Thursday, April 30, 2015

Can America Afford Obamacare's Cadillac Tax?

With Tax Day and Tax Freedom Day being over, one would think that the time for dealing with taxes is done. It isn't, at least in Congress. Apparently, there is a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare, that is so bad that the Democrats just introduced a bill to repeal it. What can be that bad? The Cadillac tax.

The Cadillac tax is an ACA-induced excise tax that is supposed to take into effect in 2018. The excise tax is a 40 percent tax targeted at employer-based health insurance premiums that exceed $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. By taxing high-cost health care plans, the goals of the Cadillac tax are to curtail health care spending growth while financing the recent expansion of health care coverage. Are those goals being met? of the advantages is that the Cadillac tax is supposed to add $85B to the federal revenue between 2016 and 2025, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). CBO budgetary projections tend to be rosy, so it's not surprising that just months earlier, the CBO estimated the generated tax revenue to be at $149B, which is a $67B difference. While $85B is a lot of cash for us mere mortals, this is but drops in the bucket for the federal government. First, $85B over 10 years is still $8.5B per annum. Second, and even more noteworthy, is that Obamacare is going to cost the American people $1,707B. Last time I checked, $85B < $1,707B, so people shouldn't even bother making the fiscal solvency argument here. Also, isn't it nice to be reminded that Obamacare is going to cost much more than the $900B Obama promised back in 2009? The threshold for the tax is only set to increase by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) + 1 percent, which is to say that the Cadillac tax will cover more plans over time because of the high health care inflation.

At least it's cutting health care costs? With a 40 percent tax, you think that would be enough of an incentive to cut back on health care consumption, right? It very well might. But to quote Thomas Fiery over at the Cato Institute:

"To be sure, the public worries about the rising cost of health care. But that doesn't mean that we should embrace any policy that lower that cost; otherwise, we would simply outlaw surgery and cancer treatments. Instead, what people want is to pay no more than they have to for the health care they want. Put more carefully, people want greater efficiency in health care (that is, more bang for their buck), not a cap or threshold tax on the care they receive."

A better question we should ask ourselves is if it even matters if the Cadillac tax raises tax revenue or curtails health care spending. And let's forget tax code complexities for a moment. If there is a 40 percent tax on what the government perceives to be ridiculously high premiums, then you better believe employers are going to react negatively. The tax is assessed on the overall value of health care benefits involved, which will hit both employee and employer contributions. As the Economic Policy Institute brings up, premiums are not just affected by the cost of a procedure, but also age of the workforce and size of the firm. Or to refer to the American Enterprise Institute, the tax's regressive nature is poorly targeting middle-class and poor individuals whose plans aren't necessarily exorbitant. The CBO predicted that the end-result will be higher deductibles and/or employers no longer contributing to health and flexible spending accounts. The American Health Policy Institute (AHPI) also found that in 2018 to 2024, 12.1 million employees would either experience an average of $1,050 increase in payroll taxes or a $6,150 decrease in health care benefits. As for the increased threshold I mentioned earlier, AHPI predicts that by 2031, it will cause the average family health care plan to hit that threshold.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget lauds the Cadillac tax because it's an indirect way of dealing with the issues of employer-based health insurance. If you want to deal with the problems of employer-based health insurance, how about trying to deal with it more directly? As I brought up a couple of weeks ago, employer-based health insurance is the worst tax break this country has to offer.  Enact health care vouchers, cap the tax exclusion (see hereherehere, and here), create need-adjusted tax credits (Miller, p. 16), create more neutrality by allowing out-of-pocket health care expenses and individual insurance to be tax deductible, or eliminate the tax exclusion all together and enact a paid-claims tax (Bipartisan Policy Center, p. 77-82). Instead of attempting to solve a problem by causing an arguably even bigger problem, how about getting at the root of the problem by taking the bull by the horns?

9-13-2015 Addendum: An interesting libertarian argument on why we should keep the Cadillac tax intact, at least until we can remove the employer-sponsored health insurance tax break.

10-6-2015 Addendum: Charles Blahous [at the Manhattan Institute] makes an interesting argument similar to the one in the previous addendum. Essentially, the optimal thing to do would be to remove both employer-sponsored health insurance and the Cadillac tax. However, as long as employer-sponsored health insurance is still intact, it's better to have the Cadillac tax than not having the Cadillac tax.

Monday, April 20, 2015

BP Oil Spill at 5: Reflecting on Costs and Benefits of Offshore Drilling

Today is the five-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, also known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. On April 20, 2010, BP's Deep Horizon oil rig exploded, thereby releasing more than 100 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over an 87-day period, and caused the death of 11 individuals. Although the Department of Interior has already enacted certain regulations, it is going to enact new regulations in regards to blowout preventers, which are an oil rig's last line of defense in preventing such oil spills, in light of the five-year anniversary. Interestingly enough, Obama is looking to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic. I'm not only surprised at the Obama administration's support for such expansion, but also that 56 percent of the country supports expanding offshore drilling. While it's unintentional, I think we're seeing the government trying to strike a balance between the economy and the environment.

No one likes to see animals covered in oil or entire ecosystems affected by Big Oil. Even with the infrequency of oil spills (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) or the fact that most oil that enters the ocean is due to natural seepage [and not oil spills], people don't like the fact that oil spills have such a negative environmental impact. I don't either because oil spills create negative externalities, which means that without some sort of intervention, oil companies bear hardly any of the cost while passing them along to third parties. One also has to consider the damage it does to coastal tourism revenue, businesses that depend on a healthy ecosystem in coastal areas, increased carbon emissions, regulatory costs, or how more offshore drilling could increase maritime disputes.

Just because their are costs to offshore drilling doesn't mean we should automatically dismiss offshore drilling. By applying that nirvana fallacy, we would have to reject any existing sources of energy because there are costs. It would be nice to switch over to renewable energy, but neither wind nor solar powder have the capacity, scale, or sufficiently low price to provide energy that oil or coal can.

As studies from organizations such as the Palmetto Policy Forum, the Fraser Institute, or Northern Economics show, economic benefits exceed costs, which is something we cannot ignore as we try to provide for the world's demand for energy consumption. Other studies, such as those from the Wilson Center or Resources for the Future, exercise more caution by saying "drill, but regulate more heavily."

Why am I not explicitly saying whether or not more drilling is a good idea on the whole? For one, it's still too soon to tell the full extent of the damage done by the BP oil spill. It took over a decade to figure out how much damage was done by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. The second reason, and even more important reason, is that there is no clear-cut, simple answer to the question. The answer is more case-by-case because one has to factor in the depth drilled, the ecosystem surrounding the oil rigs, the extent of regulation by the given governing body, the amount of oil spilled or seeped, and the amount of actual extractable oil.

Since privatizing oceans is difficult due to international maritime law, I don't see a feasible scenario in which government does not play a role in regulating oil companies to make sure we can avoid another BP oil spill. I also don't see a feasible scenario that doesn't involve oil being a major player in the world's energy portfolio. Whatever the outcome may be, I hope that it ends up being good both for the economy and the environment.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Can You Name America's Worst Tax Break?

A couple of days ago was Tax Day. While it can be emotionally taxing to think that 31 percent of the average American's paycheck goes to taxes or that Americans spend more on taxes than food, housing, and clothing combined, my mind wandered elsewhere this Tax Day: "Which tax break is the worst one that the American tax code has to offer?"

Before continuing with that question, to illustrate some nuance in the wonderful world of taxation, tax breaks come in three forms: tax deductions, tax exemptions, and tax credits. A tax credit is an amount that taxpayers are able to subtract from the amount they owe to the government. Tax exemptions and deductions are indirect because they reduce the base at which one can be taxed. Tax exemptions relate to your filing status and number of dependents, whereas tax deductions relate to expenses one has.

Now that we cleared that up, back to the question at hand. The Pew Research Center recently posted the largest tax breaks (see below) based off of a Joint Committee on Taxation staff report:

In terms of size, the major culprits are employer-paid healthcare, dividends and capital gains, deferral of active income of controlled foreign corporations, the mortgage interest deduction, and the earned income tax credit (EITC). These top five tax breaks are just shy of $500B for the 2015FY. The current GDP is about $17.4T, which would make these tax breaks 2.9 percent of the United States GDP.

We could make this easy and simply say that the biggest tax break is the worst because "size matters"  (Some could argue that the government is giving money away, but I don't view foregone revenue as actual revenue until it hits the government's coffers because I actually assume that the money people earn through labor starts off as their own, but I slightly digress). "Size matters" assumes that size is the only factor in the equation, which it is not. If one of the functions of a tax is to disincentivize behavior, then a tax break is the government's way of trying to incentivize behavior by giving breaks. Having a "break" might sound good, but we must ask ourselves what sort of behavior is being incentivized with such a break. There are good tax breaks and there are bad tax breaks.

The Earned Income Tax Credit. Take the EITC, which is a negative income tax to help alleviate poverty, as an example of what can be considered a good tax break. What do I think of the EITC? I worry about the improper payment rate of 22 percent, and I worry about the feasibility of actually replacing the EITC with the current welfare state. However, as I pointed out a year ago, the benefits that come with the EITC are considerable. The EITC raises employment because it incentivizes work. It has also been shown to improve child health and scholastic achievement, as well as Social Security longevity. It's not perfect, but it does a better job of avoiding unintended consequences than most public policy.

Mortgage interest deduction. This tax break is for those who a) have mortgages [as opposed to homeowners], and b) actually itemize their taxes. Essentially, the government is subsidizing home debt through the tax code. Instead of providing affordable housing for middle-class Americans, all it has done is provided an artificially high demand for high-end housing (see Fichtner and Feldman, 2014Fisher and Huang, 2013). Especially after the housing bubble bursting in 2007, do we really want the government to be artificially inflating demand like that? Promoting homeownership like that should not be a public policy goal (Davis, 2012). Also, mortgage rates are historically lower than they have been in the past, so the value of this tax break has been diminished from what it was in years past. This tax break is bad enough where Brooking Institution scholar Alan Viard found that replacing the mortgage interest deduction would not only remove the artificial incentive to build high-end homes, but it would reduce the deficit by $300B over 10 years. While this tax break invokes a sense of disgust, I don't think it's the worst one out there.

Deferral of active income of controlled foreign corporations, and dividends on capital gains. Although these make it on the list because they are the second and third largest tax breaks, I want to break the suspense by saying that it is neither of these two that are the worst tax breaks in the American tax code. The United States has the highest statutory corporate tax rate, and has a considerably high effective rate. Corporate tax reform is needed because if there are enough inversions out there, it shows how problematic our tax system can be. If you want to read about either tax break, you can go here and here to read more about how we tax and provide exemptions for the corporate world, but I want to declare the "winner" for today, which is.........

Employer-paid healthcare! If any tax break can make me feel repulsed, it is employer-based health insurance. Although size does have some bearing to why employer-based health insurance insurance is the worst, I have plenty of reason behind my disdain for this tax break that goes well beyond the $170B we are going to spend on it this year. This WWII relic was a response to wage controls that the government enacted back in the 1940s. It is inequitable because those who could use the deduction the most (e.g., the poor) don't have access, which exacerbates income inequality. It creates a system in which healthcare is tied to one's job for the vast majority of Americans, and is thusly not treated as a portable good. It causes individuals to consume more healthcare than they would have otherwise, which ultimately drives up healthcare costs. The Rand Corporation also found that it is a barrier to entrepreneurship (Fairlie et al., 2010).

No other country in the world has such a perverse incentive built into its tax system. I would contend it is the primary reason that health care costs in the United States have increased relative to other developed countries. I hope that the next time I ask myself the question of which tax break is the worst, they will have at least reformed, if not completely repealed, this dastardly tax break.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Should Jews Commemorate Yom HaShoah?

The Holocaust took the lives of over 6 million Jews, as well as 5 million non-Jews. The Holocaust not only wiped out a third of the Jewish population, but it has left its mark on the psyche of the Jewish people. The way we approach theology simply isn't the same anymore. "Where was G-d when this tragedy struck? How could an all-loving, all-just G-d allow for this to happen in the first place?" Since there are still Holocaust survivors out there, the wounds are still fresh. Also, if we consider the upward trend of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, and genocides that have taken place post-Holocaust, it seems like humanity could use a day to remember the Holocaust because a sizable portion of the world population has most decidedly not learned its lesson on how to treat others like human beings. That being the case, why do I even bother asking the question "Should we commemorate Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day]?" Rather than get swept up in some fervor, I would like to address my apprehensions, as well as get a better sense of what Yom HaShoah is ultimately supposed to engender.

One of my issues is when Yom HaShoah is observed. Originally, it was supposed to fall on the same day as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that never happened because that would have meant observing Yom HaShoah on Passover. Instead, Yom HaShoah falls on 27 Nissan. Not only does the selection of this date come off as arbitrary, but in some ways, it's un-Jewish. For one, the month of Nissan is considered to be one of redemption and joy (at least International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on January 27, which is the liberation of Auschwitz), which is why there is traditionally no established period of mourning. On the other hand, many Jews have mourned during the month of Nissan, so who am I to ignore the tradition of ignoring a tradition?

A better date that could have been chosen to line up liturgically with the Jewish calendar would have been Tisha B'Av, a time that mourns all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Conversely, one could argue that the Holocaust was so traumatic that it deserves its own day of commemoration. Plus, since Tisha B'Av traditionally implies a nationalistic level of sin and repentance, it's hardly palatable to suggest that the European Jews at the time were so spiritually devoid that they were responsible for their suffering during the Holocaust. On the other hand, there have always existed people that have tried to wipe out the Jews. Until we address genocidal proclivities and Jew-hatred, the chant "Never again" becomes as hollow as an egg shell.

I am also worried about what the current commemoration of Yom HaShoah conveys not only to the Jewish people, but the entirety of humanity. Take a look at the 2013 Pew Center survey on American Jews. When asked what is essential to being Jewish, you want to know what the number one answer was? It wasn't observing Jewish law, believing in G-d, or being a part of a Jewish community. What was the answer? Remembering the Holocaust. I take issue with the notion that the single most important factor in Jewish identity for American Jews is wallowing in victimhood. What kind of message does that send about the Jewish people? What sort of message does that send about Judaism? Judaism is not and should not be about persecution and oppression. In spite of what happens in life, Judaism has ultimately had a message of hope and redemption, a message that is obfuscated by the mythicization of the Holocaust.

Maybe my issue isn't so much with whether we should commemorate those who senselessly lost their lives during the Holocaust, but how that is being commemorated, and this doesn't necessarily even refer to the lack of consensus on rituals or traditions for Yom HaShoah. If this past Passover were a reminder of anything for me, it is that the past is something we should not forget, but by the same token, we shouldn't revel in it. If certain individuals feel they need to mourn, that's fine. King Solomon teaches us in Ecclesiastes (3:4) that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn. Jewish law provides us with the time to go through the mourning process, but we don't remain in the stasis of mourning for the remainder of our lives.

As I brought up a few years ago, the best way to honor the memory of those lost in the Holocaust, at least for Jews, is to live even more Jewish lives than before. Give tzedakah. Observe Shabbat. Study some Torah. Find more ways to love your neighbor like you love yourself. For those who are not Jewish (and even for those who are Jewish), live a life of tolerance, understanding, and love towards your fellow human being. Foster a sense of community and society that prevents another Holocaust from happening. That is the real way that their memory will forever be a blessing.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Swedish Economy Has Been Resilient, But Could Use Some Economic Reform

The entire world felt the shock of the Great Recession more than half a decade ago. Europe has been hit hard by the Great Recession. However, as the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) points out in its latest economic survey of Sweden, Sweden has done a good job weathering the economy chaos, something I think was in no small part due to the fact that Sweden did not join the Euro Zone. If your one of the few countries whose economic output is greater than that of 2008, then that says something right there. That being said, what has allowed for Sweden to be so resilient? Are there things upon which Sweden can improve? The best way to tackle these questions is to go in bullet-point form, so I'm going to take some of the key takeaways from the OECD report. However, given my current time constraint, it's going to be more abridged than I would like, especially since I'm regrettably unable to cover the banking sector:

  • Sweden has a comparative advantage in knowledge-intensive activities (p. 4). However, Sweden has pushed itself towards the end of its production possibilities curve. (p. 8) In order to  improve, Sweden needs to expand its production possibilities curve, which means improving upon its innovation, i.e., research and development. I'm sure the OECD has R&D subsidies from the government in mind, but as I mention below, some deregulation, dismantling of bureaucracy, and decreased taxes would go a long way.
  • Going off of that idea, Sweden's success hinges on high-value-added services involving high skills and intangible capital intensity (p. 19-20). This means developing a workforce able to take on those jobs. The OECD laments that Sweden's education system has declined, particularly after the implementation of decentralization (read: school vouchers) in the early 1990s (p. 26). I disagree with that assessment, particularly with using standardized testing as a basis for educational success. Finland doesn't have nationalized testing, and its education system is lauded. I can least agree that providing teachers with more flexibility and better allocating funds are aspects upon which Sweden could improve (ibid).
  • Sweden has good macroeconomic, fiscal, and financial fundamentals (p. 4). It's why Sweden has a 40 percent debt-to-GDP ratio and its government assets exceed its liabilities (p. 12). Much like I did three years ago with my last analysis on Sweden, I still take issue with Sweden's higher-than-average tax rates, but it's something for Sweden to improve. Plus, I like how the OECD suggests raising the pension age (ibid). 
  • Sweden has some ridiculously complicated regulatory procedures, particularly with licenses and permits (p. 22). I could have told the OECD that such licensing is burdensome for those trying to start a business. Ditto for Sweden's zoning regulations (p. 23). The ability to start a business is one of those conditions that the World Bank assesses in its Ease of Doing Business Index. Removing these sort of market rigidities, particularly with making it less costly to register property (p. 25), is something the Swedish government should keep in mind.

If Sweden wants to keep its competitive and diversified business sector, as well as better economic health, it would be wise to create the sort of environment that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation. Maintaining a welfare state with a high tax burden is not the way to increase productivity in the global market, and I hope that the Swedish government is cognizant of that as it moves forward to strengthen its economy.

In addition to the OECD Economic Survey, if you're interested on reading more on Sweden's economic state, go to:

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Shema as a Portal Between the Mezuzah and Passover

The idea that a mitzvah can be construed as an action-based meditation fascinates me. During the Passover seder, we are supposed to relive the experience that the Jews felt in the Exodus narrative. Amongst other things, we are to be reminded what it was like to be slaves, what it feels to be redeemed, and how we should not treat others poorly because, to paraphrase what is oft repeated in the Torah, "we know what it was like to be oppressed strangers." The mezuzah, being a mitzvah and action-based meditation, is also supposed to kindle something.

A door is not just a moving structure that can either block or allow access to another place. For many cultures, the door represents a portal or a gateway into new worlds, whether that it is in the literal or metaphorical sense. When we walk through a door and kiss the mezuzah, we are supposed to keep something in mind. What is that something, and even more interestingly, what does that have to do with the Exodus?

In addition to the mezuzah, there is something else about which we are reminded on a daily basis, and that is the Exodus of the Jews leaving Egypt. Although the Exodus is mentioned in more than one place in daily prayers, it most notably makes an appearance in the Shema. The reason why it's noteworthy is because in the Shema, the mezuzah is also mentioned. If I had to identify the single most important prayer for a Jew, it would be the Shema. It is a declaration of a relationship in G-d that translates into action. It is the prayer that a Jew recites twice a day, and is ideally the last thing a Jew recites while still alive. Shema encapsulates what it means to be a Jew..

If you want more of an idea of how the mezuzah and the Exodus are connected through Shema than merely being mentioned in the same prayer, look at the structure of the Shema, specifically the end of each paragraph. The first and second paragraphs both end with the importance of the mezuzah. The third paragraph of the Shema ends with that G-d brought the Jewish people out of Egypt. So what's the connection between the mezuzah and the Exodus?

Let's start at the verse that the Shema cites at the end of the third paragraph:

I am the L-rd, your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d. I am the L-rd, your G-d. -Numbers 15:41

G-d didn't just bring the Jewish people out of slavery. If He did, we would only have to sing the first song of Dayenu and be done with it. G-d wanted to do so much more than that. As the verse in Numbers shows, G-d wanted to develop a relationship with the Jewish people. G-d wanted a relationship in which the Jewish people love G-d with all their heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:6). The way that the Jewish people develop that relationship with G-d is through Torah and doing mitzvahs.

That relationship did not really begin until the Exodus. Why the Exodus, and not something like the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? Why is the Exodus so special? It was the moment when the Jewish people went from being slaves to being a free people. This transition cannot be emphasized enough because serving G-d implies that there is free will. Without free will, having a Torah that instructs Jews to follow mitzvahs would be non-sensical. A lack of free will would also make moral judgments and ethics just as non-sensical. Free will is both at the essence of human dignity and of Judaism.

Prior to G-d bringing the Jewish people out of Egypt, the Jewish people were slaves. They worked all day, slept, woke up and did the same thing all over again. What they did as slaves was instinctive, routine, and void of any growth or progression. Upon walking through the metaphorical door, the Jewish people made that transition from slavery to freedom. This transition is so strong that Jews are to remember and re-live it every year at the Passover seder.

However, this is not something that we are supposed to relive only during Passover. Maimonides teaches (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot, Mezuzot 6:13) that the purpose of the mezuzah is to remind us of G-d's Oneness. This reminder of His Oneness is to arouse a love towards Him. Much like the Exodus, the mezuzah is a vital way in which the Jew develops a love of G-d that is just as transformative as what the Jews of yore must have felt when they saw the Sea of Reeds part. That sense of awe and gravitas is not something that is solely reserved for Passover. It is something that we can apply daily. By bringing the proper awareness and kavannah to the mitzvah of the mezuzah, we can relive the essence of the Exodus by not only literally walking through a doorway, but using the mezuzah as a portal to experience a relationship with the Divine.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Religious Freedom Acts: What Do They Actually Mean for Religious Freedom and Freedom in General?

The state of Indiana has been taking a lot of heat lately. The states of Connecticut and New York, as well as a whole slew of companies and celebrities, have decided to boycott the state of Indiana. What did Indiana do that was so heinous? Indiana's government passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Wait a minute! How can religious freedom be a bad thing? Amongst other things, this country was based on the pursuit of religious freedom. This, of course, assumes that the bill Indiana passed actually has to do with religious freedom. Before we go into the "which side is correct" argument, let's take a look at the history of "religious freedom acts" first.

We can go back to the Constitution and the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Since Congress is constitutionally the law-making branch, this de jure applies to the federal government. The creation of the Fourteenth Amendment applied the concept to the state and local levels. In a more modern context, the federal government created the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The Act passed with very little opposition, and was signed by President Clinton on November 16, 1993. The purpose of passing the Act was to apply strict scrutiny to the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause, a precedent that was already set by Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder. The Supreme Court later ruled in 1997 (City of Boerne v. Flores) that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that if it were to apply on the state level, each state would need to apply their own version of a "religious freedom act."

Fast-forward to March 26, 2015 when Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It shouldn't seem like that big of a deal. Indiana is now one of twenty states to pass such an act. Even Connecticut, one of the states boycotting Indiana, has such an act (although they're not 100 percent the same type of legislation). However, those who are opposed to Indiana's new law are doing so because they're postulating that the law differs from other religious freedom acts to the point where it's a detrimental piece of anti-gay legislation.

Let's back up for a second and define religious freedom. To sum up what I wrote on religious freedom a couple years ago, "your religion of freedom ends where another person's freedom of religion begins." For instance, I have the right to keep kosher (Jewish dietary laws), but if I tried to force those views on everyone else, I would violate another's freedom to religion. In the case of the fundamentalist, Christian baker who believes homosexuality is a sin, he has a right to not sell a cake to a lesbian couple. However, that does not mean that his religious beliefs can be the basis to violate the lesbian's couple to get married. It would be the same if a homosexual baker refused to sell a cake to a fundamentalist Christian couple about to get married because that baker hated religious fundamentalists. It is about the freedom of association and property rights. No one should force you to sell something you don't want to. Conversely, no one should force you to buy something from anti-gay religious fundamentalists, which is why boycotting is a perfectly acceptable response.

If you don't like a certain baker, I'm sure you can find another baker. Most people realize that the money of anybody, whether gay, straight, white, black, female, Christian, Jewish (you get the idea) is as green as yours or mine. Funny how that works out! And what's better is that society is becoming more accepting of gay people and same-sex weddings because it means that anti-gay discrimination is bad for business.

Getting back on track, this is why it shouldn't surprise any of us that I have an issue with anti-discrimination laws, mostly because of the superfluousness attributed to the fact that most businesses already have such provisions in their policies. Speaking of anti-discrimination laws, Indiana is one of the states that doesn't have anti-discrimination laws, which means that even if Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act were repealed this very second, business owners could still deny goods and services based on sexual orientation. All the RFRA does is provide a defense in certain discrimination cases. Considering that the RFRA only applies in judicial proceedings in which the government is not a party, the hoopla about the RFRA's "anti-gay discrimination" is overstated. The same hyperbole goes for Christians who think they're systematically being victims of religious tolerance. This is all the more so since no one has ever won a religious exemption under RFRA standards. Using the law to coerce unwilling participants to baking a cake [or providing any other services] for a same-sex wedding is not going to endear anybody, especially Republicans who are slowly, but surely, trending towards being more accepting of same-sex marriage over time.

To quote Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie, "It's wrong for liberals to use the government to force everyone everywhere to act the way that they want. And it's tendentious for conservatives to insist that Indiana's RFRA law, passed to forestall religiously minded businesses from having to contravene their beliefs, wasn't really about discrimination." Election season is coming up, so it's no surprise that politically charged rhetoric surrounding hot-button topics is taking place. I do have to wonder whether such rhetoric will inadvertently erode freedom either because of some crusade towards political correctness or a more "puritanical" society in which religious conservatives could force their problematic view of "marriage should be between one man and one woman" onto society.

Setting politics aside for a second, moments like these truly test the bounds of freedom in what we call a free society. Religious people should be allowed to observe their religion as long as it doesn't violate anyone else's freedoms. They also have the right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, even though that seems un-Christian, considering that Jesus engaged with prostitutes and tax collectors, two examples of particularly sinful people at the time. Much like religious Christians have certain rights, gay people should have a right to enter same-sex marriage contracts and be afforded life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, just like every other American has. Religious freedom and civil liberties are not mutually exclusive concepts. The debate should be about how we can be tolerant and respectful towards others while preserving everyone's freedoms. Anything else is at best a distraction from more important issues, and at worst, is a disservice to the American people.