Kevin Drum - March 2013

The Gay Marriage Debate Probably Hasn't Affected Straight Marriage Much

| Sun Mar. 31, 2013 7:09 PM EDT

Ross Douthat on the coming liberal victory over gay marriage:

Whether people think they’re on the side of God or of History, magnanimity has rarely been a feature of the culture war.

That's true! Also true of practically every other disagreement, big or small, among human beings. The exceptions are rare enough that they usually become famous.

In any case, what Douthat wants lefties to magnanimously acknowledge is the possibility that the growing acceptance of gay marriage, even if it's a net positive, might have contributed to things like the decline in traditional marriage rates and the rise in out-of-wedlock births. He concedes, of course, that those are long-term trends and the Great Recession has made them worse:

But there is also a certain willed naïveté to the idea that the advance of gay marriage is unrelated to any other marital trend. For 10 years, America’s only major public debate about marriage and family has featured one side [...] pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.

Two comments. First, I think this is ironic. My sense of the debate is that the procreation argument was introduced by opponents of same-sex marriage, not supporters. Those advocating SSM just wanted gays and lesbians to be able to marry each other. It was opponents, after realizing that Old Testament jeremiads weren't cutting it any more, who began claiming that SSM should remain banned because gays couldn't have children. This turned out to be both a tactical and strategic disaster, partly because the argument was so transparently silly (what about old people? what about women who had hysterectomies? etc.) and partly because it suggested that SSM opponents didn't have any better arguments to offer. But disaster or not, they're the ones responsible for making this into a cornerstone of the anti-SSM debates in the aughts. Without that, I doubt that most ordinary people would ever have connected gay marriage to procreation within straight marriages in the first place. If this really has had an impact on traditional marriage, the anti-SSM forces have mostly themselves to blame.

But they probably shouldn't blame themselves very much, because I don't think the demographic details back up Douthat's case. Take a look at the demographic groups where marriage has declined: very famously, it's been among poor and working class women, and especially among poor and working class black women. I'll concede that I might be off base here, but I think Douthat is assuming that recondite arguments over procreation and gay marriage, which are common in his highly-educated social group, are also common in the groups where marriage has declined. I doubt that very much. What's more, support for gay marriage is lowest in precisely the groups that have abandoned traditional marriage in the largest numbers. If the procreation argument were really affecting marriage rates, you'd expect to see the biggest impact in the groups where this argument is most commonly advanced, and in the groups that most strongly support gay marriage. Instead we've seen the opposite.

The economic and social forces behind the decline in marriage are decades old: stagnant incomes for men, growing incomes for women, an incarceration explosion that's left black male communities decimated, and a feminist revolution that made single parenthood more socially acceptable. Against that backdrop, I guess I find it unlikely that a fairly esoteric debate about procreation, which took place mostly among the chattering classes, had a significant impact on the people who are actually abandoning marriage. I'm open to evidence to the contrary, though.

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The Rules of the Game

| Sat Mar. 30, 2013 5:17 PM EDT

Here's a little something to noodle on while I'm lounging in my easy chair trying to solve this week's Saturday Stumper crossword puzzle. First, you need to click here and go read a post by Matt Yglesias. I'll wait.

You didn't read it, did you? Fine. I know you're busy, so here's the nickel summary. Matt is talking about the distribution of income in America, and he makes the point that modern capitalism is fundamentally based on a set of fairly complex rules created by humans. There's no natural, "default" distribution of income, it all depends on what rules we agree on:

It takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth....You go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that's a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

The specifics of how best to do this all are (to say the least) contentious and not amenable to resolution by blog-length noodling. But the intuition that there's some coherent account of what the "market distribution" would be absent public policy is mistaken. You have policy choices all the way down.

Matt's argument is a common one, and I've seen it made dozens of times in various ways. What's more, it's an argument with a lot of force. It really is true that income distribution depends on the rules of the game, and it can favor the rich or the poor depending on who sets up the rules. There are practical limits to how much you can muck with the rules and keep your economy humming along, but within these limits there's nothing inherently natural about one set of rules vs. another.

So here's the thing to noodle on. Despite having seen this argument made dozens of times, and despite its obvious force, I've never really seen it made in a way that's very persuasive at a gut level. Conservatives have done a very good job of convincing the public that rules which favor the rich really are the most natural ones, and you fiddle with them at your peril. Liberals, conversely, haven't done a very good job of convincing the public that a different, less business and wealth-centric set of rules, would be equally natural, and would benefit more people.

Why is that? It's one thing to acknowledge that changing the rules is hard because rich people have a lot of political power and don't want to see them changed. But that hardly even matters until you can make the egalitarian economic argument in a way that's convincing to the public in the first place. That's apparently very hard to do, but I'm not quite sure why. Guesses welcome in comments.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 March 2013

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

Marian bought a new comforter for our bed a few days ago, and it's rather thicker and more cushiony than our old one. Domino adores it. She's actually abandoned her favorite American Airlines blanket and now spends every morning plonked down in the lovely, luxurious nest of the new comforter. She is like the princess and the pea.

Next week: the return of quiltblogging!

President's Budget May Include Entitlement Cuts

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 2:45 PM EDT

Damian Paletta reports that President Obama may endorse entitlement cuts when he releases his budget on April 10:

Including entitlement curbs would be notable, as Republicans often have criticized the White House for offering such steps in private negotiations but never fully embracing them as part of an official budget plan.

....The White House declined to offer details of what would appear in the budget, but top officials have said negotiations with the GOP are near an impasse. "We are in a place now where it's difficult for us to reach an agreement when you have a firm bloc of Republican senators who are refusing to compromise," White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said.

It's sort of interesting how little has leaked about this. In order for the interagency review to be done and printed copies of the budget to be ready on April 10, pretty much all the major decisions must have been made by now. But the only actual example of an entitlement cut that Paletta's piece mentions is adoption of chained CPI for Social Security, a policy that Obama has been committed to for quite a while. If there's more, the president's team is doing a pretty good job of keeping it quiet.

More leaks, please.

How Gays Won the Adoption Battle

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 1:57 PM EDT

Gay marriage has been a culture-war hot button for the past two decades. But what about gay couples adopting children? Why did that never ignite the same level of opposition? In "Under the Gaydar," Alison Gash explains:

The secret to this progress was that gay parents and couples—who were by now aided by newly-formed gay rights advocacy groups—fought these cases in family court, where judges had wide discretion and public scrutiny was minimal. Aware of the perils of drawing public attention to these cases, advocates from national gay rights groups worked hard to camouflage their efforts. They removed their names from briefs, provided behind-the-scenes support, and avoided appealing losses to appellate courts, out of fear that higher-level court approval would awaken the sleeping giant of public opposition.

....Eventually, same-sex parenting cases did make their way to higher courts in two states—ironically in the same year, 1993, that gay marriage hit the supreme court docket in Hawaii (the case that launched a nationwide debate). But rather than rally opposition to both issues, conservatives chose to focus their attention only on same sex marriage. Why?

For one, the co-parenting cases received relatively little attention from the mainstream press—again, because they were not being argued as matters of “gay rights.” Also, many pro-family activists also assumed, or at least hoped, that anti-marriage efforts would limit both marriage and parenting progress. They theorized that same-sex marriage bans would, like anti-sodomy statutes, impose a chilling effect on judges. So while conservatives were busy getting the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act through Congress and initiating state level bans on same-sex marriage, gay parents and their advocates continued to quietly amass significant court victories in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

This sparks two thoughts. First, the initial focus of gay adoption was limited to biological parents who wanted to retain custody of their children after divorce. There's an obvious tension here: Should courts be allowed to take children away from their biological parents just because they're gay? Conservatives, who believe pretty strongly in the rights of biological parents, would be torn. I suspect this limited their desire to fight this battle.

Beyond that, however, I wish Gash had written more about the legislative process. It's one thing to argue that gay adoption succeeded in court because it mostly proceeded under the radar, but at some point states started affirmatively passing laws making it OK for gay couples to adopt. That began in the 90s, and obviously couldn't be kept low profile. So how did it succeed, during a period when same-sex marriage was still universally banned? That sounds like an interesting story, and one whose moving parts might be a bit different. I'd like to read "Under the Gaydar, Part II," please.

Barack Obama Is Dumb and Lazy

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 12:57 PM EDT

Jamelle Bouie points me toward the very conservative John Podhoretz today, who warns his fellow conservatives against their peculiar preoccupation with the idea that Barack Obama is an empty suit:

The weird condescension his opponents display toward him is ludicrously wrongheaded. They seem eager to believe he is a lightweight, and he is not. Obama is very possibly a world-historical political figure, and until those who oppose him come to grips with this fact, they will get him wrong every time.

....It’s not just the comforting delusion that he’s a golf-mad dilettante, but also the reverse-negative image of that delusion—that Obama is a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power. That caricature makes it far too easy for Obama to laugh off the legitimate criticisms of the kind of political leader he really is: a conventional post-1960s left-liberal with limited interest in the private sector and the gut sense that government must and should do more, whatever “more” might mean at any given moment.

This is related to the "continuing parade of weirdly invented, personality-driven scandalettes" that I mentioned yesterday. It's not as if I'm surprised that conservatives routinely try to attack Obama. Sure, I happen to think that issues like Benghazi, Solyndra, and Fast & Furious are hopeless nothingburgers, but they're perfectly understandable, routine kinds of political attacks. Every president is on the receiving end of this kind of stuff, and some of it sticks and some of it doesn't.

But then there's the completely mysterious stuff. Obama was too dumb to write his own autobiography. Obama was an affirmative action baby at Harvard Law. Obama can barely string three words together without a teleprompter. Obama is too lazy to attend national security briefings. Obama gives soaring speeches but there's nothing behind them. Obama lives a life of sybaritic ease punctuated mostly by golf dates and basketball games.

It's just bizarre. Normally, the opposition exaggerates the actual character of the president. Bush was incurious, so liberals called him dumb. Clinton was a child of the sixties, so he became a coke-snorting drug lord running dope out of Mena airfield. Reagan was personable and a little hazy on facts, so he became a doddering grandfather. Etc.

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Big Banks Getting a Fresh Look After Cyprus

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 11:54 AM EDT

Simon Johnson writes today about the scourge of banks that are too big to fail. Cyprus is the latest example of what happens when a megabank fails, and it's fresh on everyone's minds:

The good news at the end of last week was that the Senate unanimously decided that the United States should go in another direction, by ending the funding advantages of megabanks.

....But making last week even more decisive, [Ben] Bernanke’s language shifted significantly....saying in the clearest possible terms during a news conference on March 20: “Too big to fail is not solved and gone,” adding, “It’s still here.” And in case anyone did not fully grasp his message, Mr. Bernanke explained, “Too big to fail was a major source of the crisis, and we will not have successfully responded to the crisis if we do not address that successfully.”

Now that the policy consensus has shifted, how exactly policy plays out remains to be seen....

Hmmm. This seems optimistic. Has the policy consensus really shifted? I hope I'm wrong, but what we're seeing right now seems more like one of those little boomlets that crop up and then disappear regularly. Remember NGDP targeting? For a period of a few weeks when it got mentioned in a set of Fed minutes, the economics blogosphere couldn't get enough of it. But it was never going anywhere, and it never did.

But enough pessimism! If there's any movement at all toward going beyond Dodd-Frank to make banks safer, that's good news. I've always been skeptical, on both political and practical grounds, that big banks can literally be broken up or their size capped, but they can certainly be made safer by requiring much higher capital levels. And you could probably go a long way toward encouraging smaller banks by introducing a formula that set higher capital levels for bigger banks. Who knows what would happen if required capital was a minimum of 10 percent or, say, double your bank's assets as a percentage of U.S. GDP? If a bank the size of Citigroup had to hold twice the capital of a smaller bank, that would certainly provide a big incentive to break up.

I don't know how feasible this kind of thing is on a national basis, and further international action doesn't seem to be in the cards these days. But every little bit helps. We'll see if the coming months produce anything more than a purely symbolic vote on a nonbinding resolution by the Senate.

Our Honeybees Are Still Dying

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 10:47 AM EDT

I thought we had made some progress in understanding and fighting colony collapse disorder, the malady that's killing off our honeybees. But apparently not:

A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

....“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

This is not good. I didn't realize we were still so deeply in the dark about the cause of this.

Obama and Republicans Agree on Something!

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 2:03 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports on "possible common ground" between Obama and congressional Republicans on cutting Medicare costs:

In particular, participants say, the president told House Republicans that he was open to combining Medicare’s coverage for hospitals and doctor services....Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, proposed much the same in a speech in February.

....While Mr. Cantor’s proposal got little attention at the time, its echo by Mr. Obama hints at a new route toward compromise — in contrast with the budget that House Republicans passed this month that has no chance of Senate approval.

That sounds like a mighty small area of agreement to me. Any port in a storm, I suppose, but it's a little hard to see how this leads to any kind of larger bargain.

Too Many Damn Charts: A Followup

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 10:49 PM EDT

Over at the Atlantic, Elspeth Reeve charts the rise of charts in the blogosphere. In particular, she charts the rise of "In One Chart" posts. I've modified the final bar in her chart to show the true surge in these posts over the past year:

One correction, though. She credits Ezra Klein as the likely inventor of this phenomenon, and that might be true. However, she credits Arthur Delaney for the recent appearance of "signs of a rebellion" against "One Chart" posts, and that's something I'd like to take credit for. It's true that my rebellion last year was technically against "Everything you need to know about [xxx] in two charts," but I think that's close enough.

In case you're curious, I'm only halfway joking about this. I love graphical information, so I hardly have any standing to complain about chart-heavy posts. But it really does seem as if they're being overused these days. Sometimes they're the best way to explain complex topics, but not always.