Monday, April 23, 2007

Them thats got shall get, them thats not shall lose

(Poverty graphic stolen from the WSJ)

My friend Mark Kleiman caused a little contretemps over at his blog, starting with this piece criticizing the execrable Haley Barbour of Mississippi of murder:
So we have an extra sixty-five babies per year dying as the direct result of a policy instituted by Haley Barbour. Perhaps he could have claimed that he didn't anticipate the result. But if he doesn't change that policy now — and there's no indication in the story that he has any such intention — then it seems to me a Bantry verdict is entirely justified.

It's complicated, read mark's entire piece. If I might distill it, the basic thesis is that Barbour, in order to cut Medicaid funding (a really bad Republican idea), instituted overly complex renewal procedures that resulted in many people not renewing, which is easily predictable.

And this caused rising infant mortality among poor and especially black babies, also easily predictable.

Voila: Murder. And I agree with Mark.

Subsequently, his co-blogger Michael Ware disagreed:

Mark is right to deplore Haley Barbour's savage idea that Mississippi (of all states) would benefit from cutting social services to its poorest people, and the deaths of innocents traceable to the policy are fairly charged to it. But it isn't murder, and I differ from his rhetoric.

Many policy choices entail a gross cost in shortened lives, even shortened right at the start. We make them all the time, and we're right to do so; otherwise we would treat a year of life as having an infinite cost, and live in some sort of padded pods with a TV, never go anywhere, and eat Purina complete nutrient kibbles . Lots of things are worth paying some number of statistical lives for, even lives of identifiable groups like drivers, firefighters, and even poor babies.

Michael is well-spoken, logical, and just wrong about this.

Look, we drive cars, and fly in airplanes, activities fully able to shorten our lives. We allow kids to play sports and to cross the street, we even send folks to war (don't get me started on Iraq in this context).

The first examples above are personal, we make decisions and accept the potential consequences. The last example, in a perfect world, is made with public discussion, Congressional debate, and a sober judgement from the President.

But Barbour's decision was made in a custodial sense, affecting people who had no control over this part of their lives, lives Barbour was sworn to protect. Here's the Oath of Office of Governor of MS:
I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Mississippi, and obey the laws thereof;

I'm no Constitutional lawyer, but it seems to me that the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution the Governor is sworn to support speaks to discrimination against the poor:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Mark responds to Michael:

I agree with Mike (below): not every policy with a death toll, even a net death toll, is a murderous policy. Spending a little bit less on airline safety would be justified, because a reasonable airline passenger wouldn't be willing to pay, from his own funds, the cost of the marginal (in the chances-per-million range) safety increment. There's nothing wrong with taking a calculated risk with your own life, and therefore nothing wrong about implementing that sort of decision on behalf of other people. There are values in the world other than life expectancy.

But public officials are morally (though in most cases not criminally) responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions.

Haley Barbour could, with at least some plausibility, claim that his health-care policies wouldn't actually kill significant numbers of infants. Now we know that he would have been wrong to make that claim: the infants are dying, when they could be saved for (not very much) money.

If he doesn't change the policy, he will in effect have decided that their deaths are an acceptable price to pay for whatever cost savings the state is reaping. "Wilful murder?" Not exactly. Legally, it's no crime at all. Morally, it's more like reckless homicide, since Barbour isn't intending to kill anyone in particular, but merely taking actions likely to kill someone. The fact that the victims are all poor and disproportionately black — and thus their parents are unlikely to be Republican campaign contributors, or even voters — makes it that much worse

Don't cave in, Mark, I really think Michael is parsing too finely, almost like a concern troll. Barbour's decision to lower Medicaid funding was a political one, his method was profoundly prejudiced, and the results clearly predictable.

But then, so are the results of virtually everything done by Republicans lately.