2009 - %3, April

Gay Marriage in the Heartland

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:58 PM EDT
The Iowa Supreme Court has decided unanimously that a law banning same-sex marriage violates the state constitution.  Basically, the court made a common sense ruling that the Iowa ban did indeed discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation:

Our responsibility [] is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time....As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes poignantly said, “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”

....[E]qual protection before the law demands more than the equal application of the classifications made by the law. The law itself must be equal. [...] In other words, to truly ensure equality before the law, the equal protection guarantee requires that laws treat all those who are similarly situated with respect to the purposes of the law alike.

....It is true the marriage statute does not expressly prohibit gay and lesbian persons from marrying; it does, however, require that if they marry, it must be to someone of the opposite sex. Viewed in the complete context of marriage, including intimacy, civil marriage with a person of the opposite sex is as unappealing to a gay or lesbian person as civil marriage with a person of the same sex is to a heterosexual. Thus, the right of a gay or lesbian person under the marriage statute to enter into a civil marriage only with a person of the opposite sex is no right at all....By purposefully placing civil marriage outside the realistic reach of gay and lesbian individuals, the ban on same-sex civil marriages differentiates implicitly on the basis of sexual orientation.

That's nicely and plainly said.  Very midwestern.  The court then went through the usual list of reasons for banning gay marriage (maintaining traditional marriage, promotion of optimal environment to raise children, promotion of procreation, promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships) and concluded that none of them had enough substance to overcome obvious discrimination against a relatively powerless class.  And that was that.

So for now, anyway, Iowa has gay marriage and California doesn't.  Who would have guessed?

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Another Hostage Situation

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

From CNN: Four shot. Forty-one held hostage.

Anyone wanna bet me on the gender of the perp, or the 'perceived' dissing he's seeking to alleviate with this action?

Deconstructing Evan Bayh

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:19 PM EDT
What is his deal, anyway?  Ezra Klein tries to figure it out with logic here and statistics here.  But the mystery only grows deeper.

Military Hijacking Aid Effort in Afghanistan, Say NGOs

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:12 PM EDT
One lingering result of Donald Rumsfeld's reign at the Pentagon is the US military's increased attention to humanitarian development and aid work that, say critics, puts real-life aid workers at heightened risk of attack and undermines long-term development projects. Rumsfeld's November 2005 Department of Defense Directive 3000.05 (PDF)—titled "Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations"—placed non-combat missions (those aimed at building rule of law and civil society) on equal footing with the Pentagon's other priorities of killing people and breaking things.

Confusion was inevitable, and now a group of 11 NGOs working in Afghanistan have issued a briefing paper (PDF) to the heads of NATO governments now meeting in Bucharest. The NGOs charge that NATO forces, despite a mutually agreed-to guidelines demarcating the roles of militaries and humanitarians in Afghanistan, have largely ignored the rules.

Thank Allah for the Taliban?

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:06 PM EDT

Think you've got a strong stomach? Bet me $100, then watch this Allahforsaken video of a 17-year-old girl, from The Guardian. Here's the description:

The two-minute video, shot using a mobile phone, shows a burka-clad woman face down on the ground. Two men hold her arms and feet while a third, a black-turbaned fighter with a flowing beard, whips her repeatedly. "Please stop it," she begs, alternately whimpering or screaming in pain with each blow to the backside. "Either kill me or stop it now."...A crowd of men stands by, watching silently. Off camera a voice issues instructions. "Hold her legs tightly," he says as she squirms and yelps. After 34 lashes the punishment stops and the wailing woman is led into a stone building, trailed by a Kalashnikov-carrying militant."

I made it 30 seconds in before I wanted to close out, but I made myself watch.

How long did you last?

Employment Update

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:04 PM EDT
In short: it's bad.  We're losing lots of jobs and we're losing them fast.  Jonathan Stein parses the numbers.  Calculated Risk provides the chart below.  Brad DeLong says we need a bigger stimulus.

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If You Legalize It They Will Come: Iowa Welcome Brides and Grooms!

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:03 PM EDT

During caucus season, the saying goes, "As Iowa goes, so goes the nation," which was true for Barack Obama after his win the Iowa kick-started his presidential campaign last year, and in three weeks, Iowa will be the first state in the Midwest to allow gay couples to get married. Though, given the confusion the rest of the country has about the vowel-heavy fly-over states, Ohio and Idaho will probably get some credit too. (The capital of Iowa is Toledo and it is known as the great potato state, right?)

This morning's decision follows years of legal back and forth. In 2005, six gay couples sued Polk County Recorder Timothy O'Brien for denying them marriage licenses. The Polk County District Judge ruled in favor of the couples last year, but the ruling was stayed until the Iowa Supreme Court could review the law.

The excitement around the courthouse this morning was palpable and happy couples and supporters cried and cheered. Mary Hicks, a long time advocate and hopeful bride, described the scene as "amazing." Disappointed conservatives slunked off with their signs to wait and see what would happen with the decision once it reached the legislature. Though, according to the New York Times, advocates don't believe there will be any immediate cause for overturning the decision. And, as Iowa has no residency requirement for marriage licenses, there may be a flutter of May-brides and grooms this spring serving pork tenderloins and sweet corn on their reception buffets.

Obama's Deal

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 11:53 AM EDT
I note for the record that every major paper — the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and McClatchy — has a front page story today mentioning Barack Obama's diplomatic coup in brokering a deal to "take note" of tax havens instead of directly recognizing them.  The White House must really be anxious to make sure everyone knows about this.

Republicans to Filibuster Obama Justice Department Nominee Dawn Johnsen?

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 11:45 AM EDT

In January, I wrote about Dawn Johnsen, the strident critic of Bush torture memo author John Yoo who President Barack Obama selected to run Yoo's old office, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. The OLC is responsible for providing legal advice (and, in the case of the Bush administration, legal cover) to the President. Johnsen, as I wrote in January, is the anti-Yoo: an outspoken opponent of torture and an advocate for an OLC that challenges presidential power. But now Senate Republicans may be planning to block her confirmation.

According to a story in Tuesday's New York Times, Senate Republicans "will first gauge whether they can attract some support from conservative Democrats" to filibuster Johnsen. A spokeswoman for Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, refused to say whether McConnell was plotting a filibuster. Reid and McConnell have not been able to reach an agreement on bringing Johnsen's nomination to the floor: "We are discussing how to proceed on the nomination; it is our hope that the Republicans will not obstruct her nomination through filibuster," Reid spokesman Jim Manley told me in an email.

Making Money the Old Fashioned Way

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 11:22 AM EDT

Suppose Congress passed a bill that gave you a tax credit if you mixed in some alternative fuels — ethanol or biodiesel, say — with your ordinary gasoline.  That's actually a dumb idea, probably, but at least it's pretty understandable.  In theory, the alternative fuel is greener than the fossil stuff, so creating the mixture is good for the environment and the government should encourage its use.

But what if there were an industry that already used a 100% alternative biofuel?  Could they qualify for the tax credit by mixing in some fossil fuel?  Obviously that's not what Congress intended, but hey — a mixture is a mixture.  The law doesn't say how you have to get there because it never occurred to lawmakers that anyone would do it this way.

But this is America!  Of course there's someone who will do this.  The paper industry, it turns out, depends on an elegant process in which wood pulp is separated into cellulose fiber and a sludge called "black liquor," which is then used to generate energy for the process.  Neat.  Chris Hayes explains what happened next:

By adding diesel fuel to the black liquor, paper companies produce a mixture that qualifies for the mixed-fuel tax credit, allowing them to burn "black liquor into gold," as a JPMorgan report put it....In fact, the money to be gained from exploiting the tax credit so dwarfs the money to be made in making paper — IP lost $452 million in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone — that the ultimate result of the credit will likely be to push paper prices down as mills churn at full capacity in order to grab as much money from the IRS as it can.

If there's a cloud hanging over the elation in the industry, it's the sneaking suspicion that once Congress gets wind of this racket, it will shut it down. "The one comment I do get from people [in the paper industry]," says [Brian] McClay, "is whether it's going to be rescinded or redrawn before the end game.

....So far, though, to the surprise of McClay and others, there's been not a peep from Capitol Hill.

This is American ingenuity at work.  You'd only be making a mistake if you thought it was anything unusual.  In fact, this kind of tax engineering is so commonplace that the spokesperson for International Paper doesn't even see the need to defend it.  "It is what it is," she shrugged when Chris called for comment.  And indeed it is.