Nov 28, 2017 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 205

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Topics: Net neutrality, internet socialization, and nuclear constitutionalism. People: Bill, Rachel, Nate. Produced: Nov 26th, 2017.

Episode 205 (53 min):
AFD 205

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Links to articles discussed in Episode 205

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Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Safe Air and Water

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part IV: A right to safe air and water, by Bill.

Protecting the environment is not an abstract concept about saving rainforests or polar bears, although these are important in their own way. Environmentalism is fundamentally about people. Whether or not environmental safety is maintained has a tangible, daily effect on millions of lives. Poisoned air and water is responsible for the premature deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year. The air we breathe and the water we drink must be free from contaminants. That is an inalienable human right.

Sadly, too often, our society has allowed dangerous pollution to be released into our air and water, with enormous health consequences. Disproportionately, those impacts have fallen on low-income and minority individuals and communities. Justice for these crimes has been intermittent at best.

We need to ensure — swiftly and fairly — the elimination of pollution, meaningful and substantial compensation for those affected, and punishment for those responsible.

Environmental public safety should not be taken lightly or be treated as an afterthought corrected by an occasional minor fine. Just as we have taken seriously the public health threat from smoking, so too must we take seriously the daily public health consequences of poor regulation and poor enforcement of environmental public safety.

According to the American Lung Association, the human and financial costs to our society are clear:

Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects can be coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to the findings from some of the latest studies, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:

– death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;
– increased mortality in infants and young children;
– increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;
– inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;
– increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;
– increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;
– increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and
-increased severity of asthma attacks in children.

 
By contrast, taking action pays huge dividends:

– Looking at air quality in 545 counties in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most.
– Another long-term study of six U.S. cities tracked from 1974 to 2009 added more evidence of the benefits. Their findings suggest that cleaning up particle pollution had almost immediate health benefits. They estimated that the U.S. could prevent approximately 34,000 premature deaths a year if the nation could lower annual levels of particle pollution by 1 µg/m^3

 
Our federal, state, and local governments must guarantee and secure the people’s right to a habitable world, at present and in future, via enforceable law and regulation. In doing so, particularly by transforming our energy and transportation sectors to cleaner modes, we will ensure safe and clean air and water.

Our nation’s constitution ought to enshrine this common-sense governing principle as an amendment. That might read something like this:

“Every person has the right to safe and clean air and water. Congress and the states shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents. The federal executive and judiciary and the governments of the states shall implement and enforce these provisions by appropriate action.”

Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Food Access

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part II: A right to food access, by De Ana.

In the United States, food – and access to it – is a highly political subject. Dietary fads of more affluent citizens can greatly affect the access poorer citizens have to staples. Food deserts can cause financial or other burdens, as well. The largest Federal program to help address some of these challenges for the neediest citizens, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has struggled to keep pace with various developments.

There needs to be an overhaul on how Americans access food. It is a universal human right that every person should be guaranteed the right to obtain nutritious food, regardless of means or geographic location. How do we secure this right?

Combating food deserts

Food deserts – concentrated areas without nutritious fresh foods widely and affordably available – are becoming more and more common in poorer areas. People who are stuck in these deserts are forced to buy mostly processed foods that contain preservatives that can be bad for your health. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables comes at a price in a food desert. The tradeoff is either the cost of traveling to a grocery store outside of their neighborhood or the cost of paying hiked-up prices for fruits and vegetables at non-grocery stores, such as corner stores or bodegas. Things like grocery stores, Farmer’s Markets, and neighborhood gardens need to be brought back to these neighborhoods to cut down on that cost.

Helping to pay the grocery bill

But what good is having access to food if you can’t afford it. The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, is supposed to be a supplemental program that helps needy people pay for groceries. Eligibility for the program, however, is based on the Federal Poverty Limit. This hasn’t been revamped in over 50 years. Worse, in its inception, it was only really a loose guideline for what should be considered the poverty line in the United States. Back when the FPL was officially introduced, many households only had one source of income, and it was assumed that each household would have two parents. Nowadays you’re more likely than a half century ago to have either single-parent households or two parent households where both adults are working. In either case, there are now added expenses for things like childcare which an outdated FPL does not reflect.

In some states, there are even limitations to what kind of food people can buy with SNAP benefits. Some states don’t allow those receiving SNAP to buy hot meals. Other states are considering banning people from getting things like seafood or even hot pre-made foods with their benefits. This creates a problem, because many people receiving SNAP benefits are homeless and don’t have a place to cook or store meals that aren’t already prepared.

Managing food trends

Banning certain types of food because of the belief that those foods are “too good” for SNAP recipients is also unethical – and not just because denying people the right to buy food is cruel itself. Due to “food gentrification” and food trends, foods that were once inexpensive can become suddenly very expensive. Seafood like lobster, for example, was once a cheap maritime staple food for the poor, but it transitioned into being a luxury food. More recently, if you look at how the rise of quinoa in the United States has caused it to become increasingly less affordable in places where it’s a staple food like Bolivia, you can see how food gentrification and SNAP limits on “luxury” foods can cause folks to suddenly lose affordable access to core components of their diets.

The right of the people

To fix all of this, the United States and state governments must constitutionally guarantee the people the right to food regardless of means or location. It might read:

“Every person has the right to access nutritious and sufficient food regardless of his or her means or geographic location. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

To secure that right, governments should enact various measures to:
– Bring Farmer’s Markets and grocery stores back to food deserts
– Expand both who qualifies and what can be received on SNAP benefits.

In a country like the United States, which touts itself as being “well-developed” and “first world,” food should not be a luxury that only a few can afford, but a right for all of us.

Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Housing for All

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part I: A right to housing, by Kelley.

Participating in the American dream requires a roof over one’s head. It does not have to be a fancy roof, but it does have to provide a little space to get yourself ready for work in the morning and a safe place to tuck your children in at night.

What if the American people and their government decided that having a home was not a privilege, but a right? Imagine a constitutional amendment to that effect:

“Every person has the right to adequate housing regardless of means. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

The moral case for an absolute right to housing should be clear. All people deserve a little corner of the world to help them feel safe and stay healthy. They just do. A lack of housing can prevent progress in any other aspect of one’s life – from finding stable employment to keeping your children in school. Without stable housing, it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to break out of the oppressive cycle of poverty.

The economic case for a right to housing is also clear. Helping individuals and families to secure a place to live allows them to focus on finding employment, addressing health problems, or whatever other roadblocks may exist in their life. This allows them to contribute to the US economy and reduces their dependence on other government aid programs.

The history of housing policy in America is one tainted with efforts to help potential White homeowners, while making it nearly impossible for people of color to purchase a home. From Jim Crow laws to redlining loan policies to deed restrictions to the creation of ghettos, there is no doubt that the United States has an ugly and racist history when it comes to housing.

In recent years, states and cities have taken two distinct approaches to homelessness. The first approach is to criminalize homelessness, allowing individuals to be arrested for being outside at night or even adding active deterrence measures in public spaces. The second approach is to create long-term solutions for the homeless, particularly for homeless veterans.

What if the American people went farther? What if we no longer waited for cities and states to provide housing for their citizens but told our government that housing was a human right and demanded that they act accordingly, providing housing for all of America’s citizens?

We wouldn’t be the first country to do so. The EU has included the right to adequate housing as a part of its human rights charter. Many member states have taken significant steps in making this right a reality for their citizens. Notably, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have enshrined the right to housing in their constitution.

The moral and economic imperative to make housing a right in the United States exists. The only question is – will anybody act?

Why We Should Keep the (Whole) 14th Amendment

Margaret Thatcher once said, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” When a country is united by ideals and not bloodlines, defining citizenship is a unique challenge, one that the United States has grappled with time and time again in its history.

In recent weeks, many of those seeking to be the GOP’s candidate for president have begun talk of getting rid of a constitutional amendment in order to redefine who is a citizen. Frontrunner Donald Trump and others would like to see the United States do away with the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anybody born within US borders and subject to the the jurisdiction of federal laws (i.e. the baby’s parents are not foreign diplomats or have other formal relationships with foreign governments). Rick Ungar, a contributor for Forbes writes:

It turns out that those who have long enjoyed portraying themselves as the “Guardians of our Constitution”, through strict interpretation of the same, and the proponents of law & order as the bulwark of an orderly society — of course I’m speaking of Republicans — are the very folks who no longer have much use for the Constitution when it fails to meet their desires or live up to their expectations.

 
The argument around the 14th Amendment is largely due to frustration over so called “anchor babies”, a derogatory term for babies born to illegal immigrants in the United States supposedly under the pretense that the child will somehow help the parent gain legal status. It is true that for the past 147 years, all children born within US borders are legal US citizens, regardless of their parent’s legal status.

However, the idea that these babies and US citizens are helping to grant their parents legal status in the United States is a fallacy for which there is no legal backing. In fact, in 2011 there were 5,000 children in state care or foster homes because their parents had been deported. In 2013, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported 72,410 people who had at least one child who was a US citizen.

Still, the term “anchor baby” and the vitriolic desire to get rid of the 14th Amendment persist. The amendment was a Reconstruction Amendment, adopted on July 9, 1868, with the goal of providing citizenship to African-Americans who had formerly been slaves with no protection under the law. The Citizenship Clause of the Amendment overruled the Supreme Court’s findings in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which stated that African-Americans, even those who were free, were not American citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court.

When the 14th Amendment was originally debated, there were a few mentions of children born to immigrants on the debate floor. However, in 1868 there was no limit to immigration into the United States, meaning there was no illegal immigration at the time of the amendment’s adoption. In 1898, the Supreme Court cleared this up in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, by ruling that the children of immigrants born in the US are indeed entitled to citizenship.

Since that time, America has continued to grapple with immigrant policy and citizenship laws, but with little exception, those born within the borders of the United States are citizens of our country. While American immigration policy leaves much to be desired, the 14th Amendment has provided continuity and stability to the definition of citizen. Our country’s greatness is derived from the diversity of our citizens and the uniqueness of our history. Paternity tests or another arbitrary way to obtain citizenship would rob future generations of the philosophy and ideology on which this country was founded and continues to grow.

14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, section 1. (National Archives of the United States.)

14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, section 1. (National Archives of the United States.)

July 16, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 92

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The Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance episode. Topics: gerrymandering, constitutional amendment conventions, interstate compacts. People: Bill, Nate, Persephone. Produced: July 13, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– How should Congressional districts be drawn?
– Should the states exercise their option to request a national convention to discuss constitutional amendments?
– Can some U.S. policy problems be solved through interstate compacts instead of state-only or Federal-only approaches?

We’re piloting a new concept on this week’s episode for future segments. All three segments this week are examples. Please email us or contact us on social media to let us know what you think.

Part 1 – Gerrymandering:
Part 1 – Gerrymandering – AFD 92
Part 2 – Amendment Convention:
Part 2 – Convention – AFD 92
Part 3 – Sectional Interstate Compacts:
Part 3 – Interstate Compacts – AFD 92

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

– PBS Newshour: Judge rules Fla. Legislature broke laws on congressional district maps
– AFD: Democrats need to focus on state legislatures (or stay doomed)

Segment 2

– AFD: Amending The Constitution: The National Convention Option?
– The Atlantic: “A Real Step to Fix Democracy” by Lawrence Lessig

Segment 3

– Book: “American Nations” by Colin Woodard
– Wikipedia: Interstate compact
– Wikipedia: Compact Clause
– Wikipedia: Driver License Compact

Correction Note: In the third segment, Bill incorrectly listed the states in the Delaware River Basin compact. They are Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

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Amending the Constitution: The National Convention Option?

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This new essay by Lawrence Lessig partially answers a question I had recently been pondering. That question was about whether it would be feasible (on paper) to do a constitutional convention through Article V (the one about how to amend the U.S. Constitution). It’s permissible but hasn’t ever been tried. Here’s the relevant part of that provision:

Article V: The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress…

 
Lessig points out that this alternative route, which has never been used, isn’t actually all that special or worrisome. It’s not like a free-for-all that can just junk the whole document. A Constitutional Convention could only be convened by the formal request of 2/3rds of the U.S. states (34 now) and it could only propose amendments to the existing Constitution, which would then be sent back — just like Congressional amendments! — for approval by 3/4ths of the U.S. states (38 now). That last part is always the hardest, and this doesn’t change that.

That’s consistent with the interpretation posted on the U.S. Senate website’s page explaining different parts of the U.S. Constitution:

The Constitution also authorizes a national convention, when two-thirds of the states petition Congress for such a convention, to propose amendments, which would also have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

 
So, the national convention route is actually probably even more complicated to get it rolling, in that it requires all the cat-herding of more than 30 states be done twice over (once going in and once coming out), and then once it’s rolling it’s no easier or more dangerous than the usual amendment process.

The advantage it (potentially) has is that it circumvents the need to have members of Congress vote on specific amendments that might affect them or the special interests they favor. It would also be within the much stronger state-level tradition of public interest reform by direct democracy.

Interestingly, Lessig doesn’t address Article V’s provision for allowing states to create special conventions for ratification. He specifically — intentionally I assume — uses the more generic term “states” when discussing the ratification side, although he mentions legislative party control in passing. The likeliest format would be for the legislatures to vote up or down on the convention’s proposed amendments, just as they would for amendments from Congress, but it’s not required.

Let’s take a second look at Article V: Read more