Thursday, August 2, 2012

A New York State of Mind

London has the world’s attention this week, not New York, thanks to the Olympics which chose the British capital over NYC as host city.  The gold medal for chutzpah, however, goes to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  He already holds the award for self-financing a campaign ($108 million) against an opponent who spent less than one-tenth the dollars and came within 4.5 points of beating him.  The mayor’s penchant for dictating what New Yorkers can consume made headlines again this week.

The billionaire businessman turned politician first had New York City restaurants ban the use of trans fats in 2006.  The mayor’s next proposal this past May would ban large sodas from being sold in the Big Apple. This week the mayor suggested that hospitals stop feeding baby formula to newborns as a way to encourage breast feeding.  From a health and medical perspective having fewer trans fats, consuming less sugary soda and having babies breast fed is probably the healthier alternative.  Having the Government decide these choices, however, is something else again.
It was surprising, then, to find the nation’s nanny-mayor not jumping on the anti-Chick-Fil-A brigade like majors in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco (amongst others).
“You can’t have a test for what the owners’ personal views are before you decide to give a permit to do something in the city. You really don’t want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit. That’s just not government’s job.”  Refreshing comments from Mayor Bloomberg – the same guy who does have government tell people what to eat.  That’s chutzpah New York style.  
The Cathy Family owns the chicken chain and caused a stir when Dan Cathy said: “Well, guilty as charged," in an interview when asked about Chick-fil-A’s opposing gay marriage. Twitter and Facebook ignited in a furor with boycotts on the one side and celebrations on the other. Yesterday was “appreciation day” where throngs of people went to the fast food chain to show their support.  This occurred in largely in response to big city mayors saying the company wasn’t welcome in their towns.
The U.S. economy is structured around supply and demand.  Businesses must operate under a variety of regulations (work practices, industry specific rules, etc.).  Freedom of speech is a cherished right and principal.  The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations/not-for-profit organizations/unions, etc. could participate financially in the electoral process.  Mitt Romney summarized that decision in his infamous quote:  “corporations are people.”  Well, not quite.

Business owners have the right to express their viewpoints.  They have the right to take their money and give it to causes that support their opinions.  Customers have the right to protest, object and boycott businesses.  It’s this tension why most businesses steer clear of controversial issues and focus on supplying their customers need.  Efforts can be undertaken to change the opinion: protests, shame ... even blogging.  Government and politicians can (and should) rail against short-sighted and ill-informed comments.  Government, however, doesn’t have the right to regulate a business based on what it says, only on what it does. 

A cake shop in Denver two weeks ago refused to make a gay couple a rainbow-layered wedding cake.  That action is not only bad business, but is an action that deserves government intervention.  It’s fine for the owners of the cake shop to oppose gay marriage, misguided as I think that may be.  Refusing service based on those beliefs is discrimination and not permissible.  That is the distinction on where Government actually has a role.

Banning or even threatening to ban a business for its thought/opinion is a slippery slope. If some areas bans a business for what they say about opposing gay marriage, it’s not inconceivable that other areas would ban businesses for supporting gay marriage – or any other topic. And where would we be then?  New York - where chef's might as well go to the Bloomberg school of nutrition. 

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