Category Archives: Politics

Since time immemorial, Regnerus on marriage edition

Objection: Speaking outside his expertise.

Since time immemorial, those in the throes of uncritical thought (and often facing last-minute term-paper deadlines) have illustrated their lack of appreciation for social and historical context by using the phrase “since time immemorial” to describe things that have actually changed a lot.

This phrase usually proves itself wrong, as “immemorial” literally means “not remembered” (the OED says, “ancient beyond memory or record”), which raises the question: How do you know? Of course, some things really have existed since time immemorial, but this is not a useful concept for describing elements of human society. If it’s part of society, it has a history: it has changed, and that change is probably important or you wouldn’t be talking about it in the first paragraph of your term paper.

For example, human sexual reproduction has existed since time immemorial, but who cares? On the other hand, things like “parenting” and “sibling rivalry” may have existed since time immemorial, but what matters now is the how they are conceived and acted upon socially.

Photo by Letta Page, from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Letta Page, from Flickr Creative Commons

Term papers immemorial

If you shop for term papers — which you should never do — you will find “since time immemorial” used a lot, because it’s the kind of weak shortcut to profundity that some students use to puff up their papers at the last minute. Here are some examples from term paper websites (no links provided, sorry!):

  • Music is ubiquitous and has existed since time immemorial.
  • Since time immemorial, the question, “What is a leader, or what makes a leader?” has been asked.
  • Since time immemorial, the people have been able to believe what they wanted especially when it came to religious beliefs
  • Pluralism is a crucial characteristic of the Chinese religion since time immemorial.
  • Since time immemorial, Saudi Arabia has been an essential stake of the Arab world
  • Since time immemorial land belonged to the wealthy magnates who used it in the agricultural purposes and hired peasants to cultivate and work there.

You get the idea: Obviously, none of these things has existed since time immemorial. So if you use one of these papers, save yourself the instructor’s eye roll and delete that phrase.

How much does Regnerus charge for a term paper?

And so it is with “marriage.” Testifying at trial in the Michigan case over the Constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Mark Regnerus joined the dying argument that such marriage (let’s call it homogamy) is bad for kids. Because the evidence does not exist, he and others have fallen back on the idea that change might be bad, so the state should not allow new kinds of marriage.

In his testimony as an expert witness (well reported by Steve Friess at Al Jazeera America), Regnerus faced ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper, who extracted the concession that he doesn’t know whether gay marriage is really bad because there isn’t enough science on the question yet.

“So,” Cooper asked, according to Friess, “if a nationally representative, large-scale longitudinal study is never done because it’s too expensive, is it your opinion that same-sex people should never be allowed to marry?” Regnerus had no answer to that, but he went on to argue (whine, really), both that we need more research, and that marriage equality should wait for it.

It is intellectually frustrating to see social science close off the debate on this by claiming it’s settled when we haven’t even collected the ideal kind of data yet. … Let’s get out there and get some more before we make wide-scale changes in an institution that has served us since time immemorial.

I don’t know if you’re allowed to object to an expert making things up, but it seems to me that, by the definition above, a sociologist can’t testify about what has existed since before we knew what existed. Anyway, in addition to this just being a ridiculous statement (who is “us,” anyway?) — which by itself would cost you half a grade in a lot of sociology courses – it’s especially embarrassing coming after the eloquent testimony of an actual expert on marriage history, Nancy Cott (author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation).

Anyway, it’s hard to believe this argument will get past any reasonable judge. And it seems even less likely to impress Supreme Court swing-voter Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in his decision in DOMA last year that marriage denial “humiliates tens of thousands of children” for no compelling reason.

Slipped memory update, March 22: When I wrote this post I forgot that the House Republicans, in their failed defense of DOMA, had also used used “time immemorial” about marriage, which I discussed here:

The link between procreation and marriage itself reflects a unique social difficulty with opposite-sex couples that is not present with same-sex couples — namely, the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies. Government from time immemorial has had an interest in having such unintended and unplanned offspring raised in a stable structure that improves their chances of success in life and avoids having them become a burden on society.

I still can’t get over what a ridiculous case for banning same-sex marriage that is.


Filed under In the news, Politics

That marriage-reduces-poverty-82-percent statistic

With PolitiFact addendum at the end.

If you’ve heard about Marco Rubio saying we need more marriage to reduce poverty, you might wonder where his factoid came from.

Rubio said:

The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.

Rubio, Rector

Rubio, Rector

That insight came from this piece by a Heritage Foundation guy, Robert Rector, who is the cartoon-villain embodiment of partisan hackery (see this previous post for some details). Rector wrote:

According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

That’s it! (37.1 – 6.8) / 37.1 = .82, so marriage reduces poverty 82%. You don’t get to be the “intellectual godfather of welfare reform” without knowing a thing of two about statistics.

By the same logic, he should have said, “The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year” — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.

Discussing why this is or isn’t wrong could be a nice methods class exercise.

PolitiFact addendum

PolitiFact evaluated the Rubio statement, and aside from a few insignificant quibbles determined it was true, so they gave it a rating of “Mostly True.” They wrote, in explanation:

We should note that some critics have taken issue with the implications of the statistic Rubio cited. Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, wrote on his blog, “By the same logic, (Rubio) should have said, ‘The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year’ — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.”

Meanwhile, the liberal group Think Progress pointed to a blog post from a few days earlier by the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of academics that study family policy, that said a “nationally representative study of more than 7,000 women found that approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached age 35-44. More importantly, single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.”

These may be valid points. However, in his comments, Rubio did not suggest that government pursue any specific government policies to directly promote marriage. He also said that being a two-parent family “decreases the probability of child poverty,” which sounds to us like a mathematical analysis of the existing data, rather than a suggestion that changing policies to encourage marriage will actually reduce poverty that already exists.

For this reason, we are analyzing the mathematics that underlie his comment question, not the conclusions that can, or can’t, be drawn from the statistic.

It’s not about policy or math, though: the error is about causality. If we made a law that only rich people could get married, the Census data would give you a similar result. And by this reasoning PolitiFact would say it’s OK to claim marriage “decreases the probability of child poverty,” because the math is right. That’s not right.


Filed under In the news, Politics

Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition

With all the money we have given them, why are the poor still poor?

One of the meanest right-wing statistical memes about poverty has been popping up a lot this fall. I saw it most recently in this commentary by Christine Kim, who wrote:

Since the mid-1960s, government has spent more than $19.8 trillion (in 2011 dollars) in total on means-tested welfare programs. With 80 such federal programs, targeted government spending for low-income families – including on health, education, housing, and income supports – totaled nearly $930 billion in fiscal 2011 alone. If converted to cash, this sum would be four times what is needed to lift every poor family out of poverty. About half of this annual means-tested spending goes to families with children. If divided among the 14 million poorest families with children, each family would receive about $33,000. Why, then, have poverty rates remained so high for so long? Clearly, the solution to alleviating poverty is not more of the same.

Brookings’ Ron Haskins used the same numbers, rearranged slightly, to write this in November:

We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. If that money were divided up among the poor, we could spend about $22,000 per person. For a single mother and two children, that would be over $65,000. The poverty level in 2013 for a mother and two children is less than $20,000. So this strategy would work, but giving so much money to young, able-bodied adults would not be tolerated by the public.

This way of manipulating welfare state spending seems to have originated from Robert Rector at Heritage, who offered it in Congressional testimony in 2012.

This meme is — and I am choosing my words carefully — stupid and evil.

It’s stupid because it ignores how poverty is calculated and how “means-tested” money is spent. If you took away Medicaid and housing support alone, the poverty line for a single mother with two children would have to be a lot higher. For example, according to Rector’s original figures (shared here), half of that means-tested money is spent on medical care, mostly Medicaid. So, Haskins, if you took away Medicaid (and Obamacare subsidies), how much would a single mother with two children need to survive? Health insurance alone would cost her more than $10,000.

So is $33,000 per family such a ridiculously generous amount to live on that it would easily lift people out of poverty? Not without the benefits poor people get. Or if they get sick. In round numbers 10 years old, 5% of the population spends half the money on medical care. Using the distribution reported in that paper, $10,000 per family on medical care is not much, if it’s distributed more or less like this:


Further, all those non-poor families living on $33,000 in employment income are getting benefits, too, like tax-subsidized employer-provided healthcare, mortgage interest deductions, unemployment insurance, and retirement savings. If you took all that away and gave these non-poor families $33,000 to live on, they wouldn’t be non-poor for long. So the argument is stupid.

It’s also evil, because it says, “We’ve thrown so much money at poor people and it just doesn’t work, so it’s time for them to step up and contribute a little themselves.” The main thing Kim wants them to do is get married. She even says, “If single mothers simply were to wed the father of their child, their likelihood of living in poverty would fall by two-thirds,” and adds that, “contrary to myth the fathers are quite ‘marriageable.’”

The calculations for this are not shown, which is probably just as well. But the idea that the “benefits” of marriage — that is, the observed association between marriage and non-poverty — would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their partners is bonkers. There is a marriage queue (imperfect of course) that arranges people from most to least likely to marry, and on average the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front, more likely to marry and produce the observed “benefits” of marriage. “Marriageable” isn’t a dichotomous condition, but it’s obvious that at any one time the currently non-married are not the same as the currently married.

But back to evil. The idea that we’ve spent so much on poverty that it proves spending doesn’t solve poverty is like saying, “we’ve spent $13 trillion on the military in just the last quarter century, and we don’t have complete world domination yet, so obviously war is not the answer.”


Oh, wait, I do agree with that.

But we don’t spend money on the military and fight wars to fix the world. We do it to fatten defense contractors, provide jobs, prop up unpopular allies, and defend the country from the occasional threat. The defense industry doesn’t have to defend the claim that the spending is a one-time thing to cure a problem.

Giving poor people money — or in-kind benefits — to help them survive is not a solution to poverty, it’s a treatment for poverty. If we had more decency we’d do more of it.


Filed under Politics

Obstacles to healthcare aren’t cheap either

Is the debacle, with its dozens of overlapping contractors, just a metaphor for why a single-payer system makes so much more sense, or is it actually one of the reasons a single-payer system makes so much more sense?


Giving things to people costs money, so you would expect that indiscriminate gifting would be expensive. But that doesn’t mean highly targeting giving is more efficient, or even cheaper overall.

Throwing leaflets out of an airplane might cost you $500 for the flight and $100 for the 1,000 leaflets. If you only drop 500 leaflets, you save on printing costs. Your cost per leaflet goes up, but your total cost goes down.

That’s indiscriminate. But giving away fewer leaflets will increase your costs if you want to be selective. If you want only men over six-foot-four to get your leaflet, the cost of administering that rule might be more expensive than the airplane drop. Trying to give just 50 leaflets only to men over six-foot-four requires hiring someone to walk around qualifying people as tall men, which would be expensive.


Health care

Obamacare isn’t just about giving away healthcare, but that’s part of it. And it shows that restricting who gets healthcare isn’t just a savings: Yes, you’re giving away less, but you have to pay the cost of figuring out who can’t have it, and then preventing those people from stealing it. (This is a variant of what is known as the cost-of-gates-for-rich-people dilemma).

In the case of Obamacare, the Tea Party saved us money by denying health insurance to undocumented immigrants, but cost us the money spent screening customers to make sure they’re not undocumented immigrants (and then paying for the ER visits of innocent children with asthma).

It’s not just undocumented immigrants. The nearly infinite rules for subsidies and exclusions cost money to administer. Just in case you have a hard time figuring your way through this flowchart, the government will have to pay for a system to do it for you:


A plan this complicated has a lot of these costs. To name a few: In the budgeting and planning phase we have to pay for health economists, in the administration phase we pay for database managers, and in the PR-disaster phase we pay for lawyers representing private contractors who testify before Congress.

Which is what hit me yesterday, when, at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the Obamacare roll-out, John Lau from Serco bragged about “the professionalism of our recruiting efforts and the outstanding way we have on-boarded and trained our people.” Inventing verbs is never a good way to save money. More importantly, though, neither is attempting to communicate with databases from Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security and many insurance plans thousands of times per minute, just to make sure people don’t steal health insurance.

At that hearing, the House committee also heard from Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal; Andrew Slavitt from Optum; and Lynn Spellecy, corporate counsel for Equifax Workforce Solutions. This is what their prepared statements covered (click on the image to enlarge, so you can see the references to “health”):

PowerPoint PresentationWhen I was a kid I lived in Sweden for a while. It was the 1970s. As members of the family of a visiting scientist, each of us got a little metal tag on a chain with a number stamped on it. When I went to the doctor, I just showed them my tag. (The dentist, of course, was at school, because that’s where the children are.)

Giving away healthcare has a lot of costs, but figuring out who to deny shouldn’t be one of them.


Filed under Politics

Homogamy tipping point update: between elections edition

After the last election I described the trend toward legal homogamy as taking a tipping point shape. Not a media-hype tipping point that’s really just a milestone or watershed (like the arbitrary 50%), but a bona fide straw-that-breaks-the camel’s-back shape – that is, an exponential trend.

The between-election update shows us continuing on that trend, with Rhode Island and now Delaware falling on the line. Here I’ve plotted the percent of the population living under a post-homogamy state regime, and the number of states (including DC):homogamy-tipping-point

Even assuming they don’t legalize it nationally, if the Supreme Court lets California’s homogamy law stand after all this graph will go through the proverbial roof.

On the other hand, of course, the future is not yet determined. We won’t know till it happens what happened. In that I must agree with the Family Research Council, Heritage Foundation and National Organization for Marriage, who write in a recent pamphlet:

Q: Isn’t same-sex marriage inevitable?
A: No.

(I disagree with the rest of the pamphlet.)


Filed under In the news, Politics

A Simple, Legal Way to Help Stop Employment Discrimination

Originally posted at

Women and racial minorities are no longer making progress toward equal representation in the workplace. Here’s a way to maybe fix that.

Jacquelyn Martin

Progress toward gender and racial equality in the workplace has basically stalled. One reason for that is the government’s lack of antidiscrimination enforcement. As Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Kevin Stainback show in their book Documenting Desegregation, ever since the reign of Clarence Thomas as head of the EEOC in the 1980s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been underfunded, understaffed, and largely ineffective at doing its job. To help get things moving again, under the existing law (more or less), we could use the power of social media and the principle of government transparency to allow workers and consumers themselves to apply pressure on discriminating employers. Would it work? It couldn’t hurt. First a little background.

Anti-discrimination today
Here is the occupational segregation trend from 1966 to 2005, fromDocumenting Desegregation, just comparing white and black men and women. The index of dissimilarity shows what percentage of a group would have to change jobs to have the same representation as white men.


The figure shows white women made a lot of progress in the 1970s and 1980s, but less since. Black women have a similar pattern but much slower progress. And black men haven’t budged since 1980. The same pattern holds for representation in managerial jobs.

The burden to fight discrimination today is mostly on workers who have been discriminated against to first discover this fact and second file a complaint and/or lawsuit themselves. The courts have tightened their definition of discrimination to include only deliberate acts proven to have been motivated by discriminatory intent – a very steep burden. And they have reduced workers’ capacity to bring class actions, most notably in the Wal-Mart decision, which makes it hard to get good legal teams. As a result, few cases make it to court, and virtually no one wins. A study of 1,672 employment discrimination cases from 1988 to 2003 found that about half resulted in settlements (with a median value of $30,000), 6 percent went to trial, and one-third of those were victorious (with a median award of $110,000). Although more than 100,000 people file discrimination complaints with the EEOC, most workers lack basic information not only about the law and their options, but about their own employers’ practices (as was painfully revealed when Lilly Ledbetter discovered she had been discriminated against by Goodyear for many years). And people who aren’t hired in the first place have an even smaller chance with the law.

In the 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which included in Title VII a mandate to collect information about employment in the private sector. Since 1966, all large employers are required to submit a simple accounting: the number of workers, by race and sex, in each of nine occupational categories. This has produced a treasure-trove of data, which Tomaskovic-Devey and Stainback used to document the trends. But this information could be used more proactively by the government itself, if stopping discrimination were a higher priority.

Anti-discrimination tomorrow
Defining and proving discrimination is difficult. Many employers have no outward motivation to discriminate—they just don’t do enough to stop discrimination by individual supervisors, recruiting practices that produce narrow applicant pools, and malicious co-workers. So not every workplace with an underrepresentation of women or minorities is a case of willful discrimination. But when a workplace has significant underrepresentation in either its management or its overall employee pool, it’s at least worth taking a look to see what’s going on.

Here’s my suggestion, inspired to by Documenting Desegregation. Underrepresentation is very widespread, and easy to detect. Why not label it?

Using the same EEOC data, my colleague Matt Huffman and I identified workplaces in which there were fewer African-American managers than would be expected by chance, using a test common in employment litigation. With a wide statistical margin—95 percent confidence—we found, for example, that 7 percent of black private-sector workers in the D.C. metropolitan area worked for employers with easily identified underrepresentation of black managers. That is, they had fewer black managers, compared with other firms in their same industry in their same town, than would have occurred by chance. Maybe they aren’t discriminating on purpose, but they’re probably doing something wrong. As a customer, client, business partner or job applicant at that firm, wouldn’t you like to know that? (Of course, as researchers we are prohibited from revealing information about individual employers.)

So why doesn’t the EEOC generate a simple certificate, like the one I have mocked up here, to notify the employer, the employees, and the public, about such cases? (This would only apply to those with 50 workers or more.)

This hypothetical firm has an overrepresentation of white men in management compared with the local industry (for example, a department store with 60 percent white male managers when the local industry average is 30 percent). They have underrepresentation of black women across the board, and Latina women compared with the rest of the industry locally. Representation of the other groups isn’t outside the range of the 95 percent test, or there aren’t enough cases to judge. The test accounts for sample size—if you only have two managers at your business, and one is a white man, you’re not going to fail.


It could be like the health department certificate posted on a restaurant wall (and online). Then, maybe someone who worked there would get up the courage to file a complaint. Maybe customers wouldn’t shop there. Maybe politicians running for office would promise to improve the local statistics. Maybe concerned managers would honestly consider their hiring practices to look for ways to do better.

This doesn’t reveal any trade secrets. It doesn’t increase the reporting burden on employers, since they’re already required to submit the forms. It wouldn’t cost much. But it gives the public a little more leverage and increases the accountability for employers. It wouldn’t solve everything either. But if equal opportunity employment were a major priority, a small step like this would seem pretty reasonable.


Filed under Politics

What victory looks like, or not

Two columns in today’s NYTimes on what victory looks like, or not.

Maureen Dowd is outraged that Chief Justice John Roberts thinks the gays have already won. She points out that homosexuality is still not a protected category federally (that is, you can legally fire someone because they’re ugly, gay, or underperforming; but not because they’re Black, female, or disabled). It was an outrageous moment in the oral arguments when Roberts told Edie Windsor’s lawyer that “political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.”

This was not idle mean-spiritedness, however. Roberts is arguing against the crucial point that policies against gays and lesbians should be considered under “heightened scrutiny” by the law because they are a systematically oppressed “class.” Here is the exchange (at p. 106 of the transcript):

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You don’t doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different States is politically powerful, do you?

MS. KAPLAN: With respect to that category, that categorization of the term for purposes of heightened scrutiny, I would, Your Honor. I don’t -



CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.

Besides deciding on marriage equality, the Supreme Court has a chance to establish heightened scrutiny as the principle protecting people from persecution on the basis of sexual orientation. Roberts raises the possibility that the electoral shift on this issue — which is just one aspect of anti-gay oppression, after all — makes that unnecessary.

Ross Douthat, writing on the same page, might agree.

Douthat goes actually further, arguing that the victory of gay marriage actually is destroying the “older marital ideal,” just as its defenders feared. My jaw actually dropped a little when I read this:

Yet for an argument that has persuaded so few, the conservative view has actually had decent predictive power. As the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward, the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before. As the public’s shift on the issue has accelerated, so has marriage’s overall decline.

Of course he adds: “Correlations do not, of course, establish causation.” But you can’t unring that bell.

Not only are the gays doing the victory dance over the corpse of traditional marriage, but them and their liberal allies are actually persecuting religion.

A more honest, less triumphalist case for gay marriage would be willing to concede that, yes, there might be some social costs to redefining marriage. It would simply argue that those costs are too diffuse and hard to quantify to outweigh the immediate benefits of recognizing gay couples’ love and commitment.

Such honesty would make social liberals more magnanimous in what looks increasingly like victory, and less likely to hound and harass religious institutions that still want to elevate and defend the older marital ideal.

I guess we might need special protection for the beleaguered religious minority who are just trying to live their lives in traditional peace. Maybe they could use some of the billions of dollars they save from their tax-exempt status to inform us about the benefits of this older marriage ideal, or use their political clout to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from welfare to promoting marriage among the poor.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

All opposed? (to family change)

Over on his Iranian Redneck blog, Darren Sherkat has an interesting series of posts on religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage, using new data from the 2012 General Social Survey (fundamentalism, denominations, young Republicans 2x, race, and the 2004-2012 trend) — all extensions of his academic work on the subject (2x). All of this shows that, in addition to political conservatism, religious fundamentalists and people in sectarian Christian denominations are (or were) driving opposition to marriage rights.

But same-sex marriage (homogamy) is only one aspect of growing family diversity. I was reminded of a survey the Pew Research Center did with Time in 2010, called “The Changing American Family,” which asked a question I like:

These days there seems to be a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in. Overall, do you think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or don’t you think it makes a difference?

I’m not sure what to make of the people who think it’s “good” versus those who think it makes “no difference.” But the people who think family diversity is a “bad thing” — 28% of the population — might be the definition of family conservatives. So who are they (or, who were they in 2010)? Think of them as the sky-is-falling set.

Couple looking up

The good people at Pew offer a data download, which (once you get it out of SPSS format) is pretty easy to use. Using religion, political affiliation, education, race/ethnicity, and some other demographic variables, I made a simple regression model that explained 19% of the variance in “bad thing” attitude. Rather than show the regression table, here are the bivariate relationships between “bad thing” and those characteristics (I also labeled the blocks with how much of the variance they independently explained).

bad-thingAs with Sherkat’s findings for same-sex marriage, the most important predictors of opposition to family diversity are religion and political affiliation – but religion is by far the strongest. For example, people who don’t think family diversity is bad were about 3-times more likely to never attend religious services. The absolute majority – 54% of people who chose “bad thing” – described themselves as born again Christians, and a quarter of them attend church more than once per week. The counter-stereotypical findings are:

  • Latinos are less likely to oppose family diversity than anyone else.
  • Those with high school education or less are the least likely to say “bad thing.” (In the multivariate model, college graduates also choose “bad thing” less, making the some-college crowd the most conservative.)

This is not a scientific study, but an illustrative exploration. I don’t know enough about the data collection to know how well these data could withstand peer review, or whether this could be done with a more rigorous dataset such as the General Social Survey. But I like the question, so figured I’d share the results.


Filed under Me @ work, Politics

Can the marriage movement survive gay marriage?

Originally published on as, “The Most Surprising Thing About Conservatives Embracing Gay Marriage


Pichi Chuang/Reuters

Maggie Gallagher, who more than almost anyone is the face of marriage-rights denial, is justifiably upset about the course chosen by another leading face of the cause, David Blankenhorn. Whichever side wins (and “winning” in this context may simply mean maintaining a donor base sufficient to keep their jobs), the chaos on the family right is interesting and important.

The question they face is this: Can a “marriage” movement survive on gender-neutral terms? That is, are they willing to settle for promoting stable, monogamous parental bonds even if a tiny portion of those bonds are between people of the same sex? At stake, Gallagher fears, is nothing less than the cherished view of men and women as inherently complementary in their essential oppositeness, without which society goes down the drain.

Blankenhorn now stands opposed to that view. President of the Institute for American Values, he recently stopped resisting the march of marriage rights after serving as a standard-bearer for the cause. His capitulation was stunning, as he had previously been dedicated enough to testify as an expert (until his qualifications were disqualified) in the federal case against Proposition 8 in California. In the wake of Blankenhorn’s reversal, Gallagher—best known for running the National Organization for Marriage—has emerged as the purist’s answer to the outbreak of tolerance (which now includes a number of former-A-list Republicans).

In a piece on her website, Gallagher compares the statement she co-signed with Blankenhorn in 2000, called “The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles,” with his new “Call for a New Conversation.” The comparison is revealing.

In 2000, the movement declared:

Marriage is a universal human institution, the way in which every known society conspires to obtain for each child the love, attention and resources of a mother and father.

Forget the erroneous reading of human history and culture that statement implies for the moment and just think about the vision it conjures for contemporary marriage politics: Marriage, man and woman, mother and father. This is what Gallagher likes—it’s not gender-neutral.

In his new statement, Blankenhorn has substituted generic, almost bureaucratic language:

Because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society’s most pro-child institution.

To Gallagher, this distinction is fundamental. She wants to keep the gender of the spouses at the center of the effort to maintain a preferred family structure through public policy. Blankenhorn and his co-signers, on the other hand, are willing to ignore that issue and merely demand marriage between “spouses.”

As Gallagher writes, “That is the difference gay marriage makes in how we converse about marriage.” In decision after decision, appellate judges have failed to find that gay marriage hurts straight marriage—and I agree. But Gallagher has a point that the possibility of same-sex marriage (what I prefer to call homogamy) changes the linguistic frame of reference. If marriage is all about stability and well-being for children, then the gender of the parents doesn’t matter and Blankenhorn is right. But if it’s really about the man-woman marriage and the traditional gender dichotomy, then this change is truly cataclysmic.

The genderless marriage movement

Whether the difference between Gallagher and Blankhorn’s articulations of marriage is really a big deal is the question of the day for the family right. But it is fascinating that in Blankenhorn’s new statement there is no mention of men, women, fathers or mothers—or even love. That’s some marriage movement.

By one interpretation, Blankenhorn sold out in the face of gay marriage’s advance, waiting barely a month last summer to jump on President Obama’s delayed-embrace bandwagon. He used to oppose gay marriage, Blankenhorn wrote, because it was part of the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage, its transformation from a “structured institution with a clear public purpose” to the mere “licensing of private relationships.” He still believes all that, he says, but now he has “no stomach” for culture wars, and besides, “the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over.”

Although he futilely promises, “I am not recanting any of it,” Blankenhorn seems relieved to have abandoned the issue. He may have realized gay marriage brought what used to be called the“marriage movement” to its knees, tying up their dwindling resources in a losing battle that also cost them the support of small-government conservatives and a generation of laissez-faire young people who don’t want government to legislate people’s sex lives.

But maybe he was really ahead of the curve, recognizing the inherent conservativeness waiting to emerge from the marriage rights movement. Maybe it was gay rights politics—not conservatives—that were distracted by the marriage battle. So they fought for membership in a conservative institution instead of for the more ambitious agenda of destabilizing gender itself. Maybe, by explicitly coopting them at their moment of triumph, Blankenhorn’s apparent fallback is actually a clever strategy to revive traditionalist moralism in the public sphere.

That’s an interesting argument, and there are more positions than just these. But either way, Gallagher has a point that Blankenhorn’s “new conversation” about marriage is not just a return to the good old days of the culture wars before gay marriage became an issue. It’s throwing in the towel on the ideal of marriage as an institution for maintaining gender distinction.


Filed under In the news, Politics

Pediatrics essay on child wellbeing in the homogamy debate

The medical journal Pediatrics has a nice, short essay on the child wellbeing argument over homogamous (same-sex) marriage.

The authors, Jeremy R. Garrett and John D. Lantos, write:

Our primary goal in this article has been to provoke or reinforce skepticism about the conceptual, empirical, and normative adequacy of opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of claims that such marriages are detrimental to the well-being of children.

And they suggest three principles for the state’s role in family structure regulation or support. In my paraphrase:

  1. Provide necessary support to ensure parents have the resources they need to raise children.
  2. For family living arrangements, set a minimum threshold rather than a maximal ideal, because family structure categories are not reasonable or effective means of identifying good or bad situations for children.
  3. After setting a low bar for family structure, be vigilant in protecting or supporting children if things are not working out.

Just as we don’t (or rather shouldn’t) punish criminals based on the social category they belong to but rather by the nature of their crime and individual qualities, so we shouldn’t legislate family categories but rather child wellbeing itself.

As we approach the Supreme Court decisions on homogamous marriage rights, this essay might be a good resource for the child wellbeing aspect of the debate.

1 Comment

Filed under In the news, Politics