We need a serious discussion about what a Serious Discussion is. (More)

Kevin Williamson, who infamously opined that women who have abortions should be hanged, is very upset that we can’t have a Serious Discussion about abortion:

“Abortion isn’t littering or securities fraud or driving 57 in a 55-mph zone,” he said. “If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it.”

However, if “it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it.”
“For all the chatter today about diversity of viewpoint and the need for open discourse, there aren’t very many people on the pro-choice side, in my experience, who are ready to talk candidly about the reality of abortion,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Young TurksJohn Iadarola opined on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal of a federal jobs guarantee:

Common DreamsJake Johnson used Iadarola’s “bold thinking” phrase in his headline and concluded the Sanders-palooza with this nugget:

In addition to Sanders — who has also introduced legislation to guarantee healthcare to all Americans as a right — Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have also expressed support for a federal jobs guarantee.

From that, you’d be forgiven for concluding that Sen. Sanders has offered legislation for a jobs guarantee and Sens. Booker and Gillibrand are climbing on the bandwagon.

In fact Sen. Gillibrand tweeted about the idea last week, and Sen. Booker introduced the Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act last week as well.

Senator Sanders climbed on their bandwagon, sort of. Unlike Sen. Booker’s plan, which builds on proposals that includes details like identifying jobs and specifying costs, Sen. Sanders’ plan is legislative vaporware:

A representative from Sanders’s office said they had not yet done a cost estimate for the plan or decided how it would be funded, saying they were still crafting the proposal.

More on that in a moment, but first let’s parse Williamson’s idea of a Serious Discussion about abortion:

If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it. If it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it.

On those terms, it’s easy to have that Serious Discussion . Abortion is not homicide, which is the killing of a human being because the Supreme Court held, in Roe v. Wade, that a fetus is not a legal person:

Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.
In areas other than criminal abortion, the law has been reluctant to endorse any theory that life, as we recognize it, begins before live birth or to accord legal rights to the unborn except in narrowly defined situations and except when the rights are contingent upon live birth. For example, the traditional rule of tort law denied recovery for prenatal injuries even though the child was born alive. That rule has been changed in almost every jurisdiction. In most States, recovery is said to be permitted only if the fetus was viable, or at least quick, when the injuries were sustained, though few courts have squarely so held. In a recent development, generally opposed by the commentators, some States permit the parents of a stillborn child to maintain an action for wrongful death because of prenatal injuries. Such an action, however, would appear to be one to vindicate the parents’ interest and is thus consistent with the view that the fetus, at most, represents only the potentiality of life. Similarly, unborn children have been recognized as acquiring rights or interests by way of inheritance or other devolution of property, and have been represented by guardians ad litem. Perfection of the interests involved, again, has generally been contingent upon live birth. In short, the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense.

As a matter of law, that puts paid to Williamson’s proposed Serious Discussion about abortion as homicide. It’s not. He is, of course, welcome to argue that it should be, but he bears the burden of proof. First, he must prove that a fetus is, indeed, a legal person. Next, he must prove that killing a fetus should be an illegal homicide and indeed premeditated capital murder. Then – if and only if he can prove those first two premises – a policy conversation would turn to penalties.

But he’d rather skip straight to the penalty issue: whether women who have abortions should be hanged or otherwise punished for premeditated capital murder. That is, his idea of a Serious Discussion is that everyone should take his unproven premises as fact… and then debate what to do about those ‘facts.’

And here’s the thing. Any real Serious Discussion about abortion should include women who have weighed that possibility in their own lives. Williamson ignores them, most likely because 64% of American men have never spoken to a woman who has had an abortion. If he’s like most Americans, he probably thinks most women who have abortions are in their teens or 20s and have no children – that they “use abortion as birth control” – when in fact most women who have abortions are in their 20s or 30s and already have at least one child:

The reasons patients gave for having an abortion underscored their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. The three most common reasons — each cited by three-fourths of patients — were concern for or responsibility to other individuals; the inability to afford raising a child; and the belief that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents. Half said they did not want to be a single parent or were having problems with their husband or partner.

Oh, and half were using birth control, most often condoms, which are only 82% effective … and that’s only 4% better than “I promise to pull out on time.” Yes, really. Further down that list you’ll find the rhythm method, or “natural family planning,” which is only 76% effective. Guess which birth control methods most pro-lifers favor….

A Serious Discussion would note that offering free, reliable contraception sharply reduced teen abortions by 42% in Colorado, so of course Republicans voted to defund that program.

In sum, Williamson’s idea of a Serious Discussion presumes that a fetus is a legal person and that abortion is capital homicide – and ignores who has abortions and why, and what policies work best to reduce abortions – so we can ‘debate’ whether women who have abortions should be hanged, executed by some other means, or I guess merely sentenced to life in prison.

And that, he whines, is the Serious Discussion that was silenced when The Atlantic fired him.

What does Williamson have to do with the mediagasm over Sen. Sanders announcing his vaporware jobs guarantee?

I’m glad you asked, because both are indeed cut from the same cloth.

Like abortion, a federal jobs guarantee is a complex policy issue. Vox’s Dylan Matthews has an explainer that you should read in full, but I’d like to focus on this especially thorny bit:

Many of these are permanent jobs. If a job guarantee were enacted in a recession, and many of the enrollees became child care providers, what happens when the economy improves and workers find jobs in the private sector? It wouldn’t be tenable to eliminate a universal child care program because the economy improved. Nor, if the program employed bus drivers, would it make much sense to cut bus routes. Either the government provides child care and runs buses, or it doesn’t; making how much child care it provides or how many buses are available dependent on the state of the economy would be odd at best and counterproductive at worst.

One problem with the “government as employer of last resort” theory behind a jobs guarantee is, simply, who would do those jobs when fewer workers need that “last resort?” You could end up with a bizarre incentives, such as limiting private sector opportunities to make sure you have enough “last resort” child- and elder care providers, bus drivers, etc.

Not to mention, do you really want your child or aging parent cared for, or your bus driven, by someone who took that job as a “last resort?”

Let’s be clear … I’m not saying a federal jobs guarantee is a bad idea.

I’m saying that it’s far too complex an issue to celebrate Sen. Sanders’ legislative vaporware as “bold thinking.” Just as Williamson does with abortion, Sen. Sanders – and even more so his fawning media apologists – wave away inconvenient details. It’s the Serious Discussion that matters, they insist.

But just as with abortion, any truly Serious Discussion about a jobs guarantee must address those pesky details. Senator Booker’s actual legislation acknowledges that by proposing pilot programs in 15 communities to address the details and iron out the glitches.

A real Serious Discussion would include debate on measurable goals for those pilot programs, and their costs. And it would include debate how to ensure that program administrators do address the pesky details and iron out the inevitable glitches.

Senator Booker’s bill invites that debate. Senator Sanders’ doesn’t. Yet who gets credited for “bold thinking?”

It’s easier to ‘discuss’ half-formed and mostly-ignorant Big Ideas. But those are rarely Serious Discussions, and slinging invective at those who disagree doesn’t make the Discussions more Serious … unless you measure seriousness by heat rather than light.

And, sadly, too often our media do exactly that. A Serious Discussion – for far too many producers and editors – is “whatever will attract more views.”

We need better than that.


Image Credits — Kevin Williamson: YouTube screenshot; Bernie Sanders: Michael Ngan (AFP/Getty); Composition: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)


Good day and good nuts