Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
10Nov/141

Amor Mundi 11/9/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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The Creep In Our Kitchen, In Our Car, And Everywhere

internet of thingsSue Halpern writes that the internet is getting creepy. Beyond smart phones and smart watches, we now also are confronted with smart cars and smart refrigerators. Cars remember where we like to go and can direct us there; they will soon even drive for us. Refrigerators know our favorite milk and our guilty pleasures and can order them to be delivered before we realize we need them. All these smart appliances are wired, connecting us and the immense and revelatory data of our lives to the world of commerce and security. Companies can, of course, pay for that data and subtly or not suggest new products. And the government, or others, can hack into the streams of data we trail behind us to know where we've been, what we're doing, and even what we want. Halpern cites Jeremy Rifkin, an evangelist of the coming internet of things, who is clear that in this new age, there will be no privacy: "Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy, a defining characteristic of modernity, and into the era of transparency." For Rifkin, we should have no qualms about trading privacy for a coming age of unparalleled convenience and security. The more information about ourselves we offer up to the internet of things, the more benefits we will receive. As Halpern argues this week in the NY Review of Books, "These trade-offs will only increase as the quotidian becomes digitized, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities to opt out. It's one thing to edit the self that is broadcast on Facebook and Twitter, but the Internet of Things, which knows our viewing habits, grooming rituals, medical histories, and more, allows no such interventions-unless it is our behaviors and curiosities and idiosyncracies themselves that end up on the cutting room floor." We are entering a world in which we need to rethink what it means to be private in a world when we are so connected to the internet of things that the internet-and those who can mine it-knows more about ourselves than we do.

The Decadent Introvert

alonenessLinda Holmes talks up the pleasure of being alone and asks how, if at all, we can truly be by and with ourselves: "We have a certain cultural mistrust of solitude, I think. It is for weirdos and lost souls, spinsters and misfits. But in truth, I can't tell you what a luxury I think it is to be entitled to it. Most of the time, I want good company, like most people do. But the experience of earned, voluntary aloneness is, among other things, instructive. I don't think you can really understand how accustomed you are to being scheduled and operating off an internal to-do list at almost all times until you think to yourself, 'My goal will be to get to Providence by 4,' and then you think, 'Why is there a goal?' And then it begins to make you internally rebellious: What if I drove with no goal? What if I had nowhere to be all day until it was time to sleep and I discussed with no one where to stop and take a picture, where to have lunch, what shop to go in, or which way to turn on the trail? What would I do if I could do anything - in this micro-environment, in this moment, at the point of this particular pause, what is my wish?"

The Courage to Speak Up

Alayne FleischmannAttorney General Eric Holder is about to resign. His legacy: after six years as the nation's top law enforcement officer, no one has gone to jail either for breaking American laws against torture or for breaking U.S. laws regarding financial fraud relating to the financial crisis. In a recent speech at NYU, Holder explained why it is that corporate executives are not criminally prosecutable: "Responsibility remains so diffuse, and top executives so insulated, that any misconduct could again be considered more a symptom of the institution's culture than a result of the willful actions of any single individual." As Matt Taibi glosses such doublespeak in Rolling Stone, "In other words, people don't commit crimes, corporate culture commits crimes!" Taibi's moral clarity comes in an article on Alayne Fleischmann: "the central witness in one of the biggest cases of white-collar crime in American history, possessing secrets that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon late last year paid $9 billion (not $13 billion as regularly reported - more on that later) to keep the public from hearing. Back in 2006, as a deal manager at the gigantic bank, Fleischmann first witnessed, then tried to stop, what she describes as 'massive criminal securities fraud' in the bank's mortgage operations. Thanks to a confidentiality agreement, she's kept her mouth shut since then. 'My closest family and friends don't know what I've been living with,' she says. 'Even my brother will only find out for the first time when he sees this interview.'" Fleischmann saw crimes committed, blew the whistle on them, and is angry that these crimes are still not being prosecuted. Her choice to speak now appears to be a brave one: "And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. 'I could be sued into bankruptcy,' she says. 'I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don't start speaking up, then this really is all we're going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.'"

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Oligarchy, From Left And Right

James BurnhamIn a short essay seeking to revive the 20th century American conservative James Burnham, Daniel McCarthy argues that we need to learn from Burnham's combination of unblinkered realism regarding power and insight into the non-ideological managerial elite. He suggests that, as a political culture, there's just one way forward: "What has happened in America since the end of the Cold War, however, is that competition for popular favor has been reduced to a propaganda exercise-employing myths, symbols, and other 'derivatives'-disconnected from policies of material interest to the ruling class. Thus monetary policy, foreign policy, and positions on trade and immigration vary little between Republican and Democratic presidents. This is a terrible situation-if you're not part of the elite. If you are, all the gridlock and venom of our politics is simply irrelevant to the bottom line. For the non-elite, however, insecurity of all kinds continues to rise, as does a sense that the country is being sold out from under you. America's ruling class has bought itself time-for continuing capitalism in an age of worldwide managerial revolution-at the expense of America's middle and working classes. Reform, alas, will not come from 'throw the bums out' populism of either the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street varieties. It can only come from two directions: the best of the people must grow conscious of how oligarchy operates and why populist leadership is a paradox, and new factions among the elite must be willing to open competition on more serious fronts-campaigning not only on myths and formulas but on the very substance of the managerial revolution."

No Good Sports

sportsmanshipCharles P. Pierce takes on the myth of American sportsmanship: "Sports today are conducted in a context that makes true sportsmanship - which is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing that your opponent is basically the same common clay deserving of the same respect as you are, not because of talent, but simply because he or she is another human being - almost impossible. Sports today, at almost every level, have arranged themselves in such a way that the athlete is made a commodity. The games are a clash of walking narratives, of competing sales campaigns, of a design competition between marketing techniques and strategies. This has exacerbated the emotional conflict that always has been present when we talk about our athletes - we want ferocious, brain-scrambling passion from them when the ball is in play, and conspicuous public politesse when it is not. If the latter gets tangled up in the former, then we get what seem to be endless arguments about how America is being wussified, and how we have become a soft and passive people, and a lot of rancid talk about people playing in skirts and so on. It's a wonder more athletes don't simply go mad." But if sportsmanship is a no go, what's left? Ultimately, Pierce wonders if it is anything more or less than kindness.  

What's the Matter With Goodness?

Toni MorrisonIn a conversation with Angela Davis, Toni Morrison gives a short history of the end of goodness: "It wasn't true in literature in the early days. There was always a hero who prevailed. As awful as things could happen in a Dickens novel, it ended up with the survival and triumph of high morality, of people who deserved to triumph. But something happened. Now, I'm not entirely sure about this, but I think it is after World War I with novelists at any rate, and certainly some of the war poets. Perhaps they understood themselves as attacking evil but they ended up theatricalizing it and the good people were fairly stupid or unlucky or what have you. There are references in literature to the silencing of goodness ... I am interested in pulling from the modern canon what I know and what I believe about this adoration and fascination, this compulsion to display evil. Even if there is a mild attempt to say that it is evil, nevertheless, it's hogging the stage in many novels. I think goodness is weak in literature almost like it is in the culture. This is just a general observation."

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Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin reflects on Arendt's understanding of violence and the origins of power in the Quote of the Week. John Stuart Mill provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back on a 2010 Lunchtime Talk with Ursula Ludz, a former visiting scholar of the Hannah Arendt Center. And we appreciate a copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera in our Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
15Feb/130

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul

Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.

In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.

The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.

Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.

If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:

When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.

And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.

The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.

Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.

Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.

Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.

Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”

The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”

But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less.  That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.

The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Jan/133

The Pension Crisis in Cities

The Pew Center on the States issued a study this week that sheds further light on our municipal pension problems, a political crisis with strong Arendtian overones. Where most studies have focused on the enormous problems faced by states, this one focuses on cities:

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The growing funding gulf, which the study estimated at more than $217 billion for the 61 cities in the study, raises worries about local finances at a time when states are also struggling to recover from the recession. Property-tax revenue dipped during the housing crisis, straining city finances amid a weak national economy.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Also this week the NY Times ran a story about San Bernadino, one of three California cities to file for bankruptcy as a result of their pension obligations. It is a stark reminder of why we should care about public pensions:

Five months after San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy — the third California city to seek Chapter 9 protections in 2012 — residents here are confronting a transformed and more perilous city.  After violent crime had dropped steadily for years, the homicide rate shot up more than 50 percent in 2012 as a shrinking police force struggled to keep order in a city long troubled by street gangs that have migrated from Los Angeles, 60 miles to the west.  … “The parks department is shredded, the libraries similarly,” [the mayor] said. “My office is down to nobody. I’ve got literally no one left.”

A similar fate is befalling other California cities that are in bankruptcy:

Stockton, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in June, has followed a similarly grim path into insolvency, logging more homicides last year than ever before. In Vallejo, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, cuts left the police force a third smaller, and the city became a hub for prostitution.

As I have argued, the pension crisis is not arcane policy or economics. It is a crisis of politics and government. It came about because municipal and state governments offered irresponsible contracts to public employees. There is no way these contractually guaranteed pensions can be paid. By refusing to face up to this fact now, we are making the problem worse. The result will be the hollowing out of local government services across the country. Police forces will be decimated. Public libraries and fire stations will close. Parks will fall into disrepair. All in order to pay full pensions to retirees. This of course won’t happen. Cities will refuse to do it, as they have in California and elsewhere. The result will then be bankruptcy, which comes with its own tragedies.

For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees. This is already happening.

What is more, the pension crisis will likely further erode local control over our lives. As municipalities go bankrupt they turn to states. As states go bankrupt, they turn to the federal government. Bailouts come with strings and ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy. For those who understand that our federal system was designed to thwart the establishment of sovereignty by dispersing power through competing levels of governance, the pension crisis has the potential to radically disempower local governments and further the amassing of federal power already long underway.

There may not be pretty or easy solutions, but ignoring or denying the problem is no longer an option. It is time for those who care about government and freedom to engage the pension issue and insist to our legislators that we act to treat pensioners with respect but also preserve the power of local governments to support rich and vibrant political institutions.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
28Sep/120

The Perverse Incentives of Student Debt

Student debt in the United States is now around $1 Trillion. This debt is inextinguishable, which means that banks and policy makers have insisted that young people be more responsible for their bad financial decisions than adults or corporations, both of which can, of course, free themselves from un-payable debts through bankruptcy. Not so for students whose massive indebtedness is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that educational debt burden is crushing America’s young.  Here is a chart from Pew.

Walter Russell Mead glosses the Pew report in this way:

The [Pew] study reports that one in five American households is now saddled with student debt, 15 percent more than in 2007. And the amount of debt households are carrying has also grown: the average debt burden is now more than $26,000.

Worst of all, the debt burden is heaviest for those who can least afford to carry it:

[W]hether computed as a share of household income or assets, the relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.

The idea of sending our poorest members to college is born of a noble impulse. And many of these young people are indeed given full scholarships to elite colleges. But it is one thing to pay for the brightest and most industrious of our young people to go to college. It is something else entirely to tell others, those who did not earn a scholarship of some sort, that it makes sense for them to borrow tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a diploma from a third or fourth tier school, or even a for-profit college. There is a perversity in this system that saddles young people with possibility-denying debt.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Jun/1211

The New Class War: Public vs. Private

Occupy Wall Street focused attention on one conception of class conflict-the super wealthy against the 99%.  As successful as OWS was in spreading its message, almost no legislative agenda emerged.

The Tea Party focused its attention on the tax burdens faced by the middle classes and the upper middle classes.  The villain for the Tea Party is not the .5% who earn over $3 Million every year, but the firefighters and policemen and teachers who protect us and educate our children. The battle the Tea Party is fighting is against a vision of big government that is part reality and part fantasy.

The Tea Party's battle goes to the heart of who we are as a nation and it is less a battle between rich and poor than between progressives and conservatives. The Tea Party has given laser-like focus to what will now be a defining battle of the decade: Is the government going to continue to play a leading role in providing our health care, protecting the environment, and supporting our industries.

After Tuesday, one must face the facts that the Tea Party is winning in the democratic forum. Four votes Tuesday make this clear.

•Scott Walker's victory in the recall election in Wisconsin proves that even in democratic states with a historically pro-union electorate, the anger against public unions is palpable.

•Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved referendum that not only cut future pension benefits for public workers but more radically cut pensions for current workers as well.

•The City Council in Stockton, California granted the City Manager authority to declare bankruptcy—Stockton would be the largest city ever in the US to have done so.

It is important to note that the battle is not over welfare or even over healthcare.  Scratch beneath the surface and the Tea Party is not anti-welfare. In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, Harvard scholars who have interviewed adherents of the new insurgency in different regions of the country, report that:

83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to “leave alone” or “increase” Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals…. 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for “raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year.

While the Tea Party activists are eager to shrink government, they do not seem to welcome a decimation of the welfare state. If the battle is not over a minimal welfare state, it is a battle over public sector unions.

Why are public sector unions so important?

My colleague and Arendt Center friend, Walter Russell Mead, articulates an answer. At the core of the democratic left for decades has been the "belief in a strong, well-funded state."  The many diverse environmentalists, egalitarians, and progressives have various agendas, but all depend on a vibrant bureaucracy to guide and rationalize public and private life. Some want government to fund schools and universities; other want government to save the environment; another group wants government to guarantee racial, sexual, gender, and religious equality; many want government to provide universal healthcare or guarantee a college education to anyone who wants it. In all these cases, what progressives want, in Mead's words:

Is control of the progressive, bureaucratic government machinery of the 21st century [which] is both the prize for whose control they struggle and the agent they hope will make their dreams real.

Mead encapsulates why the battle over public sector unions is so crucial at this juncture:

A Democratic Party dominated by its public sector unions is a party married to government and to bureaucracy. To the degree that the public unions shape its agenda, the Democrats become a lobby for the servants of the state. For the unions who represent its employees, the bureaucratic, civil service state is a solution permanently in search of new problems to solve and new worlds to conquer. The power of the public unions within the party pulls Democrats much farther to the left than they would otherwise go.

This is one reason the Wisconsin reforms stimulated such a powerful and united emotional wave of push back from virtually every section of the left. The threat to the public unions isn’t just a threat to a powerful source of funding for left-liberal candidates and to strong organizations with political experience and muscle; it’s a threat to the heart of the left coalition and to the structures that give the left much of its power in Democratic and therefore in national politics.

But the dominance of the public unions in the left had consequences for the left itself — bad ones. In contemporary America, the public sector unions are essentially a conservative constituency. That is, their core goal is to get more resources in order to fight all but superficial change in the structures their members inhabit. They want ever growing subsidies to the postal service, the public school system, the colleges and universities, even to health care — but they do not want the kind of reforms that could make these institutions more efficient, more productive, more serviceable.

Illustration by Sean Delonas

Mead offers wise counsel. One can of course believe that the reason for the victories in Wisconsin, San Jose, Stockton, and San Diego is simply the deep pockets of the Koch brothers. And those pockets are deep and deceptive. But money alone does not explain the voters' abandonment of public unions and the progressive model. The nation is seriously rethinking the role of the state and the public in our lives. We should be thinking with them. You can read more of Mead's post here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16May/124

Political Scientists Bemoan Funding Cuts

Political scientists around the country are in a huff here, and here, and here. The reason has little to do with the upcoming election, the vacuum in political leadership, or the state of the world. No, they are upset because Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake has proposed cutting the National Science Foundation's Political Science Program that awards about $11 Million a year to support political science research.

The anger and posturing are extraordinary. And political scientists are rushing to defend the relevance and necessity of their research. Special anger is directed at Congressman Flake's blindness to the import of a $700,000 NSF proposed study to develop "A multi-level, agent-based model for identifying the factors that enable or constrain international climate change negotiations." I have no doubt such a study has uses. But I do wonder if those writing the study could make those uses more accessible. They write:

The goal of our research is to develop a new tool for international climate policy analysis based on the concept of agent-based modeling (ABM).  ABM facilitates a more realistic and simultaneous treatment of the diverse forces which influence multi-party decisions.  Our model will represent both the international climate negotiation process, as well as the key dynamics of domestic economies relevant to energy and climate change.  Some key questions to be explored with our model include: Are there patterns of innovation, adaptation, or climate damages that emerge from an ABM representation of an economy that are obscured by conventional assessments? ...

The authors then provide this graphic to illustrate what they mean:

I don't want to disparage the research, which I am sure will be of interest to a subset of academic political scientists. This research may even, over years, produce insights that gradually merge with the fruits of other research to change and even improve our understanding of how multiparty negotiations impact complicated international topics.  And, yes, $700,000 is less than a drop in the bucket in the federal budget. But when looking at the Federal Budget, at a time when students are being forced into bankruptcy because they can't repay student debt, is this where the government should be spending its money?

Congressman Flake, who I never have heard of before happens to have a Masters degree in Political Science; he understands that these grants have multiple uses. First, they advance the general knowledge of the social sciences. They also advance the careers of the political scientists who win them.  What is more, the vast majority of the funds dispersed go to subsidize the administrative costs at our nation's colleges and universities. And here is where the proposed funding looks mighty suspect.

The researchers proposing this study are from Dartmouth. Dartmouth is a fine school, also a small school that happens to have an endowment of over $3 Billion dollars. As Congressman Flake notes,

According to the NSF Web site, to date, more than $80 million has been awarded to the program’s nearly 200 active projects. Three-quarters of these awards, totaling over $46 million, were directed to universities with endowments greater than $1 billion.

The outrage of the political science community at these cuts is more than misplaced.

We may wonder why political science and not anthropology. I guess the first answer is that Congressman Flake is a political scientist and thus is beginning to cut in the areas he knows best. But the bigger issue is that these cuts are just the beginning of a desperately needed rethinking of what the federal government should be spending money on at a time of coming austerity.

The beauty of the American system is the dispersion of power. The federal government does not control all the levers of power or all the money in the USA. If the NSF cannot or does not fund a study, those who feel the need for that study have plenty of other pots to dip their hands into. There are a myriad of foundations and universities that support an enormous amount of social science research. The issue is not that necessary research may not get done, but that there will now be one fewer pot. That is sad for political scientists, but not a tragedy. Indeed, political scientists might ask: How has bureaucratic federal grant-making changed and influenced the nature of political science research?

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Mar/1211

Pension Ponzis: Questions About the Public Interest

The public pension crisis is eroding the American social contract. While many are up in arms against Governor Scott Walker's heavy-handed attack on public unions, the fact is that Democratic governors in NY and California are also struggling with the inevitable need to reduce public pensions. Governor Jerry Brown in California admitted recently that public pensions were a Ponzi scheme. That is obvious. What is now sinking in as reality is that the Ponzi scheme is out of money and falling apart.

The Pew Center on the States published a study in 2011 called the Trillion Dollar Gap. The first sentence states the point:

$1 trillion. That’s the gap at the end of fiscal year 2008 between the $2.35 trillion states had set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises.

A mere one year later, the gap had increased 26%!

The gap between the promises states have made for public employees’ retirement benefits and the money set aside to pay for them grew to at least $1.26 trillion in fiscal year 2009-a 26 percent increase in one year-according to a Pew report.

The gap is actually much bigger than the Pew Center numbers suggest, since the report is based on the official numbers that use way too optimistic expectations of returns.

The Pew Center Report continues, stating the reason this matters so much:

Why does it matter? Because every dollar spent to reduce the unfunded retirement liability cannot be used for education, public safety and other needs. Ultimately, taxpayers could face higher
 taxes or cuts in essential public services.

Municipal bankruptcies are mounting. Prichard, Alabama and Central Falls, Rhode Island both filed for bankruptcy, and they have had to vastly reduce the pensions promised to their public employees. The city of Stockton, California is in bankruptcy court now, and it must pay $30 million every year in pension costs, even as it only sets aside .70 cents for every dollar it must pay.

The crisis is spiraling. In essence, cities and states around the country will have to decide whether to honor their legal debts to public employees or pay for services like police, fire, and parks needed by their current residents. The only other option is a bailout from the federal government, but the size of the problem is enormous and such a bailout seems highly unlikely.

In the meantime, states continue to juggle money around to keep the Ponzi scheme going.  Just this month New York State decided to let municipalities and public entities borrow money from the state pension fund to make their payments back into the state pension fund. This is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.

And while New York State did finally pass a version of pension reform last week, the reform falls far short of what Governor Cuomo wanted and what is needed. The Assembly raised the retirement age for public employees (not for policeman and firemen) to 63 from 62, whereas Cuomo sensibly asked it be raised to 65. As it stands now, the New York State pension plan is expected to consume 35 percent of the New York State's budget by 2015. This is up from a mere 3% in 2001.  More.

For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees.

It is bad enough that we will have to renege on pensions owed to public service employees (as municipalities in Rhode Island, Alabama, and California are already doing), but it is worse that we will do so after bailing out Wall St. bankers and allowing taxpayers to pay their contractually-obligated bloated bonuses. That these seven-figure bonuses were paid and yet we are unable and unwilling to pay contractually obligated pension costs is both a fact and an example of why the bailout of the bankers was so deeply wrong and misguided.

The issues around public pensions are complicated. They involve contractual promises made to workers that simply cannot be honored as well as pitting public servants against everyday taxpayers. There is also the fact that public employees are paid significantly more than similarly educated private employees at all but the highest levels of income and education. A recent Congressional Budget Office study concluded that:

  • Average benefits for federal workers with no more than a high school diploma were 72 percent higher than for their private-sector counterparts.
  • Average benefits for federal workers whose education ended in a bachelor's degree were 46 percent higher than for similar workers in the private sector.
  • Workers with a professional degree or doctorate received roughly the same level of average benefits in both sectors.

The CBO chart below shows clearly the relative overcompensation of public workers against their private-sector counterparts.  While one could turn this around and argue that private-sector workers are underpaid, the fact is that the current level of benefits for public-sector workers is bankrupting our municipalities and states. We can argue all we want about what is fair pay, but the current pay levels are clearly unsustainable. More, they are threatening to devastate public services as we continue to cut services in order to pay outsized benefits to retired public-sector workers.

Do public employees deserve to make more than private employees? Should we say that someone teaching in public schools deserves more than one teaching in private schools?  For some, the answer is yes and there is a sense that it is more noble and thus valuable to serve in the public interest. Some might even turn to Hannah Arendt to justify such a claim, that a public-service career is more public-spirited and thus more socially valuable than a private-service career.

As much as I value public-sector employees, it is a mistake to put them on a pedestal. It is unclear whether most public employees are more public-spirited than their private-sector counterparts. It is also unclear whether public school teachers and professors are better, more important, or more noble than their private school counterparts.

What is clear, however, is that public employees have a private interest in taking more and more of the taxpayer-generated revenue for themselves. In other words, public employees have a private interest in diverting public funds from public services to their wages and pensions. In this sense, the increasing numbers of public employees and their increasing wages and benefits threaten to hollow out public services in our country.

This is not to condemn public employees. Nor is it to deny that at the higher incomes, wealthy Americans should pay more in taxes to support governmental services. But we should be honest and contest the prejudice that public employees have the public interest at heart. And we need to have an adult debate about what to do about underfunded and ballooning public pensions.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Aug/112

The City on the Hill is Bankrupt: Politically, Not Economically.

AAA is gone, and with it, one fears, the City on the Hill. American exceptionalism is a fraught theme, and yet it still provides a demand for action that inspires and stiffens the Emersonian backbone of the nation. It is not the economy that will burn the city to the ground, but our collective political weakness. The question before us is whether there is still enough common spirit left in the United States of America to undergird a regeneration of public life and a commitment to the public good--or will the country drown in a flood of individuals unapologetically craven to their private interests.

We could use some of Emersonian self-reliance right now. For our problems, despite the very real and extraordinary debts we have, are less economic than political, moral, and spiritual. Which is why the calm pleadings of economists saying "its not so bad" ring hollow. And why Standard & Poors was more right than wrong to base its decision not only on economic factors, but also on our  political swamp:

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.

Of course this political morass is not limited to the United States. The European Union has been uniquely incompetent in owning up to the size and severity of the crisis in the Eurozone—consider  Italian politicians who refuse to understand that a low-growth economy with 120% of its GDP in debt is a problem. Leaders in Japan have been equally oblivious for 15 years to the fact that their massive debt and culture of passing the buck is simply not working.

But let's return to the City on the Hill. U.S. politicians continue to promise rosy days ahead, talking about the greatness of America as if the dream were eternal. But it is time to wake up and one can only wonder what or whom today will serve as Henry David Thoreau's cock crow to rouse us from our debt-financed consumer binge. Someone, somehow, needs to wake us from our looming bankruptcy.

As Walter Russell Mead wrote earlier today, our bankruptcy is more than just an economic problem:

Of what does this looming bankruptcy consist?  In our case it is the looming inability to pay the trillions in unfunded liabilities of all levels of government, but behind it lies a deeper failure and a poverty of soul.  Spiritual near-bankruptcy is the common condition that binds China, Japan, Europe, the US and much of the rest of the world together.

Here in the U.S. as in much of the world, we refuse to take seriously what any sane person knows to be true, that the standard of living that has characterized the American Dream for half a century was and is founded upon funny money and debt. We need to take political control of our destiny, but that first requires that we be honest with ourselves and admit  that whatever solutions we offer to our problems, most of us will suffer  a decrease in the standard of living.

It is an open question how this will happen. Will the highest earners  retain their privileges? Yes,  barring a political revolution of some sort, which is also a possibility. Will those with wealth keep their money in the United States pay taxes as citizens, or will they move that wealth to tax havens around the world even as they militate for tax rebates and lower tax rates at home? Will we as a nation recognize the need for everyone to suffer together, or will we insist on slogans like "no taxes" and "soak the rich"? But the biggest question is: Will we suffer for nothing or will we somehow find a way to make suffering meaningful so that the city on the hill might rise again?

The changes that come—soon or possibly pushed down the road into the future— will encompass all areas of American life. Medical care will be rationed (rationally or economically); the unique privilege of every family living in its own house is already eroding as college graduates move back in with family; salaries and average wages will decrease; our consumption economy will contract. This will be painful but there is no way to avoid it. The question is, when will we find a leader or a political movement that will actually call upon us to face up to our future, inspire us to build a new city on the hill, and and imagine a way for us to get there?

No thinker understood the threat to public society and public action as clearly as Hannah Arendt. She saw that the philosophy of representative government fit all too well the bourgeois desire to focus on one's private interest and let paid representatives go to Washington simply to ensure that one was left well enough alone to pursue one's dream. She also saw that a consumer society values the immediate needs of life over the more diffuse and human need to build a common world. Amidst all the post-9/11 rhetoric of patriotism, it is easy to forget that we are living through an utter loss of public feeling and common sense in this country and in others beyond. The bond with our past as well as with our future has been cut and the question for all of us is how, or if, we can in some way live in a world without that sense of connection to a past and a future. This is what Arendt meant with the title of her book Between Past and Future, that space of thinking without bannisters, divorced from tradition, where we have nothing to fall back upon but ourselves. It is a scary proposition, but we have no choice but to live up to it.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".