2013 - %3, June

Quote of the Day: Nobody Cares About Federalism

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 1:07 PM EDT

From Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in United States vs. Windsor:

The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State....This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.

In a nutshell, Kennedy says the Constitution doesn't forbid states from banning same-sex marriage. But if a state allows same-sex marriage, the federal government can't refuse to recognize it. Marriage is a state concern—in fact, it's literally a textbook example of a state concern—not a federal one. Taken as a whole, this ruling was as pure a defense of federalism as we've seen in a while.

So why did all the conservative justices oppose it? Answer: Because no one actually cares about federalism. It's merely a convenient veneer when you prefer one outcome over another. Yesterday state sovereignty was of crucial concern when conservatives gutted the Voting Rights Act. Today, they couldn't care less about it.

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Justice Kennedy: DOMA Had to Go Because It "Humiliates Tens of Thousands of Children"

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 1:06 PM EDT

In a 5-4 ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law preventing the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said that the law was tantamount to the "deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment."

There is a striking aspect to Kennedy's surprisingly passionate opinion: He focuses directly on the children of same-sex couples. DOMA, he writes, "humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives."

In a sense, this turns on its head one of the main bogeymen used by activists opposed to marriage equality: that gay marriage will somehow harm children and disrupt families. To the contrary, Kennedy argues that striking down DOMA will give dignity to same-sex families and help end the suffering of children caused by the current the law.

Just ahead of the decision, the American Spectator's John Guardiano toed the conservative line, arguing in a post that same-sex marriage is "part and parcel of an overaching effort to undermine and deprecate traditional marriage and the traditional family." (He noted the rise in single-parent homes and the problems caused by fatherlessness, and yet also admitted that rising divorce rates preceded any whiff of a marriage equality movement.)

The Big Problem With the Supreme Court's Prop. 8 Decision

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 11:32 AM EDT
Davis Baker, 24, center, of Phoenix, Arizona, celebrates two Supreme Court rulings Wednesday that broadened marriage equality.

In today's other decision on gay marriage, the Supreme Court declined to allow supporters of California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, to appeal their case in federal court. Supporters could defend Prop 8 in the initial suit in California, the court said, because California recognized their standing, but they aren't allowed to appeal their loss because they don't have appellate standing according to federal rules. Since a district court had previously ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional, this means the issue has been decided. Gay marriage is legal in California.

But this decision bothers me. The problem is that both the executive and legislative branches in California declined to defend Proposition 8 in court. This left it to the proponents of Prop. 8 to do so, but the Supreme Court decided today that they don't have a "personal stake" in the law, no matter how deeply they feel about it. I think the dissent gets at the core problem here:

The Court's reasoning does not take into account the fundamental principles or the practical dynamics of the initiative system in California, which uses this mechanism to control and to bypass public officials—the same officials who would not defend the initiative, an injury the Court now leaves unremedied. The Court's decision also has implications for the 26 other States that use an initiative or popular referendum system and which, like California, may choose to have initiative proponents stand in for the State when public officials decline to defend an initiative in litigation.

In California, it's routine for the people to pass initiatives that neither the governor nor the legislature supports. In fact, that was the whole point of the initiative process when it was created. In cases like these, of course the governor and legislature are going to decline to defend the law in court. With today's decision, the Supreme Court is basically gutting the people's right to pass initiatives that elected officials don't like and then to defend them all the way to the highest court in the land.

To me, this has neither the flavor of justice nor of democratic governance, regardless of whether I like the outcome.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that the California Supreme Court had ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional. It was actually a federal district court that did that. Apologies for the error. The text has been corrected.

What the Gay-Marriage Ruling Means for Immigration Reform

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 10:48 AM EDT

The Supreme Court's ruling Wednesday striking down the Defense of Marriage Act is a big victory not only for US citizens in same-sex relationships, but permanent residents who will now be able to petition for permanent residency for their foreign-born, same-sex spouses. The decision achieves most of what an amendment to the immigration reform bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sought. The controversial measure, which some lawmakers worried could blow up the bill, stood little chance of making it into the final version of the legislation because of Republican opposition. LGBT proponents of immigration reform thus had been waiting eagerly for the DOMA ruling to come down. Wednesday's ruling effectively made the amendment a moot point. 

In a statement hailing the decision, Leahy said "there is still work to be done" but "I applaud this important milestone in the continued march toward equality and pledge to work to ensure that all our laws respect the rights of every American." But he didn't immediately address how Wednesday's news affects his amendment. "At this point, he's not also getting into the immigration bill matter," David Carle, a Leahy spokesman, said.

The Supreme Court decision, which found DOMA unconstitutional on equal-protection grounds, will allow the federal government to give same-sex couples the same benefits as straight married couples under more than 1,000 laws, which includes the right to petition for green cards for foreign-born spouses who married legally but are in the country on temporary visas. The decision is also good news for Democrats, who will no longer face pressure from frustrated LGBT immigration advocates to inject the controversial issue into the immigration reform debate at the last minute before the Senate votes on the bill later this week.

In a statement, Rachel Tiven, executive director of the LGBT-rights group Immigration Equality, said, "Today's decision closes a discriminatory chapter in American immigration law. For 40 years, LGBT individuals were turned away at our borders; Congress called us unfit to be Americans. For LGBT couples, that exclusion continued until today. The court did what Congress would not, and recognized that all loving couples are the same under the Constitution."

The Economy Is Even More Sluggish Than We Thought

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 10:15 AM EDT

And now for some bad news. In April, the BEA announced that GDP had grown 2.5 percent in the first quarter of the year. Not great, but not too bad. At the end of May, that was revised down a tick to 2.4 percent. Today, in its final estimate, the hammer was dropped:

The U.S. economy grew at a slower pace than previously estimated in the first quarter as consumer spending and business investment were revised sharply downward, amid signs the pace of growth is likely to have slowed in recent months.

The nation's gross domestic product, the broadest measure of all goods and services produced in the economy, grew at a 1.8% annual rate from January through March....The first quarter's revision was due largely to personal consumption expenditures that notched lower to a 2.6% gain from 3.4%. Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of economic output, largely drove overall gains in the first three months of the year.

So, that economic recovery that you thought was proceeding pretty sluggishly? Well, it's proceeding even more sluggishly than you thought. Apparently the fiscal cliff had a pretty big effect after all. I can't wait to see how the sequester affected second quarter growth.

DOMA Dies a Well-Deserved Death

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 10:03 AM EDT

I see this morning that President Kennedy has decided to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. So it's now official: laws that screw blacks are OK, but laws that screw gays aren't. Some progress, eh?

UPDATE: Commenter cdflower says, "This is a mighty sour way to greet a truly monumental day for a large group of people who have suffered legal and legislative bigotry."

Point taken. The truth is that I'm still feeling pretty sour about yesterday's VRA ruling, and pretty sour about Justice Anthony Kennedy's role as de facto judge, jury, and executioner on cases like these. Nonetheless, this really is a great day for gays; for those of us with gay family and friends; and for the country. I apologize for being sour about it.

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Why The Atlantic's Defense of Junk Food Fails

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
The McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69 percent of US adults are overweight or obese. How did this happen? In a long article in the current Atlantic, David H. Freedman offers a mechanistic explanation: People are ingesting too many calories, particularly "energy-intense" fat, sugar, and "other problem carbs." The simple diagnoses leads to an easy solution: The food industry should apply its flavor-engineering wizardry to churn out lower-cal products that people will still scarf up, preserving its own bottom line while solving the obesity crisis. Indeed, he writes, this remedy is already playing out under our noses:

Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further.

Among the examples Freedman cites are McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin, a "lower-calorie, less fatty version of the Egg McMuffin," a "new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns containing whole grains," and Carl's Jr.'s "Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich."

Short Takes: "High Tech, Low Life"

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

High Tech, Low Life

MUD HORSE PICTURES

"I live in an environment where most of the news is good news," writes Zhou "Zola" Shuguang, a gangly 27-year-old blogger from the Hunan province. "In my opinion, this news is crap." High Tech, Low Life filmmaker Stephen Maing tails two of China's best-known citizen reporters, weaving a restrained and quietly compelling narrative about getting scoops under the threat of brutal state reprisal. Zola alternates between his mundane day job and traveling in rural areas to expose shady land developers. "I used to be a nobody...until I discovered the internet," he says. The other rebel, Zhang "Tiger Temple" Shihe, is a 57-year-old Monet-loving, harmonica-playing, cat-owning retired ad man. "Just remember," he reminds a pal, "this old geezer's going to tell the truth until he dies."

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

Quick Reads: "The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan I. Koerner

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

 

The Skies Belong To Us cover

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

By Brendan I. Koerner

CROWN PUBLISHERS

Forty years ago, during a more innocent age of air travel, skyjackers were motley idealists who just wanted a one-way trip out of the country—typically to Havana. In 1972, Willie Roger Holder and Catherine Marie Kerkow pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in US history, armed with discontent against the Vietnam War and a dozen joints—which Holder smoked in first class. Brendan Koerner tracks the duo's adventures, from their mingling with Black Panthers in Algeria to schmoozing with celebs in Paris. Predictably, their sojourn soured—and so did hijacking's golden age, as more-frequent and violent in-flight incidents brought about the metal detectors and security lines we know and love today.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

Chart of the Day: We Might Be Starting Up a New Housing Bubble

| Tue Jun. 25, 2013 11:00 PM EDT

My favorite indicator of out-of-whack housing prices has always been the price-to-rent ratio. The rationale behind keeping an eye on it is pretty simple: rent is basically the return you get from investing in a home, so if the price of buying a home goes way up but the rent doesn't, it means the return on investment from housing is declining. However, the only reason to make an investment with a low return is because you're betting that the value of the home itself will keep rising, and at some point that simply makes no sense. Why should the value of a home keep rising if it remains a low return investment? Basically, you're betting on a bubble.

The chart below, from Calculated Risk, shows the price-to-rent ratio (indexed to 1998 = 1.0) for the past few decades. Obviously things got way out of control from 2002 through 2006, and by 2012 it looked as though average house prices had retreated to reasonable levels. However, for the past 18 months the price-to-rent ratio has been rising fairly sharply. It's too early to say that we're in any kind of danger zone yet, but it's worth staying vigilant. Given the weakness of the recovery and the weakness of income growth, it's hard to think of too many good reasons that home values should be outpacing rents by very much.