Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You can't bring zebra mussels into New York

I have the rare opportunity to shed some light on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Ass'n. A similar but fictional case was the subject of my portion of our team's National Moot Court brief. (You may remember me complaining about how the organizers of that contest gave us the Golden Screw.)

Picture it: the Midwest, 1885 (as Sofia Petrillo would say). Railroads are king, and farmers are serfs. The railroads can set prices wherever they want because there's no SEC yet, and in many cases, only one railroad enters a given community. Farmers are hopping mad. (As they always are, because farming depends heavily on the weather and the actions of speculators - two elements nobody can control. But that's neither here nor there.) After the Populists make some headway in elections, Congress sets up the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC gets the power to approve or veto rates and routes of railroads. The railroads grumble, but the ICC stays.

Fast-forward to the 1930s. Two new forms of interstate commerce are in their infancy: the trucking business and the air cargo business. Now, these are the days of the New Deal, when you couldn't so much as mow your lawn without Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins establishing the National Lawn Project and hiring fifty men to do it for you, plus another five to draw up stylish NLP recruiting posters. Congress decides that airlines and truckers should be subject to the same rules as the railroads, and establishes bureaucracies to that end. (Never mind that the latter travel on tracks that are built and owned by the railroads themselves - and can thus box out competition - whereas the former travel through roads and the air, government property that any carrier can use.)

Zoom ahead again to the early 70s, and America's railroads are nearly all bankrupt. Economists point to the ICC, which responds to inquiries on rate and route changes with all the speed of a three-legged cow that's up to its knees in tar. Congress decides it's too late to save the railroads, but maybe the air transit system can be fixed. And so, after about six years of hearings, Congress enacts the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, letting the airlines set their own damn prices and routes. (Its major backer was Ted Kennedy; its major opponents, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Go figure*.)

But what about the states, you say? Can't they just swoop in and set up their own airline regulations to make sure the governor's home town gets three flights a day? Congress is (for once) a step ahead of you. They flex their dormant commerce clause** muscles and expressly forbid the states from making regulations that are "related to the price, route, or services" of airlines. So much for that.

Congress' plan is rolling along in the late 1980s when FedEx brings it crashing down. As you've probably heard, FedEx delivers its packages via a network consisting both of trucks and of aircraft. FedEx decided to test the waters and sued to invalidate a state regulation that applied to them, arguing that since they were an airline, the ADA let them off the hook. The Ninth Circuit agreed with them, and the trucking industry hit the roof. Why, the hardworking truckers of America were subject to all kinds of zany state regulations (the ICC left the trucking business in 1980), and now all you have to do to get around it is buy yourself a hot-air balloon!

After years of complaints from trucking concerns, Congress relents and enacts the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994. Most of it concerns appropriations to upgrade airports in places like Grand Forks and Ketchikan, but another section informs the states that the same rules apply to truckers as apply to airlines, so no enacting regulations that are "related to the price, route, or services." Of course, the states can still provide regulations that affect motor vehicle safety, so yes, truckers, you have to wear your seat belts.

So now it's 2003, and the crisis du jour is teen smoking. Some Maine legislators hear tell that kids are bypassing the show-ID requirement on tobacco sales by ordering their smokes on the Internet. This threatens to disrupt the very foundations of Maineanite society, and so the legislature passes a bill requiring delivery drivers to get IDs whenever they deliver packages containing tobacco. The trucking industry cries foul, because now they'll have to mark every package containing tobacco and change their delivery procedures. Surely that "relate[s] to the price, route, or services" of their business?

Above: Maine's Attorney General at oral argument before the Supreme Court.

No question. Nine-nil to the truckers. Maine either did a lousy job of claiming that these regulations didn't meet the definition of "related to," or didn't bring it up at all, because the Court grabs the definition from a case that the truckers wanted them to use and doesn't address any of Maine's arguments on that issue.

Failing that, Maine tries to expand the exception for motor vehicle safety into a general public health and safety exception, just as I tried to do when I argued that side in Moot Court. Maine, like me, put a lot of weight into a House report that mentioned several states as models for the deregulated trucking business. All of those states had various public safety regulations on truckers in place, like California's law against transporting cougars and New York's law against transporting gambling devices (as well as the one in the title of this post). Cougars can kill people, so they can be regulated. Cigarettes kill people, too. So Maine can regulate them, right? But the Court wasn't going to let Maine get away with that. If you ask a lawyer, anything at all can be justified by "public health and safety***." So out the statute goes.

In a concurrence, Justice Ginsburg tells Congress that it's time to amend the statute to let Maine cast down its fury upon the villainous UPS guys who lurk ominously behind every bush, waiting to fill the lungs of doe-eyed youths with the vile smoke of the demon goddess Tobacco. Ginsburg is the only member of the court who expresses an opinion over whether this law was actually a good idea, and I say she's wrong. It seems odd to me that a respected jurist and her team of clerks would have failed to notice a major flaw in this statute. It's designed to stop minors from ordering tobacco online, right? And how do you pay for purchases online? With a credit card. And not even Capital One is going to issue a credit card to a minor. So either the kids are ordering with stolen credit cards (already against the law), they're stealing other people's deliveries (already against the law), or they're ordering with the consent of the person who owns the card (in which case the card owner might as well just order the smokes and then hand 'em over). Maine's tobacco delivery law was pointless, anti-tobacco grandstanding - but more importantly, it was pointless and violated federal law.

*Actually, I know why the ideological odd couple of McGovern and Goldwater teamed up on this issue: they represented states with large rural populations and they wanted the Feds to continue to mandate service to podunk regional airports in an attempt to prop up rural economies. But it's funnier to think of the two as turning into the Statler and Waldorf of the Senate after their failed presidential bids.

**The dormant commerce clause is why you Iowans have to pay ATM fees.

***When I was in Anchorage I had to help draft an ordinance banning drug paraphernalia. Among our "public health and safety" excuses was that shared drug items like bongs, dugouts, coke spoons, and crack pipes could spread germs. Hey, there'd been a tuberculosis outbreak in town a few months earlier. Can't be too careful.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Common Cold FAQ

What is the common cold?
The common cold is one of any number of microscopic thingamajigs that get into your immune system and makes it all unhappy, causing you to become unhappy in turn.

What does the common cold feel like?
I've been told that it's kind of like having a menstrual period in your face. (Actually, it was phrased the other way around.) Your head will hurt, your throat will be scratchy, and your nose will be full of snot.

How come it seems like only one nostril works for a while, then they both get stuffed up for a minute or two, then they switch?
Scientists are studying this phenomenon. As of yet, there are no answers.

I got a cold. Should I stay home from school?
This is permissible if you are in grade school and promise to lie on the couch and drink 7up while watching "The Price Is Right." Otherwise, sack up and go to school. You'll spread germs, but it's the fault of the other students if their immune systems can't handle it.

How can I treat a cold?
Drink plenty of fluids. Note that these should be fluids that you would ordinarily consume - for instance, don't drink brake fluid or sulfuric acid (although the latter would really clear out the sinuses). The aforementioned 7up is a traditional choice. Nudelsuppe may also work. You can also try NyQuil, which will leave you feeling slightly better, but drowsy, for a few hours. It's available in a few different flavors, all of which taste like rancid licorice. If you can find orange-flavored Children's Triaminic somewhere, it might be worth a try: it's not real powerful but it's tasty. I used to use it as an ice cream topping.

How can I cure a cold?
There are a number of cold cures available at your local supermarket. You'll find them next to the herbal joint capsules and theraputic magnets in the "Placebo" aisle. Stick it out, dude. It's just a few days. It won't kill you unless you're already practically dead.

Friday, February 22, 2008

In a world... where rolling doubles gets you out of jail

Hasbro and Universal Studios have signed a development deal to make movie versions of board games. Now, "Clue" wasn't bad, but I'm not so sure its success can be replicated.

Mouse Trap. A desperate homeowner (David Arquette) resorts to a crazy scientist's (Robin Williams) gadgets to catch a mouse. *1/2 96 min. (PG)

Hi Ho Cherry-O! A family of migrant laborers (Edward James Olmos, Penelope Cruz) struggle to make a living on a cherry farm in California. *** 112 min. (R)

Guess Who? Hardened cops (Forest Whitaker, Steven Schirripa) solve crimes by assembling police line-ups. **1/2 108 min. (R)

Pit. Brokers at the Chicago Board of Trade (Christopher McDonald, Mark Wahlberg) lead fast-paced lifestyle. ** 104 min. (R)

Balderdash. A harried English professor (Christopher Lloyd) travels around the world in search of obscure words. ** 89 min. (PG)

Crossfire. Estranged brothers (Dylan Sprouse, Cody Sprouse) duel in a high-tech floating arena. **1/2 93 min. (PG-13)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And what are protists for?

I've found that a lot of animals in nature are pretty much useless. Like, say, ladybugs. What do they do? They eat aphids. And what do aphids do? They eat plants. Why do we need aphids around to eat plants, and why do we need ladybugs around if all they do is eat aphids? If I were in charge of nature there would probably be some downsizing involved.

Now there are some animals that are talented enough to stick around. Like the seal, which protect us against plagues of penguins (useful themselves for providing scenery in the otherwise boring Antarctica), and which can talk in a voice that sounds like my impression of a 19th century politician.

Even more bitchin' than the seal is the lyre bird. Here's one that can do car alarms and camera shutters. I'd like to have one that sounds like a cell phone. It would be great for causing mass confusion.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Now back to your regularly scheduled nonsense

Ten Well-Known TV Actors Who Have Never Appeared On "Law & Order," and How I Would Cast Them On The Show
1. William Daniels, morality crusader
2. Mayim Bialik, Hudson University TA, noticed that the victim wasn't in class recently
3. Vincent Schiavelli, sex offender out on parole, was not involved in this crime
4. Tony Shalhoub, works in Computer Crimes
5. Laura San Giacomo, suspected of murdering her husband
6. James Avery, judge (as always)
7. Stephen Root, corporate suit who doesn't have time for this investigation
8. Ed Begley, Jr., oily FBI agent
9. Kurtwood Smith, irascible dock worker
10. Dwight Schultz, incompetent security guard

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I hate weekends

What kind of sane person hates weekends? I don't know. I'm clearly not sane.

Every weekend I feel like I'm in a nursing home. I wake up at eleven or so, not so much because I stayed up late last night but because I have nothing to wake up for. I have a choice between being bored at home or being bored at the gym, and usually I opt for the former because I don't have the energy to walk a block and a half to get to the gym, and besides, I'm too self-conscious to spend much time there.

Sometimes I try to eat an especially large lunch on the weekends so I'll be sleepy afterwards. Naps help the time go faster.

I can't do anything that'll cost me money, because I have to spend basically every penny I have on my bar review and application, the fate of which currently is in the hands of the clerks of the Dubuque County Courthouse. If they don't find my traffic citations from ten years ago within the next week, I don't get to take the bar.

I've had weekends like this for years now, but with the impending stress of transition looming over me, they're becoming almost intolerable, and I don't know what to do to make things different. Everyone says you're supposed to talk to a friend, but I don't want to burden them with my problems, which are most likely caused by a defective personality and can't be fixed.

Besides, it's the weekend. They're out enjoying themselves. I'd just rain on their parades.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

How do mad scientists rock out?

Although a truly mad scientist would probably be an organist rather than a guitarist. And the Tesla coils would be twenty feet high and flank the gigantic organ.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Conspiracy of the Day

The appraisers on "Antiques Roadshow" are secretly in the employ of insurance companies. They intentionally over-appraise the garbage people bring in to the convention center in order to get them to buy expensive insurance policies.

(I don't know if the British appraisers are on the take, but I *do* know that UK "Roadshow" is a fantastic source of hilarious British regional accents.)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again

A few years ago I decided that it would be best if I avoided talking about politics unless people asked me to. I'm a nobody from nowhere and nobody fucking cares what I think about politics. But I'm going to make a political post here because we're entering a stretch where we'll all be surrounded by politics, and such talk is inevitable.

Our presidential candidates want us to believe in them. Our presidential candidates want to inspire us. Our presidential candidates want to be symbols of hope, freedom, prosperity.

That's idiotic. It's a terrible idea to believe in someone you've never met before, and it's an even worse idea to go to a ballot box for an idea. Ideas don't hold offices. People hold offices. And even when those people have ideas you like, they value them differently. Asking a president to be a symbol is a recipe for failure.

That's why I want presidential candidates who don't need me to believe in them. I want presidential candidates who have no illusion of being leaders or symbols of progress or inspirations to poor schmucks like me. I want an invisible President.

My President would focus on the real job of the modern presidency: Administrator-in-Chief. My President would spend most of his/her time in the Oval Office reviewing reports from Cabinet members and send memos back and forth over proposed regulations and appointments to administrative offices. My President would respond to most questions from the press with "Go talk to Congress." My President wouldn't pretend to have the solutions to war or poverty or sex offenders or shark attacks or any other crisis of the week.

My President would get maybe one-half of one percent of the popular vote, because people want to believe. Just cast a vote for Hillaritt McEdwarbama and the magic scepter of the Presidency will grant us all we desire!

There's an electorate born every minute.

Monday, February 4, 2008

More Louis

Hey, another Louis Theroux video I haven't linked to yet. Check out his exploration of plastic surgery in Beverly Hills Not work safe due to nipples. Possibly also not mind safe due to some guys who really should've picked a different surgeon.

Funny, before I saw this video, I thought women were supposed to need to wear bras, but I guess I was wrong.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

On improving the legal system

Trials would be a lot cooler if they replaced the word "Objection" with the word "Bullshit."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Wait, they have smokescreens in Assault now?

Yeah, I probably should've watched the new "American Gladiators" from the get-go, considering I spent many an hour pinned to the TV watching the original on USA.

So I tuned in tonight to see if I could catch a glimpse of the next Wesley "Two Scoops" Berry.

I just saw a Gladiator pull a guy's fingers off of a ring while snarling "This little piggy went to market." AWESOME.

And while Lace was by far the hottest of the original Gladiators, there are two total babes among the current crew - the aptly-named Crush and my new TV girlfriend, Beth "Venom" Horn. Insert snake-related pun here.