DOMA hearing today

We all have gay friends, gay relatives, gay neighbors, or gay co-workers. (Some of us even have all of the above.) For the first time, it looks like our dear friends and relatives have a real shot at the same legal rights that apply to any married couple, as the Supreme Court listens this morning to arguments against the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. I hope and pray that those rights are finally recognized by the Court, and that the best American traits of generosity and inclusion are reflected in their decision, because to decide otherwise is not only crazy, it’s indecent:

An 83-year-old former IBM programmer is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a law that cost her more than a quarter of a million dollars and deprived her, and thousands of other gay couples, of federal marriage benefits.

At issue is the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, passed by overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It bars federal agencies from recognizing the validity of same-sex marriages in the states where they are legal.

The arguments are being heard just one day after a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which put an end to same-sex marriage in that state, was brought to the high court. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court hinted that it might be hesitant to issue any kind of sweeping ruling declaring that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The justices seemed wary of issuing a broad decision that would apply to any state outside of California.
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Obama’s four must-have items

Gaius Publius over at Americablog is pretty much in line with what I think about Obama’s legacy, and is lately optimistic that we can stop him. (More on that later.) Read on:

I think the whole of Barack Obama’s two-term economic agenda is topped by these four items:

  1. Health care “reform” — a privatized alternative to Medicare expansion
  2. A “grand bargain” in which social insurance benefits are rolled back
  3. Plentiful oil; gas and passage of the Keystone Sludgepipe (KXL pipeline)
  4. Passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement

And that’s the list. Privatized “Medicare expansion” (the ACA). Benefits cuts for SS and Medicare. Keystone. TPP. If Obama gets these four, he’s a happy man, and in his mind he goes out in glory.

Notice, by the way, that these are his economic wants. His social agenda — gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights and the rest — well, I’ll leave it to you to decide how hard he’s fought for these things, and why he’s fought for them (or not). This piece is only concerned with his economic wants. Why? The reason is here.

Why do I think he wants these things strongly? Occam’s switchblade: Because he acts like it. If you disagree, let’s wait till the Obama show is over, then show me the economic policy he’s fought for harder. (And no, I’m not counting the tepid stimulus tied to the bankers’ Never Go To Jail card. That was on his list (and he won), but it doesn’t top the items above. I think you could argue that this was his forced response to the end of the Bush II crisis, something he had to do before moving onto his own must-have agenda.)

What’s his purpose in pushing for these items?

I’ve examined each of these items separately before, and will again. (For newbies, the TPP discussions are hereand here.) But I want to short-form the discussion. What does Obama get out of each of these high-priority items? Taking them one by one, a summary:
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Pay a living wage and still make money

I keep telling my out-of-work friends to apply at these stores:

The average American cashier makes $20,230 a year, a salary that in a single-earner household would leave a family of four living under the poverty line. But if he works the cash registers at QuikTrip, it’s an entirely different story. The convenience-store and gas-station chain offers entry-level employees an annual salary of around $40,000, plus benefits. Those high wages didn’t stop QuikTrip from prospering in a hostile economic climate. While other low-cost retailers spent the recession laying off staff and shuttering stores, QuikTrip expanded to its current 645 locations across 11 states.

Many employers believe that one of the best ways to raise their profit margin is to cut labor costs. But companies like QuikTrip, the grocery-store chain Trader Joe’s, and Costco Wholesale are proving that the decision to offer low wages is a choice, not an economic necessity. All three are low-cost retailers, a sector that is traditionally known for relying on part-time, low-paid employees. Yet these companies have all found that the act of valuing workers can pay off in the form of increased sales and productivity.

“Retailers start with this philosophy of seeing employees as a cost to be minimized,” says Zeynep Ton of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. That can lead businesses into a vicious cycle. Underinvestment in workers can result in operational problems in stores, which decrease sales. And low sales often lead companies to slash labor costs even further. Middle-income jobs have declined recently as a share of total employment, as many employers have turned full-time jobs into part-time positions with no benefits and unpredictable schedules.

QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco operate on a different model, Ton says. “They start with the mentality of seeing employees as assets to be maximized,” she says. As a result, their stores boast better operational efficiency and customer service, and those result in better sales. QuikTrip sales per labor hour are two-thirds higher than the average convenience-store chain, Ton found, and sales per square foot are over 50 percent higher.

Suspended coffee

This reminds me of the story about my neighborhood diner, where people paid the checks for the people after them:

Can’t afford coffee? No matter. In Bulgaria, an old Italian tradition that sees good souls buying hot drinks for those who struggle to make ends meet has taken hold after weeks of tensions over deepening poverty.

More than 150 cafes across Bulgaria have joined a goodwill initiative modelled on the Italian “caffe sospeso” tradition, which literally means “suspended coffee”, according to a Facebook page devoted to the movement.

The tradition — born in the cafes of Italy’s southern city of Naples — sees people pay in advance for one or several coffees without drinking them.

A customer-in-need can then later ask if there is a “suspended coffee” available and have a hot drink without having to pay for it.

Poverty in Bulgaria — the European Union’s least wealthy country — is increasingly sparking social unrest, with several desperate people setting themselves on fire in the past month.

Weeks of street protests also forced the right-wing government to resign on February 20.

Most cafes that decide to join the “caffe sospeso” initiative — which has been covered extensively on television — have posted pictures of payment slips issued for free coffees on the Facebook page.

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