Four Errors in the Campaign Finance Ruling
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court upended nearly four decades of campaign-finance law, removing “aggregate caps” on how much political donors may contribute to federal campaigns. From now on, millionaires seeking to influence the political process will not be constrained by a $48,600 limit per election cycle; they can give $5,200 to as many candidates as they like every two years. The limit of $74,600 in permissible contributions to political parties and political-action committees (PACs) is history as well.
Depending on your politics, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is either a giant step forward for Americans’ free speech rights or a devastating blow to the integrity of the American political process. The ruling is sure to generate at least as much controversy as the Citizens United decision did four years ago.
As you may have guessed from the headline, I am squarely in the latter camp. The decision will lead to huge new infusions of cash into our political campaigns and ramp up the already outsize influence that corporations and wealthy donors have in the American political system. How did we get here? Via a faux-naive, activist and surprisingly poorly argued plurality opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts. Here is what he got wrong:
1. Freedom of speech is about selling ideas with arguments, not dollars.
Some may say this ship has sailed, and, realistically, it has: the Supreme Court has held for a while now that campaign donations count as political speech. But it bears repeating that Chief Justice Robert’s innocent-sounding claim that the “right to participate in electing our political leaders” includes “contribut[ing] to a candidate’s campaign” distorts any defensible theory of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech, in the late constitutional scholar John Hart Ely’s eyes, is designed first and foremost to safeguard a forum for political deliberation that is free of illegitimate constraints. “The expression-related provisions of the First Amendment,” Ely wrote in his book Democracy and Distrust, “were centrally intended to help make our governmental processes work, to ensure the open and informed discussion of political issues, and to check our government when it gets out of bounds.” It is hard to see how allowing individuals of extraordinary personal wealth to contribute unlimited funds to political candidates of their liking serves the cause of enhanced or freer democratic deliberation. It is impossible, in any case, to call this river of money a check on governmental excess.
2. Excessive campaign spending is wrong not because it is “offensive” but because it undermines American democracy.
Early in his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts concedes that the amount of money in politics is distasteful to many. But then he completely whiffs an analogy. Roberts writes that just as the Constitution protects “flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades”—forms of speech that are deemed “repugnant” by many—it protects wealthy people who write checks to candidates around the country. Notice two disingenuous moves the Chief Justice makes here. First, he turns the wealthiest 1 percent (fewer than 600 Americans bumped up against the contribution limits in 2012) into an oppressed minority requiring judicial solicitude. Second, Roberts characterizes big-money politics as something unpopular, something offensive, that political majorities unjustly want to quash. These moves spin the matter a few turns away from reality. Millionaires and billionaires are not a subjugated, despised, disenfranchised class of unfortunate Americans just crying to get a word in edgewise in a political climate that is hostile and unreceptive to their message. And the reason campaign finance laws exist is not to exclude particular political positions or to take aim at “offensive” speech. These regulations are designed to prevent money from buying undue political influence. There is only (highly questionable) symbolic value to a law against flag-burning, but a cap on campaign contributions has a tangible value in safeguarding democracy. There is no comparison.
3. Money in politics has a corrupting influence well beyond outright bribery.
This is where the heart of the conflict lies between Chief Justice Roberts and the dissenters: the plurality says that only “quid pro quo” vote-buying counts as corruption, while Justice Stephen Breyer points out a host of plausible scenarios in which dollars can corrode honesty and trust more nefariously. Observers like Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute dismiss Justice Breyer’s detailed and forceful dissent out of hand, utterly failing to engage his arguments. But Chief Justice Roberts evidently sees his novel and cramped account of corruption as the most vulnerable point in his plurality opinion: he devotes 18 pagesto it. Near the end of this section, Roberts admits that “[t]he line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence may seem vague at times.” Still, he insists that the “distinction must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights.” That is no reasoned cause for tipping the balance in the favor of the rich.
4. The FEC is not equipped to monitor campaign contributions.
Richard Hasen, a law and political science professor at UC-Irvine, made this point on SCOTUSblog yesterday. The FEC, he wrote, “is [not] going to beef up enforcement” to guard against abuse of the McCutcheon ruling.
In recent years the Republican commissioners on the FEC have acted in lockstep to block effective campaign finance regulation, even disclosure. As Democratic FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel writes in a New York Times op-ed today, “The Federal Election Commission is failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws. I’m in a position to know. I’m the vice chairwoman of the commission.”
Why is the FEC so feckless? Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center told me recently that the agency is a creature of Congress charged with watching over congressional campaigns and so is "ineffective by design." The six-member commission "deadlocks often" and is among the "weakest" of law-enforcement agencies. Its members are hardly immune to political influence themselves.
So when Chief Justice Roberts confidently predicts that the FEC will avert any financial funny business, he is either deliberately putting his head in the sand or is failing, at a fundamental level, to appreciate how American politics operates.
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It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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