December 30, 2021

Schroeder Update 2

The cat I’ve named Schroeder continues to show up at my back door from time to time. (See my last post about him here.) Seldom do I see him on successive days. From time to time, however, I see Schroeder sitting a few feet away waiting for me to put out some cat food for him. I hope eventually to capture him, have him checked for a chip—I suspect he has none—and have him neutered. I doubt he is adoptable, but it’s hard to know for sure. He has let me pet him a bit, but he doesn’t seem crazy about that. I look outside often to see if Schroeder is around, but Linus spots him at least as often as I do.

Here’s the latest picture of my little friend:
 

December 26, 2021

My, How Things Have Changed (My So-Called Life Edition)

My So-Called Life Logo
Program Logo

I am a passionate fan of the ’90s TV show My So-Called Life. I am not much of a collector of entertainment on disks, but I own the box set of all the episodes of My So-called Life’s single season on ABC. Intending primarily to re-watch the Christmas episode, I’ve been viewing the series beginning with the pilot.

I was stopped cold while watching Episode 3, “Guns and Gossip,” which originally aired on September 8, 1994. The episode begins in a high-school classroom, but instruction is interrupted by what is clearly a gunshot. What did the students and teachers do? Remember, this was 1994, eight-and-a-half years before the Columbine High School massacre. Everyone immediately runs out of the classroom and into the hallway to see what happened.

The reaction to a gunshot in a school today would be very different. Instead of running into the hallway, people would shut and barricade doors, search for cover, and students would call their parents on their cellphones. Gunfire in schools has become depressingly commonplace, and one gunshot is frequently followed by others, often discharged from a semiautomatic weapon. No one except a school resource officer would run toward the source of a gunshot.

Life in our schools has certainly changed—and not for the better.

December 23, 2021

A Facebook Ambiguity

 Facebook posts allow members to leave comments. They also allow members to indicate reactions by selecting the icons below, which are accessed by hovering over the thump-up Like icon:

Facebook Reaction Icons
Facebook reaction icons

Mousing over these icons, Facebook indicates—or seems to indicate—their meaning. From left to right, the icons are identified as Like, Love, Care, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry. (This set of icons has been expanded over time. Note that the icons are animated, and I caught the Wow icon at an odd moment in the above graphic.) In response to a post, it is easy to assume that selecting one of these icons indicates one of the following reactions:

  • Like: I like the post—a kind of default thumbs-up.
  • Love: I love the post, i.e., I think it’s terrific.
  • Care: I am very sympathetic to the author of the post—a kind of electronic hug.
  • Haha: I think the post is funny.
  • Wow: I find the post surprising in some way.
  • Sad: I am saddened by the post.
  • Angry: I am angered by the post.

I suspect that most Facebook users attribute similar meanings to these icons when they are applied to an all-text post.

Matters become more complicated when a post contains a graphic or when it links to external content. If the poster has written no text, the reactions would seem to apply to the graphic or the Web content presented in the post. Or does it? A reaction might be construed as a response to the content’s having been posted. Things get even more complicated if the poster has commented on the graphic or linked content. If I click on Angry, am I indicating anger with the poster or with the material posted? For example, the poster can link to a news story but express displeasure with it through introductory text. If I select Angry, am I sympathizing with the poster or am I mad at the poster because I am pleased with the news story? It is hard for me to decide the target of my reaction and hard for the poster to discern my intention.

The obvious conclusion of the above analysis is that, in reacting to a post, I should be able to distinguish between my reaction to what the poster has written and what content the poster provided. For example, a clearly false story has been posted, but the poster is clearly posting it for information, knows it is false, and is unhappy with it. In such a case, I might Like the commentary but be Angry with the referenced story. One can imagine other combinations of reactions to the poster and the material posted.

Could Facebook help us out here? Yes, I think it could. Users could be given the option of expressing two different reactions, one applying to the poster and one applying to the posted graphic or external material. No doubt, the Meta Mavens would object to complicating posts with two sets of reaction icons. I can respect that. But offering an expanded option need not be overly complex. Several mechanisms come to mind.

Perhaps the simplest scheme would retain the Like thumb-up icon. Clicking on it would record a Like for the post as a whole. Hovering over it would bring up the icon row shown above plus another option, perhaps of a small thump-up and thump-down icon. Clicking on this new icon would bring up two rows of reaction icons. Replacing the two-thumb icon would be words like Comment and Content, one on each row. When the user selected an icon from each row, the icons would disappear. The Content reaction chosen would be registered below the post, as is done now. The Comment reaction chosen would be shown directly below the commentary provided by the poster. If the person reacting selects a single response, that too, should perhaps be counted there as well.

Alternatively, a Like thumb-up option could be placed below the poster’s remarks. Responses could be handled as described above. Another scheme would place the two-thumb icon to the right of the thump-up Like option, perhaps labeled Like?.

Actually, the label Like is misleading. Even now, one can use the Like icon to indicate anger with the post, a decidedly not-like reaction. Why not replace the thumb-up icon with an exclamation point and the two-thumb icon with an exclamation point and question mark (or perhaps the combination of the two, an interrobang)? If labels are needed, perhaps Respond and Respondcould be used.

Perhaps people can think of additional options for expanding the registering of user reactions.

December 22, 2021

Mysteries of Facebook

It is a rare day when I don’t spend time on Facebook.  I use it to connect with friends and relatives and as a source of news. (My news also comes from NPR, ABC, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and other sources. I certainly don’t rely on Facebook!) The majority of my Facebook friends are connected to The Episcopal Church.

Most of my interactions on Facebook proceed smoothly and predictably. The Meta Mavens who run Facebook always seem to be tweaking how the site operates, however. This is always disconcerting and seldom seems to result in an improved interface for users. No one really understands the Facebook algorithms used to populate one’s news feed, and other features are inscrutable, odd, or irritating.

I don’t want to undertake a thorough critique of Facebook here, but I do want to take note of mysteries and peculiarities of the software used by billions of people.

The News Feed. Why do I see what I see in my news feed? Why don’t I see what I don’t see in my news feed? Posts from some of my Facebook friends never show up there or even in my notifications? It would be useful to understand why I see what I see and to have straightforward means to adjust what is displayed.

Notifications. I check out all the posts and comments flagged in notifications. Like the news feed, however, I don’t understand how the list is populated. To me, the most mysterious feature of my notifications is that some notifications name a Facebook user (e.g., “So-and-so posted …”) whereas others indicate that a Facebook friend has done something (e.g., “You friend So-and-so …”). Why are the actions of different friends announced differently?

Posting. My posts often link to other sites on the Web, perhaps to my own blog, to a media site, etc. I don’t understand why this process sometimes works differently on my own page from how it works on a group page. For example, if I post on my home page and on a group page the exact same text containing a link to one of my blog posts, Facebook may display a graphic from the linked-to page in one instance but not in the other. Why does this happen? Is there a workaround?

Facebook used to give the poster some—though not much—control over which graphic is displayed from a linked-to page. Having full power to select a graphic here would be helpful. For example, when I link to a post on my blog that contains no internal graphics, Facebook sometimes displays a graphic from the blog’s sidebar. Sometimes, it displays a tiny printer icon at the bottom of every post, which it then blows up and is unrecognizable (as well as irrelevant). Sometimes, it displays no graphic at all, whether or not the post contains one. When Facebook does display a relevant image, it must often reduce it to fit the allotted space. At times, it both reduces the graphic and truncates it. The latter action sometimes can cut off text or, as in my last post, even decapitate a person in a photo. Why doesn’t Facebook give users more control over graphics? Likewise, I would like more freedom to position my cover photo.

Censorship. I am sympathetic to the position of Facebook with respect to the policing of posts. There are calls for Facebook to be more “responsible” and to remove posts that are false or somehow dangerous. Although, as a private company, Facebook is not bound by the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, it leans toward the very American value of allowing free speech. Do we really want Facebook to be the final arbiter of what is true or what is dangerous? Arguably, posts proposing quack cures for COVID-19 are both false and dangerous, but is their removal the best way to deal with them?

Facebook seems to attack the low-hanging fruit of questionable posts. A friend of mine, for example, is always finding herself in Facebook jail, though I cannot understand why. She is neither a fabricator nor a revolutionary. Moreover, whatever algorithms are looking for questionable posts or comments seem pretty dumb. I once had a comment removed as being “hate speech.” In response to a post about some stupid behavior—I don’t remember the post at all—I made the comment, “Americans are idiots.” No one reading this would have taken this as hate speech aimed at all Americans (a class to which even I belong). Facebook’s algorithm did, however, and my protest of the comment’s removal failed to have it reinstated. In general, Facebook’s algorithms seem not to appreciate irony.

It is surely the case that Facebook posts have been damaging to the Republic. Posts about the 2020 election’s having been stolen, for example, must take at least some credit for what happened on January 6, 2021. I honestly do not know how to prevent such damaging speech. I think that part of the problem is that people on Facebook, like people in the country at large, have tended to segregate themselves by political views. Facebook actually encourages this. Perhaps it should force us to deal more frequently with people whose worldview is wildly different from our own. We might not like that, but it might be good for us and for our country.

December 21, 2021

Letter to Senator Joe Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin
I am furious at Senator Manchin for his declared intention to vote no on the Build Back Better bill. I have been collecting nasty words to call him. In the end, however, I used only a few words on my list and struck a somewhat conciliatory tone in the message I sent to him this morning. (Remember the “more flies with honey” saying.) Here is the letter I sent the senator with the subject line “Build Back Better Bill”:

Like many moderate and liberal Democrats, I am disappointed and angry with your apparent desire to sabotage Democratic prospects in 2022 and 2024. You may, in fact, have assured the downfall of our democratic Republic. You appear to be feckless, callous, self-serving, ignorant, nasty, and duplicitous. But it is not too late to show that you are better than you seem Please coöperate with President Biden and your Democratic colleagues in the Senate for the sake of the nation and its people.

Here is the list of words I didn’t use:

  • Faithless
  • Unpredictable
  • Hypocritical
  • Solipsistic
  • Perfidious
  • Shameful

At some point, I decided that my list was long enough, and I stopped searching for additions to it.

I did not suggest that the senator should burn in hell. The thought crossed my mind.

December 12, 2021

A Prayer in Response to the Recent Tornadoes

The tornado-caused devastation visited upon several states last night, but especially upon Kentucky, is almost beyond imagining. Although the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer provides prayers for myriad circumstances, no prayer found there seems to address the kind of tragedy our country experienced on December 12.

Since this is surely a time when prayer is indicated, I decided to write one. The collect below was written somewhat hurriedly, given the circumstances. It perhaps could be improved, but it should do for the moment. (David Green has already offered an improvement that I have incorporated.) Here is the prayer:

Mighty God of wind and rain, who created the earth and set it in motion, comfort those suffering from misfortunes we call natural and those we bring on ourselves, that they may restore their lives and experience the love of Christ Jesus our Lord who, with you and the Holy Spirit, reigns on high for ever and ever. Amen.

December 9, 2021

Further Thoughts on Abortion Rights

Reading through my blog, I find that I have addressed abortion rights often. In the essay below, I may revisit ideas presented earlier, but my goal is to treat reproductive freedom more comprehensively than I have in the past. The right of women to control their own reproductive lives is being seriously challenged. It is critical that those of us who believe that women have an inherent human right to make decisions about their bodies without interference from government or individuals collect rhetorical tools that may be useful in the struggle for women’s freedom. Ultimately, however, it is not rhetoric alone that will prevent women from becoming permanent second-class citizens, but the ballot box.

Although my blog promises “quick takes,” this particular post is unusually long. Therefore, I am providing a table of contents for those who may wish to read it selectively:
Introduction
The Case for Unrestricted Access to Abortion
Objections to Abortion
Supreme Court Actions
Additional Considerations
The Fraught Future

 

Abortion has been practiced for millennia. It has probably been controversial for nearly as long. Contemporary debate about the procedure seldom proceeds from first principles. Yet exploring the roots of arguments on both sides of the abortion debate allows us to test those arguments for consistency and reasonableness, and it helps us sharpen our own thoughts. This gives us tools to counter the foundations of opposing views, whether or not those foundations are acknowledged.
 

Political Context

Legal scholars generally agree that the Constitution does not offer unambiguous guidance as to the propriety of statutory restrictions on abortions. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court declared that women have a constitutional right to have an abortion. The court based its decision on a right to privacy that itself is inferred from the due process provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. That right has been invoked to justify other rights, such as the general use of contraceptives and same-sex marriage.

Conservatives believe that Roe was wrongly decided. Not even all liberals are happy with the details of the decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, argued that Roe should have been based on equal protection. Nevertheless, Roe has been the law of the land for nearly half a century. (Roe was weakened but not overturned in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). It was actually this later case that introduced the viability criterion discussed below.)

There is a strong strain of individualism in the United States, the notion that the government should not interfere in one’s personal affairs. This sense of personal freedom is usually framed as the ability of the individual to act as he or she sees fit, as long as no one else is harmed thereby. This formulation is not precisely codified in law, though it provides an informal guide to legislation. Nevertheless, the appearance of “LIBERTY” on U.S. coins has real meaning. The decision in Roe is consistent with this American ethos. Alas, people who are so jealous of their own freedom are not above trying to restrict that of others based on their own beliefs. This is the case with supporters of abortion restrictions who suffer no actual harm from the abortions of fellow citizens.

Most opponents of abortion rights, when pressed, offer a religion-based argument for their position. Few would argue, in public at least, that men should control women’s reproductive lives or that women who face an unintended pregnancy deserve to suffer the inevitable consequences. Many may well hold those views privately.

There is nothing wrong with advancing religious rationale in support of public policy. In the secular nation that is the United States, however, religious arguments have no privileged status. They are only useful for convincing others that are susceptible to them and who vote for like-minded legislators, lobby legislators, or, as legislators themselves, can vote based on those religious notions. When our Republic is working properly—arguably, it is not doing so very well at the moment—religious views do not beget sympathetic legislation except when they are widely held and are not in conflict with the Constitution. 

Opposition to legal abortion is largely a minority religion-based view held, and held passionately, by a minority of citizens. Proponents of change are always more passionate in their beliefs than those who accept the status quo. That passion is intensified when undergirded by self-righteousness born of religious certainty. It is ironic that support for legal abortion is a majority position in the population at large but a minority position within the legislative class. Supporters of abortion rights have not had the zeal of their opponents.

The status quo at the moment is that women, anywhere in the United States, have, at least in theory, a constitutional right to obtain an abortion until the time when the fetus is “viable.” (Later abortions are obtainable under certain conditions and in certain jurisdictions.) Viability is understood as the point at which the fetus could survive outside the womb, generally considered to be about 24 weeks into the pregnancy. The Supreme Court has, in recent years, permitted states to make it increasingly difficult for women to exercise their theoretical right to an abortion. Cases currently before or likely to come before the Supreme Court, with its Trump-nominated Republican justices, may provide the opportunity for the court to jettison the viability standard or even to extinguish the constitutional right to abortion.
 

The Case for Unrestricted Access to Abortion

The case to be made for unrestricted access to abortion services is straightforward. Procreation is an intensely personal enterprise. By virtue of a right to privacy implied in the Constitution, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the reservation of unenumerated rights to the people declared in the Ninth Amendment, one would expect that a woman should have an absolute right to terminate a pregnancy. Why should not the removal of a fetus be any different from the removal of, say, a prostate?

In fact, the right to bodily integrity is widely acknowledged as a human right and is seemingly embedded in the Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated … .”) Unfortunately, the United States has a mixed record with regard to protecting the bodily integrity of its citizens. Drug laws and prohibitions against euthanasia, for example, seek to limit the freedom to control what one does with one’s body. Any law limiting the right to abortion is of that nature.

Keep Abortion Legal button

Sociological reasons for the universal availability of abortion are legion. Unintended pregnancies create personal, psychological, and financial difficulties. The pregnant woman may be too young and immature to handle motherhood or may find herself in circumstances in which having a child would be an impossible burden. She may be trying to complete her education or may simply have too many children already. (Many married women with children seek abortions.) She may be unable to support a child financially. She may have medical conditions that make pregnancy dangerous or even life-threatening. She may be carrying a damaged fetus likely to be severely handicapped or to die before birth. Her relationship with the father may be dysfunctional or violent. Or the pregnancy may be the product of rape or incest. To deny an abortion to a person in any of these circumstances is cruel and insensitive. If a woman is not allowed to make the decision to have an abortion based on whatever rationale she thinks compelling, then she does not enjoy the freedom that so many abortion opponents profess to value.

Opponents of abortion access are often judgmental and unable to appreciate the problems an unintended pregnancy causes or to empathize with the seeker after an abortion. They accuse women who want an abortion of using the procedure as birth control or of being careless about contraceptive use. But obtaining an abortion, even in the best of circumstances, is neither pleasant nor cheap; abortion is surely not a rational form of birth control. Fault-finding regarding an unwelcome pregnancy is unhelpful; the pregnancy itself demands to be dealt with. No birth control method save sterilization or celibacy is 100% effective. Even the married and conscientious get pregnant.

Abortion performed by a physician or through the use of medication is very safe, considerably safer than carrying a pregnancy to term, which was not necessarily the case when abortion restrictions were first imposed in the nineteenth century. Sadly. postpartum deaths and deaths resulting directly from childbirth are higher in the United States than in other developed and many underdeveloped countries. That abortion poses less risk to the patient than childbirth argues for choosing it if carrying a pregnancy to term is undesirable or risky.

Finally, it should be said that supporting unrestricted access to abortion services does not suggest that an abortion, in and of itself, is a good thing. In a perfect world, every pregnancy would be welcomed and would result in the birth of a beautiful, perfect baby delivered into the bosom of a loving family. We do not live in that world. Abortions are needed to make our imperfect world less imperfect.

 

Objections to Abortion

Those who support restrictions on abortions make four kinds of arguments. (As noted earlier, their true beliefs may differ from what they say in public.) First is the argument that the fetus, embryo, or even the fertilized egg is a human being. (Before reproduction was better understood, people believed that sperm contained actual, complete, yet minute, humans.) This is the absolutist argument. Second, anti-abortion advocates unwilling to insist that the tiniest collections of cells are human beings are quite willing to assert a need to protect the “unborn” at some point post-conception. A currently popular marker is the emergence of a “fetal heartbeat.” A more generous version of this position identifies viability as the point at which the growing fetus demands protection. The third argument is that abortions must be restricted to somehow advance a public policy objective such as protecting the mother. Finally, some argue that, for various reasons, abortions are simply unnecessary. Underlying most of these arguments is the belief that the pregnant person carries a distinct and separate person worthy of and in need of protection.

Let me address these arguments in turn.

The contention that a baby is sacrosanct beginning as a fertilized egg is almost always the view of right-wing Christians. Although one can imagine a secular argument to this effect, such a view would be highly unusual and difficult to justify. The point is usually made that only God makes human beings, and we have no right to interfere. This argument ignores the part people play in creating a pregnancy. Anyway, one can use this same argument regarding cancerous tumors to outlaw medical intervention, an extreme notion that few would accept. Neither the Old nor the New Testament has anything substantive to say about abortion. Jews acknowledge personhood only when a baby exits the birth canal. Jesus was mute on the matter.

It is clarifying to consider analogues of the embryo. When a chicken lays an egg, we don’t call it a chicken. Likewise, an embryo is not really a human being. It is human tissue, but so are fingernails, hair, or blood. We can also consider the ontogeny of the embryo. Although it has the potential to become a complex animal, it is less advanced than a mouse or a dragonfly.

The prohibition against abortion originates in Roman Catholic theology, which celibate men devised out of whole cloth. And clearly, any argument involving the acquiring of a soul is a minority religious concept inappropriate as a basis of secular law. (When does the product of a pregnancy obtain a soul? What happens when an ensouled fetus dies in the womb? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?)

The most radical anti-abortion proponents want the product of a pregnancy, from the point of fertilization onward, to be declared a “person,” with the same rights as other natural persons. Accepting this notion presents myriad practical and legal problems, which I will consider below.

Next are the arguments that draw a line somewhere before which abortion is proper and after which it is generally not. This is a difficult line to draw. The “fetal heartbeat” criterion is problematic. When such a “heartbeat” is detectable, at about six weeks, there is no fully formed heart—a complex organ—and, at six weeks, medicine does not even recognize the product of a pregnancy as a “fetus.” (It is still considered an embryo.) Even if there is a somehow meaningful “heartbeat,” we must ask what of it. A brain-dead adult can have a functioning heart yet still be, for all practical purposes, dead and useful only for organ harvesting. One’s heart doesn’t make one human. Neither does a liver or a kidney. Not even a brain makes one human; the aforementioned mouse has a brain. One might argue that an operative prefrontal cortex makes a fetus human, but its development is too late in gestation to satisfy anti-abortion partisans. Besides, babies born with serious brain defects are still considered human.

The Supreme Court has identified viability as the point at which we should draw the line after which abortion is, in most cases, prohibited. Certainly, a viability criterion is more easily justified than say, the misnamed fetal heartbeat one. It is assumed that, at about 24 weeks, the fetus could, in principle, survive outside the womb and grow to become an actual person. This is a criterion that rests both on fetal development and current medical technology. Although someday we may have artificial wombs that allow a days-old embryo to grow into a baby, the 24-week viability criterion isn’t going to change much any time soon. I will have more to say about the viability test below. I believe that this dividing line, too, is flawed.

Next, consider arguments that restricting abortions somehow protects women or advances some other public good. These arguments are mostly ill-informed or insincere. The idea that prohibiting abortion access somehow “protects” women is, at best, paternalistic and infantilizing. It is sometimes argued, for example, that women who have had abortions experience depression, from which they must be protected. Actually, elation is a more likely psychological response, as an abortion can prevent the derailing of a woman’s personal or work life. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in four women will have had an abortion by the age of 45, but there is no empirical evidence of widespread female depression resulting from those abortions. Postpartum depression, on the other hand, is common. Yet Republican lawmakers are fond of saying that restrictions on abortion are in the interest of women without explaining exactly in what respect that is true. But having an abortion entails less risk than carrying a pregnancy to term. True, women can make poor choices, but isn’t the right to make choices, whether wise or foolish, what freedom is all about? Even men make poor choices regarding their bodies, and they do so without governmental interference.

What, in fact, is the interest of the state in preventing abortions? Is there an urgent need to increase the population? If so, the task could be accomplished sooner by increasing immigration. Do people want to ensure that the genes of men are propagated into the gene pool? That seems unlikely. The women most often prevented from having abortions are poor and black. Do the authors of anti-abortion legislation want to increase the population of black babies? (It is absurd to think so, and they would be astounded and repulsed by the suggestion.) Do they want to grow the number of children with devastating abnormalities by preventing the early abortion of nature’s mistakes? Enquiring minds want to know.

Others argue, improbably, that abortions are really unnecessary. They say, for instance, that decades ago, abortions helped women escape the restrictions of wife, mother, and housewife and assume a liberated position in the workplace outside the home. Women have now achieved parity with men and no longer require the crutch of abortion. This argument is every bit as absurd as it sounds. Almost any woman can explain how she has failed to achieve equality with men either at home or in the workplace. Access to abortion surely assisted the liberation of women such as it is, but it is still needed for all the reasons it has always been needed.

An even more outrageous argument that abortions are unnecessary was advanced by Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the December 1 oral arguments before the court in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Justice Barrett suggested that safe harbor laws make abortions unnecessary. Such laws allow a newborn to be surrendered at some specified public place (a fire station or hospital, for example) without penalty and without incurring any future responsibility for the child. In her view, a pregnancy can be carried to term, after which it will magically be as though it never happened. Apparently, Justice Barrett does not live in the same world as the rest of us. Pregnancy involves many inconveniences and dangers, which is why someone might want to terminate one in the first place. Moreover, giving up a child for adoption, even when done willingly and with advanced planning, is often psychologically damaging to both mother and child. Justice Barrett seems insensitive to the very real consequences of her proposal. Unfortunately, her status as a mother of both natural-born and adopted children may encourage people to accept her perverted logic.

All those who want to outlaw abortion speak in terms of a mother and her baby. “Baby” may not be a medically proper designation, but it is convenient terminology for illustrating an important concept. Prohibiting abortion of the baby forces one person to make a sacrifice for the benefit of another. This is an alien legal concept in U.S. law. No one is required to come to the aid of another unless that person is in a special occupation for which giving aid is a requirement. A firefighter, for example, is required to attempt to rescue someone from a burning building, an obligation that has been freely assumed. A bystander has no such obligation. In fact, forcing a woman to become or remain pregnant appears to be a crime against nature and, in some circumstances, a war crime under the Geneva Convention.

The Supreme Court adopted the viability dividing line as a compromise between those who would ban all abortions and those who would allow all abortions. The advantage of viability to the court was that it is a more-or-less definite criterion and the point at which, in some sense, the fetus could become an actual, functioning human being. Arguably, 24 weeks gives the mother ample time to choose to have an abortion, at least in most cases. But not in all cases. Fatal fetal abnormalities could be discovered beyond the 24-week cutoff or circumstances could prevent obtaining an abortion before viability.

From another point of view, viability is an illusory deadline. Although a 24-week-old fetus might be able to survive outside the womb, it is unlikely to be healthy or to enjoy anything like a normal life. More importantly, the viability criterion assumes a fetus removed from the mother. A pregnant woman desiring a post-viability abortion isn’t going to let anyone remove her fetus to prove viability in fact. If we have to have a cutoff point for most abortions, viability has its merits, but it isn’t quite what it seems to be.

 

Supreme Court Actions

In Roe in 1973, the Supreme Court articulated a constitutional right to an abortion. In Casey in 1992, the court affirmed that right but allowed states to regulate abortions so long as they did not create an “undue burden” on those seeking the procedure. State legislatures eagerly availed themselves of the opening provided by the court. They invented waiting periods, mandatory presentation of anti-abortion propaganda, parental-permission requirements for underage girls, and extraneous requirements for clinic architecture and clinic doctors. And they put restrictions on reasons for seeking abortions.

The various gratuitous regulations invented by Republican legislatures have resulted in the closure of many clinics, usually depriving women not only of abortion services but of other gynecological services as well. Women seeking abortions have faced long trips to faraway clinics as the number of clinics dwindled, and they often had to spend two or more days away from home. Not all the legislative attempts to make getting an abortion burdensome have survived court challenges, but, over the years, the right to obtain an abortion has become less and less substantive.

The addition of three Supreme Court justices under President Donald Trump further emboldened Republican legislatures. Abortion opponents saw a high court newly stacked with sympathetic justices. Mississippi not only passed a law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks but also invited the justices to overrule Roe and Casey. Texas has gone further, with its 6-week cutoff, vigilante enforcement, and prohibition of medicinal abortions. Court-watchers expect that the Mississippi and Texas laws are likely to be deemed lawful by the court and the nationwide right to an abortion will be extinguished.

Supreme Court decisions that have limited individual rights are prominent on lists of the worst ever decisions of the court. Think Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu v. United States, among others. Never has the court affirmed a significant right only to repudiate it decades later. We are likely to see the court in its current term add to the list of its worst decisions should it overturn Roe, as many will expect it will.

 

Additional Considerations

Restrictions on abortions have placed a special burden on poor and minority women. Not only have state legislatures placed barriers to their exercising their supposed right, but the federal government has been prevented from paying for abortions under Medicaid. Middle- and upper-class women have always had the option of traveling to wherever necessary to obtain abortions. Not everyone is equal in their access to abortion services because of their economic status.

It is tragic that anti-abortion activists and legislators have shown such sympathy for what they have called the “unborn,” yet show hardly any empathy for already-born women facing difficult life choices. They revel in a “fetal heartbeat” while seeming indifferent to the fact that the pregnant woman has a heartbeat, too.

It is appalling that so many Americans are willing to require women to carry to term unwanted children and children resulting from rape or incest. A friend of mine who was an RN in pre-Roe days told me of a 14-year-old who had been impregnated by her father. She wrote, “After a traumatic birth she ended up in a psych unit.” There are thousands of such pre-Roe stories, many of which have endings even less happy. What is the point of creating such tragedies? Is not requiring that all pregnancies be carried to term a kind of slavery, in which the state commandeers unwilling citizens, endangering and upending their lives to achieve some ill-conceived public service? A woman is more than her uterus, and recruiting her uterus against her will is an unspeakable evil. Adult males can control their own bodies; should not adult females have the same right? Isn’t this what the Fourteenth Amendment is all about?

Speaking of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is significant that that amendment begins as follows:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

“Unborn children” are, by the definition of citizenship in the amendment, not citizens at all. Even calling them “persons” would not make them citizens. They have no free will to act in the world, which is characteristic of actual persons. Efforts to make the products of pregnancy “persons” are nonsensical and have the potential to cause all sorts of legal mischief. Some such mischief is already apparent, as women have been prosecuted for “killing” a fetus by virtue of having had a normal miscarriage. It has often been argued in such cases that maternal behavior, such as drug use, caused the miscarriage. The extreme of declaring a fetus a person has the potential to make every miscarriage into a search for the method by which a mother “murdered her baby.” This would convert ordinary misfortunes into personal catastrophes. Of course, the ultimate motivation behind the movement to make the “unborn child” a person is to make abortions—all abortions—instances of “murder.”

As noted earlier, the entire anti-abortion movement rests upon the notion that the product of a pregnancy is a human being. This is not a logically necessary view. It is equally logical to regard an embryo or fetus as a part of a woman’s body and therefore not subject to state regulation. It is interior to her body and is nourished by it. Some have even seen a fetus as a kind of parasite, and I’m sure that reluctantly pregnant women might well view it as such. In either case, its disposition should be within the woman’s power to determine.

Declaring that fertilization creates a human being is risible and can only be justified by specific religious arguments. It is a concept held by a minority of a minority. Procreation is not an event but a process, of which fertilization is only a part, though surely a vital part.

 

The Fraught Future

Arguably, access to abortion has always been a human right. The Supreme Court that once declared it a constitutional right has allowed that right to become less and less reified. If the justices use the vehicle of Dobbs to declare that Roe was decided in error, that there is no such constitutional right, states will be able to regulate abortion as they see fit. If the court reverses Roe, abortion will instantly become illegal in many states due to their legislatures having passed so-call trigger laws. The scope of women’s health care will immediately be diminished.

Of course, the court may simply chip away at the right to abortion a little more, jettisoning the viability standard and replacing it with a 15-week standard or some other more slippery demarcation. Unless the Supreme Court simply declares the Mississippi law unconstitutional, women will be the losers.

The Republican- and Roman Catholic-dominated court actually has some incentive not to throw Roe overboard. A decision will come next summer or, less likely, somewhat earlier. Eliminating a constitutional right that women have enjoyed for nearly half a century is certain to have electoral consequences in the 2022 midterm elections. Abortion will become a more prominent campaign issue, perhaps even of paramount concern in the upcoming elections. What Republicans have seen as an opportunity to take back the House of Representatives, and perhaps even the Senate, could become a Democratic landslide. Some observers, however, do not believe that the backlash will be that significant.

The justices must also consider whether eviscerating a well-established constitutional right will deal a grave blow to the reputation of the Supreme Court. After all, the court’s opinions are the law of the land because the people consider them to be such. But messing with Roe could diminish public acceptance of the court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the oral arguments in Dobbs mentioned earlier, asked pointedly if the court could survive the “stench” that such a move would create “in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts.”

Denying the existence of a right to privacy on which Roe was decided endangers other decisions of the Supreme Court over the years that have expanded sexual freedom: contraceptive use, same-sex activity and marriage, and the ability to marry outside one’s race. How much “settled law” is this court willing to un-settle should they overturn Roe?

Whatever the Supreme Court decides in Dobbs or possibly a case involving Texas’s SB 8, believers in women’s autonomy must step up their efforts to protect women and to send the message that religious extremists cannot be allowed to control this country. If access to abortion ceases to be recognized as a constitutional right, Congress, through legislation, can make it a statutory right throughout the country. If women do not have access to abortions everywhere, then only some women have control over their own bodies.

It is time for people to vote out of office legislators at both the state and federal levels that are clearly out of touch with the will of the people. Ultimately, we may need a constitutional amendment to protect the right to an abortion. In a rational nation, the choice to have an abortion should be made by the woman affected with the advice of her doctor, a clergy person, or other trusted advisors. We should trust women and physicians to make reasonable decisions, not decisions constrained by statutes that cannot countenance all the factors relevant to such a life-changing (and often life-saving) choice.

Our country is not free if women are not free.

 

NOTE: Minor edits and corrections were made to the above essay on 12/14/2021 and 12/17/2021.

November 27, 2021

In Praise of Not Streaming

I am a Netflix subscriber. Unlike most subscribers, I not only stream material, but I also receive DVDs and Blu-ray disks. The option to get physical disks costs more, but, for me, it’s worth it. It allows access to classic—i.e., old—movies, as well as relatively new movies that are not yet available on streaming services (or on streaming services to which I subscribe, at any rate). The two most recent movies I’ve received through the mail are Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (a classic film) and News of the World (a 2020 film).

An additional benefit of watching movies on disk is that most disks contain “extras,” videos about the movie or the people who made it, deleted scenes, and commentary on the movie by directors, actors, or academics. If a movie is any good to begin with, the extras tend to enhance one’s enjoyment by providing perspective or insight.

The running commentary on News of the World by its director, Paul Greengrass, got me thinking about how supplementary material for a video disk is assembled. First, let me say that News of the World is indeed a fine movie, and principals Tom Hanks and 12-year old German actress Helena Zengel are superb in their respective roles. (I want to adopt Zengel.

Disk extras fall into two basic categories: historical and technical information about the movie, on one hand, and analysis of the movie itself, on the other. On too many disks, all the extras are of the first kind. These disks emphasize the mechanics of movie-making. That’s very interesting, and I have learned much about the craft of cinema from movies I have viewed on disks. What I miss on such disks, however, is insight into the actual product, something we might identify as literary criticism. It is frustrating when the supplementary videos on a disk concentrate on movie-making mechanics and the running commentary does the same.

The Paul Greengrass commentary on News of the World is a welcome outlier. Although he points out scenes that were difficult to film, most of what he says addresses the story itself. He talks occasionally about the actors, but mostly, he talks about the characters. Who are these people in the film? Why do they act as they do? How do they change over the course of the film? How does the movie reflect its historical context? What are the subtle choices made by the director and related craft people that are likely to be missed in a casual viewing? What is the message of the movie, particularly for our time?

What became crystal clear from the exploration of the Blu-ray disk of News of the World is that technical and personnel information about the movie should be in supplemental videos. The running commentary on the movie, irrespective of who is providing it, should analyze the movie and increase the viewer’s enjoyment of it by providing a deeper understanding of what appears on the screen.

Those folks who assemble movie disks should take note.

November 26, 2021

Collect for the Homeless

That this country has a problem of homelessness is well-known. It is a problem we have thus far chosen not to address. Removing homeless people from public view solves nothing. Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse—perhaps much worse—as pandemic-inspired moratoria of evictions expire.

Addressing homelessness is complex because the causes of homelessness are many and varied. I won’t offer a program to eliminate homelessness, but it is my hope that individuals and government try to develop such a program.

For now, the best I can do is to offer a prayer that addresses homelessness:

For the Homeless

Merciful God, whose son became an itinerant teacher and healer, watch over persons who have no home, bless the efforts of those who minister to them, and strengthen our resolve that all people should have a proper place to lay their heads, thereby respecting the dignity of every human being and following the example of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

November 19, 2021

Repeal the Second Amendment

 I regularly watch the evening news on television. (And, no, this is not my sole source of news.) I am increasingly disgusted with the damage that firearms are doing to the nation in general and to individual citizens in particular.

I believe it’s time to introduce the following amendment to the Constitution:

Section 1. The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to regulate the manufacture, sale, distribution, licensing, and use of arms.

This is a modest proposal. A more thoroughgoing proposal would outlaw firearms except for sport, hunting, law enforcement, and the military.

Schroeder Update 1

Schroeder showed up again today. (See my earlier post.) Perhaps a cold snap had something to do with his appearance. I put out cat food, and Schroeder ate eagerly. (I gave him seconds.) He again tried to come inside. When he was in the doorway, I petted him a bit. I opened a carrier in the doorway, but he was not interested in getting inside it.

I wanted to get a picture of Schroeder’s face. Like most cats, he doesn’t pose for a portrait, but the photo below is a good first attempt.
 

Schroeder

November 18, 2021

A Christian Nation

Many people claiming to be Christians argue that the United States is a “Christian nation,” even though our Constitution is decidedly secular.

I will admit that we are a Christian nation, however, when all our people are housed, when no one fears hunger or violence from others, when all workers earn a living wage, when quality education and health care are provided for all, when our prisons are emptied of persons who have hurt no one but themselves, when religion claims no special rights and no religion receives special considerations, when the right to vote is universal and can be exercised conveniently, when our government seeks what is in the best interest of all its citizens, when the wealthy pay more of their wealth in taxes than do the less wealthy, when corporations have no rights that are properly exercised only by actual persons, when military expenditures are not so large as to inhibit spending on the immediate needs of people, when government eases the burdens of caring for the old and the young, when longstanding wrongs against minorities have been righted, when we welcome the victims of violence and injustice into our country, when we encourage other nations to emulate how we organize our own, when protecting the planet and its creatures is a national priority, and when we are at peace with all the nations of the world.

November 16, 2021

The Message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I have never been completely satisfied with the text of the parable of the good samaritan. Luke 10:25–37 reads as follows in the New Revised Standard Version:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan Ministers to the Robbery Victim
A minor complaint is that this text has far too many pronouns and too few nouns. That said, it is not difficult to figure out the referents of the various “he”s and “him”s of the text.

Likewise, the lesson of the parable is clear: We are to treat our neighbors as we ourselves want to be treated, and our neighbors are not only those with whom we are familiar, but everyone. All the characters in the story are Jews except the Samaritan. Samaritans were foreigners not on the best of terms with Jews. The surprise of the story is that the Jews did not help a fellow Jew in distress, but a Samaritan did.

My problem with this story concerns the question Jesus is supposed to have asked. We cannot know what he did ask, of course, for the author of The Gospel According to Luke was assuredly not around to have heard the question. 

 In the story, Jesus asks who “was a neighbor” to the robbery victim. To make the obvious point of the parable, however, Jesus should have asked something to the effect of “who understood the robbery victim to be his neighbor?” The victim is in no condition to be neighborly to anyone and, in this story, is not asked to be. Of the three passersby, only the Samaritan saw the injured man as his neighbor, thereby providing an example of how we should treat our fellow human beings whatever their station. Since the “neighborly relation” is not intrinsically symmetric, Jesus’s question should properly identify who is the active person in the relationship he is seeking to elucidate.

It is unfortunate that the parable has come down to us as it has. Preachers should explain that Jesus probably did not ask the precise question he is reported to have asked.

November 12, 2021

Schroeder

From time to time, a cat will show up under my bird feeders. I’ve seen a calico a couple of times, and a black cat came by once. For the past few weeks, I have had a more frequent visitor, a male tabby. Whereas other cats have run away as soon as I opened the back door, this one didn’t. I threw some cat treats on the ground in his direction, and he eagerly found and ate them. Since then, whenever my visitor has shown up, I have put out a bowl of dry cat food for him.

The photo below is from September 28. The bowl rests on a stepping stone just outside the back door.


This cat has come by at irregular intervals, occasionally on successive days, though not usually. During an extended absence, I wondered if I would see him again, but he has continued to show up.

Our encounters have been somewhat fortuitous. I have not stood by the door all day looking for the cat, though I have taken to looking out the door more regularly than usual. The cat typically shows up not on my doorstep but in a little clearing about a dozen feet away. He has come to me when called. Occasionally, I have been alerted to his presence by my own cats staring out the glass in the door.

When I first called the cat, I just said “hello.” It seemed to make more sense to call the cat by his name, however. Since it was unknown whether anyone had given him a name, I decided that I had to invent one. My cats, Charlie and Linus, are named after Peanuts characters, so I decided to call my visitor by another Peanuts name, Schroeder. 

Schroeder is an intact male, so I doubt that he is someone’s pet, but I have arranged to have him checked for a chip if I can catch him. I am not much of a cat catcher—read about my latest adventures getting my own cats to the vet here and here—but the behavior of Schroeder has given me hope that I might be able to entice him into a carrier. He has actually tried to walk through the doorway, though I have not let him come into the house. I have been able to touch Schroeder, but he has not acted like a socialized animal. I want to have him neutered and released if he is not a candidate for adoption. As you can see below, he looks like a young version of Charlie.

Schroeder came by yesterday, and I put out a bowl of food for him as usual. Charlie and Linus were nearby and took an intense interest in the visitor. In the photo below, Charlie is standing on his hind legs trying to get a good look at Schroeder, who is eating just outside the door. Linus is also watching Schroeder from his usual lower perch on the cat tree.


I will keep everyone posted on future interactions with my occasional feline visitor.

November 6, 2021

CPKC

Although both stockholder and regulatory approval remain to be obtained, it appears that Canadian Pacific Railway will be allowed to acquire Kansas City Southern Railway Company. The merger will be the first marriage of Class I railroads in decades and, according to pundits, likely the last. Two facts make this merger particularly interesting:

  1. The two railroads have no parallel routes, which is unusual for railroad mergers. The only place where the two roads meet is in Kansas City. This makes regulatory approval easier, though other railroads will register objections because that’s what railroads do in such cases.
  2. The combined railroad will be a true North American railroad, with major routes in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In principle, a single train could travel on the combined railroad, which will be called Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC), from Mexico City to Vancouver.
Each railroad traces its origins to the nineteenth century. Canadian Pacific dates from 1881; Kansas City Southern to 1887.

Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel was interviewed by Bill Stephens for Trains. He indicated that the combined road will honor the histories both of CP and KCS. His chosen name for it is indicative of that intention. He did not speculate as to what livery CPKS locomotives will wear. CP locomotives have lately been red with white lettering, with “CP” on the nose. The traditional KCS livery sported a striped pattern of red, yellow, and Brunswick green (a very dark green) or black. Some recent locomotives have been monochromatic with “KCS” painted in large red capitals. Not so long ago, CP locomotives and rolling stock sported a “CP Rail” legend, along with a design of a black triangle within a white semicircle.

According to the Trains, Creel restored the traditional CP logo on his first day on the job as CEO. (See image at right. The logo has had a number of variants over the years and appears on some locomotives.) Creel called the beaver “near and dear to our hearts.” (It wasn’t clear to whose hearts he was referring.) Creel had this to say about a new logo: “The beaver will be part of that when it’s finalized, there’s no doubt in my mind. So it won’t be a huge retooling of our logo. It will be an enhancement that will honor the KCS team, and I think we’ll make them proud to be a part of it.”

Creel’s fondness for the beaver is a bit hard to understand. The current logo—the red “CP” is a recent addition—has a definite nineteenth-century air about it.


The KCS logo (See image at left) hardly seems like a twenty-first-century design, but neither does it seem ancient. I fear that Creel might simply affix “KC” to the existing “CP” add-on and re-center the resulting text. This would hardly suggest a forward-looking, expanded Class I railroad. Nor would it “honor the KCS team” very much.

Retaining the beaver would heavily emphasize the Canadian heritage of the merged road, failing to acknowledge as significantly its United States and Mexican appendages. Creel was not asked if he intends to keep the maple leaf as well.

If CPKC really has to retain the Canadian rodent, I have a suggestion to offer, a suggestion that would afford recognition to all three countries through which CPKC runs and honors both CP and KCS heritages. Put a sombrero on the beaver and portray him eating a steak.

Likely, Creel will not take my suggestion. If we must have a beaver, a more stylized, modernized beaver could be part of the new logo. (Think of the Morton Salt, umbrella-carrying girl who was significantly modernized some years ago.) The circle, ribbon, and shield have to go, along with “Canadian Pacific.” Not retooling the CP logo is a terrible idea. Creel needs to leave the logo design to professional designers.

November 5, 2021

Planning for the Worst Case

I am sick and tired of the obstructionism of Senators Manchin and Sinema. Speaker Pelosi is apparently going ahead with a vote on the Build Back Better bill, though it isn't clear that it will get 50 votes in the Senate. If it doesn’t and only the hard infrastructure bill goes to President Biden’s desk, he should veto it.

New Phone

I purchased a new cell phone recently. Happily, most of what lived on my old phone was ported seamlessly to the new one. The transition was not as smooth as one might like, however, and I am still re-entering passwords and configuring applications. I am nonetheless satisfied with the new phone and likely will be especially pleased when I begin taking pictures with the new and improved camera that is part of it.

In many ways, I am risk-averse. In particular, I cannot imagine carrying around an expensive cellphone without a protective case or putting a naked phone, as some people do, in my back pocket. My old phone was protected by an OtterBox Defender case, which comes with a holster that can attach to your belt. I wanted to get another Defender case for the new phone. It is a very secure case.

My old phone was put into its Defender case by the person who sold me the phone.  I did not carefully observe the process, which, after all, was performed years ago. Where I purchased the new phone, there were few cases to buy for Android phones but plenty cases for iPhones. I therefore had to buy my new case on the Web and fit my phone into it myself.

Once I had my new case in hand, I assumed that putting my phone into it would be simple. There seemed to be only two parts—the case proper and the holster. The case came with the following (and only the following) instructions:
 

That was it, The only words of instruction were found at the top of the above card. None of the objects portrayed on the card were labeled. In particular, I couldn’t figure out what object was supposed to be the cellphone. I suspected from the pictures that the case came apart, but I feared that trying to pry it apart might break something.

After what seemed like an eternity of frustration, I turned to the World Wide Web. Sure enough, YouTube had more than one instructional video showing how to install a phone inside a Defender case. The videos gave me the confidence to break open the case, insert the phone, and put it all back together.

I have to say that OtterBox makes a fantastic case. But could they please spare a few English words to tell their customers how to use their product?

A Proposal to Replace the Income Tax

No you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done.
                           —Ogden Nash

Objection to changing tax law is one of the roadblocks to the passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. The president wants to finance much of his social agenda and national efforts to forestall climate change by extracting more revenue from rich individuals and corporations. Discussion of new taxation has caused me to rethink our current system of taxation, a baroque tangle of laws and regulations that efficiently extract money from the non-wealthy yet is maddingly ineffective at doing so from large corporations and the actually wealthy.

If we began from scratch, could we create a simpler and fairer tax scheme? In a desirable system, most people should incur some tax liability, The very poor may pay little or no tax or even benefit from a negative tax. Well-off persons and entities should be levied a higher percentage tax than others. This increases revenue and tends to decrease wealth inequality, which has been growing in recent decades. In other words, the tax system should be graduated.

Policy exists within a context of other social arrangements. To reduce wealth inequality, unions should be strengthened, training for trades should be improved, health care should be guaranteed, and inheritance taxes should be steep. I won’t try to deal with all these issues in this modest proposal, however.

The government’s main source of revenue is the income tax. Though this system wasn’t designed by Rube Goldberg, it might as well have been. It is complicated, incorporates many questionable preferences, and fails adequately to tax those who live well with little or no conventional “income.”


Senator Elizabeth Warren has promoted a wealth tax. This is an attractive concept, but I think it unworkable. How do you evaluate the wealth of someone who owns a few Picassos, a garage full of classic cars, and a large part of a private corporation? How do you deal with the inevitable changes to the values of such assets over time? And should you be taxed over and over for the same asset? (Real estate taxes, which do recur, exist to provide local services; that Picasso doesn’t need them.) But Warren does have a point. Wealthy persons can live off loans collateralized by their belongings while having no conventional income or tax liability.

Expenditure Tax

Ogden Nash had a very useful insight. Notwithstanding the questionable notion that the best things in life are free, a corollary to Nash’s lines is that to have fun (or whatever you desire), you have to spend money. Uncle Scrooge’s money bin may have offered some psychological satisfaction, but Scrooge McDuck couldn’t eat or travel or do much else unless he was able to spend some of his bin’s contents. However we obtain money, having money confers only intangible benefits. Only spending yields material benefit. It makes sense, therefore, to tax not wealth (as Senator Warren would do) but expenditures. I propose, therefore, a kind of sales tax on everything. For want of a better term, call it an expenditure tax. This tax is superficially similar to a value-added tax, but it is different in a number of respects. 

The expenditure tax would tax both individuals and organizations on what they spend each year. As is now the case, returns could be filed on April 15 covering the previous year. To generate substantial revenue and to be fair to everyone, greater expenditures would be taxed at a higher rate. The low end of the rate scale might exempt some people from the tax completely or might give them money to maintain a morally acceptable standard of living. Families could be treated as a unit. In some circumstances, a spouse or even a child would need to file separately. In any case, this tax is not intended to replace the whole of the social safety net.

An expenditure tax would be indifferent as to where one’s money has come from. No source is treated preferentially. Policies that do so distort economic decisions anyway. Likewise, there are no preferred expenditures. People are expected to spend funds however they feel is most beneficial. In principle, taxable expenditures would be calculated by adding income to cash and cash equivalents on hand on January 1 and subtracting cash and cash equivalents on hand on December 31. There should be no exemptions for medical expenses, business expenses, charitable giving, or anything else. People should spend their treasure however they like without regard for legislated preferences. This freedom from arbitrary incentives has the potential to make everyone wiser and more rational spenders.

Implementation Details

There are, I think, two kinds of objections to the expenditure tax. There are administration issues, on one hand, and issues related to particular kinds of transactions, on the other. I will offer preliminary thoughts on these matters, but I do not claim to have worked out all the difficulties. I would hope that an implementation would not result in the sort of byzantine rules and regulations that infect our current income tax system.

For most people and corporations, figuring out the annual expenditure for tax purposes is not complicated, though individuals might need to do some bookkeeping they are not now doing. The inevitable movement away from cash to credit and debit cards makes calculations easier. The ability of the government to collect taxes and verify their amounts is a bit tricky. Withholding taxes from wages has guaranteed that most workers will not only pay their required taxes but also will not be faced with an impossible bill at tax time. Since income is not being taxed, withholding funds from paychecks is inappropriate (and doesn’t work for everyone anyway). A value-added tax could be imposed, of course, but that is complicated and, in its usual form, tends to be regressive. Lacking a better scheme, perhaps everyone should simply pay a quarterly estimated tax. I leave it to others to figure out how the IRS is to verify compliance. Paying estimated taxes would not be excessively onerous; many people are already required to file estimated taxes. Organizations such as corporations already track expenses. Accounting for them would actually become easier.

I now want to consider particular types of transactions. In general, any time one parts with one’s money, a taxable expense is incurred. No one gets a special deal. The bus driver, the church, the foundation, and the Silicon Valley corporation play by largely the same rules. I envision doing away with charitable organizations so far as taxation is concerned. People should contribute to what are now nonprofits to advance what those organizations do, not simply to avoid taxes. The government is a poor judge of an organization’s ability to advance the public good rather than private interests and probably should not be in the business of conferring nonprofit status. Doing so has become controversial of late. Anyway, if an organization believes it can do something worthwhile, it should do so irrespective of the tax consequences and should be taxed like everyone else. (This will not be a popular idea.)

Expenditures for an individual would include purchases of food, clothing, health care, furnishings, insurance, utilities, charitable contributions, personal luxuries of whatever sort, and state and local taxes. It might be desirable to exempt state and local taxes to avoid the noxious concept of taxing taxes. Or maybe not.

Organizations of all kinds would pay tax on salaries, fringe benefits—there may need to be some rethinking about the notion of fringe benefits once they are taxable—rent, advertising, lobbying, research and development, capital improvements, loan payments, dividend payments, fines, and legal expenses and judgments. As for individuals (or families), we could choose to exempt state and local taxes.

Financial transactions present a special problem. Clearly, putting money into a checking account is not really an expenditure, even if the account pays interest (and might theoretically be deemed an investment). A deposit does not mean one has lost the use of one’s money. Purchasing certificates of deposit, treasury bills, and the like would simply be considered mechanisms for parking one’s money. Purchasing stocks, which have no guaranteed value, would be taxable expenditures. A distinction need perhaps be made between relative secure bonds and junk (or near junk) bonds. The latter are more of an investment (and a risky one). A bank making a loan is not making an expenditure by this reasoning, though a particularly risky loan perhaps is.  Even with this system of taxation, certain regulations may be unavoidable.

Other objections could be raised against the expenditure tax, of course. For example, does the system remove from Congress the ability through taxes to advance certain social goals? Yes, it does, though that may not be a bad thing. In any case, other kinds of taxes may still be levied, such as taxes on polluters. The lack of a depreciation provision means that capital expenses are taxed all at once. If desired, leasing arrangements could ease this problem (if it really is a problem).

Whatever objections may be offered against the proposed system, its greatest advantage is that no one can escape paying taxes. Not even the richest industrialist or financier can live without spending money. And large transactions—think corporate buy-outs, for example—would be subject to taxation. This could even discourage transactions that are not completely rational.

The expenditure tax is surely not perfect, but no tax scheme can be perfect. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for scrapping the current income tax and starting over from scratch. 

October 26, 2021

Congressman Glenn Thompson on Medicare

I was cleaning my cats’ litter box when I got a call from an unknown number in a nearby area code. I was expecting calls from HVAC contractors in my role as junior warden of my church. Thinking the call might be important, I answered it. The call was from my congressman, Republican Glenn Thompson, who was in the process of conducting a telephone town hall on Medicare/Medicaid. Because I am considering a change in my Medicare plan, I chose to finish cleaning the litter box later and listen to the call.

A few minutes into the call, participants were told that we could submit a question by entering *3. I pressed *3 almost immediately. I was asked my name and my question. I replied, “The Build Back Better legislation will likely expand Medicare benefits. Will you [the congressman] vote for it?” The question was certainly relevant, as became clearer with each constituent question. Not suprisingly, my question was never presented to the congressman.

Near the end of the call, Congressman Thompson admitted that he would like to eliminate the penalty for late selection of Medicare. He suggested that he would support other changes but wanted to see them in a separate bill and not in the big bill currently being considered in the House of Representatives. I had my answer without my question’s having been asked. Alas, I didn’t get the chance to embarrass Congressman Thompson in front of his constituents.

Of course, a Republican would not vote for expanded Medicare benefits, benefits for children, measures to protect the planet from environmental disaster, and new taxes to pay for it all.

I will never vote for another Republican and advise others to take the same pledge. This resolved was unaffected by today’s telephone call.

October 17, 2021

Pittsburgh Diocese Passes Resolutions

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh conducted its annual convention yesterday via Zoom. We have used Zoom for conventions before, and we’re almost getting good at it. There were a few problems, but I won’t get into that here. What I do want to highlight is what the diocese declared through resolutions that are of interest to the wider church and society.

Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh SealFour resolutions of wider interest were passed, all with no discussion and with only modest opposition. The resolutions can be read in full here.

Resolution 1 was titled “Resolution to Include the name Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris in the Lesser Feasts & Fasts Calendar.” Barbara C. Harris (1930–2020) was the first woman to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church and, in fact, in the entire Anglican Communion. She was elected bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts in 1988 and was consecrated the next year. She fought for civil rights and opposed racism and sexism both within the church and without. The resolution proposes legislation for consideration by the next General Convention. It also invites the Provincial Synod of District III to consider Pittsburgh’s resolution.

Resolution 2 exhibits a character opposite that of the first resolution. Its title is “Resolution to Direct the Removal of the name of the Rev. William Porcher Dubose from the Lesser Feasts and Fasts Calendar.” Thus, Pittsburgh wants to honor Bishop Harris and retract the honor afforded the Rev. Dubose (1836–1918). Like the above resolution, this one is to be sent both to the General Convention and to the District III Provincial Synod. It goes further than the Harris action, however, asking that the church examine the lives of all those honored on the Lesser Feasts & Fasts calendar, presumably to discover other notables with skeletons in their closets. Although the Rev. Dubose is celebrated as a noted theologian on August 18, his connections to slavery and to the Confederate States of America are problematic. He grew up on a southern plantation and served in the Confederate army, first as an adjutant and later as a chaplain. It is not recorded that he ever renounced slavery or his role in defending it.

Resolution 3 is titled “Resolution to Address the Issue of Voter Suppression.” Like the other resolutions, this one proposes action to be considered by the General Convention and by Province III. It also requests that the church’s Office of Governmental Relations do what it can to address the issues raised. This resolution is perhaps more pressing than the two preceding. The resolution “directs and encourages the adoption, on a state-by-state basis” of voting reforms, specifically:

  • Implementing automatic voter registration
  • Enabling same-day voter registration 
  • Preparing for natural disasters
  • Allowing online registration
  • Expanding the circle of people who are eligible to vote
  • Making it easier to vote by mail
  • Enabling no-excuse absentee voting
  • Creating long-term mailing lists for absentee voters
  • Making it easier for people to vote early in person
  • Enabling weekend voting and extended hours
  • Guaranteeing an adequate number of voting locations
The resolution also calls for the elimination of statewide Voter ID laws.

Surely, I need not describe the justification offered for this resolution.

Resolution 4 is titled “Climate Action Resolution.” Noting ongoing climate change and the church’s concern for Creation Care, parishes are encouraged to “achieve maximum energy efficiency,” a task for which the diocese may, in some cases, provide financial assistance.

October 12, 2021

Promoting Abortion Access

I’ve been thinking about the current fight to protect access to abortions in this country. I frankly cannot understand why one’s pregnancy is anyone else’s business prior to the fetus’s being able to survive and become an actual human being outside the womb. On the other hand, I fully appreciate that trying to convince a rabidly “pro-life” partisan of this position is a bit like trying to list all the digits of pi. It is not obvious that the fight over abortion half a century after Roe v. Wade is ever going to end.

There is, however, hope. Not so very long ago, it was unclear that homosexuality would ever gain mainstream acceptance. Certainly, the approval of same-sex marriage seemed a vain hope. And yet, same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and homosexual persons are out and accepted in all walks of life. How did this come about? The answer is that homosexuals came out of the closet in large numbers, and people realized that those they loved and cared about were gay.

The general acceptance of homosexuality offers a compelling lesson to proponents of unconstrained access to abortion services. The statistic that one in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime suggests that abortions are not uncommon, but it is a fact that changes no minds among abortion opponents. The statistic becomes more compelling when actual people, not simply numbers, are revealed as abortion patients.

We have seen a trickle of prominent women, including congresswomen, declaring that they have had abortions. This is a start. If more women came forward with their abortion stories, women known and loved by abortion opponents, I believe that opposition to freely available abortions would weaken, eventually becoming an obsession with a tiny, radical minority, like proponents of a return to the gold standard.

How can we get abortion clients out of the closet? Doing so will be hard for some women. They first have to overcome the shame that society has attributed to their reproductive choice. And, in many cases, their abortions have been kept secret to avoid disclosing embarrassing liaisons. Some, however, will be willing to overcome embarrassment to promote the right to and access to an abortion.

Not every woman can go on television to tell her abortion story. On the other hand, everyone with a concern about abortion access and a little courage (maybe a lot of courage in some cases) can wear a button like the prototype shown below. What if, in any large gathering of women, many were wearing such a button? If friends and loved ones sported such a button, wouldn’t opposing abortion be harder (and somewhat itself embarrassing) to do?


“Ask me about my abortion” button.

Could this button change minds?

October 10, 2021

A Small Step toward Building a Better Sandwich

 I love sandwiches. I have always loved sandwiches. I make sandwiches for myself often.

My constructing a typical sandwich goes something like this: On a bun or on two slices of bread, I first apply dressing. This could be mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, or something more exotic, such as Russian dressing. What is important is that both the top and bottom of the sandwich receive some dressing, not necessarily the same dressing. This helps prevent the sandwich from being too dry. Next, internal elements of the sandwich are piled atop the bottom bread or bun—meat, cheese, pickles, tomato, and lettuce. Everything is topped off with salt and pepper and the top slice of bread or bun.

Following this process, lots of salt and pepper ends up surrounding the sandwich because it slides off the lettuce. It could be applied in the construction earlier, but it is difficult to distribute the salt and petter uniformly. To achieve uniformity across the sandwich, it would be helpful to apply them to a flat, sticky substrate.

Beef and cheese sandwich showing pepper applied over
mayonnaise. Salt was applied over chili sauce on the
half of the bun not visible.
This observation gave me an idea. Rather than seasoning the sandwich filling, why not apply the salt and pepper to the bread or bun. Their surfaces are sticky and reasonably flat. Not only can the salt and pepper be applied uniformly, but that uniformity can be verified visually. Pepper shows up especially well on mayonnaise; salt can be seen on mayonnaise but shows up better on ketchup or mustard.

One might object that salt is best applied to the meat or tomato, where it can attract moisture and enhance flavor. Perhaps, but in the time between constructing a sandwich and eating it, I suspect that any such effect is minimal. In any case, if properly applied, my technique assures that every bite includes salt and pepper.

The picture at the right illustrates my seasoning technique. I was more concerned with photography than applying that technique perfectly, but you can easily get the idea.