Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Congressional Approval

I'm having a hard time making sense of the question as to whether or not Obama's recent military actions  wrt Libya are constitutional. Many, like Kucinich, are arguing that they're clearly not. But it's not completely obvious to me, although the resolution of the question requires some legal analysis that I'm admittedly not qualified to carry out. An alleged justification for the action resides in the UN Participation Act, Title 22, Section 7, § 287d. Use of armed forces; limitations: "The President shall not be deemed to require the authorization of the Congress to make available to the Security Council on its call in order to take action under article 42 of said Charter and pursuant to such special agreement or agreements the armed forces, facilities, or assistance provided for therein".

The question is whether the reference to " special agreement or agreements " is a reference to an Article 43 agreement, a situation which hasn't taken place under the UN. If it does, then to take action without congressional approval exists only if an Article 42 agreement occurs within the context of an Article 43 agreement. This is the argument, I believe, of Michael Lind.  But, John Whitehouse over at Jenkins' Ear blog, argues: "There are some who see an art. 43 agreement as a necessary precedent to an art. 42 action. This does not make sense by either law – why would you ever have art. 42 if you needed an art. 43 agreement with each state having to refer to constitutional processes? And if you need a an art. 43 agreement for art. 42 to take place, then Section 287d makes almost no sense. – Why would Article 43 agreements need Congressional authorization if Article 42 agreements (which specifically refer to forces) do not? It makes no sense at all."  (they link to this, as well, which I haven't read, as an argument that an article 43 agreement is required precondition for an article 42.)  (Also see, this blog.)

I'm not entirely sure who is right here. I don't think that the morality of the action rests on whether or not he has Congressional approval. Honestly, I see congressional approval as a mere formality. I don't think any of us seriously think that Congress would reject the proposal were they to put it to a vote. Obviously, even if Congress approves it, it doesn't follow that the action in Libya is prudent or the right thing to do. And Obama himself had been unequivocal about his belief that he would need congressional approval to take military action unless an immediate threat existed. It puzzles me a bit why he didn't just go ahead and get Congressional approval, frankly, but for reasons above, I'm not sure to what extent the legal obligation existed. Clarifications welcomed.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Health Care Access

An Ontario woman with breast cancer was recently controversially denied treatment with Herceptin.  (link to a comment from the woman affected.) Herceptin is very expensive and because her cancer was caught early and the tumour is small, it's not clear the treatment will be very effective in treatment or in preventing recurrence. I'm not going to try to argue the medical issues involved in this recent case,  except to say that if the G & M is wrong about this case, the general point still stands, i.e., that any health care system has to draw lines and balance costs with potential returns.  I should also note that the Canadian system, from what I've experienced and understood, is far less niggardly than the US insurance payers and respectful of what doctors deem to be the right treatment options. The sense I have in the US, unlike in Canada, is that doctors are fighting with the insurance companies to get the right treatment options. But there's a key difference between the US and Canadian system: if a treatment is refused in the US, one still has the option of paying for the treatment if s/he believe it's what s/he needs.

The lack of such an option underscores a key and, I believe, somewhat unique characteristic of the Canadian health care distribution system, and that's the fact that this woman has no recourse to avail herself of this treatment, within Canada, after the insurer has declined to cover it. Regardless of what we think about allowing those willing to pay to jump the queue for services, this seems to be a different issue. In this case the government has simply refused her a place in the queue. In that situation, shouldn't the woman be allowed to access the treatment if she's willing to pay for it and take her place in the queue? (Admittedly, insofar as need as prescribed by the system defines the queue, it's not entirely clear where that place should be, but surely that can be determined.) The Canadian system has proven to be a very effective means of justly distributing high quality health care at lower costs, but when it actually prevents a person from getting a treatment that a person believes s/he needs, hasn't it crossed the line from being just a distribution system? Proponents of universal health care argue, rightly, I think, that access to health care is a fundamental right. But that has to cut both ways, ensuring access to quality care for all citizens, but also not denying access to those pursuing what they deem to be their best interests in terms of maintaining or restoring health and willing to pay the financial costs for it.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Another Chernobyl?

I've been closely following reports of threats posed to and by Japan's nuclear power plant since the earthquake. There seems to be much concern that the Japan nuclear power plant situation will turn into another Chernobyl: "US experts fear 'Chernobyl-like' crisis for Japan"  and here's a more "technical" description of the potential problem (source): "Without cooling water, there is a real chance of a meltdown of the reactor core that could result in a large release of radiation. Usually in case of a failure of the main cooling system, an 'emergency core cooling system' would extinguish the nuclear chain reaction by dousing the rods with water treated with boron. This element has a high affinity for the neutrons ejected from split uranium atoms, which are responsible for most of the steam-producing heat transfer."  Ed Markey has also taken this opportunity to argue that this demonstrates that nuclear power poses grave threats of a Chernobyl type the US. Now while the situation with these reactors may be grave, it's important to note key differences with Chernobyl.

Some of Japan's reactors are old but they're also of a different sort, light water reactors, than Chernobyl's  Reactor 4.  As Naoto Sekimura notes in an al jazeera article, "No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction."  That's because in a light water reactor, the coolant water also plays the role of "neutron moderator". A neutron moderator, counterintuitively given its name, facilitates the nuclear chain reaction because it slows fast neutrons thereby turning them into thermal neutrons that perpetuate the chain reactions of nuclear fission.  So, when the coolant gets too hot, it actually acts as its own release valve because the water density decreases, meaning it loses its effectiveness at "moderating" the neutron speed, i.e., losing its ability to turn fast neutrons into thermal neutrons. As that happens, the radioactivity is decreased because the moderator or the effectiveness of the moderator is undermined.  So, the very material that's used to do the cooling, also actually facilitates the chain reactions, losing one helps to prevent the other, a very elegant deadman's switch of sorts.  Compare this to Chernobyl in which the moderator actually ignited.  This isn't the only way in which Chernobyl and the Japanese plants differ, Chernobyl also had no containment mechanism, so the radioactivity simply dissipated into the air.

None of this is to argue that nuclear power plants are completely safe and foolproof, but I do think it's important to factor this important difference in when evaluating the likelihood that a Chernobyl will unfold in Japan or is likely or plausible in the US.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Don't Volunteer in Haiti?

Last month Catherine Porter wrote an article arguing that people shouldn't do volunteer work in Haiti.  And, in particular, they shouldn't go to help with orphans. I'm always pleased to have good excuses for not doing the altruistic things I wouldn't have done anyway, but I'm not sure I'm convinced by her reasoning here.  Regarding volunteering, the author argues that volunteers take away jobs from Haitians and "children who make and break repeated connections with revolving volunteers are at an 'increased risk of developing disorganized attachments, thus affecting their socio-psychological development and long-term well-being.'" 

Consider the first argument first, that volunteering takes job opportunities from Haitians.  This assumes a lot of things. First, it assumes that the volunteers are doing jobs Haitians are also amply qualified to do. The author admits that, for example, neurosurgeons are an exception, but there may be a lot of volunteer work that is an exception.  She points out that sometimes volunteers do work for which they wouldn't be qualified in , say, Canada. Well, I also find that objectionable, but it doesn't follow that people shouldn't volunteer in Haiti.    but why not simply argue that they should make sure they're volunteering to do things for which there are no or few Haitians qualified or available and for which they are adequately qualified?

But another issue here is that even if there are people in Haiti qualified to do the work, it doesn't follow that one is taking a job from them by volunteering.  If there are no agents who are willing/able to pay Haitians to do the work for which one is volunteering, then one isn't taking a potential job from Haitians. If I go to Haiti to reshingle a building in Haiti because nobody is able to afford to hire Haitians to do the work, then I'm not taking work away from Haitians, I'm just fixing a roof that might have otherwise gone unrepaired.

Finally, this naive advise to avoid volunteering overlooks the fact that volunteer work might contribute infrastructure that could facilitate job opportunities and economic growth. For example, suppose a group goes to Haiti and builds a school or paves a road or puts a well in the ground. Suddenly resources are in place such that teachers might start working, goods might start moving or people could start growing vegetables or using the water for mixing mortar and building homes.

And what of the "orphan tourism". Well, I really don't know enough about psychology and human development to comment authoritatively here.  I'll also acknowledge that it's clearly the case that making efforts to get full time foster parents in place is the most desirable objective.  But I am a little skeptical if the suggestion is that it's better to do nothing at all for abandoned orphans than to help them for only a couple of weeks.