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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Danger, Danger, Ad Hominem!

I dislike ad hominems. I think I have a bias toward believing that there is such a thing as "truth," or that things are objectively knowable. I admit that our own position--defined by our class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.--conditions how we see things, that it may be impossible to escape fully from this conditioned perception, and that language is not merely or simply a reflection of the way things are (the signifiers and signifieds never completely correspond, and there are connotations intermixed galore that befuddle any thing that can be called a "meaning"). But I do think what passes for logic and objectivity is the best we have for discussion beyond merely asserting what amounts to "I'm right; you're wrong" slogans. Criticizing others for their motivations or their (usually only alleged) hypocrisy is a step in the sloganeering direction.

All this is a prelude to saying that I don't like ad hominems, but I am about to indulge in one anyway. Specifically, I am referring to the tone adopted by some critics of the health insurance reform when they argue that it is unconstitutional. Primarily they focus on the mandate, but there are other elements of the reform that might be unconstitutional as well.

The "some critics" I refer to are those at the Volokh Conspiracy--primarily Messrs. Adler, Barnett, and Somin--who have advanced numerous and quite compelling arguments against the law's constitutionality, primarily focusing on the mandate. When I say compelling, I mean their arguments make sense and might be right, whether one is talking about "constitutionality" in the pragmatic sense (will the Supreme Court uphold the law?) or in the meta-sense (does the law conform to an honest and consist reading of the constitution, whatever such a reading may be?). I am not fully convinced by their arguments (for example, the mandate is hard to reconcile with any provision of the constitution, but it seems to me to be more a regulation of commerce than the school-zone-gun-ban struck down in Lopez v. U.S.; and the question, for me, focuses on whether the mandate is a "proper" regulation, not whether it is a regulation per se, which I think is the point that Mr. Kerr makes in his posts on that cite, which are pretty much the only posts there that argue that the mandate is constitutional, at least in the pragmatic sense).

I find it hard to argue against the anti-health insurance reform arguments: I am not a legal scholar; I find it hard to settle on one (or even several loosely compatible) mode(s) of constitutional interpretation; and by any measure, their arguments make a certain amount of sense to me. To take their arguments at face value--and there is really not much other way to take them--they are simply just intellectual arguments about an important issue and are part of the larger debate of ideas that represents the best of what the internet promises to provide.

But (and now, the ad hominem) they seem to take so much joy in the prospect that the law might be struck down. For all I know, at least some of them are personally interested in the ban against pre-existing condition discrimination or against lifetime caps on coverage (two provisions of the law that might very well be struck down, too, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional). But not knowing them, all I can see--or that I allow myself to see--is that they're professors, most of whom have tenure, at prestigious universities where they presumably have (1) good or at least serviceable health insurance and (2) a good enough salary to make up for any deficiencies in their health insurance coverage. Their arguments seem to be an intellectual exercise of the same sort that 17th-century French scholars might engage in when they discuss the tension between amour-devoir and amour-passion. But these Volokh scholars are cited (sometimes) in judicial opinions, and some of them volunteer their energies to write amicus curiae briefs to help overturn the law.

I would not like to make it a requirement for debate on the constitutionality of legislation (because at base, it's irrelevant to the exact constitutional issues at play), but I would greatly appreciate it if these authors wrote with more of a spirit of humility, with a realization that this law, for all its faults (and not all the faults are constitutional, some of the faults may even lead to people having worse health care and for all I know the very people it's designed to help might be negatively affected), is an attempt to provide people with that which they (the authors) already enjoy almost as a matter of course. They might be right that the law is unconstitutional, and it might even be harmful to boot. And maybe it is indeed their solemn duty as "truth-seekers" to do what they can to speed the law to its demise, but sometimes it's just hard to seem them enjoy it so much.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that one measure of whether you are guilty of pride is the degree to which pride among others bothers you. In that sense, I am guilty of the same lack of humility I am accusing those Volokh authors of, and since I am engaging in ad hominems, I might as well acknowledge the log in my own eye even if I do nothing to take it out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Words I prefer people not use

I'd like to preface this list with a few clarifications and disclaimers:
  1. I am not claiming a false moral equivalence. For example, "WASP" is on my list, but I am not saying that it "is just as bad as the N-word." It's not; the N-word is much, much worse.
  2. I realize and acknowledge that the words on this list reflect my own class, gender, race, sexuality, etc., and that for the most part they reflect that I am not, in most senses of the term, "marginalized" whereas other words (e.g., the N-word) are most commonly directed at other marginalized people and function as a way to further marginalize others. In most of the senses of the word, I am not marginalized, and I do not claim to be. I am, in fact, quite privileged.
  3. As a corollary to number 2, I realize that most or all of these words are sometimes used by marginalized people as a defense mechanism or as a way to strike back at an oppressor class--a strategy/tactic that Robin D. G. Kelley refers to as "infrapolitics." I personally have doubts about the utility and advisability of such "infrapolitics," but I also acknowledge the issue is much more complicated than "I don't like these words and people shouldn't use them," even though I don't like these words and would prefer that people not use them.
  4. I am not arguing for censorship (other than self-censorship). I am not even arguing that companies or employers ought to enforce rules against using these words, although I would posit in the abstract that in some employment situations it might be wise for management to encourage a degree of mutual respect, and that might entail forbidding the use of such words (even so, I suspect that simply devising an "index of prohibited words" is not, by itself, a wise management tactic). I am not arguing for political correctness; if anything, I am arguing for politic correctness: we all have to live on this earth with other people, and I am letting others know that certain words or terms they may not have thought of might function as a way to impede civility and understanding than as a way to foster it.
  5. I have in the past, and maybe even now, sometimes used the words on this list unironically. I say this for the sake of disclosure, not to defend my use of the words or even to claim that I don't sometimes use these words.
  6. There are other words that deserve to be on the list, but that I am omitting. Some of them are not necessarily widely accepted as offensive or derogatory (e.g., the word "gay" as a pejorative, a word that I have sometimes used myself in that way, even though I ought to know better). Others are so offensive (like the c-word or the n-word), that I would hope that anyone would have them on their list. I am including only the words that affect me personally.
  7. (I don't like the number 6, so I wanted to end with "7")

Here's the list of words:
  • Breeder: I realize that this word comes as a counterpart to "queer" or the "fag" and as with a lot of words, is descriptively accurate (some people "breed" and some don't). Still, maybe there's a better way to say "straight person" or "person who decides not to have children." Also, this term assumes that all straight people want to "breed," although I have encountered at least one straight person who used it to describe herself.
  • The d-word: my sexual anatomy doesn't define me to any greater or lesser degree than it defines any one else (with all necessary qualifications about our "phallocentric" society, etc., etc., which, even if true, assume a lot that is contestable.)
  • (The faux "southern" accented word: e.g., "guvmint," "Jebus," "librul," "terruh"): these words are used to accuse other people (without actually accusing them, so it's hard even to answer the accusation) of being ignorant or uneducated simply because they are religious or challenge certain prevalent assumptions (most of which I share) about the power of the state or the threat that terrorism might pose. These terms also smear a large portion of the U.S. population by implication, drawing on the stereotype that southerners are uneducated and stupid while also assuming that all southerners speak with one voice on matters of state power, religion, and the "war on terror."
  • Sausage Fest: see "d-word." I encountered this word in grad school, used (mostly but not exclusively) by my lesbian friends [see update below], and its very hard to tell them how offensive I find it.
  • WASP: Not all "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" are part of the power elite, and even if they were, it's not right to a priori assume that they are all like some vicious insect that "stings" the weak and powerless.
  • White boy / white girl: the use of this term, as a term, is probably the most defensible on the list, because it functions as a way to underscore that the racially "unmarked" person--i.e., the white person--does indeed belong to a "race" (socially constructed or otherwise...I won't enter into the Walter Benn Michaels debate now). Still, it would be nice for people (including white people, like me, and especially me, as I tend to think in these categories) to at least think twice before identifying people first, primarily, and only by their race. On a more personal note I can recall from middle school and high school non-white people who used it on me as a bullying word.
Again, I want to stress my qualifications and disclaimers at the front of this post.

UPDATE 12-28-10: The spirit of this post is to argue for restoring civility. By stating, above, that "my lesbian friends" tend to use a certain term, I have just resorted to the sort of labeling that most of the rest of this post decries. Therefore, I offer my apologies. I am leaving my original phrasing above because I believe that once I post something, I should take responsibility for having posted it. I haven't always followed that policy on this blog, but I have been trying to do so of late.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Are markets in any meaningful way "natural"?

It is a common meme of our culture (and by meme I mean "something that I claim to be 'in the air,' but I abjure any responsibility for proving that people actually say or believe it") is that "markets" and "market mechanisms" are "natural" and that attempts to interfere with them by, say, government regulation, are "artificial" constraints on the natural. It's sort of a zen thing: the natural laws of, say, supply and demand are immutable, and regulations don't change those laws, they just frustrate and channel their operation in what are, in the long term, harmful ways. I simplify, of course: I suspect that I don't really understand the "laws supply and demand" and that at any rate they by themselves do not sufficiently explain what a market is.

What is a market? Wikipedia defines "market" (at least today it does) as " any one of a variety of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby businesses sell their goods, services and labor to people in exchange for money. Goods and services are sold using a legal tender such as fiat money. This activity forms part of the economy. It is an arrangement that allows buyers and sellers to exchange items." I'll work with this definition not necessarily because it is the right one, but because I'm too lazy to come up with my own or to research all the other possible meanings.

Those who speak of the market and "market mechanisms" as natural are, I believe, speaking metaphorically. The most literal construction to put on the difference between "natural" and "artificial" demonstrates that, literally speaking, markets are not natural at all. According to my Google master (which is the ultimate owner of this blogspot account and the Prime Mover behind the search engine I use, praise be its name), lists, among several definitions of artificial:
  • contrived by art rather than nature; "artificial flowers"; "artificial flavoring"; "an artificial diamond"; "artificial fibers"; "artificial sweeteners"
  • artificially - not according to nature; not by natural means;
  • Man-made; of artifice; False, misleading; Unnatural
It is the notion of "(hu)man-made" that I want to emphasize here. (I do not, however, want to emphasize "falsity," as is implied in the last definition I cited.) In the most literal reckoning, markets, because they involve, by Wikipedified definition, people, are "artificial." Without people, there would be no markets. (Probably. I don't know if people make the argument that non-people, say, dogs, cats, paramecia, or venus flytraps engage in behavior that can be properly labeled "market"-oriented behavior. I'll also concede, without knowing or even caring, that there is probably some species of chimpanzee somewhere whose members participate in some "market-like" behavior.)

Rather than claiming that markets are literally natural, the "market naturalizers," I think, are making a different claim. One variant of this claim is that people, left to their own devices, engage in market-like behavior and that a political economy that lessens obstacles to this market-like behavior encourages people, in effect, to do what they are "naturally" inclined to do. Conversely, a political economy that, through regulation, increases the obstacles to this market-like behavior discourages people, in effect, from doing what they are "naturally" inclined to do.

This claim and its converse have a corresponding normative claim that markets are good, first on the the ground that what is "natural" is good, but second on the much more tangible ground that markets lead to greater material and even non-material happiness: market competition leads to more "choice" and more goods and services (material) and allows each to develop his or her comparative advantage (material and non-material inasmuch as pursuing one's true calling is a "comparative advantage" and leads to personal happiness). The first ground is facially compelling but empirically unprovable: it's just assumed, and most people presumably share the assumption. The second ground is subject to quantifiable proof, and even though "happiness" is always tricky to pin down or to quantify, access to the goods one wants and to the ability to pursue what one does best can be easily measured.

One question that comes to mind, for me at least, is who or what enforces fairness in the market? If I cheat somebody on a sales transaction, how can someone get redress? I suppose that one would not patronize my business or services if I were known to be a cheater (and, for the sake of simplicity, I am speaking of a market as a center of distribution of goods and services and not the more hoary (because I don't understand it) notion of "public choice" theory that probably extends market behavior to other types of action....in other words, I'm sticking toward my working definition cited above). Would the person I cheated get their money back? How? It seems that there needs to be some arbiter that will prevent the person I cheated from resorting to challenging me to a duel, or paying protection to a bunch of thugs who will make sure I pay back that which I stole (but then we get into a feudalism thing, and that's usually not very pretty).

The type of example I just mentioned is not really all that damning. The market naturalizers recognize, usually, that there needs be some enforcement mechanism for a market to operate smoothly; they also mention the phenomenon of "market failures," in which goods and services are not really allocated all that well (the tragedy of the commons, and all that). In answer to my assertion that "there needs be some arbiter," a market naturalizer might claim that a distinction ought to be made here between "government" and "governance," and it's a distinction I don't understand fully. But to the extent that I do understand it, it merely begs the question (in the sense of "raises the question" and not in the sense of "assuming that which is to be proven") of what "government" is, or what the "state" is, or what is an "artificial regulation" and what is a "regulation in accord with the natural laws of the market."

I've written a lot here, and I don't have an answer to my own question, at least not an answer that would convince anyone not already predisposed to agree with me. Here's my tentative answer: markets, whether natural or not, are fragile things and need to be propped up by something and the something that props them up is part of what defines the state. Two objections to the preceding sentence: the first clause (about inherent fragility) is merely the confession of a bias that is not particularly provable; the second clause (about defining the state) merely begs the question (in the sense of "assuming that which is to be proven" and not in the sense of "raises the question"). But that is the starting assumption I am working with.

Why bother stating this assumption? I'm certainly not the first at questioning the naturalness of the market, nor is my questioning of it necessarily the most eloquent or even comprehensible. But I think, or at least hope, that looking at markets as fragile entities "demystifies" (a term I hate, because it would make me look like a Marxist who spends all his time whining about commodity fetishisms and the "alienation of labor from the product of labor") the notion that "darn it, markets just need to be free" and any governmental intrusion into the economy is a hindrance of that freedom.

There are, of course, wiser and less wise governmental intrusions into the economy, and some intrusions create perverse incentives that make things worse. The Health Insurance Reform, for example (which I support by the way), will, even if it works like it's supposed to and isn't declared unconstitutional, create certain challenges that can't be escaped from just by governmental fiat: will there be enough doctors to service the newly insured at the lower remunerations that will likely result from government controls on the prices of premiums? how much will the prices of premiums be lowered? how will smaller businesses bear the burden of having to provide insurance? how will people out of work find jobs now that it would be more expensive for even larger businesses to hire new employees? But the notion that the reform merely impinges on something "natural" would not be a good argument by itself to lodge against the reform. Any such argument needs to be supplemented by what would be better, by an assertion of a different kind of structuring of the health insurance and health care markets, and that assertion would either be the status quo (which no one, to my observation, claims to like) or something different, based on, say, tort reform or tax credits or decoupling (through new employment taxes) employment from access to health insurance.

One of the tags for this post is "libertarianism." By so tagging this post, I do not mean to imply that libertarians have no valid points when it comes to regulating or deregulating the economy, and I do not mean to build a man o' straw--I know their critiques of regulation are more sophisticated--but I do notice that they sometimes indulge in the "markets are natural" rhetoric, and it is this indulgence I am objecting to.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cook County Board proceedings and the end of civilization

The research I'm doing for my dissertation requires me to read the proceedings of the Cook County Board from around the mid 1880s through 1940. (Actually, I look through the indexes for subjects that I'm interested in....I don't read the proceedings page by page.) One thing I've noticed is unsurprising is that, as the years go on, the volumes get bigger and bigger so that, by the 1920s, they're about twice the size for the same time span (one year).

A lot of obvious things explain this increase in length, which I take to be rough proxy for an increase in the number of things the Cook County government did (as for the types of things, they were: managing the county court system, managing the county public service institutions, like the county hospital, its "psychopathic ward," etc., and providing for poor relief: all these duties required advertising for innumerable (well, I guess they're numerable, but I'm not going to count them) bids, issuing loads and loads of check letters, and receiving all sorts of "communications" from people in the county). One explanation is that the county population had increased at least twofold and probably threefold, so the board had to oversee more and more people. The demands of World War I required, or at least effected, a significant mobilization of the county's services, and the relief demands of the Great Depression required a significant expansion of the county's poor relief.

But I suspect at least some of the growth of the proceedings' content has to do with something inherent in government, that is, the tendency for most institutions to take on more and more duties and concern themselves with more and more things so that they expand, almost inexorably. One (for example, me) gets the impression that these volumes will just succumb under their own weight some day and implode.

I guess I've been working on my dissertation too long.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The myth of the immortal twenty-something

There is much to be said for the claim that younger people tend to think themselves immortal, but the point ought not be pushed too far. Even though I once was a teenager and a twenty-something (I am now 37), I can't speak with much authority about what other teenagers and twenty-somethnigs think and any recounting of what I used to feel or believe or think when I was younger is inevitably bound with and obfuscated by my current biases.

I remember a philosophy of science class I took as a freshman in college. The professor asserted confidently that we--almost all of us were traditional aged college students--did not really understand our immortality the way he--a forty-somethingish (I guess) professor--did and, by implication, that we did not have as close of an understanding of death as he did. I remember resenting that claim, not because I thought it factually incorrect (even at the punkish and arrogant age of 18 or 19, I realized that an older person might actually know more than I), but because this professor simply assumed that his claim was true. It was true of me, but he had no way of knowing which students in that class, if any, had had parents or close friends died, or who had witnessed one violent or near fatal episode, or who had undergone their own life-threatening situations.

I at 37 have known at least one person much younger than me who had faced the prospect of an early death through childhood cancer, and I suspect (because I've never really talked to him about it) that he had and has a much more acute sense of mortality than I did at his age or than I do now.

I'm reminded of the poem by Billy Collins "On Turning Ten," which ends like this:
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
There is much we don't know about the consciousness of others, and there is even less that we have the right to assert.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How did Robo-Signing happen?

When I worked as a loan processor for a local bank about couple years ago, there were two kinds of shortcuts I at least once took or played a part in when processing the paper work.

The first had to do notarized documents. Certain documents had to be signed by one, sometimes more than one, bank officer. I would take the documents to the eligible officer(s), have them signed, and then drop them off at the desk of a fellow employee who had the misfortune of being both nice and a notary. (Some of the nice people were not notaries, and some of the notaries were true grouches, so the nice people probably got more than their fair share of documents to notarize.) The notaries would look at the signatures because they recognized the signatures and notarized them, attesting to the fact that they had seen the officer sign the document, even though they really hadn't. I picked up the documents and continued to process them.

The second shortcut I did only once. I was processing a refinance loan for a person who was self-employed. Part of the refinancing process involves calling the applicant's employer. I either didn't know or was willfully ignorant that the "employer" I called was actually the loan applicant. And so I credulously wrote down his assessment of his own income, which is a big no no. The loan officer in charge of reviewing the loan application caught what I had done, and informed me of my mistake (I had only been on the job a few weeks and had no prior experience, so I wasn't punished). He simply told me that in cases where someone was self-employed, we had to use a different process (in this case, call his accountant to verify income) and made me correct my error.

These two types of shortcuts were different. The first was not technically the right thing to do, but was so close to technically the right thing to do that the officers of that bank and the notary(ies) would not face much if any trouble if a regulator had called them on it. Of course, if I, as a loan processor, had forged a bank officer's name on one of the loan documents (because, say, I was in a hurry to go home and couldn't find a qualifying officer), that would have been quite a different story, and by doing so I could have, would have, should have been fired. (This first type of shortcut reminds me of another shortcut taken when I was a bank teller. The tellers were divided into two groups of people, and the members of each group each had a set of keys to the vault unique to that group, so that, if someone wanted to open the vault or one of the protected lockboxes--such as the box that held blank traveler's checks--theoretically two people were needed. This was the concept of "dual control," premised in part on the notion that it's harder for two people to conspire to rob the bank than it is for one person. In practice, however, if a teller from one group needed to access the traveler's checks box, he/she would simply ask a teller from the other group for their keys.)

The second type of shortcut was simply wrong. I don't know precisely if it was a federal regulation, a state regulation, or an internal regulation (probably a combination of all three) that required us to verify income in certain prescribed manners. But simply taking the type of shortcut I had taken was wrong, and I should have known it.

I suspect that certain banks' alleged practice of "robo-signing" may have originated as a shortcut of the first category. "Robo-signing" was the practice of some large banks to process their mortgage and foreclosure paperwork without doing the appropriate verifications of income, etc. And the discovery/disclosure of this practice have prompted calls for moratoria, some voluntary others mandated, on foreclosures in some states. So many documents were being processed (probably) and certain things that had to be signed and verified took on a certain pro forma quality so that these large companies fell into the practice of simply signing off on things that had to be verified. The rules, technically construed, did not allow for this, but I suspect that the companies that engaged in this practice thought either that it was standard industry practice or that it was worth a risk: the increased "efficiency" from robo-signing was worth the risk that a foreclosed person's attorney would not find the error (and, more perniciously but probably never explicitly stated in order to claim plausible deniability, that people facing foreclosure were unlikely to afford the legal representation of their interests that would root out technical violations). The lapse into "robo-signing" was also, I suspect, made easier by the practice of bundling mortgages and selling them to different banks (a process I only dimly understand).

Although I suspect that "robo-signing" began as a shortcut of the first type, it obviously (to me) came to function as a shortcut of the second type, especially as the practice of foreclosures, at least by the banks implicated, is being called into question. (I have heard that a reader must beware when a writer uses the word "obvious" or "obviously," because such usage often signals that the point is not obvious at all. Still, this is my blog, and I'm making the claim.)

For what it's worth, I don't really have a problem with the fact that people facing foreclosure are challenging these allegedly robo-signed mortgages. These people would be on the hook for technically violating their mortgage agreement, and while banks often would prefer to continue accepting mortgage payments rather than resorting to foreclosure (banks probably don't make as much money on foreclosures as they lose by engaging in the process), banks would not hesitate to cite technical violations when resorting to foreclosures is convenient for them. Banks, after all, have lawyers on retainer, and the larger banks have legal divisions that advise them on this stuff, something actual homeowners usually don't have. I also think the "moral hazard" of a moratorium on such mortgages is almost nil: I can't imagine someone irresponsibly taking a mortgage in the future on the off chance that his or her bank will engage in improvident processing and that any subsequent foreclosure proceeding against them would be delayed for about three or six months.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Get out the vote: the shaming strategy

I reject the popular notion that "if you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain."

For starters, I assume that people who make this statement exempt certain people, to wit:
  • Children who are not old enough to vote.
  • Someone who gets in some sort of accident on the way to the polls.
  • Military commanders who, as a matter of conscience and to remain "apolitical" choose not to vote.
For continuers, I assume that people who make this statement don't mean the following by "complain":
  • Any complaint that has nothing to do with government.
One radio talk show host I listened to on election day piously clarified to his audience why he believed that people who don't vote have abrogated the "right to complain": if someone complains and didn't do the bare minimum of voting, then he will discount that person's complaint. This talk show host then offered a hypothetical to a caller who said she wouldn't vote this time around: say Pat Quinn be elected governor and he run this state (Illinois) into the ground, and say that this caller complain: he would discount her complaint automatically because she didn't vote.

He needn't have been so hypothetical. As most people who follow politics know, the Illinois governor (re)elected in 2006 disgraced his office by, apparently and among other things, trying to sell Barack Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder. I suppose if someone who had not voted in 2006 made the complaint, this talk show host would have discounted that complaint. So far, so good. But the fact that the one who made the complaint hadn't voted in 2006 has nothing to do with whether Blagojevich tried to sell the senate seat and says nothing about whether his attempt to do so was a bad or illegal thing. The truth or falsity of the governor's actions, and the goodness/badness or legality/illegality of those actions, has nothing to do with whether the one making the complaint voted.

I think the talk show host would probably respond that, well, yes, he would exempt people who are blowing whistles or making fact-based claims, but wouldn't abide complaints about "politicians these days" from people who don't vote. In my observation, however, most of the time that people complain about "politicians these days," with election seasons excepted, they are doing so in the context of a certain policy debate, such as (choose your poison) the Iraq war, Cap and Trade, Health Insurance Reform. And the complaints here are not the general "politicians these days don't care about people like me"; they are "politicians favor and are enacting policy x but they neglect the very legitimate concerns of people like me."

The most charitable construction to put on the "if you don't vote, don't complain" aphorism is that the act of voting is the most minimal forms of political participation and puts the voter among the community of people who are making the basic decisions in a democratic republic such as we live in. It is, in that respect, the "least we can do" is participate in the electoral process and be part of the civil society that puts a check on governmental power and expresses the voices and concerns of "the people."

Fair enough, and this construction has a certain appeal. And that is probably one reason why I usually chose to vote in city and national elections, although I usually do not vote in the primaries. (In Colorado, at least when I lived there, one had to be registered with a party to vote in its primary, I was not. Now in Illinois, one needn't register to vote in the primary, so I have less of an excuse.)

But not voting does not preclude participating in other ways. And the complainer, by complaining, is participating, and usually more vocally, than if all he or she did vote. If one writes a letter to one's congressperson, that is a more direct form of participation (although I suspect a letter from someone who the record shows has voted might carry more weight.....who knows? I don't.)

I'm not saying, as I used to say by implication (click here and here and here for examples), that voting is an entirely worthless exercise. And I think one should vote in the same way that one should [insert logically appropriate, but preferably also witty and folksy, analogy here]. But voting is not the summum bonum of all things good in a person qua member of civil/civic society.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The five more minutes syndrome

When I was a freshman in college, I took a "world history" class (actually, it was a history of the "20th century world"), and when the professor talked about Winston Churchill's disastrous Gallipoli Campaign--in which the British army, during WWI, tried to take control of the Dardenelles from the Ottoman Empire--I chimed in that I had read something, somewhere, to the effect that later evidence showed that if Churchill had held out for a few more days, the Turks would've surrendered. That professor chided me for what he called the "five more minutes syndrome," the notion that a failed policy will work if only it's given more time.

Well, I don't know if it's a failed project, but I just finished the rough draft of a chapter for my dissertation (it's rough indeed: it has no conclusion and is still 95 pages), and it took at least two weeks longer than I had anticipated. One reason was that I stumbled upon an interesting tidbit in the local papers that cover one of my case studies, and I took a 1 to 2 weed digression in researching the item. It was a true case of serendipity, and actually helped make whatever point it is I'm trying to make in my chapter (I'm not sure what that is.....when it comes to this project, I'm working rather inductively and am trying to draw conclusions as I go). Anyway, I might have spent even more time researching this tangent that turned out not to be a tangent but integral to what I wanted to do.

In my case, the "five more minutes" plea played out.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ye seconde taste of crowe

Several months ago, I blogged about my criticisms of the graduate student employees' union I belong to, particularly on the ground that the union was being unwarrantedly confrontational with the university. But, as I noted here, the union got at least a reasonable deal, certainly better than I had expected.

Now, the union has proven very helpful in a payroll issue that is affecting me and at least 15 or 20 other graduate assistants. The issue is not resolved yet, and is much too complicated for me to explain other than to say that what appears to be a new university policy means that I and several other graduate employees will not receive any money for the rest of the semester (three months' worth of paychecks). I will also point out that graduate assistants are a small minority of the union's bargaining unit (most are teaching assistants) and that it was the GA's who were most critical of the union during the contract negotiations that almost led to a strike.

The union has been very responsive to all our concerns and sprang into action the moment this payroll policy became clear.

I still have reservations about the union, but I appreciate all its assistance in this matter.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I hope it got better

Yesterday, my girlfriend called attention to an internet campaign designed to tell high school students who are questioning their sexual orientation that "it gets better" if only they stick it out. This campaign comes in response to recent suicides by high schoolers who had been bullied for being gay or bi, and is an attempt to give perspective to people who might not see a way out of the bullying they undergo as teenagers.

This campaign reminds me of someone in my high school--I graduated in 1992--who was openly gay and who suffered much abuse. As far as I know, he was the only "out" student, and everyone made jokes about him. On at least one occasion that I know of, he was treated violently. On this occasion, he was apparently practicing for a school play as part of the school's theater group. He was in the auditorium and on stage, and someone hiding up in the upper row of the auditorium shot at him with a BB gun and hit him.

But this post isn't about him or about the one who shot at him. It's about me. I never did one thing to stop the jokes and verbal abuse. I realize now that I didn't even have to be a hero about it. I didn't even do the bare minimum, such as simply telling people that I didn't want to hear any gossip or jokes about anybody

Nor is it a defense that at that time in my life I believed homosexuality to be a sin and to be bad. Not that I believe that such a value system--that marks being gay as evil--can ever be a defense for the way he was treated, but my own value system at the time stipulated that one mustn't hurt another person for an arbitrary reason.

When we had heard that this student had been shot at by a BB gun, it was taken as a humorous thing by me and my friends. We had no role in the attack or in the planning of the attack, but we--and I would wager most people at the school--had a pretty good idea of who did it, and no one to my knowledge ever reported him. It was funny because, after all, the student who had been attacked was so openly gay he was "asking for it." Besides, BB guns are usually not dangerous and this student hadn't been physically harmed outside of a bruise that must have gone away after a few days.

A few weeks (or maybe a few months?) after the BB gun attack, one of the Denver newspapers--I forget if it was the Post or the Rocky Mountain News--published in its lifestyles section (if I recall correctly) on what it's like to be gay in the Denver Public School system, and this student was interviewed. His experiences with the BB gun attack were related. The publication of that story caused me to figuratively roll my eyes about the "liberal media" with their pro-gay agenda, and I probably thought to myself something like "why the hell do they give this f-- a story."

But then my aunt, who at the time was about 70 years old at the time (she actually just passed away a few months ago, at the age of 88), read the story. And she commented to me about how horrible it was that someone at my school had been shot with a BB gun just for being gay. The disgust with which she said it, with its obvious implication that it was inexcusable to bully people like that, filled me inwardly with shame that I, in my own way, had played a role in making this student's life at school at best miserable.

Incidents like that--my aunt showing me by her words and actions that it was wrong to abuse people for being gay--were part of a very slow process that started me thinking about homophobia and about why it was wrong to illtreat people just for being different and about my own complicity in perpetuating such treatment. There were other factors, too, and, again, the process, which I won't describe right now, was a slow one. But I gradually came to the realization that being gay is not bad and that it is wrong to abuse people for that reason or any other arbitrary reason.

But I do wonder sometimes, and again now, in light of the current "it gets better campaign": did it get better for this student? I do hope so. I know he had friends in the high school who stood up for him and offered him support, I hope they were strong enough to see him through to whatever he did after high school.

But again, this blog post isn't about him. I've done a lot of things in my life that I'm not proud of, and my failure to stand up for him, or at least offer him my friendship, is one of them. Now, from the safety of my desktop and my pseudonymous blogspot ID, I can write about the rightness, justice, and necessity of acceptance with almost no fear of negative consequences. If called in the future to take risks for others, I sure hope I would. But I know that in the past I certainly failed to do so.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Of archiving and tragedy

I've been reading up on archiving for my job, and I have two observations about the relevant literature.

First, no matter how convoluted and unclear a writer I am, archivists, or at least the ones whose works I've read so far, are much, much worse. It's a combination of bureaucratic office-speak (in formal writing, "impact" should not be transitive verb!) and abstruse academic verbiage.

Second, there appears to be an inherent tragedy in what I understand to be (and what the books and articles I'm reading tell me is) the dual mission of archives: to preserve sources in perpetuity and to ensure access. It seems to me that it's almost impossible to do either and that it's impossible to do both.

Sources deteriorate, eventually, in a hundred years or a thousand years or 10,000 years, they will pass away and be forgotten. The sun also rises..... It would be the height--or at least one of the many heights--of hubris to claim that the library in which I currently have my graduate assistantship will survive over the centuries.

Every time a source is used, it is damaged, however imperceptibly. We can do a lot to forestall the damage. We can put documents in protective plastic coating, or we can photocopy "dummy documents" that patrons can consult instead of the originals. But eventually the plastic will wear out or break and have to be replaced, or the dummy document will wear down and another one will have to be made.

I'm not sure how true this is of digital collections, especially because I'm ignorant of how electronic files actually work. But I have trouble believing that the information technology of today will be compatible with that of tomorrow, or that they don't have their own elements of "wear and tear."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My reservations about three libertarianish policy preferences

There are three policy preferences that, I imagine, libertarians tend to support and that I have reservations about. (So in other words, the contents of this blog post are more or less reflected in its title.) They are free trade, an "open borders" immigration policy, and what I call a "robust liberty of contract regime." Before I go further and define what I mean by these terms and my reservations, I'll add the following caveats: some non-libertarians probably support some or all of these policy preferences; I imagine some libertarians might oppose all, or at least some, of these policy preferences; I call them "libertarian" 1) because I've noticed that posters on libertarian-oriented blogs tend to advocate such policy preferences and 2) because they seem to me to be very consistent with the what I understand to be the fundamental assumptions or preferences of libertarianism (a preference for individual "liberty" as free as possible from state coercion and a preference for "markets" provided that "market failures" be managed or curtailed).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Random thoughts on moving

I try to keep references to my personal life at an arm's length in this blog--both to protect my privacy and the privacy of my friends and loved ones, and also because I don't think people inclined to read this blog are necessarily interested--but I will say that over the past few weeks, my girlfriend and I have moved in together. This post will be random thoughts on moving, but I will say right here how happy I am to be living with her. There were times in my life when I thought I never would experience the opportunity to live with a partner who I love and care for. I am indeed a lucky guy.

Some observations about the moving process:
  • As a general rule, you'll use all the time you'll allow yourself to prepare for and execute the move. I've allowed myself one month, and that's pretty much what it took (I'm rounding out the last week of that month now). If I had allowed myself only two weeks, I probably would have taken only two weeks. In short, moving is a great way to procrastinate doing other things.
  • I've noticed that the process of actually finding a place and a landlord through regularized channels (i.e., through an apartment finder instead of through informal grad-school contacts, which is a different process altogether) is easier for a (heterosexual) couple than for a single guy or a gaggle of grad students looking to move-in together. I think it's a combination of the fact that the couple is dual income, but it has more to do, I think, with the fact that a couple seems to suggest, rightly or wrongly, that they are "stable" and won't tear up the place. In places I had to get as a single guy, I had to often overcome the view (perhaps most of this was in my head, but I think some of it was real) that I was somehow suspicious. I had one landlord who inspected our (my and two fellow students') place on a regular basis probably because she just was suspicious of students.
  • Moving is hard financially, especially if it's pursued through regularized channels that involve credit checks and large security deposits. Fortunately, both my girlfriend and I have excellent credit, so that part of the process was almost worry-free. Our security deposit was very large, the equivalent of one and one-half month's rent. Also, we each ended up paying double rent because the lease to our old places overlapped with the start date of the lease of our new place. (Although this was expensive, it did make the move itself very easy.) We hired movers, and this was the first time either of us had done so. It made moving itself very easy and less stressful (neither of us is comfortable driving, and it was a relieve not to have to be the ones who put the square pegs of the couches into the round holes of the doors that seemed twice as small). But for this convenience, we paid a lot.
  • Moving brings to light the importance of simplicity: it makes you (or, at least it makes me) realize how much happier one can be with fewer "things," especially when one has what one cannot possibly need or even use. The fewer possessions one has, the relatively easier it is to move. (Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy has made a similar point a while ago, but I have trouble finding the actual post. I think he is right, but he uses this point to make what I see as an argument that is much more problematic than he appears to acknowledge: that the poorer one is, the easier it is to "vote with one's feet.")

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Forum culture" in academic journals

I don't read academic journals as much as I, a grad student in history, should. Journals are important because they acquaint scholars with the state of the field, often in a more comprehensive way than simply reading monographs. (In the historical profession, monographs are emphasized more than I understand them to be in, say, political science or legal scholarship, where journal articles are even more important than in history for tenure decisions, etc. Of course, I stand to be corrected.)

One characteristic thing about journals is the occasional "forum" issues, where several--usually three--scholars opine about a work--usually a monograph, but possibly a previous journal article--of another author. These forums (fora?) give readers exposure to a variety of viewpoints, and in that respect are quite useful and important.

But they also follow a vexingly predicable format. Consider a forum about the work of author A in which scholars X, Y, and Z participate. Here is the format that is usually, almost always, followed:
  • X writes a long, often 20+ page, thought piece on author A's work.
  • Y writes a shorter, about 5 to 10 page, piece.
  • Z writes an even shorter piece, usually only 2 or 3 pages.
  • A writes a "response" that usually runs like this: "X, Y, and Z bring up many good points, but in general I'm right and they're wrong, and here's why....."
Just once, I'd like to read a forum where author A says "I enjoyed reading the commentary of X, Y, and Z. Although I think my original work had made many valid points that need consideration, it appears I will have to fundamentally rethink what I wrote before."

Perhaps this does happen occasionally. As I've said, I don't read journals nearly enough. Still, it would be nice to actually see it happen.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

"History is best, and historians are better people"

In my prior post (click here to see it, or scroll down), I stated:
There was a time when I criticized students for what I assumed to be their fixation simply to get a job and make money. I'm not in this blog post talking about those types of criticisms. But I would like to state here that I now believe those criticisms were unwarranted and inappropriate.
Here are my reasons:

One, I didn't know any given student's hidden heart and desires well enough to believe that they were simply looking to be yes-men and yes-women. Sometimes, to paraphrase Robert Frost, it's necessary to be practical-minded in one's youth so as to be artistically minded in one's older age.

Two, even if I had known, it's not clear to me that looking for skills to get a good paying job is a bad thing.

Three, I'm not really so different, even though I chose, from early on, to major in studies--History and French--that, I knew, by themselves were not obviously conducive to job prospects, a fact which was reinforced when I graduated, looked for a new job that wasn't food service related, and found so many requests in the classifieds (this was the mid-90s....people still read the papers then) for accounting majors. I wanted and value--and still want and value--the security that comes with having steady employment. I'm not necessarily all that different from my colleagues in grad school, either. Beginning in my masters program, I encountered that strange breed of person who had devoted themselves to living the life of the mind and who solemnly declared to me that they preferred that to "working for Bill Gates." Yet that didn't seem to stop them for working for the computer industry when there was a demand for their programming and web skills.

Fourth, now that I study business history--although I have always been interested in political history, I used to approach it more from a labor history angle and now I approach it more from a business history angle--I have a greater appreciation for the fields of business study and realize they command their own aptitudes and even have something approaching their own aesthetics that, in theory, I imagine to be comparable to those of the liberal arts and social sciences.

Update 8-7-10: In the paraphrase from Frost, I changed the word "use" to "youth" because I meant "youth" and not "use" and, in a more metaphysical sense, because I didn't proofread.

"You'll need to know this when you get a job"

In my career as an instructor and as a TA in history (usually American history), I grew increasingly usually reluctant to lecture students the virtues of studying history. In particular, I was always hesitant, and became even more so, to claim that the skills undergraduate history courses help teach were transferable to jobs.*

There were/are two main reasons for this. First, I have never been in a position to hire anyone, and I don't have firsthand knowledge of what employers look for. I know people who are or have been in hiring positions, and at least a few of them do state that such things like being able to write well, think clearly and logically, and know how to process a lot of information from various sources (skills which history courses, at their best, help inculcate or strengthen). But I have never been in a position myself to know how true this is. I suppose, without knowing, that the hiring process itself does not make it clear who has such skills beyond the normal things one looks at in an application, a resume, or an interview.

Second, every job I have had outside of academia--and I have had quite a few, although not as much, probably, as most people--has been in some degree entry level in that it did not nominally require any more than a high school diploma. One can be "only" a high school graduate and do well at these jobs, which is not to say that they are "unskilled." In fact, one of the things I noticed at my very first job--at a fast food restaurant--was how skilled one had to be in order to do what a lot of my high school and middle school teachers had derided as merely "flipping burgers." Just because those skills were not formally acquired in a university (or, for that matter, in an apprenticeship program for trades like plumbing or electrical work) does not mean that they do not have a value in themselves. I have a hard time telling my students, with a straight face, that when they graduate, they will "need to have these skills" when usually they did not apply in the type of jobs I used to have.

The reasons my experiences are varied, I admit, probably have at least as much to do with my own priorities as they do with whether the skills one learns as liberal arts major are marketable outside of academia. Simply put, I'm really not that ambitious, or at least haven't been in the past when it's come to looking for jobs. In my more idle moments, I like the idea of being an important person who works for the government, for an important firm, or for an enterprise that is profitable to those who work there but that officially disavows a profit motive for tax purposes nonprofit. But in practice, I have been, rightly or wrongly, content with more modest jobs. But who knows? Maybe I'll be ambitious some day.

I don't write any of this to say that the skills that history courses supposedly impart or help develop are not worth anything. Nor do I say, right here and now, that the value of learning history for the sake of learning history is not all it is cracked up to be by historians and even non-historians (even though I tend to believe that). But I think we should be more modest before we, especially those like me who have never been in a supervisory position, give our students another unhelpful lecture they won't pay attention to anyway about how they need to write this week's paper so they can get a job.



* There was a time when I criticized students for what I assumed to be their fixation simply to get a job and make money. I'm not in this blog post talking about those types of criticisms. But I would like to state here that I now believe those criticisms were unwarranted and inappropriate. I'll explain why I think so in another post.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nom de plume, nom de moi: me revoici!

This post is just to announce I have changed my display name, which used to be "theolderepublicke" to my current pseudonym, "Pierre Corneille."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Follow up on "Where is the state?"

In previous post (click here to see, or simply scroll down), I suggested, to the extent that I wrote anything coherent at all, that the existence of voluntary organizations that exercise coercion in a matter that is more or less "legitimate" and with only limited connection to the state, pose a challenge to libertarianism. I should elaborate on what I meant.

First, I realize that non-state actors can be coercive and violent and the fact that there are such non-state actors does not make the state any less dangerous, although it might provide one argument for why we need a state, a point which I suspect libertarians recognize.

Second, I do not wish to deny the extent to which the state is implicated in coercive actions by putatively voluntary associations. The various manifestations of the Ku Klux Klan are an obvious example of violence being carried out supposedly independently of the state but existing largely because the state suffers them to exist. (And in some cases, I suspect, local state actors--members of the local police or sheriff's department, for instance--might have participated, further blurring the distinction between state and non-state actors.) The example I cited in my post below was less extreme, and the decision of the Canadian federal government to go after the coal "combine" through an intimidating hearing and, later, through a federal antitrust law suggests that the Canadian state did not, at least not officially, tolerate such an action.

Third, I think my conceptual difficulty with libertarianism is that I am not clear what libertarians are against. I know they are for "liberty," but it is unclear to me that they necessarily oppose non-state impediments to liberty, or at least they don't do so as libertarians. This is not a knock against libertarians, just a qualm I have with libertarianism, as I understand it. And of course, some libertarians, such as David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy, even support some positive action by government to redress certain infringements on liberty by non-state actors. I have in mind his essay on a libertarian approach to anti-discrimination laws. Click here to read it. Particularly, I'm interested in the following assertion:
Consistent with longstanding classical liberal suspicion of monopolies, many libertarians would allow the government to ban discrimination by such entities.
In the context of anti-discrimination laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this suggests moderate libertarian support for such laws. (I should note that Bernstein does not claim that his is the only libertarian-oriented position on the subject. See his post on the Volokh Conspriacy here for links to different takes on the same issue.)

Fourth and finally, I think my principal conceptual qualm with libertarianism, as I understand it, is that any action in which a "public" is affected is almost necessarily regulated somehow. (By "public" I mean what John Dewey meant in The Public and Its Problems: a person or group of people affected by the actions of others.) Any "free market" and any social interaction has a set of rules and deviations from those rules have consequences. The substance and contours of these rules may be defined by the state, or by convention, or by some supposedly non-state or quasi-state entity like a "board of trade." There are better rules and worse rules, and I suppose an argument is to be made that a state, arrogating to itself all the "legitimate coercion" under its jurisdiction (although in the final analysis, I'm not sure states actually do this, or that they don't do this without facing constant contestation if there is a strong civil society), might not always or necessarily be the best instrument for setting up these rules.

Again, I fear my post on the matter has become a bit incoherent. My "clarifications" just raise new questions about what I really mean here. (I'm sure glad I post these things pseudonymously!)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Where is the state?

One of the conceptual difficulties that I have with libertarianism is that, as I understand it, it prescribes minimally invasive government interference with society or the economy and prefers, instead of such interference, a maximum of individual liberty consistent with the respect due to other's rights. My "conceptual difficulty" arises, in part, because I have a hard time distinguishing what is the state in contradistinction of other entities. It seems to me that without a "state," or entities might come into being or continue in existence, and these can be oppressive in a manner similar to the state.

For example, one of the items I am studying for my dissertation was a short-lived organization that was called the "Coal Trade Branch of the Toronto Board of Trade," or "coal section" for short, which lasted from about 1886 to 1889 or 1890. This was an organization of Toronto coal dealers that became, not surprisingly, given its name, an affiliate of that city's board of trade.

The goal of the coal section was, basically, to keep retail coal prices in the city at what its members considered a "fair" or "reasonable" rate (translation: they wanted to limit competition among themselves). If a retailer cut prices without permission, the coal section would fine him (to my knowledge, they were all male), and if he did not pay the fine, he would be declared in "default." Being in default meant that the retailer could not get coal from the wholesaler or from shippers in the US. (It's a complicated story, but the American coal operators and distributors were in on the deal; and it's important also to note that Ontario at the time--and for several decades thereafter--depended on the US for almost all of its coal.)

I'm studying the coal section because of its antitrust implications. It was one of the reasons that Canada enacted the first ever (that I know of) national-level antitrust law in 1889. (There were several state-level antitrust laws in the US before 1889; and some laws that might be construed as proto-antitrust--such as laws against forestalling--had been a staple of Anglo law since at least the 1600s, and other legal systems, such as the Napoleonic Code, had laws against "coalitions" that resembled antitrust laws. I should also point out that I'm using the word "antitrust" somewhat loosely.)

But this organization highlights what I take to be the conceptual difficulty I have with libertarianism. The coal section was in some ways a "voluntary association" and in other ways was a creature of the state. But its statelike actions--what I take to be its claim to "legitimate coercion"--were not seriously implicated in the state as people seem to understand "the state" (i.e., the coercive components of the section were not seriously implicated with Toronto, Ontario, Canadian, British, American, New York, or Buffalo "state" action).

Multi-year contracts for faculty?

In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education (click here to read it), Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus offer several things colleges and universities can do to improve the bang for the buck for students and to reduce costs. Some of them are nice, but hard to imagine how they'd be implemented. Others seem at least worth a thought.

One is to do away with tenure and instead sign on faculty with multi-year contracts. They don't go into much detail into how this would work. But I imagine there are some merits and demerits of the plan, some of which depend on how they are implemented. Merits:
  • It would open up opportunities on the academic job market and end the lifetime entrenchment of faculty.
  • It would both increase accountability of faculty members while at the same time reducing the pressure on non-tenured junior faculty.
  • Contracts, depending on how they are drafted and how they are offered, might open a way for people who are today adjuncts to sign on for a little stability.
Demerits:
  • It would potentially open the door to invidious discrimination against, say, older professors and against professors who have a lot of family obligations--people who may not be able to take on the tasks that younger people with fewer ties can take on. I would say, however, that the current system, at least at research oriented universities, already have such a bias against newly minted people on the job market who are older or who have a lot of family responsibilities. The pressure on junior faculty to publish and to serve on committees is, I hear, intense and carries with it no necessary guarantee of tenure.
  • It could make such items as student evaluations inordinately determinative in who gets a contract, or at least a second contract. I'm not against the idea of student evaluations per se, but they can be misused.
These are only a few thoughts. I'm still thinking about the issue, and there's a lot I still don't know about academic hiring or the idea of multi-year contracts.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sometimes owning a car means you gotta make right turns

I live in Chicago where the car/bicycle/pedestrian culture is one that approximates Lord of the Flies or some sort of social Darwinian struggle for primacy as people try to survive in one piece as they go to wherever it is they go. Because I own neither a car nor a bike, I'm in the pedestrian camp, but I have some empathy--although perhaps not sympathy--for the situation facing bike drivers and car drivers. I realize they, individually, are each trying to make their way within an aggressive street culture that pauses usually only when someone is seriously hurt. It's a be-aggressive-or-be-injured sort of world.

Still, there are a few basic things cars (and bicycles too....I'm an equal opportunity complainer, except when it comes to pedestrians), can do. One of them is to not insist on making left turns when it is so inconvenient to every other transportationist in view. One advantage of owning a car is that you can go long distances in relatively short time. (To me that, along with the ability to take others with you, are the only real advantages.) Cars can usually afford to drive a little circuitously by making a few right turns instead of insisting on making a bee-line for the lane they want as they turn from the Dunkin Donuts onto Ashland Avenue (at Grand) at 8:10 in the morning without looking to see which pedestrian they're almost running over.

Update 7-15-10: I made a correction above. I had originally written "I have some sympathy--although perhaps not sympathy...." I had meant to say "I have some empathy--although perhaps not sympathy." On behalf of Google and the rest of the blogging community, I offer my sincerest apologies.

The great crusade

Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy has devoted several recent posts (see them here, here, and here), in which he takes on an essay that historian Michael Bellesiles has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Bellesiles, it will be recalled, was widely, and apparently accurately, criticized for (ahem) bending the truth or simply fabricating data in his book Arming America, which argued that the notion of a gun culture in the U.S. was a fairly recent invention. Lindgren, apparently, was the person who led the charge in calling out Bellesiles.

The essay Lindgren is now critiquing is some thought piece on Bellesiles's experiences with a student who, he says, had a brother injured in Iraq. The point of the essay is more or less that war is bad and that the US uses the patriotism of the least advantaged to fill its military ranks. Mr. Lindgren has noted several inconsistencies in Bellesiles's account and has tried to demonstrate that the student's brother Bellesiles has written about could not have had the experiences Bellesiles recounted in the essay. Mr. Lindgren, apparently, has researched the number of injuries and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past year or so and found none that corresponds to what Bellesiles wrote.

I have very mixed feelings about this project. On the one hand, I haven't much sympathy for Bellesiles. His past performance probably rightly subjects him to higher scrutiny. And the decision to publish anything carries the implicit "risk" that one's facts will be checked. In that sense, what Mr. Lindgren is doing is entirely appropriate.

On the other hand, Mr. Lindgren seems to take an inordinate amount of glee in tailing Bellesiles. (I'm also not fully convinced that Lindgren has uncovered much of a damaging case because his refutations seem, to me, to be explainable, or at least potentially explainable and not in themselves particularly damning. Still, if Bellesiles's account is good, it should be able to withstand scrutiny. As my adviser once said, the "lying" strategy doesn't work.) It seems unbecoming, almost as if Mr. Lindgren has appointed himself the conscience of Bellesiles.

Still, motivations shouldn't matter. If Bellesiles's account is wrong, it is wrong regardless of whether Mr. Lindgren is a nice person. (While I'm making moral judgments, I should add that I have never met him personally, that he once courteously responded to a blog post I wrote about him, and that while he posts under his own name, I write my posts anonymously). And what better person to rely on to check another's facts than someone who has an interest in discrediting that person's facts? People who already agree with Bellesiles are likely not to devote sufficient time in calling him out. (I do, however, personally know one scholar who, early on, wrote about inconsistencies between Bellesiles's Arming America and what she knew of some of his source base. I don't know her views on gun control, but I suspect that whatever her views are, she doesn't have a lot of respect for the "oh-my-gawd-they're-gonna-take-my-guns" lobby.)

Getting your job back

In "The Killing Floor"--a docudrama style film that discusses the experiences of blacks who moved to Chicago to work during World War I--the main character, Frank Custer, gets laid off for union organizing at his job at the packinghouses, but is reinstated because the wartime labor agreement forbade such firings. When he goes back to work, he says (I think the quotation is more less accurate), "One thing rich folks don't know is the joy of getting your job back."

I was laid off in September 2008 from my part time job as a loan processor due to the credit crisis. In January or February of 2009, they called me back to offer me another part-time job. I remember how nice it was to walk back into that bank and see the people I had used to work with. Although the job itself could be really dreary, the work environment quite jovial and we had all gotten along very well, so much that it was almost fun to be there. I just remember that first day, seeing people who I thought I'd never see again once I had been laid off.

I eventually "laid off" my employer, however, because I got a better job. (But I'll add that I gave them two weeks' notice, two weeks more than they had given me. Because I was only part-time and had worked there for just four months, I got no severance and was not eligible for unemployment.) But I remember how much I liked the people at that job, even if the job itself wasn't all that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Socially, I'm a libertarian, but economically...."

One of the reasons I'm not a libertarian is that I have an incomplete idea of what, exactly, libertarianism is. My readings of libertarian authors are pretty much limited to libertarian leaning blogs and columnists, such as the OneBestWay (the successor to Positive Liberty), the Volokh Conspiracy, and Steve Chapman. I have read John Locke, who, at least according to some people, was a proto-libertarian. Otherwise, that's about it.

When I ask my (mostly liberal or left-leaning) friends about their views on libertarianism, I generally get one of two responses. The first is a long lecture about how libertarians are hypocrites because they use public roads and benefit from taxes more than most non-libertarians do. This seems a bit strawman-ish to me. I imagine thoughtful libertarians at least recognize the points at which their ideology/political orientation conflicts with daily practice, just as my Marxist friends recognize the conflict between their relatively comfortable middle-class status and their advocacy for the rights of the "proletariat" and my liberal friends recognize the conflict between, for example, using the government to aggressively promote the economic interests of the disadvantaged even though many of the same disadvantaged people might support a non-liberal political party for reasons that have little to do with economics.

The other response is something like this: "When it comes to social matters, I'm a complete libertarian, but when it comes to economic issues, I think there ought to be regulation." In a sense, this, too, is strawman-ish because most libertarians, in my admittedly somewhat limited observations, accept the need for at least some regulation of the economy. What bothers me most about this response, however, is the neatness of the distinction that the speaker is trying to draw between the putatively "social" and the putatively "economic." To me, the two are so interspersed that it is often, though perhaps not always, hard to separate them. Here are some examples:
  • Libertarians usually want an end to, or at least a de-escalation of, the War of Drugs. There is a social component to this--the freedom of consenting adults to use drugs--but also an "economic" component--the state would spend less money in enforcing drug laws and in incarcerating offenders (and, I suppose, drugs would be cheaper, both in price and in the "transaction cost" of being arrested).
  • Libertarians usually dislike state-mandated discrimination based on arbitrary categories. Therefore, while they may have qualms about state actions that encourage marriage, they or at least some, usually believe that the state should recognize gay marriages if it is going to recognize any marriage. And the issue of the legality of marriage is not purely social. For the parties involved, there are some very real economic benefits. For the state--federal and state-level--there is a question of allocation of resources. For example, the distribution of survivor benefits for social security, I imagine, would change if the federal government recognized gay marriage.
  • A "libertarian" political economy--one in which the government is minimally intrusive and does only that which the "market forces" cannot do, and in which each adult is assured of a "liberty of contract" to sell his/her labor as they see fit--has social implications. Dismantling the welfare state*--whatever its other effects--would probably force poorer people to be even more reliant on family and informal networks of similarly situated people than they already are. (Here and now, I make no judgment on whether this would be a good thing, except to say that there would be definite pros and cons.)



*I'm not suggesting that all libertarians want to dismantle the welfare state, or that those who do, would want to do it precipitously and with little regard the very real hardships such a dismantling would cause, at least in the short term. I can also imagine a more moderately libertarian argument for continuing the welfare state (perhaps on the assumption that there are bigger fish to fry than taking away resources from poor people) but modifying its incentives to make its operation more efficient and beneficial to recipients of welfare. But dismantling the welfare state is logically consistent with what I understand to be libertarian critiques of government.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thought experiment: what if Kagan is a professional?

President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, has undergone a lot of criticism for her lack of experience. One particular variant of this criticism is the fact--noted by Paul Campos in this article--that she has hardly made known her political views on hot button political/legal issues, such as campaign finance reform, to name only one. She apparently has held her cards close in her (apparently very sparse) publications and even in her conversations with colleagues. Campos writes
Her thin sheaf of academic writings addresses only a handful of very narrow technical legal issues in an especially cautious and non-revelatory fashion. She has never published a word not intended for an academic audience. Her work as a lawyer—that is, as someone who is professionally obligated to advocate the positions of her employer, whether she agrees with them or not—tells us nothing about her own views.
He goes on to say
Over the past two months, I’ve spoken to nine of Kagan’s former colleagues at the two law schools where she has taught. All of these people, some of whom support Kagan’s nomination and some who oppose it, insist they know nothing about Kagan’s views on any significant legal or political issue—and I believe them.
One (mostly unspoken) insinuation here is that Kagan might have, for a long time, been seeking the Supreme Court nomination and carefully crafted her writings and even conversations to avoid controversy. Another possibility is that she lacks intellectual curiosity, or that she has a too mechanistic (and therefore somewhat unrealistic) view of the American legal system and how it is supposed to work. All these points are at least plausible given what we now know about her, and if they have any validity, it is a cause for concern.

But there is another possibility. Maybe Kagan adheres to a standard of professionalism that commands one not to wear one's political views on one's sleeve. Much of her academic career, as I understand it, was as a college administrator (I believe she was president Harvard Law School, but stand to be corrected). In that position, one's political views are not always relevant or of first importance.

None of this necessarily vitiates Mr. Campos's argument. One of his biggest beefs about the Supreme Court nomination process is that nominees rarely, if ever, can honestly articulate their political views, even though the post to which they are nominated is overtly political. Indeed, part of his criticism of Kagan is that she once wrote about the process as a vapid exercise and now is engaging in the same vapidity.

I think I am cynical realistic enough to know that paucity of information on Kagan's political orientation is at the very least suspiciously convenient and that as long as the culture of selecting judges remains what it is now, we are to expect nominees with similarly sparse and uncontroversial histories. I also realize the difficulty of being "non-political" as an academic or even as an administrator (the "personal is political" and "the death of objectivity," and all that). And if Kagan really was a conscientiously minded professional who did her job as "neutrally" as possible because it was her job, then maybe we don't necessarily want that type of person on the court. (The culture of professionalism isn't all it's cracked up to be, and it's not necessarily a good thing: witness the way academic departments knowingly tolerate professors who have long since given up on even their most basic duties and who are simply going through the motions because they have tenure.)

Still, what if?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I'd like to know about interchange fees

There is much ado about whether or how much or in what way the government should regulate what are known as "interchange fees." These are the fees a merchant pays every time he or she charges a customer's credit card. So, to take some made up numbers, if a customer uses a credit card to pay for something that costs $10, the credit card company (or the bank with which the merchant has the credit card processing account) charges the merchant, say, 2%, or 20 cents, if my math is correct.

The controversy is that some merchants, presumably smaller merchants who operate on close profit margins, claim that the fees are so high that they often cut into the merchants' profits, especially when credit cards are used for purchases of small dollar prices. The contention, I presume, is that x% of a $1 pack of gum--or at least x$ on several single purchases of $1 packs of gum--takes away the merchant's entire profit margin. According to some merchants, credit card services require that merchants accept credit cards for all transactions. Therefore, some claim, smaller business owners get the short end of the stick. There are other arguments advanced for a more robust regulation of interchange fees: the price of the fees get passed along to consumers, even those who pay cash, in order to subsidize those who pay with credit cards; some credit cards allegedly command higher interchange fees than others, so there is a sense of arbitrariness and unpredictability of costs; the two dominant credit card companies--which I'll call Misa and VasterCard so as not to single anyone out--allegedly operate as near monopolists and unfairly negotiate with smaller merchants who individually lack bargaining power.

The justifications for unregulated/less regulated interchange fees range from arguments that robust regulation would be price fixing and government is generally less than competent to do price fixing, to more practical considerations, such as the assertion that individual merchants could, if they wanted to, negotiate with credit card companies to pass the fees on to customers or use one of the other credit card companies (which I'll call US Express and Uncover); the assertion that having a credit card is to mean anything, it means being able to buy anything at a merchant that accepts a card; and the assertion that interchange fees represent real costs to the authorizing banks and that handling cash and/or checks carries its own costs (the risk of checks bouncing, robberies, counterfeit currency).

I'm not sure where I fall exactly. And before I make up my mind, there are some things I'd like to know the answers to. Some are factual items--I just don't know a lot--and some are hypothetical (the "what would really happen if we did x, y, or z?"). I've heard assertions one way or another on a lot of these points. I assume they can't all be true, or at least not categorically true:
  • Are merchants currently forbidden by credit card agreements from allowing discounts to cash only customers? I heard assertions both ways and imagine it might depend on the context. (One would also have to look at the merchant's incentive to offer the cash-only discount. I probably wouldn't base decision to purchase a $2 cup of coffee on a difference of, say 5 cents.)
  • Do antitrust laws prevent merchants from organizing collectively to gain a credit card contract more to their liking?
  • What would happen if merchants were allowed outright to charge higher prices for credit card holders? Would they simply raise all their prices by x percent and charge cash-only customers what they charge now?
  • What would regulation of interchange fees look like? Would they simply be tacked on to the customer's credit card bill? Would there be a set percentage that merchants could charge? Would the government simply declare a "fair" fee? I know that Sen. Durbin has advanced an amendment to the currently pending finance bill that would do a variant of this latter scheme in respect to interchange fees on debit cards: in short, the Federal Reserve would set the rate. But I wonder if "price fixing," as the opponents label attempts to regulate interchange fees, is the only way to go about ending this practice.
  • How are interchange fees regulated or enabled by currently existing regulation? (Sometimes opponents of "new" regulations, especially those who benefit from the status quo, do not realize or fail to acknowledge the ways in which current regulations play an active role in buttressing their current interests.
As someone who uses cash for most purchases--even to the point of being willing to pay the fees charged by out-of-network ATM's instead of using my debit or credit card--my interest in interchange fees is more academic than not. I'm just outlining some of the things I'd need to know before making a decision on the matter.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thoughts on Walmart and local merchants

In Chicago for the last 6 years or so--perhaps longer--a debate has raged over whether to allow Walmart to build stores in the city limits. One of the many arguments against allowing Walmart an entree into the Chicago market is the claim that it chokes off smaller business that is locally owned and operated. The argument for Walmart hinges, at least in part, on the claim that the economy of many of the targeted neighborhoods in Chicago is so bereft of local merchants and the goods, services, and jobs they are supposed to supply that a Walmart would be a welcome addition.

I have heretofore expressed some reservations about the we-need-to-ban-Walmart-to-protect-local-businesses argument (see my post here, and a comment I made on a post at the Volokh Conspiracy here). In short,

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The China syndrome

My undergraduate adviser in history (I had one for French, too), was a specialist in East Asian history, particularly 20th century Chinese history, with an emphasis on China's nationalities policy.* In some ways, this professor was one of the best I ever had. He introduced me to Chinese history (he taught all periods of Chinese history, not merely the 20th century) and his writing assignments were quite challenging and forced me to hone my thoughts.

In other ways, however, his teaching left something to be desired. His lectures at times, but only occasionally, contained apologias for some truly questionable practices that were done in Chinese history, such as the practice of footbinding, which resulted in the mutilation of countless numbers of women, and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of millions. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that he gainsaid the Tiananmin Square massacre, in which "only" hundreds of people were killed.

His goal wasn't malicious, and in some ways he was only trying to introduce us to seeing things from the perspective of those in power and those in the Chinese culture, on the very plausible assumption that someone growing up in that culture might have different conceptions of the state and human rights from those that Westerners might have. He also aimed at challenging some of the snobbery that, allegedly, has for a long time been inherent in Western scholarship on China.

Yet, he elided some serious problems. I now realize that he was a committed Marxist, although I wasn't quite aware of that at the time. Surely, Marxism had evolved by the mid-1990s to include serious discussions of "counter-hegemonic" cultural practices by the lower classes. What I mean is, even if Chinese culture encourages people to have a deferential attitude toward the state, that does not mean they do not "resist" this power in some ways.

That "problem," which I have undoubtedly oversimplified and only roughly explained, is only theoretical. There were specific items that in retrospect are questionable. On the subject of footbinding, the professor insisted that we ought not judge another culture by Western standards. After all, didn't the social norms of Victorian England virtually require upper-class and upper-bourgeoisie women to wear body-damaging corsets? In this case, he didn't particularly note the irony of comparing Chinese culture with Western culture in order to argue that we shouldn't compare Chinese culture with Western culture.

To this professor's credit, he did assign two textbooks from different perspectives. One was by Jacques Gernet (who, I believe, was a Marxist); the other was by John King Fairbank (who, I wager, could be considered an American liberal academic who had once been more left-leaning). The professor, however, made very clear which historian he agreed with. He derided Fairbank as an "elderly man" (indeed, Fairbank had written that book shortly before his death), as if the professor would have agreed with Fairbank if he had been younger. (My guess is that Gernet, in the 1990s, was no spring chicken either.)

Fairbank's crime? In a chapter section on footbinding, he criticized the tendency of mostly Western, non-Chinese historians (my professor was French) to adopt a "second nationalism" and write about China as if it could do no wrong. As an example, Fairbank humbly cited an article he himself had written decades earlier, in which he contended that the Glorious Revolution was one of the greatest things that ever happened to China.

I took four classes with the professor in question. I confess that I, too, developed a sort of second nationalism toward Chinese history, but on a more modest scale than my adviser had. In short, I ignored what should have been my better intellectual judgment and refused to challenge what even then I should have seen as holes in his statements.

This post is not meant as a diatribe against China or against my adviser. Perhaps my adviser's teaching style was defensible in many ways. It just gives me pause.





*China is approximately 90% ethnically "Han" Chinese, but the other 10%, while present in almost every province, are concentrated in strategic, sparsely populated areas that China would like to control, such as Tibet, northwestern China (the Xingjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region) and the land north central border (the Mongolian Autonomous Region.) China therefore had to develop a "nationalities" policy to prevent these people from revolting. Authoritarian regimes, no matter how brutal, cannot live on force alone.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Personalized business, or where to buy junk food

Sometimes, I prefer to patronize local businesses in part because I feel something tending toward a "moral" obligation that I want to support locally owned businesses. For example, there is a convenience store near where I live that appears to be owned by a family who, I assume, live in the neighborhood. Right across the street, a corporate gas-station/convenience store has opened up as well. The main difference between the two is that the latter offers gasoline and can induce a greater number of customers with slightly cheaper prices and loss leaders. Whenever, on rare occasions, I wish to patronize a local convenience store, I try to use the locally owned one (I don't have a car, so gasoline is a moot point). The reason: they're always nice to me and I don't want to see them lose their business.

Now, nothing I buy there is important, and there is a grocery store

Monday, June 14, 2010

A world without children

I have pretty much firmly decided that I do not want to raise children. I won't go into all, or any, the reasons, but I have thought long and hard about it, and I believe them to be good reasons. Still, I suspect that there is something lost in opting for this course. There is something gained, too, but also something lost.

What that "something lost" is, is to a large degree unknown by me, as someone who has never had children or played a significant role in raising children (I'm the youngest in my family and played no big role in my nieces' and nephews' upbringings). To a large, perhaps extravagant, degree, I don't know what I'm missing. As D. A. Ridgley said in a blog post on parenthood (click here to read; in fact, I recommend reading his entire blog; even though, to my knowledge he does not contribute to it anymore, I find it enjoyable reading):
The parent / child relationship is asymmetrical: you cannot understand what it is to be a parent merely by having been a child. I want all my children to be healthy and happy and harmless people who are loved and share love freely. Beyond that I am mostly indifferent about the particulars of how they choose to spend their lives and even less concerned about how they make a living.
And much of what I hear from parents is that they find being a parent, to paraphrase what a friend of mine once said, "both easier and harder than you can imagine."

One thing I've learned from reading C. S. Lewis, even though I'm not sure he phrased it in exactly these terms, is that almost everything, except perhaps, for him, the grace of God, comes with its corresponding dangers and corresponding virtues. Deciding not to have children comes with certain "virtues"--if one may call them that--but it also comes with the danger of being locked increasingly into oneself, making oneself as a God, or as an island entire unto itself. Raising children can, I imagine, be a strong antidote to that.

I imagine that deciding to raise children entails potential dangers that, like the virtues, I cannot, perhaps, fully imagine or appreciate, although in the news we see frequent (although perhaps anomalous?) instances of parents neglecting their children or abusing them. And my reasons for not wanting to have children relate, at least partially, to fears that these dangers would be realized; however, I promised not to go into my reasons.

But I should say that in most of the parents I know, I see loving people who have given, and who continue to give, love and nurturing to another being that, at least at first, is completely dependent on them. Perhaps such a role, for the parent, is heartbreaking. A friend of mine once said that you never love your parents as much as they love you. I don't know if that's true, but she had children and could at least speak from experience.

Now that Mother's day has passed and that Father's day is approaching, I guess I'd just like to give a shout-out to my friends who are parents.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why support the Green Party?

For the by-elections in Illinois, I am endorsing the Green Party ticket. (Right now, I expect to hear a collective *sigh* of apathy from my readers, who number perhaps in the high single digits and who probably don't depend on me to tell them how to vote.) Any endorsement of the Green Party, or any third party, comes up with some very commonsense and reasonable exceptions:
  1. Third parties have a notoriously hard time actually winning elections. This is true historically, even at the state and local levels. Even apparent examples of "successful" third parties are either not really that successful or not that "third": the Republicans, in the 1850s, might arguably be thought to have been a "third party" of sorts, but in actuality, the prior third party system (Whigs versus Democrats) was falling apart, and the new Republican party was taking on some of the trappings of the Whigs and Free Soil Democrats; the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt was somewhat "successful" (TR placed second in electoral votes to Woodrow Wilson), but to the degree it enjoyed any success was due to that fact that it represented one wing of the Republican party that had broken off from the alleged "Old Guard"; the Populist Party, for a time, enjoyed some electoral success at the state level, but it, too, fell by the wayside.
  2. This is also true structurally: our "first past the post" system of voting for "single member districts" (basically: only one person can serve as representative for a geographically bound territory, and that person needs to get at least one more vote than her or his competitors) militates against a victory from someone who does not belong to one of the two parties.
  3. This is also true in terms of hardball politics. Frankly, third parties almost never have money or legal resources to deal with the inevitable challenges (more often than not, from the Democratic Party) to their right to be on the ballot.
  4. Third party campaigns usually hurt the electoral chances of the candidate who is most likely to represent the interests of those who vote for the third party. It is probably too trite to say, for example, that Nader voters in 2000 all would have voted for Al Gore if Nader hadn't been on the ticket (I, for one, would have probably voted for another third party, and I really do think some others might have voted for Bush), but it seems pretty clear that Green voters probably played the critical role in battleground states like Florida and that Gore would have been much more friendly to the types of policies espoused by the Greenites than Bush was on most issues.
Given these objections, why on earth would I support the Green Party? Here are a few reasons, and I confess that they do not answer all the above objections completely:
  1. At the state level, and especially at the local level (by which I mean, Cook County), the Greens have a marginally better chance at winning than they do at national-level elections. I stress that this chance is, indeed, only marginally better. But it is better.
  2. The stakes, at the local level, are not necessarily as stark as at the statewide and national levels. The Greens are running someone for Cook County President, and the Democrats, who dominate the board, are so corrupt, that it might be hard to distinguish much from the Republicans. (There is a danger that a tax-lowering Republican base might dismantle county health aid and other forms of public assistance, so I don't claim that the partisan differences mean nothing.)
  3. The Democratic party in Illinois, and especially in Chicago and Cook County, is so institutionalized and so unabashedly dictatorial that almost any change seems better. I even briefly considered supporting local Republicans, until I went to the GOP's Illinois website and found, on its opening page, a big advertisement against the "Obama/Pelosi Takeover of Healthcare." Now, there are very good reasons to oppose the new health insurance reform bill, but such rhetoric does nothing except to foster open discussion of the issues. (Not that the Democrats are any better; that's one of the reasons I do not wish to support them.)
Oh yeah, I also agree with much of the Green Party platform