A leaked opinion from the US Supreme Court reveals that they are about to repeal Roe vs Wade – the key judgement that protects the right to abortion.
The outcry across the US was loud and immediate – overwhelmingly Americans support the right to abortion, and repealing Roe vs Wade is a minority view. It is however the product of a political system that gives an authoritarian conservative minority a vast amount of power. The decision was celebrated on the religious right, and on pro-Trump conspiracy websites. One of the dominant ideas among the US far right is The Great Replacement – a racist conspiracy theory the claims there is a plot to replace white people in Western Countries like the US with black or asian populations by mass immigration and suppressing the birthrate of white families. This decision was seen as a big boost for keeping the US white.
The 2 sides are miles apart; one side, mostly men, who see abortion as a philosophical, or a moral problem, to be solved by reference to scripture. For the other side a ban on abortion means women being forced to deliver dead babies, death in childbirth, death in a backstreet abortion, women trapped in abusive relationships and living in poverty. It’s not just 2 sides of the argument, it is 2 completely different world views. One moralistic, the other rooted in life experiences.
The Roe vs Wade opinion opens the way to repeal a whole series of other judgements affecting everything from gay rights to mixed race marriages.
The question is can the US stay together as one country with such profound disagreements between the States?
The US splitting up may seem daft, but in 1991 Red Star Belgrade, Jugolavia’s finest football team, won the league championship, and a few weeks later became Champions of Europe. Within a few months the country was in civil war, and ceased to exist. The key moment in the descent into violence was the formation of armed militias, something that has already happened in some Conservative states. It is these Conservative states with a history of armed militias that are the most likely to try and secede.
I am sceptical that this will happen in the US because of how incredibly interconnected US States are financially.
The US has a much more redistributive tax and spend structure than the UK. This might come as a surprise but it is the legacy of military Keynesianism – huge defence spending directed to poor parts of the US, plus the impact of Congressmen demanding funding for pet projects in return for their votes. States with older, poorer populations are big users of programmes like Medicaid and Medicare.
You can measure the extent of redistribution by the ratio of how much a geographical area gets from central Government compared to how much they contribute. In the UK the most unequal settlement is Northern Ireland – they got £1.21 from the Government for every £1 they contribute in taxes and other revenue. This is the legacy of decades of conflict and a dodgy deal from Theresa May to buy the support of the DUP. Scotland gets roughly £1.15 for every £1 it contributes under the Barnett formula.
The US is way past that point:
|State||Affliation||GDP ($m)||GDP per capita||$ in per $ tax||Federal spending |
as % of state GDP
It’s not an exact fit, but 8 of the 10 most heavily subsidised states are Republican, 8 out of the 10 biggest contributors are Democrat. If you think that the numbers of winners and losers don’t add up you are right – the difference is the large budget deficit. New Mexico has a huge number of military bases, and was the main recipient of Billions to build a wall for Trump.
Essentially well educated liberals pay loads in taxes which the federal government gives to poorer, less well educated conservatives.
If the Federal Government stopped collecting and distributing funds there would be huge swings in the GDP per capita of individual states
|State||Affliation||GDP ($m)||GDP per capita||GDP capita adjusted for federal spending and taxes||Change in GDP capita||% tage change|
The obvious question is how does this match up on abortion rights?
Roughly 24 of the 27 Red states would ban abortion if Roe vs Wade was struck down. Only 2 blue states: Michigan and Wisconsin; would join them.
If we plot abortion vs potential changes in GDP per capita its stark. States that would ban abortion are the biggest gainers from federal tax and spend. Liberal pro-choice states are the biggest benefactors.
Pro-choice voters are massively subsidising anti-abortion voters.
|State||GDP ($m)||GDP per capita||GDP capita adjusted for federal spending and taxes||Change in GDP capita||% tage change||Abortion|
These swings in GDP capita look huge, but in reality they would be much larger. The US is a very unequal society, Republican states even more so. The very rich would be unaffected by these swings as they don’t benefit from medicaid or medicare or other federal programmes. They might well be better off not paying federal taxes.
For the average citizen of a Red State like Montana if the federal system stopped moving money around they would lose 30%+ of their income over night.
This is the dilemma of US politics:
The US political and electoral system demands that liberal states financially support conservative states, but are politically subservient to them. Roe vs Wade is only the most extreme example of a conservative minority forcing their views on a liberal majority while being financially dependent on them. This can’t go on forever
But while the Red states might bluster about secession it is unlikely to be happen as the economics of secession are ruinous for them
Scrapping Roe vs Wade, along with repealing other civil rights legislation, makes this worse. The best and the brightest will leave red states for more prosperous states in the East and West which offer higher salaries and protect their civil rights
What they will leave behind will be the old and the poor who will become even more dependent on federal funds
One of this year’s best books is How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter. She looks at the factors that lead to civil wars and use them to measure the state of the US. I don’t think that a new civil war will happen as in 1861, but I do think that it is possible that a state like Montana could be taken over temporarily by armed militias who would leave the Federal system and try to go it alone
We already have a model for how a semi-state like that would work – Kosovo – mostly independent, but not recognised as such by it’s neighbours and lacking the institutions a functioning state needs. It is little more than a criminal state specialising in money laundering and smuggling. Transnistria – the Russian puppet semi-state formed out of Moldova lost half of it’s population when it seceded, and more have left in the last month in fear of the Ukrainian conflict spreading.
One of the basic definitions of a functioning Government or State is that it holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a defined geography. States like Somalia where parts of the country were ruled by armed warlords are described as failed states.
Parts of the US are already at that point. Gun laws are written in such a way that individuals or armed militias can exercise deadly force independently of the Police or Army. They are failed states.
I doubt that any of these militias would survive a prolonged engagement against the real US Army but that assumes that a Chief of Defence Staff would remain loyal to the United States and not side with rebel militias. With Trump back in power that might not be true any more.
I still think that economics will triumph and the US will stay together, but this only works if political reforms give the liberal majority a say in how the country is run in return for their generous financial support. Otherwise there might be some new countries on the map.