Monday, December 15, 2008

Gay and Lesbian Marriage

These days, the apparently 2nd-most divisive issue (after abortion) Americans are grappling with is extending the status of marriage to gays and lesbians. The climate for this debate has escalated as a result of several state Supreme Courts ruling that gays and lesbians have the constitutional right to marry, which in turn has provoked a run of anti-gay marriage laws and amendments explicitly outlawing same. While the recent California ballot initiative may yet be overturned on the grounds that an unconstitutional process was followed with this initiative, the debate is sure to continue. For traditional believers, this issue strikes at the core of their religious faith, as the whole discussion is ultimately rooted in religious/biblical beliefs. For gays and lesbians, the argument centers around their perceived right to have the same opportunity of marriage as any other citizen.

Let us first separate both outside edges of this discussion. Firstly, I am not personally gay, so I have no personal stake in either outcome of this debate. Secondly, there is a large group of people who oppose same-sex marriage because they reject homosexuality itself, hence by extension they oppose any form of recognition to such relationships. But not all anti-same-sex-marriage people are automatically anti-gays and lesbians; this is a seismic shift in public opinion over the last 30 years. There is not only a growing body of straight people who are supporters of full same-sex relationships, but there is a similarly growing group who can be supportive up to a point but in good conscience just cannot make the leap to same-sex marriage. For them, there remains something about “marriage” that inherently defines a male/female union.

Vermont was the first state to formally endorse “civil unions,” a legal status that gave to same-sex couples defined rights and privileges that were closely akin to marital legal rights. Massachusetts has allowed same-sex marriage for several years now; the sky over Boston has not fallen, same-sex children have not turned out extraordinarily degenerate, crime rates have not increased. Traditional male/female marriage thrives unabated, and our species continues to be adequately re-stocked. Connecticut will be the next state to follow. I am quite confident that Connecticut, and the California couples who married in the legal interim, will experience similar very ordinary results. Many employers and insurance companies have already moved to grant similar benefits to same-sex couples. Yet our Republic still stands.

There are actually two issues which we must relook at. One is the meaning of marriage itself. I am not convinced that there is an inherent constitutional right to marry, but it seems pretty clear that there is no constitutionally-based discrimination in who can marry. My most radical conviction is that the institution of marriage in America is in itself unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment mandate for the separation of Church and State. Marriage in America mixes two concepts. One is the granting of inter-dependent legal rights and responsibilities to two individuals for such things as automatically shared property ownership, required financial/physical support, implicit power-of-attorney authority in emergencies, parental rights and responsibilities, etc. All of this is codified and is equally applicable to all citizens in that jurisdiction of legal age.

But marriage is also a religious rite, practiced and conferred within the differing rules, traditions and dogmas of each religion, and therefore is NOT commonly applied to all people. It is done to express a spiritual and emotional commitment between two individuals that is beyond the range of state contractual rights, and to do so in witness by family, friends and the individual’s religious community. In virtually all religious traditions, the chief meaningful requirements are love, commitment, and personal fulfillment. I can see where some religious groups might theologically position their concept of marriage as additionally requiring a male-female relationship, along with other cultural roles and expectations. If one particular denomination or church has the right to define such as they see fit, then other religions just as rightfully should be entitled to stake out their theological positions – such as among a man and many wives (or vice versa) (currently legally banned); or between same-sex individuals (banned in 48 states); or requiring the same nationality; or only allowing separate races (once true and now banned); or requiring participants to be of the same faith (varying rules in Catholicism).

Complicating this is the mixing of legal authority for marriage. The State inherently grants to religious practitioners the power to create a legal marriage. Most all marriages are created this way. Thereby the State endorses the varying patchwork rules of our religious groups and their mixed (and perhaps unconstitutional?) rules. And we have made religious practitioners “agents of the State” ― a mixing of state and church most definitely abhorrent to our Founding Fathers’ principles. The lesson continues to be: when we mix canon with civil law, religion with state, individual beliefs with universal enforcement, the results are never good.

The only way out of this protracted social battle is to go back to square one and separate the two issues. For the State, let any two people (“domestic partners”) be granted a defined packaged set of legal rights (a “civil union”) upon their petition, recognized universally. In fact, virtually every such right can already be granted now by individual contracts or assignment of agency between any two people. So let us just make a consistent legal package easy for everyone to obtain. For “marriage,” let us simply remove any legal basis by the State, and return that designation (“husband and wife”) to the religious groups who rightfully own it. If Episcopalians or Southern Baptists determine that they have to split into Group A and Group B over same-sex marriage permission or prohibition, then so be it; religious groups have historically separated and subdivided themselves before over all sorts of differences (e.g. interpretation of texts, dogma, forms of ritual, family rules, governance). Ultimately, it is only in separation that there can be a coming together.

Far too much time on this issue is being spent over semantics and political demagoguery. Yet we must recognize the very real power that drives people to have their union blessed within the spiritual framework called “marriage.” The greater challenge of gay marriage is to our ability to accept, coexist with, and not fear ideas and people different than ourselves, rather than insisting on a universal sameness. What ultimately counts are the values of love, responsibility and caring. Jesus said, “Render under Caesar [the state] what is Caesar’s (“civil union”); render unto God what is God’s (“spiritual marriage”).” Human beings may grapple with this topic, but I have no doubt that God’s love is encompassing enough to include any human acts driven by a desire to love and commit to one another. Within that greater context, I have no doubt that the institution of marriage will continue to be quite safe in America.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Underwriting Corporate Mismanagement

The latest chapter of our economic collapse now centers on what to do with our Big Three US automakers. Cries of impending doom fill the air. Chants of “it’s not our fault” are spoken daily by both the corporate CEOs and the autoworker union leadership; all blame is elsewhere. So the three well-dressed CEOs flew into Washington in their luxury jets to jointly ask for $25B in a “bridge loan” to keep them afloat as they continue to spend their way into zero-cash poverty.

They sat together smugly as they tried to virtually blackmail Congress into giving them the money “because you cannot put 2 million people out of work.” Yet there was no contrition expressed; there was no sense expressed that “we’re in tough times so we have to operate differently”; most importantly, there was no PLAN for corporate survival. There was no knowledge about whether $25B was even enough to achieve the interim funding goal, or was just a down-payment on future installments. No arrangement was even determined for how much of the $25B each corporation would get. It was simply “pay us something so that we can operate business-as-usual.” Chrysler’s CEO acknowledged some measure of personal commitment and responsibility to all of this by announcing that he had gone to a “dollar-a-year” compensation; GM’s head had cut his compensation by 50%; but Ford’s CEO stubbornly expressed that his compensation level was “just fine at this time, no change is needed” (@$7-9M). It was as embarrassing and frustrating a public relations debacle as I have seen in a long time, and a sad testament as to how low the bar has now been set for corporate executive capability.

What these people, and their union counterparts, seem to fail to understand is basic investing and lending principles. The American people do not lend or invest in companies, whether directly or through financial institutions or the US government, because we like you or not. We do not do it, and should not, because nice people need jobs if they are jobs that contribute unmeaningful work at an excessive price. We do not financially prop up companies who produce and/or overprice unneeded or shoddy goods, or provide poor customer service and follow-up to the sale. No thank you, we look to find other providers instead. And the past business/financial plans of these companies have simply been continually out of sync with America’s greater needs.

When we invest or loan, we do so not in a company or individuals; we invest in a PLAN. A plan that takes us into the FUTURE. A Future with an above-average chance to SUCCEED. To date, these 3 companies and their CEOs and union leaders are offering none of these ingredients. There is no Plan whatsoever; $25B is being requested to maintain an antiquated Past way of doing business; hence the probability of long-term Successful Viability is highly limited. Why would we go for this unacceptable high-jacking scheme?

It is fairly easy to be successful when times are good; hard times require people of special talents. There are many good CEOs and small business owners out there whose good reputations are being besmirched and overshadowed by the visible incompetents. There are CEOs and business owners who are smart and capable enough to see the current shape of things, figure out the handwriting on the wall, and react smartly and adroitly to guide their companies through this current storm. Probably arriving in better long-term shape than they are in now. We need to recognize these business leaders and support them in those intelligent ways that we can.

So what to do with GM, Ford and Chrysler? The probability is that Congress will ultimately blink and fork over some operating cash for these companies. The extreme economic and political realities will demand it. In and of itself, I am not necessarily opposed to government loans/investments in private businesses if done for specific objectives under tight conditions for a limited timeframe. So it should be in this instance. But this funding should come with heavy strings attached. Specifically: a) replace the current management team in each company, along with at least 51% of their Boards; b) renegotiate the union contacts and executive pay to be competitive with industry rivals, i.e. challenge the union to choose either the losing battle to protect wages and benefits at the expense of jobs, or adjust to winning a battle to define and support new competitively-sustaining jobs, and further require executive compensation to set a new model for corporate responsibility; c) submit a clear strategic plan with detailed tactical plans for how these companies will realign themselves to the realities of the US auto buying marketplace. Not a plan of tokenism and public relations, but a long-term plan reflecting serious deep change in thinking, costs, entitlement, and marketplace.

Absent this, then I say let them go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as recommended recently in an OpEd article that a friend forwarded to me, written by Mitt Romney in the New York Times reflecting upon his father George’s successful turnaround of American Motors back in the 1950s. (See Chapter 11 will de facto force these changes onto these companies, though it will also cause much unwarranted investor chaos. With Chapter 11, the sky will not fall, and doomsday will not arrive, and cars will still be sold; the airline industry and others have already demonstrated a successful life after Chapter 11.

But most importantly, get new people behind the automotive desks. As these CEOs now return to Congress with a whole new skin-deep public relations program to try to make up for their last performance, we need to remember that their problems are NOT new. These companies have been in trouble for a generation. The current economic conditions did not cause their failure, they only clearly exposed it and made us say “no more.” It is clear that only external forces move these current leaders, not innate talent. The last time I looked, there was not a George Romney or Lee Iacocca bold corporate leader to be found among them.