27 December 2014
Dying at 75: Not Recommended
December 22, 2014
Recently bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel sparked controversy with his article in The Atlantic, “Why I hope to die at 75.” He argued that it would be best for him to die at 75 because his contribution to society and creativity will have significantly declined and because he will become an increasing burden on his family. He argues that his continued life will replace his family’s memories of him as rigorous, funny, and loving with memories of him suffering from worsening disabilities and as a caregiving burden.
As Brown University philosopher Felicia Ackerman points out, Emanuel’s opinion matters because, he is the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the National Institutes of Health and thus in a position to transfer resources away from projects that aim to prolong life in the elderly. He is also one of the primary architects of Obamacare.
Emanuel tried to limit his argument in terms of what was good for him rather than others, but unless one thinks that what makes people’s lives go well varies at a fundamental level, his argument applies to others. Whether applied to others or himself, the argument fails for several reasons.
First, happiness makes a life go better. Psychologist Arthur Stone has found that from 65 to 85 people become happier. Here happiness is measured according to self-reported well-being. If (on average) people become happier, then during their elderly years their lives go better rather than worse. As a result, each year is more worth to them than earlier years. A common view, and I think the correct one, is that contribution and creativity matter only because they make one happier, they do not independently make someone’s life go better.
Now if life becomes awash in pain and degradation, then the calculation might change. For example, one in three Americans 85 or over has Alzheimer’s. This along with other maladies might make life no longer worth living, but this is not the sort of case on which Emanuel and I are focusing.
Second, even if one thinks that how well one’s life goes depends on things that are independent of happiness (for example, loving relationships, knowledge, and virtue), there is no reason to think that these things are not present after age 75. Even if they were not present at the same level, and I see no reason to think this, it is better to have them to a lesser degree than not at all. This points out the more general point, which is that even if one’s quality of life were to decline with age, this is still no reason to cut it short. By analogy, just because Martin Scorcese movies are less enjoyable now than in the past, this is no reason to stop watching them if one loves movies and his movies are still better than their competitors.
Third, healthy families do not prefer that their elderly parents be dead rather than in a reduced state. This is true even if they factor in the loss of replacing good memories with bad ones. Assuming their preferences are well thought out, and I think they often are, this tells us that the early death is not good for the family members Emanuel is trying to help by cashing out early.
There’s not much to be said for Emanuel’s position. The correct approach is to consider whether one’s future has more happiness than unhappiness (alternatively, net positive well-being). If so, then dying is not in one’s interest. What is worth noting is how the introduction of religious ideas changes how we should think about this issue. Emanuel takes a pass on the role of heaven because introducing this factor would change how one thinks about dying early.
Judaism and Christianity are committed to an afterlife. If one knows he is going to heaven and that he’ll be happier in heaven than on Earth (this is true on any plausible theory of heaven), then it makes little sense to try to stay alive. Doing so would be like people in the 1950’s spending time in New York City during the insufferably hot part of the summer when they could be at a resort in the Catskills swimming, dancing, and eating ten different types of cured fish. Leaving aside work and family-related duties, there is little to be said for suffering unnecessarily in the city heat.
Even the family issues cut in both directions. If many of one’s family (for example, deceased spouse, parents, and siblings) are in heaven desperately missing the elderly person and one will escape both Earthly maladies and decreased productivity and creativity in heaven, then only a selfish family would want to delay an elderly person’s passage. After all, they’ll catch up with him later and he’ll be very happy in the interim. If they want him to delay passage, then perhaps the elderly person should do so, but he should be clear as to why he is delaying his passage, namely, for his family and not for himself.
If one is risking hell or time in purgatory, then an elderly person ought to focus on doing what is necessary to avoid such a catastrophe. Of course, this has little relation to declining productivity and creativity or to malady-related suffering. Here adult children of the elderly should focus on helping the elderly avoid hell or minimize time in purgatory and should give this priority as this goal is far more important than whether the adult children’s offspring go to a good college or become a physician. Even for Jewish parents, the benefit of being a child becoming a physician is infinitesimal compared to the cost of a parent going to hell.
Now one can be confident that a loving God would not send people to hell, at least a hell that did not allow people to eventually leave it for heaven. Such suffering would be disproportionate to whatever finite evil a person did and, in any case, would not achieve any worthwhile goal. To the extent this conflicts with various branches of Christianity (for example, Catholicism), this is good reason think that these branches are in error.
Our elderly years on Earth promise to be golden ones and much should be done to make sure we get as many of them as possible. This changes if heaven exists and the failure to enter this into the calculation makes sense only if one is an atheist.
10 December 2014
Eric Garner and Police Violence
December 7, 2014
Most readers are familiar with Eric Garner’s death. In Staten Island on July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was approached by a police officer for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. After he vehemently protested being arrested for this, another police officer (Daniel Pantaleo) put a chokehold on him, despite the fact that the NYPD bans such a hold. Pantaleo already had previous complaints for misconduct filed against him. While the chokehold was in place, other officers kept Garner pinned down. Garner said he couldn’t breathe eleven times.
An hour later, Garner was pronounced dead. The city’s medical examiners found that he was killed by neck and chest compression and prone positioning and that contributing factors included Garner’s suffering from asthma, heart disease, obesity, and hypertension. The four medics at the scene didn’t give Garner CPR and were suspended without pay. The police department stripped Pantaleo of his gun and badge and placed him on desk duty. Last week when a grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo, protests erupted.
What is upsetting about this case is the intersection of a number of features of the criminal justice system, although it is not clear what connects these features. First, the criminal justice system is locking up far too many black men. Saki Knafo, writing in the Huffington Post, reports that one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in time in their lives. This is a staggering figure. Even if the number were only half that, it would still be staggering. The one in three is even more disturbing when one considers the humiliation, stigma, and reduced employment that follows prison, along with the fact that one in five prisoners was forced or pressured into sexual contact.
Second, writing in the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson points out that the police shoot and kill a significant number of people each year. In 2013, he notes, the police shot and justifiably killed 458 people. That is, more than one a day. Robinson points out that not all police departments report such incidents and so the actual number is likely higher. Two journalists, Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri, estimate that the police shoot and kill around 1,000 people each year, that is, three a day.
This past year the police killed 19% more than usual. Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, found that police killed on average 385 people per year from 2005 to 2011 (2,706 total). Surprisingly few officers were arrested for negligent homicide during this time, although this is likely in part due to the fact that most of these shootings were justified and because the law gives police a lot of latitude in using deadly force.
It is worth noting that being a police officer has never been safer. Writing the Washington Post, Randy Balko reports that in 2013, 27 police officers were feloniously killed. This was the fewest in more than 50 years and probably the safest year safest year to be a police officer in a century in terms of per capita deaths. In general, being a police officer is not an especially dangerous job. According to 2013 Bureau of Labor statistics, farmers, truck drivers, pilots, roofers, construction workers, and power line workers faced a greater chance of death at work.
The overall data is troublesome, although it is unclear what conclusions should be drawn. The increase in the number of people the police killed when crime is steadily decreasing is a concern as one wonders whether police are getting more aggressive or whether there is an increasing number of violent men who clash with the police, especially black men.
Explanations of these killings, especially that of Eric Garner, have focused on racism, police offers’ bad attitudes, or the state’s increasing interference with people’s lives. The racism claim is hard to assess as it is not clear what it’s based on. At the patrol level, probably more than half of the NYPD is not white, so it’s hard to believe that a police force with so many non-whites contains many viciously racist white cops. Also, the frequently false and discredited cries of racism should make people especially wary of this charge. Perhaps racism is playing a role here, but it’s hard to see how we can be confident that it is without studies to show this.
Frequent anecdotes and youtube videos about incredibly aggressive cops support a second explanation in terms of out-of-control aggression. A recent example of this is Buffalo police officer John Cirulli who was sentenced to probation after having been caught on camera slapping and kicking a man lying on the ground in handcuffs. One gets the sense that this sort of behavior is probably linked to some of the shootings and this would explain why killings are up when crime is down. However, this isn’t much more than a hunch.
A third explanation is the increasingly intrusive government is clashing with people more than ever. David Harsanyi, writing in Reason, argues that the Garner case is a glaring example of this. New York’s nanny government decided to raise cigarette taxes to more than $5 per pack, making them the highest in the country. A predictable black market resulted, Governor Cuomo then initiated a crackdown that predictably has led to the repeated arrest of largely harmless people like Garner.
In the end, it is hard to know whether there is a problem with police killings. I suspect there is and that it is related to unchecked aggression, but my suspicion isn’t backed by enough evidence to warrant any confidence.
I doubt this is relevant, but in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that the police have made quite a number of visits to my house in the last couple of years because of a highly aggressive ex-wife.
01 December 2014
Throw Him Out: The Overwhelming Case for Impeaching and Convicting Obama
November 23, 2014
Via executive order, President Obama recently amnestied five million illegal aliens. The amnesty applies to people who have been here illegally for the past five years, although one doubts whether the five-year requirement will be enforced, and to parents of anchor babies. Many of these aliens will likely not be prosecuted for identity theft and document fraud they committed in order to work here in the past. This amnesty follows a previous one, which occurred when Obama enforced the DREAM Act despite Congress’ refusal to pass it.
If, in the absence of an emergency, a President who nullifies valid law and, in so doing, significantly subverts the Constitution should be impeached and convicted. Obama’s amnesty fits the bill.
His action is clearly illegal. There are laws that have been passed by Congress and signed by a President that constitute American immigration law. The law simply does not allow for such an amnesty. The best the President’s defenders can do is argue that the amnesty is permitted by prosecutorial authority. Under this doctrine, a prosecutor has the sole discretion to decide whom to charge, what to charge them with, and whether to dismiss or plea bargain down the charges. This, however, has to be done on the basis of limited resources, not on the basis of whether or not a prosecutor approves of the law.
Consider, for example, if President Rand Paul tried to get Congress to eliminate all taxes on capital gains. Congress refused and, instead, raised these taxes. Paul then announced that he was in effect nullifying all taxes on capital gains by giving an amnesty for anyone who doesn’t pay them, despite the fact that Congress had allocated money to enforce such a law. Does anyone honesty think this would be legal?
The Constitution permits impeachment and conviction. It says, “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The clause is best interpreted to include not only criminal acts, but also neglect of duty even when not an indictable offense.
This interpretation is supported by the original intent of those who wrote and ratified the Constitution, the power’s historical lineage, and precedent. People who helped to frame and ratify the Constitution, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Mason, intended the power to cover violations of public trust that were not indictable offenses. Historically, the clause was modeled on power had by the British legislature had that was not limited to indictable offenses. The broader interpretation is also in line with precedent. Within 30 years of the country’s creation, Congress impeached and convicted a judge for such non-indictable acts as being drunk, foul-mouthed, and blasphemous while on the bench. The purpose of the impeachment clause, then, is to allow Congress to remove government officials who abuse their power, especially when their doing so subverts the Constitution.
Obama’s amnesty is a clear-cut abuse of power and one that severely harms the country. Relative to current Americans, illegal aliens are poorer, less educated, less intelligent, and less committed to family values. Relative to other members of the third world, Mexicans, which includes many of the aliens, are neither poor nor oppressed. Compare them, for example, to the many desperate people from Sudan, Congo, or India. Thus, they are neither a good source of skilled workers nor strong candidates for economic or political compassion. What’s more, the U.S. is not like a restrictive country club. In the last few decades, the country has been so flooded with legal immigration that roughly one out of four people in this country are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The Democrats, along with Republican collaborators, have decided to import a new people, despite the ardent opposition of the American people.
The Obama administration did not make the aliens eligible for some public benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid, but no one who has watched this administration and the Democrats in Congress expects this restriction to remain in place. Consider that 42% of the new Medicaid signups are immigrants or their children and that Obama and the Democrats repeatedly tried to include illegal aliens in Obamacare. If this amnesty is not smacked down, Obama will undoubtedly move to convert the newly amnestied into citizens, grant amnesty to millions of the remaining illegal aliens (there are at least another six million), and make them all eligible for government benefits. No one can seriously doubt that these moves are on the horizon, by executive action, again, if necessary. Also, no one can doubt Obama’s two amnesties will encourage a massive new wave of illegal aliens hoping for yet another amnesty.
The precedent here is important. Recently, Presidents have been violating the public trust with increasing frequency and severity. Obama claimed the unilateral right to take the nation to war in Libya and against ISIS without getting a declaration of war or following the War Powers Act. He has previously engaged in blatantly illegal acts such as rewriting Obamacare and breaking immigration law (see DREAM Act). The Internal Revenue Service targeted political enemies and blatantly ignored Congressional oversight with few repercussions. His attorney general has been held in contempt of congress. His Veteran’s Administration was awash in illegalities. His administration just ignored the bankruptcy laws to favor his political ally (UAW) in the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts.
One shudders to think what another Clinton presidency would do if this pattern of abuse is left unchecked.
One objection is that the U.S. can’t and won’t deport masses of illegal aliens. First, the country has done so before during President Eisenhower under Operation Wetback. Second, even if the country lacks the integrity to enforce the law, it does not follow it has to retroactively validate the law breaking as opposed to putting it on a list of things to do.
The only fitting response to Obama’s lawlessness is to throw him out the hell out. Impeach and convict him posthaste.