Season of Political Irrelevance Update

Weigel has predicated a lot on the conditional statement: “If you look at it right, then you’ll see serious policy.” But we don’t have any evidence for the antecedent, that the public or the media *will* “look at it right.” More to the point, I don’t agree that the waivers or tax loopholes are among the most important problems facing this or the next president. Effective tax rates are much too low on the rich, but the best solution isn’t better income tax laws, it’s a progressive consumption tax, which is not on the table.

The policy issues under discussion are partly unsubstantive because they’re subject to deep red meat divisions. They won’t be resolved; they’re designed to be perpetual. The stuff I want to talk about is stuff that a whole host of people from both sides could agree on, if they were allowed to spend the election talking about it. Elections are about drawing distinctions and offering a choice, but they’re also about parsing the electorate into roughly equal demographic slices. Policy is about taking the broad overlapping consensus and the best evidence and acting on that.

Over the next two years, there will be very little movement on the things we argue about during this election season. During the same time span, there will be a great deal of movement on the things we ignore this election season. That suggests irrelevance.

The Season of Political Irrelevance

It is my considered opinion that the next three months will involve no serious deliberations regarding substantive public policy. Though readership and viewership for such matters will be at its highest, none of the things discussed will be discussed in a way that comports with public reason or with anything like the goal of exchanging reasons and evidence in the search for truth-tracking beliefs. Our best analysts, pundits, and public intellectuals will be busy with horse-race coverage and fact-checking the candidates’ claims. Worse, few of the matters discussed in highly rhetorical fashion, upon which our fellow citizens will be asked to make their determinations, will even be relevant to the public policy matters that ought to concern us most.

Here are the things I suspect we will discuss most:

  • Taxes
  • Jobs and the economy
  • The distribution of income and wealth
  • Globalization and outsourcing

Since none of these are under the control of the presidency, it’s absurd to stage the debates on these matters around the presidential election. And yet we will.

Since this is a highly cynical claim for a democratic political philosopher to make (well, not contentious among professionals) here are the things we ought to be talking about:

  • Climate change
  • Mass incarceration and its causes
  • Immigration
  • Regulatory agency capture by the financial sector
  • The proper size and role of the US military

Notice that all of these policies are administered by agencies under the President’s control. But perhaps even this is undemocratic. Accounts of politics that focus on leaders and the vertical measures of “greatness” are at odds with the pervasive sense of horizontality that ought to guide us in a democracy. Presidents are not the only political actors, nor even the most important: they perch atop the bureaucratic state barely able to steer it, using the reins merely to hold on to their office a bit longer.

Here’s Arendt in Reflections on Violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Still relevant, forty-three years later.

Exit, Voice, and Cheap Talk (Workplace Domination Part One)

Tyler Cowen returns to the issues of employer/employee domination today, but since I never blogged his first response, I want to start working through this debate from the beginning.

The Crooked Timber bloggers offered a lengthy list of workplace depredations, and then suggested that these depradations require government intervention in the form of workplace regulation. It’s a long and interesting post, and it takes a couple of stances that I strongly disagree with (against the Basic Income Guarantee, for one) but the attacks have mostly been focusing on the idea that worker mobility (quitting) is a better solution than workplace regulations that give workers recourse. This is generally described as the difference between “exit” and “voice.”

In his first response, which was off-the-cuff “due to travel commitments,” Cowen seemed to treat the issue as if all complaints about domination in the workplace could be treated in terms of worker’s “willingness to pay” for various protections, and that regulations might better be replaced with cash. This attempt to treat economic efficiency and liberty as interchangeable irritated many bloggers, who went on to call for the “Diaperization of the GMU Economics Department.”

Of course, this is silly, but worse, like most ad absurdum attempts at refutation, it’s non-responsive, as Matt Yglesias shows here.  If anyone actually thought that abusing faculty would increase revenue, they probably would do it, and academics with less bargaining power do experience some of the depredations that Henry Farrell jokingly described. I’ve personally had to work in open cubicles, under nosy supervisors, and with no air conditioning, and anyone who’s ever been to a faculty meeting or an APA keynote knows what it’s like to have workplace commitments require a strong bladder. (Maybe diapers aren’t such a bad idea… but no: never bite the bullet on an ad absurdum.)

We accept these dominations when they seem justified or when we don’t have a better recourse. The academic job market makes exit a very difficult proposition; mostly, we’re glad to be employed. The overall increase in administrators who find ways to tighten the screws on academic workers looks both bad and inefficient, but given that we’ve got one of the best jobs in the world, we often don’t complain very loudly.

What we need is a distinction between productivity-enhancing workplace rules and circumstances that merely enhance a manager’s ability to dominate his subordinates. In reality, many instances of manager-domination are actually productivity-reducing, and lots of businesses limp along at less-than-optimal productivity this way.

A firm that has *no* recourse mechanism will not realize that they are losing good employees to bad managers, but because recourse is sometimes expensive it may seem that firms are better off simply ignoring these problems. Yet I would argue that there are many pro-employee workplace innovations that reduce domination and increase productivity, yet are often not implemented. These are proverbial hundred-dollar bills on the ground, and the “pro-exit” stance taken by many of the Bleeding Heart libertarians and GMU economists looks, to me, like a simple mistake akin to the response “That $100 bill can’t be there; somebody would have picked it up!”

Cowen has already complained that this is merely a theoretical $100 bill, however, and that if I and the CT bloggers have real innovations of this sort in mind, we ought to either propose these innovations so that others may use them or keep them a secret and go start a business with them and make lots of money making the workplace more free. I intend to say more about specific proposals, but this post is already too long, so….

New Rules

I’m thinking of adding rules and a FAQ to my syllabi. Thoughts?
  1. Read More. Write More. Think More. Be More.
  2. Do the homework and come to class. [Woody Allen has said that “80 percent of success is showing up.” But be sure to show up for your homework, too; there will be approximately two hours of homework for every hour of class, i.e. five hours of homework a week. Plan for that.]
  3. Stay in contact. Visit Dr. Miller during his office hours. Use email and the phone number. [“If you come to my office hours, then I will help you.” “If you call me after nine pm, then I’ll be tired and irritable.”]
  4. Always Ask a Question. [Take responsibility for your education. “Fake it until you make it.” We’re not on television, and education is not a passive enterprise.]
  5. Try to Ask the Right Question. [Think: “Why? What’s the REASON?” “How do we know? What’s the PROCESS?” “Where do I fit in? What’s my ROLE?”]
  6. Think Schematically. [Clichés and snowclones: “X is the new black.” “I X, therefore I am.” “This is your brain on X.” “If X, then Y.”]
  7. Think Conditionally. [Hypothetical: “If pigs could fly, then the pigsty would need a roof.” “If I had a million dollars, then….”]
  8. Beware of Assumptions. [Know What You Know. Try to know what you Don’t Know. Worry about what you Don’t Know you Don’t Know.]
  9. Think about Alternatives. [Always look for alternative explanations and reasons.]
  10. Practice charitable interpretation. [Give yourself, your fellow students, and the texts we read the benefit of the doubt.]

Thank you for arguing!

Bullshit and Journalism

This weekend’s revelation that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple and Foxconn was partly fabricated has led some bloggers and journalists to return to the question of how we should interpret the relationship between something called “facts” and something Daisey is calling “higher truth.” This distinction seems spurious to me, though we often hear it described in reference to art and fiction.

I can certainly see how fiction helps to illuminate fact. At least when they are marked out as created-rather-than-discovered, works of fiction can create vivid and meaningful depictions of the world which would otherwise recede into the massiveness of numbers and complexity. As much as I love fiction, however, I’ve never been quite clear why this fictionalized vividness is preferable to the real experiences of real folks, which are also vivid (literally lived), concrete (literally occurrent), and meaningful (literally full of significance for those who underwent them).

At its best, the fictionalization of an event makes it more palatable by fitting it into a pre-arranged narrative structure: a science-fiction fan prefers the rhythms and conventions of a certain kind of story, so she might be better able to understand the horrors of colonialism through the lens of a film like Avatar than she could through an ethnographic account of the post-colonial misery of the Peyizan Yo of Haiti. The great white savior-gone-native in that film stands as an important fictionalized falsehood that must then be overcome, but we must start from somewhere and fiction is frequently an easier beginning.

But would anyone really want to say that the fiction is truer or preferable to the ethnography? I haven’t encountered that argument, at least, outside of hyperbolic Rortyanism. Instead, we occasionally get arguments like Martha Nussbaum’s “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination.” Because of her specific views on the role of the concrete and particular in informing and grounding our general ethical views, Nussbaum argues that:

“we will need to turn to texts no less elaborate, no less linguistically fine-tuned, concrete, and intensely focused, no less metaphorically resourceful, than this novel [Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.]”

But even for Nussbaum, who differs a bit from the dogmatic particularists like Jonathan Dancy, it is possible to “take fine-tuned perception to a dangerous rootless extreme” such that we “delight in the complexity of particulars for its own sake, without sufficiently feeling the pull of a moral obligation to any.” Such imagining “too freely strays, embroiders, embellishes.”

For Nussbaum, then, we turn to fictional texts as a pedagogical exercise to cultivate the kind of moral imagination that attends to and improvises with the concrete: “an ability to miss less, while being responsible to more.” But this pedagogical exercise actually constrains the fictional text:

“We must at the same time remember that artists, as James sees it, are not free simply to create anything they like.”

The fictional text must at least aspire to the complexity of the human phenomena it intends to map. Yet one thing that jumps out of Daisey’s show is how heavy-handed and simplistic it is:

“You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys.”

This is not the cultivation of a bewildering modern tragedy, where harsh working conditions and negligent dangers are the perhaps-too-high price developing countries pay for their development. It is bullshit, a technical term best analyzed by Harry Frankfurt:

 ‎”One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinateand knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”

Deliberate fabrication in order to tell a “better story” doesn’t ever really reveal a greater truth, because it undermines the truth-seeking sensibility. From the perspective of truth seeking, bullshitters who don’t care much about truth seem particularly pernicious: the cost of false vividness is the loss of the trust and credulity that make story-telling meaningful. Of course, some readers may not care much about the truth, either. From some other perspective than truth-seeking, like an aesthetic of care, bullshitting is not necessarily a big deal…. except: what happens when that unconcern with truth leads to a threat to the values of that particular perspective?

One group who care about the truth of these reports are the Chinese who read a report on the iEconomy by the New York Times that included many of the same allegations, better fact-checked than Daisey’s theater piece. Here’s some of what they had to say:

There are two stories about Apple: one is about its brilliant business performance, and the other is about the blood and sweat behind Apple miracles. I strongly recommend that all Apple fans read this. Corporations should bear social responsibilities, and customers should also understand and be responsible to the society. — 花甲小猪

Apple is definitely a vampire factory. But if you boycott Apple, what would those workers eat without demand (for Apple products)? By then they would even lose their job! And now the U.S. is planning to move a chunk of manufacturing back to its soil, as manufacturing costs in China are soaring. What would these surplus workers be facing? The profit margin for the entire Chinese manufacturing sector is thin, nobody enjoys high salary and good benefits; yet their work intensity is strong and working conditions are poor. This is common, not only for the manufacturers of Apple! Think first how to change the miserable status quo of a giant manufacturing country! —Quasi-Economist

There are many others, collected by the New York Times. Their responses were not all finely aware or richly responsible, and possibly some of them were working for China’s infamous “Fifty Cent Party,” (a state corps of internet propagandists) but certainly less was lost on them than seems to have been lost on us.

Finally, it seems worth noting that the facts, such as we have them, mostly come from Apple’s own Supplier Responsibility Reports. Watch that space. Daisey’s story and the resultant outrage may well have forced Apple to join the Fair Labor Association and reveal the identities of its suppliers.

Just because his story wasn’t true doesn’t mean it didn’t make a difference: this is largely the reason that police officers lie, right?