Thursday, 5 December 2013

In Government We Trust


When people say they don’t trust government, they are often confusing trust with blind trust and government with functions of government they don’t like or of which they are skeptical. Few of the lefties now howling about NSA and GCHQ surveillance have a problem giving national governments enormous power to engineer certain social outcomes. And the debate over spying would be much more interesting if such persons would stop dressing what are only their prejudices and preferences in the rhetorical garb of a pseudo-libertarianism. 

Now over the past few months we’ve been treated to a spectacle of public hysteria and indignation over the Snowden leaks. The popular belief seems to be that the NSA and its British counterpart have been monitoring the emails, phone calls, and text messages of the entire world, and that no man, woman, or child has uttered a word without it being recorded. A moment’s reflection should lead any reasonable person to question whether such a thing is even possible. And the next stage of that contemplation should lead him to ask: what does it mean to say that these spy agencies are collecting data? What kind of data? And further: does the gathering of such data amount to an invasion of privacy and an infringement of liberty?

This line of inquiry prompts two more questions. The first is the old one of liberty versus security: how much legal space does a government need to protect the lives and property of its citizens? This question is best discussed in the abstract. The second, more relevant, question is: what reasonable guarantees of privacy ought we to have from our government given our competing demand that it investigate and prevent terror threats?

In dealing with the latter it must be acknowledged that less and less of the content we put into various media streams can actually be kept private. If I go to the Washington Post website, a number of books I’ve expressed interest in are put before me. If I visit the Huffington Post or some other news site, I am told the names of Facebook friends who have also visited the page. We are all forced into communities of interest without our consent. Our transactions and communications are monitored and employed by private companies to get us to buy things directly or by way of seeing them advertised. I am not too bothered by these intrusions. The effort of various networking sites and retailers to keep tabs on my online activities is no threat to me, and I suppose it can be convenient at times. I am inclined to feel the same way about the collection of phone records and other kinds of meta-data by the government. And I prefer to give the government what it needs, within reason, to be effective in protecting the lives and property of its citizens, while demanding strong safeguards to prevent abuse.

The most obvious rejoinder to this preference is that it is naïve; that politicians and policy makers are never to be trusted, that government is to be always suspected of being up to no good, and that if you give it more power it will inevitably misuse it. These claims and admonitions could be used to discredit every act of the state and any of the organizations and institutions run by it. And I can only respond by saying that blanket distrust of state action and government bodies is as dangerous to liberty as unreserved confidence in them. No one expects their government to coerce, intimidate, and wrongfully persecute its citizens. But I would think that most people expect it to take measures to detect and thwart intended acts of violence and murder. I do not claim that government can justify any action on the premise of public safety; only that it can justify certain, limited, legally authorized actions on that premise.

Legislators and law courts often get things wrong when it comes to these matters.  For decades the ‘law and order’ meme has been used by reactionaries and demagogues to advance everything from mass incarceration to mass deportation. It has been used to profile and harass individuals who were doing nothing other than exercising their right to protest or to put one foot in front of the other on the street; it has also been used to blackmail and smear persons whose ability to inspire and influence threatened the status quo. But criticizing acts of cruelty and suppression is a far cry from objecting to government programs on the spurious basis that the agencies that run them are in league to undermine democracy. In every forum in which this topic has been broached one has heard nothing but wild stories and over-exaggerations—the pathos of grievance and outrage that so dominates current discourse.  If sanity is to be brought to the debate over spying the activity must first be seen as a legitimate public service that, like other such services, is subject to checks and oversight.

Those on the left who single out the operations of the NSA or GCHQ as examples of government infringement of individual liberty say nothing about the tax man who siphons money from wages to finance social welfare programs; nor do they complain of regulators who infringe the freedom of business owners by enforcing safety and anti-discrimination laws. Liberalism holds that government ought to intrude in the lives of individuals in limited and prescribed ways in order to promote the common good. What spy agencies do is not congenial to the moral feeling and personal temperament of everyone. But that does not put these agencies outside the bounds of public service and political control.

I should also say something, as an aside, on the current kerfuffle over The Guardian’s role in the Snowden leaks. The paper has a responsibility to publish what it thinks is in the public interest, and it should not be hauled before legislative committees for doing so. If any governmental pressure is to be brought to bear, it ought to be on Russia for harboring a fugitive—that vain, callow charlatan Mr. Edward Snowden. Otherwise, the efforts of the U.S. and U.K. are better served in trying to prevent future leaks of this kind.

Representative democracy is not perfect. Not everyone will always be pleased with what their governments do. That’s why we have politics and elections. No good comes of persons going on irrational screeds about The Big Brother State, especially when the same folks turn around the next day and blast the government for not regulating banker’s bonuses and not doing enough to bring down youth unemployment. In both instances, the government is expected to employ public resources to advance the common good. If one favors public investment in education and infrastructure but does not care for its foreign and domestic surveillance programs, that's a legitimate position. But it is just as arbitrary as someone who favors the latter but does not care for the former. In either case, the person puts his trust in government to solve public problems and promote the general welfare.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

In Defense of Same Sex Marriage


The time has come to extend the civil franchise of marriage to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Regardless of how the cases now before the United Sates Supreme Court turn out, the fight for marriage equality, for recognition of same sex couples who have entered committed relationships and wish to enjoy the legal status of marriage, will continue.

As this debate has unfolded in the last decade or so opponents of same sex marriage have suggested that the legal sanctioning of marriage between two men or two women presents a danger to both the institution of marriage in particular and the civil society of America as a whole. They tend to employ some form of one or another of the following argumentative strategies: the argument from anthropology, the argument from history, and the argument from religion.

‘Anthropology,’ some of them contend, ‘and the other social sciences inform us that the human family is the foundation of society and all its institution. If we were to alter the way in which such families are formed, namely, through marriage and the production of children, we would open a path to the collapse of civilization itself.’

In general, claims that contain such sweeping summaries of academic research ought to be received with skepticism. But in this specific case, even if scholarly credence were lent to the premise of the argument, none could be given to its conclusion; for no credible contemporary anthropologist, speaking strictly as a social scientist, has ever made that kind of unqualified claim. Opponents of same sex marriage are thus barred from using the authority of social science to advance their cause. However, their trouble runs deeper than that. If we look around, we see that not every couple that marries does so for the purpose of having children. Indeed, heterosexual marriages are formed for a variety of reasons and are organized and practiced in an insuperable number of ways. Yet civilizationsfrom the American to the Japanesecontinue to thrive economically, socially, and culturally, despite the plurality of ideas around which marriage is arranged.

This brings us to the argument from history, a line of reasoning closely linked to the last one, and to my favorite refrain from opponents of marriage equality: ‘Marriage has always been defined as the union between one man and one woman.’ Persons who repeat this claim seem to be unaware that they are not saying or proving very much. To rest one’s entire case against same sex marriage on gender composition excludes the aims, purposes, and functions of marriage, as well as the concrete relations and experiences of the persons in it. By referring constantly to how marriage has always been ‘defined’ the opponents of marriage equality conflate a concept associated with marriage with various conceptions of it.

While it is true that oppositeness of sexuality has been until recently one of the abiding conventions of marriage, this bare fact is much too limited to explain in full how persons in history conceived and practiced marriage. Different times saw different conceptions of the institution. In Ancient Rome women were seen as so much property, to be transferred from one family to another; in Medieval Europe royal and aristocratic families used their sons and daughters to seal political alliances and produce heirs of their crowns, lands, and fortunes, while in the lower classes the institution was used to create a supply of cheap labor; even as late as the 19th century, middle class women were pressured into finding an appropriate ‘match’ for a marriage in order to maintain respectability and to relieve their families of the financial burden of keeping them fit to live in society—in all of these examples, social and economic conditions were the determinative factors in prompting or compelling people to marry and established the standards by which they conducted themselves once they had done so. The fact that the two persons in the union were of the opposite sex mattered only with regard to the production of children, a biological function inseparable from the larger material and political needs of the times.

Marriage is an idea that has changed and evolved over the centuries. The much freer and humane views of marriage and family held by we who live in the 21st century contrasts starkly with the illiberal and parochial conceptions of those who came before us. Those who attempt to reduce the debate over same sex marriage to the ‘definition’ of marriage neglect the variety of ways the institution has been and continues to be exemplified.

I shall not tarry long on the argument from religion; for the refusal of its proponents to recognize certain factual realities of the American Constitution makes it untenable from the start. The minions who argue from religion insist that America is a Christian nation, and that because the bible forbids homosexuality the government is obligated to deny legal recognition to same sex couples in any form, including civil unions. The Christian Right has certainly been effective in their campaign to convince Americans that the country was founded on ‘Judeo-Christian’ values; and I have recently discovered that their influence extends beyond the nation’s shores.

The week after President Obama came out in favor of same sex marriage I received an email from a Scottish preacher friend of mine in which he offered a standard Christian criticism of same sex marriage. What struck me most was a line in which he stated that allowing same sex couples to marry would extend the separation of church and state “beyond what the Founders imagined”. This good clergyman is an example of the milder kinds of theists who oppose same sex marriage: he is not bigoted, nor is he mean-spirited or hate-filled; he is just in error. He believes, like many of his fellow Christians across the pond, in the fundamental religiosity of the American Founders, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And he adheres to this belief because of a more fundamental conviction that the institutions of Western society rest solely on Christian precepts. Here is not the place to treat this misconception with the thoroughness it deserves. It must suffice to say, in the context of this discussion, that the Constitution of the United States is a secular document. There is not a single hint, indication, or suggestion that the Founders wished the laws and policies of the nation to be governed according to Christian principles.

‘Why not just invest civil unions with all the rights and privileges of marriage?’ is a point often raised among those struggling to accommodate both the traditionalists and the liberals on this issue. But that presupposes the existence of a marital norm that belongs exclusively to heterosexual couples. And in any case, the history of ‘separate but equal’ in America has shown that the sectioned off group is usually reduced over time to a state of second-class citizenship. No. Only full recognition of the right of same sex couples to get married will do.

It must be remembered that marriage as a civil right is in essence a contractual arrangement. It involves the merging of assets and the acquisition of certain legal privileges in the management of domestic affairs. The religious ceremonies associated with marriage are grounded in custom and ritual; but a marriage ceremony is not a necessary condition for a couple to be married in the eyes of the law. Although the fact is not stated often enough, persons must work through the public authority in order to seal the legal bond of their marriage.

This secular principle leads me to the position that if every other kind of couple that may face disapproval from some sections of society—think of younger men and much older women, of older men and much younger women, of couples of different religions, of couples of different races, of couples of different socio-economic backgrounds—can legally marry then the right should be extended to same sex couples.

Yes, I have good friends, indeed life-long friends, who are gay; but my position is based mainly on strongly held liberal and secularist ideals. I take human equality to be the central tenant of liberalism, and I am convinced of the need to respect individuality in all of its variousness. Such statements usually lead to the rejoinder: ‘so you respect the murderer and the child molester!’ To which I respond: I respect the right of these persons to exist, to fulfill their potential, and seek happiness; but this in no way commits me to respect or approve of the act of murder or child molestation. One may accept the will of individuals to act in ways that are natural to them while not condoning every act such individuals may engage in. Order, safety, and decency still matter in society. Recognizing the right of same sex couples to marry is not a stepping stone to accepting those actions and relations still censured by law and common morality.

 In all likelihood the campaign for marriage equality in America will have to be fought year after year, state by state. But history tells us that in the end fairness and justice will prevail.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Case for Re-Election


Barack Obama has been an excellent steward of the presidency and deserves another four years in the White House. No president begins his term of office clear of all difficulties and problems. No president gets to decide the tumult, crises, and challenges that will occur during his incumbency. No president has unlimited power, authority, and resources available to him. For sure results matter but so do the means by which they are achieved. President Obama has been unwavering in his commitment to use the energies and capacities of the federal government to promote the general welfare of all Americans.

Presidential elections are about ideas, policy, and the alternative. In general, we choose between two competing visions, two competing policy prescriptions, and two competing candidates. President Obama took the oath of office during America’s worst recession since 1929, and he has worked steadily to improve the economy for all who participate in it. His intervention in the national economy has been guided by two ideas: Stability and Growth: counter the forces of recession and reinforce the conditions of high industrial performance. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the government loans to GM, Ford, and Chrysler were the two most important policy decisions related to these ideas. The results of President Obama’s actions have been for the most part effective. Over 5 million jobs have been created as a result of the stimulus package and its knock-on effects; over a million manufacturing jobs have been saved because of the president’s decision to implement the auto bail-out; and corporate profits are at an all-time high. Still, the recovery has been bumpy: GDP remains sluggish and unemployment unacceptably high. Much of this has to do with the fact that the original stimulus was too small for a $12 trillion economy and that recoveries from financial crises are normally weak. But President Obama’s plan to increase infrastructure investment, hire more state and local workers, double the size of the payroll tax cut, and add a new set of tax cuts for small businesses and companies that hire new employees are likely to move the country toward a healthier, more robust economy.  

Jobs and the economy are important, but they do not constitute the only issues of public concern; the conditions, arrangements and inter-relations of civil society also matter. President Obama has kept Fairness and Equality at the center of his social policy. The legislation he signed into law is significant in its impact on those who have health care insurance and those who have struggled to get such coverage. We are all strivers in civil society, and the marketplace provides a means for coordinating and exchanging our different wants, needs, and desires. However, health care is unlike any other service in that it is something that everyone in an industrial democracy needs at some point. The ACA is not about eliminating choice and variety or limiting market flexibility; it is about ending consumer mistreatment and making costs more manageable for everyone—particularly the elderly and the working poor. Giving people a fair chance to carve out their own paths to achievement and success requires more than talk about patriotism and freedom; it obliges one to identify the systematic barriers to advancement—the barriers to ‘pulling oneself up by the bootstraps’—and taking measures to mitigate them. This is how the idea of Fairness is transformed into public policy.

The same holds true for Equality. President Obama’s push to repeal the odious ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his further efforts to secure LGBT civil rights affirms his commitment to a core idea of the American Republic: that every citizen is equal under the law. President Obama has put this abstract idea into concrete action; he has demonstrated that in America no one’s love, affection, family life, and dedication to duty is of more value than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that they partner with someone of the opposite sex. Immigration reform is the next big task in the realm of social policy. President Obama has put forth intelligent, comprehensive, and practical policy proposals for providing pathways to citizenship for the millions of undocumented persons living in America.

Precision and Restraint have informed President Obama’s foreign and security policy. Winding down the war in Iraq and shifting resources to the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan was right because the latter theatre of operations is more directly related to the struggle against terrorism. And if we are to commit combat forces overseas, then we ought to be meticulous and definitive in determining the purpose and location of their deployment.  

Much has been made of the president’s handling of the Arab Spring. My own view is that America should not get involved militarily in these conflicts. I opposed our limited intervention in Libya, just as I now oppose intervening militarily in Syria; for the use of American military force in the short term is no guarantee of reduced death and destruction in the long term. But despite my disagreement with President Obama’s decision to support NATO airstrikes in Libya, I am encouraged by his general penchant for moderation, diplomacy, and political sophistication in dealing with foreign affairs. We will need a steady and seasoned hand navigating the ship of state through the next four years as the guard changes in China, our relations with Russia and India become ever-more complex, and unrest continues in the Middle East. President Obama has demonstrated his ability to think and act pragmatically in the preservation of American interests, and he has proven himself an able leader on the world stage.

No endorsement of President Obama would be complete without a discussion of the alternative: Governor Mitt Romney. Of Mr. Romney’s economic ideas I will only say that they are either vague or incoherent, or have already been tested as public policy and have not delivered the promised outcomes. As for his ideas on social policy, it is quite clear he intends to cripple Medicaid, roll back abortion rights, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and use the power of the federal government to insert perverse, religiously-inspired nonsense into women’s health issues. An equally worrying thing about Mr. Romney is his cynicism. Mr. Romney’s habit of lying is so deep and persistent that at times it seems as though he is willing to defy the brute fact of human perception. It’s not just the ads he runs but the things he actually says. He makes claims that are demonstrably false and quickly verifiable. His modus operandi seems to be: say what people want to hear or what they vaguely suspect, mix it with the ‘he said, she said’ jumble of political news, and after a while people will be so confused that they will not care about what is true, only about how they feel—and in tough economic times, this is sure to get a few votes.

To be sure, all presidential candidates exaggerate news, juggle language, and refine their positions over time; but none have told as many bold face lies as Mitt Romney has during this election cycle. Governor Romney has practiced an order of mendacity never before seen in modern presidential politics. His entire campaign is a factory for the customized dissemination of distortion, dissembling, and obfuscation. Mr. Romney’s only conviction is that he should be president and the other guy shouldn’t. And the only thing he has shown the American public is that he will say anything to reach this double aim.

President Obama has demonstrated the integrity and mettle that Americans expect of their Chief Executive. He has proven himself a bright and capable leader whose ideas and policies will continue to do the most good for the most people. The case for re-electing the forty-fourth president is solid and I strongly support him.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

On Modern Conservatism

In his essay, “Why I am not a Conservative”, F.A. Hayek writes:

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs.

It has been a particularly disturbing practice of self-identified Conservatives to gain political traction for their ideas by dressing up nonsense as knowledge and absurdity as conviction. They draw on the Burkean notion that political questions relate not to truth and falsity but to good and evil, and they cast their factual understanding of the world only in the light which favors their prejudices and superstitions.

The promotion of ignorance is part of the general practice by which Conservatives practice fraud in the public sphere—and this purposeful confusion is quite clear to any perceptive and intellectually honest observer: it consists of citing anonymous ‘experts’ who contest the veracity of widely accepted scientific theory, setting forth anecdotal and arbitrarily gathered incidents as proven fact, and, as Hayek mentions, engaging in the most perverse forms of obscurantism and obfuscation imaginable. The popularly held Liberal notion that Conservatives hate science is not quite true. Conservatives delight in the idea of science insofar as they are able to put it to good use. Science is a kind of lego play set to the Conservative mind; they view it as so many scattered pieces that can be put into any construction they see fit. The notion of disinterestedness is anathema to them, for they aim to have a moral order which they believe is absolute and righteous, and this makes truth-seeking irrelevant to their political practice.

The great political tragedy of the Conservative movement in the United States is that it has given fraud the status of convention—to the Conservative mind no Conservative can ever make misleading statements or false assertions; as long as they speak their values it doesn’t matter whether they tell the truth when discussing matters of fact. The cultural danger of Conservatism lays in its tendency to pit thought against feeling, reason against intuition, and intellect against conduct. That the human animal is at once reflective and instinctual is not readily acknowledged by Conservatives. In true Burkean fashion—taken to an extreme—they think that traditional moral and religious beliefs are far more binding than rationally derived law and policy; and they have established a political program—indeed, an entire political and commercial industry—that appeals exclusively to common prejudices and simmering resentments. The impulse to hold on to what is familiar and cherished runs deep within us; but so does the capacity to discern and contemplate what is new and strange. We can grasp variousness and complexity and navigate possibilities and difficulties without fear of social disorder and degeneration.

For Conservatives the rational faculty is of little importance in understanding social norms and shaping law and policy. It is not morality in general that’s at stake—which over twenty-five hundred years of Western philosophy has proven can be derived rationally—but the moral vision of the world as they conceive it.

This is not to suggest that Conservatives are the only ones whose politics are shaped by their moral values. The Liberal vision tends to be one of general enlargement and civic freedom and rational direction in human life—the latter two usually cash out as the desire for greater fairness and equality in society. However, the Liberal does not so easily disregard facts that do not comport with his moral ideas. He is, in any case, more interested in remedying public problems than in promoting ancient moralisms—which means he is usually engaging in a dialectic that diverges considerably from that of the Conservative. The problem with trying to view the Liberal-Conservative divide as a difference in moral visions for the nation is that moral ideas do not function the same way in both camps. For Liberals moral ideas inform what they believe public policy ought to be; for Conservatives moral ideas constitute what they believe public policy ought to be—the Conservative wishes simply to write his moral values into public law.

All that we have witnessed over the past thirty years, as the Conservative movement has gotten stronger and stronger in American politics, is the result of the practices and attitudes I have discussed above. We should not be too shocked that a candidate for the United States Senate would express the kind of vicious beliefs spoken by Mr. Akin. These kinds of ideas circulate regularly in Conservative circles, and have even been promoted in legislative form by the presumptive Republican nominee for Vice President.  

Now it is often suggested in response to such criticisms that Conservatism is not about social issues, but about economic freedom and personal choice. The latter of these is patently untrue, for the entire basis of modern political Conservatism lays in establishing a certain moral and social order. However, the notion that Conservatives are interested in economic freedom has some force behind it. The best minds in modern conservatism—think of Milton Freidman and Richard Posner—have argued brilliantly for jurisprudence and regulatory and fiscal policies that favor flexibility and dynamism in the marketplace. But the ideas of these great thinkers have fallen prey to the fundamental outlook so rigidly adhered to by movement Conservatives—namely, their belief in old social forms.

The economic view of the modern Conservative is really that of a 19th century Gilded Age industrialist rather than a 21st century high tech entrepreneur. They worship the individual business man as the hero of economic growth and production. Following Ayn Rand, they see the great industrialist as the victim of an evil government out to crush his spirit and take the fruits of his genius. They pay no heed to the larger institutions and social arrangements that are needed to sustain business and commerce; nor do they recognize the value systems, composed of value chains, which most modern businesses need to operate, grow, and make a profit. No one can build and successfully run an enterprise all on their own. Organizations are inherently social—we have known this since Peter F. Drucker first made it plain to us. The Conservative’s suggestion that an individual can magically bend the universe to his will fits well within his belief system, but it has no basis in fact. Conservative talk of ‘job creators’ and ‘Liberal attacks on success’ are words which have no correspondence to reality. When they say such things, they aim to reinforce a myth which they created, and which they hope will keep the attention of the faithful and appeal to the tenderness of the sentimental.

F.A. Hayek was probably mistaken when he identified himself as a Burkean Whig; his ideas have greater affinity with classical political economists such as Adam Smith, Jean Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. Hayek believed strongly in individual freedom and the power of market forces to create prosperity. But he never went so far as to deny the vital role of government and the importance of a social safety net in modern society.

Anger and vitriol, hate and delusion, religion and moralism, anachronism and dishonesty—these have all consumed the Conservative movement, and the Republican Party along with it. Conservatives would perhaps be more acceptable if they eschewed the irrationality and tomfoolery that now constitutes their politics and brought themselves closer to the balance and rationality of Hayekian neoliberalism.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Truth About CEO Presidents

In this presidential contest, the American public is once again being told that the Republican candidate knows how to create jobs because he is a former CEO. Taken at face value, this is an absurd claim. For no sane business leader wakes up every morning asking, ‘how many jobs can I create today?’ The single most important priority of business leaders is to make money for their shareholders. And the number of persons a company employs is determined through strategic workforce planning, which is based on business plans, competitive positioning, and general consumer demand. The truth is that no company has job creation as its central purpose, and anyone who knows anything about the inner-workings of business organizations understands this.

Governor Romney’s claim that he can solve the nation’s unemployment crisis because he was a successful business leader is meant to take advantage of the misconception many Americans have about the CEO President: that mythological creature that was thought up years ago by right-wing pollsters and pundits, and that is meant to play on the romance America has had over the last couple of decades with certain of its business leaders.

Executives such as Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs have been celebrated for their vision, intelligence, and judgment. And it is now widely assumed that former CEOs who run for public office will be able to translate their business know-how into a formula that will bring the nation high economic growth, low unemployment, and a general rise in living standards. But what reason do we have to believe this? We ought to expect a business leader to have considerable knowledge of his market, products, and services as well as his industry, investments, and people; but the intricacies and interrelations of GDP, inflation, unemployment, price indices, trade policy, and international finance are of an entirely different order of knowledge, and there is no reason to think that knowledge of business entails knowledge of macroeconomic theory and policy-making.

We can also demonstrate the falsity of this meme by examining the history of American presidential leadership. The last two presidents with experience as private sector CEOs were George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover. If we look at the respective records of these two men, we see nothing exceptionally good about their stewardship of the economy.

Under President George W. Bush, unemployment rose from 4.3% in Jan. 2001 to 6.3% in June 2003. It was down to 4.4% by March 2007, but was up again to 7.2% by December 2008. The poverty rate increased from 11.3% in 2000 to 12.7% in 2004, and was up to 13.2% when Mr. Bush left office. During the Hoover administration the unemployment rate rose from 3.2% in 1929 to 24.1 percent in 1932; and the average income of most Americans dropped 38%. Now one may say that these figures are distorted by the fact that a financial crisis occured while each of them was in office. But the 1929 Wall Street crash and the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown were not in themselves to blame for mass unemployment and increased poverty; it was rather the failure of Messrs. Hoover and Bush to act decisively which led to economic calamity in each case.

President Hoover refused to provide federal funds for public works projects and cut government spending as tax revenues fell, thereby increasing the deflationary pressures on the economy. He would not provide money for the direct relief of the unemployed and depended upon business and community volunteerism to help ease poverty. President Bush’s response to the financial crisis of 2008 was better but not by much. He pushed emergency loan legislation through Congress to help prop up the banks, but he did almost nothing to deal with rising unemployment; indeed, Mr. Bush declined to increase government spending as unemployment rose and refused to extend unemployment insurance benefits as the job crisis set in.

There is nothing in logic or history which suggests that experience as a CEO gives a president the qualities necessary to competently manage economic affairs. And the claim which states that a CEO President will know what it takes to ‘make the country competitive’ is equally nonsensical. When pundits and politicians talk about national competitiveness, they usually mean one country’s competitive standing vis-à-vis that of others. But it is hard to see what evaluative standard we are supposed to use to determine this status. Should we use GDP, current account, unemployment rate, currency exchange rates, new housing start-ups, new business start-ups, monthly economic growth, annual economic growth, foreign direct investment, or position on the human development index? Or, perhaps it is the aggregate of all these facts that is supposed to tell us the relative competitive strength between nations.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report is the closest thing I’ve seen to this kind of index. It provides a highly detailed and intelligently analyzed overview of the conditions that are favorable and unfavorable to productivity in the various industries in each of the world’s economies. There is no loose talk in this report about countries being in competition with each other; that is because the Forum’s report is based on the Porter framework for national competitiveness.

The Harvard economist Michael E. Porter first brought the idea of competitiveness into the public sphere with his two books, Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage. These works became quite popular among business school academics and management consultants in the 1980s, and his ideas made their way into the business world of the 1990s, changing the way management teams evaluated their ability to produce, develop, market, and distribute goods and services.

In 1990, Professor Porter published The Competitive Advantage of Nations, which is perhaps the best work in the field of political economy since David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. In this book, Porter argues that productivity is the only meaningful criterion for measuring competitiveness; and the only way to understand national productivity is to examine the activity of regional clusters of specialized firms in relation to the social and material conditions of the country as a whole. Porter presents four case studies—Germany printing machines, American patient monitoring equipment, Italian ceramics, and Japanese robotics—and explores the productivity of particular industries within those nations.  

Porter’s vision of national competitiveness is not a zero-sum game in which America is in direct competition with China or India or the United Kingdom for jobs and wealth; he instead offers an empirically-sound theory explaining how nations can grow and thrive simultaneously.  

‘Every industry is unique, with its own sources of competitive advantage and its own evolutionary path’, Porter says. There are no generic set of public policies that guarantee competitiveness. Government’s role is to support the development of regional clusters by educating the workforce, building infrastructure, and creating a regulatory environment that encourages competition among rival firms: specific remedies for each of these policy areas must correspond to concrete social and economic realities, or else they will be of no effect.

Michael Porter is still considered the leading expert on national competitiveness, but few conservative politicians seem to have read him, for they propose policies which have nothing to do with his recommendations. For example, Mr. Romney says he will sign the so-called American Competitiveness Act during his first week in office, the only effect of which will be to lower the overall corporate tax rate. But the only thing that Porter says about corporate taxes is that specific tax incentives can be used to encourage business investment: a single sentence in an 800-page book. ‘The goal of government policy toward the economy’, Porter says, ‘is to deploy a nation’s resources (labor and capital) with high and rising levels of productivity’; there is nothing in The Competitive Advantage of Nations urging tax cuts as a means of achieving this aim.  

The right-wing's abuse of the word competitiveness is part of a larger effort to get us think that whatever is good for profit is good for people. They would have us believe that a former CEO knows how to decrease unemployment and increase prosperity because he has made a lot of money for himself and his shareholders; and they would have us conclude that with Mitt Romney as president everyone will see their wages and their employment prospects improve because he knows how to make wealthy people even wealthier. Mr. Romney wants people to think he will be a job-creating CEO President. But the public must be reminded that the last two CEO Presidents were poor stewards of the national economy and that expertise in business is no guarantee of proficiency in public policy making.

Monday, 30 April 2012

The Myth and Reality of Race

Race is a topic so fraught with peril that I feel some trepidation in discussing it. But given the general confusion about race and the feelings connected with race, I feel compelled to say a few words about it. I will limit my comments and examination to race in America because it is the situation I am most familiar with, and the country has a particularly long and torturous history in dealing with this issue.

The first systematic division of humankind into races was that of Francois Bernier in 1684. The science of the 17th century favored the reduction of all observable phenomena into neat systems that paralleled the orderliness of mathematics and physics, and Bernier’s work was the first attempt to organize the organic world along such lines. Next came the even more famous Systema Naturae (1738) by the Swedish thinker Carl Linnaeus—who is also considered the father of modern taxonomy—which divided the races into four groups with their physical and moral characteristics briefly described. In the 19th century, thinkers such as William Gibson, John Bell, W.F. Edwards, and Arthur de Gobineau advanced a number of theories on race. Gobineau’s racial demography was particularly insidious because its central proposition was that race determines culture and that race mixing threatened to create chaos in the ‘superior white civilizations'.  

All of these racial theories have been thoroughly debunked; and nowadays we only use the words ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ as conversational shorthand to refer to this or that group of people rather than to assert an order of human species. But our more enlightened views have not rid us of the legacy of race-thinking. Although race as a biological fact has been exposed as a myth, we must still contend with the reality that for centuries many Europeans saw non-Europeans as inferior races, and in the case of black Africans, saw them as cheap labor to work the land in the colonies of the New World.

We are all aware of the rape, torture, and brutality that took place in the slave system. But the social-historical context of this moral criminality is often overlooked; and it is this greater story that is most relevant to the difficulties we now have regarding the myth and reality of race.

The ever-increasing wealth and prosperity of the original British colonies in North America gave rise to Slave Power in South. But the force of this new sovereign went unrecognized in the early days of the American Republic. For the issue of slavery itself was carefully avoided—that is, the right to continue the practice of slavery was codified into law with no real debate—during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was barely mention during the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Slave Power did not make itself felt until the 1830s, after the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began agitating.

Owing largely to the efforts of Garrison, along with Frederick Douglass, Samuel J. May, and John Quincy Adams, slavery became the political issue in the United States between 1832 and 1865. One could not enter politics or even talk politics without taking a position on the institution. Our current political squabbles are quite tame when compared to the frenzy and strife that surrounded the question of slavery in mid-19th century America.

As the Abolition movement gained ground in the North, a series of stringent and inhuman slave codes were enacted in the South. There also developed in these years a sort of philosophy of slavery, according to which slavery and the hierarchy of the races was seen as the cornerstone of religion and progress. And this notion of inherent mental and physiological characteristics that separated the races was given credence by a number of racial theories imported from Europe. Southern defenders of slavery distributed hackneyed versions of Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races and used the polygenist theories of the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who was then working at Harvard, to promote their cause.

Although the issue of race itself was not settled, the question of slavery eventually was. The political-economic tyranny of the South and the moral cowardice of the North led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the formation of the Republican Party in 1855 (originally constituted by mostly liberals and anti-slavery activists), President Lincoln, secession, and war.

As I have probably tired the reader with history, I shall not continue in this vein. What is important to understand is that the idea of race as a biological fact was connected with a larger cluster of other cultural assumptions which at one time formed the basis of the social order in the South. And although slavery was abolished race as reality continued as a governing idea in American law, politics, jurisprudence, and economic arrangements long after Appomattox and Reconstruction.

Now we who are closer to the Civil Rights Era live in a time when laws that once gave legitimacy to explicitly racist policies have been dispensed with. Positive action—Affirmative Action—has been taken to reverse the effects of over four hundred years of enslavement, disenfranchisement, and persecution. The growing prevalence of indifference about race, most notably in the election of Barack Obama, is another sign that attitudes have changed and that the matter is now resolved. Yet the outbreak of periodic conflicts that involve race seem to contradict this proposition; and I am moved to wonder why we still struggle with race given all we've done to dispel it from our laws and from our minds.  

When I cast about for responses to this puzzle, I typically hear that it is the fault of the media and ‘race hustlers’ such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. The individuals who make these assertions believe that incidents such as the shooting death of Trayvon Martin have nothing to do with race, and that the aforementioned actors play up race to make money and get attention; moreover, these persons claim that bringing race into issues such as public safety only stirs up racial resentment. But it is a fallacy to think that discussing race only perpetuates it as a problem. However, I do think there is some truth to what these critics say. Rarely does one see a calm and sober-minded conversation after such incidents, because the cameras seek the rawest nerves and most sensational voices—which may make great television but produces lousy dialogue.

Still, the fact that race and the factors connected with race shape current feeling in America cannot be reduced to media sensationalism and the efforts of a few civil rights activists. In matters of public safety, many blacks feel that they are unfairly treated by law enforcement—singled out for having a certain look, wearing certain clothes, driving certain cars, or being in certain neighborhoods. In some cases, the feeling is that the entire justice system is an adversary that is to be loathed and avoided.

The tensions between blacks—especially black men—and police is a legacy of police-led racial violence in the South and equally savage, but less talked about, routine police brutality in the urban centers of the North and West many years ago. That we now have community policing and a good faith effort by law enforcement in many cities to end racial profiling and other abuses does not mean police wrongdoing and the resulting mistrust of those on the receiving end of it have completely gone away. This is a reality that is part of the history of the race myth in America, and we have to deal with it.

In matters of money, employment, and other social-economic factors, the broadened opportunities afforded by Affirmative Action and economic empowerment zones did not suddenly and completely eliminate the structural disadvantages—particularly in health, education, property ownership, and accumulated wealth—faced by blacks. Trying to transform a socio-economic system that had been aimed at disenfranchising a group of people was always going to be difficult. Indeed, even if every vestige of bigotry and unfairness were weeded out, blacks were so far behind (in measures of prosperity) when these programs were implemented that it would be unreasonable to expect them to just ‘pick themselves up by the bootstraps’ and attain the same general level of wealth and affluence as whites within a single generation. This is a reality that is part of the history of the race myth in America, and we have to deal with it.

At this point the reader is right to ask what ‘dealing with’ race in America means. First, I think it means confronting our history honestly and calmly. All of the events that I discussed above happened. And we can accept these facts without flying into rages about who was to blame, or re-igniting ancient hatreds. Second, I believe we can look at the high incarceration rate of black men, the high rate of high school drop-outs among black youths, and the high concentration of chronic unemployment in inner city areas and say that they are partly the result of the legacy of the race myth, partly the result of ‘mandatory minimums’ and other reactionary law and order policies, and partly the result of the failure or misdirection of individual will. These are extraordinarily complex matters and I cannot do them justice in a blog post. But I will say that we ought not to reduce everything to a single cause or single factor or take the rather childish attitude of pointing to a successful black professional and say ‘if he or she can do it, everyone can’. Lastly, I think dealing with race in America means exercising compassion and imagination. Making an effort to get into another person’s perspective, or at least to consider it, is quite difficult; but if we have compassion for our brothers and sisters, our comrades and friends, then we may find doing so a little bit easier.

Now, the one thing we shouldn’t do is say because race is a myth there is no such thing as racial problems. Although I confess some sympathy with this notion, I believe it avoids the reality of our situation. Even if we don’t like talking about ‘whites and ‘blacks’, the fact is there were historical conditions between two groups of people that are directly related to the difficulties the same two groups now have. I should also add that although some of my reasoning can be applied to the circumstances of other minority groups, I chose to deal with the history of black-white relations because it is the oldest and most troublesome in America.

I will leave the reader with a final thought as I close this rather long commentary. Ours is not the first great multi-racial society. If we venture back to hallowed antiquity, we will see that Rome during the time of the Caesars functioned and thrived as the world’s first great multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. The key to Rome’s success: citizenship. So powerful was the idea of citizenship in Ancient Rome that all persons living in the empire strived to attain it and desired to live up to it. Now of course we must struggle with our own difficulties in our own way; but perhaps there are lessons to be learned from our Roman forefathers. Perhaps one of the paths to overcoming the difficulties of race is to enrich our conception of citizenship and cultivate the feelings of selflessness and social solidarity.  

Monday, 26 March 2012

On Civility

The furore created by Rush Limbaugh a few weeks ago has prompted the beltway press to once again take up the theme of civility in American public discourse. The Washington Post Editorial Board waded into the issue by first denouncing Mr. Limbaugh and then, just last week, criticizing Bill Maher. In its March 22nd piece, the Board wrote:

‘He [Bill Maher] and Mr. Limbaugh both have a constitutional right to express themselves. But there are Americans who sincerely hope for civil discourse — for a nation where not every opponent is seen as an enemy.’

After coming down hard on Mr. Limbaugh the Post obviously felt compelled to look at what they believe to be a liberal example of incivility. But before we examine the vapidity of this practice, we need to understand what is meant by ‘civility’ in this context.

I assume civil discourse to mean political speech that is polite in manner and calm in tone; and if we accept this as a working convention the Post’s first blunder becomes obvious: political comedy is not political dialogue—at least not in the literal sense. By blindly following the right-wing’s forced outrage about Bill Maher’s jokes the Post’s Editorial Board failed to notice the distinction between the nature of Mr. Maher’s satire—and that of other comedians such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Dennis Miller—and Mr. Limbaugh’s daily commentary.

This is understandable. Up until around 15 years ago, the public was treated almost exclusively to the ‘everyday life’ kind of comedy delivered by Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. But in the mid-to-late 1990s political satire broke out of the confines of newspaper cartoons and made its return to the more dominant media stream of television. I say ‘return’ because political satire in America goes back to Mark Twain, and comedians such as Mr. Maher have only revitalized it. Indeed, political and social satire is an artistic form that dates back to Ancient Rome—think of Juvenal’s Satires and Lucian’s Dialogues—and has been brilliantly expressed in the modern era by such writers as Moliere, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and George Bernard Shaw.

The aim of the political satirist is to use the politics, customs, manners, and other social conventions of a nation to produce material—novels, plays, and now, live television performances—that is humorous and entertaining. It doesn’t follow that the satirist is void of political convictions or a political agenda; however, these things are secondary to his primary purpose as an artist, which is to make people laugh, or at least get them to see the comedic aspects of politics and society.

Now this differs greatly from what Mr. Limbaugh does. Mr. Limbaugh says he ‘uses absurdity to illustrate absurdity’, and he seems to be the only one who knows what that means. In any case, he has never claimed to be a comedian or a satirist, and he should not be compared with those who do claim that role and exercise that talent. Mr. Limbaugh is a political commentator who manipulates select news stories in a way that encourages his audience, which consists mostly of middle-aged, middle-income white men, to blame liberals and ethnic minorities for their woes. Mr. Limbaugh’s aim is to make people hate, Mr. Maher’s is to make people laugh—the two are not the same.  The Washington Post Editorial Board seems to think that because Mr. Maher’s comedy upsets conservatives and Mr. Limbaugh’s commentary upsets liberals they are both engaged in public discourse and they are equally guilty of incivility. And this is nonsensical. If the Post is so desperate to find equivalence between liberal and conservative political commentators it would do best to look at Ed Schultz, Mike Papantonio, or other liberal radio talkers.

The next thing the self-proclaimed champions of civility fail to take note of are the conditions under which incivility has emerged. The rather coarse nature of much of our political discourse is usually attributed to the fragmentation of media into liberal and conservative outlets; but the problem has more to do with what certain persons believe than with the outlets that allow such beliefs to be expressed.

Let’s take the hot-button issue of abortion. To be sure, the nature of personhood includes all sorts of scientific, philosophical, and theological issues that can be rationally debated and pondered over; but it is impossible to have a polite discussion with someone who is convinced that anyone who supports a woman’s right to choose is a baby-killer. Similarly, it’s quite difficult not to be derisive of persons who believe that humans walked the Earth with dinosaurs, that President Obama is a foreign usurper, that climate change is a vast international conspiracy, and that the only way to decrease gun-related violence is to increase the number of guns on the street—these are beliefs that directly contradict facts; and it is just plain silly, not to mention intellectually dishonest, to say they ought to be respected in the name of civility.

The conditions that create incivility must be dealt with directly if it is to be extirpated. Working to marginalize absurd beliefs is one measure to be taken, fighting cynicism is another—and here the Washington Post in particular can lead by example. On February 20th of this year the Post published a piece by Glenn Beck, a man who has engaged in the most vicious forms of political demagoguery. The Post essentially allowed Mr. Beck to pose as a respectable commentator, while completely ignoring the fact that he peddles hate and paranoia on his radio show. If the Washington Post is serious about changing the tone of politics, then the paper must resist the notion that it, like other media outlets, is interested only in attracting readers and making money. But what is a person to make of the Post’s publishing an article by Mr. Beck? How can the Post give up column inches to a hate-monger on Sunday and then lecture Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Maher, and the American public on the need for civility on Monday?  Such insincerity only strengthens the kind of cynicism the Post ought to be trying to discourage.   

Now the supposed virtue of civility is moderation. It is claimed that civility leads to greater nuance in public debate and a more balanced approach to the formulation of public policy. Thus in her March 24th column Kathleen Parker writes:

‘Moderation isn’t an endpoint or even a center point, necessarily. Rather than a template, it is an approach, a tone, a cock of the head, an open mind, a willing ear, an unjaundiced eye. A moderate wonders what other facts might be brought to bear. A moderate figures we’re in this together and believes that a meeting of minds is not tantamount to surrender.’

Fine words. And by this standard moderation must begin with making clear distinctions and end with exercising critical judgment. But the kind of equivocation that Ms. Parker and other political commentators regularly engage in is an impediment to such action. When writers depict one utterance or mode of expression as equal to others that have provoked similar outrage, they stymie the progression of thought; and their failure to examine particulars and make distinctions leads to a dreary sense of sameness that encourages persons to accept undifferentiated grievance and unending hostility as the norm.

The path of moderation cannot be taken if despair and distrust rule the public mind. Nor is there any reason to think that one can establish civility in the public sphere without taking a stand against ridiculous beliefs and the merchants of ignorance who push them. I realize that many persons are uncomfortable with this latter idea, accepting as we do that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’; but one cannot change outcomes without changing conditions; and the agents of fear, enmity, and confusion must be opposed if a general tone of dignity and respect is to become the norm in political debate.