Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday Reading

Steering Clear — Marriage equality is moving through the states via the courts and judicial rulings. Adam Liptak writes that this may be the best way for the issue to gain acceptance, as opposed to submitting it to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court; the lesson of Roe v. Wade looms large.

And now there are four. In the space of a week, the number of states allowing same-sex marriage has doubled, with Iowa and then Vermont joining Massachusetts and Connecticut. In California, gay and lesbian couples were exchanging vows for five months before voters put a stop to the practice in November. Californians are still talking it over, though, and loudly. New York and New Jersey may be next to debate the question.

In other contexts, this sort of turmoil might amount to an invitation for the United States Supreme Court to step in. But there are all sorts of reasons the court is likely to keep its distance, and a central one is the endlessly debated 1973 decision that identified a constitutional right to abortion.

“The concern about creating another Roe v. Wade looms large,” said Nathaniel Persily, who teaches law and political science at Columbia. “At least five members of this court, if not more, would probably be reluctant to weigh in on this controversy, especially given the progress that is being made in state legislatures, state courts and public opinion.”

Court decisions on issues like school desegregation, abortion and same-sex marriage can raise questions about the judicial branch usurping the democratic process. But there are strategic issues as well. The Supreme Court not only decides cases but also decides which cases to decide. In jurisprudence as in life, timing is everything.

Even some strong supporters of abortion rights believe, for instance, that Roe went too far too fast and may have been counterproductive. One of them is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“The court bit off more than it could chew,” Justice Ginsburg said in remarks after a speech at Princeton in October. It would have been enough, she said, to strike down the extremely restrictive Texas law at issue in Roe and leave further questions for later cases.

“The legislatures all over the United States were moving on this question,” she added. “The law was in a state of flux.”

Roe shut those developments down and created a backlash that lasts to this day.

“The Supreme Court’s decision was a perfect rallying point for people who disagreed with the notion that it should be a woman’s choice,” Justice Ginsburg said. “They could, instead of fighting in the trenches legislature by legislature, go after this decision by unelected judges.”

It’s Their Move — When President Obama lifts the travel restrictions on Cuba, what will the Cuban government do in response? Lesley Clark looks at the implications.

If, as expected, the Obama administration lifts travel restrictions on Cuban Americans this week to allow them to freely visit Cuba, it would mark the most significant overture toward the island nation by an American president in decades.

The advantages for Cuban Americans eager to visit family members on the island more frequently are obvious — as are the benefits for Cuba’s cash-starved government: hundreds of millions of dollars in additional income yearly from exiles visiting family members and dropping money on flights, lodging, meals and gifts for relatives.

But the gain for the administration — and President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to bring ”libertad” to Cubans on the island — may be some time coming, if at all. As 10 other American presidents have discovered, the Castro regime is not interested in relaxing its grip on power.

Experts on Cuba-U.S. relations say pressure on the Obama administration from Latin America and Europe to bring Cuba in from the cold, combined with congressional efforts to ease sanctions and Havana’s storied resistance to the United States, may lead Raúl Castro’s government to consider itself in a position of strength.

Yet Obama represents a potential challenge for a Cuban regime headed by white septuagenarians. The majority of Cuba’s population is black or of mixed race, and the young U.S. president is popular among everyday Cubans, which may prod Havana into acknowledging, however slightly, his gesture.

”There is a concern [among Cuban leaders] that if they don’t respond somehow to Obama’s overture, it will be seen as a slight,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. ”The president is talking about talking to everyone, so they can’t be entirely recalcitrant. They’ll play the game a little bit.”

Yet, Suchlicki and other Cuba watchers believe that Havana is unlikely to reciprocate with any grand move, beyond perhaps releasing a few political prisoners or shedding some of the bureaucracy it imposes on Cuban Americans traveling to the island. Changing Cuba’s economic and political system has long been a nonstarter.

”So, the question is, is the U.S. going to be satisfied with token gestures, or do they want more?” Suchlicki said. ”We are dealing with a hardened dictatorship. They’re not going to step down for Obama.”

Criticized by his rivals during the presidential campaign for suggesting that he would meet with Raúl Castro without preconditions, Obama pledged during a campaign speech in Miami to focus his Cuba policy on libertad — freedom.

”The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the right of free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, and it must lead to elections that are free and fair,” he said then. ”That is my commitment.”

Hard Times on Worth Avenue — Even the tony and the trendy face hard times in the playground of the rich. Want to by Bernie Madoff’s pants?

LONG before the number was redolent of bailouts and bank failure, David Neff decided that Trillion was the perfect name for his clothing store here on Worth Avenue, this town’s boulevard of luxe retail.

The idea was to brace customers for the you’ve-got-to-be-joking price tags — $6,800 for a sport jacket, $800 for a button-down shirt — and to convey unparalleled opulence.

“We wanted people to know that this is a lot,” Mr. Neff says, gesturing to the clothing, “and we didn’t want anyone to open next door with a store that sounded like it might be more.”

Until last year, this idea actually seemed reasonable.

Then the meltdown vaporized the portfolios of multimillionaires here and, soon after, a beloved Wall Street wizard and Palm Beach homeowner named Bernie Madoff was unmasked as a fraud.

For years, Mr. Madoff’s elusive genius act beguiled his Jewish neighbors, as well as friends of those neighbors, and so on, and so on, until vast chunks of local money were hoovered into his Ponzi scheme. Life savings, dreams, and countless inheritances, gone.

“A guy stood right there and cried,” says Mr. Neff, pointing at a table covered with $800 cashmere cable knit sweaters. “And he told me he’d lost it all, his wife lost it all, his daughter lost it all. He said to me, ‘I had everything with Bernie.’ ”

A lot of regular customers haven’t been seen in Trillion since Hurricane Madoff struck in December — including, of course, the hurricane himself.

The last time he was here, he fell for a $2,000 pair of worsted spun cashmere pants, which Trillion didn’t have in his size, and had to be ordered from Italy.

After the slacks arrived, but before Mr. Madoff could come by for a fitting, he was arrested.

“I remember I heard about the arrest and I went directly to the store to charge those pants on his credit card,” recalls Mr. Neff, a fit, gray-haired man in perpetual motion. “But the card had already been canceled.”

So, what happened to the pants?

“They’re in the racks, over there,” Mr. Neff says, nodding toward the trouser section.

Wait a minute.

You have Bernie Madoff’s unclaimed $2,000 pants, on a rack, in this store?

“Uh-hmm,” he says, with a slightly abashed grin. “Would you like to see them?”

Frank Rich — Looking at the career of Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers, the lesson is to do what you love, not what makes you wealthy.

Clearly the last person to serve as an inspiring role model for alternative values would have been Summers. But in her first baccalaureate address last June, his successor as Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust, stepped into that moral vacuum, zeroing in on the huge number of students heading into finance, consulting and investment banking. “Find work you love,” she implored the class of 2008. The “most remunerative” job choice “may not be the most meaningful and the most satisfying.”

This same note was hit a month earlier by the commencement speaker at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama. “The big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy,” he said, amount to “a poverty of ambition.” He wasn’t speaking idly. As America knows, Obama turned down the lucrative career path guaranteed to the first African-American president of The Harvard Law Review to pursue the missions of service and teaching instead. The potential rewards for our country, now that that early choice has led him into the White House, are enormous.

But it’s hardly a given that the entrenched money culture has evaporated along with the paper profits it generated. One skeptic is Howard Gardner, the Harvard education professor who has created seminars at several elite colleges to counsel students in the notion of pursuing meaningful, ethical and effective work — “Good Work,” as he has titled it. He believes that many students may still be operating on the assumption that the world of finance will just pick up where it left off in a few years. “But we’re not going to be back there,” Gardner told me last week, “and we shouldn’t be back there.”

Doonesbury — Getting to know you.