Advice and Consent

“To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate? I answer, that the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation. It would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity. In addition to this, it would be an efficacious source of stability in the administration.” -Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #76

There’s something a little bit weird about the role of the Senate’s oversight of Cabinet nominations. Say that a President X campaigns on policy Y, and she wins. Why should her nominee be rejected by the Senate for advocating policy Y? It’s a moment of legislative supremacy that requires additional explanation, and there’s little evidence that the Senate is more small-d democratic than the President, especially as originally envisaged. Some possibilities:

  1. The Constitution is wise, full stop. (Read no farther, heroic originalists!)
  2. Cabinet nominees may have policy agendas upon which the President didn’t campaign.
  3. As Hamilton says in the Federalist Papers, this can help uncover private corruption and conflicts of interest.
  4. This is an opportunity to tame the prince, and that’s always welcome in a system that overemphasizes the presidency.
  5. In order for the balance of powers to work to multiply rather than divide sovereign power, there has to be a lot of opportunities for confrontation and collaboration between the branches. The powers are best separated by repeatedly bringing the branches into contact.
  6. The Senate was supposed to be selected by State legislatures, so oversight of the Judiciary and the Cabinet is important for enforcing federalism and subsidiarity, which was a prerequisite for Union.
  7. The Cabinet has a dual role, working at the pleasure of the President but enforcing the laws enacted by the Legislature. So this is a moment where the Senate can force the Cabinet nominees to acknowledge that dual responsibility and protect against selective non-enforcement.
  8. Like many deliberative venues, nomination hearings require elaborate preparation. Merely educating himself for the Senators’ questions can better prepare a nominee for the policy challenges to come.
  9. It’s all a trick to give the Senate some share of the blame or praise for the Cabinet’s actions.
  10. It’s another stalling tactic in a Constitution that was designed to freeze government and enforce the principle that the government that governs best governs least.

What are some other possibilities?

  • Paul Gowder adds the remaining quote from Hamilton’s Federalist #76 (“He [the President] would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”) and comments: “essentially to prevent the president from appointing cads and bounders.”

Reasons for the Season


It was basically an argument between two points of view that mixed abstractions and interests (as always), but (also as always) with variations and fluctuations, mind-changes and occasional betrayals. To simplify somewhat, one side, those who later (in Hasmonean times, see below) became known as Saducees, were religious conservatives but pro-Hellenist cultural liberals; the proto-Pharisees were religious innovators but anti-Hellenist cultural conservatives. Before the events that Hanukah is all about happened, the tendency that later became identified as Pharisaic held the High Priesthood and the upper hand in the debate; but a revolt displaced them before they regained control. Amid that revolt, and largely because of it, Hanukah happened.

Why Christmas Matters:

While Jesus is growing inside Mary, she becomes suddenly inspired and belts out a remarkable song — a radical declaration of protest against the wealthy. She sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” and “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The Moral World of Dreidel:

You can, if you want, always push things to your advantage: Always contribute the smallest coins you can, always withdraw the biggest coins you can, insist on using what seems to be the “best” dreidel, always argue for rule-interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to only contribute little ones, etc. You could do all this without ever once breaking the rules, and you’d probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.

But here’s the brilliant part: The chocolate isn’t very good. […]

Dreidel is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and others, in a context where proper interpretation of the rules is unclear, and where there are norm violations that aren’t rule violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion — just like life itself, but with only mediocre chocolate at stake.

Fooey to the World: Festivus is Come:

Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings, totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors, slouched forth from this milieu. “In the background was Durkheim’s ‘Elementary Forms of Religious Life,’ ” Mr. O’Keefe recalled, “saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved community.”

The hygge conspiracy:

To Danes, nothing could be less political than hygge – since talking about controversial subjects is by definition not hygge – and yet it is clear that the concept lends itself to political use. Davidsen-Nielsen and Jensen told me that the prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was hyggelig – the kind of guy you could imagine having a beer with. “He’s folksy and informal. He’s one of the guys. And he gets away with murder – almost,” said Davidsen-Nielsen. “Hygge is a useful strategy for disguising power. Politically, you can cloak quite aggressive or radical acts with an impression of hygge. Hygge says, let’s forget about everything. Let’s block out the world and have some candy.”

2016 Best List

Let those with enough time to consume all the media in a field decide on the objective bests-of-2016. What follows is a completely subjective list of bests, idiosyncratically limited by what I’ve actually had time to watch, read, or listen to:

Best New Book in Philosophy:

We don’t think hard enough about the metaphysics that underwrites the social sciences. Epstein is more reductionist than he lets on, but this was the book that had me thinking hardest this year.

Runner-up: Nussbaum’s Anger and ForgivenessIt’s pretty great, but I think it loses steam in the speculative last section.

Best New Book in Political Science:

What if democratic theory is a bit too idealistic? The next issue of The Good Society will have a review by Celia Paris.

Runner-up: Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment.

Best Article:

The Unnecessariat,” by anonymous blogger More Crows Than Eagles helped me formulate some things I’ve been trying to say about superfluousness for a while. I think it was the first time a lot of urban liberals in my circles sat down to think hard about non-college-educated whites.

Runners-up: “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield” and “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.”

Best Post (here at

“Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation” hit the front page of the philosophy subreddit briefly, which was weird.

Ironically, large parts of that article are drawn from my dissertation, so I guess I do deserve this Ph.D.!

Runner-up: “Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness,” where I start to work out the Arendtian critique of finance capitalism.

Best television series:

Fully-realized far-future worlds, with fascinating characters and an interesting set of mysteries.

Runners-up include The Good Place, Luke Cageand The Magicians.

Best Movie:

I didn’t watch many movies, and I certainly didn’t watch many good movies. But this was the best movie I saw.

No Award Given:

I didn’t read a single science fiction novel written in 2016, but I’m going to crack open this list ASAP. 2016 was the year we realized how bad it was going to be to have lost Annalee Newitz at io9. The best novel I read this year was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.

So what did I miss?

“That man who has nothing to lose:” Black Americans and Superfluousness

Long before white Americans felt like their society had abandoned them, Black Americans knew the feeling. Just like whites do today, some Black Americans responded to earlier superfluousness by “clinging to guns and religion” to use Barack Obama’s famous analysis. (cf. Kinsley gaffe) Here’s James Baldwin, describing the Nation of Islam:

“I’ve come,” said Elijah, “to give you something which can never be taken away from you.” How solemn the table became then, and how great a light rose in the dark faces! This is the message that has spread through streets and tenements and prisons, through the narcotics wards, and past the filth and sadism of mental hospitals to a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially, their sense of their own worth. People cannot live without this sense; they will do anything whatever to regain it. This is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do. And Elijah, I should imagine, has had nothing to lose since the day he saw his father’s blood rush out—rush down, and splash, so the legend has it, down through the leaves of a tree, on him. But neither did the other men around the table have anything to lose. –James Baldwin, “Down At The CrossLetter from a Region in my Mind

Baldwin was no fan of Elijah Muhammed’s movement, but he tries to understand it and he seems to sympathize. And what he calls out in these lines is an overriding sense of loss–one that can justify any effort or sacrifice to overcome. That loss of worth, which Baldwin wants to depict as something much deeper than “self-esteem,” is tied not to airy questions of recognition but to material harms and embodied injuries: frisks and kicks by “legitimate” authority that go unanswered, murdered fathers that go unmourned by white society.

Baldwin even interprets the turn to Islam as a turn away from Christianity’s whiteness–from the forgiveness that it seems constantly to demand from white supremacy’s victims.

Today I know more Black Muslims than Arab ones, but mostly they’re imprisoned. And that, too, is a form of superfluousness: of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, 40% are Black, even though Blacks make up only 13% of the population.

PPI 2016 race

It’s hard not to see imprisonment of African-Americans as primarily a reaction to their enforced superfluousness. Labor market prejudices create a circumstance where unemployment rates for African-Americans are roughly double the rates for whites, at every education level. My students believe (and I agree) that the War on Drugs is largely a war on Black participation in the black labor market. (Recall the Ice Cream truck war of the summer which helps explain how police and the courts can make black markets less or more violent.) It’s an attempt to foreclose available forums for Black entrepreneurship. It’s notable that as marijuana legalization proceeds state-by-state it begins in white places, and the new profits and businesses are primarily white-owned.

To be rendered superfluous is a particularly odd phenomenon, and at least in the formulation I’ve lately been thinking about, it seems uniquely tied to relative deprivations of status and respect. I want to believe that respect and recognition matter less than life or health. We all have things we could lose, and honor is the least of these.

But that’s simply not how people act. Flourishing matters to most people more than survival, and flourishing requires a community of esteem. It requires reputation and character assessments, it requires that the agents of the state give you equal protection and don’t target you as a unique threat.

Some parts of Black America responded to superfluousness by clinging to god and guns, but for the most part African-Americans responded by becoming the center of cultural attention. There’s little argument that Black culture simply is American culture at this point, as almost all of our distinctively American institutions and cultural traditions are shot-through with Blackness even if it is unacknowledged. Baldwin charged that even myths of Black laziness or violence serve an important function in White America: they are our “fixed star” and moving out of their place of subordination would shake our “heaven and earth… to their foundations.”

Yet whites don’t seem to be willing to create their own economies of esteem in this way. Something–perhaps supremacy itself–has rendered them too lazy, too dependent on long-lost tradition and long-gone cultural victories. Consider Katherine Cramer’s formulation: rural Wisconsinites resent that the urban centers have deprived them of “power, money, and respect.” But they’re simply wrong: they’ve seen no real deprivations of power or money compared to Black Americans. It’s certainly true that they receive less respect than they used to get, less deference and less cultural attention. But this is a downfall from absolute supremacy and literal enslavement–enforced by rule of law. We have a long way to go before we aren’t still reaping what WEB Du Bois called “psychic wages” of white supremacy. (I prefer to call them psychic dividends, since it’s important that they are not a reward for work, but rather like a racial trust fund.)

How much should that matter? In my heart, I want to believe that people with a surplus of money, power, and respect should share. And I want to believe that it’s not a finite resource, that more souls can and will produce more of each if they’re not forced into superflousness. I think of Malcolm X, whose industriousness and self-invention could not be halted or stultified by racism or even Elijah Muhammed’s theocratic nonsense, only assassinated. But that’s where my analysis is probably wrong: when people have the money and power, they’re well-placed to demand the respect or punish its absence.

Any Cook Can Govern: Populism and Progressivism

I have lots of feels and lots of arguments about these two pieces by Peter Levine on an alt-left populism: pluralist populism and separating populism from anti-intellectualism.” (This post on identity politics is also relevant.)

Peter even goes so far as to call himself a populist, which is a surprising move to restore the term’s sense in a year when we’ve watched a wave of populist elections sweep through the industrialized world on the back of nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-elitism. Though the left frequently makes populist appeals as well–especially when we’re criticizing agency capture by industry or the undue influence of the very rich–it’s not always obvious to me that progressive political goals are compatible with populism’s mass movements and drive towards uniformity. Progressives tend to be pluralist and cosmopolitan in their egalitarianism.

Is Populism Inherently Nationalist?

In these pieces, Peter argues that populism can be pluralist and intellectual, and he uses great examples. (He gives the JCI Scholars Program a shout out, as well as our mutual friend Laura Grattan.) But many political theorists argue that populism is intrinsically nationalist and reactionary, usually anti-elitist and anti-immigrant, as well as racist and anti-Semitic. The counter-examples, like the late Nineteenth Century Populist Party run by farmers in the Midwest and South, seem never to actually achieve their goals or become all that… popular. 

For these critics, populist impulses tend towards the violent elimination of difference. Put another way, populist movements tend to become mass movements. Populists appeal to a mythical common good that renders class and geographical interests uniform, and usually identifies an evil or corrupting Other as the people’s enemy. For populism’s critics, the kind of anti-racist and grassroots intellectualism Peter has been describing is something else if it’s possible at all: class solidarity that re-organizes antagonisms without suppressing internal disagreements.

Is Populism Inherently Anti-Intellectual?

Famously, the Progressives of the early 20th Century were quite hostile to the Populists that had gone before. Populist hostility towards elites often swept up intellectuals as well, and the Populists–being farmers–had targeted urban dwellers, financiers, and Jews as their enemies. There is a tendency to lump the rich and the knowledgeable together, so efforts to raise the status of regular working people sometimes try to lower the status of scholars, teachers, and upper-middle class professionals. That’s a worrisome tendency.

But Peter quotes the JCI Scholars Program website, a group I helped found, on our motivations for working with traditionally excluded groups: we do 

as collaboration between teachers and students, and to make classes free-ranging discussions and workshops more than lectures.

But is that populist? Even at the JCI Scholars Program, we’re working with the talented tenth: at most 150 students, in a prison that has between 1400 and 1800 prisoners. The main question among prison educators is the extent to which we are engaged in a truly populist project, and the extent to which we are cultivating what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.”

My co-founder, Daniel Levine, likes to invoke CLR James’ Every Cook Can Govern on this question. Pulling from Greek sortition, James praised the capacity of ordinary folks to take up the tasks of governance. Of course, this required a much simpler state, and much shorter periods of governance before passing the responsibility on to another. But perhaps our state has become so complex precisely as a result of–and perhaps as justification for–elite domination.

The deeper problem is that sortition required institutional safeguards as well as agreement. And it’s probably relevant that it didn’t survive, suggesting it wasn’t sustainable. As I’ve written elsewhere, Greek sortition depended on a number of institutional factors to function:

The three norms of isonomy are mutually reinforcing: equal participation requires that the office-holder act with the understanding that she might be replaced by any other member of the community. She cannot abuse her office without being held to account at the end of her term. For the same reason she must regularly give reciprocally recognizable justifications for her actions, without which her decisions might be reversed by the next office-holder, or even punished when her office no longer protects her from prosecution. The ideal result of such a regime is a strong preference for deliberation, consensus, and mutual respect, alongside a cautious honesty and transparency with regard to potentially controversial decisions.

So is it really “every cook can govern” or is it “any cook can govern?” This isn’t quite an embrace of full analytic egalitarianism: everyone is not equally capable of governance. And I don’t mean by this to substitute mere equal opportunity rhetoric for substantic equality, as we see in the classical liberalism of Pixar’s Ratatouille:

What I mean is that lots of people have an odd mixture of impatience and arrogance that makes them convinced that they already possess the requisite knowledge. This is dangerous when it renders them–or us–unable to change our views in light of new information, or incurious at the promise of new evidence.

Consider the man who claimed he could figure out the gist of important matters without doing much reading, that he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time,” and “[doesn’t] have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day….” We often think of analytic egalitarianism as more epistemically humble, because it requires humility among those to whom we currently defer, the experts. But there’s plenty of arrogance among non-elite groups as well. It strikes me that many people find the combination of arrogance and anti-intellectualism appealing, and that this is the thing to fear in populism.

Populism cannot fall into demagoguery. If facts are relevant to a decision, they must be given proper weight, even if facts cannot be a substitute for values. But though I doubt that populism is inherently anti-intellectual, the problem is that too often our society mistakes credentials for knowledge, which means that anti-elitism requires the motivation of a certain kind of anti-intellectualism.

Probably the best assumption to start with is the universal claim that all humans are epistemically capable. This what we call a “defeasible” claim, to be held until proven otherwise, as we do with juries. But we do exclude people from juries, and we don’t entrust juries to carry out their own investigations any longer. A provision of analytic egalitarianism is that a corrupted society will corrupt its citizens’ epistemic capacities. To paraphrase Rousseau: we’re born [epistemically] free, sure: but everywhere in [epistemic] chains, as well.

With the right support from experts, probably anyone can govern, where governing” means selecting from a menu of options supplied by those experts—it’s just that the experts who control the framing and flow of information have many opportunities to manipulate those who depend on them (or think themselves superior to them without actually doing the work) that can only be overcome by becoming an expert oneself. My own view is that many more people are capable of that expertise than our society will currently admit.

That because we attach governance responsibility to meritocratic credentialism. But it’s not always clear that we’re valuing knowledge over ignorance, rather than valuing exclusion itself. The nature of the competitive managerial class is that it sets up zero-sum competitions so that winners can capture the lion’s share of the benefits from their education and knowledge. Just because it’s unlikely that every cook can govern equally well doesn’t mean that we must restrict governance to the winner of the most Spelling Bees.

A lot of citizens can govern, and it’s a waste of those talents to relegate those capable of informed participation from doing so: we’d be better off if many more of us were able to take on those responsibilities. There ought to be many more opportunities to exercise one’s civic capacities, rather than such a limited number that our capacities atrophy from disuse. And meritocracy doesn’t just award these opportunities to knowledge-elites, it also tends to reduce their number. It creates both privileges and ignorance.

So that’s the version of populism I can support: one that celebrates the even distribution of insight and institutionalizes a fear of the even distribution of ignorance and arrogance.  A populism that is pluralist and cosmopolitan. But I have to admit that this doesn’t really sound much like populism; I usually call it “democracy.”