Constitutional Crisis?

The following was a provocative essay published in the NYTimes. Since it touches on the nexus of economics and politics, I deemed it an appropriate topic for this blog.

Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.

No. It wasn’t.

But we can never seem to anchor our attention on the true determinants of economic power. The distribution of wealth is tilted toward those who control society’s primary productive resources. In feudal and agrarian societies it is land; in industrial and post industrial societies it is energy and finance capital; in the information society it is information data and finance capital.

The imperative for a liberal democracy is to democratize land, to democratize finance, and, especially in the 21st century, to democratize big data. There are trade-offs implied (especially the necessary democratization of investment risk), but the objective must be liberty and justice, not national wealth, because sustainable wealth is only derived from liberty and justice.

Aside from economic inequality there is a related but different plague upon the body politic these days. That is the anti-democratic ideology of identity politics and multiculturalism. These ideologies probably arose as a response to the frustration of economic inequality and power that demanded a division into victims and victimizers. The victimizers, of course, were corporate, white, and male, while the victims were all other identity groups not so defined: ethnic and racial minorities, women, LBGTs, etc.

But a constitution based on compromise through participation cannot possibly manage identity groups based on biology and genetics.  There is no compromising our biological identity, there are only zero-sum battles with winners and losers. Thus, the rule of the victimizers must be torn down, though it cannot end there. Coalitions of identity groups do not hold together after the common enemy has been vanquished, so they turn on each other until we see the complete Balkanization of democratic polities.

We will need to solve both these problems – economic inequality and identity Balkanization – in order for our democracy to restore itself and guarantee liberty and justice for all. Unfortunately this professor, and most of our political leaders in the oligarchy, don’t really have any promising ideas about how to go about that.

There are other things the Constitution wasn’t written for, of course. The founders didn’t foresee America becoming a global superpower. They didn’t plan for the internet or nuclear weapons. And they certainly couldn’t have imagined a former reality television star president. Commentators wring their hands over all of these transformations — though these days, they tend to focus on whether this country’s founding document can survive the current president.

But there is a different, and far more stubborn, risk that our country faces — and which, arguably, led to the TV star turned president in the first place. Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.

From the ancient Greeks to the American founders, statesmen and political philosophers were obsessed with the problem of economic inequality. Unequal societies were subject to constant strife — even revolution. The rich would tyrannize the poor, and the poor would revolt against the rich.

The solution was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, for example, the structure of government balanced lords and commoners. In ancient Rome, there was the patrician Senate for the wealthy, and the Tribune of the Plebeians for everyone else. We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.

What is surprising about the design of our Constitution is that it isn’t a class warfare constitution. Our Constitution doesn’t mandate that only the wealthy can become senators, and we don’t have a tribune of the plebs. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. This was a radical change in the history of constitutional government.

And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class. Part of the reason was practical. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.

At the time, many Americans believed the new nation would not be afflicted by the problems that accompanied economic inequality because there simply wasn’t much inequality within the political community of white men. Today we tend to emphasize how undemocratic the founding era was when judged by our values — its exclusion of women, enslavement of African-Americans, violence against Native Americans. But in doing so, we risk missing something important: Many in the founding generation believed America was exceptional because of the extraordinary degree of economic equality within the political community as they defined it.

Unlike Europe, America wasn’t bogged down by the legacy of feudalism, nor did it have a hereditary aristocracy. Noah Webster, best known for his dictionary, commented that there were “small inequalities of property,” a fact that distinguished America from Europe and the rest of the world. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers. In a community with economic equality, there was simply no need for constitutional structures to manage the clash between the wealthy and everyone else.

The problem, of course, is that economic inequality has been on the rise for at least the last generation. In 1976 the richest 1 percent of Americans took home about 8.5 percent of our national income. Today they take home more than 20 percent. In major sectors of the economy — banking, airlines, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications — economic power is increasingly concentrated in a small number of companies. [Don’t we need to discuss why before we embark on solutions?]

While much of the debate has been on the moral or economic consequences of economic inequality, the more fundamental problem is that our constitutional system might not survive in an unequal economy. Campaign contributions, lobbying, the revolving door of industry insiders working in government, interest group influence over regulators and even think tanks — all of these features of our current political system skew policy making to favor the wealthy and entrenched economic interests. “The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest,” Gouverneur Morris observed in 1787. “They always did. They always will.” An oligarchy — not a republic — is the inevitable result.

As a republic descends into an oligarchy, the people revolt. Populist revolts are rarely anarchic; they require leadership. [See Trump AND Sanders.] Morris predicted that the rich would take advantage of the people’s “passions” and “make these the instruments for oppressing them.” The future Broadway sensation Alexander Hamilton put it more clearly: “Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people: commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Starting more than a century ago, amid the first Gilded Age, Americans confronted rising inequality, rapid industrial change, a communications and transportation revolution and the emergence of monopolies. Populists and progressives responded by pushing for reforms that would tame the great concentrations of wealth and power that were corrupting government.

On the economic side, they invented antitrust laws and public utilities regulation, established an income tax, and fought for minimum wages. On the political side, they passed campaign finance regulations and amended the Constitution so the people would get to elect senators directly. They did these things because they knew that our republican form of government could not survive in an economically unequal society. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.”

For all its resilience and longevity, our Constitution doesn’t have structural checks built into it to prevent oligarchy or populist demagogues. It was written on the assumption that America would remain relatively equal economically. Even the father of the Constitution understood this. Toward the end of his life, Madison worried that the number of Americans who had only the “bare necessities of life” would one day increase. When it did, he concluded, the institutions and laws of the country would need to be adapted, and that task would require “all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”

With economic inequality rising and the middle class collapsing, the deep question we must ask today is whether our generation has wise patriots who, like the progressives a century ago, will adapt the institutions and laws of our country — and save our republic.

Ganesh Sitaraman, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, is the author of “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.”

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G–gle Culture

DO NO EVIL

 

These excerpts are from a recent online interview by Stefan Molyneux of the fired Google employee James Damore explaining himself:

Generally, I just really like understanding things,” he said about his reasons for compiling his argument. “And recently, through interactions with people, I have noticed how different political ideologies divide us in many ways. I wanted to understand what was behind all that.”

“I read a lot into Jonathan Haidt’s work, a lot about what exactly is the philosophy behind all of these things. And that led me to the beginning of the document,” he explained. 

He described his crystallizing moment as: “I could see that all of us are really blind to the other side, so in these environments where everyone is in these echo chambers just talking to themselves, they are totally blind to so many things.We really need both sides to be talk to each other about these things and trying to understand each other.” 

He critiques both the left and right for not working together: “The easiest way of understanding the left is: It is very open, it is looking for changes. While the right is more closed, and wants more stability. There are definitely advantages to both of those. Sometimes there are things that need to change, but you actually need a vision for what you want. There is value in tradition, but not all traditions should be how they are.”

“We create biases for ourselves. This is particularly interesting, when we talk about how it relates to reality,” he said.

“Both sides are biased in a way, they have motivated reasoning to see what they want out of a lot of things,” he continued. 

This happens a lot in social science, where it is 95% leaning to the left. And so they only study what they want, and they only see the types of things that they want, and they really aren’t as critical of their own research as much as they should. The popular conception is that the right doesn’t understand science at all, that the right is anti-science. It is true that they often deny evolution and climate science, climate change, but the left also has its own things that it denies. Biological differences between people — in this case, sex differences,” he explained. 

He described the experience of diversity training at Google, which inspired him to write: “I heard things I definitely disagreed with in some of the programs. I had some discussions with people there, but there was a lot of just shaming. ‘No you can’t say that, that’s sexist, you can’t do this.’ There is so much hypocrisy in a lot things they are saying. I decided to just create the document just to clarify my thoughts.

I have often recommended Jon Haidt’s research presented in his book, The Righteous Mind. It’s worth a read because much of what is happening in social and political discourse these days reflects a psychological pathology that should be completely unnecessary. But getting out of our own way in politics is a difficult challenge.

I find nothing particularly mendacious about Mr. Damore’s document or his intentions to clarify what is basically an empirical puzzle concerning gender differences. Of course, this was all blown way out of proportion because it challenges some unscientific political agenda.

As a scientist, I assume that all empirical phenomena should be open to skepticism and challenges. I’m not sure how we progress intellectually any other way. The attack on Mr. Damore is an attack on science and for me can only reveal an indefensible political agenda. This is sad, if not dangerous, to say the least.

My own approach in this blog has been to suggest analytical frameworks to help understand how human behavior aggregates up into social behavior that defines our civilization; past, present and future (see Common Cent$). The universe is constantly changing, and survival depends on successful adaptation. Unsuccessful adaptation leads to extinction. Thus, the problem for all species is how to successfully adapt.

It seems to me our knowledge-base in the biological and social sciences, and in the arts and humanities can help us humans out here and I can’t understand why anyone who wants to survive would ignore or discount anything we can learn from that wealth of knowledge. Yet, some would choose to ignore anything that might challenge their world-view, even when they know it is false. G–gle seems to have succumbed to that pressure. That’s a shame, but not a path any of us have to accept.

What’s G–gle’s motto again?

 

 

 

 

The return of the nation-state

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. 

Mr. Lowry has got this mostly right. Trump is merely one actor in this play as national sovereignty and national identity is being reasserted in Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Russia, etc. across the globe. Some automatically associate nationalism with interstate conflict (i.e, war), but that is not necessarily the path it takes, especially in the liberal western democracies.

Also, people migration is not the most serious challenge facing the modern nation-state, but it’s the easiest to scape-goat. It’s deflected by cultural assimilation.

Samuel Huntington is worth reading.

The return of the nation-state

The first week of the Trump administration has been a vindication of the American nation-state.

Anyone who thought it was a “borderless world,” a category that includes some significant portion of the country’s corporate and intellectual elite, has been disabused of the notion within about the first five days of the Trump years.

Trump’s inaugural address was widely panned, but early polling indicates it was popular, which isn’t surprising since the broadly nationalistic sentiments in the speech were bound to strike people as common sense.

“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Whom else would it serve?

“We are one nation . . . We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” What’s the alternative — two nations, with two hearts and homes?

“From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Why would anything else come first?

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump said.

Trump’s speech was less poetic, but in one sense more grounded than George W. Bush’s call for universal freedom in 2005 or Barack Obama’s vision of international cooperation leading to a new era of peace in 2009. Trump spoke of “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

If Bush was a vindicator of universal freedom, and Obama, in his more soaring moments, a citizen of the world, Trump is a dogged citizen of the United States concerned overwhelmingly with vindicating its interests.

His executive order authorizing the building of the wall is an emphatic affirmation of one of the constituent parts of a nation, namely borders. Trump also began the process of going after sanctuary cities as entrepôts of illegal immigration acting in defiance of the nation’s laws.

In general, immigration is an important focus for Trump’s nationalism because it involves the question of whether the American people have the sovereign authority to decide who gets to live here; whether the interests of American or foreign workers should be paramount; whether we assimilate the immigrants we already have into a common culture before welcoming more.

The Trump phenomenon is pushback against what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “deconstructionist” agenda, whose advocates seek to undermine America’s national identity through mass immigration and hostility to assimilation and opposition to the teaching of US history from a traditional, patriotic perspective, among other things.

Huntington argues that until the late 20th century, these elites promoted national unity, as one would expect. “Then in the 1960s and 1970s,” he writes, “they began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

Trump is a welcome rebuke to this attitude, though caveats are necessary:

A proper US nationalism should express not just an affinity for this country’s people, as Trump did in his address, but for its creed, its institutions and its history. These are absent from Trump’s rhetoric and presumably his worldview, impoverishing both.

Trump’s nationalism has the potential to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, so long as he demonstrates that it isn’t just cover for his loyalty to his preferred subnational group.

If Bush was overly expansive in his international vision, Trump could be overly pinched. Bush’s anti-AIDS program in Africa was unvarnished humanitarianism — and will redound to his credit, and the credit of this nation, for a very long time.

Finally, Trump’s trade agenda is also an expression of his nationalism. Trade deals should be able to pass the national-interest test — we shouldn’t embrace them for the sake of helping other nations, or out of strict libertarian principle. But protectionism is, historically, a special-interest bonanza that delivers benefits to specific industries only at a disproportionate cost to the rest of the economy.

All that said, the nation-state is back, despite all the forecasts of its demise.

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. The nation is one of them, something that Trump, if he gets nothing else, instinctively understands.

Good Quote

Silber

Excerpted from a WSJ book review of Seeking the North Star, by John R. Silber

As the essays in this volume amply attest, Silber dedicated himself to battling against the multifarious agents of academic diminishment, from the spurious imperatives of “multiculturalism,” which substitutes politics for culture, to the parodies of genuine scientific inquiry, which insist that only the measurable is true.

Silber’s understanding of the importance of the humanities as a leaven for what is noblest in our aspirations sets him apart from the usual technocratic university president, who is more of a fund-raising apparatchik than an intellectual leader. He understood that the index of civilization was a society’s commitment to what the early 20th-century British jurist John Fletcher Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable.” Civilized life takes place mostly in a realm between the coercive law and complete freedom—a realm governed by such flexible imperatives as taste, manners and custom. More and more, the extent of that gracious dominion has been diminished. It’s an odd situation we face.

“The future of our country,” Silber notes, “our future happiness and that of our children depends decisively on whether we as individuals and as a people practice obedience to the unenforceable.” This quarter’s report, I think you’ll agree, is not encouraging.