Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Earth to Pro-Lifers: Money Is Fungible, Get Over It

As health care reform enters its final stages before the big House vote, the issue of abortion is back with a vengeance (it never really left).  Abortion opponents in Congress claim that current reform proposals break the legislative "truce" of the Hyde amendment, which bars most federal funding for abortion.  Most Democrats disagree.  The Economist lays out the facts:

"Under [Obama's] plan, many individuals and small businesses will buy subsidized health insurance through state-sponsored exchanges.  Under the Senate bill, they would only be able to obtain abortion coverage through these exchanges if they paid for it with a separate, unsubsidised, cheque.  Thus, federal dollars would be kept out of abortion clinics, say the bill's supporters.  But many pro-lifers are not convinced."

Economists know that money is fungible, meaning any dollar can replace or be replaced by any other dollar.  Most politicians pretend otherwise, because it's politically convenient; people like to think their tax dollars have purpose and direction, instead of just contributing to the government pile.  A good example of this fungibility bias occurred during the 2000 election when people got angry at Nader for spoiling Gore's victory.  In reality, the margins were so close that almost any trivial factor can be said to have caused Gore's defeat.  Gore's margin of defeat was fungible, but everybody blamed Nader anyways.

So what does this have to do with federal funding for abortion?  Staunch pro-lifers like Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak are breaking the fungibility illusion by arguing that any federal dollars that are connected in any way to abortion constitutes an abortion subsidy.  This logic is true, yet meaningless: any income from the government (like food stamps, for example) could be considered as subsidizing abortion.  The pro-life objections to health reform are insincere; the real goal is probably to entrench a new, more restrictive abortion status-quo.  Unless pro-life lawmakers are willing to tell their constituents the truth about the fungibility of money, they should keep their mouths shut.

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