Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wall Street in perspective: or, $1.2 trillion isn't as much money as you might think

Yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 778 points yesterday, the biggest point drop in its history, equal to $1.2 trillion dollars.

This morning Chris Cuomo, news anchor at Good Morning America, sounded like he'd been up all night drinking strong coffee. He kept nervously interrupting Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado) as she tried to explain why she had voted no on the bailout package and what she hoped would be included in a revised bill. Eventually Musgrave's fellow interviewee, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), lost patience. With a motherly smile Kaptur, 62, leaned forward and lectured a sheepish-looking Cuomo, 38:
Let me just say that--now you're very anxious, I can hear your voice there. For the sake of the country, and even the sake of the markets, I think you should operate prudently and with a little bit of calm in your voice today.
Good advice for us all.

To put the excitement in perspective, let's compare yesterday's 7% loss to two other Black Mondays: 1929 and 1987. On Monday, October 28, 1929, the market lost 13% of its value, and on Monday, October 19, 1987, it lost 22.6%.

See? Things aren't so bad.

There. Now that we're breathing normally again, we can move out and get a broader perspective. A day makes a difference, but it takes years and even decades before we understand just what the difference is.

Black Monday 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. On September 3, 1929, the Dow had stood at 381.17. By mid November, it had plunged 40%. Nearly three years later, on July 8, 1932, it bottomed out at 41.22. That's a total drop of nearly 90%, and the Dow did not return to pre-Depression levels until 1954--25 years after the slide began.

In comparison, Black Monday 1987 was little more than a blip. Though it recorded the largest single-day percentage loss in Wall Street history, the market made a complete recovery within two years.

So what kind of tumble did the market take yesterday? A 7 percent loss on the day Congress refuses to bail out failing financial institutions doesn't seem all that significant. More ominous, perhaps, is the fact that at yesterday's close the market was down 26.8% from its all-time high of 14,164 less than a year ago, on October 9, 2007; or that it was down 21.9% year-to-date.

Time will tell, and I'm willing to wait a few more days or even weeks for Congress to try to sort things out (though I'm cynical enough to wonder if the folks who brought us this mess--whether in Congress or in the executive branch--are the best ones to get us out of it).

Meanwhile, if you're still anxious and unable to operate calmly and prudently, I have adapted a Sunday-school song for you. Mr Neff does not think it is funny.

Hear the dollars dropping!
Listen as they crash.

There goes our retirement.

There goes all our cash.

Dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping--

Hear the dollars fall!

Soon they'll be worth nothing.

Soon we'll lose them all.

Monday, September 29, 2008

US health care in perspective: or, $2.3 trillion is a lot of money

Given the justifiable concern about the world's economy--as I write, Congress is voting on the bail-out plan and Wall Street is sinking yet again--we haven't been hearing a lot about health care in recent days. Maybe we should. Sure, $700 billion is a lot of money. But in 2007, the US spent $2.3 trillion on health care. And though housing prices are tumbling, health-care costs keep going up.

Clearly we've got problems: aging Boomers, greed (on the part of Big Pharma, insurance companies, physicians, hospitals, malpractice lawyers, crafty individuals--hey, maybe greed is part of the human condition), increasingly expensive technology. Both presidential candidates recognize the problems, but so far neither has come up with a compelling solution.

To put the American situation in perspective, let's compare the United States with three other Western nations: the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. It's an arbitrary choice based on my interests: I'm a citizen of the US, have worked in the UK, have studied in France, and have often visited my closest childhood friend in Italy, where she has lived for over 30 years. If you'd rather look at different countries, you can follow the links and find info about 186 others.

Q. Which country has the best health care? That seems to depend on whom you talk to. This summer one English friend told me about her rotten experiences with, and resulting hatred of, Britain's national health-care system. A few weeks later, another English friend told me about the excellent--and free--medical care she regularly receives and loves. My childhood friend, who has had several surgeries in Italian hospitals, is enthusiastic about Italian health care; but she recently mentioned that Italy, apparently influenced by Catholic views on suffering, is poor at offering pain relief to terminally ill patients.

Anecdotes are more interesting than statistics, but they make poor public policy. Attempting an objective comparison of worldwide health care, the World Health Organization's 2000 report compared health-care systems in 190 countries on the basis of a wide and complex range of factors. Their oft-quoted overall ranking put France first, Italy second, the United Kingdom eighteenth, and the United States thirty-seventh.

(A. France)

Which country spends the most per capita on health care? The WHO report, whose statistics are now ten years out of date, put France in fourth place on spending per capita, Italy in eleventh place, and the United Kingdom in twenty-sixth place. Interestingly, the United States was in first place. In the late 90s we spent more per capita on health care than any other nation on earth--and we still do.

The OECD's 2008 report based on data from 2006 indicates that the United States spent 15.3% of its gross domestic product on health care, followed by France, 11.1%; Italy, 9.0%, and the United Kingdom, 8.4%. This percentage includes money from all sources: public, tax-supported programs (such as Medicaid and Medicare in the US), as well as private payments from insurance companies and individuals.

(A. The United States)

Which country spends the most public money per capita on health care? Here is something truly amazing. Scroll down to the second graph on the OECD report page and see how public and private spending is divided up. Total per-capita health-care spending in the US was $6714 in 2006. Of this amount, slightly over $3000 came from public funding. France, Italy, and the UK spent less from public funds than we did--yet all three countries have national health-care programs. In fact, Italy and the UK spent less on total health-care funding--including both public and private sources--than the US spent on public funding alone.

(A. The United States)

How much would a national health-care program cost American taxpayers? Our taxes would go up--I'm willing to bet on it. Not that they would have to. Presumably we could imitate France and devise a health-care program with better results and lower costs, all for less than we are presently taking in through taxes. (Yes, the French pay significantly more in taxes than we do--just not for healthcare.) But we won't imitate France, and we will raise taxes. It's a shame, but that's how we do things.

But wait--even if our taxes go up, that doesn't necessarily mean our paychecks will go down. In 2007, the average cost to your employer for the health insurance that covered you, your spouse, and your two kids was $12,100, says the National Coalition on Health Care. You no doubt spent less than that out-of-pocket, but the total cost is part of your total compensation. What if your taxes went up, but your insurance costs went down?

The Census Bureau reports that in 2007, the median family income was $62,359. If the family included a married couple, their income was $72,785. According to an article at MSN Money, the current average US tax bill (after deductions, exemptions, and credits) comes to 13.6% of total income. That's less than the current cost of health insurance--19.4% of the median family income and 16.6% of the median married-couple family income.

So how much would a national health-care plan cost U.S. taxpayers?

If we add on to present programs, taxes will shoot up; but if at the same time we stop paying for private insurance, wages could also rise.

If we start from scratch, paying close attention to what has and hasn't worked in countries that already have national health insurance, we could finance the entire program without raising taxes, and we could cancel our private insurance while we're at it.

(A. It depends.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

McCain is right

In 1870, just before Italian troops occupied the Vatican and just after most delegates from the Western hemisphere hurriedly left for home, the first Vatican council promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility. It was not the church's finest hour, but it led to one of the most-quoted dicta in the English language. Lord Acton, an English Catholic, wrote this to the Anglican bishop of London in 1887:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Members of the U.S. Congress should be forced to pay attention to that quotation--the whole paragraph, not just the famous sentence--several times an hour as they decide what to do about the current financial crisis. If there is a Congressional sound system, perhaps Lord Acton's words could regularly interrupt the soft music. Because no matter how dangerous the current financial situation, we may be facing even more dangerous abuses of power if Congress votes to give the treasury secretary everything he wants.

Paul Krugman, in this morning's New York Times op ed piece, "Cash for Trash," noted that some "are calling the proposed legislation the Authorization for Use of Financial Force, after the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the infamous bill that gave the Bush administration the green light to invade Iraq."

Krugman summarizes the administration's proposal thus:
... a taxpayer-financed bailout with no strings attached — no quid pro quo on the part of those being bailed out.... Add to this the fact that Mr. Paulson is also demanding dictatorial authority, plus immunity from review “by any court of law or any administrative agency,” and this adds up to an unacceptable proposal.
"After having spent a year and a half telling everyone that things were under control," Krugman says, "the Bush administration says that the sky is falling, and that to save the world we have to do exactly what it says now now now."

This sounds uncomfortably like the situation in 2001-2, when the president argued and Congress agreed that Mr. Bush needed to be authorized to do whatever he deemed necessary to fight terrorism. One result of the Authorization for Use of Military Force has been a major increase in executive power, often at the expense of human rights. If Congress decides to give the treasury secretary free rein to do whatever he deems necessary to fight world financial meltdown, executive power will increase still more.

In 1973, during President Nixon's second term, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a book called The Imperial Presidency. In 2004 in his book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, journalist Charlie Savage applied Schlesinger's term to the George W. Bush administration. If Congress passes the treasury secretary's proposed legislation, presidential power will have gone way past imperial. What term will historians and journalists coin to describe the result?

John McCain was slow to see the financial juggernaut coming, but his comment this morning was right on:
"Never before in the history of our nation has so much power and money been concentrated in the hands of one person, a person I admire and respect a great deal, Secretary Paulson," McCain said. "This arrangement makes me deeply uncomfortable. And when we're talking about a trillion dollars of taxpayer money, 'trust me' just isn't good enough."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Eat to enjoy

"Instead of Eating to Diet, They're Eating to Enjoy" is the headline of Tara Parker-Pope's article in this morning's New York Times. "The more time people spend on tasks like food shopping, cooking and kitchen cleanup," she notes, "the more likely they are to be of average weight. The Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture found that people of normal weight spend more time on meal-related tasks than people who are overweight or underweight."

This observation goes well with Richard Watson's advice in The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight & Change the World: Remodel your kitchen! Knock out a few walls! Add a fireplace! Buy a lot of kitchen tools! Here's his reason:
An obsession with food is a love affair. I'd much rather work with lovers of food than haters of fat. If you love food, you'll respond to kitchen dreams. But if you hate fat--something you can grab hold of and feel it being grabbed--then you hate yourself. And kitchens.

(By the way, did you borrow my copy of The Philosopher's Diet? I can't find it anywhere. [Thank goodness Amazon has a search feature.] You can leave it on my front porch between the doors. No questions will be asked.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Abstinence now and then

In Tom Perrotta's 2007 more-or-less comic novel, The Abstinence Teacher, an odd attraction develops between Ruth, a divorced feminist sex-ed teacher (who hasn't been with a man for two years), and Tim, a married evangelical ex-doper (whose wife attempts to interest him through techniques she is learning from Hot Christian Sex). At his pastor's recommendation, Tim and his wife are reading it together, and
"considering the somewhat puritanical character of the Tabernacle, the book turned out to be surprisingly racy. The authors, the Rev. Mark D. Finster and his wife, Barbara G. Finster, proclaimed the good news right in the Introduction: 'For a Christian married couple, sex is nothing less than a form of worship, a celebration of your love for one another and a glorification of the Heavenly Father who brought you together. So of course God wants you to have better sex! And He wants you to have more of it than you ever had before, in positions you probably didn’t even know existed, with stronger orgasms than you believed were possible!'"(113)
I read The Abstinence Teacher not long after reading Peter Brown's magisterial work, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Mr Neff had recommended Brown last January when I wailed, "Why did so many Christians quickly switch from enjoyment and thanksgiving to abstemiousness and guilt?" Brown's 500+ densely packed pages, alas, did not produce the godly gourmands I had hoped to find, but over and over Brown reinforced how very different we are from our forebears.

The world depicted in The Abstinence Teacher is depressingly familiar. Marriages fail. Children rebel. Coworkers fight. Most people drink too much. Almost nobody abstains from sex, which is likely to be recreational, impulsive, or adulterous (if other people are involved at all). Marital sex is either sad (Tim can't stop lusting after his first wife) or silly (see Hot Christian Sex above). If, when you finish a book, you like to think that its characters are going to live happily ever after, this is not the book for you.

And yet The Abstinence Teacher is a sweet book whose flawed, wistful characters are looking for, and occasionally finding, love. Though religious people are teased, they are not ridiculed. A Jewish environmental lawyer with a "Don't Blame Me--I Voted for Kerry" sticker on his Audi says to Ruth, "You gotta give credit where credit's due. These Christians turn a lot of lives around. From what I hear, Tim was a complete wreck before he found Jesus."

Back in the first century--and the second, third, and fourth--Christians were already turning a lot of lives around. Christian conversion, Brown points out, meant moving from one mode of existence to another realm altogether. Unlike Tim, who gave up drugs and alcohol and one-night stands but hung on to music and soccer and marriage, early Christians believed that conversion meant passing from death into life.


While their neighbors avoided death by founding families and perpetuating their name from generation to generation, some Christians believed they had already entered the immortal realms and therefore had no need to marry and produce children. For these Christians, abstinence was a sign of their new life.

Other Christians believed that it was acceptable to marry and beget children, but only in one's youth--and even then, the sexual act should be completed without any accompanying passion (I don't recall that any explained how that was to be accomplished).

"By the year 300," Brown writes, "Christian asceticism, invariably associated with some form or other of perpetual sexual renunciation, was a well-established feature of most regions of the Christian world" (202).

Now that's abstinence.

What happened to cause such an attitude shift between the ancient Christian writers and Hot Christian Sex? Peter Brown doesn't say, but he strongly cautions against reading the church fathers as if they were writing to 21st-century readers. "In ancient societies," he writes,
"the body had to bear an oceanic weight of social expectations. These were very different from the expectations that weigh down upon it in our own world.... The humble body was never isolated, as it often appears to be in modern discourse--discreetly left to itself to decide whether to embrace or to abandon intercourse, whether to seek out or to avoid partners, whether of the opposite or the same sex. The body was pushed to the fore through having to bear the symbolic weight of mighty aspirations" (xlii, xliii).
There are no mighty aspirations in The Abstinence Teacher; there is no clear division between light and darkness, and very little intentional abstinence. There is, however, a great deal of isolation.

By contrast, abstinence is the ideal and goal of just about everyone quoted in The Body and Society--yet the would-be abstainers are far from isolated. Most live in families or monasteries, and even the desert hermits live in clusters of like-minded ascetics.

Tom Perrotta enjoys such dichotomies, but I'm still on my quest. I'm still looking for ancient Christians who valued marriage and community, sex and passion, children and animals, good food and wine, all things bright and beautiful. I may have to give up: the attitude I seek may be a result of the Renaissance, not the Roman Empire.

According to Dahlia Lithwick's review of Susan Squire's I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, a noisy revolution in Christian sexual attitudes began in the late Middle Ages and
"achieved perfection in the miraculously happy marriage of a 42-year-old virgin named Martin Luther. Luther, a monk, had long railed against the evils of celibacy, believing that church doctrine had resulted in corruption and fornication. But he became his own best advertisement when he was dragged out of his monastic solitude by a 26-year-old runaway nun named Katherine von Bora. When his Katy bears and raises six children and four foster children, hauls them to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, tends his garden and makes his home-grown medicines, exterminates the mice in his barn and makes him wine and beer, all while playing hostess to a houseful of reverent disciples and acolytes, Luther is the happiest of spokesmen. And so, as part of his war on the corrupt church, he ushers in a new era of marriage, shunning celibacy and exalting companionship, procreation and fidelity. The 1,500-year-old idea of marriage as a necessary repository for the filth of human desire comes to an end. We will finally begin to marry for love. Some of us more than once."

I have put I Don't on hold at the public library, and I'm first in line to check it out. You can, however, order it from Amazon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sarah, the popular mean girl

This morning David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column, "From voters, the demand is: Surprise Me Most. For candidates, the lesson is: Weirdness Wins."

Brooks thinks Obama has ceded the weirdness edge to McCain--which in itself is weird, since Republicans are not known for weirdness. McCain's vice-presidential nominee, Brooks wrote, "came out of the blue and seems totally unlike the regular crowd of former eighth-grade class presidents who normally dominate public life."

When my daughter Heidi was four years old, she gazed at us gathered around the dinner table and pronounced, "You know, weird runs in this family." So of course I forwarded Brooks's column to her. She came back with this insightful observation:
"I think Sarah Palin is EXACTLY like an eighth-grade class president. She is, in fact, the popular mean girl. That's why everyone is getting off on the fact that she can smile while she's mean. Unpopular girls like Hillary Clinton can't smile while they are mean. Popular girls in eighth grade do, and they always win."
I remember eighth grade, and it still hurts.

The photo is of Sarah Heath in high school.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The pleasures of the table

This morning's foray to the farmers' market reinforced the message of yesterday's cool, wet weather. Fewer berries than last week. Peaches cost more. But look--a lovely pile of butternut squash. Autumn is just around the corner.

Last year I bought a Community-Supported Agriculture subscription. Every Thursday morning from April through December I picked up a big box of produce. The price was right--under $25 a week--but the radish and cabbage crop seemed excessive. This year I decided to pick out my own produce from, whenever possible, local sources.

I may have paid a bit more at the farmer's market, and I tended to avoid unfamiliar veggies (what does one do with patty-pan squash?). On the other hand, we have really been enjoying our meals. This week's recipes will include fresh corn, zucchini, eggplant, green beans, red tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, red bell pepper, sweet onion, red onion, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. For dessert we will have nectarines, blackberries, and blueberries. Cost: $32.40.

I'm by no means a purist about local or organic food--sometimes the best fruits and vegetables are available at Jewel, and last weekend's treasure was an 89-cent mango from Supermercado La Chiquita. The cover of Michael Pollan's excellent In Defense of Food lays out one part of my food philosophy: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

If Pollan brilliantly describes what we should eat (have you read his Omnivore's Dilemma yet?), Julia Child tells us how: "The pleasures of the table — that lovely old-fashioned phrase — depict food as an art form, as a delightful part of civilized life. In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal" (The Way to Cook).

It took a Frenchman, though, to remind us of why eating is so important--if indeed we buy fresh, colorful food, prepare it with attention to taste and beauty, and share it with those we love:

"The pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss."
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

Friday, September 5, 2008

The speech I wish Mr. Obama would make

Yesterday I appealed to pro-life voters to consider reality, not rhetoric: which candidate, if elected president, would be more likely to reduce America's abortion rate?

Today I appeal to Mr. Obama to consider the viewpoint of his pro-life supporters--and of those who would love to support him but can't get past his pro-choice record. I am not asking him to change his position, but only to speak forthrightly to this issue and, I hope, to show his own respect for human life.

Here is the speech I wish Mr. Obama would make.

Today I want to speak to people who grieve for the children lost to abortion in the United States—over 40 million since the Roe v Wade decision, over a million last year.

As you all well know, I believe every woman has the right to choose whether or not to bear a child. I have consistently supported laws and decisions that preserve a woman's right to choose, and I have consistently worked against laws that would put that decision in someone else’s hands. I will not win your vote if you require me to outlaw or restrict abortion rights, because I will not do that.

And yet I grieve with you over the tragic loss of lives and potential lives to abortion.

I grieve for women who get abortions because they already have more children than they can feed. Many of these women don’t need abortions, they need health care, jobs, and access to family planning.

I grieve for women who get abortions because they are abused by the men in their lives. Many of these women don’t need abortions, they need financial support, shelter, and a way to create an independent life for themselves and their children.

I grieve for women who get abortions because they have no way of continuing their education and their pregnancy. Many of these women don’t need abortions, they need child care, jobs, and tuition assistance.

I grieve for women and girls who are pressured or even forced to have abortions by their boyfriends, fathers, and husbands. Many of these women don’t need abortions, they need support in taking care of their children and acknowledgment of their own worth and strength.

And yes, I grieve for the never-born children who would have had life and love if their mothers had thought they had any choice at all.

I am pro-choice because I recognize women’s strength and worth and dignity. I believe I am also pro-life, because I am devoting my life to giving women a real choice--
  • by giving low-income families an economic boost through tax relief, tax credits, raising the minimum wage, protecting home ownership, and making college more affordable
  • by offering affordable, comprehensive, and portable health care to every American, including home visits by registered nurses to low-income pregnant women
  • by helping parents manage family and work reponsibilities through expanding early childhood education, paid sick days, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the child and dependent care tax credit, flexible work arrangements, and after-school programs
  • by supporting programs that foster responsible fatherhood
Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. Choice requires alternatives. If a woman is free to choose an abortion, she should also be free to choose to give birth. Too many women do not feel that freedom, because they don’t have the financial, educational, medical, or personal resources to choose to keep the children they have conceived and already love.

It is disrespectful to tell these women they must bear children even though they have no way of caring for them. It is equally disrespectful to offer them one choice only—abortion. If we respect a woman's right to choose, we must make sure that real choice is possible.

I have pledged to work with you to improve health care, create jobs, support education, and offer the kinds of resources that make true choice possible. I believe that if we work together to offer real choices--not only to rich and educated and powerful Americans, but also to young, poor, and discouraged Americans--many women will choose life. Can my opponent say the same?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A plea to pro-life voters

I have friends who plan to vote for McCain-Palin because of Governor Palin's strong pro-life stance. They admire her for welcoming a child with Down syndrome, and they are pleased that her pregnant teenage daughter plans to give birth and get married. This blog is for those friends.

I too admire Sarah Palin for living out her beliefs. I admire the courage and compassion she has shown in her family. I agree that the abortion rate in the United States is tragically high, and I would like Americans to agree on the high value of human life, born and unborn. Also, she gave a terrific speech last night.

Nevertheless, I suspect that a McCain-Palin administration would not be nearly as pro-life as my friends--and Governor Palin herself--hope.
  • Historically, Republicans have done no better than Democrats at reducing the abortion rate. The U.S. abortion rate has been declining quite steadily since 1980, when there were 29.3 induced abortions per 1000 women between ages 15 and 44. By contrast, there were only 19.4 such abortions in 2005, the most recent year studied. This may simply reflect a changing demographic as Baby Boomers age (women under 25 get half of all abortions, and the under-25 segment has gotten proportionately smaller during the years studied). Still, Republican administrations have been no more likely than Democratic administrations to stem the tide. In fact, the largest drop occurred during President Clinton's first term.
Republican enthusiasts hope that a McCain-Palin ticket would be different from other administrations because of Palin's personal pro-life commitment. But would it?
  • McCain is unlikely to try to overturn Roe v Wade. As he famously said in 1999, "I'd love to see a point where it is irrelevant and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. ... But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations." Even if, as some Democrats fear, his Supreme Court nominees did overturn the landmark legislation, the result would not be to outlaw abortions but rather to return the decision to individual states.
  • If Palin tried to outlaw abortion, most Americans would oppose her. A public opinion poll last year indicates that 34% of Americans are in favor of generally available abortion ("abortion on demand"), 41% would like abortion to be legal but with more restrictions (few are in favor of late-term abortions, for example), and 23% would like abortion to be outlawed. As long as 75% of Americans favor legal abortion, it will not be outlawed.
Ironically, McCain and Palin's policies could have the net effect of increasing rather than decreasing the number of abortions in the United States. For example,
  • McCain and Palin oppose sex-education classes that teach about contraception, even though abstinence-only classes appear to be less effective in preventing pregnancy. Earlier this year, University of Washington researchers concluded that "students who'd had comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to report a pregnancy than those without any sex education and 50 percent less likely than the abstinence-only group." Interestingly, teen pregnancy rates in Europe, where sex education is the norm, are much lower than those of the U.S. "Likewise, the U.S. abortion rates are disproportionately high," Nancy Gibbs wrote in Time magazine last January. "Rates in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are less than half that in the U.S."
  • McCain's tax proposals will benefit low-income people significantly less than Obama's (check out this article and chart from CNN Money). If you are a pro-lifer who truly believes that Republican economic policy is more effective than Democratic policy at reducing poverty, then vote for McCain, because abortion and poverty go hand-in-hand. According to the Guttmacher Institute, "The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women)." If, however, you like McCain's view on abortion but prefer Obama's view on the economy, then vote for Obama-- economic policies that benefit the poor could have a greater effect on the abortion rate than McCain's dislike of Roe v Wade.
But, some of my friends say, this isn't just about policy. This is about the value of the unborn child. This is about speaking up for the voiceless. This is a justice issue. I agree, and I wish everyone else did too. Beware, though. The Republican team may be less pro-life than you'd wish.
  • Abortion is not the only pro-life issue. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was known for his "seamless garment" philosophy, his belief that life must be protected at all stages. According to his consistent pro-life ethic, Christians must be concerned about abortion, and also about health care, poverty, euthanasia, capital punishment, military involvement, and every other arena in which human life may be devalued or unnecessarily cut short. According to Bernardin, "A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life.
  • McCain-Palin are long-term supporters of the war in Iraq. They believe it was right for the United States to invade, and they believe a military victory is in sight. Obama, by contrast, believes it is an ill-advised war whose repercussions have made the U.S. more, not less, susceptible to terrorism. Whatever your views, over 4,000 American military have died in Iraq since 2003--and, less often reported in the U.S. media, approximately 90,000 Iraquis have also been victims of violent death.
  • According to an article on an NRA web page, "Gov. Sarah Palin would be one of the most pro-gun vice-presidents in American history, and Joe Biden would definitely be the most anti-gun." The NRA thinks that's a plus for Palin. It likes the fact that she and McCain opposed banning handguns in the District of Columbia, whose death rate from firearm injuries is higher (23.8 per 100,000 in 2005) than that of any of the fifty states (Louisiana is next, at 18.8, followed by Alaska, at 17.4).
Here is my plea to people who are considering voting for McCain-Palin mostly because they are opposed to abortion. (I realize that some of you sincerely believe McCain-Palin would be better for the country, and for the world, than Obama-Biden. I disagree, but I'm not writing to you. I'm writing to single-issue voters who, apart from the abortion issue, would probably vote Democratic this year. Though if ardent Republicans want to take my advice, that's OK with me too.)
  • First, tell the Obama-Biden team you are concerned. (You can e-mail them here.) Encourage them to speak up in favor of the unborn, even if they believe Roe v Wade is here to stay. Tell them you're looking for a team with a consistent pro-life ethic. Tell them you'd love to vote for them, if only they would not ignore this important issue. They just might listen.
  • Second, don't let your ideals dazzle your judgment. Consider the possibility that a McCain-Palin administration would result in more war, more guns, and more poverty--resulting in arguably more deaths-by-abortion, and certainly more deaths overall--than an Obama-Biden administration.
Think carefully about the big picture. Vote for the team whose policies will best favor life, even if that's not the team with the best pro-life slogans. And God have mercy on us all.