Saturday, March 31, 2012

Made of Paper: Thoreau, American Contrarian

Alexis de Tocqueville liked American democracy, but he thought its spirit of egalitarianism militated against the cultivation of individual excellence, which he associated with aristocratic societies. Tocqueville overlooked a side of American society that tolerated and even treasured a peculiar type of “natural aristocrat,” the American contrarian. Henry David Thoreau became part of the national canon because he wrote and lived against whatever was happening in his own time, a precursor to such great contrary characters as H.L. Mencken and Flannery O’Connor.
As his countrymen expanded to the west, Thoreau lived out his days on his own little patch of Massachusetts. With economic growth providing new opportunities for upwardly mobile strivers, Thoreau obstinately pursued his own simpler version of Emersonian self-reliance. He even viewed economic development itself with skepticism and attachment to the older ways. His first book looked back on a boating trip he had taken with his brother and observed with some sadness, “[s]ince our voyage, the railroad on the bank has been extended and there is now but little boating on the Merrimack. All kinds of produce and stores were formerly conveyed by water, but now nothing is carried up the stream, and almost wood and bricks alone are carried down, and these are also carried on the railroad.”
In the face of newly achieved universal white male suffrage, Thoreau often looked askance at democracy itself. To majority rule, he objected “… the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long time continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be right, nor because this seems the fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.” Surrounded by newspaper readers and enthusiastic voters, he frequently dismissed both the press and the poll. “I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency,” he wrote in the essay that came to bear the title Civil Disobedience, “made up chiefly of editors and men who are politicians by profession.” He generally preferred the uncut trees to the stumps beneath the feet of the campaign speakers. His neighbors may have found him an odd customer, but they put up with him, many of them even liked him, and many Americans since then have believed this rustic curmudgeon had something to say to them.
In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849, Thoreau reflected on a boating trip he had taken in 1839 with his brother. Today, some readers regard this as a classic of “deep travel,” traveling for sake of acquiring a profound understanding of locations rather than for superficial experiences of distant and exotic places. The book sold few copies in its own time, though, and although it has many wonderful passages, its rambling, digressive form can give the impression of a shaggy dog story. In addition to recounting historical anecdotes about the countryside along the river, Thoreau engaged in a good deal of what we would today call free association,   drifting into off-the-cuff essays on classical literature and South Asian philosophy between more homespun tales about the people he and his brother met. It is best taken in small portions and in the right circumstances. I like to read it on canoe trips down the Bogue Chitto River here in Louisiana.
If Thoreau had stopped after that initial attempt, he would probably be known today only as a minor figure connected to Emerson’s circle.  But in 1854, he published a book about another part of his life a few years earlier. In March, 1845, he bought a shanty from Irish railroad workers and took it apart for the boards. He borrowed an axe from Bronson Alcott (another odd customer) and cut pines. With the shanty boards and the pines, he set up his hut at Walden. Why did he do this? The best answer is that he was going into the woods to think. The famous book about his time at Walden was not entirely written there. He mined its gnomic sentences from his voluminous notebooks, polishing some of his observations long after the stay in the woods. But without his retreat, he could never have drawn his thoughts into this magnificent reflection. Reading it makes us see what a wonderful thing it is to just go off alone and think.
Thoreau was skeptical of the hurly-burly of the market-place, but he knew how to count his coins, as the first chapter on the economy of his experiment tells us. “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits,” he wrote; “ they are indispensable to every man.” Debt was anathema to Thoreau.
His concern in Walden was with how to best live his own life. The past interested him, but he was leery of an over-eager fascination with the promise of future. He did not put much stock in progress. “We are in great haste,” he observed, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”  Thoreau believed in the course of animal and vegetable life around the pond, and in his own observations about that life. He did not believe in the perfectibility of humanity or society, except insofar as people could perfect their responsibility for their own lives.
Even the essay Civil Disobedience, often mistakenly portrayed as a call to social activism, was really a statement of personal responsibility. In it, Thoreau recounted why he went to jail, briefly, for a traditional American act of rebellion: refusing to pay taxes. The famous opening sentence is a general statement of Thoreau’s attitude toward the State: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘that government is best which governs least’: and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”  
Thoreau had no dreams of building a better society. He wrote, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live but to live in it, be it good or bad.” His refusal to pay his poll tax does not come from any moral compulsion to right the wrongs of the world, but from the ethical desire to avoid doing wrong himself.
Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published The Maine Woods,about his travels in the far northeast, contained excellent nature writing, but did not reach the quality of Walden. For me, that latter will always be the statement of what it means to be an American contrarian.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Locating Political Orientations

I’ve never found the “left-right” description of political orientations a particularly accurate way to describe actual perspectives and positions.  This spatial metaphor may have made some sense just after the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly placed supporters of king and religion on the right of the assembly president and advocates of revolution on the left, but even then this linear distinction became a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing the varied viewpoints into a predetermined dichotomy. This way of thinking about philosophies and allegiances results in groupings that may be accidentally linked at the present point in history, but that logically combine the incompatible. For  example, what do classical liberals, who believe in minimal government interference with individual interactions, have in common with classical advocates of state power, such as Joseph de Maistre, or with proponents of military nationalism, or even with moderate traditionalist classical conservatives, such as Edmund Burke? Why would Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini fall on the extreme “right” while Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung fall on the other side when all four have so much in common?  The left-right image lies behind Corey Robin’s recent cartoonish characterization of the history of political thought as a struggle between supporters of status quo power and privilege and democratizing champions of liberation.
I suggest that a better way to think about political positions might be to conceive of them as falling within a triangle, depending on the degree to which the positions involve statism, traditionalism, and individualism.             
 As a formal political philosophy, individualism may be the most recent of these. We often think of individualism as appearing in the late eighteenth century in the works of John Locke and others. To various extents, individualistic thinking appears in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, later anarcho-capitalists such as Benjamin Tucker, and classical liberals such as John Stuart Mill. As a political tendency, though, individualism is probably as old as human societies. Thomas Mayor, for example, has recently characterized hunters-gatherers, participants in the most ancient type of human order, as “the original libertarians,” and most anthropologists would agree that hunting and gathering societies display a high degree of individual voluntarism.  I’d define as individualism, then, emphasis on the control of individuals over their own lives and actions.
Traditionalism is an emphasis on social institutions passed down over time. The oldest and most fundamental of these institutions is the family, and traditionalist politics generally place family relations at their center. But other kinds of relationships based on immediate personal ties or religious affiliations may also constitute traditional institutions. Not surprisingly, these relationships are often conceived of as family-like relations.
Statist orientations place formal governmental bodies in the position of deciding and directing the  lives of those in their control. While it might at first appear that statism is incompatible with the other two, or that the other two are mutually incompatible), in fact approaches to political life tend to combine the three to some extent. A divine right monarchy, for example, can be located somewhere in the upper part of the triangle, containing elements of statism and traditionalism and located between the two. The sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that the modern centralized state results from the disintegration of traditional social institutions, producing atomized individuals under a powerful government. So, we would probably place modern corporatist polities close to the statism-individualism line, with the more authoritarian corporatist states closer to the angle of statism. The welfare state, with its proliferation of government-guaranteed individual entitlements, would also be a form of statist-individualism, somewhere near this part of the triangle. Nisbet’s biographer Brad Lowell Stone has characterized Nisbet’s own political approach as an anti-statist libertarian communitarianism, stressing traditional social institutions and relationships.  This kind of political thought or a political commitment of this type would be located near the traditionalism-individualism line, probably somewhat closer to the traditionalism angle. 
These placements within the figure are, of course, impressionistic.  One could, though, come up with indexes of all three tendencies and place political theories, parties, movements, and actions inside this space based on three sets of scores.            


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Post-Colonial Anecdote

Some years ago, I was traveling with a friend in the mountains of Luzon, north of Manila. We stopped at a roadside café perched against a slope, at the top of a steep flight of wooden steps.  As we sat at a table on the verandah overlooking the rugged scenery, a waiter came to take our order. My friend’s native speech was Kapampangan, a dialect spoken mainly at the top of the horseshoe formed by the Manila Bay, but he used Tagalog, the language of the capital and essentially the national language, to ask the waiter for recommendations. Our server looked at us impassively. “I’m sorry,” he answered, “I don’t speak Tagalog. Can you speak English?” Therein, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.

The Philippines is a nation of many tongues.  English arrived with my own countrymen, the Americans, and that was, at best, a troublesome arrival. From the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, the Philippines was a Spanish colony. Although the Spanish ruled the Philippines, though, there were comparatively few Spanish colonists and Spanish never became the common language of the islands. Instead, each separate region maintained its own language.        

By the mid-nineteenth century, educated Filipinos had begun to grow impatient with being ruled from Spain, and especially impatient with the rule of the religious orders. Many of these educated Filipinos began to call for removal of the religious orders and for representation in the Spanish parliament. José Rizal, a half-Chinese doctor, scholar, and writer, was one of the best known of the Filipinos seeking greater freedom for the country. When the Spanish executed Rizal on charges of treason in 1896 this contributed to the cause of more radical Filipinos who were demanding complete independence for the islands. The most successful rebels were under the command of the young Emilio Aguinaldo and Aguinaldo became leader of the independence movement.

In 1898, war broke out between Spain and the United States, which was trying to drive Spain out of Cuba. Aguinaldo's forces allied themselves with the United States and provided information to the American navy, which attacked Manila Bay. After Spain surrendered, the Spanish agreed to grant Cuba independence and to cede the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States for twenty million dollars. In the meantime, however, the Filipinos had already created their own government, with Aguinaldo as president. The United States sent in troops and rapidly went from being an ally of the Philippine independence movement to being an occupier. The struggle to establish American power was a long and bloody one, but by 1902, the United States had defeated Aguinaldo's troops and a year later the Americans had put down most of the resistance.

This sounds like the classic tale of colonial malevolence, the standard story of European and American appropriation and exploitation through bad faith, betrayal, and brutality, a tale told over and over again in our classrooms. But it isn’t that simple. Having established themselves in the Philippines by military conquest, the Americans proceeded to create what they saw as a democratic government. By 1907 the Americans held elections for a national legislature in the Philippines. Two major political parties competed. The Nacionalista party favored independence for the Philippines and the Federalista party favored becoming a state in the United States.  The Federalistas were not just cozying up to the new imperial master: many of them saw statehood as a desirable goal. There were some good reasons for taking this view.

The Americans set about building town halls throughout the islands and improving sanitation. One of the most far-reaching reformist efforts of the Americans began in 1901 when a ship named the Thomas arrived in Manila Bay. The Thomas carried five hundred American teachers, who would spread out to bring American-style education to the archipelago. Today, the Philippines has one of the best educational systems in Southeast Asia. The system culminates in the University of the Philippines, an American-style university, founded by the Americans in 1908.

So were the Americans duplicitous exploiters or enlightened idealists spreading participatory government and civic improvement projects? Well, we were both. In conversations about my country’s heritage in the Philippines, I used to make both my Filipino nationalist friends and defenders of the American legacy angry by insisting that each side oversimplified in seeing the colonial history as some version of a morality play.

When we consider the historical background to the opening scene in the restaurant, the story becomes even more complicated, and the question of political domination becomes even more difficult to see as a matter of darkness and light. I don’t know whether the waiter in our restaurant really couldn’t speak Tagalog or didn’t want to. But he was not going to communicate with us in the speech of the Philippine capital. American control of the archipelago did not rest entirely on its own arms or on popular support created by the civic programs set up after the conquest. In the years following 1898, many Filipinos wanted to be governed by Americans precisely because they did not want to be governed by other Filipinos. The mountain tribes, in particular, saw the lowland Tagalog speakers as the colonizers and the Americans as allies and protectors.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

More Students, More Aid, More Debt

Here are two articles to place side by side: Joanna Chau, writing in the Chronicle of Education, reports that numbers of students in college went up this past year and that the percentages of students receiving financial aid and taking out loans increased. Sociologist Jackson Toby, writing in Minding the Campus,  warns that "[t]he total size of [the student] loan portfolio exceeds the total credit card debt of the American population," that students have been defaulting on their loans, and that we face massive defaults on student loans. Toby compares the lending of money for higher education to the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis, which had its origin in extending mortgages to people who were poor credit risks. Ultimately, Toby suggests, these loans will actually end up as the responsibility of taxpayers. Toby, author of an important book on the problems created by providing financial aid without regard to academic performance, is also critical of giving tuition money as an outright gift.  He observes that "the Pell grant program has been an expensive drain on the [federal] budget that continues to grow." Reading Chau's piece in the light of Toby's suggests that the increase in numbers of federally subsidized and borrowing college students should be seen as a serious problem for the nation, not a cause for celebration.

Compounding the problem is that fact that making more money available for higher education increases effective demand, and thereby drives up costs. The figure below, drawn from data of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), shows the average tuition and fees in public and private universities from 1974-75, the year that I graduated, to 2006-2007. 

Average Tuition and Fees in Public and Private Universities (in Hundreds of 2007 Dollars), 1974-75 to 2006-2007

On average, it now costs more to attend a public university than it cost to attend a private one back in the mid-seventies. Financial aid and loans, together with the greater demand created by more people going to college, help to push up college costs and the higher college costs, in turn, result in heavier subsidies and bigger loans. Eventually, as Toby suggests, taxpayers will end up paying for much of this. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Irving Louis Horowitz (1929-2012)

This last Wednesday, social science lost one of its greatest practitioners and critics, Irving Louis Horowitz. Although Horowitz is often described as having started on "the left," influenced by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, and then moved to "the right" later in his career, in truth Horowitz was always too independent in his thinking to conform to any party line. Among his other accomplishments, in 1962 Horowitz founded the journal Transaction: Social Science and Society, an interdisciplinary publication intended to bring social scientific debates and findings to a wide readership. The journal later changed its name to Society. Under the current editorship of Jonathan Imber, it continues to be one of the most readable and free-thinking outlets in the social sciences. Transaction Publishers, initially established by Horowitz to publish the journal, became a major publishing house and a bastion of open-mindedness and true intellectual diversity in the works it made available.

In his later years, Horowitz was an outspoken critic of the politicization of the social sciences and especially of the transformation of sociology from an area of study to a home for campus-based political dogma. Those who have criticized him for not recognizing that the social sciences are often unavoidably value laden seem to me to have missed his main point. It may not be possible for sociology to be as "objective" as the hard sciences. But if the discipline is, in practice, the propagation of a political and social creed, then it is difficult to see how it can contribute to the cultivation of independent thought or why it should have any place in an academic curriculum.

More than once, I've quoted the following passage from Horowitz's 1993 book The Decomposition of Sociology:

The identification of social science with social advocacy has reached such pandemic proportions in American sociology that it is time,  indeed the time is long overdue, to step back from the precipice of partisanship if the worth of serious analysis is itself to be preserved. Instead of being a possible consequence of decent social research, advocacy has become the very cause of social research. We have taken the chief weakness in the structure of knowledge about society (namely the propensity to ideological thinking) and turned it into a first principle of the research process. (p. 183)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Today's Cause Célèbre

There are two sides to every public drama. One of them is usually wrong, or at least more wrong than the other. But while one side may seem more plausible to us, based on initial appearances and on our existing predispositions and generalizations and predispositions, we can only begin to grasp the rights and wrongs once all the facts have been investigated. Here are two sides to the drama of the day:
1.       An innocent, law-abiding black teenager goes to the store. He walks through a guarded neighborhood on his way home. A neighborhood watch captain sees the boy, and sees a suspicious character for no other reason than skin color and tries to stop him. The captain calls the local police department, which advises him not to follow the fleeing boy, but the watch captain ignores the advice, runs after the boy, and guns him down in an act of sheer racist violence. The police show up later, but institutional biases, abetted by a law that allows citizens to shoot people they fear, lead them to accept the racist killer’s claims of self-defense and let him go.
2.       A conscientious and diligent volunteer watch captain sees a young black man walking through a neighborhood that has recently experienced a number of crimes committed by young black men. Although the police department does advise him not to follow the young man, he does so out of concern for the safety of the neighborhood. He decides to give up on the chase, though, and begins to walk back to his vehicle when the teenager attacks him. Knocked to the ground and believing the young man intends to do him serious harm, the watch captain pulls his weapon and shoots the teenager. When the police arrive, they find blood on the watch captain’s face and the back of his head, supporting his contention that he was attacked and defending himself. Based on this the police do not charge him. Later, the neighborhood watch captain passes several lie detector tests in testifying about the events of the evening.
Based on your own views about race and the law and on your personal experiences, one of these stories will seem self-evidently true to you. But what seems true to us and what is true are two different things. Both of the tales are tragic, and in either case one can certainly sympathize with the family of Trayvon Martin. But I think it is a bit early for the case to escalate into a cause or for us to conclude guilt on the part of George Zimmerman

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama

A few months ago, I heard Francis Fukuyama speak about his new book, The Origins of Political Order. Although Fukuyama was (to be honest) not as well prepared for his talk as he should have been, I found his ideas interesting, and recently found time to read this work, which attempts to trace the historical development of political order up to the time of the French Revolution. Fukuyama intends to follow this with a second volume on political order in late modernity.
Inspired by the work of the late Samuel Huntington, Fukuyma argues that modernization theories of development are mistaken in portraying political, social, and economic as interconnected stages of a single trajectory of progress. In the Marxist version of modernization, for example, economic development in the form of evolving means of production shapes social development by creating classes and class conflict and this, in turn, produces the political organization of society. In the version of modernization traditionally favored by the American foreign aid establishment, economic development results in widespread prosperity and a strong middle class, Fukuyama maintains that the social, economic, and political parts of life are indeed interconnected and affect each other, but that each can unfold according to its own logic and that there is no predetermined pattern of relations among them. Moreover, over the course of the book, he argues that what we now think of as modernization was the way in which the now dominant western model of development occurred. Further, he claims that the western model had much earlier sources than the industrial revolution.
Fukuyama begins with human nature. All human beings know some kind of social and political order because cooperation is essential to human nature. The most powerful impulse to cooperation is based on kinship, which dominated both band-level and tribal societies. Cooperation also results from “reciprocal altruism,” or people giving held to others in the expectation of receiving help. In discussing the bases of human cooperation, Fukuyama draws on extensive anthropological reading. War was the primary cause of the rise of early states, although geography played a part in the ability of those states to extend their control.
The state was a form of political order that existed apart from and to some extent in logical opposition to kinship loyalty, which Fukuyama terms “patrimonialism.” The earliest and in many ways most highly organized state arose in China. The strong state in China managed to break down family and reciprocal ties to a greater extent than other locations. This meant that China developed a strong state, characterized by powerful centralized government and an impersonal bureaucracy, and had a relatively weak society. China also, according to Fukuyama, never developed a guiding rule of law, or a set of abstract principles to which everyone, including the emperor, would be subject. Thus, China became a society with a strong state with weak counterbalancing social institutions and little rule of law to limit the actions of the state in matters such as personal freedoms or property rights, an essential component of a market economy. Even if one questions Fukuyama’s interpretation of Chinese history, he does manage to provide an very clear and intelligible summary of Chinese history.
Fukuyama examines the interconnections of state, social institutions, and law in other societies, notably South Asia and the Ottoman Empire. His most intriguing claims, though, concern why Europe became the place where democracy and the market economy arose.  In Fukuyama’s view, the Church was crucial to the emergence of the state and to the balancing of state power by the rule of law in Christendom. The Church initially weakened the dominance of kinship ties by introducing a universalizing system of belief. Then, especially after the Gregorian Reforms of the late eleventh century, the Church became a state-like institution that maintained a system of abstract law over and above secular states and gave secular states legitimacy based in rule of law. Thus, according to Fukuyama, the idea that all leaders are answerable to a higher principle, including the principle of popular sovereignty, has its origins in the development of the Christian religion.
In the last part of the book, Fukuyama shifts to looking at how political development, understood as the interconnections of state building, rule of law, and popular accountability, related to economic growth and social mobilization within Europe.  Ideas about legitimacy shaped all of these interconnections in the different countries. He gives France and Spain as examples of “weak absolutism,” or highly centralized states based on patrimonial connections with non-state social institutions. He suggests that the contemporary political problems of Latin America stem from the Spanish patrimonial heritage. The creation of successful democracy in parts of northern Europe, England, and the United States as the political legacy of England, came from circumstances that produced a strong state, strong counterbalancing social institutions, and strong rule of law. He maintains, in response to libertarians, that a strong state has been essential to the protection of rights fundamental to development, such as property rights, but that the state must operate under law and be accountable to citizens.
Before forming a definitive opinion about Fukuyama’s arguments, I think we will need to wait for the second and conclusive volume. This is an impressive synthesis of materials from world history and other disciplines.  I found his claims about the role of religion as a force in society particularly appealing, although Fukuyama does tend to slip back and forth between talking about religion as an institution and religion as a system of ideas without always being clear about how these are connected. In talking about the state, he never really defines what he means by a “strong state.” In the case of China, a strong state is one that can do pretty much whatever its leaders want. But in the case of the west, identifying a strong state as one that can enforce property rights seems questionable: this seems to me exactly the kind of state that Robert Nozick identified as minimal. The implication that a strong state is a geographically extensive, powerfully centralized state also seems to raise questions, since it confuses the efficiency of a government, the degree of intrusiveness of government in individual and social concerns, and the expanse of territory owing allegiance to the state.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Peter Wood on the New Civics

Earlier, I commented on the report A Crucible Moment, written by a task force under the sponsorship of the Department of Education. In a new article on the administration's education agenda entitled "Better Citizens," Peter Wood characterizes the contents of this report as follows:

What it delivered is a plan for diverting a great deal of the time, energy, and resources of American higher education into promoting a progressive ideology that emphasizes diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, and global citizenship. It works out mainly as a vision of higher education oriented to turning students into political activists committed to the causes of the left.

I think Wood characterizes the report accurately. I would be less disturbed by the "civic education" movement, though, if it were a self-conscious effort to politicize the university. Instead, it seems to me that those who push this movement really don't see what they're doing as partisan politics. Their range of vision has narrowed so much that they really do see turning students into political activists as simply teaching good citizenship. It would also bother me less if this were only coming down from the political leadership. Instead, I see the administrations and faculties of universities eagerly joining in the effort to redefine education as the redesigning of American society according to unquestioned slogans. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dr. Saltmarsh's Plan

What is the best way to ensure strict conformity on social and political issues in the modern university? The ideal approach would consist of two steps. First, you re-define the work of the university so that carrying out an officially approved social program becomes the “core mission” of the institution. Then, you build a system of rewards and punishments into the institution’s procedures so that the people who get ahead are those who do as they’re told and march in the crusade to carry out that mission.
This, I believe, is the message that Dr. John Saltmarsh of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, will bring to my university next week in a workshop on “Rewarding Faculty Engagement Efforts in the Tenure and Promotion Process.”   Dr. Saltmarsh will elaborate on what he means by “faculty engagement” the day after the workshop, when he will offer a public lecture entitled “Democratic Engagement and Full Participation:” His ideas, such as they are, are outlined in a co-authored paper on “Full Participation” available here.
Reading this paper makes it obvious that Dr. Saltmarsh does not consider good writing to be part of a university’s “core mission.” But he does apparently think very highly of “diversity” and “civic engagement.” And he has a plan to make academic careers depend on sharing his views.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Niall Ferguson's The Cash Nexus

In his 2001 book, The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000, Niall Ferguson argues that warfare has led to the development of contemporary governmental and financial structures by creating a need for efficient forms of taxation. Theories of the relationship between economic and politics involve some form of economic determinism. In one common version of economic determinism, associated with the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, governments simply reflect the power relations created by types of economic production. In a capitalist country, in which power is concentrated in the hands of owners of competitive business enterprises, political institutions express the interests of the owning classes. A major problem with this view of the relation between economics and politics, though, is that there are a great many variations among the political systems of capitalist countries.

In an opposing version of economic determinism popular with American policy-makers, healthy competitive markets create truly democratic institutions, rather than concentrations of power in the hands of a single class or group of people.  In dealing with post-Communist Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and the developing nations of the world,  diplomats and scholars have often maintained that liberalizing the economies of these nations will create more open societies. This, in turn, will gradually result in the emergence of democratic, participatory political structures.

Oxford historian and prolific author Niall Ferguson calls both versions of economic determinism into question. Ferguson begins by attempting to show that until recently the growth of the state and its fiscal institutions have been primarily consequences of warfare. War is an expensive business, he points out, although he contradicts common wisdom by offering evidence that it has grown cheaper over the course of the modern period. The royal and imperial governments of the world needed to find ways to fund their costly battles, and this meant the creation of new and efficient forms of taxation. Ferguson therefore turns to the history of taxation, tracing the development of indirect and direct taxation and other revenue-raising devices that enabled governments to pay for military expenses.  As direct taxation, such as income taxes, came to supply an ever larger portion of the funds, both bureaucracies and representative political bodies came into existence to varying degrees in different political contexts. Taxation, in other words, led to representation as a means of getting subjects or citizens to raise money from themselves.  However, as representative government became more entrenched and the vote spread to ever larger portions of the population, welfare began to replace warfare as the chief object of government spending.

Taxation is not the only way in which governments can raise money. They can also borrow it. For this reason, Ferguson moves from considering how political decisions about warfare stimulated taxation, political institutions, and governmental bureaucracies to a discussion of the evolution of the public debt. The section devoted to national debt contains some of the most technical information in the book, dealing with inflation, interest rates, and bond yields.  As the author points out in the introduction to his book, he considers the national debt to be part of a square of four governmental institutions.  The need to raise funds, for war and then other activities, gave rise to a professional tax-gathering bureaucracy, the first of the four institutions. Taxation led to representative bodies such as parliaments, the second. The third institution, national debt, involved the borrowing of money to spread war and other political expenditures over time. Central banks, the fourth institution, made it possible to manage national debts. Although Ferguson maintains that warfare stimulated the growth of these institutions, politics and economics are connected by the continual interaction of all four.

Having sketched the origins and nature of the institutions of political economy, Ferguson looks at the internal workings of modern national societies. He casts doubt on the Marxist division of societies into landowners, capitalists, and workers. Instead, he suggests that there are other lines of possible conflict. State employees, bond holders, welfare-recipients, and tax-payers have different and frequently opposing interests.  He also speculates that generations can provide a basis for interest groups, since young people entering the work force and old people who are retired or facing retirement benefit from different policies. In an intriguing chapter that Ferguson co-authored with Glen O’Hara, he questions the assumption generally made by politicians that success in managing economic cycles is critical to getting into office and staying there. Instead, he argues that success in getting into office is largely a matter of getting the funding to sway the voters and that this has brought new forms of corruption to contemporary democracies. Efforts to constrain political spending by providing public funds to candidates simply make the corruption worse, he maintains. Therefore, he recommends that the political market become a free market, with minimal public subsidies, no restraints on private donations, and competitive market wages for holders of political offices.

In the final five chapters, Ferguson moves from national to global issues, and he returns to the military themes that open the book. The historian Paul Kennedy is one of his particular targets in this last section. Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1987) that when nations flourish economically they tend to over-extend themselves militarily in order to protect their markets and that military over-extension in turn leads to economic decline. On the issue of the possible extension of democratic government around the world, Ferguson argues that the relationship between economic growth and the spread of democracy is often more tentative than the free market economic determinists assume. The connection of economy and politics involves the interaction of all four of the institutions he has identified and the kinds of political institutions that emerge depend on how all four of these affect each other. He also sees dangers in political democratization. As societies with deep ethnic divisions move toward representative institutions, ethnic majorities often turn their new powers against ethnic minorities, who may take up arms in self-defense. Because international institutions, such as the United Nations, are usually ineffective in intervening to protect the endangered minorities, only stable democracies with strong militaries can do so. Stable democracies, then, need powerful militaries in project their political will and maintain international order.

The need for military capacity on the part of nations such as the United States is undermined by the logic of domestic democracy, Ferguson believes.  Citizens who control their own national resources are generally more interested in using these resources for their own welfare than in using them for military spending.  However, only active, militarily powerful nations can control international tendencies toward civil war and maintain the international order needed for global markets. The danger facing contemporary world powers, then, is not “overstretch,” as Paul Kennedy has argued, but “understretch.” By devoting too many resources to domestic well-being and too few to the strength to act on the international stage, the United States, as today’s global superpower, puts at risk the markets that make its well-being possible.

This is an intriguing book, but it does require some dedication to follow the reasoning from beginning to end. Ferguson’s argument often sags under the weight of his erudition. At times, he seems to be trying to explain everything related to economic history by citing every book he has read, and he is extremely well read. The breathless narration of facts and quotations is impressive, but it can leave the reader dizzy and uncertain just how some of the passages connect to the central argument. 

The discussion of the role of warfare in promoting the emergence of modern economies and political systems is intriguing, but it may overlook other vital historical forces. For example, Ferguson devotes relatively little attention to the contribution of technological change to the expansion of both productivity and government.  Advances in machinery and techniques can increase quantities of goods available. Advances in transportation expand the geographic scale of economic activity, create national and international markets, and encourage regional specialization.  Larger markets with more goods mean a larger surplus for governments, to wage war and set up welfare programs.  The markets made possible by advanced technologies also create demands for governmental involvement in economies to ensure stable monetary systems, cushion economic cycles, and help maintain relatively contented workers.

Ferguson’s “understretch” argument may put too much confidence in the ability of the United States to influence contemporary world events. This book was published before our long and frustrating experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, if the well-being of citizens is a measure of the success of a nation, it may be wise to avoid placing too much emphasis on international power.  Finally, Ferguson does not seem to recognize that directing funds away from military spending can have great economic benefits for a nation. Much of Japan’s post-war economic rise, for example, was apparently due to the fact that the military umbrella of the United States enabled it to concentrate its national resources on trade and industry, rather than on defense spending

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jonathan Haidt's Political Tribes

University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt argues in the Sunday New York Times that economic self-interest is a poor predictor of people’s positions on political issues. This is because human beings are tribal in nature and they give their allegiance to the sacred images and expressions that represent their tribes. We can understand the sacred tribal identities, Haidt argues, by looking at the stories told by the tribes.  For members of what he calls “the American left,” the dominant story is one of oppressed groups struggling for liberation.  He contrasts this with what he calls “the Reagan narrative,” which tells of sacred liberty and traditional values undermined by an activist bureaucracy.
I think it is true that people do not choose their allegiances or their opinions orimarily on grounds of self-interest. But I think Haidt’s version of our “tribalism” is simplistic. We are indeed influenced by those around us, in part because we want to share their ideas and values so they will like us and in part because those around us supply much of the information that shapes our thinking. We also make sense of our ideas by casting them in narratives, and we attach emotional significance as well as truth to those narratives. But this doesn’t explain how different tribes come to hold the ideas that they do. Nor does it account for the fact that in our modern, pluralistic society, people don’t just receive their views from their groups. They also join groups because they agree with the views that the members hold or because they want to believe in the same things as the group members (this is an issue I deal with in an article I published a few years ago on how people can choose their religious beliefs through becoming members of religious communities).
Haidt’s political tribalism lends itself to a kind of ad hominem criticism of strongly-held political views and values. Instead of explaining away contemporary political positions as mere facades of self-interest, he explains them away as irrational chants of tribal identity. But if people see their political views as right because they hold them to be in some sense sacred, they also hold views as sacred because they are committed to those views as being right. Haidt is too eager, in other words, to dispense with reasons and reasoning altogether. His claims also seem to me to verge on the tautological. How do we know that tribal sacred objects are threatened? We know by the intense emotional response of some group of people. Why does that group respond so strongly? Their sacred objects are being threatened.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Police in the New Orleans Killing Fields

Police shootings are almost routine here in New Orleans. On the first day of this month, New Orleans police officers shot and killed Justin Sipp and wounded Sipp’s brother after a traffic stop near Delgado Community College. Members of Sipp’s family are outraged and demand an investigation . While it is difficult to know what actually happened, two police officers were also shot and wounded during the stop. It is hard to imagine that the officers shot themselves with planted weapons in order to cover up, but it is theoretically possible that the police opened fire first and that these two citizens responded with their own (illegal) weapons in self-defense.

Justin Sipp
The killing of 20 year-old Wendell Allen by police during a drug raid on Allen’s home on March 7  lends itself less easily to explanation by the police.  Officer Joshua Colclough shot Allen in the chest inside the home, at close range. Allen was unarmed at the time.  The only defense of Colclough’s action so far has been provided by Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Raymond Burkart III, who described serving a search warrant as a high-stress, terrifying situation for an officer, remarking, “you don’t know who’s on the other side of that door, if people are hiding, if people are armed or unarmed.”

Wendell Allen
I don’t want to leap to conclusions about events before the facts are out. The New Orleans police do have a history of shooting people, But just as we can’t assume that high crime rates in the city and the criminal records of many of those shot by the police mean that the officers were innocent, so we can’t assume police guilt because of the past sins of some officers. What I want to do here is ask the broader question: why do the police in New Orleans so often have their fingers on their triggers?
While we may be reluctant to accept Raymond Burkart’s comments as an excuse in a particular case, his observations can be very helpful for understanding why police violence occurs in a place like New Orleans. As we know only too well, in war soldiers sometimes kill innocents and engage in other moral violations. This is due to the stress of warfare and to the tendency of war to erase the norms that guide everyday behavior. New Orleans is a city at war, a continual, disorganized, Hobbesian war.
Murder Rates in US and Selected Cities, 2010
Source: FBI, UniformCrime Reports, 2010
In 2010, the murder rate for the United States was 4.8 per 100,000 and the violent crime rate was 403.6 per 100,000. New Orleans had violent crime rate of 727.7 per 100,000 and an astonishing murder rate of 49.1 per 100,000, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for that year.  This was even higher than other crime capitals such as Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. Moreover, the crime rate in New Orleans was highly concentrated in neighborhood and in demographic composition. Whenever the New Orleans police pull over a car or go into a house on the orders of their superiors, there is a good chance that someone is going to start shooting at them.
Police violence in New Orleans, then, is a part of the larger problem of violence in the city. The authorities can punish individual police officers for excessive use of force. They can attempt to improve training. But the police are going to continue acting like nervous soldiers in a war zone as long as the city remains a war zone.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Everything Up for Sale

Writing in The Atlantic, philosopher Michael J. Sandel laments that “…we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale” and he attributes this mercenary state of affairs to “market triumphalism” and the diminishing role of government in providing public goods and regulating the economy. While I agree that there are many aspects of human relations that cannot or should not be evaluated only in terms of dollars and cents, I think Sandel makes two fundamental errors. The first is his assumption that the primacy of monetary values is a product only or even chiefly of the modern market society.  When Marcus Didius Julianus purchased the position of Roman Emperor from the Praetorian Guard in 193, this was because the empire had come loose from its traditional bases of authority, not because the soldiers were advocates of an unregulated economy.
The second assumption, related to the first, is that government control and direction is the only alternative to a society based only on monetary exchange. But there are many limitations to the marketplace, including familism, interpersonal relations within communities, traditionalism, and religious beliefs. As the example from Roman history suggests, the situation “in which everything is up for sale” results more from the weakening of these normative restraints than from the shrinking of government activity. In fact, by replacing non-governmental institutions, government activities arguably promote impersonal exchange as the basis of human interaction.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Can We Be Critical of Critical Race Theory?

Normally, academia is like Cancun or Las Vegas. What happens there stays there (and there’s also a lot of partying in all three).  But one of the academic festivities has recently made it into the popular media. This is “critical race theory,” associated with the late Harvard Professor Derrick Bell.
“Critical race theory” is one of the popular doctrines within contemporary academia. Its origins were mainly in the study of law, but professors in various disciplines across the humanities and social sciences adhere to its tenets and propagate these through their teaching and publications. The core of this doctrine is well-expressed  by a paragraph from the “Critical Race Studies” page of the UCLA School of Public Affairs:
·         CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides
Note that the first sentence of this paragraph uses the verb “recognizes,” not “argues,” “maintains,” or “proposes.” This is one of the reasons that I identify this as a doctrine.  Despite the name, it really is not a theory. It proposes no testable or falsifiable hypotheses. The proponents of this doctrine set forth the “marginalization of people of color” and “white privilege and white supremacy” as basic articles of faith.
When critical race theorists face the undeniable instances of “people of color” who have achieved great power, privilege, and wealth in American society, they usually sneer at these examples as individual exceptions that in no way challenge the pervasiveness of racism through all areas of American society. It does not matter that we currently have a black President and a black Attorney General, or that we have had two black Secretaries of State in recent memory. These are just accidental outliers or tokens in white supremacist America.
One of the problems with this doctrine, if we do treat it as an argument that can be questioned and not as an a priori certainty, is that all of the evidence indicates not just increasing opportunities for a few minority individuals, but structural upward mobility for members of minority groups in general. The figure below, which I generate from the Public Use Microdata Samples of the U.S. Census, can illustrate this point. Here, I present the average Socioeconomic Index scores of major racial groups (whites, blacks, Asians, American Indians, and others) from 1960 to 2009. The Socioeconomic Index (SEI) is a an indicator of status in American society, made up of rankings in occupational prestige, educational attainment, and income.
 Average SEI Scores in the US by Race, 1960-2009
Source: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.
This figure indicates that whites in general moved up on the American socioeconomic ladder mainly from 1960 to 1970. Since then, the scores of white household heads have been more or less constant. Black household heads, though, have moved steadily upward throughout the period, narrowing the black-white gap. So, it isn’t just that an individual with African ancestry has managed to get enough votes from Americans, including those supposedly privileged and supremacist whites, to win a Presidential election. Blacks in general have enjoyed a greater increase in opportunities in recent years than whites have. But the really interesting point is that Asians have been consistently at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, on average. I’m not going to argue that this means the US is a bastion of Asian privilege and Asian supremacy on the basis of this. I’ll leave the untenable claims to the critical race theorists.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I opened the door to the blacksmith shop with care
since the hinges, pock-marked and encrusted
with rust, were almost more than the frame could bear.

There was no floor. I walked on dust instead.
Tools turning to dust were everywhere
scattered in my great-grandfather's shed.

Horseshoes, the pincers that held them in the fire,
then laid them on the anvil, glowing red,
had now cooled together a hundred years.

A hammer sat on its cylindrical head,
long wooden handle projecting in the air,
waiting, still propped against the anvil's side,

to be lifted by the hand that dropped it there,
the hand that worked the bellows, now long rotted.
I pumped it and the ashes barely stirred.

Hearing the rustle of leaves, I turned my head.
At my back, in the half-open door, the sunlight edged
between the darkness here and the brightness there,
like the blacksmith's face, peering back from the dead
at the shadows left behind - his works, his heir.

Monday, March 12, 2012

“Fundamental Questions of Fairness,” Part 2

Previously, I discussed the new statistical findings of the Department of Education that rediscover the differences among racial and ethnic groups in discipline rates. More suspensions and expulsions among blacks and Hispanics than among whites and Asians, according to Secretary Arne Duncan and his associates, raise “fundamental questions of fairness” about how schools are treating members of these different groups.
For a long time, I have argued that schools are simply reflections of the society around them. The discipline issue is a clear case of this. All of the evidence tells us that group variations in discipline within schools result from group variations in social order outside of schools. We can illustrate this with data from the Uniform Crime Reports, published annually by the FBI.  I’m using the 2010 UCR because the full data from 2011 are not yet available.
We can start with racial group differences in murder rates. This crime is an especially useful indicator because it is so well reported. Many other crimes may never come to the attention of the police because no one comes forward to complain about a theft or even an assault. But we almost always know when there is a murder because there is a body.  Moreover, police have much less discretion in deciding to accept reports of murders than other crimes, so in the case of murder it cannot be claimed (as people sometimes do) that apparent racial differences in crime rates are due to discriminatory police practices.
The figure below gives us murder rates for the entire population, by race, in 2010. Although blacks made up only 13 percent of the entire U.S. population, black offenders were known to have committed well over one-third of all murders. Even if we were to maintain, against all logic, that all murders committed by unknown offenders were committed by whites, we would still have 13 percent of the population committing 38 percent of the murders. If we are more reasonable, and assume that the unknowns are distributed more or less like the knowns, we have a small proportion of the population responsible for the great majority of the killings. The disproportion is even greater when we consider that murders are overwhelmingly committed by young men.
Murders Committed in the United States, by Race of Offender, 2010
Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 2010

How does the school-age population measure up on this indicator? Blacks made up a somewhat greater percentage of the juvenile population than the population at large (about 16.6 percent of all Americans aged under 18 were black in 2010. Since most of the offenders were known in killings that can be attributed to juveniles, the disproportion was even greater. That 16.6 percent of the population committed almost double the number of murders committed by the white majority.
Murders Committed in the United States by Offenders Under 18, by Race of Offender, 2010
Having used murders to dispose of the differential enforcement allegation, we can now turn to arrests. Since, in its arrest rates, the UCR further reports that whites made up 49.3 percent of those actually arrested for murder, while blacks made up 48.7 percent, the evidence indicates that blacks were actually less likely than whites to be arrested for this serious crime. In the following figure, I use arrest rates for various crimes for juveniles (under 18). If there were more legal problems among school-age people in one racial group outside of school, then any reasonable person would have to conclude that schools receive many more behavioral problems when members of the group enter the classroom.
Blacks as Percentage of the Total Juvenile Population and a Percentage of of those Arrested for Selected Crimes Committed in the United States, by Race of Offender, 2010
As I looked at the UCR data, the only crimes that I could see for which black juveniles were underrepresented were liquor offenses and drunkenness. In all other offenses, this 16.6 percent of the school-age population were greatly overrepresented. Black young people made up the overwhelming majority of juveniles arrested for burglaries and prostitution. Should we be at all surprised that members of this group require more discipline from school officials?
In pointing these facts out, I am not “blaming the victim,” nor am I claiming that all members of a group can be held responsible for the actions of some. I am simply acknowledging the reality that seems to elude our Department of Education.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Department of Education Rediscovers Differences in School Discipline Rates

The new data issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights find, among other things, differences in suspension and expulsion rates among racial and ethnic groups. This has provoked reactions of shock by Education Department officials and other concerned parties. CNN quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan proclaiming "Perhaps the most alarming findings involve the topic of discipline … The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than nonminorities, even within the same school. Some examples - African American students, particularly males, are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers." The report has been discussed on television and in the news as if this were some new and alarming finding. In fact, though, the existence of these differences is not news at all. The variations in discipline are substantially the same as those that Steve Caldas and I reported in our 2005 book, Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (paperback edition, 2007), and in our discussion of the figure below Steve and I mainly laid out what was already obvious and widely-known: black students are disciplined more than any others, followed by Hispanics. Asian students are suspended and expelled less often than any others, including whites. Note that the data we used in the book come from a report in the 1990s. So, what’s the news here?
The best answer is that Secretary Duncan and others are trumpeting old news as an alarming discovery because they want to use it to push race-conscious policies in the schools. The Department of Education presents that data as "raising fundamental questions about fairness." In taking this preconceived perspective, the department betrays an implicit assumption that schools must be responsible for group differences in suspensions and expulsions. This may be because administrators and teachers, consciously or unconsciously, respond more severely to infractions by black or Hispanic students than to infractions by white or Asian students. Or it may be that behaviors really do differ because of varying situations outside the classrooms and schools should be responding in ways that will eliminate the differences.
The first possibility, that schools are engaging in racially discriminatory behavior in discipline, is theoretically possible, but not supported by the facts. The larger the number of black and Hispanic students in schools, according to long-standing evidence, the more disciplinary problems there are in those schools. As we reported in our book, one out of every five principals in schools with mostly minority students said that their schools had serious discipline problems. Half the principals in mostly minority schools reported having moderate problems. By contrast, the overwhelming preponderance of principals in schools with fewer than 5% minority students said that they had no discipline problems. The more minority students there are in a school, the more common the kinds of behaviors that lead to suspensions and expulsions.
But perhaps those principals’ reports are distorted by their own unconscious biases. That’s not likely. The students themselves much more often reported feeling unsafe, being threatened with weapons, and being in fights when there were more black and Hispanic students in the schools. In general, the evidence just doesn’t support the idea that discipline is being enforced in a discriminatory manner. It does support the idea that the groups vary in their actual rates of misbehavior and that punishment reflects this.
But isn’t it “racist” to suggest that orderliness is not evenly distributed across all groups? No, not only is it not morally wrong to present such a hypothesis, there are excellent, empirically based explanations for why behavioral variations by race and ethnicity exist.  One of these explanations comes from family background. An extensive social scientific literature, as well as common sense, tells us that behavior problems in school are clearly correlated with single-parent family structure. The demographic groups that are disciplined at higher rates than others also have much higher percentages of children living in single-parent families. In my own research, I’ve found that many of the educational disadvantages of minority children result from their being in schools containing large concentrations of children from single-parent families, a fact best explained by the behavioral problems in those schools. Beyond families, of course, there are also communities. Social order in schools is frequently a reflection of community social order.
But what about the other claim, that schools are failing to live up to their responsibilities to deal with misbehavior in a way that will erase all the family and community disadvantages that some students bring with them to the classroom? If Secretary Duncan and his associates think that is possible, I have to wonder what they’ve been smoking around the conference table. I hope that their answer would not be to lighten up on the suspensions and expulsions of black and Hispanic students. That would simply keep more problem students in the classrooms and further disrupt the learning of their classmates, who are most often other black and Hispanic students. More seriously, the shift of responsibility for individual actions from the individual to the institution can only worsen the problem by ingraining the view that anything pupils, or pupils in specific groups, do wrong is the fault of the school or the society.