US complicity in Mexico
When we attempt to attribute responsibility for the world’s most severe problems, especially in the developing world, it’s difficult to see exactly how the causal links operate. Even though the US is the most powerful nation, its direct responsibility for these crises is almost always attenuated and complex. One can spin ridiculous, semi-conspiratorial arguments where the US stars as the final puppet master to anything corrupt and unjust in the developing world, but these are not to be taken seriously in my mind. There exists, however, at least one glaring exception: The civil violence between Mexican drug lords and the Mexican government.
Outside of military intervention, rarely ever is there such a clear case of one nation’s culpability in the domestic challenges of another. The drug lords exist to feed the US drug market. And they get their guns through the US weapons market. We give the bad guys their money by buying their drugs; and we sell them the guns that enable their continued existence. The causal line does not involve a Rube Goldberg story beginning with the practice of colonialism. Its clear, direct, and recent. If democratic nations can be considered as coherent entities able to bear moral responsibility, as I think they ought to be, this is a pretty easy case.
In short, the US bears some direct moral responsibility for a civil conflict that creeps very close to the status of existential crisis for Mexico. If we take our moral status seriously, its imperative we think hard and fast about how to stem the flow of our money and guns to some of the most vicious people in the world.
The difficulty of balancing sports & school
In his column in USA Today, Sam examined the plight of Myron Rolle, the gifted college football player who recently entered the NFL draft following a year away from the turf to study medical anthropology on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. One question he raised is whether being smart can be an obstacle to achievement in the competitive world of professional sport. Read more
Imagine a drug called X. Oh wait, there’s already a drug nicknamed X. Ok, imagine a drug called Y. Y is harmful, and the government decides to make it illegal. The result of the ban is not only a reduction in the trafficking of Y, but a growing government stockpile of confiscated Y.
What are they supposed to do with the Y? Impound it? Destroy it? What if, instead, they sold the Y? That wouldn’t make any sense, right?
Curiously, there’s an instance of a similar phenomenon (with some crucial differences), taking place right now.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently has a repository of 1.5 million items that were seized as the entered the U.S. because they violate restrictions on the sale of wildlife. The problem is that the National Wildlife Property Repository is completely full. No vacancy.
Some items are destroyed, others are sent to museums or schools, but there’s still too much for the staff of four to keep pace. So now they’re auctioning off several hundred thousand items.
This has wildlife protectors mad, because they worry a government auction will only feed demand for the illicit goods.
By providing insufficient resources to the agency in charge of solving the problem, is the government actually perpetuating the harm it’s trying to correct?
When do facts matter?
Kristof’s latest column reveals a dark side to poverty in the poorest countries: parents often spend significant parts of their income on purchasing alcohol and tobacco products, significantly more than they invest in their childrens’ education. Although he begins this discussion with a few anecdotes from his own travels, he relies on an MIT research project for serious data.
Jamelle Bouie, one of Yglesias’ substitute bloggers, writes:
Kristof comes dangerously close to sounding like the domestic commentators who blame the problems of inner-city African-Americans on a lack of personal responsibility and some kind of unique black “pathology.”…The truth is that there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the African poor — or the poor more generally — are any more short-sighted and foolish than their wealthier counterparts, domestically and abroad.
Bouie, notably, never contests Kristof’s data on this issue. His retort is a clear non-sequitur; whether the poor spend a higher percentage of luxuries than the wealthy isn’t the issue as much as it is the actual amount invested in education. A hedge fund manager that invested $40,000 in Harvard and $1.5 million in a yacht might be contemptible for a variety of reasons, but underfunding education would not be one of them.
Bouie concludes his piece by praising Kristof’s efforts to promote micro-saving, a curious move. If the world’s poor are really doing just fine, why would a Western-funded savings program be necessary or justified? The conclusion seems to be that over-spending is a major problem with some potential solutions, but that we can only discuss those solutions without voicing the underlying problem.
Bouie also argues that factors other than poor spending underlie African poverty. No one is contesting this fact. Kristof’s argument is that behavior is one of the factors that serves to perpetuate poverty, among possibly many others.
In considering whether Bouie’s argument has any relevant moral component it’s useful to ask if there’s anything to be gained by his proposed silent treatment, and I really couldn’t think of anything relevant. A clear diagnosis of the problem should underlie any kind of foreign aid; further, data like Kristof’s should be available to help the West decide whether and how much foreign aid is appropriate.
Ultimately Bouie’s argument is that Kristof’s piece reminds him of another thing which he’d rather you not talk about, so better to not talk about either one. Puzzling.
Morally wrong or just politically stupid?
Last week The New York Times reported that Connecticut Attorney General and Democratic nominee for Senate, Richard Blumenthal, lied about his Vietnam service. He spoke about when he “served in Vietnam” and the national mood when he “returned”, though the closest he got to war was serving in the Marine Reserve, which it was known would never be deployed. Yesterday, it was revealed that Lucas Baumbach, a Republican candidate for state Senate in Idaho, plagiarized almost word for word from then-Senate candidate Obama’s 2004 DNC speech.
Leaving aside the obvious inquiry of why candidates say silly things, the public philosophical question is whether or not it is wrong. I don’t ask this question from an individual ethics point of view. There is plenty of literature on the morality of lying and plagiarism. I’m more interested in whether it is wrong for candidates, as candidates for political office, to lie and plagiarize. Read more
Jake and I have both posted about Rand Paul’s political philosophy and the challenge he faces in the political sphere. On Sunday, RNC Chairman Michael Steele told Fox News that “Rand Paul’s philosophy got in the way of reality.” This is a common critique of ideal philosophy: it may have something interesting to say, but it is of little practical use when it comes to the real world. This, of course, is not true. As my advisor, Adam Swift, writes: “we need fundamental, context-independent, normative philosophical claims to guide political action even in non-ideal circumstances.” Check out his whole article from Social Theory and Practice for an informative take on the role of philosophy in the face of reality.
At the NYT, Ross Douthat argues that rather than “libertarianism,” Ron and Rand Paul endorse a “paleoconservative” ideological mis-mash, one marked by the inherent problems of dogmatism.
Should the Virginia lacrosse teams be playing in the NCAA tournament?
This past weekend, the University of Virginia Cavaliers women’s lacrosse team lost in the national quarterfinals, while the top-seeded men’s team advanced to the national semifinals. This would be unremarkable, if not for the tragic events of a few weeks ago, when women’s player Yeardley Love was found dead and men’s player George Huguely was charged with killing her.
Huguely has obviously been off the team since he was arrested on charges of murder in the first degree, but the two teams decided to soldier on in the aftermath of Yeardley’s death. Was the decision appropriate? Read more
Last week’s round of upsets in Senate primary races was interpreted by many as the product of an anti-incumbent and -establishment mood. Maybe more than that, however, it was the standard result of primary voters rewarding those especially to the right or left. In the Kentucky Republican race, Rand Paul defeated Trey Grayson. In the Pennsylvania Democrat race, Joe Sestak defeated incumbent Arlen Specter. And incumbent Blanche Lincoln is in a runoff with Bill Halter for the Arkansas Democratic ticket. In all three cases, primary voters have punished the more “moderate” candidate.
Are these primary votes a good thing? Not every democracy has them.
Democracy seems to be in their favor, though. Rather than party insiders somewhat shadily selecting candidates and placing them in seats strategically, the members of the party themselves decide who shall represent their views.
Parties have an entrenched and often positive role in our system, as the sort of ideological categorical guides I discussed earlier, as a means of cooperation and organization, and as an additional systemic check (on each other). Related, they have an enormous amount of power. To leave the selection and placement of party candidates to a few unelected party leaders affords those people an undue amount of democratically unaccountable influence. And independent candidates, who have an difficult time fighting party machines, cannot be counted upon to check party leaders.
Also, primaries might afford the people an opportunity to escape the traditional, status quo views of party leaders (see Rand Paul).
We’ve long called for philosophical issues to play a larger role in public debate. Well, on Wednesday, recently crowned Kentucky Senate nominee, Rand Paul, got himself into a bit of trouble trying to do just that. Paul was discussing the legitimate role of government in regulating private institutions and ended up suggesting that government shouldn’t be able to stop a restaurant from discriminating against African Americans The Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza concludes that “theoretical arguments are stone cold losers in the context of political campaigns.” Of course, political campaigns are only one aspect of the public debate – philosophy can play a less problematic role in these other domains. And while we don’t think philosophical arguments are necessarily losers in the campaign sphere, they clearly have their perils. So be careful out there campaign managers – philosophy has an important place in public debate; just make sure you know where it will take you.