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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - Render to Caesar

by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 98 = 16,268
SPX – 13 = 1852
NAS – 60 = 4173
10 YR YLD - .03 = 2.70%
OIL + 1.03 = 100.22
GOLD – 5.90 = 1306.80
SILV - .27 = 19.84

Durable goods orders increased 2.2% in February, ending 2 straight months of declines. Durable goods are items like refrigerators, cars, and airplanes that are built to last for several years. But we need to dig into this report just a little; orders for non-defense goods, excluding aircraft, were actually down 1.3%. This might also indicate that first quarter business investment is weak.

The US Census Bureau began releasing data from its 2012 Economic Census, a survey of American businesses taken every 5 years. The enormous boom in domestic oil and gas production helped make the mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction industry one of the fastest growing sectors of the US economy. The number of businesses rose 26% from 2007 to 2012, employment in the sector rose 24% and revenue surged 34%. Meanwhile, from 2007 to 2012 manufacturing lost 2.1 million jobs, now down to just 11.3 million people employed in manufacturing.

The finance and insurance sector shed 390,000 jobs between 2007 and 2012 and industry revenue fell by $137 billion, nearly 4%. But revenues in 2012 were still up 61% from 15 years earlier. There were one million retail stores operating in 2012. But the retail trade sector shed 65,000 establishments and nearly 778,000 jobs from five years earlier. Internet-based selling was something of a bright spot, with the number of “nonstore retailers” rising 12%, though employment was basically flat. The health care and social assistance sector is the nation’s largest employer, with 18.6 million workers in 2012. That’s up 11% from five years earlier, and revenue for the industry rose 23% to just over $2 trillion.

President Obama said after a summit with top EU officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin had miscalculated if he thought he could divide the West or count on its indifference over his annexation of Crimea. The United States and the European Union agreed to work together to prepare possible tougher economic sanctions in response to Russia's behavior in Ukraine. The sanctions could possibly include the energy sector.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court went back to revisit the Affordable Care Act, hearing the consolidated arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp, in which the owners of the for-profit businesses Hobby Lobby and Conestoga claim they should be allowed to deny their employees health insurance coverage for certain types of birth control based on the owners' personal religious beliefs.

 In enacting the ACA, Congress required large employers to provide basic preventive care for employees. That turned out to include all 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Under the law, religious nonprofits were exempted from this requirement, but for-profit corporations were not. Hobby Lobby's attorneys argue that the law violates the company's constitutional right to religious freedom by forcing it to cover all forms of birth control or pay steep fines.

This is a very interesting case on several levels. The Supreme Court, in business cases, has held that "incorporation's basic purpose is to create a legally distinct entity, with legal rights, obligations, powers, and privileges different from those of the natural individuals who created it, who own it, or whom it employs." In recent constitutional law cases, however, the justices seem to have forgotten this basic principle of corporate law. In Citizens United, the court effectively held that corporations enjoyed the same free speech rights as ordinary individuals.

Now, in the Hobby Lobby case, the owners of the craft store chain want the court to again forget about the basic principles of corporate law and decide that corporate personhood extends beyond free speech to religious freedoms. It seems a bit of a stretch. Hobby Lobby’s owners certainly have constitutionally protected religious rights, but Hobby Lobby's owners aren't required by the law to do anything. The legal duty falls on Hobby Lobby, the company, not its owners. If Hobby Lobby fails to provide the required insurance, the company, not the owners, is responsible.

The Hobby Lobby case would require the Supremes to "pierce the corporate veil"; legalese for looking behind the corporation's legal identity and basing a ruling on the interests and desires of the owners of the firm, but Hobby Lobby's owners only want to pierce the veil for this one issue, birth control, while maintaining the protections of the corporate form for everything else, including limited liability. The whole point of corporations being “people” is that they are distinct from their owners, officers, and employees.

Hobby Lobby should only have the rights of legal personhood that are essential for its operations. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote nearly 200 years ago, "Being the mere creature of law," the corporation "possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it either expressly or as incidental to its very existence." In Citizens United, the Supreme Court said this includes some limited speech rights, as we ordinarily expect firms to advertise and communicate with employees and customers.

Not everyone, or even a majority, agree with the Citizens United ruling. A February 2010 ABC News-Washington Post poll found 80% of Americans opposed Citizens United and 72% support the idea of a legislative workaround to reinstate the limits the court lifted. And expanding corporate personhood to religious liberty, well that’s even more of a stretch.

Until 1990, the court applied a tough test to examine laws that disadvantaged people's religious beliefs. Then, the justices changed direction in a case involving penalties for the use of peyote as part of a Native American religious ceremony, the court ruled that as long as a law that applies generally to all citizens is neutrally applied, it is constitutional, even though it may have some unhappy consequences for some believers. 

Congress didn’t like the decision, and in 1993 passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Under the act, if a law imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion, it has to meet a high threshold for justification. Hobby Lobby claims the religious practice of the corporation now faces a substantial burden. And if there is a burden, can the government justify it with a “compelling state interest” and the “least restrictive means” of reaching it.

The case raises some interesting philosophical arguments that began with the liberal justices peppering Hobby Lobby’s lawyers with slippery-slope hypotheticals.  If Hobby Lobby can deny coverage for contraception, why couldn’t a Christian-Scientist-owned company deny health insurance completely?  What if a Muslim-owned company wanted to make employees were burqas on the job? What then?

 “How does a corporation exercise religion?” that was a question posed by Justice Sotomayor yesterday.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who many expect to be the swing vote in this case, questioned both sides aggressively. Kennedy asked why the company couldn't just choose not to provide health insurance at all, pay a tax and then raise salaries to allow employees to purchase health care on their own. Assuming that would be a financial "wash," Kennedy asked, "Then what would your case be?"

And that may very well be the key question of the day, for two reasons. First, is it a “substantial burden’ for a company to not offer health insurance to its employees? For Hobby Lobby they are looking at about $26 million in taxes, but that is cheaper than the cost of the insurance; a bigger burden is the loss of competitive advantage. Justice Kagan, in particular, effectively said “so what?”  But is that really true? Is it really a trivial thing to not offer a desired benefit to employees?  I guess we’ll see in June. The second reason is that the individual mandate is a tax.

Let’s take the way-back machine to the summer of 2012. And we land on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington DC. Chief Justice John Roberts has just issued a decision in the case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. Surprisingly, Roberts sided with the 4 liberal justices to determine that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and that the individual mandate is not valid as an exercise of Congress’ commerce clause power but the majority upholds the mandate as a tax. 

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the controlling opinion: "The individual mandate cannot be upheld as an exercise of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause. That Clause authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce, not to order individuals to engage in it. In this case, however, it is reasonable to construe what Congress has done as increasing taxes on those who have a certain amount of income, but choose to go without health insurance. Such legislation is within Congress's power to tax."

Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, relies upon the individual mandate, which basically says you get insurance or pay a penalty, and that mandate is a tax. We all have to pay taxes, individuals and corporations alike. There are many ways the government spends tax dollars that I don’t like; you probably feel the same way; someone might even have religious objections to the way the government spends tax dollars. But we all have to pay taxes; that decision was handed down a long time ago: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And we’ll see if the Supreme Court can recognize the difference.

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