Kevin Drum - February 2011

Obama Reverses Course on DOMA

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 12:52 PM EST

The Obama administration has decided to stop defending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman. This is from the Dept. of Justice statement:

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that [...] classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny. The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases. I fully concur with the President’s determination.

Consequently, the Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit.

This, by the way, is a good example why I've never joined in the general condemnation of conservatives for "reigniting the culture wars" whenever they introduce an abortion bill or somesuch. I'm on the opposite side of these conservative efforts, of course, but the fact is that liberals started the culture wars in the 60s and it's something we should be proud of. So while I oppose the conservative side of the culture wars, I approve of the culture wars in general, and I applaud Obama and Holder for reigniting it last year when Congress repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell and for reigniting it in the case of DOMA today. Blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, the disabled and millions of others have benefited tremendously from the culture wars, and I'm happy to see it continue until there's no more war to fight.

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The Worm Turns in Wisconsin

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 11:58 AM EST

What's the endgame in Wisconsin? Andy Kroll rounds up the possibilities today, and outcome #1 is that eventually the union busting bill passes. This has seemed the most likely outcome to me from the start. Gov. Scott Walker has run a very disciplined operation so far, he has a lot of leverage and doesn't seem afraid to use it, he's taking on an unpopular target, and Democrats can't hide out in Illinois forever.

But I've been a little surprised at how things have turned out so far. Democrats might not be able to hide forever, but it turns out they can hide for a good long time. Even more important, it turns out that Walker's position may not be as popular as I thought. A national Gallup poll yesterday showed that 61% of Americans don't favor taking away collective bargaining rights from public sector unions. This doesn't mean teachers unions are suddenly everyone's heroes, but it does mean that a sizeable number of people think that busting unions entirely is a step too far.

And then there are Walker's fellow Republicans. One of the big questions swirling around the situation in Wisconsin is the notion that it's a bellwether: if Walker wins, will other Republican governors follow suit? There's still no telling, but just yesterday both Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Florida's Rick Scott have spoken out against the idea of eliminating collective bargaining rights. Their statements were mild, but they still take a bit of momentum out of Walker's anti-union crusade.

Even if unions lose the battle in Wisconsin, one benefit of their protest is to show other Republican governors that they're in for a pretty serious war if they try to do the same thing. That's worth a lot all by itself.

Buying Justice

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 5:08 PM EST

Paul Waldman notes that New York state's chief justice recently announced that judges have to recuse themselves if a lawyer arguing a case before the court has contributed more than $2,500 to one of the judge's campaigns. You'd think that should have been obvious all along, wouldn't you? But not to everyone:

It's true that the ability to buy a judge is not completely without limits, as we found in a case called Caperton v. Massey, involving the notorious mining company Massey Energy. Massey had recently been hit with a $50 million verdict in a lawsuit heading for West Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals, so the company's chief, Don Blankenship, poured $3 million into the campaign of Brent Benjamin, a private attorney running for the first time, for chief justice in 2004. That amount was more than both campaigns spent combined. Benjamin ousted the sitting justice, and when the case reached the high court, Benjamin refused to recuse himself and cast the deciding vote in Massey's favor, tossing out the $50 million award.

When the appeal reached the Supreme Court of the United States, the Court ruled that Benjamin should have recused himself. But what was so remarkable about the decision is that it wasn't 9-0 or 8-1 but 5-4. Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito — the Court's conservative bloc — actually thought it was OK for a judge to get $3 million from a defendant, then rule on that defendant's lawsuit.

This, of course, is the case that inspired John Grisham's The Appeal, which I highly recommend. Sure, it's Grisham, and I know he's not everyone's cup of tea, but The Appeal is great liberal porn and it only takes a few hours to power through. You'll enjoy it.

The Opposite of Wisconsin

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 2:02 PM EST

Jon Chait imagines a Democratic governor proposing a deficit reduction plan in a Bizarro-world version of Wisconsin:

Imagine a Democratic governor proposed a plan to close a budget crisis. First he jacked up the Earned Income Tax Credit. Then he proposed a tax hike on the rich and on corporations to close the deficit. And then he packaged it with a stringent campaign finance law, a law to require corporations to obtain permission from shareholders before engaging in any kind of political activism, and other laws designed to crush the political power of corporate America. (Pro-Democratic businesses would be exempted.) It's budget-related, because, after all, you can't maintain higher taxes on the rich if the rich are able to bend the political system to protect their interests. Oh, and Republicans accepted the tax hikes on the rich but opposed the other provisions, but Democrats refused to negotiate them.

I suspect conservatives would interpret this not as a genuine effort to close the deficit but as an exercise in class warfare and raw politics. They'd be correct.

It's all about power, baby, power. Scott Walker knows exactly what he's doing. For more on what the rich have to gain or lose in this battle, take a look at the great set of charts from Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot that accompany my union piece today. It's called "Eight charts that explain everything that's wrong with America," which might be stretching things a bit. I can think of a few other things wrong with America too. But they're a pretty good start.

Free Oil!

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 1:01 PM EST

When the price of oil goes above a certain benchmark level, companies drilling on American territory in the Gulf of Mexico are supposed to pay royalties to the United States government. Which is to say, royalties to you, the taxpayer. Unfortunately, a bureaucratic snafu accidentally gave away some leases for free a few years ago, and ever since we, the taxpayers, have been receiving no royalties on those wells. But that's no problem, right? Our elected representatives in the United States Congress will just fix the error. Matt Steinglass explains the facts of life:

As of 2008, the bill came to $1.3 billion; this year, the losses will be $1.5 billion. Over the decades-long lifetime of the wells it'll add up to a lot more. According to the Government Accountability Office it'll come to $53 billion over the next 25 years. Last week, representative Ed Markey and a few other Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee offered an amendment to the Republican budget bill to make those oil producers pay the standard amount in the future on the royalty-free leases they mistakenly received due to bureaucratic error. The amendment was voted down, 251-174.

Life is good when you own one of America's two political parties, isn't it?

Unions and the Rich

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 12:29 PM EST

Here's another take on why even public sector unions matter in the fight against the corporatization of the political economy. The chart on the right, from John Sides, shows the overall union density for each state on the X-axis, and this is probably a fairly decent proxy for the level of public sector union density too. He concludes that unionization has essentially no effect on state budget deficits, but Matt Yglesias makes a different and equally salient point:

Looking at this chart, what I think you would see is that unionization levels have a strong relationship to progressive taxation. New York, Hawaii, and Washington are all high-tax states, especially on rich people, while the non-union south has generally low levels of taxation and regressive tax structures. The conservative movement is financed by rich people whose primary interest in life is lower taxes. And on an intellectual level, the main wellspring of conservative economic policy ideas comes from people who believe that progressive income taxes are very economically damaging. A secondary intellectual inspiration is people like Greg Mankiw who believe that such taxes are an immoral imposition on a genetic elite. A key problem with this agenda is that higher taxes on rich people are a politically popular way to solve budget deficits. The solution is to create a dynamic in which political parties are entirely reliant on rich businessmen for their financing. Reducing labor unions to a state of political impotence will get the job done.

Italics mine. Needless to say, for more on this you should read my piece about the role of unions in the American political economy, which went online today. It's good! I promise.

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The Stakes in Wisconsin

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 11:52 AM EST

Yesterday I wrote that the decline of unions over the past three decades "has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition." Megan McArdle wonders, reasonably enough, what this has to do with Wisconsin:

In what way do public sector unions act as a check on the power of corporations? They are not negotiating against corporations; they are rarely competing with corporations (and certainly not in the case of the teachers' unions); and corporate taxes do not provide the bulk of the revenues for state and local governments.

It is surprising to me how determined both conservatives and liberals seem to be to view this through the lens of the private sector union fights — exploitative corporations and militant workers have been neatly transmogrified into selfish taxpayers and greedy unions.

My union sympathies are much stronger in the private sector than the public sector, primarily because I do indeed think the biggest value of unions is the fact that they act as a bulwark against unfettered corporate control of the political economy. But that doesn't mean this is the only benefit of unions. I also value unions for moral reasons: workers should have the right to effectively bargain with management over wages and working conditions no matter who management happens to be. Taxpayers can act unfairly just as easily as any other employer. And I value them for purely economic reasons: workers should be paid decently no matter who they work for and unions help make that happen. And for reasons of solidarity: the death of public sector unions will only hasten the further demise of private sector unions too. And for reasons of partisan hackery: public sector unions provide considerable support for the more liberal of our two great political parties.

There are some pretty reasonable arguments to be made against public sector unions, prime among them the fact that they exert a lot of control over the politicians who act as "management" in bargaining fights. To some extent this means they get to bargain against themselves, and taxpayers can sometimes end up with the short end of that stick (though see Jon Chait for the other side of this claim). For this reason, I'd support a ban on public sector unions contributing to political campaigns if the same rules applied to corporations and the rich. But they don't, and they never will.

For better or worse, then, I support public sector unions as well as their private sector counterparts. It's not a perfect world we live in, but bargaining for wage gains and decent working conditions is something that everyone should be allowed to do. Working for the government doesn't suddenly mean that right should disappear.

Bad Rumblings in the Economy

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 11:11 AM EST

Bad economic news #1:

Real estate prices slid again in December, pushing a leading price index within a whisper of its lowest level since the housing crash began, data released Tuesday showed....“Despite improvements in the overall economy, housing continues to drift lower and weaker,” David M. Blitzer, chair of S.&P.’s Index Committee, said in a statement.

Bad economic news #2:

World oil prices are rising sharply as violence spreads through Libya, the first major petroleum exporter to be threatened by unrest sweeping North Africa and the Mideast. As fears mounted that soaring energy costs could derail the global economic recovery, the benchmark price of crude in London on Monday surged $5.48, or more than 5%, to $108.20 a barrel, its highest level since September 2008.

Falling house prices are hardly a surprise, so by itself this isn't that big a deal. Rising oil prices weren't either, back when they'd only gone up to $80 or so. But triple digits? And possibly more to come depending on what happens in Libya and elsewhere? Combine that with stubbornly high unemployment in the U.S., growing inflation in China, financial woes in Europe, and obvious fragility in the overall pace of our recovery from the Great Recession, and we might be wishing we'd opted for a more robust stimulus package pretty soon.

The Death and Life of the Democratic Party

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Wisconsin's public sector unions are the ones in the news right now, but it's private sector unions that have shriveled away almost to nothing over the past several decades. In the current issue of Mother Jones, I tell the story of that decline and how it's affected the Democratic Party, changing it from a party that represented the working and middle classes without apology into one torn between its New Deal heritage and its modern funding base:

As unions increasingly withered beginning in the '70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community. The rise of neoliberalism in the '80s, given concrete form by the Democratic Leadership Council, was fundamentally an effort to make the party more friendly to business. After all, what choice did Democrats have? Without substantial support from labor or business, no modern party can thrive.

....It's impossible to wind back the clock and see what would have happened if things had been different, but we can take a pretty good guess. Organized labor, for all its faults, acted as an effective countervailing power for decades, representing not just its own interests, but the interests of virtually the entire wage-earning class against the investor class. As veteran Washington Post reporter David Broder wrote a few years ago, labor in the postwar era "did not confine itself to bread-and-butter issues for its own members. It was at the forefront of battles for aid to education, civil rights, housing programs and a host of other social causes important to the whole community. And because it was muscular, it was heard and heeded." If unions had been as strong in the '80s and '90s as they were in the '50s and '60s, it's almost inconceivable that they would have sat by and accepted tax cuts and financial deregulation on the scale that we got. They would have demanded economic policies friendlier to middle-class interests, they would have pressed for the appointment of regulators less captured by the financial industry, and they would have had the muscle to get both.

And that means things would have been different during the first two years of the Obama era, too. Aside from the question of whether the crisis would have been so acute in the first place, a labor-oriented Democratic Party almost certainly would have demanded a bigger stimulus in 2009. It would have fought hard for "cramdown" legislation to help distressed homeowners, instead of caving in to the banks that wanted it killed. It would have resisted the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman. These and other choices would have helped the economic recovery and produced a surge of electoral energy far beyond Obama's first few months. And since elections are won and lost on economic performance, voter turnout, and legislative accomplishments, Democrats probably would have lost something like 10 or 20 seats last November, not 63. Instead of petering out after 18 months, the Obama era might still have several years to run.

For three reasons, I hope you'll read the whole thing. First, because you can't really appreciate what's happening in Wisconsin without first understanding what's happened to organized labor as a whole over the past 50 years. Second, because understanding this history is important for its own sake. It is, I believe, the single most fundamental political story of our era.

Third, and most important, if you don't read it all you'll probably think this is just another cri de coeur for the restoration of a lost age of labor activism. It's not. What it is about is, as I say in the final sentence, "the central task of the new decade" for progressives. This is something that, after reading the whole thing, you might not buy. But right now, whether we want to admit it or not, the progressive movement is on life support. If I'm wrong, we'd sure better figure out what's right.

Qaddafi Bombing His Own People?

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 3:49 PM EST

From the Guardian:

The two Libyan Air Force fighter pilots who apparently defected earlier with their jets to Malta have told Maltese government officials that they had been ordered to bomb protesters, Reuters reports.

And the New York Times:

The faltering government of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi struck back at mounting protests against his 40-year rule, as helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of the capital Monday, according to witnesses and news reports from Tripoli....Over the last three days Libyan security forces have killed at least 223 people, according to a tally by the group Human Rights Watch.

Qaddafi is carpet bombing his own people? Jesus Christ. His own diplomats are now disowning him, and not a moment too soon. More here, including an explainer and continuous updates.