America Is Backsliding, and All of Us Will Pay for It

Last week’s Supreme Court decisions on guns and abortion further widen the separation between the United States and its peer nations. We are becoming a more backward nation. There will be economic consequences.

Let’s start (because the court did) with Thursday’s New York State Pistol Association v. Bruen. The U.S. has long been notorious internationally for its off-the-charts gun deaths. Among high-income countries with populations of 10 million or more, the U.S. has the greatest number of firearm homicides per capita. It isn’t even close. Chile, ranked second, has less than half as many. The U.S. rate of firearm homicides is 22 times greater than in the European Union.  

Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion will make the U.S. even less safe. The ruling says, in effect, that a state can no longer require you to cite a good reason to receive a permit allowing you to carry a concealed gun. A bad reason will serve just as well. It doesn’t take much imagination to think what that bad reason might be. There’s some threshold at which gun violence will start driving out of the U.S. people who don’t want to get shot and can easily move abroad. We aren’t there yet. But New York State Pistol Association v. Bruen brings us a couple of steps closer.

Justice Samuel Alito earned himself, with his majority opinion Friday in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a place alongside Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, as one of the most destructive Supreme Court justices in history. “The Constitution does not prevent the citizens of each state from regulating or prohibiting abortion,” Alito ruled, overturning 1973’s Roe v. Wade and 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Because of so-called “trigger bans” passed previously at the state level, abortion instantly became illegal in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, and South Dakota, all with no exceptions for rape or incest. (These states do allow exceptions to protect the life of the mother.) Less absolute abortion bans and restrictions also took effect immediately in Oklahoma and Utah.

Delayed-release trigger bans in North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas will take effect within one month (the Texas ban also has no exceptions for rape or incest). In total, abortion will soon either be outlawed or restricted more severely than jurisprudence previously allowed in 21 states. By summer’s end, a majority of states will likely make having an abortion somewhere between difficult to impossible.

Until Friday, the U.S. had more permissive abortion policies than other advanced international democracies. Roe became law when abortion was still illegal in West Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Belgium. Most of our peer nations still don’t permit abortion on demand much past the first 12 weeks, whereas, until Friday, the U.S. permitted them up to the twenty-third week. To the evangelical mind, we were Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now we’re more Catholic than the pope. Literally! Vatican City is ruled by canon law, not civil law, but as far as civil authorities are concerned abortion is legal there. You’d probably have a hard time finding a hospital inside Vatican City willing to violate canon law and give you an abortion, but that’s not much of an obstacle. All you have to do is hop on the Metropolitana di Roma and travel two or three stops. If you live in San Antonio and you want to get an abortion, you’ll be looking at an eight-hour drive west on I-10 to the New Mexican border. You can maybe shave an hour off and take I-35 north to Oklahoma instead, but only if you can show that your unborn child was the result of rape or incest. What about a three-hour drive south on I-35 to the Mexican border? That’s no good because it gets you to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which hasn’t yet legalized abortion as required under a 2021 ruling by the Mexican Supreme Court. In time, though, Americans will probably talk about Mexican abortions the way their midcentury forebears talked about Mexican divorces

Welcome to a new, diminished America. The seven U.S. states that now ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest have put themselves on par, according to Le Monde, with Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Uganda, South Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Not one of these countries is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the conventional proxy for “advanced industrial democracy.” (Well, OK, one is. Le Monde neglected to include on its list Poland, which is an OECD member. It rolled back abortion rights last year.)

Before Friday, abortion was available on request (with various gestational limits) in virtually every nation in the global north, in Australia, and in the southernmost portions of South America and Africa. Now you have to say “virtually every nation except the U.S.” Abortion was, and remains, available in nearly half of the most Catholic countries on the planet (defined as roughly 80 percent Catholic or more). As of Friday, they grant more extensive abortion rights than exist in much of the U.S.

When I posted on Twitter this past weekend that Dobbs rendered the U.S. more backward than peer nations, I expected abortion foes would respond, “We’re more moral than peer nations,” or, “Dude, you’re unpatriotic to suggest we even have peer nations.” That didn’t happen. Instead, abortion opponents replied with unsourced misinformation about what our peer nations’ abortion policies are. In a way, that’s encouraging. People do seem to care whether we keep up with the OECD Joneses. As they acquaint themselves with the truth—maybe I should say if they acquaint themselves with the truth—perhaps the new disparity will trouble them.

Or maybe abortion foes will change their tune—some of them, at least—when they realize that new severe or absolute restrictions on abortion in various states don’t exactly come free. 

Businesses will relocate out of states that impose them. On Friday, Google’s personnel chief, The Verge reported, reminded Google employees working outside California, where abortion rights remain safe, that company policy allows them to relocate “without justification.” Salesforce offered to relocate affected workers in Texas after that state’s abortion restriction took effect last year; last month it extended that to workers in other states. The states imposing the toughest restrictions on abortion tend also to be the poorest ones, making them the least able to bid such taxpayers farewell. Expect another round of conservative politicians denouncing “woke corporations” as these states start to see revenues dwindle.

A long list of other corporations, including Starbucks, J.P. Morgan, Microsoft, Tesla, Netflix, Disney, and DoorDash, have assured employees that they will pay travel expenses for any who need to go out of state for an abortion procedure. The need to do so will put downward pressure on future wage hikes at those companies.

Because the abortion restrictions will apply to visiting foreigners as well as U.S. citizens, American universities will likely take a hit. That’s a double whammy because universities usually withhold financial aid from foreign students and make them pay sticker price. This is money universities have come to depend on.

“With European top econ departments gradually closing the gap to US depts,” David Schindler, an economist at The Netherlands’ Tilburg University, wrote Saturday on Twitter, “plus the Trump presidency, I’ve already observed a higher willingness of international candidates to return to Europe after PhD. Curious to see how yesterday’s SCOTUS decision affects this year’s job market.” In reply, Princeton economist Ilyana Kuziemko lamented, “Heaven help the US if smart foreigners stop moving here. Our home-grown elites are not up to the task.” 

That’s an understatement. The U.S. has the best universities in the world, but without foreign graduate students and professors many of its departments couldn’t function at the same level. A 2021 report by the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy found that foreign nationals represented 70 percent or more of graduate students in petroleum engineering, electrical engineering, computer and information sciences, industrial and manufacturing engineering, and statistics. Foreigners represented the majority of graduate students in economics (67 percent), civil engineering (61 percent), mechanical engineering and agricultural economics (58 percent), mathematics (56 percent), chemical engineering (54 percent), metallurgical and materials engineering (53 percent), and materials sciences (52 percent). 

The U.S. was already turning itself gradually into Podunk before last week’s Supreme Court decisions, and not just on guns. A 2019 Pew poll found that a 53 percent majority of people who classify themselves as conservative Republicans are finally willing to concede that human activity contributes to climate change. (At this point, all you have to do is look out the window.) But 73 percent of them—and half of all moderate or liberal Republicans—say that policies to reduce the effects of climate change will either make things worse or make no difference. More than half of all Republicans think the January 6, 2021, insurrection was a false-flag operation by left-wingers, and about 70 percent think Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the presidency in 2020. So many Republican officeholders, candidates for public office, or former White House officials have praised Adolf Hitler publicly that it’s on the verge of no longer being news. 

That’s why Republicans are out of power right now. But this is the political party that installed six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court. It is also the party considered most likely next year to enjoy a majority in one and possibly two houses of Congress. It isn’t inconceivable that the GOP could retake the White House in 2024. People in other countries find that very difficult to fathom.

Income inequality? Worse here than in Western Europe. We used to be able to say that the U.S. compensated by providing more upward mobility, but that hasn’t been true for a very long time. Infant mortality? Significantly worse here. Life spans? Shorter here. Literacy? Don’t ask. Tax evasion? Off the charts. Yes, the U.S. is still the richest country in the world. But it has less and less to show for it, and the international community is starting to notice.

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