Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Tamir Rice, Gun Laws, and American Apartheid

Esquire has a great essay on the unresolvable tension between American gun laws and American policing of minority communities.

This is the issue I've been harping on since John Crawford, but even here - the piece closest to the heart of the matter, at least among those that I've seen - an insufficiently fine point is put on it.

What is the theory of law here?

Video evidence makes crystal clear that neither Crawford nor Rice - the latter of whom was perceived to be of legal age for owning a firearm by the officer - was "brandishing" a weapon, in the technical sense of that term. Both were carrying what were perceived to be firearms. Ohio is a permissive preemptive open carry state. This means that a) both were perceived to be performing actions which, had they actually been performing them, would have been exercises of their federal, state and municipal rights; and b) as a consequence, police orders to relinquish their (perceived) weapons were unlawful. So there are only two possible theories of law here: 1) the second amendment and state gun possession laws do not apply to black people; or 2) it is objectively reasonable for police offers to use lethal force against black people when they exercise their legal rights, if those officers feel subjectively threatened by that exercise.

The argument that it was objectively reasonable to believe that either of them were in the course of committing, or intending to commit, a crime, takes us no further. It implies that under American law, the subjective impressions of a complaining civilian suffice as the basis for such an objectively reasonable belief about a black person, even though no feature of the scene itself at the time police arrive supports this, and multiple features count against it.

We are seeing, with alarming frequency, evidence that the U.S. Is in fact an apartheid regime - as it would have to be in order to reconcile the absurd permissiveness of gun laws as written with the actual motivation for those laws. Why can't anyone see/admit this? When will we be able to have a public conversation about the reality that this is, de facto, contemporary American law?

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Is Donald Trump an Embryonic Fascist?

It may be true that despite his national poll numbers, Donald Trump doesn't have a realistic chance at winning the GOP nomination. But even if that's the case, focusing on that purported fact buries the lede. Because we have to ask, if the 5-months-and-counting front-runner isn't going to win, who is? And the answer that is beginning to emerge - as Ben Carson watches the floor disappear beneath his feet, and more and more people realize that Marco Rubio is running for president because he needs the money - is Ted Cruz.

And that would be unthinkable without Trump pushing this primary as far to the right as it is possible, under current historical, economic, and socio-cultural conditions, for it to go. So anyone (and I'm looking at you, Nate Silver), who thinks that the real story here is that so many people are taking Trump seriously when he really doesn't have a prayer: No, the story is the extent to which he is changing this race; the story is that he is handing it to a candidate who is only nominally a member of the establishment, who would be far too radical to be taken seriously, let alone to be where the smart money is going, if not for the profound effect Trump is having on the shape of the race, and on American politics and political discourse in general right now. With Trump, we are honest-to-God talking about a leading candidate for the American presidency, regarding whom the question "Is he a fascist?" is an intricate and academic one - unless of course you write for Wonkblog, in which case you've never met a question that can't be answered with a five-point list or a single graph, because you are in fact so simple-minded it beggars belief. And the argument that Trump isn't a facist, but is rather a right-wing nativist populist - which is expounded in the above-linked text with admirable sophistication, though it is probably unreasonable to expect that level of sophistication in governing the ordinary use of the term 'fascist' - isn't even wholly convincing, resting as it does on (a) the fact that Trump does not - yet - command a private paramilitary force (or does he?); and (b) armchair psychological speculation regarding what the man does and does not believe as a matter of principle.

But in any case, in this, his most recent and most facism-adjacent policy proposal to date, the mildest response by far, not even approaching a condemnation, has come from Cruz - a man who is universally reviled in Washington, even by the other members of his own party. So if (when?), he secures the nomination, I sure as hell better not see any stories to the effect that "We told you so, the establishment wins again." Ted Cruz is not, by any but the thinnest and most useless of definitions, a member of any "establishment"; and a victory for him would confirm, within the margin of error, the claim that Trump has had an indelible impact on this race. Spend some time really thinking about what that says about the American electorate - or at least, the half being pandered to in this increasingly nightmarish clown show.

And then, of course, there is the in-fact-not-at-all-insignificant chance, against which this summer's nay-sayers have already begun to hedge, that Trump will win the nomination, because, as we apparently failed to learn from the greatest economic crisis in 75 years, predictions based on purportedly sophisticated statistical reasoning, which tacitly assumes that the future will be fundamentally similar to the recent past, can, after all, lead us horribly astray.

There is one good argument against calling Trump and his campaign fascist: that, despite wanton disregard for the Constitution with respect to policy proposals, they are not explicitly anti-democratic. It is worth remembering that from 1920 to 1932, the NSDAP (the Nazis) participated in several democratic parliamentary elections. And the 25 point party program speech which Hitler gave in 1920 did not advocate abolishing democracy or one-party rule - though it did implicitly advocate repealing the Weimar Constitution through its call for the Reichstag to have unlimited law-making authority, and called for all government offices to be restricted to native born "Aryan" Germans. So, by this argument, Hitler and the Nazis were not fascists until 1932/33. They were, in essence, right-wing nativist populists who took the further step of calling for an apartheid regime. Now, maybe that's right and maybe it's useful to define fascism in that way, so that by the definition they became fascists when they seized absolute power (after winning an election). But in that case, it is of no practical interest in itself that Trump and his campaign are not currently fascist.

If Trump, once elected, would become explicitly anti-democratic, then he and his campaign are on the road to fascism, they just haven't reached the destination yet, because they are not yet in position to seize power (not having yet won an election). If that is even remotely possible, there is no reason to police the use of the term 'fascist' in this context, as some seem to want to do. Whether it is remotely possible or not depends on what Trump privately believes; and so this argument may just collapse into the second one mentioned above.

For anyone who thinks that this isn't even remotely possible, either for reasons having to do with Trump or for reasons having to do with America, consider this.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Protests at Yale

The first point I want to makes about the student protests currently being held on the Yale campus, which have as their most proximate cause Prof. Christakis' email about offensive Haloween costumes, is that the "this isn't really about the email" argument seems not only weak, but disrespectful to the students involved. Yes, the evidence indicates that there are other serious matters going on at Yale, which merit strong protest, prompt administrative response, and decisive change. But the idea that the protests aimed at these professors - and it is not in dispute that there are protests aimed specifically at these professors, and specifically in response to this email - are themselves "really about" the other things going on, turns the students who are protesting these professors in response to this email into petulant children - taking out their understandable and justifiable frustrations about other things on the most recent and most convenient, but not directly related, target. So I'm not going to address that point, because I can't see how it cuts any ice.

Having read the email in question carefully several times, it seems to me to make the following three points - or at least to contain the seeds of them, since each is not fully developed. 1) There is good reason to doubt the competence of administrative authority to determine what is and is not offensive (notwithstanding that what came from the administration was a "suggestion" rather than a rule or policy - suggestions from high-ranking administrators are not ordinary suggestions); 2) the contemporary concept of cultural appropriation is problematic - it is an amorphous mass which has swallowed up the clearly important and reasonably well-defined notion of harmful cultural misrepresentation, and a discussion about how its boundaries should be determined is one that needs to be had; 3) even if administrative authority is competent to determine what is offensive and what is not, any administrative policy which succeeds at restricting everything offensive will almost inevitably cast too wide a net, and restrict forms of expression which, though transgressive, are also genuinely valuable in one way or another.

Now, my own view is that these three points are actually correct - but nothing I have to say depends on that (although I will delve a bit more deeply into 2) below). It is, at the very least, not out of the question that they are reasonable; and likewise, it is not by any means a foregone conclusion that they are themselves offensive or intolerant. Acknowledging this point does not imply that one cannot recognize the potential for harm in another person's choice of Halloween costume - that potential certainly exists, against the social, cultural, and historical background of contemporary America. It does not even imply that one cannot recognize the possibility of costumes so virulently racist that a punitive response on the part of the administration would be appropriate. But such situations already fall within the purview of existing codes of conduct at virtually all American universities.

There are two aspects of the specific response by students to these professors caused by this email which I want to discuss. The first is the desire for the administration to take on the role of determining and discouraging the offensive - the desire which point 1) above calls into question. I believe I understand the motivation behind this desire - the daily lived exhaustion, physical, emotional and cognitive, of living within social structures infected with systemic oppression. The weight of that consideration should by no means be underestimated. But the question which at least has to be asked is whether a society in which administrative authority plays this role is part of the just society we should be working toward, or is even a likely transitional step on the way to a just society. The reason this question is so important is that, even if we conclude that a university administration ought to play this role on a college campus, it is seriously in doubt whether the State should play an analogous role in society at large. And the interactions between university students and university administration is, quite appropriately, a training ground for the relationship between responsible citizens and the State. This point does not place the responsibility for fighting oppression solely on the shoulders of the oppressed - all students, and likewise all citizens, bear that responsibility, though the question of how to organize and coordinate the efforts of those who are directly affected and those who are not is an incredibly difficult one. The point about the importance of carefully considering, questioning, and debating the appropriate role of authority remains.

The second is the nature of the protest directly aimed at the professors, demanding their resignation in the event that the administration should fail to remove them. The troubling feature of this protest its unwillingness to engage in even forceful debate on the basis of reasons - more than this, its explicit and self-conscious rejection of the appropriateness of this in the present context. This applies even to the formal letter calling for the resignation, which manifestly mischaracterizes the content of the email it is a response to. But it applies far more to the preceding and ongoing campus protests. These are marked by a feature which has become a disturbing trend, an equating of disagreement itself with disrespect, a demand for apology in response to something which has caused emotional pain, which cannot even countenance the possibility that act which caused the pain was not wrong, that not every act which causes emotional pain is thereby wrong. This point brings us to a very thorny issue of epistemic authority. We can, should, and must recognize the epistemic authority of oppressed individuals and communities in relating both the events which mark their lives and their physical, mental, and emotional experiences of these events. This authority has not been recognized throughout American history, and today change on this front is thus far slight and excruciatingly slow. I do not doubt for a moment the reality of the pain being experienced by these students, or the fact that the email in question is the proximate cause. I recognize their epistemic authority on these points. But these descriptive questions must be distinguished from two normative questions (I use the term "normative" in its philosophical sense). The issue of epistemic authority on normative matters is much trickier than it is on descriptive matters; and it is not at all clear that the one translates into the other in the matters at hand - that is yet another question which must be open for honest and critical reflection and debate. The first normative question is the individual-level one of whether this pain - the self-reported inability to eat, sleep, attend class or do homework on the part of some student residents of this college - is reasonable. 

Now, the very questioning of the reasonableness of the emotional response to a specific perceived act of oppression by those who live within social structures which do systematically oppress them is incredibly fraught - the real and horrifying history of gaslighting makes this so. But to permanently place this question out of bounds is dangerous, in both the short-term and the long-term. First, doing so excludes the emotional responses of the oppressed from the realm of reason - it may look superficially as if what is being asserted is that all such responses are reasonable, but when we assert that something must be reasonable whatever its content may be, what we are actually doing is placing it outside of the realm of reason altogether. Some may think it obvious that the experience of emotional pain is outside the realm of reason; but there is in fact a large literature on emotional responses as a species of value judgment, and thus subject to standards of reasonableness - one of my professors, Robert Solomon, who passed long before his time, did much outstanding work on this topic. Second, it preempts much needed conversations about the genuine reasonableness of extreme responses in extreme circumstances - most notably the reasonableness under currently obtaining circumstances of expressing outrage through rioting, including property damage. As unpopular an opinion as this is, I think that such a response is not only understandable, or excusable (which is the strongest position I've seen even in the progressive media), but under circumstances which do actually obtain today, genuinely reasonable and justifiable - though I fear that to expand on this point would take us deeper into Marxist territory than most are comfortable with. Third, it preempts much needed discussion on a general level of the precise goals of social justice. Central to one such discussion is the concept of cultural appropriation, the contemporary interpretation of which is called into question in the email. 

Consider the following thought, which I arrived at independently but have since seen articulated by thinkers as profound as Adolph Reed, Jr., who has become one of my own intellectual heroes: the contemporary concept of cultural appropriation, in its radical expansion of the older notion of harmful cultural misrepresentation, has reduced the institutions, traditions, and artifacts of all the world's cultures to the category of property subject to theft, as this is understood in the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition. That reductive categorization demands an answer to the question of who owns this sort of property, a question which is designed for an answer with fine bright lines, and the only plausible candidate answer which purports to have sharp enough boundaries is that cultures are the product of "races" (the scare quotes indicate my own belief that this is a fictive construct), and thus "races" are the owners of the cultural property which may be "appropriated"--i.e. stolen. Reed cites the outstanding work of Walter Benn Michaels in this connection –

- and quite correctly, in my view, casts the "identarianism" of which this understanding of appropriation is a symptom as the left-wing of neoliberalism. Thus, far from being an essential component of social justice, concern for cultural appropriation as it is currently understood turns out to be a symptom of conceptual imperialism, all the more insidious for the inability of those who wield the concept to recognize this. This is my own view; but I do not claim to know it for a certainty. Rather, it is an example of a conversation which I believe is desperately needed, but which is excluded from conversation by an ideology which does not allow the reasonableness of offense to be scrutinized under any circumstances. Such an ideology blinds us to what is problematic about the very concepts being used to interpret the offense, which may themselves be far more harmful than the actual actions which count as offensive under that conceptual regime. And fourth, it preempts a much needed conversation about whether these students have been failed by their universities, their highschool and primary teachers, their parents, their purported role models in the struggle for social justice, and society at large, in being prepared for adulthood. The real and serious experience of these students in response to this email, the experience of not being able to eat, sleep, or work, in response to the expression of three reasonable and respectful (but by no means inarguable) opinions - we must ask the question of whether it is the experience of fully functioning, psychologically healthy adults, even against a background of systematic social oppression. Not having that discussion means missing multiple opportunities to address real problems in our society, problems related to the pressures of childhood and young adulthood under neoliberal capitalism, the demand for academic perfection coupled with the complete lack of basic security in life even following on the attainment of that alleged perfection, and the economic policy landscape that has created a world in which the children of the middle class must push themselves to the breaking point and beyond in order to have any hope of remaining middle class.

The second normative question is the public-level one of whether the response - the demand for resignation or firing - is reasonable. Here again, there is no obvious claim to epistemic authority; instead, there is a debate which needs to be had, and the dangers of an ideology which cannot see that, which cannot see where epistemic authority is not present while it fights for recognition in those arenas where it is.

All of this is to say that these students are not simply fighting for a basic right in the language of "safe spaces". The language, and the idea, of safe spaces is more powerful, pervasive, and pernicious than they are often made out to be. There are real issues, relating to questions of the appropriate limits on authority, the means and ends of social justice, and the concepts we use to interpret the world and our interactions with each other. In some cases, I see worrisome answers being given by this generation; and in others, I see a dangerous failure to engage in, or even recognize the appropriateness of, passionate - and as passionate as you like, you won't hear any criticisms of tone from me - but still reasoned debate.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Harper Era Is Over

So first of all: Canada is back. There is reason to celebrate which outweighs all that remains problematic.

I'm not a big fan of the Liberals. At the moment, I consider them to be a properly conservative party - a party which is as far to the political right as reality allows sane people to be in the 21st century. They have a long way to go to win my support. Delivering on their promises will take them some distance. Priority one is proportional representation, so the nightmare of the last decade is unlikely ever to recur. Reversing the worst of what Harper wrought - repealing the human rights violation that is C-51, and the other humans rights violation that is C-24, and the other human rights violation that is the absurdly Orwellian "Fair Elections Act" - will bring them most of the rest of the way. But they've still got a lot to learn about some vital issues - climate change and environmental protection and conservation foremost among them (though I do at least trust them to un-gag Canadian scientists, and that is the all-important first step toward more informed governance).

Nonetheless, there is more than enough reason to celebrate. Stephen Harper, you deserve to know, after the harm you have done, that you have been the worst prime minister in modern Canadian history. The worst for Canada's economy. The worst for Canada's environment. The worst for Canada's international reputation. The worst for Canadian democracy. We will soon see that your project to transform Canada - to remake a beautiful nation in your own, twisted image - has been an abject failure. And it is as an abject failure that you will be remembered by history. You deserve to know this, and anyone who is considering taking up your cause - anyone who thinks that there will once again be the potential for political gain in Canada through what is mean, bigoted, selfish, greedy, destructive, ignorant, secretive, or genuinely evil (because subverting democracy is evil, and the citizens of a democracy require the courage to say that plainly) - needs to know this.

In all honesty, the CPC should probably be disbanded. It has become a horribly disfigured phantasm of its former self. But for now, I hope the Conservatives can at least realize that they must find something else to be - something other than what they have been for the last dozen years.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A Canadian Election Prediction

I predict 150+ seats for the Grits. The youth vote, largely missed by the polls, is going to be the difference (by far overshadowing the "shy Tory" phenomenon), and although someone says that every election, this year it is actually true for the following very specific and substantive reason: Elections Canada is operating polling stations on University campuses where students can vote regardless of home riding. This is an ultimate eff-you to Harper's attempts to subvert Canadian democracy, while simultaneously being an entirely legal and technically non-partisan action. And the fact that something can be all those things at the same time tells you an awful lot about the horror show that Canadian conservatism has become.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Globe & Mail Endorse the Conservatives - without Harper

This is the dumbest thing I've read this election.

Where the editors of the The Globe and Mail have been hiding their heads I don't know, but surely even they should have found out by now that the Conservatives have no economic record to run on. News flash: If they had one, they'd be running on it, since it's far-and-away the most important issue to voters. If they had one, they'd be running on it, instead of the desperate campaign of xenophobia and racism they've resorted to. This isn't a campaign that "should've" been about the economy but "became" about Harper's meanness. Harper turned it into what it's become, and that decision reflects what he thinks (I hope wrongly) about 36% of this country (along with the fact that even he knows he has no economic record to run on). To describe it in those terms is the vilest sort of white-washing.

The fact that so many Conservative economic policies show up in the other platforms reflects the damage Harper has done to the national conversation about the economy, and one can only hope that the next non-Conservative government will begin moving Canada away from this nonsense, whatever they may promise during the election. To see the myth of Conservative economic management propagated as fact in what is supposedly the country's paper of record is disheartening - almost as disheartening as learning that they also buy into the myth of a sober, moderate, and responsible form of modern conservatism, which we could apparently have if only Harper stepped down. Never mind the fact that Canadian conservatism was transformed precisely by the merger between the CPC and Harper's own Alliance Party - a merger which severed the connection between conservatism in Canada and the tradition of British Toryism, turning it into a Reaganite movement.

Essentially, they just endorsed Winston Churchill for PM - way to stay relevant, guys. I was about done with the G&M anyway. This seals it.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Krugman/Marx - Part II

No. 2 in the series "NYT Good, Das Kapital Better".

Good: "...the era of the 'productivity paradox', a two-decade-long period during which technology seemed to be advancing rapidly...yet economic growth was sluggish and incomes stagnant...[P]roductivity growth finally took off circa 1995...But a funny thing happened on the way to the techno-revolution. We did not, it turned out, get a sustained return to rapid economic progress. Instead, it was more of a one-time spurt, which sputtered out around a decade ago...even if you adjust for the effects of the financial crisis, growth and trends in income have reverted to the sluggishness that characterized the 1970s and 1980s...So what do I think is going on with technology? The answer is that I don't know - but neither does anyone else."

Better: "We have thus seen in a general way that the same influences which produce a tendency in the general rate of profit to fall, also call forth counter-effects, which hamper, retard, and partly paralyse this fall. The latter do not do away with the law, but impair its effect. Otherwise, it would not be the fall of the general rate of profit, but rather its relative slowness, that would be incomprehensible. Thus, the law acts only as a tendency. And it is only under certain circumstances and only after long periods that its effects become strikingly pronounced.

Before we go on, in order to avoid misunderstandings, we should recall two, repeatedly treated, points.

First: The same process which brings about a cheapening of commodities in the course of the development of the capitalist mode of production, causes a change in the organic composition of the social capital invested in the production of commodities, and consequently lowers the rate of profit. We must be careful, therefore, not to identify the reduction in the relative cost of an individual commodity, including that portion of it which represents wear and tear of machinery, with the rise in the value of the constant in relation to variable capital, although, conversely, every reduction in the relative cost of the constant capital assuming the volume of its material elements remains the same, or increases, tends to raise the rate of profit, i.e., to reduce pro tanto the value of the constant capital in relation to the shrinking proportions of the employed variable capital.

Second: The fact that the newly added living labour contained in the individual commodities, which taken together make up the product of capital, decreases in relation to the materials they contain and the means of labour consumed by them; the fact, therefore, that an ever-decreasing quantity of additional living labour is materialised in them, because their production requires less labour with the development of the social productiveness — this fact does not affect the ratio, in which the living labour contained in the commodities breaks up into paid and unpaid labour. Quite the contrary. Although the total quantity of additional living labour contained in the commodities decreases, the unpaid portion increases in relation to the paid portion, either by an absolute or a relative shrinking of the paid portion; for the same mode of production which reduces the total quantity of additional living labour in a commodity is accompanied by a rise in the absolute and relative surplus-value. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall is bound up with a tendency of the rate of surplus-value to rise, hence with a tendency for the rate of labour exploitation to rise. Nothing is more absurd, for this reason, than to explain the fall in the rate of profit by a rise in the rate of wages, although this may be the case by way of an exception. Statistics is not able to make actual analyses of the rates of wages in different epochs and countries, until the conditions which shape the rate of profit are thoroughly understood. The rate of profit does not fall because labour becomes less productive, but because it becomes more productive. Both the rise in the rate of surplus-value and the fall in the rate of profit are but specific forms through which growing productivity of labour is expressed under capitalism."

Friday, 4 September 2015

Krugman/Marx - Part I

The first in a series, "NYT Good, Das Kapital Better".

Good: "[T]his change also speaks to a subject I have been concerned with for many years: the clash between the finite amount of time employees actually have versus the desire of employers to treat time as an inexhaustible resource...[T]he one change that always seemed to get in the way of other improvements was and still is the growing demand for longer working hours...When everything over 40 hours is free to the employer, the temptation to demand more is almost irresistible."

Better: "What is a working day? What is the length of time during which capital may consume the labor-power whose daily value it buys? How far may the working-day be extended beyond the working time necessary for the reproduction of labor-power itself? It has been seen that to these questions capital replies: the working day contains the full twenty-four hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labor-power absolutely refuses its services again. Hence it is self-evident that the laborer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labor-power; that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and law labor-time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital. Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!)—moonshine! But in its blind, unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labor, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the laborer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers, to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labor-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labor-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the laborers’ period of repose."

Monday, 31 August 2015

On Population Ethics and a Dust-up at Vox

Gawker recently published an essay arguing that we are all under a moral obligation to maximize population growth. The piece is receiving an unusual amount of attention, owing to the fact that it was originally commissioned by Vox, which then declined to publish it.

One might wonder why anyone would believe that we humans as a whole, or any individual pair of us, were under an obligation to produce as many more humans as possible, even if it were true that more humans meant more total happiness (all problems about future persons, and adding up happiness across persons, laid entirely to one side). I think I finally landed on the answer. Let's all agree that human lives have value, and happier ones are better. But what does it mean for anything to have value? Imagine God (or the cosmos, if you prefer) as a grand consumer. What he/she/it consumes are complete human lives. A happier human life is a higher quality - more preferred - consumption good than a less happy one. So sets of human lives, of varying qualities, are bundles of commodities - commodity vectors in an n-dimensional commodity space. Our grand consumer, being economically "rational", will prefer a bundle of low quality lives to a bundle of high quality ones, so long as the number of lives in the former is sufficiently greater than the number of lives in the latter. (Alright, strictly speaking, our commodity vectors all contain n lives - a 'smaller' one has more places occupied by zeroes than a 'larger' one.) And who are we, mere humans, to argue with that grand consumer preference? What should we do, after all, but comply with the dictates of the universal market, and produce what it demands? And the more we produce, the more is consumed, the happier he/she/it is - the better, the more valuable the universe is.

It is not a coincidence that Utilitarianism developed in the same time and place as vulgar political economy - i.e. marginalism. Schumpeter keenly saw that JS Mill, though himself a classical economist, developed a philosophical system which prefigured the foundations of Marshall's economic theory.

And, one can only hope, this sort of thing lets us see the justice in Marx's description of Bentham as "a genius by way of bourgeois stupidity." At the very least, the fact that this argument is taken so seriously by so many serious people, who nonetheless appear to have no clue as to what actually motivates it, is a vivid confirmation of the hidden influence of the social relations of production on the world of ideas, and the development of what counts as knowledge.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Crisis in Greece - Part II

As the Greek parliament nears its vote, we should all be well aware of how painful, in the short term, an exit from the Eurozone would be for the Greek people - should all be ready, if they decide to leave, to support the provision of the humanitarian aid which will be much needed. An exit would in all likelihood - again, in the short term - be even more painful than the results of accepting this third bailout. Were Greece to leave, a recovery in the medium-to-long-term - through a restoration of currency sovereignty, devaluation, a return to competitiveness, progress on the trade deficit, and eventually a recovery of the means to pursue productive investment and put the country back into a virtuous circle of economic development - is a very tall order, and by no means certain. But it seems very difficult, to me, to justify the position that the short-term pain and the burden of this uncertainty outweighs (a) the almost as painful experience of continuing in the Eurozone given the refusal of the German government to countenance serious debt write-offs and, much more fundamentally, to recognize the absolute need for a European surplus-recycling mechanism (see Varoufakis' fine book for much more on this point); and (b) the practical certainty that Greece's economy will never recover under these conditions, and that its debt level will not budge.

This is why the current vote is such an extraordinary circumstance, calling for such extraordinary courage. The thing that politicians are worst at is accepting short term pain for an uncertain chance at long term gain. This is precisely why the German government wanted to, and was able to, make the terms of this bailout so pointlessly destructive. From Germany's point of view, it hardly matters what Greece decides to do - Greece doesn't really matter to Germany at all. If the Greeks decide to stay tonight, they'll be forced out soon enough - in a year, 3 years, 5 years - because there is no chance for recovery under these terms. But the next time around, the Germans will be able to say the Greeks squandered yet another chance, and face less opposition, expend less political capital, in cutting them loose. If the Greeks leave, Germany has made sure it has nothing to fear even from a spectacular Greek recovery in the long term, precisely because, going all the way back to 2010, it has been engineering a situation in which a Greek exit would be maximally painful in the short term. To repeat: choosing short-term pain for long-term gain is the thing that politicians are worst at. Even if a non-Eurozone Greece is doing splendidly in 30 years, and Italy, Spain, Ireland and Portugal are still struggling, the torment which would immediately follow a Eurozone exit would still be seared into peoples' memories. The odds of losing a country with a large economy, the odds of a lose which could actually disrupt German economic hegemony in Europe, will still be quite low.

My hope for the Greek people is that their government has the courage to take this chance, that the rest of the world has the compassion to come to their aid, and that the rest of Europe wakes up to its need to begin correcting the fundamental design flaws in the currency union, however much capital may be opposed to those reforms.

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Crisis in Greece - Part I

What's so great about this piece is that it hints at both of the fundamental lessons the world should be learning right now. But both need to be made more explicit.

The first, which may never before have been taught on such a scale or with such clarity, is that contemporary orthodox economics is indeed a form of brain damage. The answer of the "experts", the "technocrats", the "serious men", is that the way to jump start the Greek economy is through a more intense version of the policies which Greece has, rigorously, implemented over the past several years, policies which have, undeniably, led to a major contraction of the Greek economy with no hope of a way out. Economics in the neo-classical tradition is the single greatest intellectual failure of the past 150 years. The entire discipline needs an urgent and dramatic overhaul.

The second, more important lesson, is that the German conservatives, the ones who are actually running the show, don't believe the "expert" judgment - they are engaged in an exercise of domination, something which now seems to be clear to all but the brain-damaged economists. Germany has become, under Merkel, another Neo-liberal State. This is not an ideology that believes in the virtues of the market place. It is an ideology that believes in promoting the interests of capital and subtly undermining (if possible) or openly crushing (if necessary) what threatens those interests. That is the story of the 2010-2012 bailout, which is what got us here - the fact that an orderly default, which was clearly the best (as well as the right) option, in addition to being what was demanded by the logic of an open and competitive marketplace, could not be seriously countenanced, because it was not in the interests of capital.

Why are people calling this a coup?

Because the European institutions have demanded an unprecedented surrender of fiscal sovereignty.

Because the European institutions want to approve "relevant draft legislation" for Greece before it appears in front of the Greek parliament.

Because the European institutions are giving the Greek parliament 48 hours to debate, deliberate over, and vote on this.

Having saved the creditors, the time has come to ensure that they aren't threatened again - to squeeze Greece, humiliate Greece, possibly destroy Greece, so that Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain don't get any ideas about someday refusing a 2012-style bail-out and upsetting the bond markets.

It is telling just how stupid and infantile one has to be to try to dodge all this. See, for a sterling example, here. Notice the complete lack of engagement with any of the three ways in which Europe is openly working to subvert Greek democracy. Notice the strawman which the argument has to center on, the absurd pretense that those worrying about the current place of democratic governance in the Eurozone are actually claiming that what democracy requires is that all of Europe go along with the recent Greek plebiscite. Finally, notice that, in the penultimate paragraph, the entire piece turns out to be nothing more than an attempt to make the utterly hopeless argument which, in the second paragraph, we are promised is not being made. But most importantly, notice the admonitions to "grow up" and "join the real world". This is the language of silencing legitimate dissent. This is the language of the very worst of the "serious men" - the ones who knowingly clothe a brute struggle for power in the shroud of an economic theory that only the brain-damaged believe, but which is too obscure for the average citizen to see through.

Don't listen to them anymore. The German government destroyed the idea of Europe this morning. The EU isn't worth saving at this price. The Greek parliament should vote this down and leave. Portugal should leave. Ireland should leave. Italy should leave. Spain should leave. Let Germany lose it's captive European market, let it's currency appreciate, let those two pillars of the German economy fall away while Southern Europe restores it's international competitiveness, and then let's see what happens to all this rhetoric of hard work and responsibility, let's see what happens to Merkel and Schaeuble.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Obergefell v. Hodges - Gay Marriage and Sound Legal Interpretation

To recognize Justice Kennedy's reasoning as muddy is one thing - it is. To argue that although today's ruling is morally good, Justice Roberts gets the law right, is quite another. Even, as Ilya Somin does, to suggest this nonsense (or rather, to recycle Volokh's nonsense) about this kind of law possibly surviving an intellectually honest application of the rational basis test at this point in time is head-shakingly incompetent. Anyone who needs help with this should sit down, pour a drink, and reread Posner's opinion from last year - one of the best judicial opinions of the 21st century. (How soon we forget.)

This line, which we're going to see repeated over and over again, is nothing but that depressingly common confusion of hiding in the ideological middle with being reasonable and objective - a confusion which has overtaken our press like a plague. Of course, I expect absolutely nothing better even from The Economist these days, but that wasn't always the case.

Now on to the dissenters:

It is nothing short of an absolute scandal, for the legal profession, academia, and American intellectualism, that Antonin Scalia, a man with nothing but a penchant for insults and an incoherent view of linguistic meaning (which he disregards whenever it isn't politically expedient!), is viewed by so many as an intellectual and academic superstar, and has risen to this position in his profession and in society.

But the real disappointment here is Roberts, who has apparently forgotten that a democratic republic is not a tyranny of the majority, and who has failed to engage with the equal protection argument in any serious way, instead going in for the sort of armchair anthropology and sociology which anyone with a decent education and an internet connection can debunk in five minutes. (Not to mention the complete irrelevance of such considerations by the lights of anything that could plausibly be called his theory of law!)

Mini-Scalia is transparently an intellectual midget and not worth engaging. Thomas is an evil person, and if there's a hell, he will burn in it. (I consider that to be a more important point than any equally justifiable one about his laziness, his total inability to construct an argument, etc.)

For anyone who wants to start educating him- or herself - and frankly, this goes for an awful lot of the JDs out there, who were never made to study the theory of linguistic interpretation or who have forgotten what they were taught - you have no excuse not to, here you go:

Purposive Interpretation in Law
Between Authority and Interpretation

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Administrative Pay in the Neoliberal University

"People with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded."…/frank-bruni-platinum-pay-in-ivory-…

Question: Regarding how many of the dozens of university presidents dismissed in the past five years (with generous severance packages) for failures of professional competence or ethics was this said or thought at the time of appointment?


Answer: All of them. That the NYT can uncritically parrot this nonsense, even in a piece which is about the obscenity of this situation, shows that we are nowhere near successfully combating the ideological poison that makes these arrangements tolerated by nearly all, accepted by most, and defended by an astonishingly large number of people.