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?”