Thursday, July 12, 2018

How Environmentalists Are Grasping at Straws With a Plastic Straw Ban

Early last week, Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to ban plastic straws in food-service establishments, as well as plastic utensils and plastic cups. These establishments are now responsible for finding alternatives to plastic straws. Non-compliance could end up costing $250 in fines. This policy is meant to address the increasing amount of marine plastic pollution that has ended up in the ocean. Plastic is a particular issue because it is not biodegradable, i.e., it does not break into compounds that can be easily reused. Globally, 275 metric tons of plastic waste is generated every year, 4 to 12 million metric tons of which goes into the ocean (Jambeck et al., 2015). The goal of a plastic straw ban is to minimize the impact that our consumption has on our oceans. Because of these environmental concerns, the European Union, Vancouver, the United Kingdom, California, and New York City are all considering plastic straw bans.

Let's partake in a thought exercise here for a moment. Let's assume that we could get all 50 states in the U.S. to ban plastic straws right now. What would be the impact? Would it tackle the issue of marine plastic pollution like plastic straw ban proponents would like? I actually have a few reasons to be skeptical of success:

Straws as a percent of overall marine plastic pollution: First, it would be prudent to ask how many straws are in our oceans right now. Estimates put it at 4 percent of the plastic trash in oceans in terms of number of pieces. However, we have to remember that plastic straws are very light. In terms of tonnage, plastic straws make up 2,000 out of 9,000,000 tons, or 0.2 percent. Bloomberg had a similar estimation of 0.3 percent of all ocean plastic. That means if we were to stop producing plastic straws and were able to remove all plastic straws from the ocean, it would have such a minimal effect on the issue at hand. The effect of plastic straws in the ocean is metaphorically a drop in the ocean when comparing it to the total tonnage of plastic that makes it out into the oceans. So what is a major contributor to marine plastic pollution? According to one recent study, 46 percent of plastic waste in the ocean is from a single product: fishing nets (Lebreton et al., 2018).

The United States' contribution to marine plastic pollution: This goes back to the question of "how much does the United States [or the developed world] contributes to marine plastic pollution." The answer? The United States is responsible for 0.9 percent of marine plastic pollution (Jambeck et al., 2015), even though it accounts for about 5 percent of the global population. Assuming that the 0.9 percent proportionality carries over to the 0.3 of marine plastic pollution that is plastic straws, that would mean that U.S. straws are only responsible for 0.27 percent of marine plastic pollution. Even if the United States were responsible for all marine plastic pollution related to plastic straws (which it is not), then that would still only account for 0.3 percent of all marine plastic pollution. If the United Staes is not responsible for marine plastic pollution, who is? China is the largest culprit, at 28 percent (Jambeck et al., 2015). China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka account for nearly 60 percent of marine plastic pollution.


Will a plastic straw ban encourage better consumption habits?: Environmentalists are counting on there being a positive spillover effect to motivate people to reconsider their plastics consumption. I question the spillover effect on two fronts.

Past Plastic Bans
The first is that plastic straws are not the first plastic item that has been taxed or banned to incentivize better consumption patterns. The government creating interventionist policies for plastic bags have existed since 1994. California was the first U.S. state to do so in 2007. There have also been taxes and bans on plastic microbeads since 2014 (Xanthos and Walter, 2017). I don't automatically dismiss the possibility that a plastic straw ban could help shift consumption patterns. At the same time, the question that needs to be asked is "What would make a plastic straw ban different from past plastic product bans?"

Feel-Good Public Policy
Milton Friedman was famous for saying that "One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs on their intentions rather than their results." That quote decidedly applies here. The question is whether people can feel good enough about it to change their habits, but not so good where it creates a euphoria from slacktivism. As already established, removing all plastic straws from the ocean and desisting from plastic straw usage does not solve the problem of marine plastic pollution by a long shot. This is not the only time this feel-good policy would come into fruition. People who by fair trade goods think they are helping out "the little guy" in developing countries. However, an understanding of the value chain would show that it is helping out the big guy, not to mention that it does not help end the cycle of poverty in these countries. There are those who feel better when they "buy local." If you prefer it, fine, but if you think you're saving the world, you're not. There are those who eat organic only either because it's healthier or because it's saving the environment. The problem with that is neither one of those reasons can withstand scrutiny. The last thing we need is more "societally acceptable," sanctioned actions that emphasize the effort over the results.

Drawbacks of a plastic straw ban: A ban is not going to save the oceans, but it will most probably do a bang-up job inconveniencing customers (particularly certain disabled customers) and creating additional issues for food-service establishments (e.g., increased shipping and storage costs, less durable products, decreased straw lifecycle, enforcement costs). I don't think a plastic straw ban nationwide would derail the restaurant business, but we do also have to consider the costs and determine whether they are outweighed by the benefits.

Conclusion: There is enough evidence that a plastic straw ban will be ineffective at stopping marine plastic pollution. The Left-leaning Vox points out that environmentalists admit that the ban is not so much about the straws as it is an initiative to point out the pervasiveness of single-use plastic in our lives, which is a tacit admission that the ban itself is ineffective. The Global Wildlife Conservation even acknowledges that forcing people to stop using straws is not effective because people generally do not like being told what to do. If a plastic straw ban is not the solution, then what is?

I agree we should have a conversation on how we, as a society, should consume less in general. Have those conversations with friends and family. Get volunteers to clean up the coastlines so less plastic enters the ocean. Nevertheless, more will need to be done. I am of the opinion the primary solution is in developing better technology, particularly that which captures land-based waste or that which can convert the plastic into reusable goods. I would argue that a Pigovian tax on plastic straws would be preferable to a ban (although not necessarily recommended). We could target fishing nets since it is the item that consists of nearly half of marine plastic pollution. In terms of geography, target the countries that are most responsible for marine plastic pollution. Making a big deal about the low-hanging fruit (i.e., the straws) distracts us from much larger pollutants. It also distracts us from policy alternatives that could actually reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the oceans and on the coastlines. There are ways to approach marine plastic pollution, but a plastic straw ban is not one.

Monday, July 9, 2018

What Is to Become of Roe v. Wade Post-Kennedy?

Within the past week or so, I have seen articles, analyses, and Facebook postings about Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement. Many view Justice Kennedy's place on the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) as a way to keep the balance between conservative and liberal elements on the Court. It is widely assumed that President Trump is going to nominate someone more conservative than Justice Kennedy. Political pundits have been pontificating on what Kennedy's retirement means for a number of hot-button issues. One issue caught my eye: Roe v. Wade, the SCOTUS case that established the precedent of a right to an abortion per the Fourteenth Amendment. Normally, I don't like performing such speculation. It's not because I am incapable of making an educated guess because that is well within my capacity. I typically do not like it because, not to be too tautological, speculation is speculative. Educated guesswork is still guesswork. Nevertheless, I have heard so much clamor lately on the issue that I thought I would weigh in with the available time I have.

Before I begin, I want to say this: today's blog entry is not about whether making abortion illegal would be "good public policy." It is also not a normative discussion of whether abortion is morally or personally acceptable. I'm not looking to hash out the abortion debate here. Today, I will cover something more narrow: what will be the likely fate of this hot-button issue now that Justice Kennedy is retiring?

Although I am posting this on Monday, July 9, I am writing this on Sunday, July 8. As of July 8, President Trump had the short list narrowed to three contenders: Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Raymond Kethledge. Looking at these contenders' records, it is likely that they will be at least as conservative, if not more so, than Justice Kennedy. Even without knowing which individual that President Trump will ultimately select, there is also the assumption that the nominee will make it past the Senate for confirmation.

General Considerations
I think there are three general reasons I am skeptical of downright reversal of Roe v. Wade. I call these "general reasons" because they can also be applied to the speculation of the fate of LGBT rights and affirmative action, as well as any other issues that could potentially be affected by Kennedy's retirement. One is that I am skeptical that the other four conservative-leaning Justices would reverse precedent that has been set. This leads into the second reason, which is that the Court has numerically had a majority of the Justices be Republican-appointed in SCOTUS for the better part of the past four-plus decades. There has been plenty of time to reverse Roe v. Wade, as well as other major Warren-era cases (e.g., Miranda, Brown) and SCOTUS has not done so. The third bit of skepticism is the assumption that the next Justice will be an activist justice with a conservative bent. Justices David Souter and Anthony Kennedy were supposed to be more conservative than they turned out to be. The past is not an indication of the future, I know, but the fact that such a precedence exists should give us at least some pause and not give into worst-case scenario thinking. That being said, let's take a look at the more issue-specific details.

Considerations Specific to Roe v. Wade
The main question being asked is whether Roe v. Wade will be overturned outright. Even assuming that SCOTUS were presented with a case that would challenge Roe v. Wade, it begs the question of what the scope of overturning Roe v. Wade would be. In the most overreaching outcome, SCOTUS could rule that the fetus is a human being with de jure constitutional rights, which would mean a de facto ban on abortion. Although possible, I do not think SCOTUS would hand out that sort of judicial fiat. Given that the Right tends to be about states rights, I would assume that the more likely outcome of overturning Roe v. Wade would be SCOTUS leaving it up to the individual states. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which is Planned Parenthood's research arm, four states have automatic bans in place in the event of Roe v. Wade being overturned; ten states have non-enforceable bans; and seven states have expressed interest in limiting abortion further upon being overturned. Since there is some overlap, the Guttmacher Institute has identified up to 17 states that could severely limit or eliminate abortion upon the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The Center for Reproductive Rights predicts that 23 states would be at "High Risk" if Roe v. Wade were overturned.

I don't rule out Roe v. Wade being overturned. At the same time, I do not consider it an inevitability because it is not the only plausible outcome. The Left-leaning Vox brought in a good analysis from ten legal experts on what is going to happen with abortion in the United States. After reading it, I think that it is more likely that Roe v. Wade will be chipped away at gradually and incrementally. As the Vox brings up in a different article, the pro-life movement has essentially taken that approach for a few years now. Since 2010, there have been 400 laws passed on the state level restricting abortion access to some capacity. Recent polling from the Kaiser Foundation also found that about two-thirds of Americans support Roe v. Wade (although on the other hand, Gallup polling from last month shows that only 28 percent of Americans support abortion in the second trimester or later). As such, I think the more probable outcome is that the pro-life movement will continue with its already-proven strategy of whittling away at Roe v. Wade instead of attacking it outright.

Postscript
I am not 100 percent certain of what the fate of Roe v. Wade will be: only time will tell. There are multiple ways that abortion laws in the United States could play out, but I think it is safe to say that Roe v. Wade is at higher risk than it has ever been. Regardless of where you sit on the abortion debate, keep your eye on what happens on the state level because that will have just as big, if not a bigger role in how abortion access in the United States plays out. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Janus v. AFSCME: The Policy Implications of Removing Mandatory Agency Fees

Last week was a crazy week for the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), the most notable being that of Justice Kennedy's retirement. However, there was another significant event at the Court: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The Janus case is important because it asked whether it is constitutional to require public employees to pay an "agency fee" to a union that they refuse to join.

In 2016, I wrote about compulsory union dues when SCOTUS was presented with the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Friedrichs case that was very similar to the Janus case, which is why many of the arguments I used two years ago will be used here today. Getting back on track, Justice Scalia had just passed away in early 2016. Because there were only eight Justices, there was an equally-divided Court that favored the lower court's ruling, and ruled that the Friedrichs case did not set precedent. This is why Janus is important: because it ruled that an agency fee for public-sector employees is a violation of the First Amendment. The Janus case is a rare example of SCOTUS setting aside stare decisis and overturning precedent being set, in this case, that of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977).




I do have some more philosophical qualms with allowing agency fees, and not just with that of freedom of association and forcing people to join something as hyper-politicized as a union (e.g., only 41 percent of teachers are Democrats, although 94 percent of teacher union campaign contributions go to Democrats). The problem with the Abood case is that it drew this arbitrary line between the public-sector unions' collective bargaining and political action. For public sector unions, collective bargaining is inherently a political activity because increased wages and benefits have a direct impact on public policy. I also have an issue with the idea of compulsory agency fees. If a union does a good job representing its members, why the need for compulsory membership? Wouldn't potential members simply see the value of union membership and join?

I would like to keep the focus of this analysis on the public policy implications of the Janus ruling. Some are already calling the Janus case a death blow to the labor movement. Nat Malkus, the Deputy Director of Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, released a data analysis (also see here) on what happened when three states (Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) removed agency fees, and what it meant for unionism. There is no doubt that the removal of agency fees will curtail the influence of unions, especially that of teachers unions. The union-backed Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) estimates that there will be a nationwide decline in union membership of eight percent with SCOTUS ruling in favor of Janus (Manzo and Bruno, 2018).

The ILEPI study also predicted an annual decline in economic activity of $11.7B to $33.4B. I have my skepticism about such a finding, least of which I have found right-to-work laws a preferable option to compulsory unionism (read the Freedom Foundation amicus brief and research from the Heritage Foundation for more information). The truth is that unions have a monopoly power, a power to raise wages and benefits above fair market value. As a result of the law of demand, less people can be hired by the given employer. The tradeoff of higher wages for union employees is more inefficient allocation of resources (Anzia and Moe, 2013), as well as less profit and fewer jobs (Holcombe and Gwartney, 2010). The libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute also found that collective bargaining has created a deadweight loss of 10 to 12 percentage points in the GDP over the past century (Gallaway and Robe, 2014).

Collective bargaining for teachers has also shown to have a negative effect on students. A paper from Cornell University found that collective bargaining not only reduced students' earnings by an average of $800 a year, which amounts to reduced earnings of $199.6 billion annually (Lovenheim and Willen, 2018). There is also evidence suggesting that state teacher union strength has a negative impact on student test scores (Lott and Kenny, 2013; Moe, 2008).

Another issue is the nature of public-sector unions is different from that of private-sector unions. In a private-sector union, there are a limited amount of funds that a business can use to improve wages and benefits for private-sector workers. Contrast that to the public sector, which is not a problem because the union is sitting on both sides of the table (i.e., the union and the politicians they have [in probability] gotten into office). A public-sector union is incentivized to advocate for increased taxes, which is why President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized how public-sector unions pit taxpayers against public-sector employees, at least in part because unions are not bargaining with the taxpayers.

The public-sector union relationship has created increasingly lavish wages and benefits, which has contributed to another problem: unfunded pension liabilities. The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report this past April on the state pension funding gap. It found that there are only four states that have at least 90 percent of the assets to fund promised benefits: New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The fifty states cumulatively have a funding gap of $1.4 trillion as of 2016. The collective bargaining for higher-than-competitive-market wages and benefits has greatly contributed to this looming problem that will end up being the single greatest state-level budgetary issue for the vast majority of states (e.g., Novy-Marx and Rauh, 2012).

Where do we, the people, go from here? One potential workaround is to have the money come directly from the state or local Treasury. However, that might not be politically feasible because of the optics of more collusion between unions and government. If not, then there very well could be thousands who leave the public-sector unions. Less money means less capability, which very well mean teachers unions have to reach across the aisle to get things done. The major implication of Janus is that public-sector unions will have to prioritize its operations. If it wants to retain or increase membership, it will mean having to provide a value proposition instead of coercing agency fees. The paradox here is within 2018 survey findings from the Educators for Excellence. Most teachers find unions to be important, but most teachers also find that unions do not adequately represent members.

Let's also remember that exclusive representation is not inherent in unionism, but rather a result of state laws mandating it. Unions in Europe rely less on exclusive bargaining representation and more on collective social representation, which seems to work better (as well as diminish the free-rider argument of Abood). Regardless of exact approach, one thing is crystal clear: if public-sector unions want to survive post-Janus, they will need to learn how to adapt to the twenty-first century.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

A Look at Shutting Down Unneeded United States' Overseas Military Bases

When you think of a U.S. military presence, you might think of Afghanistan, Iraq, or the 38th parallel between North and South Korea. However, its presence is much more prevalent, especially when it comes to military bases. Estimates put the number of U.S. overseas military bases at over 800 bases in more than 70 countries (see database data here). The reason that proponents postulate that the United States needs that many bases is because of national security. Purported benefits include improved operational response, deterrence, assurance to allies, and improved understanding of cultural differences that would help in military operations. While the bases represent the United States' military prowess, they come with some drawbacks (see Glaser, 2017), which I will briefly cover now.

Source: Politico

One major drawback is the cost. According to a 2013 Rand Corporation report, the cost of a service member stationed abroad is an extra $10,000-40,000, compared to a troop stationed abroad. A conservative estimate of annual costs is $85 billion (2014), although I saw costs above $200 billion per annum. Another drawback is that technology has made overseas military bases less effective. Yes, there are scenarios in which in-person presence is helpful. However, since we have improved to the point where it is just as effective to deploy from domestic bases now that we have more advanced air and naval travel. There is also a question of whether human rights violations increase. One study examines the effects of U.S. military bases on human rights (Bell et al., 2016). The study suggests that because the host state leaders are less reliant on more local government, it leads to more human rights abuses.

Realistically, I do not see the United States government shutting down every last military installation abroad. Plus, being the most powerful country with the largest economy, there is plausibility to the idea that certain antagonistic forces, whether nation-states or stateless actors, wouldn't mind seeing the United States knocked down a peg. Nevertheless, there should be greater scrutiny in terms of which bases are vital to stopping a clear and present danger to the United States, as opposed to a theoretical or imaginary one. In 2016, the Pentagon found that 22 percent of military infrastructure is unneeded, which implies that such bases exist. The good news is that we have been shutting down unnecessary bases since 2003. The other good news is that we have seen a decline of war and violence since WWII, which renders the bases less necessary over time. The bad news is that they are still costing millions of taxpayer dollars every year. I know they didn't particularly scale back military spending, but maybe next year, Congress can focus on allocating funds to the military that are necessary instead of creating more government waste.


Monday, June 25, 2018

President Macron Is Correct: France's Welfare Spending Is Out of Control

As a break from U.S. politics, I would like to look at the other side of the Atlantic and see what is going on in France. A couple of weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron made a controversial statement by referring to France's welfare spending as "pognon dingue" (literally translated as "crazy money," but can be translated "an insane amount [of money]"). His statement that France's welfare spending is out of control has caused much rancor in French politics. Let's examine some statistics.

Looking at government expenditures more generally, statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) show that France ranks the second highest in terms of percent of GDP. The only country that outranks France is Finland. Nevertheless, we have to remember that Macron's comments were specific to welfare spending.


Looking at social expenditure statistics from the OECD, France has 31.5 percent of its GDP going to welfare spending as of 2016. This is the highest percent of GDP out of all of the OECD countries. When looking back to 1980, which is when OECD started tracking these figures, France was only at 20.1 percent. This means between that France's welfare spending increased by more than 50 percent since 1980! The French government just released a report last Thursday on social spending in France. Included in the report was the tidbit that in 1959, social spending was less than 15 percent of GDP. Now it is at 31.5 percent, which is more than double what it was about a half-century ago.

Source: Direction de la recherche, des études, de l'évaluation, et des statistiques (DREES)

From a historical perspective, we see that France has had increasing problems with its social spending. What about looking forward? In May 2018, Moody's changed its outlook on France's credit rating from stable to positive because the Macron administration vowed to cut government expenditures. Moody's also stated in May 2018 that its high levels of government spending was weighing on its overall competitiveness. Moody's is not the only one to view France's spending habits disparagingly. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) identifies France's social spending as a major driver of its high budget deficits and its forced tax increases (IMF, Article IV, 2017, p. 6). The IMF goes as far to say that government spending is at the heart of France's fiscal problems (ibid., p. 9)!

Source: IMF, p. 13

I would hardly classify the IMF as capitalist or Right-leaning, and even the IMF concludes that "it will be critical to design and lock in deep spending reforms at all levels of government (ibid., p. 14)." This is the IMF, a well-respected institution within the policy world, making us aware of just how bad France's welfare spending is, and how it needs to be curtailed.  The narrative about Macron's comments did not incite a conversation from much of French media on how to decrease increasingly unsustainable debt; the coverage was largely about how offensive Macron's comments were. What should scare us about this response even more is that Macron did not propose what he would like to reform or cut. All he did was accurately state that the spending is out of control. Addressing a simple fact has the French world, particularly the French Left, in a frenzy. If much of the French world is oblivious to this basic of realities, I would hate to see what is in store for France's fiscal future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Family Separation: Another Unfortunate Piece of Trump's Fear-Mongering Immigration Policy

In April 2018, President Trump added a new aspect to his immigration policy: family separation. The Trump administration's practice of family separation starts with apprehending anyone who is crossing the U.S.-Mexican border illegally, and that includes those seeking asylum. This "zero tolerance" policy reaches the point of separating children from the parents, guardians, or other adult figures who accompanied the child crossing the border, hence the family separation. Between April 19 and May 31, the Border Patrol apprehended 2,000 children.

The Trump Administration is claiming that family separation is a continuation of Obama-era policy. This is false. Neither Bush Jr. nor Obama had policy with the effect of widespread family separation like Trump. Yes, the Obama administration detained families of undocumented individuals, but at least the families were kept together. There is not a Federal law stipulating or mandating that children be separated at the border. Family separation is a new policy under the Trump administration. 

It doesn't surprise me that this is so heavily protested. Children are being kept in cages, and some parents are being deported without their children. It is interesting how the cliché "think of the children" has been used on the Right against same-sex adoption or transgender individuals entering the bathroom that best fits their gender expression, although neither claim has a basis in reality.

Study after study shows that separating children from their primary care-giver causes major adverse effects on their mental and physical well-being, including developmental delays, trouble sleeping and eating, and anxiety. This is all the more so the case when separating children from their parents at the border, much like we see now (MacKenzie et al., 2017). It's no wonder that American College of Physicians, American Psychiatric Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics are all against separating children from their parents at the border. This letter from the Physicians for Human Rights also cites literature on the effects. Former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Sandweg warns that this policy could create thousands of orphans. These findings and outcry from pertinent professionals on the effects this has on children only serves to support the moral outcry (see my Jewish religious argument on how to treat immigrants here).

The increase in these border crossings is caused by high murder rates and gang violence in Central America (see Clemens, 2017). These families crossing the border and risking harm, deportation, or death are doing so because they are fleeing from something horrible, something those of us in more developed countries could not begin to imagine.



What worries me is that Trump's stance on family separation is a continuation of his anti-immigrant policy (see tweet above). Trump lambasted the MS-13 for acting like animals. Yes, such gang activity is morally reprehensible. But it's also morally problematic to refer to human beings fleeing from inhumane conditions as "infesting our country," as if they are akin to a rodent or cockroach problem. Here are some fun facts about undocumented immigrants to better contextualize: they are less likely to commit crimes, they are not causing a fiscal drain, and they pay taxes. In this case, many of those crossing the border are asylum seekers. More to the point, the refugees and asylum seekers, such as the ones that Trump is attempting to deter with family separation, are such a non-threat that you are about 21,000 times more likely to get struck by lightning than get killed by a refugee! 

You could argue that the problem is with illegal immigration only. If you think that Trump's problems with immigration are limited to illegal immigration, you would be wrong. In his first term as President, Trump has already taken issue with multiple forms of legal immigration, whether it is chain migrationTemporary Protected StatusDACAlow-skilled immigrants, or H1-B visas

Even if you argue that they are breaking the law (91 percent were charged with misdemeanors, which further illustrates how disproportionate Trump's response is), it does not justify putting these people through such trauma. Family separation adds to the problems of an already-problematic immigration system in the United States. The red tape and wait for green cards and visas is so ridiculously long that telling asylum seekers to go through the system legally borders on farcical. Family separation adds to the problems of an already-problematic immigration system in the United States, a list of problems that Trump erroneously thinks could be solved with a border wall and more border patrol agents. Family separation is both a humanitarian calamity and another example of how Trump does not understand the cost that anti-immigration imposes. If any conservative truly cares about the children or family values, they will call on the Trump administration to stop with the family separation. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Gay Pride Month 2018: A Look at LGBT Rights in the United States

When the Founding Fathers founded this country, they envisioned that everyone have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Although it is a wonderful ideal, this country has had its share of imperfections putting it into practice. This country has been through a Civil War, Jim Crow laws, and a Civil Rights movement, and still, we are working on judging a person not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Women did not have the right to vote until 1920, and even afterwards, there was a fight for political and economic equality of the sexes. There is another group of people in this country that have been treated unfairly: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The Stonewall riots of 1969 started the modern-day gay rights movement, but it took a lot to get where we are today. It is in that spirit that I want to take a brief look at where the LGBT community has made strides and where there can still be improvement.

As a libertarian, it should be no secret that I am all for LGBT rights and further LGBT inclusion in society. An expansion of civil liberties and economic freedom, especially for a class of people that has been marginalized, is a wonderful thing. That is why the first metric I would like to look at is same-sex marriage. In 2015, Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right covered under the Fourteenth Amendment. Prior to this case, 36 states and DC already allowed for same-sex marriage. It was a slow fight from when Massachusetts allowed for same-sex marriage in 2004, but we live in a society where same-sex couples are legally the same way as opposite-sex couples. According to Gallup, two out of three Americans support same-sex marriage. Just two decades ago, more than two out of three Americans opposed same-sex marriage.


This increased support of LGBT rights is solidified not by government fiat, but by people coming out of the closet. Homosexuality transcends race, religion, gender, political affiliation, and socio-economic status. As LGBT people came out and told their story, there was a realization for more and more heterosexuals: that they know someone who is gay, whether it is their child, their sibling, their friend, their co-worker...you get the idea. Short of some crazy, ultra-right, theocratic force taking over the government, I only see support for LGBT rights becoming stronger, not weaker.

This victory is not just in straight allies supporting the LGBT community or the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. Obergefell v. Hodges also provided the momentum for same-sex adoption. By June 2017, same-sex adoption became legal in all 50 states, which is a good thing, least of all because same-sex couples can parent just as well as opposite-sex couples. The FDA changed its blood donation policy for gay men from a lifetime ban to a one-year deferral, which is an improvement. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed in 2011, which means gay and lesbian individuals can serve openly in the military.  82 percent of Fortune 500 companies have LGBT-inclusive policies, which is a significant improvement from the 3 percent in 2002.

These have been major policy victories that show society's increased acceptance of LGBT individuals, to be sure. However, as much as I can rejoice in the progress made for the LGBT community, there is still work to be done. Anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth population is LGBT, primarily due to family rejection. Only 13 states protect children from the awful practice known as conversion "therapy." A 2017 report from RTI International shows with 20 years worth of data that LGBT individuals are still more likely to be victims of violence, bullying, sexual assault, and hate crimes than their heterosexual counterparts. The RTI report goes as far as saying that bullying of LGBT has not improved since the 1990s, which is sad. In 2016, the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that 1 in 4 LGBT individuals experienced discrimination. CAP's findings also include LGBT individuals needing alter their lives, whether they have to mention their romantic relationship in vague terms, avoid certain social situations, make decisions about whether to work or live, change the way they dress and talk, move to a different area, and cut out important people from their lives. Furthermore, President Trump has not exactly been pro-LGBT like he promised on the campaign trail, which rightfully has the LGBT community worried, especially after all the progress that has been made.

Gay pride month has been as much about protest and activism as it has been about celebrating victories and celebrating one's true self. In spite of who sits in the White House, I still have optimism that LGBT rights and the direction of LGBT equality will grow over time.