Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 November 2004

Bans on Gay Marriage: A Question of Values

Over 20% of the electorate reportedly cited “moral values” as the chief issue in the recent election. Many commentators assume that “moral values” voters provided strong majorities for banning gay marriage in eleven states. They presupposed a direct and obvious connection between “moral values” and bans on gay marriage, and no one questioned that assumption. Far less did anyone ask whether bans on gay marriage are consistent with what Americans value most deeply.

The lack of probing inquiry is not surprising. Americans have always confused sexual mores with vital social values. From the time of de Tocqueville to the twenty-first century, Europe and Asia have noted our nation’s sick obsession with what people do between the sheets. The Monica Lewinski scandal is only the most recent example. A president’s sexual indiscretion virtually paralyzed the world’s most powerful nation for three years. As the rest of the globe looked on with alternate amusement and horror, the possessor of thousands of nuclear weapons, charged with leading the Free World, addressed the world’s problems with all the maturity and perspective of a lovesick teenager.

When we were young, our mothers told us that sex is only part of life. Surely there are human values more important than those governing sexual relations.

History suggests as much. We revere the ancient Greeks as the earliest source of our democratic values; yet they were openly homosexual. Sparta and Thebes, among other city-states, institutionalized homosexuality, making it part of official policy and their highly effective military organization. Islamic society permitted and celebrated polygamy throughout its Golden Age, in which literature, art, mathematics and astronomy flourished. Holland, from which America derives much of its liberal and tolerant tradition, openly tolerates homosexuality and prostitution. These examples from ancient and modern history suggest that what particular brand of sexual mores a nation chooses has little to do its strength, success or ultimate contribution to human development.

So what are our really fundamental values? Unfortunately, we live in an ignorant age. Survey after survey reveals appallingly large fractions Americans who don’t even know what our Bill of Rights says. Some surveys even hint that the Bill of Rights would not survive a popular referendum today. Yet however little Americans know about our written charters of liberty, all of us understand a simple and universal credo: “Live and let live.” Don’t those four simple words capture the essence of American values?

Nearly two centuries before we became a nation, the Pilgrims came to North America to escape religious persecution. Many others followed, fleeing bigotry and intolerance. All wanted a place where they could practice their religion and culture openly, free from interference, persecution and bigotry. Eventually their yearning was codified in our First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom and prohibits the government from establishing an official religion.

Religious freedom, however, is not enough. You cannot act freely unless you can speak freely. So the First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech and the press. It extends these freedoms especially to despised minorities, for only unpopular ideas really need legal protection.

Most, if not all, of our greatness as a nation derives directly or indirectly from these two fundamental principles: freedom of religion and freedom of speech. They saved us from the pogroms and religious and ethnic wars that tortured the world for centuries and still occur in Europe, Asia and the Middle East today. They encourage all to contribute in advancing and perfecting our society, each in his or her own way. By freeing everyone to speak his or her mind, these rights have produced the greatest flowering of scientific inquiry, creativity, and political and social discourse that the world has ever seen. Because of them, there is nothing we Americans cannot examine, criticize, discuss, create or perfect.

Yet both these great legal principles share the same underlying moral value. You can speak of tolerance, liberty, freedom, and equality, but these are heady abstractions. The broad words have different meanings to different people, and some have been conscripted to serve unlikely causes. The simple credo “Live and let live” captures the spirit of all of them, and its meaning is unmistakable.

My wife and I have wracked our brains trying to figure out how homosexual unions “threaten” marriage and why me ought to “protect” marriage against them. Adult abuse, child abuse, and dysfunctional relationships certainly threaten marriage. Statistics show that these problems are rampant, but gays have no monopoly on them. In any event, no one has every proposed a constitutional amendment to ban abusive or dysfunctional relationships.

Our nation has tolerated homosexual relations between consenting adults for decades. The Republic has not fallen as a result. Indeed, we can think of nothing important that is one whit worse as a result of failure to enforce the sodomy laws still on the books. Recently the Supreme Court ruled that the states cannot ban homosexual relationships among consenting adults. So homosexuality is not only tolerated; it is now perfectly lawful and legitimate throughout our nation. Isn’t that what our “Live and let live” credo demands?

Now loving gay partners want our legal system to recognize their commitment and devotion to each other. We've yet to hear any practical argument against doing so that makes any sense. Aren’t stable, loving, productive relationships something that society should encourage? Don’t they lead to healthier, happier, more productive people? Won’t encouraging them reduce unhappiness, suicide, despair and crime?

There is a pre-existing legal framework for such stable relationships—called “marriage.” It makes sense to adapt that framework to new circumstances, rather than to “re-invent the wheel” with new laws and regulations, let alone individual contracts and powers of attorney for each and every couple. Who but lawyers would benefit from re-inventing the wheel with “civil unions” designed to look like marriage without using the word? A cynic, observing the anti-gay-marriage movement from a practical economic perspective, might be forgiven for concluding that it’s a conspiracy among lawyers to ensure their full employment for generations to come.

Insofar as children are concerned, one thing is indisputable: homosexual couples do not generally bear children. (We can leave aside the minuscule fraction that uses risky and expensive artificial insemination or surrogate motherhood to do so.) Rather, they absorb unwanted children from our society, giving homes to children that otherwise might not have them.

Imagine yourself an unwanted child with no family. For several years, you have been a ward of state, shuttled from one foster home to another and often abused. You now have a choice. You can continue your miserable life as it is. You can be adopted by a single parent. Or you can be adopted by a stable, loving couple who happen to be homosexual. Isn't the rational choice in this circumstance the last one, if only because you would have two people to support, feed, nurture and love you and to care for you and each other if one became sick? Maybe heterosexual parents might be better still (my wife and I think that depends on who the couple is.) Even if so, that choice is practically unavailable to many unwanted children. Foreclosing the next best choice does not seem at all child-friendly.

Anyway, how do we “protect” marriage by denying that institution to people who want it so desperately? A despised minority is willing to risk the pangs of bigotry and prejudice, making their most intimate relations a matter of public discourse—all just to enjoy a wonderful institution that the rest of us take for granted. Doesn’t their poignant struggle make the institution of marriage seem more precious, not less? To us, gays fighting for the right to marry are brave soldiers on the frontiers of justice and liberty.

In the end, those who seek to suppress gay marriage do not even pretend to offer practical economic or social arguments. Instead, they use code words that make no sense. Homosexuals marrying “threatens” our own marriage far less than do any of the millions of abusive and dysfunctional heterosexual marriages in our land. Bad marriages put a much greater burden on society, and therefore on our taxes, than any stable homosexual relationship; yet no one has proposed outlawing them.

Similarly, resort to “tradition” is patent nonsense. If tradition were our most important value, blacks would still be slaves, women would not have the vote, youth would be subject to universal conscription, and we would make our living by hunting mastodons with spears. Rational arguments against advances in human society demand more than just the assertion “we haven’t done that before.” In any event, humans have done that before: legal and customary relationships among homosexual lovers serving in the military of certain ancient Greek city-states had many of the attributes of marriage today.

If there are valid rational, practical, economic or social arguments against gay marriage, we have not heard them. The objections to homosexual marriage appear to boil down to a matter of personal distaste, usually based on unexamined religious teachings or beliefs. People voted in overwhelming numbers against gay marriage, it seems, because they just don’t like the idea.

The notion that some people can stop others from doing something just because they don’t like it is hardly a “traditional” part of American moral values. The Pilgrims came to North America precisely to escape that sort of regime. So did virtually every other group that came to us seeking refuge from foreign bigotry and intolerance. For four centuries, the world has regarded America with justifiable awe because of our steadfast commitment to our most basic value: “Live and let live.” Through real and rationally identifiable consequences, that simple credo has made us the strongest, richest, noblest and most envied society in human history.

Thomas Jefferson once swore “eternal enmity to every form of tyranny over the mind of Man.” What an eloquent way of saying “Live and let live!” Yet for all his eloquence, Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Schoolchildren and scholars will forever ponder that awful contradiction.

This November, eleven states deprived a despised minority of the right to marry and so to improve their lives and, indirectly, our society. They did so despite the absence of any rational, objective evidence that gay marriage would hurt anyone. They thus violated our society’s most basic credo—“Live and let live.” If our Republic survives, schoolchildren and scholars a century hence will compare the awful contradiction inherent in this November’s election with that of Jefferson’s slave keeping. Let us all pray for the wisdom and restraint to avoid doing any more damage to our nation’s most precious moral value.

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04 November 2004

Why Bush Won

As the fact and the magnitude of John Kerry’s defeat slowly sink in, we Democrats are looking for scapegoats. It was those religious zealots, we say to ourselves. They appeared in droves to gut gays and abolish abortion—issues that hardly matter in the broad sweep of history. On the issues that really matter, we say to ourselves, they ignored the President’s abysmal performance in office. They did so, we think, because Karl Rove used brilliantly misleading advertising to sell them a defective product.

This conventional wisdom has a germ of truth. There are reports that the Amish and other isolated religious sects in Ohio and Pennsylvania came out in force to vote for Bush, largely for religious or “cultural” reasons. Even more interesting, these same religious sects traditionally have not voted much at all. Somehow, Bush beat Kerry decisively in the “ground war,” turning out over 8 million new voters to Kerry’s 5 million. These sects, passively hiding in the interstices of American politics for generations, may have been the Bush campaign’s secret weapon.

Yet as many pollsters and pundits refute this analysis as support it. The poll reporting one-fifth of the electorate as focused primarily on “moral issues,” they say, is misleading because the term is so broad. Many cooler heads reason simply that more people came out to vote this time because the election was more important than usual, and that people voted for the candidate they thought was the best. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one.

We Democrats lost despite more spending money than we have ever seen and waging a more effective and professional grass-roots effort than we have ever mounted. Our opponent had made more serious mistakes of policy and judgment than any leader in recent memory. If we want to know why we lost, we had better look in the mirror.

That’s hard to do after so exhausting and disappointing a loss. But if we do so honestly, we will see something extraordinary. Somehow, imperceptibly and unnoticed by most of us, the party of Franklin Roosevelt has become the reactionary party. We have done little since 2000 but react to the Republicans’ proposals and the heartbreaking results of that year’s election.

The President’s father, Bush I, might tell us why. It’s that “vision thing.” On virtually every important issue of the day, the President has not only a grand vision for the future, but a plausible means to realize it. Worried about terrorism short term? We’ll bring the fight to the terrorists overseas so we don’t have to fight them at home. We’ll protect our homeland by keeping the terrorists off balance and disrupting their operations abroad. Worried about terrorism long term? We’ll reform the Islamic world, starting with Iraq, by bringing it liberty and democracy. Free people don’t usually make war on their neighbors or blow themselves up just to kill others.

The domestic Bush prescriptions are no less visionary. Worried about the growth of government and the budget deficits? We’ll reduce entitlements, allowing organized religion to take up the slack with voluntary contributions made lovingly for God. Worried about energy and our nation’s dependence on foreign oil? We’ve got enough coal for 200 years right here in America; all we need to do is burn it, relaxing environmental controls to make the burning easier. Worried about the economy? We’ll cut taxes more to stimulate business and investment. Worried about the sorry state of our schools? Impose higher standards and make students and teachers live up to them. As every educator knows, if you raise the bar students will jump it. Worried about social security going bankrupt before you retire? Convert part of it into private accounts that can earn higher rates of return in the stock market.

And so it goes. Leave aside for a moment the parts of this vision that are impracticable or utopian. Since when have we Americans shirked, as Bush put it so laughably during the debates, “hard work”? Leave aside the unintended consequences, like the 100,000 dead Iraqis, the gargantuan deficits, and the toxins that all that burning coal will spew into the air we breathe. Leave aside the Bush Administration’s grossly incompetent execution, especially of the war in Iraq. Leave aside the President’s limited command of English and his administration’s many catastrophic mistakes. What you are left with is unquestionably a grand vision addressing virtually every problem we face, both short term and long term.

In some respects the vision is brilliant. Most Americans can accept, if not enthusiastically endorse, its basic goals—at least if they could be realized with acceptable cost and minimal collateral damage. Who would not like to see democracy in the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world? Who is sad that Saddam is gone? Who would rather fight the terrorists in our streets than abroad? Who would not like to decrease the burden of entitlements on our budget, if only it could be done without abandoning our communal obligations? Who would not like to hold all of our children to higher standards? Who does not wish for a deus ex machina, whether private accounts or something else, to save us from our own collectively bungled retirement budgeting? Who does not wish that we could continue to cut taxes forever until we all could keep all of our “own money”?

Yet a pleasant but implausible dream is not all. There are means proposed to meet every goal, and the means are at least plausible. Want democracy in Iraq? Depose the grisly tyrant Saddam, and democracy will follow as the night the day. Want to contain the terrorists abroad? Keep them bottled up in Tora Bora, lure them to Iraq and (as Colin Powell said so eloquently in the First Gulf War), cut them off and kill them. Want to save social security? Divert money into private accounts and watch it grow at the rate of the best private mutual funds in a bull market.

Sure, there are objections galore. Any one with half a brain can cite multiple reasons why each stated means can’t work, won’t work, or will have disastrous unintended consequences. But to most voters, these objections are detail, fodder for the pundits. For many, it is enough that the goals are good—and they are!—and the means plausible. Citing a hundred reasons why an ambitious plan with laudable goals won’t work is not the best way to persuade. Americans are not naysayers.

Now compare the Bush vision with what John Kerry offered. On Iraq, he proposed a “smarter and better war.” Excuse me for contradicting my chosen candidate, but that’s tactics and means, not a vision. The Kerry goal was the same as Bush’s: we must win. On terrorists, again both parties had the same goal: we will find them, capture them, and kill them. On social security, the Kerry theme was bit different: read my lips—I will never touch social security. In other words, we have a huge problem looming, and I won’t do a thing about it. Bush was probably smart to duck this one.

Again and again the Kerry message was clear: we don’t have a unique vision, but we offer smarter, better tactics and better English to explain them. On many issues of importance to voters—terrorism, the war in Iraq, even No Child Left Behind—the goals of the Kerry campaign differed imperceptibly, if at all, from those of the Bush Administration. The argument was all about means.

And what about jobs? Was there any grand vision to restore manufacturing in our country and assuage worker’s anxiety? We offered none, just closing tax loopholes. Does anyone seriously believe that closing a few tax loopholes is going to hold back the tectonic forces of globalization that have been operating unseen for decades and now are just beginning to cause earthquakes at home?

On only two issues did something approaching a unique Democratic vision emerge. The first was energy independence in ten years. The Bush campaign co-opted this goal so quickly and cleverly that, if you hadn’t been paying attention, you might have thought they invented it. The second was universal health care. Only there did the Kerry campaign have a clear distinction and a clear advantage. The Bush forces reduced that advantage by arguing, again not implausibly, that Kerry’s vision would increase costs and government bureaucracy. The important point, however, is that this issue—health care—was the only one in the entire campaign in which Democrats had greater vision and forced the Bush campaign to fight on the ground of means, tactics and detail.

In the field of global cooperation, Kerry had a chance to articulate a broad vision, but his efforts were too feeble and too late. He focused far too much on tactics, like getting our allies to contribute to the Iraq war effort. Did anyone really expect to see French, Russian or German contractors in Iraq anytime soon, let alone troops, when workers there are beheaded daily and dedicated, hardened, and courageous NGOs are heading for the hills? Kerry had a chance do more than just mention the Kyoto treaty, the international criminal court, and several other instances of American pigheadedness. He might have sketched a grand vision of worldwide cooperation, not just on terror, but on energy, innovation, education, and the environment, but apparently he lacked the vision to do so.

* * *

We Democrats now have had two candidates—Dukakis and Kerry—whose failure proves beyond a doubt that tactics and competence don’t trump vision. That rule holds even if implementation of the vision is as highly and obviously flawed as it was in Bush’s case. There were good reasons for us Democrats to pick Kerry in this race at this time: his stature, his experience, his gravitas, and his unique combination of personal courage, service, sacrifice and protest during the Vietnam war. But his Achilles heel was always a lack of vision.

As a party, we have to do better on the “vision thing” if we ever hope to recapture executive or legislative power again. The Republicans have some powerful and compelling visions on their side. They speak of worldwide liberty wrought with American power. They dream of robust private markets innovating and creating jobs and wealth while fostering self-reliance and personal responsibility. And they hope for a resurgence of morality and ethics powered by a muscular religious faith. We Democrats cannot beat these powerful visions simply by saying “Me, too, but better!” (as on terrorism and Iraq), by shouting “No, no, no!” (as on “privatizing” social security or school vouchers) or by ignoring the vision and the country’s yearning entirely (as on religion).

Despite the President’s poor command of English and apparently limited intelligence, the Republicans were the party of ideas in this election, as they were in 2000. Isn’t it time we Democrats had some new ideas of our own?

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