Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Judts on Political Optimism & Pessimism

Tony Judt, NYU professor of history and his son, 14 year-old Daniel, published this written exchange today in NYT. It hits upon a number of issues, it's well written, and it provides some topics for further consideration.

  1. Political Cynicism. Many folks are down on Obama these days. He isn't providing the leadership we need; he's too conciliatory and not confrontational enough; he's not changed the world sufficiently, etc. Certainly some criticisms are justified, and concerned citizens (well, some anyway) should express their concerns. We need to act and think cautiously in this regard, however, as political cynicism comes easily and cheaply. No, Obama has not brought peace the Middle East, has not gotten us out of Iraq or Afghanistan, and has not stopped the oil from spewing into the Gulf. Has he neither parted the Red Sea nor walked upon water. We must judge him, like all actors on the political (or perhaps any stage) by the choices available to him, and the choices available to him are in large measure a matter of constraints laid upon him. To what extent has he held the political, not the mention the technological, power to control and shape events? I suggest that this is the test for all actors in any arena. Before coming down too hard on Obama, we should think about what options that American people and their Congress have provided him. Did the electorate get behind a better health care reform bill? Is Congress saying they want to address global warming? Are the American people now going to say, "we've got to use less oil. Please tax and price oil so that it reflects the real costs that it imposes on us by supporting corrupt regimes, despoiling our home (the Earth), and skewing our choices about energy"?
  2. Political Choices. We as voters elected Obama. Some now seem unhappy with him. So what choice do you wish you'd made differently? Do you now wish that you'd voted for John McCain? Not me, not by a long shot. I admire Herbert Hoover in some ways, ditto Jimmy Carter, but as political leaders, they weren't the right person for the job when they served. BTW, the implicit comparison for McCain with Hoover and Carter should be taken cautiously, very cautiously. I don't want to besmirch Hoover or Carter unfairly. Do you wish that Hillary Clinton would have received the nomination and been elected? To my mind, that would have been fine, but I don't believe that we'd see a significantly different political environment. On the down side, we'd have a different but probably still virulent cultural and political divide. BTW, Secretary Clinton seems to being doing a fine job as SOS. However, I don't know that her preferred policies would differ significantly from those chosen by Obama. Would you have preferred some other Democrat? They all seem rather small—if not downright toxic—now, and none of them were the best choice at the time, either.
  3. Corporations. I think that we have a big problem with corporations. Simply put, most multinational corporations, or publically traded corporations, have a huge gap between shareholders, management, and stakeholders. Shareholders are out there, distant from the actual corporation. Does a mutual fund that I own hold shares in BP? I could find out, but I don't—what good would it do? Shareholders want return on their investment measured in terms of money, not measured in terms of green fields and blue oceans. I know, we all want a clean environment in the abstract, but how many honestly invest on that basis? Managers have to please shareholders, which are increasingly large entities, by the only reliable measure available to them: money. Other stakeholders, such as workers, neighbors, and the larger world, have precious little say in all of this. This leads me to think that maybe we need to re-think the business corporation. How do we prevent externalization of costs and misevaluation of resources across such a wide variety of interests? James Gustave Speeth, a Yale law professor, raises this concern in one of his books (excellent) on the environment. (I read a library copy; sorry I can't provide the cite.)
  4. Regulation. It does seem that regulation will make a comeback, but we should be careful. The market, imperfect as it is, should be the bedrock of regulation. I know, I know: the misplaced faith of Greenspan, et al. was in the market's ability to regulate. But the market needs help, not junking. Here's where one hopes first-rate legal scholar and social scientist Cass Sunstein will do good work in his job as head of the regulation overview agency in the White House. Some regulation by regulation is in order, but let's do it effectively, and not just by bureaucratic (no malice intended) fiat. See James Surowiecki on financial reform, for instance. I think that this is a great challenge for all governments (I'm talking to you, too, China): how to keep the golden goose of markets and capitalism producing without letting the sorcerer's apprentice get out of control.

Warner in NYT re “Dysregulation”

Judith Warner has a short article in the NYT Mag today on "Dysregulation Nation". The idea of our failing to regulate ourselves as a nation isn't new, as Warner knows by citing Christopher Lasch's classic from the late 70's, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Era of Diminishing Expectations (1979). Let me offer some quick thoughts on her article:

  1. The issue of self-regulation and of social & political regulation is one of the oldest problems to vex humankind. The Greeks thought a great deal about it, the Old Testament is full of the issue, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, and I think (here I'm getting a bit out of my league), this is what Confucius was largely about.
  2. A great analytical consideration of the problem comes from Thomas Schelling in an article entitled "The Intimate Contest for Self-Command", which I read many years ago, but which has stuck with me because of it's a compelling metaphor and applicability to my life. Schelling, a Nobel prize winning economist and author of a great book, Arms and Influence, used the story of Odysseus binding himself to the mast so that he could hear the Sirens' song and yet not be drawn irresistibly to them (and thereby death). Jon Elster gives an extended treatment of these issues in his book, Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality (1985), which (like all of Elster), is brilliant and insightful.
  3. Modern brain research is giving us better insight into the physiological basis of how different brain structures and systems allow for this shortcoming. However, I think that psychiatrist and Christian spiritual writer Gerald May got it right even before the current bounty of brain research allowed us greater insight into brain functioning and structure. May posits that our reasoning brain, our most unique and human (and weak) characteristic, works by saying "no" to impulses from the other parts of the brain, such as the emotional brain or the hunger signal, to give but two examples. Let me quote from May:

    The vast majority of feedback that naturally occurs in the brain is inhibitory. The cell systems that initiate activity are, for the most part, in a constant state of readiness and potential activity, so the higher systems of the brain must maintain balance and function primarily by inhibiting them. The cerebral cortex inhibits deeper centers; the right and left sides of the brain mutually inhibit each other; ceils in the brainstem inhibit cells in the spinal cord. Effective action primarily takes place thought selective inhibition.

    I have often marveled at this arrangement of things. It seems to indicate that human beings . . . are inherently active, dynamic, vibrant. Maybe it is in the nature of sentient life not to have to be stimulated in order to act, but to be always ready to go. It means we are not simply passive responders to external stimuli. In the very essence of our being, we are initiators. Perhaps, in the image of our Creator, we ourselves are endless creators.

        Addiction & Grace: Love & Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions (1988), pp.74-75.

  4. Just as individuals seem to ebb and flow on issues of self-control (well, I do anyhow), so, I think, do societies. In fact, this may be the greatest challenge for any democracy. The problem that I perceive with democracies comes from the fact that they seem to gravitate toward a lowest common denominator. Low taxes, high spending, disregard for long-term consequences: these problems may be worse for democracies, although all forms of political organization suffer from these problems. (Exhibits: Greece, California.) It's just that other systems, more tightly controlled by elites, can inflict pain (present loss of some sort) for some anticipated future (and current) gain. Of course, non-democratic political systems inflict pain primarily for the benefit of the rulers, but something like defense (e.g., the Soviet Union) can be argued to be necessary for the long-term survival of the regime. Perhaps I'm too hard on democracies, but we need some forms of self-binding. Jon Elster, at least at one time (Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraint (2000)), suggested that constitutions in a democracy were a form of self-binding. I think that he later recanted that argument, but I'm not sure why. For instance, the Iowa constitution, like many constitutions, requires a balances budget. (N.B.: This would probably not prove a good addition to the federal constitution.)
  5. Many religious directives come in the form of "thou shalt not", or prayers like "lead us not into temptation". NNT, coming out of a Greek Orthodox and ancient Mediterranean tradition, endorses such thinking as a way of maintaining our robustness and of dealing with our blindness to Black Swans. NNT argues that the cultures of the Mediterranean, including Islamic culture, wisely put limits on debts. This is also a form of self-binding. Some debt, however, is certainly good; however, if it's for current consumption, probably not so good.
  6. Warner suggests that contemporary culture may be worse that other times in dealing with the challenge of delayed gratification. Comparisons of this sort are, I think, very tricky, yet I think that they provide us with a worthwhile ideas. We are, I'd wager, significantly different from the New England Puritans of the 18th century. Warner does a good job of identifying possible mechanisms (hope I'm using Elster's term correctly here) for our seeming lack of self-control. It's an interesting—and as you can discern from this post—thought-provoking article for me.