Wednesday, December 10, 2014

RIP, Judy Baar Topinka

Apparently, the Illinois comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka, passed away last night/this morning.  She was one of the more decent of the state's Republicans and in retrospect would have been a better choice for governor in 2006 than the guy (Blagojevich) who won.  And although I didn't know her personally, she sounds like a decent person as well. 

My condolences to her family.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The fable of the professor and the bureaucrat

(((This post is re-posted over at Ordinary Times, click here to read it and the comments and to write your own comments)))

Once there was a tenured professor whose wife taught classes as an adjunct in his department.  The wife applied for another job and she had to get a transcript for some courses she had taken at the university she adjuncted at.  The day before the transcript was due she went to the transcript office.

The employee at the transcript office said all transcript orders required a two-week processing time but the adjunct could pay extra to put in a rush order and have the transcript in two business days.  The adjunct was very very sad because she needed the transcript by the next morning and she asked to speak with the supervisor.  The supervisor was very small man and wore ugly glasses and a shirt and a tie.  He spoke with a very nasally voice and he said the employee was right and there was nothing he could do and he regretted the inconvenience.

This was a very very bad thing, and the adjunct was very very sad.  She went to the tenured professor she was married to and the tenured professor went back with her to the transcript office and asked to speak with the bureaucrat who was very small and wore ugly glasses and a shirt and a tie.  The transcript bureaucrat was not friendly at all and spoke in a nasally voice and refused to change the arbitrary rules.  The tenured professor, who was very big and who worked out a lot, got very angry and lifted the bureaucrat up by his shirt until the bureaucrat gave in and got the adjunct her transcript right away.

After the adjunct got her transcript the bureaucrat said to the tenured professor in a not very nice tone but with a very nasally voice, "do you always resort to violence to get your way" and the tenured professor said, "it worked with you, didn't it?"


When I was a freshman in college, my biology teacher told that story to our class.  His point was to tell a joke that was also a true story.  It was funny because we were students at that same school and had had to deal with the bureaucracy.  It was all the more funny because we all knew the professor he was talking about and we could picture him doing exactly that thing.  He was kind of a campus legend.  He drove a Harley to school without a helmet.  One of his hobbies was weight lifting and he had the bulk to show for it.  According to one account, he had once slapped a student who had come to his office and threatened him.  (According to the account I heard, the student apologized to him.)

That was a while ago.  I've forgotten some details of the joke and added others.  I made up what (I hope comes off as) its fabulistic tone.  The small man with the glasses and the shirt and a tie and the nasally voice may very well not have been small, wore glass, sported a shirt and a tie, or spoken with a nasally voice. Further, the biology teacher who told the story didn't explain why the adjunct would need a transcript.  Maybe she got her PHD at that university.  Or maybe it had nothing to do with grades and was something like a certified work history that she just happened to have to go to the transcript office for.

So we have a joke about a tussle with the bureaucracy and it's funny because in the story the bureaucrat, who bears the sole responsibility for the situation, gets his comeuppance.  He has something someone else needs.  He has the power to supply it.  But he won't, and he won't because of arbitrary rules that he apparently is responsible for enforcing.  When he tries to hide behind whatever power his position confers on him, someone else with a different kind of power calls him on it, humiliates him, and compels him to relent.  And we're supposed to laugh.

But the moral of that joke has bothered me ever since I heard it.  Lost in that story is the adjunct's responsibility for what happened.  Why did she wait until the last minute when she surely must have known that transcripts often take a while to get?

There might be a good explanation, even though the joke ventures none.  Maybe some personal issues intervened and she just simply could not order the transcript as early as she should have.  Maybe it was a somewhat last-minute job offer and in order for her to get the job she had to turn around a transcript very quickly.  (I'm suspicious of that explanation, by the way.  Any institution from which she was likely to be offered a last-minute job would just as likely understand that getting transcripts from a largeish bureacracy  takes time, and this was in the early 1990s before it was standard practice to get certified transcripts by just hopping onto a computer, logging in, and entering a credit card number, as some schools now do.)

Your take might be different.  But I get the sense that she applied for a job, knew there was a transcript due by such and such a date, and said to herself, "okay, I'll stop by the transcript office the day before and pick it up then."  And when they said she couldn't have it, she got very angry.  It wasn't her fault.  And after all, it was a mere bureaucrat who stood in her way.  And fortunately, she had a strong husband to bring some modicum of justice to the situation.  Some people are just too important to have to abide by those rules.

There's a lot we don't know about why the bureaucrat refused in the first instance.  Did he have some incentive not to give transcripts on short notice?  Did he have a supervisor who had warned him repeatedly not to do so and would probably yell at him if he did?  If he made an exception in this case, would that have meant that over the next weeks or months he'd have to make similar exceptions for increasing numbers of requests, all to be accommodated by a short staff?  What was his role in the organization?  In my retelling I assumed he was some sort of supervisor or the public institution equivalent of a middle manager.  But he might a lowlier employee or a higher up "associate dean of transcript distribution."

None of this is to deny the bureaucrat's role here.  His job was to get transcripts for people who needed them, and apparently he was able to help, as evidenced by the fact he was able to get the transcript in the wake of the tenured professor's threats.  And while I'm more sympathetic than most to the excuse that "if I do this for you I'll have to do it for everybody," the goal should be to be able to "do it for everybody" when it comes to customer service and making discreet exceptions when necessary is sometimes a good thing.  (Even so, advocates for the "discreet exceptions" don't usually think of the person who who is timid or who doesn't know that a discreet exception is possible and therefore doesn't seek it in the first place.)

And maybe the bureaucrat really was a petty tyrant.  Perhaps he would have been more accommodating if it had been a man requesting the super-expedited transcript, or if the adjunct had flirted with him.  I happen to know the professor and the adjunct were ethnically Jewish and from New York and had the looks and accents to prove it.  For all I know, the bureaucrat took the stand he did as much to stick it to "obnoxious New Yorkers" as to stand on principle.

But that's all hypothetical  and at any rate has almost nothing to do with why the joke is supposed to be funny.  The lesson I take that when a service worker stands in the way of what you want, it's okay to do pretty much anything to get your way, even if that involves yelling or threatening.  And when it happens justice is restored.  And it's funny, too.

A related lesson from the joke is that the important people in the world are those who live the life of the mind.  (And who, by the way, have some sort of institutional affiliation.  The story would have been less funny if it had been an organic intellectual from the streets who had taken one class five years ago and now needed to a transcript right away for some reason and came in and threatened the bureaucrat.)  The particular people in this joke who so qualify are academics.  But we can find their doppelgaenger in any field whose practitioners do what they do, mutatis mutandis, "because I love it and not because of the money (but give me my money)."

Other people exist to serve these important people.  They are proles or bureaucrats--not necessarily the same thing but sometimes treated in similar ways.  Maybe they're simple people who can be patronized or whose plight can be bemoaned when the wrong party gains control of the government.  Or they are petty people who are to be distrusted and perhaps even feared because they represent the instantiation of a banality that enables and empowers the gravest and most totalizing evils the world has known.

They are to be tolerated and if necessary handled, but not respected.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


[UPDATE, 10-18-14:  A version of this post is reprinted at the Ordinary Times Blog, broken up into two posts.  The version printed there is a lot longer, as I have gone into some very specific policies/laws I support.  It's also a bit less edited than the post here on this blog, and isn't as clear about the extent to which I see my neoliberalism as coming from an "inductive" approach to politics.  Still, I'm grateful for the opportunity to discuss my ideas there, and urge any readers to hop on over to see the comments and/or participate in the discussion.  The first post is here.  The second is here.] 

I've come lately to calling myself a "neo-liberal."  I want to define what I mean.  I'll say it's early twenty-first century liberalism strongly informed and checked by libertarian assumptions and in particular what James Hanley calls "marginal libertarianism."  Or in other words, a robust welfare state plus free markets and maximum civil liberties.  That's an overly simplified view of what I mean by neo-liberalism, but I think that's a good shorthand.

I wish my neo-liberalism to be a "pragmatic" or "inductive" approach to politics.  By "pragmatic" and "inductive," I mean that I determine first which policies I support and then organize my political views and alignments accordingly.  For example, I decided early on that I support the ACA, "Obamacare," and from that support, and the reasons for which I support it, I derive my views about government involvement in health care provision.

That's the approach to which I aspire.  But there are some real problems with it. 

For example, if taken to extremes, my approach becomes a "just-so" story about what I believe and about what is right, regardless of how one gets there.  It can be an invitation to arbitrariness and a denial or belittling of process.  In other words, the danger is I might come up with notions of what I support, and then make up reasons to support it.

Take the ACA, also known as "Obamacare".  There are some pretty severe practical and constitutional problems with the law.  I might say it's all to the greater good, and I do not concede that the problems obviate the potential good.  But I should be wary of ignoring altogether the constitutional objections its opponents have raised.  The same leaps of logic that I am tempted to use to justify the ACA bear a family resemblance to the leaps of logic that at times in our history has lent support to "criminal syndicalism" laws, to the internment of Japanese Americans, or to a peacetime draft--all of which I see as denials of basic and essential liberties.

A further problem with my approach.  When I say "I determine first which policies I support and then organize my political views and alignments accordingly," I should add the words "or at least I try to."  I too have prior assumptions on which I act and which can be construed as an "ideology."  And worse, I choose to indulge non-rational or spiteful approaches to policy issues.  I have, for instance, a knee-jerk sympathy for claims made in opposition to the teaching of evolution, to vaccinations, and to doing much of anything to stem what has been called "anthropogenic global warning," or "human-made global warming."  It's not that I really believe those claims deserve defending.  I don't.  But I admit I feel a sympathy for those stances that is hard to explain.
I would not eschew first principles altogether.  If I would, I'm not sure I could.  I also need to make allowances for the non-rational and intuitive.  Not all that is non-rational is wrong, and sometimes we have to decide based on our gut..  But the goal--again, it's one I aspire to, not one I always or even usually honor in practice--is to continually inform those principles and to question them.  Therefore, I do have a set of what I'll call provisional principles, or guidelines:

1.  Individual autonomy is a good thing, and it usually ought to be maximized.

2.  Coercion is automatically suspect and needs to be justified before it is invoked.

3.  Not all coercion is created equal.  The coercive power of the state to regulate driving is different from and requires less justification than the coercion inherent in the war of drugs.

4.  It's usually better to have more choices than fewer, and choices usually should be expanded and not restricted.

5.  Economic liberty is a desirable thing and ought to be expanded.  That includes, among other things, fewer restrictions on market transactions, especially inasmuch as "market transactions" is a shorthand for choices of voluntary exchange.

6.  People need to be economically secure, and if at all possible, that security ought not be limited to the bare minimum of survival.

7.  War is sometimes necessary and therefore sometimes justified.  But it is never good. 

8.  There are a lot of faults with what is called the "nation state," including whether and in what ways we can define something called a "national interest" both as opposed to "local interest" and to international relations.  Still, my starting assumption is to look at things through the lens of the nation-state.  In practice, that means  most policies I support tend to be national ones, and the foreign policy I support tends to be grounded in what I consider "realist" terms.  I don't wish to ignore all the problems with that focus.  But that's my starting assumption.

9.   Complexity and social organization come essentially from below, not from above and not from central planning.  Planning and policy can inform the shape and can nudge things from one direction to another.  Maybe, and even then with unpredictable consequences.  I sign on, mostly in full, to the quotation from Virginia Postrel that Jason Kuzknicki adds as a motto/guide to his unfortunately named blog:
A dynamic system, whether a single organization or an entire civilization, requires rules. But those rules must be compatible with knowledge, with learning, and with surprise. They must allow the tree to grow, not chop it into timbers. Finding those rules is the greatest challenge a dynamic civilization confronts.
10.  When I adopt policy preference or stance, I need to keep in mind at least the best counterargument to it, if not several good counterarguments.  Ideally, I ought to identify the point of view that I cannot satisfactorily answer and keep it front and center, lest I grow too attached to my own ideology.

There are probably more principles, but ten is a good round number.  I'm open to revising them.  I'll note also that they tend to contradict each other.  That's a feature, not a bug.  If there are no contradictions here, then I'm doing it wrong.  I must underscore again that these are all provisional and ad hoc. I come up with those principles partially based on my sense of right and wrong and partially based on rationalizations about the types of programs or policies I support.

In later posts, I may go over what specific policies I do support.  I also may go over some of the very dark connotations of what is known as "neo-liberalism" and try to explore the ways in which I can counteract them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Stories of busing

My last post, on bigotry and compulsory busing reminds me of stories that from my own family's history.

Story #1:  My siblings were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Denver.  There's a lot I don't know about their upbringing, and much of what I'm about to write is conjecture.  But here are some, to my mind, interesting points.

My two oldest siblings went to the local elementary public school, and then on to the local public junior high and high schools.  My next three siblings, who would have been born in the early 1960s, from around 1961 to 1965, went for a few years to the local elementary school, and then my parents transferred them to my mother's parish parochial school, a K through 8 school.

I don't know the specifics of when my parents transferred them.  But it would have been around the time of the implementation of court-ordered busing in Denver in 1974.  The idea of busing had been in the air already, though.  In 1969, according to this New York Times article, Denver voters elected a city council majority opposed to busing for the purposes of desegregation.  And although the article I just cited isn't completely clear, in 1969 or 1970, a federal court ordered busing to begin.  The late (1974) implementation seems to have resulted from something like massive resistance to the policy and the Supreme Court challenge.  All this is to say, that I wouldn't be surprised if the effort to shift my siblings to parochial school coincided with that busing debate.  But I'd have to know the years.

For the record, all my siblings went to the public high school.

Story #2:  I remember, perhaps sometime in the late 1990s though I don't remember now, my mother telling me that several years prior, probably before I was born, she had been at a protest at the local public elementary school.  I don't remember for sure if she said she carried signs, but the goal of the protest was--I think--against busing.

Story #3:  I was born in the early 1970s, and my parents sent me to a public elementary school, Kindergarten starting for me in the 1979-1980 school year.  It wasn't the same elementary school my siblings had gone to before the transfer to a parochial school.  It was a little farther away than that school, but still in walking distance.  However, it was in fact a shorter walk to that school than the walk to the parochial school would have been.   So, although it wasn't the neighborhood school, it was for many intents and purposes a neighborhood school.

Anyway, at the beginning of one school year year--I think it was 5th grade but I no longer remember--the class I had been assigned to was, apparently, overcrowded.  So I was moved to a different class with a different teacher.  Not a huge deal.  It happened in the first or second week of classes and wasn't a major disruption.  Still, it was interesting to know that I would now have a different teacher.  So I went home and told my dad that I was being "transferred."

He got very angry.  I didn't understand why.  After some explanation--either from myself or from my mother or, for all I know, from my school when (if) he called them--he calmed down.  At the time, I chalked it off as one of those apparently random expressions of anger he often indulged in and I was grateful when it ended.  But I now have an idea of what made him so angry.

Story #4:  Court-ordered busing ended in 1995, according to the articles I cited above.  Those who supported its end claimed that it had "worked" and had successfully integrated schools.  Those who wanted it continued claimed that it hadn't gone far enough, or feared a reversion to the more segregated system of the 1960s/1970s.

It is almost certain that the schools I attended were desegregated to some extent, although most of my students came from "sensible" areas given the location of the school.  I lived in southwest Denver and don't recall many students bused in from northeast Denver, for example.  I'm not sure if that was by design--if busing was done with the intent of keeping local schoolchildren as local as possible--if it was a sign of only a tepid implementation of busing, or if the fact that my own neighborhood had a large number of Latinos and, by the late 1980s, southeast Asians already made it more "diverse" than it would have been in the 1960s and 1970s.

In my last post, I identified some of the non-racist reasons a person might oppose busing.  I gave the impression that busing as a means for integration was a ham-handed effort.  I believe that in many ways it was.  But I ought to have discussed the issue a little further.  As ham-handed as it was, it probably had at least modest success, at least in some cases.  We hear the spectacular cases about the anti-busing riots in Boston--or about the arson attacks on Denver buses or the bomb threat against the chief proponent of busing in Denver--but we hear less about the more boring cases of it actually working.

I'd like to think my experiences in school introduced me to a modicum of diversity that I might not otherwise have had.  I think all the schools I did attend--which were all public--were either majority white or whites were the largest group if not a majority.  And there were very few black people in my classes, even though Denver has a sizeable African-American population and they tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the city, a fact that to my mind might make busing to integrate those areas an obvious to those who supported busing.

There could be tension.  I  remember being called "white boy" on several occasions, and it wasn't the type of label to make one feel safe.  To the extent that I had bullies, they tended to be Latino, though not all were.  I'm sure the reverse was true, and probably more true than what I recall or witnessed, that non-whites faced their own share of epithets and threats.  And it was probably true that being white helped me get away with certain things that I might not have gotten away with had I not been white.

But there were good things, too.  I had friends with Spanish, Hmong, Farsi, and Vietnamese surnames.  My introduction to their cultures was probably superficial, but I learned from them.  I had very few black friends, none of whom was a close friend, but I had some.  I learned a modicum of respect for others.  In high school, for example, I adopted the facile attitude that affirmative action was nothing more than "reverse discrimination," and I didn't change my mind by the time I left.  However, I knew that my friends benefited in some ways from this program I disliked, and I learned not to begrudge them their opportunities.  I also knew that most of them were less well-off than I was.  Some lived in housing projects, and some had experienced some pretty severe hardship in places like Laos or Vietnam before coming to the US.

Now, Lincoln High School in Denver in 1988 was not Little Rock Central High School in 1957.  And while Denver is much more diverse than a casual visitor, who sees only downtown and a select other neighborhoods might think, it is not nearly as diverse as larger cities, like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago are.  But I think my experience is worth noting if I'm going to be making statements critical of busing.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bigotry feels itself aggrieved, part 2: on compulsory busing

In my last post, I promised to offer an example of what I meant by "bigotry feels itself aggrieved."  Here is one.  And like most non-Godwinian examples I can think of, it's an imperfect one.

Consider the rhetoric of George Wallace, the southern segregationist who in 1968 ran a third-party campaign for president.  Among the many issues he took on, he criticized court-ordered and legislature-ordered busing, at one point saying the following [quoted from this post]:
Isn't it silly and ludicrous and asinine for a group of pin-head socialists [sic] theorists telling you that they are going to make you send your child out of a neighborhood school to satisfy the whim of some social engineer and say to parents, 'You don't have anything to do with it.' . . . It is freedom-of-choice only if you choose like they think you ought to choose.
Now there are a lot of ways to examine the sentiment to which Wallace was appealing.  One way is to focus on the inherent bigotry.  Busing was one mechanism to combat segregation in the public schools.  And Wallace was making the argument to his listeners that desegregation wasn't their responsibility.  The people really to be criticized were those who intruded themselves upon the parents' choice of where to send their children.  One could oppose desegregation and yet rest secure that one's opposition is based on the special grievance against the "social engineers" and "socialists theorists" who shuffled children around to make a larger political point.

In that case, the bigotry is the opposition to racial integration.  The terms "social engineers" and "socialists" were negative code words, designed to disguise racists beliefs.  In saying this I'm saying nothing new.  Because I have to cite something, I'll refer you to Micheal Omi and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States (1986), which references the rise of "code words" that in the years after the civil rights movement that signaled racism.  The racism here that was part of George Wallace's appeal was expressed in those code words.  (I'm actually inclined to believe code words, or proto-code words, were in existence well before the civil rights movement.  I can imagine a promoter of Jim Crow segregation in the late 1800s saying something like, "I'm not racist.  I just think people need to stay among their own kind."  Or he could just cite the supreme court and say "things might be separate, but they're equal.")

I have to pause here, though, and point out something else.  The argument of the "code word" argument is not the only way to read opposition to busing.  I can think of non-racist reasons a parent might oppose court-ordered or legislature-ordered busing.  There are a lot of advantages, I imagine, to having one's child attend a school close to home.  The route to and from is shorter and more likely to have watchful neighbors who know the child and parents.  Buses can be missed if the schoolchild is running behind, and then might need a ride to school.  Parents can probably more easily attend parent-teacher nights or PTA conferences at a school close to home.  If an emergency happens, it might be easier for a parent, especially if one is already at home, to come to school.  Busing was at least occasionally met with violence (but I should note that the situation I link to concerns the implementation of a state law, and not court-ordered busing).  It's not excusing the violence of segregationists to say that parents might legitimately not want to put their children in such dangerous situations.  Finally, busing in isolation seems to have been a "if you build it they will come" tactic.  Just put children of different backgrounds together without doing anything else to help them learn how to respect each other, and in one generation's time racism won't even be an issue.

But if, as I believe, opposition to busing wasn't reducible to racism, it was implicated with racism in a very messy way that is difficult to disentangle.  But trying to disentangle it--trying to identify which strands were racist, or bigoted, and which were non-racist--is also difficult and can take us dangerously close to the judgment on others' internal states I talked about in my last post.  We can of course identify specifically racist things anti-busing activists may have said, but doing so gets us only so far.  By the late 1960s,. it was already becoming unacceptable--and therefore less common--to take stridently pro-segregationist stances or to adopt language that today we would recognize as the reserve only of white supremacist groups.  That's why Wallace--who had once proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!"--now started to frame his rhetoric against "social engineers" (and also "anarchists," aka antiwar activists and other activists).*

My hypothesis is that in anti-busing campaigns, non-racist reasons and racist/bigoted reasons intermingled.  And the problem at hand--education systems that tended to channel more resources to whites than to blacks or Latinos--was the overarching reference and ought to be considered in how we assess reaction to attempts to solve it.  (I'll note in passing that I'm focusing here on whites.  The people whom busing was meant to help had varied and nuanced views of the matter, too.)

So I'm left with a problem.  I have stated that "bigotry feels itself aggrieved."  And I believe it.  But I can't prove it by this example.  I can, however, use this example to inquire into what about one's opposition to busing is bigoted and what is not, and perhaps to ask for introspection.  I offer this example not to accuse, but to call for introspection.  If one feels a particular grievance, and that grievance is cited in defense of something that is otherwise wrong, then maybe one is indulging in bigotry, in the self-seduction I mention in my prior post.

Calling out Wallace supporters is low-hanging fruit.  He pretty much represented the last time explicit (and even in 1968, the explicitness was going underground through the code words) pro-segregationist politics was considered legitimate.  It's much harder to examine our own assumptions.

*He later in fact experienced something like an anti-racist rebirth.  He apologized for his earlier stances and re-ran for governor and won, supposedly with some significant support from black voters.  I'll leave it to people who know more about him to assess the evidence for and against how sincere that turning of the third stair was.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bigotry feels itself aggrieved, part 1

I have a working rule about bigotry and in particular about those who try to justify willful injustices.  I believe such people convince themselves that they are victims of the very victims against whom the injustices are perpetrated.  They feel themselves aggrieved by the victims and use that sense of grievance in a process of self-seduction to support something they might not otherwise believe justifiable.

By "willful injustice" I mean an injustice that someone chooses to do when they could have chosen otherwise.  I do not mean an instance where someone weighs all options, finds them all unjust, but must make a decision and tries to choose the least unjust option possible.

By "seduction," I mean making an argument to convince the will to accept something otherwise unacceptable.  By "self-seduction," I mean the person bears some fault both for succumbing to the argument and for engaging in it.  It is not necessarily the fault of the person alone.  Wider discourses about why "those people" need to be segregated, or why "those people" need to be disfranchised or why "we" need to expropriate (the word "steal" is not used) "their" land--they aid in the process.  But the person is an active participant.  The person sees the apple and knows that it is bad and yet convinces him-/herself that it would be nice to play god and to make themselves the final arbiter of what is just.

The feeling of grievance cum bigotry can manifest itself in many ways, and in future posts I shall explore my idea further and provide examples to illustrate.  But there are two challenges to what I've written so far that I should acknowledge even though I can't fully resolve them.

First, I haven't actually defined "bigotry" here.  The dictionary definition of a bigot goes something like this: "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance."  The problem with that defintion, as with many dictionary definitions, is that it doesn't really explore the qualifiers, especially the adverbs and adverbial phrases:  obstinately, intolerantly, with hatred, with...intolerance.  I submit that most people whom we can accurately describe as bigots either do not see themselves as obstinate, intolerant, etc. or delude themselves into thinking that they are not.  Indeed, that's another way of summing up what I'm arguing in this post, that bigotry feels itself aggrieved.  Still, I realize that my framing is circular.  I'm stating it is because it is.  I'm not proving it.

Second, and somewhat related, my hypothesis presumes something about the internal states of others.  It can therefore be construed as a judgment upon those others of the sort theNew Testament warned against:
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Now, whatever my actual practice, I do not in theory really think it's acceptable to impose moral judgments on others' souls.  (That doesn't, by the way, mean I believe all "judgment" is necessarily wrong, just that certain kinds of judgment are off-limits for mere mortals.)  But by introducing the ideas of "self-seduction" and "willful injustice," I am edging toward something that looks like a judgment.

My response to those two points--that I define "bigotry," if at all, in a circular way and that I am judging the internal states of others--is to partially concede the point but also to redirect how I want to use this concept.  I think we need to look at bigotry not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a way to measure our actions.  The goal, then, becomes not which of our actions is bigoted, or who is bigoted, but rather in what ways our (or others') actions are bigoted.  People who feel themselves especially aggrieved or victimized by others do, in my opinion, really believe at some level that they are aggrieved, even though I also argue that feeling or belief is partially a product of self-delusion.  We lie to ourselves and we are responsible for the act of lying, but we do on some level believe the lies.

As I provide further examples in later posts, I hope my general statements here become clearer.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We have always been at war with Westasia UPDATED

Deep down, I really don't know what the right thing to do with the emerging "ISIS" or "ISIL" or whatever it is that's forming parts of Iraq and Syria.

But I'll say this.  Apparently, ISIS is the worst enemy we've had ever, except for all the other worst enemies we've had.  I remember when the War on Terror was just a twinkle in Mr. Bush's eye, announced about the same time that he gave his "courageous" speech at ground zero.  (An interesting phenomenon, that.  As head of state, he's supposed to give speeches at the time of national tragedy, and he could've said almost anything and gained accolades.  But above all let's not forget the courage it required to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear.)  Al-Qaeda was the worst thing ever because unlike our prior rivals, it didn't have the courtesy of being an actual state, with boundaries and sham parliaments.  Instead it was a decentralized terrorist network or movement and couldn't be pinned down or really declared war on.  It also engaged in beheadings of American journalists.

Now exit Al-Q and enter ISIS.  ISIS is even worse, because instead of being a decentralized terrorist network, it is forming a geographically delimited state.  It apparently is staking out boundaries and has found a way to fund itself and even claim something we can recognize as subjects who, if they don't give their enthusiastic support, at least seem to acquiesce in the way that subjects almost always have:  reluctantly, maybe with everyday acts of resistance, but not challenging the overall structures.  Even worse than Al-Qaeda, it engages in beheadings of American journalists.

Obama wants to destroy it.  Good for him.  Maybe it will work, with only a few airstrikes.  As James Hanley notes in a comment at Ordinary Times,
Aa much as I despise our neo-colonial kingmaking in the Middle East, and as much as ISIS is a product of our meddling and as such an object lesson in the nearly inevitable suboptimal results of such meddling, I think we have to act against them.
These guys are not merely internationally irritating and domestically brutal dictators. Their goal is the destruction of all infidels, which to them also includes most Muslims. They will provide a harbor for terrorists, or purposely promote/export terrorism on their own. They are, through our own stupid doing, a national security threat.
We should not intervene to the extent of trying to control the territory or pick the winners in these civil wars. We should just pick one loser, ISIS, destroy them, ruthlessly, and leave the battlefield to the other contestants.
It’s not going to give us a great outcome. It’s just going to prevent our worst outcome.
If he's right that "we" can do that, then maybe "we" should.  (Not me, of course, but younger people.) I'm suspicious that any plan to do so will fail unless the US makes an extraordinary on-the-ground commitment.  Others at that OT thread seem to think a minimal commitment is possible.  (And still others seem edging toward the Muslim-baiting that we saw post 9/11.  At least they're still using qualifiers, like "some Muslims" or the "Jihadists" among them, or "the Jacobins of Islam," sometimes coming from people who elsewhere have expressed support for the French Revolution.)

But the case is not so clear to me.  And the US has a bad track record when it comes to waging non-cold wars that aren't against Nazis or its own slaveowners.

I'm not a pacifist, not even a "technical pacifist" who would devise rules for justified violence so stringent as to never in practice justify war.  Sometimes armed intervention is the least bad of a whole bunch of bad options in a situation where something can and must be done.  And if these bad options are on the table because of the United States' meddling, as James suggests, and if the threat is a real one that can be expeditiously dispatched, then maybe the US should.  At any rate, Obama is going to do whatever he is going to do regardless of what I write here.  So I might as well register my reservations now before the forces have been deployed.  Because criticism once the fighting starts is "unpatriotic."  I can already hear the analogies to America First.

UPDATE 9-12-14:  I should add two points.  First, James Hanley is not an Islamophobe.  In fact, he has by my understanding gone out of his way to combat Islamophobia.  Second, he is not a neocon war monger nor is he naive about how military interventions work or what they can/cannot do.  In fact, he may be right in terms of what he thinks a good policy might be.  I do think--I am not certain--that I disagree with what he suggests should be done, and I do believe that one consequence of what Mr. Obama is doing is foster more anti-Muslim sentiment.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Clowns, zombies, and ambulances, oh my!

Jason Kuznicki has announced he is leaving Ordinary Times to start his own blog, called "Clown Town."  I shan't be linking to it or reading it, alas.  Not that he doesn't deserve to be read.  My choice not to read it is my loss and no one else's.  But I just can get past the title, "Clown Town."  And when I visited that site, the lede picture is a photo of two clowns.

I hate clowns.

I won't say I've always hated them because when I seem to remember that when I was a very young child I liked them.  But sometime, perhaps it was by middle school or perhaps it came later, I got to where I couldn't stand them.  Even the sight of a clown--or a clownish figure, like a mime in white-face--makes me ill at ease and, perhaps on some level, mildly sick.  No, I don't get nauseous*, but I don't want to be around them.

They're scary.  But it's not just that they're scary.  They're also icky.  It's actually pretty hard to explain, especially to someone who doesn't have the same reaction I do.  And don't get me started on the old Pagliacci trope, where the guy is laughing on the outside but crying on the inside.  Yes, the tears of a clown are a horrible thing because they're supposed to be so happy, so why are they so sad?  What a tragedy!  (Hint to Smokey Robinson:  clowns aren't the only beings in the universe who have complicated, sad/happy emotions.)

I feel the same way about zombies.  I can't watch zombie flicks, and I don't really like to be around people in zombie costumes on, say, Hallowe'en.  My dis-ease on the matter is a little easier to convey.  We're not meant to like the undead in the same way we're meant to like clowns.  Still, the ickiness of zombies is reminiscent to me of the ickiness of clowns.  One of the frustrating things about the very few zombie movies I've seen--which probably includes only the 1980s remake of "Night of the Living Dead" and the spoof (but not really a spoof) "Shaun of the Dead"--is the way no one can ever escape.  Once there's a zombie attack, the logical conclusion is that the earth is fished up.  Because no one can escape, no one will escape.  (It's like when astrophysicists say "nothing" can escape a black hole.  If that's true, then why aren't we in, or destined soon (in geological time) to be trapped in, a black hole?)

I mentioned "Shaun of the Dead" as a spoof that's not really a spoof.  That's because it doesn't overcome the ickiness of the zombie story.  It doesn't even try.  Its creators apparently believe that making a few funny moments and playing a Queen song during the climactic attack obviates the fact that it's a zombie flick.

Besides their (to me) unrelenting ickiness, zombies and clowns share one thing in common.  They're supposed to be "fun."  And there's supposed to be something wrong with people who don't find fun things fun.  Yes, "supposed to be" in the last two sentences are passive constructions.  Supposed by whom?  I won't answer that.

Ambulances are yet another thing.  They're not supposed to be fun.  They are, in Poe's words, the conveyors of "loud alarum bells" and are supposed to save our lives and other people's property.  If someday I'll ever be in need of one, I'll be grateful if one shows up.  But for all the prerogatives their drivers enjoy to exceed the speed limit and pass through red lights, they seem, in Chicago at least, to go unrelentingly slow, alarms blaring all the while.  That's understandable.  Chicago streets are crowded with cars, self-righteous ("share the road!") bicyclists, and even more self-righteous pedestrians like myself.  But that also means the sirens last seemingly forever.  You can hear them from a great distance, and they drone on and on.  And on.

Unlike clowns and zombies, people aren't supposed to like sirens.  The important thing about sirens is that they work, not that people have fun listening to them.  The fact is that they don't work in Chicago.  Whatever the intent, their function seems to be to make noise while other cars ignore them or race to cross the street or make that all important left-hand turn that will save them a total of 43 seconds on their trip home.  But the (in my opinion) mostly uselessness of these noisemakers doesn't obviate the fact that they're supposed to be doing good.

So, I wish Jason Kuznicki all the best.  But I won't be reading him anymore, or at least not on that blog.

*Yeah, I know the standard term is "nauseated."  But this is my blog and I can do what I want.

UPDATE, 8-16-14:  Erggg, brumble, brumble.....My wife pointed out a spelling error in the title.  So I changed "amulances" to "ambulances."  Mr. Conroy apologizes about the error.

Monday, August 4, 2014

My Senate reform proposal hits the big time!

Regular readers of this blog (if I have any) may recall that I have a plan to reform the Senate, back from the days when I was a mere Pierre Corneille and not a Gabriel Conroy.  Well, Ordinary Times has kindly agree to publish my latest draft.  Click here to see it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and the "New Atheism"

I have gone on record as being opposed to what I and others call the "New Atheism," as exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.  I sign on almost in full to the argument against this new "irreligious right" that one anonymous author, who calls him/herself Aphaniptera, made several years ago and generously made available for free online (really, you should read it if you care at all about the issue).

I have not changed my mind about the New Atheism, but Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 2010 novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, presents a challenge to my position I cannot ignore.  And if it doesn't change my mind--and I'm not positive that changing anyone's mind on that score is Goldstein's goal--it compels me to look anew and with more charity the claims made by the New Atheism.

The challenge, put simply, is this.  The New Atheism is more than just the overly simplistic, question-begging arguments that its most famous apologists make.  It is also a mentality, a variety of (ir)religious illusion that like most such illusions represents a worldview, a myth, that merits respect even as one grapples with and points out its shortcomings and dangers.  If I, who insist that religious-minded people be treated with respect and who shudder every time I hear an acquaintance make a disparaging remark against "those evangelicals," decline to allow a certain respect, then I am not following my own values.

Well, what is the novel about?  Its protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an up-and-coming scholar in psychology who has just written a study entitled Varieties of Religious Illusion, a deliberate echo of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience published more than 100 years ago.  Like James's work and in the spirit of intellectual empathy epitomized by James, Seltzer's book explores the ways most people, even ostensibly non-religious people, act and think in very similar ways to religious folk and often without fully realizing they do so.  At the end of his book, Seltzer appends a list of "36 arguments for the existence of god" and the logical counterarguments that devastate all but the 36th argument, which is the pantheistic claim about "god's" immanence in nature advanced by Spinoza.  In the novel, tt is this appendix that captures most non-believers' attention, prompting some of them, in a failure of reading comprehension, to suggest Seltzer could have just published the appendix without the rest of the study.  (Curiously, one Amazon reviewer seems to adopt that view, too.  That reviewer seems serious, although I won't dismiss the possibility that he's "going meta" on us.)

Seltzer's book earns him the moniker "New Atheist with a heart," and he wins interviews with popular magazines and seems on his way to a promotion from an "almost Harvard" small university to Harvard itself.  The novel charts his progress toward this end and intermixes that progress with at least three subplots.  The first is his intellectual and academic history as a graduate student.  His mentor, a famous scholar of religious studies, rails repeatedly against the "scientism" of our age.  The second is his love-life with a high-achieving academic who enjoys "fanging" (i.e., embarrassing and rendering speechless) during the question-and-answer period anyone presenting a conference paper or other presentation.  She is on her way down, having been demoted from Princeton to Seltzer's lowly university because of a political miscalculation on her part.  She hopes to climb up again to a better, more respected university.  But she doesn't forget her devotion to the "real"--i.e., "hard" and empirically rigorous--aspects of psychological science and looks upon her lover's "soft-science" psychological studies with a benign but condescending bemusement.

The third subplot involves Seltzer's encounters with a Hasidic community in New York and in particular, the precocious and prodigious son of that community's rabbi.  The son has his own challenges.  For instance, his intellectual ability enables him to intuit the theory of prime numbers long before he has had any formal instruction.  From those logical heights, the child can see something we might call an ever-present spirituality (a Spinoza-style pantheism?).  However, he has difficulty believing in the personal god of his Hasidic community, and he has to negotiate and balance his skepticism with the fact that he is next in line to be that community's rabbi. 

The novel is much more nuanced and complicated than even my longish summary suggests.  And my review here is an engagement with just one aspect of it, namely, its portrayal of Seltzer as a "New Atheist" and the climactic scene in which Seltzer debates a vocal, strident theist, named Findlay.  Goldstein portrays Seltzer throughout the book as a thoughtful, empathetic young man.  Perhaps he is meant to be what William James would have been had he lived now?  She definitely does not portray Seltzer as the bellicose, boorish wag that, say, Hitchens and Dawkins come off to me as.  In the novel's climax, the debate with Findlay, it is Findlay the theist who adopts the dishonest, question-begging, and emotion-laden arguments.  Seltzer, the "atheist with a heart," makes and defends the modest point that the argument for the existence of god is weaker than the evidence against it and that it is more likely god doesn't exist than that he does.

One of my many reactions while reading the novel was that Seltzer was not truly a "New Atheist."  (Another reaction was great, laugh-outloud enjoyment at the digs Goldstein makes at the pretentious culture of academia.)  His "more likely than not" argument is a far cry from the claim that "religion poisons everything" or that the religious impulse represents merely a vestigial reflex that has long outlived whatever evolutionary usefulness it had.  He doesn't bait religion as inherently unethical or bad.  His engagement with the son of the Hasidic rabbi is one of both wonder at the boy's intelligence and a great respect for the two traditions--religious and intellectual--with which the boy grapples.

My "not truly a 'New Atheist'" reaction is a form of reverse "no true Scotsman" fallacy.  Seltzer is not a convenient "New Atheist" to argue against.  And the fact the novel made me realize that fallacy on my part is the challenge it presents to me. By focusing so much on what the "New Atheists" argue, I'm neglecting the sincere sentiment they represent.  I could--and do--argue that those scholars, in the specific academic, intellectual milieu in which they operate, can afford to make better arguments and avoid the fallacies in their reasoning.  In other words, in their specific milieu, they are not the marginalized group that atheists in our society generally are, and therefore I believe I can expect more than slogans and sloppy logic.  In other words, criticizing Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. for what they say and how they say it is not the equivalent of telling a marginalized person, "okay, you can try to claim your rights, but you have to ask nicely."

But if we're talking general society and not, say, academia's or the New School, then it behooves me to cut people more slack.  I need to understand that the non-believer's impulse comes from somewhere and that it's not reducible to illogic any more than my modest pro-theism is reducible to its own illogic.  As Burt Likko at Ordinary Times has said elsewhere (unfortunately, I don't have a citation):  we can't really control whether we believe in god or not.  At some point, we all--or most--assume something about ultimate reality or about the nature of what counts as evidence for or against that reality.  Perhaps instead of deriding those people who disagree with me, I should jettison the term.  Even the pseudonymous Aphaniptera, who I mention above, acknowledges the difficulty of the term "New Atheism."  "[O]n the whole it has become such a commonplace among their [the New Atheists'] critics that while few of them can dispense with the term 'New Atheist,' almost all of those same critics seem compelled to qualify their use of it.  While I have so far seen fit to follow established usage, it seems to me that the aim should be to reform the term or dispense with it altogether." [page 9]

At least, that's one of my takeaways from Goldstein's book.  I fear, however, that the novel itself is over my head, that it's making an argument I don't grasp wholly, perhaps because I'm not as familiar with philosophy or science as she is.  I recommend that you read it for yourself.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

next to our liberty, the most dear

I get the argument against Obamacare.  It will probably lead to increased costs even if it lowers prices in the short term.  It will probably mean some people will have to pay more in order to ensure that other people can pay less.  It will do little to nothing to solve the shortage of doctors and medical providers.  And many of its provisions are constitutionally questionable, regardless of what the Supreme Court says.  I stipulate to most of those arguments, even as I say it's probably worth the cost as long as a few good things come out of it [click here to see my argument].

What I don't get is the tactic some of Obamacare's opponents have now taken against it.  It comes by way of a statutory challenge over the subsidies to lower income health insurance purchasers.  Apparently the text of the statute suggests that federal subsidies can be given only to people who buy insurance on state-implemented insurance exchanges.  In those states where the state government has declined to set up an exchange, and where the federal government therefore sets up its own exchange, the language of the statute suggests subsidies cannot be given.The challenge might succeed, and as Megan McArdle says, success would mean crippling the ACA.

To be clear, the true blame for that outcome would go to the legislators who drafted the bill and the president who signed it into law.  As McArcle points out and as anyone who followed the issue knows, the law itself was a patchwork and its supporters wanted to revise it and iron out the rough parts.  They lacked the supermajority necessary because of Scott Brown's election to the Senate.  So they had to force the text of the bill through a "reconciliation" process that admitted of no amendments or much debate that might very well have clarified such sticky points as the subsidy question.  At the time, one could hear some supporters say something to the effect of, "let's let it pass and then we'll see what's in it."

So if we presume that Obamacare is bad and that it's indisputably better to destroy this bad thing and leave in place whatever is left over, then challenging the subsidy provision is as a good a tactic as any.

However, I question the priorities of those who are leading this charge.  The practical, short term effect of a successful challenge won't really be to overturn the law or to make things better.  It will be to strike at the most vulnerable people, the poorer people who need the subsidies to buy the insurance.  And keep in mind that the states with federal exchanges are more likely to be states that have opted not to participate in the Medicaid expansion.

I suppose that someone playing the long game would say that striking down subsidies for federal exchanges would increase dissatisfaction with the law, dissuade otherwise healthy younger persons from getting insurance, and thereby lead to the law's repeal, perhaps replacing it with the status quo ante or with something better.  Another goal I can imagine is to encourage insurance companies to offer cheaper rates, based on the argument that subsidizing the customer is actually subsidizing the entity from which the customer purchases the insurance.  But it seems like a low blow.  And the most likely effect in my opinion will be to keep the law in place and reduce poorer customers' access to insurance.

According to McArdle's article, Jonathan Adler is one of the "architects" of this strategy.  Adler used to write, and for all I know still does write, for the Volokh Conspiracy (I haven't read that blog for quite a while).  He is, I understand, a "libertarian" legal scholar, and therefore objects to Obamacare in principle.  And while he is not all libertarians and the definition of libertarianism does not begin and end with him, his choice to adopt this tactic plays into my decision not to identify myself as a libertarian.  It is one thing to hold a principled objection to the insurance mandate and to the likely perverse incentives created by a law.  It's quite another to take aim at the least affluent people.  It's still another thing to take identify oneself with the side that either cheers this tactic on or stands by politely as some of the most vulnerable people are targeted.

I admit that that is ultimately an irrelevant reason to disavow libertarianism.  The tribal signalling and wars of position do not strike at the heart of what I take libertarianism to be about, which is respect for individual autonomy and a struggle to expand choices available for people.  And I know some libertarians who probably despise the law and are ambivalent about social welfare provision in general, but who nevertheless suggest we focus on more egregious violations of liberty, like targeted assassinations and mass incarceration.  And I can, albeit reluctantly, see a rationale behind this attack-the-subsidy tactic beyond the desire to buttress the cv's of a coterie of tenured radicals who whatever the justness of their cause seem to take a lot of joy in deconstructing well-meaning if very flawed policy.  But I do question the priorities of someone who does so and of the team to which that person belongs.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

On the dangers of being right

Every once in a while on the Blogosphere--especially at Ordinary Times--I'll run across someone who admits to having supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Usually, I'm very, very surprised because these people seem like the type who wouldn't support an invasion.  And in fact, the three people at Ordinary Times I have in mind have repented of their earlier support.  They admitted they were wrong.  It just seems strange to me that any sensible person would have supported that endeavor.  And yet those three people I am thinking of are all sensible and from what I know of them by what they've written, much smarter and better writers than I.

I suppose one lesson to take from this is to be wary of assigning what is or is not a sensible position, because there but for the grace of a politician I happen to support go I.

I never supported the war or the invasion.  There was a point, about six years ago, when I came to the conclusion that protests against the war might be counterproductive or at least have the unhappy effect of unwittingly supporting the insurgents (even then, I would never outlaw protests) and when I conceded that the invasion having happened, it's not an easy call about what the US should do next.  But I've never really changed my assessment of the war itself.  The invasion was wrong and a mistake, and the subsequent troubles were the fruit of that mistake.

I believe I was right in my position.  But I wasn't wholly right.  I "opposed" the war more because I thought I was supposed to.  I disliked war and thought war was something to be opposed.  Being a leftist (which I no longer identify as), I thought the war was basically a manifestation of capitalist-imperialist blah blah blah.*  I probably would have opposed the war if it had been President Gore's project, but the fact that it was President Bush II's project made it easier for me to oppose it.  (And for the record, I strongly suspect the US was on a collision course with Iraq and that a President Gore might very well have initiated some action beyond the Clinton-era policy of flyovers.  But we'll never know, and your counter-factual is as good as mine.)

But I must stress a couple points here.  First, I didn't follow the issue all that closely.  I knew the US was approaching war.  I knew something about Mr. Bush's and Mr. Powell's speeches before the UN.  Once in a blue moon I read letters to the editor of the local newspaper who discussed the war.  And I remember hearing something about Hanx Blix and investigations of weapons of mass destruction.  But I dropped the ball where it mattered and didn't keep myself informed.

Second, before the invasion, I did absolutely nothing to make my opposition known.  There were at least a couple of marches I could have participated in.  I could have written my congresspersons.  I could have done much more than I did.  That probably would not have made a difference.  But I could have done something.  I did nothing. 

Here's a scene from shortly after the invasion started.  I was on a bus in Denver.  The bus wasn't full, but there was a sizeable number of people riding it. A young lady, probably in her early twenties, got on.  She war an antiwar button.  It was prominently placed so anyone could see it if they looked in her direction.  I remember thinking at that time--and since that time--how brave that action must have been.  That wasn't a safe time or place to sport such a button.  As far as I know, she suffered no consequences--at least not that night on that bus ride--for wearing it.  But she couldn't have known that when she got on the bus.

*As of now, I think it was definitely imperialist, but I have a lot of difficulty seeing the "capitalist" part of it, perhaps because I despair of really finding a workable definition of capitalism and of outlining how that definition can explain the war.  The reasons might be both simpler and more complex than "it was capitalism."  To quote Gandalf, there is such a thing as malice and revenge.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

New post at Ordinary Times!

I have written another guest post at Ordinary Times (formerly known as the League of Ordinary Gentlemen).  Click here to read it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Privilege and the genteel view

In my last post, I discussed the prospect that Illinois's legislators may adopt a policy that may make it harder for me to keep my job.  I stated that I will decline to complain about "the gutting of education" and that I will decline to speak as if the state or its taxpayers "owe" me a job.  By saying that, I was and I intended to criticize implicitly those public employees I know who are very vocal in their complaints about the possible defunding of higher education in the state.  I'll state explicitly what in that post I said implicitly:  People who make such complaints are usually at least partially wrong, they tend to overestimate their own importance and the importance of their jobs, and they express a reckless tone-deafness in some of their protestations.

But I can't leave it at that, for two reasons.  First, if they are "at least partially wrong," then they are at least partially right.  If they overestimate their own or their jobs' importance, they also have an argument for their own importance and the importance of their jobs.  And even if they don't, the uncertainty attendant with contingent employment is not a good way to manage employees, and they're not altogether wrong to call that out.  And what I call "tone-deafness" is also pushback against some pretty vicious public attacks on public employees.

Second,, it's not lost on me that I am in a position comfortable enough to adopt the view I do.  I think mine would be the right view even if I weren't comfortable.  But my (relative) comfort makes it much easier for me to adopt it.  Relatedly, the apparent paradox of my view--that of a public employee who speaks in generous terms about those who would defund public employment--cannot but reflect a certain part of posturing on my part.

Public employment has historically been a pretty good opportunity for populations who otherwise have been marginalized in the private sector.  I don't have any numbers, but I imagine women and minorities have been hired in larger numbers in the public sector than in the private.  And some workers who have only a high school diploma have done much better in the civil service than they probably would have in the private sector.  What's more, I suspect that opposition to "public employees" is fueled, at least sometimes, by a veiled or not-so-veiled racism against those perceived most likely to benefit from employment.  I personally think it's much more complicated than that, but I also think it's in the mix.

I am not part of any obviously disadvantaged demographic.  I am also in economic circumstances that are probably more secure than others whose jobs might be threatened.  My spouse earns a decent salary and could probably support both of us.  By her salary alone, we are above what is considered a "living wage" in Chicago for a family of four, even though we have no children.  The prospect of unemployment is not as nerve wracking as it otherwise might be.

Which isn't to say we have no concerns whatsoever.  Although my spouse could support both of us, it would be a hit to our lifestyle pretty deep, and it would put a pretty large amount of pressure on her as the sole breadwinner.  Also, I don't relish the idea of being on the job market.  I've been on it before and although all my periods of unemployment have been short ones, I do remember how demoralizing they were.  And there's always the possibility that this time, the jobless period will last longer than before.  Again reflecting my relative privilege, part of the prospect jobless period concerns what employment I will accept and not necessarily what employment is available.  Even so, I am generally inclined to take some job, almost any job, rather than be jobless.  That can work for good and for ill, as it has in the past.  But it's not a situation I wish returning to any time soon.

Still, I have it better than many (most?) others.  And that enables me to affect a disinterestedness I might not otherwise be able to.  I ought to keep that in mind.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Death and taxes and employment

One of the more interesting things about working at a public institution (I work at a library for a state university), is my dependence on the will of the legislature for my job.  And things are a little bit dicey right now, because public education might be defunded.

A few years ago, Governor Pat Quinn introduced a "temporary" income tax increase from a flat rate of 3% to 5%.  Now he wants to make the increase permanent.  He has said that if the legislature declines to do so, education will be the main thing on the chopping block.  My own job is a very contingent "visiting" faculty position at the library, and it is the type of job that will likely probably be cut, or more precisely not renewed when the contract is up.

Therefore, I have a pretty strong personal interest in the legislature making the tax increase permanent.  Independent of my own self interest, I do happen think making the tax increase permanent is a good idea.  The state is behind on a lot of its payments, its credit rating is dropping, and the money needs to come from somewhere.

But I want to focus on my personal interest.  It's a strange thing to have one's job dependent on (so it seems) so public a debate.  It's also strange to have one's job dependent on the state forcibly taking money from people who might not otherwise want to give it for the purpose.  The lack of security and certainty that comes with such a reality is vexing.  I think, however, that it behooves public employees like myself to recognize that however much the public benefits from us serving them, we benefit the most by virtue of having a job.  It's certainly bad for us if our jobs are cut, and an argument can be made that the public suffers, too, because services get cut along some margin when there are fewer people to fulfill them.

All the same, I have very little sympathy for the idea that my job is so important that the taxpayers owe it to me.  I do not believe that I am "embattled" by "anti-intellectual legislators" who want to "gut higher ed."  There are legislators like that here in Illinois, and they have a real constituency.  And some members of that constituency probably have less than savory motivations.

But the ledgers have to be balanced somehow.  And even though I think I do a good and conscientious job and serve the public well, I also think that if, for example, it's a choice between slimming down higher education or cutting down on medicaid payments or other types of aid to the poor, then maybe higher education needs to defer somewhat.

Maybe the choice isn't so stark.  Maybe we can have books and butter, too.  And from what I understand, the state's actual share of what it offers public universities like mine has been declining over the last couple of decades, so a cut might not be as drastic or as necessary as election-year politics might make it seem.  Occasionally, however, something has to give.

If the legislature does one thing, I may be more likely to keep my job.  If it does another thing, I'll be less likely.  I obviously have a personal, vested interest in the outcome in addition to my interest as a citizen.  But I don't think those of us who are so personally interested ought to assume that the public "owes" us.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two sticky words, fascism and slavery

[A version of this blog post has been published at Ordinary Times; feel free to comment there]

Some words are "sticky."  They carry so much emotional baggage that no matter how specifically one tries  to delimit their meaning for the sake of a discussion, the other meanings associated with them "stick" and it's hard to have a good discussion.  When that happens, there's blame aplenty to go around.  Some readers and discussants are so dense that they don't acknowledge that someone is trying to use a "sticky" term in a special way, and when such readers and discussants refuse to acknowledge the special definition, we can rightly call them uncharitable.  Other people, those who introduce the sticky words, often ignore some very serviceable "unsticky" words that could work just as well, and it's sometimes hard to believe that they're not trading off some broader, usually pejorative, connotation.

In this post, I'm focusing on the latter, those who use sticky words when there's usually an unsticky word to be used and when the one who introduces the sticky words seems to be trading off their stickiness.  I'm focusing in this post on libertarians and libertarian uses, but this is something, I'm convinced, that everybody and adherents to all political orientations do.  I say unabashedly that "all sides do it" even though in doing so I recognize the sticky reference I'm making to BSDI'ism from certain commenters that plague this blog from time to time.

And this is a lesson we all should keep in mind if we wish to have a broader appeal.  In this blog post, focus on a statement made by one self-identified libertarian at a libertarian-leaning blog for which I have a lot of respect and which I encourage others, especially non-libertarians like me, to read.  It's the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (I'll also add the Moorefield Storey Blog, which I was also going to mention before this blog post got too long, as one of the blog non-libertarians should read to get a nuanced view of libertarianism).  That blog (along with, I'll add, the Moorefield Storey Blog) offers a view of libertarianism that differs from the caricature that liberals like me sometimes are tempted to indulge in.

The sticky words I'm referring to are "fascism" and "slavery." 

For an example of references to fascism and slavery, see Roderick Long's post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  I think Long makes an argument worth considering, and I urge anyone to read the whole thing.  However, if "anyone" is like me, they probably won't read the whole thing, so I'll sum up his argument and then quote the portions I have in mind.  To use my own terminology as identified above, his argument seems to be that terms like "racism," "sexism," and "homophobia" are sticky in the same way that, say, "fascism" and "slavery" are.  I think I disagree, but my disagreement is not what I'm writing about here.  Rather, I'm focusing on his discussion of "fascism" and "slavery."  First, "fascism" [links removed]:
When critics of Obamacare call it “fascist,” for example, they are regularly accused of absurdly likening Obamacare to the Nazis’ campaigns of mass slaughter. Yet “fascism” is a word with a meaning, and the kind of expansive business/government partnership represented by Obamacare seems to fit that meaning fairly well.
To be sure, the critics of Obamacare use the term “fascism” because it has a negative connotation, and it is the extreme forms of fascism that have played the largest role in giving it that connotation. But the point of using the term, as I see it, is not to give the misleading impression that Obamacare is equivalent to more extreme forms of fascism in the scale of its badness, but simply to point out that they’re bad for similar reasons. (Of course some idiots do seem to regard Obama and Hitler as equivalent in degree of evil, but they’re a different problem.)
And then "slavery":
When libertarians call taxation or conscription forms of slavery, their claims are often dismissed, on the grounds that taxation or conscription are hardly comparable in thoroughgoing awfulness to antebellum American slavery. But while this is certainly true, it is also true that antebellum American slavery represents one of the worst forms of slavery that has ever existed. Compare, for example, the much milder form of slavery that prevailed in medieval Scandinavia. In the 13th-century Icelandic Gisli’s Saga, we’re told that Gisli’s slave Kol owns a sword (!) which his master must ask permission to borrow (!!). This was obviously a less thoroughgoing form of slavery than the one that reigned in Dixie. Given the many and varying degrees of awfulness that slavery can take, treating all comparisons to slavery as comparisons specifically to antebellum American slavery is historically myopic.
For the record, I don't think it's out of line to call conscription a form of slavery (even though it's almost always a milder form than chattel slavery).  But taxation as slavery?  I'll just agree with Matt Zwolinski, another author at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, who finds such arguments to be overreach.  See here, here, and here.

Now, about Obamacare as fascism?

The case is perhaps less obvious.  But here's my argument.  To my mind, "fascism" is a very hard term to define.  To me, it suggests a combination of what I'd call extreme corporatism, militarism, and worship of the nation-state or its leader, the two of which are often conflated.  The textbook examples are Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy.  Most definitions of fascism that I am aware of use those as the delimiters.  It seems, to me at least, almost impossible to speak of an unqualified "fascism" without implicitly also referring to one of those two as the standards.  We could, of course, look at other "fascist" countries, Franconian Spain, for example, but even those have some countervailing elements.  Franco's Falangists were fascists by most definitions, but he also had royalist and Catholic constituencies that did not always align so neatly with what we could call fascism.  My point, though, is to argue that if one calls Obamacare fascist, they are purposefully calling it something akin to Nazism, or at least Italian Fascism.

Not that there's no similarity whatsoever.  Whatever else Obamacare is, it's also a corporatist scheme and although I support the policy, I have to face the fact that it's government working hand in hand with insurance companies and large corporate employers who already provide insurance to implement a policy shift.  The fact that insurance companies and some large employers often protest the policy should not hide from our view the degree to which the policy represents the state coordinating and to some extent entrenching the dominance of the present insurance companies.  (Also, Obamacare's local area pricing bears an eerie (to me) resemblance to the local industry codes of the New Deal's National Recovery Administration, a plan devised back when "fascism" was less a bad word than a referent to "how they're doing things in Italy.")   Going beyond Obamacare, we can also discuss the militarism which Obama didn't initiate, but which he has proven all too willing to expand and make his own.

Still and to my mind, to call Obamacare "fascist" commits too quickly and too irretrievably the totalitarian-baiting that happens all too often in opposition to Obamacare, as Long seems to acknowledge.  Why not use "corporatist"?  That word probably much better describes Obamacare than the "f" word does and doesn't so quickly bring us down the hole of the internet's favorite dictator.

Now, I've used a libertarian's uses of these sticky words, but I'd be remiss if I didn't add that non-libertarians also use those words.  A staple rhetorical device of labor activism in the late 1800s and early 1900s included very frequent warnings against "wage slavery."  And a staple of leftist activism, at least from the "Popular Front" of the 1930s (except 1939-1941) and the New Left movements of the 1960s was to declare that the system was "fascist."

We should be wary of sticky words.  If we insist on using them, we should be clear and clear again what we mean by them.  Unless our intention is to obfuscate or deceive.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Not all redistributionist schemes are reducible to envy

The Moorfield Storey blog has a brief rundown on "liberalism, as originally and properly understood."  That post gives a brief summary of what, I imagine, most present day libertarians and people who identify as "classical liberals" or "nineteenth-century liberals" believe.  And it's not too bad a view.

My main problem with it, though, is its parting discussion on inequality and "socialism" or modern-day, American liberalism.  Under pure (or as pure as possible) classical liberalism, there will be much wealth creation, and
[w]hen this happens there w ill be economic inequality. But so what? Why should everyone be equally poor? The poor will have their living standards vastly improved, and the wealthy will be even wealthier. If prosperity is our goal then why worry about an inequality of results?

And this is the crucial difference between liberalism and socialism (or what goes by the name “liberalism” in America today). Liberalism, based on an ethics of achievement, advocates equal freedom, which leads to unequal results. Socialism, based on the ethics of envy, demands equal results, which requires limiting freedom. Thus with liberalism we have freedom, prosperity, and unequal wealth. With socialism we have equality, poverty, and no freedom. As much as we might want there to be a third alternative, it doesn’t exist.
For starters, I do believe that economic inequality is not necessarily a bad thing.  I think its goodness or badness has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.  And I'm not going to presumptively say it's always bad.  I also don't have much of a problem with the notion that "socialism" requires some limiting of freedom and that limiting freedom is a bad thing, although I'm not so sure that limiting freedom is always the worse option and I do believe if it is an evil, it can sometimes be a necessary one.

I object, however, to the implication that redistributionism is necessarily the same thing as the search for "equal results" or is reducible to "the ethics of envy."  Now, the Moorfield Storey Blog's authors do not say "redistributionism," and not all redistributionism is socialism, but I think their framing of the issue suggests that all redistributionism is indeed reducible to the "ethics of envy."

I should define what I mean by "redistributionism."  The term can have two senses.  The first is "downard" redistribution.  That refers to schemes that try to transfer wealth from those who have more to those who have less.  The second is "upward."  That refers to the opposite, or the transfer of wealth from those who have less to those who have more.

In practice, resistributionist schemes aren't so neatly divided.  Social Security, for example, operates  as a regressive tax on workers in order to supplement the incomes of older people who in the aggregate have more.  And as far as I know, what one receives from Social Security is partly a function of how much one has worked, but is not a function of means.  In other words, it's not that the poorer seniors receive more and the richer ones receive less.  That is a redistribution in the second sense.  But one of the functions of Social Security--and the goal of the Francis Townsend supporters it was meant to satisfy--was to create something like a floor-level income for the oldest persons, a minimum below which they were not supposed to fall.  Establishing such a floor can in practice act as something that seems like a downward redistribution when, for example, an older person who has worked all his or her life but earned too little to save for retirement receives a basic income.  Even in those cases, there are complicating factors.  The older person has already lived to x age, while any given younger worker who contributes may not live so long.

By the standards of Moorfield Storey's authors, the downward redistributionism is necessarily an effort to satisfy "envy," to satisfy some people's sense that "those others have more than I, therefore I want some of that or I deserve some of that."*  It's the "therefore" in the preceding quotation that implies envy.  Wanting something because others have it is pretty much a good working definition of envy.  And that is probably one motivation for schemes deemed "socialistic" or "New Deal and beyond American liberal" if we assume New Deal liberalism and its successors to be primarily downward redistributionist.

I have my doubts, both about how the New Deal worked in practice and what most policymakers' intentions were, but downward redistribution was indeed in the air and was probably part of the mix.  The Townsendites I mentioned above based some of their appeal on the narrative that some in America really did have more than enough and should share it.  And Francis Townsend's counterparts on the "thunder from the left" that challenged FDR ca. 1935--I'm thinking primarily of Father Coughlin and Huey Long--based their appeals on a presumed surfeit of wealth commanded by a small number of people.  And that type of discussion did not end with the depression.

Note the post 2008-recession complaints about some of the 1% who "hoard" wealth instead of interjecting it into the economy.  It's hard not to see a tinge of envy in most of those complaints.

But it's not only envy.  It's something else, perhaps not instead of, but in addition to, envy.  It's a desire to have a measure of security or to ensure that people's basic needs are being met.  It's not so much, or at least not always, that people are saying "they have more and I want it," but "life is hard and it would be easier if certain basics were guaranteed or less costly."  What counts as the "basics" changes.  Two hundred years ago, running water in the US might not have been seen as a basic.  Now it is.  30 years ago, cell phones were not a necessity.  Now they are, if not a necessity, less of a luxury.  (When my wife and I order food delivered, and our doorbell doesn't work, we tend to take it for granted that the delivery person will have a cell phone to call us to come down and get the food.).

Now, envy is implicated even here.  The rising definition of "basics" is presumed upon a certain general wealth.  If nobody had running water, we probably could not demand it as a basic need.  Also, if we return to my one sentence, that "life is hard and it would be easier if certain basics were guaranteed or less costly," the last four words should read "less costly for me."  We probably can't do away with scarcity by fiat, so someone is presumed to be capable of paying for it all.  And it's quite easy to posit a certain elite group that has--or hoards--the wealth.  It's hard not to see envy at work there.

But it's not wholly envy.  It's something different, at the same time something more and something less.  To bait it as the "ethics of envy" is to elide some very important issues.

*I should also point out that whoever authors the Moorfield Storey blog is pretty consistent and would probably oppose upward redistributionism, too.  I wouldn't in fact be surprised if they believe that upward redistribution is the worse evil or if they believe that downward redistribution trends toward upward.