Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Reading

It Gets Better — David Remnick on the future of same-sex marriage.

The gay-rights movement has, in many respects, mirrored the black freedom movement, but in hyper-speed. In the mid-nineties, not a single state allowed for civil unions or domestic-partnership registries. The political calculus of same-sex marriage was such that a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, buckled noiselessly to the demands of Congress, signing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which forbids federal recognition of such marriages and sharply limits the significance of state legislation.

As in the drama of civil rights, advances have been regularly attended by backlash. In 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to the benefits of marriage. This galvanized a movement already under way to limit marriage to a man and a woman; ultimately, twenty-nine states sought to head off more such rulings by passing constitutional amendments barring gay marriage, and twelve others passed restrictive legislation. In Iowa last year, conservatives waged a successful campaign to unseat three judges precisely because they had ruled in favor of marriage equality.

Indeed, many in the Republican Party, particularly its evangelical base, still believe that the issue is a winner for them. They may not think so for much longer. The Gallup Poll shows that seventy per cent of people between eighteen and thirty-four years old favor gay marriage. The tide of history and public opinion has turned decisively.

Just as the civil-rights movement had many kinds of heroes—radical agitators and mainstream institution builders—the drama of marriage rights has found a perhaps unlikely star in Andrew Cuomo. During the gubernatorial campaign last year, Cuomo was widely thought to possess a measure of self-regard even greater than that of his predecessor Eliot Spitzer. Yet Cuomo soon proved that he had the maturity and the horse sense to learn from Spitzer’s missteps; he began his term in January not with stentorian declarations of war but, rather, by identifying crucial goals and then employing time-honored political means to achieve them—intelligently, methodically, and successfully. There was nothing majestic about this process. Cuomo used the standard levers of political pressure more than moral suasion. His was a victory for progressivism through ultra-traditional means.

More below the fold.

Spent Out — David Leonhardt explains why the economy isn’t moving again.

If you’re looking for one overarching explanation for the still-terrible job market, it is this great consumer bust. Business executives are only rational to hold back on hiring if they do not know when their customers will fully return. Consumers, for their part, are coping with a sharp loss of wealth and an uncertain future (and many have discovered that they don’t need to buy a new car or stove every few years). Both consumers and executives are easily frightened by the latest economic problem, be it rising gas prices or the debt-ceiling impasse.

Earlier this year, Charles M. Holley Jr., the chief financial officer of Wal-Mart, said that his company had noticed consumers were often buying smaller packages toward the end of the month, just before many households receive their next paychecks. “You see customers that are running out of money at the end of the month,” Mr. Holley said.

In past years, many of those customers could have relied on debt, often a home-equity line of credit or a credit card, to tide them over. Debt soared in the late 1980s, 1990s and the last decade, which allowed spending to grow faster than incomes and helped cushion every recession in that period.

Now, the economic version of the law of gravity is reasserting itself. We are feeling the deferred pain from 25 years of excess, as people try to rebuild their depleted savings. This pattern is a classic one. The definitive book about financial crises has become “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly,” published in 2009 with exquisite timing, by Carmen M. Reinhart, now of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and Kenneth S. Rogoff, of Harvard.

Surveying hundreds of years of crises around the world, Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff conclude that debt is the primary cause and that the aftermath is “deep and prolonged,” with “profound declines in output and employment.” On average, a modern financial crisis has caused the unemployment rate to rise for more than four years and by 7 percentage points. (We’re now at almost four years and 5 percentage points.) The recovery takes many years more.

Happy Birthday, John Glenn — The first American to orbit the earth, four-term Democratic senator from Ohio, shuttle astronaut, and icon of the space age, turns 90.

He was a hero in two of America’s wars, then a fabled test pilot, a four-term senator, a presidential candidate, finally a party elder. But in mind’s eye and in history, John Herschel Glenn, Jr., is frozen in time.

His boyhood friends, his war comrades, and his Senate colleagues have grown old, and some have died. His political causes are yesterday’s, their urgency gone, the stuff of the past rather than the right-stuff of today. But John Glenn remains what he was when he became a staple of black-and-white television and the color pictures of Life magazine, two media themselves both gone:

An American phenomenon — forever young, forever clad in the silvery Project Mercury space suit he wore when he sat above a smoking Atlas booster, forever the commander of Friendship 7, forever the first American to orbit the earth.

So Monday brings an important, sobering, even jarring landmark — for him and to some extent for the country. Monday Mr. Glenn, who for a generation represented an American future as shiny as his silver space suit, turns 90 years old.

He was born in a country that, in the years just after World War I, was self-conscious about its strength, nervous about its role, reluctant to confront either. He grew up in an innocent time (the 1920s) in an innocent place (New Concord, Ohio) and as a U.S. Marine pilot volunteered to confront evil (World War II) and aggression (Korea). He caught the excitement of the new technology and then, as one of the Original Seven astronauts, spawned excitement among millions who turned their eyes skyward to the boundless expanses of space and to the boundless opportunities it seemed to offer.

Today Mr. Glenn isn’t so much a shadow of himself — so many men at 90 are — as he is a mirror of himself. The face still as round as the sun, the smile still as broad as his Midwest accent, Mr. Glenn still walks briskly, still exudes an infectious optimism from behind gold aviator glasses. Last month he flew his Beechcraft Baron, serial number N3864U, between Washington and Columbus. Next winter his wife, Annie, 91 and recovering from knee replacement surgery, plans to ski. The couple plan to drive across the country in the fall.

“I’d rather burn out,” he says in his office in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University in Columbus, “than rust out.”

Doonesbury — Graduation day.