Friday, May 25, 2012

Cultural Protestantism

Behold, the President of Estonia expresses a certain sort of frustration increasingly common in the more fiscally responsible climes of Europe:
The bankrolling of Southern Europe has already and ever-increasingly threatened the fiscally responsible countries, the ones who have shown solidarity and voted to commit to bailing out those better off than we. Moreover, while much has been made of the change of governments in countries that broke the rules, far too little attention has been paid to what to my mind is a far more significant reverberation: the fall of a responsible, poor, new member state government coalition (in Slovakia) that made the hard choice and voted to support a country richer than it is, all for the sake of European solidarity.

That I submit is a problem, a serious problem and a threat to Europe we have only begun to realize. When we still talk about new and old members, we still talk nonsense about “populism” in all the wrong ways. Indeed I believe that the “populism” and the “specter of the 30s” that all kinds of pundits unknowledgeably appeal to has nothing to do with the populism we see in Northern Europe. That is not a populism of the dispossessed, the unemployed. It is a populism more akin to what Calvin and Luther appealed to than what the fascists of the 1930s appealed to. It is, like most populism, based on resentment, and resentment at unfairness. But the unfairness is, as it was in the 16th Century, a resentment of those who flaunt their flouting the rules by which others abide. Resentment on the part of those who take commitments seriously regarding those who do not: Is that the “specter of the 30s”?

I cannot and will not accept any labels applied to Northern Europeans for being “populists” when they have been doing exactly what has been asked of them. The price of following the rules for a “poor” country like Estonia has been harsh.

(Incidentally, the man is to be applauded for his essay's title, "I'll Gladly Pay You Tuesday", which suggests that American culture — Popeye, as it so happens — was far more pervasive in Estonia than I ever imagined.)

It is worth noting that all of the EU's worst offenders, fiscally speaking, are historically Roman Catholic or Orthodox, and nearly all of its most responsible nations have historically had a Protestant majority. (One is obliged to speak in terms of history when discussing European religion, for there ain't much of it left, of course.) Is this merely a coïncidence? Or is it, perhaps, indicative of a larger pattern? Inasmuch as one can speak of "Protestant virtues" or "Roman Catholic virtues" (or "Greek Orthodox virtues"), I submit that they are indeed different. Protestantism encourages industry, thrift, personal conscience; Protestant societies, if one can speak of such a thing, are more egalitarian. Roman Catholicism... well, what are Roman Catholic virtues? For all my of my two years in the heart of American Papistry, I still cannot claim to understand well the Roman Catholic psyche. (Perhaps you'd be foolhardy enough to hazard a guess, Aaron?) In any case, one does not associate the virtues of Protestant societies with Roman Catholic nations. Observe, even, the great differences between those nations colonized by Protestants and the nations colonized by Roman Catholics.

It would be, perhaps, altogether too neat and tidy to say that nature's Protestants (to crib Hilary Mantel's phrase) are predisposed towards fiscal responsibility and better governance, but one certainly can't rule out the idea.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The End of Gay Marriage

If gay marriages (or mawwages) become legal, we are left with an interesting question: what is a gay marriage, anyway?  Or to put the point better: what is the difference between a marriage and a gay marriage?  Will it be appropriate to offer as an answer to the question "What is your marital status" the option of "Gay Married"?  Will it be appropriate to ask those in gay relationships, "Whom are you gay married to?"

I take the fact that such questions exist at all as evidence for the claim that the word "marriage" means, at least, a union between one man and one woman.  (Intriguingly, the Massachusetts Supreme Court that decided Goodrich v. Department of Public Health agrees.)    For the modifier (is that the right term?) "gay" preceding "marriage" indicates that a gay marriage is not a marriage in the usual sense - else gay marriages would be simply marriages.  And that "gay" attempts to modify one of the genders of the parties to the marriage indicates just what aspect gay marriages is unusual, and therefore just which aspect of the usual definition of marriage is being modified.

But if this quick talk of modifier-grammar holds, then the very term "gay marriage" might seem oxymoronic.  For if a marriage is, at least, a union between one man and one woman, then a gay marriage is, at least, a gay union between one man and woman.  Oxymoronic, no?

"Hey, idiot: That's why we use the modifier," someone might reply.  Perhaps.  But such a reply entails an interesting consequence.  Namely, that all marriages can't be equal.  Or they can't be equal in the way that most people advocating for gay marriage seem to want them to be equal.  From what I understand, what these people want is not "sameness of rights" between the gay-married and the married.  For after all, sameness of rights can be achieved by civil unions, and these people oppose civil unions and support gay marriage.  Rather, what they want is something like "sameness of meaning" between marriages and gay marriages.  In other words, what they want is synonymy between the very terms "marriage" and "gay marriage."

There are two important points to make in regards to synonymy between "marriage" and "gay marriage." First, it is surprising that anyone should think that courts and legislatures (not to mention Executive Branches) are the appropriate venues for deciding which terms are synonymous and which are not.  Second, it will require an interesting articulation of the concept of "synonymy" according to which the use of a term and the modified use of that same term can result in synonymous uses.  That is, how can "marriage" be synonymous with "gay marriage" anymore than object be identical with a modified version of that object?  Isn't the point of modification to show that the object and modified object are not, in fact, identical?

Take an example.  A martini is gin cocktail.  A vodka martini is a vodka cocktail.  You could never walk into a bar, order a martini, and expect to get a vodka martini.  The foolhardiness of such an expectation arises from the fact that "vodka" modifies the conventional martini ingredients.  Given this modification, the vodka martini is not identical with the conventional martini.  And because vodka martinis are not identical with conventional martinis, "vodka martini" cannot be synonymous with "martini."  Similarly, it seems to me, for "gay marriage" and "marriage."

One might be inclined to say that vodka martinis are a type of martini, and therefore, gay marriages are a type of marriage.  I agree.  But there is a difference between saying, "I am drinking a martini" and "I am drinking a type of martini."  If you say you are drinking a martini when you are drinking a vodka martini, you have glossed an important fact about your drink and have in some sense misled your listener.  Or put differently, if you say you are drinking a martini when you are drinking a vodka martini, and I say I am drinking a martini when I am drinking a gin martini, I am inclined to think that I have said something more apt or more complete about my drink than you have said about yours.  And if someone allergic to vodka were to take a sip of your drink, you would be limitedly responsible for having misled him about the ingredients in your drink.

Again, similarly for marriage and gay marriage.  When straight people say they are married and gay people say they are married, there is no small way in which the straight people have said something more apt or complete about their relationship than the gay people have said.  And there is no small way in which the gay people have glossed an important feature of their relationship.  Namely, that their marriage is not a conventional one - it is a gay one.  And to this extent, it is not obvious to me just how gay marriage can ever be synonymous with conventional marriage, and that is simply because it is obvious to me that the words mean different things.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rich, I tell you. Rich.

I think that one of the more pervasive visual uglinesses in our world are electrical lines. Rural and urban alike, electrical lines seem inevitably to despoil landscapes, vistas, thoroughfares, and walkways. Having lived in, gazed upon, driven and walked through areas rural and urban alike, I cannot think of having experienced a single example of electrical lines that were not so fully despoiling. Such is their ugliness, their only noteworthy beauty is when they have been in some clever fashion hidden from view.

This leaves us in a position where imagining what it is like to rely fully on something fully visually repugnant is to imagine reality. It is an awkward position, and for two reasons. First, the pervasive need for electricity represents the pervasive presence of ugliness, implying that many people's lives will, for this need, become pervasively more ugly. The second reason for its awkwardness is rather more optimistic: for if this one thing has made many lives more ugly, a solution to it could make them pervasively more beautiful. Unfortunately, as great of an incentive as this latter reason provides for the deuglifying of electrical lines, in over 100 years, we have found no solution but to bury them where we can - and to live with them where we cannot.

What the meaning of this is is question one might rightly ask. Here's a try at an answer. It strikes me that the problem with electrical lines is that they represent a product whose entire being is stripped of what might be generally termed 'design' and is given over (almost fully) to what might be generally termed 'function.' For as obvious as it is that electrical lines lack beauty, it is as obvious that they are completely functional. For they stay out of our way physically; they are durable; they protect us from a hazard; and they provide us something we need. In short, though they do not look good doing it, they do what they were made to do.

The next question one might rightly ask is: What's to be done? How can scenarios like this

be set aright? I have no clue, myself. Mildly aestheticized suspension poles?

(Stop laughing. The Electrical Colossus is real.)

A start, perhaps. But what of the wires, man? The wires. A person who could arrive at an acceptable aesthetically improved version of those, why, there's gold in them there hills. After all, not all lines can be hidden underground. And anyway, what kind of aesthetic quitters are we? Oh, right - this kind.

(BONUS TRIVIA: Did you know that the geometrical name for the curve formed by an electrical wire suspended by two parallel posts is not, as is widely believed, a parabola, but a catenary? h/t Norman Mailer)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Presidential Reasoning

This post tends towards political theory more than towards politics - though, the thoughts offered were inspired by a political piece in the NYT. Bear with it, if you can.

I think it's safe, first, to begin by assuming that all Presidential administrations take actions with at least this principle guiding their behaviors: act in ways most likely produce a desired policy outcome. The thought is simple. Take all and only those actions that are likely to produce the policy you prefer; indeed, if one could know with certainty that an action would not further or would hinder some preferred outcome, why would you advance that policy? Let's take this as given.

Second, the article I mentioned goes to pains to discuss a second, thought not mutually exclusive, end weighing on nearly every action of the Bush 43 Administration: act only in those ways least likely to constrain the Executive's authority, with the corollary that one ought to act wherever possible to expand the Executive's authority. I would expect that some version of this applies to every Presidential administration - Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative - and I take it as interesting that the ideological objectives of every (reasonably obvious or recent) Administration converge on the question of the (lack of) limitations on its own authority.

Now, such a constellation of goals can produce what we might call an action matrix, or a constellation of action possibilities ranked according to their combined likelihood of both expanding executive authority and achieving some policy end. The most preferred actions are those that have a high combined likelihood of succeeding - producing the policy goal - and likelihood of broadening the scope of executive authority; the least preferred will have higher likelihoods of narrowing authority and of failing to produce the policy outcome. Given the final feature of Presidential action reasoning - that policy outcomes can be achieved either via unilateral executive action or by joint executive and legislative action - we can produce a reasoning array that looks a little like the following one.

Now, with the preferences I've mentioned already in mind, which options would the Bush
Administration been likely to have rejected and accepted as matters of categorical preferences? It seems to me that it would have preferred successful expansive actions categorically, and demurred from failing-narrowing actions categorically. So, let's eliminate all of those.

Which leaves us with only those Legislative or Executive actions that expand Executive authority. Fair enough. But as I mentioned above, it's likely that most Presidential Administrations acted as it believed was in accordance with these principles. What made the Bush Administration different? As near as I can tell, the Bush Administration gave a higher degree of credence to the following belief than have most Presidential administrations, or than most citizens deemed appropriate: All things equal, unilateral actions tend either (a) to reduce opportunities for narrowing of power or (b) to have higher likelihoods of success in achieving policy aims. Call this the Unilateral Power Principle (UPP).

Now, what's interesting about this? What's interesting about this is that, I'd argue, armchair-historically that some version of the UPP is one pretty essential preference that differentiates liberals from conservatives, even if it does not differentiate liberal from conservative Presidents. Though it clearly does, at times. For instance, LBJ's greatest Presidential achievements were legislative ones - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, and even the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution - and all had the interesting feature of expanding executive authority. Similarly, one might expect, for Clinton: NAFTA, Medicare, Welfare Reform, etc. By contrast, Bush 43 and Reagan were much better known - though, for Reagan, I can hardly list them - their unilateral executive actions than for their successful legislative maneuvers. The decisive matrix, according to such conservatives, then, looks something like this.

But to make the point a little differently, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Bush 43 proved such a unilateral actor, since his Administration simply pushed further the boundaries of the UPP, a principle that his own party had for some time openly espoused. The interesting question, I think, though, is something like this: whence the anger? That is, what generates the liberal and independent rage at President Bush's expansion of Executive authority? Democratic Presidents - President Obama not excluded - after all, behave similarly. So, we arrive at a subsequent question: Is the anger at Bush generated by his expansion of Executive power, as many critics suggest, or does this analysis, instead, give the lie to those claims? For my part, with all of my own anger at Bush to reconsider, I don't know that I can give an answer.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


As yet another of the rationales for snobbery that Ross and I happen to share bites the dust. Perhaps the only response would be to post handwriting samples of our own. Eh, Ross?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wouldn't Integration Be Loverly?

One more reason we should've been born a hundred years earlier: in 1911 the lower classes of London consisted mainly, I assume, of lovable Cockney flower-sellers with amusingly deadbeat fathers. Nowadays London's poor are too busy burning down and looting the city to take part in linguistic bets wagered by gentlemen of means.

To what should we attribute these riots? The problem, as it looks from this armchair several thousand miles away, is a generation of young people who have grown up without any attachment to their own communities. Admittedly, this is a problem throughout Europe, where children of immigrants have found neither acceptance nor employment in their adopted societies. (Xenophobes will point out that many immigrants have shown no desire to integrate, which is probably fair — to an extent. But the level of frustration shewn in the U.K. and elsewhere suggests that at least some have tried and been rebuffed.) We are beginning to see the effects of decades of inept immigration policy: immigrants are allowed into countries where there are neither jobs nor opportunities for advancement (i.e., education and integration programs — consider Germany's failed Multikulti policies) for them. Deprived of the means to help themselves, utterly dependent on the welfare state, is it any wonder that so many children of immigrants have grown to hate the societies of Europe in which they find themselves?

The real sticky wicket, now, is what to do with such a systemic problem. Political and economic enfranchisement is never immediately achieved; it must be the result of education, of viable employment, of real communities. Once these are gone — as is the case, in the urban ghettoes of both the U.K. and this country — well, nobody is quite sure how to get them back. Thoughts?

Monday, August 8, 2011

What Are Social Services For?

The argument for altering public pension, social security, and medicare payouts goes something like this.
1. Agreements made in times of plenty (call it: T1) can be sustained only if plentifulness is sustained in a later time (T2).
2. Currently (the later time, T2), plentifulness is unsustained.
So 3. Agreements made in times of plenty (T1) cannot be sustained currently (T2).
4. Social safety net agreements (public pensions, social security, and medicare payouts) were made in T1.
So 5. Social safety net agreements cannot be sustained in T2.
So, 1 and 2 are questionable premises, I think. But perhaps defensible. The more interesting argument, though, relies upon 1 and 2 to prove something that would ruffle the feathers of those who usually make the above argument.
6. An agreement to reduce the tax burdens for the top percentile of wage earners was made during T1.
7. A reduction in the tax burden for the top percentile of wage earners cannot be sustained in T2.
Such a substitution as in (6) is either a reductio against the Conservative position, or it serves to reveal just how wrongheaded is (1). That is, in order to circumvent (6), one might want to argue that, of course all agreements made in t1, when we were flush with cash, cannot be sustained at t2, when we weren't, but that doesn't mean that some of them cannot be - indeed, that some of them must be. But if so, then we're in a debate about which t1 agreements are appropriate to maintain in t2 crises, and it is no longer obviously the case that we ought not to maintain the safety net.

Indeed, the debate shifts to a question of what (1) really justifies. I'd argue that it justifies making agreements in times of plenty that are made because times are plentiful - that is, agreement we could not make in times of distress. And if that's right, we should ask ourselves: which agreements would we make in times of plenty that we would not make in times of distress?
Safety Net: Would we agree to maintain a social safety net in times of plenty, but not in times of distress?
Tax Cuts: Would we agree to tax cuts in a time of plenty, but not in times of distress?
Now, there are so-called economic arguments for each of these positions, and no doubt, the questions are not quite as finely-tuned as they might be. But even so, my intuition is that it is more obvious that tax cuts oughtn't be made in times of distress than that a safety net oughtn't be maintained in similar times. And perhaps one motivation for this intuition is that a safety net is meant for times of distress; indeed, if there never were times of distress, there would never be a safety net - no safety would be required, because there would never be any danger. The intuition in favor of tax cuts, however, does not seem, to me, obviously motivated in quite the same way.