The Fungibility of Fungibility


So the health care bill the House passed picked up a last-minute amendment.  Known as the Stupak Amendment, after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who wrote and offered it, it says no federal health dollars can go to fund abortions.

There’s nothing new about that.  It’s been the law since 1976, when the Hyde Amendment (named for long-time GOP congressman, Henry Hyde) passed.  It’s still the law and there is no danger that the House will revoke it.  Actually, in its entire 33-year existence to this point, it has never been in any danger.

“So why did Rep. Stupak think he needed to repeat the Hyde Amendment in the health care bill?,” you might reasonably ask.

Two reasons:  1) grandstanding; 2) Stupak’s language actually goes beyond the Hyde Amendment.

See, Stupak’s amendment doesn’t just forbid federal money from being spent on abortions; it forbids poor women from spending their own money to get an abortion.  According Stupak, the GOP, and other abortion opponents, if a poor woman gets the new federal subsidy to partially offset the cost of buying insurance for herself and her family (which federal law will now require her to do), any money she spends on an abortion or even an insurance policy that covers abortion is federal money.

This, they say, is based on a perfectly valid principle you may recall from your Macroeconomics 101 class: the fungibility of money.  (I remember it because it was the first time I’d heard the word “fungibility,” and it made me giggle.)

It means that once you put a bunch of dollars in the same pot, you can’t tell them apart.  Therefore, you can’t tell which ones came from where or which ones are paying for what.  Therefore, Stupak, et al., say, once a federal insurance subsidy lands in a woman’s bank account, it’s fungible with all her other money.  Therefore, when she writes a check for the insurance she’s required to buy, she has to buy a policy that doesn’t cover abortion; otherwise, federal money might be going to fund abortion.

‘Em’s a lot of “therefore”s, but that’s the argument, as I understand it; and there’s nothing inherently illogical about it, as far as I can tell.

The problem is its extremely selective notion of fungibility.

Selective in at least three ways: 1) in its application to this bill and not others; 2) in its application to abortion only; and 3) in its narrow sense of the scope of fungibility itself.

1.  By Stupak’s logic, federal money is already paying for abortions and has been for decades.  America’s poor get small federal subsidies of all kinds.  If we’re gonna start applying the fungibility of money like this, no poor person can ever get one.

2.  By Stupak’s logic, federal money is also paying for a huge number of felonies every year.  Any person who gets federal aid, who also buys a baseball bat and uses it, maybe years later, to beat a small child to death, has used federal money to violate federal law in an extremely heinous way.  Why should we care so much more about abortions than we do about brutal murders (or, if your politics so hold, other brutal murders)?

3.  The last one is the really fun one.  The fungibility of fungibility.  That is, anytime you start making things illegal on the basis of the fungibility of federal dollars, you can’t stop.  Fungibility of money goes everywhere.  It applies to everything.

Take churches, for example.  Churches raise money internally to carry out their religious mission.  Churches also get federal dollars for some of the social services they provide.  But once the internal money and the federal money are in a church’s account, you can’t tell it apart.  Which, by Stupak’s logic, means federal money is being spent on all kinds of purely religious activities.  Since that’s prohibited by the constitution, churches can no longer receive any federal money for anything they do, nor can the money their donors contribute be tax-exempt.

Reckon what Stupak — a devout Catholic — is gonna say when that happens, seeing as how the Catholic Church gets more federal dollars than any other?

Even better, all [valid] U.S. dollars everywhere in the world are printed by the U.S. Treasury, disbursed by the Federal Reserve Bank, and backed by the “full faith and credit” of the federal government.  Since every one of those dollars is fungible with every other dollar, every single thing everybody in the world buys with a U.S. dollar is bought with federal money.

And that’s the problem with Stupak’s abortion logic.  It’s a black hole, and nothing can escape it.

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2 Responses to “The Fungibility of Fungibility”

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