Thursday, September 30, 2010

Marty Peretz and the Intent/Effect Principle

Crossposted from the HPRgument.

Harvard University is a private institution with a private set of needs, among them financial needs and the ever-present need to remain true to its institutional identity. If you’re interested in the question of whether the Social Studies Degree Committee should create a research grant in Marty Peretz’s honor, then that’s where you have to start, with the fact that all actions this university takes — whether hiring a professor, admitting a student, or giving out an honorific title to a former professor and controversial public intellectual — are actions made in reference to its perceived institutional needs.
Funding high quality undergraduate research is an important institutional need, obviously. Equally obvious is the fact that what Marty Peretz wrote (“Muslim life is cheap, most notably to muslims”) is grotesque and wrong. Those two points, at the very least, are utterly clear.
What’s not clear, however, is the balance. Do the costs of Peretz’s words in terms of Harvard’s institutional character really outweigh the benefits of the grant itself?
I fear the opposite: that denying him this grant would do damage to the very institutional aspirations we’re trying to protect — namely, to our commitment to intellectual diversity and the free and open exchange of legitimately different points of view.
If we’re really committed to intellectual diversity, then we have to commit ourselves to its consequences. Diversity is not easy. People will get hurt. In fact, that’s what real, substantive diversity is all about, in a sense — it’s the condition of constant antagonism, of people of genuine difference coming together in expedient alliance because of some shared commitment to some higher end, whether that’s a workable American democracy or the “pursuit of veritas,” but struggling all the while. Learning to live in that condition, quite frankly, is one of the raison d’etre of this University.
Peretz’s ideas were grotesque and wrong. But they were, at the same time, manifestations of the sort of difference we embrace in our commitment to diversity. Words can make us angry — that’s a good thing. It means we’re learning. It means we’re getting somewhere.
But surely — you argue — there are things that simply cannot be said in a community of learning, right? That ought to disqualify you unambiguously from any award?
Yes, of course. But in the process of drawing that line, we need to practice intense skepticism of our own sensibilities; we need to make sure that in telling people not to say certain things, we’re not just enforcing the triumph of our biases.
To help, I suggest a simple principle: speech that hurts people in effect is different from speech that hurts people by intent. The latter is never acceptable at a university. The former, meanwhile, is a direct consequence of diversity itself, of high contact struggles between people of genuine difference. Ideas of this sort — those that have the effect of hurting people, but the intent of being true — cannot be illegalized on a university campus. Indeed, it’s for the sake of those controversial ideas that the University exists at all.
By all means, let’s disagree vigorously. Let’s call people out for being ignorant and bigoted when they’re being ignorant and bigoted. But the intent/effect principle says that we don’t take them away from the table until it’s utterly clear that they’re no longer intending to pursue truth, and have crossed over to the territory of “intending to hurt.” In the case of Martin Peretz — whose blog post was manifestly the product of a serious academic worldview, one based on premises and conclusions that can be argued, paradigms (such as the “clash of civilizations” thesis) and evidence that can be disputed; who has issued two apologies so far; and who has a lifetime of writing and teaching behind him — that line has clearly not been crossed.
The University is a peculiar place — it guarantees your safety from the people who might hurt you with words by intent (hate speech, discrimination, etc), but not against the people who might hurt you with words by effect. The University cannot guarantee anyone’s comfort. If it could, this would be Disney Land for People Just Like Me, not a University at all. Academics, by necessity, is a bloody vocation. The old genteel metaphor, “patricide,” the killing of your intellectual forefathers as you go forward on the frontier of knowledge, doesn’t even begin to describe it. Indeed, you’re killing yourself, your old self, every day, every hour, of real learning. No one interested in education’s offerings can be spared this blood loss. No one here at this University ought to feel entitled to be spared it — the unease of the new, the uncomfortable, the forbidden.
That, among other things, is what this University is about. The shield on our seal symbolizes not the safety of truth, but its martial qualities.

Friday, September 17, 2010

How Not To Write About Policy (a response to Dylan Matthews)

Dylan Matthews* has a post up on his blog called “How Not To Write About Policy” — it’s a takedown of an essay by Mark Greif entitled Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution, and a sort of mini-lecture on how to write like a wonk. It’s a pretty entertaining post. But it’s also, in my estimate, pretty far off the mark — not just in mischaracterizing what Greif is trying to do (if it were only that, I probably wouldn’t comment) but also in suggesting, censoriously, that’s there’s only one right way to ”write about policy,” and that is to write about it as a wonky, prodigiously intelligent liberal blogger, which is to say, to write about it just like Dylan does.
Now, admittedly, Grief’s proposal is in fact rather absurd: he writes in his essay that the U.S. should, “Add a tax bracket of 100 percent to cut off individual income at a fixed ceiling, allowing any individual to bring home a maximum of $100,000 a year from all sources and no more.” Why that’s absurd should be apparent to anyone. You can’t blame Dylan for pouncing. He writes: “A tax bracket of 100 percent placed on income above $100,000 would effectively set that as a maximum wage. No business would pay a worker a dime over $100,000 knowing that it would all go to the government. Consequently, the bracket would raise no revenue, as it would have no tax base after businesses cut their top salaries to $100,000 in response….”
The germane question, however, is not “Why is this policy wrong?” as Dylan asks, it’s “Why would Greif propose such a thing?” Dylan jumps to the conclusion that it’s because Greif has failed to “do [his] homework,” read the “relevant literature,” and consult the “relevant experts” – that he’s proposed this absurd proposal because he failed to “talk to Emmanuel Saez,” “call David Romer,” “contact to the Tax Policy Center,” and to run the appropriate microsimulation models.
Maybe not. Maybe Greif knows that the proposal is absurd. Maybe in proposing it he wants to underscore the fact that the rightness/wrongness of policy is not all that’s at stake when we legislate; that all policy is moral theory in disguise; that ethical rationales matter as much as potential material results? Maybe. Maybe writing for N+1, a small, leftist, lit journal, Greif is not playing the wonk game at all?
Luckily, we don’t have to guess. In fact, Greif explains exactly why he made an absurd proposal…at the very beginning of his essay:
One of the lessons of starting a magazine today is that if you pay any attention to politics you will collect a class of detractors, who demand immediately to know What and Wherefore and Whether and How. Are you to be filed next to Mother Jones and and American Spectator in the back row, or with the Nation and Weekly Standard and the American Prospect up front? Is it possible you have not endorsed a candidate, or adopted a party? Within the party, a position? If not a position, an issue? The notion that politics could be served by thinking about problems and principles, rather than rehearsing strategy, leaves them not so much bemused as furious…
To shoot back indignantly, as Dylan does, that “He’s not doing what the American Prospect is doing!” is thus to merely repeat what Greif himself has stipulated. N+1 is not the American Prospect! Which it’s not. Which Greif tells us. In fact, he even has an explanation:
These commentators who have no access to a legislative agenda and really no more exalted basis for political action than that of their ordinary citizenship (but they do not believe they are ordinary citizens) bleat and growl and put themselves on record for various initiatives of Congress over which they have no influence and upon which they will have no effect.
By pretending to have influence in the game of political strategy, these writers, Greif says, hold onto a “fiction of power” and they give up, in turn, the real power they have: the power to present ethical arguments in favor of one better society over another.
“What do you stand for! What will you do!” Legislatively? Are you kidding? Well, there is something one can do, without succumbing to the pundits: for the day when the Congress rolls up to our doorsteps and asks for our legislative initiatives, maybe it is up to every citizen to know what is in his heart and have his true bills and resolutions ready. Call it “political surrealism”—the practice of asking for what is at present impossible, in order to get at last, by indirection or implausible directness, the principles that would underlie the world we’d want rather than the one we have.
Perhaps this “political surrealism” mode of writing, this “practice of asking for what is at present impossible” in order to get at “the principles that would underlie the world we’d want,” is a bad thing. Perhaps Dylan thinks it’s a bad thing — I don’t. The case for diversity of opinion and dialect is too strong. Not everything significant about policy can be captured in any single way, not exclusively by moral argument and not exclusively by numbers, graphs and rigorous “microsimulation models.” Indeed, if all we talk about is the numbers, as Dylan seems to want, we risk reducing the domain of politics to the narrowest questions of economics. And in doing that we lose a lot. As Tony Judt once wrote: ”Is it fair? Is it just? Is it Right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn to once again pose them.”
Daring to pose these questions, then, is the meta-polemic of Greif’s piece. He’s attempting to demonstrate another way of talking about taxes: by talking about the nature of freedom (“The essence of individualism is morally relevant inequality.”); the nature of wealth (“true property is that which is proper to you: what you mix your hands into (Locke)”); and what people should be doing with their time (“If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job.”).
Being an intellectual means asking these sorts of questions. It means helping us ordinary people figure out what, in a morally heterodox world, is worth fighting for. This service is rendered in different ways, of course, but we always sorta know it when we see it. Lionel Trilling, Richard Rorty, Arthur Schlesinger, Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fredric Jameson, Yochai Benkler – all of these folks are part of our varied leftist discursive tradition; they all write and speak about “policy” in the broadest sense, in the sense of “what society ought to be doing”; and they all sound very much different from Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein. To say that we can’t talk about policy without making our rounds to the think tankers of our day is to forget, among other things, that leftism wasn’t invented by the blogosphere in 2002. It’s to ignore something very profound about that American leftist tradition.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Geek Power

Here’s Bill Gates from a Wired magazine interview about the state of computer hacking:
If he were a teenager today, he says, he’d be hacking biology. “Creating artificial life with DNA synthesis. That’s sort of the equivalent of machine-language programming,” says Gates, whose work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has led him to develop his own expertise in disease and immunology. “If you want to change the world in some big way, that’s where you should start — biological molecules.” Which is why the hacker spirit will endure, he says, even in an era when computers are so ubiquitous and easy to control. “There are more opportunities now,” he says. “But they’re different opportunities. They need the same type of crazy fanaticism of youthful genius and naivete that drove the PC industry — and can have the same impact on the human condition.”
And apparently Gates isn’t kidding around. From the New York Times:
Now Dr. Venter is turning from reading the genetic code to an even more audacious goal: writing it. At Synthetic Genomics, he wants to create living creatures — bacteria, algae or even plants — that are designed from the DNA up to carry out industrial tasks and displace the fuels and chemicals that are now made from fossil fuels.
“Designing and building synthetic cells will be the basis of a new industrial revolution,” Dr. Venter says. “The goal is to replace the entire petrochemical industry.”
On an only-slightly-related note, I have this whole rant about how internet technology production has become sufficiently easy, so that new test of ambitious product development is not whether your technology performs a neat function — or even, whether it turns a profit — but rather, whether it helps do something materially important for the world. That that the new standard is “meaningful stuff that matters.” Websites are easy. Changing the world is hard. And sorry, but Foursquare and Farmville don’t cut it.
Silicon valley (so the rant goes) is rapidly becoming the pre-burst financial sector of the tech world: an industry predicated on the production of profitable, socially destructive crap. Thousands of the smartest people spend their time producing web gadgets designed to aggregate digital ephemera, while the world around them spins. Zuckerberg has spoken eloquently about a “more open world“; but what about a more meaningful one? Where it’s not openness for its own sake — open to learn about status updates and see old hook-ups’ photos — but openness in service of empowerment and progress.
The really ambitious web developers are the ones going out there and trying to fix American democracy or global warming or world poverty. It’s a brave new world we live in, where you have Bill Gates saying that if he were a kid he’d be “hacking biology,” not creating websites, and now he’s off setting up malaria nets in Africa.
Such the rant goes. But I’ll spare you that rant. Let’s all just revel in the awesomeness of these articles. And then get to work being the ambitious Harvard students or HPRgument readers that we are.

Heedless Irresponsibility

Frank Rich on the Iraq War:
We can’t afford to forget now that the single biggest legacy of the Iraq war at home was to codify the illusion that Americans can have it all at no cost. We willed ourselves to believe Paul Wolfowitz when he made the absurd prediction that Iraq’s oil wealth would foot America’s post-invasion bills. We were delighted to accept tax cuts, borrow other countries’ money, and run up the federal deficit long after the lure of a self-financing war was unmasked as a hoax. The cultural synergy between the heedless irresponsibility we practiced in Iraq and our economic collapse at home could not be more naked. The housing bubble, inflated by no-money-down mortgage holders on Main Street and high-risk gamblers on Wall Street, was fueled by the same greedy disregard for the laws of fiscal gravity that governed the fight-now-pay-later war.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

For the New School Year

Here’s Teddy Roosevelt talking to some undergrads at the University of Paris in 1910:
It is well if a large proportion of the leaders in any republic, in any democracy, are, as a matter of course, drawn from the classes represented in this audience to-day; but only provided that those classes possess the gifts of sympathy with plain people and of devotion to great ideals. You and those like you have received special advantages; you have all of you had the opportunity for mental training; many of you have had leisure; most of you have had a chance for enjoyment of life far greater than comes to the majority of your fellows. To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected. Yet there are certain failings against which it is especially incumbent that both men of trained and cultivated intellect, and men of inherited wealth and position should especially guard themselves, because to these failings they are especially liable; and if yielded to, their- your- chances of useful service are at an end. Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer….
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Of course, when he returned to the States, Roosevelt went into that proverbial arena — proceeding to challenge incumbent Taft for the Republican nomination, on a platform of popular democracy that historian George Mowry has called “one of the most  radical ever made by a major American political figure”; founding the Progressive Party; and taking part in the four-way presidential campaign of 1912, widely regarded as a turning point in American politics. (Roosevelt bellowed at the time: ”The great fundamental issue now before the Republican party and before our people can be stated briefly. It is: Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not.”)
I highlight this University of Paris quote because it sums up a dispensation that we Harvard students — we to whom “much has been given” — might be wise to take to heart: simply, that what’s worth having is won through daring; won by the men and women “in the arena,” who act without certainty of success, “marred by dust and sweat and blood”; that failing is better, finally, then not trying at all.
You think this is retrograde? Perhaps it is — but wouldn’t that be sad? “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.”
So here’s to hoping, once again, that the arena’s real and that the struggle matters. To a year of striving and failure — to a year of fearlessness.
TR wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

An Effete Liberal Book List

Some good books coming out this September / October:
  1. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris
  2. American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us by Robert Putnam
  3. Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz
  4. Listen to This by Alex Ross
  5. Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future by Robert Reich
  6. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
  7. Valences of the Dialectic by Fredric Jameson
  8. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Nature History of Innovation by Steven Berlin Johnson
  9. Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition by James Kloppenberg

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

America, Action

These photos of the 1930s and 1940s America are pretty unbelievable:

...altogether unbelievable, I would say, how much has changed -- how much we've changed.

I've been reading a book called Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Frederick Jameson. The text is an inquiry into postmodernism as a cultural/historical "period," as product and feature of "postindustrial capitalism" rather than simply an artistic or intellectual "movement." "I have rather meant to offer a periodizing hypothesis..." Jameson writes. It's an audacious method, in a sense: it's predicated on the claim that historical periods can be said to exist at all; that we can say that this set of historically real things and that set of historically real things are, in some essential way, totally insoluble with each other. That what it means to be human has fundamentally changed.

I think about this when I look at these photos -- I think about how different it was to be alive back then; and then I think (as the Marxist would) that this quasi-metaphysical change in the experience of living -- whatever it entails -- was wrought mostly by the making of stuffthat this whole synchronic universe of commodities whirling around us -- the buying and selling, gift-giving and creating -- can't help but touch the lives of everyone and everything for years to come.

What follows is a strong case for persistent engagement with the world -- ie, a case (and I think we all ought to have one) to get out of bed in the morning. If our world is ultimately material in its character, then the shift from the America of these old photos to the America of today happened because people chose to act, to think, to make. That fact alone is pretty extraordinary, if you think about it in the right way: we pulled ourselves up and out in history, from there to here, by acting

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A More Inclusive Whole

Michael Kazin includes a quote from Jurgen Habermas in the introduction to his book The Populist Persuasion: "We must realize that all traditions are ambivalent and that it is therefore necessary to be critical about all of them."

All traditions are ambivalent -- that could be a fitting title for just about any book on American politics, but it's especially fitting for one about the American populist tradition -- a tradition that is both profoundly strong, as Kazin demonstrates, and profoundly ambivalent; the populists in his book are always lurching, at every stage and every incantation, between leftist sympathy for the marginalized, and an embittered and defensive rightism, full of fear and bigotry. William Jennings Bryan and John L. Lewis commingle with Andrew Jackson and Senator McCarthy. Father Charles Coughlin begins his career as a radio priest broadcasting Catholic social gospel and fighting for the poor against the moneyed class; he ends it lambasting FDR as a communist, fervidly defending Hitler, and serializing the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion." The prohibitionist progressives of the 1910s set the stage for the KKK revival of the 1920s. That beautiful, American idea -- the "common man" -- becomes, in time, the idyl of white-hooded bigots.
So it goes. And so it is today, I think. Here's a paragraph from a New Yorker profile of the Tea Party movement:
If there was a central theme to the proceedings, it was probably best expressed in the refrain “Can you hear us now?,” conveying a long-standing grievance that the political class in Washington is unresponsive to the needs and worries of ordinary Americans. Republicans and Democrats alike were targets of derision. “Their constituency is George Soros,” one man grumbled, and I was reminded of the dangerous terrain where populism slides into a kind of nativist paranoia—the subject of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay linking anti-Masonic sentiment in the eighteen-twenties with McCarthyism and with the John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s contention that Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The name Soros, understood in the context of this recurring strain—the “paranoid style in American politics,” Hofstadter called it—is synonymous, like Rockefeller or Rothschild, with a New World Order.
What to make of populism, then? To me, it comes down to a distinction between the "populist persuasion" (Kazin's phrase) and the "populist principle" (my own): as a "persuasion," populism is nothing more than a mode of feeling and talking; it's a stock set of discursive images and expressions that tap into our collective hopes. This persuasion can be used by anyone, for good or evil (or both, time and again).  
As a principle, however, populism is something rather more specific.The surest expression of the populist principle I know is voiced in the essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" by William James. James writes:
For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists. The philosopher, then, qua philosopher, is no better able to determine the best universe in the concrete emergency than other men. He sees, indeed, somewhat better than most men what the question always is-‑not a question of this good or that good simply taken, but of the two total universes with which these goods respectively belong. He knows that he must vote always for the richer universe, for the good which seems most organizable, most fit to enter to complex combinations, most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole.
So we have a test: "the more inclusive whole." Lincoln, John L. Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. would pass this test, and so would Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou and Barack Obama. These are the populists in James' sense. It is not hard to figure out who doesn't pass this test -- to figure out for whom populism is a persuasion not a principle.

Friday, August 20, 2010

An Astonishing Lack of Ambition

This Umair Haque line sums up a lot of what what I believe re: business, business ethics, and what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life:

Here's what the economic historians of the 23rd Century are going to say about the 20th.
"They built giant, globe-spanning organizations, that employed tens of thousands of people working around the clock, to produce... sugar water, fast food, disposable razors, and gas guzzlers. Perhaps the defining characteristic of the paradigm of 20th Century capitalism was its astonishing lack ofambition. Rarely in history has such a void, a poverty of imagination been so deeply woven into the fabric of humankind's economic systems." 

The Rich and the Very, Very Rich

James Surowiecki has a New Yorker article out that makes a very reasonable point -- namely, that there's a big difference between being a doctor or a lawyer or an entrepreneur or, say, a prominent journalist at the New Yorker, and being a millionaire.
Our tax code should reflect that distinction. It doesn't.* Let's make it.
This is smart, I think. I'll add the obvious disclaimer that I'm not an authority on the economics of tax policy -- we cool, Dylan? -- and then proceed to say that, nevertheless, at some point, all talk of tax policy has to lead to questions of a larger scale: What sort of society do I want to live in? Whom am I prepared to work for? Does the immiseration of the poor matter, and how much? Deep questions like that. Tough questions. The economics flows from those answers.
Now, there is a big difference between the rich and the very richest. For one, in economic terms, the very richest have done much better for themselves in recent years. Economist Emmanuel Saez has generated some data that indicate that the very, very richest -- those in the top 0.1 percentile who make about 2m+ a year -- have seen seen their incomes grow 95% from 2002 to 2007, while the other richest -- call them the "lower-upper class," the nine percent of Americans making 110k to 400k -- saw their incomes grow only 13%. Indeed, a full two thirds of all income growth from 2002 to 2007 was contained in the top 1%; that top 1% saw their incomes grow more than ten times as fast as the bottom 90%. America is becoming a staggeringly unequal country; this inequality, unsurprisingly, benefits the very, very richest among us most substantially.
Unpack these numbers and I suspect we find some fairly profound cultural difference too -- between the doctors and lawyer and journalists in the "lower-upper class" and the very, very rich. The Populists of the 1890s drew a distinction between "producers" and "parasites": the "people," they said, the true heirs to the American creed, were "producers -- they made. The "elites" were "parasites" -- they depended on the wealth of others.** Today, the social contribution of the very, very rich has been called into question by folks like Umair Haque using populist 2.0 terms like "thin value," "bean counting,""income not outcomes," and so on. Go to his blog and you hear William Jennings Bryant singing:
Jennings: "Burn down your cities and leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country." - Cross of Gold
Haque: "every generation has a challenge, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday's profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainably shared prosperity." - Generation M Manifesto
In short, the rich versus the very rich: this distinction matters. It explains a lot -- about the nature of class in America, and about the nature of our economy. We ought to develop a vocabulary -- and then a tax code -- that reflects it.

* And yes, marginal tax rate is very different from effective tax rate. As my buddy Jon Levine explains, this line is grossly inaccurate: "This means that someone making two hundred thousand dollars a year and someone making two hundred million dollars a year pay at similar tax rates. LeBron James and LeBron James’s dentist: same difference."
**It's interesting to note that these categories were used by the People's Party of the 1890s in explicit contrast to the language of the Marxists. Populism was a sort of uniquely American theory of class relations.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Notes on Fiorina's Paper

Stanford Professor Morris Fiorina wrote a paper in 2000 called "Extreme Voices: A Dark Side of Civic Engagement." A friend recently sent me this article as "counter argument" to my own work (work on CommonPlace, etc). After reading it, I'm here to say: totally I disagree. In fact, there's no incompatability between the Fiorina's claim that there's a "dark side" to opening more channels for engagement, and my own claim (the claim at the center of CommonPlace, and at the center of the work of the thinkers that I care about, from John Dewey to Roberto Unger to Michael Sandel) that more engagement as citizens in the communities we inhabit -- in the communities that shape our lives -- is at the center of our rights and our responsibilities are free people. In other words, we should be working towards engagement. Almost always. In fact, the "dark side" of civic engagement identified by Fiorina and the "not enough civic engagement" identified by Putnam et al., are just two sides of the same coin.
Let me try to explain.
Fiorina claims that for over 50 years new participatory channels have opened up our political system at every level ("the political system today is far more exposed to popular pressures than was the case at midcentury") -- elections are more candidate-centric, less machine oriented; congress is more transparent; we have more direct legislator-constituent exchange media; we have more single-issue advocacy groups, etc. We've gone from an elitist, "vital center" democracy, of the 1950s, to a more, more "change we can believe in" democracy of 2008.
This is true enough (and let's just leave it at that for now). And yet, as Fiorina rightly observes, despite these new channels for engagement, more Americans are distrustful of their government and cynical about the process. The paradox at hand is that more influence on the government coincides with more distrust of its workings.
The paper suggests three reasons. Two are presented as standard theories, and the third is the core of his argument: first, "overload" -- people become overwhelmed by competition between ideological voices, as the arena explodes open to new views, and so they disengage; two, "seeing the sausage being made" -- people don't like seeing how government works, "in all its messiness."They like to believe in the myth of disinterested statement. More influence of the process means more messiness to be seen.
Fiorina suggests a new causal mechanism. What if the problem is with the "opening up of channels" in the first place? Fiorina suggests that opening up channels has the effect of empowering only those people who are interested in using them; the more open our democracy is, the more partisan and extremist it becomes. Ironically then, more representation gives more voice to non-representative actors.
What is going on here? The answer is clear enough. Ordinary people are by and large moderate in their views -- relatively unconcered and uninformed about politics most of the time and comforatble with the language of compromsie, trade-ofs, and exceptions to the rule. Meanwhile, political and governmental processes are polarized, the participants self-righteous and intolerant, their rhetoric emotion and excessive. The moderate center is not well represented in contemporary national politics -- and often not in state and local politics either.
It's hard not to notice, however, that there's a bit of question-begging to this whole analysis. His case isn't against the dream of civic engagement generally -- it's against an unskeptical acceptance that civic engagement will always result from "more opportunities to engage" institutionally. That caution is certainly healthy. In economics, the term is "adverse selection": just creating channels does not guarantee that they'll be used, and when they are used it doesn't guarantee that they'll eventuate the desired goal whatever that is, in politics, in business, or otherwise.
But if having a small, non-representative class of partisans engaging with our political process is bad, then that's hardly a case against civic engagement; indeed, it's a case for more civic engagement -- for true, widespread, representative engagement.
Fiorina's argument, if we accept it as true, helps us to accept the simple fact that we don't get engagement simply by lowering the barriers to engagement. We need some concomitant shift in the norms that govern our desire to participate -- ie, we need to re-adopt as a culture a language of collective responsibility -- so that we might actually want to walk through the doors of our civic rights when they're their open and hard-won in front of us. And we also need to re-examine what engagement itself means. Democracy is a way of life, not just a political process. Democracy is a way of looking at the world; it's captured in the belief that everything is up for grabs; that everything is politics; that everything is the product of collective decision-making by the community, from the food we eat, to the streets we live on.
Morris is a congressional scholar, so I can sympathise with the bias in his analysis. But the truth is, the channels to participate in our democracy our everywhere -- they're everywhere that people congregate and that the products of people are being forged. To say that "open channels without engagement" is bad is to say nothing except that "non-engagement is bad." I agree. Everyone has the opportunity to participate. The question at hand is whether we take it or we don't -- and how we might get a large swath of the population to chose the former not the latter more often.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Are payday loans like unprotected sex?

Sometimes you read a Tyler Cowen post and you think to yourself, simply: Did he really just say that? Here’s Cowen on payday loans and unprotected sex:
The unprotected sex is riskier and less prudent than borrowing money at an annualized rate of two hundred percent.  Why prohibit one and not the other? Many of the borrowers are being fooled, but others have legitimate reasons to seek the money, such as wanting to buy a birthday present for a visit to one’s child, living with a separated spouse.
On a prima facie level, I think it’s fairly obvious that making love to a woman (or a man) is not quite like taking out a high interest loan from a payday loan boutique. There are a lot of ways I can think that sex differs from 200% APR loans…but the way that counts here is basically a category issue. In short: loving making is not a market transaction.
For one, you shouldn’t assume that your consensual partner is pursuing a profit or pleasure maximizing strategy. Some partners might be, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. For the most part, lovers are couple-regarding: they’re interested in maximizing the pleasure of both parties, not themselves alone, and especially not one at the expense of another.
That’s obviously not true of payday lenders, whose very business model depends on the suffering of their clients. They exploit information asymmetries and pray on the people least able to make good decisions, in order to maximize their revenue. With sex, risk is a byproduct of something otherwise wholesome and demonstrably positive sum; with payday lending, one party’s suffering is a core feature of the larger system it exists within.
This whole rather ridiculous debate speaks to a larger issue with economics as an analytical tool. The fact is, transaction models are not the appropriate metaphor for love, or love-making, or friendship, or any of that. No matter how many books Cowen writes, that still will be true. The very fact that danger incurred by one partner in unprotected sex is shared by the danger incurred by the other, in a roughly symmetrical way, indicates the larger point that sex between men and women / men and men / women and women is consensual and other-regarding in a way that buying something from a firm can never be. To capture the essence of that non-utility maximizing connectivity — that Oneness, as some might call it — you need to get very far away from economics, towards something like art or religion.
Maybe the best way to end this is to just quote at length from Mark Greif’s piece On Repressive Sentimentalism, from N+1. (Harvard Magazine’s take on the journal here, if you’re unfamiliar). To me, this piece is deeply flawed in a number of ways, but he’s dead right when he says the following. Note, this gets us very far away from payday loans…but that’s sort of the whole point, isn’t it?
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. Production comes back in with pregnancy and “labor”—that’s why contraception means so much. Competition can come back in with the conquest of partners, and a brutality or technical objectivity in lovemaking that allows men to remake cooperation as if it were struggle—hence utopians’ funny, sentimental insistence on love in the act. Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition….
“Sex without consequences” becomes the metaphor for cooperative exchange without gain or loss. For basing life on the things that are free. For the anticapitalist experience par excellence.

Weighing In: China and the Race to Green Tech

Jeff Kalmus argues that the idea of a “race” between China and the United States over green tech (suggested by Will Rafey here) is misguided. Clean energy anywhere benefits everyone, everywhere. If there are no losers, then why call it a “race”?
The “race” is just another manifestation of the phenomenon Will described in his fall article, an attempt by environmentalists to argue for action on climate change in terms they expect to be better received than the fundamental environmental justifications, but terms which are ultimately unconvincing.
There’s a lot of truth to this. When people tell me that “China, moving rapidly into the void left by U.S. inaction, is poised to leap beyond the U.S. and seize control of the emerging clean energy economy” my response is simple: I get mad. I get worried. Some of my reasons are pure, no doubt — I worry about the effects of CO2 admissions, and the benefits that a proactive government would deliver; I worry about resource dependency; and I know that directed investment in growth industries is good for a struggling economy. But all those are legitimate concerns regardless of what China does or fails to do with clean energy.
The “race” construct itself is designed to flatter my less-pure motives — my competitive nationalism. The idea of a “race” obscures the central fact that, as a citizen of the world (not just of the United States) I benefit as we all do from a greener China.
Yet the fact is I bristle when reading that China is beating the United States — and that’s a good thing. It’s good to get people mad about issues worth getting mad about, even for the wrong reasons. Will’s post is thus good on its face.
But that doesn’t exactly answer the question: Is the “race” construct “unconvincing”? Does it matter if China takes the lead? Smart people like Fareed Zarkaria and Matthew Ygelsias are quick to point out that, in a networked world, the “rise of the rest” is a good thing for America. This is true of politics — where we want strong, effecitve, well-run states to collaborate to mitigate the dangers of nonstate, networked enemies — and it’s true of economics: progress is inherently positive sum. In Matthew Yglesias’ words:
I can’t think of any major technical innovations occurring in Portugal since the 16th century. Nevertheless, Portugese people benefit from technical advances that occur elsewhere in the world. New products find customers and spinoffs and useful imitators all around the one. The growing extent to which China and India are places where research and development activities can take place is a very good thing not only for the two billion people who live over there, but for the people who live everyplace else as well.
That said, there clearly are advantages to acting first. America is a much richer nation than Portugal, after all, and this is due in no small part to its relentless innovation; economists have long argued that national R&D investments (and education investments) are key components of national economic growth. Place matters. Where research is happening determines the flow of talent, of capital, and, more subtly, it structures the dynamic effect of institutional clustering, agglomeration, all the things that makes NYC and Silicon Valley so extremely productive. America reaped huge rewards from being the first to move into, say, the auto market in the early 20th century or the Internet boom at the turn of the century, both directly tied to government investments; in those industries, the race mattered, and the same, one assumes, is true of the green tech industry today.
You could imagine a case where we’d have to choose: increase total innovation, or increase our innovation level relative to others (while reducing total innovation). That’s interesting to think about, but inapplicable to the problem at hand. The point stands: the race matters.