people for refusing to buy a certain product. This is beyond even the reach of the commerce power. It’s a distinction simultaneously very fine and very intuitively obvious — the government can make you (help) pay for other people’s food stamps, but it can’t make you go out and buy broccoli.

    The Sixth Circuit jumped on this distinction, and the lawmakers’ fear of the “T” word, in one of the challenges to the health law (though it eventually upheld the law on other grounds):

    Congress might have raised taxes on everyone in an amount equivalent to the current penalty, then offered credits to those with minimum essential insurance. Or it might have imposed a lower tax rate on people with health insurance than those without it. But Congress did neither of these things, and that makes a difference. . . .

    The individual mandate is a regulatory penalty, not a revenue-raising tax . . . . That is what Congress said. It called the sanction for failing to obtain medical insurance a “penalty,” not a tax. Words matter, and it is fair to assume that Congress knows the difference between a tax and a penalty . . . making it appropriate to take Congress at its word. That is all the more true in an era when elected officials are not known for casually discussing, much less casually increasing, taxes.

    Thomas More L. Ctr. v. Obama, 651 F.3d 529, 550-51 (6th Cir. 2011) (emphasis added).

    Even once the challenge reached the Supreme Court, the government did not push the Justices to uphold the law under the Taxing Clause. Instead they focused on Congress’s broad authority under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses to regulate what they consider to be economic activity (i.e., participation in the healthcare market, which, the argument goes, all of us do simply because we are entitled to treatment whether or not we can pay, forcing those that can to pay for those that cannot). The merits of that argument are not my point here, but if you’re interested check out SCOTUSblog‘s (very thorough) coverage.

    Instead, what I’m interested in is the fact that the language of politics — avoid “taxes” at all costs — led the government to forfeit perhaps its surest defense of the law. The Sixth Circuit judge said as much in the two paragraphs above.

    At first blush, it seems silly that saying “penalty” when you mean “tax” could be the difference between blatant unconstitutionality and perfect acceptability. But perhaps Judge Martin has a point. Don’t we want to hold politicians accountable for what they say and the language they use to say it? Isn’t that especially so when that language is meant to mislead?

    That seems to be precisely what Judge Martin is doing. He’s telling politicians that he’s going to take seriously what they actually say, especially when there’s reason to believe they mean something different but don’t want to let the rest of us know.

    If the language of politics can be used to mask an unpopular proposal, then it should have to be used subsequently to defend that proposal too. To put it differently: If you want to bamboozle the voting public with deceptive language, by all means do so. Once you’ve made your bed, however, you have no choice but to lie in it.

    Oh, and when I say “lie,” there is no pun intended.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:30 am on January 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: affirmation, bible, britain, christianity, court, , i swear to tell the truth, , islam, justice, , , politics, religion, sharia, swear   

    I swear (affirm?) that I will tell the truth 

    I was watching a Kannada soap opera last night (because I have apparently become an elderly Indian woman as of late) and a scene in a courtroom caught my attention. One of the characters was being questioned, and before she gave her testimony she was asked to declare her intention to speak the truth.

    ಸತ್ಯವನ್ನು ಹೇಳುತ್ತೇನೆ , ಸತ್ಯವನಲ್ಲದೆ ಬೇರೆ ಏನು ಹೇಳುವುದಿಲ್ಲ , ನಾ ಹೇಳುವುದೆಲ್ಲ ಸತ್ಯ |

    satyavannu hēḷuttēne, satyavanallade bērēnu hēḷuvudilla, nānu hēḷuvudella satya

    I will speak the truth; I will not speak anything that isn’t true; everything I say is the truth.

    That segment caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

    First, that the declaration was different from our familiar U.S. oath, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

    But of course it wouldn’t be the same. While an objectively large number of people in India use English as a second or third language (some 125 millionaccording to the latest census, nearly half the population of the United States), that still only comes out to about 10 or 11 percent of the country’s population.

    It would be fundamentally unjust for court proceedings to be carried out in a language with which the parties were unfamiliar — even though that probably happens regularly, since there are only (!) 22 scheduled languages of India and hundreds more unrecognized dialects and minority languages.

    So, okay, the witness’s declaration was taken in Kannada. The action takes place in the state of Karnataka, where the two official languages are Kannada and English, so a witness could plausibly use either language. That makes sense. (Plus, it was a Kannada soap.)

    Another thing that caught my attention was that there was no religious sentiment expressed in the declaration. India is a highly religious country, with upwards of three-fourths of the country declaring that religion is important to them. In the U.S., that rate is a little lower, at 65%, but the most famous form of our witness declaration here does explicitly invoke God — “… so help me God,” a line that is usually delivered, scripted, by court bailiffs, along with a Bible.

    In American law, an oath specifically references God. The OED agrees: an oath is specifically a type of declaration that “invokes God, a god, or other object of reverence.” Those who don’t want to make an oath instead provide an “affirmation,” which starts with “I affirm…” instead of “I swear…” and omits the reference to God. Affirming is referenced four times in the U.S. Constitution as an alternative to swearing, and Britain has allowed affirmations instead of swearing since 1695.

    Regardless of whether you swear or affirm, if you lie, you can be charged with perjury, a serious crime.

    Other declarations abroad
    In Britain, oaths are given slightly differently from the American version:

    I swear by [Almighty God/Name of God/name of the holy scripture] that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Affirmations in Britain require several more hedges than an oath, perhaps because of a cultural suspicion against people who affirm rather than swear: “I swear to tell the truth…” is such a well-known phrase that any deviance from that — regardless of how legal it is — can be regarded with suspicion.

    In Britain, one doesn’t simply “affirm” — one solemnly and sincerely and truly declares and affirms:

    I do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    In the U.S., one can simply affirm. Atheist and former Governor of California Culbert Olson, in office from 1939 to 1943, famously said to California Supreme Court Justice Waste, “God [can't] help me at all, and there isn’t any such person.” He chose to say “I will affirm,” rather than “I swear” during his oath of office.

    According to one of my friends in France (hi, Benoît!), the common declaration given by witnesses in France is:

    Je jure de parler sans haine et sans crainte, de dire toute la vérité, rien que la vérité.

    I swear to speak without anger and without fear, to say the entire truth, nothing but the truth.

    My friend writes, “Because France is a non-religious country, there isn’t any trace of God in any institutions.” I’m sure truth is more nuanced than that, but the French people are certainly less religious than the United States. But the word – jurer – used in the oath is similar to “swear.” Jurer usually carries the same valence as the English “swear” (in that it has religious undertones) and it also has the same secondary meaning of “to curse.” But jurer can also translate to “certify” or “pledge,” words that carry no religious undertones in English.

    Another one of my friends, a walking encyclopedia of Islam (hi, Ahmad!), gave me an overview of Muslim declarations of truthfulness. In many majority-Muslim countries, cases that are tried under Shari’ah law (today, usually family law disputes) require an oath to be given by witnesses. However, unlike Western civil courts, the oath is traditionally given after testimony is given. Once the judge collects all the testimony, he asks the parties to swear on the Qur’an or by God that what they have said is true, or else bringing upon them divine wrath. (Incidentally, this traditional oath appeared in the recent Golden Globe-winning Iranian film A Separation, which I highly recommend.)

    Back home

    The U.S. government is explicitly areligious, but a profession of faith is built directly into the common understanding of court procedure. Of course, there’s no law requiring nonbelievers to swear. But it’s undeniably unfair when free deviance from a set religious phrase, scripted and delivered by a court’s bailiff, could color a jury or judge’s perception of a witness. We shouldn’t be suspicious of someone who affirms more than someone who swears, but many of us are.

    Eliminating “I swear…” probably won’t help, but maybe raising the profile of “I affirm…” as an option for nonbelievers (and even believers who object to swearing in a civil setting) will help make the process fairer.

     
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