Thursday, January 19, 2006

Why I'm OK with same-sex marriage

The proponents of same-sex and traditional marriages are needlessly in opposition to each other. Both sides have forgotten the purpose of marriage and the government has become a rudderless accomplice in states' battles for same-sex marriage and similarly wrongheaded defense-of-marriage amendments in both state and federal constitutions. If both sides understood what a compelling government interest is and marriage's benefit to society all parties could agree on how best to put their money where their mouths are (or should be) -- tax policy.

The more enlightened we become the dumber we seem to get -- and not in the good the-more-we-know-the-more-we-know-we-don't-know way. I'm talking good old fashioned dumb epitomized by, "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." How can an institution like marriage, sanctioned by religions and governments around the world for thousands of years suddenly be misunderstood? This kind of infectious dumbing presents symptoms in only the most enlightened individuals. The most recent outbreak occurred in Massachusetts' Supreme Court when the court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, saying the state could not withhold from same-sex couples the rights and privileges of marriage.

I guess it depends on what the meaning of 'marriage' is.

"Old” marriage is a man and woman living together and raising children. Raising children requires parents make sacrifices to feed, clothe, instruct, discipline, and socialize their children to become productive citizens. Parental responsibilities interfere with careers, incomes, education, socializing, recreation, and limit parents' involvement in other extracurricular activities as commitment to their children's activities take precedence over their own. Children become adults, soldiers, enter the labor pool to replace and support retiring, older workers, and pay taxes. In exchange for raising children to adults government recognizes marriages as unique social contracts between a man, a woman, and society that benefits everyone. On behalf of society government taxed families at lower rates, provided deductions for dependents, schools, and supported parents' rights to make decisions on behalf of their minor children. Without children civilizations can't outlive their citizens. A society's health and stability benefits all its members. In essence, children are the raw material society willingly trades benefits and privileges for to guarantee its survival -- making it a compelling government interest.

“New” marriage is consenting adults wanting the advantages of “old” marriage without the attendant benefits to society. Without children a marriage is only adults cohabiting to optimize living expenses.

Tax policy is one instrument government uses to influence its citizens' behavior. The antique definition of marriage and the tax policies that favored it have become increasingly dysfunctional as the nation's demographics changed and the understanding of marriage's purpose atrophied. The imbalance between the two and confusion between the practical and legal applications of marriage has created a rift between those petitioning to legalize “new” marriage and those wishing to protect “old” marriage. For all these reasons the policies crafted to benefit families, and tax policies in particular, have become a tools so blunt the damage caused is indistinguishable from what they seek to construct.

Government used to understand the value of “old” marriage but weakening parental rights legislation and tax policy neglect demonstrates progressive retarding over the last 50 years. In 1948 the federal tax burden on a family of 4 was 2%. By 1960 it has risen to 12% and 24% by 1990. 1997 estimates of all federal, state, local, social security and medicare taxes approached 40%. At this rate we more resemble alligators eating their young than any great society.

Remedies are readily available. Government can get out of the marriage business and focus instead on families. This keeps tradition with the first amendment's non-establishment clause, allows consenting adults to enter into binding contracts, and frees legislatures to shape tax code into an instrument resembling a pen more than a paint brush.

Legislators could start by codifying the definition of dependents to include dependent relatives and contractually-dependent others within a single household. They could then increase the per-dependent deduction to a meaningful amount closer to 2005's Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines ($9575 for single persons in 2005) than the IRS' $3200-per-dependent exemption. They should then take whatever that amount is and index it to inflation so it needn't require an act of congress to keep pace with the economy. Using $9000/dependent a household of four would require a combined income exceeding $36,000 before the lowest tax rates take affect.

Not only might taxes be simplified, but families may more easily afford to have an adult stay at home and care for their children and other dependents and not rely on schools to feed and baby-sit their children before, during, and after school. When tax policy is aligned to accrue benefits to society instead of the self esteem of “marriage” it doesn't matter which definition you use.

Whether it's old or whether it's new
In the beginning you were a child too.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Book Review: What Went Wrong?

This is the second year I gave Thomas Sowell's recommended Christmas book list to my wife for ideas, and this is another year I wasn't disappointed and her shopping was abbreviated (for me at least). Of the many books he recommends, Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? is the first (and shortest) I've completed.

In What Went Wrong?, Mr. Lewis outlines Muslim history starting with the creation of Islam and follows its rise to the pinnacle of civilizations and religious tolerance to its current state where its arts, sciences, human rights, politics, and education are at historical lows when measured against nearly any other present-day non-Arab culture. This hundreds-year-long trend began long before the United States ever existed. Some of the most interesting (and perhaps incriminating) evidence of Arab civilization's attitude towards the rest of the world includes its complete disinterest in reports of Columbus' new world, time (clocks, watches, etc.), or even electricity.

Of the many interesting facts and stories in this book is Mr. Lewis' discussion on the problems many cultures and languages have with the word secular, and how the concept of religion being separate from politics is an invention of Christianity. Even if by necessity, no religion before Christianity imagined politics and religion could or should be separate. The US Constitution's non-establishment clause may owe much to Jesus' ".. give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's."

If you're in a rush, reading the forward, conclusion, and afterword will give you the gist, while still leaving your appetite whetted for the meat between.

This accounting of Muslim's past and present serves as a warning for us all. First is how a civilization's arrogance begins its downfall. Whether that civilization is secular or religious its dismissal of other culture's progress in politics, arts, or science leads to its stagnation and that stagnation leads to is isolation and makes it vulnerable to both military and cultural invasions. Both have plagued Arab states for the past few hundred years.

Once a culture has fallen behind instead of planning to catch up or seriously ask what went wrong or how to fix it, it asks, "who is to blame?" With few exceptions blame is placed externally. Rather than confess responsibility for the problem or the solution and proceed to a remedy leaders of trailing cultures fault outsiders and not their own beliefs, traditions, or attitudes. Paranoia becomes the national psychosis and loathing its foreign policy.

This is not an argument for multiculturism. It is an invitation to consider the value of the cultures, groups, churches, and parties we belong to or identify with, weigh the benefits each provides us, the opportunities we've taken, the values they promote, and whether we're better off as members or if it's time for our own reformation.