Wonkbook: The Supreme Court deals a blow to affirmative action

April 23

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


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Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: One in two U.S. newborn babies is a minority, a new report says.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: These charts show the continuing racial disparities and growing income disparities in higher education.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) The Supreme Court's affirmative-action ruling; (2) On Earth Day, planet still running a fever; (3) Obamacare and elections -- a match made in heaven; (4) a tough economy for youth, women; and (5) justices hear, and get confused, in Aereo case.

1. Top story: What the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action means

Supreme Court upholds Michigan’s ban on racial preferences in university admissions. "The Supreme Court on Tuesday made clear that states are free to prohibit the use of racial considerations in university admissions, upholding Michigan’s constitutional amendment banning affirmative action. By a vote of 6 to 2, the court concluded that it was not up to judges to overturn the 2006 decision by Michigan voters to bar consideration of race when deciding who gets into the state’s universities. The ruling could encourage other states to join the handful that have such prohibitions....Higher-education officials have warned that those states have seen a decline in the number of minorities admitted to their flagship universities. The decision further illustrates the court’s skepticism about race-conscious government programs." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

Justice Sotomayor says colleagues can't 'wish away' racial inequality. "Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s fierce defense of the affirmative action efforts such as the ones that helped move her from a Bronx housing project to the upper echelons of American law found renewed voice Tuesday in an impassioned dissent that accused colleagues of trying to 'wish away' racial inequality -- and drew a tart response from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. In her most personal moment in 4 1/2 years on the court, Sotomayor read part of her dissent from the bench to emphasize her disagreement....Sotomayor noted Roberts’s famous statement in a 2007 opinion that 'the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.' Too simplistic, she said." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

The ruling's impact could stretch well beyond higher education. "The lead opinion expressed the confident belief that the Court was only encouraging a useful civic conversation about race, hopefully free of rancor....While the ruling focused on the use of race in selecting new students for public colleges, it presumably also would permit voters to end race-conscious policies in hiring of state and local employees and in awarding public contracts." Lyle Denniston in SCOTUSblog.

Primary source: The Supreme Court's ruling. The Washington Post.

Explainers:

5 takeaways from the affirmative-action ruling. Josh Gerstein in Politico.

The Supreme Court's ruling: An explainer. Ashby Jones in The Wall Street Journal.

Profile: Meet Jennifer Gratz, the woman who killed affirmative action -- twice. Maggie Severns in Politico.

One blunt point: Liberals need to rethink their strategy. "Liberal policy experts such as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation advocate phasing out race-based admission policies. One recent study (PDF) Kahlenberg did with Halley Potter found that 'seven out of 10 leading public universities were able to maintain, or even increase the proportion of African American and Latino students among their ranks by replacing race-based preferences with strategies that target socio-economic inequality'...'These rulings are a call to action for college leaders and administrators to more aggressively pursue race-neutral policies that give all disadvantaged students equal opportunities.' Kahlenberg’s response sounds like wise advice from an advocate and scholar who cares about equality." Paul M. Barrett in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Americans broadly support affirmative-action policies... "While the debate and the battles continue, a new Pew Research Center poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly support these programs. Americans say by roughly two-to-one (63% to 30%) that affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses is a 'good thing,' according to the survey conducted Feb. 27-Mar. 16. This was almost the same result Pew Research found in 2003. Behind those overall numbers is a racial and partisan divide." Bruce Drake in Pew Research Center.

...though it also depends how you ask the question. "Using the phrases 'special preferences' or 'preferential treatment' in a question tends to reduce support for affirmative action. Americans want life to be fair: They generally don’t mind assisting groups that need help, but they don’t like the idea of that help coming at the expense of others....Specifying groups that would benefit from affirmative action also tends to reduce support for the policies....A substantial minority -- perhaps a third or 40 percent -- seem to oppose affirmative action almost no matter how it’s described. A similar portion of the population supports it, regardless of the description. In the middle are a group of people who think affirmative action makes sense in some limited circumstances." Allison Kopicki in The New York Times.

Other legal reads:

Justices push back on Ohio's political-speech law. Paige Winfield Cunningham in Politico.

Judges review what constitutes insider trading. Christopher M. Matthews in The Wall Street Journal.

CASSIDY: Another good day for the conservative backlash. "It was left to Justice Sotomayor, in a long and passionate dissent, to point out some of the practical implications of the majority ruling....As the Supreme Court is currently constituted, Sotomayor’s words, however eloquent, carry no weight. In the past ten months alone, the conservatives on the Court have gutted the Voting Rights Act, cast aside some of the few remaining limits on campaign donations, and sounded the death knell for affirmative action. Who knows, by the time they are finished, they might have figured out how to turn the calendar back to 1950, or even earlier." John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

ROSEN: Liberals should be happy about the affirmative-action decision. "By afternoon, liberal bloggers and commentators were stressing that the decision in the Schuette case won’t mean the end of affirmative action as we know it. Above the Law, for example, offered 3 reasons affirmative action will still be okay....These commentators are right: The practical effects of the Schuette decision...are far less dramatic than the Court’s recent decisions holding that affirmative action, in some circumstances, is constitutionally prohibited. But the reaction missed a more basic point: Far from being only a limited disaster, the decision was, according to current Supreme Court precedents, constitutionally unsurprising and almost certainly correct." Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic.

BAZELON: Ruling definitely doesn't ensure racial diversity in universities. "For liberals as well as conservatives, there’s an upside to that outcome, despite the expected denunciation by groups like the NAACP and the ACLU....In seven of the states that have banned it, leading and other public universities have maintained black and Latino enrollment and admitted more low-income students. As I explained in October, 'Some of the schools have taken income and wealth and neighborhood into account. Some have plans that admit the top 10 percent of high school graduates statewide. Three have banned legacy preferences.' Those are strategies for achieving racial diversity that also improve socioeconomic diversity, which at many selective schools is sorely lacking." Emily Bazelon in Slate.

KAHLENBERG: Affirmative action's on its deathbed. That might not be such a bad thing. "Today’s disadvantages, though, are more closely associated with class than race. When measured by income, the academic achievement gap is now twice as large as the race gap. More broadly, socioeconomically disadvantaged students score, on average, 399 points lower on the SAT than wealthy students, while the difference between African-American students and white students of the same socioeconomic class is just 56 points. Affirmative action policies should be updated to reflect these new realities." Richard D. Kahlenberg in Politico Magazine.

SOMIN: There are minorities on both sides of the issue. "Banning racial preferences in admissions affects different minorities in different ways. It may well burden African-Americans, Hispanics, and other groups favored by affirmative policies currently practiced in universities (though the literature on educational mismatch suggests that the benefits are not unambiguous). But current affirmative action policies also often harm those minority groups that score well on conventional academic admissions standards, most notably Asian-Americans. Thus, it cannot be said that the Michigan amendment is a straightforward case of burdening racial minorities while benefiting the majority." Ilya Somin in The Washington Post.

Top opinion

SOLOW: Piketty is right. "Piketty’s foreboding vision of the twenty-first century remains to be dealt with: slower growth of population and productivity, a rate of return on capital distinctly higher than the growth rate, the wealth-income ratio rising back to nineteenth-century heights, probably a somewhat higher capital share in national income, an increasing dominance of inherited wealth over earned wealth, and a still wider gap between the top incomes and all the others. Maybe a little skepticism is in order. For instance, the historically fairly stable long-run rate of return has been the balanced outcome of a tension between diminishing returns and technological progress; perhaps a slower rate of growth in the future will pull the rate of return down drastically." Robert M. Solow in The New Republic.

BARRO: Why economics has failed us, in 297 words. "Thomas Sargent’s 2007 speech to Berkeley graduates is making the rounds on the Internet. Business Insider called it the 'greatest graduation speech ever.' Ezra Klein over at Vox says it 'teaches everything you need to know about economics in 297 words.' Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. But it does tell you most of what you need to know about why economists have led us astray since 2008....Mr. Sargent isn’t wrong. In fact, most of what he said in 2007 is right. Incentives do matter. Debts do have to be repaid. Unintended consequences do arise. The problem is what he omitted. His speech did not explain that huge gaps in demand can emerge in recessions and make usually correct economic prescriptions all wrong." Josh Barro in The New York Times.

PORTER: History tells us health care reform is by no means over. "'Changes in the way doctors and hospitals are paid -- how much and by whom -- have begun to curb the steady rise of health care costs in the New York region,' the article declared....Then came the punch line. The article, written by my now-retired colleague Milt Freudenheim, was published in December 1993, when the so-called managed care revolution promised for a few hopeful years to change the way doctors practiced medicine and curb the breakneck rise in health care costs for good. It is a sobering reminder that the recent improvements could wither away just as they did two decades ago....At the very least, it suggests that health care reform is by no means over." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

JENKINS: Piketty's misplaced faith in taxation. "He may be right about our slow-growth future, but his faith in taxation to correct the imbalances and consequences of stagnation is excessive. The 70% top income-tax rate that once prevailed in the U.S. was not a great leveler. It did more to empower politicians and special interests -- who busied themselves creating loopholes for llama farms and soft porn movies -- than it did for the average earner. And his equation of wealth with capital overlooks that much stock-market wealth is likely to evaporate in the face of his confiscatory agenda." Holman W. Jenkins Jr. in The Wall Street Journal.

J. BERNSTEIN: More slack than meets the eye. "Just how much slack remains in the labor market? It’s a key question for the Fed, of course, which is explicitly gauging many indicators -- not just unemployment -- for signs of inflationary pressures. Thus far, such pressures have been noticeably absent from their favored measure: the core PCE, which if anything, has decelerated of late....You don’t have to look much further than the low and decelerating core PCE price index to understand where Chair Yellen and others are coming from on this, but my little data compression exercise shows that if the eye is trained solely on the unemployment rate, there’s more slack than meets the eye." Jared Bernstein.

CHAIT: The Keystone XL sideshow. "If Obama approves Keystone, as long as the U.S. is scheduled to meet its emission targets, he can still negotiate an international treaty. If he nixes Keystone, if he does not have the U.S. on track to meet its targets, he probably can't negotiate a treaty....Why have environmentalists elevated the issue to a crusade? Several months ago, I made the case that Keystone amounted to a gigantic misallocation of attention by environmentalists. After numerous environmentalists pushed back (see representative takes by Charles Pierce and Joe Romm), I believe this even more strongly." Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Ellen DeGeneres interlude: That flight attendant from a recent viral video went on her show.

2. On the latest Earth Day the planet is cleaner but still has a fever

Politics of climate change stink. That's why 'think globally, act locally' is back. "Now, at middle age, Earth Day and the environmental movement face a fundamentally tougher foe than they did in the spring of ’70: climate change. Over the past decade and a half, environmental stalwarts have tried various tactics to fight global warming, and they’ve largely failed. Now, though they don’t say so explicitly, they’re essentially reverting to the same principle that characterized that first Earth Day: 'Think globally, act locally'...Today, as on the inaugural Earth Day, the main object of American environmentalists’ ire is a piece of oil-industry infrastructure. In this case it’s the Keystone XL pipeline." Jeffrey Ball in The New Republic.

Explainer: It's not all doom and gloom. The planet is much cleaner than it was on the first Earth Day. Alan Flippen and Damon Darlin in The New York Times.

Environmental activists push a climate-heavy agenda on Earth Day. "Environmental groups are marking the 44th Earth Day on Tuesday with an assault on the Keystone XL pipeline, greenhouse gas emissions and other issues related to climate change. Activists hope to use the day to press the case against Keystone, which they say would worsen climate change, while spotlighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) upcoming rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants." Timothy Cama in The Hill.

U.S. may be chilling out this year, but the world keeps baking. "Federal forecasters calculated that for most of the Earth, last month was one of the hottest Marchs on record -- except in the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday that it was the fourth hottest March in 135 years of records." Seth Borenstein in the Associated Press.

Chart: Look at all the blue in the U.S., and all the red everywhere else. NOAA.

Even so, the U.S. has warmed considerably since the first Earth Day. "It’s been 44 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and since that time, average temperatures have been rising across the U.S....Average temperatures across most of the continental U.S. have been rising gradually for more than a century, at a rate of about 0.127°F per decade between 1910-2012. That trend parallels an overall increase in average global temperatures, which is largely the result of human greenhouse gas emissions. While global warming isn’t uniform, and some regions are warming faster than others, since the 1970s, warming across the U.S. has accelerated....Since then, every state’s annual average temperature has risen accordingly." Climate Central.

Don't expect much from Congress, which hasn't done anything on the environment in a while. "It's been a long time since Congress passed a major new environmental law -- at least 1,894 days as of Tuesday. Based on an informal survey of people who follow environmental issues, the last big new law was probably the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus bill." Kate Sheppard in The Huffington Post.

Republicans won't say 'Earth Day.' Why? "For years, mentions of Earth Day have sprung up each April from members of both parties. In April 2010, Democrats spoke of Earth Day over 150 times, mostly in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. But no Republican has uttered the words 'Earth Day' on the House or Senate floor since 2010. The last to do so was Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, in support of expanding nuclear-power generation." Peter Bell and Brian McGill in National Journal.

Explainer: But climate isn't a top priority for the public. Here are 4 reasons why. Natalie Scholl in American Enterprise Institute.

Poll: Only 39 percent are concerned, while one-fourth skeptical. "Over the past decade, Americans have clustered into three broad groups on global warming. The largest, currently describing 39% of U.S. adults, are what can be termed 'Concerned Believers' -- those who attribute global warming to human actions and are worried about it. This is followed by the 'Mixed Middle,' at 36%. And one in four Americans -- the 'Cool Skeptics' -- are not worried about global warming much or at all." Lydia Saad in Gallup.

@morningmoneyben: On this #EarthDay lets's all pledge to use #hashtags to feel #superior and #pretend we are actually #doing something.

Other environmental/energy reads:

A year after West blast, political support for chemical safety reform isn’t certain. Randy Lee Loftis in the Dallas Morning News.

Earth Day interlude: Lotsa landscape art.

3. Obamacare matters to midterms, and the midterms matter to Obamacare

President Obama said Democrats should run on Obamacare. So, will they? "The last seven days have been the best seven days for the Affordable Care Act in quite some time -- and maybe ever....Amid a (rare) victory lap on the law, Obama was asked whether the news of the past week meant Democratic candidates should run on the law this fall rather than away from it. His answer? 'I think Democrats should forcefully defend and be proud of the fact....we're helping because of something we did.' So, should Democrats listen?...'If you voted for Obamacare, you need to defend it and sell it,' said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic Capitol Hill operative and now a lobbyist in D.C. 'Running away won't work and being defensive [is] a bad idea.  Sell it and sell it hard.'" Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

This Democrat's take on Obamacare suggests the answer is no. "As the daughter of powerful former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, Michelle Nunn is hardly a political outsider. But she's trying to aggressively distance herself from the nation's capital in her campaign's second ad." Andrea Drusch in National Journal.

One exception: This Democrat loves Obamacare, and she wants you to know. "The first 17 words out of Rep. Allyson Schwartz's mouth in her new TV ad don't sound anything like what you'd expect to hear a typical 2014 Democratic candidate say: 'I worked with President Obama on the Affordable Care Act and getting health coverage to all Americans.' Of course, Schwartz is not running  in a typical race. She's running for governor of Pennsylvania in a contested Democratic primary. While in most races the ad would be a head-scratcher, in her race, cozying up to the president and emphasizing her support for the law could help....Don't expect to see Democrats lean into Obamacare as much as Schwartz is in her new ad. What may work in a race-to-the-left gubernatorial primary is still politically untenable in of the competitive races for Congress." Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post.

Most voters have already made up their minds on Obamacare. "Are there any voters left who haven’t made up their minds about the Affordable Care Act? Not many, but Democrats are counting on a few at the margins to come their way. Tracking polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that support for and opposition to the law have remained about the same over the last six months, even as the law’s impact began to be felt in people’s lives, for better and worse. But there remains a narrow band of voters whose attitude toward the law and whose political allegiance may still be up for grabs: Voters who don’t like the law but don’t want it repealed." Janet Hook in The Wall Street Journal.

And one good example of why the elections, in return, matter to Obamacare. "Republicans are taking no chances when it comes to Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. They're closing every possible door. Under bills passed in Georgia and Kansas recently, even if a Democratic candidate were to pull off an upset and take the governor's seat, they would not be able to expand the program without the consent of the state legislature -- which will almost certainly remain Republican. In other words, GOP lawmakers have taken steps to guarantee that many of their poorest residents will remain uninsured under the health care reform law, no matter what happens in the gubernatorial election." Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

Other health care reads:

Change your income, change your health insurance plan. Michelle Andrews in NPR.

U.S. official responsible for reforming Medicare is leaving post. David Morgan in Reuters.

Looking at costs and risks, many skip health insurance. Abby Goodnough in The New York Times.

Animals interlude: Watch this hungry hamster eat carrots.

4. This economy remains tough for young people and women.

The job market is getting easier for college graduates, but it remains tough. "The government is offering a modest dose of good news for graduating seniors: The job market is brightening for new grads -- a bit. But finding work -- especially a dream job -- remains tough for those just graduating. Many are settling for jobs outside their fields of study or for less pay than they'd expected or hoped for. The Labor Department on Tuesday said the unemployment rate for 2013 college graduates -- defined as those ages 20 to 29 who earned a four-year or advanced degree -- was 10.9 percent. That was down from 13.3 percent in 2012 and was the lowest since 7.7 percent in 2007....But unemployment for recent grads was still higher than the 9.6 percent rate for all Americans ages 20 to 29 last October, when the government collected the numbers." Paul Wiseman in the Associated Press.

Grieving student borrowers are being told to repay their loans. "Some student loan borrowers who had a parent or grandparent co-sign the note are finding that they must immediately pay the loan in full if the relative dies.The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says lenders have clauses in their contract that explain this could happen, but many borrowers are not aware of them. The agency’s ombudsman, Rohit Chopra, said complaints related to this issue are growing more common because the practice is catching so many consumers by surprise. Some borrowers told to pay back the loan in full have been making timely payments, Chopra said." Kimberly Hefling in the Associated Press.

Charts: It's gotten harder for women to find work. "The recession was not kind to women. New data from Remapping Debate, a nonprofit public policy organization, outline key employment figures of different demographics from January 2007 to today. In the years following the economic downturn in 2007, women between the ages of 26 and 40 with high school degrees have struggled to find work, no matter their race....Employment for each group of women has decreased substantially: More than 50 percent of these women were fully employed in 2007; today, that number is below 50 percent." Matt Vasilogambros in National Journal.

Other economic reads:

U.S. home resales fall to 1.5-year low but may be stabilizing. Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.

Home prices rose 6.9% in February as recovery cools. Prashant Gopal in Bloomberg.

U.S.-Japan beef over TPP threatens trade deal. Don Lee in the Los Angeles Times.

Sub-minimum wages for the disabled -- a godsend or exploitation? Cheryl Corley in NPR.

Science interlude: The physics of a bizarre balloon behavior explained to a 5-year-old.

5. Confused about the Aereo case? The justices seem to be, too

The court seemed torn on what to do in the Aereo TV case. "The Supreme Court signaled on Tuesday that it was struggling with two conflicting impulses in considering a request from television broadcasters to shut down Aereo, an Internet start-up they say threatens the economic viability of their businesses. On the one hand, most of the justices suggested that the service was too clever by half, with a business that relies on capturing broadcast signals and streaming them to subscribers for a fee. But the justices were also clearly concerned with the impact that a ruling against Aereo could have on future technological innovation." Adam Liptak in The New York Times.

Explainer: Everything you need to know about Aereo and the future of TV. Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

The Supreme Court's struggle to grasp Aereo's tiny TV antennas. "If you're comfortable with the Supreme Court resolving disputes over technology, the transcript of Tuesday's oral arguments in ABC vs. Aereo should change your mind. Admittedly, the case is about copyrights, not circuitry. In particular, the issue focuses on whether Aereo's service violates broadcasters' exclusive rights to transmit works to the public. Yet the inner workings of Aereo's system are crucial to that issue, at least from Aereo's point of view. And the justices struggled to get past a simplistic view of the technology involved." Jon Healey in the Los Angeles Times.

Explainer: The Supreme Court justices, ranked by their tech savvy. Andrew Freedman and Jason Abbruzzese in Mashable.

Aereo to justices: Kill us, and you'll kill the cloud. Joshua Brustein in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Robot interlude: These mini-robots build things.

Wonkblog roundup

How Medicaid forces the disabled to be poor (but some bipartisan help is on the way). Harold Pollack.

What you’d need to make in every county in America to afford a decent one-bedroom. Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham.

Here’s an unlikely bestseller: A 700-page book on 21st century economics. Jia Lynn Yang.

The Volkswagen case shows why American labor law is broken. Lydia DePillis.

Et Cetera

FEC will consider allowing bitcoin donations to campaigns. Dustin Volz and Alex Brown in National Journal.

GM recall sparks battle over liability. Robert Wright in The Financial Times.

Challenges lie ahead for North American oil production. Clifford Krauss in The New York Times.

Georgia becomes first southern state with challenge to same-sex marriage ban. David Beasley in Reuters.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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