The Separation of Church and State

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States states that:Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

“The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a Maine tuition program that does not allow public funds to go to religious schools,…

“The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the majority and the court’s three liberals in dissent.”

“’There is nothing neutral about Maine’s program,” he wrote. “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.’

“Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the dissenters, answered, ‘This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.’”  “Supreme court-Maine-religious schools”

Where public funds are provided to support the education of our children, they should not discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs. That is what the separation of church and state means to me. I don’t understand Justice Sotomayor’s position. Public funding of all schools except religious one is religious discrimination pure and simple. It is the State interfering in religious choices.

In my opinion, the relevant government authority choosing to support the education of children should provide the parents of each child with a tuition voucher that can be used at any certified school (including home schooling). As an aside, while I defend the right of parents to school their own children at home, I think it is a mistake to do so as the school experience is more than what is in the text books. Quite clearly, banning the use of such vouchers at Catholic, Hebrew or other religious schools would be discriminatory and should not be allowed (as the Court ruled).

I also support a Universal Basic Income. “Our social safety net” Disallowing its use to send your kids to a religious school would violate fundamental principles of equal treatment and religious freedom that we hopefully all believe in.

If we can keep it

From the founding of the American republic, we have had different views on policies to improve our “more perfect union.” That we have lived and flourished together is the result of several important features of American society that we should never take for granted.

The first is a constitution that establishes a limited government that provides maximum scope for each of us to live our individual lives as we see fit. The potential frictions from our different views are thus minimized.

But the individual freedom structure of our government and its accompanying laws are not enough to explain our relative success. Civil society can only flourish within that structure if our values are virtuous and our cultural norms support tolerance and cooperation. Such norms derive from tradition but evolve with experience of what works. This was the insight of Fusionism—the need for both freedom (limited government and free markets) and good values. “Popularizer [William F] Buckley and politician [Ronald] Reagan took the productive tension between freedom and heritage and translated it into political action under the term “fusionism.” “Conservative nationalist or fusionist manque”

“As far as viewing individual freedom as the supreme principle, Mr. Fusionism Frank Meyer explained in his “Western Civilization,” that freedom did rank first politically, as what he called the ‘criterion principle, the guide.’ But ‘the application of principle to circumstances demands a prudential art’ derived from ‘the intricate fibers of tradition and civilization, carried in the minds of men from generation to generation…. The compelling, if secondary, claims of other principles, though not decisive to judgment in the political sphere in the way that freedom is, do nevertheless bear upon every concrete political problem.’ So, practical action requires balancing freedom and beliefs.” 

Culture informs how we use our freedom. Our personal survival and flourishing (self-interest) naturally have priority. But our cultural and moral values help inform our behavior toward ourselves and toward our neighbors that best serve our flourishing and happiness. Our personal welfare also depends on how we treat others.  In the fusionist spirit, two of the critical elements of successful societies are trust in the institutions that govern them and respect for those with whom they disagree.

Political debate in America today is too often merely finger pointing and damning the other side as disingenuous—treating them as enemies rather than partners in brainstorming sessions to find the best solution to opposing views. The pros and cons of proposals and an understanding of the sincere needs and concerns of the other side and the development of compromises and consensus are not possible in such an environment. Our defense of free speech is critical but of limited value if we are just shouting at each other and forget that listening is an important part of a productive conversation.

More deeply disturbing and dangerous is the widespread loss of confidence in our institutions. How best to protect ourselves and our families and our community from Covid-19, for example, should not be a political issue. We should be able to rely on the best advice coming from our public health agencies as they gather and evaluate the evidence. But these institutions bent to political pressures and lost public confidence. “Should you get vaccinated for covid-19”   “The unnecessary fight over covid-19”

More disturbing still is former President Donald Trump’s persistent lies to his supporters that he actually won the 2020 election, thus undermining trust in our elections. That Trump makes such claims is less surprising than that so many of his supporter believe it despite the almost total failure of any evidence presented in court (thus under oath) to establish voter fraud or miscounting, and the rejection of such claims by Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and  Trump’s appointed Attorney General, William Barr, who called the claims “BS.” There is no way anyone really seeking the truth can still believe Trump’s claim of a stolen election. But a lot of people still seem to.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. We all listened to Trump’s failed effort to persuade George Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find 11,780 more votes for him. “Trump-Raffensperger call transcript on Georgia vote”   When such efforts were exhausted, Trump explored ways to overturn the election results in Congress with the help of “legal” advice from John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani. The final desperate plan was to convince Vice President Mike Pence to reject the Electoral College vote and declare Trump President. The scheme was illegal. The Vice President’s legal adviser, Greg Jacob, explained the illegal nature of the plan to its author, John Eastman, and to the Vice President as did Judge Michael Luttig. VP Pence refused Trump’s pressure to overturn the election, for which we must all be very grateful.

In response to Pence’s refusal to violate the law, “Trump tweeted that Pence ‘didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,’ prompting rioters Trump had sent to the Capital to “chant ‘hang Mike Pence’ and erect mock gallows.  Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney has described testimony from Trump aides saying he responded by saying Pence ‘deserves it.’” “How did Trump respond when mob chanted hang Mike Pence?”

The mob that attacked the Capital on Jan 6, 2021 was sent by Donald Trump. “Five people died during the attack or in the immediate aftermath.”  “January 6 attack on capitol-guide to what we now know”  “A grand jury has accused Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four associates with seditious conspiracy tied to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.” “Proud Boys leader charged with seditious conspiracy related to Jan 6”   “Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, and 10 other members or associates have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.”  “Stewart Rhodes arrested-Oath Keepers-Jan 6 insurrection” Two of them have pleaded guilty so far.

Trump’s behavior on Jan 6, such as his long delay in taking any action, remains somewhat cloudy because some of the key Republicans involved that day have refused the subpoenas to testify before the Jan 6 Commission:

“Those gaps are largely the result of the refusal of key Trump allies to participate in the investigation, a list that includes his former chief of staff Mark Meadows as well as his most prominent defenders on Capitol Hill: GOP Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Scott Perry (Pa.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Mo Brooks (Ala.), all of whom have rejected congressional subpoenas to appear before the panel” “Jan 6 committee is telling a story but plenty of gaps remain”

This is an outrage. It is disrespectful to those of us, hopefully all Americans, who want and deserve to know the full truth of what happened that day (and before).

What if Trump is allowed to run again in 2024 and claims that he has won even if he hasn’t?  Will our institutions and public trust in them withstand the better trained and better prepared Trump insurgents next time. Judge Luttig issued a strong “warning to a country whose democracy, he said, is on ‘a knife’s edge.’”

 “Ignoring Jan 6 hearings Michael Luttig explains why you shouldn’t”   “Read Luttig statement”

Trump seems to be preparing for such an event.  “Speaking during a Faith and Freedom event in Nashville, Tenn., Trump said [of] the defendants charged in the Capitol riot… if I become president, someday if I decide to do it, I will be looking at them very, very seriously for pardons. Very, very seriously….” “Trump-says-he-would-look-very-very-seriously-at-pardons-for-jan-6-defendants-if-reelected”

I hope that he won’t be allowed to run:  “The criminal case against Donald Trump”

Econ 101:  The Price of Oil

Supply and demand.  Supply and demand.

Every economist of all political persuasions knows that the price of oil in a free market is determined by its supply and demand. The price of oil has risen a lot because its supply has been reduced by the Russian sanctions and the war in Ukraine and because with the easing of the covid pandemic restrictions demand has returned for people to travel on the road and by air. Before you decide what you think should be done about this, let’s be sure you understand how supply and demand works in this (and most every other) case.

The price of oil (let’s talk about gasoline) equates its supply with demand. Gas (short for gasoline in this note) refiners (and those who search for it and drill, pump it out of the ground and transport it to the refineries) and their retail gas stations that sell it to us, sell it for the highest price they can get away with.  But if they set their price too high their customers will buy from a cheaper gas station around the corner and or reduce their driving or will double up for the commute to the office, etc.  People cannot buy more than is available. Allowing the market to freely set the price means that those with a stronger demand get it and those with a more moderate need pass it up. The available supply goes to demanders whose demand is prioritized by those most willing to pay for it. Gas’s high price rations out those with weaker demand.

Suppliers will continue to explore and drill etc., as long as it is profitable to do so (i.e., as long as the pump price is higher than the cost of finding and refining it). Gas’s high price will encourage the production of more of it.

This helps us evaluate what to expect or what to propose in response to current high prices.  The supply side is much more complicated by government regulations and OPEC monopoly agreements among producers, so let’s start with the demand side.

Those of you my age will remember the gas price caps imposed by tricky Dick Nixon in 1971 as part of his wage and price controls to fight inflation. It was a wonderful economics lesson for almost everyone. At the lower price of gas at the pump, demand exceed supply and therefore there was not enough for everyone to buy it who wanted it at that price (demand exceeded supply). Thus, long lines formed as people waited hours for their turn at the pump. Some cities alternated days in which people with license plates ending in an odd number or even number could enter the city, and other crazy things.  If demand is not being rationed by price, government bureaucrats will decide who gets it; or the willingness to wait in line for hours will be added to the price as a rationing devise.

On the other side of the supply/demand equation, price caps reduce the incentives to find and produce more gas. Many factors influence the costs and thus profitability of increasing gas supplies. Environmental regulations, pipeline approvals or disapprovals, some well-considered and some less so, raise the cost of supplying gas. OPEC (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Iran) and geopolitical factors complicate the picture. For many years after Nixon’s wage and price controls most everyone understood that they were a very bad idea.

Hopefully we don’t have to learn that lesson again. The environmental and other regulations that increase the cost of supplying gas and thus reduce its supply need to be carefully considered and justified by honest cost benefit analysis.

Econ 101: The Value of Money

During a discussion of Bitcoin with friends, it became clear to me that it might be helpful if I explained some fundamentals of how the value of money is determined. Like most everything else, money’s value is ultimately determined by its supply and demand.

Demand for money reflects the public’s need to keep an inventory of it in order to use it for making payments.  Bitcoin are generally held as a speculative asset rather than for payments as almost no one will accept them in payment. “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”

The supply of money is determined by those who created it, generally central banks. Generally central banks issue their currency, thus increasing its supply, by lending it (generally to banks) or by buying assets, generally their government’s debt.  When anyone holding that currency no longer wants it and has the right to redeem it, the central bank takes it back in exchange for the asset it purchased in the first place, thus reducing the money supply.  Under the gold standard, currency was redeemed for gold.  The rules governing a central bank’s issuing and redeeming its currency defines the nature of its monetary regime.  That is the topic of this econ 101 lesson.

As none of us has ever redeemed our currency, it is understandable that my friends confused spending their money with redeeming it.  Spending it transfers it to someone else without changing its supply, while redeeming it reduces its supply.  Cryptocurrencies add a new category to our discussion of money.  As noted by “a billionaire hedge-fund manager… cryptocurrencies are a ‘limited supply of nothing.’”  “Crypto skeptics growing”

As discussed further below, the supply of Bitcoin increases slowly and steadily over time as determined by an unchangeable formula and Bitcoin cannot be redeemed for anything.  The U.S. dollar and virtually every other national currency in the world grow at more erratic rates as determined by their issuing central banks.  So what makes the value of the dollar relatively stable over long periods of time?  The fall in its value by about 8% over the last month is nothing compared to bitcoin’s fall of 23% over the same period and over 50% over the last half year.  Over the past 15 years the dollar’s value has declined less than 2% each year.  Unlike Bitcoin, dollars are widely accepted for payments that are denominated in dollars, including our taxes, and thus held (demanded) to make such payments.  Almost no Bitcoins are held to make payments as almost no one will accept them for payments.  But I want to focus on a currency’s supply.

There are fundamentally three broad approaches to determining the supply of a currency.  Historically, the supply of most currencies were determined by fixing their price to what they could be redeemed for, such as gold or silver. I have called such a system for regulating money’s supply, a hard anchor. “Real SDR Currency Board”  The value of a currency can be fixed (the price set) to something real such as gold or a basket of goods.  A country with a strict gold standard, which the U.S. never really had, issues its currency (dollars) whenever anyone wants to pay the fixed gold price for more of them.  If the dollar price of gold in the market rises above its official price, there would be an arbitrage profit from buying gold from the central bank at its lower official price.  Such gold could be resold in the market at the higher price.  But the key point is that this mechanism (what I call currency board rules) of redeeming currency reduces its supply and thus reduces prices in this currency in the market (deflation).  Several of the monetary systems I helped establish, work in this way (Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina). “One Currency for Bosnia”

The most common system of monetary control today is for the central bank to determine its currency’s supply by buying or selling it in the market (the Federal Reserve can buy treasury bills, etc. to increase the supply of dollars).  Most central banks today adjust their money supplies in an effort to achieve an inflation target (a much more complicated subject). “Czech National Bank: Inflation Targeting in Transition Economies”  Generally they do so by setting an intermediate target for a short-term interest at which market participants (banks) can borrow from the central bank.  Such fiat currencies, such as the U.S. dollar, are not redeemable but are widely accepted in payment for goods, services and debts.

This brings us to Bitcoin.  The supply of Bitcoin is determined by a formula that predetermines its gradual growth to 21 million by 2140.  There are currently about 19 million in existence.  The supply is increased by giving them to successful miners for verifying the legitimacy of each transaction (another complicated subject).  Thus, the issuer (the formula) received services (protection against double spending the same coin) but no assets such as gold or treasury bills for creating and issuing new Bitcoins.  Once created, an issued bitcoin can never be redeemed (i.e. the outstanding supply can never be reduced).  When you spend or give away your Bitcoins you are circulating them to other holders, not redeeming them.

When my imaginary aunt Sally discusses Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies more generally, she tends to mix up the marvelous new payment technologies for paying my dollars all over the world with private money such as Bitcoin and Tether.  She also doesn’t seem to quite understand that most money has always been privately produced including the U.S. dollars that we spend in various ways (occasionally even by handing over cash).  “A shift in monetary regimes”

But these distinctions are critical when considering what role the government should play in our monetary system.  The truly amazing technical progress we have experienced and the dramatic increase in the standard of living of the average person it has delivered over the last century was made possible by a government that provided a general framework in which we, the consuming beneficiaries of this progress, could make informed choices.  Our government, wisely, generally did not make such decisions for use.

With that in mind consider “a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional leaders, [from 26 influential technology personalities that] outlined what it described as potentially grave dangers of cryptocurrencies.” They are absolutely correct to expose and condemn the technical and economic weaknesses of blockchain technology—the distributed ledger with which Bitcoin claims to avoid the need for trusted third parties to record and document payment transaction (as happens on a centralized ledger when you pay from your bank deposit). 

But the fact that foolish people invest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies does not justify our government prohibiting and restricting them from doing so.  The government requires the banks in which we put our money to publish properly audited financial statements of the assets backing our deposits and to set minimum capital requirements to protect against the possible loss of bank asset value (e.g., loan defaults).  Cryptocurrencies claiming redeemability at a stable value (so called stable coins) should similarly be required to disclose the rules by which they operate and the composition and value of the assets backing their digital coins.  In short, government regulations should help us decide what we want to buy and/or hold without restricting the ability of fintech pioneers to explore and innovate products to offer.

Overly restrictive regulations create incentives for incumbents to create barriers to competition.  Large and intrusive governments tend toward corruption.  The Federal Reserve System seems quite aware of these risks as it cautiously explores whether to compete with the private sector in developing a central bank digital currency.  “Econ 101-Central  Bank digital currency-CBDC”

So when considering the government’s role in money and payments be sure to clearly distinguish money from payment technology and limit government to setting the rules of the game that maximize the ability of private consumers to make wise choices. But perhaps the biggest policy decision of all is how the government should determine/regulate the supply of its currency, most of which is privately created.  I support a currency whose value is fixed to something real (a hard anchor) and whose supply is determined by the market via currency board rules.  “A libertarian money”  

The Future of Marriage Equality

Preparing for Challenges to Marriage Equality If the Supreme Court Overrules Roe v. Wade

I have been exploring the legal aspects of the Supreme Court’s expected decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overrule “Roe-v-Wade” and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  And with substantial input from my friend Jack Nadler and some of your comments, we have explored the potential implications for the Court’s marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. “Roe-v-Wade-Part II.”  At this point, no one knows what the Court will actually do.  However, marriage equality advocates have good reason to be concerned that the Court’s expected decision in Dobbs will invite challenges to its earlier decision in Obergefell that States must allow same-sex couples to marry.  

As Jack and I explained in our previous blog, the Supreme Court grounded both the right of same-sex couples to marry recognized in Obergefell, and a woman’s right to an abortion recognized in Roe (and reaffirmed in Casey), primarily on the Due Process Clause –  the part of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that provides that no State may “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  On its face, the Clause appears to address only the procedures that a State must use before taking a person’s “life, liberty, or property,” such as providing adequate notice and holding a hearing.  However, over the years, the Court has repeatedly held that the Due Process Clause’s protection of “liberty” precludes a State from infringing on certain substantive rights that are not mentioned in the text of Constitution, but which the Justices believe are fundamental to an individual’s personal liberty.  This method of interpreting the Due Process Clause is often referred to as “substantive Due Process.”  Applying the doctrine of substantive Due Process, the Justices have identified a large number of “fundamental rights,” including the right to privacy, the right to use contraception, the right to custody over one’s children, the right to travel, and, of course, the right to marriage and the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs repudiated the doctrine of substantive Due Process.  The Justice argued that because “the term ‘liberty’ alone provides little guidance,” the Court had tended to “confuse what [the 14th] Amendment protects with [its] own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy” and engaged in “freewheeling judicial policymaking” guided only by “the policy preferences of the Members of this Court.” In the process, he added, the Court had “usurped the authority that the Constitution entrusts to the people’s elected representatives.”  Rather than continuing to use “such an unprincipled approach,” he concluded, the proper method by which to interpret the Due Process Clause is to limit the rights protected by that Amenment to those that are expressly granted in the Constitution or that are “deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition.”

Because both Roe and Obergefell were grounded on substantive Due Process, and because both cases took away the States’ authority to address a controversial issue historically within their jurisdiction, the Court’s expected rejection of substantive Due Process in Dobbs, and its emphasis on returning decision-making power to the States, is likely to invite challenges to Obergefell. 

Jack and I have joined together here to propose how marriage equality could be defended against challenges that might arise from such an overturning of Roe.  I say that we have joined together to indicate that we largely share the arguments presented below, but Jack has done all the work.  To keep things simple, for the balance of this blog we are going to describe the situation as if the Court had issued its decision in Dobbs, and had adopted the language and reasoning in the draft opinion written by Justice Alito that was leaked to the press several weeks ago.

 As discussed below, we believe that, even if the Court adopts the reasoning in Justice Alito’s draft opinion and overrules Roe, marriage equality advocates can persuasively make the following arguments to support preserving the Court’s decision that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry:   

  • Stare decisis.  The Court’s determination in Obergefell that States must allow same-sex couples to marry is binding precedent that the Court should not overrule without “special justification.”  Dobbs provides no such justification.  To the contrary, the Court expressly stated that the decision was limited to abortion and that the Court did not intend to “cast doubt” on other cases, including Obergefell, that have applied substantive Due Process.  In any case, none of the justifications that the Court relied on to overrule Roe is applicable to Obergefell.
  • Equal Protection.  State laws that make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation should be subject to the same level of heightened scrutiny as State laws that distinguish on the basis of gender, which the Court often refers to as “intermediate scrutiny.”  Under that standard, State laws that allow heterosexual couples to marry, while forbidding gay and lesbian couples from doing so, violate the Equal Protection Clause because the differential treatment is not “substantially related” to an “important” State purpose.

Some of you may have thought that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause must surely requires a State to treat gay and lesbian couples and heterosexual couples equally, by giving them the same right to marry.  But, as you will see, the Court’s application of the Equal Protection Clause is far more complicated than that.

There are several ways in which marriage equality opponents could challenge Obergefell.  But imagine the scenario below.

The Ballard of Adam and Steve

In late June, the Supreme Court issues its long-awaited decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.  As expected, the Court strikes down Roe v. Wade.  The decision, written by Justice Alito and joined by four other Justices, repudiates the doctrine of substantive Due Process.  Instead, the Court rules that the Constitution only protects rights that are expressly granted in its text or that are “deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition.” Because the Court finds that the Constitution does not expressly grant women the right to have an abortion, and that, prior to Roe, the United States did not have a long “history and tradition” of permitting abortion, the Court overrules that decision (and its subsequent decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe).  The Court thereby “return[s] the authority to the people and their elected representatives” to decide whether to adopt laws that “regulate or prohibit abortion.” [Sidebar:  Justice Alito actually was wrong when he stated that the U.S. does not have a long history and tradition of permitting abortion, “What the leaked abortion opinion gets wrong about the founding era”, but abortion is not our subject here.]

On July 4, the socially conservative and politically ambitious Governor of the State of Texida, Serp Eden, holds a press conference.  Before a sea of reporters and cameramen, Governor Eden reads the following statement:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dodd has finally put a stop to liberal judicial activism and has returned power to the States to regulate abortion as they think best.  The people of this State have made clear that they want to ban all abortions.  And that’s exactly what we’ve done.  

But we’re not going to stop there.  We will no longer allow unelected judges up in Washington DC to misuse the Constitution to make-up new rights and impose their elitist values on the rest of us.  Instead, “We the People” are going to take back the freedom to run our own State the way we think best. 

The reasoning that the Supreme Court used to overrule Roe applies equally to the Court’s gay marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges.  The U.S. Constitution doesn’t say anything about homosexuals having the right to go out and marry each other.  And it’s certainly not part of our “history and tradition.”  Maybe it is in New York or California.  But not down here in Texida.  So we get to decide whether people who choose that lifestyle can get married here in our State.

When the people of this State voted overwhelmingly to amend our State Constitution in 2014, they made clear that they believe that marriage should continue to be between one man and one woman, just like it’s always been.  However, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, the Federal Government has been infringing on our State’s Rights by forcing us to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

Today, I’m putting a stop to that.  After I finish my statement, I’m going to sign an Executive Order that directs every marriage clerk in the State of Texida to do what the people told us to do:  issue marriage licenses only to couples that consist of one man and one woman.

We’re not prejudiced against homosexuals.  If the gays want to get married, they can hop on a plane and go to San Francisco.  We wish them well.  But the time has come for the States – including our great State – to once again exercise their sovereign right to decide for themselves how to regulate marriage, just like our Founding Fathers intended.

We know that some people are going to try to politicize this.  If we have to, we’ll take this all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Court was willing to overrule Roe, so I am sure it would be willing to overrule Obergefell

With cameras rolling, Governor Eden then signs the Executive Order.

Ten days later, two young men, Adam Gardner and Steven Appletree, visit their local marriage bureau.  They stand in line with all the other happy couples seeking to get married.  As each couple comes forward, the clerk issues them a marriage license.  However, when the men’s turn arrives, the clerk says: “I’m sorry.  I’d really like to help you boys.  But, under the Texida Constitution, I can only issue a marriage license to couples that have one man and one woman.”

Adam and Steve leave the marriage bureau.  The next morning, the couple do what any red-blooded American would do:  They hire a lawyer and sue Governor Eden and the State of Texida.

After reviewing the pleadings, the trial court issues a decision finding that,under Obergefell, the State must issue a marriage license to the couple but stays its decision in order to give the State a chance to appeal.  Some months later, the Court of Appeals issues a decision reversing the trial court.  In its decision, the court states that “We hold that, in light of the Supreme Court’s rejection of substantive Due Process in Dobbs, Obergefell clearly is no longer ‘good law’ and that, if presented with the question, the Court would overrule its decision requiring States to allow same-sex couples to marry.”  The Court therefore rules that the State does not have to issue a marriage license to Adam and Steve.

Disappointed but undeterred, Adam and Steve direct their lawyer to seek Supreme Court review.  The Court agrees to hear the case.  As discussed below, the couple, through their lawyer, can make two persuasive arguments – one based on stare decisis and the other based on the Equal Protection Clause –  as to why the Court should reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and reaffirm its decision in Obergefell that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples with the right to get married.  We also discuss a few strong counter-arguments that the State could make.

Obergefell is Binding Precedent; The Court’ Decision in Dobbs Does Not Provide the “Special Justification” Required to Overrule It

The first thing that Mr. Gardner and Mr. Appletree should do is to invoke the doctrine of stare decisis (literally, “stand by the decision”).  Stare decisis requires a court to act consistently with prior binding decisions, thereby ensuring that the law is stable and predictable.  In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  In deciding Adam and Steve’s case, the Court should act consistently with that decision.  Specifically, the Court should rule that, under Obergefell, the State of Texida’s refusal to issue a marriage license to the couple violates their constitutional rights. 

 The State is likely to respond that stare decisis is not – and should not be – absolute.  This is clearly correct.  For example, virtually everyone agrees that the Supreme Court acted correctly when it overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, which had upheld “separate by equal” racial segregation, and required public school integration in Brown v. Board of Education.  Indeed, because of the importance of the Constitution, and the difficulty of amending it, the Court has been more willing to overrule cases that interpret the Constitution than cases that interpret statutes, regulations, or other matters.  Nonetheless, as the Court recognized in Arizona v. Rumsey (1984), even in constitutional cases, “any departure from the doctrine of stare decisis demands special justification.” In particular, as the Court plurality observed in Casey, “a decision to overrule should rest on some special reason over and above the belief that a prior case was wrongly decided.”

In light of the above, Adam and Steve should make the following arguments as to why the Court should not overrule Obergefell

  • The Court expressly stated in Dobbs that its decision was limited to abortion and that it did not intend to “cast doubt” on other cases, including Obergefell, that have applied substantive Due Process. 
  • The justifications that the Court relied on to overrule Roe are not applicable to Obergefell and, therefore, do not provide the “special justification” required to overrule it.

The Court expressly stated in Dobbs that its decision was limited to abortion and that it did not intend to “cast doubt” on other cases, including Obergefell, that have applied substantive Due Process.  In Dobbs, the Court rejected the doctrine of substantive Due Process.  However, the Court went out of its way to try to distinguish Roe from the many prior Court decisions that have applied substantive Due Process to identify “fundamental rights” not mentioned in the Constitution.  Indeed, the Court expressly stated that “what sharply distinguishes the abortion right” from the rights identified in other substantive Due Process cases is that “abortion destroys . . . the life of an unborn human being.  None of the other decisions . . . involved the critical moral question posed by abortion.”  Therefore, the Court continued, “our conclusion that the Constitution does not confer such a right does not undermine [those cases] in any way. . . . [O]ur decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right.  Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”  The Court expressly cited Obergefell as one of those precedents.

Slam dunk.  Game over.  Right?  Unfortunately, not.  As every first-year law student eventually learns, the legally binding part of a court decision – the part that becomes precedent – is not what the court says; it is what the court actually does and the reasoning essential to support that action.  This is known as the “holding.” The rest of the court’s opinion is non-binding obiter dictum (literally, “a thing said in passing”).  The State, therefore, is likely to argue that the Court’s statement that it did not intend to undermine Obergefell and other substantive Due Process cases was not essential to support the Court’s decision regarding a woman’s right to an abortion and, therefore, is non-binding dicta. As a result, this language does not preclude the Court from revisiting, and overruling, Obergefell.  The State will likely further argue that the Court’s rejection of substantive Due Process in Dobbs, and its determination that the Due Process Clause protects only those rights expressly granted in the Constitution or that are “deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition,” requires the Court to now eliminate the judicially created right to marry a person of the same sex.

The justifications that the Court relied on to overrule Roe are not applicable to Obergefell and, therefore, do not provide the “special justification” required to overrule it.   Adam and Steve should next argue that, even if a majority of the Justices now believe that because of its reliance of the doctrine of substantive Due Process the Court was wrong when it found that same-sex couples have a right to marry, there is no “special justification” for overruling that decision.  Indeed, none of the factors that the Court concluded “weigh strongly in favor of overruling Roe and Casey,” applies to Obergefell.  The three most important factors were: the nature of their error”; “the ‘workability’ of the rules they im­posed on the country”; and “the absence of concrete reliance.”  

Nature of the error.  The Court stated that Roe should be overruled because its “constitutional analysis was far outside the bounds of any reasonable interpretation of the various constitutional provisions to which it vaguely pointed.”  By contrast, the Court’s application of substantive Due Process in Obergefell expressly relied on the Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which recognized that the right to marry was a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause and, therefore, required States to allow people of different races to marry. 

Obergefell also was a logical extension of a line of cases, dating back to the Court’s 1996 decision in Roemer v. Colorado, that held that the Constitution barred government actions based on “animus” towards gay and lesbian people.  Indeed, in 2003, when the Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that the Due Process Clause barred a State from criminalizing private consensual sex between two adult men, Justice Scalia, in dissent, correctly recognized that if the Due Process Clause prevents a State from banning “homosexual sodomy” based on “moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct,” there could be no possible “justification . . . for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising ‘the liberty protected by the Constitution’”

“Workability” of the Rules.  The Court also concluded that Roe and Casey should be overruled because the rules that the Court had adopted pursuant to those decisions could not “be understood and applied in a consistent and predictable manner.”  For example, the Court wrote, the line that the Court drew in Casey between permissible regulations and those that impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to an abortion “has proved to be impossible to draw with precision.”  For example, different Courts of Appeal had reached conflicting decisions regarding the constitutionality of certain types of restrictions, such as waiting periods and parental notification requirements. 

Nearly seven years after its issuance, Obergefell has not created any similar implementation difficulties.  States have been regulating marriage, just as they always have, but expanding its reach to a relatively small number of same-sex couples who wish to participate in this long-established institution.  (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than one-half of one percent of all married couples are same-sex couples, although this percentage is expected to continue to increase over time as more gay and lesbian couples decide to marry.)

 If anything, the situation that existed prior to Obergefell – and which would exist again if the Court overrules that decision – is the unworkable one.  As we explained in our previous blog, before Obergefell, same-sex couples who got married in a State that had marriage equality, but then moved or even travelled to a State that did not, faced horrific challenges in critical areas, such as making healthcare decisions for an incapacitated spouse or obtaining a divorce.  The situation would be even worse if the Court now reversed Obergefell, leaving it to each State to determine the legal status of marriages involving same-sex couples that were performed after that decision.  In particular, reversing Obergefell would cause significant uncertainty in States like Texida that previously had adopted constitutional or statutory provisions limiting marriage to opposite-sex couple and that had only allowed same-sex couples to marry because the Court’s decision in Obergefell required them to do so.

Absence of concrete relianceFinally, the Court found that Roe could be overruled because no one had “concretely” relied on it.  While the Justices recognized that courts should be wary of overruling a prior case when doing so would “upend substantial reliance interests,” the Court stated that such interests must be “very concrete  . . . like those that develop in cases involving property and contract rights.”  The Court went on to conclude that Roe had not created any “concrete” reliance interests because, in the case of abortion, “advance planning of great precision” is not “obviously a necessity.” 

Whatever the merits of the Court’s analysis may be, its decision in Obergefell requiring States to allow same-sex couples to marry clearly created “concrete reliance interests.”  Marriage resembles a long-term contractual agreement between the two spouses.  Marriage creates obligation for each spouse, such as the duty to support the other spouse financially.  Married spouses also have important rights, such as right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse.  Same-sex couples rely on these mutual rights and obligations.

Marriage also creates significant property interests.  For example, if two people are married, and one dies, the surviving spouses can inherit the deceased spouse’s assets tax free.  By contrast, if the law does not recognize the validity of a couple’s marriage, then the surviving spouse may be required to pay substantial taxes on the inheritance.  This is the exact situation that gave rise to the United States v. Windsor, in which the Supreme Court struck down the infamous Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied federal recognition to lawful same-sex marriages.  Same-sex couples, like all couples, clearly structure their financial arrangements in reliance on such property rights.

 In light of the above, Adam and Steve can convincingly argue that the Court’s decision in Obergefell finding that same-sex couples have the right to marry is binding precedent, and that – even if a majority of the Justices now believe that the case was wrongly decided – the Court’s subsequent decision in Dobbs does not provide the “special justification” needed to overrule it.

State Laws That Allow Heterosexual Couples to Marry, While Barring Gay and Lesbian Couples From Doing So, Violate The Equal Protection Clause

Mr. Gardner and Mr. Appletree also can persuasively argue that because the Texida Constitution allows heterosexual couples to marry, while prohibiting gay and lesbian couples from doing so, it violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which provides that no State may “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

Adam and Steve should first note that, while the Obergefell decision relied primarily on the Due Process Clause, the Court expressly stated that “[t]he right of same-sex couples to marry is also derived from the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.”  However, the Court’s Equal Protection discussion was relatively brief, was not essential to its decision, was closely intertwined with its Due Process analysis, and did not apply the test that the Court typically uses to decide Equal Protection cases.  Therefore, the couple should make a detailed Equal Protection argument, using the Court’s established analytic framework.   Specifically, the couple should argue that:

  • State laws that distinguish on the basis of sexual orientation should be subject to the same level of heightened scrutiny as State laws that distinguish on the basis of gender, which the Court often refers to as “intermediate scrutiny.”
  • Applying intermediate scrutiny, the Court should rule that State laws that allow heterosexual couples to marry, while forbidding gay and lesbian couples to do so, violate the Equal Protection Clause because the differential treatment is not “substantially related” to achieving an “important” purpose.

While the couple will face some challenges, they should be able to prevail.

The Court’s established framework for resolving Equal Protection claimsDespite the unambiguous language of the Equal Protection Clause, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to “substitute its judgement” for that of an elected legislature as to when it is acceptable for a State to treat one group differently from another.  Therefore, the Court generally has used a very deferential standard to determine whether a legislative distinction violates the Equal Protection Clause.  [We use the term “legislative distinction” to refer to any legally binding constitutional, statutory, executive, or administrative act that treats different classes of people differently.]  However, the Court has recognized that legislative distinctions involving certain groups that historically have been the victims of discrimination should subject to more rigorous constitutional review.  At the same time, the Court has recognized that some of these groups have distinguishing features that could justify differential treatment in certain cases.  Consistent with this recognition, the Court has identified three levels of scrutiny:  rational basis review; strict scrutiny; and intermediate scrutiny.    

  •   Rational basis review. Because of its reluctance to “second guess” State legislative distinctions, the Court usually assesses the constitutionality of such distinctions using its most deferential approach, “rational basis” review.  In such cases, the Court will uphold a legislative distinction if there is a “rational relationship” between the distinction and any “legitimate interest” that the State conceivable might have, even if this was not the actual reason why the State made the distinction.  In such cases, the Court generally finds the distinction constitutional.
  • Strict scrutiny.   At the other end of the spectrum, if the Court finds that a legislative distinction adversely affects a group that has long been subject to discrimination – which the Court refers to as a “suspect class” – and that States usually make distinctions involving this class because of prejudice, it will apply strict scrutiny.  The Court has identified two significant suspect classes:  racial minorities and religious minorities.  When the Court applies strict scrutiny, it shifts the burden to the State to demonstrate that it actually adopted the distinction to achieve a “compelling” purpose and that the distinction is the “least restrictive means” to do so.  In such cases, the Court generally finds that the distinction violates the Equal Protection Clause. 
  • Intermediate scrutiny. Finally, if the Court finds a legislative distinction adversely affects a group that has long been subject to discrimination, but the group has distinguishing features that can sometimes justify differential treatment – sometimes referred to as a “quasi-suspect class” –  it will apply a somewhat less rigorous standard, often called “intermediate scrutiny.” The Court typically applies intermediate scrutiny in cases involving women and “illegitimate” children.  If the Court applies intermediate scrutiny, the State must demonstrate that it actually adopted the distinction to achieve an “important” purpose and that the distinction bears a “substantial relationship” to achieving that purpose.

For the reasons that we explain below, Adam and Steve should urge the Court to apply intermediate scrutiny to legislative distinctions that are based on sexual orientation.  

Same-sex marriage bans would likely survive rational basis review.  Given that the Supreme Court assesses most Equal Protection cases under the rational basis test, and has done so in prior cases involved sexual-orientation-based distinctions, Adam and Steve might be tempted to ask the Court to apply that standard.   In order to prevail under this highly deferential standard, the couple would have to convince the Court that Texida’s decision to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples is not “rationally related” to any “legitimate interest” that the State could possibly have.  This could prove difficult to do.

To be sure, under the rational basis standard, the Supreme Court previously has struck down certain legislative distinctions based on sexual orientation.  In those cases, however, the Court did so because it concluded that the only possible reason why the State could have adopted the distinctions was animus towards gay and lesbian people, which is never a legitimate purpose.   For example, in Romer v. Evans, the Court held that a State constitutional amendment that precluded adoption of any law that gave gays and lesbians “minority status, quota preferences, protected status or [a] claim of discrimination” violated the Equal Protection Clause because the only possible purpose of the amendment was “to harm a politically unpopular group.” 

By contrast, in the present case, if the Court conducts a rational basis review, the State could effectively argue that restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples could serve some “legitimate purpose.”  The State would likely rely on Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion in Obergefell.  Effectively applying the rational basis standard, Justice Alito argued that the States had identified a legitimate purpose: “encourage[ing] potentially procreative conduct to take place within a lasting unit that has long been thought to provide the best atmosphere for raising children.”  Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples was rationally related to that purpose, he reasoned, because marriage is “inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do:  procreate.” 

Of course, encouraging potentially procreative couples to get married was probably not the actual reason why the State excluded gay and lesbian couples from marriage.  And, in any case, excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage because they are not able to procreate may not have been the only way, the best way, or even a particularly effective way to encourage couples who are capable of procreation to marry.  But that does not change the outcome.  In order to survive rational basis review, all that Texida would need to do is to convince the Court  that a State could rationally decide to limit marriage to couples that consist of one man and one women because the State believes that the purpose of marriage is to create a stable environment for any children that may result from a couple’s sexual relations, and that only sexual relations between a man and a women can result in a couple begetting children.

The Court is unlikely to apply strict scrutiny to distinctions based on sexual orientation.  In light of the above, Adam and Steve might decide to try to persuade the Court that, in assessing whether a distinction based on sexual orientation violates the Equal Protection Clause, it should apply strict scrutiny.  Application of strict scrutiny would almost certainly result in the Court finding that limiting marriage to heterosexual couples violates the Equal Protection Clause.  Denying gays and lesbians the right to marry plainly is not the “least restrictive” means to achieve the State’s purported goal of encouraging procreative couples to form stable unions.  Nonetheless, the couple should not take that approach because, for the reasons explained below, the Court is unlikely to apply strict scrutiny in this case.

The Court has identified two bases on which to apply strict scrutiny:  when the distinction denies a “fundamental right” to a specific group of people or when it involves a “suspect class.”  In light of the Court’s rejection of substantive Due Process in Dobbs, it would not be productive for the couple to argue that State restrictions on same-sex marriage should be subject to strict scrutiny because they deprive gay and lesbian couples of a “fundamental right” enjoyed by heterosexual couples.  Rather, the only conceivable way to get the Court to apply strict scrutiny would be to convince the Justices to add sexual orientation to the existing list of “suspect classifications” entitled to strict scrutiny.  Unfortunately, this would be almost impossible to do.

The Supreme Court has applied a number of different criteria to assess whether a particular group should be deemed a suspect class.  This includes whether the group:  possesses immutable and visible characteristics; has been discriminated against or subject to hostility or stigma; and lacks power to protect themselves through the political process.  The Court has concluded that laws that single-out groups with these characteristics for special treatment rarely serve a legitimate purpose. 

Gays and lesbians would appear to satisfy those criteria.  However, the Court is unlikely to add them to the two groups – racial minorities and religious minorities – that it previously has deemed to be suspect classes.  These two groups have a unique legal status and history.  In the case of racial minorities, the Fourteenth Amendment, which was adopted shortly after the Civil War, made formerly enslaved people citizens of the States in which they resided and sought to ensure that these States treated them in the same manner as other citizens.  However, States continued to adopt and enforce pernicious race-based distinction for another one hundred years, making it necessary for the Court to apply the Equal Protection Clause strictly when considering the constitutionality of race-based distinctions.  Similarly, the Constitution provides special protection to religious minorities, who have sometimes faced persecution, through the First Amendment guarantee that government will not infringe on the “free exercise of religion.”  The Court has expressly declined invitations to classify additional marginalized groups – including women, illegitimate children, and developmentally disabled people – as suspect classes.  And it has never expressly considered the possibility of including sexual orientation in this category. 

The Court should apply Intermediate Scrutiny and should rule that State laws that allow heterosexual couples to marry, while forbidding gay and lesbian couples from doing so, violate the Equal Protection Clause because the distinction is not “substantially related” to achieving an “important” purpose.  Given the possibility that the Court would uphold restrictions on same-sex marriage under the rational basis standard, and that it would not apply strict scrutiny, Adam and Steve’s best option is to try to convince the Court to subject distinctions based on sexual orientation to intermediate scrutiny.  If the Court agrees, the couple can make a persuasive argument that distinguishing between heterosexual and gay and lesbian couples regarding marriage eligibility violates the Equal Protection Clause because the distinction is not “substantially related” to an “important” government interest.

Justification for intermediate scrutiny.  Distinctions based on sexual orientation should receive intermediate scrutiny because gays and lesbians have characteristics similar to those that led the Court to treat women as a “quasi-suspect” class eligible for such scrutiny.  The Court based its decision on several factors.  First, gender is an immutable and visible characteristic – or at least one that a person cannot legally and visibly change without great difficulty.  Second, women have long been the victim of serious governmental discrimination, often based on unjustified stereotypes.  For example, for many years, women were excluded from many universities and occupations based on the stereotype that members of the “fairer sex” lacked the intellectual and physical capacity to participate.  Third, women often lack sufficient power in the political process to fully protect their interests.  Until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, many States did not allow women to vote.  While the number of women who have been elected to political office continues to grow, women still hold a disproportionately small number of positions at the highest levels of government. 

The same factors that make gender-based distinctions suspect provide a basis for the Court to apply heightened scrutiny to distinctions based on sexual orientation.  Being a homosexual is clearly an immutable characteristic; neither psychiatric therapy nor fervent prayer has proven effective at altering gay and lesbian people’s sexual orientation.  And, while a person’s sexual orientation may be less visible than a person’s gender, many gays and lesbians choose to be “out” to family, friends, and colleagues, while others are not able to conceal their sexual orientation. 

Gays and lesbian also have been the victims of serious governmental discrimination, often as a result of unjustifiable stereotyping.  Gays and lesbians have been depicted as “mentally ill,” “perverts,” “pedophiles” and – more recently – “groomers.”  Based on such stereotypes, the Federal Government and many States long prohibited gays and lesbian from serving in the military, working as a civil servant, or being a teacher. Gay men, in particular, were at risk of arrest for doing no more than congregating in a crowded bar (the event that gave rise to the Stonewall Rebellion, which began the modern gay rights movement) or engaging in consensual sexual activities within the privacy of their own homes (the event that gave rise to the Lawrence case).  At the same time, gays and lesbians were often discriminated against in private employment, housing, healthcare, and access to public accommodations.

Finally, while some homosexuals – especially affluent, white urban gay men – have successfully affected the political process, many gays and lesbians have been unable to secure passage of legislation to protect their rights.  Indeed, about half the States still do not have laws barring discrimination in employment, housing, and access to public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.

While these factors make distinctions based on sexual orientation suspect, such distinctions, like gender-based distinction, differ from race-based distinctions in at least two ways that justify applying a somewhat less strict level of scrutiny.  First, as with women, the level of discrimination against gays and lesbians, while significant, “has never approached the severity or pervasiveness of the historic legal and political discrimination” against racial minorities, especially African Americans.  (Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495 (1976)).  Second, as with gender-based distinctions, objective differences between gays and lesbians and heterosexuals may justify different treatment in limited circumstances.  In the case of gender-based distinctions, for example, the Court ruled in Rosker v. Goldberg (1981) that differences in physical strength between men and women that could affect their performance in active-duty combat provided a permissible basis for Congress to require young men, but not young women, to sign-up for the military draft.  Similarly, in the case of distinctions based on sexual orientation, the inability of gay and lesbian couples to procreate might provide a permissible basis for a State to make certain substantially related distinctions.  For example, a State might be able to offer to provide costly genetic screening to heterosexual couples prior to issuing them a marriage license, while not offering this service to gay and lesbian couples.

While there are good arguments for expanding the list of categories for which intermediate scrutiny is appropriate to include sexual orientation, the Justices may be reluctant to do so.  After all, a court that is seeking to end the practice of identifying “fundamental rights” under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause may be disinclined to protect the very same rights under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  However, in light of the Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Adam and Steve could make another argument yfor applying intermediate scrutiny to which a majority of the Justices might be receptive. 

In Bostock, the Court ruled that the language in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits an employer from discriminating “on the basis of . . . sex” includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  The Court reasoned that an employer who fires an individual merely because that individual is gay or transgender is discriminating on the basis of sex because the employee’s “[s]ex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision.”  For example, if the employer would not have fired a female employee for marrying a man, but the employer fires a male employee for marrying a man, the employer has discriminated on the basis of sex.  In light of Bostock, the couple could argue that, under existing precedent, legislative distinctions based on sexual orientation are gender-based distinctions and, therefore, already are subject to intermediate scrutiny.

Application of intermediate scrutiny.  If the Court agrees to subject distinctions based on sexual orientation to intermediate scrutiny, the State will need to demonstrate that its decision to issue marriage licenses to heterosexual couples, while denying them to gay and lesbian couples, was intended to further an “important” government interest by means that are “substantially related” to achieving that interest.  The State is likely to find it very difficult to do so.

The State did not bar gay and lesbian couples from marrying in order to advance an “important” governmental interest.  In Obergefell, the States claimed that the purpose of marriage is to encourage couples who are capable of procreation to enter into a stable long-term relationship in order to better care for any children that might result from their sexual congress.  Presumably, the State would make the same claim in the current caseThe State clearly has a compelling interest in fostering such stable relationships.  However, if the Texida constitutional amendment is subject to intermediate scrutiny, the burden will be on the State to demonstrate that it actually excluded gay and lesbian couples from marriage for this purpose. 

In the case of long-standing laws governing the marriage, it is hard to know the States’ original intent.  The reality is that, at the time the States enacted these laws, it was a given that only opposite-sex couples could marry; same-sex marriage was literally inconceivable.  However, in the years immediately prior to Obergefell, when some States began to legalize same-sex marriage, many other States adopted constitutional amendments and enacted statutes that expressly limited marriage to “one man and one woman.”  The couple should argue that, rather than seeking to incentivize heterosexual couples to marry, the actual reason why Texida amended its Constitution to limit marriage to “one man and one woman” was to show moral disapproval of the “gay lifestyle.”  As the Court has repeatedly recognized, animus against gays and lesbians is never a legitimate justification for State action.  

Excluding gay and lesbian couples from marrying is not “substantially related” to the State’s purported purpose.  Even if the Court accepts the State’s claim that it was seeking to encourage procreative couples to enter into a stable long-term relationship, the State still would need to demonstrate that the means that it chose – allowing heterosexual couples to marry, while refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples – is “substantially related” to that goal.  There is a good chance that the State could not do so.

The Court first applied the “substantially related” test in Craig v. Boren (1976).  In that case, the State adopted a law that allowed females between the ages of 18 to 20 to purchase low-alcohol beer, while barring males from doing so until they reached the age of 21.  The stated purpose of the law was to increase traffic safety.  In enacting the law, the State relied on a study showing that 18 to 20 year old males in the State were approximately ten times more likely than females in that age group to be arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol (2.0 percent of the males versus 0.18 percent of the females).  The Court nonetheless ruled that, while “not trivial in a statistical sense,” the evidence did not demonstrate a substantial relationship between “maleness” and “drinking and driving.”  The Court therefore held that this “unduly tenuous fit     . . . hardly can form the basis for employment of a gender line as a classifying device.” “Indeed,” the Court continued, “prior cases have consistently rejected the use of sex as a decision making factor even though the statutes in question certainly rested on far more predictive empirical relationships than this.”

There is barely a “tenuous fit” – much less a substantial relationship – between excluding gay and lesbian couples from marrying and encouraging couples who are capable of procreating to enter into a stable long-term relationship for the benefit of any resulting children who may result from the couple’s sexual liaisons.  Based on analysis of Census Bureau data, approximately 15 percent of the heterosexual couples who get married each year in the United States include a woman over 45 years old.  Those unions are presumptively incapable of leading to procreation.  In addition, about ten percent of younger heterosexual couples who get married cannot have children, because one member either is infertile or has had a medical procedure (such as a hysterectomy or a vasectomy) that precludes the couple from procreating.  Yet, no State has ever felt it necessary to exclude those types of non-procreative couples from marriage in order to encourage couples who have the ability to procreate to enter into stable long-term relationships for the benefit of any children that may result from their coital union. 

While reliable statistics about same-sex marriage are surprisingly scarce, it appears that less than two percent of the couples who get married each year in the United States are same-sex couples.  If it is not necessary for State to exclude from marriage the 25 percent of heterosexual couples who are unable to procreate in order to encourage potentially procreative couples to get married, the State cannot plausibly claim that there is a “substantial relationship” between excluding the two percent of couples who seek to get married who are gay or lesbian and achieving the State’s purported goal of encouraging procreative couples to marry.

Indeed, excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage actually impedes the State from achieving what it claims to be its ultimate goal, ensuring that children are brought up in a stable environment.  As the Court recognized in Obergefell, “many same-sex couples provide loving and nurturing homes to their children, whether biological or adopted.”  Allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, the Court continued, “affords the permanency and stability important to [those] children’s best interest,” while “[e]xcluding same-sex couples from marriage . . . harm[s] and humiliate[s] the children of same-sex couples.”


After reading the briefs, hearing oral argument, and taking the matter under advisement, the Supreme Court issues its decision in the case of Gardner v. Eden.   The Court rejects the State’s invitation to overrule Obergefell and, instead, reaffirms its holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  However, rather than relying on substantive Due Process, the Court bases its decision on the Equal Protection Clause.  The Court therefore reverses the decision of the Court of Appeals, remands the case, and orders the State to issue a marriage license to Adam and Steve.

Two weeks later, back home in Texida, the couple is married.


Jack Nadler is a Retired Partner in the Washington DC office of Squire Patton Boggs.  While at Squire, Jack served as outside counsel for SAGE (formerly Services and Advocacy for Gay Elders), which represents the interest of LGBT older adults.  Jack led the team that drafted the extensive friend of the court (amicus) brief that SAGE filed in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which the Supreme Court struck down State restrictions on same-sex marriage.  Jack previously taught law at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, DC and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, and served as a Law Clerk to the Hon. Joel M. Flaum on the United State Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago.  He is a graduate of Columbia Law School, the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, and Vassar College.

End the war in Ukraine

With regard to Russia’s war in Ukraine, are you in the “peace camp” or the “Justice camp”? Do you want a peace agreement to end the war or do you want to punish Russia for the terrible things it has done no matter how long it takes?  “The Economist on Ukraine” It is rarely wise to take strategic decisions when enraged by someone’s behavior. It is currently hard not to want to flatten Russia for its illegal and brutal war with Ukraine (the Justice camp) but it would not be in our or the world’s interest to do so (Peace camp).  “The Russian war in Ukraine”

Everyone will suffer from continuing the war even without escalation. The world will suffer serious food shortages, oil and gas shortages, disruption and reorganization of the global trading system, and Ukraine and its economy will be in ruins.  And no one should forget that Russia is a nuclear power, in fact it has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

Ukraine President Zelensky said that he is willing to keep Ukraine neutral and out of NATO (but in the EU). He also demanded that Russia withdraw to the territories it occupied on February 23, 2022, which included the Crimea and parts of the largely Russian speaking Donbas. In a face-to-face interview with the managing editor of the Economist magazine on March 27 and as quoted in my blog above, Zelensky stated that: “Victory is being able to save as many lives as possible…because without this nothing would make sense. Our land is important, yes, but ultimately, it’s just territory.”

But on April 17, “President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that Ukraine is not willing to give up territory in the eastern part of the country to end the war with Russia.”   “Zelensky Russia war tapper interview-cnn-tv”  

Speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum last week, Henry Kissinger stated that “it’s time to think about a diplomatic settlement to end the war, and that settlement will have to include territorial concessions to Russia. ‘Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,’ referring to the pre-war lines in which Russia controlled the Crimean Peninsula and approximately a third of territory in the Donbas. ‘Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.’” “Does Henry Kissinger have a point?”

It is politically very difficult for either Ukraine or Russia to give up territory they hold or aspire to.  Edward Luttwak, a strategist and author of “The Logic of War and Peace” among many other books, has proposed a solution to this political dilemma, which like all political compromises should be acceptable to both sides without being fully satisfactory to either.  He proposes to settle the territorial issues via an internationally supervised plebiscite for determining the fate of each Oblast:

“That leaves the disposition of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, substantial territories that Zelensky does not have the authority to give up, and without which Putin cannot leave the table where he has gambled and lost so much. While Putin cannot be given the two regions he demanded before starting the war, he can be provided with something that he can portray as a victory: plebiscites in both regions where properly certified residents, including returning refugees, would be allowed to vote on whether their oblast should remain Ukrainian or join Russia.

“Upon acceptance of the plebiscites in principle, a cease-fire would come into immediate effect, with Russia’s respect of their terms guaranteed by the ease of reimposing sanctions just lifted.”  “How the Ukraine war must end”  Allowing the residents of each region to determine their own affiliation can hardly be objectionable to the rest of us.

The Justice Camp and the military industry that cheers it on should yield to the Peace Camp in the interest of all of us.  “Ukraine’s and Russia’s war”

Social Media and Fake News

People’s political, cultural, and religious views can be partitioned by differing attitudes and preferences. One of these is whether a person looks first to the government or to themselves to solve their problems. Any society requires both, but where do you look first?

An important debate is currently raging over what to do about misinformation and fake news spread on social media. I have shared my views earlier that the rules for what can be posted and shared on a social media platform should be largely up to Facebook, Twitter, etc. “Social media and false information”  But what would we like them to do to solve this problem?

The right to state and promote any point of view should be defended at all costs. But what about lies, deliberately invented or foolishly believed and propagated? The government (ours or anyone else’s) is the last place to empower to determine what is true or not. I am also not thrilled at the idea of Facebook, etc., making such determinations. “What to do with social media?”  As one of those who look first to myself and my neighbors for help with problems, in this short note I want to put the spotlight on what can and should be done to better enable each of us individually to evaluate the accuracy of the information we read and especially information we might chose to pass on.

I spotlight (no more than that here) three areas. The first is education. Schools should provide our children with the critical thinking tools to evaluate the accuracy of the information we are reading or hearing. I don’t think that the importance of this can be over emphasized.

The second area is the importance of news reporting standards and related institutions that promote those standards and the importance of choosing information sources that we can trust. Jonathan Rauch has a very useful discussion of these points in The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth“The sources of trust”

The third area is what social media itself does. It can best help our individual assessments of truth by supplementing posts with information on their source and perhaps with warnings of possible inaccuracy with links to other sources.  It is better for business for social media platforms to detect and block trolls and robo accounts and they should certainly be encouraged to do so. But they should not block former Presidents of the U.S. from saying what they want despite a well documented history of lying. They should and do have the right to do so, though in our traditional commitment to free speech, they should not do so. The government might require platforms to disclose their algorithms for how they direct traffic in order to benefit from public discussion of such internal rules. Taking down posts should be a rare last resort.

In short, we need better training in how to evaluate information however we encounter it. And the social media platforms should be as transparent about what is posted there and what is done with it as possible.

With that we more or less get what we deserve.

My 80th Birthday

Dear friends,                                                                         May 19, 2022

Life Begins at Eighty was a TV show in the mid 1950s. As our family only acquired a TV set later in the 1950s, I don’t think that I ever watched it. But I would like to take exception to its premise. For me, turning 80 is a time of reflection on a life well lived, no longer a continuation of the endeavor, or dare I say struggle, to achieve still more. As such it is a relaxed time of contemplation. I do not suffer Torschlusspanik. In fact, I am very grateful for having experienced a very interesting and eventful life.

When we are young it is all about preparing for and striving to do great things, or at least to realize our potential whatever that might be. As such it is a time of considerable tension. Will I make it? Will I graduate? Will I be hired/appointed? Will I get promoted? Will my project succeed? It is so nice to be beyond those.

I was born on my father’s birthday (what a gift) and raised in Bakersfield California. The first time I left my home state was also the first time I flew in an airplane, which was to New Jersey to prepare with others from around the country for a year abroad as part of the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE).

Two weeks of preparation later, we boarded the USS New York for a six-day Atlantic crossing to South Hampton then La Havre, France. In my case, at the age of 17, I traveled on by train to Kassel, Germany to meet the German family I would live with for the next year–my senior year of high school. Their house was in the nearby village of Rasdorf kreis Hünfeld in the Fulda Gap. My home for that year was a few hundred yards from the “ten meter strip” that marked the border with the DDR (East Germany)–the border dividing East and West Germany after WWII.

During that year in Germany (1959-60) I visited Berlin with my ICYE group. We attended my first opera in the Opera House located in what became East Berlin. The Berlin wall did not yet exist. I returned to Berlin and its Eastern Zone many times after the wall went up in 1961 and many times later after it come down in November 1989.

During that same year I graduated from Bakersfield High in absentia. When I returned home to the US, I attended Bakersfield College (the local Jr. College that allowed me to live at home for financial reasons for two more years) before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley. At Bakersfield College, with friends, I started and edited a politically conservative underground weekly paper we called the Weekly Blatt, thus launching a lifelong interest in public policy. It reflected the appreciation of the difference between free, capitalist economies and the repressive, impoverished communist ones that I saw and experienced from my year living on the edge of communist East Germany.

While at Berkeley, I was president of the University Conservatives and of my fraternity Alpha Tao Omega (ATO). When I heard Milton Friedman speak at Berkeley, I vowed to study under him at the University of Chicago. As the result of spending considerable time on the Free Speech Movement Council during my Senior year at Berkeley (1964) and misjudging the effort needed to slide through on a C in a very boring economic history class taught by a socialist, I was admitted on probation to the University of Chicago graduate program. But hard work and with Milton Friedman as Chairman of my dissertation committee (which also include Robert J. Gordon) eventually led to my PhD and an appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Economics Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While studying at the University of Chicago, Professor Friedman introduced me to and sponsored my membership in the Philadelphia Society, which in those years held its annual meeting in Chicago. He later did the same for the Mont Pelerin Society, an international organization founded after WWII by Friedman, Fredrick Hayek, and others to defend free markets and liberalism against the socialism sweeping Europe at the time. Before finishing at Chicago, I took a year off to teach at the University of Hawaii where I married Louise Wilkinson who had left her graduate studies in the English Department at Chicago to teach at the University of Hawaii.

As a Californian, where history is largely about cowboys and Indians, I found Charlottesville, the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, a beautiful place wonderfully rich in American history. I loved my time there. My son, Brandon, and daughter, Daylin, were born there, which were transformative events as every parent knows.

After five years as an Assistant Professor at UVA, I joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for twenty-six years. Eight of those exciting years were spent leading the SDR Division of the Treasurer’s Department and the balance providing technical assistance to central banks in what is now called the Monetary and Capital Markets Department (MCM).

With the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, I moved back to the MCM Department from the Treasurer’s Department and immediately led a team to the Bulgarian National Bank followed by multiple visits to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and a few years later to Moldova. The first half of 1992 we flew (back-to-back) to Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) in chartered planes. Later in that year I was on the maiden Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Almaty. The institutions of the former Soviet Union were totally unknown to us, and our counterparts were very eager to learn the ways of capitalist economies. It was a very exciting time.

My earlier years at the IMF were also personally traumatic. I had hidden my sexual attraction to men from myself for years and I was beginning to lose that battle. I struggled to face up to the reality and implications of that fact. I was frightened. It was not at all an easy time. When it was no longer possible to deny or repress the truth, I separated from and later divorced Louise. Sadly, she moved with my two kids back to her home in Mercer Island, Washington. A new chapter of my life began. As we often said at the time, “God made me a homosexual, but I chose (finally) to be gay.”

The most important event of this new life was my introduction in 1999 to Dr. Ito Briones from the Philippines by my friend W. Scott Thompson (Jan 1, 1942 – Feb 19, 2017). After finishing a Master of Arts degree at Boston University, Ito relocated to Washington, DC and moved in with me. He received a PhD in Molecular Biology at Georgetown University and worked in the National Cancer Institute (NCI) lab in Ft. Detrick for five years. Yes, Ito is a renaissance man and a wonderful companion. We were formally and legally married on June 5, 2011.

At the request of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (coming from my former Chicago classmate David Lindsey who had tried to recruit me from UVA earlier), the IMF seconded me to the Board staff for one year (1979). That was the year Paul Volcker moved from President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to Chair the Board of Governors in the middle of my stay. The Board room went from a nonsmoking zone under Chairman Bill Miller to Paul’s big cigars. It was a very exciting year as the Fed crushed the 11.4% rate of inflation.

In 1989 I was also seconded to the World Bank to help write that year’s World Development Report (on Financial Systems and Development). It was like being back in graduate school. It was a wonderful experience led by Millard Long and Stan Fischer (WB Chief Economist at that time).

After 26 years at the IMF, I retired in 2003 at the Assistant Director level. During those years, I had led technical assistance missions to over 20 countries, primarily in the Former Soviet Union and post conflict countries such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. But being only 62 (I had met the IMF’s rule of 85 for maximum pension–age plus years of service) I was not about to stop working.

In June 2003, I joined the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad for the US Treasury (see my Iraq book below). At the same time, I joined the Board of Directors of the Cayman Island Monetary Authority (CIMA) for the next seven years. Following that I was a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review from March 2011 to May 2017. While I no longer led missions, I joined them as a consultant member for the IMF, ODI in London, and Deloitte Consulting traveling to Albania, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, South Sudan, Yemen (virtually), West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe. Between January 2002 and September 2013, I traveled to Afghanistan 20 times.

I spoke at conferences in Argentina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, (Hangzhou) China, Paris, Ukraine, Freedom Fest in Las Vegas, London, Oxford, and the Eurasia Economic Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I attended Mont Pelerin Society meetings in Guatemala City, Nairobi, Sidney, Prague, Galapagos Islands, Hong Kong, and Stockholm.

But it was not all work. I had a wonderful father-son trip with my son Brandon to Athens and the Greek Islands in 1992 and to London and around Ireland in 1994. My grandson Bryce came with me to Kenya for an IMF mission to the central bank in 2010 during which we spent a weekend ‎in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in the Rift Valley. The highlight was Bryce’s petting a live cheetah.

An almost annual highlight were the July gatherings at the home of Robert Mundell outside Siena, Italy, to discuss the international monetary system. In January 2015 my daughter Daylin’s marriage to Brett Baker in Las Vegas was great fun. In the summer of 2015 Ito and I spent a week in Southern Italy for the first time (Naples, Pompei, Sorrento, Capri, Sicily) following our usual Mundell gathering in Siena.  Ito and I attended the Edinburgh International Festival four times (joined on one occasion my granddaughter, Micaela in 2017) and spent several wonderful weeklong stays in Bruges for Ito’s art classes (2017 and 2019). Another highlight was the award ceremony in London in March 2019 at which I was presented the Central Banking Journal’s first “Award for Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building of Central Banks, Especially in Demanding Circumstances.”

My work at the IMF (and elsewhere) and with the teams I led in the field was challenging, stressful, sometimes dangerous, and highly rewarding. I developed friendships with many central bank staff and officials in these countries and believed that my work and the work of the teams of experts I lead had made significant contributions to bringing more stable and efficient monetary and financial systems to the countries we worked in. It is highly disappointing to see the disintegration and backsliding of many of them (Bosnia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan).

Except for Turkey, the backsliding has been political rather than in monetary stability.  To cite a few examples of dramatic central bank successes, the inflation rates dropped from 1,000% in 1998 to 1.2% in 2020 in Bulgaria, from 1,660% in 1993 to 6.8% in 2020 in Kazakhstan, and from 789% in 1993 to 4.4% in 2020 in Moldova. The lack of political healing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the annual inflation rate averaged 1.47 percent between 2006 and 2021, has been particularly disheartening. The messages I get almost daily from Afghanistan from friends wanting help in getting out are heartbreaking. And then, of course, the political environment in my own country has become dismal and divisive.

Were all my efforts for nothing? In fact, I am proud that I gave it my all whatever the result. I met and worked with wonderful people. The bonding with mission team members in the field, I imagine, was a bit like the war time bonding with your fox hole buddies. Life was not dull to say the least. I have written more extensively about some of these experiences in five books: “One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”     “My travels in the former Soviet Union”   “My travels to Jerusalem”     “My travels to Baghdad” and “My travels to Afghanistan”.

So, as I reach 80 years of age I can rest and am grateful for the life I have led. It was filled with struggles, pain, adventures, and joy. I married a wonderful woman (Louise Wilkinson) who mothered my two wonderful children who in turn gave me seven wonderful grandchildren and two adorable great granddaughters. My painful struggle with homosexuality evolved (through several chapters) into a wonderful relationship with the loving and multitalented Ito. I have been blessed with wonderful friends and colleagues.

My life is certainly not over yet, the curtains have not yet fallen, but looking back at my life—I am grateful for the many adventures it has led me on.

Thank you all.


Ukraine’s and Russia’s War

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is horrifying, unjustified and illegal. We can’t help admiring the courage of the Ukrainian people in attempting to defend their country nor being enraged at Russia’s brutality.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Alexander Vindman argued that: “America Must Embrace the Goal of Ukrainian Victory  It’s Time to Move Past Washington’s Cautious Approach” “Will America embrace Ukraine victory goal?”  Vindman, best known to us as Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, was born in Ukraine. It is understandable, but not excusable, that Vindman puts Ukraine’s interests above those of the United States.

As a naturalized American, Vindman proved his patriotism by testifying on October 29, 2019, before the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, for whom he worked as a member of the White House’s National Security Council. But when determining our role in Ukraine’s war with Russia, we should give primacy to America’s best interests in both the short and long term.

Historian and military expert Edward Luttwak tweeted recently that “Friends complain that my suggested war aim of restoring the Feb 23, 2022, status quo ante is too modest; some want the expulsion of all Russian forces from all parts of Ukraine incl Crimea, with others emphasizing the need to drive Putin from office. But both mean much more war…”  “Luttwak on war in Ukraine”

It is hard not to sympathize with the desire to punish Russia for what Putin has done and is doing—i.e., to demand justice. Many aspects of the world are not to our liking or of our making, even here at home. But we must deal rationally with the world that exists in the hopes of moving it bit by bit toward a better place.

In today’s Washington Post Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Catlin Talmadge wrote an oped titled: “The U.S. is expanding its goals in Ukraine. That’s dangerous. Comments by political and military leaders suggest the goal is no longer to drive Russia to the negotiating table but to seek a total defeat of Russian forces. That increases the odds of catastrophe.”

 “Talk of total victory aligns well with another recently floated objective: an extended bloodletting of the Russian army. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted on April 25 that the United States wants ‘to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.’ Yet crippling Russia’s military or expelling Russia from Ukraine are significantly more dangerous aims than preventing the further loss of Ukrainian territory or, through limited offensive operations, gaining some of it back. Unfortunately, if Russian President Vladimir Putin begins to think that his back is against the wall, he may lash out by directly confronting NATO, intensifying the conventional war in the east, or even using nuclear weapons.” “Ukraine war expansion risks nuclear”

Mr. Vindman wants us to make Russia a permanent enemy. That is never a good objective. Over the last half year both Presidents Zelenskyy and Putin have offered peace conditions that represented reasonable starting points for serious negotiations. Why haven’t we pressed them both to the negotiating table?

Vindman stated that: “A Ukrainian victory against Russia will be defined, first and foremost, by the Ukrainians themselves.” But then he also says that the US should give Ukraine more and better weapons. I am not sure that he sees the disconnect here. We should not push Putin into feeling he must escalate or lose. We should exert maximum pressure to bring this war to an end that is acceptable to both Ukrainian and Russian people and in a way that opens the door to a more peaceful Russia in the future. “Ukraine-France playing good cop with Putin”

Aside from the strong emotional desire to punish Russia for what it is doing, several of the usual suspects are dangerously prolonging this war. Billions of dollars are pouring into our defense industries, which, as always, have a profit incentive to keep things going. Though we are confronted with horrifying pictures of mangled buildings and bodies, they are “over there” somewhere. For most Americans the assumed horrors of war are academic, while in fact they are all too real for those involved. The huge cost of war in lives lost, human suffering, and economic and property damage are rarely given the weight they deserve as we cheer on the brave Ukrainians fighting to the last Ukrainian. Those very well-meaning Americans thanking our soldiers for their service rarely have any idea what we have asked of them to go and fight in other people’s wars.

So our emotions cry out to smash and punish the Russians. But how it ends will have a large impact on conditions in the world ten or twenty years from now. Our standard of living and the degree of security and cooperation in the world—particularly with Russia—will depend on when and how this war ends. We need to temper our emotions and engage our minds.

Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, looked quite different at the end than they did as we undertook them. Ukraine is ranked only slightly less corrupt than Russia. “Transparency International” It is much more difficult doing business there than in Russia (Ease of doing business ranking lists New Zealand at the top, Russia 29 and Ukraine 64). “World Bank Ease of Doing Business index”  Thus it is a small wonder that John Hudson wrote in today’s Washington Post that: “Flood of weapons to Ukraine raises fear of arms smuggling Vague U.S. assurances spark concern about lost military equipment in Ukraine, a longtime hub of arms trafficking.” “Ukraine weapons trafficking”

It is too late to point fingers and ask why we did not press Ukraine and Russia to the bargaining table six months ago or four months ago. It is in our self-interest and the interest of Europe and the world to do so now.

Econ 101: Retail Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

The history of money is long and fascinating. Even the currency most frequently used in the United States has a rich history. Money makes possible the specialization and trade upon which our great wealth depends. Through its long history of development and evolution, money has serviced two key functions. It provides the standard unit for pricing traded goods and services so that their values can be meaningfully compared (it’s the unit of account) and it is the common asset in which payments are made (it’s the medium of exchange or payment).

Medium of Payment–Money

When you hire the neighborhood boy to mow your lawn, you probably first agree on a price (the number of dollars) This is the unit of account function of money, which is indispensable for the functioning of markets.  You could agree to trade with the neighborhood boy a nice lunch with lemonade in exchange for his mowing your lawn. But paying him $15 in Federal Reserve Notes has the advantage that he can exchange it for your lunch, or he can buy his lunch at Wendy’s or anything else of his choice.

Obviously, markets can’t really function if each item or service is priced in a different money unit (dollars, Euro, rubles, bitcoin, etc.). The Continental Congress of the United States authorized the issuance of a new currency, the US dollar, on July 6, 1785. Following the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, the new Congress established the United States dollar as the official currency of the United States in the Coinage Act of 1792. The Act also established the United States Mint, which produced and circulated coins with a fix amount of gold or silver (later only gold). “History of the United States dollar”  

As the result of the changing relative price of silver for gold, the bimetal gold/silver standard was replaced with the single metal standard of gold. The dollar was redefined in 1900 as “twenty-five and eight-tenths grains of gold nine-tenths fine,… and all forms of money issued or coined by the United States shall be maintained at a parity of value with this standard.” Fast forwarding through WWI and WWII and the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions and the failure of the US to adhere to the requirements of the gold standard, the US “closed its gold window” and proceeded with varying degrees of success to manage the supply of its currency so as to preserve its purchasing power.

Over this long history many private actors (banks) created dollars. There are in fact thousands of private producers of dollars (Chase dollars, B of A dollars, etc.) Glossing over the details, it was a one currency system–the US dollar–because each bank’s currency could be redeemed for gold at  fix price or, after the creation of our central bank in 1913, for a deposit at a Federal Reserve Bank. This is obvious when you pay with Federal Reserve Notes, which are direct obligations of our central bank. Originally each note was identified by the Federal Reserve Bank that issued it–there were twelve of them–but even that distinction has been eliminated. Few people even noticed the difference. But most of our dollar money supply (M1: Federal Reserve Notes in circulation plus demand deposits at banks) is privately produced by banks and exists in digital form as accounting records with each of our banks.

Means of Payment

Our money–US dollars (or Euros or bitcoin)–is quite distinct from the various ways in which you can pay it–payment technologies. Cash payments–the transfer of Federal Reserve Notes from me to you–are hand delivered. But most payments are made by digitally transferring an amount of dollars from my bank account to yours. Such digital payments have the obvious advantage of enabling you to pay someone across town, across the country or even across the world (if they accept your currency) plus the safety of keeping your money in the bank pending such payments.  It’s not recommended that you send cash in the mail. The key insight is to understand how my dollar balance in my bank gets to your account at your bank and why your bank is willing to accept it. The quick answer is that your bank will not generally accept a claim on my bank but will record my payment because it receives an increase in its deposits at a Federal Reserve Bank of that amount.

In the old days I wrote a check that authorized my bank (after the check was deposited by you at your bank, which sent it to my bank) to debit my balance with the indicated amount and to transfer that amount from its balance at the Fed to your bank’s account at the Fed. SWIFT performs this payment instruction/authorization function for cross border payments (i.e., those involving two central banks). Today I issue this instruction directly to my bank electronically on the internet or my smart phone. The “dollars” are one currency no matter who creates and issues them because whoever receives them can redeem them for balances at the central bank (or in the old days for gold).

Visa, Master Card and American Express credit cards provide payments on my behalf by lending me the money before I actually make the payment from my bank account to the credit provider at the end of the month. The loan to me involved in such payments, increases the cost of this type of payment.

The execution of the interbank portion of my payments have become increasingly efficient over time but can still take several days because the Federal Reserve Banks do not operate in the evening or on weekends. When our central bank launches FedNow next year it will allow the continuous processing of payments between banks 24/7.

The front end of the payment process, i.e., my initiation of a payment to you, for example, has also benefited from software improvements. Unlike bitcoin, Ethereum, or Ripple, which are currencies, Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, etc. are payment technologies rather than money. They are means for paying US dollars (or other currencies) from me to you. Venmo, for example can be thought of as the payment service part of a bank. It can hold money for you and can transfer it to others (who must also have a Venmo account) but Venmo cannot make loans with your money. Thus, people without bank accounts can use Venmo as if it were a bank account.

The Federal Reserve and other central banks are investigating whether they should also provide the service to the public of paying dollars with so called Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). The Federal Reserve defines a CBDC “as a digital liability of the Federal Reserve that is widely available to the general public.” “Money and payments–Fed report”  CBDCs would be a direct claim on the central bank like Federal Reserve notes (cash) but would be held and transferred digitally like your bank deposits. If the Fed goes forward with introducing CBDCs, they would almost certainly be what are called retail CBDCs. Rather than opening accounts at the Fed directly, we would each do so through a bank. We would sign up with and deal with a bank to hold the Fed’s CBDCs. The Fed has no existing capacity to deal directly with each of us in the way that our banks do. The balance of this note will explore how such CBDC would compare with, say, Venmo balances and payments and whether they are worth the trouble.

All digital money is recorded on electronic ledgers, either distributed as with a block chain used by bitcoin, or centrally maintained as with our bank accounts. As block chains are slow and expensive to verify, they would not be used for CBDCs. Just in case you didn’t know, when you walk into your bank and deposit cash, they don’t put it in the value for you. They record the value of the cash you delivered in our account with the bank, and they return the cash to the Fed for a credit to your bank’s Fed account or invest or lend it to someone else (after having converted it into a balance in their Fed account). It is both useful and interesting (to us economists at least) to walk through how my deposit at my bank is transferred to you (your account at your bank).

Taking Venmo as the example of existing digital payment technology, your deposit of dollars to your Venmo account would be digitally transferred from your bank account to your account on Venmo’s ledger. Your bank would transfer the same amount to Venmo’s deposit account with its bank (in the name of PayPal, which owns Venmo) in the usual interbank transfer manner. All (double entry) financial ledgers have a liability side (your deposit with the bank — what the bank owes you) and an asset side (the cash you deposited or the balance in your bank’s fed account for the money you had transferred to it). The ledger shows what the bank owes (liabilities) and the assets it holds with which to pay out what it owes (assets).

All digital money, whether your bank deposit or Venmo or bitcoin, must provide for an on ramp into and off ramp out of the digital system, i.e., for the process of paying cash in to acquire the digital money and of drawing it out as cash. Interestingly, Kenya has had a version of Venmo payments for several decades already. Kenya’s M-Pesa The ownership and use of cell phones (not necessarily smart phones) is very widespread in Kenya, while bank accounts are far more limited. Thus, people paid for phone airtime by the hour by paying cash to street venders selling such service. This became the on ramp for the unbanked to fund their M-Pesa mobile money accounts.

If you have money in your Venmo account (a positive balance), you can issue a payment instruction via your Venmo wallet directly to the friend you are paying. You can also instruct Venmo to take that the money simultaneously from your bank account. You can do all of this on your smart phone while waiting for your drink at a local bar. If your friend doesn’t have a Venmo account, Venmo will instruct her on how to set up one in order to receive your payment. If you give Venmo a day or two to complete the payment, it is free. If you want it delivered immediately (within a few minutes) there is a small fee. When the payment is complete, your balance at Venmo (or your bank) will have been reduced by the amount of the payment and your friend’s balance with Venmo will have been increased by the same amount. She can leave the money there or move it to her bank account (on her cell phone) if she has one. The money will “exist” as an accounting record somewhere. These “dollars” are accepted from wherever they come (from whoever produced them) because they are claims on, or are converted into deposits at, a Federal Reserve Bank.

How would this compare with a payment with central bank digital currency (CBDC)? While the Federal Reserve has not indicated the details of a possible CBDC, it would probably work something like this. I would ask my bank to sell me CBDCs by debiting my checking account by the indicated amount. These would be added to (credited to) my CBDC account at my bank.  My bank would transfer that amount from its general account at its Federal Reserve Bank to a segregated CBDC account at the Fed. My cell phone wallet would record (by accessing my CBDC account at my bank) this amount, and my bank would back it 100% with its CBDC account at the Fed.

Why does this matter? It matters because if my bank fails (goes into bankruptcy), the amount in the bank’s CBDC reserves at the Fed would be excluded from the bankruptcy process. They are exclusively and fully available to back my CBDC holdings. When I pay CBDC to my friend, her bank will receive them without regard for the condition of my bank.

Some of you will recognize this as the equivalent of the so-called Chicago Plan. The Chicago Plan required banks to back all checking account deposits 100% with central bank reserves. Our bank deposits today are largely backed by bank loans and investments plus a small deposit with the central bank. Such CBDC deposits would be totally free of default risk. While all CBDCs would exist on the books of the Federal Reserve, ownership by individuals would be reflected on the books of their respective banks and in their CBDC wallets.

Like the Chicago Plan, CBDCs have the potential to reduce the money multiplier (the ratio of broad money to base money–the Federal Reserve’s monetary liabilities). A shift from demand deposits to CBDC deposits at banks would reduce the funds available to banks for lending by increasing the reserves they must hold at the Fed. This could be easily compensated for by increasing base money (Federal Reserve monetary liabilities). Sudden shifts to the safer CBDCs in reaction to financial shocks, like traditional bank runs, would require central bank intervention. The Fed has also indicated that it would want any digital replacement of its currency notes to provide as much user privacy as possible (like cash) consistent with “affording the transparency necessary to deter criminal activity.”

How would this compare with a Venmo payment. From our perspective (the perspective of the payer and payee) a Venmo or CBDC payment would be executed in the same or very similar way. The difference is that the CBDC balances would be totally risk free (being relatively direct claims on the central bank) while the Venmo balances would be exposed to the risk of the failure of the bank in which Venmo keeps its assets that back our Venmo balances. It is not obvious that this is a big enough difference to make it worth undertaking.