Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Brutal Disgrace

Seven years ago, when the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Baxter, it freed  Montana physicians from the fear of criminal conviction for providing aid in dying to the terminally ill. Dying patients could request a life ending medication that would allow them to end suffering, to avoid the loss of autonomy that the treatment of terminal illness often brings in its wake, and to have a small measure of control over when and where and with whom to spend their final hours. The court said that in acceding to these requests from adult, terminally ill and mentally competent patients, doctors were clearly acting with their patients’ consent, and accordingly would have an affirmative defense if they were ever charged with a crime.

If that all sounds a bit legalistic, read the decision, because the court also made clear that in providing aid in dying, doctors would be acting in harmony with the rights of the terminally ill, established in law, to be autonomous, to make decisions about their own treatment, and to refuse treatment - even food or water - to hasten their own deaths. Providing aid in dying would recognize these rights and be an act of compassion and respect.

But now Rep.Brad Tschida wants to make it an act of murder.

House Bill 536, which Tschida brought to the House Judiciary Committee last Friday, is brutal in its simplicity and intent. Under the bill, physicians who respond to a request from their patients for aid in dying will no longer be protected. No matter how heartfelt the request, no matter how badly the patient is suffering, no matter how immanent death is, no matter how clear-headedly the patient is acting – no matter any of this, a doctor who honors a request for aid in dying can be charged with murder. The clear desires of the dying patient will be to no avail.

If there is anything more outrageous than this bill itself, it is the hearing it was accorded in the House Judiciary Committee. Because bills like this have been heard in the past, much of the testimony was familiar. Proponents claimed, as they have done over and over again, that providing aid in dying is susceptible to all sorts of terrible abuses, while producing not the slightest shred of evidence that these abuses have ever occurred anywhere, let alone in Montana. Opponents pled for their autonomy and liberty to be respected and told stories of how spouses, or children, or parents died at home, peacefully, and surrounded by family.

All that was to be expected. But what was not to be expected was the careless and callous way in which the hearing was conducted. Faced with a bill of significant social, legal and moral consequence, the committee chairman, Rep. Alan Doane, would allow only half an hour of testimony - fifteen minutes per side. After that time was up, he cut off testimony from opponents who had traveled across the state to testify. When members of the committee tried to elicit testimony from the opponents, he refused to recognize further committee questions.

 I have been in a lot of hearings on a lot of bills, but I have never seen a chairman act as abusively and recklessly as Doane did in the hearing on this bill. His performance was a gross disservice to the public, to his colleagues in the House, and to the duty to govern with intelligence and compassion. You can watch video of this entire sorry episode here.

HB 536 is ugly legislation, and its hearing was an utter disgrace. It is unworthy of the Montana legislature and the people of this state.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Very, Very Unfair


There was a lot of head shaking going on in the Senate Energy Committee recently at the very thought of taxing pollution control and carbon sequestration equipment. How could it possibly be right to impose the business equipment tax on that stuff? After all, companies only install it because the government forces them to, and having it around certainly doesn’t help them make money and stay in business. As Donald Trump would put it, "Very, very unfair!" Right?

Well no, not really. In the interests of both efficiency and fairness, we usually expect any firm that wants to stay in business to cover its costs.  That includes the environmental costs it imposes on the public, which are just as real and economic as wages, utility bills, rent, bank charges, raw material purchases and other costs incurred in markets. How we get firms to internalize (that is, actually pay for) environmental costs varies from case to case. Sometimes we actually price pollution (think carbon tax), but more often we simply cap pollution levels or require the use of pollution control equipment.

So having mandated pollution control equipment on hand does help firms stay in business and make money because it reduces the environmental damage they would be financially responsible for if they didn’t have it. If they complain that pollution control equipment is not a valuable and productive asset, these companies are implicitly claiming that were it not for government, they would have the right to wreak havoc on the environment with no financial consequences.

And if they claim that being made financially responsible for the environmental damage they might do will drive them out of business, so be it. That simply means that whatever they’re producing isn’t worth what it costs to produce it. By the cold logic of the market, they are just too inefficient to keep the doors open.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Unconditional Nonsense

I’ve been getting a small flood of constituent emails in the past couple of days, all of which read as follows:

Dear Senator Richard Barrett:

As your constituent, I respectfully urge you to support House Bill 262 when it comes up for a vote.

This important legislation would allow any law-abiding individual who can legally possess a firearm to carry a handgun for self-defense in Montana without having to obtain a permit to do so.  This bill recognizes a law-abiding adult's unconditional Right to Keep and Bear Arms for self-defense in the manner he or she chooses.

Again, as your constituent, I urge you to support House Bill 262.


Now I’m always happy to hear from constituents, and I’m willing to consider, however briefly, whether or not it’s a good idea to let people walk around carrying a concealed handgun without a permit.  But can we please, please dispense with the absurd claim that anyone has an “unconditional Right to Keep and Bear Arms for self defense in the manner he or she chooses.”

Other than in the febrile imagination of the NRA or the Montana Shooting Sports Association, no such unconditional right exists. It’s not in the Montana Constitution, the common law, the Bible, the Quran or anywhere else. It’s not even in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly said does not prohibit government from conditioning gun rights, by limiting who can have guns, what kind of guns they can have, and where they can take them.

Now I get the rhetoric here. When you want something but can’t make a compelling case for why you should have it, it’s always a good idea to claim it’s yours by right. After all, who wants to take anyone’s rights away? But before you make the claim, you really ought to check and make sure the “right” that’s being taken was ever there in the first place.

It’s not unusual to get a bunch of identically worded emails, but it obviously means that some organization or other has convinced its members to fire off some canned text. That’s okay, if not terribly effective. I don’t know who’s behind this particular email, although it isn’t hard to guess. To whoever it is, I’d say this: please have a little respect for your members. Don’t set them up to fail by having them express opinions that are patently – unconditionally - ludicrous.