Tuesday, December 5, 2017

On the Place of Religion in Business: Refusing to Serve Gays

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December 2017 in a case on whether a baker in Colorado had been justified in refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. He claimed that his Christian faith forbid him from making wedding cakes for gay couples. “I follow Jesus Christ,” he declared when interviewed at his store. The Gospels are silent on the issue of homosexuality—it being said to be a sin only in the Old Testament—so the inference that following Jesus requires opposition to gay marriage (not to mention that homosexuality is an important issue in following Jesus) can be questioned. If the inference is tenuous, then it is the baker’s ideological stance that was actually at issue before the court. More broadly, is religion vulnerable to acting as a subterfuge, or cover, for what are really personal prejudices?
In terms of constitutional law, the baker contended that the First Amendment, “whose guarantees of free speech and religious exercise supersede any state law, exempts him from [Colorado’s] antidiscrimination act,” which has covered sexual orientation since 2007.[1] The question, I submit, is whether free speech and religious exercise are salient in a business context. Colorado was not contesting the baker’s freedom to speak out against gay marriage and engage in religious worship (i.e., expression) on his own time; the problem is the baker’s assumption that political speeches and religious practice apply directly in business. To claim that decorating a cake—and artistic expression more generally—is free speech over-applies the constitutional doctrine and ignores the fact that a product to be sold is being produced.
Moreover, the domain of business can be distinguished from both the political and religious domains. Even though they may be related, each has its most salient attributes, customs, and laws. In opening a business to serve the public, serving customers trumps making political or religious statements or decisions at the expense of customers. Put another way, in opening doors to serve the public, political and religious differences cannot justify refusing some of the public; the responsibility in serving the public thus supersedes circumscribing service based on personal political and religious prejudices.
“’No one disputes that [the baker] is ‘a man of deep religious faith whose beliefs guide his work, or that the Free Speech Clause protects his right to give voice to those beliefs,’ Colorado’s brief argues. ‘But when a business opens its doors to the public, a state may require that [the business] serve customers on equal terms, regardless of their race, sex, faith, or sexual orientation.”[2] The baker’s religious faith is most salient in the religious domain (e.g., at church), while serving the public is most salient in business. That which is foremost in one domain cannot legitimately claim such a status in another domain, even over its foremost customs and laws. In assuming that his business was a place for free speech and expression of his religious faith at the expense of serving the public, the baker misconstrued the distinct nature of business. In being open to the public, a business takes on an obligation to be open to the public rather than a part thereof based on religious grounds, especially if the religiosity is mere cover for what is actually a personal prejudice.  Overstating the importance or status of minor factors even over major ones in a given domain applies also in giving priority to an Old Testament dictum in what it means to follow Jesus Christ. In Christianity, as distinct from Judaism, the New Testament is more important than the Old Testament. The baker seems to have overlooked the main point in the New Testament: self-giving love towards others, especially when it is inconvenient (i.e., even toward enemies).

[1] Jess Bravin, “Supreme Court Set to Hear Gay-Rights Case,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Unsustainable Structural Fiscal and Federal Imbalances: The American Union

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced on January 26, 2011 that the U.S. Government’s budget deficit for the year would soar to nearly $1.5 trillion, which represents $414 billion more due to the extension of the Bush tax cuts. The deficit had been $1.4 trillion in 2009 and $1.3 trillion in 2010. According to the New York Times, based on the CBO, “the deficits of $1.4 trillion in 2009 and $1.3 trillion in 2010 are, when measured as a share of gross domestic product, the largest since 1945 — representing 10 percent and 8.9 percent of the nation’s output.” The budget officials also projected the deficit for 2012 would be $1.1 trillion. These figures dwarf the budget deficits even of the 1980s.

In his State of the Union speech on January 26th 2011, President Obama called for a partial five-year freeze in domestic spending by the federal government — what the New York Times calls “a more gradual imposition of fiscal discipline, while still increasing some spending in education, research and other areas.” It is hardly imaginable how a freeze alone could make a dent where the debt is over $14.3 trillion—a figure that is scarcely conceivable to a human mind, let alone sustainable. It is not clear that the U.S. Government will ever be able to pay off the mammoth debt, let alone arrest the annual increases in the debt (i.e., the deficits).

For their part, Republican congressional leaders used the need for a budget and an extention in the debt-ceiling in 2011 to pressure Democratic leaders to adobt substantial cuts, rather than merely a freeze. As a result, President Obama himself came to urge $4 trillion in cuts over several years. Yet even as the Republicans, whose penchant for less government (and perhaps restoring federalism) dovetailed with more cuts in federal spending, this position too did not take sufficiently seriously the U.S. Government's deficit and debt, for tax increases were to be off the table. 

In short, neither of the major parties were taking the structural fiscal imbalance in the U.S. Government sufficiently seriously.  It is as though they were urging the use of a bicyle rather than a car or train to get from Orlando to Miami in Florida (and let's add just for fun, "in August"). Beyond other objectives (such as less government) being allowed to intercede, the proposals were not sufficient. Were reducing the structural deficits and debt of the U.S. Government the overriding goal, both trillions in tax increases and spending cuts would be instituted over many yeears. I contend that it to be a moral imperative that the debt amassed since the surpluses in the late 1990s be paid off before the mean age in the generation of 18 to 38 year-olds in 2000 retire. The remaining debt could be paid off in incremental installments over many years. Simply passing on our debt for others to pay would be as immoral as it is convenient. 

Fortunately for us, restoring a balanced federalism can facilitate paying off the debt in our lifetimes. Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal for block grants to the state governments for medicaid claims to shift that program for the poor from the U.S. Government to the states. It is thus in the direction of restoring a balance in American federalism. However, the block grant element retains the federal purse-strings, and thus falls short in this regard. Both in terms of reducing the federal government's annual deficits and restoring a federalist balance, Rep. Ryan should have proposed that the states both run and pay for medicaid by raising state taxes. It would be up to the respective voters of the states to decide the level of coverage and the amount of tax increase--taking into account their respective state's' fiscal position so as to deal with any deficit there as well. Medicare too could be transferred to the states, though it would not be prudent to leave it up to the states to fund it until after states such as Florida, California and Illinois have solved their own structural deficits. Policy decisions involving health-care for the poor and the elderly could thus be tailored to the circumstances and ideologies that tend to differ in a union on an empire-scale. However, federal taxes would not decrease accordingly on account of the structural deficits and the objective of paying off the accumulated federal debt. Once the latter is eliminated, the federal taxes could come down.

One might squauk, "But that would mean raising my state taxes without corresponding tax cuts at the federal level!" Correcto! The lack of symmetry here is the mirror image of the asymmetry that has been involved in running deficits of over $1 trillion for years and having amassed a federal debt of over $14 trillion. We like asymmetry when it is convenient but abhor it when it goes against our pocket books. This combination of sentiments is what we must counter, bottom-line.  


David M. Herszehhorn, “Deficit Forecast Nears $1.5 Trillion, Fueling Partisan Battle on Federal Spending,” The New York Times, January 26, 2011.

Stephen Gandel, “View from Davos: How Bad is a $1.5 Trillion Deficit?” Time, January 27, 2011.

On the State of the (American) Union: Getting Real

It is certainly more politic to declare the state of the union to be strong rather than weak. In his State of the Union speech in January 2011, President Obama ended by stating definitively, "The state of the union is strong." Even though particulars could doubtless be found to support his claim, I contend that he severely understated the weakness in the state of the union at the time.

The $45 billion deficit in the Social Security fund ought to have raised more than a few eyebrows, not to mention the U.S. Government deficit of over $1 trillion and the related debt of $14.3 trillion. To claim strength as if the U.S. were still a going concern as long as such a debt exists is more fitting for a magician than a U.S. President. Furthermore, one could point to the 3.4 million inhabitants expected to be foreclosed by the end of 2011 or the 9.7 million unemployed on unemployment compensation in January, 2011 (51,000 added the last week of January alone), as well as to the 40 million inhabitants within the U.S. still without health insurance (i.e., having to wait until 2014 because of a deal made with the insurance company lobby--a party with a vested financial interest).

The President's State of the Union speech evinces a state of denial going far beyond one man. One might ask, moreover, whether structural or systemic solutions are even possible in a representative democracy, or is the free world destined to be poll- and issue-driven? Furthermore, are we too fixated on the status quo wherein we prioritize our debate on the size and involvement of government (e.g., tax increases vs. spending or tax cuts, rather more revenue and less spending) over the immediately pressing exigency of fiscal balance and the human rights of the least well off (John Rawls' criterion for a just outcome)? Are we destined to have solutions foisted on us by the brute force of necessity? In short, can we bracket our incremental approach based on convenience and think instead about the long-term viability of the system itself? The State of the Union of 2011 notwithstanding, the state of our union is worth taking another look.


David M. Herszehhorn, “Deficit Forecast Nears $1.5 Trillion, Fueling Partisan Battle on Federal Spending,” The New York Times, January 26, 2011.