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I haven't been surprised at how many letters and Word of Mouth phone calls have appeared in the Empire regarding the recent decision by the Vermont legislature to permit gay marriages. What I don't understand is why gay marriage bothers so many people. I mean, it's not for me, but neither do I see it as any sort of threat. I know that some religions oppose same-sex marriages, but some religions also oppose dancing. Not that government policies should ever be based on religion, but I am aware of no regulations prohibiting dancing. Why should there be regulations outlawing same-sex marriages?
The last state law outlawing interracial marriage was repealed in 1967. Isn't it time to permit same-sex marriage? Change is always difficult, and gay marriage may be a more complex issue than interracial marriage. But on a strictly economic basis, there are several reasons why we should permit same-sex marriage.
Few would deny that society accepts the gay lifestyle more today than even 20 years ago. This may be partially because of growing evidence that people are born with a homosexual orientation and do not choose to be gay. But gay people still face discrimination in the workplace and even at home. This is why so many gay young people try desperately - often to the extent of suicide - to change. And economists know that discrimination of any kind hurts the economy by reducing productivity.
While estimates on the fraction of the population that is gay vary considerably, it is clear that homosexuality is becoming more open and tolerated around the world. Denmark, Norway and Sweden now allow gay partners to register with the state and claim many of the benefits of marriage. Many cities in France and Belgium have similar policies. Communication over the Internet is one reason for the rise of gay rights organizations in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Argentina, China, and Kenya. The gay lifestyle remains outlawed in a only few fundamentalist countries like Iran where gay people can be put to death.
There are important economic elements to this issue. The stability of marriage provides substantial economic benefits to society. Single people are much more likely to end up on welfare than married people. Not only do single people not have partners to help them through difficult economic times, but single people tend to have more health and medical problems than married people. This is true of both homosexuals and heterosexuals. Many gay partnerships are just as stable and long-lived as heterosexual partnerships, despite the overwhelming difficulties gays face in contemporary society. Simply put, the prohibition of gay marriage results in higher government spending on welfare and other social programs.
Private business began to recognize the importance of support for same-sex partnerships over a decade ago. This is especially true of high-tech firms in the new economy. Apple Computer, for example, has long provided benefits for gay couples, and built its Texas manufacturing plant only after it was convinced that its gay employees would be treated equitably in Texas. IBM and Microsoft have similar policies that recognize same-sex partnerships.
Gays are important to business in another way. Many gays are highly educated, earn high incomes and have no children. As a result, gays have substantial discretionary incomes to spend in the marketplace. Every summer, for example, gay organizations book entire cruise ships to sail the Inside Passage with gay passengers.
Alaska has a long history of resistance to government intervention. Indeed, if Alaska's anti-government attitude were not so well ingrained, we would probably have an easier time developing a tax package to solve our long-term fiscal problems. But let's face it - solving Alaska's fiscal problem is only a first step. We must also attract new businesses to diversify our state economy. It wouldn't hurt to modernize the Alaska workplace and formally recognize same-sex partnerships. That would give us a small step up on other states when it comes to building a diversified Alaska economy for the 21st century. It would also be the right thing to do.
Bill Brown teaches economics at the University of Alaska Southeast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.