Friday, October 17, 2014

Social Change At Warp Speed

On Monday, October 6, 2014, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.  An appeal from several states opposing various appellate court rulings that had struck down their laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.  This non-decision was in fact a major decision – the death knell of all such bigoted laws.

In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, this through a state Supreme Court ruling striking down that state’s prohibitions.  It marked the first sliver of an opening in yet another equality door, another small fissure in the brick wall of American prejudice.  In spite of the desire and expectations of many Americans, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not split off and fall into the Atlantic Ocean.  Same-sex marriages were begun; traditional opposite-sex marriages continued to flourish unabated; people continued to go to church; children were raised without harm; crimes rates did not increase.  The American Republic – and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – survived.

Nevertheless, state after state rushed to change their constitutions to make opposite-sex marriage the only permissible form of committed relationship between consenting adults.  And thereby, such “marriages” would be the only means possible to have unquestioned and comprehensive legal, property, custodial, benefit, taxation and survivor rights.  At that time, around 60% of the public was opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage.

Fast-forward ten years.  A single decade.  One by one, 19 states and the District of Columbia sanctioned same-sex marriage, either by the vote of its citizens, legislative approval, or state or federal court rulings.  Then, only one year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 majority that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited federal agencies from recognizing any state-sanctioned marriage for the purpose of awarding federal rights and benefits, was unconstitutional.  The surprising ruling left many political and religious conservatives adrift at sea in uncharted waters.  If one had long argued that it was a state’s right and not federal government’s prerogative to define marriage, then how could a federal law deny rights and benefits to a couple a state said was legally married?  The Court ruling also opened the door for same-sex couples legally married in one state to protest their not being recognized in another state – given each state’s traditional reciprocal acceptance of the legal status of couples married in other states.  I.e. if a state’s laws required it to accept as “married” a couple legally married in Massachusetts before the advent of same-sex marriage, was it not now similarly obligated to accept Massachusetts’ definition of a married couple after same-sex marriage?

With the unconstitutionality of DOMA decided, and the reciprocity issue and constitutionality protests against same-sex marriage prohibition laws now banging on courtroom benches across the country, the equal-treatment door was now flung wide open.  State by state, constitutional prohibitions started falling, littering the legal landscape.  Public opinion on same-sex marriage – 60% opposed ten years ago before – now flipped to 60% in favor, even more so among younger generations.  The legal tide, the public opinion tide, had shifted and grown into a tsunami of social change.  All that was required was waiting for the “when.”  And the when was Monday, October 6th.  And since a decision to accept a case for a full Supreme Court hearing requires only four votes, and this appeal request failed, the “non-decision/decision” against same-sex marriage prohibitions was at least an implied 6-3 vote – more convincing than the close DOMA strike-down decision.  The public spoke; the lower courts spoke; the Supreme Court acknowledged the message.  And its inevitability.

It will still take a while to work this through all of the systems and into everyday life.  Cleaning out old, now-invalid pages in the law books; revising bureaucratic forms and application procedures across myriad topics; revising process manuals.  “Husband and wife” terminology will continue to be awkwardly problematic, just as “significant other” is for unmarried partners.  The various money machines and politicians who have thrived on this hate issue will gradually fade away into the background, though some will continue to try to exploit and milk it for fundraising, vote-getting, or attention-getting as long as they can.  Perhaps they should instead take their cue from Pope Francis, who recently called on the Catholic Church (a bastion of “traditional family values”) to find some way to welcome and accept gay people, and unmarried and divorced couples: “Gay people have gifts and qualities to offer the Church community.”

Life will go on.  Opposite-gender marriage will still vastly predominate.  Same-sex marriages will learn and experience the same painful frailties that have long existed with opposite-sex marriages.  People will still associate with whom they choose.  America’s commitment to personal freedom and equality, however difficult sometimes in the specifics, is reaffirmed.

In the end, this whole fight reflects the issue written about previously on this blog site (“Gay and Lesbian Marrage,”12/15/2008).  Until the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, black couples were not allowed to marry at all.  Until the 1960s, laws existed in several states prohibiting mixed-race marriages.  These prohibitions all ultimately fell as being incompatible with the American value of “equal treatment” – as well as the value of “minding our own business.”  And a recognition that the legal rights of citizens cannot be tempered by the mixed, and often contradictory, rules and rituals of our many diverse religions.  Each religion, denomination, church and congregation should be free to decide what it chooses about its spiritual vision and relationship with its congregants.  That is one of our most cherished and protected freedoms.  But that deserved freedom cannot then be used to dictate the legal visions of our secular lives.

Given the normal slowness in which social change occurs, the speed of this legalization of same-sex marriage is almost dizzying.  Who could have seen it coming this fast?  Perhaps almost too fast for any society to absorb.  But if you were a homosexual any time in the last perhaps 5000 years; if you were in Greenwich Village in New York City at the Stonewall Inn riot in 1969; if you were an early same-sex pioneer in San Francisco watching one of your own shot and killed; if you have been one of the many bullied, beaten, or left out because of “who you are”; then perhaps this “social change at warp speed” was not so quick at all.  Maybe it was simply a long time in finally coming.

All I know is that my life is, and will be, unchanged by this change in marriage definition.  I suspect so yours will be unchanged also.  Unless you happen to be one of these new kinds of happy newlyweds.  Congratulations.

© 2014   Randy Bell     

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Job Creators

“Don’t tax the Job Creators.”  So the bumper-sticker rallying cry emerges whenever there is a discussion  about increasing the taxes paid by the wealthier among us.  The anti-government conservative Congresspersons  who advocate this posture for their wealthy donors would have us believe that, by paying more of their income in taxes, the rich will not be able to create more jobs in the American economy.  Jobs that are needed by many of our citizens.  The argument presumes that the wealthy are on a noble mission to employ the middle and lower economic classes, and such a mission would be unwisely threatened by the punitive specter of higher taxes.  And it plays upon the fears of those in our middle and lower economic classes that their future success, indeed their very survival, would thereby be jeopardized.  Such understandable fears can potentially cause us to support some very counter-intuitive proposals to secure our well-being.

It is all, of course, pure nonsense.  There are few new or existing jobs in jeopardy due to any increased tax payments by the wealthy.  Virtually every responsible economist acknowledges that our American economy is driven by “consumer spending.”  Around 70% of our economy, to be somewhat more precise.  And jobs come from a strong and growing economy, not the supposed social benevolence of the wealthy person.  So if “the wealthy” easily constitute less than 5% of our distribution of income (depending upon your definitions), how much are they likely to contribute to that 70% consumer spending?

One might be tempted to argue that, given the margin of their “excess income” over basic survival necessities, the wealthy have far more consumer dollars to spend.  But that argument falls apart because the wealthy do not buy in volume proportional to their wealth.  Instead, they generally buy small quantities of high cost items – which generates only a few specialized jobs.  The Kardashian sisters may spend enormous sums of money on their status toys, but it results in the creation of very few jobs.  Wal-Mart, Target, and Lowes employ thousands of workers, who then support millions of customers.  But the wealthy do not shop in those venues.  So who contributes more to our economy, and thereby to our national employment: the 500 Chevrolet buyers paying $20,000 per car, or the 150 BMW buyers paying $70,000 each?  A first-class plane ticket can cost perhaps four times or more than an economy seat.  Does the airline hire any more pilots or flight attendants because of those 12 expensive seats versus the 100-200 economy seats?  It is millions of units of washing machines, sofas, chain restaurant meals, summer vacation trips, and electronic gadgets and smartphones that drive our economy and jobs.  It is in the middle and lower economic classes where you find those millions of needed buyers.

The whole social framework of “living wealthy” is to live differently than the average American.  I.e. buying goods and services that are an exception to the average purchasing.  Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is spending $2B to buy the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, which the disgraced Donald Sterling bought 30 years ago for $12M.  This will certainly make Mr. Sterling very, very rich.  But this purchase certainly will not reduce the cost of courtside seat tickets for a family of four; instead, higher ticket prices are inevitable for the same basketball performance on the court.  In the end, Ballmer’s $2B purchase will create hardly a single new job.

Perhaps one might assume that it is from their investment money, not consumer spending habits, that the wealthy will create jobs.  As officers in major business and financial organizations, the decisions of the wealthy will no doubt affect employment offerings.  But rarely anymore is a wealthy person’s personal fortune at stake in those business decisions, just company money – i.e. someone else’s money (stockholders).  Over history, for most company officers jobs – and their attached salaries – are just another cost line item.  And profit is very much about reducing costs.  This is why corporate America has largely been sitting on so much cash profit these past several years: extracting more “labor efficiencies” from its existing workforce through more time and output for the same (or less) pay, while waiting for more customer demand to show up before hiring more workers.  Such a strategy ignores the reality that more demand comes from more people working and more employee disposable income to spend.  (Which is why Henry Ford designed and priced his Model T to be affordable by each of his assembly-line workers.)  Hence the stalemate catch-22 that inhibits job growth.  A stalemate unlikely to be broken by those supposed Job Creators.

This is not about “bashing the rich” or “soaking the wealthy.”  Americans have often stood on that dangerous precipice; such a stressful we-versus-them internal conflict will never be in our best interest.  Rather, our objection should be the shameful attempt by some politicians to throw extra caviar to the one group that has done well economically over the past five years of extreme recession.  And then trying to justify it by ennobling them with the entirely undeserved and untrue mantle of economic saviors.  Even if we set aside the longstanding American taxation principle of graduated income tax rates – the American tradition of “giving back” by those who have done well under America’s promise and opportunity – we need not reverse that tradition and say that the wealthy should not only not give back, but should keep even more!

In this debate, I would be happy if these wealthy individuals, and John Boehner and Barack Obama and all Senators and Representatives, would simply pay the same effective tax rate as I pay.  Without all of the exemptions, exclusions, schemes, and special set-asides that decimate our tax code.  Increasing the taxes on the rich is not about treating them unfairly.  It is not about stifling the creation of fictional jobs that they are not going to create.  It is in fact about treating them the same as everyone else – the fundamental American principle that justice does not vary due to wealth.  Afterwards, there will still be plenty of money left over for all those expensive toys waiting to be bought.

Creativity, inventiveness, and entrepreneurship are all fundamental components of the American Promise, and we should all celebrate each time that that Promise is realized.  But Fairness is the real American tradition, in some regards even more so than Equality.  It is about earning wealth, not buying wealth.  Earning it under the same rules applicable to all.  And then enjoying the success of the wealth you have earned.  Wealth that has been bought is not admirable.  That kind of wealth creates no jobs.  So let us not protect the mythical “Job Creators” for what they do not create.

©  2014   Randy Bell