On Business and Political Speech

We seem to have lost the thread about businesses and political speech. Something has changed recently. Governments seem more willing these days to punish companies for political opinions which clash with current leaders’ politics. It’s a bad trend. It’s very likely anti-constitutional.

First Amendment
First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law…” New TX laws violate this principle.

Based on laws passed in the 2021 legislative session in Texas, any company entering a state contract worth $100,000 or more must certify certain “politically correct in Texas” stances. First, the company must pledge that it does not boycott fossil fuels. Second, that it does not boycott firearms. Third, that it does not boycott Israel. If you attempt any of these political things, apparently, your business is not welcome in Texas, by statute. The attorney general’s office and the comptroller’s office have issued letters to companies seeking certification statements from businesses to pledge allegiance to this political stance. 

According to a report by National Public Radio, the actual implementation of these “politically correct” requirements in Texas is messy. Plenty of loopholes exist. It’s not working.

Nevertheless, the intent is to bully companies into agreeing to the politics of a particular place and particular party leadership in power now. Contrary to Texas lawmakers’ intent, this version of business political correctness should not make conservatives happy. This should make them very, very worried, from a constitutional standpoint.

This feels of a piece with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ moves in the past month to punish Disney for its supposed pro-LGBTQ messages.

I’m no First Amendment scholar, but here’s how I understand things. We start with the idea that there’s a big difference between whether you are a private citizen, a business, or the government.

As a quick reminder, private citizens get to say almost anything they like. They can’t incite violence or do the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater for safety reasons, but most everything else – including quite offensive things – is fair game. 

Private corporations and their owners and executives also get wide latitude to express political opinions, usually lImited by civil protections like employment law. Private businesses run the risk of a loss of business for unpopular opinions and politics, but generally they can say or express nearly anything as well.

Public officials and government entities, however, do not and should not have the ability to impose their own political views on individuals or companies. That’s the direction of autocrats, both of the left and the right. In our pro-market, anti-autocratic system, it’s been an important tradition that political leaders do not pressure companies to conform with their politics.

chick_fil_a

In this context, the San Antonip City Council vote a few years back crossed the line in explicitly deciding against letting Chick-fil-A open a restaurant in the municipal airport because of the fast food chain owners’ perceived hostility to gay marriage.  If individual consumers want to shun chicken to punish Chick-fil-A for its politics, that’s their right. But when a city government imposes a political litmus test like this on a private company, it oversteps. The left-leaning city council rightfully reaped the whirlwind for its choice. This isn’t the right way for governments to treat private companies.

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has joined the trend set by the Texas legislature of punishing corporations for their left-leaning politics. He urged the Florida legislature to strip Disney of its special tax status, when Disney joined a letter condemning proposed legislation in Florida. DeSantis made clear this was personal, and his action retaliatory, saying  “Disney thought they ruled Florida. They even tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda.”

Desantis_v_Disney
Desantis’ bullying is clearly anti-constitutional

Official government retaliation for protected speech is a violation of the First Amendment. I guess it goes to the courts next but this is really important: Our system depends on DeSantis getting slapped down for this attempt to retaliate for political speech.

Here’s how it should go. Disney gets to express any type of speech or political stance it wants. Within the bounds of employment law, of course. Private consumers for their part get to decide whether to buy more, the same, or fewer of Disney’s products as a result of Disney’s expressions. Disney is free to be as woke or as reactionary in their public utterances as they please, and then they can suffer the consequences. Cancel, or embrace, or just appreciate princess movies for what they are – it should be all the same under the law.

In a non left-right culture-war context, this may be easier to understand. If I run an ice house – serving beer and spirits – and I flip the bird to the mayor of my city or the county judge or the governor, that’s my absolute right. I’m an American, damnit! If the next week I get a visit from the Texas alcoholic beverage commission and learn my license to serve has been revoked for no other reason than I was being rude to the powers that be, that’s retaliatory and a violation of my rights. Governments and government officials are not allowed to act like precious snowflakes. Private citizens and businesses are protected in a way that governments are not. 

Public officials and governments need to be circumscribed in their statements and actions. They don’t get to do and say what they want. That’s the whole point of the constitution. To protect us from the government. It is not ok for a public official to opine and then try to shape the politics of a private company. It is worse still to bring the power of the regulatory state to bear on a private company, as long as the company is acting within current law. To do what DeSantis has done in Florida is to make an important move toward an autocratic state. This should be equally clear to conservatives and progressives alike.

Forcing corporate allegiance to current office holders’ political stance is both anti-market and pro-autocrat. Punishing companies for their political stances is anti-American.  It’s the stuff of Putin’s Russia.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related post:

The anti-constitutional attempt to regulate speech in TX on social media platforms.

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The Good Times

The US Financial Infotainment Industrial Complex needs to tell us bad, shocking, surprising, and emotionally arousing news. It is less good at pointing out the opposite. Like good news. Or, “things were less interesting or less frightening than we expected.” That stuff tends to get ignored in the media.

As financial news consumers we need a good dashboard for tracking the main indicators of economic health. Meanwhile, instead, financial media acts like a series of blinding strobe lights, flashing shocking inflation numbers or surprise jobless claims numbers, what stock dropped or jumped 25 percent this week, or which maniac billionaire tweeted an irrelevant weed joke yesterday.

The Financial Infotainment Industrial Complex does not want to discuss the boring things, or the good things. But I do, damnit. 

“Give me the boring, Taylor, and give it to me straight!” is how I imagine you exhort me when you open up your weekend paper, as we sit down together at The Club. (I like to pretend I’m a 19th Century English gentleman, so “The Club” is my preferred way to exchange boring financial news with friends.)

So, friends, let’s talk about inflation and employment in April 2021. And then a brief nod at the end toward taxes, assets, government debt, and economic growth.

Inflation

Data released on April 12 for the widely followed Consumer Price Index showed 8.5 percent inflation over the past year. The highest in 40 years.

This seems perverse to say, but I’m glad to see this inflation. Relieved. This feels to me…normal. Reassuring. 

Why? Because during COVID the Federal Reserve explosively grew its balance sheet to $9 trillion. That was a jump up from $4 trillion for the extraordinary quantitative easing (QE2) period during the 2014 to 2020 era, which itself was a doubling from the $2 trillion post-Great Recession expanded balance sheet in 2009. And we have had a 20-year run of historically-low interest rates. I was sick of predicting inflation for 20 years in a row and being wrong every time. The absence of traditional consumer price inflation was weird.

If inflation hadn’t taken off in 2021, all economic laws of money supply theory would be out the window. Fortunately, the appearance of regular consumer inflation means that the fringe economic ideas of Modern Monetary Theory can be relegated to the footnotes of history.

Before 2022, we only saw inflation in indirect forms.

The cryptocurrency and NFT weirdness in 2021 was inflation. The positive S&P500 returns of 29, 16, and 27 percent in 2019, 2020 and 2021 respectively was inflation. Rapid home price appreciation over the last 3 years was inflation. We just didn’t see it so obviously in consumable goods. And now we do. Order is restored to the universe. 

Also, the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates approximately 6 more times this year and will shrink the balance sheet. Inflation will revert to normal levels with normal policies. This is boring, and good.

Employment 

Classic economic theory links employment and inflation, in something called the Phillips Curve. The Phillips Curve is a picture of the following words: When unemployment goes down, prices go up. When unemployment goes up, prices go down. (or more accurately, prices go up more slowly). 

phillips_curve

The Phillips Curve is a bit dated, and debate continues about causality, magnitude of effects, secondary confounding factors, shape of the curve, etc, but the basic relationship between employment and inflation is considered real.  Federal Reserve economists explicitly adopt this linkage, and try for a happy Goldilocks medium of moderate inflation (around 2 percent) and strong employment, understanding that helping one side may unintentionally hurt the other. 

All of this is prelude to look at our dashboard metrics and to point out the following: You guys, employment has never been better than it is right now. The unemployment rate announced April 1st is 3.6 percent. Except for a few briefs months right before COVID hit, we’ve never measured unemployment this low. This is amazing, unabashedly, good news. 

Complaints in financial media from the business community about the difficulty of hiring workers is a very negative spin on a very positive situation. Working people have pricing power. They can get jobs, and then they can negotiate to get a better job, because unemployment is so low. Unemployment at 3.6 percent is considered way better than standard models of the US economy would predict, because we’ve simply never had it this good. 

Good_Times

Good news like this doesn’t make for exciting headlines but it doesn’t make it any less true. And also traditional models would suggest that when employment is this good, we should expect higher than normal inflation. 

It doesn’t feel like it, you may not believe it, financial media won’t admit it, but: These are the good times.

Time for a lightning roundup on stocks, housing, tax collection, and economic growth to complete the dashboard review.

Stock Market and Housing

Big upward moves in stocks and home values between 2019 and 2021 were a form of inflation. But also, a form of wealth. The US stock market is about 8 percent off its all-time highs, but by any reasonable and historic metric has performed like an absolute racehorse in recent years. From a dashboard perspective, these asset markets are still booming. That’s usually considered good.

Taxes

Federal tax collection hit a record high last year. This is good news. You might think that’s bad news (because you don’t like taxes) but it is also good news because (hopefully) you also don’t like government debt. We have lots of debt, so it is good that we collect lots of taxes in order to stay current on the debt.

We collected a lot of taxes last year in part because over 96 percent of people who want a job have one, and also because an elevated stock market generates a tremendous amount of capital gains taxes.

Economic Growth

The US economy grew 5.7 percent in 2021, well above trend, nicely undoing the steep COVID recession of 2020 that shrunk the economy by 3.4 percent.

Financial media doesn’t want to admit it, but these are the good times, right now.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle

Please see related post:

Economic Theories – Hayek, Keynes, MMT

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