02 August 2022

A Ratio that Predicts Why We May Well Avoid a Recession

The ratio of job openings to the number of people unemployed is a simple measure of the health of the job market. This century, there have been an average of 62 job openings for every 100 unemployed people.

Jerome Powell is trying to lower inflation without causing much - or any - unemployment. The way he would do that is to bring down the number of job openings without bringing down the number of people who are unemployed. That strategy is looking distinctly possible.

For a variety of reasons, inflation seems to be dropping. Almost as importantly, to extent that Powell needs to "cool down" the labor market without triggering layoffs he seems to be doing that.

The ratio of job openings to unemployed people peaked at 200 job openings for every 100 unemployed people in March. That is triple what it has averaged this century. That is crazy.

As Powell has cooled the economy, this ratio has come down from 200 job openings for every 100 unemployed people to 180 job openings for every unemployed person. 180 is still far higher than its peak of 124 job openings for every 100 unemployed during the Trump administration. (And pre-COVID, that was a really strong job market.) The fact that Powell can bring this ratio from 180 / 100 down to 124 / 100 and still have a stronger job market than we had before COVID suggests that the Fed has a lot of room to maneuver without triggering a recession.

I know I am susceptible to optimism but this is really good news. If Powell lowers inflation without raising unemployment, it'll qualify as a very cool trick. Be prepared to applaud. And then exhale.

29 June 2022

An Argument Not Just to Bring Prayer Into School but to go further and Assign Each Teenager With the Task of Founding Their Own Religion

Lots of talk about the Supreme Court allowing prayer in school. I actually think that it is a great idea. Seriously.
William James was one of the my favorite Americans for so many reasons. He wrote the first textbook on psychology. He helped to develop an uniquely American and incredibly powerful philosophy of pragmatism. He probably was as responsible as anyone for the modernization of Harvard university and - given it has become the template for higher academics by extension he also - is responsible for so much of what defines modern education. Meanwhile, over in Britain, his brother Henry James was writing classic novels. (It would have been fascinating to talk to their parents about how to raise children.)
At one point in his life, James began to study religion. His religious friends were offended because they thought it irreverent to study something so holy and spiritual, subjecting it to the same scrutiny you might apply to annual rainfall or the property of metals at different temperatures. His agnostic and atheist friends laughed at him for thinking he could study something with so many supernatural, untestable claims. It would be difficult, for instance, to determine which denominations got more people into heaven and which lost more to hell. James pushed back on both groups. He said, I can study which religions - or more specifically which beliefs - make people happier and which make them more generous, more giving, more compassionate, more loving.
I love this notion that different beliefs lead to different outcomes. And no matter how scientific you want to be, you're left with no choice but faith on some items. Faith that it's worth getting out of bed on this morning when you still haven't any data to tell you whether it'll leave you feeling overwhelmed with grief, joy, appreciation or underwhelmed with just about anything. You don't know how - or if - your life will impact others. There are so many actions we take based on hope or dread rather than facts. That could get any number of names or labels but I would call it faith, a trust that an unknown future will evolve in a particular direction.
Children should know that there are options other than what their parents believe - whether those parents are nihilists or Catholic or Jehovah's Witnesses or secular humanists or .. well anything. I think that kids need more exposure to what people do for a living. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 800 broad categories of professions. Most 10th graders can list about 8. (Okay. I made up 8. It isn't many.)) I think that kids also need more exposure to what people believe about their life. Which beliefs make people self righteous and convinced they alone truly understand. Which beliefs leave people feeling despondent and overwhelmed? Which beliefs make people more generous, happier, more careful with other people, more shut off from new experiences ...?
We should bring prayer into schools as well as a variety of beliefs. If we do this right, not only will kids and young adults learn a great deal about how belief changes who they are and what they feel about themselves and others but they might even start their own religion. Mormons think you should follow the example of Joseph Smith. Scientologists think you should follow the example of L. Ron Hubbard. Muslims that you should follow the example of Muhammed. The Church of Christ that you should follow the example of Mary Baker Eddy. Christians that you should follow the example of Jesus. Jews that you should follow the example of Moses. Do you know what is common about all of those people? They created a new religion rather than accept what they'd inherited. What if kids from all the different faiths and religions and traditions in this fascinating experiment in diversity that we call America began to compare notes on various religions, began to take seriously what a great impact beliefs have on who we are and what we can do, and began to explore the possibility of a creative response rather than the binary responses of acceptance or rejection?
Bring prayer into schools. Bring religion and faith into schools. And then as a school project have teenagers found new religions and see how those new beliefs make them and the people they love (and suffer) better people.

26 June 2022

How American Catholics Are Turning Their Beliefs Into Our Laws

Last month San Francisco’s archbishop barred Nancy Pelosi from communion because she supports abortion rights. Put more clearly, a Catholic archbishop punished a Catholic who supports religious freedom. At 82, Pelosi is not going to have an abortion. This is not about the archbishop’s condemnation of Pelosi – a church member - for her actions. This is condemnation of her defending her constituents’ right to believe and practice something Catholics don’t. In isolation this wouldn’t be enough to suggest that Catholic leadership in the US supports ending religious freedom for Americans who aren’t Catholics but there is more.

The clear majority of Americans believe the question of abortion should be left to individual women but a majority of the Supreme Court do not. 7 of 9 of our current Supreme Court justices are Catholic and 6 seem more aligned with San Francisco’s archbishop than Nancy Pelosi. (In the spirit of full disclosure, there is some question as to whether Gorsuch identifies as Catholic or Anglican so it is possible that only 6 supreme court justices are Catholic. In any case, a significant majority.)

Overturning Roe v Wade is a clear example of an elite group overturning the will of a majority. This is the very definition of undemocratic. 

The pope teaches that life begins at conception and 6 Catholics on the Supreme Court have overturned Roe v Wade to make their Catholic convictions our national law. Or more to the point, they have decided that national law should no longer guarantee any woman the right to follow her own conscience or religious beliefs and are leaving that ruling to the states.

This isn’t the only victory for the Catholic Church now so richly represented on the Supreme Court. Last week the Supreme Court also ruled that taxpayer money should help to fund private religious schools, which will be a great aid for Catholic churches that are already tax exempt and will now also be getting government subsidies.

John Kennedy was essentially forced by the press to assure a country that had been under the rule of WASPs for centuries that if elected president he would put the American constitution and people before the pope in deciding policy. It struck me as silly that the press would ask him that. Now it seems like a simple question that should be asked of any candidate: Do you believe that God’s will as has been revealed to you should do more to shape policy than your constituents’ will?

There is indication that the Catholics are not yet done changing American laws to conform to their religious convictions. In an opinion by Catholic justice Alito, the Supreme Court has already indicated they will be reconsidering allowing same-sex marriage and access to contraceptives, two more Catholic beliefs that these justices want made into American law.

It is a curious turn of history that a country founded by Protestants for whom religious freedom – and freedom from religion – were foundational is now having the opinions of a majority of Americans overturned by a court dominated by robed justices who dress and think like Catholic clergy. It isn’t clear how far these good Catholics will go to conform American law to Catholic convictions. It is easy to believe, for instance, that they would put up obstacles to research in genetics that echo the Catholic Church’s stopping Galileo’s research into the earth’s orbit by putting him under house arrest.

It is true that no religious group in the US is larger than Catholics. It is not true that they are a majority – making up less than a quarter of us. And even if they were 51% of our population, the first amendment still suggests that they have no license to turn their religious convictions into our laws. Catholics need to understand that they are no different than Mormons, Baptists, Hindus, and atheists in this simple regard: they are welcome to live by their beliefs but not allowed to impose those beliefs on others. As Americans, our only law about religion is that we don’t have any laws about religion. And for this, even America’s most popular religion is no exception. Unless, of course, the Supreme Court rules that it is.

21 June 2022

Texan Republicans Propose Undoing the Work of the Country's Greatest Presidents - an attempt to undo centuries of progress in return for an imagined past

A fascinating thing has happened over the last 200+ years of progress, ever since Jefferson changed John Locke's "life, liberty and property" into "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Since Jefferson life expectancy has doubled and per capita GDP has gone up 25X, the average American now making as much in two weeks as the average American in the late 18th century made in a year.

But the pursuit of happiness doesn't always take individuals into greater prosperity or longer lives.

Some people prefer less stressful, lower-paying jobs or no job at all, choosing less prosperity. Others love hobbies like base jumping or binge drinking, pursuing happiness in a way that also lowers life expectancy. So, while this pursuit of happiness has given most of us more income and longevity, it doesn't have to.

Which brings me to Texas Republicans.

Last week, the Texas GOP voted on their 2022 platform. Quite simply, they refute every advance that has made us more prosperous and longer living than the first Americans.

Jefferson was one of the big reasons we have religious freedom and freedom from religion. His -and all the founding fathers' - Enlightenment philosophy replaced belief in the supernatural with evidence found in the natural. This made science and tinkering rather than personal revelation the stuff of community. It also made things like votes you could count rather than the divine rights of kings the source of power.

The Texas GOP would like to "return Christianity to schools and government," making religion the basis for education and government, a reversal of what Jefferson did centuries ago. They also want to undo the progress of Lincoln.

Lincoln not only fought the Confederacy but instituted income tax. Income tax was a brilliant innovation that gave the Union money to fight Confederates while at the same time investing in the largest infrastructure project in history (the transcontinental railroad) and new universities like the University of California, Purdue, LSU, Texas A&M and dozens of other universities. The A&M designation was for agricultural and machinery, these institutions making American farms the most productive in the world and helping to create a new generation of factory workers. Almost as importantly, the income tax paid interest on the bonds that financed all of these investments, and this turned a generation of ordinary people - shopkeepers, farmers, and housewives - into capitalists whose first foray into investments came through the purchase of these bonds. The growth in capital markets after this helped fund a proliferation of new products, jobs and the most remarkable change in prosperity ever witnessed.

Texas Republicans want to eradicate income tax, a tool for so much including public investments and research that has furthered progress. While tearing down income tax, though, they do want to preserve monuments to the Confederate soldiers who violently resisted Lincoln’s efforts to liberate and improve the lives of all Americans.
Texas Republicans also want to return us to the economic policies of the Great Depression.

FDR became president in the midst of a brutal economic downturn. The Great Depression destroyed half of GDP and a quarter of American jobs. The global depression drove a similar downturn in Germany, which brought Hitler to power. FDR used the insights of Keynes to begin a recovery but it wasn’t until war with Hitler that government policies drove enough spending to end the Depression. The Federal Reserve pre-dated FDR but he helped to transform it into a vehicle for Keynesian policies. From 1900 to 1933, the American economy was in recession 47% of the time. Since 1933, it has been in recession only 13% of the time, largely changed by a Fed enabled by Keynesian philosophy.

The Texas GOP wants to end the Fed, to return us to the time of unregulated banking. We know how deregulation works and the problems are not limited to the early 1900s. Starting in 2007, Texan George Bush's deregulation of the mortgage market triggered a sharp downturn, a global recession. Had it not been for that recession triggered by deregulation, the American economy would have been in recession only 4% of the time this century, about one tenth as often as it was in the first decades of the last century. The Fed and regulation makes a difference.

In the 1960s, women, minorities and homosexuals gained more rights, access to universities and workplaces. Women could open checking accounts without their husband's signature and won control over their own bodies. The Texas GOP wants homosexuality treated as an abnormal lifestyle choice and wants to end abortion rights.

The pursuit of happiness has neatly coincided with growing prosperity. For Texan Republicans it is not enough to return to a time 250 years earlier before the great advances of Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR. They want to bring along the rest of the state – even the nation - ending hard fought for rights and policies of America’s most defining leaders.

The Texan GOP wants to reverse the great progress that Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR gave us, policies that gave us longer, more prosperous lives. We are now in a time in history when a growing portion of conservatives so yearn for the imagined past that they are no longer interested in progress but instead imagine their happiness in the past. That would seem almost quaint if their choice was to retreat to off-the-grid communes rather than insist on dragging their neighbors and the rest of the country with them.

17 June 2022

Bitcoin's Wild Inflation and the Crypto Promise That is Getting Harder and Harder to Believe

People are (rightfully) nervous about the dollar getting hit with inflation. Over the last year, the dollar has dropped in value by 8.5% . Which is to say, inflation has been 8.5% in the last YEAR.

By contrast, inflation in bitcoin in the last WEEK has been 30.4%.

Over the last year, bitcoin has moved in one week nearly as much as the dollar has moved in the last year - an average of 2.7% a day and 7.4% a week. (Keep in mind that targeted inflation for the dollar is 2% and for years annual inflation for the dollar has been about that, less than bitcoin moves in a day.)

Stocks give you a share of the company's earnings.
Bonds give you interest payments.
Rental property gives you rental income.

All of those assets come with risk and their value will rise and fall but they do promise profit, interest and income. Crypto makes no promise of any income or return. Its only promise is that it will become a preferred currency because it is more stable than the dollar or euro. Demand will rise for it over time because of its superiority to the dollar. That superiority is largely based on the promise of its relative stability compared to the dollar.

That promise is harder and harder to believe.

08 June 2022

The Geography of the Imagination - How Marco Polo Inspired Christopher Columbus

Here are a few paragraphs from my book The Fourth Economy about Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, a meeting of east and west.

Marco Polo’s trips to the Orient overlapped with the final crusades (he returned to Italy from his final trip in 1295) and opened up trade routes with Cathay (a kingdom roughly coincident with China) and Cathay’s “Emperor of the Universe,” Kublai Khan. He traveled widely through Asia, India, and the Middle East and then, while sitting in jail back home in Italy, dictated his stories to a cellmate who wrote romance novels.

The book seduced Europeans, who were fascinated to learn of distant lands with exotic customs. They read of Pem, a place where a woman was legally entitled to take a new husband when ever hers was gone on a trip of twenty or more days. They learned of the funeral procession of the Mongol’s Great Khans in which “anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world." Mangu Khan’s funeral procession collected twenty thousand victims en route to the grave. Yet it might have been the reports of great wealth that most captivated their imagination. Marco Polo inspired generations of explorers.

Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506), for one, carried a copy of Marco Polo’s account with him on his journeys across the Atlantic. Marco Polo changed the geography of the imagination of younger explorers, changing what they thought was possible and desirable, and this transformation of the possible changed what was real.

What if We Treated Gun Deaths as a Serious Rather Than an Ideological Problem to Solve

What if gun deaths were not ideological?

Every day more than 300 Americans are shot. 123 are killed.

In 2020, 45,000 people were killed by guns in the US. If we define a generation as 30 years, 45,000 a year over the next generation means 1.4 million killed by guns.

If we were to stop treating this as an ideological issue and instead treated it like we do issues like death in childbirth or deaths from auto accidents and simply, methodically, systematically found ways to reduce gun deaths by 5% a year, every year, this could make a dramatic difference as the next generation comes of age.

If there is no change in annual gun deaths over the next 30 years, this will mean 1.4 million dead. If gun deaths rise by 5% a year for 30 years, it will mean 3.4 million dead during that time. If deaths drop by 5% a year, it will mean 700,000 dead.

The difference it would make over the next generation if gun deaths rise by 5% a year vs. fall by 5% a year?
2.7 million lives. That is greater than the population of 14 states.

(If you think a steady rise of 5% is high, consider this. Between 2019 and 2020, gun deaths rose 14%. The difference over a generation of a rise or fall of 14% a year in gun deaths is a difference of 20 million.)

07 June 2022

From Lincoln to Trump - the Birth and Obsolescence of the Republican Party

As we learn more about how clearly Trump and his supporters were intent on overthrowing democracy on 6 January 2021, it will be really fascinating to see how many Republicans side with Trump (as senators like Cruz and Rubio have done) and how many side with democracy (like Romney and Cheney have done).

Lincoln was the first Republican president and so incredibly visionary and progressive. Trump could easily be the GOP's last president and was even more focused on the past than Lincoln was the future. The telegraph was incredibly revolutionary technology at the time of Lincoln. It no longer is. Politics and policy is no different from technology. What defines state of the art in one generation is quaint in the next.

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. A pity that the GOP wasn't also influenced by Darwin. Failure to evolve might be the simplest explanation of why Lincoln will go down in history of one of our greatest presidents and Trump as one of our worst.

17 May 2022

Zero-sum Thinking, Replacement Theory and How Progress Transformed the World of Our Founding Fathers

When this country began, land was the limit to progress and the simplest definition of our economic policy was to get more land. Land claimed or conquered and then sold (as well as tariffs collected) was how the government generated revenue to operate. The work of getting more land was the work of conquest. Early Americans practiced slavery and genocide; this was brutal but it was how one got ahead in zero-sum world. This was the world of which Jesus would say, "It's as hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Rich meant you were somehow exploiting others.

Land is zero sum. My gain comes at your loss (sorry about taking your old hunting grounds but, you know, I had to clear the forest to carve out a farm). There is only so much acreage or gold or timber and what you get I lose. Zero sum means competition - fierce competition.
Fortunately, something almost magical happened shortly after the US was founded. With the industrial revolution, for the first time since the ancient Greeks, we began to experience gains in per capita GDP. This meant that it was possible for your life to get better without mine getting worse. Simplest illustration of this? Rather than need two slaves to weave the fibers for my new clothes (a task that would make their life worse and mine better), I could use machines. And so could those former slaves.

Lincoln and the Republicans were acutely aware of this and it was one reason why they fought so against slavery. It wasn't just evil. With capital, slavery was unnecessary.

Still, there are a lot of people who still imagine they live in a zero-sum economy. (We don't. In truth, we live in a time of such abundance that we artificially create zero-sum conditions with sports, having strict rules about how only one of thirty NBA teams can be this year's champ no matter how much better most teams are. That ancient impulse for competition has to be sated somehow. Sports does it.)

The folks who believe this is a zero-sum world are the people who still think that immigrants are coming to steal their job.

When the US gained its independence, we had only 3.9 million people. Today we have nearly 100X more people. Or course its nonsense to think that the 330 million newborns and new immigrants since the time of the founding families had to steal jobs from the original Americans. More people mean more economic opportunities, not less. And not only do we now create 3.9 million new jobs EACH MONTH, but the pay for those jobs is multiples of what early Americans would have ever imagined.

In general, conservatives are people who have this curious notion that the past was better. Or, perhaps more accurately, they seem to think that the truths of the past still hold today. Conservatives susceptible to replacement theory still think they're living in a zero-sum economy, one where every gain you make comes at my expense. This - like the anti-vaxx movement - is evidence of a mind still shaped by pre-Enlightenment thinking. (Vaccinations were, like this great country, an invention of Enlightenment thinkers).

You don't live in a zero-sum economy. Value doesn't come at the expense of someone else. It is something we have to create. Maybe we'd have more luck with that if we looked at others as collaborators rather than competitors.

12 May 2022

What Drove Up Stock Prices - And Why Stock Prices Will Rise Again

Between 1980 and 2008, the number of Americans dependent on investments like 401(k)s for retirement tripled. (And I suspect it has continued to rise.)
Compared to its peak about 1998, the number of publicly traded companies has fallen to about a third.
Triple the demand. A third of the supply. I don't know how that does anything other than make prices seem high.


The number of publicly listed companies in the US has steadily declined since its peak in 1996. That has a lot to do with market volatility and crazy stock prices.

In the last few decades, the portion of Americans with pensions has halved and the portion dependent on the stock market for retirement has tripled.[1]

During that same time, the number of publicly listed companies - companies whose stock you can buy and make a part of your retirement account - has fallen to about one-third of its peak. [2]

And here we have one important problem with pricing stocks.

If we just look at supply and demand, the supply of companies whose stock you can buy has fallen to a third of its peak and if we just look at demand for stocks, the portion of Americans dependent on stocks for retirement has tripled. If the supply is a third and the demand has tripled, the price has no where to go but up. From this angle, crazy high stock prices are very reasonable.

Meanwhile, we have traditional measures of stock value. Traditional as in it generates profits. If you pay $100 for a share of stock, ideally that would represent - say - $5 a year in profits. The price of $100 relative to the profits of $5 works out to a Price to Earnings ratio (PE) of 100/5 = 20. What seems reasonable from a perspective of PE is something in the range of 15 to 35. (If you are expecting big growths in profits and interest rates are low - which means you discount those future profits less - PE ratios considerably higher than 15 to 35 are justified. That is to say, a growth stock could reasonably have a very high PE.) Even though Tesla has fallen by about 40% year to date, its PE is still 100. That's really high and a lot of stocks in the last year have had either really high PE ratios - or given they are not yet profitable - no PE ratio.

If we only look at PE, the stock market has been wildly overpriced.

But if you look at the demand for stocks v the supply of stocks (again, the number of publicly traded companies), the stock market has arguably been reasonably priced. People need a way to build wealth for retirement. There are not many companies being traded. The result is that the price of companies - the value of their stock - will go up. (I suspect that this fundamental demand is going to drive stock prices back up.)

There is more going on with asset prices than this but I don't think enough is said about this tension. Stock prices have been quite reasonable given growing demand for a shrinking number of stocks even though from the perspective of PE, stock prices have been silly.

What is the solution? Well, you know me and my mantra about entrepreneurship now being the limit to progress. We need more initiatives - public and private - to make more people more entrepreneurial. One simple reason? We have more capital than good investments right now. The two limits to creating more investments are public policies (for initiatives like reducing child poverty and infrastructure investments) and private initiatives to start more companies that can go public.

One way to meet the demand for publicly listed companies without making stock prices higher than PE would seem justified is to create more companies. That's going to require more entrepreneurs. More effective entrepreneurs can meet the demand for good investments without driving up the price of assets to seemingly unsustainable levels.

[1] https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v69n3/v69n3p1.html
[2] https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DDOM01USA644NWDB

07 May 2022

Freedom of Religion as Bold, Liberating, Irrational and Key to Understanding the Debate About Abortion

TL/DR: Freedom of religion means that in spite of my conviction that you will spend an eternity in hell for not believing what I believe, I will respect your choice about what to believe. This respect for the beliefs of others has made the modern world vastly better than the medieval world. In the same way, respecting a woman's belief about "when it's a pregnancy" vs "when it's a baby" requires a similar restraint among true believers who know its a baby at the moment of conception, a similar awareness of the necessary gap between personal conviction and universal law.
In this modern world we rarely have occasion to think about what a bold, liberating and irrational thing is freedom of religion. Until you appreciate that, it’s hard to understand the modern debate on abortion.

Why is freedom of religion irrational? What is at stake is where souls will spend eternity: heaven or hell. If you know – I mean, really know – that your belief in the right god and way to worship will make the difference as to whether you suffer eternal damnation or eternal paradise, everything else pales in comparison. This life is so brief that no present sufferings are worth comparing. And if you truly loved your fellow man, you would never wish for them eternal damnation.

Odd things happen when you realize the stakes of a mistaken belief.

There is an account of good English Protestants kidnapping Irish Catholic children from their parents. Why? These poor children were to be indoctrinated into a Catholic faith that – because it was wrong – would result in their spending an eternity in hell. As an act of great kindness and compassion, they kidnapped these children to raise them as good Protestants, thus ensuring that they would spend an eternity in paradise. The trauma of mothers and children separated from one another was trivial given the stakes. “No present suffering …”

The 30 years war is another tragic example of the atrocities of war. And the consequences of not even having a concept of freedom of religion. For decades in the early 1600s Protestants and Catholics battled across central Europe, killing about 4 to 8 million people. In some regions, half the residents died. (As in any war, only a portion of the casualties were soldiers killed on a battlefield. And lest you think a few million insignificant, the equivalent portion killed in the US today would be about 70 million.) The aftermath of this madness was one of the catalysts behind our founding fathers determining that a core foundation to this country would be freedom of religion.

Religious belief was made a private matter in the US, not something you could impose on another or legislate, no matter how passionately convicted you were of how right you were or the stakes involved.

Again, freedom of religion is both the most wonderful and rational thing and the most awful and irrational thing. If you truly believe that your faith is the only one that will save a soul from eternal damnation, it is the most evil sort of thing to simply leave your neighbor to cling to mistaken beliefs that define Catholics or Jews or Scientologists or – gulp – atheists, or any number of mistaken beliefs. Seriously think about this. Eternity is at stake and you are going to let someone choose a path that means eternal damnation? And yet …

Freedom of religion required a kind of humility that had been lacking for centuries in the West. A humility of realizing that your neighbors’ beliefs were as legitimate as your own. You don’t even have to believe that they are right. You simply have to believe that they are deserving of the choice about what to believe as you are, recognizing that their convictions are as legitimate as your own. Again, you don’t even have to believe that they might be right. You might even believe that their passing on their belief to their children will also mean that those children are lost for eternity. You only have to believe that their belief they are right is as worthy of respect as your own.

Which brings me to abortion. The anti-abortion folks fiercely believe that at the moment of conception sperm and egg – the flotsam and jetsam of life, the regular waste of human existence – are transformed into precious life, into a little being as worthy of protection as a newborn. If you really believe that, it puts a burden on you as serious as the sincere belief that your faith means eternal paradise and their faith means eternal damnation. If you have real love, real care for this new life and its mother, you would never let anything happen to it. You would protect it as fiercely as if it were a child walking around in the world. These present sufferings of pregnancy and raising a child are not to be compared to murder in the same way that any present sufferings of this life pale in comparison to eternal damnation.
Similar to freedom of religion, though, to respect the choice a woman might make to act on her belief that the moment after conception sperm and egg are not instantaneously transformed into a child doesn’t even mean that you have to accept her belief. It simply means that you have to show her belief as much respect as your own. It requires a kind of humility about your own belief. And in this sense – this question of When life begins, we really are encroaching on the territory of freedom of religion. There is no observable fact that tells us the instant when life begins. That is a belief and as tends to happen with beliefs, there are differences in opinion – and conviction – about this.

You might say that given you know abortion kills hundreds of thousands of babies every year you can’t allow it to continue. You know this in the same way that good Catholics and Protestants in the 30 Year War knew that they would go to heaven and the others would suffer eternal damnation; you are utterly convicted of this belief even while knowing that there are people who believe otherwise. I’d remind you of the madness that followed from people in the West’s inability to respect the beliefs of others as just as valid as their own. No one is asking you to change your belief. We are only asking you to respect the beliefs of others just as much as you want your own beliefs respected.

From this freedom of religion, this freedom of thought, this freedom to compose a life of one’s own choosing has come a world that might well strike Europeans alive during the 30 years war as a kind of paradise. This present suffering has been dramatically reduced. The key foundation to building this present, free and comfortable world has been demanding as much respect for the beliefs of others as you would want for your own beliefs. You believe life begins at the moment of conception. Fine. We respect and honor that. No one is asking you to change that belief. We only ask that you show as much respect for another’s belief as you want shown for yours. You – rightfully – believe that it would be a horrific trauma to have an abortion forced upon you. Understand that a woman with different beliefs than your own would believe it a horrific trauma to have a pregnancy forced upon her. Whatever our differences in belief about the instant when life begins, we have the choice to believe that abortions and pregnancies are not something that should be forced upon a woman. Let people act on their beliefs. That respect is a cornerstone of the modern world and abandoning that respect adds to this present suffering in ways that are unnecessary and traumatic.

Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugene Delacroix, 1822.