Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Jul/141

Amor Mundi 7/6/14

Amor Mundi

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

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

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A New Puritanism?

PuritanIn a Fourth of July column on openDemocracy, Jim Sleeper invokes the Puritan tradition in America as a symbol of what we have lost: "Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God" and "The Puritan founders of America's oldest colleges ... expected that those colleges' graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else." Sleeper doesn't wish for a new Puritanism, but he does believe we need to imagine new ideals for America: "I'm not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We'd somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions."

Reading and Misreading the Declaration

declaration_of_independenceIn her new book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen argues that we have been reading a mistaken transcription of the Declaration of Independence. Allen argues that the grammatical period typically inserted between the sentence on inalienable individual liberties and the sentence on the right to good government is not there in the original Declaration of Independence. In short, when Jefferson invoked those "self-evident" and "inalienable" rights of "all" men, he did not intend only the rights of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but also the right to good government. Quoted in the New York Times, Allen says, "The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'" And Jennifer Schuessler adds: "But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments - 'instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed' - in securing those rights. 'The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,' Ms. Allen said. 'You lose that connection when the period gets added.' Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen's research say she has raised a serious question." Read more at the Arendt Center Blog.

Oversharing and Self-Promotion as Fine Art

InstagramRiffing on the way fine artists, photographer Richard Prince in particular, are using the photo-sharing app Instagram, Ben Davis uses John Berger's 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Berger draws connections between fine art and more popular fare as a model for understanding today's propensity for oversharing images of one's life: "Isn't it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.) Why this (largely unintentional) echo? Because there is a sneaky continuity between the motivations behind such casual images and the power dynamics that not-so-secretly governed classic art. Last year, Slate speculated about how Instagram's photo-boasting tends to amplify feelings of isolation, perhaps even more so than the more textual braggadocio of Facebook and Twitter. ('Seeing, Berger writes, 'comes before words.') One expert described how Instagram in particular might accelerate the 'envy spiral' of social media: 'If you see beautiful photos of your friend on Instagram,' she postulated, 'one way to compensate is to self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality.'"

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In Search of Missed Meaning

Daniel_MendelsohnIn an interview that maps his love of Proust to his work translating the Greco-Egyptian poet C.P. Cavafy, Daniel Mendelsohn describes the joy and importance of rereading In Search of Lost Time: "I don't think it's a question of proximity to the text. Rather, I think that something different can be found in the text each time. To use the Proustian metaphor that you evoked, each reading of Proust is a bit like a visit to the optician-depending on which pair of lenses you're given to try, you're either capable or incapable of distinguishing a pattern or a letter projected onto a screen in the dark. Successive readings of Proust are like those different sets of lenses-with each one, you see something different. For instance, when I was twenty, so much of French culture escaped me. I was inexperienced, I had never left the U.S. The whole Proustian world of Faubourg Saint-Germain and of Combray went straight over my head. I was incapable, for example, of understanding the type of person that Françoise represented in French heritage-the earthy peasant type that comes with the social territory, so to speak. Today, I'm not the same person I was when I was twenty. I have all the experience of a life. I'm also well traveled and I know France well, I have many friends living there, and so I understand French culture much better than I did thirty years ago and can appreciate aspects of Proust's novel I couldn't before. On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It's an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life."

Give Up the Right to Return

Noam ChomskyIn a piece that is sure to be a controversial, Noam Chomsky argues in The Nation that in order for the peace movement to be effective, it must re-evaluate its goals and tactics in accordance with the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Chomsky, supportive of a two-state solution, argues that to give peace a chance the left needs to abandon the goal of the Palestinian right of return: "The opening call of the BDS movement, by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in 2005, demanded that Israel fully comply with international law by '(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.' This call received considerable attention, and deservedly so. But if we're concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences. The pursuit of (1) in the above list makes good sense: it has a clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West, which is why the many initiatives guided by (1) have been quite successful-not only in 'punishing' Israel, but also in stimulating other forms of opposition to the occupation and US support for it. However, this is not the case for (3). While there is near-universal international support for (1), there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure."

Enlightened Self-Interest

1Nick Hanauer has a message for his fellow .01% of the wealthiest Americans. "But let's speak frankly to each other. I'm not the smartest guy you've ever met, or the hardest-working. I was a mediocre student. I'm not technical at all-I can't write a word of code. What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now?I see pitchforks. At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country-the 99.99 percent-is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent. But the problem isn't that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution. And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won't last."

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This Week on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennie Han explores two modern examples of exceptionalism as claims to power in the Quote of the Week. American artist Florence Scovel Shinn provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We take a look back at our 2009 fall conference in the new Video Archives segment. And Roger Berkowitz reexamines the Declaration of Independence and the role of good government 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.
17Feb/141

Amor Mundi 2/16/14

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 Young and Unexceptional

xcetAccording to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon. Now comes Peter Beinart writing in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself. Here is Beinart on one way the current younger generation is an exception to the tradition of American exceptionalism: “For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.”  But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age.  In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.” Read more on Beinart and American exceptionalism in the Weekend Read.

 Humans and the Technium

guyIn this interview, Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, explains his concept of the “technium,” or the whole system of technology that has developed over time and which, he argues, has its own biases and tendencies “inherently outside of what humans like us want.” One thing technology wants is to watch us and to track us. Kelly writes: “How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don't see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I'm trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can't stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It's suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can't stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there's no tracking in a temporary basis. I don't know, but this is the question I'm asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?” Asking such questions is where humans fit into the technium world. “In a certain sense,” he says, “what becomes really valuable in a world running under Google's reign are great questions, and that’s something that for a long time humans will be better at than machines. Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.”

Literature Against Consumer Culture 

coupleTaking issue with a commentator's claim that The Paris Review's use of the word "crepuscular" (adj., resembling twilight) was elitist, Eleanor Catton suggests that the anti-critical attitude of contemporary readers arises out of consumer culture: "The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right." Literature, she says, resists this attitude, and, in fact cannot be elitist at all: "A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat."

Global Corruption

corruptVladislav Inozemtsev reviews Laurence Cockcroft’s book Global Corruption. “The book’s central argument is that corruption has political roots, which Cockcroft identifies as the “merging of elites.” Surveying the mechanisms of top-level decision-making from Russia to Brazil, to Peru and India, as well as in many other countries, he discerns a pattern: Politicians today often act as entrepreneurs, surround themselves with sycophants and deputies, and so navigate the entire political process as they would any commercial business. The hallmarks of a corrupt society are the widespread leveraging of wealth to secure public office; the leveraging of such authority to secure various kinds of privileges; and the interplay of both to make even bigger money. Simply put, corruption is a transformation of public service into a specific kind of entrepreneurship.”

Amazon's Bait and Switch

amazonGeorge Packer takes a look at Amazon's role in the book business noting that its founder, Jeff Bezos, knew from the start that book sales were only the lure; Amazon's real business was Big Data, a big deal in an industry that speaks to people's hearts and minds as well as their wallets. Still, "Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along."

Ready or Not

michaelTa-Nehisi Coates, in the wake of NFL prospect Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay, considers how the concept of readiness is backwards: "The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely “ready” for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being "broken" for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be "ready" for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect.”

Counter Reformation

classThis week, the magazine Jacobin released Class Action, a handbook for activist teachers, set against school reform and financed using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. One of the many essays contained within is Dean Baker's "Unremedial Education," which contains one of the handbook's major theses, an important reminder for those who are interested in education as a route to both the life of the mind and the success of the person: "Education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school. However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Roger Berkowitz asks "Why Think?". And in the Weekend Read, Berkowitz reflects on the loss of American exceptionalism.

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.
16Dec/130

Amor Mundi 12/15/13

Arendtamormundi

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

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

Dasani

dasaniReaders around the world have been introduced to Dasani this week. Not the water, but the girl from the decrepit Auburn homeless shelter. Dasani is a force of nature as she struggles to raise her siblings, deal with her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents, and make a life for herself from out of the shadows of homelessness and dysfunction. Andrea Elliott’s five-part series in the NY Times follows Dasani over a year; it is expansive journalism, one of the best essays exploring the horrors and hopes of the poor and forgotten. Read all five parts, and you’ll understand what Elliott is after: “Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction. Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall. With the economy growing in 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted sweeping new policies intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline. But the opposite happened. As rents steadily rose and low-income wages stagnated, chronically poor families like Dasani’s found themselves stuck in a shelter system with fewer exits. Families are now languishing there longer than ever — a development that Mr. Bloomberg explained by saying shelters offered “a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.””

Decay of American Political Institutions

flagFrancis Fukuyama has a new essay up on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.” Fukuyama begins with a basic point that is undeniable, and is artfully made manifest in George Packer’s National Book Award Winning The Unwinding: “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying.” “The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.” What Arendt saw in a way Fukuyama ignores is that Americans don’t distrust power so much as they distrust the concentration and centralization of power. It his been quintessentially American for citizens to engage in government, especially local government, and to take active part in public debates about political questions. From their arrival in the New World, Americans formed councils, engaged in public affairs, and empowered democratic institutions. The federalist elements of the Constitution provide ample support for vibrant democratic and local institutions. Beyond the judicializaiton of politics and the rise of a corruption by lobbyists, another cause of the present decay of American politics is the increasingly national approach to government and the hollowing out of local institutions.

If You Haven't Gotten Anything At All To Say...

smarmIn a defense of criticism, Tom Scocca takes on the public demand for a kind virulent niceness, a culture force that he calls smarm. Smarm, from Scocca's point of view, is a kind of "ethical misdirection," ruining the discourse with its nominal crusade for "civility", which distracts from the issues at hand by making the debate about the commentator rather than the comment. It is, in other words, an insidious, acceptable kind of ad hominem attack. Why has the discourse retreated to smarm? Scocca has a theory: "Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely."

The Art in the Error

scanKenneth Goldsmith examines the growing subculture of individuals who find digital glitches and turn them into art. These finds, he says, are imperfections in the seemingly perfect and timeless digital world: "The obsession with digital errors in Google Books arises from the sense that these mistakes are permanent, on the record. Earlier this month, Judge Denny Chin ruled that Google’s scanning, en masse, of millions of books to make them searchable is legal. In the future, more and more people will consult Google’s scans. Because of the speed and volume with which Google is executing the project, the company can’t possibly identify and correct all of the disturbances in what is supposed to be a seamless interface. There’s little doubt that generations to come will be stuck with both these antique stains and workers’ hands."

The Forgotten Sister

jillIn an interview, talking about why she almost gave up on her book about Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jill Lepore describes the challenge of writing narrative history: "You have Jane and Benjamin and they start down here. And then, Franklin’s life is like a straight rise. His world gets bigger. He gets wealthier. Love and success. And Jane’s life is out of The Prince and the Pauper or Tale of Two Cities. And at some point, narratively, we need them to switch places. The reader wants them to switch places. And they’re not going to. And so, I just quit. I didn’t know how to satisfy the reader that needs the story to go in another direction, because the story is going nowhere for Jane."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Kathleen B. Jones responds to Richard Brody. And, if you haven't had a chance, check out Roger Berkowitz's weekend read from last week, on Arendt, Nelson Mandela, and violence. Finally, the current weekend read: American politics has elevated the judiciary to a position of power, and this has led to to the decay of our political institutions.

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.
8Apr/130

“The Kings of Roma”

FromtheArendtCenter

The New York Times recently ran an article about a Roma/Gypsy community from my country, Romania. I am Roma, and currently a visiting scholar at the Hannah Arendt Center studying Hannah Arendt’s understanding of Jewish identity and its relevance for making sense of the Roma experience. In this context, the NY Times story is surprising. It is not the typical story of Roma/Gypsies who are subject to expulsion, human rights violations, migration and poverty. On the contrary, it covers wealthy Roma who live in houses that look like palaces. No wonder the NYT entitled the article “The Kings of Roma.” I once visited such a house in this community, and I looked at it then the way I look at the photos in the article now: with awe and fascination. And that $ sign at the end of the stairways? Boy, it takes a lot of courage (and desire to show off wealth) to place it right in the heart of one’s mansion. If the law of attraction really works, they will continue to “attract” more and more $$$.

Karla Gaschet & Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times.

Karla Gaschet & Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times.

I didn’t grow up in such a mansion, but neither did I lack housing, as many Roma still do. Rather, I lived in an average sized Romanian house. My family strived to be part of society and valued education. When I was as teenager, my parents didn’t debate whom I should marry, but rather how to afford private tutoring so I could better prepare for college admission. We Roma (as is the case with many other ethnic groups), although we share the same ethnicity, don’t necessarily share a sense of identity, values or traditions., as we ourselves learned from the very different lifestyles among Roma, even within the same region.

The NY Times article presents a different story about Roma than the usual “poverty - discrimination - petty criminality - expulsion” cycle; I like that. I welcome the possibility for a new, more nuanced narrative on Roma issues in the international media. I also cannot help but see the artistic value of the photos that accompany the piece —they remind me of Kusturica’s masterpiece “Time of the Gypsies,” or the poetic image of the Russian movie, “The Queen of the Gypsies.” But perhaps most important of all, I like it because it presents Roma who, in their peculiar and entrepreneurial way, managed to “rise above.”

Hannah Arendt addresses the "rising above" phenomenon in her book Rahel Varnhagen, referring to Jewish individuals: "They [the Jews] understood only one thing: that the past clung inexorably to them as a collective 'group; that they could only shake it off as individuals. The tricks employed by individuals became subtler, individual ways out more numerous, as the personal problem grew more intense; the Jews become psychologically more sophisticated and socially more ingenious."

Whether Jewish, Roma or members of other marginalized groups, such people are forced by the difficulty of their situation to “become psychologically more sophisticated and socially more ingenious.” One Roma man said in the NYT story that after Communism fell “one has to be dumb not to make money?” Some Roma have striven to rise above by accumulating wealth (as the subjects of this article); others by achieving social status and/or accessing a high-class education (such as yours truly). But, while having different approaches, they all enact the same phenomenon: today more and more Roma strive to develop and struggle to overcome their poor and stigmatized condition.

-Cristiana Grigore

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.
22Jan/130

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-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.
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.
14May/120

The Morality of Tax Cuts

As I wrote on Friday, the election this year presents a challenge of moral leadership on debt, taxes, and entitlements. This is neither a Republican nor a Democratic position, but a moral argument that claims the center. The point is that we have a moral obligation to keep our debt at manageable levels. And given the sacrifices that now will entail, we have a further moral obligation to spread the sacrifice around, making the wealthy suffer along with the middle classes and the poor.

A similar argument has been made by Pete Peterson, founder of the Blackstone Group and Chairman of the Peterson Foundation. Peterson has been fighting a lonely battle to support the idea that tax cuts for the wealthy are immoral at a time of heavy debt and that we have a moral obligation to leave our children a world without excessive debt. Here is an interview from Mother Jones describing his failed attempt to convince George Bush of this point a few years back. The takeaway:

And I said, "Sir, I didn't say tax cuts were immoral. I said tax cuts for people like us, before you've solved the costs you're going to be passing on to your kids, is in my judgment immoral. But you could just tell by his steely response that tax cuts are part of the [Republican] theology.

-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.
6Apr/122

A Common Faith

Academics ignore novelists at their peril. Especially in the case of Marilynne Robinson. Robinson's novels are extraordinary (my favorite is Gilead) but her essays are equally illuminating. Take for instance her most recent offering "A Common Faith" published by Guernica.

One hazards to simplify an essay whose essential thrust is to oppose simplification.  Robinson begins with the common yet startling observation that "the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe." She then proceeds to show how scientists and academics, not to mention columnists and commentators, set out to simplify human life and explain it in accordance with theories such as capitalism and Darwinism.

Both capitalism and Darwinism are examples of what Robinson calls "simple faiths:" truths that we are so attracted to that we hold to their veracity and power even in the face of facts to the contrary. The capitalist, for example, assumes that human beings are driven by a desire for wealth, profit, and efficiency. This in spite of thousands of years of human history filled with examples of altruism and non-capitalist motivations. And Darwinists insist that human beings are essentially animals, adapted for relative advantages in survival. In doing so, they ignore or downplay all those aspects of humanity like art, religion, and the human spirit that seem to have only tenuous contributions to human survival and yet are nevertheless part of human being.

Both capitalism and Darwinism are part of what Robinson calls Simple Faiths, common faiths we embrace with a moralistic devotion even in the face of evidence to the contrary. There is, she writes, an "urge, driven by righteousness and indignation, to conform reality to theory."  Later Robinson adds:

My point is that our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior and then is stymied or infuriated by evidence that the models don't fit.

The demand for a consistent worldview in the face of facts to the contrary is one of the central features of totalitarianism. A mendacious consistency is, in Arendt's telling, a product of the homelessness and loneliness of the modern age and the desire to find meaning in belonging to a movement, an ideology, that gives our lives sense and significance.

If one wants to find examples of the ways that the deep desire for simple coherency continues to operate in our world, reading Marilynne Robinson's "A Common Faith" is a great place to start. As the sun shines and spring springs, print out this essay and make it 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".
21Oct/112

The Robin Hood Tax?

Occupy Wall Street has been looking for issues to coalesce around. Now the Canadian group Adbusters—the group that issued the initial call that began the protests—has proposed that Occupy Wall Street adopt a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions as its first issue. Here is their call to action.

The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is an idea that has lots of support amongst some economists. My friend David Callahan has been arguing for the FTT for a while now. By far the best and most balanced analysis of an FTT is by the IMF, here. On the positive side, the FTT has the advantage of being simple and intuitively attractive. But is a Financial Transaction Tax really a good issue for Occupy Wall Street to coalesce around?

The main problem is that the FTT employs a sawed off shot-gun approach to a real but specific problem and unintended consequences. Thus, the IMF study cited above concluded that a FTT would not clearly target financial excesses:

Where the goal is to curb financial market excesses, [FTT] offer a less specific remedy for the excessive leverage that is believed to cause them than other tax and/or regulatory solutions. Financial complexity does not derive solely or even primarily from trading activity. The buildup of hidden financial risks in the recent crisis resulted predominantly from excess leverage, risk concentration, and product innovation such as asset securitization, which would have been largely unaffected by a transactions tax. An [FTT] also does not directly address systemic risk.

The point is that the real problem in speculation is leverage and volatility. The FTT doesn't address leverage, and it doesn't target the high frequency traders who drive volatility. Instead, the FTT taxes ALL transactions.

What is more, the FTT will penalize smaller and retail investors—precisely those in the 99%. As the chart below shows, most stock in the U.S. is held by middle-class investors—those between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile. They are responsible for the vast majority of financial transactions (this is especially true since a large percentage of the equity holdings of the 1% in the chart are enormous trusts containing dividend paying stocks that have been held for generations and which never trade).  Thus, the FTT falls most heavily on the people who own the most stock in the country and depend on that stock for our retirements and investments.

Another problem is that if the Financial Transaction Tax is not adopted globally, it may well drive trading off shore to even less well-regulated markets than our own. The U.S. tried a similar tax in the 1960s and repealed it when trading moved to London. Sweden tried a FTT tax in the 1980s and 1990s and repealed it later when trading fled to other countries.

Finally, the IMF concludes that the FTT would increase consumption and reduce savings by lowering the returns of investment and savings—a result directly opposite to at least some of the goals of Occupy Wall Street. In addition, the FTT discourages the rebalancing of portfolios, thus depressing total returns on mutual funds investments and 401ks.

So what might be some other ideas for Occupy Wall Street—and also our political leaders (such as they are)—to consider? Here are a few ideas that a number of professionals I spoke with mentioned:

1. Ban all High Frequency Trading. It has no purpose except to make some very big and wealthy firms money while increasing volatility for the rest of us. High frequency traders justify the practice as increasing market efficiency. But there is no economic justification to prefer a system that makes 1000 trades per second to one that makes 10 trades per second. Such trading is disruptive and very profitable. Ban it outright. Doing so would be much easier than getting the global cooperation needed to make a Financial Transaction Tax workable. And doing so would also make the U.S. markets more stable and thus give them a competitive advantage over other markets worldwide.

2. A Cancelled Order Tax. It turns out nearly 99% of the orders placed on Wall Street are never filled, but cancelled. A small percentage of these cancellations are just people changing their minds. But the vast majority of cancelled orders are used to manipulate prices by tricking other traders into thinking that a stock is moving in a particular direction. According to one study on an average trading day in 2010, only 1% of all the 89.7 billion orders were executed, which means that nearly 99% of all orders placed can be attributed to high frequency traders trying to manipulate stock prices. A tax on cancelled-orders has distinct advantages over a tax on all financial transactions. First, it will fall primarily on hedge funds and large high-frequency traders, and will not affect retail investors. Second, it will specifically target the casino-like aspect of Wall Street. A cancelled-order tax is not as simple or sexy as a financial transaction tax. Less has been written on it. But it actually seems like a better idea. Read more about the idea here and here.

3. Reinstate the Uptick Rule. Nearly every market professional I polled supports the re-instatement of the "Uptick Rule," a rule that was imposed in 1938 during the Depression and repealed in 2007—just before the market crash and the financial crisis. The Uptick Rule prevents hedge funds and traders from betting on falling stock prices when the markets are already falling, thus reducing volatility and reducing the ability of traders to make money by encouraging market panics. There is a debate about how effective the Uptick Rule is, but there seems to be little or no downside to reinstating it. The only people who oppose doing so are traders.

4. Taxing Corporate Debt and Leverage and Raising Margins. The IMF proposes taxing not financial transactions but corporate debt, thus discouraging corporations from using debt and leverage to finance their activities. As part of this approach, it would be wise to raise margin requirements, the amount of money that someone has to put up before buying a stock or financial instrument on credit.

While Hannah Arendt may not have been much interested in the minutiae of Wall Street regulation, she did care deeply about the importance of facts in thoughtful and reasoned argument.  In just one week, on Friday Oct. 28, the Hannah Arendt Center will open our two-day conference on Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. When facts and opinions blur, reasoned argument falls prey to spin and deception. Politics is a realm of conflicting opinions, Arendt argued, but the opinions must necessarily be grounded on facts.

Whether or not the Financial Transaction Tax is a good idea, the debate around it should be based on solid knowledge of the financial system, the affects of such a tax, and also the alternatives. These are very complex issues and, in all honesty, much of the debate so far has traded in simplifications, soundbites, and falsehoods.

If Occupy Wall Street really wants to distinguish itself from the Tea Party and change our political culture, let's use this first foray into politics as an opportunity to model adult argument, something that has been absent from our public life for far too long. If they do want to model a future of fact-based decision making, they will do well to look deeply into the cons as well as the pros of a financial transaction tax. They would also do well to consult those people who work in financial markets daily. Many of these people—both those in the 99% and the 1%—want to eliminate market excesses and reign in the speculation and insanity that helped lead to the recent financial crisis. In the name of common sense and a way forward, let's have a real debate based in both fact and expertise.

-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.