Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Elusive Aim for Regime Change in UNSCR 1973

Just as any thinking person cannot help but identify with the demonstrators for constitutionalism and parliamentary self-government everywhere throughout our Arab Spring, this lover of liberty empathizes with the Libyan rebels who wish to oust the bizarre, sadistic one-man revolution of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. I would have preferred to have seen Qaddafi go relatively peacefully like Ben Ali and Mubarak, I would have preferred to see the Libyan insurrectionists overthrow their tyrannical regime with their own hands. Obviously neither of those scenarios were fated to be, and now apparently the only way to prevent the massacre of rebel forces and Libyan civilians by the Qaddafi loyalists is with some form of foreign military intervention.

The legal internationalist should have been opposed to unilateral U.S. intervention in Libya without a casus belli of self-defense, without authorization by the United Nations as it would have been a violation of international law. Likewise, I would have registered my doubts if France, Britain, or the Arab League were to intervene under such terms. However, now that the Security Council has just passed UNSCR 1973, concerns about illegal warfare should be largely assuaged. So long as the U.S. or any other foreign country wishes to intervene in Libya in accordance with the U.N. mandate, the matter of a no-fly zone is no longer a debate of de jure legality but one of normative politics and logistics. As the U.S. Air Force and Navy intervene, the objective rationalist should hope that they can get the job done with as few casualties and with as little cost as possible. The question remains though; what precisely does this job entail?

Now that the U.N. mission in Libya is a reality, cheerleaders of military intervention would be wise to temper their populist fervor by carefully reading the exact text of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. UNSCR 1973 is the follow-up to UNSCR 1970 passed on February 26th which

1) referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court for investigations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide;

2) instituted an embargo of arms transfers to Libya, Libyan arms exports, and the movement of mercenaries to fight in Libya;

3) imposed travel bans 17 Jamahiriyah figures and enacted asset freezes on Colonel Qaddafi and his sons;

4) called on U.N. members states to contribute humanitarian assistance to Libyan civilians.

As far as U.N. sanctions go, even the preliminary USCR 1970 was just about as strong as they come; it essentially revived the bulk of the U.N. sanctions imposed on Libya in UNSCR 748 (1992) and 883 (1993) in the wake of Tripoli’s sponsorship of the Lockerbie bombing and eventually eased from 1998 to 2003.

UNSCR 1973 tightens the screws on Qaddafi a bit further. The Resolution contains a range of operative clauses which authorize limited foreign intervention operations – with the politically neutral, strictly humanitarian objective of reducing civilian casualties. With 1973, the Security Council…

1. “Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians”...

2. Authorizes Member States “to take all necessary measures”… “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory…”

6. “Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to protect civilians”... (i.e. flights with a military purpose, explicitly excepting flights with humanitarian passengers or cargo)

8. “Authorizes Member States… to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights…”9. Calls upon Member States to provide assistance with the implementation of the no-fly zone and protection of civilian populations, including the use of air bases and airspace

13. Calls upon Member States “to ensure strict implementation of the arms embargo” established in UNSCR 1970 by inspecting vessels and aircraft in their seaports, airports and territorial waters bound to or from the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

16. Calls upon Member States to take action to enforce UNSCR 1970’s ban on the import of mercenaries from their own respective populations or traveling through their territories bound for Libya

17 and 18. ...and to enforce the air embargo on the Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah
UNSCR 1973 calls for enforcement mechanisms of the arms embargo, mercenary embargo, air embargo and financial sanctions previously laid out in UNSCR 1970. UNSCR 1973 strengthens the Security Council’s prior ultimatums to Libya with demands for a cease-fire. And most dramatically, UNSCR 1973 includes a mandate for foreign military intervention, calling for U.N. Member States “take all necessary measures” “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” and to enforce the no-fly zone. Period.

This resolution authorizes an agenda which should satisfy the self-ascribed humanitarian interventionists whose objective begins and ends at the prevention of civilian casualties. The no-fly zone applies to the Qaddafi loyalists as well as the Benghazi rebels alike – technically. But obviously it was intended to be enforced against the only faction in the Libyan Civil War which is employing Air Force bombers and heavy artillery against civilian populations. UNSCR 1973 was quite patently constructed for enforcement against only one side to the dispute, and it would be a fair bet to assume that there will be little to no incidence of coalition air strikes against Libyan rebels who might be in violation of the so-called cease-fire.

Though this Resolution might yet tilt the civil war in the rebels’ favor, let’s not get carried away to think that the Security Council has just authorized regime change in Tripoli. UNSCR 1973 does not authorize Member States to take action against Libyan military targets unrelated to the enforcement of a cease-fire, the implementation of the no-fly zone or the protection of civilians. It does not authorize France to bomb Libyan Army barracks full of soldiers engaged in calisthenics training. It does not authorize Britain to provide air cover for a rebel offensive on loyalist-held territory; it does not allow anyone to fight the Benghazi rebels’ civil war for them. Just as the George H.W. Bush administration refrained from marching onto Baghdad as such a move would have exceeded Operation Desert Storm’s narrow U.N. mandate to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the coalition amassing to intervene in Libya cannot legally expand its objective to regime change in Tripoli.

Yet for some reason (perhaps these same Neoconservative interventionists’ dissatisfaction with the outcome of the first Gulf War) I don’t think that the present day Libya hawks would sit content with an endgame that leaves Colonel Qaddafi in power.

John McCain – one of the first major outspoken proponents of a no-fly zone – makes no bones about its final cause: “If you want Qaddafi to go, then one of the steps – among many – would be to establish a no-fly zone…”

Joe Lieberman conflates the objective of preventing civilian casualties with supporting the rebels and regime change:

“The president has made clear that Gadhafi’s got to go; he’s no longer the legitimate leader of Libya, and the question is what are we going to do to help make sure that Gadhafi goes as quickly as possible because the danger here is that this is going to become a bloody stalemate, a civil war, a bloody civil war...”
Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz calls for not just a no-fly zone in Libya, but for the U.S. to recognize the National Council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya, providing the rebels with arms, supplies and direct military intervention:

Recognizing the new National Council would affect the psychology of both Gadhafi's cronies and his brave opponents. Ending the mixed signals sent by U.S. hesitation over recognition would end any possibility of rehabilitating Gadhafi if he wins. Absurd as that may sound to us—particularly after President Obama has declared that Gadhafi must go—this is probably the outcome that Gadhafi's cronies hope for, and that his opponents most fear.
David Frum – who wrote some of the Bush administration’s seminal speeches on regime change in Iraq and who himself laid the case for regime change in Iran and Syria – draws the argument for intervention directly to the need to oust the Libyan government:

“Gadhafi’s departure from power in other words is not just a requirement of humanity and decency. It’s not only justice to the people of Libya. It is also essential to American credibility and the stability of the Middle East region.”
My intent in harping upon this point is not to draw a straw man argument but to elucidate the U.S. Libya hawks’ intentions. It seems that there are two camps in this present discourse who have been clamoring for a no-fly zone. The first camp would be the liberal humanitarians who are concerned exclusively with the prevention of civilian casualties, who could be content with the Libyan rebels putting down their arms and the partition of Libya into a provisional rebel territory based in Benghazi and a Qaddafi rump state in Tripoli. The second faction for a no-fly zone is that of the Neoconservative hawks who embrace the language and purported objectives of the liberal humanitarians but make it clear that they do intend for the U.S. to take sides in this conflict, and that a no-fly zone is only the preliminary action that ought to be taken as part of a larger campaign to oust Qaddafi. This is notable because UNSCR 1973 explicitly only authorizes foreign military intervention to attain the goals of the liberal humanitarians, and the broader goals of regime change and democratization in the Arab world which the Neocons espouse – as desirable as they might be – go far beyond the scope of the U.N. mandate.

As for yours truly, I could not help but empathize with the Wolfowitz, McCain, et al.’s dream of establishing constitutional monarchies, republican and parliamentary regimes which derive their moral authority to lead from the popular will from Kabul to Baghdad to Tripoli. I agree with the liberal sentiment that the blossoming of democracy and free markets in repressed authoritarian societies should sow the seeds for peaceful change and political moderation, that the demise of states like Qaddafi’s nightmarish Jamahiriyah should lead to the stabilization of the region, undercut the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and reduce the threat of anti-American terrorism in the long run. And by the way, regime change in Tarabulus is what a good plurality the Libyan people apparently want – it is certainly a desirable end. Regardless, there is no way to read the relevant documents of international law (namely the United Nations Charter, UNSCR 1970 and UNSCR 1973) and conclude that signatory U.N.O. Member States such as the U.S. can simply declare war on Libya and overthrow Colonel Qaddafi on a whim.

It would be perfectly plausible for the Obama administration to heed Wolfowitz’s advice and follow the lead of France and Portugal in recognizing the National Council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya. Such a move would allow the administration to abide by myriad U.S. restrictions on military and economic aid to the Benghazi regime – though it would not make it any easier for the U.S. to exercise decisive force on Tripoli to bring a quick end to the Qaddafi regime. So long as the United Nations recognizes the Jamahiriyah as the legitimate government of Libya and Muammar el-Qaddafi as its legitimate ruler, the United Nations Charter stands in the way of a legal NATO-Arab League operation to subvert the Tripoli regime.

Though imagine if the following events – all perfectly plausible – were to precipitate in New York, Cairo and Benghazi over the course of this week:

1) After recommendation from the Security Council, the Arab League and the African Union member states were to sponsor a General Assembly resolution calling for the expulsion of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah from the U.N.O. – which they can do according to Chapter II, Article 6 of the United Nations Charter. It passes.

2. Those same Arab League, African Union countries sponsor a second General Assembly resolution calling for the recognition of the National Council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya. It too passes.

3) The newly-recognized Libyan government in Benghazi were to appoint a new Ambassador to the U.N. (perhaps Mohammad Shaghash, the Ambassador who recently defected from Tripoli)

There is something of a precedent for this. The Republic of China led by Chiang Kai-Shek joined the United Nations Organization as one of its founding members in 1945, the U.N. continued to recognize the R.O.C. governmentin Taiwan as the rightful representatives of all of China until 1971. By that time when the Chinese Civil War had been long settled in favor of Mao Tse-tung and his Red Army, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, which concluded:

"the representatives of the Government of the People's Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations and that the People's Republic of China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council,"
Furthemore, the General Assembly decided:

"to restore all its rights to the People's Republic of China and to recognize the representatives of its Government as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-Shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”
UNGAR 2758 effectively stripped the R.O.C. from membership in the U.N.O. and transferred its General Assembly and permanent Security Council seats to the People’s Republic of China.

If the General Assembly were to expel the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah from the U.N.O. and replaced with representatives of the regime in Benghazi, as far as international law goes, we’d be talking about a whole new ballpark. If the provisional government in Benghazi is recognized by the U.N. as the legitimate government of all of Libya, Qaddafi’s armies would then be just another non-state militant group with no legal standing akin to the I.R.A., P.L.O., the Janjaweed, etc. which Tripoli propped up at one time in the past. Perhaps the Qaddafi-loyalist Libyan Army, Libyan Navy and Libyan Air Force could even be classified as terrorist organizations (as the U.S. now classifies the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) and thus any government aiding or abetting them financially or otherwise could be designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism…

If – under such circumstances – the Libyan Ambassador to the U.N. were to call upon the aid of fellow Member States to come to his nation’s protection, there would be very little in the wide corpus of international law standing in our way to shower Benghazi with guns, ammunition, tanks and artillery. The legitimate Libyan government could call upon U.N., Arab League and African Union member-states to come to its aid against an existential threat just like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait did in 1990. A joint NATO-Arab League-African Union coalition could perfectly legally and with the fully nationalist legitimacy of the pan-Arabist, pan-Africanist regional organization defend the rightful Libyan government in Benghazi and help them to quash the “rebellion” in the Tripolitania.

Nevertheless, now that a truly multilateral military intervention in Libya has explicit Security Council authorization and de jure legality, this blogger is still concerned about the doctrinal repercussions. Yes we can intervene, but why ought we intervene in Libya? Is it because the international community has an obligation to strike against states in order to prevent gross human rights abuses and crimes against humanity? If that is the case, what makes the atrocities in Libya worthy of a U.N.-enforced no-fly zone – but not the atrocities in Darfur or the Gaza Strip? Let’s suppose that the people of Bahrain and Yemen were to call upon the U.N. to send peacekeeping forces to protect their nonviolent demonstrations from being massacred by their own totalitarian states – under what doctrine of protecting civilians must the U.N. intervene in Libya but not Bahrain and Yemen?

The established doctrines of military intervention might need some significant revision in the wake of newly-christened Operation Odyssey Dawn – especially if the Obama administration were to heed the advice of Wolfowitz, Lieberman, et al. and wholeheartedly take the side of the Benghazi rebels in the Libyan Civil War. The U.S. has conducted regime change under the ostensible rationales of containing thwart Communist aggression and preventing state-sponsored terrorist attacks. Though in this circumstance there isn’t the slightest pretense of intervening in order to prevent acts of aggression against American national security interests. G.A. Resolution 2785 only recognized the outcome of the Chinese Civil War 22 years after the fact. Is the United States now obligated to intervene in every single conflict between an undemocratic regime and a popular movement opposed to it and to always side with the latter? Is the Arab League, the African Union, NATO and United Nations? Or are we only obligated to take sides in civil wars against dictators like Qaddafi whom we have always disliked?

If the Obama administration were to invoke the international law of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exert our political sway before the General Assembly and Security Council, exercise the power of the United States Armed Forces and our treaty alliances in order to replace Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya with some form of constitutional self-government, we would be entering a brave new doctrinal tomorrow. Would the United States be henceforth bound to some sort of Obama Doctrine which extends the Monroe Doctrine all the way to the Sahara Desert and establishes a universal doctrine for the United States to intervene on behalf of every popular movement in Africa and the Middle East? If we were to back the National Council in Benghazi to subvert Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Tripoli, we would be establishing a foreign policy more Wilsonian than anything Woodrow Wilson could have fantasized, a foreign policy which would interpret the promise of the Declaration of Independence as an affirmation of global human rights including a right to government by multiparty elections and the right of revolution against undemocratic regimes? Personally, I don’t think that sounds half bad…

However, if the Obama Doctrine formulated to justify intervention in Libya is going to have any moral bearing this precedent for intervention must be applicable to other comparable cases. If the impending humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi is sufficient reason for the international community to take a forceful stand against the war criminal regime in Libya, then we must go through the Security Council to intervene on behalf of the people of Côte d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Guinea, the Congo, Sudan and Eritrea against their respective war criminal regimes. On the other hand, if the doctrinal precedent is meant to be “limited to the present circumstances”, inapplicable to any future cases because our interests are not threatened by these police states’ genocides and political massacres, then it would demonstrate that our principles of intervention are either nonexistent or false. Libya could only be a singularity designated for regime change if the capacity of unmitigated evil were limited to the persona of Muammar al-Qaddafi. If the millions of victims of Robert Mugabe, Laurent Gbagbo and Omar Hassan al-Bashir are deemed somehow less worthy of our intervention than the thousands of victims of Colonel Qaddafi, our inaction would prove ipse facto that the liberal case for intervention in Libya is just a humanitarian fig leaf for our discomforting, venal interests in the makeup of the Libyan regime; U.S. hegemony over North Africa and the petroleum which lies beneath her sands.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Most Fabulous Way to Stimulate the Economy

What would you say if I told you that New York State lawmakers could amend a certain legal regulation in a way that would stimulate additional consumer spending, foster more sales opportunities for small businesses and create thousands of new jobs? What if I told you that this policy would not add a dime to the deficit; in fact, all of the sales tax on the resultant commerce, additional income tax revenue and processing fees for these new contracts would actually help state and local governments balance their budgets? According to any credible economic analysis, this policy would only foster business growth so benign that it is almost inconceivable that it could lead to negative externalities in health, the environment, culture or anything at all.

What is this miracle policy of which I speak? What could possibly put some spring into the step of this dreary, moribund economy? Well, when people think of ways for the government to prime the pump, they usually imagine burly construction workers re-paving the highway. But we should also think of the police officer who got to keep his job thanks to the Recovery Act, the sailor who is bravely serving his country in the US Navy, and also the cowboy, the Native American and the motorcycling leather daddy…

This economic miracle policy I’m talking about, of course, is legalizing same-sex marriage. Nowadays even those with money to spare are so afraid of the market that they are just sitting on it in the bank; but if there’s ever a time to splurge, wouldn’t it be when your daughter has fallen madly in love with the perfect woman and you want to give her the wedding of her dreams? ...and if your son wanted to marry someone else’s son, wouldn’t you do the same? Some people have been waiting to be able to do this their entire lives.

In this time of economic crisis let’s forget for a moment about the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the sexual ethics expounded by the Book of Leviticus and think about marriage solely in terms of dollars and cents. The average wedding in New York State costs around $32,000 – but in New York City where all goods and services are more expensive the figure is nearer to $37,000. However, the average wedding ceremony between two men or two women in New York State will most likely cost significantly less – circa $27,000 – largely due to the facts that 1) same-sex couples are less likely to receive support from their parents to pay for their weddings; and 2) same sex couples are more likely than opposite-sex couples to opt for no-frills City Hall marriages.

But even with the most conservative estimate that accepts continued social discrimination as a given, each and every additional marriage will nonetheless serve as a micro-level stimulus package. If the New York state legislature were to act this spring to modernize our discriminatory marriage laws, then the summer and autumn of 2011 could be punctuated by tens of thousands of additional weddings and a wave of additional commerce from Montauk to Buffalo.

At the very least, marriage equality would trim the budget deficit by adding revenues. For all of those couples who simply want to get it over with and get a City Hall marriage, in New York City it will cost them $35 for a marriage license payable to the Office of the City Clerk. Everyone who lives outside the five boroughs who wants to have a marriage certificate will have to make a credit card deduction, money order or write a $30 check payable to the New York State Department of Public Health, they will also have to pay for a $7.25 vendor processing fee, $15 for priority mail postage, and if they opt for next-day shipping the married couple would pay for an additional UPS fee of $12. With every marriage license issued, New York State would receive a bit more revenue to help mitigate our $10 billion budget shortfall.

Though it would be fair to say that a fair number of New York’s gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transsexuals would probably go for something more extravagant than a mere City Hall wedding… Seriously, if you’ve ever attended a Long Island bat mitzvah, just imagine how opulent Long Island gay marriages will be! Legalizing same-sex marriage will open the floodgates to the greatest, gayest shopping spree that New York has ever seen!

For starters, marriage usually starts with a proposal – and an engagement ring usually costs around $3,125. Jewelers will be so inundated with orders that there would be increased demand for every precious gem on the market – as well as the labor of goldsmiths, silversmiths and diamond cutters. Though the Hasidic diamond dealers of 47th Street might be amongst the most vociferous opponents of marriage equality, they would be amongst the greatest financial beneficiaries!

Then with time most of these same-sex fiancées are going to buy wedding bands and the jewelry industry would surge again (according to The Wedding Report, the average American wedding entails $3,631 of spending on jewelry for the day of the marriage ceremony).

For anything more elaborate, they are going to hire a wedding planner for $1,940…

Wedding announcements, invitations, reply cards and thank-you notes on personalized stationary will cost $1,117…

Your average marrying couple will spend $345 on hair styling, facials, makeup and spa treatment…

The best man or bridesmaid will throw down an average of $2,189 on the bachelor/bachelorette party…

The grooms will spend about $1,858 on their tuxedos…

Or the brides will spend $1,858 on their dresses…

…or the brides will spend $1,858 on their tuxedoes…

…or the grooms will spend about $1,858 on their dresses…

The sartorial possibilities are endless, and any permutation of bow-ties, tiaras, corsets and cummerbunds that the marrying couples, best men, bridesmaids and guests would buy would nevertheless serve as the greatest one-time boon to the high-end fashion industry that New York has ever seen!

Marrying couples typically spend around $2,036 on the ceremony itself; i.e. renting the location, hiring an officiate, paying for an aisle runner, a pillow box and a ketubah, etc…

They will spend an average of $1,276 on flowers and décor…

The big ticket item, however, is almost invariably the wedding reception – which costs an average of $11,863. Can you even imagine how many more job openings would be created for caterers, chefs, waitresses, busboys and bartenders?

More demand would be created for bakers as well, as the brides or grooms spend $469 on each wedding cake…

…$1,244 on limousine and chauffeurs…

… and of course a honeymoon, which usually rings up to a total of $5,027 (though chances are the bulk of this money would stimulate the economy of Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands – not New York)

Subsequent growth in consumer spending would not be confined to the brides and grooms and their families. According to the Association of Bridal Consultants, married couples receive an average of 75 gifts and that the average amount of money spent on each wedding gift is $113. So for every time that a pair of men or a pair of women marry in New York, they will spur their guests to go out and spend approximately $8,475 on gifts that might have otherwise just sat in the bank and accumulated infinitesimal interest.

Out of town wedding guests are going to stay in New York hotels, and even if they are going to stay with friends for the weekend they are probably going to go out with their hosts to a restaurant on Friday night or at least stop at the liquor store and buy them a bottle of wine. No matter how you crunch the numbers, marriage equality is going to encourage people – and especially people from out of state – to go out and spend more of their money on New York goods and services.

Of course, we do not know exactly how many same-sex couples there are living together in New York because the 2010 Census which is still being tabulated was only the first census since Massachusetts’ landmark Goodridge decision in 2004, and this data only counts same-sex couples who are already legally married – thus providing an incomplete picture of how many same-sex couples there are who would be married if New York amended its family law code. So in the absence of more sound Census methodology the best we can do is refer to scientific estimates; according to a study by the Williams Institute, as of 2005 there were approximately 50,854 gay and lesbian couples living together in New York State.

However, that does not mean that legalizing same-sex marriage in New York State would necessarily result in exactly 50,854 weddings. Approximately 43 percent of those couples – 21,867 of them – have already married somewhere else. Since 2005 the population of same-sex couples has certainly risen. And there are of course a good number of couples who would prefer to marry in some other jurisdiction, to simply apply for a domestic partnership, or to not marry at all. The Office of the New York City Comptroller estimates that – based on the experience of Massachusetts – roughly 51 percent of the remaining nubile 28,987 couples would marry over the first three years after marriage equality has been achieved; in other words, around 14,783 New York resident couples would marry. After that initial surge, the rate of same-sex marriages would probably taper off significantly and eventually achieve something close to parity with the rate of opposite-sex marriages. According to the NYC Comptroller, resident weddings would generate almost $110 million in additional consumer spending over those first three years…

…and that’s only taking into consideration New York State residents; based on the experience of other states, the big money maker would be in out-of-state residents who would come from all across the country and all around the world to have their weddings in tolerant and accepting New York. The NYC Comptroller’s Office estimates that in the first three years of marriage equality, more than 56,000 couples would travel from out of state to marry in New York. Keep in mind that New York State law requires a minimum of 24 hours between the issuance of a marriage license and the performance of a wedding ceremony, so out-of-state residents would either have to make two day trips or (much more likely) stay overnight. Even the estimated 6,845 couples from mostly New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut who simply drive across the border for two day trips would bring in an additional $1 million. But those who come all the way from Florida, Texas, Japan or South Korea for destination weddings would spend almost $60 million, their guests would spend another $77 million on transportation, lodging, etc.

When you put it all together; New York residents, cross-border commuters and out of state same-sex marriage tourists would generate an additional $247 million in additional economic activity over the next three years – $175 million in New York City alone. We can only speculate as to how much long-term job creation this boom would generate; most likely, most of the additional business would probably be picked up by already-existing florists, bakers, DJs, etc. Though based on the experience of other states, the legalization of same-sex marriage would probably create a few thousand additional jobs mainly in the labor-intensive hospitality and catering businesses. But the sheer amount of consumer spending and job growth alone does not tell the whole story; for a more clear view of marriage equality’s effect on the public treasury we have to crunch those numbers a bit further.

When economists calculate the value of public policy they use the tool of cost-benefit analysis; and even the most liberal proponent of civil rights must concede that there are economic costs to granting marriage rights to gays and lesbians. Namely, firms that offer spousal and family benefits to their employees would be compelled to extend health care benefits to the spouses of their newly-married employees. The study by the Comptroller’s Office estimates that all of the same-sex married couples with one member working for a firm in New York State would cost their employers an additional $63 million in health insurance costs. However, this causes little reason to fear that businesses would flee to other states with discriminatory marriage laws in order to save on human resources; that $63 million in health benefits would be spread fairly evenly across more than 500,000 firms, unless a given business employs a disproportionate amount of nubile homosexuals then their burden would be comparatively negligible, and most small businesses would not be affected at all. In fact, most Fortune 500 companies located in New York – including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, American Express, Chase, MetLife, Citigroup, Bloomberg LP, Time Warner, Barnes & Noble, Eastman Kodak, to name a few – already offer health benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees.

From the perspective of public finance, marriage equality would not generate any additional health care costs because New York State and City agencies are already required to offer health care benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of public employees. If anything, the public sector would actually save on means-tested programs because many newlywed couples’ combined income or assets would bring them above the income and asset thresholds for many social welfare programs; e.g. the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Safety Net Assistance programs, child care subsidies, earned income tax credits, etc. For a good number of people the legal act of marriage per se serves as a catalyst for movement from the class of welfare recipients to taxpaying contributors to the public treasury.

Following that same line of reasoning, marriage equality would in fact lead to a windfall in public revenues. Marriage licensing application fees – 50,458 applications for $35 in New York City and 32,012 applications for $40 elsewhere in New York State – would total $3 million in additional revenue. Sales taxes on all of the aforementioned wedding expenditures would add $4.3 million to City revenues and another $5.5 million to the State. With all the out of state destination weddings expected to be held in the five boroughs (i.e. Manhattan) the City would also collect an additional $767,000 in Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue. If the New York legislature changed the tax code so that same-sex married couples could file their tax returns jointly, so many couples would incur the so-called “marriage penalty” by moving to a higher income tax bracket that New York State would collect $2.1 million in additional income taxes. So it would be fair to assume that New York City would be able to balance its budget with $5.1 million and New York State would be able to plug its gaping deficit with $10.6 million in additional revenues over the next three years. Perhaps if homeownership rises for married same-sex couples, the government might even take in more revenue from property taxes and related real estate transaction-related taxes (though this is purely speculative); if this is the case, New York’s gaping deficit could be trimmed even further.

For a state to maintain discriminatory marriage laws is to practice fiscal insanity – they’re leaving money on the table. Though what we’re currently doing in New York is even more self-defeating; in 2004, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer responded to the flurry of gay marriages in Massachusetts, San Francisco and New Paltz by issuing a memorandum stating that New York – though we do not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples – would give full faith and credit to the same-sex marriages issued by other jurisdictions. From the perspective of social justice, this might be a pragmatic step in the right direction, but from the perspective of economics it’s the worst policy imaginable as it assumes all of the costs but reaps very few of the benefits. Suppose there is a lesbian couple from Schenectady composed of a pharmacy worker and her unemployed wife and they decide to get married in Northampton; they might add to the health insurance costs borne by New York businesses, but all of the economic activity and tax revenue generated by their wedding would be enjoyed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In other words, New York is exporting our gay marriage jobs to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, the District of Columbia, all ten provinces and three territories of Canada, Mexico City, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and South Africa.

Civil unions – another modest half-step towards social justice – are even more limited in their economic stimulus potential. In New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii where the state issues civil union licenses to same-sex couples, businesses pay ever so slightly more in health insurance costs. But the wedding planners, hoteliers, caterers, florists and diamond cutters of these states have experienced only minimal business growth because hardly anyone throws down $37,000 to celebrate their daughter’s civil union – filing for domestic partnership feels as special as a trip to the DMV.

Likewise, it seems that the only way for a state to reach the maximum fiscal benefit is to establish complete and utter marriage equality under law. When the Comptroller’s Office did its cost-benefit analysis of legalizing same-sex marriages, they calculated that the government of New York State would come out of the red by collecting roughly $8 million in more taxes and saving $100 million on welfare programs, while the City would collect an additional $7 million in taxes and fees and have only negligible fluctuations in spending on anything at all. And though the health insurance costs and the benefits of additional sales will for the most part be paid by different firms, the private sector as a whole would grow on a net basis by $184 million throughout New York State with $142 million of that economic growth in the City.

Marriage equality should also make the New York economy more competitive in the long run by keeping our state among the forefront of social progress. Let’s say that the Acme Widget Company of Des Moines is planning on expanding to the East Coast and has to decide between two potential sites for their new bureau; one in Albany and the other in Hartford. The board of directors might reason that, ceteris paribus, it would be in their best interests to open the new bureau in Hartford because a lot of gay people would prefer to live in a state where they can raise a family, and Connecticut’s inclusive marriage laws might help them to attract a more competitive pool of employees. The most well-dressed, highly productive members of the labor force want to live and work in a state where the law treats them as first-class citizens – why wouldn’t we do everything we can to make them want to live and do business in New York?

The fact of the matter is that gay families are great for the economy; they’re hip, they’re ahead of so many market trends, they are more likely to have two incomes and less likely to have children – and when they do have kids, it kind of has to be the result of a thoroughly-planned, well-thought decision. Families headed by same-sex couples are more likely to pay taxes for schools and less likely to have kids to send to them - but when they do, wouldn't you imagine they would be the most meticulous parents?

To put it more blunty, it is in the direct financial interest of every state, county and municipal government with revenues dependent upon property taxes to attract families with two moms and two dads, because when gay people move into a neighborhood the value of real estate rises. If you’ve ever been to Hudson, New York, you would see before your eyes how an influx of gay antiques dealers, innkeepers and restaurateurs took a rusting, depressed Upstate town and gave it a makeover into a relatively-booming Mecca for weekenders and gentlewomen farmers!

So when the the New York State Senate takes up the same-sex marriage bill, do they really want to take this opportunity to uphold our state's long proud history of welcoming immigrants of all cultures, stripes and hues, upholding the rights of refugees who fled violence and repression... and, by the way, effortlessly improve the state's fiscal standing?

Or will they reject it out of some combination of bigotry, malice or cowardice?
After almost every state in the region has steadily progressed towards marriage equality, do they want New York to be the state that balked under pressure from the Paladino Republicans and the "Christian values" wing of the Dixiecrats? What Grinch of a statesman wakes up, puts on a suite and tie, and stands up before the body public to say "Actually, I object to these tens of thousands of New Yorkers from wedding"? If lawmakers in Albany won't welcome their sisters and brothers in the very state that invented Liberation, they’re going to settle down in Massachusetts or Connecticut and take their money with them.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t evince that legalizing same-sex marriage could be the silver bullet which singlehandedly digs this state us out of this deep recession; to do that, we might have to end the war in Afghanistan, curb the cost of health care by establishing a public option, invest $800 billion into modernizing our energy infrastructure, shift the tax burden from the wages of the working class to the estates, trusts and dividends of the super-rich, found a market for carbon permits, abolish mandatory minimum sentencing and legalize marijuana…

Nevertheless, even if legalizing same-sex marriage would only promise to increase the New York state private sector by roughly $184 million in additional commerce, cut the state deficit by $108 million and create roughly 2,000 additional full-time jobs, that sounds to me like a substantial first step towards economic recovery. Legalizing same-sex marriage might not be more than a modest reform, it might not be the superlatively most comprehensive strategy to vitalize business growth – but you must admit that it would certainly be the most fabulous way to stimulate the economy.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

In India, More Women Demand Toilets Before Marriage

Here's an absolutely wonderful article in The Washington Post explaining how the development of water sanitation infrastructure goes hand in hand with social development, namely the empowerment of women.

Moreover, this article hammers home a point that I really struggled to convey to my young male Malian friends: Improving your toilet improves your chance of gettin laid! If you don't have a quality toilet and septic tank, ain't no girl gonna be into you!

Maybe one day I could even disseminate similar sentiments about greywater recycling, urine separating and composting toilets amongst my American brethren... (insh'allah)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Zac Mason on Eco Brooklyn and Riverkeeper!

Dear loyal readers,

I have recently been hired by this really awesome green builder/renovator called Eco Brooklyn – which is why I have not been writing a whole lot of extensive blog posts as of late. I have been busy waking up before dawn salvaging construction materials, transporting them to various sites around Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem; digging out a basement, mixing mortar, cement and rammed earth, hauling rocks and bricks and other extremely heavy labors. Commuting to do construction work is kicking my ass; however, I’m learning a whole lot about green tech with hands-on experience. Moreover, it has been discovered that I can also be an asset to this team by blogging extensively about green construction technologies and practices!

Hopefully some of the time I will be able to write about tech matters and local policy, be allowed to use those postings directly on this blog as well. And Riverkeeper is also interested in me doing some blogging for them too… That doesn’t mean that Zacstravaganza is going soft – no sirree – rather, look forward to Zacstravaganza becoming hardcore environmental and straight up New York – from the Croton Watershed and the Hudson River to the NYC sewer system and the Gowanus Canal!

So check out my soapbox on Eco Brooklyn and Riverkeeper’s respective blogs – I will at least be cross-linking all updates over here if not rebroadcasting them verbatim on Zacstravaganza. My first post for the former is on how Eco Brooklyn minimizes its carbon footprint compared to competing New York contractors by using exclusively salvaged cement and other post-consumer construction materials!