BookTalk

  • March 22, 2012
    BookTalk
    The Revolutionary Constitution
    By: 
    David J. Bodenhamer

    By David J. Bodenhamer, executive director of The Polis Center and a professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


    When addressing the Harvard Law School Association in 1913, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. worried that “that fear was translated into doctrines that had no proper place in the Constitution or the common law.”  His corrective was simple: “It seems to be at this time that we need education in the obvious more than the investigation of the obscure.” Although Holmes was speaking about socialism and judges he deemed “naïf and simple-minded,” his admonition seems equally appropriate for our own constitutionally contentious era. Of course, bitter disputes over the meaning of the Constitution are nothing new; they have been a hallmark of public discourse since the 39 signing delegates left Philadelphia. So other than a reminder that controversy and division are common to our history, what “education in the obvious” do we require today?

    We too often forget that the Constitution is a revolutionary document. It embodied a fundamental re-scripting of assumptions about government. Chief among them was the invention of popular sovereignty, a conception of the people as both rulers and ruled, or as John Jay noted, “sovereigns without subjects” who “had none to govern but themselves.” This concept was necessary to accommodate another innovation, federalism, which James Madison acknowledged was “unprecedented … It stands by itself.” But it was the only way to resolve the inconsistency of imperium in imperio, a sovereignty within a sovereignty. Over two centuries, these solutions, radical for their time (and for ours), have been instrumental in the development of a more democratic and egalitarian nation because once marginalized and excluded groups demanded to be counted among the people who ruled themselves. And they usually succeeded first in the states, Brandeis’s famed “laboratories of democracy,” before the nation-at-large accepted their claims. But as often happens with revolutionary legacies, there is a counter-narrative to this progressive story. The inventions of popular sovereignty and federalism also have produced great mischief: they have offered a veneer of legitimacy to a variety of “isms”— racism, nativism, separatism, and the like — that acted to deny liberty rather than advance it.

  • March 15, 2012
    BookTalk
    Health Care Reform
    What It Is, Why It's Necessary, How It Works
    By: 
    Jonathan Gruber


    By Jonathan Gruber, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


    The Affordable Care Act (ACA) represents the most fundamental reform of the U.S. health care system of the past 50 years. Such an important social policy change should be widely understood by our citizens so that it can be most effectively implemented. Yet the ACA is sufficiently ambitious and complicated that understanding of the law is quite poor. This is one of the reasons I chose a graphic format for my book, Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It's Necessary, How It Works.

    You can’t understand the need for, and the accomplishments of, health care reform without appreciating the fundamental failure in health insurance markets today. Unless you are offered insurance by your employer, or by the government, there is effectively no meaningful insurance in America. Individuals subject to the harsh “non-group” market face exclusions from pre-existing illness or can be dropped as soon as they become ill. And the key to solving this problem is the individual mandate, which can end insurance market discrimination by promoting broad insurance participation.

    At the heart of this reform is what I like to think of as a “three legged stool” designed to solve this problem and, as a byproduct, cover most of our nation’s uninsured. The first leg is insurance market reform which will end the ability of insurance companies to discriminate against the sick; no longer will we be one bad gene or one bad traffic accident away from bankruptcy. The second is the individual mandate, which requires insurance coverage so long as that coverage is affordable (costs less than 8% of income). This mandate is critical; without it, insurers will react to insurance market reform by raising prices because they are afraid only the sick will buy insurance. But you can’t mandate insurance coverage unless it is affordable, which it is not for low income Americans.  That’s why we need the third leg of the stool: extensive subsidies that will make health insurance affordable for those living below median income.

  • March 8, 2012
    BookTalk
    Rumor Repression and Racial Politics
    How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post Civil Rights America
    By: 
    George Derek Musgrove

    By George Derek Musgrove, a professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia 


    In 2008 Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) to make good on her promise to “drain the swamp” and better police the ethics of Congress. The House of Representatives ethics process had been moribund since the late 1990s when the parties called a truce in the “ethics wars” that had claimed two Speakers and several rank and file members.

    At first blush the OCE, which investigates complaints of unethical behavior against members of Congress and refers them to the House Ethics Committee, appears to have been a success. It has been exceedingly active over the course of the past three years, investigating 34 cases and keeping the Ethics Committee busy with a string of referrals. 

    But with the return of a robust ethics process has come a return of the ethics wars. Sadly, few on Capitol Hill have acknowledged this development, at least in part, because it has primarily affected black members of Congress.   

    Of the 34 cases handled by the OCE, ten have involved black members and one additional case has involved the black chief of staff for Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Thus black members, who account for 10 percent of the House of Representatives, have been the subjects of 30 percent of the cases handled by OCE. This has led to some eye-popping developments before the Ethics Committee. At one point in 2010 all of the full cases before the Committee involved black members, and today a majority of the cases before that body involve blacks.

    What is to account for this disparity? 

    When writing my book, Rumor Repression and Racial Politics, which examines black elected officials’ allegations of state and news media repression in the years between 1965 and 1995, I found that the partisan battles of the last thirty years have had a disproportionate effect on black elected officials.

  • March 1, 2012
    BookTalk
    Cheating Justice
    How Bush And Cheney Attacked The Rule Of Law, Plotted To Avoid Prosecution, And What We Can Do About It
    By: 
    Cynthia L. Cooper and Elizabeth Holtzman

    By Cynthia L. Cooper, an award-winning journalist and lawyer, and Elizabeth Holtzman, a lawyer, former prosecutor and former member of Congress who served on the House committee that investigated Watergate.


    When President George W. Bush and his team left office, mounds of misdeeds were left to fester. Some of their transgressions in office were so shocking – lying to Congress in order to embroil the nation in war and occupation, illegally wiretapping Americans without warrants, authorizing torture that had been outlawed by U.S. and international law – that he and Vice President Cheney probably should have been impeached and removed from office.

    Instead, they completed their terms and sped away. Even though Bush publicly announced in his 2010 memoir that he had personally authorized waterboarding, a recognized form of torture  -- “Damn right,” he is quoted as saying – hardly a peep was heard about seeking accountability. But how can that be? Key to preserving our democracy is the concept that no person is above the law.

    In order to ignite a national conversation on the topic, we set out to show how and why the president and vice president should be held accountable – especially, how they can be prosecuted. That meant looking at the available evidence, investigating precisely what laws are implicated and determining, as best as possible, whether a prima facie case could be made. We found enough to make a courageous prosecutor sit up and take notice, although the statute of limitations is ticking in some areas. We found clear problems under laws related to the conspiracy to deceive Congress, foreign intelligence surveillance and U.S. anti-torture laws – each of which needs prosecutorial attention.

    Along the way, we found something else disturbing, too: a repeated pattern by which Bush and Cheney took extraordinary efforts to protect themselves from the sting of the law. In Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Attacked the Rule of Law, Plotted to Avoid Prosecution – And What We Can Do About It, we look at both: how the ex-president and vice-president can be held personally accountable, but, also, how they tried to manipulate the system from inside to keep themselves from being held to account.

    Perhaps the most startling example of their extraordinary actions was the gutting of the War Crimes Act of 1996. 

  • February 23, 2012
    BookTalk
    Poisoned
    The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat
    By: 
    Jeff Benedict

    By Jeff Benedict, a best-selling author and journalist


    Before I wrote Poisoned, my wife Lydia spent two years trying to convince me to do a book on the food industry. I resisted, saying guys like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser did that. I write nonfiction stories, usually ones built around legal disputes. I couldn’t see how to do a compelling legal story around food. 

    Then something happened. Lydia revolutionized the way our family eats. This did not happen gradually. One week she cleaned out our cupboards and refrigerator, getting rid of everything from brand-name cereal to frozen meat to staple products like butter, flour, and sugar. Even the salt and pepper went. Then she restocked our kitchen with organic foods. We also started growing directly to small local farms to purchase our meat, poultry, and dairy products. 

    We didn’t stop here, though. We converted our 20-acre property into an organic fruit and vegetable farm. For a guy who grew up in a beach community in Connecticut, this was culture shock. But our four children loved it because we added horses, guinea fowl and chickens. We now collect close to twenty farm fresh eggs per day. On top of that we plant, water, weed, harvest and can. Now when we say grace, we mean it. 

    Besides improving the way I look and feel, this lifestyle change dramatically altered the way I look at food. The transformation got me searching earnestly for a food-related book topic.  That’s when I came across Bill Marler, a personal injury lawyer who has emerged as the country’s most influential advocate for food safety. Today, food safety is a serious public-health problem. The CDC estimates that food-borne disease causes about 48 million illnesses per year. Roughly one in six Americans get sick from bad food. Many of these cases are mild gastroenteritis, commonly referred to as the stomach bug. But too many food poisoning cases are more serious, resulting in approximately 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually. The fatalities are often children and the elderly.