Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
25Nov/131

Amor Mundi 11/24/13

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.

Nettlesomeness and Humanity

chessMagnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness.” I encountered the idea in an essay by Joe Weisenthal, who himself quotes Tyler Cowen: “Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.” Read more about nettlesome chess and humanity on the Arendt Center Blog.

Learned Hand

justiceLincoln Caplan has an excellent essay on Judge Learned Hand in the NYRB this weekend. Hand was one of the most influential legal minds in the United States. Here is Caplan: “To Hand, law’s role is to help shape common purpose and reflect the will of the people as part of the compact between them and their government. He was a small “d” democrat. Case by case, he saw his job as weighing competing views of the law and its application to the facts and working his way toward the best outcome in the circumstances. His psyche, outlook, and practice aligned to make him a model of a restrained judge…. “The spirit of liberty,” he said, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded….””

The Artist in Wartime

kkMatthew Davis, in a piece that's part memoir and part profile, describes his relationship with the Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa, who is, even now, still working from Damascus. Although Davis's description of his time in and eventual deportation from Syria is striking, and his worry for his friend is palpable, in his conclusion he suggests something that is too easily forgotten: life, for Khalid and Damascus both, goes on, even as Syria appears to be crumbling. “Ever since the war began in January 2011, I had little doubt that Khaled Khalifa would remain in Syria, in Damascus, his paradise, to help usher in the new ideas he spoke passionately about in Iowa City. More than two years on, however, I wonder whether this ending will change, too. Khaled’s health is failing; he is depressed; he has been barred from leaving the country. I get none of this from him, only those close to him. From him, I get positive emails, an optimism as much at Khaled’s core as his rotund gut and passion for writing. Khaled’s fourth novel was recently published in Cairo. I’ve also heard that Qasabji is still open, Nabil still serving arak and beer, albeit at a higher price.”

David Rieff on "Hannah Arendt"

hanahReviews of the movie "Hannah Arendt" have been thinly veiled opportunities to rehash old scores and attach Arendt once more for her reputed sins. That is why David Rieff’s review in The Nation this week is welcome. It offers meaningful praise for the film, with detailed accounts of what Rieff likes, while also offering serious-minded criticisms. From there, Rieff moves on to the question of the controversy itself. Rieff has little love for Arendt or, in the end, “Hannah Arendt.” I may disagree on both accounts, but he is fair-minded. “For entirely understandable and legitimate reasons, both philosophical and (though she almost certainly would have denied it) biographical, Arendt believed that the Shoah was not only the greatest crime in human history (a claim for which an argument can unquestionably be made), but an unprecedented one. The concluding pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem are suffused with her fear that, as she put it, “once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.” For Arendt, Eichmann was nothing less than a new type of criminal, one who “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel he is doing wrong.” But it is not clear that she was right.”

Italian Ghosts

weaverWilliam Weaver, the esteemed translator of Italian works including novels by Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, Eugenio Montale, Oriana Fallaci, Ugo Moretti, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Svevo died this past week. “Bill Weaver,” as he was known on campus, taught at Bard from 1992-2002. I never met Weaver, but he looms large in the world of the Hannah Arendt Center. The Center is housed in what we refer to as the “Mary McCarthy House,” because Arendt’s close friend Mary McCarthy lived there during both her stays teaching at Bard College. But most of my senior colleagues still refer to our dwelling as the “Bill Weaver House,” since Weaver lived there for 10 years and hosted many a dinner party there during his time on campus. As Bard’s President Leon Botstein wrote, “His contribution to the literary and cultural life of the College was extraordinary. It is through him that the College received the endowment that created the Bard Fiction Prize.” You can read his obituary in the New York Times, which quotes from this 2000 interview in The Paris Review. “Some of the hardest things to translate into English from Italian are not great big words, such as you find in Eco, but perfectly simple things, buon giorno for instance,” he said. “How to translate that? We don’t say ‘good day,’ except in Australia. It has to be translated ‘good morning,’ or ‘good evening,’ or ‘good afternoon’ or ‘hello.’  “You have to know not only the time of day the scene is taking place, but also in which part of Italy it’s taking place,” he continued, “because in some places they start saying buona sera — ‘good evening’ — at 1 p.m. The minute they get up from the luncheon table it’s evening for them. So someone could say buona sera, but you can’t translate it as ‘good evening’ because the scene is taking place at 3 p.m. You need to know the language, but, even more, the life of the country.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ursula Ludz details Arendt's understanding of herself as a truthteller. In the weekend read, Roger Berkowitz looks at humanity in the computer dominated world of chess.

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Become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center and get your copy in time for the holidays!

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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.
9Nov/120

A Milestone Election

The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.

President Obama's re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama's presidency and his re-election.

There are some who don't see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.

Election Results 2012

 

There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.

This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don't see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.

Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal":

The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. ... This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

This is all good news.

And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.

Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.

More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.

And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:

[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.

Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:

Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.

The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:

Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.

What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation's penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.

Mead's essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.

Image taken from The American Interest

The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,

the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.

As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.

The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:

At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.

The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.

The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate's race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.

One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.

-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.
2Oct/120

Malaise in the Classroom: Teaching Secondary Students About the Presidency

The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

-Jimmy Carter,  July 15, 1979

Contemporary observers of secondary education have appropriately decried the startling lack of understanding most students possess of the American presidency.  This critique should not be surprising.  In textbooks and classrooms across the country, curriculum writers and teachers offer an abundance of disconnected facts about the nation’s distinct presidencies—the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique time-bound crises that give character and a simple narrative arc to each individual president.  Some of these descriptions contain vital historical knowledge.  Students should learn, for example, how a conflicted Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress for sweeping domestic programs against the backdrop of Vietnam or how a charismatic and effective communicator like Ronald Reagan found Cold War collaboration with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But what might it mean to ask high school students to look across these and other presidencies to encourage more sophisticated forms of historical thinking?  More specifically, what might teachers begin to do to promote thoughtful writing and reflection that goes beyond the respective presidencies and questions the nature of the executive office itself?  And how might one teach the presidency, in Arendtian fashion, encouraging open dialogue around common texts, acknowledging the necessary uncertainty in any evolving classroom interpretation of the past, and encouraging flexibility of thought for an unpredictable future?  By provocatively asking whether the president “matters,” the 2012 Hannah Arendt Conference provided an ideal setting for New York secondary teachers to explore this central pedagogical challenge in teaching the presidency.

Participants in this special writing workshop, scheduled concurrently with the conference, attended conference panels and also retreated to consider innovative and focused approaches to teaching the presidency.

Conference panels promoted a broader examination of the presidency than typically found in secondary curricula. A diverse and notable group of scholars urged us to consider the events and historical trends, across multiple presidencies, constraining or empowering any particular chief executive.  These ideas, explored more thoroughly in the intervening writing workshops, provoked productive argument on what characteristics might define the modern American presidency.  In ways both explicit and implicit, sessions pointed participants to numerous and complicated ways Congress, the judiciary, mass media, U.S. citizens, and the president relate to one another.

This sweeping view of the presidency contains pedagogical potency and has a place in secondary classrooms.  Thoughtful history educators should ask big questions, encourage open student inquiry, and promote civic discourse around the nature of power and the purposes of human institutions. But as educators, we also know that the aim and value of our discipline resides in place-and time-bound particulars that beg for our interpretation and ultimately build an evolving understanding of the past.  Good history teaching combines big ambitious questions with careful attention to events, people, and specific contingencies.  Such specifics are the building blocks of storytelling and shape the analogies students need to think through an uncertain future.

Jimmy Carter’s oval office speech on July 15, 1979, describing a national “crisis of confidence” presented a unique case study for thinking about the interaction between American presidents and the populations the office is constitutionally obliged to serve. Workshop participants prepared for the conference by watching the video footage from this address and reading parts of Kevin Mattson’s history of the speech.  In what quickly became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter attempted a more direct and personal appeal to the American people, calling for personal sacrifice and soul searching, while warning of dire consequences if the nation did not own up to its energy dependencies.  After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter believed, America needed a revival that went beyond policy recommendations.  His television address, after a mysterious 10-day sequestration at Camp David, took viewers through Carter’s own spiritual journey and promoted the conclusions he drew from it.

Today, the Malaise Speech has come to symbolize a failed Carter presidency.  He has been lampooned, for example, on The Simpsons as our most sympathetically honest and humorously ineffectual former president.  In one episode, residents of Springfield cheer the unveiling of his presidential statue, emblazoned with “Malaise Forever” on the pedestal.  Schools give the historical Carter even less respect.  Standardized tests such as the NY Regents exam ask little if anything about his presidency.  The Malaise speech is rarely mentioned in classrooms—at either the secondary or post-secondary levels.  Similarly, few historians identify Carter as particularly influential, especially when compared to the leaders elected before and after him.  Observers who mention his 1979 speeches are most likely footnoting a transitional narrative for an America still recovering from a turbulent Sixties and heading into a decisive conservative reaction.

Indeed, workshop participants used writing to question and debate Carter’s place in history and the limited impact of the speech.  But we also identified, through primary sources on the 1976 election and documents around the speech, ways for students to think expansively about the evolving relationship between a president and the people.  A quick analysis of the electoral map that brought Carter into office reminded us that Carter was attempting to convince a nation that looks and behaves quite differently than today.  The vast swaths of blue throughout the South and red coastal counties in New York and California are striking. Carter’s victory map can resemble an electoral photo negative to what has now become a familiar and predictable image of specific regional alignments in the Bush/Obama era.  The president who was elected in 1976, thanks in large part to an electorate still largely undefined by the later rise of the Christian Right, remains an historical enigma.  As an Evangelical Democrat from Georgia, with roots in both farming and nuclear physics, comfortable admitting his sins in both Sunday School and Playboy, and neither energized by or defensive about abortion or school prayer, Carter is as difficult to image today as the audience he addressed in 1979.

It is similarly difficult for us to imagine the Malaise Speech ever finding a positive reception.  However, this is precisely what Mattson argues. Post-speech weekend polls gave Carter’s modest popularity rating a surprisingly respectable 11-point bump.  Similarly, in a year when most of the president’s earlier speeches were ignored, the White House found itself flooded with phone calls and letters, almost universally positive.  The national press was mixed and several prominent columnists praised the speech. This reaction to such an unconventional address, Mattson goes on to argue, suggests that the presidency can matter.

Workshop participants who attended later sessions heard Walter Russell Mead reference the ways presidents can be seen as either transformative or transactional.  In many ways, the “malaise moment” could be viewed as a late term attempt by a transactional president to forge a transformational presidency.  In the days leading up to the speech, Carter went into self-imposed exile, summoning spiritual advisors to his side, and encouraging administration-wide soul searching.  Such an approach to leadership, admirable to some and an act of desperation to others, defies conventions and presents an odd image of presidential behavior (an idea elaborated on by conference presenter Wyatt Mason).  “Malaise” was never mentioned in Carter’s speech.  But his transformational aspirations are hard to miss.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

It is this process—the intellectual act of interpreting Carter and his [in]famous speech as aberrant presidential behavior—that allows teachers and their students to explore together the larger question of defining the modern presidency. And it is precisely this purposeful use of a small number of primary sources that forces students to rethink, through writing and reflection, the parameters that shape how presidents relate to their electorate.  In our workshop we saw how case studies, in-depth explorations of the particulars of history, precede productive debate on whether the presidency matters.

The forgotten Carter presidency can play a disproportionately impactful pedagogical role for teachers interested in exploring the modern presidency.  As any high school teacher knows, students rarely bring an open interpretive lens to Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ronald Reagan, as the first political memory for many of their parents, remains a polarizing a figure.  However, few students or their parents hold strong politically consequential opinions about Carter.  Most Americans, at best, continue to view him as a likable, honest, ethical man who is much more effective as an ex-president than he was as president.

Workshop participants learned that the initial support Carter received after the Malaise Speech faded quickly.  Mattson and some members of the administration now argue that the President lacked a plan to follow up on the goodwill he received from a nation desiring leadership.  Reading Ezra Klein, we also considered the possibility that, despite all the attention educators give to presidential speeches (as primary sources that quickly encapsulate presidential visions), there is little empirical evidence that any public address really makes much of a difference.  In either case, Carter’s loss 16 months later suggests that his failures of leadership both transformational and transactional.

Did Carter’s speech matter?  The teachers in the workshop concluded their participation by attempting to answer this question, working collaboratively to draft a brief historical account contextualizing the 1979 malaise moment.  In doing so, we engaged in precisely the type of activity missing in too many secondary school classrooms today: interrogating sources, corroborating evidence, debating conflicting interpretations, paying close attention to language, and doing our best to examine our underlying assumptions about the human condition.  These efforts produced some clarity, but also added complexity to our understanding of the past and led to many additional questions, both pedagogical and historical.   In short, our writing and thinking during the Arendt Conference produced greater uncertainty. And that reality alone suggests that study of the presidency does indeed matter.

-Stephen Mucher

Stephen Mucher is assistant professor of history education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College.

The workshop, Teaching the American Presidency, facilitated by Teresa Vilardi and Stephen Mucher, sponsored by the Institute for Writing and Thinking and Master of Arts in Teaching Program in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College was offered as part of the Center’s 2012 conference, “Does the President Matter? American Politics in an Age of Disrepair.” 

 

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.
13Aug/125

Does Paul Ryan Matter? On the Limitations of the Rhetorical Presidency

One week ago this was the most important and yet the most boring election in history. No longer. Ryan's selection adds a jolt of seriousness and consequentialness to the next 90 days of electioneering. Or at least so we are told. Why?

Because Ryan has been, over the last year, one of the very few politicians in the United States who seems to really understand the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and who is willing to propose and support radical steps to address it. His proposed budget is draconian. It has some great ideas, including simplifying the tax code and getting rid of tax breaks like the Carried Interest provision. And yet, it is one-sided and highly partisan. Ryan calls for enormous cuts to the entitlements that will cause incredible suffering to the poor and middle classes, while providing large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If we are to suffer to repay our debts, as I think we must, we must all suffer together.

It is hard to imagine that Ryan's budget is what most Americans want or should want. And yet, Ryan's willingness to propose a deeply unpopular budget and argue eloquently and strongly for it is praiseworthy. At times, it seems as if Ryan is the only grown up in the room, the only politician who is willing to deal honestly with our predicaments.

The opinion that the election is now more meaningful and more serious is one that many share—on both the left and the right. On the right, Ryan's selection means that the election is a referendum on the crisis of big government. Glenn Reynolds writes in  USA Today :

Romney's selection of Ryan shows that he understands the dire nature of the problem, and that he's serious about addressing it.

Paul Rahe argues that Romney's choice amounts to a clarion call for radical change:

In choosing Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has opted to go for broke, and he has indicated that he is a serious man — less concerned with becoming President of the United States than with saving the country from the disaster in store for it if we not radically reverse course, willing to risk a loss for the sake of being able to win a mandate for reform.

And in the Wall St. Journal (which ran an Op-Ed calling upon Romney to select Ryan) Gerald Seib could hardly contain his excitement:

The Ryan pick wasn’t the safest one Mr. Romney could have made—not by a long shot. But as the author of the budget plan that most clearly delineates the view of limited government that most Republicans hold, and with more specificity and crystalline explanation than most can muster, Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign.

On the left as well, there is a gleeful sense that Ryan's presence on the ticket will prove President Obama's claim that this is the most important election in ages. For Democrats, Ryan's extremism is a blessing, allowing them to paint Romney-Ryan as out-of-touch radicals who will undo a century of gains in middle class benefits while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans.

John Cassidy, at The New Yorker, writes that Ryan is a dream pick for Obama-Biden because it makes the election what Obama has said it is all along—a choice between Obama's moderation versus Romney and Ryan's radicalism:

In placing a lightning rod like Ryan on the ticket, Romney appears to have decided that the best form of defense is attack. For months, he and his campaign have been trying to turn the election exclusively into a referendum on Obama’s record. That strategy has now been abandoned. Ryan’s mere presence ensures that the election will be framed in the way that Team Obama has wanted all along: as a choice between the President’s moderate progressivism and the anti-government radicalism of today’s G.O.P.

John Nichols at The Nation agrees and argues that Ryan solidifies Romney's choice to run far to the right—so far as to be out of touch with the moderate electorate. This means, he writes, that team Obama can win big.

On every issue that you can imagine, from reproductive rights to environmental protection to labor rights, Ryan stands to the right. Way to the right.  The Ryan selection moves the Grand Old Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee, a platform and 39 percent of the vote. America’s more divided now. The Romney-Ryan ticket will run better than Goldwater and Bill Miller did forty-eight years ago, But by bending so far toward the base, Romney has given the Democrats an opportunity to dream not just of winning but of winning bigger than anyone dared imagine forty-eight weeks or even forty-eight days ago.

Thomas B. Edsall writes over at the NY Times, that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "a well-respected liberal think tank," describes the Ryan budget this way:

The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids.  It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). ... Even as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget would impose trillions of dollars in spending cuts, at least 62 percent of which would come from low-income programs, it would enact new tax cuts that would provide huge windfalls to households at the top of the income scale. New analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center finds that people earning more than $1 million a year would receive $265,000 apiece in new tax cuts, on average, on top of the $129,000 they would receive from the Ryan budget’s extension of President Bush’s tax cuts. The new tax cuts at the top would dwarf those for middle-income families. After-tax incomes would rise by 12.5 percent among millionaires, but just 1.8 percent for middle-income households. Low-income working families would actually be hit with tax increases.

For the left, Ryan moves Romney outside of the political mainstream and thus offers a stark contrast with the middle-of-the-road President. They agree with the right on the basic contrast. And yet each side believes the contrast works in their favor. This is because, of course, each side increasingly speaks only to itself and has so convinced itself that it is absolutely right that it cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it.

A new received wisdom is emerging and the pundits on the left and right agree: Ryan's place in the election makes this a watershed election that will be a referendum on the future of the country. And even from a position outside partisan pugilism, Walter Russell Mead makes the point that the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that this is an important election. In perhaps the most clear-headed and provocative essays on the Ryan selection I've read, Mead writes:

2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.

There is something hopeful and true in this consensus that Ryan will up the seriousness of this race. I remain skeptical. Here is why.

We have to question the basic assumption that sharpening the question in the election will lead to a greater likelihood that the winning side will successfully carry out its agenda. This seems unlikely for the simple reason that the stark question being posed is furthering the partisan split in the country rather than seeking a middle ground. Rather than a sustained debate, we are just as likely to watch both sides dig themselves into ever-more-fortified trenches on opposing sides of the partisan front. What this means is the Ryan's selection is just as likely to increase the partisanship and vitriol in American politics as it is to elevate the tone of the election to being one about ideas and the future of the country. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances are diminished that either party will be able to actually make the kinds of radical changes that both think are necessary.

The reason for this is the basic institutional limitations that our constitutional system places on the power of the President. For all the talk in recent years about an "Imperial Presidency," the facts are largely otherwise. Outside of foreign policy, the president is largely constrained to make far-reaching policy changes. Large bureaucracies, a resilient and skeptical media, and now the fractured political world of competing ideological realities—each with their own newspapers, news shows, and blogs—means that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a President with the power to drive through a meaningful agenda.

Just consider, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, they will be able to negotiate major concessions in or even block entirely any Republican efforts to roll back entitlements. And even if the Democrats lose the Senate, the power of the filibuster means that they will be able to block many of the more extreme Republican initiatives. The same dynamic goes the other way as we have seen. Republicans have been able to frustrate much of President Obama's domestic agenda, even when the President had large majorities in both houses of Congress. The demands for ideological purity on both sides rewards conviction politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, but it does not necessarily bode well for a serious and deliberative approach to our real political problems.

At the root of this difficulty is the fallacy of  The Rhetorical Presidency. As Jeffrey Tulis argues, the most fundamental shift in American politics since the Founding has been the rise of a rhetorical presidency: The idea that the President should lead as a popular leader.

Tulis writes that from the Founders until the early 20th century, U.S. Presidents assiduously avoided trying to become popular leaders. As an institution, the Presidency was designed to resist the power of demagoguery and yet also to stand as a check on the power of Congress. The president himself engaged with Congress, but did not mobilize the people as a popular leader.

The role of the President changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson insisted that only a president could like a lightning rod call forth the will of the people "unconscious of its unity and purpose" and "call it into full consciousness." For Wilson, the President leads with simplicity. Wilson writes:

Mark the simplicity and directness of the arguments and ideas of [true leaders.] The motives which they urge are elemental; the morality which they seek to enforce is large and obvious; the policy they emphasize, purged of all subtlety.

If early American Presidents were forbidden to use direct appeals to the people, Wilson insists that modern 20th century presidents must do so. And as Tulis shows, Wilson's ideas underlie our modern idea of the president as a popular leader.

Tulis is not interested in defending or condemning the rhetorical presidency, but in exploring its possibilities and limitations. He makes an exceptional point that while 20th century presidents like Wilson and Lyndon Johnson regularly appeal to the people, "the same popular rhetoric that provided the clout for victory [e.g. in in Johnson's War on Poverty] substituted passionate appeal and argument by metaphor for deliberation." The rise of rhetorical presidency and the tools for popular leadership may at times be politically effective, but they clash with the institutional role of the President who must still work with Congress. The President's popular leadership translates poorly into legislative deliberation and thus often yields less of a change or less good change than was sought. One can see this exemplified in President Obama's attempt to mobilize his enormous popular mandate to reform healthcare.

While the modern rhetorical President can enlist the people to pressure the legislature, there are limits and consequences to these pressures. Congress can resist the power of the presidency, as the recent abuse of the filibuster shows. What is more, the increase in speeches and popular appeals constitutes, in Tulis' prophetic words,

a decay of political discourse. It replaces discussion structured by contestability of opinion inherent to issues with a competition to please or manipulate the public. ... The rhetorical presidency enhances the tendency to define issues in terms of the needs of persuasion rather than to develop a discourse suitable for the illumination and exploration of real issues—that is, problems that do not depend upon the certification of a public opinion poll to be recognized as needful of examination. It is increasingly the case that presidential speeches themselves have become the issues and events of modern politics rather than the medium through which issues and events are discussed and assessed. Subsequent speeches by presidents and other politicians often continue to elaborate the fictive world created in the initial address, making that world, unfortunately, a constitutive feature of "real" national politics.

What Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.

There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the people don't always agree.

At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a President, it is a pressing question.

Precisely because it is an open question whether the President can translate his popular appeal into political leadership, the Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is sponsoring its Fifth Annual Conference and asking: Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair.  The conference features Jeffrey Tulis and Walter Russell Mead amongst other speakers, including Rick Falkvinge (founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Ralph Nader and Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors without Borders and Foreign Minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy). Paul Ryan is undeniably serious and he is raising important questions about the future of the country. But there is a question of whether our political system in the 21st century is still capable of presidential leadership.

-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.
10Jul/120

American Criminal Justice, Made in Texas (Part 2)

In my last blog (June 20, 2012), I highlighted a few scholars’ recent efforts to situate current patterns of African American imprisonment within this country’s longer history of racial conflict and subjugation. More specifically, I focused on some of the central claims in Robert Perkinson’s book Texas Tough (2010), which offers a sharp account of the historical connections between racial hierarchy and mass imprisonment in the Lone Star State and the larger American South. In its broadest outlines, Perkinson’s book contends that incarceration in Texas has, from its very outset, been closely bound up with chattel slavery and its legacies.

This entanglement is perhaps most evident in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced inmate labor, much of which took place—as late as the 1970s—on state-run prison farms that bore a striking resemblance to antebellum plantations. It is also discernible in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century practice of “convict leasing,” which allowed private entrepreneurs to purchase the right to use inmate labor power from the state prison system.

Despite regulations that required the humane treatment of prisoners, convict leasing generated widespread neglect and abuse, and in the early twentieth century it drew the ire not only of many African Americans, but also of white labor leaders, radical farm organizers, and progressive middle-class reformers. This last group launched a concerted campaign to move the state prison system away from punitive revenue-bearing production and toward newer, ostensibly more benevolent forms of rehabilitation. In the second decade of the twentieth century, modernizers in the prison administration implemented a variety of reform measures, including better food and medical care, religious services and reading classes, ten-hour workdays, and even nominal compensation for prison workers (ten cents per diem). In Perkinson’s account, however, these efforts were undermined by vocal opposition from prison personnel and, perhaps counter-intuitively, a surge in inmate dissent and rebellion. This uptick in prisoner discontent in particular prompted administrators and lawmakers to reassert penal authority, and the prison system basically reverted to its former pattern of plantation agriculture and severe discipline.

To be sure, progressive reform campaigns reemerged in Texas in the late 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. They commonly looked for inspiration to similar initiatives in New York (which represented the cutting edge of inmate participation in prison management) and California (which led the way in inmate counseling and the professionalization of prison staff). But they also responded to homegrown scandals, including a spate of self-mutilations among Texas prisoners in the 1940s. In a desperate effort to avoid and/or protest harsh work conditions, unsanitary housing, and guard mistreatment, hundreds of inmates chopped off digits or limbs, injected gasoline into their arms and legs, or severed their Achilles tendons. As Perkinson notes, similar tactics were common in the era of slavery and convict leasing, and prisoners’ recourse to such deliberate violence against the self ultimately drew a more sustained response from the state government than previous reform efforts.

Texas Prison Board, 1930's

Nevertheless, when a new system of prison management coalesced in the 1950s, it continued to emphasize “work and force” (Perkinson, p. 228) as the central pillars of incarceration, even as it embraced certain forms of rehabilitative programming like church services, formal schooling, vocational training, and after-work programs. This emerging style became known as the “control model,” and it garnered significant praise for Texas in the national press and in professional organizations like the American Correctional Association. As eventually became clear, however, the “control” that this model promoted ultimately rested on a culture of routine repression among prison guards as well as systemic reliance on convict enforcers, or “building tenders.” Since the late nineteenth century, building tenders in Texas prisons had dispensed disciplinary violence against fellow inmates with impunity, and they had enjoyed a variety of unsanctioned privileges, including the prerogative to engage in consensual and non-consensual sex with other prisoners.

In the face of such endemic brutality, a small number of convict activists began to draw on the 1871 Civil Rights Act to sue the state of Texas for violations of their constitutional rights. One of the most prominent activists, David Ruíz, filed a petition in June 1972 that offered a harrowing chronicle of his treatment at the hands of prison staff and building tenders, and a small team of lawyers and judges transformed it into a class action lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, on behalf of the state’s entire inmate population. The presiding district judge ruled in 1980 that the Texas penal system had subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived them of due process of law on a massive scale, and he ordered the state government to undertake sweeping changes. The Ruiz decision effectively ended Texas’s regime of plantation-style prison farming, and it represented the most comprehensive reform order that a federal court had issued to a state penal system up to that point. Drawing on the momentum created by the lawsuit, prison modernizers in the early 1980s lobbied for the redistribution of the state’s inmate population into smaller, less isolated facilities with understated security and extensive links to outside communities.

These reform efforts were (yet again) outweighed, however, by rising crimes rates, the ascendance of the New Right, and a concomitant turn toward “law-and-order” politics on both the state and national level. Texas’s prisoner population increased dramatically as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers passed stiffer sentencing guidelines and curtailed inmates’ eligibility for parole. These trends spurred a massive prison construction boom, but with the collapse of the control model following the Ruiz decision, the new facilities were increasingly structured less like plantations and more like warehouses that emphasized “confinement, separation, and complete architectural control” (Perkinson, p. 315). As violence against both prisoners and guards increased once more, Texas prisons resorted to extended “administrative segregation” (i.e., solitary confinement) and “super segregation” cell blocks in their efforts to contain not just disruptive inmates, but relatively compliant ones as well.

This recent punitive turn in criminal justice has not been restricted to Texas: rates of incarceration and prison construction have increased sharply in most states over the past three decades, as has the proportion of African American and Latino inmates. Meanwhile, the federal government—particularly under former Texas governor George W. Bush—has displayed a striking commitment to expanded law enforcement, extended sentencing, and more frequent recourse to capital punishment. In Perkinson’s analysis, then, the historical arc of American imprisonment has not bent toward the rehabilitative goals championed most forcefully in northern states like New York. Rather, “the northern prison became more southern rather than the other way around…. If northern prisons once gestured toward freedom and southern penal farms toward bondage, the whole Union is in alignment now, pointing back toward the eternal bifurcations of slavery” (Perkinson, pp. 362-363).

This provocative argument raises serious questions about America’s commitment to the granting of ostensibly inalienable rights to all its citizens, and it suggests that race continues to shape how we approach the protection and violation of human dignity. To be sure, there are moments when Perkinson’s claims overstep the limits of his evidence. I am not convinced that the recent proliferation of prisons in Texas and other parts of the South and wider U.S. can be read as a reaction to the end of Jim Crow and the successes of the civil rights movement. I also doubt that the second Bush administration’s conduct in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be traced to the practices of southern slavery and imprisonment as neatly as he suggests. Nevertheless, the heart of Perkinson’s argument skillfully outlines disturbing historical linkages between slavery and incarceration without equating these two forms of domination. In the process, he implies that we may need to rethink the relationship that prisoners, especially prisoners of color, have maintained with American citizenship in both the past and present.

On some occasions, incarcerated people have not merely constituted a recognized exception to juridical norms, which nevertheless enjoys “some kind of human equality,” as Hannah Arendt described criminals in The Origins of Totalitarianism (p. 286). Rather, they have formed a social category whose claim to “retain [their] rights over [their] bodies” (p. 444) has been substantially limited by their exposure to forced labor, sexual degradation, and violence that often has not been subject to public scrutiny and political accountability. This point does not imply that prisoners’ experiences can therefore be conflated with those of slaves, stateless persons, or concentration camp inmates, to name only a few of the dominated groups that concerned Arendt in the Origins. But it does suggest that prisoners’ enjoyment of constitutional and human rights cannot be taken for granted, as she seems to presume. It is still an exaggeration, I think, to say that prison inmates live “outside the pale of the law” (p. 277) in Arendt’s understanding of that phrase. But I would also insist that, in all too many instances, they have resided closer to its margins than we may care to admit.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.
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.
18Feb/120

The Commonality of Occupy Wall Street & the Tea Party

Are the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street part of the same phenomenon? Both are populist responses to increasingly out of touch political, business, and intellectual elites. Many on the left point out that the Tea Party is predominantly white and older. That is true. And yet these privileged, older, white people feel they are losing control of their country. They are resentful. Many on the right point out that the Occupy Wall Street movement is largely made up of privileged liberal arts graduates. They are right. But these graduates have been sold a false bill of goods, told that their gold-plated educations would guarantee them the ability to live well while doing what they want. They see their colleagues working on Wall Street making millions in questionable ways. They are also resentful.

Beyond resentment, both sides also can articulate claims of justice. For Tea Partiers, the coddling of illegal immigrants has become a defining issue of the unwillingness of the elite to enforce the law. For Occupiers, the extraordinary wealth of the upper 1% (actually, the top .5%) is a rallying cry that something truly is wrong with our political system.

This week in the New York Review of Books, Sam Tanenhaus takes a closer look at the Tea Party phenomenon and its influence on Republican politics. One surprising conclusion is that the Tea Party is not the force that is driving Republicans to their most conservative and right wing positions.  On the contrary, Tanenhaus portrays the Tea Partiers as more moderate than extremist:

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

fully 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.”

These views, which are aligned with those of moderate Republicans and Democrats, corroborate the findings in a 2010 New York Times poll of Tea Partiers, which concluded: “Despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.”

The Tea Party that Tanenhaus describes is one that overwhelmingly wants to preserve social security and Medicare, two programs that are often targeted angrily by Republican politicians. While the Tea Party activists are eager to shrink government, they do not seem to welcome an decimation of the welfare state. 

What unites the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movement is a conviction that America is abandoning its exceptional history as a land of freedom, law, and equality. For the Tea Party, we are experiencing a cultural decline, one epitomized by illegal immigration and welfare—two issues that have been wrongly painted in overly racial hues. For Occupy Wall Street, the decline is imagined as a takeover by the rich of an American meritocracy and also of our democratic politics—although often forgotten is the fact that the wealthy are neither homogeneous nor exclusively conservative.

What the Tea Party represents is the latest version of a long-standing conservative insurgency in the United States, a movement that has wielded influence but never had the votes or power to dominate the Republican party or the country. Occupy Wall Street offers a new force in recent American Politics, a left-wing insurgency. As such, it has much to learn from and even work with in the Tea Party. One might begin by thinking more deeply about the place of the Tea Party in American politics, and for that there are few better places to begin that Tanenhaus' essay.  Enjoy it for this weekend's Weekend Read.

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".
24Jan/120

Legal Doesn’t Make it Right – Jack Blum

Jack Blum, Chair of Tax Justice Network USA, is a longtime friend of the Hannah Arendt Center. He participated in the Center's 2009 Conference, The Burden of Our Times: The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. One of the national experts on tax evasion, Jack recently collaborated on the film, "We're Not Broke," in which he helps shed light on the tax system in the United States. We reached out Jack to shed some light on Mitt Romney's tax returns for 2010-2011. We found him at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah where he is promoting "We're Not Broke," and he agreed to share with us his thoughts. 

Mitt Romney’s tax returns show us just how rotten the American tax system has become. He is right when he says that his returns are correct and that he followed the law – but what a law! His work allowed him to call his salary a “carried interest.” Under current tax law he can to decide when to take the income, and when he decides to declare it, to pay tax on that income at the capital gains rate of 15%.

Making matters worse, his line of business, venture capital, relies in large part on tax breaks. Venture capitalists more often than not buy their target companies on borrowed money. They convert the capital in the target business from equity to debt and take deductions for interest payments on the debt. Capital is after tax money – debt is before tax and thus tax favored. Call it capitalism without real capital.

All of this is perfectly legal, but that doesn’t make it right. After all, slavery was legal for hundreds of years. So was preventing women from participating in the political process.

Beyond the case of venture capital, the tax code is riddled with privileges for the few, and for the multi-national corporations. Senator Carl Levin D-Mich. Has just introduced legislation that tries to close many of the most egregious loopholes. But, he is not on the tax writing Finance Committee, and that Committee is looking at ways to make the situation worse, not better.

The question every citizen should ask is how the Internal Revenue Code got this way. Certainly a government prepared to cut the budget for education, research, and infrastructure should be looking at the way it is subsidizing “free market” financial engineering business activity – activity that is usually not terribly productive.  The answer lies in the campaign finance system. Seats on the tax-writing committees are the most coveted in Congress because the members are showered with contributions from lobbyists, political action committees, and employees of corporations wanting favors.

As a result, it should come as no surprise that many of the largest corporations have a negative tax rate.

The latest insult to the political system is the Citizens United  decision that gives corporations the right to contribute to political campaigns. Corporations are not people. They are not citizens. They will invert one of the slogans the country was founded on. The new slogan will be “representation without taxation.”

Mitt Romney thinks that what he has done to take advantage of the loopholes without comment on the inherent injustice is normal and justifiable.

It does not seem to occur to him that the tax code that made him rich has shifted the burden of providing for the funding the common good to average citizens who are being told that they should expect nothing from government.

Finally, the people who are most favored by the tax system are the leaders and funders of the incessant drumbeat that social security and Medicare are bankrupting the country. The Mitt Romney’s of the world who make their money from “carried interest” don’t pay social security and Medicare taxes and won’t need the benefits.

The debate over the economy and the budget must include corporate tax subsidies. America cannot provide for its needs if the likes of Google, Apple, and Pfizer pay no tax. It cannot provide for its needs if the very rich can turn real income into capital gains and time their decision on when to take the income. The silence on this subject is deafening.

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.
19Jan/120

Leadership: Brown vs.Cuomo

The governors of two of our largest states gave "State of the State" messages this week. Both were controversial. Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York took on the teacher's union and demanded that teachers be subjected to measures of accountability. Governor Jerry Brown in California dared California to dream big and challenged the state to move forward with the high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Arendt Center is focusing its attention on the desperate need to rethink leadership in our time and wondering how we might encourage bold and courageous leadership. Cuomo's speech does just that. Brown's falls short.

Both Brown and Cuomo embraced the mantle of bold leadership. Brown styled himself the daring doer with his call to build a much-debated high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco:

Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal, ‘Totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.

Cuomo, for his part, imagined himself the rampaging reformer taking on the entrenched interests of the unions. He challenged the teacher's union to accept teacher evaluation that would carry meaningful consequences for ineffective teachers. And promised to withhold funding to districts that do not. “No evaluation, no money. Period,” the Governor said.

I learned my most important lesson in my first year as Governor in the area of public education. I learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyist.  Superintendents have lobbyists. Principals have lobbyists. Teachers have lobbyists. School boards have lobbyists. Maintenance personnel have lobbyists. Bus drivers have lobbyists. The only group without a lobbyist? The students.

Well, I learned my lesson. This year, I will take a second job — consider me the lobbyist for the students. I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.

I am no fan of union bashing. As an educator myself, I have enormous respect for those who teach. Teachers should be paid more, not less, and good teachers should receive performance bonuses, as is currently happening in Washington, DC. Study after study shows that the biggest factor in whether a child learns is the teacher, not how much money is spent. I think anyone who teaches knows this is true.

Cuomo's decision to take on the education establishment on teacher evaluation is a small step. But it does show a Democratic Governor exerting leadership by opposing a union that is part of his traditional constituency.

He is insisting that the services government provide be better. And he reminds us that government is first and foremost about providing services for citizens, not about providing jobs. If we are going to preserve faith in government, we need to make government work. Cuomo seems intent on doing just that.

Brown, on the other hand, seems entrenched in the failed policies of government. I love fast trains (so does my 2 year old son). I suffer every week on the slow train between New York City and the Hudson Valley where I teach. As someone who has lived in Europe and marveled at the Chinese, I desperately wish that the United States could build a transportation infrastructure that would work.

Thus I am open to Brown's risk-taking insistence we build fast trains. That said, he is committing to a project for which most of the funds are not yet raised and that won't be completed until 2033—under optimistic forecasts.

Who knows if a fast train designed in 2010 will even be useful in 2033? The Erie Canal took 8 years to build. The U.S. built the Panama Canal in less than 10 years. It is one thing for medieval towns to dream big and build a gothic cathedral over decades and centuries, for one has faith that God will still have need of a place of worship. But with technology changing so fast, the $100 billion train could be obsolete before it is completed.

Real leadership requires not simply dreaming big, but acting big. Leadership entails cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that makes it so expensive and time-consuming to take on major public-works projects in this country. Courage would be for a democratic governor to pursue his dream for major infrastructure while at the same time insisting on regulatory and labor reform that would allow the train to be completed in less time than the Erie Canal.

-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.