Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 28, 2013

Voting By Tax Return

By David K. Shipler 

            Years ago, my wife’s parents wrote on their tax return, “For use in the national parks only.” It made them feel better.
            Wouldn’t this be fun? What if, when we sat down to do our taxes, we discovered a new section on our 1040s that listed government programs, with a blank space beside each one? We’d write in the percentage of our tax payments that we wanted to be spent on defense, foreign aid, food stamps, housing subsidies, education, border security, and the like. Very empowering. It’s worth wondering how it would alter the federal budget. Polls give us a clue.

February 22, 2013

Medicaid: An American Parable

By David K. Shipler

            Watching the Republican governors who still insist that they will not accept a penny of the federal government’s money to provide health insurance to their near-poor citizens brings to mind Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian who traveled in the United States in 1831. He saw a country honeycombed with generosity taking the form of myriad associations organized to promote one worthy cause or another.
What he chronicled in his work, Democracy in America, has come down to us as evidence of our powerful impulses to charity, to philanthropy, to the common good—so much so that today, United Way chapters present annual Tocqueville awards to honor individuals who have been exceptionally generous with time or funds.
To be sure, Tocqueville was not a big-government advocate. He admired citizen-led private efforts over those that came from above. “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France or a man of rank in England,” he wrote, “in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
But for a modern society, intricate with technological and economic complexity, this observation raises two questions: one practical, one moral. What mechanism is most practical in, say, the area of health care? What can be done privately, and what must be done publicly? And where does moral responsibility lie? Only at the local level of community, or on the broader plane of national concern?
These are the elements of our most acerbic debates as we struggle and disagree over where to locate the shifting line that should divide the private from the public.

February 8, 2013

Targeted Killings: Justice is Relative

By David K. Shipler

            A dozen years ago, the notion that a named American overseas could be legally targeted for death on the say-so of any “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government,” as the Obama administration now argues, would have been patently absurd. The constitutional requisite for due process in which government allegations are challenged and tested and never taken for granted remained largely intact. Only in the heat of combat was the commander in chief entitled to exercise lethal power. Otherwise, death sentences were handed down from the courtroom, not from the Oval Office.
            But the country has fallen so far to the right on national security since 9/11 that anything less than autocracy seems reasonable and moderate. So it is with a new proposal, put forth by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to involve the judiciary in the secret process of assassination. It is a mark of the age that what was once unthinkable becomes sensible. If the rule of law interferes, change the law. But if history is just, it will not judge us kindly.