Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The South Will Fall. Again.

Thomas D. Rice in blackface, dancing as Jim Crow
Thomas D. Rice, a white entertainer in blackface, depicted as his popular minstrel slave character "Jim Crow," circa 1830s.

There's a lot to think about these days.  

One think Thee Optimist is having is about the American South.  Dixie.  (Singin' songs about) the Southland.  

You know where I mean.  

Now that the illegitimate Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, states across the South are in a mad rush to ban abortion.  

Of course they are. 

But they forget themselves, and their place in American history.  No matter what you think about abortion, it is clear that the urge to ban it, for The South, is simply The South, shooting itself in the collective ass.


One could argue that the Republican urge to piss off and alienate the places where 71% of American GDP comes from is also a collective self-ass-shooting, but I guess we'll see about that.  

In the meantime, The South:

There Was a Big War

Once upon a time, in the early to mid-1800s, there were two ruling classes in America.  Although they did business with each other, they looked upon each other with deep suspicion.  They were also rivals for political power.  

The ruling class in the industrializing, urban North were the new upstarts, the capitalist factory owners.  They built their wealth and power by selling the things their factories built, and by paying their workers less than what the labor was worth.

The ruling class in the agricultural, rural South were the slaveowners.  Their wealth and power had already existed for centuries, and rested on owning vast farmland, having slaves work the land, and paying them nothing for doing so.

In fact, not only did they not have to pay the slaves, they owned the slaves, and any children the slaves might have.  They owned the slaves in the same way you own your car (assuming you own it outright).

Southern slaveholders cooked up all kinds of cockamamie ideas to rationalize this arrangement - the black slaves were inferior to white people, God made them this way, and slavery was the natural order of things.  

The two systems could not co-exist for long.  So they didn't.  Less than 50 years after large scale industrialization began in the northern United States, the two sides found themselves in the gigantic, apocalyptic dust-up that we refer to as The Civil War.

The industrial might of the North crushed the agrarian South, more or less to dust.  The South, and its way of life, was so utterly destroyed, that the victorious federal government was compelled to come in and rebuild the place.

The rebuilding worked, sort of.  But also not really.

A "colored entrance only" sign enforcing legal segregation (August 1934), from a building in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Jim Crow era.

The South as Basket Case

For a very long time, the South didn't recover from the brutal loss they sustained during the Civil War.

Arguably, they never really recovered.

Yes, we know about the Jim Crow era, and how black people were denied their civil rights across the South for pretty close to a hundred years.

A good movie depicting some of this is The Green Book, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2018.

For much of the 20th Century, the South remained mired in widespread poverty, ignorance, and plain backward thinking.  Its white ruling class refused to modernize or integrate the economy, and clung instead to the idea of white supremacy.

The South became like a Third World country, existing on charitable handouts from the United States.  So bad was it, that in 1938 president Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the South "the nation's number one economic problem."  

The wacky part is that although gradual progress was made during the mid- to late-20th Century, that progress eventually stalled and reversed itself.

Today, generally speaking, people who live in the South are poorer, less healthy, less likely to have health insurance, and less educated than people who live elsewhere.

Since Covid vaccines came in, Southerners are about 20% less likely to be vaccinated than other people, and oddly enough, about 20% more likely to die of Covid.

In just about every marker of well-being - life expectancy, infant mortality, firearm deaths, deaths from drug overdoses - the South is worse off than the rest of the country. 

Q:  Okay Patches, we get it.  The South is about as backward as it's ever been.  But what does that have to do with abortion?

A:  Good question.  I'm coming to that in a minute.

The vast majority of American women seeking abortions in 2016 were either poor or low-income.

The Disappearing Criminals

A strange thing happened in the early 1990s.

For decades, crime in the United States, and especially violent crime like murder, had been rising dramatically.  It rose steadily and relentlessly throughout the 1960s, the 1970s, and 1980s, reaching a deafening crescendo in the early 1990s.

Then it stopped rising, reversed, and began an astonishing decline.  The decline lasted until 2016, or thereabouts.  In some areas, the very bottom was reached around 2017 or 2018.

It has since ticked upward again, but in a relatively minor way.  

An example, you say?  Sure.

In New York City (Yes, I know it's not in the South, but NYC keeps very good statistics about things, and it's a handy reference point for the country), there were 292 recorded murders during 2017.  

That may seem like a lot (and it is), but it was actually the lowest number since 1951, when there were 243 murders.  Compare this to the more than 1,400 murders in New York City every year during the 1980s, reaching the incredible figure of 2,245 in 1990. 

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, New York was a city under siege.  But it was hardly alone.  Crime was out of control everywhere, and people believed it would only get worse. 

In 1996, Republican strategist (and future aide to George W. Bush) John DiIullio said: 

"America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile 'superpredators' -- radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.''

He was already wrong.  Crime had actually been dropping precipitously for a few years at that point.  For example, by 2001, murders in New York City had dropped 70% from their 1990 peak.

All over the country, people began to look for explanations.  Where did the crime go?  Policing was better!  No wait, the economy was better!  No wait, the crack epidemic was over!  

Maybe it was all of these!

Then two nutty economic professors from the University of Chicago put out the oddest explanation of all (and the one that has turned out to hold up the best): 

Crime went down because the next wave of criminals was never born. 

Young women march to the U.S. Capitol Building, demanding the right to an abortion, November 20, 1971.

Abortion Lowers Crime

The professors in question were John Donohue and Steven Levitt.  They made the initial argument in a 2001 paper (that didn't get too much attention), then Levitt unpacked it some more in a 2005 bestselling book called "Freakonomics."  

They argued that abortion was legalized everywhere in the United States in January of 1973.  And the vast majority of women who take advantage of abortion are women who lack the financial means to care for a child. 

Meanwhile, the majority of violent criminals are young males (17 to 25) who come from impoverished, often single-mother households.

Violent criminals are constantly lost to attrition.  They go to prison for long periods of time.  They die.  They become debilitated by gunshot wounds and beat-downs.  They age-out and wise up.  

It's not an easy lifestyle to sustain as you grow older.  

For the crime rate to keep rising, you need a steady supply of violent males from impoverished backgrounds reaching their late teenage years.

In 1990, after 17 years of legalized abortion, that stream of violent young males began to dry up.  And the stream got dryer and dryer as each year passed.  And never replenished.

The criminals stopped appearing because they weren't being born.

As the decades have worn on, this argument has only become more compelling, and the criticisms of it fewer and farther between.  

Crime eventually dwindled to a shadow of its former self.  Fewer criminals, committing fewer crimes, fathering even fewer unwanted children (criminals have lots of kids), until crime reached its absolute nadir in the late 2010s.

In 2020, Donohue and Levitt revisited the theory in a new paper, which looks at new data, and is basically a gratuitous slam-dunk on their earlier critics.  

So what happens now in the South?

The following southern states have already banned abortions, or will do so very soon:

Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Now, Texas and Florida don't really qualify as Third World basket cases, at least not economically (though they both have high rates of gun violence), but the rest do.

We know that lack of access to abortion puts tremendous economic hardship on low-income women.

What we can expect now is more poverty, even poorer health outcomes, and more collapsed families in some of the states that are the least equipped to deal with such things.

As time goes on, a decade from now, we can expect pronounced increases in juvenile delinquency in these states.  

And by 15 years from now, we should start to see the increases in violent crime, as waves of unwanted children reach the age where they start to become the next generation of murderers, rapists and armed robbers.

And fathers of yet more unwanted children.

Good luck, South!  

As my old Grandma from Ireland used to say, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."

Headline from the Chicago Tribune, circa late 1990s.  You can't become a superpredator if you were never born.

Words of Wisdom:

“Abortion is legal almost everywhere, not because people all over the world love to kill babies for fun, but because a fetus is not a baby.”

- Oliver Markus Malloy

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