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.