Framing the Abortion Decision (part 2)

June 30, 2022

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I turn now from the constitutional interpretations framing the abortion debate to the politics of abortion. I will start with public opinion on abortion, but then connect the issue to a broader debate over democracy and political legitimacy.

Public opinion

Here I rely on the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Since the 1970s, it has included a standard set of questions asking under what conditions a pregnant woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion. Here are the conditions, along with the percentage answering Yes in 2021:

  • The woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy (89%)
  • She became pregnant as a result of rape (83%)
  • There is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby (77%)
  • She is married and does not want any more children (57%)
  • The family has a really low income and cannot afford any more children (56%)
  • The woman is not married and does not want to marry the man (55%)
  • The woman wants it for any reason (54%)

One reason why the abortion issue is so contentious is that support for it depends so heavily on the imagined circumstances. Over three-fourths of respondents want abortion to be legal in cases of endangered maternal health, rape, or serious birth defect. Far fewer—but still a small majority—would allow women to choose abortion under less extreme conditions.

Let’s further analyze opinions on the question of whether a woman should be able to have an abortion “for any reason,” where opinions are almost evenly divided. Here are the percentages answering Yes for various groups:

  • Democrats (69%), Independents (51%), Republicans (35%)
  • Ages 18-34 (63%), 35-49 (54%), 50-64 (54%), 65+ (52%)
  • Highest degree: College+ (59%), High-school (51%), Less Than High School (54%)
  • Female (56%), Male (52%)

Political party affiliation is a much better predictor of opinion than the other factors. The difference between women and men on this issue is pretty small. The distinctly liberal position of people under 35 has emerged only in the last few years, and suggests that further liberalization of opinion is likely going forward.

In the 1970s and 80s, the overall percentage of respondents answering Yes to the same question was under 40%, while now it is over 50%. This is probably related to a decline in Christian conservatism over the past several decades. The percentage of respondents classified as Protestant conservatives in the survey peaked at 35% in 1991, and was down to 20% by 2021. Over the same three decades, the percentage of Catholics declined from 27% to 22%.

An even more dramatic change of opinion has occurred with regard to same-sex marriage. Gallup recently reported that support for it has reached a new high of 77%. This is relevant to the debate over legal abortion, since the Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges was based on the same broad reading of the Fourteenth Amendment as Roe v. Wade. Americans are increasingly comfortable with the idea that the Constitution grants broad rights in intimate matters, which is why overturning Roe has come as such a shock.

Public opinion has also been turning against other prominent positions taken by the Republican Party. Only about a third of the country supported the Trump tax cuts of 2017, whose benefits went primarily to corporations and the wealthy. In contrast, President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, now has majority support, recovering from the low of 37% approval when the Republicans ran against it in the 2014 midterms, according to Gallup. On another prominent issue, recent mass killings have highlighted the support for moderate gun-safety measures, such as universal background checks and bans on assault weapons, but the Republican Party is far more pro-gun than the general population.

Democracy and political legitimacy

I believe there is a connection between the unpopularity of many Republican positions and the party’s willingness to resort to undemocratic means to have its way. Tactics like disinformation campaigns and voter suppression are not signs of strength, but signs of weakness, and perhaps even desperation. After all, Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections.

In my May 10 post on the politics of abortion, I mentioned the underhanded way that Senate Republicans went about getting more ultraconservatives onto the Supreme Court:

In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering President Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, making up a rule that nominations shouldn’t be considered in an election year. In 2020, he reversed his position so that President Trump’s nominee could be rushed through several weeks before the election. These machinations gave Trump the most appointments in a single term since Reagan and created the most radically conservative Court in almost a century. Republican nominees also misled Senate moderates by expressing support for Roe as a precedent to be respected, then revealing their judicial radicalism once they were on the bench.

President Trump’s own position on abortion was rather slippery, since he had once been known for his pro-choice views. Knowing what we know about the man, I’m guessing that his flip-flop was less a matter of sincere moral conversion than political expediency, once he decided to run as a Republican. His entire relationship with Christian conservatives involved more than a little mutual hypocrisy, since he was willing to give them what they wanted as long as they voted for him, and they were willing to support him even if he flouted most moral standards of Christian behaviour. The photo-op in which Trump held up a Bible while standing in front of a church was a new low in political phoniness.

Donald Trump will probably go down in history as the front-runner for most illegitimate president of all time, given the role of the Russian disinformation campaign in his first election and his efforts to corrupt or overturn the second. But I believe that the descent of the party into dishonesty and authoritarianism is bigger than Trump, and threatens to continue with or without him. Consider the Republican initiatives in these areas:

  • The use of wild claims of voter fraud—which is actually quite rare—to justify measures that make it harder for voters, especially poor people, to exercise their voting rights
  • The rejection of a key feature of the Voting Rights Act by the Roberts court, and the refusal of Congressional Republicans to support a replacement that could meet the court’s objections (Texas Republicans just announced their commitment to abolishing the law entirely)
  • The misuse of the Senate filibuster to avoid debating almost every measure proposed by Democrats
  • The protection of partisan gerrymandering by conservatives on the Supreme Court
  • Opposition to all campaign finance reform
  • Proposals to give state legislatures the power to overturn state election results

We now have to take seriously the possibility that if the Republicans regained control of Congress, they might collaborate with their state legislators to decertify the election of the next Democratic president. If so, the Supreme Court probably wouldn’t come to the rescue. Let’s not forget that in 2000, the Republican 5-4 majority stopped the Florida recount and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, without knowing whether he had actually won or not.

I’ve strayed rather far from the abortion issue. But my point is that if the Dobbs ruling is what the dissenting opinion says it is—a “pinched” reading of the Fourteenth Amendment that threatens to undermine personal rights—then it is another attack on a democratic institution. It is another way of curtailing democracy because one party doesn’t like the way democracy is going. A political party that keeps doing that deserves to lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the voters. Before we allow a party to claim the moral high ground, we ought to expect more of it than a zeal to legislate personal morality. A democratic society also needs a public morality, one that includes at the very least a commitment to honest debate, fair elections, and respect for the rights of all citizens.

Historically, the political right has had no monopoly on dishonesty, authoritarianism or violence. But in this time in this country, the attack on democratic institutions is coming mainly from the right. Maybe this month’s shocking events, from the full exposure of Donald Trump’s reelection plot to the reversal of Roe’s recognition of women’s rights, will prove to be a turning point.


Framing the Abortion Decision

June 27, 2022

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Last month I wrote two posts in response to Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson. In the first, I took issue with his legal argument for overturning Roe v. Wade. In the second, I discussed the political background, especially the embrace of the religious right by the Republican Party.

Here, I’ll make a similar distinction between legal arguments and politics in my response to the actual reversal of Roe v. Wade. Since the majority opinion conforms to the reasoning of Justice Alito’s draft, I’ll focus more on Justice Breyer’s dissent, in which he was joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.

Many conservatives are framing the abortion ruling as a victory in the struggle to restore family morality. Many liberals frame it very differently, as an attack on women’s rights and personal freedom. While Supreme Court justices are hardly indifferent to such concerns, they must also frame the issue as a matter of constitutional interpretation. They must ask what the words of the Constitution assert or imply about the rights of Americans. Here, the words in question are primarily those of the Fourteenth Amendment:

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.

The Court’s conservative majority believes in a narrow interpretation of the amendment, one that Justice Breyer criticizes as a “pinched” interpretation. In the narrow view, Americans have only the rights that were acknowledged and intended at the time the Constitution and its amendments were ratified. In the case of the Fourteenth Amendment, that would be in 1868. The argument that Alito and company mainly rely on is that no right to abortion existed at that time, since it was not deeply rooted in American history.

The Breyer dissent agrees on this fact: “In 1868, there was no nationwide right to end a pregnancy, and no thought that the Fourteenth Amendment provided one.” For the liberals, however, that does not settle the matter, because they believe that the Constitution embodies core principles that the Court must interpret and apply to changing circumstances.

As a matter of constitutional method, the majority’s commitment to replicate in 2022 every view about the meaning of liberty held in 1868 has precious little to recommend it. Our law in this constitutional sphere, as in most, has for decades upon decades proceeded differently. It has considered fundamental constitutional principles, the whole course of the Nation’s history and traditions, and the step-by-step evolution of the Court’s precedents.

Democratic principles

Those core principles include freedom and equality, which imply some limits on what the state can make people do or stop them from doing. For example, nowhere does the Constitution mention marriage, and the Fourteenth Amendment was not passed in order to protect historically novel forms of marriage. But in modern times, the Court has acknowledged and expanded upon the right to marry, protecting some types of marriage not “deeply rooted in American history,” in particular interracial marriage in 1967 and same-sex marriage in 2015. Among the Court’s “prouder moments,” according to Breyer, are cases in which it gave new meaning to the Fourteenth-Amendment guarantees of liberty and equality.

The trouble with a narrow reading of the Amendment is that it eliminates not only any right to abortion, but any other rights and freedoms not recognized in 1868.

According to the majority, no liberty interest is present— because (and only because) the law offered no protection to the woman’s choice in the 19th century. But here is the rub. The law also did not then (and would not for ages) protect a wealth of other things. It did not protect the rights recognized in Lawrence and Obergefell to same-sex intimacy and marriage. It did not protect the right recognized in Loving to marry across racial lines. It did not protect the right recognized in Griswold to contraceptive use. For that matter, it did not protect the right recognized in Skinner v. Oklahoma…not to be sterilized without consent. So if the majority is right in its legal analysis, all those decisions were wrong, and all those matters properly belong to the States too—whatever the particular state interests involved.

Breyer argues that this leaves the conservatives with a logical conundrum:

So one of two things must be true. Either the majority does not really believe in its own reasoning. Or if it does, all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid19th century are insecure. Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other.

The majority opinion protests repeatedly that its ruling is not intended to threaten other constitutional rights, but Breyer worries that its reasoning is an invitation for future justices to go in that direction. In fact, one of the Court’s conservatives, Justice Thomas, has already indicated his desire to throw out contraceptive rights and same-sex marriage rights along with abortion rights. (He does not include interracial marriage rights on his hit list, which would be awkward given his situation.)

The difference between the conservative and liberal views is crucial for women’s rights. The conservatives rely on the narrow conception of rights prevailing in 1868, and they are not bothered by the fact that the only people who could ratify those rights were men. For liberals, that suggests a problem demanding further analysis and interpretive progress: “It is perhaps not so surprising that the ratifiers were not perfectly attuned to the importance of reproductive rights for women’s liberty, or for their capacity to participate as equal members of our Nation.” Now that the voting population is more “attuned”, we can view the matter differently.

Since they do not consider themselves bound by the view of nineteenth-century men, the liberal justices can concern themselves with the consequences of coerced childbearing for the freedom and wellbeing of modern women:

Across a vast array of circumstances, a State will be able to impose its moral choice on a woman and coerce her to give birth to a child… Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens. Yesterday, the Constitution guaranteed that a woman confronted with an unplanned pregnancy could (within reasonable limits) make her own decision about whether to bear a child, with all the life-transforming consequences that act involves. And in thus safeguarding each woman’s reproductive freedom, the Constitution also protected “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in [this Nation’s] economic and social life” [quotation from Casey]. But no longer. As of today, this Court holds, a State can always force a woman to give birth, prohibiting even the earliest abortions. A State can thus transform what, when freely undertaken, is a wonder into what, when forced, may be a nightmare.

Precedent

Much of Breyer’s opinion is devoted to the importance of respecting precedent, as the conservatives appointed by President Trump claimed they would do during their confirmation hearings. For Breyer, the precedent at stake here is not just the Roe decision itself, but the “multitude of decisions” supporting the principle “that the Constitution places limits on a State’s power to assert control over an individual’s body and most personal decisionmaking.”

Now the Court has overturned previous decisions before. Both Alito and Breyer discuss the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, which overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling permitting allegedly “separate but equal” schools. While Alito and the conservatives regard the argument for overturning Roe as just as strong, Breyer and the liberals stress the differences. In the segregation cases, decades of discrimination had established the fact that segregated schools were not actually equal. In addition, “the law had begun to reflect that understanding. In a series of decisions, the Court had held unconstitutional public graduate schools’ exclusion of black students.” Nothing comparable has occurred with regard to abortion. No new body of facts has emerged to turn public opinion against it. And legal opinion in both the United States and the rest of world has generally become more supportive of reproductive rights.

No recent developments, in either law or fact, have eroded or cast doubt on those precedents. Nothing, in short, has changed… The Court reverses course today for one reason and one reason only: because the composition of this Court has changed.

That new composition reflects the Republican Party’s success in electing a right-wing president and confirming three new ultraconservative justices, even as the country becomes gradually more liberal on matters of personal morality. I will have more to say about that in my next post.

The Breyer opinion is scathing in its criticism of the majority’s willingness both to retract a previously acknowledged right, something the Court has never done before, and to stand in opposition to the longstanding struggle to expand human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular. They need a stronger justification than “once upon a time” people lacked these rights.

It makes radical change too easy and too fast, based on nothing more than the new views of new judges. The majority has overruled Roe and Casey for one and only one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law.

Individual rights vs. states’ rights

Roe v. Wade, as well as the later Casey decision, tried to balance the competing interests of pregnant women and state governments. They recognized that states have a more legitimate interest in protecting lives that could survive outside a woman’s body than in supporting the gestation of every fertilized egg. Breyer complains that the ruling “erases the woman’s interest and recognizes only the State’s (or the Federal Government’s).”

Those of us who lived through the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s remember how diehard segregationists invoked the notion of “states’ rights” to resist the egalitarian implications of the Constitution. Eventually new federal laws helped enforce minority rights, although laws like the Voting Rights Act face resistance to this day (and are getting no help from the current Supreme Court). But as Brown v. Board of Education illustrates, the application of constitutional principles by the courts also played an important and constructive role. In contrast, the Dobbs decision abdicates that role. It leaves women at the mercy of states with poor records on human rights in general, especially the rights of women and children within historically disadvantaged groups. Breyer points out that “nearly half of women who seek abortion care live in households below the poverty line.” They will feel the curtailment of their options most keenly.

Competing at the state level to have one’s views reflected in the law is part of our democratic system. In a constitutional democracy, however, we need the courts to act as referees, affirming the general principles that prevent one group from infringing on the rights of another. When judges refuse to apply the Constitution, or give it only the narrowest of interpretations, they leave it to the states to fight it out on the basis of power rather than principle. That makes it more likely that injustice will prevail, and indeed it often has. I have to agree, therefore, with those who regard this decision as a setback in the struggle for a free and equitable society.

Continued


Is Inflation Disproving Modern Monetary Theory?

May 31, 2022

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Economic events sometimes have a way of discrediting popular economic theories. The Great Depression of the 1930s challenged many neoclassical economic ideas and encouraged Keynesian thinking. In turn, the stagflation of the 1970s challenged many Keynesian ideas and helped popularize Milton Friedman’s brand of monetarism. Today, some economists are trying to use the current inflation to discredit a newer theory with Keynesian roots, the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) championed by Stephanie Kelton and others. In this case, however, the theory under attack can hardly be said to have been tried, so the rumors of its failure or demise may be greatly exaggerated.

The argument we now hear goes something like this: MMT is distinguished from mainstream economic theories by its higher tolerance of federal budget deficits. The Biden administration has been running large deficits, so its policies are a test of MMT. The recent surge of inflation is an ill effect of those policies, so that provides evidence of failure for both deficit spending and the theory that encourages it.

In this vein, Karl W. Smith writes:

In response to Covid, the federal government spent trillions of dollars on relief, and the Fed pushed interest rates to zero. The idea was that these policies would be short-lived. But as the pandemic wore on, they were kept in place.
In effect, America was putting MMT into practice. Congress borrowed and spent with little concern for long-term limits, and the Fed supported that borrowing by keeping interest rates at zero. As a result, MMT proponents are fond of pointing out, the U.S. economy bounced back stronger than any of its peer nations.
Yes, they admit, the U.S. has also had stronger inflation. But MMT proponents note that they had always acknowledged that possibility, and that inflation was more a result of the unusual circumstances of a pandemic than of any particular aspect of MMT.
Both of these answers are unsatisfying. In truth, MMT is failing precisely as its more sanguine critics predicted.

Furthermore, critics like Clive Crook complain that MMT “offers no plausible solution” to inflation, since it rejects the most orthodox solution of interest-rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.

Although these concerns about Modern Monetary Theory are certainly worthy of debate, I believe that they exaggerate some features of the theory while almost completely overlooking others.

MMT’s tolerance of deficits

The part of this popular critique that contains the most truth is that MMT is indeed unusually tolerant of federal budget deficits. Orthodox economic theories have at most a grudging acceptance of deficit spending to stimulate a sluggish or recessionary economy. And yet, the federal government has run a deficit almost continuously for the past fifty years, only balancing the budget between 1998 and 2001. Is that a policy mistake, or an implicit recognition that deficits help stabilize the modern capitalist economy most of the time?

MMT’s understanding of deficits is based on “flow-of-funds” accounting that distinguishes three economic sectors: the public sector, the private domestic sector, and the foreign sector (our trading partners). The key point is that a deficit in any one sector is balanced by a surplus somewhere else, and vice versa. MMT economists reason that the U.S. must run a deficit at least as large as its current account imbalance with its trading partners (that is, the foreign sector surplus); otherwise, the domestic private sector has to be in deficit instead. Its total income will be less than its total spending, and its financial assets will decline relative to its debts. This makes the economy more vulnerable to financial crises resulting from boom-and-bust cycles, as it was in the housing boom and bust of the 2000s. The recommended course of action is to run a government deficit even larger than any current account imbalance, to give the private sector added protection against economic downturns. “In the long term, the only sustainable position is for the private sector to be in surplus. An economy can absorb deviations from that position but only for short periods” (Mitchell, Wray and Watts, Macroeconomics, p. 89).

In The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton argues that a government that controls its nation’s currency does not have to budget like a household, that the national debt is as much a private asset (held in treasury bonds) as a public liability, and that the country has no good reason to pay it off. She says that “a government that borrows in its own sovereign currency can always maintain the critical condition for sustainability,” which is that the interest rate on the debt is no greater than the growth rate of the economy. But these views do not sound fiscally responsible to economic traditionalists.

MMT’s view of inflation

What MMT most certainly does not say is that the government can spend as much as it likes without worrying about the inflationary consequences. On the contrary, it says that the possibility of inflation, rather than the budget deficit itself, is exactly what the government should be worried about. While rejecting as a myth the idea that “deficits are evidence of overspending,” Kelton immediately adds, “For evidence of overspending, look to inflation.” And later, “Once the economy exhausts its real productive capacity, the only way for the government to get the construction workers, architects and engineers, steel, concrete, paving trucks, cranes, and so on that it needs is to bid them away from their current use. That bidding process pushes prices higher, giving rise to inflationary pressures.” Few economists would argue with that.

The key phrase is “once the economy exhausts its real productive capacity.” The classic definition of inflation—too much money chasing too few goods—reminds us that inflation is a relationship between monetary demand and real supply. MMT is especially interested in cost-push inflation, when shortages of key resources push up prices. It attributes the high cost of gas partly to our failure to develop alternative energy sources, the high cost of housing partly to our failure to build enough of it, the high cost of food partly to production interruptions from war and pandemic, and the high cost of labor partly to shortages of qualified workers (and of the child care they need to take jobs). Although government spending can stimulate the demand side of the economy, it can also address shortages on the supply side, helping to keep costs down. To the extent that government invests in expanding the nation’s resources along with the nation’s money supply, it is acting responsibly and working against inflation.

What kind of deficit?

This line of reasoning implies that all deficits are not equal in their inflationary impact. It matters what specific fiscal policies are creating the deficit.

Since the budget deficit is the gap between revenue and spending, critics of the deficit could just as well complain about “deficit revenue” as “deficit spending.” Economists who blame the deficit for inflation should question President Trump’s tax cuts as well as President Biden’s stimulus checks. In truth, Modern Monetary Theory is not enthusiastic about either tax cuts or stimulus checks, since neither is sufficiently targeted to expand the productive capacity of the country. When Karl W. Smith characterizes MMT as “a school of economics that advocates the kind of policy that has brought the U.S. economy to this point,” he is overlooking most of what economists like Kelton would really like to see done. One cannot have it both ways, attacking MMT as a dangerous new theory and then claiming that it’s already established policy.

One Biden initiative that does appeal to proponents of MMT is the infrastructure bill. Improvements in things like transportation and the energy grid can help grow the economy while cutting costs for producers and consumers. When the government offsets that kind of spending not with taxes, but with sales of treasury bonds, it is not acting irresponsibly, but just asking the public to invest in the nation’s future. Democrats managed to pass the infrastructure bill with support from only 12% of Congressional Republicans. Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal, which has been called a “human infrastructure” bill, has not passed. It contains initiatives in the areas of preschool education, family and medical leave, health care, affordable housing, and clean energy, all of which are arguably relevant to developing our national resources. The great majority of Republicans opposed both bills, attacking the first for adding to the deficit and the second for raising revenue by rolling back some of the Trump tax cuts. MMT may be having some impact on the administration’s thinking, but it remains to be substantially implemented.

Modern Monetary Theory tries to broaden our conception of fiscal responsibility by considering not only how to pay for programs but what the programs actually accomplish. Deficits that serve to expand the country’s resource base are not as inflationary as deficits that just put more money in people’s pockets. But fiscal policy still has limits, since the resource base is not infinitely expandable, especially in the short run. Kelton says:

To be clear, MMT is not about removing all limits. It’s not a free lunch. It’s about replacing our current approach, one obsessed with budget outcomes, with one that prioritizes human outcomes while at the same time recognizing and respecting our economy’s real resource constraints. In other words, MMT redefines what it means to engage in fiscally responsible budgeting…“It’s the economy’s real resources, stupid!” We are a nation rich with real resources—advanced technologies, an educated workforce, factories, machines, fertile soil, and an abundance of natural resources.

MMT’s budget priorities

When asked in a recent interview for her number-one policy recommendation, Kelton said:

It has to be climate. I don’t see a bigger threat challenge before us than climate change… Climate change is gonna massively disrupt life in so many ways, right? It is going to be an irritant. It is going to be a hardship. People are going to be feeling pain in ways they haven’t even imagined in their lives, in their pocketbook as a result of climate. So again, I think, you know, the kind of inflation we’re dealing with now is mild in comparison to what lies ahead, if we don’t get our arms around this.

When faced with such a serious challenge, responsible budgeting requires more than just deficit reduction. It demands spending what we need to in order to develop alternative energy resources, so that we can avoid the catastrophic costs of environmental damage and energy shortages. We can, of course, include taxes on fossil fuels to encourage the transition, if we can summon the political will to pass them. But we can also do what we’ve done in time of war, sell more treasury bonds and rely on a growing economy to keep the debt manageable.

Another budget priority for MMT—although one that’s a harder sell—is a federal job guarantee for workers who are otherwise unemployed. Many politicians and orthodox economists reject it out of hand as another costly program the country cannot afford. But MMT theorists point to the enormous costs imposed on the country by chronically high unemployment, especially in poor communities. Leaving people who would like to work unemployed is counterproductive, since the longer they are without work, the less qualified for work they become. The well-documented damage includes not only loss of relevant skills, but poor health, psychological harm, social isolation, antisocial behavior, and deterioration of family life. Greater investment in human capital development through health and educational programs can help, but acquisition of good work habits and job skills through actual employment is essential.

MMT argues that a federal jobs program could help stabilize the economy by counteracting fluctuations in private employment. In times of economic contraction, the government wouldn’t just give out money, but hire more workers and produce some useful services for the money it spends. That would be the alternative to—in Kelton’s words—“pulling out the bazooka, the money bazooka, and just spraying it across the economy and saying, we gotta blow a bunch of money into people’s hands because we don’t know what else to do.” In times of economic expansion, the private sector could draw on a larger pool of experienced workers, so that the cost of hiring good workers wouldn’t rise so quickly. Economists might not have to assume that getting unemployment below 5 percent or so is impossible without triggering inflation.

Fighting inflation

So, how would Modern Monetary Theory respond to the current inflation? Admittedly, the theory is less focused on immediate measures to control prices than on long-term investments to develop resources and reduce costs. Public policy may be able to address some current supply problems, such as shortages of baby formula or supply-chain bottlenecks. More comprehensive measures, like developing more of the country’s human capital, will take much longer.

MMT does not deny that raising interest rates can fight inflation from the demand side by discouraging borrowing and spending. However, it is a crude instrument that may slow overall economic growth. raise unemployment, and risk recession. That’s why the stock market reacts so badly to the slightest hike in rates. To the extent that federal budget deficits are contributing to inflation, some fiscal tightening may be called for. That has the advantage of being able to target particular forms of taxing or spending, making changes that do less harm than others. Most MMT proponents would rather raise taxes on millionaires than eliminate spending on new energy initiatives. But MMT’s focus on fiscal rather than monetary policy is hardly without impact. The federal deficit, which was 12% of GDP in 2021, has already come down to about 5% due to a winding down of emergency stimulus programs.

In general, MMT has more to say about preventing future inflation than curing existing inflation. Its general message is the optimistic one that economic growth with price stability is possible if the country makes wise investments in resource development and management. MMT’s support for public spending is admittedly an easier sell when the market economy is faltering and Keynesian stimulus measures are on the table. Once the economy is growing again, conventional economists turn their attention to moderating demand, while MMT recommends continued attention to expanding long-term supply. This does not have to be an either-or proposition; the interest in one does not preclude or invalidate the interest in the other.

To say that Modern Monetary Theory has failed is grossly misleading. For the most part, it has yet to be tried. Maybe we would have a more productive and less inflation-prone economy if it were.


A Sharp Right Turn on Abortion (part 2)

May 10, 2022

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Having discussed—and questioned—the legal reasoning in Justice Alito’s draft opinion intended to overturn Roe v. Wade, I now turn to the political processes that brought the Supreme Court to this impending decision.

Because of the separation of church and state, citizens can hold strong religious beliefs about matters of sexuality, marriage and reproduction without expecting those beliefs to be written into law. They can be morally opposed to premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, divorce, contraception or abortion in their personal lives without expecting their elected leaders to ban or criminalize those behaviors. Historically, states have often written Christian morality into law, but in modern times religious pluralism and broader interpretations of personal freedom have worked to liberalize such laws. The liberalization of abortion law that was already underway before Roe v. Wade was part of this general movement. That raises the fascinating question of how and why one of our major political parties would take up the anti-abortion cause and make opposition to Roe a litmus test for selecting Supreme Court justices.

A striking difference between the 1972 Roe decision and Justice Alito’s draft Dobbs decision is that the Roe decision was much more bipartisan. It was decided by a 7-2 majority, including five justices appointed by Republican presidents and two by Democratic presidents. The current decision comes only from the five most conservative justices, all appointed by Republican presidents. (And the last four of those appointments were made by presidents initially elected without winning the popular vote.)

In 1972, Roe v. Wade was somewhat controversial, but it did not initially provoke the firestorm of protest that Alito’s leaked opinion is provoking now. Some states were already moving toward legalization, again in a bipartisan way. One of the most liberal laws was passed by the state of California in 1967 and signed by its Republican governor, Ronald Reagan. At the time, California was a heavily Republican state. It voted Republican in 9 of 10 presidential elections between 1952 and 1988, only becoming reliably Democratic in the 1990s.

In 1972, even evangelical Protestants were not solidly anti-abortion. Many of them thought of abortion as mainly a Catholic issue, like contraception. When the country elected John Kennedy as its first Catholic president in 1960, he had to assure Protestants that he would respect the separation of church and state and not uphold the Catholic position on contraception. Few Protestants objected when the Supreme Court struck down Connecticut’s contraceptive ban in 1965. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions supporting abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity and threats to the health of the mother.

Fifty years ago, the Republican Party was known much more for its economic conservatism than its moral or religious positions. Traditionally, most Catholics in the North and evangelical Protestants in the Deep South had been Democrats. If Republicans had a moral crusade, it was mainly against “godless Communism.”

What changed all this was the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s and its strong alliance with the Republican Party. Contrary to popular belief, the first issue to encourage that allience was not abortion, but rather the desegregation of religious schools. (See Randall Balmer’s “The Real Origins of the Religious Right” and Robert B. Horwitz’s America’s Right.)

Because the Bible Belt consisted mainly of the former Confederate states (along with Missouri, Oklahoma and southern portions of several midwestern states), evangelical religion was closely associated with racial segregation. Southern churches had a long history of finding Biblical justifications for slavery and segregation. In the 1970s, the IRS started rescinding the tax exemptions of segregated religious schools. The case that got the most attention was Bob Jones University, which lost its exemption in 1976. Republicans sided with the schools and denounced the Carter administration, although the IRS policy had actually begun during the Nixon presidency. Courting evangelical voters became part of the “southern strategy” by which Republicans attracted voters disenchanted by the strong Democratic support for civil rights. But framing the issue as religious rather than racial allowed Republicans to claim some higher moral ground.

Taking a strong stand in favor of “family values” and against abortion was even more useful to the Republican Party. It was less associated with segregation and appealed to Northern Catholics as well as Bible-Belt Protestants. Republicans aligned themselves with televangelist Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” Falwell had also opposed school desegregation in the 1950s, saying, “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” but by the 1970s he was better known for strong stands against abortion and homosexuality. Republicans also supported the National Right to Life Committee founded by the Catholic bishops. James Bopp, the general counsel of that organization, wrote the anti-abortion plank of the 1980 Republican Party platform. Who ran on that platform? Ronald Reagan.

Republican politicians could use abortion as a cultural wedge issue to help get their candidates elected, while still pursuing what I regard as their primary mission—economic policies favoring corporations and the wealthy. That helps explain the peculiar combination of economic libertarianism and moral authoritarianism in Republican thinking today. Republicans seem determined to force poor pregnant women to give birth, but equally determined to make them fend for themselves once they do so. In saying this, I am not questioning the sincerity of religious people who believe that a human soul is created at conception. I am saying that many politicians appeal to those believers not because they share their deep moral convictions, but because they need their votes to implement a very different agenda. Donald Trump is perhaps the best example of someone who “got religion” purely for the sake of political expediency.

While the “pro-life” movement has succeeded in making the abortion issue far more salient than it was in 1972, it has not succeeded in actually turning most Americans against legal abortion, especially in early pregnancy or pregnancies resulting from nonconsensual sex. Supporters of Roe outnumber opponents by almost two-to-one. Republicans have had to be very lucky—and somewhat underhanded—to get so many Catholic, anti-abortion conservatives onto the Court. (All five of the anti-Roe justices were raised Catholic and/or educated in Catholic schools. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh attended the same Jesuit school, Georgetown Prep.)

Both the electoral college and the composition of the Senate overrepresent small, rural states like Wyoming in comparison with large, urban states like California. Given a sharply divided electorate, Republicans have used these advantages to control the presidency and/or the Senate even when they failed to win an actual majority of the presidential or congressional vote. Republicans have won the popular vote in only one of the last eight presidential elections (George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004), and yet they hold six of the nine presidential appointments to the current Court. In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering President Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, making up a rule that nominations shouldn’t be considered in an election year. In 2020, he reversed his position so that President Trump’s nominee could be rushed through several weeks before the election. These machinations gave Trump the most appointments in a single term since Reagan and created the most radically conservative Court in almost a century. Republican nominees also misled Senate moderates by expressing support for Roe as a precedent to be respected, then revealing their judicial radicalism once they were on the bench.

All this has resulted in a most peculiar situation, where the American people are now asked to believe that the Supreme Court was simply mistaken in pronouncing an important women’s right fifty years ago. Justice Alito’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, that opinion also calls into question an entire set of sexual, marital and reproductive rights recognized over the past six decades, rights that most Americans would like to keep. While this may not be as critical as Republican attempts to weaken voting rights, it is hardly good news for our democratic values and institutions.


A Sharp Right Turn on Abortion

May 6, 2022

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I could also title this “A sharp turn away from abortion rights.” The gist of Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked opinion on abortion is that women do not have a constitutional right to an abortion, and never did. The Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong from the start.”

To back up a step, the Court is working on an abortion case from Mississippi, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Court watchers have long speculated that the new conservative majority might take this opportunity to reverse Roe v. Wade (as well as another key decision, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) and leave states free to write their own rules. Justice Alito’s draft opinion does exactly that: “We now reverse these decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.” Although it is only a draft, it must be taken very seriously, since its very existence indicates that Alito has been chosen to convey the majority opinion in the case.

Since the Constitution says nothing explicitly about abortion, the constitutional debate centers on the question of whether the right to terminate a pregnancy is implied by other rights, such as other provisions of the Bill of Rights or the equal rights provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. Alito bases his argument against abortion rights on the idea that any such implicit right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and traditions” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Alito finds that at no time before Roe did the nation recognize a woman’s right to an abortion.

While Alito’s historical account emphasizes how often abortion has been criminalized, it also reveals some important variations. “American law followed the common law until a wave of statutory restrictions in the 1800s expanded criminal liability for abortions.” Under common law, criminalization occurred mainly after “quickening–i.e., the first felt movement of the fetus in the womb, which usually occurs between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy.” Although Alito doesn’t make the point, the decriminalization of first-trimester abortions by Roe does bear some resemblance to the situation in many colonies, states and territories before the trend toward full criminalization ran its course by around 1919. Alito may be overstating the case a bit when he speaks of “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment.”

The larger problem with Alito’s historical argument is that it sets the bar so high for recognizing rights that it calls into question many other modern rights as well. The Supreme Court recognized the right to use contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the right to racial intermarriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the right to engage in consensual sex acts in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and the right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). Like abortion rights, none of these rights is explicitly in the Constitution or deeply rooted in US history. The argument that we do not have any implicit constitutional rights except those that have been recognized for a very long time would seem to rule out any modern expansion of such rights.

Justice Alito is aware of this problem, and he tries to get around it by arguing that abortion raises a more “critical moral question” than any of these other decisions. Here I find his argument rather slippery and unconvincing. On the one hand, he claims that “our decision is not based on any view about when a State should regard prenatal life as having rights as cognizable interests.” On the other hand, he says:

What sharply distinguishes the abortion right from the rights recognized in the cases on which Roe and Casey rely is something that both these decisions acknowledged; abortion destroys what those decisions call “potential life” and what the law at issue in this case regards as the life of an “unborn human being”…None of the other decisions cited by Roe and Casey involved the critical moral question posed by abortion.

With the careful phrasing, “what the law at issue in this case regards as the life of an ‘unborn human being’ (emphasis added), Alito manages to avoid embracing the view that a newly conceived embryo has the same value or right as a more fully developed and viable fetus; yet he acknowledges such a belief as a basis for considering abortion a particularly critical moral question. Apparently, that is his justification for reserving the authority over pregnancy to the state, while denying that pregnant women themselves have any rights in the matter.

I see at least two problems with this reasoning. First, it does not really distinguish the question of abortion from other questions of rights as clearly as Alito might hope. One could argue that any decision to have sex while avoiding bringing a child into the world raises a critical moral question. Certainly the Catholic Church has condemned as mortal sins not only abortion, but artificial methods of contraception, same-sex sexuality and nonmarital sexuality. And second, even if the abortion question is a weightier moral question than many other personal decisions, how does that confer on the state the right to make the decision for everybody, without regard to the beliefs, desires and circumstances of its individual citizens? By what reasoning do we come to the conclusion that individual citizens have no rights with regard to the most critical decisions affecting their lives? Alito seems to assume it, but he does not explain it.

To illustrate the problem, consider living wills. Many citizens make living wills in order to participate in decisions regarding their end-of-life care, often to refuse medical interventions that will prolong their life without regard to the quality of that life. These life-and-death decisions certainly raise critical moral questions. But the idea that this justifies letting the state make those decisions for us is a dangerous notion, and one that is offensive in a modern democracy. Remember all of the Republican fuss about “death panels,” just because Obamacare originally offered to pay for end-of-life counseling?

Missing from Justice Alito’s attempt to supplant personal rights with states’ rights is any requirement that states justify their abortion laws by any legitimate public purpose. He does not claim that banning abortion benefits the nation in any particular way, such as maintaining a high birth rate. (Those democratic countries that have worried about low birth rates have more often promoted family life with paid parental leaves, subsidized child care, family allowances and so forth. In this country, on the other hand, the same “pro-family” politicians who support coerced childbearing often turn their back on families the moment a child is born.) In the absence of any practical argument for denying women the right to choose, Alito is left with the argument for following historical tradition and the argument for reserving critical moral questions to the state. The first argument discourages the courts from interpreting the Constitution in the light of modern experience. The second invites religious traditionalists to legislate their morality for everyone in their state. I think that few constitutional scholars will find these arguments sufficient.

I have always found it interesting that the political party most known for favoring liberty, small government and limited regulation is also the party most eager to legislate sexual and reproductive morality. In my next post, I will discuss the political processes by which the anti-Roe minority in this country came to dominate the Republican Party and capture the majority of seats on the Supreme Court.

Continued