Maybe the Republicans are on to something by eliminating the DOE

I was playing with an interesting mental riddle the other day: is higher education a regressive tax particularly harming the poor? I think maybe so.

To noodle with this question, consider this: who are the people most likely to attend publicly-funded universities in Indiana? These are largely middle and upper-income households. The people least likely to attend these universities are much lower incomes.

Despite Pell Grants and other aid, low income students aren’t being admitted into Indiana universities at a huge rate. In fact, IU and Purdue both rank in the top 10 of universities nationally that admit far fewer low-income students than they could be. They cite lack of state funding that forces them to look at out-of-state and other more lucrative students to keep budgets in check. More on that in a minute.

Also consider this notable impact: nearly half of the students who graduate from an in-state public university in Indiana will be gone within 5 years. We’re spending about 12% of our annual budget on higher education now, almost tied with state healthcare spending. K-12 represents almost half of all budget expenditures in Indiana as of the last budget. And millions are being spent on out-migrating people.

So students who attend an Indiana university are likely able to access loans and credit to borrow now on the promise of future income. And they are most likely to leave in 5 years, excepting some professions (law students stay in Indiana to the tune of about 70%).

This means the richest Hoosiers gets the benefit and the poorest see almost none of it. Half of those wealthier individuals will leave. Which can be for a lot of reasons, but one big one is lack of job access in their chosen degree program. The poorest among Hoosiers are paying taxes into a system with doors they cannot unlock.

Everyone who wants to take part in higher education should be able to do so. Keeping with our recent theme on conservatism for progressiveness, Republicans are lacking a vision here. Democrats can very clearly say, again, “We’ll just cover that for you”, through taxation on higher income brackets distributed down to lower income brackets. That continues to rely, however, on the idea that schools will rise to the task of admitting lower-income students, as I mentioned earlier.

Anecdotally, that seems unlikely. Schools operate like quasi-business/nonprofit/government operations with all the benefits of all three and the downsides of none. Their competitiveness for more research, more facilities, and more prestige is admirable, but is an unrelenting burden on Hoosier accessibility and incomes.

IU Bloomington and IUPUI have repeatedly called for more facility funding. To which Sen. Luke Kenley has rightly said in Ways and Means, “It’s awfully hard to justify giving you more money for buildings when they all sit empty in the morning, on Fridays, and weekends.” School officials have responded by basically saying “students don’t come to class” in those times, so they don’t bother.

Well bless their hearts. Perhaps we can take the opportunity to educate young adults that professional adults get up every morning, including Fridays, and show up presentable before 9 am.

At Ivy Tech, the situation is more dire in that they’re building buildings with a dismally low graduation rate. Here, IU and Ivy Tech are getting the benefit of government funding, but not the downsides of their business performance. Again, all the benefits of being a business, a nonprofit, and a government operation, with the downsides of none. This raises public costs, decreases accessibility for students (maybe I do want to take a class at 6 am, and again at 6 pm, and get done twice as fast), and improves nothing.

There’s no political will to get funding completely removed from public universities. But there’s not enough money to fully fund them (certainly at the state level) for everyone either.

This strikes me as a real turd of a system like healthcare where we’re dancing between two extremes so much so it doesn’t work very well at all for anyone. Like I’ve said for healthcare: either go full-free-market or fully-subsidized single payer. We’re dancing in a muddy no-mans land there and in education.

The Republican vision on this should be clear: universities have the duty and responsibility to educate young adults across all income levels in Indiana, without placing a regressive tax on anyone. Students should attend schools that they can actually afford. To get there, we should encourage schools to act on their own and remove at least one of their three protected provisions. Instead of being a business/nonprofit/government operation, remove the government portion that comes from additional funding. The 12% line-item in the budget for higher education could be used, instead, for quality-of-life improvements Indiana so desperately needs. Things like trails, conservation, streetscape improvements, and blight removal.

Or, keep the 12% line-item and lets encourage competition in the market for universities in Indiana by instead funding students, at percentage levels based on income (so that, say, students in households earning $100,000 a year aren’t getting additional funding), like we do with the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP), which is seeing interesting and promising early results in controlling costs and buy-in. Even the Obama Administration is looking at HIP as an experiment worth having.

This is also where Republicans should be more clear about their intentions in removing federal regulation. Claims to “eliminate the Department of Education” isn’t just a move to remove a line item from the federal budget. It’s about letting states set their own standards. Foregoing discussion at the K-12 level for now and sticking to higher education, if a state such as Indiana wanted to create a curriculum for, say, bio-sciences or agri-business, it should be able to do so. The result is a mechanism where curriculum can be tailored to a state’s own strategic plans and strengths with the intended result of lowering out-migration and improving business effectiveness. Letting states and schools build market-driven programs around their own needs can help them attract and retain talent.

Like federal DOE requirements, funding would also need modified at the federal level. Schools currently have a seemingly endless bucket of money to pull from each year have little motivation and cause to lower and check their spending, further ballooning costs. Again, we’re dancing in the murky middle. Either go full-subsidy for everyone (with obvious questions of where that money could possibly come from) or go full-free-market.

Republicans should be articulating that with their vision money follows students (like it does in K-12), students have buy-in to some extent (like with HIP), Indiana could create high-quality programs tailored for its own workforce and attract talent, and reduce brain drain while improving access and fairness in public costs.

Trump supporters have a point

Yesterday Doug Masson and Aaron Renn had a spirited discussion about Trump supporters on Twitter. Broadly about whether supporters know what they’re doing and if Trump is reasonably the person most likely to make their lives better.

This hearkens back to my post earlier this week about progressivism vs. conservatism and how Republicans have failed to share a vision that actually makes people sit up and listen. Trump is closest to articulating it, even if he mostly says nothing concrete. He’s at least reciting and admitting problems, where others aren’t. The bar was set very low and he set it slightly higher by at least talking about some things.

What are those things?

  • Loss of manufacturing jobs
  • Quick and steady diversification of the population
  • Relatively heavy tax burdens with no clear benefit from expenditures

I’ll leave it at those three because this is the Internet and you have other things to read. My point here is Republicans have largely failed to articulate meaningful solutions to these problems. And people who scoff at Trump supporters as expendable pawns must recognize that’s not very supportive or nice, either.

There hasn’t been much articulated well enough for people with limited time to understand. So it doesn’t get talked about. Things are reduced to petty issues and problems that no one really cares about.

I say this from experience, because while Aaron has talked to his dad in New Albany about why he supports Trump, my dad also no doubt supports Trump a few miles up the road in Salem. Why would someone do that? Because Trump at least re-states the problem that impacted him greatly: “The jobs are all in Mexico and China”, “The neighborhood isn’t as nice anymore”, “There’s too much drug violence”, etc.

To a guy like my Dad and many Trump supporters, things distil very neatly:

  • “My job went to China. Therefore, if we just make it so companies can’t offshore so easily, my job will come back and things will be fine again.”
  • “Drugs are everywhere. We know it’s from Mexico. If we could just shut the door on that, things will be fine again. Plus, they took jobs, too, so why do we even need to care about them.”
  • “My insurance was fine at my last job. If we could just bring that back, things will be fine again.”

“Make America Great Again” isn’t about race or gays or whatever for most people (I said most, not all. We’re being too simplistic when we paint with that big a brush). It recalls that time 20 years ago when rural communities had factories that paid well because profits were high and things were great for themselves. People are selfish beings, let’s not gloss over that. But also American. Guys like my dad genuinely just want the opportunity to work, provide, live securely and just be left alone.

The truth is we have all kinds of jobs available. Just not in those rural spots anymore because rural places don’t offer much anymore. They lack things new American manufacturing can only find in cities: big airports, highways, broadband, bigger talent pools, etc.

All this is to say Republicans aren’t acknowledging those problems. If you’re somebody who left high school and started making $20/hr with the promise that things were going to be great forever, and suddenly it’s not because companies have to make common sense decisions about their own well-being, you’d be mad, too.

I know someone is reading this and saying, “Yeah, well, it’s systemic.” Sure, there are things that are a problem. And Republicans have largely ignored that, too.

  • People like my dad didn’t develop a desire for education. Because they didn’t need to for 50 years.
  • These same kinds of people don’t have much access to educational opportunities (libraries, adult learning, etc.) even if they wanted to.
  • The work they’re offered to “retrain for” is often so wildly out of line with what they know and makes government programs look out of touch. My dad loaded trucks for 35 years. Now you want him to go back to school, do a bunch of fractions and basic algebra at the age of 58 and be, what, a nurse practitioner?

No, Trump supporters aren’t stupid. Ignorant of some things, yes, but they’re not stupid. They feel like you might feel if, in 20 years, the Internet just vanished in a span of 5 years.

To be clear, I don’t think Trump has much of a clear vision for what, exactly, he’d do to help people. I don’t think anyone does, and that in and of itself is the Republican vision: “In a land of personal freedom and liberty, you have the right to do as you please. In many cases, that’s going to involve a lot of work.” And by “lot of work”, that’s learning all about fractions and algebra and technology and the Internet and a bunch of other stuff you never had to deal with before.

Can we all admit how terrifying that must feel? Can we all agree that is like saying to you, dear reader, “Sorry about your job and that you have no money anymore. I guess you can become a brain surgeon now.” Yes, that sounds ridiculous to some degree, but you get the point, right?

At this point they just want to know what to do and they want someone who will just tell other people (like Mexico) to screw off. “What’d you ever do for me? Nothing. So screw off.” Obviously Mexico does provide value to us through all sorts of imports and exports, but again, put yourself in their shoes for a minute.

What could Republicans articulate that might help? I’m not entirely sure there’s much, largely because a large swath of those people are between a rock and a hard place physically and emotionally. You can’t take someone who’s barely literate and make get them into spreadsheets in a year. Or two. Or maybe ten. They don’t have that much time.

Democrats have a very clear, “We’ll just pay for everything now” response to this. Which is pretty darn clear about what that means: healthcare, college for your kids, retirement, we’ve got that covered. Republicans ought to be strengthening the things that can make people empower themselves (more on that in another post). Because to guys like my Dad, “I don’t want you to just give me these things. I want to be able to provide for myself like I always used to.” It’s demoralizing, for better or worse.

Additionally so when you’re told to pay for these things your taxes have to go up. To a group of people who live in places without access to broadband Internet, or little to no library service, or weak cellular coverage, or a tiny hospital or 1 or 2 doctors, and what money you do makes goes to the Federal Government for things you’re never going to see a benefit from. That’s rough. So we don’t get to be confused why they’re angry. It’s obvious, and you would be, too.

My dad doesn’t need free college. Even if he wanted to go he can’t because what’s he going to do? Drive 2 hours to IU Bloomington every day? Drive 90 minutes to Ivy Tech to enroll in one of a few programs? At that point he doesn’t need an education, he needs gas and a new truck. Are we just going to pay for that, too? My dad just wants the government to “bring some factories in” (his actual words). Which it can’t do. So he’s always going to be upset about that. Like if, in 20 years, you and I were voting for the guy who would “turn the Internet back on”.

The best we can do to insure against this in the future is making sure people recognize the new deal: “Things will change. You will have to adapt. So learn to be adaptive and don’t stagnate. People, like businesses, will fail hard and slow if you stagnate.”

Experiences with Blue Indy electric car-share

Blue Indy is the sort of public-private transit operation we should celebrate

Indianapolis likes to boast of a lot of public-private partnerships. Where private-sector entities work with the City of Indianapolis to launch a new project or service. Circle Centre Mall and much of the sports complexes are such examples. The truth is lots of cities do these kinds of things all the time because they often make good sense. Particularly when most of the risk can be pushed off on to the private entity (though that doesn’t always happen), or when a City can break-even win or lose.

Blue Indy could be one of those public-private success stories. The City of Indianapolis is out parking meter revenue for the small Blue cars, but it’s not much expense long-term. With 73,000 spaces Downtown alone (I can’t find numbers for other areas, like Broad Ripple or Fountain Square), even at a full 200-station system that Blue Indy is driving toward with 3 cars a piece, that’s just over .8% of parking spaces. It’s no doubt less once you factor in metered spaces outside of Downtown.

The bigger costs to the City are in electric vehicle charging stations. Which, even if Blue Indy withdraws and we look at it as a bad idea, we’ll still have the EV charging stations. It’s hard to imagine a world where EV isn’t the next standard. We’d come out ahead of other cities in letting the market push beyond fossil-fuel driven vehicles.

Even with 200 stations, it’s still not a total replacement for robust public transit. At some point they just run out of cars if everyone drove one every morning. One wonders if there’s ever a possibility of useful privately-funded transit for a municipality. This is as close as anyone could get today.

My experiences with Blue Indy

I’ve used Blue Indy three times. The first two times were more of a learning experience. There are some catches and foreign pieces.

My first time using Blue Indy was on a cold, windy morning. I was trying to get from Maryland and Capitol to my office at 10th and Capitol. It’s exactly 1 mile. Standing in front of me was a station, and having already acquired a membership, I got in. The kiosk does well enough guiding you through the process of getting a car, albeit with clunky French-to-English translations. As someone who designs interfaces for a living, I’m hypercritical of these sorts of things.

I found the car somewhat dirty, but excused it because of the cold. It can’t be easy to wash or clean the inside of cars below freezing. My bigger problem was the cost of this trip. Moving my body 1 mile cost just over $5. $5 can cover most of the cost of a lot of things. A 1-mile trip at that rate felt like a bad value.

The system charges you a flat rate (variable by your membership level) for 20 minutes. I took 12 to get up the road, hitting every stoplight on the way. With most stations clustered within a radius of 1-2 miles, it’s hard to get a good deal on that short of a trip. You can practically fall onto a bus by accident that will carry you any direction at any interval of time from Downtown for $1.75. A bike share pass costs $8 for the whole day of unlimited 30 minute trips (admittedly less pleasant if you’re not dressed properly for the weather). But the bike’s savings can rack up quickly in this scenario.

The second time I used the system I again forgot about the 20-minute minimum time and found the car cumbersome to get into in the dark of the early morning. With no active dome light (there are overhead lights by the mirror, but I couldn’t see them in the dark), it was me learning the process still.

My problem here was that I drove up to my office and parked right behind the building, but I evidently failed to secure the charging outlet properly. That’s my fault for sure. Except the charging plug would go in, and the car would indicate through the dashboard it was charging. Clearly, if something says it’s charging you’d expect it to be. But it wasn’t. But I figured it must be fine based off this system feedback. Based on my prior experience of an instant text message alert saying how long I had used the service, I was worried when I didn’t get one this time. But I assumed maybe the first time’s speed of messaging was a lark. After 20 minutes I walked back outside to recheck it. This time having decided to move the car to another spot, I found it did “click” this time and I got a 26-minute charge for a car I used for about 5.

The third time, having learned the quirks, I was in much better shape. It was daylight and easy to see and use. The radio station and GPS systems in the Blue cars know who you are, so they show your name and carry over all your presets. A nice touch. This time I went much further: from 11th street to 96th to deliver a package and back. The total time was 62 minutes for a total cost of $16. That seems fair given the distance and time, considering I wasn’t responsible for insurance or “gas”. A similar bus trip to that particularly corner would have taken 2 hours. Here Blue Indy is cheaper than renting a car from Enterprise or Avis. (As an aside, Blue Indy’s math works in your favor up to about 4 hours of rental time. Beyond 4 hours and you’re better off with a full-day traditional rental car.)

There’s room for improvement

I certainly have my quibbles with the service. It’s the kind of service most people will really want to like and enjoy, but in many cases just can’t yet. Either because no stations are nearby now (or maybe ever) or priced out of reasonable usage for their needs.

  • An account is tied to a single person, which flies in the face of how married couples work. A married couple would reasonably share fuel, insurance (factoring both driving records), and the price/payment of a private car. With Blue Indy it’s two accounts at two separate costs.
  • Marion County’s supplemental vehicle rental tax of 6%, plus regular sales tax, are tacked on at the end. It’s a rental car, even for just a few minutes.
  • The French conglomerate that owns the service is … French. So when you press the Blue button (which works like OnStar) in the car or at a kiosk, you get a French person speaking English. I speak from experience when I say standing under a highway overpass in the dark and trying to listen to a French woman with a thick accent, all through a speaker with the same quality as a McDonald’s drive-thru is not easy.
  • The cars and kiosks often display on-screen language that seems borderline thoughtless. For example, when you check out a car it tells you it’s, “Attributing your car”. Which makes me feel like some American ogre using brutish words like “check out”. And the temperature gauge in the car’s main screen is in Celsius. I am glad, however, they changed the speedometer to miles per hour.
  • Returning the car for the first time is something of a mystery since the kiosk isn’t ready to guide you as easily as it is to get out. You get out, plug it in, then lock the car. Not get out, lock, plug.
  • The 20-minute minimum makes sense if you’re driving all around the city. But the concentration of stations in March 2016 makes it a bad value. It also encourages you to drive as fast as you can to get to your next station if your destination is over 20 minutes away. I’d prefer to see a 20-minute minimum spread across a 24-hour period. So a bus trip downtown + Blue Car for the last 1-2 miles uses 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in reverse in the evening can complete a whole commute for the whole day. That’s a better value and more of an “assist” to existing transit.
  • I’d be beyond pissed if I got stuck behind a car wreck or a train or a president or some other obstruction that forced me to sit and pay by the minute for a lengthy period of time. Blue Indy has done well to try and give free 30-minute bonuses on days with heavy snow. Ideally there should be a way to “appeal” unusual prices out of a person’s control.
  • I wish at least some of the cars had bike racks. Bike + bus is a compelling transport mechanism. But Blue Indy is shut out of that without a way to carry a bike. A use case here: getting to Fort Benjamin Harrison on the northwest side. From my home on the southeast side, I could bus with my bike to Downtown, or bike straight there, and take a Blue Car to Ft. Ben with my bike to go mountain biking for the day. Currently this isn’t possible (also because there’s no station anywhere near Ft. Ben). I recognize I’m probably a minority here, but if you’re going to position yourself as a transit mechanism, or transit supplement, that includes all forms of transportation: cars, bikes, busses, and walking.

Blue Indy is certainly a service I want to like. I want it to succeed and be a model for other cities pursuing electric vehicles. I want it to make getting around Indianapolis easier. It has the means to save a lot of people a lot of money by not needing to own a car. Or as many cars in their household.

The cars are completely silent, and while quite small, don’t feel chintzy or unsafe. It gets more cars and Americans off reliance of foreign oil and fossil fuels. They move as quickly as any car on the road at just the same rate. The only learning curve while driving is getting used to hitting the acceleration without the tell-tale engine revs and start up sounds to guide you.

With any luck future expansion of the system into the “hard to reach” parts of Marion and the doughnut counties will happen quickly. The initial stations appeared almost overnight. Growth beyond that has slowed. A single station opening here or there lacks the punch of a fast drop of new stations. Phase 1 showed promise. Placing more stations in the rest of low-density Indianapolis and improving the user experience of the system and its costs for frugal Midwesterners is Phase 2. It’s early and still worth watching.

What does it mean to be a Democrat or a Republican?

What makes an idea Democratic or Republican?

I know, heavy stuff for a Monday.

We can just as well substitute “progressive” and “conservative” in those roles, too. For my mental exercise I’m glossing over some nuance and lumping things together.

At face value people throw pithy tags at either party. “Big government”, “tax and spend”, “religious fundamentalists”, “social conservatives”, “the party of business”, “populists”, and so on. That only goes skin deep.

I’m more interested in the vision of the parties. Democrats, for better or worse, have been very good about establishing a vision at the federal level in the last 10-15 years. Republicans haven’t done as well at describing what vision they have for the country. At a local level here in Indiana, Democrats haven’t had an active vision for the governor’s seat in about as long. Republicans had clear vision under Mitch Daniels and that’s been muddied by Mike Pence.

The Party of Lincoln

Parties, like people, change over time so it’s hard to assign too much value to what Abraham Lincoln said and believed the 1860’s. But the vision is there. Lincoln was a Whig before Republicans were even a thing. Slavery and the Civil War changed that, however. After the Whigs and Democrats split between pro-slavery and abolitionists in the North and South, Republicans emerged as a viable, non-radical, party alternative.

At the Great Hall in New York City, 1860, Lincoln made his first appearance on a national stage. Looking “unbecoming” and wearing a new suit that didn’t fit, Lincoln laid out an argument against slavery that didn’t appeal to emotion or morals. It was based in fact.

Like today, people of the 1860’s wanted to know what the Founders thought about issues. In this case it was about slavery.  Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer, brought the facts. Citing in 1784 Congress prohibited slavery in the northwest territory (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin today).  Lincoln found that of the first Congress, through the Missouri Compromise, 21 out of 23 people who voted on the question of slavery supported federal regulation in the federal territories. Of the other 16 who didn’t vote, many expressed opposition. To Lincoln, arguing the Founders “supported slavery” was like saying “they created six houses of Congress”.

History muddies this because we know many of the Founders owned slaves. We know that many, Lincoln included, thought “whites and Negroes can never be equal.” It’s hard to square this circle, but racial animus aside, they could rise above on a philosophical level and agree what liberty and freedom really meant and see that slavery wasn’t it.

But Lincoln argued on, addressing the slave owners of the South: “You say you are conservative – eminently conservative – while we [Republicans] are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on [slavery] which was adopted by our fathers who framed the Government under which live. While you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new [dissolving the union]. Let us stand by our duty fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophisticated contrivances wherewith we are so industriously piled and belabored – contrivances such as growing for some middle ground between the right and wrong: vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man; such a policy of ‘don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care…”

In other words, the Founders weren’t modern-day yuppies thinking everyone was perfect. But they were pretty clear in stating all men are created equal. And it’s Job 1 to protect and further the nation. Slavery works against that, we didn’t get ahead of it, and now we have to abolish “this cancer”, as Lincoln said.  If that’s too hard for you, that’s too bad. This is what the Constitution says and this is out of hand.

As soon as you can recognize that slaves weren’t slaves, but people, it was all the more clearer. Lincoln argued, at first, to regulate slavery away slowly, like you might cut out a cancer slowly, lest you bleed to death. Eventually, as the South started war, Lincoln as President would come to realize “only complete brutality” would work to protect the nation.

Lincoln’s argument sets a tone that Republicans are the party of right vs. wrong, liberty vs. slavery, patriotism vs. greed, and recognizing that the Constitution says exactly what it means, even when you “might not like it right now,” usually through financial self-interest. It shows a Republican party and the Founders as not vehemently anti-regulation of any kind.  It had a place. He saw Government as having a clear role.

Democratic and Republican Visions Today

I spend this time on Lincoln because I feel like I understand the Democratic vision much more than I do the Republican vision. Today Democrats have a vision that’s easy to understand when applied to practical problems:

  • “Healthcare is over-priced and/or unobtainable.” “No problem, we can pay that for you.”
  • “My neighborhood is falling apart.” “No problem, we can fix that for you.”
  • “I can’t afford to go to a university and get ahead in my career.” “No problem, we can take care of that for you.”

Of course, in these and many other situations, the costs there are absorbed through higher taxes to pay for those things. That’s a valid vision and one that is clearly understandable. “Oh, the government takes care of that now.”

Republicans have been weak to share a vision that addresses those very practical problems people have. Instead, they’ve raised the flag on social issues, like Disunionists of Lincoln’s day did toward slavery. “This is the only thing that matters now, and we’ll blow this thing up if our one single demand isn’t met.” That’s not good government, it’s not good for people, it’s not good for the party, and certainly not for the nation.

It’s hard not to get the impression from Republicans as saying, “I dunno, you figure it out,” or, “Well, I got mine. Good luck.” It’s not wrong of people to turn to their elected leaders for direction on, “What’s next? Now what do we do?”

For example, Republican’s aren’t setting a vision for healthcare that’s regulated just enough to guarantee at least modest protection, and why that’s ultimately better. Republican’s haven’t given a solution to making neighborhoods better beyond “tax cuts”. At a federal level perhaps that makes sense. At a local level, people want to know their money is being allocated as wisely and exhaustively as possible. I think most Hoosiers would agree our State isn’t spending much money on frivolous services (except maybe attorney’s fees in losing court battles), so now what? A tax cut doesn’t fill a pothole.

Republicans aren’t showing people how they can improve their lot in life, how they can be responsible for their own success, and handle things like education, healthcare, and property for themselves and with measurable results.

I intend to think about those few things more in the near future from a Republican perspective. Perhaps there is a vision I’m not seeing. Or perhaps I can land on something that’s an alternative to, “The Government will just take care of that.”

When it comes to abortion, look at the men

Indiana’s new abortion bill is on its way to Gov. Pence’s desk. The “fetal anomaly bill” makes it illegal for women to abort a pregnancy for reasons related to, among other possibilities, Down Syndrome. A similar bill was introduced in Ohio and passed in North Dakota a few years ago.

This is almost certainly red meat for the religious wing of Indiana. It’s a pretty lousy bill as bills go. Not unlike Indiana’s “no texting” law, no one ever said anything about “no tweeting”, so too no one says here a woman can’t just say, “I want an abortion for other reasons”. There’s no requirement for them to say precisely why. It does, however, tack on some additional requirements, like no group therapy sessions and declaring that birth happens the moment sperm fertilizes an egg.

So I was wondering earlier what Indiana’s abortion rate looks like. Finding impartial data is cumbersome, but the best I can find is actually the top Google result. However, it dates to 2011.

In 2011, Indiana’s abortion rate mirrored the US average for the 10 years prior, and was about half the US rate. But even before all of the abortion restrictions passed in the last few years, almost no county in Indiana had an abortion provider. In 2011, 9,430 women obtained an abortion, or about 7.3 per 1,000 women of reproductive age. This doesn’t account for people traveling out of state, however. Which is likely possible in northwest and south central Indiana where women may travel to Chicago or Louisville.

The fetal anomaly bill isn’t likely to do much to prevent abortions. Most likely it’ll just spawn a bunch of lawsuits and money for lawyers who will no doubt successfully argue that the bill is poorly written, imposes undue burdens on women and providers, and doesn’t adequately outline the standard by which a pregnancy is likely to produce Down Syndrome or other anomalies.

I am the first to admit I am so out of touch with what would induce a woman to have an abortion. I get that there are many academic reasons why: cause of conception, familial burden, financial, etc. More specifically, I don’t get the emotional and mental work required in conception, pregnancy, and birth. No surprise why: I’m a man and I don’t have to ever put my mind in that place.

The Institute’s report does catch my attention in two other figures:

Moreover, a broad cross section of U.S. women have abortions. 58% of women having abortions are in their 20s; 61% have one or more children; 85% are unmarried; 69% are economically disadvantaged; and 73% report a religious affiliation. No racial or ethnic group makes up a majority: 36% of women obtaining abortions are white non-Hispanic, 30% are black non-Hispanic, 25% are Hispanic and 9% are of other racial backgrounds.

In other words, poor, young, white, women are making up the majority of abortions nationally. Whether this is because they have better access to abortions than minorities or some other reason is worth researching.

The very small group of American women who are at risk of experiencing an unintended pregnancy but are not using contraceptives account for more than half of all abortions. Many of these women did not think they would get pregnant or had concerns about contraceptive methods.

And in other words here, no access to a contraceptive is the cause of most abortions.

This is where my personal understanding starts to form and diverge. Presumably “easier access to contraceptives” really just means “the ability to take a contraceptive pill.” Because if it means condoms, I’m not sure how making those easier to obtain is even possible short of dropping them from airplanes. They sit in bowls in dorms. They cost a quarter or less. They’re literally hanging on the walls of gas stations and supermarkets and dollar stores and convenience stores and doctor’s offices.

The free market, the public sector, and our culture have all moved to a place to make that possible, much to everyone’s benefit. Access to the pill is no doubt more difficult than a condom because of higher costs, insurance policies or a lack thereof, and physician approval.

Which makes me think that half of all abortions aren’t caused by women, but by the men! Because I can totally understand why a woman wouldn’t have a box of condoms in the nightstand. And I can understand how in the heat of a sexual encounter, a man would just not stop or permit time for a woman to talk about a condom. To be clear, I’m not saying that’s a rape; but where both adults are consenting and the encounter just too sudden can easily result in saying “Forget about the condom”.

In my mind, for the majority of abortions that occur because the pregnancy is simply unwanted (so no rape, incest, health issue, emergency, etc.), this is a legitimate use to say there is personal responsibility to handle this. But it’s at least 50% the man’s responsibility, and one could argue it’s more. Men are the ones who have much more access to easy, cheap, contraception. And I’m aware condoms aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darn close.

It’s offensive and rude to suggest women should just “keep an aspirin between their knees” or suggest they just shouldn’t ever have sex at all. Sex, like alcohol, is perfectly legal when used responsibly. Abortion is legal, but should be rare. And in lawmakers’ pursuit to effectively zero-out abortions in Indiana, perhaps we’re better off talking to and targeting men as much or more than we are women.