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.

Updates and Tidbits

I’ve been neck-deep in some writing projects of late, but I wanted to post a couple of cool links and give a hint of what’s coming next:

  • Mark Lance, Daniel Levine, and I will be running a free course at the Baltimore Free School on Freedom.
  • Daniel Levine has been doing some pretty kick-ass work publishing the lectures from his Moral Dimensions of Public Policy course here.
  • Megan McArdle envisions a post-campus America. Sounds devastating, but where is she wrong?
  • In a recent post, Peter Levine points us to the work of Lisa Bingham, who has argued for a Collaborative Governance Act to involve more citizens in regulatory rule-making. This mostly involves dismantling public hearing rules, and I’m skeptical, but I like the underlying theory:

the idea is that we govern by shaping our common world. Law is one instrument for that, but law is not sharply different from norms and incentives. Law isn’t merely executed by government; without broad and active popular support, it becomes a dead letter. Besides, government is not unitary. It comes in layers and separate offices and agencies. No part of government monopolizes any kind of power. In the end, government is a bunch of people, and they are not sharply distinguishable from other people.

According to the data, 61 percent of all Disqus comments are made via pseudonyms, versus 35 percent anonymous and 4 percent using real names (i.e. Facebook). People with pseudonyms also comment 6.5 times more than those who comment anonymously and 4.7 times more than commenters who use real names… Disqus maintains that not only does allowing pseudonyms produce more comments, but the quality of the comments is also better, as measured by likes and replies.

  • I’ve hatched a plan to work through some of the classical political theory of the middle class, because some of the entailments in this post are troubling me and I’m not sure if I’m ready to give up on the middle class just yet. I’m thinking of doing posts on Aristotle, Montesquieu, Marx, and Stephen Elkin. Any requests?
  • I’ve also working on a paper on the fungibility of money and the difficulties this creates for the attribution of agency. It’s mushrooming out of control as I realize how many differing examples there are:
  1. Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood
  2. Health insurance plans and contraceptive
  3. Apple products and Chinese labor conditions
  4. Boycotting companies because of the politics of their CEO or campaign contributions
  5. Taxes and War, Welfare, Social Policy, etc.
  6. Ethical consumption and buy local campaigns v. marketing an ethical life and greenwashing

Thoughts? Consider this an open thread.


Must we destroy the profession in order to save it?

Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, 2011, page 5:

“The right to vote and the rightness of voting are different things. I do not argue that we should disenfranchise anyone. Though I think many voters are wrong to vote, I will not argue that anyone should prevent them from voting.” (Emphasis mine)

Eric Schliesser, New APPS, 1/3/12:

“The following tentative remarks were caused by reflection on the recent publication of books that (with qualification, of course) condone… disenfranchisement of ignorant voters.”

Jason Brennan, interviewed for a web article posted to The Daily Need, 4/15/2011:

“Since writing ‘The Ethics of Voting,’ I’ve actually become more sympathetic to the idea that maybe people should be formally excluded from voting,” Brennan said.

Of course, there are obvious dangers implicit in this view, as Brennan admits. Special interests, for example, might co-opt the voting process to exclude those who won’t support their agenda. Incumbents might bar voters who are likely to oust them from office. And literacy and comprehension tests have an ugly history dating back to the Jim Crow era, when they were used to disenfranchise African-Americans. That led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Emphasis mine; the second paragraph is from The Daily Need article, but it is partly a gloss of Brennan’s book, page 108)

Eric Schliesser, New APPS, 1/4/12:

“When I wrote my original post, I had no idea that Brennan had already slipped down the slope of my not so ‘idle concern.’ As a community, we are politely witnessing (refereeing, reviewing, etc) the philosophic ground-clearing being done for –and the accompanying public marketing of — ideas that will justify a certain kind of elite rule. […] (In the book he argues for a sub-set [of disenfranchisement], self-disenfranchisement.)” (Emphasis mine)

In his post, Schliesser argues that we ought to consider a professional code of conduct that bars sympathetic consideration of topics like not-voting or torture when that research threatens to supply “a rhetorical fig-leaf to let politicians and generals morally off-the-hook for atrocious deeds,” or research that assists the state in “annihilat[ing] enormous number[s] of innocent people deemed enemy by the government.”

Unfortunately, as stated, the proposition is self-refuting. Here’s why: Schliesser suggests we ought to consider restrictions on easily misunderstood work on moral taboos. His own post could easily be interpreted as a call for a ban on politically unpopular research. In fact, my friend Leigh Johnson interprets his question in this way: as an encouragement to ban “Forbidden Knowledge.” In the comments, Schliesser claims that this is a misreading, but Johnson is both a charitable and smart reader: if it’s possible for her to derive this interpretation of his words, it’s quite easy for them to be misused in this way by “politicians and generals” in search of a “rhetorical fig-leaf.” If Brennan’s book with its clear warning against disenfranchisement can be read as a call for disenfranchisement, then certainly Schliesser’s post can be read as a call for a ban!

In this sense, Schliesser’s post is precisely the sort of thing that would violate a code of professional ethics like the one he’s describing! The counterfactual is not: “What would the world look like if Brennan had not written his book and articles?” The relevant counterfactual is: “What would the world look like if there was a code of ethics that restricted research on moral taboos?” Such a world is more likely to involve illiberal restrictions than the ones that Schliesser seems to favor.

But I want to focus on the justifications he gives between two different kinds of restrictions: informal norms and codes of conduct. As he points out, there already are norms of collegiality, politeness, and prudence that govern our professional interactions, norms that Schliesser violates by reviewing and now attacking a book he has not read and using a likely-sensationalized web interview to justify his position after the fact.

What is added when these informal norms are codified? The clarity and transparency of codified norms at first seems promising, but wherever there is a code of conduct, there must also be a process for amending it. Since Schliesser advocates against elite rule, I assume he would want this process to be open to all members of the profession, as would I. The alternative is elite rule by the professional ethicists!

But what makes Schliesser think that our profession would adopt rules that outlawed research on torture or epistemic problems with democracy, given the fact that such research is popular and widely believed to be central to the profession’s mission? Here it’s important to note that while many professions have codes of conduct, there is little evidence that they actually bind members of the profession meaningfully because they are a isonomic: the professionals themselves make the rules. Finance professionals, lawyers, engineers, and research scientists are all bound by rules of conduct that are so laughably generic that these same groups are regularly caricatured as unprincipled and even evil, both by the public and by disillusioned members of the same professions.

Another reason to codify norms is because codification supplies an opportunity for an intervention: though informal norms will govern what sorts of rules are considered legitimate, it’s also possible that new rules will eventually be internalized as informal norms. This is obviously what Schliesser hopes: that by sneaking a politically radical provision into the rules banning research on moral taboos, we will finally internalize the informal norms that actually prevent such work. But this is certainly not a democratic hope: it is governance through trickery by a different set of elites.

Now, Schliesser is certainly right that the philosophy profession is driven by the demand to scrutinize all assumptions and follow arguments where they lead, and that some professional philosophers are so enamored of this ethos that they will adopt contrary positions and embrace iconoclasm over prudence.

However, these drives seem less dangerous than Schliesser supposes, especially because these drives are already limited by the existence of informal norms governing the profession, which dictate who is considered fit for jobs, tenure, and grants. I think it is likely that efforts to codify and enact punishments to fit these informal norms are more likely to harm than help, more likely to transform into a broad and toothless set of guidelines or into Johnson’s feared ban on “forbidden knowledge” than to successfully institute new moral taboos.

Perhaps, in part, research like that of Brennan and Alhoff is not justificatory but rather inspired by the fact that we already inhabit a world governed by “a certain kind of elite rule” and one where torture is condoned by the highest political authorities. Jason Brennan’s voting ethics is looking pretty good the day after the 2012 Iowa caucuses with democracy reduced to an adolescent joke: “Obama, Romney win Iowa caucuses; Santorum slips into #2 spot.” Someone has to formulate that argument, if only so that we can discover a winning refutation or design institutions that do not so easily suggest the argument’s conclusion to onlookers.

If we want to do research that combats the status quo of elite rule and torture, we must understand the arguments that currently justify it, or else fall victim to overuse of “Weak Man” argumentation and research that is irrelevant to contemporary needs. To ban discussion of the facts of our common existence is an absurd self-destruction of the profession, especially its most emancipatory traditions, in an attempt to save it.

Marriage is Magic

I made the mistake of teaching a set of essays on gay marriage at the end of the semester. I call it a “mistake” because I find it very difficult to give my traditional charitable interpretation to the work of folks like John Finnis and Robert George, who make arguments from a definition of marriage as “one-flesh two-body union” that they claim must exclude homosexuals but include infertile heterosexual couples. Yet they resist the objections that this is a) a narrow doctrinal definition or b) a definition that draws norms from crude anatomy or c) a definition that falls for some other version of the naturalistic fallacy. After reading widely on the subject, I still can’t accept that a rational person would deny that this “one flesh union” definition is all three: only bad faith or completely incommensurable languages seem to justify our disagreements. You might as well just say, “Marriage is Magic.”

This is why I believe that the legal situation in most of the US that tries to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, including the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” which abrogates the part of the US Constitution requiring that state grant “full faith and credit” to “acts, records, and proceedings,” is unjust. But when we make this case, we are confronted with the force of cultural and linguistic traditions that restrict certain performative utterances to certain speakers. Most speakers cannot meaningfully utter statements like “I dub this ship ‘The Sylvan Nymph,'” or “I now pronounce you a citizen of Aztlan.” Similarly, if I offered you a knighthood you’d be right to scoff. When we advance arguments in favor of gay marriage, some people deride these arguments as simple violations of convention.

The thing is, they’re not entirely wrong. Conventions bind us. My wife and I tried to get engaged for months, but none of our conversations or decisions seemed to stick. She asked. I asked. We said yes. She gave me a plastic decoder ring out of a crackerjack box. We discussed what a great idea it was. We planned details. We speculated about dates. We digressed. We sent each other links to dresses and suits and honeymoon spots. But for some reason we still weren’t engaged.

Then one day I went ring shopping. This process took months because I refused to buy a natural diamond… but I had become convinced that it had to be a diamond or else the ritual wouldn’t work. It was an ordeal, let me tell you, and I think it had to be! When the ring finally arrived, we went for a walk in front of Nashville’s Parthenon. I knelt to tie my shoes, told her I loved her, and pulled the ring from my pocket. Suddenly we were engaged! We called everyone we knew, and declared it. It was settled: we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. That’s magic.

I call it “magic” to show how hard it is to resist cultural norms, especially in ways that have cross-cultural force, like the engagement process.  When an Irish atheist (me) and an Italian lapsed-Catholic (her) try to get married, they’ve got to communicate that to themselves and to each other’s families using some pretty broad semaphore. And why shouldn’t we use “sorcery” to describe this kind of signalling, if the traditional model of autonomous contract captures barely a sliver of the phenomenon? A sufficiently communal socio-cultural ritual is indistinguishable from magic: like a magic spell, it makes things happen in ways and for reasons that none of its participants can really understand.

Continue reading Marriage is Magic

Unions versus Women

Literacy is one of the major factors in female empowerment:

  • As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.
  • Increases in girls’ secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women’s participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.
  • Women’s increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
  • Children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

I first learned about the curiously roundabout role of literacy in exercising more basic entitlements and capacities from Amartya Sen:

“Women are often deprived of their due, thanks to illiteracy. Not being able to read or write is a significant barrier for underprivileged women, since this can lead to their failure to make use even of the rather limited rights they may legally have (say, to own land, or other property, or to appeal against unfair judgment and unjust treatment). There are often legal rights in rulebooks that are not used because the aggrieved parties cannot read those rulebooks. Gaps in schooling can, thus, directly lead to insecurity by distancing the deprived from the ways and means of fighting against that deprivation.”

In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes (on the basis of investigations by Pratichi Trust carried out in West Bengal and Jharkhand) that absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are forced to pay tutors which causes families to make cost-benefit choices and frequently to prefer their sons to their daughters, eliminating the benefits of universal provision of education. He concludes:

“Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality… The teachers’ unions, which have a very positive role to play in protecting the interests of teachers and have played that part well in the past, are often turning into an influence that reinforces the neglect of the interests of children from desperately underprivileged families. There is evidence of hardening of class barriers that separate the newly affluent teachers from the impoverished rural poor.” (via)

Sometimes the entrenched interests of the rent-seeking middle-class are hard to recognize domestically but spring into focus when presented in a distant place. In this, we seem to suffer from a curious kind of far-sighted astigmatism. Of course, Sen would be the first to admit that many of the rich are rent-seekers, too: this is what it means to be a capitalist, to seek rent on capital. But then who is blameless of rent-seeking? Should we turn our attention to “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society“?