Kevin Drum - 2012

Gay Marriage Ban is Unconstitutional — For Now

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 2:20 PM EST

A district court and now the 9th Circuit court have both ruled that California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional. This is great news. However, I assume that it doesn't really matter much since the case will now go to the Supreme Court, which has a history of not really caring about the opinions of the hippies on the 9th circuit. I further assume that the Supreme Court will be divided 4-4 on this question, with Anthony Kennedy providing the swing vote depending on his mood that day. Lately, though, his mood has been conservative, so the betting money says this will get overturned 5-4.

That's pretty deflating, isn't it? But who knows? Maybe I'm wrong. I'm sure serious court watchers will weigh in soon.

Also of note: this was a very narrow decision. Basically, the court said that California already provides same-sex couples with all the rights of opposite-sex couples, and Prop 8 does nothing to change that. All it does is prohibit same-sex relationships from being legally described as "marriage":

Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.

....All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of 'marriage,' which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships. Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for "laws of this sort."

In other words, this ruling has no impact at all in states where same-sex couples don't already have all the rights of opposite-sex couples, and the court declined to make a broader ruling that might have addressed that. (Though they say they wouldn't have hesitated to do that if the narrower ruling hadn't been available to them.)

Also of note: the court ruled that the backers of Prop 8 did indeed have standing to defend it in court. They lost on the merits, not because they had no legitimate right to defend Prop 8 after the State of California decided not to.

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Republicans Once Again Unleash Reality Distortion Field

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 2:01 PM EST

In 1995, when congressional Republicans grew annoyed that independent reviews of science produced answers they didn't like, they shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. In 2001, when Senate Republicans grew annoyed that parliamentary procedure produced results they didn't like, they fired their parliamentarian. Now, in 2012, congressional Republicans are annoyed yet again with the real world, and their answer, yet again, is to create a new reality more to their liking. Bruce Bartlett explains:

On Feb. 3, the House passed H.R. 3582, the Pro-Growth Budgeting Act of 2012. Innocuous on the surface, its long-term purpose is to institutionalize Republican economic policy into the very fabric of budgetary analysis.

The legislation would require that the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation do a “dynamic” analysis of major legislation....The dynamic calculation would be supplementary and not replace the current official scoring methodology, but the obvious long-term goal is to require official revenue estimates to incorporate “Laffer curve” effects in order to make it easier to cut taxes and harder to raise them.

....My concern is that the Republican effort is just a smokescreen to incorporate phony-baloney factors into revenue estimates to justify unlimited tax cutting....It already has a very well-financed Center for Data Analysis that the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, used to analyze his budget plan last year, bypassing the Joint Committee on Taxation and C.B.O.

Moreover, my memory is still fresh regarding the documented Republican effort in 2003 to suppress internal estimates of the cost of the Medicare Part D program. Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, has testified to the pressure that was put on him by a Bush administration political appointee, Tom Scully, which was documented by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Dynamic" analysis has been a hobbyhorse for years among movement conservatives, all of whom are convinced that the CBO is engaged in a liberal vendetta to prevent tax cuts by issuing reports showing that tax cuts will....produce less tax revenue. Sneaky! Dynamic scoring, they're convinced, will show just the opposite, and blow the field wide open for more and more glorious tax cuts.

As usual, though, it's not clear to me what the purpose of this legislation is. Are they seriously trying to get it passed? That seems unlikely. Are they going to use it as trade bait in future budget negotiations? Maybe. Or are they doing it solely because it's a hobbyhorse among the tea party crowd and they want to show that they're truly dedicated to the cause? My guess is Door #3. But you never know. They might actually be serious about this stuff.

UPDATE: A reader points out something I should have mentioned: CBO has done dynamic scoring before on its own, and the results have been pretty undramatic even with a Republican appointee in charge. For example, CBO's analysis of the 2004 budget is here, and the results of dynamic scoring are in Table 16. Result: maybe a bigger deficit than standard scoring, maybe a smaller deficit. And the differences were small no matter what.

Of course, maybe that just means they weren't using the right dynamic model. I'm sure there's a more agreeable one around somewhere.

The Komen Foundation's Even Bigger PR Problem

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 1:15 PM EST

Clara Jeffery has a piece today about the Komen Foundation and what they can do to recover from their Planned Parenthood fiasco, and it's worth a read. But it reminded me of something I've been meaning to point out: one of the remarkable things about this controversy is that a lot of it hasn't really been about the controversy itself. Rather, for a lot of people it seems like it was just a long-awaited excuse to finally blow up over their long-simmering dislike of the Komen Foundation and its seemingly endless commercialization of all things breast cancer related. I don't really have much to say about this since I'm pretty removed from the whole thing, but one PR lesson Komen should learn is that apparently there's long been a helluva lot of unvoiced annoyance/discontent/exasperation/anger/etc. toward the Komen Foundation among a lot of women. And now that it's finally out, it's going to be hard to stuff it back into its bottle. I wonder if they had any idea before this that they were so heartily disliked by so many people who — until now — just didn't feel like it was OK to say so out loud?

Obama's Choice: Good Policy or Good Politics

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 11:52 AM EST

Jonathan Chait takes note today of the progress President Obama has made in his campaign to highlight Republican obstructionism and work around them with executive orders that he can implement on his own:

I was skeptical last October that Obama’s initiative would help his approval ratings, but it looks like I was wrong. Obama’s poll numbers have climbed over the last several months, with his net job-approval rating, which had bottomed out at minus ten percentage points, approaching parity.

....Republicans are beginning to grasp their own inadvertent complicity in Obama’s comeback. Some, of course, believe that their failure lies in having compromised too much. But political realism is advancing. Representative Tom Cole bluntly asserts that his party simply needs to disappear from the national debate: “The big thing for us is to not be part of the conversation instead of trying to inject ourselves into it.” It’s sound advice. If Republicans weren’t charging around threatening to overturn decades of American social policy and possibly plunge the world into economic crisis if Obama refuses to accede to their goals, Obama would have a harder time defining himself in opposition to them.

The payroll tax fight offers the first test of whether or not the new breeze of tactical realism will prevail, or be overwhelmed by countercurrents of militant obstruction.

This also means that we'll soon get a test of Team Obama's view of the importance of politics vs. policy in an election year. If Obama's campaign is working, then it's actually in his interest to (subtly! quietly!) pick a fight with Republicans so that they'll look obstructionist yet again over the payroll tax holiday. But if it's policy that he really cares about, then he'll just take the win if Republicans offer to cave in. We should find out soon which it is.

Math Alert: "Dozens" of Earmarks Might Not Be All That Many

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 2:07 AM EST

From the Washington Post today:

Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.

The Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members and compared them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008. The process uncovered appropriations for work in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by the lawmakers or their family members. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to companies, colleges or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.

The Post story includes descriptions of a bunch of these earmarks, and some of them sound pretty self-serving, others not so much. But I have to admit that the first thought that crossed my mind when I read this was: "Really? Dozens? That's a lot less than I would have expected."

Here's the thing. Congress approves about 10,000 earmarks a year. So that means something on the order of 40,000 earmarks since 2008. At a guess, if 40,000 earmarks were distributed by throwing darts at a map, more than a few dozen would come up near members' homes. In other words, if anything, members seem to be actively trying to keep earmarks away from their homes.

I hope the Post uncovers some funny business here. That would be fun. I'm also aware that I'm more geekish about this stuff than most people. Still, I wish that when stories like this got published, the reporters would do at least a little bit of statistical due diligence. Is "dozens" a lot or a little? I know that math is boring, but a little context would go a long way here.

Is the Housing Market Finally Ready to Rebound?

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 7:17 PM EST

As you may recall, Smithianism1 is an economic forecasting model that suggests the economy will turn up this year because (a) So many cars have worn out over the past three years that sales pretty much have to go up at this point, and (b) So many people have been living in their parents' basement for so long that sheer desperation is going to drive them into the home and rental market. This, in turn, will get the economy back on track.

Okay, that's a little oversimplified. But basically true. As regular readers know, I've been striving to believe in Smithianism for the past six or nine months, and it's been hard. I've tried, but I end up backsliding a lot too. Today, though, Calculated Risk provides a strong endorsement:

The Housing Bottom is Here

There are two bottoms for housing. The first is for new home sales, housing starts and residential investment. The second bottom is for prices. Sometimes these bottoms can happen years apart…For new home sales and housing starts, it appears the bottom is in, and I expect an increase in both starts and sales in 2012.

…And it now appears we can look for the bottom in prices. My guess is that nominal house prices, using the national repeat sales indexes and not seasonally adjusted, will bottom in March 2012…There are several reasons I think that house prices are close to a bottom. First prices are close to normal looking at the price-to-rent ratio and real prices (especially if prices fall another 4% to 5% NSA between the November Case-Shiller report and the March report). Second the large decline in listed inventory means less downward pressure on house prices, and third, I think that several policy initiatives will lessen the pressure from distressed sales (the probable mortgage settlement, the HARP refinance program, and more).

If this is true—and the evidence in favor seems pretty strong to me—then the housing market will indeed recover in earnest this year and the economy will recover along with it. And cars? Well, yesterday Clint Eastwood told us it was halftime in America and Detroit is leading the way to recovery if we can all just pull together and quit sniping at each other for a little while. Works for me!

I think I'm about an 80 percent Smithian these days. Basically optimistic, but still wondering just how strong the recovery is going to be, and still worried that Europe or China or Wall Street 2.0 might still derail things. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

1Smithianism (smith-ee-uhn-iz-uhm) n. [Fr. Smith + ISM < Karl Smith, American professor of Public Economics and Government at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] economic doctrine that places considerable emphasis on rising pressure in the housing and automobile markets to drive an economic recovery.

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Let's Bomb Iran!

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 3:27 PM EST

Are Americans really tired of war? I've had my doubts about that in the past, and Doug Mataconis draws my attention today to a survey that redoubles those doubts:

Nearly half of likely voters think the United States should be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to this week’s The Hill Poll. Forty-nine percent said military force should be used, while 31 percent said it should not and 20 percent were not sure.

So there you go. We've basically got a majority for military action against Iran already, and at this point the war drums have only barely begun to beat. Another few months of well-timed leaks and scary op-eds and we'll have two-thirds in favor easy. Even after ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan — not to mention Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and the endless drone strikes in Pakistan — it's still not very hard to get the American public lathered up into a good old-fashioned war frenzy.

Chart of the Day: As Incomes Decline, So Does Marriage

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 1:53 PM EST

Marriage rates are down in America, and they're down far more among the poor and working class than among those who are better off. That's old news. But why are marriage rates down? I don't know, and I gather that Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project don't really know either. However, they suspect that there's a fairly straightforward relationship between income and marriage: as incomes go down, so do marriage rates.

Maybe. The income numbers in the chart below don't look very familiar to me (Median male earnings have declined 40% since 1970? Earnings in the top 5% have increased only 20%?), but if you take them at face value the relationship between earnings and marriage rates is indeed remarkably striking. The question is whether the correlation here is also causal, and if it is, which direction it runs. Have declining earnings provoked lower marriage rates, or have lower marriage rates affected men's earnings? This issue is much more a hobbyhorse among certain precincts on the right than on the left, but I think it's worth paying more attention to regardless of where you sit on the left-right axis. Family stability and community stability are important no matter what the causes of their decline may be, and figuring out those causes is worth some skull sweat.

(Via Economix.)

UPDATE: On the other hand, some skull sweat isn't very worthwhile at all. Here is David Frum taking on Charles Murray's latest attempt to handwave away the fact that declining earnings among working-class men may have had a wee effect on their attachment to the labor market, the marriage market, and to various other social norms of the 50s.

A Brief Look Into the Conservative Mind

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 12:12 PM EST

Generally speaking, I try to avoid implying that liberal wonks are somehow fundamentally superior to conservative wonks. This includes suggestions that, for example, the former tend to be tolerably intellectually honest while the latter tend toward hackdom. Or that liberals mostly maintain consistent positions while conservatives cheerfully shift sides based on little more than who's in office and what the current party line is.

Yessiree. I try to avoid saying things like that. But good Lord, conservatives sure make it hard to maintain this pretense. For today's example, click here to see Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation explain why he's suddenly changed his mind on the individual mandate. Ezra Klein very kindly responds that he would "find this more persuasive if there were evidence that the shift predated President Obama’s embrace of the policy," but I will less kindly say that Butler's explanation is simply risible. Nobody with more than a fourth-grade education would take it even remotely seriously. The truth is that he thought the mandate was a fine idea until Barack Obama endorsed it, the entire conservative movement declared it the work of Satan, and he then needed to change his mind or be drummed out of polite society.

Maybe I'm blinkered, but I simply can't imagine a liberal wonk explaining a flip-flop with such transparently laughable arguments. But I'm open to examples that I might have forgotten.

Don't Mind the Gap

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 11:51 AM EST

St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, who's been sort of hawkish and then sort of centrist, now seems to moving back toward hawkishness again. "Hawkish," of course, normally refers to the Fed's attitude toward inflation, but at this point it seems to have morphed into "the economy sucks and we'd all better just get used to it":

If the Federal Reserve doesn't change the way it takes stock of the economy and its relationship to monetary policy, the U.S. may be facing a "looming disaster," a top central bank official said Monday.

At issue is the commonly held view that the Fed must use its policy tools to help the economy regain the ground it lost over the financial crisis and ensuing recession, in turn closing what economists see as the gap between the economy's potential and its actual rates of growth, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said. But the nature of the shock suffered over recent years is such that if this model continues to drive policy, "it may be very difficult for the U.S. to ever move off of the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates," Bullard said.

....Bullard said he worries that current preoccupation with closing the output gap "may be keeping us all prisoner" because it puts monetary policy makers in the impossible position of trying to get growth to converge back to pre-crisis levels, which were themselves a reflection of the housing market bubble.

So there you have it. We managed to make up the output gap after the Great Depression, but it's not going to happen this time because — well, just because. Bullard's view seems to be that we're stuck because the 2008 crash was caused by an asset bubble, but the world has seen lots of asset bubbles before. It's not clear why he thinks this one is so special that we're never going to make up the ground we lost when it burst.

So suck it up, America. And keep in mind that as these things go, Bullard is actually something of a moderate. As near as I can tell, about half of the FOMC thinks Bullard is just pandering to the hippies and we should end this nonsense of keeping interest rates low right now. Sure, it'll be a little painful, but eventually all you malingerers out there will get the message.