Stories of Decline, Stasis, and Progress

Peter Levine asks, “Why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” in areas where objective measures suggest progress or growth:

You can care deeply about public education, civic education, teenagers’ behavior, or–if you must–gun rights, but there is no basis for arguing that these things are worse than they used to be. I am pretty sure that the argument from decline (argumentum ad declivem?) is a harmful fallacy … although I am not saying that it has become more common of late.

I think this is related to general problems with narratives and persuasion, but at the same time there’s something uniquely self-contradictory about decline arguments. In general, decline stories appear to act like narrative “stubs” or snowclones that short-circuit critical appraisal: the story helps us suspend our disbelief, priming us to expect a certain kind of Protestant framework where renewed effort can restore the lost Golden Age.

Perhaps, too, such narratives help to combat complacency. For instance, runners are taught to push hardest as the finish approaches, and we might look at various kinds of homeostatic cognitive phenomena like risk compensation (the Peltzmann effect) or hedonic adaptation. “We are winning: redouble your efforts!” isn’t quite so motivational as the cornered rats’ refrain: “We fight or we die!”

Levine resolutely refuses to conclude that this is a recent phenomenon (and it’s clearly not.) But if it were, then we might look for historical events that make such narratives particularly resonant. Might not fears of the loss of American empire, in the midst of economic turmoil, produce a general malaise that spills over into areas that are not similarly turbulent? Similarly, these stories might simply be particularly popular as the Baby Boomers reach retirement, since their economic and political ascendancy pressures our entire culture to dream nostalgically of their youth. Certainly I don’t hear many decline fables from the Millennial generation… yet.

Then, too, progress may appear as changes from the status quo that we cannot recognize as progress: civic knowledge skills are flat, but convention indicators of civic engagement and communal trust are down. This may be due to new forms of participation and new solidarities supplanting the older forms, which disrupts our indexes and measurements. Yet online social networks produce different ties than neighborhood associations. So is this progress, stasis, or decline?

Different metrics tell different stories. While Levine is obviously right that per-pupil spending in public education is much higher, outcomes are stagnating. We’re spending much more per student but those students are performing at almost the same level they did when spending was six times lower. At the same time, we educate a much larger group of immigrants and deal with many kinds of developmental disabilities that we once ignored or institutionalized. Is this progress, stasis, or decline?

The NRA’s complaint that gun ownership rights are eroding is the most absurd of these: a transparent effort to preserve motivation in the wake of a string of victories. But are they wrong to notice that the majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws and worry what that bodes for the future of their signature issue? I worry that a similar majority of Americans prefer to let religious employers opt-out of the insuring birth control, even though as a whole the Affordable Care Act is a major victory for women’s rights.

So is that progress, stasis, or decline? I recently learned that Mao didn’t think it was too early to judge the French Revolution: that was a different Chinese premier, speaking of the student movements in Paris in 1968 only three years earlier. Yet some stories are too good to give up on the basis of mere facts, so I echo Mao when I say: it’s too soon to tell.

Greece and the European Union

This Newsnight piece paints a picture of the widespread breakdown of the Greek social compact:

What was no joke were the clashes between police and the hardline protesters.[…] Time and again, on the grounds of confronting the rioters, police made incursions into large masses of peaceful protesters. […]I can tell you from repeated experience, it feels like a process of collective punishment of a peaceful majority.

I think this week caught Greece on the proverbial brink of something. The anger could easily solidify into anti-German sentiment, but with the conservatives and Orthodox right implicated in the first bailout, anger can more easily flow to the left.

[…]in the three hours I spent at or close to the front of the rioting on Sunday night, I did not see a single other television crew. Ours was repeatedly harassed, verbally and physically, most harshly by a small group of right wingers who accused us of being German.

The article details the effects of austerity on public services combined with widespread tax and fee defiance. Higher taxes and fewer public goods will create a spiraling legitimacy crisis, all while European leaders demand that Greece postpone elections. That means less democracy and accountability to the Greek people when they need it most. It seems untenable, and indeed even Jürgen Habermas has tempered his Euro-optimism with this:

“Sometime after 2008, I understood that the process of expansion, integration and democratization doesn’t automatically move forward of its own accord, that it’s reversible, that for the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn’t think this was possible. We’ve reached a crossroads.”

The right answer seems obvious: default on the loans. Even the Financial Times proclaims it: “Greece must default if it wants democracy.” But there are problems. For one thing, Greece isn’t just in debt from past expenditures: it’s currently spending more than it takes in taxes. So a default isn’t the end of its troubles: it’ll still have to make costly cuts and increase taxation. Debt forgiveness won’t be enough: the Greeks would immediately need to go back to borrowing, only now the rates would be even higher since they will have signaled that loans should be treated more like gifts.

That means that the Greek government will not be able to avoid austerity through default and inflation. So what’s left?

  • Institute technocratic rule and massive austerity enforced by the IMF and the Eurozone
This seems to be the plan dreamed up by Greece’s creditors. Send in the efficiency experts, raise taxes and improve tax collection while cutting the public sector. Given the unrest and the lack of hope, this is absurdly unsustainable. A corrupt public sector and uncontrolled (and largely untaxed) private sector don’t become more legitimate when they’re all managed by foreign eggheads. “Do the Greeks even have a word for democracy in their language?”
  • Leave the Eurozone and allow the new drachma to inflate faster than the European Central Bank is doing

This is the Communist Party’s answer. But it faces many of the same problems of a simple default, only now exacerbated by capital flight. Leaving the Eurozone will dissipate the wealth that Greece must tax: the wealthy have been waging a quiet run on Greek banks and the behavior has spread to the working-class. They’ll likely disseminate the cash to non-Greek banks in the form of Euros, to avoid the devaluation of a new drachma. This may well be their best hope, and if Greeks vote for it, we should support their efforts to go it alone. But I don’t think they’ll enjoy the same post-default bump that Argentina got, and this actually seems like the course of action with the greatest number of possible unintended consequences. The Communists could easily end up destroying the Greek public sector in order to save it.

  • Institute a military junta in Greece

This is obviously the scariest prospect: I include it only to make the others seem more palatable than they’d otherwise be. But there was a coup d’etat in 1967, and the Junta ruled until 1974, and that’s recent enough that such a solution is still imaginable. Right now, the far left in Greece holds more appeal than the far right, but that need not last. What will the Communists do after their plan to leave the Eurozone and default on the debt fails to end the spiral of service-cuts, tax rises, and the resulting illegitimacy? Historically, austerity and low growth seem to lead people to value the fantasies of security and strong leadership that characterize military rule.

  • Institute a federal fiscal union with regular interstate tax/spending transfers

Right now, there’s little financial incentive for Germany and France to continue to subsidize Greek debt, and there’s little financial incentive for Greece to remain in the Eurozone. True, German and French banks are massively exposed to the possibilities of default, and this may well preserve the union for a while; but more than a financial bailout or an economic stimulus to jumpstart their economies, I believe the whole EU needs the political stimulus that only closer federation can supply.

Where the financial incentives fail, Habermas and other Euro-optimists have always suggested that cultural commitment to the ideal of European Unity would have to suffice. The way to cement this is to create meaningful democracy at the EU level, along with the mechanisms for regular taxation and spending decisions to be made throughout the entire Union.

Currency union without political unification has always been dangerous, yet it’s common to resist a political union because sharing governance gives people outside of our communities a legal claim on our resources and rights. Still, there’s plenty of evidence that this interstate transfer is what makes the United States function. Much as we in the US hate Congress, especially the way that politicians representing values we don’t share can still govern us… we can’t be federalists without them. And as a bonus, the perpetual transfers lead to better infrastructure investments in currently low-productivity states that allow those states to remain productive rather than suffering from adverse selection.

“More Democracy!” Yes, that’s my final answer.

Direct Action

Martin Luther King, Jr. on direct action:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

King’s recipe for direct action is a kind of gold standard. Still, it may have its weaknesses: there is no definition of “justice” in place, nor standards of appropriate patience with negotiation, or justification for the strict pacificism. Whenever I teach the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I remind my students of Condoleezza Rice’s father:

“My father was very clear about why he wouldn’t [march],” Rice says. “My dad was not someone who you would strike with a billy club and he wouldn’t strike back. It just wasn’t in him.”

In what sense is this sense of self-respect a failure of “self-purification”? Too often references to King and Gandhi are used as a cudgel against activists. Even King himself!

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

Questions for Martin Luther King, Jr Day: When is non-violent direct action justified? Is violent direct action ever justified? If so, when? Should activists always restrict themselves to the actions that would be acceptable if used by their political opponents? Should pro-life activists Occupy Abortion?

The Virtues of Conservatism

(Caveat Lector: I am not a conservative. However, recent reflections on institutional experimentation have reminded me of some of the virtues of the philosophical movement that goes under that name.)

With the publication of The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin has taken up Phil Agre’s old point that conservatism is the defense of aristocracy and privilege. As he puts it in an interview with Daniel Larison:

Conservatism is an inherently counterrevolutionary philosophy and politics, born in reaction and backlash. […] What form will the reaction against these revolutions take? Here is where it gets really interesting, for as I argue in the book, conservatives and counterrevolutionaries often take their cues from the very revolutions they oppose. They mimic the tactics of the revolution, they ape the rhetoric, and most interesting of all, they often incorporate the very categories and idioms of the revolution, often in ways that they themselves are only dimly aware of. Conservatives can often sound like the most rabid revolutionary because, as they come to realize, you have to fight fire with fire.

This seems to me to be completely wrong. Too often, the sniping among elite representatives of liberalism and conservatism allows partisans to take pleasure in turning factual disputes into principled differences. Even Brian Leiter, who I generally agree with on these matters, criticized the conservative intellectual tradition recently, claiming that most are “are intellectual lightweights and dilettantes” and that only Burke and Hayek are worth reading. Worse:

“I strongly suspect that if he weren’t the canonical opponent of the French Revolution, even Burke would not be much read anymore (in a century that included David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith, why would anyone even notice Burke except for his conservatism?).”

Are we back to claiming that Hume was a closet Whig? Fine. But surely Burke’s conservatism is valuable, too. Here is a list of conservative insights I put together for my students when teaching the Burke/Paine debate last semester:

  1. Society is irreducibly complex and cannot be redesigned from an armchair: for every well-meaning policy, there will be unintended consequences. (If you don’t understand the initial reasons for a policy, don’t eliminate it!)
  2. Populists often deceive the least advantaged with empty promises in order to win political power. (Beware of egalitarians driving fancy cars!)
  3. Most rich people didn’t work hard, but that doesn’t mean we should disparage hard work. (We should disparage unearned wealth and the exploitation that created it!)
  4. Inequality is bad, but it may be unavoidable: symbolic praise for ordinary Americans won’t fix material inequalities, but it is not empty, either. Rich people shouldn’t get uppity; they got lucky and they should recommit themselves to social equality.
  5. Family matters, communities serve an important purpose in our lives, and faith in God is probably here to stay. (Even if it is probably bunk!)
  6. Faith in experts is a lot more like faith in God than experts would have you believe. (Just like faith in Jesus Christ is a lot more like faith in Allah than priests would have you believe.)
  7. Liberals have silly biases, too.

In truth, I think few contemporary Republicans are actually conservatives in this sense. There’s a great deal of tension between different kinds of conservatives, and there’s little indication that the Burkean conservatism I am channeling here is particularly compatible with the kind of commitment to business and free-markets that also goes under the name conservative. There’s a reason “fusionism” is such a difficult circle to square. But Burkean conservatism is alive and well in the environmental movement, with skepticism about our capacity to tinker without a holistic understanding of “ecological functions” replacing Burke’s similar skepticism about tinkering in “social policy.”

If the underlying interest in conservatism is to preserve privilege and ideologize free markets, they have an odd way of going about it. Conservatives have long held the market at arms-length precisely because it is so disruptive and produces creative destruction in excess of what a society can handle. There’s plenty of market regulation coming out of conservative philosophical circles. They’ve regulated prostitution, drugs, immigration, and even speech, when it’s speech in the form of pornography, blasphemy, or religious radicalism. It’s conservatives that have tried to ban short-selling and leveraged speculation. Conservative banned interest on debt!

Here’s Michael Oakshott:

“relationships… lack something appropriate to them when they are confined to a nexus of supply and demand and allow no room for the intrusion of the loyalties and attachments which spring from familiarity.”

In contrast, liberals tend to be capitalist by default. It takes a lot of work to persuade the average liberal that some voluntary market activity is actually oppressive or coercive and needs to be regulated or banned. All most liberals take away from Marx and Engels is a call for safety regulations and a minimum wage.

Reification and totemization of small differences obscures the vast agreements among partisan ideologues, but among philosophers it is unforgiveable: discounting the conservative intellectual tradition just feeds conservative anti-intellectualism. Both parties have their favored subalterns, and representatives of both parties are willing to use populist language to justify their privileges. I find it especially disturbing when smart well-meaning conservatives are caricatured as elitist, or somehow in the pocket of privilege in a way distinct from liberals, while liberals enjoy most of the wage and status benefits of education, the cultural capital of cities, and intellectual capital of technological savvy.

Speaking only from my own experience: there are far too many BMWs in faculty parking lots.

This is What Epistocracy Looks Like

Most academics know some version of the critique of elite rule, administrative power, and centralized regulation by experts. Hannah Arendt called bureaucracy the “rule of No Man;” Michel Foucault described the overlap of legislative power, knowledge-production, and the apparatus of discipline and control; Iris Marion Young defended simple street activism against the demand that political participation meet elaborate standards of reasonableness in the name of pluralism and in so doing laid the groundwork for current theories of agonistic democracy like Chantal Mouffe; Roberto Unger suggested that we ought to embrace democratic destabilization, experimentalism, and a radical institutional creativity belied by the supposed necessity of expert judgments; Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck have diagnosed the relationship between risk-aversion and governmental responsibility for emergency management as a modern form of legitimacy that both generates hazards and takes responsibility for managing them. Other criticisms came from conservative circles: Friedrich Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and even Antonin Scalia.

Phillip Tetlock’s work on expertise is very illuminating here: in some fields, the avowed experts’ predictions actually are no better (and sometimes worse!) than a coin flip. That’s why David Estlund criticized the epistocratic tendency to ignore the systematic biases that underwrite invidious comparisons between evaluations of competence and incompetence in his book Democratic Authority.

And yet, some matters of expertise are unavoidable. David Estlund called these “primary bads”: war, famine, economic collapse, political collapse, epidemic, and genocide. In some cases, increased participation decreases the risk of such catastrophes: literacy and universal suffrage decrease the risk of famine, for instance. ”No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Amartya Sen wrote in Development as Freedom, because democratic governments ”have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.” Yet democracies still go to war and face economic crises (if not yet collapse) and the temptation is always there to imagine a system that will decrease the likelhood of such events.

The standard line is that democracies must keep experts “on tap, but not on top.” But consider a common example that Steven Maloney and I articulated in our paper “Foresight, Epistemic Reliability and the Systematic Underestimation of Risk:”

all citizens are affected by the Federal Reserve funds target rate (the rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans to cover capital reserve requirements) as it ultimately determines the availability of credit and thus the balance between economic growth, inflation, and unemployment. Most experts agree that the range of viable options for this rate is limited. Further, they agree that direct or representative democratic control of the rate would encourage non-optimal outcomes, including price bubbles that could lead to economic collapse. As a result, decisions on the target rate, which affect every citizen, are nonetheless denied to the public. Some citizens thus argue that the Federal Reserve ought then to be abolished as illegitimate. [These] citizens charge that members of the Federal Reserve Board, who are drawn from the management of a few investment banks, allow systematic biases for their home institutions to color their decisions… [I]t makes (1) findings of fact (2) in an exclusive and closed manner that (3) have coercive effects on citizens because (4) democratic decision-making would lead to cataclysmic primary bads….

Now, it is amusing to point to the financial crisis of 2008 and argue that the Federal Reserve failed to prevent economic collapse. But though the crisis was and remains severe, the Federal Reserve actually played a major and undemocratic role in preventing a true collapse. David Runciman’s recent piece in the London Review of Books makes a similar point:

When democracies are in serious trouble, elections always come at the wrong time. Maynard Keynes, the posthumous guru of the current crisis, made this point in the aftermath of the First World War, and again in the early 1930s. When something really momentous is at stake, the last thing you need is democratic politicians trawling for votes. Keynes readily accepted that democracies were far better at renewing themselves than the supposedly more efficient dictatorships. He just wished they wouldn’t try to do it when they were struggling to stop the world descending into chaos.

Matthew Yglesias discussed the implications of the Federal Reserve for Progressives early last year:

No public institution can or should be truly independent of the political process. The Supreme Court is an independent branch of government, and rightly so. But its decisions are subject to hot political debate, and the nomination of judges to sit on the high court is considered an important presidential power. This, too, is as it should be. The assumption that monetary policy is too important to hold central bankers accountable through the political process should have come to an end along with the illusory great moderation.

Perhaps he is right; but perhaps politicizing the Fed will have the same de-legitimizing impact that politicizing the Court has had, which could be dangerous for an institution whose only power is its capacity to make credible counter-cyclical commitments.

Too often, we have the tendency to reduce these questions into a battle between “democrats” and “elitists.” But there are few serious radical democrats who advocate the dissolution of the administrative state, let alone the liberal rights that restrict majoritarian rule.

Objections to elite status and epistemic privilege more often reflect a kind of partianship about which experts to respect, as a proxy for in-group solidarity. It is difficult not to reduce matters of scientific expertise and superstition to in-group/out-group tribalism: after all, as much as I respect the opposition to intelligent design in public schooling, there is little reason to believe it has important implications for biology curricula, and it also has massive public support in many school districts. A pure democracy would allow the people to set their own standards.

We all fear some out-group, whether it be the white supremacists’ fear of non-white incursions, or the secularists’ fear of theological domination. Many people without a college degree resent the wage premium and social status associated with it; many people with a college degree resent the democratic power of the uneducated and the pandering they receive by politicians and media. Regardless of education, there is the sense of irreconcilable differences. Many people believe that we do not inhabit the same world, even as our disputes over how to constitute our shared world erupt over a very narrow band of possible policies.

Who among us is not an elitist or a vanguardist in some sense? We all think we’re right and that we could run things better than the status quo. Even my fellow fallibilists think we’ve got a recipe for institutional humility that would enhance outcomes!