Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Supreme Church of the Corporate States of America

Monday's decision saw the so-called Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to determine that corporations have religious rights.  In the most basal of responses, we would most likely see this as a problem of religious encroachment or the anti-science , but in practice, I'd put this down as an issue of corporate power and the corporatist state of the serving Supreme Court justices.  The thing is not just that corporations run things in accordance with their religious beliefs -- that happens quite often.  Hobby Lobby themselves does give a lot of money to religious charities.  Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays and religious holidays as well as printing Bible references on their containers.  There's nothing really problematic about that per se.  These sorts of actions, though, really operate on a scale of funds, when you get right down to it (i.e. what they do with their money).  What this decision really allows is for the religious beliefs of the owners of corporations to determine factors on the lives of their employees.  Now, you're not really dealing with the money alone, but with the lives of employees.

Why I say this is really a matter of corporate power is the fact that it rather blatantly ignores the religious beliefs of the employee and favors the rights of the employers.  In the case of Hobby Lobby, they qualify as what is known as a "tightly held" corporation, where a small group within the family owns at least 50% of the stock, which makes them the sole controlling interest.  In theory, this implies that company policy is theirs to decide and no one can override them, even if all other shareholders are against it.  But there are things corporations generally can't do regardless of how much they might like to.  Generally speaking, when we are dealing with issues of basic rights, the rights of one individual end where another individual's rights begin.  This is basically the inevitable flow of equal protection under the law.  One person's freedom of religion is all well and good, but they can't take their religion to the point of its destruction of another person's free exercise of their beliefs.  Herein lies the core problem with the idea of giving a corporation the privilege of religious exercise -- a corporation doesn't just consist of a single religious belief.  You will have employees who are of different beliefs and different views.  The Supreme Court's decision is basically saying that the rights of those who own the company are more important than the rights of the employees...  although in a sense, this is practically equivalent to saying that only the rights of the corporations can ever matter.

The baseline complaint here from Hobby Lobby and Conestoga was that they didn't want to have to pay for coverage for birth control, contraception, and abortions for their female employees.  There are a few things which are profoundly ironic about the nature of this complaint.  Number one is that the primary list of contraceptives they had issues with were all hormonal substitution pills and IUDs.  Their belief was that these pills prevented an ovum or embryo from attaching inside the uterus, and this was equivalent in their minds to abortion.  Even in the case itself, it was pointed out that this belief is demonstrably false since the contraceptives in question actually prevents ova from being produced in the first place, and if, by any chance, it does get produced, these devices/pills would not prevent them from implanting.  The complainants' counterargument?  That such facts are irrelevant because this is a matter of religious belief.  Wow.  So a fact that shows that the very definition of your complaint is indisputably false is not at all relevant?  Number two is the fact that when you get down to it, the notion that they are "paying" for providing this coverage is itself false.  The reality is that all health insurance companies (yes, "all") in this country recommend that you provide this coverage because birth control for women reduces the likelihood of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies and all the health issues that come with it and some of them serve preventive functions in certain types of cancers.  Abortions as well become absolutely necessary for cases like ectopic pregnancies and so on.  The end result of this on the insurance end is that it means that there is a lower probability of extremely costly things to cover, and that in turn means that by adding coverage for contraceptives and abortions, employers, employees, and the insurance companies all end up saving money.  In other words, an employer would actually have to pay to remove coverage rather than provide it.

Now in a sense, it is true that some part of the money that they're paying towards premiums is being pooled to cover for the costs of these contraceptives and services they find objectionable...  but the fact remains that employers actually have to suffer additional costs in order to remove that coverage because it ends up creating higher risk for far more expensive treatments you do have to cover.  But then the real core problem isn't just the infinite stupidity of the case -- after all, that alone is proven just on the basis of the fact that it is religious beliefs that birth the complaint.  It's the idea that employers should even have a say in what kind of medical employees should be able to receive.  I put it this way because not getting coverage for something is often tantamount to not being able to get it, especially for people who work in low-wage jobs.  One way of analogizing the problem is the idea of a patient who needs some sort of treatment...  is there any condition you can name where it should be necessary that the doctor must confer with the patient's employer?  Or that the patient's decision can be overridden by the majority stockholders in the company where the patient works?  Sure, we can think of plenty of cases where the patient's family should get involved, but is there even one that you can possibly imagine where it is valuable for a patient's boss to be the boss in the hospital?

I find that Justice Ginsburg's major point about the breadth of the decision was most salient because there won't ever be an example of a right-winger (and I mention right-wingers because only they view this decision in a favorable light) who is happy to say that this should extend to people of non-mainstream Christian belief.  The writeup of the majority (5 votes) decision was extremely focused on the sole issue of abortion, which is not really the ground that is covered by talking about religious beliefs.  Say that Satya Nadella (current CEO of Microsoft) is a really seriously devout Hindu.  Is it okay for Microsoft, then, to deny their employees coverage for any medication that is delivered in the form gelatin capsules or gelatin-coated tablets?  Why or why not?  Say Tom Cruise starts some company, and since he's well established as a crazy-up-the-wazoo Scientologist, should he be allowed to deny employees coverage for psychoactive medications like Prozac or Adderall?  Is there even one example on the Religious Right who would say that this is okay or had even considered it?

Here's the thing about how insurance works -- many people are paying into it in order to have a collective pool of money that can cover the costs of the select few who at some given moment need a large sum to be covered.  If a thousand people pay into the pool, the average per capita cost in theory goes down by a factor of nearly a thousand.  In practice it doesn't scale so linearly, but trying to do things to mitigate even the peak costs or the likelihood thereof helps reduce the average cost for everybody.  It is not that different in a sense from a restaurant that serves only in buffet style.  It generally costs the same for everybody, but what if I, as a vegetarian, feel that it wouldn't be fair for me to have to pay to subsidize the cost of someone else's Chicken Chettinad?  As it so happens, I've been to a handful of restaurants that make this distinction and actually charge vegetarians less for the buffet, but they're all small places with a relatively low turnout, and this doesn't really scale up well to larger establishments that serve more people.  Furthermore, the analogy doesn't quite work unless you start including the likelihood that I'll get sick from the veggies and sue the restaurateur or something like that. The real point where the analogy remains valid is that I am paying for things that I'm not particularly interested in along with the stuff that does interest me, and in doing so, I'm helping to keep things cheaper for everybody.  There's a lower limit to how cheap it can get because of the cost of making the food -- or in the case of health insurance, the baseline cost of care -- but that's fine.  Likewise, when I pay for my health insurance, I may be paying into a pool that covers the cost of some woman's birth control or emergency contraceptives... And as a man, I'm obviously not a person who'd be using that myself, but so what?  My needs have no weight on that woman's needs nor should they, and by paying into one collective pool benefits everybody.  That's just how it works when you are dealing with something that is designed to benefit the many rather than the individual.

What I find even stranger is not so much the obvious oversights brought up in the dissent, or even the abject disregard for the facts that utterly disprove the validity of the original complaint.  It's the nature of the argument made in favor of the motion.  For one, it maintained an absolute unflinching tunnel vision on the issue of abortion, which is in every way a disgrace to the function of the Supreme Court which has a duty to analyze the broader implications of any legal dispute.  The main thing that Alito brought up in his writeup was the idea that the mandate for coverage was not the least restrictive way of handling the greater interest of making healthcare coverage affordable and availed to all.  But for all his rambling on this point, there was not one effort to give an example of what could possibly be less restrictive.  His only means of support for this was to point out the costs (fines) of opting out as Obamacare is currently defined, and this proves therefore that the least restrictive means is to make the mandate on corporations not a mandate at all.  The other problem is that it cited the need to extend the Free Speech rights granted to corporate entities to include Freedom of Religion as not doing so would fly in the face of the modern-day corporate legal climate.  Dare we ask who created that legal climate?  Oh, yeah...  It was the same 5 so-called justices who carved out the scarlet letter that is our current interpretation of corporate personhood in the first place!

Corporate personhood itself is not a new thing... It goes back as far as the concept of corporations, but it was always a basic legal shorthand that allowed an artificial entity to be created so that corporations could have at least some basic rights at all.  That itself is not a bad thing.  But it becomes a problem when one's interpretation of "personhood" starts imputing qualities that are more subjectively "personal" like religious beliefs or "feelings".  But you know what?  I'm all for treating corporations like people.  The reason why is that being a person means you will often have to do things you don't like.  Paying for things you don't otherwise support is something we all do.  How many people do not like the idea of their tax dollars being used to support more conflict in the Middle East?  How many people are opposed to government subsidizing oil companies or big banks?  But we still pay those taxes because not doing so would put the country deeper in debt and make everybody worse off.  Those who are opposed to it, rather than saying they're against it and refuse to take part will instead take efforts and petition the government to stop doing these things entirely so that eventually nobody has to pay for it.  If you really have an issue with the mandate for covering women's reproductive rights, sure, you're an insufferable asshole, but that's your right.  The thing you should be doing is driving a motion to have that mandate removed entirely for everybody and suck it up until such time that it happens, if it ever does.  Heck, if Hobby Lobby really wants to be treated like a person, they'd do well to remember that one person's rights do not supersede the rights of the 13,000 people in that person's employ.  Try and imagine GM as a person; A person who happened to be complicit in the deaths of 13 people (that this "person" admits to).  Usually, when a person is responsible for 13 deaths, they don't just get a fine and have to pay wrongful death settlements.  I'm thinking that if Koch Industries was a person, it'd be the cuckoo guy in the corner with his fingers in his ears who screams that octagons have 5 sides because he says so and that automatically makes it true.  Oh wait... I actually knew that guy.  No person ever gets the right to say "I don't like the law, so I demand the right to opt out of it."  If a corporation is a person, why should it be any different for them?  Or maybe, just maybe...  the "personhood" they are granted is considerably more vaunted than those of actual persons who actually exist in reality and not just on paper.

I think most anyone would agree that a person's religious beliefs are a deeply personal thing.  I'm sure the family that owns Hobby Lobby are very sincere in their belief, but none of that is in any way relevant.  How on Earth is it reasonable to paint Hobby Lobby with the same brush as its owners when that paint is something that is personal?  Do the personal characteristics of the top brass determine what applies for everyone below them?  Does that mean that all of BP was homosexual while John Browne was in charge?  In all fairness, I don't think that any of the justices were that galactically stupid, but then those who voted in favor were conservatives, so I wouldn't put it past them.  No, I think this boils down to favoring the preferences of the wealthy over those of anyone else.  This is corporatist pandering, plain and simple.  Anyone would realize that the employees of a company are not beholden to the same beliefs as the proprietor, and are inherently a diverse selection of beliefs, cultures, and ethnicities.  Letting the preferences of those who own the corporations gain line-item veto power on laws they want to follow means those few people are granted "rights" not afforded to their employees. It's a pretty patent violation of the concept of equal protection under the law.  Why should it be up to the Fundie Christian owners of a company what portions of laws they want to follow, especially if the set of beliefs followed by their employees is not monolithic?  Well, duh!  It's because they're frickin' loaded; that's why!  Let's not forget that this is a government of, by, and for the highest bidder.

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