Retrospective on Hobby Lobby

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014, on the (then recent) Burwell v Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, which ruled that owners of for-profit corporations could withhold certain healthcare benefits (i.e. contraceptives) if their owners had religious objections.  I was reminded of this one because of Trump’s recent rule allowing federal contractors to discriminate based on religious views.  While only tangential to the present issue, I thought it was a good explanation of the rationale behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and how one might argue around religious exemptions.

As I may or may not have mentioned before, my boyfriend has a law degree.  So I get to hear a lot of lawyerly opinions on the recent Burwell vs Hobby Lobby decision, both from him and his friends.  And they seem to contrast with the opinions I get from atheist blogs, where there’s lots of panicking about the consequences, but very little explanation of the mechanical details of the decision.

The Hobby Lobby decision was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law from the 90s.  The RFRA says,

Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

Laws specifically targeted against religions are already unconstitutional, but the RFRA adds religious protection from neutral laws.  For example, if a company bans hats among employees, that is a neutral rule that disproportionately affects certain minority religions which mandate wearing hats.
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Guns, terrorism, and distortion

Generally I prefer not to comment on “news”, and I will continue that trend here. But we all know gun violence in the US is bad, right? You don’t need to pay attention to the news to know that! You can just read Wikipedia. (And I’m being lazy in my research to demonstrate just how easy it is to find this stuff.)

In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 persons), and 33,636 deaths due to “injury by firearms” (10.6 deaths per 100,000 persons). These deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides, 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with “undetermined intent”.

This is vastly higher than it is in other wealthy countries, and it’s only gotten higher in recent years.  I used to think that the death rate by guns must be dwarfed by that of car crashes, but no, it’s actually quite comparable (although with a lower injury rate):

In 2010, there were an estimated 5,419,000 crashes, 30,296 deadly, killing 32,999, and injuring 2,239,000.

Here’s what’s not comparable: number of deaths by mass shootings. If you only pay attention to mass shootings in the news, this will vastly underestimate gun violence in the US.

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Cap and trade

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, a commenter said that both frameworks have problems with externalized costs.  According to the internet, “Externalized costs are costs generated by producers but carried by society as a whole.”  For example, pollution.

I want to discuss externalized costs through the lens of a specific concrete example: cap and trade policies in California.  I choose this example because I have a friend willing to explain it to me because I live in California and know all about it.

Generally speaking, cap and trade is a policy to reduce carbon emissions (or greenhouse gasses).  The government auctions off “allowances” that give companies permission to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions.  There are a fixed number of allowances available (that’s the “cap” part), and further carbon emissions are restricted.  The companies are free to buy and sell the allowances at prices of their own choosing (that’s the “trade” part).  The number of allowances decrease over time in order to meet the government’s pollution reduction goals.

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The primary election is the election

I’ve seen many people lamenting that the US has this two-party system, and since one of the parties is a garbage fire, we basically have the one Democratic candidate foisted upon us, regardless of whether we actually like them. And, well, yes. That’s what democracy is, the foisting of popular candidates upon people who don’t necessarily like them.

But if I may point out the obvious, we do in fact get a say in the Democratic candidate, during the primary election. Heck, we don’t even have to vote for a Democrat during the primaries, since one of the major candidates is still an independent. As far as my own vote is concerned, the primary election is the election, and the general election is a formality.

I think everyone knows this, so what I’m really advocating is a shift in thinking. The primaries, which occur between February and June 2020, are the time to pick your favorite candidate, and let your political ideals shine. The general election, in November 2020, is the time to put out the garbage fire.

Of course, thinking about it this way, there are certainly aspects of the Democratic primaries that are disappointingly undemocratic. In 2016 there was a lot of talk about superdelegates, but I don’t actually think that’s the worst problem. (Anyway, superdelegate rules have been reformed since then.)

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I joined YIMBY

So, in a bit of personal news, I joined the local YIMBY group. It’s a political group that fights for more housing.

California is currently in a housing crisis, which particularly impacts my generation because we move around a lot so we aren’t as protected by rent control. Also, we spent all our money on avocado toast. Many cities in California will welcome large companies that provide many jobs, but they refuse to let developers build housing near those jobs, leading to long commutes with large carbon footprints, from overpriced apartments in neighborhoods that don’t have as much political power to block housing development, because the older residents are poor. We end up displacing those poor residents and contributing to gentrification, all because the wealthier city where we work decided that if they built housing it would change the character of the neighborhood. It’s a complicated problem, but the solution must involve new housing.

I’m trying not to argue about it though. The important thing is not to persuade people, but to bring it to the attention of people who already agree with us and say, join our fight! This is a bit difficult since this is a blog with an international readership and housing is a very local issue. Nonetheless, housing shortages are a common political issue in many cities of the world, and you might check this map to see if there’s a YIMBY organization near you. Simply joining an organization makes politicians pay attention, but you might find other ways to contribute as well. And even if you’re not in California, the SF YIMBY group is a great informational resource that may help you understand your local situation.

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Warren is to the left of Sanders (and other observations)

When I recently read up on DW-NOMINATE, I learned a few things about certain political figures. DW-nominate gives every senator a score based on how left/right their voting behavior is, and sometimes the score does not match the senator’s public image.

In the 115th congress (2017-2019), the leftmost senator was… Elizabeth Warren. Not Bernie Sanders, where did you get that idea? After Elizabeth Warren, is Kamala Harris. Then we have another presidential hopeful, Cory Booker. And finally, we have Bernie Sanders–tied with Tammy Baldwin.

I made a plot! It’s copied directly from Voteview, with labels added for certain senators of interest.

A graph showing the DW-NOMINATE scores of the senate from 2017-2019 in two dimensions.

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Call your congress critters on SESTA/FOSTA

Remember when Tumblr decided to ban adult content? Well one thing I learned from all of that, is that it’s traceable to a specific set of laws, passed earlier this year, and which will begin to be enforced in January. I’m referring to SESTA & FOSTA.

I don’t really need to explain it, since Vox has already done a good job, and there’s a website dedicated to stopping SESTA & FOSTA. Here I give the short version.

SESTA & FOSTA are a pair of laws intended to fight sex trafficking. Under previous law, websites with user-created content could not be held liable for the civil wrongs of its users (however they are liable for federal crimes and intellectual property laws). SESTA & FOSTA add an exception, making websites liable for sex trafficking and sex workers who advertise services. Lumping together sex trafficking and sex work does not make sense.  And arguably this does not stop trafficking or sex work, but rather makes things less safe for sex workers and trafficking victims.

In any case, the proof is in the pudding that SESTA & FOSTA are too broad and vaguely written. Many tech companies, including very large ones that can certainly afford liability insurance, now think it’s too risky to host content that has even the vaguest resemblance to sex work. I mean, Tumblr banned illustrated porn. Facebook’s new content guidelines are so vague that they could include solicitations for dating, or even private banter between couples.

The upshot is that this passed congress without any significant opposition. The Senate voted 97 to 2, and the House voted 388 to 25. Clearly most of congress didn’t understand the implications of what they voted on. Call your representatives and let them know.