Close readings: VA congressman argues that restricting abortions creates jobs

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–VA) responds to allegations that his name is made up.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–VA) responds to allegations that his name is made up.

Yesterday, during committee markup of a probably-doomed abortion bill making its way through the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte argued that restricting access to abortions creates jobs. “Having new children brought into the world is not harmful to job creation,” he said, himself employing litotes for a job it maybe didn’t need to do. It was a peculiar line of reasoning, partly for the sheer bulk of its verbiage—more on that later—and partly because of its ambitious attempt to connect an old controversy to the political byword of the day. Strap on your chunky glasses, because Rep. Goodlatte is the subject of today’s Close Reading.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: “Bob Goodlatte” is the name you give when you check into an hourly hotel. Given our present cultural divisions, I don’t know how Goodlatte keeps winning elections in an overwhelmingly red district—presumably he has turned back challenges from Dave Organickale and Josh Bankerson—but I can tell you that he first won office against a man named Stephen Musselwhite. So Virginia is a Dickens novel.

It’s Dickensian in more ways than one, apparently. Here’s Goodlatte on why fewer abortions mean more jobs:

I would suggest that it is very much the case that those of us in the majority support this legislation because it is the morally right thing to do but it is also very, very true that having a growing population and having new children brought into the world is not harmful to job creation. It very much promotes job creation for all the care and services and so on that need to be provided by a lot of people to raise children.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the word “very” which, like many intensifiers, often works against its intended purpose. When Goodlatte says that it is “very, very true” that a growing population creates jobs, we are forced to wonder how many gradations of “true” he recognizes.

On a scale of mathematical identity (0=0 is very, very very true) to promises (Celine Dion will always love you,) what is merely true? Goodlatte’s repeated use of intensifiers cheapens each “very,” so that by the end they arouse our suspicion. Describing  a proposition as “very, very true” is like saying you totally did your homework. Statements of fact do not need intensifiers.

But Goodlatte isn’t really making a statement of fact—he’s offering a prediction. The idea that population growth leads to economic growth is controversial, but it’s at least as widely accepted as the Laffer Curve and other (very) truisms of contemporary politics. More people mean more demand for services, and more babies—as Goodlatte points out—would probably mean a robust childcare market.

But by that reasoning, earthquakes and floods cause economic growth, too, what with all the claims adjustors and construction workers and emergency medical staff they necessitate. What Goodlatte is talking about is not economic growth so much as demand for resources, since babies are not born with jobs.

Sure, those babies will need medical care and Gerber and people to look after them, and that will stimulate the economy. But there is reason to believe that restricting abortions also increases the burden on Medicaid and other social services, since the women who would not bring children to term if the law did not force them are often poor. We’re not talking about a cadre of yuppie babies, here. We’re talking about theoretical kids who are, by definition, not wanted.

Goodlatte’s strained reasoning seems like an attempt to connect this moral issue to the most powerful buzzword of the day: jobs. What the word of the Pope once was to Catholics, jobs are to the body politic in 2014. Opponents of legislation, from health care reform to environmental regulations, say it will kill jobs. Defense spending, infrastructure projects and even food stamps create jobs. In a political climate riven by fundamental divisions, jobs are a value that virtually everyone agrees on.

But Goodlatte’s statement draws attention to the limitations and even absurdity of framing every discussion in terms of jobs. Drafting an army to invade Mexico would create jobs, but that doesn’t mean we should do it. It’s possible that certain questions before the US government cannot be quantified that way. It’s even possible—here I verge on heresy—that some things are more important than creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

For example: letting women decide whether they want to have a baby, or, if you prefer, the lives of babies yet to be born. When you hear somebody talk about how we must or must not do something because it would create or destroy jobs, replace “job creation” with “we all get money.” Then consider how the calculus sounds.

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