Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Let he who is without sin write the first opinion piece

I read this great guest op-ed in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago that really caught me by surprise. It was written by Jennifer Finley Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College and a member of the board of directors of GLAAD. She also happens to be transgender. What was so surprising about it, you ask? Well, she was writing about her brief tenure as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. At this point, you’re probably expecting the same thing I did: a rather negative piece detailing all of the Salvation Army’s sins against the LGBT community with a few firsthand accounts of discrimination from her time as a volunteer. It would probably end with her completely denouncing the organization and apologizing for ever associating herself with it. That’s clearly where this is headed, right?

Well, not really. Boylan tells the story of how she innocently signed up to ring a bell for an organization that, in theory at least, didn’t accept who she was. What did she find? A rather run-of-the-mill welcome, it seems:
Still, I knew that it was a traditional religious charity, and I could picture the scene — the head of the Red Kettle corps taking one look at me, knocking the Santa hat off my head, contemptuously snapping all my candy canes in half. Instead, as I drew near, the woman standing at the entrance to the mall said, “Oh, thank God you’re here. My arm is about to fall off.” And with that, she placed the bell in my hand.
As it turns out, it wasn’t her experience on the job that made her decide not to volunteer after her first, short stint as a bell-ringer. It was the admonition of one of her friends—someone sympathetic to the LGBT community who had heard about the Salvation Army’s stance on LGBT issues—that pushed her away.

So, what’s my point here? Well, this little anecdote is a perfect microcosm for something that I see happening with increasing frequency in our plugged-in, politically correct world. Basically, it goes like this: facts come to light, in one way or another, that a Christian or otherwise conservative organization has Christian or otherwise conservative views on an issue like abortion or gay marriage. In response, the entire world is told (by the media and by advocacy groups) that it must shun that organization, act like it doesn’t exist, express outrage at its opinion, and never give it a dime of your money ever again. Oh, and you’re supposed to be shocked that these organizations have had these views all this time. After all, why would a conservative organization ever dare to actually have conservative views?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I disagree with the fundamentalist Christian view on LGBT issues (because, you know, they’re discussed so extensively in the Bible) as much as the next non-fundamentalist-Christian. But was I surprised when I learned that the Salvation Army, an organization that Boylan describes as “a traditional religious charity,” does silly things like advocate celibacy for homosexuals? No, not in the slightest. Was I surprised when I learned that Chic-Fil-A, a restaurant chain that is always closed on Sundays and has an explicitly Christian mission statement, gave money to groups advocating for traditional marriage? Absolutely not. Was I surprised when I learned that Phil Robertson, an evangelical denizen of the bayou who invented the duck call, equated homosexuality with bestiality? Um...no. Not at all. That’s right, I brought it all back to Duck Dynasty.

Do I disagree with these things? Of course. Do I feel the need to get caught up in the media-fed frenzy and join the public lynching of these people? No, I do not. Many on the right try to defend people like Mr. Robertson by framing this sort of public reaction as an affront to the freedom of speech. This is quite silly, since that particular right only guarantees against censorship by the government, not other private citizens.

My objection is slightly different. Basically, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that these people have the views that they do. And I certainly don’t think it’s at all productive to react in a mean-spirited, “agree-with-me-or-we’ll-force-you-out-of-public-life” sort of way. As a matter of fact, that type of reaction is divisive and does nothing to bridge divides and heal wounds. It just makes things worse. Look at how many people are now defending Mr. Robertson’s unfortunate views merely because of how he has been treated in the press. Plus, it all feels so faddish. First, we yell at the Komen Foundation because they didn’t choose to give their money to Planned Parenthood. Then we yell at Chic-Fil-A for supporting traditional marriage. Then we yell at the Redskins for having an 80-year-old name. And on and on. Who’s next, I wonder?

This Christmas, I want you to imagine an America where, instead of engaging in a virtual stoning of someone with whom most of us disagree, we take the approach advocated by Roger L. Simon at PJ Media: “The best response to your enemies, especially if their challenge is not violent and based on their own heartfelt beliefs, is to treat them with respect and try to make them see the errors of their ways. You may not be able to do it but it is, dare I say it, the Christian way.”

But I think Jenny Boylan, our erstwhile Salvation Army bell-ringer, puts it even more succinctly: “I’ll occasionally slip a buck into the kettle, but I won’t be the one ringing the bell.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Obama puts the cart before the horse

Last week, President Obama gave a much-hyped speech about income inequality in our country. In it, he referred to this phenomenon as “the defining challenge of our time” and “our generation’s task.” Personally, I find these grandiose pronouncements to be a little surprising, not least of all because income inequality has only continued to get worse throughout President Obama’s first term in office. What’s more, he has for some mysterious reason waited until the end of his fifth calendar year as President to begin addressing this “defining challenge of our time.” This new shift in focus couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is dealing with a massively bungled rollout and embarrassingly low enrollment numbers, could it? That couldn’t possibly be it.

Whatever his reasons for this latest pivot, I simply can’t shake the fact that this speech seems to be putting the cart before the horse. I don’t seem to be the only person with this opinion—Ben Domenech at The Federalist makes the case that Obama got the causal argument behind inequality completely backwards, blaming the deterioration of many working-class families on income disparities rather than vice versa. Domenech puts it thusly:
What does that mean? Well, it means you can’t afford to live in a place with a good school, and government policy prevents you from learning elsewhere; it means mom has to work two jobs and can’t take time off to take you to the dentist, which can’t be scheduled because you’re on Medicaid; it means you’re likelier to drop out and end up permanently ensconced on assistance programs because you never had the intact family pressure to stay in school and learn a skill.

While I certainly agree with Mr. Domenech, my “cart before the horse” argument is slightly different. It seems to me that President Obama has prioritized increasing working-class and middle-class Americans’ earnings before making sure they all have jobs in the first place. It’s no secret that the most recent jobs numbers showed significant improvement—indeed, the unemployment rate is finally down to 7%—but I don’t think we can pretend the employment situation in our country is anything close to where it needs to be yet. So, my question is this: what good are rising wages going to do for people who’ve been unemployed for months, maybe even years?

We certainly have a long-term unemployment problem like never before in this country. The President even takes some time to address that issue in his speech. But he has very little to say in the way of concrete proposals to fix it. (Glenn Harlan Reynolds at USA Today doubts he has any idea how to do that at all.) Nor does he really have all that much to say in terms of solving the income inequality problem, the so-called “defining challenge of our time.” Essentially, he wants to raise the minimum wage, encourage exports, expand access to preschool, and engage in corporate tax reform. Are any of these good ideas?

Well, he comes close with the last one, although I don’t think he goes far enough. Closing corporate tax loopholes in order to lower other peoples’ rates is a great foundation, but I’d rather see us eliminate the corporate income tax altogether. That way, we could just tax capital gains and dividends as income (thus eliminating the double-taxing concern) and thereby radically lower everyone’s income tax rates. But my crazy, radical tax reform plan is a subject for another post.

So, what does that leave? Expanding access to preschool? I suppose that could be a long-term benefit for our nation’s children and our future workforce, but that’s not going to do anything at all to help the people who are unemployed now and have been for far too long. Raising the minimum wage? Well, Obama’s argument here is quite predictable. He drops the usual liberal talking point about how there is no concrete evidence that a higher minimum wage would slow job growth. Even if that’s true (and just about any conservative will debate that point), I don’t really think it’s relevant, because it would almost certainly diminish the standing of disadvantaged young people seeking part-time or entry-level jobs. And, again, what good does a higher minimum wage do for people with no income?

A new poll by Quinnipiac University shows that Americans, by a wide 69%-27% margin, support a higher minimum wage. That’s not really all that surprising. Who, all else being equal, would be against the idea of ordinary people being able to make more money? What I found to be interesting is that the same group of people believe that a higher minimum wage wouldn’t curtail job growth by a much smaller margin, just 48%-43%. So, essentially, there is a large subgroup of people within that sample who, although they believe a higher minimum wage would cost people jobs, want it anyway. Maybe, in giving this speech, President Obama was merely affirming that he is of like mind with the American people. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Corporations are religious people, my friend

After a week off for Thanksgiving, here I am with post #3!
When I started writing this blog, I told myself that I would do everything I could to avoid talking about two particular issues: Obamacare and women’s healthcare. Why? Well, quite simply, these are arguably the two most divisive issues being discussed right now and, as such, they are the two issues where both the left and the right make me the angriest. People really, really lose sight of reality when they talk about these things. And so, here’s my post about Obamacare and the contraception mandate, because I love the Supreme Court and I just couldn’t let this one go.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., in which the owners of Hobby Lobby, a nationwide craft store chain, challenge Obamacare’s requirement that employers provide contraception on their employees’ health insurance with no co-pay. They claim this is a violation of their devout Christian faith. In short, this is a “free exercise” case, in reference to the clause in the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Basically, the federal government can’t pass a law that keeps someone from freely exercising their religious beliefs. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim that, as Christians, they don’t believe in the use of certain types of contraception and shouldn’t be forced by the government to provide it to their employees.

I personally think this is a fascinating case. First of all, as Seth Mandel at Commentary Magazine points out, this is a corporate personhood question. In order for this case to have any merit, you must first decide that corporations like Hobby Lobby have the First Amendment right to free exercise in the first place. This is technically uncharted waters—that particular question hasn’t found its way to the high court yet. Those on the left, such as ElizabethWydra at CNN, will tell you that corporations most certainly don’t have that right.

To be honest, I’m not sure how you can’t extend free exercise rights to corporations. In our legal system, corporations have been treated as individuals since Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, a case tried in 1819. Anyone who tries to tell you that Citizens United established corporate personhood for the first time is pulling your leg. All that Citizens United did was extend the First Amendment right of free speech to corporations—a very significant step toward what Hobby Lobby is asserting. I find it hard to believe that a Supreme Court with eight of the nine justices from Citizens United would decide that corporations have the First Amendment right to free speech but not the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. That would be an intolerably arbitrary distinction.

So, one you’ve moved past the corporate personhood question, what’s left? Well, you have to then decide whether or not Obamacare’s contraception mandate is a genuine violation of Hobby Lobby’s right to freely exercise Christianity. Those on the left have been flipping this question upside down. They posit that Hobby Lobby, by refusing to provide contraception without a co-pay, are imposing their religious beliefs onto their employees and are thereby violating the employees’ right to free exercise of religion. This is patently absurd.

First of all, not providing contraception in a health insurance package most certainly does not prevent an employee from purchasing it. It just prevents their employer from having to pay for it for them. And as a pro-choice pundit, I can say with confidence that Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs don’t take the choice away from women (although the mandate takes the choice away from Hobby Lobby). Secondly, I’ve also had trouble identifying a religion that treats the purchase of contraception as a religious observance, which is the only way Hobby Lobby’s policy could trample over someone else’s religious rights. Even if one exists, I doubt any of Hobby Lobby’s employees practice it. And thirdly, as Michelle Malkin at RealClearPolitics points out, Hobby Lobby does provide 16 of the 20 forms of contraception required under the Affordable Care Act. They’re hardly laughing in the face of the law. Their only objections are when it comes to things like the morning-after pill, which is hardly an everyday type of contraception.


In short, I think that Hobby Lobby has a pretty good case here. Yes, it does require a little bit of a corporate personhood hurdle, but I think the current Supreme Court will have no trouble clearing that one. And I’m rather unapologetic in thinking that a judgment in favor of Hobby Lobby would be a good thing. No, I’m not a corporatist, nor a pro-lifer, nor even a Christian. I am, however, a staunch civil libertarian who believes that each of our Constitutional freedoms—particularly those enshrined in the first eight amendments to our Constitution—should be broad, applicable to everyone, and vigilantly guarded. And so, if a law forces the individuals running a corporation to engage in an act that violates their religion, that law—or at least that particular provision—cannot stand. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?