Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Moral Roots of Income Inequality


Inequality is not simply a matter of numbers and economics. Thomas Edsall explores at the moral and cultural roots of income inequality last week in the New York Times. His essay takes as its basis a recent speech by Alan B. Krueger, President Obama’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, entitled “Fairness as an Economic Force.” Here is one excerpt from Krueger’s speech:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization. But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matter for wage setting, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market. We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to more widely shared – and stronger – economic growth. It is natural to expect that market forces such as globalization would weaken norms and institutions that support fairness in wage setting. Yet I would argue that the erosion of the institutions and practices that support fairness has gone beyond market forces.

While globalization, outsourcing, and the rise of robots certainly are part of the reduction of wages and the hollowing out of the middle class, they do not tell the whole story.


At a time when real wages are stagnant, CEO pay is skyrocketing, income at the highest levels of society is increasing disproportionately, and corporate profits as a share of Gross Domestic Product have reached record levels.

Importantly, Edsall notes that conservatives and liberals both have focused a light on this disintegration of the moral fabric of our society, though they often do so in very different ways. He begins his essay with a discussion of Charles Murray and David Brooks, each of whom argue that the economic and political problems we face have their roots in “disintegrating moral norms.”

While Krueger’s analysis is very different from Charles Murray’s or from David Brooks', all three share an interest in what they see as disintegrating moral norms. And there is something else that binds them: the trends that Murray, Brooks and Krueger deplore continue with unrelenting force. From Murray’s perspective, social decay and irresponsible behavior have spread into the broad working and lower middle class.

Liberals and conservatives often reject alliances on moral questions, and their analyses of the moral decay are meaningfully different. And yet, Edsall does well to bring them together and to remind us that radical inequality and political paralysis may have cultural and moral valences that transcend political affiliation.  His essay on “Our Broken Social Contract” is your weekend read.

You might also look at Alan Krueger’s speech, “Fairness as an Economic Force.” originally given at Oberlin College. I have written about Murray’s book Coming Apart, here and here.


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".

The Rationality of Breaking the Rules

Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”

In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:

Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.

Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.

I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it.  But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.

This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.

For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.

One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.

Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.



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.

Infinitely Intoxicating

Louis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.

All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.

The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.

David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? 

Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.

What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.

Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do?  Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.

The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.””  And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.

 Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.

Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.

I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.

As Birkirts writes:

For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.

Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.

Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.

Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.

And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.


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".

Seeking a Political Genius—In Vain?





It is cliché to say that a presidential election is important. And yet, the 2012 presidential election may be one of the most decisively meaningful elections in recent history. The world is now in year four of the global financial crisis. In addition to economic retraction that may last decades, there is social dislocation and political unrest. The level of frustration and cynicism is reaching all-time highs. And as Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, Universities, and businesses record their lowest levels of public trust and integrity, the only major U.S. institutions that continue to be well respected in public polls are the army and the police. If we do not somehow elect a President who can begin to halt or reverse the descent into political paralysis, the risks to the United States are enormous.

We are in need of a political genius, as Peggy Noonan wrote this month in the Wall Street Journal:

Why do people think we need a kind of political genius? Because they know exactly how deep our problems are and exactly how divided our nation is. We need a president who knows and understands politics because he knows and understands people and can galvanize them. When he speaks, you listen, in part because you believe he'll give it to you straight, in part because his views seem commonsensical, in part because something in his optimism pings right into your latent hopefulness, and in part because he's direct and doesn't hide his meaning in obfuscation, abstraction, clichés and dead words.

As much as we need an inspired political leader, it is clear beyond a doubt that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is such a leader. The result is that this election is as depressing as it is boring.

The promise of a Romney-Obama matchup is terrifying not simply because one of them will win; but more, because it is so obvious that these two politicians who actually are so similar in temperament and worldview would never actually engage in a contest of ideas. We have two candidates who are, quintessentially, moderate technocrats. Both are products of Harvard professional schools. Both candidates are essentially risk-averse technocrats. One worships data. The other worships experts. And both will do and say anything to win.

It is hard not to wish that Newt Gingrich had won the Republican nomination. At least his promise of hounding Obama to debate the core issues of American governance promised a consequential and engaging campaign.

Instead, this is a campaign not of ideas but of consultants. David Brooks, who writes today that the upcoming election is "incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time," gets this right:

Candidates know that they’d be punished for saying something unexpected — by the rich, elderly donors and by the hyperorthodox talk-show hosts. Instead of saying something new, now they just try to boost turnout within their own demographic niches and suppress turnout in the other guy’s niches.

 Hannah Arendt taught that politics is about action that is spontaneous and surprising. Political action needs to be courageous and new, since only unexpectedly bold action can galvanize and unite a people. The political actor is one who can inspire, but inspiring action must above all be risky and extraordinary. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.

As Roberto Mangabeira Unger argued recently, we need a political leader who brings a wartime mentality to our contemporary crisis. Peggy Noonan from the right agrees. From all sides there is a longing for just such political leader, one that candidate Barack Obama promised to be four years ago. The falsity of that promise has hardened people against hope. The cynicism and dishonesty of both candidates is numbing. It is further diminishing our political culture, at a time when we hardly thought politics could sink lower and we can hardly afford to allow it to do so.

 What would it mean to elect a leader who could revive American politics? That is, in fact, the question asked in the upcoming Arendt Center Conference, "Does the President Matter? Reflections on the American Age of Political Disrepair."

 On the most obvious level, the President does matter. Of course some will benefit under President Romney and others under President Obama. But on the level that matters most—the regeneration of the political life of the United States—it is hard to see how this election means anything. Neither candidate is speaking to the whole country and neither has the ambition or the spark to inspire us to overcome the limitations of our selfishness, weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder, and more common things than we can do on our own.


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".

Revolution and Rebellion

David Brooks is giving advice to radicals today on how to be radical. It's a strange spot for the left's favorite conservative to be in, although it is a role he's taken up in now a few of his columns. And he's only partly wrong.

The occasion for Brooks' advice to radicals is the latest viral YouTube sensation, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” a video by Jefferson Bethke. The genre is not new. Mr. Jefferson's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a famous and wonderful little book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he separates out the purely ethical sprouts of Jesus' teachings from the religious chaff. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that religion in a democratic time would increasingly take the form of moral aphorisms without the strict commandments that democratic citizens would rebel against. And modern evangelicalism as practiced in mega churches like Rick Warren's Saddleback Church shuns discussion of sin and burdensome religious rituals or commands. The attraction of Jefferson Bethke's video poem is, precisely, how well it fits in with the anti-authoritarian spirit of our age that craves meaning and justice yet disdains the authority and tradition that give life meaning and embody the ideals of justice.

Brooks' column is less about Bethke's rebellion than about his re-conversion. For Bethke has, since his video, publicly admitted the error of his ways and returned to the bosom of the church. All of which leads Brooks to wonder: Why is rebellion so ineffective today?

This is a question many rebels ask today as well. One common complaint, on the left, is that the rise of humanitarianism has replaced political movements like Marxism, utopianism, and social democracy with the idea that it is simply enough to send food and clothes to those who are suffering. Today's radicals don't want to change the system, they simply perpetuate it by preventing the extreme suffering that might nurture real radicals. The dreamers of a better future seem to be busy with other pursuits. As Brooks rightly notes:

This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them. This seems to be a moment of fervent protest movements that are ultimately vague and ineffectual.

Brooks has a theory for why this is so, one he has offered before.

My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

Aside from the silliness about Nietzsche—who certainly thought with and against a tradition—Brooks makes a valid point. Rebellion cannot be simply a negation of what is, an overturning.

Indeed, that was Nietzsche's point. Nihilism, which Nietzsche diagnosed, is the saying no to what is, an overturning of all values. Thus, a rejection of any value that is not simply a subjective value. This nihilism is precisely what Nietzsche saw and feared, which is why he struggled to think about how new higher values, new idols, new laws, new myths, might emerge.

Brooks wants young rebels to seek out the classics and find their mentors in rebellion. He is right that "Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions."  He is also right that "Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change."

But the point isn't simply to rediscover Marx so that we can, once again, fight for the proletarian revolution. That movie has run. The point of education is not to provide us with failed dreams of the past so that we can try again. As Arendt wrote in The Crisis of Education, the effort of education is to teach students about the world as it is. Only when they confront the world as it is, honestly, can they begin to resist it.

Instead of blaming our children, we need to look at ourselves. For Arendt, education requires teachers who "love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices." We must teach them about our world, as it is. And that means, we must teach them about what it means to live in a world in which there are no higher values that can sustain meaningful protests and rebellions. This is the world of nihilism Nietzsche saw emerging 130 years ago. And it is the world David Brooks is, in some ways, trying to articulate, even as he also refuses it and condemn it in his columns.

I don't disagree with Brooks' judgment of nihilism. But it is time for us, finally, to confront the reality of the world we live in. It is our world. If our leaders and public intellectuals won't be honest, how can we expect such courage from our youth?

We need to reconcile ourselves to the corrupting and debilitating nihilism of our world if we have any hope of educating young people who might be able to resist it. Arendt writes:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same tame token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.

It is the job of education to “teach children what the world is like” so that they can begin the task of reconciling themselves with it; only then can they have a chance of truly resisting it. First come to see the ruin. Then learn to rebel against it. That is the promise of revolution, a circular process that offers the promise of a future that mere rebellion does not.

You'd do well to read Brooks' column.

Better yet, for your weekend read, pull out your edition of Between Past and Future and re-read The Crisis in Education.

Or, you can read an excerpt here, and listen to Arendt read from her essay here.


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".

Honesty and the Simple Truths of Protesting

I recall Hannah Pitkin, one of my teachers at UC Berkeley, once describing her own experience at a protest. She arrived with a sign, upon which she had taped a multi-page dissertation announcing her well-considered views. Amidst the slogans around her, she realized that the simplifications that are the oil of a well-functioning protest were just not for her.

I share Professor Pitkin's visceral aversion to sloganeering, which is why I sometimes get frustrated with the culture of Occupy Wall Street, a movement whose basic goals I share. I am convinced that the Occupy Wall Street protests are important—we are at a crossroads in the country and the world, and it is absolutely necessary that we take back the future. Simple slogans, I fear, risk de-legitimizing and neutralizing the protests.  If you want to see why, let's look at two documents. The first, a pull from the gut. Take a look at this sign:

It is hard to argue with the sentiment that this man expresses—that what is going on in the world, in our economy, and in our political system, is deeply unjust. He is right. He expresses important ideals. He played by the rules, and he got steamrolled. That is not right.

As justified as this man's complaint may be, there has never been a promise that the world is or will be fair.  What is wrong, in the end, with living with one's daughter and grandson? When one compares that to how most of the world lives, it sounds downright luxurious. It is, I think, sad, that we as a country are cutting off home-heating-oils subsidies to people who otherwise cannot afford to heat their homes. I wonder at times what life was like before home-heating subsidies. It seems a better world to have them. And while having your own home is a luxury, it is one that many of us value. But it has never been a right. Indeed, one of the basic problems of the last ten to twenty years was the policy to incentivize people to buy  homes they could not afford. While I certainly sympathize with this man's disappointment with where his life ended up,  justice does not mean a big house with two cars out front. And justice is not a right, something to be given to one.

We aspire to achieve justice, and revolution, as Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution, is the striving to restore ancient liberties. The protests at Wall Street are torn between conflicting goals. First, a legitimate anger at the corruption of our political and economic systems that has led to an unconscionable distribution of income and a radical distortion of the political process. To me, this is the core of the protests.

If anyone doubts that Occupy Wall Street has legitimate gripes, check out these charts assembled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, and put together into a story by Henry Blodget. These charts are worth a real read, and this last one (below) tells a big part of the story: it shows that wages now make up a smaller percentage of our economy than ever before. In other words, hard work doesn't get you as far. This leads to anger, although it is not at all clear how this trend can be stopped or reversed. The point is not to say: "We need jobs that pay more!" That may or may not be possible in our current economy. But it does make sense to demand that if the workers are suffering, we should, out of patriotism, show solidarity and as a country all make sacrifices to help out, pull together, and do what we can to improve our collective lot.

And so, in conclusion, we'll end with another look at the "money shot"—the one overarching reason the Wall Street protesters are so upset: Wages as a percent of the economy. Again, it's basically the lowest it has ever been.

As a whole, these charts tell a story of the extraordinary transformation of our society that goes by the name of the hollowing out of the middle class. We are becoming a "barbell" society, with a powerful class of wealthy power brokers on one side and a mass of underemployed and unemployed workers on the other, connected by a sliver of those trying desperately to hold onto the ideals of middle class life. Being middle class is not a right. And yet, any society that  normalizes such radical divergences in living experiences as we now have is doomed. A political system, as Aristotle argues, requires the cohesion of liberality as well as moderation, and when such a gulf separates the wealthy and the poor, the social bonds fray. The protesters are rightly incensed at the failure of our political system to address these problems. As Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri write in Foreign Affairs,

"As protests have spread from Lower Manhattan to cities and towns across the country, they have made clear that indignation against corporate greed and economic inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the protest against the lack -- or failure -- of political representation. It is not so much a question of whether this or that politician, or this or that party is ineffective or corrupt (although that, too, is true) but whether the representational political system more generally is inadequate. This protest movement could, and perhaps must, transform into a genuine democratic constituent process."

Take a look at a second document, a report out from the New America Foundation by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini.  Joe Nocera outlines the report in his column Tuesday, and points you to the report itself, well worth a look. It is technocratic, written by economists. It lacks the passion of Occupy Wall Street. It has none of the anger and none of the calls for justice. Yet it addresses the reality of how difficult it will be to save the American middle class. A few highlights:

More than 25 million working-age Americans remain unemployed or underemployed, the employment-to-population ratio lingers at an historic low of 58.3 percent, business investment continues at historically weak levels, and consumption expenditure remains weighed down by massive private sector debt overhang left by the bursting of the housing and credit bubble a bit over three years ago.

The bad news continues. Wages and salaries have fallen from 60% of personal income in 1980 to 51% in 2010. Government redistribution of income has risen from 11.7% of personal income in 1980 to 18.4% in 2010, a post-war high. What this means is that as the private economy has ceased to provide for our standard of living, the government has stepped in to cushion the blow. The problem is that the current debt crisis means this must come to an end. Our standards of living are simply higher than our economy can support.

Regrettably, in our view, there seems to be a pronounced tendency on the part of most policymakers worldwide to view the current situation as, substantially, no more than an extreme business cyclical decline.

The worry is that policy makers simply don't understand the depth of the challenges we face. Nor, I fear, do many of the protesters. They continue to demand jobs and fixes, as if these were to be manufactured, when we need to address fundamental underlying problems.

In short, while we must not give up our aspirations for justice, we need a strong dose of reality. We (both rich and middle class) have had a good run at the luxurious life, but we are at the end of our gold-plaited rope. If we don't change the direction of the country, we will all (rich, middle class, and poor) fall precariously and with a collective thud. And it is not enough to say that this debt crisis is caused by  "a distracting consumer culture and risky bank practices and we have a national debt crises brought about by wars and corporate well-fare"—as one commentator on my last essay wrote.  There were personal decisions made by people to sell other people mortgages they couldn't afford and by others to purchase such mortgages and car loans. We need to be honest here and not pull punches on all sides.

There is plenty of blame here to go around, which does not mean that no one is at fault. It is wrong to say that where all are guilty, none are guilty. And it is thus important to say that many, many people in our country and elsewhere are at fault. They did things that were wrong: took seven and eight figure bonuses for moving money around or selling non-existent assets, moved money through off-shore accounts,  lived in ways that they couldn't afford and shouldn't have.  Fine.  The first step to restoring our moral and economic values is being honest.

In many ways, the economists at the New America Foundation are being more honest, and thus more revolutionary, than the revolutionaries in Zuccotti Park. The economists are proposing massive reform to our economic system, proposals that would radically change our economy. What they lack is the sense of moral outrage and a commitment to fundamental democracy that Occupy Wall Street brings to the table. Thus they lack the sense that this is a political problem as much as it is an economic problem. What is desperately needed is a marriage of honesty about our situation with a conviction for a revolution, which, as Hannah Arendt wrote, is actually a restoration of ancient liberties. What is sought today by Occupy Wall Street must be a return to fundamental values of democracy and justice.

In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:

‎"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries."

The success or failure of a revolutionary moment in becoming a real transformation hinges on a lack of real revolutionaries. Revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives. I seriously hope that the Occupy Wall Street protesters turns themselves into just such revolutionaries.

Read the full report by New America Foundation here.

You can also see some very helpful charts on our Fiscal situation by the Peterson Institute here.


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".

Juries on Trial

Richard A. Oppel Jr.'s lead story in Monday, September 26th’s  NY Times offers the latest twist on the longstanding and seemingly intractable decline of the American jury trial.

The statistics are glaring and the facts are beyond dispute. Jury trials are disappearing at an incredible rate. Here are just some facts:

•"By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts."

• "In 1977, the year Judge Kane was appointed to the bench, the ratio of guilty pleas to criminal trial verdicts in federal district courts was a little more than four to one; by last year, it was almost 32 to one."

•"The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., found that the percentage of felonies taken to trial in nine states with available data fell to 2.3 percent in 2009, from 8 percent in 1976."

•"The shift has been clearer in federal district courts. After tougher sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s, the percentage of criminal cases taken to trial fell to less than 3 percent last year, from almost 15 percent, according to data from the State University at Albany’s Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics."

•"Nearly nine of every 10 cases ended in pleas last year, the federal data show, while one in 12 were dismissed (the percentage of dismissed cases was substantially higher a generation ago)."

Oppel points to a number of factors behind the decline of jury trials but his focus is on the increased power of prosecutors. Because of criminal sentencing guidelines that require minimum penalties for defendants convicted of specific crimes, it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who determines the sentence a criminal will receive if he is found guilty. Take, for example, the case of Orville Wollard. Wollard fired his registered handgun into his living room wall to scare his daughter’s boyfriend out of the house after the boyfriend repeatedly threatened his family. As Oppel writes:

In Mr. Wollard’s view, he was protecting his family and did not try to hurt the boyfriend, who was not hit, though the judge said the bullet missed him by inches. But after Mr. Wollard turned down a plea offer of five years of felony probation, prosecutors won a conviction two years ago for aggravated assault with a firearm. Because the gun was fired, a mandatory-minimum law required a 20-year term.

At his sentencing, Mr. Wollard said he felt as if he were in “some banana republic” and described the boyfriend as a violent drug dealer. But prosecutors said the judge had “no discretion” because of the state law.

Reluctantly, the judge agreed. “If it weren’t for the mandatory minimum aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence,” he told Mr. Wollard, adding that he was “duty bound” to impose 20 years.

Oppel does not ask why we, as a society, have consistently over the last 50 years have taken the power to judge away from judges and from juries. And yet, the turn toward fixed legislative guidelines in criminal law is part and parcel of a societal-wide assault on the practice of judgment.

We continue to refuse to hold those who have tortured prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib responsible for their actions, just as none of the misjudgments on Wall Street have led to any CEO's being fired, let alone criminally charged. Just last week David Brooks reported on a study showing that teenagers were unwilling to make the most basic moral judgments.  Amongst governmental and business leaders, as amongst teenagers, the ideal of holding people responsible for their actions is out of favor.

Hannah Arendt gave voice to what she called the “fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame—especially, alas, upon people in power and high position.”  Reflecting upon the anger caused by her own judgment of the Jewish community leaders who cooperated with the Nazis in the hopes of saving themselves, their families, and others, Arendt was struck by the fear and anger that judging others provoked. She saw this fear as underlying the uproar against Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which accused Pope Pius XII of silence in the face of the Holocaust. She also chafed at the outpouring of angry letters accusing scholar Hans Morgenthau of un-Christian hubris for writing an essay in The New York Times Magazine pointing out that Charles Van Doren was wrong to cheat on the quiz show “Twenty One.” In all of these instances, Arendt was struck by the “huge outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular person instead of blaming all deeds or events on historical trends or dialectical movements.” Instead of judging the wrongdoers, the people judged those who had the temerity to judge.

I wrote about Arendt's attention to our unwillingness to judge last year, in an essay that discussed, among other examples, the loss of the jury trial.

The trial, and specifically the jury trial, is, as Alexis de Tocqueville understood, one essential incubator of democracy. The jury trial is the only space in which most people will ever be forced to sit in judgment of their fellow citizens... The experience of being a juror, Tocqueville saw, inculcates in all citizens the habits of mind of the judge; it “spreads to all classes respect for the thing judged and the idea of right.” Juries, he wrote, are “one of the most efficacious means society can make use of for the education of the people.”

The decline of the jury trial is not simply a casualty of our tough on crime era; it is, in addition, a symptom of our increasing unwillingness to engage in ethical thinking that judges and assigns blame. Of course we are quick to blame those we can see as inhuman like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. However when someone who seems more like us is accused—be he a Charles Van Doren or an Orville Wollard (or even a Bill Clinton or a George W. Bush)—we have a hard time assigning moral and criminal blame. On a bi-partisan level, judgment is out of fashion.

The loss of judgment is not without consequences. As the activity of judgment withers, so too do visible exemplifications of justice. Since justice cannot be taught, but is learned from experience, the fading of public acts of judgments diminishes the idea of justice itself. There is a danger, in other words, that the decline of jury trials presages the erosion of justice.

You can read the entirety of Why We Must Judge here.

You can watch The Loss of Human Judgment 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.