Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Pass An Anti-Gay Law, Destroy Your Economy

When people say that gay rights are “special rights,” they couldn’t be more wrong. Gay rights, from a Libertarian perspective, are simply affording gays the same legal responsibilities and rights as any other group of Americans receives. Various state governments, however, don’t see it that way, and they do so not only to their own detriment, but the detriment of their own citizens.

Consider this example: when I lived in Silicon Valley in 2002, Alabama was making a concerted push into the Valley to try and recruit high tech companies. Alabama had what it thought was the ultimate in incentives – low taxes and an abundance of cheap electricity (compared to the government-enabled Enron scam, this seemed like a blessing). However, they had trouble attracting Silicon Valley companies.
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I agreed to meet with one of the economic advisors to the Alabama government when he was visiting in Palo Alto, and explained to him that despite all the tax benefits, Silicon Valley companies would never relocate to Alabama because of its anti-gay laws. Then Alabama-Supreme-Court-Justice Moore’s ruling that gay parents need to be executed before keeping custody of their own children would ensure that the many gay parents working at Silicon Valley high tech companies would never agree to move to that state. Mix in the anti-gay attitudes in every level of government, laws designed to harass gays (or make them jump through hoops to get their powers of attorney recognized, etc.) and Alabama was anathema to the employees and thus their employers.

The Alabama rep was furious. “You’re saying we have to accept that lifestyle to get investment,” he fumed. He didn’t understand that not harassing or targeting gays is not “accepting a lifestyle,” but rather following the dictates of the Bill of Rights. He insisted that Intel, Apple, AMD, Hewlett-Packard and other companies could simply force their employees to move to Alabama – he wasn’t aware that most of the top marketing, strategy, design, engineering and finance people at all of those companies have standing offers for employment at competitors which they could take at any time. He then insisted that the companies could move their heterosexual-only employees to Alabama. Ignoring the absurdity of such a proposition (can you imagine the HR implications?), he didn’t understand (or care to understand) that often, gay employees are the decision-makers in such a scenario and would never go for it. Silicon Valley is successful because it’s a meritocracy – one’s religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. is not a barrier (or enhancer) of success. Alabama is not a meritocracy, thus the Silicon Valley culture of innovation would never take root.

Alabama probably spent/wasted millions of dollars on this campaign – to no avail. Not a single Silicon Valley company chose to move there. Alabamians who could have looked forward to a career in a high-growth company which rewards performance, not religion or sexual orientation, likely had to leave the state for others places to find it -- driving a continued brain-drain and continued capital flight out of the state. The price, if ever calculated, is likely quite high to the state economy.

Which brings me to the latest absurdities, this time in Virginia:

Edel Quinones lived in Virginia for 10 years, but early this year, he sold his Arlington townhouse to move to the District.

"It felt like I wasn't welcome anymore," he said.

Quinones and his partner of three years are joining a migration of gay people out of Virginia in the face of recent legislative action they perceive as hostile.

Twenty states have amended their constitution to ban same-sex marriage since 2004. Virginia state legislators passed a law two years ago that prohibits "civil unions, partnership contracts or other arrangements between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage." A proposed constitutional amendment, which will go to voters in November, excludes any "unmarried individuals" from "union, partnership or other legal status similar to marriage."

Many gay people in Virginia and some family-law attorneys say they worry that the state law and proposed amendment are more far-reaching than simple bans on gay marriage -- that the measures could threaten the legal viability of the contracts used by gay couples to share ownership of property and businesses.

The exact effects are unclear, and the 2004 law remains untested, but some gays say they fear the laws could affect their ability to own homes together; to draft powers of attorney, adoption papers or wills; or to arrange for hospital visitation or health surrogacy.

Once again, a state that isn’t too interested in its economy passes a law that makes its gay citizens strangers to the law. Some suggest that the law might not survive a court challenge, or that it won’t be rigorously applied, but most gay families aren’t going to risk being the “guinea pigs” for such a court case – putting their assets, health, financial decisions, hospital visitation options, child custody, parental rights and other basic, constitutionally-guaranteed rights up to risk.

Virginia, and Fairfax County in particular, has made great noises about what a high-tech economy it is building. The qualitative trends are beginning to suggest otherwise, and I suspect the numbers will as well. What entrepreneur is going to want to set up shop in a state which targets gay people for nasty treatment? Gays are all over high tech -- they're some of the hardest working employees around. In certain areas of high technology, especially development, engineering, product design and marketing, many companies have groups which are 20% gay or more -- run by gay and lesbian managers. Locating in a state like Virginia will shut off access to over 20% of the talented, hardworking employees the entrepreneur needs in order to succeed. He'll simply cross the state off his list, or put it at or near the bottom, along with Alabama and Ohio.

For various regions of the country, the message is clear: anti-gay policies that marginalize or destroy the rights of gays under the US Constitution also destroy the economic growth prospects of the jurisdictions that pass them. Non-partisan gay groups should start carrying this common-sense message forward – Libertarians have done so since 1971.