Friday, November 30, 2012

Commencement Controversy

The Dalai Lama
There is a very small but symbolically interesting controversy at my university over this year’s recently announced commencement speaker, the Dalai Lama. The controversy does not concern religion, but international politics. It seems that some of our Chinese students have expressed concern over the choice, either because they agree with their government’s classification of the Tibetan Buddhist leader as persona non grata or because they are worried about whether their government will recognize degrees granted at a ceremony involving him.
The reason that I say this is symbolically interesting is that I think this little issue reflects the growing entanglement of our country with China in ways that go far beyond trade. Immigrants from China constitute one of our largest sources of population growth. Nearly 600,000 people from that country gained admission to the United States in 2011 alone, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. China also sends more students to our institutions of higher education than any other countries except our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. In 2011, well over a quarter-million individuals from China (277,742) entered on student and exchange visas.
Both the immigrants and the students bring financial benefits to this country. Certainly many universities actively seek to pull in tuition dollars from China. One can safely predict though, that Chinese political and social issues will loom much larger in our future.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Was That Really Prosperity?

During the recent presidential election and in our current “fiscal cliff” debates over tax and spending policies, I’ve heard frequent reference to the economic boom years of the 1990s. Many have pointed out that the United States had higher tax rates and also high economic growth under the administration of President Clinton. If only we could go back to Clinton-era policies, the argument goes, we could return to prosperity. However, it seems to me fairly obvious that the economic benefits of that earlier decade were not produced by tax policy and that many of our current problems have their roots in the artificial prosperity of that time.
To some extent, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War boosted the American economy just as President Clinton came into office. More importantly, though, two bursts of speculation pumped up temporary national well-being. First, the “” bubble took off, as the United States became a center of new communication technology and investors rushed to put their money into this new industry, inflating stock values. This bubble didn’t really burst, since investment in communication technology did not disappear, but it did contract suddenly. However, another bubble was expanding at that same time. Housing prices jumped in the early 2000s, but the rapid growth in the price of houses began in the middle of the 1990s.
If we look for Clinton-era policies that affected the economy, we should probably focus on housing and mortgages, rather than taxes. The Clinton administration took aggressive steps to end and perceived discrimination in housing, making lenders more reluctant to refuse to make loans. More importantly, the administration encouraged mortgage lending to lower-income borrowers in order to promote more widespread home ownership. In 1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD enabled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to get affordable housing credit for buying subprime loans that often went to low-income borrowers. This encouraged the mortgage industry to extend loans to those most likely to default. The growing industry absorbed investments from all over the world, and the values of homes and the increasingly sophisticated financial instruments that carried debt shot up.
The two bubbles helped transform the American economy into one that was based heavily on finance, concentrating wealth, even while the mortgage bubble pushed poorer Americans into unsustainable debt. This type of speculation was clearly not a sound basis for an economy. Also, governmental efforts to increase home ownership became a classic case of unintended consequences: egalitarian policies that ultimately increased income inequality, created a greater burden of debt for poorer people, and helped transform the economic structure into one that offered opportunities for investors rather than for workers.
I don’t know whether we will go over the cliff and see taxes immediately go up and government spending immediately go down or not. But regardless of what happens at the end of this year, the ultimate goal should be to build an economy based on sound economic activity and not on speculation. Nostalgia for the Clinton prosperity is like waking up with a bad hangover after a drunken spree and saying, “gosh, I’d feel great if I were only soused again.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Missiles in the Middle East

Rocket from Gaza

I recently received a call from the Tulane Students forJustice in Palestine for a candlelight vigil "to remember and honor those who have died or been injured in the recent Israeli bombings of Palestinian land." What struck me as strange about this call is that the Palestinian organization Hamas had been firing missiles into Israel for weeks before the Israelis finally responded. If the Students for Justice in Palestine ever protested the Palestinian bombings of Israeli land, I wasn't aware of it. This is an odd sort of justice, in which one party is assumed to have the right to strike at the other with impunity.

The death of civilians always presents a moral challenge to the use of military force. But before condemning Israel, one should consider the alternatives. Israel could have simply allowed Hamas to continue its attacks, something no other nation would have been expected to endure. The Israelis could have immediately invaded the Gaza Strip and re-occupied it, but most analysts believe that would have entailed even more civilian deaths.  Or, Israel could have done what it did: fire back in the hopes that this would dissuade Hamas and make the more radical step of an invasion unnecessary. Logically, it seems to me that if anyone is going to protest Israeli action, one would have to argue that the Israelis had some better alternative. And  they don't.

Hamas can, at any time, stop the Israeli missiles by ceasing their own attacks. But the organization continues to use the densely populated region of Gaza as a base. The leaders of Hamas probably want to provoke Israeli retaliation because it intensifies anti-Israeli feeling in the population of Gaza and encourages popular reactions against Israeli in other Arab countries, as well as among foreign groups prone to seeing the conflict as a simple dichotomy of Palestinian victims and Israeli victimizers. That cynical willingness to sacrifice one's own people is what we should really recognize and remember.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Philosopher Defends Favoritism

Philosopher Steven T. Asma
Steven T. Asma has an interesting article on fairness versus favoritism at The Chronicle of Higher Education website. Favoritism, acting on behalf of our friends, neighbors, and kin, is a deeply rooted human instinct, Asma points out, and one that contradicts abstract ideas of fairness. “Ethical philosophies of every stripe – egalitarian, utilitarian, Rawlsian, cosmopolitan,” he writes, “have tried to level people with a grid of uniform impartiality, but our favorites cannot be encapsulated in the grid. They loom too large in our moral geography.”
One of the reasons this struck a note to me is that in my own research on educational policy, I have consistently found that the actions of parents undermine programs aimed at redistributing resources and opportunities to achieve uniform “fairness” in American schools. Even when parents sincerely believe that every student should have exactly the same benefits and opportunities, they do everything they can to maximize the opportunities of their own children. Since some families are better able to realize their goals than others, families promote inequality of opportunity. They are, Asma might say, devoted to favoritism. This, I think, is as it should be. Parents who don’t want to promote the best interests of their own children over goals of abstract equality are, to put it bluntly, bad parents.
Fairness should always be part of our decision-making and considerations of fairness should limit our tribalism. But putting the family member over the friend, the friend over the neighbor, and the neighbor over the stranger is valuing real social relations over abstractions; it is treating people as human beings with whom we have connections and not as interchangeable units in a system. So, it isn’t just that favoring our own over others is a fundamental part of our human nature, which contains evil as well as good. Favoritsm is, within limits, a positive virtue.
So, I am in substantial agreement with Asma. He does not ask an important question, though. Who will decide what is fair and when and whether we should favor some over others? The big problem with fairness today, it seems to me, is that it is so often coerced. Indeed, in the version of “justice as fairness” proposed by the philosopher John Rawls, the quest for the just society is a prescription for universal coercion.
As a side note, the motto of my university is “non sibi, sed suis” (“not for oneself, but for one’s own”). These days, this is always presented as an institutional affirmation of some sort of limitless altruism, but it sure sounds like tribalism to me.
A Call to Tribalism?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hobbes: A Biography, by A.P. Martinich

Thomas Hobbes
Aloysisus P. Martinich, who holds an endowed chair in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, is an internationally recognized authority on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. His previous works include The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics (1992) and A Hobbes Dictionary (1995). Martinich is best known for having pointed out the importance of religion in the thinking of Hobbes, who has sometimes been seen as a purely secular or even anti-religious theorist. In Hobbes: A Biography, Martinich has provided the most complete and readable biography of Thomas Hobbes currently available. The author’s painstaking research, based on both published and unpublished sources, makes the book an outstanding source for political scientists, professional philosophers, and historians. The clear, non-academic writing style makes it an excellent introduction to Hobbes for students or general readers.  Martinich even displays a wry wit that one does not normally expect to find in works on early modern philosophy. For example, in responding to Hobbes’ portrayal of Oxford University as a decadent place characterized by “drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices,” Martinich observes: “Drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices were certainly part of my undergraduate experiences and those of my friends at various universities, and nothing has changed much over the past forty years, judging from the experiences of my students and my children. Of course, there are degrees of drunkenness and wantonness, but without better evidence, I am reluctant to judge that Oxford in 1605 was worse than Oxford (or the University of Texas) in 1998.”

Martinich takes up the story of the philosopher’s life with the birth of Thomas Hobbes in the village of Westport, just outside of Malmesbury. The circumstances of his birth and early life were modest, considering the lasting renown Hobbes would later attain. His father, an apparently bad-tempered, semi-literate clergyman also named “Thomas”, deserted the family when Hobbes was still a child. His mother, whose name was probably either “Alice” or  “Anne”, is said to have given birth to the future philosopher prematurely. Fear of the invading Spanish Armada, according the account of Hobbes himself, caused this premature birth. Fear, which Hobbes called his “twin,” would be present in his thinking throughout his life.

After his father’s death, Hobbes and his family were supported by Hobbes’ uncle Francis, a maker of gloves. Hobbes, apparently, a good student, went on to study at Oxford, at about the age of fourteen, somewhat younger than other students. After his graduation, he became a tutor and companion for the young William Cavendish, of the wealthy and powerful Cavendish family. Ties with the Cavendish family helped connect Hobbes to England’s political and intellectual elite.  Throughout the philosopher’s life, he would defend power and social order.

De Cive
Hobbes was no child prodigy. He was a late bloomer and had he died young, instead of surviving into his nineties, the now familiar adjective “Hobbesian,” which describes a universal state of conflict, would not exist. Martinich discusses the possibility that Hobbes was the author of some anonymous essays published in the 1620's, but if Hobbes did write these, they were little more than preparation for his mature works. Martinich dismisses claims that Hobbes wrote some of the essays of Sir Francis Bacon, for whom Hobbes served as secretary in the early 1620's. Hobbes became a member of intellectual discussion groups, most notably the Great Tew Circle in the 1630's, but he was already much older than the other participants. His first major published work,   the Latin De Cive (“On the City” or “On the Polity,” published in English translation as Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society in 1650) when Hobbes was already 54 years of age.

King Charle I
 De Cive was intended to be the third part of a philosophical trilogy, entitled Elementa Philosophia (Elements of Philosophy). Logically, the first volume of the trilogy was De Corpore (“On the Body,” published in 1655) and the second part was De Homine (“On Humankind”, published in 1658.  According to the usual scholarly view, Hobbes put the third, political volume of the work first because conflict between England’s Parliament and the English King Charles I and the outbreak of the English Civil War (usually dated 1642-1651) lent a special urgency to political questions. However, Martinich also suggests that Hobbes had difficulty working out some parts of his philosophy and that this delayed his finishing the first two volumes.

Even before the publication of De Cive, another volume, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, began circulating in manuscript form in 1640, although it was not actually published until 1650. The Elements of Law presented a thoroughly materialistic view of the world and of humanity. It was divided into two parts: the first part concerned human psychology and the natural laws governing it and the second part concerned government. Hobbes rejected the idea of immaterial spirits. Even God, from his point of view, is a body. Martinich shows that Hobbes’ psychology is in many ways a precursor to modern neurological views, because for Hobbes mental activities were physical motions in the brain brought about by motions outside the body. Hobbes also laid out the basics of his political theory in The Elements of Law, and he would continue to adhere to this political theory throughout his life.

The idea of a “Hobbesian state of nature,” usually associated with the philosopher’s most famous work, Leviathan (1651), makes its appearance in The Elements of Law and in De Cive. This “state of nature” is often thought of as an actual state of human affairs at some historical period before human government and society emerged. Hobbes has been criticized because there are no known groups of humans who do not have some sort of political and social organization. Martinich argues that the “state of nature” was actually what we would today call a thought experiment, and not a claim about how social order really came into existence. “Hobbes does not intend his description to capture the historically earliest or most primitive condition of human beings,” Martinich writes. “Rather, by beginning with the way human beings live in any society, he asks the reader to consider what life would be like if all laws were abolished. He is taking his readers through an intellectual exercise, a thought experiment, in order to get them to see the desirability of setting up a government.”  Presented in this way, Hobbes’ thought on the nature of political and social order takes on a renewed relevance for modern readers.

The English Civil War affected Hobbes personally, as well as intellectually. His writings made it clear that he favored the established social order under the king, and his royalism may have put him in danger from those on the side of Parliament. From 1641 to 1651, Hobbes lived in exile in Paris. There, he made contacts with other exiled intellectual figures, worked slowly on his philosophical trilogy, and wrote a book that continues to be read in political science classes today, Leviathan; or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651). Martinich identifies some subtle, but important differences between the political philosophy expressed in Leviathan and that of De Cive. In De Cive, he had argued that the church hierarchy must obey the sovereign in secular matters, but that the church hierarchy was independent in religious matters. Leviathan presented the king or other sovereign as supreme in all matters, religious or secular. Any independence threatened the social order. This position led Hobbes to present the Catholic faith in a strongly negative fashion. This was dangerous in Catholic France. Hobbes had fled England for France because of his royalism, and he was now forced to flee back to England because of his anti-Catholicism.

Leviathan was also accused of being less royalist than the earlier works.  The apparent acceptance in this book of any sovereign who can impose order, whether descended from royal blood or not, led some of Hobbes’ critics to accuse the philosopher of trying to curry favor with the Commonwealth government that had executed Charles I in 1649. Martinich convincingly argues that this was not the case. Hobbes had presented Charles II with a handwritten copy of Leviathan, which he surely would not have done if he had been trying to ingratiate himself with those who executed the father of Charles II. Nevertheless, Martinich does point out that there is an ironic twist to Hobbes’ absolutism. Hobbes does not favor absolute sovereignty on the basis of the divine right of kings, the conventional perspective of supporters of royal power. Instead, absolute sovereignty is rooted in a kind of democracy for Hobbes. Fearing the war of all against all that results from a society of equals each seeking self-interest, members of a society give up their own rights to the sovereign in order to be protected against one another. Thus, Martinich maintains, one of the most interesting aspects of the philosophy of Hobbes is the way he reached conventional conclusions from radical premises.

Martinich does identify some of the weaknesses in Hobbesian political philosophy.  In the theoretical state of nature, Martinich observes, every individual has a right to everything, including the lives and property of other people. Political and civic rights, including property rights, only come into existence with the establishment of a concrete political order. However, it is not clear what Hobbes means when the philosopher says that people give up their rights to all things when they accept a sovereign. Does he mean that they give up some of their rights, so that they no longer have a right to everything? Does he mean that they give up all of their rights, so that they no longer have any rights at all, even the right to self-preservation? The biographer suggests that the writings of Hobbes tend to shift from one position to another. Hobbes generally seems to favor the view that people give up all of their rights, since only this would support the concept of absolute sovereignty. If this is true, though, then people do not have the right to self-preservation, and self-preservation is the justification for having a sovereign.

Martinich follows the life of Hobbes to its long end, following the controversies and contentions that seemed to continually accompany the philosopher. In his own day, Hobbes was sometimes accused of being a anti-religious thinker, or even an atheist. Even today, the theorist’s religious beliefs are sometimes called into question. Martinich counters these accusations by demonstrating that Hobbes was a genuinely and sincerely religious thinker. Still, the biographer may overlook the fact that religion can be important for a philosopher in two quite different ways. For some, religious beliefs offer fundamental premises that lead to philosophical conclusions. For others, however, sincerely held religious beliefs may be in conflict with their own philosophical views, leading to efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Hobbes, with his materialist view of human psychology and nature, was probably the second type of religious philosopher.

Many of the questions that Thomas Hobbes raised continue to be important for people in our own society. How does social order emerge from individual pursuit of self-interest? What establishes the legitimacy of governments? How are the rights and obligations of individuals related to the existence of political institutions? A.P. Martinich’s fine biography is an outstanding introduction to these questions, as well as an excellent and approachable study of one of the founders of modern social and political thought.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Youssef, Nakoula, or Bacile? Man of Many Names Goes to Jail

Who is that Masked Man?
Mark Basseley Youssef, also known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and best known as Sam Bacile, has been sentenced to a year in jail after admitting that he violated his probation in a 2010 bank fraud case. Whoever he really is, he achieved notoriety when his film The Innocence of Muslims sparked protests in a number of Muslim countries and was initially blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, although it has since become clear that this last event was a planned terrorist attack.  I am glad to see that the U.S. attorney’s office did not pursue probation violation charges directly related to the making of the film, because it is important to keep Youssef’s legal transgressions separate from the issue of his freedom of speech. Some of the actors in the film are complaining that he deceived them and damaged their careers when he lied to them about the nature of the project and dubbed their lines with new dialogue. However, I think it is more appropriate that these actors sue the filmmaker for damages they believe they have suffered than that Youssef’s dealings with them be included in the probation violation charges.
Anthea Butler
During the controversy over the film, I was shocked to see some Americans arguing that Youssef/Nakoula/Bacile should be prosecuted for the film itself. One of the most conspicuous, if confused, calls for his imprisonment came from University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler, who wrote that “if there is anyone who values free speech, it is a tenured professor!” Apparently not, because Butler went on to compare the film with the controversial Last Temptation of Christ, saying that “the difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away.” In this view, the act is made criminal by the response to it. Do you face imprisonment for your statements? That depends on how people respond to them. Not only does that contradict the idea that an offense should be objective in nature and should lie in the act itself, it turns censorship into retroactive justice, punishing people for actions that were not violations of the law at the time they committed them.
For my part, I support the multi-named fellow’s right to say whatever he pleases about Islam or anything else, but not to commit bank fraud or violate his probation.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

UCLA's Latest Display of Outrage

UCLA's Version of Rational Discourse
UCLA law professor Richard Sander has been the target of student protests at his university this week. Sander, a critic of affirmative action, published a report that argued UCLA’s supposedly “holistic” admissions process was quietly including race as a prominent factor in deciding who would be admitted to the university. Based on his analysis of admissions data, Sander argued that while UCLA’s holistic process, which included factors such as socioeconomic disadvantage in deciding who would be accepted, was not racially discriminatory by itself, admissions officers did not strictly follow the process and made offers to students who not only had relatively weak academic backgrounds, but even low scores in the holistic ranking. These offers, according to Sander, went disproportionately to black students. If Sander is correct, then UCLA’s admissions office has been surreptitiously violating California law, which prohibits the state’s universities from considering race in admissions or hiring.
The report, according to the website Inside Higher Ed, “infuriated minority student leaders at UCLA (not to mention administrators).” The students perceived it as “offensive” and described themselves as being “under attack.” UCLA Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Youlanda Copeland-Morgan had not reviewed the statistics in the report and therefore could not judge the report’s accuracy, but nevertheless described Professor Sander’s analysis as “hurtful and unequivocal attacks.”
Professor Richard Sander
As I read through the Sander report, I could see no attempts to “attack” or “hurt” anyone. He makes an argument, based on evidence. One may disagree with his argument or, after having reviewed his evidence, conclude that the facts do not support it. But other than making vague claims that somehow the holistic process includes considerations that cannot be measured statistically, apparently no one has made any serious efforts to rebut Professor Sander’s reasoning. In an interview excerpted by Inside Higher Ed, Sander, who had attended the protest against his report (brave man), observed that "Some fairly cynical leaders saw an opportunity to create a cause ... and they are milking it to the full. There was no rational discussion. There was no identification of any mistakes in my report, and no concern about what it would mean if the analysis were correct."
I have no argument with the right to peaceful assembly and it would be perfectly legal for people to gather to protest the laws of physics, if they should choose to do so. Still, I find the events at UCLA appalling. A university should be a place where we encourage careful, dispassionate reasoning. Shouting slogans and shaking fists in the air do not lend themselves to the cultivation of rational analysis. While Professor Sander does not appear to be intimidated by outraged crowds, this kind of emotional display does make it more unpleasant to express unpopular views and therefore undermines the openness to intellectual diversity that should be the essence of university life.