As mentioned in Part I of our 2008 retrospective series, this was a year of ups and downs for America. From politics to the economy, the sudden changes engendered a virtual case of whiplash as tides turned on a dime and fortunes were reversed on Main Street, Wall Street, and at seemingly unlikely location of the local gas pump.
Gay Marriage / Prop 8
In May of 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned the gay marriage ban, noting that the fundamental “right to marry” extended to same-sex couples equally. While gay couples around the country celebrated a stride in the name of equal rights, opponents of gay marriage scrambled to introduce an initiative to the November ballot in order to alter the California State Constitution, thus deeming same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
Thousands of gay couples, many of whom had waited years to have their unions legalized, rushed out between May and November to tie the knot under the law of California. All in all, over 10,000 couples were married in the three months following the May ruling – more than were married in the first four years after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage.
The November ballot initiative, Proposition 8, was primarily supported both financially and vocally by religious organizations – most notably the Mormon and Catholic Churches. The official Yes on 8 (ProtectMarriage.com) camp estimates that about half of the $35.8 million raised came from the Mormon Church and its members, which also supplied volunteers in such large numbers that 80-90% of the early door-to-door canvassers were actually out-of-state members of the Mormon church.
The battle over Prop 8 was touch-and-go down to the wire. The measure passed by a margin of 4%, leading gay marriage and equal rights proponents to a series of post-election protests. Supporters of a repeal will argue about the Proposition being unconstitutional, and that it violates the separation of Church and State; those who passed the measure will argue that the will of the people is the final word. This argument is of course far from over; on November 19th, the California Supreme Court accepted three lawsuits challenging Proposition 8.
Since the May ruling and the subsequent November election, we saw a flurry of gay marriage, equal rights and Prop 8 t-shirts be created and bought as folks decided to voice their opinions in a more public manner than the ballot box. Of course, California wasn’t the only state to have anti-gay marriage initiatives on their November ballots; Florida and Arizona passed similar laws, and Arkansas passed a measure to prevent gay couples from adopting children.
What the future holds for gay couples and their rights is uncertain, and at this point it seems that it’ll take a lot of time, lawyers and money to determine it. One thing’s for sure: when religion and civil rights clash as a political issue, there is never an easy solution.
Wall Street Bailout(s)
Early in 2008, we saw a troubled mortgage industry lead way to some bank failures and dramatic government bailouts. Bear Stearns was the first to make headlines, but it most certainly wasn’t the last. By early September, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the government. By mid-September the government bailed out AIG, which showed its gratitude by treating executives to a $440,000 corporate retreat a week later.
Around the time that AIG executives were golfing and hitting the sauna, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced his plan for a taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street so that We the People could foot the bill for AIG’s $25K in spa treatments. The plan allowed him to spend $700 billion in taxpayer money without any oversight, and was met with raised eyebrows by much of the American public and political leaders.
While political pundits had managed to avoid head-on discussion of the financial crisis for previous 6 months by arguing back and forth on semantics as to whether or not this kind of action (i.e. the Bear Stearns rescue) was a “bailout,” those days were over. It was bailout time, and Paulson warned that the time was now.
In a nutshell: The Paulson plan proposed to use American taxpayer money to buy distressed mortages in order to prevent a banking collapse. But would it work?
As it turns out, we’ll never know. The Paulson plan was shot down in the Congress, despite Bush and McCain both pushing Republicans to pass it. An amended version of the plan – known officially as the Emergency Economic Stablization Act – did pass 2 days later. And yet we’ll still never know if the plan would have worked, because Paulson decided he didn’t want to buy those crappy mortgages after all. Of course, to be fair, perhaps the reason he changed his mind is because some of those distressed mortgages don’t actually exist. Whoops. Hmm, if only China would buy the “imaginary debt” story…
The mortgage crisis and resulting fallout led, unsurprisingly, to a personal credit crisis. And this of course leads us into…
Big 3 Bailout
The latter part of November brought us an early version of Christmas alms, as General Motors, Ford and United Auto Workers showed up in Washington to request a 25 billion dollar bailout from the government.
Of course, given the state of the American economy as a whole, the fact that the taxpayers had just bailed out a bunch of banks, GM CEO Richard Wagoner’s salary increase in 2008 despite GM’s losses since 2005, the fact that Honda and Toyota maintain American plants that employ American auto workers, GM’s aggressive investment in China (thus giving thousands of auto industry jobs to Chinese citizens, while simultaneously claiming that America needs this bailout to save American jobs), and the fact that the American auto industry has spent the past decade proudly and churlishly churning out SUV’s rather than moving toward smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles in spite of a global oil shortage and a war in the Middle East…
Well, all of those things added up were and are a recipe for the aforementioned collective sigh on behalf of the American people. As well as a whole lotta t-shirts.
The original bailout plan was rejected. It’s worth noting that the CEO’s didn’t do themselves any favors by using private jets for their trip to D.C.. Likewise, when Ford CEO Alan Mullaly was asked whether he’d accept $1 for a salary (down from his $666,667 salary – yes, that’s the real number, so it’s a good thing he wasn’t asked to subtract $1), his smarmy “I think I’m fine where I’m at” response didn’t exactly endear him or his cause to the members of Congress or to the American taxpayers.
So the CEO’s went back to the drawing board (read: Detroit), and returned again a few weeks later in hybrid vehicles to ask for their money again. Despite 2 of them putting the corporate jets on the auction block, this time they wanted $34 billion. But they weren’t asking for a “bailout.” No, no. They just wanted a “bridge loan.”
After a lot of back and forth, Bush came to the rescue with $17.4 billion of the taxpayer-funded $700 billion that wasn’t used to buy distressed and/or ficticious mortgages.
The Big 3 have made a lot of promises, including a focus on more fuel-efficient vehicles. And that leads us to our last topic…
Until very recently, gas prices were a major sticking point with American drivers throughout 2008. As prices continued to climb, Americans watched in disbelief with hope that the worst would be over soon. With President Bush apparently asleep at the wheel and without a roadmap to put an end to the seemingly non-stop price hike, drivers were left with 2 choices: grin and bear it, or find alternate solutions.
During the summer travel season gas was up to $4.00/gallon and up – which is to say that gas prices had moved beyond an annoying inconvenience and into a travel barrier. Some folks, looking for productive ways to deal with the gas price crunch, channelled their frustration into creativity.
While gas prices have dropped since the election brought in a new President who’s already assembled the key players in his energy team, the robust collection of gas price t-shirts will forever serve as a reminder of a time when beer by the keg was cheaper than gas in some places.