September 21, 2020

Reflection on Roe v. Wade in Response to the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 Although I have never been involved in anyone’s decision to have or not have an abortion, legal restrictions on abortion have never made much sense to me. Why should anyone have the right to tell a mentally and physically healthy woman what she must or must not do with her body?

Older Americans remember where they were when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I remember, in cinematic detail, where I was when I heard about the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Unfortunately, illiberal Christians have been trying to re-criminalize abortions ever since that fateful court judgment.

Roe has been criticized both by opponents of abortion and by legal scholars who argue that the decision, which relied on a right to privacy only implied in the Constitution, rested on shaky legal foundations. Indeed, opinions of the justices cited both the Fourteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment promises due process for all, and the Nineteenth Amendment denies that the failure of the Constitution to enumerate a right does not imply that citizens do not possess that right.

It is ironic, of course, that Republicans, who compose the major bloc of people opposed to abortion rights, are the same people who most vehemently insist on personal freedom. Militant Republicans seem ready to revolt over having to wear masks during a pandemic, yet they are equally aggressive about their intention to deny half the population the right to make the most intimate of decisions concerning their own bodies.

One suspects that much of anti-abortion sentiment is motivated by the belief that women are inferior to men and that their behavior should be controlled by men. Seldom is this outmoded and unpopular notion expressed publicly. Instead, “pro-life” proponents speak of protecting the health of the mother and of preserving the life of the “child.” However, women are not children, and fetuses are only human in the same sense that a piece of my skin shaved off in a spill on the sidewalk is human. Women, like men, deserve agency, especially with respect to their bodies.

The fundamental finding of Roe is surely correct from a human rights perspective, however it was arrived at. Moreover, the concept of a right to privacy is useful in contexts other than abortion.

I’d like to offer a different take on abortion rights. My reasoning is not original, but it is largely unfamiliar.

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery. Section 1 declares

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

No Slavery

Is not the forcing of a woman to carry a pregnancy to term a form of slavery? The essential character of slavery is, after all, that one party cannot quit performing service for another without compensation. In the case of anti-abortion laws, a woman is, in the sense I have suggested, a slave, forced to maintain a pregnancy, and her “master” is the state. Of course, chattel slavery in the United States was more complicated than this, but its essential character was the same. The Thirteenth Amendment does not suggest that what it outlaws necessarily requires one party to fully “own” another.

The slavery of pregnant women should be completely abolished, and the termination of pregnancy should, at all times, be a matter left to a woman and her physician.

In the distant past, abortions were dangerous, and one could assert conscientiously that their prohibition protected the lives of mothers. Prohibiting abortions did not eliminate abortions, however, but only made them even more dangerous, as they were performed underground and in medically questionable circumstances.

Today, most abortions are much safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth. Although many Americans—not just Democrats—fear that President Trump will appoint a Supreme Court justice who will vote with the court majority to overturn Roe. This is indeed likely. As most abortions occur early in a pregnancy, however, and are easily effected today with medicines. The ultimate effect of overturning Roe will therefore be minimal (though not without significance in certain cases). Women will obtain the necessary pharmaceuticals by one means or another, and women will have abortions. Most Americans will be fine with that.

Of course, another Trump court appointment will endanger other rights, the environment, and the Republic generally.

September 8, 2020

The Trump Economy

 Before the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign was relying on touting the economy as Trump’s greatest accomplishment. With the economy in a tailspin because of the pandemic and Trump’s handling of it, the president continues to rely on the former economy and on the rebound that will supposedly blossom in his second term. In fact, at least for most people, Trump deserves no credit for the economy.

As we enter the final stage of the 2020 presidential campaign, the economy is a mess, largely because Trump failed to take responsibility dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment is above 8%, many of the formerly employed will never be able to return to their old jobs, and we are likely soon to see a rash of evictions. Moreover, the return of students to schools and universities promises to balloon the number of COVID-19 infections, which will further damage the economy.

But the stock market is doing well! This is fine, at least for the moment, for investors, but many people can only wish they had money to invest. In part, the stock market is surging because it is practically impossible to make money in the bond market. And, of course, as Paul Krugman frequently reminds us, the market not the economy. Distressingly, The New York Times reports that the national debt is now larger than the gross domestic product, and it’s certain to become larger still. Now is not the time to attempt to reduce the debt, but it will need to be addressed eventually.

If the president did not handle the economy as well as he claims he did before the coronavirus struck, there is little reason to believe he will handle a recovery well in a second term. Why should anyone believe that the supposedly decent pre-2020 economy resulted from actions of the current administration, anyway?

By most conventional measures, the economy was doing fine when Barack Obama left office. Had Trump done nothing at all, the years-long expansion would have continued. Of course, no administration in recent years has done much for low-wage workers or addressed the rising wealth- and income-inequality. Trump has had no interest in these systemic problems, however, and they have persisted. Unemployment was low and continued to be low under Trump. Growth was positive but anemic. In other words, the economy under Trump largely moved along its pre-Trump trajectory.

Trump did affect the economy to a degree. He caused NAFTA to be re-negotiated, for instance. This was overdue, but the replacement agreement, the USMCA, introduced no dramatic changes. It has, and will have, only modest effects.

Trump began a trade war with China and, to a lesser extent, with Europe. This has hurt everyone concerned and American farmers in particular. Trump threw money at the farmers to keep them quiet. Our relations with China are now a mess, and French wine is more expensive. There have been no obvious winners.

Trump’s withdrawal from the development of the TTP is of more concern. Although this had no immediate effect, in the long term, it will allow China to expand its trade and influence over that of the United States. Trump dislikes multi-party agreements because, he argues, he can get better terms in bilateral negotiations. He has shown no inclination or expertise in that direction, however.

Trump has been systematically eliminating federal regulations. This has lessened protections for our air and water, as well as for wildlife. (Who needs the environment, anyway?) He has reduced the checks on corporate rapacity and encouraged projects potentially damaging to the environment. These changes have the effect of increasing corporate profits and transferring environmental costs to the citizens at large. Most people do not benefit from these changes.

Most importantly, Trump oversaw the passage of a massive tax cut, though not the largest ever, as the president likes to claim. This gave small, temporary reductions to lower- and middle-class people and permanent, large reductions to wealthy individuals and corporations. Republicans made the usual argument that these tax cuts would pay for themselves through increased tax collections. This argument is almost never true, and it has not been true in this case. Little of the corporate largess was shared with workers directly or trickled down to workers. The tax cut did not spur significant corporate spending, but it did result in higher bonuses to executives and stock buybacks. Again, most people do not benefit from these changes.

It is irrational to believe that a second-term Trump economy will be anything but good for the wealthy and bad for everyone else.

What will happen if Joe Biden wins the presidency. If Republicans continue to control the Senate, only modest improvements in the economy will be possible. Even in that case, we will see cabinet members selected for their competence and integrity. Much of Trump’s ill-considered deregulation will be undone. Our diplomacy will be more rational, less confrontational, and more disposed to multilateral agreements. Trade will be considered through the lens of searching for win-win situations rather than seeking for ways the U.S. can screw the rest of the world.

If we elect both a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate in addition to Joe Biden, we can look forward to largely undoing the Trump tax cut. This will not only reduce income inequality but it also will give the government enough money to make other changes to the economy and to civil society generally that are very much overdue.

Alas, a single Democratic term in the White House cannot undo all the damage done by Donald Trump nor correct all the inequities in society that were in existence when Trump took office. It will, however, offer a chance at a good start.

September 1, 2020

Our Lying President

 Apparently, there is a large cohort of people who will believe whatever President Donald Trump says, irrespective of how outrageous it may be. I cannot understand this.

Although it is not literally true that Mr. Trump is incapable of speaking the truth, he is not particularly in the habit of doing so. Based on years of evidence—and not only from the time of his presidency—an objective analysis shows that the president tells untruths most of the time. Sometimes this results from his monumental self-esteem and his equally monumental ignorance. Most often, he lies out of self-interest. Sometimes, he seems to lie for the sheer pleasure of it. 

In any case, unless I have a strong reason to believe otherwise, I assume Donald Trump is lying. This attitude has served me well. Were I to believe nothing he says, I would be correct most of the time.

I fear the voting behavior of those who do not treat the president’s pronouncements as I do.

August 29, 2020

Responsible Voting

Opinion writers for The New York Times have been commenting daily on the just-ended party conventions. Each writer has offered opinions on the best and worst moments of the four-day presentations. Mostly, the commentary was unremarkable; I agreed with much of it and could usually sympathize with the rest. But the evaluation of the final day of the Republican convention upset me. Well, one remark upset me.

Matt Labash, writing in the “What Else Mattered” section of the Times piece, offered the following:

The R.N.C. was as dispiriting as the D.N.C. At a time of multiple crises, when we most need good, honest leadership, we instead get relentless dishonesty. Democrats lie about “peaceful protests,” as cities are torched and ransacked. Republicans lie about Covid-19, a virus we didn’t even know existed 10 months ago, but which is now our third-leading killer, having taken nearly 185,000 American lives. These are the choices, folks: bunco men vs. flim-flammers. Bloods vs. Crips, engaged in gang warfare for its own sake. I, for one, will be voting my conscience, which dictates that I can’t vote. Not this cycle. Why reward the bastards?

Labash’s other remarks were not flattering either. I haven’t bothered to look up what he said about the DNC, but from what he wrote following the last day of the RNC, I assume it wasn’t positive. What upset me, though, was how he ended the above paragraph:

I, for one, will be voting my conscience, which dictates that I can’t vote. Not this cycle. Why reward the bastards?

This brought to mind something Katy Tur once said on MSNBC. Tur had been tasked by her network to cover the Donald Trump candidacy in the 2016 campaign. That hardly seemed a plum assignment at the time, but, as it turned out, she got to follow the man who would become the next President of the United States. Tur was able to observe the Republican standard-bearer, as they say, up close and personal. Additionally, Trump occasionally singled her out by name as a representative of the fake-news press.

What Katy Tur said after the election was that she hadn’t voted. Apparently, this was out of some perverted notion of journalistic objectivity. I thought that she, of all people, was in the perfect position to see Donald Trump as the lying hate-monger he is. As a well-educated professional woman, could she not see that Trump was a danger to the Republic and that it was her civic duty to vote for Hillary Clinton? Well, apparently not. Journalistic objectivity was no excuse for her behavior.

Matt Labash, on the other hand, offers a different, even weaker, excuse for not bothering to vote. He is practicing bothsidesism. Seeing hypocrisy in the presentations of both the Democrats and the Republicans, he concludes, in effect, that the two parties are equally corrupt and not deserving of his vote. He claims a moral superiority in this position. In reality, though, his position is like that of Trump himself when he spoke of good people on both sides of the Charlottesville demonstrations. If Labash cannot see a world of difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates this year, he is too clueless to be writing opinions in the Times. In fact, if he is indeed that oblivious to the obvious, perhaps it is best that he not vote!

I am impressed neither by Tur’s reasoning nor Labash’s. I should also mention a line of reasoning similar to Labash’s that is also dangerous to our democracy. Some voters take the pox-on-both-your-houses position and vote for a third-party candidate or write in the name of some non-candidate. This is yet another way of shirking one’s responsibility as a citizen. When neither of two candidates in an election meets one’s standards, the responsible action is to vote for the better of the candidates. Not voting for the lesser of two evils risks electing the greater of the two evils.

Let me illustrate how my reasoning works in practice. In an election between Donald Trump and Jack-the-Ripper, one has a moral obligation to vote and to vote for Jack.

August 27, 2020

To the Black Lives Matter Folks: Don‘t Screw Things Up

 I am in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. Blacks have suffered from seemingly racist policing in this country, in addition to suffering from multiple forms of systematic discrimination over nearly a century and a half. Demonstrations demanding change are unquestionably justified.

The best hope for change that makes black lives truly matter is the election of Joe Biden and Kamila Harris, along with Democrats running for the House and Senate. Ironically, recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have the potential to play into the hands of the Trump/Pence ticket. Trump wants to be the law-and-order candidate, and his insincere promise to quell civil unrest could tip the election in his favor. This would be a disaster for blacks (and most of the rest of us). Four more years of Donald Trump could destroy our democracy.

Whereas it is important to exercise the right of protest, demonstrations must not be allowed to get out of hand and degenerate into rioting and looting. Although demonstrators have not necessarily been responsible for recent civil disturbances, it is critical that they not encourage violence, whether intentionally or not.

Here are some ideas about what Black Lives Matter leaders can do. They can make sure that, to the degree possible, no local laws are violated. Demonstrators should not carry weapons of any kind. As much as possible—this gets harder as the days get shorter—demonstrations should be limited to daylight hours. Signs are hard to read at night, and it is too easy for mischief to begin in darkness. Demonstrations should have a well-understood purpose and should have enforced start and end times. Operations that last into the night court trouble—trouble from demonstrators themselves, trouble from unsympathetic infiltrators, and trouble from the police. Specific members of the team should be tasked with looking for troublemakers, documenting problems on camera, and reporting misbehavior to the authorities.

If these rules make demonstrating less satisfying, so be it. We must show citizens, particularly white citizens, that we are determined to press for change to make our country better and that we are not trying to tear it down.

Please don’t give Donald Trump the one issue most likely to appeal to white voters, even those white voters leaning toward voting for the Biden/Harris ticket. As many have observed from both the Democratic and Republican perspectives, the 2020 election is likely to be the most important election of our lifetimes.

August 21, 2020

Unequal Justice

 As is my habit, I listened to NPR this morning. I was struck by a remark by newscaster Korva Coleman on the 9 A.M. newscast. Introducing a brief story about the imminent sentencing of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, she informed listeners, “They could spend months behind bars.”

Months! Imagine that! The rich and connected pay a half-million-dollar bribe to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California, and they may spend months in jail. Had they been a couple of black youths who robbed the corner liquor store of $200, they likely would have been sent to prison for years. Those black miscreants would have lacked the legal services Loughlin and Mossimo can afford.

Of course, rich people don’t knock over liquor stores; they commit nicer, “white collar” crimes. They employ expensive lawyers, and, if convicted at all, they receive light sentences in country-club prisons or are confined for a time to their own mansions with their own hired help.

For now, I want to ignore the privilege or the lack of privilege that individual lawbreakers may have experienced in life, as well as the effects—both positive and negative—of incarceration. Instead, I want to consider the crimes themselves.

Robbing a liquor store is decidedly antisocial and deserves punishment. Bribing college officials to advance the prospects of your unqualified children is also damnable. How do these crimes differ?

The robbers appropriated property not their own and directly terrorized an innocent party or two. Assuming the robbery was not part of a widespread crime wave, most people are inclined to pay little attention to it and do not feel personally terrified. People might even have some sympathy for the underprivileged defendants.

The rich who practice bribery to achieve their desires terrify no one. What they do, however, is undermine the mechanisms of civil society. Whereas the robbers disobey society’s rules, those who illicitly use their wealth and position to obtain what they do not deserve both disobey society’s rules and subvert faith in the fairness of society itself. They are, I think, of greater danger to the body politic. And they go to prison (maybe) for just months?

The penalties we impose for various crimes are, to put it nicely, screwed up. People are incensed by some particular crime and call for unreasonably harsh sentences that lawmakers dutifully enact without consideration of the seriousness of the infraction with regard to other infractions. In general, “violent” crimes and crimes likely to be committed by the underclasses are harshly punished, and the crimes of the wealthy and well-connected are subjected to only modest punishment.

It is time to rethink all sentences for crimes, ranking them according to the harm they inflict and specifying punishments commensurate with that harm. This should be carried out at all levels of government.