Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26May/140

Amor Mundi 5/25/14

Arendtamormundi

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

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

The Fourth Revolution

1The first chapter of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Mickletwait and Adrian Wooldridge has been reprinted in various forms, most recently in the Wall Street Journal. It begins with fear and awe-of China. The first chapter, parts of which have been reprinted in various forms most recently in the Wall Street Journal, introduces the reader to CELAP, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. "Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, CELAP's staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world's most advanced government-until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West's great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back. Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C." Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that government is broken, The Fourth Revolution argues that two responses are necessary. The first response is technical: "Government can be made slimmer and better." The second response is "ideological: it requires people to ask just what they want government to do." What is needed is a revolution, the surprising and unpredictable emergence of a new common sense that can inspire sacrifice and dedication in the name of a collective vision. Mickletwait and Wooldridge are to be commended for moving beyond the typical jeremiads that all that we need to fix government are technical solutions. The last third of their book is an attempt to articulate a vision of a common idea that can inspire and animate a revolutionary re-imagination of the state. That their proposed idea, which they call "freedom," is actually quite old is an argument against neither the idea nor its messengers. That said, their view of freedom is disappointingly tame and apolitical. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz on the Arendt Center blog.

A Little More Than An Apple A Day

new yorker_newark schools_revisions_7What happens when a rock star Democratic mayor, a popular no-nonsense Republican Governor, and a billionaire philanthropist decide to make an all-out and high-profile effort to reform the failing schools in a poor post-industrial city? Dale Russakoff, in a long fascinating essay, describes the axis of local and financial interests that drove­-and blocked-school reform in Newark, New Jersey. Despite a $100,000,000 commitment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the results of the program have been mixed. "Almost four years later, Newark has fifty new principals, four new public high schools, a new teachers' contract that ties pay to performance, and an agreement by most charter schools to serve their share of the neediest students. But residents only recently learned that the overhaul would require thousands of students to move to other schools, and a thousand teachers and more than eight hundred support staff to be laid off within three years. In mid-April, seventy-seven members of the clergy signed a letter to Christie requesting a moratorium on the plan, citing 'venomous' public anger and 'the moral imperative' that people have power over their own destiny. Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families' fear and anger: 'My mom-she would've been fit to be tied with some of what happened.' But he characterized the rancor as 'a sort of nadir,' and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. 'That's pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.'"

A Political Animal

1In a review essay summing up a recent biography of John Quincy Adams and both a recent biography and a collection of essays from his wife Louisa Catherine Adams, Susan Dunn points to Adams as perhaps the last member of the political generation of the founders, suggesting that he was both brilliant and behind his times: "Adams's program was a transformational one, but he disdained the transactional skills with which he might have achieved his goals. He rejected party-building, party leadership and followership, and piously stood opposed to using the tool of political patronage. He had neither talent nor patience for the essence of democratic leadership: connecting with, educating, and empowering ordinary citizens who were beginning to play a decisive part in American government. He did not grasp, as the historian Gordon Wood memorably wrote, that the voice of the people would become 'America's nineteenth-century popular substitute for the elitist intellectual leadership of the Revolutionary generation.' On the contrary, like the founders who worshiped 'the public' but feared 'the people,' Adams felt only scorn for the idea of dirtying his hands in the increasingly boisterous, personality-driven, sectional, and partisan politics of the 1820s and 1830s." Proving, however, that no one is just one thing, Adams would later prove to be in the advance guard of another issue; after losing the presidency in 1829, he took up abolition, which he fought as a member of the House of Representatives until his death two decades later.

Sometimes The Simplest Solution

1Philip Ball pushes on the idea that the most elegant scientific solution is likely to be the best one, and the following ideal that simplicity is therefore beautiful, and finds it empty: "The idea that simplicity, as distinct from beauty, is a guide to truth - the idea, in other words, that Occam's Razor is a useful tool - seems like something of a shibboleth in itself. As these examples show, it is not reliably correct. Perhaps it is a logical assumption, all else being equal. But it is rare in science that all else is equal. More often, some experiments support one theory and others another, with no yardstick of parsimony to act as referee. We can be sure, however, that simplicity is not the ultimate desideratum of aesthetic merit. Indeed, in music and visual art, there appears to be an optimal level of complexity below which preference declines. A graph of enjoyment versus complexity has the shape of an inverted U: there is a general preference for, say, 'Eleanor Rigby' over both 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' and Pierre Boulez's Structures Ia, just as there is for lush landscapes over monochromes. For most of us, our tastes eschew the extremes."

One Thing After Another

1Ben Lerner has an excellent essay in the London Review of Books on volume three of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series. One of the most distinctive qualities of the series is the overwhelming amount of detail Knausgaard offers to describe even the most mundane of events, like the exact appearance and characteristics of a bowl of cornflakes. Indeed, Knausgaard has remarked in an interview, "I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?" Lerner observes that it is this immersive and anti-literary formlessness-as well as the risk it carries-that ultimately gives Knausgaard's experiment its peculiar power. "What's unnerving about Knausgaard is that it's hard to decide if he's just a child who stares at everything, who makes no distinctions, or if he indeed qualifies as a Baudelairean man-child, as a genius who can 'bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed'. Another way to put it: does My Struggle ultimately have an aesthetic form? Or is it just one thing after another? I think it's because My Struggle is both absorbing and can feel undifferentiated that you'll find it being likened at once to crack cocaine and Marcel Proust. It's why we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it's good."

Reaching Into the Way, Way Back For a Way Forward

1Paul Carrese and Michael Doran, weary of having to listen to pundits discuss foreign policy and wary of off-the-shelf foreign policy doctrine, look back to Washington's 1796 Farewell Address as a model for present day American decision making. They note four points - the primacy of natural rights and religious ideals, maintaining military readiness and civilian authority, wariness of faction but adherence to Constitutional rules, and a statesmanship balanced between interest and justice - worthy of continued consideration. They conclude, finally, that the foreign policy put forth by Washington is a foreign policy of an informed citizenry: "the Founders' school of foreign policy encourages us to maintain a flexible but principled disposition. Washington hoped his moderate, balanced principles would 'prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.' This presupposed civic vigilance by citizens and leaders alike. The Farewell Address thus calls his 'friends and fellow citizens' to take up the hard work of learning about and debating difficult issues, while avoiding passion and partisan rancor to the highest degree humanly possible. In foreign policy, as in all aspects of political life, neither the experts nor the public have a monopoly on insight. Both are capable of error. A successful, long-term American strategy toward any given problem, or any given era of international realities, will command the respect of a large portion of the public and a significant portion of the experts. Such strategies must be a product of co-creation, and must be rooted in our deepest principles and values."

The Not-So-Clear NSA Line Between Terrorism and Crime

1In the Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras write about MYSTIC, a secret NSA program that allows the U.S. Government to record and listen to every single phone call in certain countries. "Rather than simply making 'tentative analytic conclusions derived from metadata,' the memo notes, analysts can follow up on hunches by going back in time and listening to phone calls recorded during the previous month. Such 'retrospective retrieval' means that analysts can figure out what targets were saying even when the calls occurred before the targets were identified. '[W]e buffer certain calls that MAY be of foreign intelligence value for a sufficient period to permit a well-informed decision on whether to retrieve and return specific audio content,' the NSA official reported. The program raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad. The U.S. intelligence community routinely justifies its massive spying efforts by citing the threats to national security posed by global terrorism and unpredictable rival nations like Russia and Iran. But the NSA documents indicate that SOMALGET has been deployed in the Bahamas to locate 'international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers' - traditional law-enforcement concerns, but a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction. 'The Bahamas is a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States,' the State Department concluded in a crime and safety report published last year. 'There is little to no threat facing Americans from domestic (Bahamian) terrorism, war, or civil unrest.' By targeting the Bahamas' entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog Wolfgang Heuer writes about Arendt and social science in the "Quote" of the Week. And Roger Berkowitz writes about the Fourth Revolution, a call for a classical liberal revolution in the Weekend Read.

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.
24May/141

The Fourth Revolution and Public Freedom

ArendtWeekendReading

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Mickletwait and Adrian Wooldridge announces itself with mighty ambitions. Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that government is broken, the book argues that two responses are necessary. The first response is technical: “Government can be made slimmer and better.” Such a claim they see as obvious and non-partisan: “Everybody, whether from Left or Right, could make their governments work better.”

The second response is “ideological: it requires people to ask just what they want government to do.” Mickletwait and Wooldridge see that technical or practical reforms are not enough; what is needed is a political revolution, the surprising and unpredictable emergence of a new common sense that can inspire sacrifice and dedication in the name of a collective vision.

Mickletwait and Wooldridge are to be commended for moving beyond the typical jeremiads that all that we need to fix government are technical solutions. The last third of their book is an attempt to articulate a vision of a common idea that can inspire and animate a revolutionary re-imagination of the state. That their proposed idea, which they call “freedom,” is actually quite old is an argument against neither the idea nor its messengers. That said, their view of freedom is disappointingly tame and apolitical.

1

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, begins with fear and awe—of China. The first chapter, parts of which have been reprinted in various forms most recently in the Wall Street Journal, introduces the reader to CELAP, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. CELAP is a "Cadre Training School;" it looks like a campus, but it has a “military purpose.” It is a government training institute for elite bureaucrats, but its models and methods are more Silicon Valley than Washington DC. CELAP, Mickletwait and Wooldridge write, “is an organization bent on world domination.” Translation: We in the West should be scared.

Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, CELAP's staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world's most advanced government—until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West's great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back.

Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C.

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CELAP

How have we come to be in awe of the Chinese approach to government? How have we become fearful that the Chinese may find more happiness and individual freedoms in their managerial authoritarianism than we expect from our democracy? Mickletwait and Wooldridge seek to explain these fears by telling a simplified story about the history of the state in three-and-one-half steps.

First, Thomas Hobbes imagines the state, a Leviathan, in a process that saw European sovereigns replace about 400 principalities where life could descend in “barbarism and chaos” at the end of the Middle Ages with about 25 states by the early 20th century. These states, “constantly vying for supremacy,” built up military and economic machines and  “improved statecraft” and ushered in a period of security and innovation.

If Hobbes is the patron saint of the first revolution in the modern state, John Stuart Mill is the second. Mill moved from the Hobbesian emphasis on security to the utilitarian insistence that “the beneficiaries of order could develop their abilities to the maximum and thereby achieve happiness.” Raising merit above patronage, the utilitarian revolution “insisted that the state solve problems rather than simply collect rents.” Sewers and railroads were built, and the police emerged. But the genius of the Millian state is that even as the state gave its people so much, it shrank in size. Mickletwait and Wooldridge love to cite William Gladstone’s boast that he was “saving candle-ends and cheese-pairings in the cause of the country.” He fought corruption and extravagance, and it worked. “Under Britain's thrifty Victorians, the world's most powerful country reduced its tax take from £80 million in 1816 to less than £60 million in 1860—even as its population increased by 50%.”

The Victorian state was efficient, but it was also “harsh and tolerant.” While the government provided services, its largesse was limited. The poor lost their freedom if they lost their jobs. This brought about the Third revolution in the state, the welfare state. The welfare state swept aside the Victorian “vision of a limited but vigorous state.” The personification of the welfare state is Beatrice Webb, the daughter of “high Victorian Privilege” who articulated that idea that the state was the “embodiment of reason” and was there to ensure “planning (as opposed to chaos), meritocracy (as opposed to inherited privilege), and science (as opposed to blind prejudice.” As a founder of the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics, Webb called into being “social engineers from around the world” and was also a “cheerleader of their socialist revolution."

While Mickletwait and Wooldridge argue that we still live under the welfare state model, they know that this third incarnation of the modern state is tottering on its last legs. “Put simply,” they write, “big government overextended itself.”  The statistics are clear:

In the U.S., government spending increased from 7.5% of GDP in 1913 to 19.7% in 1937, to 27% in 1960, to 34% in 2000 and to 42% in 2011. Voters continue to demand more services, and politicians of all persuasions have indulged them—with the left delivering hospitals and schools, the right building prisons, armies and police forces, and everybody creating regulations like confetti.

It is not difficult to produce examples of the irrationality of government today, and Mickletwait and Wooldridge deliver admirably. What is more, the welfare state was designed to bring about meritocracy and equality. It has done anything but.

The result, they write, was a rebellion led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. For Mickletwait and Wooldridge, this has been a half-revolution. Neither Thatcher nor Reagan succeeded in halting the advance and bloat of the Leviathan-turned-welfare state. Which leaves us where we are today. We continue to demand more from the state, which we abhor and resent. Governments, they insist, are going broke. There are calls for reform and a dawning realization that something must change, but there is little agreement on the way forward.

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Mickletwait and Wooldridge offer one answer: A return to a limited idea of the state that does certain things well but leaves most of public life free. They repeat over and over they are not libertarians who berate or hate government. They believe government can do certain things well. The book is chock full of examples: The medical care system in Sweden; the use of MOOCs and technology in education; the embrace of surveillance in crime fighting. What all these examples of “good government” share is the embrace of technology and managerial skill to kill sacred cows and bring efficiency and corporate techniques to government. The appeal of CELAP is its marriage of Silicon Valley technology with “the latest management thinking” that imports “private-sector methods into the public sector.” The model here is Singapore, where “young Singaporean mandarins” are more like “junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of Veep or The Thick of It.” Government must be run more like a business.

Mickletwait and Wooldridge are not ready to fully abandon democracy to technological managerialism. But they see that “Democracy has grown rather shabby.”

Government, backed by the general democratic will, has never been more powerful; but in its bloated, overburdened condition, it also has seldom been as unloved or inefficient. Freedoms have been given up, but the people have not gotten much in return.

What is needed, in other words, is a classically liberal alternative to democracy, one in which democracy is corrected or at the least moderated by a management-trained elite.

There is much to praise in Mickletwait and Wooldridge’s account, and it has been lauded widely. The bloat they take aim at is undeniable. Also the need for technological and managerial innovation. Truly government has overreached in a way that is deeply intrusive in our lives. What is more, Mickletwait and Wooldridge are deeply right to insist that beyond technological innovation, we need to think about ideas: Namely, the idea of what we want our government to be. We do need a fourth revolution.

There are moments when the revolution Mickletwait and Wooldridge call for sounds appealing. They write of “reviving the spirit of liberty” and “reviving the spirit of democracy by lightening the burden of the state.” It is a call to reinvigorate democracy by localizing it, freeing it from bureaucratic and technocratic elites, and returning it to the people. They praise the “joys of pluralism” and “the charm of diversity.” The call is to devolve power away from the center and “toward the localities.” All of this is not only sensible. It is right.

Where Mickletwait and Wooldridge fall short, however, is in holding a simplistic ideal of freedom. Freedom means, “to give the individual the maximum freedom to exercise his God-given powers and achieve his full potential.” It is the Millian freedom of “pursuing our own good in our own way.” And it names the moral “right to live [our] lives according to [our] own lights.” In rebelling against the bloat of the state, and even as they insist that government has a necessary and important role, Mickletwait and Wooldridge insist that government and the state are there only to guarantee the security and the resources for people to pursue their private and individual aims.

What is missing in the classically liberal freedom Mickletwait and Wooldridge advocate is any understanding of what Hannah Arendt calls the joys of public freedom. Underlying the decentralized, Federalist, and republican limits on democracy that Mickletwait and Wooldridge praise in the American tradition was a republican tradition that they have forgotten or wish to suppress. The American tradition of self-government included not simply the protection of bourgeois private freedoms, but it also nurtured public-spirited engagement, the active desire to speak and act in concert with fellow citizens to build a meaningful common world.

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The American democratic tradition is pluralist, diverse, and local. It is experimental. But it is also messy and inefficient and at times relentlessly frustrating. Above all, however, it is about building a common project, something larger than ourselves. Mickletwait and Wooldridge are right that centralization, bureaucracy, and technocracy are hindering the American dream. They are right to insist that we need a revolution. But somehow they think that Americans, Singaporeans, and Chinese will all embrace the same technocratic, managerial, and consumerist world of consumerist individualism. At least on this final point, I hope they are wrong.

This is your Weekend Read.

--RB

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".
21Feb/147

The Irony of the Elite

ArendtWeekendReading

Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.

The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.

Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?

“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”

houseofcards

Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?

““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”

Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:

“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”

It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.

What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony.  The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.

This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:

“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”

Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.

Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.

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There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:

“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”

As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.

The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.

Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.

-RB

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".
20Jan/141

Amor Mundi 1/19/14

Arendtamormundi

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

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

On Muckraking and Political Change

watchdogJim Sleeper turned me on to Dean Starkman’s excerpt from his new book chronicling the failure of the press to expose wrongdoing in the lead up to the financial crisis, The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. Starkman writes: “Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism? Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.” Starkman has incredible optimism in the power of the press is infective. But in the weekend read, Roger Berkowitz turns to Walter Lippmann to raise questions about Starkman’s basic assumptions.

Our Unconstitutional Standing Army

armyKathleen Frydl has an excellent essay in The American Interest arguing against our professionalized military and for the return of a citizen’s army.  “Without much reflection or argument, the United States now supports the professional “large standing army” feared by the Founding Fathers, and the specter of praetorianism they invoked casts an ever more menacing shadow as the nation drifts toward an almost mercenary force, which pays in citizenship, opportunity structures (such as on-the-job technical training and educational benefits), a privileged world of social policy (think Tricare), and, in the case of private contractors, lots of money. Strict constructionists of the Constitution frequently ignore one of its most important principles—that the military should be large and powerful only when it includes the service of citizen-soldiers. This oversight clearly relates to the modern American tendency to define freedom using the neo-liberal language of liberty, shorn of any of the classical republican terminology of service. We would do well to remember Cicero’s most concise summary of a constitutional state: “Freedom is the participation in power.”” I don’t know what Hannah Arendt would have thought about the draft. But I do know she’d sympathize with Frydl’s worries about a professionalized army.

What Has It Done To Us?

timeTim Wu marvels at the human augmented by technology. Consider what an intelligent time traveler would think if talking to a reasonably educated woman today: "The woman behind the curtain, is, of course, just one of us. That is to say, she is a regular human who has augmented her brain using two tools: her mobile phone and a connection to the Internet and, thus, to Web sites like Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Quora. To us, she is unremarkable, but to the man she is astonishing. With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to. Take away our tools, the argument goes, and we’re likely stupider than our friend from the early twentieth century, who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does arithmetic faster. The time-traveler scenario demonstrates that how you answer the question of whether we are getting smarter depends on how you classify “we.”” We, the underlying humans may know less and less. But “we,” the digitally enabled cyborgs that we’ve become, are geniuses. Much of the focus and commentary about artificial intelligence asks the wrong question, about whether machines will become human. The better question is what will become of humans as we integrate more fully with our machines. That was the topic of Human Being in an Inhuman Age, the 2010 Arendt Center Conference. A selection of essays from that conference are published in the inaugural edition of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center.

Thinking History

historyIn an interview with high school teacher David Cutler, history professor Eric Foner explains how we could make history education more effective: "Knowledge of the events of history is important, obviously, but also I think what I see in college students, that seems to be lacking at least when they come into college, is writing experience. In other words, being able to write that little essay with an argument. I see that they think, 'OK, there are the facts of history and that's it—what more is there to be said?' But of course, the very selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation. You can't just separate fact and interpretation quite as simply as many people seem to think. I would love to see students get a little more experience in trying to write history, and trying to understand why historical interpretation changes over time." Foner wants students to think history, not simply to know it.

Reading Croatian Fiction

fictionGary Shteyngart, Google Glass wearer and author of the recently published memoir Little Failure, explains the arc of his reading habits: "When I was growing up, I was reading a lot of male fiction, if you can call it that. I was up to my neck in Saul Bellow, which was wonderful and was very instrumental but I think I’ve gone, like most people I think I’ve expanded my range quite a bit. When you’re young you focus on things that are incredibly important to you and read, God knows, every Nabokov that’s ever been written. But then, it is time to move beyond that little place where you live and I’ve been doing that; I’m so curious to see so many people send me books now it’s exciting to go to the mailbox and see a work of Croatian fiction."

This Week on the Blog

This week on the blog, Sandipto Dasgupta discusses Arendt and B.R. Ambedkar, one of the authors of the Indian constitution. In the weekend read, Roger Berkowitz examines the merit of muckraking journalism and its role as watchdog of corruption.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Jan/140

On Civic Journalism

ArendtWeekendReading

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.

The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”

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One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:

In Pilgrim's Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.

The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.

Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).

Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.

Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.

The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.

The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”

Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?

Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.

Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.”  The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.

watchdog

To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.

Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.

But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.

Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself:  If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?

-RB

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".
7Jun/130

In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?

ArendtWeekendReading

In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.

watson

Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.

tech

Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.

think

There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.

-RB

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".
15Feb/130

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
18Oct/1221

The Humanity of Robots

The Wall Street Journal ran an interview this week with Luke Muehlhauser, the Executive Director of the Singularity Institute. The Journal asked: Will Artificial Intelligence Make us Obsolete? Muehlhauser's answer was, well yes. In his words:

Cognitive science has discovered that everything the human mind does is done by information processing and machines can do information processing too.

The first statement is clearly false, or at least depends on a strangely mixed up idea of "information processing." The old determinist canard that humans are simply complex machines has not been proven or discovered by cognitive science. And even if humans do process billions upon billions of bits of information it is not at all clear that such a humanly fallible process is reproducible. That is not the claim that cognitive science can make.

But cognitive science can claim that machines can be built that act in ways that are so like humans as to be almost nearly indistinguishable from them. Or, they can even be better than humans in doing many quintessentially human tasks. So machines can not only beat humans at chess, they can make moves that seem like moves only a human could have made, as Gary Kasparov learned to his dismay in the second game of his rematch with Deep Blue. Machines can create paintings that appear to be fully creative, as does Aaron, the painting machine created by artist and computer scientist Harold Cohen. And machines can increasingly make ethical decisions in warfare, as the robo-ethicist Ron Arkin has argued—decisions that are more humane than those made by human warriors.

Too much of the debate over artificial intelligence is caught up in the technical and really irrelevant question of whether machines can fully replicate human beings. The point is that if machines act "as if" they are human, or if they are capable of doing what humans do better than humans, we will gradually and continually allow machines to take over more and more of the basic human activities that make up our world. Already computers make most of the trades on Wall Street and computers are increasingly used in making medical diagnoses. Computers are being used to educate our children and write news stories. Caregivers for the elderly are being replaced by robotic companions. And David Levy, artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, argues that we will be marrying robots in the near future. It is not that these robotic lovers or artificial artists are human, but that they love and paint in ways that do or will soon pass the Turing test: they will be impossible to distinguish from human works.

Undoubtedly one reason machines are acting more human is that humans themselves are acting less so. As we interact more and more with machines, we begin to act predictably, repetitively, and less surprisingly. There is a convergence at foot, and it is the dehumanization of human beings as much as the humanization of robots that should be worrying us.

-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.
7Sep/121

Destructive Criticism

Nikita Nelin continues his report of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 8/15/12-9/5/12. You can read his first post here.

“Art washed away the dust of everyday living.”

-Pablo Picasso

Here, on the Playa, you are covered in dust. “Playa,” is what this stretch of desert is referred to as. It is Spanish for “beach.” Someone thought it was funny. Maybe this is irony? Maybe a gesture to what is obviously missing? Maybe a metaphor to what has been created in its place. Either way, I like the sound of “Playa.” Here, you get a Playa name. There are few rules about the name except you cannot name yourself. “The Playa names you.” Here are no trash receptacles and yet there is no trash left behind. Here, you participate, you take stock, ownership, time. Here, you juxtapose the here to the there, and back again, just to see what can happen -- to see what remains when the dust is washed away.

I have been off of the Playa for less then 24 hours. I am in Circus Circus hotel in Reno. What more appropriate place to orient one's self. Hunter S. Thompson did it. I may as well steal that little bit. The Playa still feels like the here. The there is quite unclear to me right now. Here, in the circus, I can practice making time work again as an abstraction rather than a point of location. In the mean time here is a little something of what remains and what does not.

The ornate temple, filled with messages from loved ones to the departed. The forty foot man with his 60 foot base, stapled with an alpha symbol on one side and an omega symbol on the other, a nod to the theme of this years Burning Man (Fertility 2.0), and honoring the equilibrium of the genders. The smaller projects round the playa: a ten foot wooden head, with a cave and deck, decorated with Osho Zen pictures, and phrases of compassion; the glittering three letters of EGO, which from a far looks simple and gregarious but upon close encounter is revealed to be made from intricate carvings reaching towards the religious and sociocultural milieu; a brass, broken heart (I sat in it); a laser harp (I played it), a wooden hive which held space for sunrise tea ceremonies (I drank it). All of them, and more, I saw, and lived inside, and then I watched them burn. All those I experienced, I celebrated, and I acknowledged their passing -- all those except for one. The one I had worked on; Burn Wall Street.

My initial invitation here was as a reporter -- to work on, and write about the Burn Wall Street project. The project was the largest non-temple, non-Man, Playa built to-date. Two city blocks. Five buildings. Two weeks on site to put the walls together, and up. It was first meant to make a statement and to encourage unity. The mock approach, to build buildings with names like “Bank of unAmerica,” “Goldman Sucks,” “Merrill Lynched,” “Chaos Manhattan,” you get the picture. The idea was to unite through outrage. Otto Von Danger stated clearly, “the Tea Party and Occupy are getting [worked over] by the same enemy.”

Yet, once they finally burned I did not celebrate. I felt no sense of relief or unity. I just saw buildings burning. Fire in windows. And as much as I wanted to feel a sense of completion or inspiration, I just kept coming back to those windows, and the idea of people. This is not an easy entry for me. I want to tell you about everything beautiful I saw, all the unity, all the dimensions of gratitude -- a chaos so gifted and dense that it approaches the image of the divine, a vision of what Burning Man approaches for me. But first I have to tell you about irony, anarchy and terrorism.

I arrived to Reno on a Wednesday. A guest of Joe Olivier, a brilliant engineer who became involved with Burning Man in 2001 and has since been a central player in the development of the event. This year Joe (a.k.a. Exact Lee) committed to the Burn Wall Street project. Like me, he was impressed with the scale of the installation and the potential of its resonance. If we consider Burning Man to be space created for the creative engineering of the human experience, who better then an engineer to be central in its evolution.

This concept of engineering (of experience, of environment, of society) is key here, and something I want to return to in a future post. Burning Man is both a test lab, and a sample of society. When we begin to extrapolate we begin to see this act of “engineering” in every facet of our regular world. Similarly, the identification of everything built on the Playa as an “installation,” has reach into the regular world. All is an installation, in one part because it is intent with creating an experience, and in another, because it is acknowledged as impermanent (remember, everything burns). No wonder I felt so disoriented once I left the playa and drove into Reno yesterday. I was reentering the familiar, and yet I continued relating to everything I saw as an installation (a patch of grass, which I had not seen in almost three weeks, a stream with trees and a canopy, the bright outlines of Reno’s casino center, the Wal-Mart installation, the curved golden arches, of a fast food joint, etc...). Could we, in fact, be engineering our society, removed from the words of Ozymandias? What is our creative intention? What experience are we burning to facilitate?

Back to the story.

After a day spent in Reno, Joe drove me into the desert. It was a surreal site. At the time there was only the base of The Man, the outline of the Temple, and the BWS territory. Otherwise just the cracked white desert floor and dust storms. I made introductions, helped fetch some water, and fell asleep.

I was awoken at 6 a.m. to the sound of someone yelling through a bullhorn. “Get up, mother fuckers, up, up, up.” I put on my goggles and bandana (both necessary for protection from the dust storms) and went out to find my place. It would not have been enough to just watch. If I was to understand anything, if I was to have something to write about, I had be involved, to participate (for a definition of “participate” please reference my earlier post).

Here is the thing, it is quite awe inspiring how quickly we can assimilate to the demands of our conditions. Scorching sun, one plate, one spoon, one cup, dust storms and 16 hour workdays, become normalcy rather quickly. We can even become accustomed to a type of chaos, a disorder of environment and circumstance, a certain disorganization. Such chaos breeds surprise and even serendipity. You are in a desert. You are thirsty, exhausted. Someone wanders by with gatorade and sits down to tell you their story. How they got there. It is something akin to the sense of deja vu.

My first day, I painted some, I butchered chicken carcasses without gloves, and then I landed on a build crew. Mind you, despite the wishes of my Russian father I have never had to build anything. I barely knew how to use a screw gun. Aren’t there special angles for optimal hold?

I spend the next nine days helping to build. No one was prepared. The build was run by two former military men whose idea of leadership was the application of pressure. The problem was that we were behind schedule and the original designs were not holding up well in the environment, and we had five buildings to put together. Oh, yeah, and there were only two real carpenters on crew.

The crew consisted of three classes. There were the war veterans who had joined the project either out of anger at our political system or out of their loyalty to Otto Von Danger (the artist behind the project, a staple name at Burning Man and a veteran suffering from Gulf War syndrome). There were the wanderers who wanted a ticket into Burning Man, and thus joined the project. And there were the professionals who through some strange chain of events ended up at 10 o’clock on the playa (the Playa is designed as a clock with the Man as the central point, and all distance is measured by time): a teacher, painter, and women's rights activist from Reno who ultimately began to function as a leader of a wall-build crew; a former brew master from the midwest who had been laid off without cause some months before and stumbled upon an ad for Burn Wall Street on the internet; a former ad man for a legal firm who had also been laid off some months before the build; a mother of two from Michigan who had lost her home some months before; among others... This last group fascinated me most. For them the projects' ideals communicated directly the experiences of their everyday lives. They were there with a purpose. BWS could be a voice to their outrage. They were the last to leave the build. When others began to abandon the site, me included, these were the people that held it together, these were the people we who fled felt guilty towards.

As the project deteriorated the morning bullhorn became meaner and more demanding. A meeting would be held in the morning. There would be threats: those who tried to leave the site would be “thrown off the playa.” Then the bullhorns would disappear. They would reemerge through out the day to monitor the progress, or the lack-thereof, and then again would be gone.

Decisions were made. Some walls had to be deconstructed as we had been putting them together in a way that could not hold up. Put together, take apart, rinse, repeat. “We had built and taken this thing apart twice already,” someone remarked.

Two of buildings were to be cut a floor short. Graffiti art was to be sacrificed (the graffiti artist having been, um, “thrown off the playa.” He was now sitting in a jail outside of Reno having been busted for hitchhiking). Construction would grind to a halt as either the winds were too harsh for the cranes, or another meeting of the red and blue hats was called (1 green, 4 red, 8 blue, and 50 white, is how you knew your place). The crews would huddle down for cover in front of the wall corners that had been built but were yet to be hoisted up to be made into buildings, drink water, smoke, eat granola bars. The playa was littered with them, the corners. In their own right the corners had become an installation. An interactive maze in which everyone got lost. Kind of pretty, almost. Chaos. Send someone out for more nails, lost. Send someone out for a drill, which were always lacking, lost. Send someone out for extra muscle, lost.

I am told that each Burning Man build takes on the aura of the idea that bore it. Each person who has worked on the temple reports it to be a transcendent experience. An overwhelming challenge of deliberation and connectivity. The Man Crew reports cohesion and pride. They build the symbol of the city, the structure that due to its size and positioning will help orient the 60,000 participants round the Playa . Burn Wall Street became a collision of disorganization, ego, and faithlessness. Even those who despite the stumbling blocks continued to trudge forward could not inspire the rest of us to follow. The rest of us chose self preservation instead. The concept did not hold together. The ones in charge became the embodiment of what the project was meant to mock.

Ultimately, what was needed was built. The rest, the corners never to be hoisted up, were salvaged as wind blocks for various camps. Carpenters from the Department of Public Works (DPW) showed up as a favor to Exact Lee, and did what we were failing to do -- work together. They are specialists in this, sort of like the special ops of Black Rock City.

It was a Saturday. I had been there for eleven days and the event itself was to begin on Sunday. My girlfriend was due to arrive that day and the last thing I intended to do was enter the event, the celebration phase in that special state of disaster that BWS had brought out in me. People all over were setting up camps. The night before I had moved away from the project and entered my camp. I was determined to get ready for the next phase of this experience, having in part been counseled by some Burning Man veterans from my camp to step away from BWS before it ruins my first BM experience. After all, I was here to report on all of it, not just the anarchy at ten o’clock.

Yet, that day I continued to make runs from the camp area to BWS. In an art car, a converted F-350 that looked like a wooden tank with the turret missing, I ran breakfast and lunch out to the build (the bus with the stove having already been driven into the camp area previous night). I had also been charged by Joe to offer up rides to anyone needing to leave the site and build their camp. I like to think I was evacuating people, providing a route of transition.

The final vision of the construction was a monstrosity. Burn Wall Street was the ugliest installation on the project; in this it was a success. It was not meant to be beautiful. So askew was it from the other carefully crafted designs of the Playa -- the magic, white polished wood, curved, ornate, awe and wonder inspiring, carefully thought out and nurtured pieces all over the clock of the city -- that Burn Wall Street called attention to itself by its “outofplaceness.” It was a game of “what does not belong?” Yet, an odd trick of perspective made it so that many people did not immediately notice the two-block structure disturbing the sky. As they arrived, their eyes, yet to adjust to this carefully intentioned landscape, overlooked the ugly and unintentioned. And this calls into question the perspective of everyday. How is it that we have allowed ourselves to become so accustomed to the monstrosities in our vision? Why, have we so easily accepted the most dysfunctional structures of our everyday life? Could it be that we participate not only by building, but also by accepting what we see?

Burn Wall Street was due to burn on Friday. The smaller projects would burn on Thursday. The Man would Burn on Saturday and the Temple on Sunday. All of Friday a skeleton crew of volunteers held the demolition perimeter around the site. A number of the original volunteers were still there, to the end. The highlight of the project was to be the controlled burn and the fireworks/demolition/TNT of Burn Wall Street. Yet, the winds, and concern from the safety authorities of Black Rock City dictated a postponement of the Burn. Burn Wall Street would Burn on Saturday, after the Man.

Irony, it ended up upstaging The Man. Irony, it became what it rebelled against, it swallowed all kind intentions. It became a war zone; maybe we create what we know. Is that a lesson? Too cliche; too tired.

Friday a new perimeter was created. To the disappointment of the artist the explosives would have to be canceled. He would have to be satisfied with simply burning something.

I am told that on Saturday, as volunteers took their places again around the perimeter, Otto Von Danger, and his chief lieutenant, showed up on site with a meal they had prepared with their own hands. Do we identify “this” as irony, submission, redemption, at last an invitation of all parties to the table?

At 1 a.m., on Saturday morning, I watched Wall Street burn. Following the euphoria of the Man burn -- a celebration of something, a cumulative acknowledgement to the culture created and its transiency -- Burn Wall Street felt like the death of something. There was no gratitude, no closure, no more dialogue.

Someone asked me, “why not have built the buildings upside down?” Why not? That would have made it art. That would have made the burn more about statement then destruction. That would have been a conversation. No. I saw buildings burn. I saw horror. Before the fire started, the buildings, with their windows lacking glass or any other sign of life and care, still seemed a bit abstract to me, like toys. But filled with fire, like rows and rows of odd teeth missing, their crevices aflame, I thought of life. I thought of New York. I saw people in those windows. To me, this became a vision of anarchy and a metaphor for terrorism. And for that I am grateful because it crystalized something that my humanist roots have been suggesting all along.

Ultimately, if we are to have a conversation about change, there must be room at the table for everyone -- a chance for every story.

Our society is failing. The theory of our being has broken down. We are approaching the state of chaos, an opportunity for building something. Not entirely doing away with, but regrouping on what we have, and setting about with a new intention. Mocking, belittling, only affirms fear -- it creates the enemy, and it silences.

What Burning Man, what the Playa, the beach, this small social experiment, this slice of life teaches me is that the dust of everyday living, a harsh rock, a desert, an opportunity -- not to be escaped from, but built upon.

-Nikita Nelin

P.S. I now know how to build a square house. Father would be happy.

 

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.
8Aug/121

The Fecundity of the Unexpected

Readers of the Hannah Arendt Center blog are well acquainted with the pension train wreck that is heading our way.  It is not only public union pensions but also those corporate pensions that still guarantee defined benefits that are radically underfunded. And what hides the immensity of the problem is continued unrealistic assumptions about long-term future returns.

As was reported recently, Maryland—to take just one example—continues to assume a 7.75% annual return on its public pensions, which is even higher than the 6.6% 100 year historical average on stock returns.

While there is blame to go around—including feckless politicians and Wall Street hucksterism—the root of the problem may be a general unwillingness on all sides to realize that the last 100 years may have been an aberration. This is the argument that legendary investor Bill Gross makes in a report he sent to PIMCO clients this week.

Gross takes aim at the oft-repeated "truth" that over time stocks will return a real return of 6.6%. He argues that the returns over the last century were predicated on a Ponzi scheme, giving extra returns to shareholders at the expense of laborers (declining real wages) and government (declining real taxes). As those trends reach their limits, it is inevitable, Gross writes, that real returns must decline as well:

The legitimate question that market analysts, government forecasters and pension consultants should answer is how that 6.6% real return can possibly be duplicated in the future given today’s initial conditions which historically have never been more favorable for corporate profits. If labor and indeed government must demand some recompense for the four decade’s long downward tilting teeter-totter of wealth creation, and if GDP growth itself is slowing significantly due to deleveraging in a New Normal economy, then how can stocks appreciate at 6.6% real? They cannot, absent a productivity miracle that resembles Apple’s wizardry.

And it is not only stocks that will suffer. With treasuries yielding 2.55% (less than inflation), it is increasingly unlikely that long term bonds will provide meaningful returns.  The sad result:

Together then, a presumed 2% return for bonds and an historically low percentage nominal return for stocks – call it 4%, when combined in a diversified portfolio produce a nominal return of 3% and an expected inflation adjusted return near zero. The Siegel constant of 6.6% real appreciation, therefore, is an historical freak, a mutation likely never to be seen again as far as we mortals are concerned.

The consequence of these reduced expectations for public and private pension funds (and also for retirees with 401k plans that assume healthy investment returns) are dire. Simply put, throughout society, we are living beyond our means. We are in denial and continuing to make unrealistic investment assumptions. Gross draws the inevitable lesson for pension plans:

Private pension funds, government budgets and household savings balances have in many cases been predicated and justified on the basis of 7–8% minimum asset appreciation annually. One of the country’s largest state pension funds for instance recently assumed that its diversified portfolio would appreciate at a real rate of 4.75%. Assuming a goodly portion of that is in bonds yielding at 1–2% real, then stocks must do some very heavy lifting at 7–8% after adjusting for inflation. That is unlikely. If/when that does not happen, then the economy’s wheels start spinning like a two-wheel-drive sedan on a sandy beach. Instead of thrusting forward, spending patterns flatline or reverse; instead of thriving, a growing number of households and corporations experience a haircut of wealth and/or default; instead of returning to old norms, economies begin to resemble the lost decades of Japan.

We should applaud Gross for saying what many of us suspect: that the efforts of technocrats who populate pension plans to predict future returns is unpredictable at best and more likely subject to rosy biases. And yet even Gross then goes on to assume the tone of an all-knowing sage, something that seems de rigueur for public commentators today. We will solve the problem, Gross assures us, by turning to inflation.

Maybe Gross is right. But whatever the future holds, we must first confront the fact that as things now stand, we face a collective reduction in our wealth. How we respond to the reality of that threat will define the United States in coming generations. Either we can continue to insist that we are a wealthy nation and go on spending and living as if nothing had changed, or we can adjust our expectations downward.

Or we can somehow seek to unleash new forces of wealth creation that would generate the kind of economic growth and social and economic change that will lead to unexpected transformations in who we are.

We should neither take Bill Gross' prognostications as prophecy nor deny the reality he describes. Gross offers merely a hypothesis about the future, something far different from a fact. We do not have an adequate understanding of human nature and human economy to predict the GDP for this year, let alone for 2030. Human spontaneity, chance, and freedom mean that predictions of the future are simply calculations based upon the assumption that such and such will happen if men act rationally and nothing unexpected happens. In such cases it is helpful to recall Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's remark (loved by Hannah Arendt) that "the fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the statesman's prudence."

Read more from Bill Gross here. You can also read more on Pensions as Ponzi schemes here and here.

-RB

*This post originally appeared yesterday on Via Media.

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.
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

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.
15May/121

The Best and the Brightest

Ina Drew has resigned. Why wasn't she fired?

Drew is the executive at JPMorgan being asked to fall on her sword for the $2 Billion+ loss in hedging trades. Jamie Dimon, who for four years has taken credit for running a tight ship in which he was responsible for steering JPMorgan through the financial crisis, will of course soldier on, beaten but not broken.

Aside from allowing her the dignity of not being fired, the resignation also, I have to imagine, preserves what must be a very generous severance package.  All present reports refuse to disclose Drew's severance package. She was paid $15.5 million last year and almost $16 million in 2010. What justification is there for now allowing her to resign and potentially keep a severance?

The answer seems to be that Drew, like all the executives on Wall Street, deserves their stratospheric compensation. This of course was Dimon's point in his announcement of her resignation. He writes:

Ina Drew has been a great partner over her many years with our firm. Despite our recent losses in the CIO, Ina’s vast contributions to our company should not be overshadowed by these events.

In other words, Drew is brilliant and has been valuable. She should not be blamed for losing $2 Billion. She still deserves what is reported to be a severance package of over $14 Million in equity rewards, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The canard of the best and the brightest is one we hear over and over. The basic fallacy here is the belief that these executives are so smart and so valuable that they can't be angered or let go.

The fact that these blow-ups keep happening has done little to quell the applause for the bankers. All the incentives are for the executives to take on risk. What happens when they lose? They resign. I am sure Ina Drew is smart and capable and no doubt she will be back at a hedge fund or a new firm as soon as she wants.

The bigger issue, however, is that there is still the feeling around that these executives deserve to be making tens of millions of dollars every year. Recall that back in 2009 after the best and brightest brought the country's best (i.e. biggest) banks to their knees at the federal taxpayers' dole, Ken Feinberg was appointed to oversee bonuses and compensation at those banks. He has told how the big banks decided that every single one of their executives had performed above average and deserved extravagant bonuses. In an article about Feinberg from 2009, Steven Brill writes:

To take a near-comic example, the firms did not present a single executive as meriting a pay grade below the 50th percentile of their supposed peer group.... In fact, all 136 of the executives (the 25 top earners for each of the seven companies, less 39 who left during the year) were depicted as well above average, typically in the 75th percentile or higher. And the peer groups they were supposed to be in were often inflated; for example, someone running a unit might be portrayed as a chief executive because, the argument went, he ran a really big unit.

Citigroup and Bank of America, Brill writes, "concluded that everyone in their executive suites was above average when compared with peers at other giant banks that didn’t need a bailout." The banks then proposed that their average executives deserved bonuses of between $10-$21 million. After months of negotiating and cajoling, Feinberg talked them down, so that in the end, the average banker received a year-end bonus of $6.5 million at Bank of America and $6.2 million at Citigroup.

Those paltry $6 million bonuses were in a year that the banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out. No wonder the best and the brightest like Drew deserve $14 and $16 million when times are good. Of course, the incentives to take risks are still there. If your risks work out, you make a fortune. When your risky trades go bad, you resign and take your winnings and your severance.

These bankers have nothing at risk and everything to gain by taking risks. Four years after the financial crisis, it seems that little if anything has changed.

-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.
11May/121

Moral Leadership and the New Era of Responsibility

I had the pleasure of discussing and debating at a Hannah Arendt Center event last night with John Cassidy, staff writer of The New Yorker and author of How markets fail : the logic of economic calamities as well as Dot.con : the greatest story ever sold. The topic was the presidential election.

I asked Cassidy about Matt Taibbi's recent comment that Obama was going to win the election easily. Actually, Taibbi's phrasing was more colorful:

But this campaign, relatively speaking, will not be fierce or hotly contested. Instead it'll be disappointing, embarrassing, and over very quickly, like a hand job in a Bangkok bathhouse. And everybody knows it. It's just impossible to take Mitt Romney seriously as a presidential candidate.

The view that Obama will cruise to victory is widespread. Cassidy largely affirmed it, although he rightly said that much depends on the continued economic recovery. If the economy turns south again, that plays into Romney's claim that he as a businessman is better able to right the ship of commerce.

I am no prognosticator. I think the election will be quite close and do not think Obama will win in a landslide. But where I really differ with Cassidy and Taibbi is over the question of whether Romney is an interesting candidate and on what he is running. To my mind, this election will be decided less on policy and social issues and more around a moral debate. It is here that Romney becomes interesting.

The President of the United States is not first and foremost a policy maker. He (or she one day) is the moral leader of the nation. FDR knew this well. As he once said:

The Presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.

The United States is at an inflection point. The 20th century has had three great presidential moments. In the 1930s, amidst the depression, FDR led the country down a new path and helped create the modern welfare state. In the 1950's, Eisenhower, a Republican, did not seek to roll back the New Deal and confirmed the new direction of the nation. Ronald Reagan's presidency was the beginning of an effort to resist the welfare state. We are now in a strange limbo, where much of the country has embraced the conservative credo while still remaining addicted to and desirous of their particular welfare perks. This is an untenable situation in the long run.

Obama is a defender of the status quo, but his defense is timid and pragmatic. He doesn't really believe in the welfare state as a moral good so much as a pragmatic necessity. It is all about budgets and saving money and rational arguments. We must, he tells us, spend now so that we can cut later. What will we cut later? Does he believe that everyone should have a pension in addition to social security? Should Wall Street bankers have  received bonuses in 2009 after they were bailed out by taxpayers? Should they have been fired? Should public pensions be honored or cut? Should we have unlimited taxpayer supported healthcare after we retire at 63 or 65 and then live for decades afterward? Should people who bought homes they can't afford be given new mortgages so that they can stay in their homes? On all of these questions, the President has offered technocratic answers rather than moral visions. Amidst an economic but also a moral crisis, the President has not been a leader.

If Romney wins the election, it will not be because he has better jobs policies or economic policies. It will be because people see in him a leader. His one strength, whatever you think of him personally or politically, is his history of leadership. He did build one of the largest and most successful private companies in the United States. He did win the governorship of one of the country's most liberal states and govern effectively with democratic legislators. And he did take over a failing Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and made it a success. People downplay these accomplishments and say there is no evidence he can lead as President. That is of course true.  But the promise that he can lead is the key to Romney's appeal.

On one level, this is an election between two pragmatic, centrist, technocrats. They differ on much and most deeply on social issues. They also differ on taxes (especially on taxing the wealthiest amongst us). These are important differences. But most people do not vote on policy.

The election will be decided on who makes the better claim to being able to lead the country. Obama is still searching for his theme and what he wants to accomplish. He of course is a deeply intelligent and moral man. On social issues, he can be a leader, as his endorsement (finally) of same-sex marriage proves. But the election will not likely be decided on social issues.

So what is the moral issue at stake in this election? It is clear. Romney and the Republicans are saying: we have spent too much, taken on too much debt, and lived beyond our means. Government programs, however well meaning, have not made us better off. We need to retrench. Romney has defended a very minimal welfare state to stop people from starving, but he clearly doesn't have much sympathy for people who are poor, unemployed, and homeless. His moral promise is a return to an America of individualism that promotes success and tolerates failure. It is a moral vision that galls many liberals and even some conservatives, and yet it clearly has enthralled many Tea Party enthusiasts around the nation.

Obama's moral issue is, thus far, fairness and inequality. It is simply wrong and unfair that the very wealthy are paying so little in taxes while the middle class is struggling. And he is undoubtedly right. But a Buffet Rule, as justified as it surely is, is too small an idea to build a campaign around. Obama is hemmed in by his own unwillingness to moralize the economy. He will not take on the wealthy, and his instincts are to work with Wall Street, not against them and to value individual responsibility over government support.  He is simply constitutionally unable to take a populist tack. He cannot give the speech FDR gave in 1936 where FDR said:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.

So if Obama is not going to become a populist, what option is left?

Over three years ago in his inaugural address, Obama called for a "new era of responsibility." He talked about shared sacrifice. He talked about living within our means and admitting that we were living beyond ourselves. He said:

Our challenges may be new.  The instruments with which we meet them may be new.  But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.  These things are true.  They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths.  What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.  This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.  (Applause.)

His inauguration is the last time that Obama really set out a far-reaching moral argument that responds to the economic crisis and the crises of our times. The vision he then hinted at was one of shared sacrifice towards a renewal of American values. One that admitted with the Republicans that we had promised ourselves too much, had lived beyond our means, and had become too entitled in our expectations. It was a vision that returned an ethic of work and grit, but also one that affirmed American ideals of fairness and justice.

It is the vision that most Americans seemingly affirm, that involves both a pullback of entitlement programs and a progressive increase in taxes. It is a moral vision of common sense. It may be too late for President Obama to embrace that vision again. And yet a meaningful articulation of a new era of responsibility is, quite possibly, the path to a vision of moral leadership open to the President.

It is worth taking a look back at Obama's inaugural speech. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Note: Matt Taibbi is a Bard graduate ('92.)

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".
4Apr/121

The End of Democracy in Detroit?

It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. We have been living in passive agreement with Churchill's witticism for half a century. But slowly, harrowingly, fatalistically, people around the world are giving up on democracy.  

Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and Italy (well, it's Italy) are now both governed by unelected technocratic governments charged with carrying out austerity programs that democratically elected leaders would not or could not bring about.

According to Gillian Tett, the Financial Times columnist, "the situation calls for very firm, forward-looking action that is almost impossible in a rowdy democratic political system at the moment." Tett is not alone in seeing the failure of democratic leadership in crises and the inability of democratic politicians to allocate pain and sacrifice amongst their constituents.

We in the United States are showing a similar predilection to trade democracy for technocratic management. Michigan is at the forefront of this trend. Governor Rick Snyder has been aggressive in appointing emergency managers to take control of city finances. In Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities, the mayors and town councils have been fired and rendered obsolete, replaced by a manager appointed by the governor.

In New York, Nassau County is now under the rule of an "oversight board" that controls its budget and finances. In Michigan, financial managers have the power to void labor contracts, privatize public services, and dismiss elected officials. These managers serve at the will of the governor, but they have no set term.

Tomorrow we may learn whether Detroit, Michigan's biggest and once proudest city, will also succumb to an emergency manager. The only alternative, it seems, is a consent decree with the State that will turn the city over to a manager jointly selected by the city and the state from a slate of candidates approved by the governor. The problem, once again, is that democratic governments have simply been unable to make the hard decisions needed. The result is that Detroit is bankrupt and in need of a state bailout and the state is treating Detroit like the spoiled child it is, just as the European Union treats Greece and Italy. Money will come, but only if the children agree to be treated like children.

I can only point out so many times that Wall Street bankers also acted like spoiled children, but they received their bailouts and undeserved bonuses without the demeaning financial oversight. Hypocrisy, however, is not an argument for or against such oversight, even if it does reveal that there are issues beyond simple economic calculation at play. In Europe, there are prejudices against the laziness of southern peoples, and here in the U.S. racial prejudices are no doubt active, as can be seen by one commentator's likening Detroit's citizens to addicts:

As those of us in surrounding communities watch the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Detroit, we really need to hope that this once great city can stop its decline, and begin to recover. But just like with an alcoholic, the city's so-called leaders must first admit they have a problem, and that they are unable to fix it on their own. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have reached that point yet. I guess a nice way of putting it would be to say that they are in denial.

Patronizing rhetoric aside, the basic problem is that the people of Detroit—like the people of Greece and Italy—are unwilling to govern themselves and are welcoming technocrats to take over that task.   We witness once again how easily people will abandon democratic freedoms for the promise of a bailout. The current argument in Detroit is less about whether to give up self-government—a foregone conclusion—but how much money Detroit can extract in the deal for doing so.

The Romans had a provision in their law for the appointment of a dictator during emergencies, especially at war. A dictator, as Andreas Kalyvas reminds us, was not a tyrant. A dictator in Roman law was a  'temporary tyranny by consent' while a tyrant was a 'permanent dictator.' The Roman Republic recognized that crises required decisive action that a sprawling democracy was frequently unable to muster. The dictator was not illegal, but was a constitutionally approved office that was appointed for a set term, after which time power would revert back to the people. In other words, a dictator was a constitutionally regulated and democratically agreed upon safety valve for the failures of democracy.

Modern democracies have largely avoided such emergency powers, and for good reasons. It seems, however, that such resistance is fading. Will it be until we have no choice but to appoint an emergency financial manager to do the job we won't do for ourselves? But then again, who would appoint such a person?

For Hannah Arendt, this was and remains a crucial question. For human beings are political beings who actualize their freedom in public action with others. The entire premise of what Arendt once called the "dictatorial intervention" is to replace politics with the temporary tyranny of the educator. It is to admit our immaturity and call for a tyrant who will treat us as children. And yet that is, precisely, what it seems we want.

-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.