Links, Aggregated

  1. Happiness studies say parenthood is bad for youProbably this tells us more about happiness studies than happiness.
  2. Lisa Feldman Barrett: What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)
  3. Five Philosophy Books for Children
  4. Emily Oster: Everybody Calm Down about Breastfeeding (But see also)
  5. Knowing whom to ask and also how to ask is also often more valuable than a detailed knowledge of a cuisine per se.”
  6. Peter Levine stands with Ukraine: “The reason that liberals are influential in Ukraine and vanishingly marginal in Russia is not that Ukrainians are superior to Russians. No people is superior, and in any case, the differences in their current situations can probably be traced to local and recent contingencies, such as the greater efficiency of the Russian security and media agencies and the flood of petrodollars that fund them. But the fact remains that Ukrainians who are cosmopolitan, liberal, and republican hold considerable power in their country, and there is nothing similar right now in Russia.”

The Progressive Paradox

Bob LaFolletteAt the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a broad consensus among reformers in the United States regarding the perniciousness of economic monopolies and winner-take-all politics. After that period of rampant growth and cronyism known as the Gilded Age, groups who had been disproportionately disadvantaged by political patronage and voter fraud began to organize their activities around the need for policies maximizing the inclusiveness and fairness of democratic procedures. This movement had a name: Progressivism. The goal was to improve the outcomes of democratic elections by creating mechanisms that would effectively hold representatives accountable to the informed interests and preferences of the electorate. This required both an alteration in the parties that supplied the representatives and the people who voted for them. The state-level changes included transparency requirements and anti-corruption oversights for elected representatives, suffrage and poll access reforms, while the political parties became quasi-state entities forced to submit their expenditures to public accountability, in exchange for which they received public funding. The electorate began to create spaces, both publically and privately funded, aimed at fostering broad deliberation prior to elections: Chautauquas, discussion clubs, and settlement houses like Chicago’s Hull House formed for the purposes of adult and immigrant education, issue identification, neighborhood organizing, and debate.

Peter Levine has argued that the accomplishments and pitfalls of the pre-Depression Progressive movement are best epitomized by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign as the Progressive Party nominee. As governor and then Senator for Wisconsin, La Follette achieved singular victories in transparency, honesty, and accountability. “Until the last phase of his career, he spoke about little except political reform and generic rights for all consumers and taxpayers.” (Levine 2000, 22) Yet when the procedural reforms were enacted, they naturally created a situation which his successors used to enact substantive policies with regard to the regulation of industry (especially the railroads), funding (a ‘progressive’ state income tax), and to form environmental conservation agencies, complicated schemes for state life insurance, and agricultural subsidies. On the one hand, La Follette’s “political reform produced stronger, more efficient, and more representative government,” on the other hand, the electorate used  their increased involvement and accountability to demand “a massive increase in the powers of government, which (in turn) necessitated the use of expert administrators.” (Levine 2000, 25-6) In short order, the democratic gains were lost to a set of institutions who were no more accessible procedurally than their corrupt and exclusive predecessors, even as they were oriented, at least at first, towards the objectives of justice and the public interest arrived upon democratically.

The greatest irony of the American Progressive era is that the supremely democratic efforts of labor groups, community activists, and the deliberative elements of the public sphere accomplished unprecedented victories, but that these victories led to policy decisions that undermined the very democratic activities that made them possible. The potential for further ‘progress’ was dissipated as state-centric solutions to economic and social problems led to an increasing reliance on the institutions that make up what we now call the ‘administrative state.’ However, this is not simply a matter of kicking aside the ladder once we have ascended. The condition of possibility for future endeavors cannot be sustained without maintenance: public policies must appear, along with the officials who administer them, in public spaces where they can be understood, evaluated, and amended at will. This space must also be open for the appearance of unexpected individuals, encounters, and acts; the only thing that closes that space is violence.

The Progressive paradox was first identified as the ‘the curse of bigness,’ a phrase used by Louis Brandeis to describe the deleterious effects of the expansion and centralization of business and government. As organizations grow, they become increasingly inaccessible and procedurally rational. Their capacity to remain accountable to their constituents is inversely proportionate to their efficiency. Large institutions replace the public sphere, which provides opportunities for individuals to appear through deeds and speech, with a regulatory apparatus ruled by speech codes and language games. Expert bureaucrats rely on complicated schemes like insurance or subtle changes in promulgated regulations, which make it difficult for non-experts to engage as equals in ascertaining the relationship and judging their efficacy between policy measures and policy goals. We live in what Michael Sandel calls a ‘procedural republic,’ where both the forms of administrative power and the plural character of the citizenry prevent meaningful deliberation regarding the public good, which undermines collective action in support of thick cultural values beyond basic fairness.

Peter Levine on Super PAC game theory

Here’s the post: Game theory and the Super PACs. Levine points to the recent shift in campaign finance focus from the presidency to Congress, and adds nuance to a debate that is frequently overrun by absolutist intuitions:

No wonder Karl Rove is spending his money on behalf of Senate Republicans. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that conservative super-PACS were spending $10 million/week on behalf of Mitt Romney until a few weeks ago, but they are down to just $2.07 million in the last week.  CRP also calculates that Restore Our Future has spent $84 million on congressional races, American crossroads has spent $34 million, and Americans for prosperity has spent $31 million.  Meanwhile, an industry like financial services (including real estate and insurance) demonstrates how to distribute your cash if you are mainly concerned about your own after-tax profits plus mollifying the winner. They’ve given $221 million to Republicans, of which only $29 million had gone to Romney. They have also given $116 million to Democrats, including an ingratiating $12 million to Obama.

I’d only add two points. First, if there’s any influence to be bought in an election, it’s likely that it is in the form of early money. So even though I’ve taken this article as evidence of the rent-seeking hypothesis of campaign finance (that the money follows the winner rather than determining the winner) I also think that politicans and funders have long understood the wisdom built into the acronym of EMILY’s List: “Early Money is Like Yeast; It Makes the Dough Grow.” Another way game theory impacts campaign finance is through signaling theory: large donors will want to signal their loyalty to a party and a candidate early and in a way that involves real sacrifice if they’re to have any hope of having real influence. So when we think about the intersection of affluence and influence, or when we evaluate the effects of Citizen’s United, we might want to ignore the massive gross receipts and focus on how early donors leverage their crucial support. Money given during moments of uncertainty can come with many more strings than money given to a candidate who thinks she’s going to win. This would also be more evidence that financing limits are less effective than we might hope: the real benefits of campaign finance would be from throwing in relatively cheap support early.

Here’s the second thing. I’ve been brooding for a while on exactly what the current evidence suggests money can do in an election. For instance, there’s a lot of conflicting evidence on negative campaigning, but on balance negative ads look likely to expand voter turnout rather than discourage voters. Consider the Levitt paper using repeat challengers for the House of Representatives. Levitt’s data showed that it would cost about $100,000 to move the electorate 0.3% in 1994. Since the national election is likely to be won by about a percentage point, that’s actually a pretty scary number; but since it’s a national election, we might want to discount the cost of moving the electorate simply because of the size of the target. You can’t run this kind of regression on a presidential race, unfortunately, because it requires repeat challengers, but extrapolating that data to figure out what it costs to move the electorate in a national race, I’ve made a quick guess that it would be something like 435x as much (for each House district): $43.5 million dollars per 0.3% change in 1994. To account for inflation, we would add 54% to get the contemporary numbers: $67 million. I’d guess at the national level it will be much more expensive, but it also might be cheaper if you only focused on close districts and take maximum advantage of the electoral college.

The Super PAC expenditure difference between Democratic and Republican PACs was just a little under that: $60 million. So on one scenario, we’d expect Romney to do 1/3 of a percent better than he would have done under conditions of more equal spending. Of course, if there are key districts, then the Super PACs could devote all their resources just to those, and they wouldn’t have to deflate their funding quite so broadly. This is what Levine suggests they have done. Yet 538 lists the Democratic likelihood of keeping the Senate at 79.9%, twice what it was at the end of August! That’s not definitive proof against the power of money in statewide races, of course. If this bounce was always coming, then the Super PACs may have blunted it: perhaps the Democrats would be looking at a likely 5 seat majority instead. But it does lend additional support to the claim that it’s not the finance totals that are doing the majority of the work.

In my view, the Republicans simply can’t generate enough money to buy this election. At the same time, I am quite sure that the financial services industry has spent enough money, in the right ways, to prevent rigorous and sensible regulation of their industry. Hmmm… there’s a thought: if Republican donors really want to win, they’d be better off skipping the Super PACs and spending their money to short the stock market to create a massive crash this October. But I’m betting they won’t.

Postscript-Levine’s two posts before this one were also pretty great. Levine is very often interesting, but he’s been on a roll again. (We’re friends on Facebook, but “liking” these doesn’t quite give them the appreciation they deserve.) :

  • Not a post, per se, but a New York Times article on non-college youth: Struggling Young Adults Pose a Challenge for CampaignsCIRCLE’s report was the impetus for the article, and Levine is quoted: “Extensive research shows that if you ask young people to volunteer or vote, they respond at high rates.” 60% of American young people will attempt college in some form, but only about half of them will attain a bachelors degree, so there’s good reason to worry that civic engagement is heavily correlated with educational attainment. What can we do to correct that trend? (CIRCLE has some ideas.)
  • Ideology in the Chicago Teacher’s Strike is a pretty phenomenal fact-checking on some of the broader ideological analyses of the CTU strike:
I am basically on the teachers’ side, but that is because I share many of their substantive views of testing, funding, and the curriculum. I do not find it helpful to describe them as progressive and the mayor as neoliberal and to read the strike as a showdown between those two movements. The questions should be taken one at a time: How should we assess teachers? How long should the school day be? How much do we need to spend per student? And how is the available money being allocated?

Moral Malapropism: Particularism on Craig Ferguson

Late night television takes on moral particularism:

via Peter Levine

I’m still trying to get my head around Dancy’s view, so perhaps this post will be more confusing than it ought to be. Here’s the gist from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgement in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error. (emphasis mine)

In this, moral particularlism sounds like a defense of casuistry. To be a resolute casuist is to reject meta-ethical concerns and general principles in favor of hands-on pragmatism, working with cases to acclimate our moral senses. Casuistry is sometimes associated with the “hard cases make bad law” school of thought, though a good casuist can as easily derive the correct answer from a hard case as an easy case, and should be able to avoid the danger that such hard cases will make any “law” at all, since that would simply be a “crutch” likely to “lead us into moral error” when we return to easier cases.

Of course, I’m sympathetic to a rejection of a priori moral theorizing that purports to derive and then apply a principle like utility maximization or autonomy, but that’s because I favor a steady movement between principles and cases. In this, I feel like I split the difference between particularism and generalism, but I worry, however, that a moderate position might not be possible here. Dancy’s particularism seems to reject the possibility of reflective equilibrium. The movement to principles would only be “definitional” in his sense, i.e. purely analytic, not inferential.

Put another way: what could cause us to revise a moral judgment? On my view, either additional facts or conflict with a previously-developed principle could force such a revision, but for Dancy only facts can do the job. For this reason, Dancy suggest that philosophers shouldn’t give advice (since they’re not likely to have access to the relevant facts) and Peter Levine (with reservations) agrees:

Why shouldn’t philosophers dispense advice? Because what one needs to advise people well is not only correct general views (which, in any case, many laypeople hold), but also good motivations, reliability and attention, fine interpretative skills, knowledge of the topic, judgment born of experience, and communication ability (meaning not only clarity but also tact). There is no reason to think that members of your local philosophy department are above average on all these dimensions.

Levine suggests that philosophers are likely average in the specific traits associated with good advice, and very good at an irrelevant part of moral theorizing, because:

the best moral philosophy is methodologically innovative and challenging and also addresses real issues. [However, y]ou wouldn’t ask John Rawls to run a governmental program or even to advise on specific policies, but your thinking about policies may be better because you have read Rawls. It so happens that he held some interesting ideas about meta-ethics, but those were merely complementary to his core views, which were substantive.

Thus, philosophers-qua-philosophers shouldn’t give advice, because their job is methodological innovation and challenges that “enrich other people’s moral thinking.” There’s something reminiscent of Jason Stanley’s recent lament that philosophers get ignored at cocktail parties here, a kind of argument from definition for being-boring. If a moral philosopher offers useful advice, she’s no longer doing good moral philosophy, but rather getting bogged down in facts and good judgment? (But then isn’t this an odd No-True-Scotsman?) Why shouldn’t we be able to persuade ourselves of the need to develop the traits he suggests are the real prerequisites for advice?

It helps to look at the original holism from which particularism takes its bearings. Hermeneutic holism tries to square our capacity to deal with, for instance, malapropisms without faltering at the inapplicability of general syntactic and semantic rules of interpretation. Donald Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” is an example of this kind of effort, arguing that conventions can never completely suffice for understanding. One response is to adopt a dialogic account of interpretation that resolves the indeterminacy of translation and meaning through the elimination of private language and the embrace of theory-laden-but-revisable meanings that can only be determined in situ. Thus, there’s a reasonable analogy to be made between semantic holism and moral holism.

By claiming that only a “whole situation” can be judged, the particularist refuses to break moral problems into constituent concepts or parts with which we might calculate. There’s something tempting about that holistic approach, but it also has risks. Here’s Levine again:

As a moderate particularist, I reply: love is an extremely important moral concept. It is morally ambiguous, in the precise sense that it only has a moral valence in context–sometimes it makes things better pro tanto, and sometimes it makes things worse, but it is almost always morally significant. Although it may be good more often than it is bad, it is not prima facie good (because it’s highly unpredictable).

Furthermore, we cannot make live morally without the concept “love,” nor can we split it into two categories. Love is not just the union of two concepts: good-love and bad-love. Part of the definition of “love” is that it can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time in various complex ways.

Though we’d like there to be a difference between embracing ambiguity or indeterminacy, as Levine does with love, and embracing skepticism, which no particularist actually wants to do, I suspect the entailment between moral holism and moral skepticism may be unavoidable.

The risk here isn’t that we’d simply judge each instance of love as we find it, but that we’d find ourselves in a moral analogue of the “gavagai-means-rabbit” situation, unable to ever determine even for ourselves which of the features of a situation was morally relevant. Since we can imagine a perspective from which even a happy marriage is the instantiation of heteronormative privilege, as when we look at it through the lens of Andrea Dworkin’s complicated concerns describing the background of violence and domination that makes such relationships possible, we can’t know which context is the right context for judgment. (I’m reminded of critical readings of Jane Austen that emphasize the colonial practices that make the novels central bourgeois conflicts possible.) If moral holism is true, then we can never be sure that out judgment of a case has properly incorporated all relevant facts, until we had a “picture of the moral universe” in our heads large enough to avoid all errors and exclusions. Thus, holism seems to entail skepticism. Yet Dancy and others claim that we can properly judge a case.

This is the problem Levine notes in the question of how big a “whole” is:

Note: there is a problem here about what constitutes a “component” or a “whole.” Can one make moral judgments about people, about policies and institutions, about whole societies? Is a law a component of a society, or a whole object in itself? The same problem sometimes arises in aesthetics, because it may be valuable to assess a whole suite of paintings, or a small detail of a picture, rather than a single and complete work.

Is a moral question like love or family ever simply self-contained? I think not: for instance, I’ve recently argued against having children on the basis of non-local costs associated with bringing additional human beings into an overcrowded world. A response would have to take the form of a response to the global objections I raise, not simply claim that I can safely ignore the larger “whole.”

This brings us back to the steady movement between cases and principles. Reflective equilibrium was originally used in set theory to address exactly this kind of whole/part uncertainty, and was only imported into moral philosophy by Goodman and Rawls. So perhaps there is room for moderation like Peter Levine’s. In contrast with his moderate particularism, a “moderate generalist” might be someone who rejects the purported universality of moral principles in favor of a careful accounting of the scope or jurisdiction of a moral judgment, and carefully applied reflective equilibrium to broaden that scope through inquiry.

To the vocabulary of pro tanto and prima facie concepts, we’d add defeasible duties, relevance criteria, and a theory of justification. So we could say that not-procreating is a duty easily defeasible by ignorance or strong desire, or that the colonial slavery that makes a bourgeois life possible simply isn’t relevant to an evaluation of that life. And then we could dispute the justificatory framework that applies such limiting arguments. But if that’s the case, then Dancy’s position would ultimately only be a stepping stone to such an adjudication of cases and principles. It’s a nice reminder not to get lost in principles, but it can’t possibly give us the whole picture.

Mansfield on Obama

Harvey MansfieldGenerally, I respect Harvey C. Mansfield’s work on classical political theory, and think his attempts at contemporary cultural and political criticism are absurdly small-minded. His piece in The Weekly Standard on Obama’s non-partisanship is a mixture of the good Mansfield and the bad Mansfield, so I recommend it to fans of ambivalence. Here are some of the good parts:

One might call this sort of governing rational administration or rational control. It is government directed by reason that does not appeal to reason but rather to subrational motives that will lead people to do what is rational without their quite understanding what they are doing.

Here, Mansfield demonstrates his major concern, that we have not allowed this debate over health care to become a debate over the kind of regime we have and ought to have. He accuses Obama of ignoring principles in the name of principle, of resisting appeals to reason while attempting to govern rationally. I suspect that Mansfield is right, and even if I don’t seem to share his politics, I wonder what this form of rational irrationality portends for the future of American politics. Continue reading Mansfield on Obama