Why the Stupak Amendment is so bad

Perhaps the United States House of Representatives believes that all men are created equal—but it does not believe that all women are created equal, or that women are equal to men. These views it has made clear with the passage of the Stupak Amendment, which limits the right to choose for women who can afford to pay for an abortion up front, or for women who can afford a private insurer whose policy covers abortion.

As for the rest, well, that’s what coathangers are for.

HR-3962 describes itself as “[an act t]o provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans.” Abortion is legal in the United States to provide quality health care; in delivering the opinion of the Court on Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun explicitly stated that one reason for legalizing abortion was that, unregulated, it was deadly, but regulated it was much safer: “Mortality rates for women undergoing early abortions, where the procedure is legal, appear to be as low as or lower than the rates for normal childbirth. (…) The prevalence of high mortality rates at illegal “abortion mills” strengthens, rather than weakens, the State’s interest in regulating the conditions under which abortions are performed.” The passage of the Stupak Amendment, then, undermines the purpose of the healthcare reform bill, because it does not provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans. Not only does it bar the public health option from covering abortion, it also bars people who receive “affordability credits”—reduced premiums granted to people with lower income levels—from using those credits to purchase an insurance plan that covers abortion.

The consequences will be exactly those that Roe v. Wade tried to prevent: despite abortion limitations and bans, women will get them anyway, and the risks they incur will be much more severe.

In the United States, abortion is a legal medical procedure. For a bill whose purpose is to provide affordable healthcare to explicitly ban funding for abortions is absurd. Furthermore, the Stupak Amendment makes it in private health insurance companies’ best interest to take abortion coverage out of their policies: because of affordability credits, more people will be able to buy government-subsidized private health insurance, but only companies that don’t provide abortion coverage will see any of that new money. They can get more customers through the insurance exchange if the new customers get subsidies, but they can only get those customers if they don’t include abortion coverage.

I should add that this amendment is not about saving a fetal life, but about using pregnancy as punishment for sexual activity. If it were equating a fetus to a child, it would not permit abortion in cases of rape or incest; killing a child because it is the result of incest or rape would still be infanticide.

Many women simply cannot afford children or even childbirth right now—and given that many health insurance companies will not cover a c-section if a women has already had one, and that over 30% of births are c-sections, that’s understandable (the lowest price estimation I have seen for an uninsured c-section is $5,000, and most are upwards of $10,000 assuming everything goes smoothly). Consequently, the Stupak Amendment puts women in a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t position.

Advocates for free-market capitalism ought to oppose the Stupak Amendment because it imposes a de facto artificial handicap on health insurance companies, without allowing customers to vote with their money. Advocates for socialism ought to object to this gross gap in healthcare provision between rich and poor women. Women ought to object because their rights are being stripped. Men ought to object because their lovers, daughters, sisters and friends could soon find themselves in the emergency room –or in a coffin– after an unsafe abortion. This amendment benefits no one and is a dangerous step backward for everyone.

This post originally appeared at Starboard Broadside.

Democratic candidates and Choice

There’s been a lot of controversy within the Democratic base over the Stupak Amendment, which we’ll be covering more later. Essentially, it’s an amendment by the so-called “pro-life Democrats” in the House and would place de facto restrictions on abortion accessibility if it passes both chambers of Congress. Without going into the amendment itself much, I wanted to look at a point this raises on the role of the Choice issue in the Democratic Party and how it relates to Democratic candidacies.

I obviously can’t speak for all base Democrats, but I think many of us made the critical mistake of underestimating the potential influence of the anti-choice/pro-life caucus within our party in Congress. For example, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA, elected 2006) has been a pretty good Senator so far, but everyone knew he ran as a “pro-life Democrat,” but most of us especially outside Pennsylvania probably thought very little on that point. Of course, some liberal pro-choice activists were rightly worried because Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the major 1992 Supreme Court revision of Roe v. Wade, refers to Bob Casey Sr. who was then the Governor of Pennsylvania and supported a fairly strict abortion restriction law — and it was reasonable to wonder if the father’s views were shared by the junior Senator from Pennsylvania.

As it turns out, yes that appears to be the case:

Now some Senate Democrats, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are pushing to incorporate the same [Stupak] restrictions in their own bill. Senior Senate Democratic aides said the outcome was too close to call.

 
I sincerely hope that the Senate does not pass the Casey-Nelson version of Stupak into the Senate health care reform bill (and the signs suggest that it won’t succeed). But that’s not even what I’m looking at here.

The problem as I see it is that I and many others assumed that at the federal legislative level, abortion law was largely a settled matter for the most part. I know many activists who are dedicated in particular to this issue didn’t share that view, but I’m willing to admit they were right and I was wrong on this. I figured that if the Republicans had used nearly uninterrupted control of the whole Congress for twelve years and the White House and the House for six years, but had failed to outlaw abortion, then it was pretty much secure. There were restrictions such as the misleadingly named “partial-birth abortion ban,” but the Republicans were upfront about their hope of banning abortion and they failed. I assumed that pro-Choice Democrats, who do form a majority of the caucus, would be able to keep the “pro-Life” Democrats in check.

So for Casey and other candidates, I figured there was probably very little chance for them to put their views to a vote, and if it did come up I forgot that pro-life Republicans and Democrats would be able to vote in unison to form a majority as they did on the Stupak House amendment. It almost seemed like some Democratic candidates who took pro-life pledges might just have been pandering with no intention of casting damaging votes. And I think I was wrong.

That leads us to a question on how to view pro-life candidates in future. Obviously there are a lot of Democrats who have more conservative opinions on abortion, and that means there’s a role for pro-life candidates. On the other hand, and more importantly, I think a majority of the Democratic base supports the right to choose and women are certainly a majority of the Democratic Party’s membership nationally. The Stupak Amendment is a political problem for the party because it makes it look like the party is “throwing women under the bus,” as many have said in the past few days.

I think we may have reached a day of reckoning on this issue. The Democratic Party is going to face severe electoral difficulties if it doesn’t quickly resolve its position on abortion rights. In future election cycles, I think that activists, the ones who donate their time and money to elect Democrats, are going to be extremely wary of engaging with candidates who oppose the right to choose. We’ve now seen that they’re a real threat to the right to choose, not just a stated or theoretical threat. This is an intra-party policy contradiction that the party leaders have kicked down the road for years. That doesn’t look like an option anymore. Unfortunately, this has never been an issue that party leaders like to discuss openly, even though it needs to be discussed.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Deficit Levels

This video was on the front page of Daily Kos mainly to highlight what the author saw as betrayal by Sen. Evan Bayh on FOX News, where he explained why he planned to vote against the Federal spending bill that runs budget programs. I’m not, however, posting it here for that reason, as you’ll read below the video.

If he and other deficit hawks stopped for a moment to consider what they are actually saying, they might realize they were making the case FOR increased deficit spending. He cites the Civil War and WWII as the only times when he thinks the deficit-to-GDP ratio was higher than now (Bayh thinks it’s 12% of GDP right now, and by the end of WWII it was over 100% of GDP).

Ok, setting the Civil War aside because that brings up unrelated issues, let’s examine the issue of citing World War II deficits. Right now, we’re in a major recession. It’s the worst since the Great Depression (1929-1942ish). Now, we trundled along from 1929 to the US entry to war worrying about deficits and not spending too much compared to the national GDP, which was much smaller then than it is now. No amount of New Deal programs worked until 1942, when the New Deal went on Allied War Effort steroids. That doesn’t mean the New Deal failed because it was useless, it means it didn’t succeed because it didn’t go far enough.

World War II came along and we went WAY into debt and spent at a federal budget deficit exceeding the entire gross domestic product of the United States. This money went to buy and build weapons, pay factory workers, expand the bureaucracy, pay soldiers, overhaul the manufacturing industry, and increase government control over the American Total War Economy. Our long malaise and stupor finally broke and we emerged out the other side of the war on an economic crest (which temporarily dampened as spending and price controls were slashed rapidly by a Republican-run Congress). But the Great Depression was finally over and we didn’t go back to it. Without the extreme wartime spending, though, it’s probably safe to say the Depression would have continued longer.

While the debt was never entirely paid off, the deficit and debt levels were both brought reasonably quickly back under control, and they largely remained that way for the rest of the 20th century. By the time President George W. Bush took office, we were still paying down the national debt, but the spending was close to par with the revenue. No harm done.

Obviously, in the very long run, World War II-level spending would be unsustainable, but it was only meant for the short-term. Evan Bayh clearly makes an exception to his deficit concerns “rule” when he cites World War II…which came after/during the Great Depression and ended it permanently. That means that he knows it’s critical to act by massive government spending for a few years. There are exceptions to his rule, and he knows it, but doesn’t connect the dots.

Aren’t we in exceptional times right now?

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

United State of Unemployment

The New York Times has put out a cool interactive map of unemployment by US counties, as of December 2008 (Feb 09 unemployment was at 8.1%):
Go to feature
Click on the map to go to the full graphic.

There is, however, a major problem with this map that limits its overall usefulness. It’s great for just looking at how this particular recession is hitting various regions, which is what it was made for, but it’s concealing other issues. The graphic’s caption states, “Job losses have been most severe in the areas that experienced a big boom in housing, those that depend on manufacturing and those that already had the highest unemployment rates.” And it’s true that you can see this from the map. But that’s not good enough to get a real picture of current unemployment.

The map is based off what’s called U3 unemployment by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the “official” number. Since the recession in the early 1990s, this measure has been reworked for political reasons and is still the one that the media uses to report unemployment figures (released the first Friday of each month). U3 unemployment only counts a person as unemployed if they have been looking for a job sometime within four weeks of the time of the survey, which means that if people have given up looking for work, they don’t get counted as unemployed under U3.

Look at the map and notice that, with the exception of the perpetually dying state of Michigan, the Rust Belt areas of Pennsylvania/Ohio/Illinois/Indiana/etc don’t really seem too bad in terms of unemployment. If you were to go there right now, you would find massive economic devastation and chronic joblessness almost everywhere in the Rust Belt, where the industrial/manufacturing jobs have been flowing out of the country for years. The disconnect between reality on the ground and the map above is because of U3’s insistence on discounting people who have just given up altogether because there are no jobs, so there’s no reason to bother looking. People who are not looking but could work, haven’t looked recently but could work, and people who are working part-time (because the economy can’t sustain as many full-time jobs as workers want) all fall under various categories that are not included in the official rate, U3.

If you have ever wondered why unemployment during good times is so high in many European nations, compared to the US, you weren’t considering the way unemployment is measured in each place. It’s pretty difficult to compare unemployment statistics between nations because every government counts it differently. But Republican politicians frequently deride high French unemployment and blame it on SOCIALISM (!!!!) to score political points. Let’s look deeper.

The 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate for the average unemployment for the whole year was 5.8% U3 unemployment. France had a 7.4% estimated unemployment for the year. At the moment, of course, with the recession, the US rate climbed to 8.1% and France’s has presumably also climbed. But if we now add back all the other folks excluded in the official rate, as described above, the US rate jumps up. The U4, U5, and U6 rates add in more and more groups, until we come up with an accurate portrayal of the unemployment/underemployment situation. The U6 unemployment figure for the US currently stands at 14.8% nationwide, and even one year ago before the recession got going, it was a full 4.3 points higher than the “official rate” of 5.2% U3 unemployment. At that point, the French figure doesn’t look too bad.

So, what exactly does the U6 rate measure and why is it important to understand? The BLS describes U6 thus:

Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.

NOTE: Marginally attached workers are persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not looking currently for a job. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

 
From what I’ve read, this is very comparable to how the French government measures its national unemployment rate. It’s more honest, but it’s disheartening. It’s politically expedient to quote the U3 figure and move on to praising the American way. It’s also taken me WAY too long to explain this, which is why when the unemployment data comes out, only the official rate makes the news. What anchor wants to explain U6?

But when the official reports say we had only 7.2% national unemployment in December, it makes the map above look much better and much less permanent, and it means we don’t have to worry about the parts of the country that are often doubly and chronically worse off in joblessness. In reality, we’ve reached nearly 15% unemployment.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.