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1958: The Year That Writing About Gay Rights Became Legal

| Sun Jan. 11, 2015 12:03 PM EST

I'm familiar with the usual highlights of the gay rights movement, but not much more. So I found today's article by David Savage about the 1958 Supreme Court case ONE vs. Olesen pretty interesting. Lower courts had ruled the Los Angeles magazine ONE obscene and therefore illegal to ship by mail, but a young lawyer named Eric Julber persuaded the editors to appeal to the Supreme Court:

By coincidence, the Supreme Court was struggling at the same time with the question of obscenity in a case involving Samuel Roth, a New York book dealer, who was appealing his conviction for selling sexually explicit books...."All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guaranties" of the 1st Amendment, said Justice William J. Brennan in Roth vs. United States, handed down on June 24, 1957. "Sex and obscenity are not synonymous," he added.

With that ruling fresh in their minds, several Supreme Court law clerks read Julber's petition — as well as the magazine itself — and advised the justices it was not obscene. "This was an easy one for the liberal justices. It was a speech case," recalled Norman Dorsen, who was then a law clerk to conservative Justice John Marshall Harlan and would go on to lead the national ACLU from 1976 to 1991. But even the conservatives were not in favor of censorship practiced by the Post Office.

"The conservatives on the court then — Felix Frankfurter, Potter Stewart and Harlan — were not like the real conservatives we have now. They were more tolerant," he said. Brennan, the author of the Roth opinion, looked at all the petitions on his own. He would have seen the magazine and its supposedly obscene articles. After taking several votes, the justices decided on a simple, one-line ruling issued on Jan. 13, 1958, reversing the 9th Circuit decision.

This is obviously a bit of local color for us Southern Californians, but also an interesting tidbit in the history of gay rights for those of you who, like me, had never heard of it before. Worth a read.

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Non-Chart of the Day: Where's the Austerity?

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 7:00 PM EST

Tyler Cowen passes along the following chart, a modified version of one Matt Yglesias used to show the trend of total government expenditures (federal + state + local) and declare "2014 is the year American austerity came to an end":

This comes from Angus, who comments incredulously: "From this graph I concluded one of two things must be true depending on one's definition of austerity. Either austerity means nominal cuts and we never had any of it, or austerity means cuts relative to trend and we are still savagely in its grasp."

Oh come on. There's an obvious third option. Let's take a look at this chart done right:

This is real per-capita government expenditures (using 2014 dollars). I used CPI, but it looks the same no matter which inflation measure you prefer (PCE, GDP deflator, % of GDP, whatever).

Austerity is all about the trajectory of government spending, and this is what it looks like. You can argue about whether flat spending represents austerity, but a sustained decline counts in anyone's book. The story here is simple: for a little while, in 2009 and 2010, stimulus spending partially offset state and local cuts, but by the end of 2010 the stimulus had run its course. From then on, the drop in government expenditures was steady and significant. It was also unprecedented. If you run this chart back for 50 years you'll never see anything like it. In all previous recessions and their aftermaths, government spending rose.

Finally, in 2014, the spending decline stopped. Austerity was over, and now we're even starting to see a small uptick in government spending. At the same time, the economy started to pick up.

This is not bulletproof evidence that austerity is bad for the economy, or that government spending helps it. But it's certainly consistent with the hypothesis, and it's really not hard to see.

Chart of the Day: Vaccinate Your Kids!

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 2:02 PM EST

Via the LA Times from a few months ago, here's the rise in "personal belief" exemptions from state-mandated vaccinations among kindergartners in California:

And here's where it's happening:

In Los Angeles County, the rise in personal belief exemptions is most prominent in wealthy coastal and mountain communities, The Times analysis shows. The more than 150 schools with exemption rates of 8% or higher for at least one vaccine were located in census tracts where the incomes averaged $94,500 — nearly 60% higher than the county median.

....At Santa Cruz Montessori in the small coastal community of Aptos, about 7% of kindergartners in 2007 got belief exemptions. Last fall, that rate was 22.6%. Principal Kathy Rideout said the school has tried different approaches to encourage parents to immunize children. They asked a doctor to talk with fellow parents. They produced handouts emphasizing the importance of immunizations and asked parents seeking belief exemptions to get counseling from a healthcare practitioner. A state law that went into effect this year makes this a requirement. But none of it made much difference, Rideout said.

...."We have schools in California where the percent of children who exercise the personal belief exemption is well above 50%," said Dr. Gil Chavez, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health's Center for Infectious Diseases. "That's going to be a challenge for any disease that is vaccine preventable."

There are times when it's appropriate to be skeptical of authority. This really isn't one of them. "Big Vaccine" is not an issue in American life. Childhood vaccination is just a matter of public health that no one has any real motivation to lie about. Please don't get sucked into this maelstrom. Get your kids vaccinated.

Defending Free Speech Doesn't Require Solidarity With the Speech Itself

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 1:28 PM EST

A couple of days ago, I had in mind a follow-up post about the point that defense of free speech doesn't necessarily demand "solidarity" with the speech itself. This is obvious. If an extremist gay rights lunatic murdered a dozen members of the Westboro Baptist Church, would we all start showily plastering "God Hates Fags" on our websites? The question answers itself. There might a few photos showing WBC members sporting the phrase because there's some news value in making it clear what sparked the attacks, but that would be it.

Anyway, I didn't do it. The only way to make the point was to choose something deliberately and revoltingly offensive, so I backed off. But Glenn Greenwald didn't:

This week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show “solidarity” with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. “The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,” announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens....But no matter. Their cartoons were noble and should be celebrated — not just on free speech grounds but for their content. In a column entitled “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat argued that “the right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order” and “that kind of blasphemy [that provokes violence] is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait actually proclaimed that “one cannot defend the right [to blaspheme] without defending the practice.”

....It is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights....When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary (and cartoons) are a dime a dozen in western media outlets.

I don't agree with everything Greenwald says in his post. In particular, I think he really does downplay the disparity in both the number and virulence of terrorist attacks by radical Islamic groups compared to other groups. Like it or not, that makes a difference. He also would have been well-served by reprinting more than just anti-Semitic cartoons. Nonetheless, he makes his point vigorously, as usual, including a refresher of the evidence that terrorist violence is hardly limited to radical Islamists.

I am, I confess, conflicted about this. There is value in solidarity in the face of such a hideous attack. Still, although refusing to publish out of fear is plainly wrong—this is hardly a controversial point—letting a terrorist attack provoke an overreaction is a dubious response as well. For this reason, Greenwald's piece is worth reading in full even if, in the end, you think he's wrong. Maybe even especially if you think he's wrong.

Unemployment Is Low, But It Can Still Go a Lot Lower — And It Should

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 10:25 AM EST

Justin Wolfers makes a good point today. There's a concept in economics called NAIRU, which rather awkwardly stands for the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment1. Basically it means that there's a "natural" rate of unemployment in the economy2, and if you go below it then inflation will start to accelerate. When that happens, the Fed raises interest rates to slow down growth before inflation gets out of hand.

But what's the actual value of NAIRU? Based on past experience, most economists think it's around 5.5 percent or so—which happens to be where we are now. And yet, inflation is still very low, and definitely not accelerating. This could be just a temporary phenomenon as we recover from a huge balance-sheet recession, or it could be something more permanent. For two reasons, my guess is that it's mostly the latter. First, inflation has been steadily dropping for 30 years in the US, and there's some reason to think that it's the 70s that were a high-inflation anomaly, not the rest of the low-inflation 20th century. Second, there's reason to think that the headline unemployment rate is not measuring quite the same thing as it used to. If you look at long-term unemployment, marginally attached workers, and the decline of the labor force participation ratio—which has been falling for 15 years now—it appears that a headline rate of 5.5 percent probably implies more slack in the economy than it used to. Here's Wolfers on the natural rate of unemployment:

The problem, though, is that no one really knows what that rate is. Our uncertainty is even greater today than it normally is, because no one knows the extent to which those workers who dropped out of the labor force in response to the financial crisis will return when jobs become plentiful. By this view, today’s most important macroeconomic question is what the natural rate actually is.

The latest jobs report helps answer this question. The unemployment rate has fallen to 5.6 percent, and there are still no signs that wage inflation is rising. Indeed, with wage growth running at only 1.7 percent, the economy is telling us that we still have the ability to bring many more of the jobless back into the fold without setting off inflation.

It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned that the labor market is generating cost pressures that might raise inflation. So the latest wage growth numbers suggest that we are not yet near the natural rate. And that means the Fed should be content to let the recovery continue to generate more new jobs.

There's one more thing to add: Even when unemployment falls to around 4 percent, we should remain cautious. We've tolerated an inflation rate that's under the Fed's 2 percent target for the past five years. There's no reason we shouldn't tolerate a catch-up inflation rate that's a little over the Fed's target as we begin to recover. If inflation runs at 3-4 percent for the next five years, it's probably a good thing, not a bad one.

1Obviously economists could have used a branding expert to help them with this. On the other hand, if they'd done that we might have ended up with Xarelxo or JobsMax™. In any case, we're stuck with it for now.

2The idea here is that even a thriving economy has a certain amount of natural unemployment as people leave their jobs and move to new ones—because new sectors pop up, old companies go out of business, etc. That's a good thing and a perfectly natural one in a competitive economy that's producing lots of innovation. Trying to push unemployment lower than the natural rate is basically fruitless.

72 Percent of Republican Senators Are Climate Deniers

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered a simple amendment to the controversial bill that would authorize construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Sanders' measure, which he proposed to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would have declared it the "sense of Congress" that climate change is real; that it is caused by humans; that it has already caused significant problems; and that the United States needs to shift its economy away from fossil fuels.

Sanders' amendment went nowhere. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chair of the committee, used the opportunity to take a shot at climate science. "I do believe that our climate is changing," she said. "I don't agree that all the changes are necessarily due solely to human activity." Murkowski didn't elaborate on her current thinking about the causes of global warming, but in the past she's advanced a bizarre theory involving a volcano in Iceland.

Sanders will get another chance next week, when the full Senate debates the Keystone bill—but he's likely to run into stiff resistance from GOP climate deniers. As Climate Progress revealed Thursday, more than half of the Republican members of the new Congress "deny or question" the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. If you just look at the Senate, the numbers are even more disturbing. Thirty-nine GOP senators reject the science on climate change—that's 72 percent of the Senate Republican caucus.

The list includes veteran lawmakers like James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is the incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and has written a book titled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And it includes new senators like Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who thinks climate change might be caused by solar cycles. (For a great interactive map showing exactly how many climate deniers represent your state in Congress, click here.)

What's more, the Climate Progress analysis shows that many of the congressional committees that deal with climate and energy issues are loaded with global warming deniers:

…68 percent of the Republican leadership in both House and Senate deny human-caused climate change. On the committee level, 13 out of 21 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, or 62 percent, reject the science behind human-caused global warming, joined by 67 percent, or 21 out of 31 Republican members, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee…In addition to Inhofe, 10 out of 11, or 91 percent, of Republicans on EPW have said climate change is not happening or that humans do not cause it.

All this could have serious policy consequences: Republicans are threatening to use their majority to cut the EPA's budget and derail the power plant regulations at the heart of President Obama's signature climate initiative.

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Check Out This Amazing Presidential Debate Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush Just Had

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 5:43 PM EST

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mitt Romney may be running for president again in 2016. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is also considering a run! Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn, who broke the news of this little video back in 2012, had a couple of thoughts about how that battle for the GOP nomination might play out:

We can't wait. 

WSJ: Mitt Romney Considering '16 Presidential Bid

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 5:01 PM EST

Wow! The Wall Street Journal just ripped open everyone's Friday afternoon with this shocking, game-changing scoop:

This would be a good time to watch the 2014 Netflix documentary Mitt, which was the first time Romney signaled that he'd run again.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 2:44 PM EST

Here's Hopper in the sewing room, surrounded by sewing paraphernalia. That look in her eye suggests either that her brother was somewhere nearby or that she was just about to gallop across all of Marian's stuff and make a huge mess. Or maybe both. Making a mess is a favorite pastime around here these days.

President Obama Starts to Focus on the Middle Class

| Fri Jan. 9, 2015 2:04 PM EST

One of the hot topics of conversation in progressive circles these days is the middle class. Democrats support plenty of programs that provide benefits to the poor (Medicaid, minimum wage, SNAP, etc.), but what about programs that benefit the middle class? What do Democrats do for them?

By coincidence, this week provides a couple of examples of programs that are targeted more at the middle class than the poor. First up is President Obama's proposal to fund two years of free community college for everyone. As Libby Nelson explains, Pell Grants already make community college free for most low-income students:

The most radical part of Obama's free community college proposal isn't that it's free — it's that it's universal....So the best way to look at the Obama free college plan is as a promise to the middle class. Families who earn too much for federal financial aid but aren't wealthy enough to afford thousands of dollars of college bills are rightly feeling squeezed as tuition prices rise.

This might not be the most effective way to spend federal money. But it's politically smart. To see why, look at pre-K. Most of the research on pre-kindergarten effectiveness is about whether it helps poor children catch up to their peers from wealthier families. But in 1995, Georgia decided to use lottery winnings to make free pre-K available not just to the poor, but to any family who wanted to join.

Two decades later, Georgia's universal pre-K program is very popular, championed by liberals and conservatives alike. And the reason it's managed to stay relatively apolitical and noncontroversial is that it's universal, Fawn Johnson wrote in National Journal last year. A program just for the poor "would be about class warfare," one Georgia Republican told her.

Elsewhere, Greg Sargent notes that new rules governing overtime wages could benefit middle-class workers:

Obama will soon announce a rules change that governs which salaried workers will get time-and-a-half over 40 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act....“The spotlight is now on raising wages,” [AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka] told me. “Raising wages is the key unifying progressive value that ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together. We think the president has a great opportunity to show that he is behind that agenda by increasing the overtime regulations to a minimum threshold of $51,168. That’s the marker.

....A lower threshold could exclude millions. In raising his voice, Trumka joins Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and other progressive Senators who have urged a threshold of $54,000, and billionaire Nick Hanauer, who is urging $69,000. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that raising the threshold to a sum approximating what the liberal Senators want could mean higher overtime pay for at least 2.6 million more people than raising it to $42,000. EPI says setting it at over $50,000 could mean over six million people, or 54 percent of salaried workers, are now covered.

Both of these proposals would primarily benefit middle-class workers which makes it unlikely that either of them will get any support from Republicans or from the business community. But they're worth pursuing anyway. At least they let everyone know whose side each party is on.