“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.




Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

Almost four years ago now, I wrote a post about a response I received in my twitter feed from a success coach who believed one should not say you “can’t afford” something but should frame it in terms of personal choice saying “it’s not in my budget now.” I haven’t thought about it in quite a while.

One of the things that bothered me in the success coach’s response (beyond the general annoyance at the idea of coaching for “success” without the specifics of “at what?”) as I think about it now, was that when there are things that you would really like to do, but you are thwarted because you don’t have money, it is annoying to have someone else tell you that you are actually just making a choice. It minimizes your experience.

Let’s say all your money is gone the day your paycheck arrives, spent on rent and groceries. Then the furnace breaks down and you have to wait two weeks, wrapping yourself in blankets and warming yourself over the stove, because you can’t pay a repair man. Well, I suppose “not in my budget right now” is true, but it doesn’t really describe the difficulty of not being able to get what you need or want.

I was reminded of this old experience when I was watching Meet The Press Daily this evening. The subject was the new GOP health care legislation. Rep. Kevin Brady was not concerned that thousands of people would lose health insurance because, he explained, it would be their choice. “This is health care they can’t afford,” he said, “so they are choosing [to]… wash their hands and say no thank you.”

Think about that. Because they cannot afford it, they choose not to have it. This logic can apply to almost anything. There is no reason to be concerned that 1.5 million people or so are homeless. You see, the reason they are homeless is that they have chosen not to have a home because they can’t afford one.

If you have only enough income that you can either pay your rent or pay for your health insurance premium, I suppose you can look at that as a choice. If you don’t have health insurance in that situation, you’ve chosen housing over health insurance You have, as Kevin Brady calls it “freedom.”


“Regulations” vs. “Laws”

Our new Congress is ready to get to work eliminating regulations, which, they believe stand in the way of a healthy economy by placing burdens on business. The president has even proposed eliminating all regulations through an exponential process in which the passage of any new regulation would require the elimination of two other regulations. “We want to create some guidelines for self-driving cars, so do you want to allow glass in your food or to get rid of the codes that ensure bridges don’t fall down?”

“Regulations” in our current political climate are almost always presented as bad, whereas “laws” are good. It is often the same candidate who runs on a platform of law and order and eliminating regulations. Yet on their most basic level, laws and regulations are the same thing. They are guidelines that set the boundaries of how we are to live together as citizens. In common parlance, if you have a coal company and you want to dump your coal dust in local waterways, there is a regulation about that.  If you want to stand at the edge of a public pool and piss into it, you are violating the law. (Congress is sympathetic to one of these uses of shared water. Can you guess which one?)

Whether a it is called regulation or a law, it is an instruction that limits certain behaviors by imposing a penalty that is socially enforced by courts and police. By their nature, they stand in the way of someone’s interests in balance of the interests of others. Having a speed limit means that we can’t get where we’re going as fast as we’d like, but we’re less likely to have fatal road accidents. If you have a nearby park and would like to use it to swim naked in the fountain you will be thwarted by law. Now frolicking naked is a perfectly legitimate way to spend an afternoon, and people who want to pic nic without seeing your bare behind just have a competing way they’d like to use the space, but legislators decided that there are probably more people who want parks without nudity than those that do and the only way to be sure that this happens is to make it a law.

Regulations work the same way. It may be cheaper for a company to create a workplace where, occasionally a laborer falls into a shredder than to install safety devices. Yet we’ve decided as a society that protecting the life of the laborer should outweigh the inconvenience and cost to the employer and we legislated accordingly.

Talking about being tough on “crime” (breaking the law) while wanting to eliminate “regulations” generally speaking protects the interests of one social class over another. It is a law that the poor person cannot steal from a store. It is a regulation that the store has to give its employees reasonable work hours, breaks and overtime pay. In both cases, there is an entity that is harmed. The owner of the store is harmed by theft. The employee is harmed by being required to put in unpaid overtime. The financial value of these two infractions could be equal if the shoplifter can lift a lot of big screen TVs, but the value of the underpayment is likely to be more. If you’re tough on the crime of theft and think it should be up to the business owner to determine what is fair, you are siding with the store owner in each case. The philosophy behind this seems to be that the person who owns a business is by virtue of his social status to be trusted, whereas everyday workers and citizens need to have their behavior controlled.

In July 2015, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was celebrating its 25th anniversary, the New Republic wondered if there was any chance it would be passed today. It was signed into law by George W. Bush, but, Brian Beutler wrote, “these protections are the products of a lost era in which Republican politics didn’t reactively foreclose the idea of using federal power in service of the common good.” He concluded that if the ADA did not already exist, we would not get it.

Laws and regulations are restrictions and they can make sense or not. (Example: the Alabama law that says you can’t wear a fake mustache that makes people laugh in church.) Society is not static, and it makes sense to revisit our laws and regulations from time to time. In the UK, for example, they just posthumously pardoned thousands of gay men who had been jailed for the crime of “gross indecency with another male person.” At the time, it seemed to the citizenry, that requiring sexual non-conformists to behave was a social good and that the cost to the individuals was outweighed by the need of the community to impose a heterosexual norm. There were some high profile cases that started to make people wonder if the benefits of conformity were really worth the cost to society of, say, cutting short the lives and careers of Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde. British society has decided not only to change the law, but to symbolically show they regret that they had ever written it. (Of course, the realization comes a bit late for the other men whose lives were torn apart and the friends and families who were hurt along with them.)

To talk about eliminating “regulations” in the abstract makes no sense. When it comes to regulations, the real question should be, who is inconvenienced or harmed by having or not having the regulation, how much, how effective is the regulation at protecting those it was designed to protect, is there a way to achieve that end that is less of a burden to other stakeholders. In short, what are the social costs of making (or keeping) a rule or not making a rule.



“Job Creators”

I have always hated the expression “job creators.” I hate the way it implies that there is a class of people who, almost as a form of charity, bestow employment (for which we should be extremely thankful) on us, the needy workers. It is just as true to say that employees are “business creators” (although no one ever does) because without their labor, the owner could not achieve his goals and run a successful enterprise. Employers are not little gods giving the gift of jobs, they hire people because those people have skills and talents that they need. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

I also hate a certain imprecision in the “job” part of the expression. All jobs are not created equal. One of the big shifts in our economy, and indeed one that is most often cited as the cause of the anger and frustration of the people who elected Donald Trump, has been from manufacturing to service jobs. The factory makes the goods is in China now, but Wal Mart is hiring greeters. Because our culture has deemed service jobs less valuable than manufacturing jobs, the standard of living for workers has stagnated as the “job creators” continue to see gains. They can boast about the number of jobs they created and are rarely asked, “Do these jobs come with living wages?”

Beyond that, “jobs” it seems, are only created in the private sector and in certain parts of the private sector. Jobs related to the arts are not really jobs. You have to argue for arts by saying that having a theater in your city will drive business to nearby restaurants and hotels. (Real businesses) And you have to argue that arts education will make children good a mathematics so they can one day be computer programmers and engineers (Real jobs).

I was struck this morning when watching Fox News as a Trump voter talked about how excited he is that Trump is keeping his promise to create jobs in America. He cited the end of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the fact that Trump met with labor unions. When we talk about “jobs” we think of assembly lines, making things, real man’s work. Those kinds of jobs are indisputably “jobs.” And they are disappearing. According to Five Thirty Eight:

Here’s the problem: Whether or not those manufacturing jobs could have been saved, they aren’t coming back, at least not most of them. How do we know? Because in recent years, factories have been coming back, but the jobs haven’t. Because of rising wages in China, the need for shorter supply chains and other factors, a small but growing group of companies are shifting production back to the U.S. But the factories they build here are heavily automated, employing a small fraction of the workers they would have a generation ago.

Yet while he was discussing the potential future creation of U.S. manufacturing jobs, Trump was actively working to slash existing jobs. We tend not to frame them as jobs, rather as “spending” but government jobs are jobs. Trump apparently would like to see a 20% cut in federal workers. Meanwhile, he has instituted a hiring freeze and the House voted to make it easier to cut goverment employees’ salaries.

This is the opposite of “job creation” it is “job elimination.” We don’t really call it that. We call it, as Donald Trump did, “reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy.”Interestingly, none of the articles I found on the topic of the proposed 20% workforce cuts mentioned how many people would be unemployed by such a move. Can you imagine business reporters writing about the proposed closure of a factory and omitting how many jobs would be lost? And yet when the nation’s largest employer is talking about cutting its workforce by 20% the actual number of jobs is nowhere. It seems that the government employs 2.8 million people. (If you include the military it is about 4.4 million people) But as Trump has vowed not to include the military (those are real jobs) we’ll stick with the 2.8 million figure. That is 560,000 people who would be joining the unemployment lines if this plan actually became a reality.

It doesn’t seem as though putting that many people out of work would do a lot to give the administration good employment results, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts people who are working whether in “real jobs” or “fake jobs” in the arts and the public sector. That is assuming they continue to gather and report on employment.

On a personal level, I hope that the “federal bureaucracy” is not reduced to the point that you can’t get anyone on the phone to answer a question about processing a visa, or filing your claim with the VA.

“That Makes Me Smart”

“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required.”-Statement by the Trump campaign.

I have not been posting here as much as usual because I have been hard at work completing a book about a circle of friends who lived in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Their culture was still much more focused on “honor” than “success.” (This sent them to the libel courts in foolish attempts to preserve their reputations on a regular basis.)

Aristocrats were, of course, entitled and out of touch with the needs of the working class. Yet they did have an ideal of “noblesse oblige,” that is to say, if God favored you by allowing you to be born Lord Wibblebottom of Wembley then this fortune came with a responsibility to society and to those who were less fortunate. The sense of duty and honor was positively fatal to the aristocracy during World War I when so many sons were killed in battle. There was no question that a man had a duty to defend his country. Nobles did not always live up to this ideal, nor were they always aware of their class assumptions, but at least the ideal existed.

In the rarefied air of today’s super rich this ideal is not even present. People like Donald Trump use the language of duty and honor, as in the Trump campaign’s “fiduciary duty,” but “duty” includes no obligation to the larger society whatsoever.

A couple of points, there is no “fiduciary duty” to avoid paying taxes. A 2013 article in The Guardian notes:

Farrer & Co was commissioned to look at the issue by tax justice commissioners who fear executives are trying to justify tax avoidance on the grounds that their priority is to enhance shareholder returns.

The legal assessment from Farrer & Co, which numbers the Queen among its clients, states: “It is not possible to construe a director’s duty to promote the success of the company as constituting a positive duty to avoid tax.”

Farrer says company directors have a wide discretion when calculating the social impact of their decisions. If they choose to pay tax responsibly, they would in fact be protected by the applicable law rather than at risk of liability, it explains.

It seems amazing that this should even be a question. What is fascinating about the 2013 article is that it quotes a representative who says executives “are being told by their tax advisers that they have a duty to adopt anti-social tax measures.”

Think about this for a moment. A duty– a moral obligation– not to contribute to your country.

The idea that it is a moral obligation to avoid taxes is related to another myth that has taken hold of our discourse, the idea that the CEO of a company is morally bound to focus on nothing but maximizing shareholder value.  Yves Smith wrote in Naked Capitalism:

…that board and managements are somehow obligated to “maximize shareholder value” is patently false. Legally, shareholders’ equity is a residual claim, inferior to all other obligations. Boards and management are required to satisfy all of the company’s commitments, which include payments to vendors (including employees), satisfying product warranties, paying various creditors, paying taxes, and meeting various regulatory requirements (including workplace and product safety rules and environmental regulations)…

this idea did not come out of legal analysis, changes in regulation, or court decisions. It was simply an academic theory that went mainstream. And to add insult to injury, the version of the Jensen formula that became popular was its worst possible embodiment.

And as John Kay has stressed, when companies try to “maximize shareholder value,” they don’t succeed

the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented…In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations…in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements….When a corporation becomes financialized in this way, the top executives no longer concern themselves with investing in the productive capabilities of employees, the foundation for rising living standards. Instead they become focused on generating financial profits that can justify ever higher stock prices – in large part because, through their stock-based compensation, high stock prices translate into megabucks for these corporate executives themselves.

The Trump campaign has gone even a step further with this, making the case that Trump has a duty to avoid paying personal taxes. This is framed as a responsibility to his family. Imagine if you were to try to make the case that you were not going to pay your income tax because you have a duty to your family to provide them with more money?

My interest in this is in how language is used. We use a different standard for middle class and upper class individuals when we talk about income. Trump has profits. Profits are good because they fuel the economy and create jobs. You have savings. Savings are bad because they show a lack of consumer confidence. In both cases the words refer to money that is being hoarded for future personal use.

Then there is the word “responsibility.” I would like to go back to something I said on this subject in 2013 (you can read the full article via the link above):

…Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

sing the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself…

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

Many of the super-wealthy got that way and remain that way by shielding themselves from personal responsibility while at the same time using the language of personal responsibility to justify not participating in the social contact that binds the rest of us.

The article linked above talks about and Wake Forest Law Review by Brent T. White of the University of Arizona that discusses how middle class borrowers were disadvantaged in the crash of 2008 because we held on to old concepts of honor and duty, which included paying mortgages even when underwater. “Norms governing homeowner behavior stand in sharp contrast to norms governing lenders, who seek to maximize profits or minimize losses irrespective of concerns of morality or social responsibility.”

White called this, in his academic parlance, “norm asymmetry.” What it means in layman’s terms is that most of us feel honor bound to pay our bills, and to avoid taking advantage of the system. (For example millions of people who are eligible for food stamps do not take them as a point of pride and a belief in the virtue of self-reliance.)

If using every advantage the system can provide is, as Trump suggests, “smart,” then those proud people are, it seems, “stupid.”

We, every day Americans, are proud of these virtues. We are proud that we respect the system, work hard and “play by the rules.” Words like “duty” and “responsibility” are meaningful to us.

But if “responsibility” when I use it means I have a responsibility to be contributing citizen, and “responsibility” when you use it means “every man for himself,” then we are not having the same conversation.

In an era when most members of congress are millionaires, and most of us are not, I think it is worth stopping and asking, when a politician uses a word like “responsibility” if he is really speaking the same language.

Savings vs. Profits

Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of articles that gives them meaning. A couple of days ago I recall a meme that flashed through my Facebook feed. (I tried to find it again to link to it here, but after a bit of clicking I gave up.) The idea was that when a person has 50 cats, or has a house full of newspapers, we call him a hoarder. When a rich person has billions more than he can spend, we call him a genius.

I spent this morning with a quick read of the news, first glancing through an article on the World Press site focusing on tax avoidance.  The article opened:

When Donald Trump was recently asked what his tax rate is, he irately responded, “It’s none of your business.” And Trump has repeatedly stated that “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”

One of the big questions in the presidential campaign at the moment has to do with Donald Trump’s tax returns.  There has been rampant speculation as to why he is not willing to share them with the public. One of the main reasons, the pundits guess, may be that it will show that he is not nearly as rich as he pretends to be.

While still thinking about this admiration of wealth, which at its most basic level is just holding on to big piles of money, I read an article on the Independent Voter Network on how Americans are becoming savers and how this is bad for the economy.

“Under all circumstances, personal consumption is always the primary driver of the economy,” the article says.  “So how do you convince a nation to start spending again?”

It struck me that the “Americans” here who are being asked to start spending are folks like you and me, not folks like Donald Trump. When I put money into a savings account instead of buying a new TV, it is taking that money out of the economy. When a zillionaire parks millions off shore there seems to be little discussion about how to instill confidence in that person that it is OK to spend that cash on cool stuff like higher salaries or whatever rich people could be buying with all their savings. We don’t usually use a word like “savings” to describe the big piles of money rich people keep in their Swiss bank accounts. Savings are what people of modest means put aside. Rich people have profits.

The question “how do you convince a nation to start spending again?” does not bring to mind the uber-wealthy who are hoarding most of the cash. See for example this CNBC article: Rich hoard cash as their wealth reaches record high. It seems it is not “a nation” that needs convincing, it is the small percentage of the nation that is holding most the cash who need convincing.

An interesting element in the IVN article is that wile it worries about the effect of (presumably middle class) savings on the overall economy, it is also critical about the level of debt average Americans carry.

Americans are carrying fairly large credit card balances. As some commentators note, Americans are probably willing to put up with a government drowning in red ink because they see the same pattern in their own finances. We live in a ‘pay for it tomorrow’ society — from Washington D.C. to Main Street, nobody wants to pay the piper.

What does it mean that an article is on the one hand concerned that we might be saving too much and also concerned that we are spending more than we have?

This is a horrendous double-edged sword. Paying down the debt, from the personal perspective has the net effect of saving, yet paying the debt down also destroys wealth in the system (the debt is held as an interest bearing asset by a bank).

Even worse, the consumption from this debt took place long ago; the debt service is no longer driving the economy (and yes, the interest paid is still a part of the current GDP, but consumption drives the economy — not borrowing).

In other words, when you pay down your debt, that is less money that the banking system has, and if you then put the money you saved by not paying interest to a bank every month into a cookie jar, that is money that, say, a car dealer or Wal Mart is not making from you.

This is all true, but when we conceptualize the middle class and poor as having savings and the rich as having profits, doesn’t it change the meaning of a question like “how do we convince people to spend” into something else? If we ignore the people with the most to spend in this, are we not essentially asking “how do we persuade the people who have less to keep less of it for themselves?”



Stick Yer Hands Up!

When I lived in England, I D.J.ed on a college radio station called URB. (University Radio Bailrigg.) We had a commercial– not really a commercial. What do you call those soundbites radio stations sometimes run between songs?

Anyway, it had a clip that went like this:

Cowboy: Stick yer hands up y’bum.

Second Voice: Stick my hands up my what?

I was reminded of that while reading an article on BBC Culture today on the differences between U.S. and British swearing.

My latest novel, Identity Theft, is the story of a young man who sets off a chain of events he can’t control when he decides to pose as his boss, a British rock star, and flirt with a fan online. In one scene the young man, Ethan and his friend Ale try to sound British by dropping in as much slang as they can think of. They are about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but they manage to fool the fan anyway because she very much wants it all to be true.

Anyway, I found the following anecdote from the BBC article amusing and I thought I would share. It has some mildly NSFW language in it, so you know:

Both countries share a fascination with swear words’ that reference the male anatomy. Americans and the British have dick, cock, and prick in common, but Britain takes the theme further with pillock and knob, as well as masturbator synonyms tosser and wanker. A commenter named Brian D on Ben Yagoda’s blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, told the story of a group of British engineers from his company, sent to work at Wang Labs in Massachusetts. They were asked to attend a meeting to recognize an employee for outstanding achievement: “It was announced from the stage that this person was a King in the company and so would be presented with the Wang King award. The entire British contingent had to leave the room in hysterics.”