Monday, July 4, 2011

The NY Gay Marriage Business

So long as I'm rolling, here's a few brain-droppings in reference to the recent decision by New York to allow "Gay Marriage."  On the one hand, this time I'm more-or-less OK with the outcome, at least in terms of the process.  The new rule was made by the duly elected legislature (even in bipartisan fashion), rather than by judicial fiat.  In that sense, I can accept the new status as simply another law with which I disagree, much like the 16th, 17th, and 26th amendments.  The people have spoken, and if they (we) have chosen poorly, well, they (we) get what we deserve.

That said, I still am not very happy with the process on a macro level.  Much ink (pixels) has been spilled remarking on the fact that this particular decision was embraced by Republicans, and that recently, for the first time, polls indicate that upwards of half of Americans now approve of gay marriage.  I feel like this evolution has been the result of some rather dishonest tactics.  Way back when the Supreme Court decided the famous Lawrence v. Texas decision that overturned Texas' anti-sodomy law, Justice Scalia said in his dissent that this would lead directly to redefining marriage.  "Relax," traditionalists were told.  It's not going to happen.  Don't be paranoid.  Later, when traditionalists were interested in a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage (at a time when they might have had the votes... or at least were a lot closer than we are now), we got the same story.  Don't worry--the Defense of Marriage Act makes that unnecessary.  Not long after there were court challenges to DOMA.  And the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (itself a pro-gay law when Clinton signed it, as it removed the threat of dishonorable discharge from discreet gays).  When traditionalists opposed Civil Unions as a back-door to eventual gay marriage, same story.  Until, of course, the tide turned, and Civil Unions could be held up as the modern-day "separate but equal."

And why DID the tide of opinion turn?  Every incremental step was hailed as a victory for tolerance and equality and modernity.  Hollywood, of course, did their part.  If you were to extrapolate from popular TV and movies, you would think that gays make up 20-30% of the population instead of a tenth of that.  And when there were setbacks, the pro-gay side simply regrouped and charged the same hills again and again.  The California Proposition 8 story is illustrative here.  Every time the traditionalists won, the goal posts were moved.  But this NY outcome is seen simply as the voice of the people, which should be final.  I don't mind losing fair and square (well, I do mind, but I have learned to be polite about it), but I don't know of anybody who can smile when they lose a rigged game.  Furthermore, the way we've gotten to this point does not do much for my confidence about any assurances given now.  This NY law has a "religious freedom" clause.  I'm sure that helped it pass.  And considering the sum total of what has gone before, I don't doubt that it will be jettisoned as soon as the deed can be plausibly done.

Having said all of that, I think it's important to note that I don't oppose gay marriage only, or even primarily, on religious grounds.  (With the one exception to that statement being that I foresee an eventual 14th vs. 1st Amendment face-off, and worry that there will eventually be limits placed on religious freedom when the young, hip, and cool gay-rights group wins out against old, boring, and square Christendom.)  My big problem with re-defining marriage is that I think it is bad in the long run for society.  I think the undermining of the traditional marriage relationship accelerates the decline of families and therefore society.  We've already done plenty of damage with no-fault divorce and the complete loss of shame over illegitimacy.  Gay "marriages" are many times more likely to not be exclusively monogamous.  And once the door is thrown open to same-sex marriage, what prevents consensual adult incest, polygamy, or even straight roommates declaring themselves "married" for the purposes of tax or probate law?  Please don't insult my intelligence by acting like there's no chance of that--that's what was said so long ago about gay marriage, and look where we are.

But who cares, after all?  Isn't this simply about people's rights to love whoever they want?  Doesn't equality trump all?  I guess nowadays it does.  But for most of the last 5000 years, marriage was not a license to have state-approved whoopie.  It was about creating families and raising children.  Marriage was what civilized men--making sure that they would protect and provide for their offspring rather than moving on to do what nature and biology wired them to do, which is impregnate as many fertile females as possible.  We've already come close to destroying that model of civilization; why would we want to drive a stake through its heart?

I don't dislike gay people.  Indeed, I don't like OR dislike any particular demographic group.  I like a great many gay individuals, and dislike some, as well.  I don't see this particular sin as being any worse than any other one (funny that we all too often are just fine with our hetero friends having sex outside of marriage, yet want to point fingers at gays as if their sin were more heinous).  I'll even go so far as to say that sins of the flesh are probably a lot less corrosive than my own pride, snobbery, and hypocrisy.  And when (and it's when, not if) this issue finally comes into my own circle of friends, I'll be nice about it.  But I'll still think it's a bad idea.  Lots of bad ideas have become law.  (The lottery pops to mind!)  Please don't assume I'm some sort of bigot for thinking this is one of them.

One More Stray Thought on Economics

Wouldn't it be nice if we could truly run an economic experiment on the various philosophies out there without paying huge consequences for being wrong?  With children, it's good to let them fail sometimes in order to learn the right lessons.  (One of my favorite coaching quotes is, "Pain is God's way of saying, 'not like that, dummy!'")  But I am unwilling to sit by and let my kids learn potentially fatal lessons the hard way.

Same thing with econ.  I believe in my principles--if I didn't, I'd change them.  But I'm willing to accept the possibility that I could be wrong.  How to test and find out, though?  Part of me would love to say, "Fine.  Let's try it your way."  And then when what I think are the inevitable results of bad math happen, my position would be vindicated.  (Or the reverse!)  Provided that we didn't wreck the whole Republic in the process, it might even be worth the pain.

However, the catch is that we pseudo-smart folks keep gaming the results.  "Yes, the economy was good under Clinton, but only because of the GOP congress."  "Bush caused the bottom to fall out of the economy.  NO!  It was Pelosi and Reid!"  "Yeah, the stimulus didn't stimulate anything, but it would have been even worse if we hadn't done it."  It's like dealing with conspiracy freaks (and I mean both sides).  Every single piece of evidence supports our own positions, including the ones that don't!

I guess the other big problem is that the true consequences of bad math take lots of time to play out.  Look at the whole housing bubble thing... it looked SO good from about 1995-2006, while the whole time the fuse was burning down.  


Debt and Taxes

I keep thinking I should say (write) something about the whole debt ceiling business.  I've got a few semi-connected thoughts on the topic, most of them more about the process than the philosophical side.  First of all, I think that the political gamesmanship just stinks.  Even if we were to hit the ceiling, the secretary of the treasury can prioritize payments so that the most important stuff gets done first.  All of the scare tactics about a national default are just that.  However, the political calculus is that if it comes to that, Tim Geithner would be politically smarter to hold up soldiers' pay or social security checks rather than cutting a penny of mohair subsidies, corporate welfare, or any other non-essential services.  I understand how it works, but it's a great deal like a hostage situation.

Secondly, the whole notion that we can't make any spending cuts without tax increases irks me, as well.  I seem to recall very recently we had a chance to revert back to the Clinton-era tax rates.  Indeed, doing nothing would have caused that to automatically happen.  But congress passed, and the president signed, an extension of the Bush cuts.  It was the politically smart thing to do at the time.  Now, it's expedient to repudiate that particular cynical move.  Leaving aside whether or not taxes ought to go up, the process side hacks me off.

As for whether we really SHOULD raise taxes, that's a bit of a loaded question.  I think the underlying premise ought to be that we should be willing to pay for the govenment we have.  Since currently we are running trillion-dollar deficits, either spending should come down, taxes should go up, or a combination.  That much is simple.  And it seems so perfectly reasonable that since one side hates spending cuts and the other hates tax hikes, then splitting the difference and sharing the pain would constitute compromise.

BUT--there is one little detail muddying the waters.  If raising rates resulted in direct increases in revenue, that would make pretty good sense.  But plenty of data exists that tax revenue is far more dynamic than that.  There is a concept called Hauser's Law which suggests that, regardless of rates, the post-WWII USA has never managed to generate more than 19.5% of GDP in taxes.  So it seems like what we ought to do is find the best way to get that optimum revenue (and additionally maximize GDP), while bringing spending to the same level.  That might still mean we can, even should, change our rate structure.  But the notion that we can just confiscate enough cash through taxation to cover spending at current levels doesn't hold much water.  There's also the issue of timing--whether any tax hike, no matter how necessary, would further cripple our fragile economic recovery.  If we lower GDP far enough, even taking 25% (or 30%, or 50%) of it won't make a difference. (And as a matter of math, that's part of our problem right now--we're underperforming Hauser's Law due to the recession we've been in, with spending at about 24% of GDP and revenue in the 15% range.)

I do happen to think we need tax reform.  Perhaps the debt-ceiling debate could include a provision to undertake that in a big way after immediate cuts and an increase in the ceiling happen now.  The current rates WILL revert back to the Clinton levels in 2 years if left alone, after all.  But there's zero chance of getting the kind of reform we need in the next month.  And the reform we need isn't going to be pretty.  The only real way to raise the kind of revenue we really need is to hike taxes on everybody, including the middle class.  Currently nearly half of all taxpayers have zero income tax liability, and the vast majority of total revenue is derived from the very top earners.  Most have heard that the top 1% pay 40% of taxes.  But the top 10% of earners pay about 70% of total taxes, and the top half pay over 95%.  For all the talk of millionaires and billionaires and people who make $250k, we could honestly confiscate every penny those folks earned and still not balance the budget. 

I'm not one of those supply-siders who thinks that every tax cut pays for itself.  I believe that the Laffer Curve is correct--that a zero percent tax yields zero revenue, and that a 100% tax also yields zero revenue (by killing the economic activity being taxed).  And therefore, that if tax rates are "too low," they can be raised to increase revenue--and also that if they are "too high," the reverse should be true.  I don't really think our current top rate of 35% is "too high" if we're talking about maximizing revenue.  (This leaves aside the moral question of whether tax rates should have a moral upper limit.)  But I do not think we can ever solve our fiscal problems without broadening the tax base.

Finally, I'm skeptical of any deal that doesn't cut spending first.  If memory serves, Reagan's big tax cut back in '81 was supposed to be at least partially offset by spending cuts, but the cuts didn't exactly materialize as planned.  Ditto Bush 41 when he broke his "read my lips" pledge in '88.  Even during the Clinton surplus years, the surplus was a combination of increased revenue from the dot-com boom and the "peace dividend" at the end of the Cold War.  But the overall size and cost of government never came down.  (Indeed, the debt never came down, either--but that's another interesting accounting story.)  We all know that taxes can be raised with the stroke of a pen, or even by inertia thanks to current sunset provisions.  What we haven't proven yet is that we are willing or able to cut spending.  So let's do that--eat the veggies first, and then dessert for a change.