Friday, December 31, 2004

2004 in Review

So on the whole, 2004 has been a good year for me. My daughter was born in February. My brother (finally) married Becky in July, and I (finally) finished my Ph.D. in August. On the other hand, on November 2nd . . . well, I don't really want to talk about that.

Tsunami Relief

For information about how to help with the tsunami disaster relief, see Network for Good which links to most of the major aid organizations.

The Rhetoric of Morality

Ed Kilgore makes some useful observations regarding moral rhetoric and substance in contemporary politics.
The first step towards clarity about "moral values" is to distinguish the two very different ways in which this term is typically used: (a) the relative ability of politicians to frame their biographies, their principles, their agendas, and their messages in terms that convey a distinct sense of the values that matter more to them than personal power and ambition; and (b) a set of concerns about "moral issues" which typically touch on various perceived threats to "traditional values," including the nuclear family, parental and social authority, personal responsibility, the strength of faith communities, and in general, the belief in the ability of Americans to perceive and enforce clear standards of "right" and "wrong" behavior.

There is a pretty strong consensus among Democrats today that we need to do something to strengthen the party on the first definition of "moral values."

...This should not be a matter of simply wrapping Democratic policy positions in "values language" or, God forbid, "God Talk." What's needed is a re-engineering of Democratic message to place values first, policy goals second, and programmatic ideas third and last.

...What did Clinton do that Al Gore and John Kerry couldn't do on cultural issues? He did two simple things: (a) projecting a message that acknowledged the legitimacy of cultural concerns, and found common ground, as in making abortion "safe, legal and rare," and defending both gay rights and the right of states to define marriage; and (b) directly addressing concerns about cultural threats to the traditional family by advancing a limited but family-friendly agenda of proposals (derided by pundits at the time) like expanded family leave, youth curfews, school uniforms, and V-chips. And had the issue fully emerged during his presidency, there is almost zero doubt that Clinton could have found a way to support public partnerships on social projects with faith-based organizations in a way that honored religious communities' contributions without abandoning separation of church and state.

Simply emulating Clinton's approach would be a good first step towards de-toxifying cultural issues, but in today's more polarized and mistrustful atmosphere, Democrats must do more. And the obvious place to start is by extending the routine Democratic demand for corporate responsibility to the entertainment corporations which purvey the sex-and-violence saturated products that emblemize the threat to traditional culture so many Americans perceive.
He also notes an interesting irony about the common lament from those who feel threatened by what they perceive as the decline of our culture: "History, of course, shows repeatedly that the most culturally threatened people are those who are complicit in the transformation of culture from what they honor to what they desire." Why are people becoming so immoral, backbiting, childish, selfish, deceitful, and downright nasty these days? I don't know, but be quiet because Survivor is about to come on.

Risk (Part II)

As I was saying yesterday, the Washington Post has an article today about increasing risk and diminishing benefits for the average worker.
If she can't stay on her husband's health plan, her costs for health insurance offered by the hospital will be $200 a month, more than five times as much as at the airline. There are no pension benefits beyond the option for a 401(k) savings plan and few job protections. She makes $2 an hour less than before; to have a chance at higher pay, she will need to continually train herself in new areas.

Geerling is at the leading edge of changes that herald a new era for millions of people earning around the national average, $17 an hour.

This new era requires that workers shoulder more responsibility and risk on the way to financial security, economists say. It also demands that they be nimble in an increasingly fluid job market. Those who don't obtain some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits.

Meanwhile, those who secure the middle-class jobs of the 21st century will have to make $17 an hour stretch further than ever as they pay more for health care or risk doing without insurance and assume much or all of the burden for their retirement.

...Over the past two decades, companies have moved en masse away from traditional pensions in which employers pay the cost and employees get a set amount after retiring. Employer-based health care coverage has fallen as well, not just for workers in low-wage jobs, but increasingly for those in middle-class jobs. One analysis estimates that there were 5 million fewer jobs providing health insurance in 2004 than there were just three years earlier. Overall, nearly 1 in 5 full-time workers today goes without health insurance; among part-time workers, it's 1 in 4.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Increasing Risk

I recently had a discussion with a family friend who is rather conservative, and a little esprit de l'escalier prompts me to make the following comment. I more or less said this to my interlocutor, but I wish I'd had the evidence and graphics at hand. So here it is now, for what it's worth.

Anyway, the discussion was one of those "good ol' days" comparisons to the present, and the difference being emphasized did not seem to capture the truly distinctive feature of our situation. I think it is the increasing risk that people are living with now. It is true that we have devised numerous ways to minimize and soften the risks to health and livelihood and that life in the 1920s was plenty risky, but many of those safety nets devised to overcome the problems of that era are disappearing. For example, pension plans are no longer reliable; many employers no longer offer benefits for their employees; minimum wage is stagnating; job-security is diminishing; and Americans experience larger and more sudden downturns in their income.

This chart from the LA Times sums up the statistics involved here:


All of this is not to say that the good ol' days were superior in every respect, but that what was superior was not just the old-fashioned values and so forth. In fact, government programs such as Social Security (as well as the others which aid the poor and sick in our society and work for the common good, e.g., the Surgeon General, the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, etc.) reflect a moral improvement (or, at least, an improved application of an abiding moral sentiment). What we are seeing recently, however, is a moral lapse, but not one related to personal morality so much as social justice.

AARP Tries to Make Amends

After blowing it back during the debate about the prescription drug bill, AARP is promising to stand up to the Republicans over privatization. If you recall, AARP gave a significant endorsement of the prescription drug plan in spite of its corporate pandering and fraudulent passage. Now they are pledging to counter the onslaught of White House spin regarding Social Security privatization with $5 million for advertising. The NY Times writes:
AARP, the influential lobby for older Americans, signaled Wednesday for the first time how fervently it would fight President Bush's proposal for private Social Security accounts, saying it would begin a $5 million two-week advertising campaign timed to coincide with the start of the new Congress.

The organization, which played a huge role in the passage of Medicare drug legislation last year, said it was prepared to spend much more in the next two years to block the creation of private accounts financed with payroll tax revenues.

...The full-page advertisements, to appear next week in more than 50 newspapers around the country, say the accounts would cause "Social Insecurity."

"There are places in your retirement planning for risk," the advertisements say, "but Social Security isn't one of them."

One advertisement shows a couple in their 40's looking at the reader. "If we feel like gambling, we'll play the slots," the message says.

Another advertisement shows traders in the pit of a commodities exchange. "Winners and losers are stock market terms," it says. "Do you really want them to become retirement terms?"
That's a start.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Stop Sweating Social Security

There's a nice article in the LA Times today by Kevin Drum explaining in simple terms why Social Security is not in crisis but has been portrayed so by various constituencies for the past decade.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Merry Holiday

Jerome Copulsky, an assistant professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Tech. and a friend of mine, pokes fun at Bill O'Reilly in a Salon article. Not only is it always enjoyable to witness the flaying of this bloated windbag, but in this case it is notable because Jerome takes on the latest obsession of the Christian soldiers in the rightwing culture-war: the preservation of Christmas traditions in the public domain such as the use of the phrase "merry Christmas" and the display of mall decorations. It is about time someone with a real understanding of Christmas dealt with this issue--in this case, a Jewish theologian.

On a related matter, I am with Kevin Drum. Regardless of the merits of the rightwing's case (which turns out to be ironically self-defeating, as you will see if you read Jerome's article), the remarkable feature of this whole saga is how quickly O'Reilly and his epigones can spread a meme like this "secularist destruction of Christmas" one. These things are seemingly easy to drum up. Why can't we do the same with the all-too-real "Republicans want to eat your lunch, i.e., retirement plan," which seems to be the true story behind Social Security reform and tax reform? Apparently, it involves making outrageous claims which render the general point reasonable by comparison. For example, here is a bit from an LA Times article on the subject:
Conservative Americans feel ready to push back against "the secularists or the humanists or the elitists" who dominate popular culture, said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, which is based in Raleigh.

"It's a cultural war. We are in the thick of it," Creech said. "It's not so much an attack on us. It's an attack on Christ."

...."There's one group of people who get bullied all the time, and that's Christians," [Pastor Patrick Wooden] said. "I know what it is like to be bullied. It is apartheid in reverse — the majority is being bullied by the minority."
The poor persecuted Christians in America--it's just like apartheid or maybe the Third Reich in reverse. I wonder if Jerome, the elitist-secularist-humanist Jew, has a response to that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

On Holiday

I haven't had the chance to blog lately after driving for ten hours with a ten-month-old on Monday and recovering yesterday. (Actually, she was quite good, all things considered.) I finally got around to reading The Da Vinci Code. It is a watery-thin version of Umberto Eco's historical-ecclesiastical novels with a slightly more sophisticated adventure than Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is replete with curious factoids, but the problem is that most of them are not true. This seems to be a major shortcoming: factoids are only interesting to the extent that they are facts that you would not have previously known or necessarily guessed. Margaret Mitchell has some useful comments in this vein here. And one other thing: a professor of "symbology" from Harvard? I'm reminded of shopping in a Borders bookstore yesterday and running across the "Metaphysics" section. Instead of finding Aristotle and Leibniz there, I found books about crystal balls and the dark arts.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Privatization Around the World (Part II)

As I noted a few days ago (following Kevin Drum), the privatization of retirement plans around the world indicate good reason to be skeptical. Today Paul Krugman writes about the issue. He explains that the two main problems encountered in even the most successful cases (e.g., Chile and Britain) are:

1. Privatization dissipates a large fraction of workers' contributions on fees to investment companies.
2. It leaves many retirees in poverty.

On the first point, Krugman writes:

Decades of conservative marketing have convinced Americans that government programs always create bloated bureaucracies, while the private sector is always lean and efficient. But when it comes to retirement security, the opposite is true. More than 99 percent of Social Security's revenues go toward benefits, and less than 1 percent for overhead. In Chile's system, management fees are around 20 times as high. And that's a typical number for privatized systems.

These fees cut sharply into the returns individuals can expect on their accounts. In Britain, which has had a privatized system since the days of Margaret Thatcher, alarm over the large fees charged by some investment companies eventually led government regulators to impose a "charge cap." Even so, fees continue to take a large bite out of British retirement savings.

A reasonable prediction for the real rate of return on personal accounts in the U.S. is 4 percent or less. If we introduce a system with British-level management fees, net returns to workers will be reduced by more than a quarter. Add in deep cuts in guaranteed benefits and a big increase in risk, and we're looking at a "reform" that hurts everyone except the investment industry.
The second problem (continuing poverty among the elderly) has required massive subsidies in addition to the retirement plans.

On a related note, I was watching CSPAN's coverage of the White House Conference on the Economy. One of the panelists was Sandy Jaques--just an ordinary middle-class single mother from Iowa who wants to save Social Security for herself and her daughter. She is surprisingly articulate about the issue for a nonexpert "regular citizen." As Josh Marshall has noted, even the NYTimes identifies her as simply as "a single mother from Iowa." In fact, she has been interviewed on television as just such an ordinary person, but this is classic astroturf (i.e., articial grassroots organizing). Actually, Sandra Jacques manages to know the Republican talking points so well because she works for an organization called Women for a Sound Social Security Choice. In other words, she is a paid Republican operative. Here is her bio:
Sandra Jaques, director of the Iowa chapter of FreedomWorks, will be available for talk radio interviews on Personal Retirement Account (PRA) reform plans and the role that the Social Security issue is playing in this election cycle.

Ms. Jaques is an Iowa native and an expert on Social Security reform. Before joining FreedomWorks this year, she served as the Midwest Regional Director of For Our Grandchildren, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the need for Social Security reform. In her new role with Iowa FreedomWorks, she organizes statewide grassroots support for PRAs.
She "organizes statewide grassroots support"; therefore, she is not a grassroots nonexpert and "regular citizen." The media need to treat her the way they should every other shill of the administration; of course, the media continue to do a poor job of calling the privatizers on their lies. The two biggest whoppers I keep hearing are:

1. Social Security is in dire trouble.
2. Privatization will solve this so-called trouble without cutting benefits.

At least, let's not listen to astroturf campaigns promoting these lies as if they are just coming from sincere citizens asserting their democratic right to join the public deliberation. Propaganda needs to be recognized for what it is.

UPDATE: This article in Saturday's NY Times is a good start.
The exchange was an example of how Mr. Bush promotes his agenda with testimonials from "regular folks," in the words of Joshua B. Bolten, the White House budget director, who introduced Ms. Jaques.

But Ms. Jaques is not any random single mother. She is the Iowa state director of a conservative advocacy group, FreedomWorks, whose founders are Jack F. Kemp, the former vice-presidential nominee, and Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader.

Ms. Jaques also spent much of the past two years as a spokeswoman in Iowa for a group called For Our Grandchildren, which is mounting a nationwide campaign for private savings accounts.

Republican Grownups

Note to the Republican Party: It is a bad sign when the grownups in your party--the ones with the experience and maturity to stand up to the president on his recent decision to keep Donald Rumsfeld in his position in spite of his dismal record--include Trent Lott.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Amos and the Texas GOP

In October 2003, Kevin Drum discussed the alarming radicalization of the Republican Party by noting the extreme views contained in the Texas Republican Party Platform. I frequently refer to it when I teach a section on Amos in my Bible course. For all of you heathens out there, Amos is the prophet who writes about social justice in passages such as the following (5:11-12, 15, 21-24):

Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The line about pushing aside the needy in the gate refers to the court system from which the poor were routinely excluded. Elsewhere (8:4-6), Amos condemns those who "practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." In other words, he argues for the systemic reform of an unjust society in order to prevent the debt slavery which arises when the wealthy bind the poor to their poverty by collecting payments on their high interest loans to the poor in the form of labor--payments which are never enough to get the impoverished out of arrears. The "righteous" wealthy (who all too eagerly display their righteousness at festivals and solemn assemblies) were, of course, conveniently forgetting about some of the laws of the Torah, e.g., no interest on loans to the poor (Lev. 25:35-37); debts were to be canceled every seventh year (Deut. 15); equal rights for the poor (Deut. 16:18-20). In general, Amos brings a message of equality, distribution of wealth, and social justice.

Compare his message to that of the Texas Republican Party.

Texas GOP Platform

Short Translation

The Party calls for the United States monetary system to be returned to the gold standard. Since the Federal Reserve System is a private corporation, has no reserves, and is not subject to taxation or audit, we call on Congress to abolish this institution and reassume its authority, enumerated by Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, for the coinage of money.

The United States should return to the gold standard and abolish the Federal Reserve.

Congress should be urged to exercise its authority under Article III, Sections 1 and 2 of the United States Constitution, and should withhold appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in such cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and all rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.

The Supreme Court should not be allowed to decide the constitutionality of laws regarding abortion, religion, or anything else related to the Bill of Rights. In these areas, Congress should be allowed to pass any laws it wishes.

Our Party pledges to do everything within its power to restore the original intent of the First Amendment of the United States and the concept of the separation of Church and State and dispel the myth of the separation of Church and State.

We should completely do away with separation of church and state.

The party opposes the decriminalization of sodomy....We publicly rebuke judges Chief Justice Murphy and John Anderson, who ruled that the 100 year-old Texas sodomy law is unconstitutional, and ask that all members of the Republican Party of Texas oppose their re-election.

Gay sex should be a criminal offense.

The Party affirms its support for a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse making clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection applies to unborn children.

All abortion of all kinds should be permanently outlawed by constitutional amendment.

No homosexual or any individual convicted of child abuse or molestation should have the right to custody or adoption of a minor child, and that visitation with minor children by such persons should be limited to supervised periods.

Gays should be treated like child molesters and should not be allowed to visit children unsupervised.

The Party believes that scientific topics, such as the question of universe and life origins and environmental theories, should not be constrained to one opinion or viewpoint. We support the teaching equally of scientific strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories--as Texas now requires (but has yet to enforce) in public school science course standards. We urge revising all environmental education standards to require this also. We support individual teachers’ right to teach creation science in Texas public schools.

The Biblical story of creation should be taught in science classes.

The Party supports an orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax.

Social Security should be abolished.

We urge that the IRS be abolished and the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution be repealed. A constitutional tax, collected and controlled by the States, must generate sufficient revenue for the legitimate tasks of the national government.

The federal income tax should be abolished.

The Party believes the minimum wage law should be repealed.

The federal minimum wage should be abolished.

We further support the abolition of federal agencies involved in activities not delegated to the federal government under the original intent of the Constitution including, but not limited to, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the position of Surgeon General, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce and Labor.

The EPA, HUD, HHS, the Department of Education, and several other federal agencies should be eliminated. Since these departments supervise all federal welfare programs for the poor and sick, they are presumably advocating the complete abolishment of the federal welfare state.

The Party believes it is in the best interest of the citizens of the United States that we immediately rescind our membership in, as well as all financial and military contributions to, the United Nations.

Get the United States out of the UN.

The Party urges Congress to support HJR 77, the Panama and America Security Act, which declare the Carter-Torrijos Treaty null and void. We support re-establishing United States control over the Canal in order to retain our military bases in Panama, to preserve our right to transit through the Canal, and to prevent the establishment of Chinese missile bases in Panama.

Take back the Panama Canal.

This plank remains in the 2002 platform. Since Panama presumably would object to this, they appear to be endorsing military action to retake the canal zone.

Any person filing as a Republican candidate for a public or Party office shall be provided a current copy of the Party platform at the time of filing. The candidate shall be asked to read and initial each page of the platform and sign a statement affirming he/she has read the entire platform.

We are dead serious about all this.

In a follow-up post, Drum writes:
Most Republicans don't share these goals. In fact, the real point of yesterday's post was that while a large majority of Republicans find these attitudes absurd, most of them are in denial about what's happening in their party and pretend that this is nothing more than a weird little fringe group to be ignored. They have somehow convinced themselves that Tom DeLay — a man who rather clearly endorses the views of the Texas Republican party — is some obscure backbencher, not the House majority leader and a man with real power and real influence.
How can the true face of this party be exposed? What sort of prophet of our day is up to the task?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Call for Resignation

Quite a condemnation of Donald Rumsfeld here. Who do you think wrote it?
"The big debate about the number of troops is one of those things that's really out of my control." Really? Well, "the number of troops we had for the invasion was the number of troops that General Franks and General Abizaid wanted."

Leave aside the fact that the issue is not "the number of troops we had for the invasion" but rather the number of troops we have had for postwar stabilization. Leave aside the fact that Gen. Tommy Franks had projected that he would need a quarter-million troops on the ground for that task--and that his civilian superiors had mistakenly promised him that tens of thousands of international troops would be available. Leave aside the fact that Rumsfeld has only grudgingly and belatedly been willing to adjust even a little bit to realities on the ground since April 2003. And leave aside the fact that if our generals have been under pressure not to request more troops in Iraq for fear of stretching the military too thin, this is a consequence of Rumsfeld's refusal to increase the size of the military after Sept. 11.
All defense secretaries in wartime have, needless to say, made misjudgments. Some have stubbornly persisted in their misjudgments. But have any so breezily dodged responsibility and so glibly passed the buck?
These soldiers deserve a better defense secretary than the one we have.
Answer: William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.

Refutation of Privatization

Mike Kinsley, editor of The New Republic and Slate and now of the editorial page of the LA Times, writes the following argument which is now making its way around the blogosphere:
My contention: Social Security privatization is not just unlikely to succeed, for various reasons that are subject to discussion. It is mathematically certain to fail. Discussion is pointless.

The usual case against privatization is that (1) millions of inexperienced investors may end up worse off, and (2) stocks don't necessarily do better than bonds over the long-run, as proponents assume. But privatization won't work for a better reason: it can't possibly work, even in theory. The logic is not very complicated.

1. To "work," privatization must generate more money for retirees than current arrangements. This bonus is supposed to be extra money in retirees' pockets and/or it is supposed to make up for a reduction in promised benefits, thus helping to close the looming revenue gap.

2. Where does this bonus come from? There are only two possibilities: from greater economic growth, or from other people.

3. Greater economic growth requires either more capital to invest, or smarter investment of the same amount of capital. Privatization will not lead to either of these.

a) If nothing else in the federal budget changes, every dollar deflected from the federal treasury into private social security accounts must be replaced by a dollar that the government raises in private markets. So the total pool of capital available for private investment remains the same. b) The only change in decision-making about capital investment is that the decisions about some fraction of the capital stock will be made by people with little or no financial experience. Maybe this will not be the disaster that some critics predict. But there is no reason to think that it will actually increase the overall return on capital.

4. If the economy doesn't produce more than it otherwise would, the Social Security privatization bonus must come from other investors, in the form of a lower return.

a) This is in fact the implicit assumption behind the notion of putting Social Security money into stocks, instead of government bonds, because stocks have a better long-term return. The bonus will come from those saps who sell the stocks and buy the bonds.

b) In other words, privatization means betting the nation's most important social program on a theory that cannot be true unless many people are convinced that it's false.

c) Even if the theory is true, initially, privatization will make it false. The money newly available for private investment will bid up the price of (and thus lower the return on) stocks, while the government will need to raise the interest on bonds in order to attract replacement money.

d) In short, there is no way other investors can be tricked or induced into financing a higher return on Social Security.

5. If the privatization bonus cannot come from the existing economy, and cannot come from growth, it cannot exist. And therefore, privatization cannot work.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Agamben and Spirit

A passage from Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer:
Just as the biopolitical body of the West cannot be simply given back to its natural life in the oikos, so it cannot be overcome in a passage to a new body--a technical body or a wholly political or glorious body--in which a different economy of pleasures and vital functions would once and for all resolve the interlacement of zoē and bios that seems to define the political destiny of the West. This biopolitical body that is bare life must itself instead be transformed into the site for the constitution and installation of a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoē. . . . Yet how can a bios be only its own zoē, how can a form of life seize hold of the very haplōs that constitutes both the task and the enigma of Western metaphysics? If we give the name form-of-life to this being that is only its own bare existence and to this life that, being its own form, remains inseparable from it, we will witness the emergence of a field of research beyond the terrain defined by the intersection of politics and philosophy, medico-biological sciences and jurisprudence (p. 188).
As Agamben writes earlier, "[t]here is no return from the camps to classical politics." In other words, there is no easy way out of the bind that we are in, i.e., the pernicious form of nihilism rendered by modern metaphysics and technologism. If moderns like Habermas are calling for the reinstitution of respect for the Aristotelian distinction between the grown and the made in order to prevent the domination and mastery of the latter over the former, such Romantic defenses of the victimization of pure nature or bare life are hopeless. There is no return to that Garden in which there might be a harmonious oikos. Nor is there hope for some new body devised by biotechnology which might resolve the relation between zoē and bios without recapitulating one form of nihilism or another; that is, once life inevitably becomes the "bare" life of the other in the inexorable economics of biopolitics.

If the bios could be its own zoē, i.e., if the political being could be its own animal life rather than always becoming other than its animality, then we might name this being a "form-of-life." In this form-of-life, "we will witness the emergence of a field of research beyond the terrain defined by the intersection of politics and philosophy, medico-biological sciences and jurisprudence." In other words, we will witness what never seems to get mentioned explicitly in Agamben's book: spirit. It seems that the geistig and the geistlich are everywhere hovering about this account, but also nowhere to be found. Does Agamben mean to link his discussion of the Muselmann to this emergence? If so, this is theology of the cross with no possibility for a theology of glory.

At some point, I would like to comment on Keith Stanovich's The Robot's Rebellion in this context. It seems that the possibility of emergence need not be circumscribed within the horizon of this passivity and openness.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Camp as Nomos

Giorgio Agamben writes, "Today it is not the city but rather the [death] camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West." Heideggerian positions such as this which purport to reveal the nihilism lurking at the heart of modern life can sometimes seem far-fetched, but then one reads what Ron Jacobs reports in Counterpunch on the plans for Fallujah:
Retina scans to get into your own home. Work details under armed guard. No cars. Military armor on every corner. All men to be shot on sight after curfew. No freedom of movement. These are just some of the details of the new order in Fallujah (and one assumes any other Iraqi city that the US destroys in the future).
Leo Strauss has said, "The contemporary rejection of natural right leads to nihilism, nay, it is identical with nihilism." In one sense, this may seem true because natural right at least provides a system of norms by which to order the facts of experience. However, it is Agamben's Heideggerian position that it is precisely the indistinguishability of law and fact that marks the essence of the death camp. As such the tradition of natural right is as much the source of nihilism as our contemporary loss of it.

General Fund

Brad DeLong gets shrill today. As Ed Kilgore said, the goal of the Republican party (or at least the faction of it in power today) seems to be the "drive to simultaneously wreck the federal government and to perpetuate their control over the wreckage as long as possible through the exercise of the rawest sort of institutional power and corruption." DeLong validates this assumption by noting the serious fiscal problem with the General Fund which is being recklessly ignored amidst all of the talk about "saving" Social Security. First, he displays his point in the following graph:


Against the claim that the Social Security Trust Fund will run into some problems after 2014, DeLong writes:
That is indeed true. But the General Fund's problems get worse too--and get worse at a much faster rate: the Bush tax cuts, Medicare, and Medicaid guarantee that.

So why dink around claiming that the most important fiscal-policy thing to do right now is to "fix Social Security"? When the General Fund has problems five times as big happening five times faster?
Why? Because, as Kilgore says, "today's Republican Party, and its leader, are built on a foundation of fundamental dishonesty."


Over at New Donkey, Ed Kilgore, the Policy Director of the DLC, has been writing on the key for Democrats in the foreseeable future: reform. With all of the recent exposure of Republican corruption (the shakedowns of Indian tribes, the redistricting scandals, etc.), key figures such as Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist have been implicated in the mess and are eligible targets for a message of reform. The DLC is proposing "election reform, political reform, budget reform, and tax reform as a start."

All of these are good ideas, but this strikes me as omitting two key elements. First of all, the language of reform needs to be connected to the prophetic tradition the way that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to do. Second, the notion of reform needs to have a foreign policy component. Whether or not one agrees with Peter Beinart about a response to Islamic terrorism that is analogous to the anticommunist impetus of the Americans for Democratic Action organization of the 1950s, it seems clear that any message of reform without some sort of foreign policy statement will further highlight the already weak position on defense with which Democrats are burdened. Mind you, this position need not be perceived as weak, but avoiding it will do nothing to overcome the mostly unwarranted assumption by many (especially those in the media) that it is.

What we need to be developing is a larger narrative within which the various components of reform would fit. Kilgore does a nice job of beginning the narrative. Step one: identify the problem.
And for the first time in my life, I had a hard time understanding how friends and family members--people with whom I thought I shared a lot--could bring themselves to vote for the other guy. To put it bluntly, I didn't see any honest case for giving Bush a second term, and was angered by the dishonest case--he's done a brilliant job of fighting terrorists, he's a tower of wisdom and resolve, he's going to control big government, he's going to protect traditional values, he's got a second-term agenda to create an "ownership society"--advanced by his campaign.

Moreover, I came to believe strongly that the real agenda of the people closest to Bush--including his political advisors and much of the Republican congressional leadership--was not only dishonest, but deeply cynical and irresponsible: a drive to simultaneously wreck the federal government and to perpetuate their control over the wreckage as long as possible through the exercise of the rawest sort of institutional power and corruption. And moreover, this belief made me angry at even those Republicans who did not share that agenda, because they were helping to promote it against their own best instincts.
I think today's Republican Party, and its leader, are built on a foundation of fundamental dishonesty about who they are, what they want, and where they are taking the country.
I think this is the a good beginning of the narrative. Reform starts with honesty, and the various constructive positions are built from there.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

State of Exception

First, a little historical background. Recall the context of this passage from a July 4, 2004 Washington Post story:
An August 2002 memo, provoked by a CIA request for interrogation guidance, suggested that the president's commander-in-chief authorities meant that those acting at his direction would be immune from prosecution for torture. That memo drew on a January 2002 memo that suggested, over the opposition of the State Department's legal adviser, that the president could suspend the application of international protections for detainees.

Taken together, the memos presented a legal groundwork for aggressive questioning of foreign detainees.
"Aggressive questioning" is, of course, an understatement. See for a refresher on this issue of the August memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel which interprets the authority of the executive branch to include "extraordinary powers" to determine (without consultation with Congress) the nature of the treaties the U.S. has entered into and to read those treaties in such a light as to restrict only such "cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.” This leaves quite a bit of leeway, as we now know from the Red Cross reports of hiding prisoners and the Army investigation of Abu Ghraib.

Let me shift the discussion to Giorgio Agamben for a moment. Agamben has written extensively on the issue of biopolitics, i.e., the relation of biological life and political power. In Agamben's terms (drawn from his reading of Aristotle's De Anima), this is the distinction between the instinctual animal life of zoē and the politically engaged life of bios. Reading Aristotle against the grain, Agamben recognizes the dependence of bios on zoē not only as its logical precondition but as a necessary exclusion. Political life is constituted and sustained by its exclusion of animal life from the political domain. Agamben prefers the term "bare life" for this excluded originary ground of political power because it is through this word "bare" that he connects this political-ethical category to the ontological category of pure Being. The term for "pure" or "bare" in Greek is haplōs, which indicates the indeterminate and impenetrable nature of that which it describes. Thus, reason cannot think bare life or pure Being, yet the problem for the political animal is to isolate the bare life as much as the problem for the thinking animal is to isolate pure Being. In other words, just as metaphysics has its constitutive limit concept in this notion of pure Being, so politics does in bare life.

To understand what this "exclusion" of bare life consists in, it will be necessary to see the true character of political power: the power of life and death. Although Agamben does not refer to it, Bill Holm's The Music of Failure contains a passage which seems to capture two key points that Agamben is making. (I found this passage quoted in Jeffrey Stout's Democracy & Tradition, a book that I would also like to comment on in a later post.) Holm writes:
Sacredness is unveiled through your own experience, and lives in you to the degree that you accept that experience as your teacher, mother, state, church, even, or perhaps particularly, if it comes into conflict with the abstract received wisdom that power always tries to convince you to live by. One of power's unconscious functions is to rob you of your own experience by saying: we know better, whatever you may have seen or heard, whatever cockeyed story you come up with; we are principle, and if experience contradicts us, why then you must be guilty of something. Power--whether church, school, state, or family--usually does this at first in a charming way while feeding you chocolate cake, bread and wine, advanced degrees, tax shelters, grant programs, and a strong national defense. Only when contradicted does it show its true face, and try to kill you.
Agamben would agree with two points here. First, there is something sacred which conditions all instances of sovereign power, though he would likely be suspicious of any description of it as the revelation of experience. This condition is exemplified by homo sacer ("sacred man")--a term borrowed from Foucault which Agamben expands to denote any figure, i.e., any body, who has been abandoned before the law. (I will explain this below. For the moment, it is worth noting that Agamben's sense of sacrality is a juridical category more so than a religious one.) Second, the logic of sovereign power depends on the power to put its subjects to death.

To put this discussion in another light, Agamben argues that modern political theories have omitted this ground of all state power. While political theory often posits a contractual origin of state power, Agamben claims that all sovereignty originates from the "ban" or "abandonment," by which he means the isolation and exclusion of bare life. In other words, politics is always from its origin biopolitics. Where there were rights (natural, human, logical) at the foundation of political liberty, there is, in Agamben's scheme, the arbitrary decision of sovereign power. This is the logic of sovereignty; its true face arises from and within the "state of exception," the hallmark of which is the power over life and death.

In the Roman Empire, homo sacer lived in this state of exception because such a "sacred man" had been convicted and sentenced as a criminal of a peculiar sort--one who had been deemed worthy of death but could not be executed by the state or religiously sacrificed. The ban on execution or sacrifice coupled with his worthiness of death meant that he had been abandoned before the law (both human and divine). Like Cain, his status was indeterminate; anyone could kill him with impunity. There is a paradox here: homo sacer was abandoned by the law, but only within the context of the law. Without the law, there could be no such ban or abandonment. By the power of the law, he was reduced to bare life, and the truth of the state's sovereignty was revealed in its power over this life. Only through the power of the law can homo sacer live within the state of exception to the law.

Agamben connects this figure of Roman history to the inmates of the death camps in Nazi Germany. For Agamben, the camp represents a "new juridico-political paradigm in which the norm becomes indistinguishable from the exception" (Homo Sacer, p. 170), and, to make a long story short, this paradigm is operative as the foundation of Western politics no matter how attached we may be to a rights-based story of our political origins.

Thus, Agamben seems to offer quite a grand récit for Western political history (I have obviously left out the texture and depth of his thick narrative). It is not my intention to evaluate it here so much as to note its relevance in relation to the story with which we began. When Agamben argues that "an absolute indistinction of fact and law" is an essential feature of the camp nomos which governs us now, the "torture" memos of the White House counsel seem to bear this out. The president's extraordinary powers, we are told, permit this indistinction and even require it. We are living in the state of exception, and it is becoming normal.

At some point, I would like to say more about this and Agamben's suggestion that the Muselmann (i.e., the "walking dead" in the death camps) represents the ideal type of resistance in this situation. I disagree, but I do admit that some sort of protest that does not recapitulate the logic of sovereignty must be found. I am just not convinced that this "silent form of resistance" is the way to go. I plan to write on Stout's book before long, and this issue will no doubt make its way into that discussion.

Kerik Update

Josh Marshall has been keeping tabs on the Bernard Kerik story. As you will have heard by now, Kerik has withdrawn from the nomination process for Secretary of Homeland Security for reasons related to a nanny problem. Darn those illegal alien nannies who always insist on being paid tax-free. The "nanny" problem has plagued many a politician, e.g., Linda Chavez, Michael Huffington, and Zoe Baird. Of course, we are now hearing that Kerik's withdrawal may have further causes in the background.
But there may have been other issues at play. Kerik, who recently made millions in the private sector, once filed for personal bankruptcy as a New York cop. And just five years ago he was in financial trouble over a condominium he owned in New Jersey. More serious trouble than anyone realized: NEWSWEEK has discovered that a New Jersey judge in 1998 had issued an arrest warrant as part of a convoluted series of lawsuits relating to unpaid bills on his condo.
Furthermore, these legal and financial troubles may not be the whole of the backstory. As you may recall, there have been some questions as to Kerik's early and rather hasty departure from his mission in Iraq. From Mark Hosenball et al. of Newsweek, we hear the following tidbit:
After the invasion in the spring of 2003, Kerik was sent to Baghdad to organize the Iraqi police. But Kerik didn't seem to show much interest in Iraqis, said a senior U.S. official who worked with him. He appeared to enjoy going on night raids against "bad guys" with some South African mercenaries who were serving as bodyguards to U.S. officials. On his screen saver, Kerik had a photo of a big house he had just bought in New Jersey that he said was across the street from former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms's. Kerik told his colleagues he planned to be in Baghdad for three months while the house was undergoing renovations. "So," the official says he told Kerik, "you're here because you needed a place to go while they're doing renovations on your house." Kerik grinned and cocked a finger as if to say, "You got it."
As has been noted by Marshall and others, this whole episode bespeaks a prevailing tendency on the part of President Bush to latch onto an idea without the proper caution or background research, then dismiss all criticisms of the idea as so much nagging negativity, and eventually invoke some sort of "nanny" excuse to justify a change of course. Pretty soon, we will be hearing that President Bush had never really met Bernard Kerik, only saw him once or twice in a rope line. All of this is bad news for Rudy Giuliani who recommended Kerik.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Privatization Around the World

How well has privatization of retirement accounts worked in other countries where it has been tested? Kevin Drum has the answer (short answer: not well).
First there's Chile. They implemented privatization a couple of decades ago, and originally the World Bank was enthusiastic. Today, though...not so much. Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation summarizes:
* Investment accounts of retirees are much smaller than originally predicted — so low that 41 percent of those eligible to collect pensions continue to work.

* The World Bank found that half of the pension contributions of the average Chilean worker who retired in 2000 went to management fees. The brokerage firm CB Capitales...found that the average worker would have done better simply by placing their pension fund contributions in a passbook savings account.

* The transition costs of shifting to a privatized system in Chile averaged 6.1 percent of GDP in the 1980s, 4.8 percent in the 1990s, and are expected to average 4.3 percent from 1999 to 2037.
Bummer! Still, maybe that's just Chile. How about results from some nice, progressive, wealthy country instead? How about Sweden?

Sweden implemented a partial privatization back in 2001. Here's what the president of the Swedish Society of Actuaries reports:
General benefit levels have been significantly lowered, future benefits are impossible to forecast, and administrative costs have quadrupled — mostly because of the mutual fund part — to 2.0% of total benefits. (If real investment return is 3% per annum, the amount accumulated after 30 years of regular annual savings will be 22% lower if the cost factor is 2.0% instead of 0.5%.)

...Everyone in the new system is forced to speculate in mutual funds and results in the first years have been disastrous. From March 2000 until March 2003, the Swedish stock market declined by 68%. As of 31st January 2004, 84% of all accounts had lost money, despite the upturn in the market since March 2003.
So this is obviously the way to go, right?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Anthropophorous Machines

Cybernetics, according to Heidegger, initiates the “end of history” and the impossibility of fulfilling an historical destiny, leading to the collapse of the human being into animality such that the sustaining of biological life becomes the only remaining “political” task of the bygone polis. The “self-assertion” of cybernetic control over the animal by which animality is brought under the management of human mastery will vanishes into its opposite: the animalization of the human being. The "bare life" of animality has become the disinhibitor of human life and technology its medium, thereby captivating humanity. Though Agamben does not connect his discussion to cybernetics, it is clear that his description of "posthistorical man” corresponds to Heidegger’s treatment of “cybernetic metaphysics." The metaphysics of cybernetics means that “posthistorical man no longer preserves his own animality as undisclosable, but rather seeks to take it on and govern it by means of technology" (Agamben, The Open, p. 80). Metaphysics, for Agamben, employs the strategy of articulating the “meta that completes and preserves the overcoming of animal physis in the direction of human history” (The Open, p. 79), but this metaphysics appears to abandon history altogether and with it the possibility of freedom. For Heidegger, this form of metaphysics is the logical outcome that results from the Hegelian definition of the human being. For Hegel, the human being is not reducible to a biological basis, nor is this geistig being a permanent or given substance. As Agamben filters Hegel through Kojève, the human being in Hegel’s estimation is
a field of dialectical tensions always already cut by internal caesurae that every time separate—at least virtually—“anthropophorous” animality and the humanity which takes bodily form in it. Man exists historically only in this tension; he can be human only to the degree that he transcends and transforms the anthropophorous animal which supports him, and only because, through the action of negation, he is capable of mastering and, eventually, destroying his own animality (it is in this sense that Kojève can write that “man is a fatal disease of the animal”) (The Open, p. 12).
Whether or not this Kojevian reading of Hegel is accurate, it indicates something important about Heidegger’s understanding of the issue. For Heidegger, Hegel’s metaphysics is an extension of the Cartesian metaphysics of the “thinking thing” and is recapitulated in the metaphysics of the cybernetic age. The “field of dialectical tensions” that constitutes Geist divides itself into “anthropophorous” animality and the humanity which transcends it. This view, while close to Heidegger’s treatment of the negative distance required to overcome captivation, finally treats animality as an object of control and the “labor of the negative” as the technology of mastery. As such, the animality which “bears” the humanity of Geist is never “let be,” but instead becomes the captivating disinhibitor of a dehumanized being. In speaking to this problem, Agamben’s thesis in The Open takes the form of a Heideggerian question:
In our culture, man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and a soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element. We must learn instead to think of man as what results from the incongruity of these two elements, and investigate not the metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but rather the practical and political mystery of separation. What is man, if he is always the place—and, at the same time, the result—of ceaseless divisions and caesurae? (The Open, p. 16)
A further question might be, Does Heidegger manage to avoid investigating the “metaphysical mystery of conjunction” by defining animality in terms of privation? Or, Can an account of the complexity of emergence avoid this metaphysics?

War on Facts (Part CXXII)

As I have written before about the War on Facts, another of its aspects came to my attention today. As Juan Cole notes, Tom Lassiter's article in the Kansas City Star (click through for subscription) observes:
There is no comprehensive way to quantify how rebel activity has been affected nationwide by the Fallujah assault. American officials no longer make available to reporters a daily tally of the number of incidents reported around the country.
In others words, we have no way to judge the effectiveness of our military operations in Iraq because the American government no longer releases official totals of incidents around the country each day. Juan Cole responds,
Because we, the American public are simply not being told the truth by the Bush administration. This cover-up is absolutely outrageous. We, the American people, are paying for this war. We, the American people, are providing the troops for this war. We, the American people, are engaged in a national debate. We, the American people, will be going to the polls to vote for candidates who take a position on this war. We, the American people, deserve to have the full truth about how many attacks are launched by guerrillas every day in Iraq. We deserve to know how many Iraqis are being killed. We deserve to know what in hell is going on over there.
As Pontius Pilate asks, "What is truth?" This is the War on Facts.

Nukes in Space

As I noted here, the issue of intelligence reform has been hung up on one main issue: money. I am not only referring to the debate about budgetary authority for the Director of National Intelligence to oversee even the intelligence agencies of the Pentagon. That is important, but the comments of John Lehman on the News Hour indicate another source of pressure lurking behind all of the rhetoric about control over tactical intelligence for the safety of the troops etc. Lehman said:
You've got the hardware manufacturers that manufacture the satellites that lobby and have very strong interests to keep the gross imbalance between hardware and the human and the translators, area specialists...
Now we hear from the LA Times, as Kevin Drum notes, that there is a "mystery program" buried in this long and complex bill.
In an unusual rebuke, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that the spy project was "totally unjustified and very, very wasteful and dangerous to the national security." He called the program "stunningly expensive."
The rare criticisms of a highly secretive project in such a public forum intrigued outside intelligence experts, who said the program was almost certainly a spy satellite system, perhaps with technology to destroy potential attackers. They cited tantalizing hints in Rockefeller's remarks, such as the program's enormous expense and its alleged danger to national security.
Can any one say Star Wars, or is it a secret?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

UCC Ad Update

The Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches USA issued the following statement regarding the "controversial" television ad by the United Church of Christ:
The controversial issue here is not the content of the ad, but the arbitrary standards of the network gatekeepers. Church doors are open to all who would come; but broadcast channels are increasingly closed to all but the wealthy and well-connected.

It is important to note that the broadcast networks are not being asked to give free time to the United Church of Christ to express its message - the church is ready to pay dearly for that privilege, even though the networks do not pay for their highly profitable use of the broadcast spectrum.

The Federal Communications Commission, in giving free access to the public's airwaves to commercial corporations - with virtually no strings attached - has handed them powerful control over America's media "public square." The for-profit keepers of that square are all too willing to promulgate messages laced with sexual innuendo, greed, violence, and the politics of personal destruction, but a message of openness and welcome that merely says "church doors are open to all" is being silenced as too controversial!

Advocacy advertising abounds on TV: agribusinesses, drug manufacturers, gambling casinos, oil companies, even some government agencies regularly expose viewers to messages advocating their products and programs, in the interest of shaping public attitudes and building support for their points of view.

Are only the ideas and attitudes of faith groups now off limits? Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and freedom of speech, not to mention common fairness, beg for leadership by the FCC to assure that America's faith community has full and equal access to the nation's airwaves, to deliver positive messages that seek to build and enrich the quality of life.
As for things which "beg for leadership by the FCC," there are reasons to raise serious questions about its leadership these days. FCC chairman Michael Powell has become fond of quoting some very dubious statistics lately:
The number of indecency complaints had soared dramatically to more than 240,000 in the previous year, Powell said. The figure was up from roughly 14,000 in 2002, and from fewer than 350 in each of the two previous years. There was, Powell said, “a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes.”

What Powell did not reveal—apparently because he was unaware—was the source of the complaints. According to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints in 2003—99.8 percent—were filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group.
That means that the FCC received around 500 legitimate complaints aside from the mass spammings by the PTC, and Mr. Powell is nevertheless promoting the agenda of this organization as though it is a mandate of the 300 million citizens of the U.S. So I wouldn't hold my breath for the quality of leadership by the FCC that the National Council of Churches is looking for, but I doubt they are either.


Interesting proposal at Secede from the Union:
WHEREAS, the self-flagellating "liberal guilt" of Enlightened, educated, kind-hearted, large-minded, civilly secular, inclusive, self-interrogating non-Republicans serves only to support the Republican agenda; and
THEREFORE, I have decided to personally secede from the Union.

I am joined by several others in the formation of a literal State of Mind that is, and will always be, separate from the United States of America, a nation I have loved and whose freedoms I would defend with my life. In the U.S.A., my devotion has been rewarded with cruelty. In the new State I propose, devotion is citizenship. A generous conception of humanity is the only law.
This whereas clause makes a good point. In another post, she develops this argument by referring to this article in The Stranger, the relevant passage of which is the following:
To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: F--- off. Your issues are no longer our issues. We're going to battle our bleeding-heart instincts and ignore pangs of misplaced empathy. We will no longer concern ourselves with a health care crisis that disproportionately impacts rural areas. Instead we will work toward winning health care one blue state at a time.
Drawing on this reaction to the urban-rural divide that has developed as the decisive difference in the country and the way in which the divisiveness it engenders serves the Republican agenda, she writes:
They don't want our help or pity or the benefit of our urban knowledge or our graduate degrees, but they do want our money. They don't want our caring, our patriotism, our tolerance, our AIDS-awareness education, our environmental concerns, our acceptance of foreigners, disabled people, racial and ethnic minorites, poor people, or gay people, but they do want us to keep making television shows and movies about sex, urban life, greed, and war. I wonder if there is a way to say "f--- you" to rural America -- no, you can't have our money and we're not going to distribute entertainment to you anymore. You've made your nasty bloody bed; now lie in it.
Jim Holt's article in the NYTimes Magazine put this sentiment into a form that I think is useful: taking an issue that is traditionally Republican and putting it in service of Democratic principles and purposes. In this case, it is states' rights. This is essentially the thrust of the "secession" movement in concrete terms (though one may also secede to the State of Mind).

Shortly after the election, Juan Cole offered a gesture in this direction regarding gay marriage .
But if Democrats were sly, there is a way out. The Baptist southern presidential candidate should start a campaign to get the goddamn Federal and state governments out of the marriage business. It has to be framed that way. Marriage should be a faith-based institution and we should turn it over to the churches. If someone doesn't want to be married in a church, then the state government can offer them a legal civil contract (this is a better name for it than civil union). That's not a marriage and the candidate could solemnly observe that they are taking their salvation in their own hands if they go that route, but that is their business. But marriage is sacred and the churches should be in charge of it.

If you succeeded in getting the government out of the marriage business, then the whole issue would collapse on the Republicans. You appeal to populist sentiments against the Feds and to the long Baptist tradition of support for the US first amendment enshrining separation of religion and state.
Thus, this is using a states' rights argument to undermine the wedge issue upon which the Republicans depend.

All of this sounds like a plausible idea, but the recent debate regarding Peter Beinart's article in the The New Republic (see also Noam Scheiber's critique also in TNR) raises a different concern. As Scheiber summarizes the argument, Beinart
argues that Democrats lost the election because they failed to convince the country they had a compelling agenda for winning the war on terror, or that this agenda was their highest priority.
Peter [Beinart] further argues that there are structural forces within the party that prevent it, or its candidates, from fully embracing national security issues--namely, the party's reflexively dovish left-wing, best epitomized by Michael Moore and, which he dubs "softs." Peter writes, "Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel"--the meeting where anti-Communist liberals decided that the struggle against totalitarianism would be the central struggle of cold-war liberalism. He concludes that "the hour is getting late," by which I take him to mean that Democrats will not regain their political footing until they put the fight against Islamo-fascism at the center of their agenda.
This seems to be a concern that Democrats will have to deal with in the coming years. How can Democrats turn their traditional concerns into a credible strategy for dealing with the country's concern to fight Islamo-fascism? (As Kevin Drum is arguing, we would first have to hear a convincing argument as to why this should be our pressing concern, because it does not prima facie rise to the level of severity or urgency that the fascist and communist aggressions posed in the 1940s.) My point is that the talk of secession, while tempting and valid on the level of domestic policy, does not address what may be the fundamental shortcoming of the Democratic party: foreign policy.

Don't get me wrong. I recognize that the President is himself surprisingly weak on terrorism, as is apparent in the fact that the War on Terror has required no sacrifice from the American citizens and is actually compatible with unprecedented tax cuts during wartime. Furthermore, the Republican party has treated it so unseriously as to use it politically as yet another wedge issue like abortion and gay marriage, actively shunning any concern for bipartisan agreement or international alliances. According to Beinart, all of this could be the source of devastating critique if the Democrats could turn the tables and adopt a truly serious approach to Islamo-fascism. Whether that is true, I do not know, but it seems to be the concern Democrats will have to face before the next election cycle.

[By the way, Secede also has a nice post on modernity and fundamentalism here.]

Good question

Kevin Drum asks a good question for those who argue in favor of privatization of some portion of Social Security:
So here's the puzzler: for private accounts to be worthwhile, they need to have long-term annual returns of at least 5%, and 6-7% is the number most advocates use. But are there any plausible scenarios in which long-term real GDP growth is less than 2% but long-term real returns (capital gains plus dividends) on stock portfolios are well over 5%?
The proposed "fix" of privatization would only work under such rosy conditions in which a fix would be completely unnecessary.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Giving a Shout Out to My Bro

Welcome to all of you Grapefruit readers out there. You have the potential to increase the readership here by several hundred percent. For those who are not familiar with my brother's blog, check out the recommendation in his latest post: a photographic record of New York's architectural evolution and equilibrium.

The Will to Believe

There is more dismal news about the state of Iraq today, this time in the form of word from the CIA station chief in Baghdad.
A classified cable sent by the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Baghdad has warned that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and may not rebound any time soon, according to government officials.

The cable, sent late last month as the officer ended a yearlong tour, presented a bleak assessment on matters of politics, economics and security, the officials said. They said its basic conclusions had been echoed in briefings presented by a senior C.I.A. official who recently visited Iraq.
[T]he top American military commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., also reviewed the cable and initially offered no objections, the officials said.
Of course, General Casey "may have voiced objections in recent days." In other words, he has heard from those up the chain of command at the Pentagon what his "true" opinions are if he wants to keep his job.

The release of such CIA reports are treated as treason in the War on Facts.
In recent months, some Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, have accused the agency of seeking to undermine President Bush by disclosing intelligence reports whose conclusions contradict the administration or its policies.
We cannot have honest assessments of the facts on the ground being released to the public. Moreover, we cannot be tempted to believe them, and we must assert our will to believe the more optimistic version of events. In other words, we need Aquinas's fides qua creditur ("faith through which I believe") to complement the propaganda of the administration's fides quae creditur ("faith which I believe").

Unsustainable Looting

Today Josh Marshall comments on the recent Reuters report which reads:
The White House said on Monday it would borrow money to help pay for adding personal retirement accounts to Social Security, after ruling out tax increases to finance a transition experts say could cost $1 trillion to $2 trillion over 10 years.
Not that we did not already know that this would have to be the case without cutting benefits or raising taxes. Of course, both of those are going to result from this borrowing anyway. In any case, the urge to take action now stems from the claim that Social Security as it exists is "unsustainable." As we know, this is a dubious claim that exaggerates the shortfall that will occur between 2042 and 2052 and which could be remedied through some minor adjustments.

Marshall describes the point this way:
Just how much extra funds would be needed and whether those funds would come from borrowing or benefit cuts or new taxes is a matter of debate. But precisely those choices which make Social Security "unsustainable" in a few decades are the ones the White House is happy to make now in order to speed the process of phasing out the Social Security program.

Simply financing the 'transition costs' of phasing out Social Security will cost a good trillion or two dollars, maybe more -- by the White House's own informal estimates. And where on earth are we going to get that money? Borrow it, says the White House. Notta problem. In other words, we have to start phasing out Social Security now because if we don't we're going to face some big borrowing in a few decades. But we can avoid that horror of horrors by doing some big time borrowing now to finance abolishing Social Security we won't have to face that terrible fate a few decades from now.
More "stealth by default" in the offing. This time it is stealing from the American work force by intentionally defaulting on the loans to the Social Security trust fund.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has taken a break from his break to discuss this issue in today's NYTimes.

Stealth by Default

An article in The Economist describes the continuing fall of the dollar and its likely disturbing consequences.
THE dollar has been the leading international currency for as long as most people can remember. But its dominant role can no longer be taken for granted. If America keeps on spending and borrowing at its present pace, the dollar will eventually lose its mighty status in international finance. And that would hurt: the privilege of being able to print the world's reserve currency, a privilege which is now at risk, allows America to borrow cheaply, and thus to spend much more than it earns, on far better terms than are available to others. Imagine you could write cheques that were accepted as payment but never cashed. That is what it amounts to. If you had been granted that ability, you might take care to hang on to it. America is taking no such care, and may come to regret it.
The line that caught my eye especially was the following:
If the dollar falls by another 30%, as some predict, it would amount to the biggest default in history: not a conventional default on debt service, but default by stealth, wiping trillions off the value of foreigners' dollar assets.
Is this our strategy--"default by stealth"? In replacing John Snow, the administration will no doubt seek a cheerleader for tax reform, Social Security privatization, and now also the virtues of a weak dollar. As the article reports,
Many American policymakers talk as though it is better to rely entirely on a falling dollar to solve, somehow, all their problems. Conceivably, it could happen—but such a one-sided remedy would most likely be far more painful than they imagine. America's challenge is not just to reduce its current-account deficit to a level which foreigners are happy to finance by buying more dollar assets, but also to persuade existing foreign creditors to hang on to their vast stock of dollar assets, estimated at almost $11 trillion. A fall in the dollar sufficient to close the current-account deficit might destroy its safe-haven status. If the dollar falls by another 30%, as some predict, it would amount to the biggest default in history: not a conventional default on debt service, but default by stealth, wiping trillions off the value of foreigners' dollar assets.

The dollar's loss of reserve-currency status would lead America's creditors to start cashing those cheques—and what an awful lot of cheques there are to cash. As that process gathered pace, the dollar could tumble further and further. American bond yields (long-term interest rates) would soar, quite likely causing a deep recession. Americans who favour a weak dollar should be careful what they wish for. Cutting the budget deficit looks cheap at the price.
So Brad DeLong's trilemma remains: 1. raise taxes, 2. cut federal spending, or 3. face an Argentina-style meltdown. The Economist warns that the weak dollar is not the sole problem but certainly not the solution either: "a cheaper dollar and higher American saving are both needed if a crunch is to be avoided."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Antitheodicy of Protest

I can think of several types of theodicy, i.e., justifications of evil, but there is one that seems especially relevant to our time. In fact, it is not actually a theodicy but more of an antitheodicy insofar as it does not propose a justificatory rationale at all. It is the antitheodicy of protest.

Drawing on Peter Berger's work The Sacred Canopy, let me define the concept of a theodicy in nontheological terms. It is the exposition of a nomos to give structure and order to the anomic phenomena of human experience. A nomos provides a sense of meaning and purpose where life seems senseless and random. As such, it is more than a mechanistic explanation of some causal nexus; rather, it is an existential account of the relation of the event of anomie to the subject's lived experience of it. For example, such a nomos does more than the provide the scientific information necessary to grasp the growth of cancer cells in the human body, but instead offers a purposive account of why such a thing should be happening to me now. For the Azande tribes in north central Africa, a nomos provides more than a scientific account of the decomposition of the molecular structure of the wood granaries caused by termites; instead, the nomos of witchcraft explains why one of those granaries, which often provide shade on hot days, should have happened to collapse on an entire family at precisely the moment when they were sitting under it.

I can think of several types of theodicies which provide such an existential nomos: systems of karma, dualistic systems which posit superhuman forces of good and evil (e.g., Manichaeism), forms of participation in which one's suffering is relativized to a greater whole (as when self-sacrifice earns merit for one's ancestors or when the suffering of a soldier serves the greater good of the nation), and messianic systems in which some sort of redeemer figure provides a final judgment which balances the scales of justice in a final coup (whether in this world in the form of a revolutionary overturning of the social order, or in an afterlife).

In terms of the theological form of theodicy, the Augustinian recompense theodicy posits the justification of God's permission of evil as a punishment of sin. This goes for babies too, even those who suffer and die in a war zone. Augustine once said he saw one baby look with envy at another drinking its milk; if you take the mind of the baby and put it in the body of an adult, you'd have a monster full of greed, envy, and malice. But Augustine seems to get carried away with the notion of original sin. As a state or condition of human existence, I can accept it, but not as a deed which merits punishment. Besides, as the limerick goes,

The rain falls equally upon the just
and the unjust fella,
but mainly on the just because the unjust
stole the just's umbrella.

Who really believes that punishment is meted out fairly?

One can look at the problem of innocent suffering as in service of a greater good--either as a necessary condition for the possibility of free will, or as the source of moral development, e.g., John Hick's soul-making. There is also process theology's qualification of God's omnipotence. Without examining each of these, I think it is important not to make the mistake that Eliphaz, Zophar, et al. make when discussing Job's predicament. They all purport to have a quick answer by which to interpret his experience: it is because Job has sinned and is being punished; it is God's discipline of Job for which he should be grateful; it is Job's tongue which dares to question God that causes his pain; the moral law provides a calculus by which one can guarantee one's destiny because it is a contract to which God is ineluctably bound; etc. God, in the form of a whirlwind, indicates at the end that these friends (especially Elihu who presumed to speak for God) were wrong. All they have done is trivialize his pain and suffering. This is what should be avoided above all else. (Incidentally, Job's theodicy is also an antitheodicy. He despairs of ever gaining access to the wisdom with which he could interpret his experience, and he instead submits to the will of God and "repents in dust and ashes." Such a theodicy of submission is an antitheodicy.)

In our situation, we ought to follow Job's lead and refuse the pat explanations of evil which reduce the reality of innocent suffering to something less than the truly tragic experience that it is. In a sense, to offer a theodicy is to justify the presence of evil in the world as though it is acceptable, but there are elements of human experience which are simply unacceptable. Job's dialogue is also an theodicy of protest. Again, this is an antitheodicy insofar as it resists evil in spite of its inability to dispel the anomie with a nomos. This antitheodicy puts us in the position to protest the innocent suffering without minimizing it and without despairing of the energy to resist it. Job's friends offer no resistance to evil, only complacent acceptance. The prophetic tradition stemming from Amos calls on us to protest injustice, not to explain it away as an inevitability of free will. This protest does not offer a purpose for evil, but it gives us purpose in spite of purposelessness.

How did I get on this whole line of thought? In an era completely dominated by Republican ideologues, the theme of protest seems especially relevant.

And now for a little levity to round out an otherwise rather ponderous post. A short lesson in comparative religion (see here for a more complete lesson):

Taoism: Shit happens.
Confucianism: Confucius say, Shit happens.
Buddhism: If shit happens, it is not really shit.
Zen Buddhism: What is the sound of shit happening?
Islam: If shit happens, it is the will of Allah.
Hinduism: This shit has happened before.
Protestantism: Let shit happen to someone else.
Catholicism: If shit happens, you deserved it.
Judaism: Why does this shit always happen to us?
Jehovah's Witness: Let me in your house, and I'll explain why shit happens.
Agnosticism: What is this shit?
Atheism: I don't believe this shit.
Nihilism: No shit.
Antitheodicy of Protest: I can't take this shit.

Kerik's Change of Plans

Josh Marshall is on the trail of an interesting story. The President's choice as the new Director of Homeland Security, Bernard Kerik, was sent to Iraq by the President to lead the formation of the Iraqi police force. That was in mid May of 2003. At the time press reports, which included direct quotes from Kerik, indicated that this job would take at least six months and as long as a year and a half. After about three months in Iraq, the first major terrorist attacks began, including the bombing that killed the head of the UN mission, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. Shortly thereafter, Kerik returned to the US without any public explanation. Now the administration is claiming that his much shorter stint was the plan all along. What happened, and why did he leave before he was supposed to? Stay tuned to Josh Marshall, as he has a way of digging up the backstory on this sort of deal.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Standard Economics

Brad DeLong quotes with disgust this article in the Washington Post because the reporter (Jonathan Weisman) does not know the basic economics that he should in order to be reporting on tax reform. Instead, he simply parrots the talking points of the Republicans as they contemplate eliminating the tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance:
In a speech yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute, N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, spoke repeatedly of "standard economic theory," "textbook economic theory" and "scholarly literature in economics" to bolster his arguments.
If Mankiw purports to be grappling with "standard economic theory," DeLong asks why he does not address the following five standard principles of economic theory concerning tax deductions for employer-provided health insurance:
1. Cost shifting: coverage for those who don't have health insurance is ultimately paid for by those who do, causing all kinds of financing and incentive problems. Thus there is very good reason to subsidize coverage to try to minimize the number of uninsured.

I can never understand why this one does not get more attention. As the number of uninsured increase (at a rapid rate since President Bush has been in office, in fact), most of the reporting has been about the effects on those directly involved (which, admittedly, is brutal), but not on the aggregate effect on the system as a whole. Clearly, more insured people would care if they understood that this trend has real, quantifiable effects on them. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, indeed.
2. Adverse selection: markets in which one party knows much more about the value of the deal than the other are markets that work badly. Health insurance markets work much better when what is insured is a group with statistically-predictable risks than an individual with idiosyncratic risks difficult for the insurer to discover.

I know about this directly. My college insures its employees through a group plan which is hindered by the disproportionately aging population of the faculty and staff. We would be much better off if we were bargaining as a much larger group with greater dispersion, as has been discussed in joining with other colleges' plans in the area.
3. Moral hazard: when insurance companies rather than patients bear the marginal costs of treatments, there is an incentive to overtreat--except where treatment has public-health external benefits, and except where the insurer has written the contract to control utilization.

This is the only "standard economic principle" which might support the elimination of the tax deduction on employer-provided healthcare. We have also heard a lot about "frivolous lawsuits" in this regard. However, DeLong notes that this principle only works as a justification
to the extent that (a) large tax preferences were retained for employer-sponsored catastrophic coverage, (b) large tax preferences were retained for appropriate preventive and public health-related care, and (c) insurers were not able to appropriately manage care and utilization in the first place.

Parts (a) and (b) were John Kerry's ideas; they are not the Bush administration's. And part (c) is not necessarily the case.
4. Coase theorem: Whenever informed and knowledgeable parties have reached agreement on the terms of a contract (i.e., comprehensive health insurance), do not presume that the government is doing anybody any favors by reaching in and monkeying with the contract terms.

This seems like a good Republican principle. I have been on the lookout for similar kinds of issues--traditional Republican ideas forged during their years as outsiders in the Congress which can now be turned on them while they are in power. In general, any sort of argument tells the government to "get out of my business" is rhetorically effective in this regard.
5. Transaction costs: pointless churning of industry structure can be very expensive indeed.

If this could be quantified and verified with insurance accountants and actuaries, the specific costs that would inevitably be passed on to the consumers could then be calculated.

On the whole, then, there seem to be two lessons. Since ordinary newspaper reporters (even fairly smart ones) do not really know enough about economics (or nuclear weapons, or whatever), they should be wary of consuming the talking points of the party in power without checking with some independent economists in universities. By the way, when The Economist took a poll among economics professors, they found Mr. Bush's ideas to be regarded as significantly worse than John Kerry's. Here is their handy chart to compare the results of the survey for each candidate:


The second lesson is that the Bush administration is serious about making it more difficult for the average American to get and retain health insurance. Democrats need to frame their views in this light: we want to preserve and expand health care, not dismantle and destroy it. The same goes for Social Security.