Economics, Law, Politics

“Finally, Whites Come First”

Like many white Americans, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Trump administration’s efforts to increase racial equality in the United States. After a lifetime of being denied opportunities based solely on the color of my skin, I now have a first, tentative sense of what racial justice must feel like.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty I am free at last.”

I realize my reaction may be difficult to understand for the dominant groups in the United States today, such as blacks, undocumented immigrants, gays, and Muslims. If you have never been discriminated against, it can be difficult to appreciate the ways that racial oppression distorts and limits a life.

Let me share a parable that captures my experience. It comes from the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent years talking with the white victims of racial discrimination in the United States.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Economics, Literature, Politics

This Must Be What Freedom Feels Like

In the waiting room of the hospital sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who is in pain and seeks to gain entry to the hospital.

“Anyone may enter the hospital,” the gatekeeper tells the man. “All you need do is enter through the emergency door.” She gestures toward a wide, swinging door at the far end of the waiting room.

The man approaches the emergency door, then turns back. “How much will it cost to enter through this door?” he asks. The gatekeeper says that there is no way of knowing the cost before the man enters. She encourages him to enter for the sake of his health. “We can settle the cost afterward,” she smiles. “We are not barbarians, after all.”

The man returns to the gatekeeper’s desk and asks her if there is another way to enter the hospital. Continue reading

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Economics, Politics

Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

President Obama recently made a speech to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, arguing that climate change is a national security issue. This is an argument that the Pentagon made in a report last year. Many others have been making it for over a decade.

I’ve often thought that progressives who care about climate change should make the connection to national security more often, in an attempt to appeal to the values of cultural conservatives — although there will of course be limits to the persuasiveness of such an appeal if conservatives perceive it as coming from liberals.

More generally, what President Obama might call “a whole host of”* progressive policies could be advocated on national security grounds. This casts a new light on several previous arguments that have appeared on this blog.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

The media at the hinge of political history

I’m beginning to wonder whether the media is in some sense the most crucial actor in understanding political change in a democracy.

The more you read in political science, the more you find grounds for skepticism that various ostensibly powerful actors can bring about change through their own actions. The presidency, for example, doesn’t appear to be all that it’s cracked up to be. Despite our desire for a President who will use the “bully pulpit” to sway the public, the evidence suggests that Presidents rarely succeed in changing public opinion. At most, their public statements can help shape the agenda, forcing the public to have an opinion on an issue — by influencing what the media talks about.

The courts rarely depart significantly from public opinion, despite the myth of the Supreme Court as the last refuge of liberty and equality in times of crisis and stress. In theory, the Supreme Court might be able to bring about political change by decree, ordering the government to do this or that radically unpopular thing. But that almost never happens in practice.

I suppose someone could argue that Congress is a driving force for political change. Maybe they’d point to the Senate’s ostensible deliberative golden age in the antebellum era. But I don’t imagine many people would seriously suggest that Congress today is leading much of anything, or more influencing than influenced.

The public itself is remarkably uninformed, and seems likely to remain uninformed despite the dreams of theorists of deliberative democracy for “deliberation days” and so on. To the extent that some portions of the public are informed, they’re largely informed by the mass media — and, perhaps, social media, to the extent that the two are different.

How about grassroots activists? There’s no doubt that activists can be a real force for political change — on those rare occasions when their decades of Sisyphean efforts bear fruit. But, when this happens, it is usually in part because they have succeeded in getting favorable coverage by the media. Or because they have made their own favorable media, for example by creating a popular, muckraking documentary film.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

Civil Disobedience: the Poor Man’s Lobbying

Free Photo: Dust Bowl Farm

So let’s assume, as I considered in an earlier post, that there’s a relatively stable hierarchy of political needs among voters in democracies like the United States — a rough ranking of concerns that tend to determine voting behavior, especially in presidential elections. And let’s assume that in this ranking, “national security trumps economic policy, and economic policy trumps other issues, such as civil liberties, or campaign finance reform, or more altruistic goals like saving future generations from the consequences of severe climate change…”

That means that voters will tend to vote based on how they perceive the economy to be doing — unless there is a perceived threat to national security, in which case voters will tend to support the candidate or party that is perceived as strongest, or at least will only support candidates that are perceived as sufficiently strong, on national security. Maybe there’s something that trumps even national security — something like honor, identity, or recognition — but I’ll set that aside for the moment.

What if you, the engaged citizen, want to bring about change on some issue that is beneath the economy on the hierarchy of political needs? What if, for example, you want to see the federal government change its policies on carbon emissions? Is this a hopeless dream?

It seems to me that there are several mechanisms in our democracy for getting around the hierarchy of political needs.

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Economics, Philosophy, Politics

Thucydides and the Social Sciences (Autobiographical)

Free Photo: Amphitheater at Pompeii

This post offers a little piece of intellectual autobiography that I hope will place some other posts in a clearer light — especially the posts related to the later Wittgenstein, and the posts on economics. For me, it’s a chance to sort out some of my current thinking by considering what preceded it.

There was a time, shortly after my first exposure to the history of economic ideas, following years of being focused almost exclusively on the humanities, when I thought that what the scholarly world really needed was a kind of new grand unified theory of the social sciences. All I look for from a social science — from any science — is an increase in the power to predict and control nature in ways that serve our purposes, whatever they are. The intellectual run-up to the global financial crisis seemed to show that orthodox economics, as practiced by the world’s leading economists, was failing by this standard.

And economics appeared to be at the vanguard of the social sciences. If economics was driven by “physics envy” — the scientistic desire to emulate the mathematico-deductive rigor of theoretical physics — then other social sciences, such as political science, seemed to be afflicted with “economics envy.” But the global financial crisis called into question whether the emperor was wearing any clothes. Under such circumstances, it seemed to me, wasn’t it worth questioning the reigning assumptions? Might it not be time for some revolutionary science?

Once I began reading about the history of economic ideas, along with critiques of contemporary economic thought, my enthusiasm for this idea grew. To begin with, the secondary literature on economic thought is full of persuasive critiques of the intellectual underpinnings of a great deal of contemporary academic economics, especially the kind practiced in “freshwater” economics departments and by business school professors teaching finance. The more one reads about rational choice theory and the assumptions of quasi-omniscient, hyper-mathematical rationality that dominate so much of mainstream academic economics, the more the field seems ripe for a paradigm shift based on a skeptical rethinking of the basic phenomena under investigation.

In fact, it occurred to me that the predictive successes of modern economics, such as they are, might be largely attributable to the fact that when one is investigating human behavior related to money and closely related subjects — the core focus of economics as a subject matter — the single most important factor in human behavior is calculated self-interest, or, as economists sometimes call it, “rationality.” When making money, people will generally try to make as much as they can with as little effort as possible; when spending money, people will generally try to spend as little as they can for the greatest possible return; and so on. If you’re trying to predict money-related human behavior using as simple a model as possible, a model based on the assumption that individual actors are more or less rational agents (in the economic sense of rationality) is probably your best bet.

But even if you achieve good predictive results with this model in the context of money-related activity, this success obviously does not imply that rationality will always be the most useful model for predicting human behavior, especially in contexts less directly related to money, or where we have good reason to believe that non-pecuniary concerns may trump pecuniary ones.

For example, when we try to imagine what contemporary American political life would look like if all the political actors behaved purely based on calculated self-interest — without gaming the results ahead of time by redefining “self-interest” to include all sorts of ad hoc preferences and motivations that we would not ordinarily view as “self-interested” — the thought experiment leads to absurd results. Do we live in a world with no voters, where politicians run for office without any ideological commitments, tribal affiliations and moral commitments play no role, and officials attract the public’s support by offering generous populist benefits, such as lavish infrastructure and a guaranteed minimum income, with no concern for the deficit? Not at all. Many of the central features of our political life are phenomena that one would not expect to see if the relevant actors were behaving purely as rational actors — unless, again, the idea of rationality is transformed beyond recognition or usefulness.

So, when one discovers that the rational choice methodologies of economics have expanded, perhaps based partly on economics’ scientistic allure, to other domains in the social sciences, the case for a new grand unified theory of the social sciences seems even stronger. If the use of rational choice theory in economics invites skeptical questioning, the use of rational choice theory in, for example, political science — in so-called “public choice theory” — can sometimes seem not only absurd but useless. What unexpected predictive successes can public choice theory claim, against the countless instances where its models would lead us astray? The same could be asked of many rational-choice-based forays into sociology, such as the study of family life.

Certainly, focusing on calculated self-interest may help to dispel comforting illusions about human behavior — for example, if anyone thinks that crime results from some kind of mental pathology, it could certainly be useful to show the contexts in which rationality helps explain crime. But how many comforting illusions are there left to dispel today? Hasn’t the Machiavellian assumption of cold, calculating rationality as the driving force in all human behavior become our own dominant illusion — comforting us not by flattering our moral characters, but by flattering our cold-eyed realism, our courageous perceptiveness and freedom from childish illusions — even where an equally tractable alternative model might yield superior predictions?

With these thoughts in mind, I asked myself: why doesn’t someone develop a better alternative to rational choice theory that can displace its imperialistic role within the social sciences? Why, for example, doesn’t someone follow the lead of Thucydides, who recognized the great importance of self-interest to human behavior, but saw self-interest as one only one of human beings’ three central motivations — the other two being fear and honor?

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