In the aftermath of the Todd Akin affair, Cal Thomas was not the only right-wing commentator to attempt to distract the nation from Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks and focus instead on the larger issue of abortion. Much as Akin’s political faux pas spoke volumes about the scientific ignorance and misogynistic cruelty of the religious right, the statements of Star Parker, which we must sincerely thank the Leesburg Daily Commercial for publishing, have been enlightening in the extreme. Picking up the abortion baton and running with it like the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, Parker took the argument into the demographic and economic territory it has always needed to go, thereby exposing the ugly alliance between the religious monomaniacs of the right-to-life movement and the capitalistic monomaniacs of the plutocracy. For entirely different reasons, both of these ideological forces value human population growth and ignore its baleful consequences for our long-term quality of life. While the right-to-lifers have been as hard to ignore as a letter bomb in a Planned Parenthood mailbox, the plutocrats’ interest in human reproduction has gone largely unnoticed. If these strange bedfellows continue to win the population argument before the rest of us have even had a chance to voice our objections, they will guarantee a dystopian future for mankind and every other creature on earth.
A Rising Tide Lifts Some Ships
Taking a page out of Cal Thomas’s book, Star Parker castigates her fellow Republicans for abandoning the hapless Todd Akin instead of defending the conservative cultural values he has apparently advocated with metronomic consistency. Seeing her colleagues’ preference to concentrate their messaging on the economy, where they think Barack Obama is vulnerable, she attempts to convince both them and us that the abortion debate is not just a moral issue but a fundamentally important economic one as well. Citing a former economic adviser to Jack Kemp (the last generation’s Paul Ryan), Parker treats us to the first part of her financial sales pitch for abortion:
[John] Mueller has estimated that, as of 2000, legal abortion reduced the U.S. population by about 11 percent. Reduction in population translates into an equivalent percentage reduction in economic output, according to economists. This means that abortion has cut today’s $15 trillion economy by at least $1.7 trillion.
The first major problem here is the assumption that productivity improvements, due to technical progress or capital investment (as opposed to speculation) cannot compensate for a diminished labor supply. But we shall let that go, for it is an assumption that leads Parker into a much more interesting problem. Her assumed one-to-one relationship between population and economic output betrays an obsession with the overall size of the economic pie and not with the standard of living. If the country had existed in her alternate universe of back-alley, illegal abortions only (and we ignore the death toll of those abortions on both fetuses and mothers) then the economy would be stuck in a Malthusian trap. For if GDP grows at the same rate as population, then GDP per capita – the almost universally accepted measure of living standards – would stay the same. The average American would see no increase in his slice of the pie. But Star Parker and her ilk are not really interested in average Americans. Consider the following extract from Wikipedia’s article on economic growth, which uses more realistic assumptions:
[W]ithin countries, such as India, China and the USA, the growth in GDP tends to accentuate inequalities, as a free market mechanism tends to redistribute access to socially important goods and services proportionately to one’s purchasing power. As a result, since the 1970s, whilst average income within countries has been increasing, median incomes have been falling, as the wealthier groups in the community have been increasing their share of the GDP faster than the economy has been growing.
Thus, in the actual American experience, legal abortions notwithstanding, GDP per capita has been able to rise. But GDP per capita, as an average, doesn’t tell us anything about the distribution of income. When we look at median incomes – the point at which 50% of people receive less and 50% receive more – a declining median in the face of economic growth bespeaks big gains at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Even in Star Parker’s simple model, the same phenomenon would tend to occur: a bigger pie means extra large slices for a fortunate few as growth is largely captured by the top. No wonder the plutocrats court the right-to-lifers so assiduously.
The second phase of Star Parker’s pitch takes a familiar demographic fact and warps it beyond recognition in a right-wing house of mirrors:
The core of our entitlements crisis lies in dropping population growth rates, resulting in an aging population. This places a growing tax burden on a smaller labor force to cover the retirement and health costs of our elderly.
Mueller attributes the current deficit in Social Security to this shrunken work force, diminished in size due to the ravages of legal abortion.
As an initial matter, one wonders if Star Parker realizes that she is attracting attention to the Social Security and Medicare taxes (FICA and SECA contributions) deliberately ignored by GOP propaganda that bemoans the failure of so many ordinary Americans to pay federal income tax and, by implication, contribute to the costs of running the country. If the GOP is going to use Parker’s arguments against abortion, they’d better figure out how to coordinate these messages, although when so many of their constituents are unperturbed by obvious lies, perhaps they need not worry about consistency at all.
The U.S. population growth rate is just under one percent. With a current population of 314 million, that means three million new American Dreamers per year. This rate is much higher than those of most developed countries, due to higher fertility rates, which are in turn enhanced by immigration of certain groups that tend to have more children per woman. Although fertility has declined from its post-war peak in 1960, it has actually risen since its low in 1976. Thus, for Star Parker, there is another unspoken, bitter irony in these numbers: much of the increase in U.S. fertility rates during the dreaded Roe v. Wade era of nationwide legal abortions has been thanks to another bete noire of the right wing, Latino immigration. Don’t those good Catholics deserve a little credit for producing more labor units for the great capitalist machine? Haven’t all those little Pedros and Marias made up for the aborted Keshawns and Lashondas? Our best wishes to Marco Rubio in squaring that circle.
As the graph below (courtesy of PopulationPress.org) illustrates, U.S. population growth is strong, putting us on course to reach 400 million by the middle of this century, which will be here faster than you can say, “I remember when there were trees over there.”
The growth charts for other OECD countries are far less steep, making Parker’s argument from demography much more convincing in Europe than it is here. Indeed, with numbers like this, one needs to ask if the “core of our entitlements crisis” might have another dimension we are not supposed to see. The latest report from the trustees of Social Security projects that the retirement portion of OASDI will be solvent until 2027, the disability portion will exhaust its trust fund in 2016, and Medicare falls somewhere in between, with the skyrocketing cost of health care compounding the pressure from demography. The report urges Congress to address the funding of the entire OASDI program. How might one go about doing that?
Adding more people is obviously not the right answer, for it simply kicks the can down the road. If we have another baby boom, how are we going to provide for their retirement – by having another baby boom? One would hope that even Star Parker comprehends that, at some point, we have to stop putting more resource-consuming, waste-generating people in a finite space. And adding more people to the lower end of the socioeconomic strata is definitely not the best answer to the question. Simply put, what are all those black babies born to unwed mothers who can no longer get abortions (or other family planning besides the ludicrous advice to abstain) going to do when they grow up? For many of them, there is no hope now. Today’s labor market, ravaged by automation and outsourcing and dominated increasingly by low-wage service-sector jobs, offers little more than the prospect of serving junk food or illegal drugs to one another. That may be good news for the genetically modified amber waves of grain managed by Archer Daniels Midland, and for the for-profit prison industry that needs lots of billable units, but it’s not exactly a shining city on a hill. Of course, in Star Parker’s fantasy land, a revolution in education will see school vouchers and charter schools overcome the cultural disabilities of black America and churn out highly proficient graduating seniors while the miracle of trickle-down economics will spur entrepreneurs to create a bounty of good new jobs. In this free-market nirvana, there won’t be any need for the welfare state or the culture of dependency it fosters. All those babies that would have been murdered by Barack Obama have a right to life, and they’re going to live it on profit-maximizing terms. Or else.
The Aborted Concept of Economic Justice
Rather than pouring more fuel on the fire with unrealistic social experiments, we should be addressing the real core of our economic problem, the distribution of income. If today’s workers enjoyed higher wages, the “entitlements crisis” would be considerably easier to tackle. But we live in a country where corporate executives routinely receive hundreds of times more than their (remaining) employees; where corporations sit on trillions of dollars in profits, waiting for their kept men in Congress to enact a “tax holiday”; where better-paying public-sector jobs are being slashed; and where the gains from growth are unfailingly concentrated at the top, resulting in 400 billionaires owning more than the bottom 50% of Americans and 1% of the population receiving almost 25% of the national income. And, as we have seen, increasing the population under the false premise of growing our way out of the problem will simply reinforce this existing inequality and exacerbate the magnitude of our social welfare costs.
It should be clear by now that the financial sustainability problem we should be talking about is not the “entitlement crisis” being rammed down our throats by the propaganda merchants but the top-heavy structure of the economy itself. And, for the benefit of any new readers who think that this website is some sort of Democratic platform, let us note that neither party offers anything close to a meaningful solution to this problem. Howls of protest from Republicans notwithstanding, an increase in marginal tax rates on those earning over $250,000/year – a rather arbitrary threshold to begin with – won’t even scratch the surface of our dazzling plutocracy. It’s not as if we’re talking about limiting CEO pay to some sensible ratio of employee pay, banning stock-option compensation, prohibiting offshore banking, removing the profit takers from health care, or taxing speculation in oil futures. Those choices, for some reason, are not on the table in the greatest democracy in the world.
In a sense, therefore, all those African Americans disenfranchised by Star Parker’s party need not get too exercised about the return of Jim Crow. For a vote against Mitt Romney most assuredly does not amount to a vote for the kind of economic change that Martin Luther King had started to talk about shortly before his assassination. And when Michelle Obama reassures us that her husband understands the American Dream, let us be under no illusions about what that really means. While Star Parker assails Barack Obama for supporting the abortion of half the babies of his race, she is not just the last person qualified to accuse him of racial apostasy but she has also missed the essence of the accusation that should be leveled against him. Obama’s Hope and Change was a smokescreen for the perpetuation of corporate oligarchy; in his own way, he is as far away from Dr. King’s legacy as Star Parker.