The breaking news yesterday about the FBI infiltration and arrest of a Russian spy ring left me wanting. The spies were not sent to obtain U.S. government jobs and access to classified information. They were sent to mingle with elites and think tankers and get juicy gossip and rumors about U.S. politics and foreign policy. Um, hello FBI? Have you met any 30-something policy wonks over happy hour? This rumor mongering is what they live for. Take a gander at Laura Rozen’s Politico blog or “The Cable” on Foreign Policy. There’s a whole media industry of political gossip. Is it really illegal to pass this stuff to foreign governments. Hell, Russia could have saved itself a ton of money and the trouble of, you know, a diplomatic crisis by just reading Wonkette. Could have had a laugh while gaining much more valuable intelligence from them than a “New York-based financier described as a fundraiser for a major political party” is going to get you.
Photo by Flickr user Anonymous9000 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
I was initially sympathetic to Yglesias’ post on lobbying for BP that’s been getting some play. His argument in brief goes as follows:
- Even heartless global corporations like BP should have the legal right to hire people to lobby for them in Washington
- Those lobbyists should be condemned to be shamed by others and should feel a deep sense of shame at what you’ve done. In other words, the social costs to lobbying for a bad cause should be higher
This makes a good deal of sense; there should of course be some kind of moral compass guiding individual actions, even when there’s a big payday involved.
There’s an alternative model to think about, however. It’s generally thought to be for the good that even those accused of the worst crimes deserve energetic defense in the legal system; conceivably, if BP executives were actually charged with wrongdoing, we’d be in favor of them getting effective defense. What is the moral distinction between these two situations?
The most obvious is that in a legal matter the defendant is in jeopardy of losing more, namely personal freedom, than is the corporation. But I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction there. The reason we want BP to have worse/fewer lobbyists would, I suppose, be that we want them to lose more in terms of prestige and, of course, money.Similarly, we want to safeguard against wrongful conviction, but there’s also a public interest in making sure that terrible crimes are aggressively punished.
If the two situations are analogous, I’d think we’d want to err on the side of a rigorous defense in both situations, and, following from that judgment, relative cultural immunity for those making the defenses.
Stanley Fish has a useful rundown of several new books defending “classical education.” (Full disclosure — I haven’t read any of these books, though I ordered Nussbaum’s book and will report back.) What’s odd about his piece is that it seems to suffer from one of the main defects he identifies with modern education — an unwillingness to recognize and evaluate alternate perspectives.
Two objections go strangely unaddressed. The first is that, especially in this moment, those that aren’t equipped with the vulgar arts of profit-making are having a hard time, well, making any profit. This piece could easily have run opposite the near-weekly NYT piece about unemployed English majors from one Ivy or another. There is a real risk associated with leaving one’s education without the dreaded employable skills. There’s an argument to be made that a life of the mind can be lead successfully in a low-wage job, but that life involves serious tradeoffs that are not made clear to teenagers choosing their paths.
Fish and his interlocutors could well respond that they’ve seen many liberal arts grads end up in gainful employment. (In fact, each of the writers of this blog studied philosophy and ended up in gainful employment in the political/public sector, with the exception of myself as the lone profit-monger.) But of course this begs the next question — what are we to do with the vast majority of students who, with or without a classic education, will not graduate from the handful of elite schools Fish and friends attended? The comments offer an almost parodic demonstration:
I almost always disagree with Stanley, but this time I am in complete accord. Perhaps that’s because my husband & mentor, the Italian scholar Aldo Scaglione — a friend of Stanley’s since their days teaching at Berkeley a half-century ago — is the product of a classical education at Torino’s (Turin’s) public prep school. By the time he went to the University of Turin, Aldo was fluent not only in his local Piedmontese dialect & Italian, but also in French & Spanish. He read Latin & Greek, & knew English & German. At 85, he’s still a walking encyclopedia of classical literature & history, much of it learned at the Liceo.
It seems unlikely that we can all learn 4 languages and go on to teach at Berkeley (or that we can have the nature to name-drop our own spouse in a blog comment).
It sure is a lot easier to go through 17 years of schooling without marketable skills if there will be high-level family friends willing to help on the other side or admissions opportunities at the nation’s best law, business, and medical schools (where, yes, profitable skills are taught). There will always be opportunities for the best-positioned in society regardless of the pedagogy they have been exposed to. The hard part, which Fish never wrestles with, is what to do with everyone else.
I am sympathetic to Fish’s argument in that I agree that there’s much in classical education to be admired. I would not have traded my education in philosophy for knowledge of accounting or finance (which I could now really use). However, the idea that this kind of education can exist for large percentages of the population is fanciful.
Robert Reich published an otherwise straightforward op-ed in NYT discussing the rise in entrepreneurship in the wake of the recession.
For starters, they could use what might be called “earnings insurance” that would pay for up to two years part of the difference between what they earned on the old job and what they earn now on their own. Employed workers would contribute to the insurance fund through their payroll taxes, as they do with unemployment insurance, but the total bill for benefits would be unlikely to rise because earnings insurance would get them back to work quicker and thereby reduce the number of weeks they relied on unemployment benefits.
I assume that Reich intends earnings insurance to only be available for those who started businesses involuntarily (i.e. got laid off).
The central question here revolves around why we value welfare-like programs in the first place. If the purpose is to provide basic livelihood so people who lose their jobs don’t immediately become destitute, then earnings insurance would likely meet that goal. But Reich’s point is different in arguing that earnings insurance would help seed a new generation of small businesses — the benefit is designed to be economic, not humanitarian.
Welfare programs distort the labor market to at least some extent by decreasing the marginal value of work. I definitely know people who, due to their previous professional salaries, would make more on unemployment than working an hourly job. Reich’s program seems to risk distorting the market even more by creating thousands of small businesses that can only exist on the basis of two years of government subsidy.
If entrepreneurship is to be America’s strength, it seems like distorting market forces around start-ups would be the worst idea. (But, as Reich says earlier, it would be great to see increased access to start-up capital).
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.
This week’s article in the New York Times won’t be the last on the question of alternatives to college. There is a growing consensus that the college system is broken. It works well for graduates of top colleges and universities who go on to careers in investment banking or consulting (and who maybe pick up a little Plato on the way). It works much less well for the bottom of the vast educational pyramid — lower-prestige regional public colleges and community colleges.
While I think there is a great debate to be had on this point, I tend to agree that there should be other options for accreditation other than a traditional college degree. The challenge, I think, is to understand the extent of the loss of a 4-year education. That loss is probably not in marketable or technical skills but in the general education courses seen as standing between technically-oriented students and their degrees.
If large numbers of the population receive a technical education divorced from the traditional liberal arts, what will replace that education, and does it matter? I tend to think the impact will be minimal. Presenting these courses to populations that view the material as unnecessary seems counterproductive. However, in a world where a much larger group of people are not exposed to the core liberal arts, those topics would become even more so the purview of elites.
Perhaps that’s what makes projects like The Public Philosopher more necessary; demonstrating applied ethics and first principles to a larger population might be the only introduction to such principles many will ever receive.
Damen Linker has a characteristically interesting post in which he extends his long-standing critique of the “new atheists” (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc). His argument is that the new atheists miss a distinction between what and good and what is true. Linker continues by making a distinction between the new atheists, who don’t deal with the possible downsides of the loss of religion, and the “catestrophic atheists” (chiefly Neitzsche) whose rejection of atheism came with a heavy dose of regret and personal struggle.
Linker clearly has sympathy for the catastrophic atheists because they show the proper level of disenchantment and confusion over losing their religion. Of the new atheists:
There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? Either way, the studied insouciance of the new atheists can come to seem almost comically superficial and unserious.
Mightn’t it be the case that the great sense of loss and confusion experienced by the catastrophic atheists is not so severe as it once was? Linker seems to follow the flawed logic that because atheism was a difficult choice 150 years ago that it remains as difficult and wrenching a decision today. Further, there’s something almost nostalgic about the idea that God is so fundamental to the human psyche that atheists should be in throws of angst (or else they are hiding something). My reading of Dawkins’ The God Delusion reveals an author living a powerfully fulfilling life in science, not someone who is hiding his secret internal chaos.
Gordon Wood, professor of history, has a great piece in NYT that debunks a strangely attractive populist myth: that it’s somehow “career politicians” that cause the country’s problems, and if they were all replaced with socially popular salt-of-the-earth types (farmer, small business owner, fireman) the country would be better off. Wood demonstrates that, contrary to the popular fantasy, America’s founders were incredibly experienced statesmen.
His most interesting conclusion is that it was this experience that led to the success of the American Revolution compared to the decades of violance and strife that characterized the French Revolution.
Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan has a piece in Politico debunking the legal claims made by state attorneys general against the Affordable Care Act. Geoghegan’s most persuasive argument is that the voluntary nature of Medicare puts conservative lawyers in a poor predicament. Geoghegan pounces:
Now, the state attorneys general anticipate this annoying quibble. Their complaint has a paragraph that, in effect, says: “OK, we know it’s voluntary. But we’re invested in the old Medicaid rules, and we can’t just leave the program now.”
In other words, if a state voluntarily participates in a federal program, it has a 10th Amendment right to have the federal government implement the program exactly the way the state wants. Implicit here is the claim that the federal government cannot change any welfare program that goes through a state — unless the state agrees.
The idea of “states’ rights” is thought to be at the core of the conservative argument against ACA. But it seems like states have already quite voluntarily delegated much of their health care responsibility quite happily to the federal government. Geoghegan reminds us that the key reason Texas or any other state would not and cannot actually secede is that they would be cut off from the flood of federal entitlement money that’s critical to keeping their operations afloat. The federalism argument plays well on TV, but ultimately the discussion is just about the level at which a particular federal program should be funded.
Dionne’s argument is something many liberals/progressives have been thinking for quite a while. The Supreme Court has moved substantially to the right in the past 20 years. The court’s most liberal current members would be unrecognizable as such to the Warren court. Dionne argues that this is due to a shift in first principles; the idea that the court must avoid “judicial activism” is now the guiding principle.
Dionne’s arguement is a familiar one, and one to which I won’t disagree. “Above all,” Dionne writes, “it should become clear that the danger of judicial activism now comes from the right, not the left.” Dionne calls for liberals to start making this case more publicly.
I wonder, however, if the more sage advice might be for liberals to abandon the rhetoric of judicial activism entirely. That term has been thoroughly appropriated by conservatives over the last 20 years; it’s hard to imagine liberals winning on convincing the public that the activist tables have been turned.
If liberals truly want to win this debate, they should make an affirmative argument to first principles — that the role of the court is to fight for justice, ensure fairness, etc. Dionne is right that Citizens United can likely be an important campaign talking point for liberals. However, I don’t think the most salient point will be that the court overturned precedent that the public hasn’t heard of; it will be that, substantively, the court has increased the role of corporations in politics.