This post marks our fourth foray into the important case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which will be argued before the US Supreme Court on 25 March 2014. Anne Tucker, a law professor at Georgia State University, recently explored some of the issues in Hobby Lobby in her thoughtful post More or Less? In particular, we found her distinction between “doing more” and “doing less” to be especially persuasive:
The owners of Hobby Lobby are not asking to do more, rather they are asking to do less. Hobby Lobby want to provide less than the standards established in the Affordable Care Act, and less than their competitors will be required to provide … This isn’t about the business judgment rule and whether owners, acting through boards of directors, can run companies in line with their view of religious or social or environmental consciousness. This case asks can the religious beliefs of owners of a corporation entitle that corporation to do less under the law and as compared to their competitors. On these grounds, deciding against a religious based exemption for Hobby Lobby does no harm to CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or benefit corporations.
That is, it’s one thing if a public or closely-held corporation wants to “do more” by donating some (or even all!) of its revenues to religious or secular causes, but it’s quite another thing when a company wants to “do less” by picking and choosing which laws it doesn’t want to comply with (or by picking and choosing which parts of a given law it doesn’t want to comply with).
But does this distinction always make sense? Consider CVS’s recent decision not to sell any tobacco products in its pharmacies. How would you characterize this much-publicized decision in ”more or less” terms? Is CVS “doing less” by refusing to sell a legal product, or is it “doing more” by giving up such a huge stream of future revenues?
Check out this comprehensive constitutional dataset at the Comparative Constitutions Project or CCP. In the meantime, props go (once again) to economist extraordinaire Alex Tabarrok for bringing the CCP to our attention in his recent post “Constitutions Quantified.” Alex’s excellent post sums up the constitutional data this way:
The Comparative Constitutions Project has collected data from 720 of the 800 or so constitutions written since 1789. The shortest constitution, for example, is that of Jordan at 2,270 words while the longest is that of India which at 146,385 words is more than twice as long as the next longest constitution and considerable longer than the US constitution at 7,762 words. The New Zealand constitution grants the fewest rights, namely zero, while the Bolivian constitution grants the most rights at 88 … Venezuela offers almost as many rights in its constitution as Bolivia, 81 according to the data. Nevertheless, I think I would feel more secure in my rights living in New Zealand than Bolivia or Venezuela. A constitution with a long list of rights is a bit like a prenup with a long list of rights, looks good on parchment but parchment does not a marriage or a constitution make.
While we are on the subject of constitutional rights, are poetic declarations of individual and collective rights purely symbolic or aspirational (“nonsense on stilts” or “cheap talk” in economics jargon), or do such declarations, however lofty and vague, serve as popular “focal points” and potential bulwarks against tyranny? If the latter, which public or private institutions get to define and enforce such rights? If you say “the courts,” what guarantee do you have that the courts will actually do this job any better than elected legislatures or executives? Also, do you see a potential paradox here: we need a strong executive to enforce rights (and punish violations of rights), but a strong executive increases the risk of tyranny …
That is the title of Martin Gardner’s autobiography. Mr Gardner, who wrote the popular Mathematical Games column for Scientific American for 25 years, is one of our intellectual heroes and role models. Here are three of our favorite excerpts from his last book:
1. On the transmission of knowledge
The secret of its success [the Mathematical Games column] was a direct result of my ignorance. Even today my knowledge of math extends only through calculus, and even calculus, I only dimly comprehend. As a result, I had to struggle to understand what I wrote, and this helped me write in ways that others could understand. (p. 136)
2. On writing
I recall a visit to Isaac’s apartment on Sixth Avenue overlooking Central Park. I noticed that he worked in a room with no windows. This was by design. If the room had windows, he said, he would be tempted to leave his typewriter to look out the window, and that would seriously interrupt his thoughts while composing. (p. 148)
3. On love and life
Like Chicago, living in Manhattan was another gratifying experience. I have a strong memory of sitting on a side seat of subway car, Charlotte on one side and Jimmy, then about six months old, sound asleep with his head on my shoulder. People walking by invariably gave us a smile. I thought, “Here I am, in one of the world’s greatest cities, with a woman I love next to me, a son sleeping in my arms. What more could I desire?” It was the happiest moment of my life. (p. 133)
The City Council of St. Petersburg, the sprawling city where the Tampa Bay Rays play during the regular season, voted 6-2 yesterday to discontinue the use of red-light cameras. (There are a total of 22 red-light cameras at ten intersections in St. Pete.) So, will the rate of accidents at these ten intersections increase, decrease, or stay the same?
Last week, we brought to your attention arXiv vs. snarXiv, a kind of Turing Test for people into theoretical physics. This week, again via Tyler Cowen (Master of the Internet), we discovered a fun website that specializes in computer-generated poetry. The website, botpoet.com, presents a Turing-type test for people into poetry–it spits out a poem, and you have to guess whether the poem was written by a human or by a computer. For example, was the poem below (“The Saxophone Player”) written by a human or a machine?
The Saxophone Player
The saxophone player
a swinging door
of a prayer and the walls.