So, one of the big news stories of the current moment is Indiana’s disastrous passing of SB568 and signing of said bill by Governor Mike Pence.
On its face, this bill is a stupid idea. As a skeptic who likes to examine issues from every possible angle and who doesn’t really go for either/or, zero-sum solutions, even I feel comfortable with the absolutism of “this is a stupid idea.” For at least a few reasons:
1) We already have a constitutionally-protected right to practice our religion of choice freely without punishment for doing so via the Bill of Rights’ 1st amendment. How does this bill add or enhance that existing freedom?
2) If the bill is not meant to be a “license to discriminate” or if other states (and the federal RFRA act) have explicit language saying that civil rights law supersedes the provisions established in the RFRA, what exactly does this bill do? Again, how does this bill add or enhance our existing freedoms with regard to practicing the religion of our choice?
3) This bill was passed by a Republican majority and signed by a Republican governor. Isn’t much of the Republican platform centered on eliminating unnecessary laws and regulation (or at least not creating new unnecessary laws and regulation)? Wouldn’t the time (i.e. lawmakers’ salaries), energy, printing costs, etc. to pass this bill be considered “government waste?” How is this bill not unnecessary, not wasteful?
Up above, I referred to the passing and signing of this bill as disastrous. Since the signing, numerous huge companies (particularly companies in high-growth industries, like tech companies) have expressed major disapproval of this bill. Some have immediately divested, some canceled major events, some are paying to relocate Indiana-based employees who now feel unsafe in the state.
Whatever your opinion on SB568 (good, bad, OK, indifferent, fair, unfair, necessary, unnecessary), the consequences of Mike Pence signing it into law couldn’t be more clear. We now live in a world where CORPORATIONS won’t stand for government-sanctioned discrimination. Even one of the world’s largest employers, with a unassailable reputation for treating its workers like shit, says this bill is not OK. It’s kind of like your heavy-metal neighbor who plays in a band that meets in his garage at 2a nightly saying the old dude across the street is playing his opera records “a little too loud.” Why are corporations taking the lead here? I have no conclusive answer; that’s a blog post for someone else to write.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas, a similar bill sits on Governor Asa Hutchinson’s desk. He said he was going to sign it. Even after Indiana’s post-signing shit-storm, he said he intended to sign it. A whole bunch of companies said, “don’t you dare.” Then a petition to not-sign it reached his desk with his own son’s name on the list of signatories. How embarrassing. Kids these days can’t even be bothered to share their parents’ backwards worldview, and worse, Dad had to hear about it from the Internet. But I digress. I don’t know about you but something tells me that junior signing the petition was a good PR nugget for the press conference, but that the corporate “don’t you dare” was probably more effective. He now says he’s not going to sign it. At the very least, I raise a glass to a public leader who admits he has the ability to change his opinion on an issue without concern for being irreparably tarred as a flip-flopper.
This leaves us with this uncomfortable fact: corporations are successfully wielding money and economic threats to effect changes in government. They are inserting money into what is supposed to be a conversation between lawmakers and the citizen constituents they pledged to represent and serve. Corporate money more than dissenting public outcry (because there’s plenty of that, too) is affecting how our democracy operates. This has always happened but it is happening now with pretty astonishing success rates.
Now, in this case, it happens to be an effect I find positive. Corporations are using their power to speak out against state-sanctioned discrimination. That seems like a good use of power to me. Problem is, corporations have been increasingly using their power (and that power has become increasingly more effective) for things I find quite negative: financial deregulation, backward changes to environmental policy, regulation and enforcement, voter ID/voter restriction laws, keeping the minimum wage at below-the-federal-poverty-line level, etc. The “evil” Koch Brothers are characterized as such for daring to use their money to buy their way.
How is this situation different? Well, apart from the fact that using corporate power to fight discrimination has a different mouth-feel as compared to using corporate power to deregulate a financial sector, it really isn’t all that different. So amidst all the “Yay! Winning!” I am feeling about the companies unequivocally condemning discrimination (and moreover, asserting that diversity is not nice on paper but KEY to their continued financial success), I am also feeling a sinking feeling about our accepting that it’s OK for corporations to buy any government influence. In any direction. What happens when a corporation spends a bazillion dollars to lobby for the minimum wage to stay at a level ensuring that the corporation’s lowest paid workers who work 40+ hours/week will still fall below the federal poverty line ($15,930 for a couple, $20,090 for a family of 3)? Or when a corporation uses its money to run the country’s #1 24/7 news network?