Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Feb/140

Politics Beyond Councils: Arendt, Recognition, and Feminism

Arendtiana

Marieke Borren, “Feminism as Revolutionary Practice: From Justice and the Politics of Recognition to Freedom”

Hypatia vol. 28, no. 1 (Winter 2013)

One of the broader appeals of feminism for critical thinking today derives from its focus on specificity. In their focus on embodiment, in the narrower and wider sense, the best feminist writers offer a productive complement to postmodern critiques of subjectivity based on the power of superstructures. The relationship is rarely peaceful, and, in its essentialist guise, insistence on identity of any kind seems to merely push back against the power of structures rather than engaging it. Borren turns to Arendt to propose a definition of freedom and action that may assist minority political movements such as feminism reach specific goals related to identity, but does not require a agreement on the commonalities of the actors.

Borren's article has two main proposals. First, against the general trend of feminist criticism, she defends Arendt's division between the social and the political. Second, she identifies aspects of Arendt's celebration of the council system in On Revolution that she sees as having a wider application.

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If first wave feminism focused on gender equality (in terms of equal rights), second wave feminism emphasized difference, not only between genders, but within feminism itself. Borren highlights the importance of recognition for this group, which she specifies as the need to be acknowledged as one of a group that a person self-identifies. In response to this idea, she reminds us that Arendt was not concerned with “what” people are as (essentialist) groups, but “who” they are individuals. In defining justice not in terms of recognition, but freedom, she sees a feminist contribution from Arendt. To this extent she defends the separation of the realm of the social from the realm of action as far as the definition of politics is concerned, since the social stands for “behavior guided by rules and norms” as opposed to unexpected action. Still, Borren argues that action can nonetheless act on social questions such as the economy or discrimination. The important point is that for Arendt “difference is not opposed to equality but […] they mutually presuppose each other” (203). Equality in this sense is not the presupposition of action but arises only upon entrance to a group that will act.

In her analysis of Arendt's writing on the councils, Borren highlights that the councils acted directly (without structures of parliamentary representation), for concrete goals, and for short periods of time. She sees these aspects of the council system as illustrative for action by what she calls “extra-parliamentary” groups and “voluntary associations,” by which she means activist and civic organizations. They approach a common problem in a limited frame of space and time, and this action is itself the focus rather than the search for a basis of common qualities for the group. Although questions of identity may be at stake, the focus is on “the world to which we relate from plural perspectives” (202).

This description of action help Borren describe the early stages of first wave (equality) and second wave (difference) feminism in terms of “spontaneous emergence” and “associative action” (207). She even points to a possible “third wave feminism” in the culture movements around 1990s - ”Riot Grrrl” punk. Toward the end of the article, Borren pushes hard on the fact that “freedom in the Arendtian sense does not refer to freedom of choice or freedom of will, but to contingency, to the inherent spontaneity and unpredictability of action and speech and to newness” (210). Her formulation here is accurate, but at this point the connection to feminism as such falters.

-Jeffrey Champlin

30Oct/130

Arendt versus Occupy

ArendtBookreview1

Review of:  Danny Michelsen and Franz Walter, Unpolitical Democracy: On the Crisis of Representation  [Unpolitische Demokratie: Zur Krise der Repräsentation (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013)]

In this new study, Danny Michelsen and Franz Walter of the Institute of Democracy Research at Göttingen University examine the problem of democratic representation in terms of a paradox: democracy wishes to include everyone, but as its scope expands it requires ever more mediation. While Athens flourished with direct democracy, its modern forms require representatives since everyone can no longer "fit in the same room."

Walter is one of the most prolific scholars of political parties in Germany and the book connects and Arendtian focus on politics with practical concerns of how parties acquire legitimacy and reach agreement through negotiation. The reference to the "political" in the title indicates the authors' debt to Arendt’s conception of the term. They orient their investigation in the first chapter in terms of her “refreshing contrast to output oriented theories of democracy, which neglect political participation in favor of efficiency criteria.” (28) From On Revolution, they speak of specifically of “how to conserve and stabilize the republican moment of founding, while at the same time renewing it and continuing it.” (27)  They also draw on her work to set out a broad range of challenges to politics, such as increased emphasis on the private realm, expansion of the sphere of the economy, and the increased role of experts. Most pointedly, the authors speak of a "spectator democracy" that threatens the essence of politics in Arendt's sense since it does without action.

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When people believe they can save the environment by buying certain products rather than engaging in political initiatives and turn to anonymous internet forums rather than signed pronouncements in the public sphere, democracies lose their constitutive power.

Yet the authors do not merely address and illustrate these threats, but deepen their inquiry by critiquing the most popular responses to the crisis in politics in recent years. These responses mainly fall under the category of the wish for greater transparency and direct democracy. In other words, the hope of quickly cutting through the many obstacles to the true wishes of the people. Their discussions of the German Pirate Party and the Occupy Movement are particularly illuminating.

The German Pirate Party entered the Berlin parliament in 2011 when they crossed the threshold of 5% of votes. It began as a group that sought to defend privacy rights in the digital age but developed to advocate bringing horizontal structures and open source models to government. One of their key concepts is "liquid democracy," in which party members can follow debate over bills in the parliament in real time through special software. Many elected officials then said they would vote exactly as the members wished on each bill. Michelsen and Walter argue that such a stance would make them delegates rather than representatives. While acknowledging the growing power of experts in the government and the problems they can cause, the authors ask if each individual voter can really be expected to understand the complicated technological and economic issues of the day such that they can wisely vote directly on the issues at hand.

 Michelsen and Walter call Occupy Wall Street "anarchist" in its explicit rejection of political representation and calls for direct democracy. In a subtlety argued analysis though, they praise the movement’s attempt to rejuvenate politics by focusing on new forms of public deliberation, and even accord value to political experiments that set themselves off from the broader norms of national discourse. Like others, the authors criticize the failure of this group to put forth concrete demands that could then be debated in the public realm. However they do not simply discount the movement for this reason but helpfully figure their objection in terms of an inability to link the moment of political experiment with a later moment of integration into public discourse. From an Arendtian perspective, one might see this in terms of enthusiasm for emphasis on fundamental idea of politics as action but as disappointing in terms of the concrete requirements of power.

In their conclusion, the authors return to Arendt's ideas of local participation. At higher levels of government through, they defend Social Democracy in the German tradition as a way of integrating society and politics – against proponents of anarchism, communism, and free market capitalism. The breadth of their inquiry is refreshing, as is their careful work in distinguishing movements that have left wing components that U.S. commentators often blur. The book largely consists of condensed assessments of academic papers on recent debates over political representation but is written in an accessible style that explicates and digs deeper into recent key terms in political culture. At over 400 pages, it provides a comprehensive overview not only of challenges to political participation, but of proposed answers to current challenges as well.

The authors ultimately argue for a more modest conception of democracy that admits the need for negotiation between representatives and a large role for expert opinion. Indeed, they go so far as to claim that inflated rhetoric around the ideal of democracy provides cover for those who wish to undermine its actual strength. This position will be hard to accept for advocates of radical democracy as defended, for example, by Rancière and Derrida. In a broader sense though, Michelsen and Walter offer a probing critique of the idea that we could do without representation in politics and challenge us to think of how to renew politics within the  demands of mediation that its current scope requires.

-Jeffrey Champlin

9Sep/130

Amor Mundi 9/8/13

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.

Balancing Solitude and Society

Illustration by Dan Williams

Illustration by Dan Williams

It is a new year, not only for Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah but also for hundreds of thousands of college and university students around the world. Over at Harvard, they invited Nannerl O. Keohane—past President of Wellesley College—to give the new students some advice on how to reflect upon and imagine the years of education that lay before them. Above all, Keohane urges students to take time to think about what they want from their education: “You now have this incredible opportunity to shape who you are as a person, what you are like, and what you seek for the future. You have both the time and the materials to do this. You may think you’ve never been busier in your life, and that’s probably true; but most of you have “time” in the sense of no other duties that require your attention and energy. Shaping your character is what you are supposed to do with your education; it’s not competing with something else. You won’t have many other periods in your life that will be this way until you retire when, if you are fortunate, you’ll have another chance; but then you will be more set in your ways, and may find it harder to change.”

The March, Fifty Years On

mlkRobin Kelly, writing on the 1963 March on Washington and the March's recent fiftieth anniversary celebrations, zooms out a little bit on the original event. It has, he says, taken on the characteristics of a big, feel good event focused on Civil Rights and directly responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, when, in fact, all those people also came to Washington in support of economic equality and the gritty work of passing laws was accomplished later, with additional momentum and constraints. It's important to remember, he says, that "big glitzy marches do not make a movement; the organizations and activists who came to Washington, D. C., will continue to do their work, fight their fights, and make connections between disparate struggles, no matter what happens in the limelight."

Famous Last Words

textRobinson Meyer investigates what, exactly, poet Seamus Heaney's last words were. Just before he passed away last week at 74, Heaney, an Irish Nobel Laureate, texted the Latin phrase noli timere, don't be afraid, to his wife. Heaney's son Michael mentioned this in his eulogy for his father, and it was written down and reported as, variously, the correct phrase or the incorrect nolle timore. For Meyer, this mis-recording of the poet's last words is emblematic of some of the transcriptions and translations he did in his work, and the further translations and transcriptions we will now engage in because he is gone. "We die" Meyer writes, "and the language gets away from us, in little ways, like a dropped vowel sound, a change in prepositions, a mistaken transcription. Errors in transfer make a literature."

We're All Billy Pilgrim Now

gearsJay Rosen, who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center’s NYC Lecture Series on Sunday, Oct. 27th at 5pm, has recently suggested that journalism solves the problem of awayness - “Journalism enters the picture when human settlement, daily economy, and political organization grow beyond the scale of the self-informing populace.” C.W. Anderson adds that "awayness" should include alienation from a moment in time as well as from a particular place: "Think about how we get our news today: We dive in and out of Twitter, with its short bursts of immediate information. We click over to a rapidly updating New York Times Lede blog post, with it's rolling updates and on the ground reports, complete with YouTube videos and embedded tweets. Eventually, that blog post becomes a full-fledged article, usually written by someone else. And finally, at another end of the spectrum, we peruse infographics that can sum up decades of data into a single image. All of these are journalism, in some fashion. But the kind of journalisms they are - what they are for - is arguably very different. They each deal with the problem of context in different ways."

...Because I Like it

readingAdam Gopnik makes a case for the study of English, and of the humanities more broadly. His defense is striking because it rejects a recent turn towards their supposed use value, instead emphasizing such study for its own sake: "No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.
8Jul/130

On Revolution

Arendtquote

“The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”

-Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

Last week brought two events into focus: the annual July 4th celebration commemorating the American Revolution of 1776 preceded one day before by the overthrow of the first freely elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Although on the surface there seems little connecting these events, thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the former may bring forth some interesting points about revolutions and the foundation of modern democracy to light, which may be relevant to the evolving situation in Egypt.

onrevolution

In On Revolution, Arendt put forth a controversial interpretation of revolution and its relationship to violence, a theory that, contra popular opinion, lauded the success of the American while decrying the French Revolution’s legacy that “a revolution must devour its own children” as if terror were its inevitable course. The success of the American Revolution for Arendt resulted from its “deep concern with forms of government,” a concern she saw equally in the “initial stages of the French Revolution.” But when the concern with political solutions to the problem of tyranny was, in her assessment, overwhelmed by “the social question”—the problems of necessity, of abject need, confronting the “multitude of the poor—the French Revolution abandoned the task of “building a new body politic” in favor of searching for a more immediate, and, in her view, less political solution to the problem of poverty. “It was necessity, the urgent needs of the people, that unleashed the terror and sent the Revolution to its doom,” Arendt wrote. Yet, she emphasized, there was nothing inevitable about this change of course.

To Arendt, any suggestion that a revolution would, and presumably must, take a predictable course was an example of ideological thinking that masked the genuine meaning of revolution. As she wrote, “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”

By every aspect of this definition, the Arab Spring uprising that sparked Egypt into full-scale protests and regime change to remove an autocratic ruler two years ago, and embark on an unpredictable path to “bring about the formation of a new body politic” constitutes a revolution in the Arendtian sense. But what matters is not whether the extraordinary events in Egypt fit her definition, but what Arendt’s exercise in thinking about revolutions, their successes and failures, can tell us about the great difficulties, challenges, and opportunities involved in Egyptians’ struggle to “build a new house where freedom can dwell.”

Modern revolutionaries face the enormous task of bringing into the public realm those who have been excluded from participation in it and, if they are to avoid a state of permanent war and violence, simultaneously creating a relatively stable set of institutions to organize and enable the expression of different points of view. A few days ago, the New York Times trumpeted the current crisis in Egypt under a headline proclaiming there were “two Egypts” locked in a raging conflict with each other over legitimate rulership of the country. Both Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi forces claim to embody the demand for representation for “all Egypt.” Representing the point of view of the anti-Morsi forces, a participant in the renewed protests justified the removal of Morsi: “They tried to rule the whole country for themselves...But if you want to rule Egypt, you have to rule for everyone or the people will stand against you.” (NYT July 6, 2013) In fact, pro-Morsi factions echoed similar sentiments by contending not only that there had been a military coup overthrowing a legitimately elected leader, but also that the removal of Morsi was designed to push them out of the political process. And this morning, the ultra-Conservative Al Nour party announced its decision to withdraw from further participation in efforts to form an interim government.

Whether the election of Morsi itself had been premature—he was brought to power with the support of only 24% of the voting electorate and pushed through a constitution largely created by the Muslim Brotherhood—its aftermath suggests that the process of creating a new form of government was far from complete. Soon after he took power, many different groups complained that Morsi appeared to have set himself up as a dictator in the mere five months he’d been in power. Clearly, in Arendtian terms, the rebellion started in 2011 had not yet resulted in the “truly revolutionary element” in constitution-making, which lies not in the creation of limited government, but in the act of a people (here Arendt quotes Thomas Paine) “constituting a government.”

There is an enormous difference, Arendt wrote, “in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes its own government.” But “the people”, for Arendt, implied all factions, all parts of the polity, had to be involved in the process; a government not only “for” the people, but also “of” and “by” it. The current conflagrations in Egypt represent yet another stage of opportunity in the effort to revolutionize the Egyptian polity in this direction, a stage which had harbingers of its arrival, but no predictable outcome.

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The great difficulty Egypt faces is not only the vast gap in different groups’ understandings of who “the people” are, and the different degrees of organized mobilization of those groups, but also derives from the fundamentally opposed interpretations of which appropriate principles—Islamist, moderate or more conservative; non-Islamist; pluralist?—should legitimate a new polity in Egypt. And this difficulty is only compounded by an expressed urgency to find solutions to a deteriorating economy.  Arendt would have hoped that the urgency of immediate needs would not overwhelm the revolutionary process of “constituting a government.”

It turns out, Arendt argued, that once “the source of authority had been severed from the colonial body politic in the New World,” the key problem confronting the American Revolution “turned out to be the establishment not of power but of authority.” How this authority (not to be confused with either power or violence) will be established in Egypt depends in the long run on all sides being able both to engage in discussions of principle, and not only contests over power or need, as well as participate in the search for institutionalized mechanisms to stabilize what Arendt called “the tremendous strength inherent in mutual promises.” If specific parties withdraw from this process, or persist in vilifying one group of the other, the violence that is now occurring may not yet be stemmed.

-Kathleen B. Jones

27Mar/130

Water and Desert: Perspectives in Education

AredntNola

For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”

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I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.

I was regularly reminded that the  immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.

I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.

Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?”  Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.

The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.

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Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”

I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”

To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.

“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.

I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.

I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.

Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.

They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River”  would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.

More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.

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Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.

“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.

Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”

“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?

Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”

Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.

-Nikita Nelin

12Mar/130

The Brain Activity Map

AredntNola

I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.

This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.

Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.

Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?

Ars Electronica, Flickr

Ars Electronica, Flickr

BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.

But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.

The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.

The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.

Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!

I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.

Flickr Creative Commons by @Tati

Flickr Creative Commons by @Tati

I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.

Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.

-Nikita Nelin

17Jan/130

The Pension Crisis in Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RB

 

14Dec/120

The Dorm Wars

The Dorm Wars have not yet caused the numerous bankruptcies amongst minor and maybe even some more established colleges that seem inevitable. What they have done is change the nature of college education. Whether at Harvard or Ramapo, students want luxury dorms with private bathrooms and glitzy campus centers. And since students—fueled with cheap student debt are the all-powerful consumers—campus administrators have followed the money. Unfortunately, they also too often followed their students into debt. As the NY Times reports today,

A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt. Oftentimes, students are stuck picking up the bill.

I recently visited my alma mater for a reunion and was housed in the building where decades ago I labored long into the night as an editor for my beloved Prism magazine. It is the dorm in which I once put my hand through a glass door in the midst of a late-night editing and layout session.  I barely recognized the Pratt Dormitory, which resembled more a Tablet style hotel than a college dormitory.

Such lavish quarters are now seen as necessary to attract the best students—something that is sad if it is true. And this perception, true or false, has unleashed the dorm wars. Some colleges, like the one I attended, don’t need to borrow to build. But many others think that they do.

“If Ramapo College was going to respond to what students wanted, which was larger, more comprehensive programs and residential housing, then we were going to have to go out and borrow,” Peter P. Mercer, President of the public liberal arts college in New Jersey told the Times

How wrong is that. Borrowing can of course be justified. But if you want to build something, there are other options. You can, for example, go out and raise the money. That requires work, convincing people, many of whom have no personal connection to your college, that what you are doing is important and worthy of support. Excessive borrowing is, too often, the resort of those unwilling to take the longer and yet more responsible path of building an institution that people are willing to invest in and support.

More importantly, the enormous borrowing of colleges reported by the Times is evidence of an educational system that has simply lost its way.  The fastest growing costs at colleges across the country are for administrators and for capital projects. Much of the borrowing is financing new luxury buildings and a bloated services staff. The priorities are wrong and real focus on teaching and learning seems to have been largely ignored. As students and parents confront extraordinary costs that go increasingly to pay interest on debt and support lavish undergraduate living, many are increasingly rebelling.

And for the first time in generations, students have other options. The rise of Internet learning is going to disrupt college education in this country as the Internet has transformed nearly every other area of life. And it will do so at the very moment when the finances of colleges and universities around the country are shakier than they have been in generations. The shake out will be painful.

What needs to be thought here is what is it that allowed debt to become so infectious within and amongst our educational institutions. With $1 trillion in student debt and $200 billion in institutional debt, education more and more resembles the housing and financial sectors of our economy.

Education is supposed to be a conservative enterprise, a bastion of learning and teaching the accumulated history and knowledge of the past. Somewhere along the line, education changed from being an experience of teaching and forming young individuals and citizens and became something very different. Higher education is now a progressive launching pad for careers. It is job security for tenured professors. It is the center of research and the producer of valuable sports franchises. Lost in the mix, I fear, is original mission itself.  Just as banks and financial institutions abandoned their old job of lending and saving money and sought to become investment banks, so too have colleges changed from being educational institutions to being consumer brands selling luxury and success instead of the life of the mind. Some can do both. But many more will go the way of Pan Am and Hostess.

-RB

11Jul/120

Gardenbrain

Is the economy like a garden that must be well tended by human hands? Or is it machine that, once turned on, runs mercilessly by itself?  This is a question Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer ask in their NY Times Op-Ed piece, " The Machine and the Garden."

Liu will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference "Does the President Matter?" on September 21-22. He is the founder and CEO of Guiding Lights, a network of citizens working to create new ways to restore community, compassion, and active citizenship in our world. He is also a former speech writer and domestic policy analyst for President Bill Clinton.  Along with Hannauer, Liu recently published  The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.

In the NY Times today, Liu and Hannauer write:

In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.

19Jun/121

The Crisis of European Politics

Greece voted on Sunday and the headline account shows that the right of center moderates won. This was presented as good news, for it means a continued embrace of the Euro and years more of austerity. But there are other lessons to glean from the Greek election.

1.  Extremism is rising quickly in Greece. As the Financial Times reports,

The parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas?

2. The Greeks are being asked to suffer for years more, but with little or no hope in sight. Here is what the NY Times reports today, an opinion from one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the Greek crisis:

“Greece will be forced to return to the drachma and devalue, and the default will cause bank runs and money flowing into Germany and the United States as the only viable safe haven bets,” he declared the day before Sunday’s Greek elections, irrespective of which party would win. “Greece will default because there is no other choice regardless of anyone’s politics.”

Almost all of the loans that Greece receives from Europe go directly to pay off the interest on loans to banks in Germany and elsewhere. Greece is neither paying down its debt nor investing in its future. The result is that the Greeks will suffer through years more of austerity and will likely be in no better position in a few years than they are now.

3. The combination of 1 and 2 above do not bode well for European politics in the coming years.

When Hannah Arendt looked to the Origins of Totalitarianism in the 20th century, she began her analysis with the financial speculation and subsequent crash of 1870. The ensuing crisis led to a weakening of nation-states and the rise of imperialism, all of which dissolved the traditional political and moral limits that had for centuries formed the structural foundation of European civilization.

As Europe struggles now to overcome national political limits as a response to the financial and banking crisis, it faces once again a political crisis mixed with an economic crisis. Europe is in trouble and they are not alone. But in Europe, unlike in the U.S. or in Japan, the financial crisis is inextricable from a crisis of nationalism and sovereignty. The potential for nationalist extremism on the one hand is real. On the other hand, there is also the potential for a weakening of national political traditions and the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic rule that, for all its rationalism, weakens moral and ethical restraints.

-RB

13Jun/121

Ryan Lizza Asks: Does the President Matter?

Ryan Lizza has a must-read essay in The New Yorker on the challenges of presidential leadership. The first thing to note is that when Lizza began asking President Obama's team about their vision for what they want to accomplish in a second term, they hesitated to answer. "Many White House officials were reluctant to discuss a second term; they are focused more on the campaign than on what comes after."  When pressed, Obama's team offered a litany of hopes for a second term, including: climate control, immigration reform, and a more robust foreign aid agenda. Also mentioned are housing reform and energy reform. While these are all important, they aren't what really ails the country. The American system of government is paralyzed. Corruption is becoming rampant on Wall Street and K Street. Our pension system is underfunded. Unemployment and underemployment are dangerously high and there are structural changes to the economy that require bold leadership.

The question raised is what leadership is and why it is so difficult in contemporary politics. Here is Lizza on one example of Obama's unwillingness to pursue his own agenda:

In 2010, Obama negotiated a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians and won its passage in the Senate. But, despite his promise to “immediately and aggressively” ratify the C.N.T.B.T., he never submitted it for ratification. As James Mann writes in “The Obamians,” his forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy, “The Obama administration crouched, unwilling to risk controversy and a Senate fight for a cause that the President, in his Prague speech, had endorsed and had promised to push quickly and vigorously.” As with climate change, Obama’s early rhetoric and idealism met the reality of Washington politics and his reluctance to confront Congress.

Lizza explores the incredible difficulties recent Presidents have faced in pursuing their agendas. One takeaway is that the idea of a presidential mandate is a myth.

•"The idea of a mandate from the people defies the intentions of the Founders and is contrary to the way that most early Presidents viewed their role."

•"The concept of a mandate was essentially invented by Andrew Jackson, who first popularized the notion that the President “is the direct representative of the American people,” and it was later institutionalized by Woodrow Wilson, who explicitly wanted the American government to be like the more responsive parliamentary system of the United Kingdom."

•"But the idea [of the mandate] is mostly a myth. The President and Congress are equal, and when Presidents misinterpret election results—especially in re-elections—they get into trouble."

Lizza argues that Presidents don't have the importance or authority that they claim and we ascribe to them. And yet, there are exceptions.

The last two presidents who successfully amassed large majorities to pass transformative legislation were Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. What unites Johnson and Reagan—different in temperament and politics—was an uncanny quality of leadership. They were able to bring opposing sides together to accomplish grand and important visions. It is just such political leadership that we desperately need and clearly lack today.

Is such leadership possible anymore? When one looks to politics and sees that unyielding partisanship, consultant-driven talking points, and PR campaigns, one must wonder if a President can actually lead. Whether in Europe or in the US, it seems as if leaders are on strike, only acting when they absolutely have to. It is not simply a matter of lacking vision, although it is that too. More, it is that leaders are so careful and pre-packaged that politics has come to be more about marketing than about thinking and action.

Politics, Hannah Arendt argued, requires courage. It demands a risky and rare willingness to experiment and seek to bring about new directions in the world. To act politically demands doing things that are spontaneous and new; politics requires actions that are surprising and thus attract attention and generate interest, drawing people together around a common idea. Arendt's point was that a political leader can only attract citizens to their vision when they act in ways that are surprising and noteworthy. The political leader must take the risk of leadership that can either succeed or fail. When it succeeds, the surprising and new act generates enthusiasm and followers. When it fails, the people reject it.

Leaders are those who take risks and are willing to fail. To look at Mitt Romney and President Obama is to see what happens when leaders are afraid to lose. We must now confront the fact that the need to raise money and the rise of consultants and the dominance of public relations has sapped politics of the spontaneity, thoughtfulness, and fun that can and should be at the center of political action.

How can we today resuscitate a political culture of risk-taking and leadership?  How can we make the president matter again?  Do Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the Pirate Parties in Europe presage a new style of political leadership? These are important questions, and will be the topics of the Hannah Arendt Center's Fifth Annual Conference: Does the President Matter? The Arendt Center Conference will take place on Sept. 21-22, 2012 and will feature Keynotes by Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner, Rick Falkvinge, and Jeff Tulis. It also features talks by John and James Zogby, Todd Gitlin, Ann Norton, and many others. We hope you will join us.

-RB

25Apr/122

Pension Crisis Primer

I have been trying to understand our pension mess for years now, and I will tell you that the numbers and acronyms are at times baffling. But help is here.

Two of the nation's Federal Reserve Banks (the Cleveland and the Atlanta Federal Reserve Banks) have joined together to form a "Financial Monitoring Team to study pension funds and municipal finance with an eye toward implications for the wider economy and financial system." In other words, these two banks are seeking to shine a light on the dark and difficult to understand corners of municipal finance. Chiefly, the banks are interested in learning about Municipal Pensions.

The Cleveland Fed publishes a newsletter, "Forefront", and the latest issue contains a number of incredibly helpful articles about the state of municipal pensions.  The main article is: Public Finances: Shining Light on a Dark Corner. This is a clear and helpful article, with a glossary and helpful sidebars. It also comes with a video primer on the pension crisis that is sober, clear, and helpful.

One question the article addresses is just how big the pension shortfall actually is. According to government numbers, the shortfall is $800 billion. The government estimates are based on assumptions of an 8% rate of return, which inflates the assumptions about the present value of pensions. In all likelihood, the return will be somewhere between the 8% historic average and the painfully low return offered by persistently low interest rates.  Thus, many private economists estimate the shortfall at around $4 Trillion. Here is what the Cleveland and Atlanta Feds say:

Some economists, however, have come up with a $4 trillion shortfall. They have pointed out that for most state and local plans, promised pension benefits are protected by constitutional, statutory, or common law guarantees. (See related article, “Navigating the Legal Landscape for Public Pension Reform.”) By definition, this ought to make them riskless obligations to the pensioners. Thus, the appropriate valuation methodology should discount promised benefits using the risk-free interest rate, usually calculated as the yield on long-term U.S. Treasuries. This method, argued cogently by Jeffrey Brown and David Wilcox in “Discounting State and Local Pension Liabilities” (2009), has the virtue of being supported by both economic and legal principles. It also produces substantially higher estimates of the present value of pension liabilities. Given the currently low yields on Treasury bonds, this approach implies a present value of accrued obligations as high as $6.7 trillion, leaving an unfunded liability of $4 trillion.

In other words, the actual size of the pension shortfall is probably somewhere between $800 Billion (the size of the 2009 stimulus package) and $4 Trillion. The likely shortfall, as the Fed says in its video on the site, is in the $3-$4 Trillion range.

So what does this mean? The Cleveland and Atlanta Feds offer a few conclusions:

1. At this point, it seems unlikely that any major pension fund will run out of cash in the next few years, barring a general worsening of economic and financial condition.

2. But we are not out of the woods yet. Many funds will require significant reforms to reduce underfunding levels, with painful new contributions from employers and employees.

3. Another concern is that some states’ legal protections may be too strong to give reforms enough time and flexibility to put plans on sustainable paths. In that case, states would ultimately be on the hook for covering pension benefits out of general revenues. This scenario, by creating crisis conditions in those states, could stress economic conditions more generally.

The real problem is the combination of #2 and #3. For if state laws make it too difficult to cut or reduce pensions, the only option is "painful new contributions from employers or employees." It may be that we cut the guaranteed pensions of pensioners, making them less well off in retirement. That would hurt the workers. Or, if legal protections prevent that option, we the taxpayers will have to dig deep to pay their pensions, probably as we at the same time cut other essential services. And that will not be pretty. Either way, the state and local government crisis is shaping up to be one of the most important challenges of our generation.

For more on the pension crisis, you can revisit our other posts on the subject here.

—RB

5Apr/121

Saving Pensions: “Technocrats, Not Grandstanding Idealists”

Public pensions are a mess. Ok, where is the hope? Yesterday Gillian Tett offered a rare glimmer of good news in a story about Rhode Island treasurer Gina Raimondo. But the good news comes with a bitter aftertaste.

Rhode Island is a small state, but it had one of the worst public pension deficits in the country. Forced to act, it has cut pensions for its workers, raised the retirement age from 62 to 67, and replaced the defined benefits pension (which guarantees a certain amount every year) with a partial defined contribution scheme (which pays out a pension based on how much the retiree has saved). These actions have angered many workers and unions, who are suing the state, but they have also saved the state pension system; one result is that the workers will be receiving some pension, even if it is less than they were promised.

The solution, as Raimondo articulates it, is above all to focus ruthlessly “on the math and facts, to come up with a solution.” Technocrats, not grandstanding idealists, are required.

The preference for technocrats over idealists illustrates a common approach to our extraordinary economic problems around the country: to hand over difficult political judgments to technicians. The same approach is leading the people to hand over the levels of government to technocrats in Greece, Italy, Suffolk County, and now Detroit. Dissatisfied with democratically elected leaders, the people are increasingly craving a government run by businessmen and accountants. It seems that the ruthless calculation of profit and loss is the last refuge of truth in our age.

Read more about what is going on in Detroit here. Read more about the pension crisis here and here.

15Feb/121

For the Welfare of All

A reader responds to my post on The Great Cultural Divide and reminds me that perhaps Charles Murray's most interesting suggestion in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) or what used to be called a "negative income tax." The post, by a reader named Murfmensch, reads:

Murray also calls for a Basic Income Guarantee to replace all other government provisions. I think his particular proposal would harm the wrong people. He thinks provisions for “widows and orphans” have wrought harms that I don’t see.  However, I think a Basic Income Guarantee, funded by a tax on pollution and/or income past twice the median, would increase the number of people conducting civic, cultural, entrepreneurial, and political work. Alaska has a small BIG and it seems to help out in this way.

 One point Murray made at a conference was interesting. With a BIG, not only would people receive money they need, others would [not] know you are receiving money.

While I don’t know what amount would “do the trick” I think a BIG would offer a corrective to problems that Hannah Arendt diagnoses as stemming from a “job-holder” society.

The Basic Income Guarantee is basically a refashioning of the proposal for a negative income tax (NIT), which is commonly thought to have originated with economist Milton Friedman, who advocated it in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. I have long been an advocate of a negative income tax, for many of the reasons Murfmensch mentions.

A negative income tax, as Friedman wrote in 1968 in Newsweek,

is to use the mechanism by which we now collect tax revenue from people with incomes above some minimum level to provide financial assistance to people with incomes below that level.

The point is to replace the overlapping and bureaucratic welfare programs in society (welfare, food stamps, unemployment, etc.) with a simple cash payment to every citizen.

Let's imagine that every person would receive—to take just one number often used—$8,000/year. Whatever the number, it is one we determine is necessary to live with some dignity in contemporary society.  If you make $0 in a year, you receive $8,000 from the IRS—in essence a negative income tax. If you make $5,000, you'd receive $3,000. Anyone making more than $8,000 pays no taxes on that first $8,000 and begins paying the "positive" income tax on all extra income that supports those who make nothing. A family of four with no income would receive $32,000/year. With your base income you can do whatever you want. You can freeload or work, your choice. You can be an artist or a father. These are your choices.

The advantage of the negative income tax is that it offers a guaranteed minimal cash payment to every person and yet does away with the dehumanizing and costly apparatus of the welfare state. We could still offer Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. But all other bureaucracies go. Everyone, rich and poor, fills out the same tax forms. Those who choose not to work (let's stop calling them poor) simply get a check. They don't have to use food stamps or live in a shelter or apply for welfare. They can share apartments or group houses with others. There is no long-term unemployment insurance. They can simply use their money to live as they will.

Obviously some people will benefit pretty well doing nothing. Some will game the system and freeload. But the real advantage is that for those who don't care about making lots of money, for those who choose professions with inconsistent and often low remuneration, and even for those who simply prefer raising a family or doing community service to working, there is another option. You can basically choose to drop out of the jobholders society and the rat race with the security that you will have enough money to survive. Sure, you won't be buying fancy clothes or driving a big car. You won't be able to send your kids to fancy schools. But you can take years off work to take care of a dying relative or choose to be an artist, craftsperson, or thinker and know that in those years when you don't make enough to live on you will have a guaranteed income every year that you need it.

What the negative income tax or the Basic Income Guarantee does is make it possible to choose to opt out of the economy without stigma or danger to one's health and ability to live.

Political thinkers and economists on the left and right have embraced these proposals since Friedman originated them. There have been two major sticking points.

On the right, the fear of freeloaders and thus the desire to prevent people from choosing not to work—which is something I think is one of the great advantages of the program. There is a real debate about whether the negative income tax will increase laziness or free people to do what they love. It is probably some of both.

On the left, the fear is what happens when someone spends their money unwisely and then has nothing left. Once we get rid of welfare and food stamps to replace them with the negative income tax, there is always the danger that people will end up starving out in the cold. This too is a real risk and no doubt it will happen. There is of course charity, but that may not be enough for some people. And what about parents who waste their children's guaranteed income?

Questions remain about the negative income tax and there are details to be decided. But the benefits of negative income tax are worth these risks on both right and left. It seems that this is an Arendtian idea whose time has come.

Read an interview with Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax Here.

Read and essay in the NY Times about the Negative Income Tax Here.

-RB

 

6Feb/120

Education in a Transitory World

"Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home."

-Hannah Arendt,  Between Past and Future

Facing the command of the ghost, Hamlet laments his task of revealing that his uncle murdered his father to rule Denmark: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." As the heir to the throne, Hamlet's personal situation is inherently political and Shakespeare's tragedy stages the premature death of the father as genealogical break that raises the question of succession. Arendt generalizes Hamlet's words in a manner that might appear paradoxical at first: how can the world always be becoming out of joint? Is there never a moment of rest or cohesion from which the disjunction starts?

Her conception of finitude is key here: humans make a world (comprised of structures and practices of living together) that lasts only for a set period. In this sense "home" for Arendt does not offer the permanent refuge that philosophers and poets often long for. The crisis in education that she writes of in the late 1950s is in part one of a particular time and place. She does critique specific pedagogical trends such as an emphasis on play-like activities in the classroom over "the gradually acquired habit of work." In a broader sense, however, the crisis of education actually responds to the crisis in authority that she sees occurring over a long historical arc. While she recognizes the declining power of the parent, teacher, and expert, however, Arendt does not merely advocate a harsh return to old models. Instead she advocates a "minimum of conservation" that allows the most basic operation of reinterpreting the past based on new conditions. The word "education" derives from the Latin root ēdūcĕre, meaning "to lead forth" but for Arendt such a journey could have little confidence in its destination.

Political and economic shifts in the post Cold-War era have put pressure on education such that today it is increasingly charged with directly preparing students for integration into a system of world trade. Students have in recent months raised demands against student debt in higher education which is the result of a system of individual financing that appears less reasonable to those now facing uncertain careers.

 At the same time, higher education budgets continue to be cut in general (especially at public institutions) and the Humanities continue to come under specific attack, usually under the rubric of lack of immediate relevance. Rising debt without prospect of repayment and budget cuts both suggest something worse than a crisis in education: a threat to education itself in its role in transmitting ideas of the past in order to enable the new generation to reconfigure a common world.