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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Debt-Ceiling Thought Experiment

As a little partner post to Alex Cahill's discussion of the negotiating tactics used in the debt-ceiling debate, I'm including a thought experiment that I think pretty-well captures what went down. I'd love - love! - for someone to point out the distinctions that make a difference here.

“Married to the Debt Ceiling”

Suppose that, as most couples do, you take out a mortgage with your wife. When you make up your mind about payments, you agree that on your current combined incomes, you can make the payment while still meeting your savings goals, paying for vacations, all of that. Well, five years down the road, your wife has a change of heart. She says, “Honey, really, we’re spending too much. And if you don’t agree to cut the cable bill, the internet, your craft beer spending, and the kids’ piano lessons, I’ll refuse to contribute to the mortgage.” You argue about this ad nauseam, trying to get her to agree to a mix of her cuts and what you see as less harmful cuts – a compromise. She refuses, over and over. But then, when you suggest that one of you takes on a new job in order to increase your combined income, she just walks out of the room and won’t speak to you for a week. And as the next payment date approaches, you see that your wife is serious: her monthly contribution to your joint checking account is still missing; you’ll default on your agreement with the bank if you don’t pay. So you say to her, “Look, enough is enough. We agreed to pay this bill together, and we’re going to lose the house if you don’t pitch in.” She smiles at you and replies, “Well, we don’t have to. I’ve contributed enough to our account this month that if you cut the things I’ve asked you to cut, we can still make the payments on our mortgage.” You’re dumbstruck. She continues, “When you think about it that way, really, it’ll be your fault if we lose the house.” Having seen that she’s willing to sabotage your home in order to get the cuts she wants, finally, in order to keep your agreement with the bank, you concede the point. You cut the bills she demanded, and you write your mortgage check.

Seems to me that the wrongness of your wife’s behavior in this scenario isn’t just that you’re married and she shouldn’t do that to someone she’s married – although, that’s wrong, too. And no one thinks that there shouldn’t been discussions between mutually committed parties about what sorts of things they should, together, be spending money on. What’s wrong here is that you had an agreement with a third party that she threatened to violate if you didn’t perform some action on her behalf, an action towards an end having nothing to do with the third party. How then, I would wonder, is this wrongness any different than the wrongness of the behavior of the Republican members of the House of Representatives?

And to be honest, there are "moderates" out there who indicate that these disagreements are good, and that “arguments concerning defaulting on debts are not new in our Republic.” Bull. It seems like their position on this is that of your wife’s nosy friend, who says, “Of course, you’re right that she shouldn’t extort you. But hasn’t this little spat been productive for your marriage?”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Guest Post: Alex Cahill on Debt Ceiling Negotiations

Editor's Note: In this afternoon's post, Alex Cahill, friend of the bloggers, puts his certification in negotiation in good purpose in an interesting discussion of the negotiation options had by Democrats in light of what appears to be significant Republican intransigence. We extend our thanks for his expertise. -- A.S.

With the ongoing political strife between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling, the art of negotiation is on full display. Negotiations have been ongoing for months with Vice President Biden leading a bipartisan group of congressional officials in an attempt to craft a long term debt reduction package coupled with raising the debt ceiling. However, negotiations remain stalled and with Republicans walking away from two debt reduction meetings (i.e. Eric Cantor walking out of VP Biden’s sessions and Speaker Boehner apparently unwilling to agree to a $4 trillion debt reduction deal), the question emerges as to how Democrats can negotiate with a party who may not be interested in negotiating in good faith?

The Harvard Negotiation Project took up this vexing question and produced the book “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” that provides the “textbook” response for negotiating in difficult situations. First, the book notes that it is important to “separate the people from the problem.” Emotions and egos can become a major stumbling block during negotiations, which adversely affects a negotiators ability understand the other party's underlying interests. This results in adversarial rather than cooperative interactions. This step involves:

  • Clarifying perceptions
  • Recognizing and legitimizing emotions
  • Communicating clearly

Second, it is important for political leaders to separate “positions” from “interests.” Interests can be satisfied through a range of solutions where positions only allow one party to succeed. In the current debate, Republicans have taken the “position” of no new taxes, with an underlying interest of not officially raising tax rates while being semi-amenable to closing tax loopholes and eliminating subsidies. As negotiations continue, it will be important for both sides to ask clarifying and empowering questions of the other to clarify interests in order to reach a solution.

Third, when faced with a party that acts in bad faith, a negotiator should insist that each party use objective criteria to evaluate potential solutions. For instance, both parties acceptance of Congressional Budget Office “scores” (budget analysis) of potential budget deals would mandate that fair standards and procedures be used during the negotiation process. By using fair standards and procedures, principled negotiation is encouraged, thereby encouraging dialogue between the parties and allowing the party acting in good faith to pressure the other side to accept an agreement.

Now, you might say that using objective criteria is great, but what happens if the other party uses “dirty tricks” such as lies, pressure tactics, or continues to act in bad faith? Usually, unskilled negotiators facing these “dirty tricks” will either attempt to appease the party acting in bad faith or conduct reciprocal dirty tricks. Either act results in a less than ideal negotiating outcome. Instead, when confronted with the “dirty tricks,” negotiators should utilize a three pronged approach:

  1. Recognize the trick being played (From the Democratic perspective—Republicans desire to allegedly tackle the debt issue, but their continued refusal to agree to a meaningful compromise. And from the Republicans perspective—President Obama’s desire to reduce the national debt, but his political party’s unwillingness to restructure Entitlement Programs)
  2. Draw attention to the trick being played (seen through numerous press conferences by both Republicans and Democrats)
  3. Negotiate about the negotiation itself (i.e. about the rules with which the negotiation will be conducted. This can be seen in regards to whether President Obama is negotiating with the desire to reach a $4, 2 or 1 trillion debt reduction agreement—the desired number determines the issues discussed and the process of the negotiations.)

Lastly, I want to mention one other possibility rarely mentioned in news commentary or analysis; namely, that the current ongoing dispute regarding the nation’s debt truly epitomizes a “worldview conflict” about the proper role and size of government. Worldview conflict involves our most deeply rooted values and often emerges through the words religion, politics and personal identity. For many Democrats, the issue of raising taxes on those with great wealth is a matter of not simply debt reduction, but a fundamental act of social justice. Similarly, for many Republicans, debt reduction and balanced budgets serves as the premier value that forms their political identity. While arguments are easily made about the hypocrisy of many political leaders positions regarding these fundamental values (i.e. how can Republicans value balanced budgets but vote for two unfunded wars, or conversely, how can Democrats support tax increases, yet fail to rein in Wall Street’s flagrant excesses through Dodd-Frank?) What is important to recognize is not the hypocrisy prevalent among political leaders, but instead the deep seated values inherent in this debate and perhaps the scary reality that our political fissures may not be solved through a quick compromise, but rather will ultimately require a new political culture based on recognition and acceptance.

Stay tuned for Alex’s post-mortem of the outcomes in the debt ceiling ‘negotiations’ – just as soon as they’ve concluded, that is.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Clerihew and Two Limericks

Iceni queen Boudica
Was more than just a rude hick. A
General named Suetonius
Defeated her in a manner most unceremonious.

An effeminate postman named Kurtz
Prefers walking 'round town wearing skirts
He just likes the sensation
Of good ventilation
While walking (or so he asserts).

There once was a man from Dundee
Who wrote bawdy poems for a fee
A duplicitous priest
Bought two hundred, at least
And was fired by Papal decree.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage and Use Theories of Meaning

Lots of snarky (but, I concede, smart) Catholics and natural law types regard same-sex marriage as a sort of oxymoron. For them, as for many of us, "marriage" is a term the successful application of which requires that several necessary conditions be met. The sort of people who regards same-sex marriage as oxymoronic, though, will hold that the conditions necessary for applying the term include at least these two:
  1. The term describes a union between two and not more than two human parties.
  2. The parties to the union include a single male and a single female.
Depending upon who lodges the 'oxymoronic objection', the list of conditions will include myriad others in addition to these. The important point is that the objectors will hold these at least. And from these, it is easy to see why such objectors regard the concept of same-sex marriage as oxymoronic. After all, a marriage is a union between a single man and a single woman, and same-sex marriage so-called is a union between a single man and a single man. Therefore, same-sex marriage can't be considered marriage in the first place. QED.

QED, that is, if you think a couple of other things - things about the nature of language that are pretty contested in philosophy (you know, the only place where this stuff matters). Most obviously, you'd have to think that "marriage" was defined as (at least) a union between one man and one woman. Okay, maybe that's not so objectionable. But to get us to the 'oxymoronic objection', you have to believe that this definition of 'marriage' cannot change. That is, for the phrase "same-sex marriage" to be considered an oxymoron, you couldn't believe only that bad things would happen if we change the definition of marriage. No, you would have to believe literally that it is not possible to change the definition; you would have to believe that there is no way to make the sentence, "Those two men are married," true.

Now, that's an objection to same-sex marriage searching for an argument - really, it's just a description of the position held by the 'oxymoronic objectors.' The objection to this description goes something like, "Yeah, but words change their meanings all the time, and lots of words have more than one meaning. Unless you're insisting that I'm unsuccessfully referring to the city of 'Davenport' when I'm not using a term that individuates a sofa, or that it's impossible for teachers to 'influence' their students without 'flowing into' their students, then you must think that the term 'marriage' has some sort of non-changing status - else we could just change it however we like, yes?"

There, I think, is the heart of the matter. When we have a concept - or a word - how do we delimit its extension? How do we change its extension? Few dispute that the concept of marriage has had "one man, one woman" as a necessary condition throughout its use historically; how, though, can such a condition actually be eliminated from the extension of the concept? It's a question worth gathering up and treasuring in our hearts.

I, for one, have been in favor of gay marriage since I wanted to grow up to be a Democrat - about 8th grade, I think. (Though, I have this lingering memory of making buttons for Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign when I was about 10 years old. Mine read: "If you vote for Dole, it'll be a bore. Vote for Clinton or wait four more." I also remember a classmate who made an anti-Dole button: "His hand doesn't work!") But in the last three or four days, I've had a few philosophically-oriented that are starting to change my mind, some of which I'll share in posts forthcoming. I will say, though, that I think the deep problem here is one having to do with some of the issues I've raised in this post, issues having to do with the proper extension and delimiting of concepts, the alteration of definitions, etc. And I think it's noteworthy that our national debate on this topic has hardly involved these issues in any meaningful way.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Crazy Religion and Sane Friendship

There are two kinds of sincerely religious people: the crazy ones and the sane ones. We've all observed the former (Fred Phelps & co., Mormons, and now, those people who sold all their possessions for the rapture that's been postponed); the latter are, depending upon whom you ask, perhaps only a theoretical possibility. (If pressed, I'd say I've probably met a few. But they draw far less attention to themselves than the crazy sort do.)

What is one to make of the sincerely deluded? Well, the first thing to emphasize is that they're usually not bad people (with the probable exception of that horrible Phelps clan): they are merely carrying a (nonsensical) belief to its logical conclusion. If I truly believed God was planning to save only 144,000 special folks, why wouldn't I knock on your door to let you know about it (and, if you were out, leave some pamphlets)? The fact that it's an objectively asinine thing to do should not concern me, should it? Your salvation is at stake!

Several years ago I passed a church sign that read, "Friends don't let friends go to Hell". (Yes, it was one of those churches. On a later occasion, the sign read "Pray first, then vote". They must not've had enough letters to spell "Republican".) In all ages of the world this sentiment has been true; all ages, that is, except our present one. Only now is it widely considered a virtue to tolerate heterodoxy among one's friends. (This is assuming, of course, that one believes in an ortho-doxy to begin with.) Is this a positive development? I daresay in many ways it is. I certainly have no desire to befriend the sort of Christian — generally one of the more foaming-at-the-mouth sorts of Protestants — who would endeavor to convert me to whatever obscure non-creedal sect he belonged to.

And yet at the same time this development probably says something about our friendships. It's worth noting that the medievals had a stronger sense of friendship than we do today. The Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) considered friendship a gift from God, a point upon which even the most deracinated Episcopalian or Unitarian can probably agree. But Aelred goes further: in true friendship, as in marriage, Christ himself is present as a third person. (I would give you a full quotation, but my library, which includes Aelred's Spiritual Friendship, has gone before me into Iowa.) Is this possible in friendships between two people of different beliefs? That is to say, if friendship is such a deep spiritual connection, to what extent are friendships between people of differing beliefs the real thing? I'm not prepared to answer this question. If Aelred is right, though, I should probably be prepared to admit that I've never truly experienced "spiritual friendship", for so many of my dearest friends indeed do not share my deepest beliefs. For some reason, though, I feel no need to start proselytizing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Facebook - What an Igneous Idea!

This might be the clincher in the argument for me to get Facebook:

Schadenfreude: FTW!

(A fu moar, f u n33d a laf r 2.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Against the Very Model of a Modern Major PhD

(If you squint, you'll see NYU philosopher David Velleman front and center, with his trusty side-kick Hartry Field on the right. Actually, I really do imagine that department breaking into song, on occasion.)
So, I don't know how many of our readers are aware of what graduate school admissions are like these days, but if you aren't, you should know that 'brutal' and any number of its synonyms are the only adequate descriptors that come to mind. (If you do have an idea, feel free to commiserate.) Speaking strictly to Philosophy - though, I believe from anecdotal evidence that the situation is generalizable to most other humanities and fine arts disciplines - admissions rates to top-twenty programs are in the neighborhood of 3 to 7 percent. Think, for a moment, on what that means. You're willing to abandon your friends, your family, and your entire present life, devote yourself to a profession that, for at least five years, will keep you bordering on poverty, for a degree that can be called "successful" if it secures for you a solidly middle-class salary. And you're willing to do this, only if you're comfortable saying that, for any randomly selected ten to fifteen applicants, you think none would be better than you are. 'Brutal' somehow don't hardly say it.
Now, I don't want to get in to a drawn out discussion of whether this prospect is sort of something I'm looking forward to. I want to make what I think is a bit of an interesting observation about how this institution - graduate schools and PhD programs - is structured. In Philosophy, currently, New York University is more or less widely regarded as the best graduate school in the U.S. (also, the world, with Oxford University running a close second). Rutgers runs a somewhat distant second, with Princeton running a close third, Pittsburgh (ah, would that they would have me!) a close fourth, and MIT, Harvard, and Michigan rounding out what we might call 'the top handful.' [NB: There are truly excellent philosophy programs admission to which I would give my left hand that are not in this 'top handful.' This discussion is focused on the Philosophical Gourmet rankings. I'm one of quite a few people, including the administrator of the Gourmet, who think that there's only so much that this particular survey can tell us about graduate school quality.]
Now, time was, within the last twenty to forty years, that three schools in heralded unanimity comprised the pantheon of the Philosophy PhD magisterium: Harvard, Princeton, and Pittsburgh. As one pretty quickly notes, only one of these schools (Princeton) is in the top-three presently. And two schools that almost no one once thought of as among the best have (again, more or less) decisively dethroned the giants of philosophy-graduate-school-past. These are wealthy graduate programs, with the wind of historical prestige at their backs. How could they have been o'ertaken by such unlikely upstarts as NYU and Rutgers?
Well, here's a shot at an explanation. I admit, there are other candidate explanations out there, but for my part, the premises here strike me as prima facie true, and the conclusion seems to follow from them naturally. So, here goes.
Philosophy Graduate School Axioms
I. Never hire graduates of one's own program.II. The best faculty members tend to work at the best graduate programs.
III. The best graduate students tend to become the best faculty members.
IV. The best graduate students tend to acquire their degrees from the best graduate programs.
ArgumentA (1) Suppose School A has the best philosophy graduate program.
So (2) The best graduate students will tend to acquire their degrees from School A. [A1 + IV]
So (3) School A's graduate students will tend to become the best faculty members. [So2 + III]
So (4) School A will not hire the best faculty members. [So3 + I]
So (5) School A, eventually, will not be the best graduate program. [So4 + II]
The idea is simply that, if you're the best program now but you refuse to hire your own students, you'll eventually cease to have the best program, since those students you wouldn't hire will eventually become the best faculty members. Capice?
Now, if this argument is right, what sorts of hiring phenomena would you expect? Well, first, you'd expect the one I've already noted: the best graduate programs will cease to be the best graduate programs. Second, you might also expect that the 'formerly-best' institutions would have placed significantly more of their graduate students in the best philosophy jobs than the newly-best institutions. And lo, from Leiter, this is exactly what we find:
Distribution of Faculty Members from Top Philosophy Graduate Programs
New York University PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 0
3. Princeton: 1
4. Pittsburgh: 1
5. Michigan: 0
6. Harvard: 0
6. MIT: 1
Total: 3
Rutgers University PhDs1. NYU: 1
2. Rutgers: 1
3. Princeton: 0
4. Pittsburgh: 0
5. Michigan: 2
6. Harvard: 0
6. MIT: 0
Total: 4
Princeton University PhDs1. NYU: 4
2. Rutgers: 4
3. Princeton: 5
4. Pittsburgh: 6
5. Michigan: 5
6. Harvard: 1
6. MIT: 5
Total: 30
University of Pittsburgh PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 3
3. Princeton: 1
4. Pittsburgh: 2
5. Michigan: 2
6. Harvard: 2
6. MIT: 0
Total: 10
University of Michigan PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 3
3. Princeton: 0
4. Pittsburgh: 2
5. Michigan: 3
6. Harvard: 0
6. MIT: 0
Total: 5
Harvard University PhDs1. NYU: 6
2. Rutgers: 0
3. Princeton: 4
4. Pittsburgh: 2
5. Michigan: 2
6. Harvard: 3
6. MIT: 1
Total: 18
Massachussetts Institute of Technology PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 2
3. Princeton: 4
4. Pittsburgh: 0
5. Michigan: 3
6. Harvard: 4
6. MIT: 2
Total: 15
As you can see, apart from the little program that could, these results satisfy the prediction that the formerly-best programs would've outperformed the newly-best programs in terms of jobs placement.
But what's another thing you might expect? If these really are estimations of the best graduate programs producing the best students, you'd expect the above trends to begin to shift. And what might mark that shift would be, rather than the numbers of currently tenured faculty-members, an increased number of tenure-track faculty members from the newly-best programs. For while tenured faculty distributions would evidence the historical excellence among graduate programs, tenure-track faculty distributions are closer to graduate school, and so represent a more accurate rendering of the current rankings among graduate schools. And lo, the data confirms this as well. Again, from Leiter:
Distribution of Tenure-Track Faculty Members from Top Graduate Schools
1. New York University (13)2. Rutgers University, New Brunswick (8)
3. Massachussetts Institute of Technology (6)
3. Princeton University (6)
5. Yale University (3)
6. Columbia University (2)
6. Harvard University (2)
The idea here is that newly-hired faculty (untenured-but-tenure-track) are closer to the newer rankings of graduate schools. So, if a shift from the past had manifested itself in the ranking, the distribution of new hires would indicate such a shift. And, it does.
Okay, now, I admit that there are alternative theories that might explain this data. Maybe Rutgers and NYU just outspent the previously-top programs. Or (and this seems likely, to me) most of those 'tends to' in my axioms will allow for excellent philosophers to be produced by a host of programs, and since department sizes relative to the production of excellent philosophers is small-ish, and true excellence usually takes seasoning to emerge, there's plenty of room for programs by a combination of luck, smart hiring, and money to move up. Or perhaps ‘having the best faculty’ isn’t coextensive with ‘producing the best graduate students’ – though, the shift in recent hiring would need to be explained.
Anyway, the point is simply that a university’s commitment against hiring its own students seems, in addition to some pretty reasonable-sounding assumptions – to yield a recipe for the best universities eventually losing their top spots. And, if so, I suspect the recipe has been served in more disciplines than Philosophy.  Sacred Music, even?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Haggling Over the Price of the Hose

or "The Real Liquidity Trap"

I don't know whether anyone has heard, but there's supposed to be some kind of 'debate' happening amongst federal officials about how best to go about solving the U.S. 'debt crisis.' Sorry if the scare quotes identify me as an avid follower of Krugman's blog, but I am. I'm also trying to put the most charitable face on the Conservative position here as I can. To that end, try the following thought experiment.

Suppose your house is on fire. And, suppose a friend is willing to lend you water, even though you owe him quite a bit for the water you've already borrowed. Why might you shy from borrowing it now? Well, maybe you think that borrowing this water now will harm you in a time when you're in more dire need (a fire you really can't handle yourself, say), and in such a time the friend won't be willing to loan you any water, since you owe him so much as it is. So, spake the water-Conservative, thankyouverymuch, but I'll put out this particular fire on my own. I appreciate the offer, but save your water for later.

Okay, that seems sensible to me. Why borrow when you can pay for it yourself, already?

Here's my question, though. Doesn't the growth of the present fire, itself - and not necessarily the fact that you owe your friend a lot already - make your friend less likely to lend water to you in the future? That is, the growth of the present fire increases the value of the water-debt he holds on you already, since the growth of the present fire increases the risk of your defaulting on that debt (from your house burning down). Given this fact, isn't the water-Conservative's worry about future water-loans unfounded, if you can't, in fact, put out the current fire?

So, the parallels to the current debate seem pretty obvious, here. And, my suspicion is that the difference between (water) Conservatives and (water) Liberals is a disagreement about just what sort of fire it is we're fighting, and thus, just which sort of strategy will best combat it. If you're the Conservative, you think the fire is the threat of future availability of credit (after all, if we had an assurance of timelessly unlimited credit, we could borrow water like drunken sailors). If you're the Liberal, you think that the fire is joblessness and lost productivity. For my part, though, it seems like there's a sense in which fighting the Liberal's fire also fights the Conservative's fire: when you have increased employment and productivity, you generate increased tax revenues. But if what you're worried about primarily is the future availability of water, you can fight only the Conservative fight, since you can't borrow water to fight the fire of joblessness and productivity. But then, maybe you also believe in cutting in order to create jobs - tantamount to praying to the rain God, as near as I can tell.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Color-Coded Parking

So, here's another bullet point in the seemingly endless iteration of "Stuff that semi-educated-upper-middle-class-white-people thing get all hand-wringly about": "For any x, is x racist?"

Now, don't misunderstand me. Racism is the sort of thing about which semi-educated-upper-middle-class-white people should worry, in no small part because so many of us are so adept in the ways of white folk, while so few of us have ever read the damn thing (fewer yet, and I'm afraid I'm counting myself here, could probably be said to have understood it). We were raised in communities that were predominantly white, all the while eschewing acts of overt racism. But we were also raised or (if our parents were Republicans) educated to understand that the most pernicious and pervasive sorts of racism aren't overt. So, we come to believe that the kind of racist beliefs and behaviors we can pick out aren't the ones that are the most pervasive. I think that it's this condition that leads to the hand-wringing. Because any time that white people of a certain background talk about issues involving race, we aren't (or, at least, I'm not) sure whether we're saying or doing something racist.

So, let me say before launching into this post, I'm not really sure whether my commentary here is racist. It's for that reason, though, that I'm posting it. I know that it isn't overtly racist. (How? It doesn't look like this.) And if there are two sorts of racism, overt and subtle, then if this post manifests some sort of racism, it can only be subtly so. But as I said, it's the subtle racism that I don't think people with a background like mine are especially good at identifying, and it's because we aren't good at identifying it, though we know it exists, that we worry whether we're its perpetrators.

I guess that what I'm trying to say is, if this post is subtly racist, I want to know, and I want to know why. It's not because I'm prepared to say it isn't racist; rather, it's because I want to get better at identifying subtle racism, that I might get better at identifying and responding to instances of it in the future. But, if it isn't racist, it helps us narrow the set of topics covered by the phenomenon of subtle racism, and thereby helps us to better identify it, as well. Also, it's interesting.

* * *

Anyway. The post.

So, I read a mind-blowing study this week, one trying to make sense of the phenomenon of unpaid parking tickets issued by New York City police to diplomats from the United Nations. And, trust me - or don't, but just keep reading - this is an phenomenon, indeed.

First, some background. According to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, certain diplomats and consuls from foreign nations are exempted from prosecution for certain sorts of crimes that the diplomats may commit in the host nation. In the United States, for example, those exemptions include prosecution for unpaid parking tickets. This means that diplomats in the U.S. can be issued a ticket for parking their cars in any non-tow area (their cars can be towed) and find themselves under no legal obligation to pay the fine, since they cannot be prosecuted for failure to pay.

The problem is especially rampant in New York City, where many nations double-up on their number of diplomats, since all send representatives to the United Nations, and almost all nations with more than one embassy (their first is always in Washington D.C.) house a second embassy in the Big Apple. According to the study I mentioned, between 1997 and 2002, UN diplomats alone racked up a whopping $18 million dollars in unpaid parking fines within the NYC city limits. Fortunately for us, however, there are two very interesting aspects to this scenario. First, the diplomatic immunity from prosecution instead of permission to break the law means that we have a written record of the instances of illegality - for if diplomats had permission to break the law, there would be no cause to issue them parking tickets. And second, the fact that diplomats from so many countries send diplomats to this very small area has given the economist and business professor who authored the study an excellent 'natural experiment.'

"A natural experiment in what?" you ask. An experiment in linking culture and tendencies toward corruption. The study utilizes an earlier study that argued for what it called an "International Corruption Index," which listed countries according to how corrupt were their national governments. The researchers defined corruption as "the abuse of publicly entrusted power for private gains" - so, insider trading by government officials, awarding contracts in exchange for political donations, etc. Governments more likely to engage in those sorts behaviors were defined as more corrupt. What our second study intended to find was whether corruption within one's own nation tended to manifest itself in other countries - or whether the sorts of national corruption scrutinized by the first study were evidence of a 'corrupt culture' in which the corruption follows the members of the culture around the globe.

One can see why, then, the example of parking tickets for United Nations diplomats worked so well for the second study. 'Test subjects' were offered easy access to a corrupt benefit - personal gain (good but illegal parking) from publicly entrusted authority (diplomatic immunity). And numerous individuals from numerous countries were offered the benefit over a very long period of time, thereby controlling for the possibility of unusually corrupt individuals (I kid because I love) skewing the data. These conditions conspired to generate an environment that would show whether individuals from corrupt (and, indeed, from non-corrupt) nations behaved outside of their national boundaries; in particular, whether the corruption could be called "cultural" in making itself manifest outside of a particular set of national boundaries.

And, I'm not sure whether to call this surprising, the findings were as follows. The researchers found a significantly high correlation between the number of parking tickets per diplomat from a particular country and that country's ranking on the Corruption Index. And the rankings are as follows:

Table 1: Average Unpaid Annual New York City Parking Violations per Diplomat, 11/1997 to 11/2002 (citation again, here; also, the highlighting is mine)

Rank Country Tickets Per Diplomats

1 KUWAIT 246.2 9
2 EGYPT 139.6 24
3 CHAD 124.3 2
4 SUDAN 119.1 7
5 BULGARIA 117.5 6
6 MOZAMBIQUE 110.7 5
7 ALBANIA 84.5 3
8 ANGOLA 81.7 9
9 SENEGAL 79.2 11
10 PAKISTAN 69.4 13
11 IVORY COAST 67.1 10
12 ZAMBIA 60.4 9
13 MOROCCO 60.0 17
14 ETHIOPIA 59.7 10
15 NIGERIA 58.6 25
16 SYRIA 52.7 12
17 BENIN 49.8 8
18 ZIMBABWE 45.6 14
19 CAMEROON 43.6 8
20 MONTENEGRO 38.0 6


125 UK 0.0 31
126 NETHERLANDS 0.0 17
127 UAE 0.0 3
128 AUSTRALIA 0.0 12
129 AZERBAIJAN 0.0 5
130 BURKINA FASO 0.0 5
131 CAR 0.0 3
132 CANADA 0.0 24
133 COLOMBIA 0.0 16
134 DENMARK 0.0 17
135 ECUADOR 0.0 9
136 GREECE 0.0 21
137 IRELAND 0.0 10
138 ISRAEL 0.0 15
139 JAMAICA 0.0 9
140 JAPAN 0.0 47
141 LATVIA 0.0 5
142 NORWAY 0.0 12
143 OMAN 0.0 5
144 PANAMA 0.0 8
145 SWEDEN 0.0 19
146 TURKEY 0.0 25

One notes from these results, at least, what I noted in green. That in the top twenty offending nations, fourteen are African; in the bottom twenty-one, just two are African. The authors of this study - and yours truly - take this to imply that, relative to most East Asian and European cultures, African cultures are notably corrupt. One might think this for at least the following reason. Given the 192 UN countries, the fact that Africa has 53 nations represented would suggest that, if cultural corruption were distributed equally around the globe, African countries would account for slightly more than 25% of the observed corruption. But, in fact, according to this study, African countries account for more than 70% (or at least, they constitute 70% of the most corrupt countries) of the corruption in this bracket, and less than 10% of those nations with zero observed corruption. **

The point being, there is something corrupt in African cultures that is not corrupt in other cultures, and further that it is more likely that Africans will behave corruptly than it is that many non-Africans will behave corruptly. Such an observation, naturally, has numerous policy implications - where foreign aid might most effectively be directed, for instance - even though there are probably numerous ways to read the data (I've no special acuity with sociological data gathering).

So, first thing, how interesting is that? Second thing, how racist is it, if it is at all? Is it racist to conclude that African nations are culturally corrupt in a way that many non-African nations appear not to be? Or, is the more racist thing yet to think that it might be racist to say that data suggestive of a culture of corruption might be invalidated, simply because its findings correlate with otherwise racist attitudes?

A sticky set of questions, indeed.

**Addendum (added 2o April, 10PM)
Here's another reason - or really, the idea behind the study's conclusion. We know from the International Corruption Index (ICI) that some countries are more corrupt than other countries. There is, however, an open question about what is the relationship between culture and legal enforcement mechanisms in producing corruption. Are non-corrupt countries so simply because they have adequate measures of enforcement? Are corrupt countries so because they exhibit a cultural preference? This study provides an experiment that eliminates the legal enforcement disincentive for corruption. So, if the reason why non-corrupt countries were so was that they had adequate enforcement mechanisms, one would expect their members to behave in the non-enforcement context of diplomatic immunity just as corruptly as members of those countries that lack adequate enforcement as a matter of course. What this study shows is that this is not the case. In the non-enforcement context, countries that scored low the ICI continued to respect the law, in the absence of a legal disincentive for breaking it. What this suggests, then, is that in countries that have high scores on the ICI, those countries are corrupt not because they are inadequate enforcers, but because they express a cultural preference for corruption.

Or as the authors write in the paper's abstract:
Diplomatic immunity means there was essentially zero legal enforcement of diplomatic parking violations, allowing us to examine the role of cultural norms alone. This generates a revealed preference measure of corruption based on real-world behavior for government officials all acting in the same setting. We find tremendous persistence in corruption norms: diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why We Suck - Vol. 459

With the advent of Opening Day in Major League Baseball, I read a great, great piece in Slate this week, excerpted from a Mister Bill James's new book Solid Fool's Gold. That's Bill James of Moneyball and "Baseball Prospectus" fame; the man who popularized the science of baseball statistics, and who revealed the vital impact that near-ignored standards of performance had on success in America's great summer pastime. (Incidentally, if you haven't read Michael Lewis's account of Bill James and the revolution that his discovery effected on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, you could do much, much worse.)

In the excerpt, James gives a pretty compelling account of just why our country has so perfected - and, ahem, imperially implemented - the science of athletic cultivation and recruitment while simultaneously neglecting what would almost certainly prove an equivalently successful science of (say) literary cultivation and recruitment. And he's no pessimist. He argues that there are valuable lessons to learn from our success in the field of athletics that could be equally well-applied to any field in which we presently perceive a dearth of successful participants. And it is an analysis not dissimilar from the one I gestured at a few posts ago when I discussed the constant (relative to other genres) level of excellence of classical music.

Anyway, I'll leave James to make his own points, but it's worth wondering just what sort of background conditions are necessary in order for us to start, say, nationally valuing some activity as we have football or basketball. For if James thinks that sports utilizes a process that's generalizable to other areas of human activity, why are sports one of so few human activities to utilize it - and perhaps more importantly, what we would have to do to shift those conditions to another activity entirely?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Anything-but-Silent Scream

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (pictured above with his lovely daughter - the one clutching "Religious Cult Abby" of American Girl Dolls fame - and son - the one barely disguising his disappointment after yet another unsuccessful Harry Potter audition) has made some pretty persuasive arguments in his public career. None as persuasive (well, maybe this one) though, as this week's gem, in which he claims that a 'culture of abortion' is responsible for income shortfalls in Medicare and Social Security.

His argument goes something like this - stop me if you think it's too charitable. Part of the problem with the Social Security shortfall is that there aren't enough payers-in to cover the payers-out, so Social Security payouts have to rely on the 2.3 trillion dollar trust fund in order to cover the difference. A long-term version of this problem will eventually exhaust the trust fund, leading either to increased pay-ins (taxes) or reduced payouts (benefits). On Santorum's argument, the legalization of abortion in the U.S. has disrupted demographic trends in such a way that, had abortion remained illegal, there would presently be enough (or, somewhere nearer enough) payers-in to cover the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. Now, since 1973, over 45 million fetuses have been aborted legally in the US. Suppose conservatively (or, liberally, I don't know) that making abortions illegal would've bought, say, 30 million (plus their children...) tax payers out of the woodwork - and no other costs. Then, presumably, there'd be enough payers-in to cover the payers-out, since the number of payers-out is (theoretically) fixed. And if we can cover the shortfall of payers-in, Social Security is saved.

Okay, Senator, not bad. Given the value of Social Security and Medicare (assumed by a Republican?!), the fact that any event that makes it less likely that those programs will persist is a prima facie reason in favor of illegalizing or protecting against that event. Legalized abortion is such an event, and now we've got on our hands a prima facie reason to illegalize abortion. Santorum FTW!

But, naturally, this argument is stupid - at least for those with ideological commitments like Santorum's. The argument doesn't work without the assumption that damage to Social Security generates a prima facie reason against some event, or in favor of eliminating it. But then, imagine any event that reduces the number of payers-in to Social Security, and you've got a prima facie reason against it or in favor of eliminating it. Disability from manual labor? Unemployment? Retirement? Death? The decision to have fewer than two children? All of these events reduce the number of payers-in to Social Security, and so, on Santorum's view, there's at least one prima facie reason each in favor of ending these events. But, Republicans aren't in favor of reducing unemployment or monitoring workplaces in order to reduce disability, and they'll never get Democrats to go along with their "Two Pregnancy Minimum" bill. So, since the prima facie reasons against abortion doesn't generate a motivation to shift our position on (most of) these laws in order to 'save' Social Security, why would this reason against abortion motivate us more?

(Please, Senator, please: run for President.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

In the ignorant fervor over public support for National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I've been wondering what sorts of arguments could change the minds of conservatives. Indeed, this is a question that I've had with respect to many disputes between Democrats and Republicans - how do you convince someone who doesn't receive value from some public service that the public service is valuable, nonetheless?

And I then recalled this little clip that a friend showed me last year. In 1969, seven minutes of Fred Rogers' testimony before the United States Senate changed the mind of a least one prominent Republican, securing at least one year of funding for and establishing a public belief in the value of public broadcasting. The video, really, is quite moving. The key, though, is that at its heart, the defense Rogers' explicates just how something could be valuable, even though no one who would vote for its funding would ever benefit personally from it.

If we have any conservative readers, I'd be interested in your reactions especially.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

GIve me your tired, ____, your huddled masses

First things first. I read the entirety of Emma Lazarus's sonnet, "The New Colossus," tattooed on the Statue of Liberty, whose famed line ("Give me your tired . . .") was all that most of us, myself include, had ever read. Here's the whole thing.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden shore!"
For my part, I don't deny having found myself a little teary-eyed, reading it aloud.

Anyway, I want to mention a quick thought about income inequality, which, as the NYT notes, is growing to near-Great Depression levels, in spite of a striking dearth public concern for that inequality. My question, though, is just what would we have to give up to do something substantive about it? Sure, there are many things that count as 'substantive,' but if we wanted to look at the current budget, what's an avenue that would pretty efficaciously start to close that gap?

In 2009, the United States spent $717 billion on the national defense, while the People's Republic of China, our nearest runner-up, spent $70.3 billion. Suppose the US cut $300 billion from the defense budget, allowing it to grow subsequently in whatever ways Congress would have it, and suppose the US reapportioned that $300 billion annually to endow households with (say) $100,000 interest-earning savings funds. First, we would nonetheless fivefold outspend our 'rivals' on defense. Second, since there are just over 100 million households in the US, endowing every single one of them with such a savings account would take just over a generation, 30-35 years.

Think it sounds crazy? Try third: in Norway, its national Government Pension Fund has saved nearly all of the oil wealth extracted from Norway's North Sea oil wells to produce savings of $89,000 not per household, but per man, woman, and child. And given Norway's low birthrate, and the projected 60% gains in that fund over the next three years, the individual savings amount will increase to $142,000. All of this? It took Norway just forty-five years. The college graduates at the start of the savings are now, today, benefiting.

Talk like that tends to put the talk of the 'profit motive' into perspective, doesn't it?