Saturday, January 17, 2015

First question, am I a bread thief?

When is it wrong to steal and when is it okay?

If you believe that all property is theft, then it's not much of a stretch to believe it's never wrong to steal, unless you're talking about someone who owns property, in which case it's wrong for that person to steal.  If on the other hand you believe that private property is the eleventh commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai, then it's not much of a stretch to say it's always wrong to steal.

Few of us (I suspect) swing in that way, and of those who do, most (I suspect) at least allow for attenuating circumstances.  We'd say that sometimes, it's okay to steal.  Or it's never okay to steal, but sometimes it's at least understandable why someone might, and in some cases the thief and not the rightful owner of what is stolen is the more sympathetic party.  (I leave aside here the question of how one's ownership becomes "rightful" in the first place, although the less absolutist among us might very well address that question.)

Take the poor, starving bread thief, who steals a loaf from SuperMegaWalCorporation to feed his family.  To honor the spirit of this example, we should suppose that the thief has no other way to get bread or comparable aliment, that the family is truly starving, and that SuperMegaWalCorporation will not be noticeably harmed by the missing food item.  (If you want, we can stipulate that the bread is about to expire and SuperMegaWalCorporation would have to write it off as a loss anyway.)

I suspect most of us would probably say it's not wrong for that person to steal that item in that circumstance.  Or if we concede the theft to be wrong, most of us would hesitate before throwing the full condemnation of law and morality against him. 

How often do those circumstances actually happen?  I don't know.  I suppose they occur more often in the developing countries than in the first world.  Not having lived in poverty myself, for all I know the occurrence is much more widespread in the first world than I think.  But with due regard to what I do not know or have not experienced, I suspect that such circumstances tend not to occur in such a sheer, unrelenting form, where the thief is so destitute, the stolen item so needed by people so easy to sympathize with, and the "victim" of the theft so unharmed.

For most intents and purposes, the bread thief situation is pretty close to a pure form or pure ideal, which real life situations may approximate but probably rarely resemble exactly.  The destitute person may have made at least some mistakes or decisions that put him and his family in their predicament or worsened their predicament.  (Maybe a month ago he bought a king-sized Hershey's chocolate bar and now could have spent the money on a loaf of bread.)  The item stolen might be money, with which bread could be bought, it is true, but other less necessary things can also be bought.  The thief might not even have a family to support.  Maybe the stolen bread comes from the local bakery struggling to make ends meet and not from SuperMegaWalCorporation.  Or maybe the "assets protection" employee at SuperMegaWalCorporation is a minimum wage worker trying to support her own family and may have recently been warned that one more shoplifting incident, no matter how trivial, will result in her being written up.

I'm not saying any of this to trivialize hardship.  Again, I have never known poverty.  And I actually have a lot of sympathy for the person who, for example, makes some very poor choices and is now suffering hardship and who feels that best option at one point might very well be shoplifting.  I have less sympathy for the SuperMegaWalCorporation.  (But not no sympathy.  There's a margin.  Real people—employees, customers, and perhaps elderly retirees who grew up in the Depression, fought World War II, and hold all their savings in a 401(k) plan heavily invested in SuperMegaWalCorproation's stock—are adversely affected, or would be if enough such thefts occur.)

Rather, by calling the bread thief example a "pure form," what I mean is that it's one end of a spectrum.  The closer one is to the "bread thief" condition, the more justifiable—or at least understandable and sympathetic—the theft.  The closer one is to Bernie Madoff's condition ca. 2005, the less justifiable the theft.

But most of us aren't (I suspect) in the bread thief's position and most of us aren't (I'm fairly confident) in Mr. Madoff's position ca. 2005.  We're (probably, or at least sometimes) somewhere in between.  Someone with my affluence, advantages, and privilege would be wrong to shoplift from SuperMegaWalCorporation (assuming that we're not talking about the rightness of sticking it to corporate America).  Someone who is poorer might be more justified, or at least less wrong, to do so. 

I'm not pleading for a way to judge others.  If I were, I'd probably say the most charitable thing to do is to believe from the outset that the thief in question, even Mr. Madoff, probably on some level believes or has convinced himself that he really is a bread thief.  But like most injunctions against judging others, it's so hard to do in real life.  For one thing, it's easy for me to plead understanding for Mr. Madoff when I haven't been victimized by his scams scams.  For another thing, one paradox of the New Testament's "motes and beams" admonition is that once you invoke it against someone else, you're no longer honoring it.

Instead, I'm pleading for self-reflection.  If I took a survey of the OT's readers, I imagine that at least a majority would say that stealing is generally wrong, or at least wrong in some circumstances, but acceptable (or mitigated) in other circumstances.  Same thing with lying.  Same thing with killing.

But how confident are we—how confident am I—that we are more like the bread thief and less like Mr. Madoff?  Is that music video I watch on YouTube for free an instance of me getting something I really need, or is it me stealing from the artist and production crews?  Does my suspicion that Mr. Obama's "if you like your insurance you can keep it" lie was necessary to pass the ACA justify the dishonesty as long as poorer people get better coverage?  (For the record, I do watch/listen to YouTube music videos without any concern for whether the video is sponsored by the artist.  And I do temporize Mr. Obama's lie because of the end it (probably) helped effect.)

Here's my takeaway.  Whenever you are tempted to do something that you otherwise believe is wrong, I suggest you ask yourself, "Am I a bread thief."  If you can't honestly say "yes," then maybe you shouldn't do it.

To be clear, my admonition is more like a suspensatory veto than a red light.  If you're not a bread thief, then maybe you shouldn't do what you're contemplating   But maybe, pending further investigation, there may be other reasons to do it..  I don't have a firm opinion whether or when my admonition falls in line with the ethicist's holy trinity of duty, virtue, and utility.  But I think it works as a good first step, a practical question we should ask before action.

Ain't no fortunate son

(This is a reprint of a guest post I submitted to the Ordinary Times blog a while back.  I have edited it, mostly for clarity, but if you want to read the original and the comments (which are now closed), please click here.  Tod Kelly at the league came up with the title, which I think is a good one.)

Joseph Epstein has written a defense of the military draft at The Atlantic online.  In that article, he rehashed the points generally raised in favor of the draft.  But those points are not as strong as he thinks they are and they fail to address some critical objections to the draft.

We are probably all familiar with the arguments Epstein uses to argue for the draft.  He says the draft would make policymakers more careful about committing soldiers abroad.  He suggests that a truly universal draft would foster a sense of shared sacrifice among Americans, improve the military, and function as a social mixer, bringing together rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Gentile and Jew (and atheist?),* black and white, and so forth.

The “truly universal” in my previous sentence does a lot of work, and Epstein doesn’t utter the phrase.  But it is the necessary component of what he advocates (“[a] truly American military, inclusive of all social classes….”).  He presumably would not have approved of the “substitute” system of the Civil War, through which a draftee of means could hire a “substitute” in order to avoid service.  He is critical of deferments during the Vietnam era, stating they made Vietnam “the first of our wars to be fought almost exclusively by an American underclass and, in part because of this, at no time did it have anything like the full support of the American people.”

His arguments don’t convince me.  Let’s take what I believe to be his strongest point, namely, the egalitarian potential of compelling people from different backgrounds to work with each other.  I can’t dismiss that point altogether.  My only ready anecdatum runs in support of what Epstein says.  The father of a friend of mine was drafted to serve in Vietnam.  He says he entered the military a conservative racist and came out a pro-civil rights liberal.  (I’m paraphrasing my friend’s own paraphrasing of what his father said.  Take the dose of salt you deem appropriate.)  I can’t deny that a “truly universal” draft might very well foster a sense of mutual understanding via interaction.  And my own leveling instinct takes a certain pleasure in seeing some people (other people, not me, of course!) being knocked down a few pegs and compelled to work with their supposed inferiors.

But still, I’m skeptical.  If one person becomes more broad-minded by working with a diverse group of people, I can imagine another type of person for whom familiarity fosters a hyper-tribalism of the sort that says, “I’ve worked with those people and believe you me, you don’t want to know them.”  Okay, there will always be incorrigibles among us and maybe most people—maybe even most incorrigibles—really do soften their own bigotries by working with others.

I’m also skeptical because a “truly universal” draft is a fantasy, even when there is little likelihood of escaping service altogether.  If it’s not hiring substitutes or winning deferments, it can be having connections to get you into the National Coast Guard Reserve, it can be having the social capital, intelligence, or skills to get the type of job that keeps you more out of danger.  What about conscientious objector status?  Well, if we are to have a draft, I’d want there to be C.O. provisions, and I’d want access to those provisions to be expansive ones.  But then the draft is not truly universal (and C.O. status, as I understand, is hard to secure anyway, and someone with legal representation—read:  social capital and real capital, or being born into a religious tradition that disavows violence—would have a much better shot at it).

But as I said, that was Epstein’s strongest point and I can’t dismiss it altogether.  It reminds me of a very thoughtful comment ScarletNumbers made a while back in response to one of my posts on neoliberalism:  “I would still rather have a Fortunate Son serve in an ‘easy’ position in the military as a draftee, rather not be in the military at all” (asterisk omitted).  Even in an unfair system, some service for all is fairer than some people getting off free.  And ScarletNumbers might have also added that in modern warfare, the “‘easy’ position” is not always safe or easy.  (My uncle was “only” a mechanic in the military in World War II, and he had very disturbing memories of what he saw and underwent, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.)  And at any rate, because non-combat positions outnumber actual “combat” positions, there is a strong likelihood that any given draftee would have the supposedly “easy” position.

But that last point—non-combat positions outnumbering actual combat positions—feeds into my critique of what I take to be Epstein’s weaker point, the notion that a truly universal draft would convince our policymakers to be more careful before committing soldiers to action.  Because non-combat positions, which are supposedly “safer,” outnumber combat positions and because (I suspect) “only” a small percentage of people in actual combat positions suffer debilitating physical wounds, a policymaker might very well believe the odds are pretty good in favor his or her loved ones in the military, coming out okay.

I suppose that because we’ve never had a truly universal draft, I don’t really have a basis of comparison for Eptstein’s claim that policymakers would be more careful with their use of the military.  But I will point out that Truman committed US soldiers to Korea pretty quickly even though there was a draft.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which occurred during a time when the draft was in force and which empowered President Johnson to wage the Vietnam War, passed the Senate with only two dissents, fewer dissents than the authorization to invade Iraq in 1991 and 2002.

And then there’s World War II.  I admit, it lends support to Epstein’s point.  That is so not only because of the sense of shared sacrifice Americans supposedly felt during the war, but also because before Pearl Harbor there was fairly strong, albeit eroding, opposition to entering the conflict, and FDR had a hard time convincing the US to go to war.  Maybe what opposition there was to entry owed something to the fact that the draft had already been implemented in 1940?  Even so, the “Good War” was, I hope, exceptional, as noted by the tendency to call it “good,” as if wars by definition are presumptively bad.  If a similar conflict arises, or if, as in a hypothetical commenter Roger once offered, the Mongols are surrounding the city gates, I’ll be prepared to reopen the debate, at least as it applies to that conflict.**

But that debate will have to account for one objection that Epstein—who says that “[a]rguments against the draft…are mostly technical”—declines to address.  Compulsory military service meets my common-sense definition (but apparently, not the Supreme Court’s definition) of “involuntary servitude.”  It requires a person to put his life on hold for a time—I believe the standard term of service was two years during the Cold War Era draft—and while in service, that person can be ordered to put his life in danger.  And I believe involuntary servitude is wrong, unless it is the punishment for a crime for which someone has been duly convicted.  And even without the Thirteenth Amendment, I’d still believe it would be wrong.
True, the draft is not chattel slavery.  But it is compulsory service, and if someone who would otherwise not choose to serve is compelled to serve or to face harsh consequences for not serving, then his service is involuntary.

The chief argument against my “involuntary servitude” point is to draw an analogy to jury duty or to the United States’ history of militia service.  And while I don’t fully sign on to Vikram Bath’s argument against analogies, I’ll point out the differences between military conscription and jury and militia service.  For most people called to jury duty, the process lasts only one day unless they are empanelled.  For most people who are empanelled, the duty lasts only about a week.  For only a small number, the duty may last months.  And only in very rare, Grisham-style, circumstances is a juror’s life ever in danger.  (Am I wrong?  I admit I don’t have a cite, but I do ask for the proof.)

Militia duty, when it’s not just an opportunity for homosocial male conviviality, is regular training for the possibility that the local community, or perhaps the country, might be invaded or imminently threatened in some way.  I’m not in principle opposed to militia duty defined that way.  But even then, I’d want the threat to be imminent.  And if the Mongols*** truly are at the city’s gates, I’d want to be sure that a tribute to pay them to go away is not a possibility before I’d admit to the state’s authority to compel my or anyone else’s service.

Whether in the moment I’d have the courage of my convictions to refuse to serve—or more likely, given my less-than-draftable age of 41, to help others refuse to serve—is another issue.

*Yes, I’m aware that Jewishness is as much an ethnicity as it is a creed, but Epstein’s example—a sergeant berating his Christian soldiers to go to Church and his “Hebrew” soldiers to honor the Sabbath—focuses on the creedal aspect of Jewishness.
**For the record, I believe Roger was arguing against compulsory service, stating that his hypothetical situation rarely arises.
***It probably needs to be said that I mean no offense to Mongolians or people with Mongolian roots.  I also realize the “Mongol horde” was not what European and Chinese myth has made it out to be and according to one interpretation, seems to have fit in a pattern of China’s relationship with its neighbors to its North.  See Thomas J. Barfield’s The Perilous Frontier:  Nomadic Empires and China, 221 B.C. to A.D. 1757.  (1989)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

RIP, Judy Baar Topinka

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

My condolences to her family.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The fable of the professor and the bureaucrat

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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