Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Domestic Terrorism Looms

Dr. George Tiller, age 67, was assassinated this morning at his church in Wichita, Kansas. Dr. Tiller's abortion clinic had been a national focus of anti-abortion protest in the early 1990s. An anti-abortion activist had attempted to assassinate him in 1991 as well, but he survived his wounds.

Fortunately, the vast majority abortion opponents are as horrified by this murder as the rest of us... Yet we have to take strong steps to keep it that way. Attorney General Eric Holder must treat this as an act of domestic terrorism, for that is precisely what these shootings are: an attempt to frighten abortion providers. A suspect has already been arrested, and if he is found guilty, the courts must make an example of him. We simply cannot allow terrorism--especially that which pretends to a religious purpose--to take root on our soil. The folly of looking the other way can be seen all over the world from New York to Northern Ireland.

Moreover, the Obama administration must use every tool at its disposal, including those granted to in the Patriot Act, to investigate the network of anti-abortion groups in Kansas for ties to the suspect. Any person or group who rendered material assistance to a terrorist must be held accountable. Unless and until we can be certain this is the act of a single person acting alone, we must assume this act is not isolated and that the terrorists are plotting to strike again.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Justice Sotomayor

I don't know very much about this nominee. Nobody really does. Her biography is now well known, however, which isn't the same thing as knowing her. I do wish, however, that President Obama could find a nominee for a major post who didn't go to Harvard or Yale. Seriously. I know he values his Ivy League education as a symbol of meritocratic worth, and that makes sense for his generation and experience, but I feel like it is really overdone with him. Those schools produced a lot of mediocre people too. Like his predecessor.


A Thought on Strategy

This is a random thought that struck me when I heard this morning's announcement of Sonia Sotomayor as Obama's nominee for Justice Suitor's seat on the Supreme Court. I know nothing about Judge Sotomayor other than what I heard today. The commentary that I have heard throughout the day has been "oh, what an inspiring story." or, as one MPR host said in the form of a compliment, "She didn't put on airs. Her suit was very simple. You chould have walked into her office and thought she was a secretary. Black suit and yellow blouse." (I have massive issues with such observations, by the way. Gee, justice Alito is so simple. He wore a white shirt and black suit. It wasn't even Armani! His tie was a subdued blue. What else to you flippin' wear when you are a lawyer???? Geeze.) Later, as they dig into her record, this type of fluff will be replaced with more cogent commentary, I am sure.

But tell me, is this part of a strategy that Obama is using? Sell the story before all else and worry about the tough stuff later. Or is it show Americans that the American dream is alive and well by picking people with inspiring "only in America" stories? I am sure that Judge Sotomayoer is a fine, qualified judge. But I find the propoganda strategy rather transparent, even if it is effective.


Looking Forward to November, 2010

In a 6-1 decision today, the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, the voter-approved state constitutional amendment that eliminated the right of gays and lesbians to marry. However in a 7-0 decision, the California Supreme Court also held that the 18,000 same-sex marriages that took place before the election will remain valid. It is a small comfort, but a comfort still.

In his lone dissent, Judge Carlos Moreno argued that one should not be able to eliminate the right to marry by simple majority vote, nor should one be able to eliminate any fundamental right that way, because such rights truly are "fundamental" to the constitution. One cannot remove one of the structural supports for a house and claim that is it merely a cosmetic change. Here are three excerpts from Judge Moreno's opinion. (I stripped out the case references and footnotes).

[T]here is no “underlying” principle more basic to our Constitution than that the equal protection clause protects the fundamental rights of minorities from the will of the majority. Accordingly, Proposition 8’s withdrawal of any of those rights from gays and lesbians cannot be accomplished through constitutional amendment.

Under the majority’s reasoning, California’s voters could permissibly amend the state Constitution to limit Catholics’ right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, condition African-Americans’ right to vote on their ownership of real property, or strip women of the right to enter into or pursue a business or profession. While the federal Constitution would likely bar these initiatives, the California Constitution is intended to operate independently of, and in some cases more broadly than, its federal counterpart. The majority’s holding essentially strips the state Constitution of its independent vitality in protecting the fundamental rights of suspect classes... As discussed, denying gays and lesbians the right to marry, by wrenching minority rights away from judicial protection and subjecting them instead to a majority vote, attacks the very core of the equal protection principle.

The majority’s holding is not just a defeat for same-sex couples, but for any minority group that seeks the protection of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.

While I agree strongly with Judge Moreno's argument, I am not surprised that it is the minority view. In their lengthy opinion, the majority of the court took pains to remind us that the previous case which recognized the right to marry also recognized many other rights for gays and lesbians, and those other protections remain intact. I still am very grateful to the California Supreme Court for their earlier ruling and, even here, I believe these judges--mostly conservative Republicans, don't forget!--still did all they felt they possibly could do to protect gays and lesbians.

The rest is up to us, the voters of California, and also our elected leaders. Equality California, which led the fight against Prop. 8, announced today it will indeed field an initiative to repeal Prop. 8 and restore the right to marry for November, 2010. So, just as a handy financial tip, if you have any savings left, you might want to buy stock in companies that do direct mailing in California. It's going to be the mother of all initiative battles, I am sure.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Churches, Taxes, and Money: A Vestryman's Perspective

There are two items to this post.

1. Abbreviated history of Churches and taxation in America.

Perhaps the history helps explain our current situation. Nondiscrimination laws were nonexistent in the first century of the republic, and in colonial days. The jurisprudence that later developed around non-discriminaton laws (what republicans call "activism") to protect the minorities from majority rule, did not yet exist. Also, the First Amendment was not applied to the individual states until the end of the 19th century, so several states, including Mass and VA, had state-supported churches into the 1830s.

What was on their minds was what became John Marshall's dictum, "the power to tax is the power to destroy." So the way dreamed up to protect churches was to forbid taxation of them. When the modern income tax code was adopted in the 1940s the policy was left in tact.

Money changes everything, though.
If you look at who pays income taxes, you will see that the power of the personal deduction for charitable giving did not become salient until the 1970s. Also, churches were always political in many ways, but could easily avoid direct endorsement of a candidate. Until the 1980s when TV ads became the norm for even small campaigns, the cost of running most campaigns was so small that campaigning in churches consisted of candidates being invited to talk to the congregation, not congregations shopping for candidates with their money and volunteer base. The 1980s abortion politics began to intersect with church activism. Then, the 1990s saw a dramatic invasion into politics by right-wing "christian conservative" churches, esp. the Southern Baptists, became the organizing locus for volunteer and fundraising efforts for the GOP - particularly in the South.

So you now have a situation where one political party relies heavily on churches for organization and funds (the Republicans) and this stands largely at odds with a tax code that envisioned churches being largely non-political (being, at most cause-oriented rather than party-oriented).

Now that so many churches are so political, and the dollars matter, you get something like Liberty University kicking a political party off campus saying it is un-Christian. The tax exemption is no longer separating church and state, but interfering with church activities that they now define as including political action.

2. How Churches Operate

What's the "dollars and sense" reason for not taxing churches? Churches are not profit centers. I am the chairman of the board (title: senior warden of the "vestry") of my rather well-off parish in Los Angeles. We get about 1/3 of our income from endowments, 1/3 from member pledges, and 1/3 from rent of a portion of our property to a children's day school (the church orginally ran its own school on the property 40 years ago). We are, therefore, much much better off than most churches. Normally we can afford two full-time clergy and a full range of programs.

Even so, we run on a shoestring. About 11% of our income goes to the diocese for our fund of the "mission share" (divided between charity and administration), which feels like a substantial tax as it is. We have to maintain a very large physical structure - sort of like a mini-convention center, with a worship sanctuary, a fellowship hall, sunday school classrooms, office space for clergy, choir practice areas, and so forth. We do this without "sales" of any kind. Members are asked to pledge a percentage of their income, if they can (the norm is probably in the 3-4% range, but it's a bit tough to calculate). If the government took a third of our income in taxes, it would be like wiping out all of our pledges. To run the institution with $200K less would be crippling. I cannot imagine how a poorer church would survive. If we also had to pay property tax on the building - a big space in a downtown urban area - that would cost at least another $40K/year, raising our effective tax burden to about 40% of our total income. Ask yourself how easy it would be for you and your friends to pool enough money to buy and decorate a large space like this where the "business plan" is to give away as much as possible and rely on donations. We have something around $2K-$3K monthly in utilities, depending on weather and usage. These are big costs to spread around.

And, of course, if the donations to the church were not tax-deductible, the amount of pledge support would go down (we don't know by how much, but it would be a hit). Certainly, the larger donations to the church endowment (gifts in wills, for example) would evaporate.

The difference between this and 'entertainment' is that, among other things we don't charge admission and don't sell products. We want members to pledge a % of their income, but we don't do audits, and large numbers of people attend who do not join. A major unspoken function of the institution is to provide a nice 'theater set' for Christmas and Easter celebrations for the hoards of non-members to attend, where they ritually reaffirm some thin Christian identity and might explore the possibility of returning. This behavior varies, of course. Since Mormons do audit members and require a tithe, some of this does not apply to them. Unlike the Roman Catholics, we do not charge for most priestly services (weddings, funerals, baptisms). Jewish congregations typically charge for high holy days (it is something like selling seats at a stadium, with the "best" seats being mor eexpensive). These are all somewhat different fundraising mechanisms, but most American religious groups rely on the total-volunteer-donation model I have suggested.

I don't want to detail all the charitable activities the church also produces, but we give away something like a sixth or a seventh of our total income (including what goes to the diocese). For example, the Good Friday offerings always go to the church in Jerusalem (it's basically charitable support for Palestinians). None of this accounts for the large amount of free labor provided by parishioners.

All in all, it's a tight budget even at a relatively wealthy church. In poorer, rural areas it's even harder. Taxing churches would destroy the financial model that almost every church is built on. Most churches are not businesses, in other words. Perhaps some churches are like businesses and we should consider that. For example, perhaps the rent we charge for the school should be taxed at some rate. There is a reason why churches used to be tax-supported institutions - because running them on voluntary donations is really hard.

I should add that the average size of major-denomination parishes in this country is about 120 pledging members. For reasons relating to human interaction, it seems that a single pastor has a hard time growing an organization beyond that size without extra clergy support. Beyond that size, the relationships become too anonymous. Larger churches usually have a multiple-clergy model. What we normally do - two clergymembers - is the hardest financial model of all, because our membership is not much above the average. We can't afford the second one right now given the endowment's decline by nearly 1/3 in value and the hit that pledges are taking in this economic crisis, so we were lucky that the second pastor voluntarily got a new job (left the parish) just before the financial crash hit last year. Otherwise I just don't know how much more deferred maintenance on an aging 40-year-old building we can do.

I don't consider running the church operations itself to be a business. But where there are sales (e.g., rental property or running a school) perhaps those shoudl be taxed like the business enterprises they really are.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

South Asia Update

So there have been two developments in South Asia with regard to the global terrorism problem.  The first is the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.  The second is a series of see-saw developments in Pakistan.  

The military defeat of the Tamil Tigers can - indirectly - be credited to the Bush administration.  They jacked up military support to the Sri Lankan government with the goal of a military solution in mind.  It worked.  I guess even a busted clock is right twice a day.  But seriously, this is a case where the Bushies did something smart.  The Tsunami hit the parts of Sri Lanka that had been controlled by the Tamil Tigers and the Tigers were on their heals.  The Bushies were right to back the government's efforts to take advantage.  

Meanwhile in Pakistan we had what looked like a disaster turn into some promising shifts in public opinion.  The Pakistani government cut a deal with the Taleban to essentially hand over an entire province - outside of the tribal areas - for the Taleban to do with as they please.  The Taleban took their inch and went for the mile.  They immediately invaded a neighboring province - even closer to the capital - and started boasting about how they were taking over the country.  Meanwhile, reports were coming out of the areas under Taleban rule about the harsh violence of their version of Sharia.  The result was a dramatic shift in the public opinion of middle class, urban Pakistanis.  They now support the military effort against the Taleban much more enthusiastically.  AND there are even reports that Pakistanis now support direct US military action - in the form of drone attacks - on Pakistani soil against the Taleban leadership.

Perhaps more importantly it seems as if the Pakistani military has realized they can't deal with the Taleban they way they've dealt with civilian political forces in the past.  The Pakistani army is now fully committed to defeating the Taleban in a way they have not been previously.  The latest reports have the Pakistani military now fighting hard to push the Taleban out of the province involved in the original deal with the government.  The government had declared the deal void when the Taleban invaded the second province.   This is far from the end of problems in Pakistan.  It might not even be the beginning of the end.  But in the last few weeks in Pakistan we have seen the war against the Taleban enter a new phase.  

Combined with pending troop increases in Afghanistan we may finally see the Taleban get squeezed from both sides of the border at once.  This is exactly what needs to happen to defeat them.  If that comes to pass, it will be a result of Obama's efforts not Bush's.  

So for those of you keeping political score out there count May in South Asia as 1 for Bush and 1 for Obama.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Politics, Taxes, and Churches

As an atheist, I have little love for the tax-exempt status that churches enjoy. Nevertheless, it troubles me that a church should jeopardize its tax-exempt status if a sermon is deemed too specifically political. Something about that sounds very wrong to me.

The magnificent First Amendment to our Constitution protects the freedom of religion, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of speech--especially political speech. So when a priest addresses his congregation about the intersection of politics and faith, is that not triply protected speech? And was not the tax-exempt status of religious institutions carved out precisely to protect churches from just this sort of government intimidation or suppression via the tax code?

Furthermore, the Supreme Court recognizes that contributing financial and material support to a political candidate is another form of exercise of free expression. So should not churches be able to do this as any other organization could? It seems to me somehow that the Bill of Rights has been turned on its head. Instead of liberating religious institutions, it has become a tool to bind and muzzle them.


Time for "Liberty University" to Lose its Tax Exempt Status

So Liberty University, a "conservative christian" school (i.e., not a real university) in Virginia has just banned a small Democratic Party club from campus. Another outrage from the far right. I really hope the Obama administration acts quickly to remove their tax-exempt status, as this is exactly the kind of politicking that non-profit organizations are not permitted to engage in if they wish to be tax-exempt.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Non Political Rant

Totally non-political rant here.... Express aisles in grocery stores should be based on age of costumer not just the number of items.  A 70 year old with 4 items, 4 coupons and paying by - scoff - check takes far longer than a 35 year old with 20 items and an ATM card.  So I propose that express aisles be changed from "10 items or less" to "25 items and 60 years old or less."  If age discrimination is an issue we could accomplish the same goal buy making it "25 items or less, no coupons, ATM only."  

Just a heads up for you all so that when I become dictator of the world you won't be taken by surprise.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More Horror in Ireland

So the word out today is that from the 1930s through the 1980s, the Roman Catholic church in Ireland ran a large number of "reform" schools that the government reports were places of "ritualized beatings," consistent efforts to make children feel "worthless," and routine rape, where sex offenders were (as in the USA) just moved to other institutions. The most heartbreaking part of the report is that the victims, now mostly in their 50s and older, recall that they just wished for a single kind word now and again, but none was ever forthcoming.

Naturally, the Roman Catholic priestly orders and hierarchy call this all lies and exaggeration, or say it is the responsibility of long-dead administrators. They are unwilling to take responsibility for the crimes - civil, moral, spiritual, and religious - that were perpetrated. It doesn't matter to me if the RC church claims to have changed (has it? really?) if they won't fess up to what they've done. Nobody can really be said to have "changed" unless are willing to admit what they did wrong. This is not about a "few bad apples." It's an organization that STILL refuses to take seriously the idea that molesting boys and girls is not just a sin or "weakness" but a monstrous crime that destroys children and cannot be tolerated. It's an organization that for years thought that bad kids needed the devil beaten out of them, and won't admit that was horribly, horribly wrong, hurtful, even sinful, and still won't apologize for what it did. Obviously, I'm furious. I can only wonder what actual church members will think if they are ever told of this.


California Revolution

The rejection of Propositions 1A-1E by voters illustrates the basic problem with the California Constitution: the initiative system is broken. Of the more than 500 amendments and revisions approved by voters over the past century, the 2/3 requirement for the budget is the most harmful--but there are hundreds of little disasters that add up to make the bloated California Constitution one of the very longest in the world.

It is time to re-write the California constitution wholesale. It is time for a third constitutional convention here in California (1849 and 1879 were the previous two). Check out Repair California for some interesting information on the process and its history.

Under Article XVIII of the current constitution, the Legislature may vote by 2/3 majority to place a referendum on the ballot to create a convention to revise the state constitution. Afterward, the voters would need to approve the revision by simple majority for it to take effect. Unfortunately the legislature cannot achieve a 2/3 vote on anything substantive--the best they can do is churn out rat-eaten compromises like Props. 1A-1F.

There is another possibility: Repair California thinks a voter initiative could give the voters the right to call for a convention directly, and that we could then do so on the same ballot... But that seems iffy to me.

So I say we first pressure the legislature to pass a "clean" bill providing for a third constitutional convention. Failing that, we can Repair California's initiative process. And failing that... Is there a legal mechanism for a revolution--or is that the contradiction in terms it sounds like? Is there any precedent for a state creating a new constitution by extra-legal or "revolutionary" means? (Is the creation of West Virginia an example?) How could we do this?


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

No, No, No, No, No!

The voters of California have, by close to 2/3, voted down all five budget referenda put on the May 19 special election. I think I voted for two of the five, but I was happy to see all five fail. We are all sick to death of this broken budget process. The Economist this week came out in favor of a new constitutional convention in California. The voters are basically saying one thing: let it burn. The voters don't know what the solution is, but we know this all sucks. And the voters aren't playing ball anymore. I think we may finally see some action on a constitutional convention or prop 13. Something big has to give. We in California have the world's sixth largest economy and enormous wealth. We can make government work. One way or another. Sometimes a little revolution, now and again, is a good thing.


The Middle Class and Income Inequality in the USA

A recent comment by an anonymous contributer on an earlier thread asserted that there was no middle class in the USA.  "There are only two ways to be in the US.  Rich or dirt poor."  LTG responded that the middle class is being "sorely squeezed and impoverished."  I think LTG was mainly referring to the increasing cost of living and stagnant incomes of the middle income brackets here in the US.  He refereed to things like the cost of housing and education (which are especially problematic in overpopulated and badly governed California).  While he exaggerates (rather dramatically) the amount of debt when he says it takes $100,000 of debt to get through state university, the average amount of debt for college graduates is about $20,000 which is bad enough!  Of course, $100,000 is closer to what the debt levels are for professional school graduates - and this may be what LTG was thinking of.  This all got me thinking about what the situation with income disparities is in the US.  It is fairly clear to anyone who observes US society these days that income disparities are getting worse.  But there are several ways for income disparity to get worse and which way it's getting worse matters.

Let's divide the country into two groups:  Rich and everyone else.  And let's say that both groups can either see their incomes rise, stagnate or drop.  There are 9 different trends in socioeconomic changes in this model.  Here is my first attempt at a preference ordering of these 9 combinations (rich first, everyone else second):
1) Rise, Rise 2) Stagnate, Rise 3) Rise, Stagnate 4) Stagnate, Stagnate 5) Drop, Rise 6) Drop, Stagnate 7) Rise, Drop 8) Stagnate, Drop 9) Drop, Drop

You'll notice that I have an overall preference for pareto improving scenarios (scenarios in which someone is benefitting without anyone being worse off).  There are some on the left who have a punitive preference ordering in which they actually prefer to see the rich have dropping incomes for no other reason than to see the rich punished.  This preference ordering is mocked by the Ten Years After song, "I'd Love to Change the World" in which Alvin Lee sings, "Tax the rich, feed the poor, 'til there are no rich no more."  The point this guitar legend is trying to make is that this preference of course misses the point about income redistribution.  The goal is not the destruction of wealth but the destruction of poverty.  

So what are we seeing in the US?  I found this on wikipedia.  It shows the type of rising inequality we have in the US.  In nominal terms we are either in a state of Rise, Stagnate or Rise, Rise depending on how much credibility you give the increases shown for the income groups at or below the median in the graph.  In real terms however, and this is where LTG's points about the rising costs of education and housing come into play, we are probably in either Rise, Stagnate or Rise, drop - depending on how much faster you think costs of living are rising than nominal incomes.  

Regardless of how you interpret these numbers, the situation for the middle classes is far from apocalyptic.  Indeed, if you look at the graph linked above you'll notice that the people in the income bracket just above the median are doing rather well and they could arguably be called "middle class." 

In the US, those income brackets above the median are rising reasonably quickly.  Those at and below the median are either stagnant or rising extremely slowly.  This is a problem.  But, as I said in my comment earlier, it's not the end of the middle class.    Neither is this close to the worst situation we could be facing.  


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Learning about Contract Law and Credit cards

When I was in law school, the class that disturbed me the most was contract law. That's right. I was unfased by the "hairy hand," the dead parent's leg, and other horribles of torts class. Criminal law was rather quaint, really. You got tested on whether you could recall that the medieval definition of burglary was the breaking and entering of a dwelling house at night. If the law school exam omitted the breaking (door was open) or it was a garage, or it was twilight, it wasn't burglary. For me, there was no "paper chase" or 1L moment from any of that.

Contract law was what messed with my worldview, demonstrating how fundamentally rotten people can be. The bones of contract law are doctrines, both ancient and modern, that are pure common law overlaid with twentieth century nonsense about plain language and market custom. The meat of it is relationships gone horribly, horribly wrong. Brothers, long-time partners, family members, people screwing one another over for small sums of money. I like to say that a useful way to think about negotiation is the difference between selling a car to a friend and selling one to a stranger. When selling a car to a friend, both parties are - or should be - fundamentally interested in the deal that is fairest. When selling one to a stranger, we can and do take some, but one hopes limited, advantage of one another's ignorance, gullibility, or desperation. (Peacemaking, btw, must be like selling a car to a friend; it fails when the haggling approach is used). One of my favorite cases in contract law was an old Campbell's soup chestnut. Campbell's used to have contracts to pay farmers a lump sum for all the carrots they grew on X acres. You know, something like "You got fifteen nice acres of carrots there, Farmer Ted, I'll buy seven." This way, farmers knew in advance what they would get even if the harvest failed, and Campbell's could negotiate a deal that, building in the risk, would amortize across farms to a lower average carrot cost. Either that or they were all lazy. Anyhow, farmers, they later discovered, would transplant carrots to the other side of their property shortly before harvest time to deprive Campbell's of a small (say 5%) of what it should have made, at enormous effort that could not possibly have been worthwhile. Clauses had to be later added about not moving vegetables. Then there's the uncle who promised the nephew $1000 if he graduated college, reassured him repeatedly of this, then welched. (Uncle wins). There's a saying that "hard cases make bad law." This is truest in contract alw.

I mention this because this libertarian/jungle version of contract law we learned in law school and continue to pump over the airwaves is no longer accurate, although it is dominant in the minds of those who speak of "freedom of contract." In your lifetime, unless you are a businessman/woman you will probably get to negotiate no more than a handful of contracts in your life, of all the thousands you will sign. Almost every contract we sign is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis by very powerful corporations. Old-fashioned contract law does have some acknowledgement of the power relationships that produce these one-sided deals, but limited.

This is what the current credit card regulation controversy is all about. "Freedom of contract" cry the banks. If people don't like these terms, they can go elsewhere. Of course, you can't negotiate the terms. You can't say, "Yes, I'll take this, but I want a .5% lower interest rate and to be governed by Indiana law, not Delaware law, and I want voluntary arbitration, not mandatory." In fact, the market simply doesn't provide any possibility for negotiating or choosing between alternatives for 99% of the terms in any of these contracts. They are pretty much all standardized. You may get to choose a better rate, but you can't choose to avoid things like the right to change the rate at any time. All those terms are fixed across the industry. This is why it makes sense for the government to simply step in and regulate the terms. We have to live in the real world, not a legal make-believe world where we pretend that signing up for telephone service or a credit card is about the "meeting of the minds" between two somewhat equal parties. You can choose to forego credit cards, as you can choose to forego television, telephones, automobiles, or underwear. Calling such regulation socialism is just silly.


More on Birth and Marriage

The Washington Post announced new survey/study results today showing that some 40% of children (2007) are now being born out of wedlock. This is a substantial increase over the past 30 years. It is up from 34% to almost 40% since 2002 alone. Signficiantly, says the report, most of the change appears to be taking place among women in their 20s. The figures are striking in that it is women in their early 20s - those born in the 1980s -- that are leading the change. "Sixty percent of those who had babies between 20 and 24 were single, up from 52 percent in 2002, and nearly one-third of those giving birth at ages 25 to 29 unmarried, up from one-fourth in 2002. Nearly one in five women who gave birth in their 30s were unmarried, compared with one in seven in 2002." The most interesting coment is that this figure is putting the USA more in line with Europe, where out-of-wedlock births account for 44% (UK), 50% (France) and 55% (Sweden).

I don't know what this means for our country, but it must mean substantial changes to come in the median or typical family. I wonder if some of this is not to be laid at the feet of the wedding industry. Weddings today are viewed as very expensive affairs costing $10-$20K at the low end, with $30K-$40K being quite normal. The inflation has been striking of late. The cost of these affairs is beyond the reach of a large number of Americans, particularly young ones. We have also moved to a new era in who pays for weddings. The 1950s norm was that a marriage was between two people who were little more than teenagers with no financial support of their own; the wedding was paid for by the bride's parents. That has changed in very many ways. Combined with a general slackening of social norms concerning marriage, many couples may be forgoing weddings for financial reasons too.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Well Done Wanda

So if you watch pundit based TV, you've heard the Republicans waxing outraged about this series of jokes by Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents' dinner.  Leaving aside the problem of the White House and the supposed "Fourth Estate" being cozy chummy, the jokes are funny and the Republican outrage over them is ridiculous.  

The most "outrageous" joke from the Republican point of view was something along these lines:  "Rush Limbaugh says he wants the Obama administration to fail.  That's like saying he wants America to fail.  He wants more unemployment,... That's treason.  I think he was the 20th hijacker but was too strung out on oxycontin to make his flight."

Republicans are accusing Sykes of everything from making fun 9/11 victims to insulting a decent patriot like Rush Limbaugh.  I even heard on pundit say, "I think it's disgusting for a woman to stand up in front TV cameras and say things like this."  (the context left it open to interpretation whether the speaker was particular upset that Wanda Sykes is a woman).  

Of course what Sykes said in jest, Republicans have based entire campaigns on.  In 2002, then Representative Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) famously questioned Senator Max Cleland's (D-GA, and a triple amputee veteran of the Vietnam war) loyalty and commitment to defeat Al Qaeda.  And it worked.  Chambliss won the Georgia senate seat from Cleland.  Ann Coulter entitled her book about why she hates the American left "Treason."  Representative Michelle Bachman (R-MN) famously demanded that her colleagues in the Congress be investigated for "anti-American" views.  

What has Republicans worked up into apoplexy is the possibility that loyalty and patriotism could be linked to government regulation of the economy with the goal of stabilizing the economy and - possibly - distributing some of the wealth in this country a little more evenly.  


Monday, May 11, 2009

Pakistan and Afghanistan: Crisitunity

Today, the Secretary of Defense Gates asked for the resignation of General McKiernan, the top general in Afghanistan. Last week, Presidents Zardari and Karzai of Pakistan and Afghanistan were in Washington for high-level summit meetings. Coincidence? I think not. I wonder what their objection to him was.

Moreover, what do we do now? Pakistan is in danger of becoming a failed state, which is really saying something with nuclear weapons. Its two main non-islamist political parties are locked in a deadly and petty personal struggle between Sharif and Zardari, giving the Islamists space to grow. Simply put, the Taliban in Pakistan has a coherent vision of the future; the other parties don't. That is a serious problem. Yet Pakistan, with its active lawyers who struggled repeatedly for establishing the rule of law, has something terrific going for it. Too bad neither of the main political parties will buy into their cause.

Here's the sad part. I suspect the army will likely stage a coup again within the next year. They will have to, they will think, because they do not want to see the Taliban forces challenge them for physical control of the country, yet the civilian leadership can't get its act together to oppose them. This is just more downward spiral. The USA must seize the opportunity here. (see the Simpsons joke in the title). Hamid Karzai said that the US needs to show moral leadership. We need to show we are better than the terrorists, he said. I think he's onto something big. The way to win in this area is for the non-Islamist forces, the pro-Democracy forces, to combine and express a coherent vision for both countries, and since the US army will have to help out in this battle too, probably in both countries, it has to get its act together. Word travels quickly of atrocities and slowly, but effectively, of good treatment. When the people learn in villages that US/government forces treat them well but the Taliban treat them badly, this is how the tide turns. We are already outsiders, so we start at a deficit. We must be better than the Taliban just to be viewed with equanimity. If we give in (a la Cheney and Rumsfeld) to frustration and torture, to the idea that you have to fight on their level, we will lose surely and hard. It is imperative, therefore, to end the abuses at Baghram airbase and change US strategy 180 degrees. Bottom line: we have to start acting like the good guys. We have to show the moral superiority of democratic forces.

I am reminded in this vein of how we "won" in Germany after WWII. This is a complicated story, but it involves above all a generosity of spirit (and money, food, etc.) and a willingness to work with locals. In Germany we saw not revanchism, but a real genuine liberal democracy arise out of the ashes. There are wonderful stories of German POWs deciding to stay in America or returning home to tell people that they were well treated and well fed. The Nuremberg trials were the victor's justice, to be sure, but they were not show trials. Acquittals happened. Most of all, the top brass were held accountable, and the little people were largely forgiven. We worked with existing non-Nazi parties that survived the war clandestinely, but the real triumph was in these (the SDP etc) not being viewed as "collaborators." German intellectuals invested themselves in the process of creating a new Germany. Famously, 1946 was declared "Year Zero" by leading literary figures who bought into what the Allies were selling. Economically, we helped rebuild the country we had just bombed to smithereens. The projects of NATO and the European Union integrated Germany rather than isolating and injuring it. The result was a place where ambitious young Germans - and it is the young and ambitious everywhere who lead revolutions - bought into the new Germany.

Now is the time for a "Marshall Plan" for the Hindu Kush.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Ideological Purity the Democratic Party and Electoral Success

"I'm not a member of any organized party.  I'm a Democrat."  -  Will Rogers.

It's funny because it's true.  And the reason it's true is because the Democrats have long been a party made up of sometimes disparate coalitions of interest groups.  It's why the Republicans often get traction out of the "party of special interests" charge.  Of course one person's illegitimate "special" interest is another person's vital political imperative.  And it is also true that the bigger a party gets the more diverse these interests are likely to become.  Hopefully these diverse interests won't be directly contradictory too often but there are going to understandable differences of priority and emphasis.  

When the Republican party started to get really big in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, they started to include more diverse groups of people.  The old Republican party had its factions.  There were moderate small business advocates from the Midwest (like Ford and Dole), libertarians from the far west (like Goldwater), and progressive liberals from the north east (like Rockefeller).  To this group, Nixon then Reagan and finally Bush II added Southern white populists and Protestant fundamentalists (like Thurmond, Lott, Bush etc) many of who used to be Democrats.   This latter group has been especially successful at taking over the GOP.  They have driven out most of the north eastern liberals and the Club For Growth is going after the moderates now too (see earlier thread).  The result is a party increasingly isolated both geographically and ideologically but at least they have ideological conformity.

So what does this have to do with the Democrats?  The 2006 and 2008 elections have made the Democratic party bigger than its been since the 1970s.  It's also more diverse than its been since then.  There are some improvements however.  The social reactionaries and conservative populists from the South are not back.  But there are increasing numbers of moderately pro-business Democrats and even a handful of Western libertarians.  

Why am I bringing this up?  Because there is a risk that the Democrats could develop their own version of the Club For Growth problem.  The anonymous comment expressing outrage that Obama hasn't gone far enough on a series of his/her high priority policies and saying that Obama is no better than McCain is the kind of person that would start such a Club For Growth organization.  These are people like the Naderite folks that voted against Gore and stuck us with George W. Bush in the name of purifying the Democratic party.  

The Democratic party has an opportunity to become the party of pragmatic good government.  But it cannot do that if the left wing of the party is allowed to impose an uncompromising vision of what it means to be a Democrat.  To be successful the Democratic party must find a way to keep people like "Anonymous" in check.  This doesn't mean allowing people like Lieberman to get away with campaigning for the other party.  It does mean that if Democrats - like the Obama White House or the leadership in Congress - put some things off or compromise out of political expediency, the party should seriously consider not being outraged about it.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

So a number of people are grumbling that the Obama administration is dragging its feet on doing anything about gay rights. This is correct; he is. Some suggest that he is doing this out of conviction, i.e., that really doesn't care about gay rights. More on that in a minute.

Other suggest that he is doing this out of political expedience. The administration's fear is that broaching social issues now will destroy the post-2006 Democratic coalition that invited rural Democrats who disagree with urban Democrats on social issues to join the party if they were generally in line with the economic issues. The payoff to rural Democrats for not supporting Republican candidates or legislative initiatives on social issues is that the Democrats will deprioritize social issues altogether. Obama wants to keep this coalition together to pass health care reform and education reform, among other things. Gay rights can come later, right after the 2010 midterm elections but far enough in advance of the 2012 elections to defuse the issue.

Still others see this as just more evidence of the idea that Obama really doesn't care enough about gay rights to give that a proper priority. Just sit in the back of the bus and wait. This is hard to deny also. Human rights are a top priority, not a low one. I can't blame those who are angry at him for being asked, yet again, to sacrifice their rights for the "greater good." They fear that Obama will always find something to prioritize over gay rights.

Both sides are right about this. That's what makes it agonizing. Obama is probably correct about the effect on his economic agenda of attacking the "don't ask don't tell" policy now, and the liberal wing is correct that continuing to enforce that policy (just expelled another gay man this week) and DOMA is horrific.

If Obama follows through on gay rights after the 2010 midterm elections, that will be enough for me. I think even most gay folks are willing to wait another couple years in exchange for getting what they deserve. It's an unfair trade, but not a wholly unreasonable one. But the calculus for me changes if the Obama administration continues to sell gays short to pursue other agenda items. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, justice too long delayed is justice denied.


Arlen Specter, Tom Ridge, Pat Toomey, The Club For Growth and the GOP

When Specter (link is to summary Specter's ideological positions) left the GOP is was widely believed he did so because he though he could not win a primary contest against a Club For Growth backed, conservative like Pat Toomey (link is to summary Toomey's ideological positions) but could beat him in a general election.  But there was wide speculation (hope?) by Republican spokespeople that former Governor, Tom Ridge (link is to a summary of Ridge's ideological positions) would run for the Republicans against Specter and that he would defeat Specter.  Ridge has a reputation for being a "moderate" like Specter.   But this isn't happening.  Ridge not only has refused to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania, he's refused to say he would vote for Toomey against Specter in a general election even when pressed on TV and now he's announcing he's moving his permanent residence to Maryland - going "beltway" Tom?  

So the soap opera aspect of this is another amusing episode in "As the Party Crumbles" but this whole mess is also very instructive about what the GOP's problems actually are.  It starts with figuring out who the Club For Growth group is and what is it they want anyway?  They put themselves forward as fiscal conservatives.  It's supporters like to claim that they are the genuine, small government conservatives.  They call Democrats "Communists" (including, especially, President Obama).  They target moderate Republicans - whom they label "Republicans in Name Only" or "RINOS" - for primary challenges from the right in the hopes of either defeating them in the primary or sabotaging their chances in the general.  These are the self-appointed enforcers of ideological purity within the Republican Party.  

Why did the Club For Growth target Specter and arguably drive him, and possibly Ridge too, from the party?  Let's take a look at Specter, Toomey and Ridge ideologically.  If you scroll down on those links you can see a simple little two-dimensional issue space (economics by social policy) summary of their overall ideological positions.  The first thing a comparison should reveal to you is that all three have extremely similar overall positions.  Specter, Toomey and Ridge are all very tightly packed together on this two dimensional ideological plane.  So why would the Club For Growth support Toomey against Specter and make noises about supporting Toomey against Ridge if he chose to run?  Why risk losing the seat for your party over such a small overall ideological difference?  One possibility?  While Toomey is not that much more conservative than either Ridge or Specter on economic issues (indeed, Specter and Toomey have identical overall positions on the economics dimension) and not really that different overall on social issues either, Toomey is anti-abortion rights while both Specter and Ridge are pro-choice.  The biggest area of difference for these guys is the Abortion issue.  Ridge is unequivocally pro-choice and Specter is a relative moderate on the issue (rated 21% pro-choice by NARAL).  Toomey is rated as 0% pro-choice according to NARAL.

This makes me wonder what the Club For Growth really cares about.  Are they really most concerned about economic regulatory policies and taxes?  In that case, they aren't really gaining much by switching from Specter to Toomey.  Or are they just generic Bush Republicans using the economics and tax issue as cover for what amounts to enforcing religious conservative conformity within the party?

If the Club For Growth really is a front for the Religious Right, then it is part of the problem for the GOP.  Go back and look at the map of religiosity by state in the thread from a couple of days ago.  The only part of the country where religious fundamentalism seems to be a recipe for political dominance is the Deep South.  Everywhere else, the influence of the Religious Right is either waning or was never that strong to begin with.  The Club For Growth may turn out to be the most ironically named organization aligned with the GOP in that they are actively working to shrink the party.  


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Stress Tests my Ass

The results of the bank "Stress tests" are supposed to be released today. We've only been hearing about these tests since what . . . January.

I doubt that the stress tests will tell is much that we don't want to hear. That would be deadly for the fragile markets. The bad news is that there is still too much debt sloshing around and many of the measures that have been taken thus far are band aids. Here is a pretty good article The Market Ticker, a blog I found through

In addition to comments on why banks are not foreclosing on houses, he points out in his article that rising interest rates by credit card companies are an attempt to milk the paying customers in order to make up for losses on everyone else. Be, it won't work because paying customers will pay off balances and close the cards. And the ones who can't pay will default. "36% interest charged against someone who is paying zero because they defaulted is still zero."


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Religion, Marriage Equality and Regional Differences in the USA

I found something interesting online today and thought I would share.  It is a study of religiosity in the US by state.  This Gallup polls asked people if religion played an important part in their daily lives and ranked the states by the percentage who said yes.  You can look a table of top ten most religious and ten least religious.  And if you scroll down they have a nice map.

A couple of things jump out from the table and map.  

First, the four New England States (VT, NH, ME and MA) are the four least religious states in the country.  As of now, all four of these relatively secular states recognize marriage equality.  

Second, on the map, it is shocking how highly correlated being dark green and being a former slave state is.  The old confederacy sticks out like a sore thumb as the most religious part of the country by far.  

Third, in an earlier debate in related threads, LTG predicted that Iowans would soon overturn the marriage equality ruling of their supreme court in large part because of Iowa's supposedly high levels of religiosity (he referred to it as being "in the bible belt" among other things).   Iowa is more religious than New England and California.  But one would never in a million years confuse Iowa for the Deep South with regard to religiosity.  Iowa is merely average - indeed if you look at the table on page two of the link above, Iowa is 26th out of 50 in terms of religiosity (California is 39th).  To give him credit, LTG was not suggesting that Iowa was like the Deep South.  But Iowa's perceived religiosity was an underlying theme of his arguments in these related threads.  What's interesting about this map is that it suggests that except for the extremes - New England vs The Old Confederacy - religiosity, at least measured as broadly as it is here, may not be the dominant factor.  If it were, we would not expect the less religious California to have seen such a rapid voter backlash while the Iowans with more average levels of religiosity sit patiently by.  The lesson may be that institutional differences between California and Iowa are the decisive factor (see our conversation about the rules for amending the respective state constitutions) rather than differences in religiosity and - if memory serves - this was the conclusion that LTG and I more or less converged on in our debate earlier.  


Bachmann or King?

All right, quick poll, who's crazier, Michelle Bachmann (R-Looney) or Steve King (R-Nutso)? Bachmann is the obvious answer, but King has been making a move lately with episodes like this one.

Feel free to link to various examples in the comments.


Maine Recognizes Gay Marriage

Maine became the fifth US state to recognize gay marriage today, the second to do so by legislative action rather than a court order. The measure does not go into effect immediately, however, and if opponents gather 55,000 signatures in 90 days--which Maine's Democratic Governor admits is likely--the measure will have to survive a referendum this Fall.

Nevertheless, this is a huge step--especially as the Governor had previously expressed opposition to gay marriage but changed his mind, now saying flatly that a civil union is "not equal" to a civil marriage. New Hamsphire's Democratic Governor will almost certainly be presented with the same choice in a matter of weeks. I hope he follows Maine's governor. New Jersey and New York are next, hopefully later this year.

We are also all waiting for the ruling from the California Supreme Court regarding the final outcome of Proposition 8. But their decision in this case not matter for long. All of the major Democratic candidates for Governor of California next year support gay marriage and want to repeal Proposition 8 in 2010. The passage of Proposition 8 has not discouraged but galvanized supporters of gay marriage. The future looks brighter today.

Thanks, Maine!


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Specter Goes Down Some Notches

The Senate today voted to permit Specter to remain on all the committees on which he currently sits, thus changing the Democrat/Republican split on these committees in favor of the Democrats, but Specter was required to give up his committee seniority and be the most junior member of each such committee, at least until 2010. Likely many Democrats are also upset at Specter's vote against the Democrats' budget and his (supposedly joking) support for Norm Coleman. Democrats are going to make Specter prove his loyalty and earn their support in the 2010 election - he can't just use their good name for free but vote to filibuster important bills. Lieberman has been getting a free ride because his vote was needed in the 2006-2008 Senate. I hope they get tougher, much tougher, with Lieberman also.


Monday, May 04, 2009

The Activist Judge Canard

Hi Everyone,

I'm wading into LTG's territory here and this is more of me asking him a question than anything...

I've been hearing a lot of Republicans bringing out their usual warnings that Obama better not pick one of those "activist judges."  Leaving aside the likely political irrelevance of Republican concerns in this regard right now, I'm annoyed at this argument for a couple of reasons and I'd like LTG's response to my annoyance.  

First, judges that Republicans wax orgasmic about can be said to be activist as well.  LTG is fond of pointing to Bush v. Gore as a prime example.  I'm sure he can give us more.  So there is some serious hypocrisy at work here.

Second, it seems to me that this activist judge argument builds from a seriously flawed understanding of the role of a judge in a civil law system.  I just heard Orin Hatch say on TV that the role of judges is to interpret the law "as it's actually written" not "legislate from the bench."  Implicit in this assertion is that that judges are only to read the law and decide which law applies.  This is very much the role of judges in code law countries such as France or Italy where judges are viewed as a kind of highly specialized civil servant rather than a legitimately independent branch of government.  By this rule, there would be no constitutional review by the Courts - a corner stone of our modern judicial system.

So LTG, am I on track in my annoyance with these arguments?  Hypocritical and based on a flawed understanding of US judicial practice.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Spring Cleaning

This is a post inspired by a recent Washington Post series of commentaries called “10 Things to Toss Out”. Among the things that various commentator’s mentioned tossing out were: West Point, NAACP, Tenure, the White House Press Corps, “Muslim World” as a term. See a synopsis of the reasoning below the fold.

Me, I’d throw out the following:
1) Self-serve. Let’s put service back in capitalism and give people honest work to do.
2) Customer loyalty cards and rebates: Give everyone a good deal and they’ll come back. I don’t feel clubby just because I have your loyalty card. I’m not loyal. You either have the best deal in town, or you are the only one in town. I am not interested in saving 2% or getting CVS bucks to spend on your website. And skip rebates. Either give me the sale or don’t. Rebates are a dishonest discount where they company is hoping you will get too busy to put
3) Fox News: Fair and balanced my ass. Nothing more than a propaganda outlet for blowhards.
4) Pharmaceutical advertisements: This is turning what was once considered part of the normal human condition into a disease. If you get heartburn, take Tums or drink vinegar. You don’t need a $50 pill or a 4 hour erection. And if your kid likes to play and move around, she doesn’t have ADD. If your kid has no talent, that doesn’t mean he has a learning disability, maybe he just dumb or you are just too lazy to deal with him.
5) Built In obsolescence. I don’t need to buy a new computer every 2 years, a new stereo every 3 years, or a new TV for every room of my house. And just because you think you have “improved” something doesn’t mean you have.
6) The gun lobby: It’s based on a total misconception of constitutional law, and like most lobby groups, is too ideological and reactionary for its own good.
7) Credit rating agencies. Corrupted thus useless.
8) Wars on anything other than countries: War on Terror, War on Drugs; War on poverty . . . all failures. All never ending. All justifications for very poor pubic policies, and all meant to score political points at the expense of real improvement.
9) Female Genital mutilation and all forms of sexual abuse.
10) Fundraisers for public schools: Public schools are public. Fund them properly. Ensure their quality. Turning our little children into peddlers so they can get a PE teacher is exploitation.

What would the Citizens get rid of? Start your lists!

1:West Point (Thomas Ricks) “After covering the U.S. Military for nearly 2 decades, I’ve concluded that graduates of the Services academies don’t stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them us more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools.”

2: The NAACP (Jonetta Rose Barras): “The Organization is as anachronistic as colored-only water fountains and white-only bathrooms. It racial focus perpetuates the evils it claims it want to eradicate, and its audiovisual rendering of America as ‘tem vs. Us’ abets the nation’s balkanization . . . it could expand its definition of ‘colored’ to more than just blacks.” Or it could help the black community to address its own self-defeating attitudes.

3.Tenure (Francis Fukuyama:: “The rational for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. . . . the system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline . . .” He goes on to say that there should be some form of mandatory retirement in academia as well as an end to tenure. “Academic freedom can thrive in thiank takes and research institutions.” And he points to the lack of tenure in places like the U.K. and Australia.

4. White House Press Corps (Anna Marie Cox): “too often the White House briefing room is where news goes to die.” She points out that most major stories that have broken as far back as Watergate have come from outside the White House Press Corps. White House Press corp have released the following over the last few months, “Pocket Squares are back! The president is popular in Europe. Vegetable garden! Joe Biden occasionally says things he probably regrets. Puppy!” “Let the beleaguered journalism business prove its worth by providing something you can’t get by watching the White House’s YouTube Channel.”

5: “Muslim World” (Parag Khanna): “Just as there has not been any meaningful ‘Christian World’ since the Holy Roman Empire, there ahs been no unified “Islamic World” since the Middle Ages. . . . By using the term ‘Muslim world’, we only elevate the likes of Mullah Omar or Osama bin laden, whose rhetoric turns archaic Islamist fantasies into self-fulfilling prophecies. Speaking to all Muslims is speaking to none of them.”


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Boycott American Express

In advance of the "Credit Card Holder's Bill of Rights" now moving through Congress, every credit card company on the planet is suddenly ratcheting up the fees and raising interest rates, in hopes of grandfathering them in. It has become an epidemic of porcine proportions. Congress needs to put a new provision in the Credit Card Holder's Bill of Rights to reset rates and fees back to where they were in January 2009.

For example, this week I got a note from Bank of America informing me that they were raising all my credit card fees and--get this--that any transaction "processed" overseas has now been defined as a "foreign" transaction, with a minimum 3% surcharge of course, even when the transaction is entirely in USD and all goods and services purchased were in the US. They provided no explanation.

Another example: last week Chase suddenly raised the interest rate on a friend's credit card from 10% to 30%. My friend called several times to find out why, and finally some manager "explained" that he had been five days late on a payment earlier this year. Although this was the only time he had ever been late in almost ten years, the manager explained that since his account had formerly belonged to Washington Mutual before the merger last year, Chase is now treating him as new customer with no credit history.

But the worst credit card company in the nation right now is American Express--and that's saying a lot. Yesterday I got an letter from American Express reducing my credit limit to $1000. No reason was given for the reduction, just some boilerplate about "difficult choices" and "difficult economic times." I have never missed a payment and never carried a balance on this card--never. It is just a slap in the face. You can bet I will never use that card again.

And I am hardly alone in finding American Express especially nasty, even in such a crowded field of nastiness. LA Times columnist David Lazarus wrote of similar experiences with American Express all over the country in his most recent column: American Express' risk-cutting poses its own risks. Lazarus notes that American Express received $3.4 billion in government bailout and now, "turns the screws on long-standing customers and seems determined to show as many as possible the door."

As Congress finally is moving to protect consumers from this kind of fraud and abuse, the recently-bailed-out credit card companies complain that such regulation will prevent them from extending additional credit with reasonable rates and fees. Of course, any reasonable rates and fees will not be affected by the regulation. This crap has got to stop.


Friday, May 01, 2009

An Obama Supreme Court

Justice Souter's retirement means that President Obama will make his first Supreme Court appointment in the first year of his presidency, putting him on track with Ronald Reagan, who made three appointments (O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy). If Obama is re-elected, which is at least an even possibility based on recent history, this means he can replace any justice who retires or expires before January 20, 2017. If none retire before that time, the justices will be:

Stevens (97)
Ginsburg (84)
Scalia (80)
Kennedy (80)
Breyer (78)
Thomas (68)
Alito (67)
Roberts (62)

Currently, the only justice over 80 is Stevens - by 2016 there will be almost five of them if none retires. Realistically, Stevens and Ginsburg will leave the court within the next eight years (he because of age and she ill health). Obama will, therefore, have the ability to make over the liberal wing of the Court.

Whoever is nominated next will change everything on the Supreme Court, however. It is a small institution and personal connections matter. Right now real progressive views are expressed only by Ginsburg. When she has an ally, perhaps a woman, it will change the personal dynamics on the Court. It will shift the center of gravity to the left.

But what of the balance of power? That probably falls to Scalia or Kennedy to decide. Whether they grimly hang on in hopes of a Republican President is not clear. Scalia is more motivated to do so than Kennedy, the current swing vote. After 30 and 28 years on the bench both may simply wish to retire. That will be the real battle royale of Supreme Court appointments.


Iowa Update

I was watching Joe Scarborough this morning (gotta find out what the conservatives are thinking about Specter, Souter etc) and saw this ad on TV.  I think this ad nails it - at least for an Iowa audience.  I don't know if the Anti-Prop 8 people ran similar ads in California or if they did if they were effective.  My instincts tell me this will be a hugely effective ad.  And it is well timed.  The movement to change the Iowa constitution depends on energy based on anger right now.  If this can take the wind out of those sails even a little, it makes it that much more unlikely that the forces of intolerance will be able to sustain the anger for the several years (at least!) they must now wait to do anything about it.