Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 May 2019

Roe, Roe, Roe your Boat . . .


For an essay on why we must compete peacefully with China and what we must do to win, click here. For an essay on Elizabeth Warren’s qualifications for the presidency, click here. For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

Once upon a time, there was a nation called the United States of America. Its people were doers and problem solvers. They explored and settled a continent. They tamed the Mississippi. They discovered how mosquitos carried yellow fever and wiped out the mosquitos. They used vaccines to eradicate smallpox and measles.

They built the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Interstate Highways. They invented air travel and propagated it worldwide. They invented nuclear weapons but used them only to end humanity’s most terrible war. They put men on the Moon. They invented the Internet and saw it spread worldwide. They gave humanity personal computers and smartphones.

When disputes among their people arose, they settled them. When disputes became acute, they compromised or went to court. When the top court ruled, the losers sighed and accepted its decision. The government was far from perfect, but it worked. It did things.

No more. Some time during the reign of a grade-B actor named Ronald Reagan, pols began privatizing their sacred duties. They delegated them, and their own thinking, to “political operatives”—a motley crew of grifters, PR people, salesmen, advisors, propagandists and third-rate “thinkers.”

These worthies convinced pols that all that mattered was staying in office, not what they did while there. Pols’ lives became self-reinforcing exercises in deceiving themselves and their constituents. They spent most of their time and energy raising money for their next campaigns and the media propaganda required to maintain their deceptions.

Solving problems, their operatives told them, is not the thing to do. The thing to do is to stay in power. And the way to do that, the operatives said, is to keep issues alive, not resolve them. Maybe that’s why Trump just canceled negotiations with Democrats over rebuilding our infrastructure—the best way to give millions of skilled workers good, non-outsourceable jobs.

If you keep issues alive and refuse to resolve them, you will attract—and often enrage—a phalanx of committed voters. You will have a steady stream of support from single-issue extremists. You will have their money, too, so you won’t have to spend so much time on the phone making cold calls for cold cash.

Just kick the can continuously down the road, and you will have an inexhaustible reserve of intransigent support. That’s how you stay in power; never mind how you govern.

The epitome of this perversion of democracy is, of course, abortion. That’s not surprising: the issue is tailor-made for indefinite discussion and non-resolution. It’s also an issue that doesn’t belong in national politics at all: the criminal law that anti-abortion zealots use to try to stamp out abortion is primarily state law. In the absence of consensus on the issue in Congress, the only effect national elections have on abortion is the rare chance for a president to appoint a Supreme Court Justice based on this single issue.

Imagine a professor of philosophy posing the question to college freshmen in a final exam. Which should prevail, the desires and life of the pregnant woman, or the nascent life of the fetus? A good professor would have no fixed answer in mind. Instead, he or she would grade students on their nuance and subtlety, their understanding how myriad additional facts can change the analysis, and their clever citation of great philosophers discussed in the course.

The operatives, of course, did no such thing. They propounded a single answer for all cases, regardless of facts and nuances. Their goal was not to resolve the issue or deal with it practically in all its complexity, but to provoke an ideological war. They wanted “clickbait” before there were clicks.

Abortion best motivates voters when it’s a constant irritant, like a burr in one’s shoe. Republicans treat abortion as “killing babies.” Democrats say forbidding it denies women autonomy and control over their own bodies. Both sides leave all the crucial nuances—things like, rape, incest, the mother’s age, health and circumstances, the fetus’ condition and viability, the father’s presence, condition and wishes—out of the discussion.

Back in 1973, before Reagan and the onslaught of Karl Rove and his clones, our Supreme Court had done what Americans used to do. In the case of Roe v. Wade, it had tried to craft a practical solution. The pregnant woman’s wishes, it said, prevail until the fetus is viable outside the womb. Thereafter, the fetus has rights because it could survive on its own if given the chance.

It was a simple, practical solution, but it didn’t last long. The rapid advance of medical science and technology made fetal viability a moving target. With today’s technology, we can grow a fetus in a test tube, from the very moment of fertilization. So isn’t a fetus now “viable,” with some help from modern medicine, from the moment of fertilization, too?

The issue is ripe for “keeping,” not resolving, for yet another reason. There is no scientific or medical consensus on when a human life begins. In science and in reality, both life and death are complex processes. Recall the recent experiments provoking some activity in “dead” neurons from the severed heads of slaughtered pigs.

Religion stepped into the breach, taking the matter out of secular hands. But our First Amendment precludes establishing an “official” religion and gives everyone the right to practice his own. Anyway, if we let priests, pastors, rabbis and imams decide, we would have no general rule. And that approach, too, would deprive pregnant women and their doctors of the power to decide.

Finally, there’s the notion of “liberty,” which our Constitution guarantees us in its preamble and its Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Isn’t the right of a pregnant woman to decide whether to bear a child, in consultation with the child’s father, her family, her doctor, and her moral and religious advisers, the essence of “liberty”? But isn’t also the fetus’ right to live, at least if and when human? Does the concept of “liberty” shed any light on what’s right in a particular case?

The Roe v. Wade Court tried to draw a line. Perhaps it should have refrained. Perhaps wisdom, then and now, lay and lies in restraint. Perhaps there’s no one-size-fits-all “solution” to this most personal and delicate of issues, dependent as it is on every detail of the actual facts and circumstances.

But that’s how the Roe Court did rule. It declared a limited, constitutional “right” to abortion. In so doing, it not only made abortion a political issue for keeping, not resolving, for the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever. It also gave pols an easy reason to forsake their duties, jump into bed with their sly operatives, and goad voters into manning the barricades rather than improving their day-to-day lives.

We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Already Rove-like operatives have become a pack of hyenas. They have sunk their teeth into our political system as if it were a downed calf. Among the consequences are: a do-nothing Congress, a system dead in the water, an imperial presidency with the least qualified leader in our history, a divided and hateful public, and the indefinite prospect of more of the same.

Cui bono? Who benefits? Rove and his fellow operatives certainly did (See this post and this one.) They have proliferated like locusts, creating a new, well-paid and powerful profession, from nothing, in less than two generations. Many of them switch candidates and even parties like bettors picking horses at the racetrack. Perhaps vultures are better metaphors than hyenas.

Of the two major parties, probably the GOP has gained more. Blanket opposition to abortion plays well in the outback where Trump won unexpectedly. It undoubtedly helped George W. Bush enough in his race against Al Gore to drop the race into the Supreme Court’s lap, where Bush won. My own anecdotal experience suggests as much, for a colleague of mine (a professor, no less!) confessed to voting for Bush primarily on the issue of abortion.

But our nation as a whole has lost egregiously. We don’t need two huge phalanxes of single-issue voters, let alone on an issue on which national elections have little or no direct effect. By oversimplifying an incredibly complex and nuanced issue, abortion has taught our electorate to shoot from the hip. It has also encouraged name-calling (“baby killers,” “misogynists”) and discouraged civil and rational discourse. If there is any single thing, prior to Trump’s presidency and the revival of white supremacy, that has wantonly cheapened and coarsened our national politics, it’s the elevation of abortion to a perennial national issue.

So what comes next? Here’s my fervent hope.

Let the new “conservative” Court deliver the coup de grace. Let it overrule Roe v. Wade as soon and as decisively as possible.

Let our electorate awaken from its nightmare of distracting and fruitless abstract ideological combat. Let voters see how the oligarchs have stolen the people’s jobs and patrimony, are blocking their future, are pillaging our land, air, water and wilderness, and are risking yet another unnecessary and potentially catastrophic war, this time with Iran. Let them see how their elected representatives have morphed from independent thinkers into lackeys groveling for money and controlled by third-rate, quasi-criminal minds. Let them see how they’ve been led around by the nose, with an issue of state law that presidents and members of Congress have little power to resolve. Let them understand, with full force, how deeply they’ve been duped.

However much the operatives on both sides want their single-issue voters to believe it, sustaining or overruling Roe is not ideological Armageddon. All overruling it would mean is that abortion would become illegal in some red states.

Clean and safe abortions will undoubtedly still be lawful on the West and East Coasts, in some Mountain states, in Canada, and in Mexico (which is not far from many of the reddest, most anti-abortions states). If supporters of women’s autonomy are concerned that poorer women in red states won’t have access to safe and legal abortions, they could form an organization to transport them to places where abortions are legal and see them through the procedures. The Constitution’s guarantees of state sovereignty and full faith and credit to all states’ laws, not to mention citizens’ privileges and immunities to travel freely among states, would keep them from being prosecuted on their return. That’s what our ancestors—who once were problem-solvers, not issue-hoarders—would have done.

According to the Washington Post, 638,169 abortions were reported in 2015, the latest year for which good data are available. Relative to our national population of 328,830,848 (estimated as of May 22, 2019), the political issue of abortion directly affected 0.2% of our population. (The issue may have indirectly affected more people than the aborting women, for example, their men and parents. But an unknown number of aborting women, probably a majority, lived in or traveled to states with liberal laws and had no practical problems. In the absence of more detailed data, it’s safe to assume that the number of reported abortions is an upper limit to the number of pregnant women who had trouble with abortions derived from legal prohibitions.)

Let’s suppose (contrary to common sense) that every one of those 638,169 women had to travel to a get a clean, safe and legal abortion. According to Planned Parenthood, an abortion in the first trimester costs from $350 to $950. That’s in the first trimester—the precise time frame in which Roe originally protected abortion as a constitutional right. But let’s make our estimate “conservative” and, by taking the top first-trimester cost as the average, include some later abortions. Then let’s add $1,500 for the cost of round-trip air travel to and from a blue state (or Canada or Mexico) and a couple of a days in a reasonable but not shabby hotel. That sums to $2,450 per procedure, or 638,169 x $2,450 = $1.56 billion dollars.

In a $20 trillion economy, with a “t,” that’s a 0.008% problem. To put it in perspective, 10 million ardent pro-choice advocates could fund the whole thing with donations of $156 dollars apiece. Some of our leading multi-billionaires, such as Jeff Bezos, could fund it out of pocket change

Instead, we the people let the GOP operatives trick us into treating abortion as an issue of ideological Armageddon, rather than a practical problem to be solved practically. The best thing anyone who wants to see America great again could do is to put this issue behind us, once and for all. Having the private sector fund abortions (and any necessary travel) for women who who can’t afford them would do that, quietly and effectively.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen. Over the last two generations, the GOP has become adept not just at “applied philology,” the science of name calling and word-twisting. It has also become a master of distraction.

Except for pregnant women who consider and/or have them, the issue of abortion is the mother of all distractions. It seems so simple yet really is so complex. It has reduced many voters from thinking citizens to shouters at barricades. It has helped the oligarchs steal the nation’s substance and governance right out from under voters’ noses. It’s as important to the oligarchs’ plan for supremacy as are the many kinds of vote suppression and voter discouragement that Stacey Abrams describes in her recent piece in the New York Times.

The key to understanding the real role of abortion in our national politics is the extreme anti-abortion laws just passed in states like Alabama and Missouri. No Supreme Court Justice—not even Gorsuch or Kavanaugh—is going to let states criminalize ending a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or to save the life of the woman. That would be like encouraging Solomon to split the baby with his sword, right there in his audience chamber.

These extreme laws are dead on arrival in our courts. So why pass them? The purpose is not to “test” Roe. Anyone who’s gone to law school knows how that “test” will come out.

The purpose of these impossibly harsh laws is distraction, pure and simple. If women and other voters focus on these obvious threats to women’s health care, autonomy and justice, they might not notice the vote suppression, tax theft, environmental degradation, effects of global warming, or wanton destruction of our safety net going on all around them. They might not notice how our war machine is gearing up yet again to make money for arms makers and to put immigrants who want to earn their spurs as citizens through yet another meat grinder.

So I don’t think Roe will die by a single stroke. The oligarchs want the issue, not the result. They want the distraction to continue.

Roe will die by a thousand cuts. The process will take years, keeping the issue and its distraction alive. The distraction will continue to energize rural and small-town voters, which form much of the GOP’s “base,” not to mention Dems who have trouble keeping their eyes on the ball. It’ll be the gift that keeps on giving, with nothing ever finally resolved.

One thing should be glaringly obvious. Trump, the oligarchs and the GOP operatives don’t really give a damn about abortion one way or the other. If they or their own women have an unwanted pregnancy, they can fly to England, Germany, Switzerland or Singapore and have a safe, clean and legal abortion, in luxury, at will. They can even have it in privacy and secrecy. They care about the issue of abortion for one reason only: it distracts voters’ attention from their stealing the substance of this nation and tilting the playing field further against ordinary workers and citizens each and every day.

By the time Roe falls, if ever, the oligarchs may have taken over completely, and the United States may be an empire, like ancient Rome in its latter days. Women may be much like the maids from The Handmaid's Tale now used as protest icons. Or a second civil war may have started, with the aim of restoring real democracy to what remains of the United States.

Roe, Roe, Roe your boat, gently down the stream,
Merrily, airily, carelessly, mindlessly, voting’s just a dream.

Footnote: Perhaps the sole benefit of this appalling political trend is that the vulture class now offers equal opportunities for women. Don’t we all just love ladies like Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with all their manifest intelligence, veracity and moral sensitivity? Who elected them?

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Links to Posts since January 23, 2017

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