July 2013 Archives

There but for the Grace of God....

     Adam Smith was a moral philosopher who is more remembered for his having written the Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. Although Smith's allusion to the phrase "invisible hand" has subsequently been distorted by opponents of government regulation of the economy in the United States as a paean to the virtues of selfishness, it is important to remember the time and the context in which Smith lived. Smith wrote as a early participant and contributor to the evolution of liberal democratic political theory in the United Kingdom.


    As an academic and a keen observer of the newly emerging market economy, Smith opposed mercantalism and he chafed at the heavy hand that the ruling British aristocracy, whose wealth was based upon ownership of land, continued to exercise in political and economic affairs. However, as one steeped in tradition of communitarianism, were he alive today, Smith would not know what to make of the likes of Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul and the others who apotheosize the marketplace and deny the right of government, as an agent of the public interest, to restrain the excesses of unbridled capitalism.      

    In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith described what we today would call empathy: "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation."

    In past century, the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg have contributed to our understanding of the importance of empathy. Based upon Piaget's modeling, Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development that identified six stages of moral reasoning through which each of us, as a result of discussion and dialogue with one another after consideration of a variety of moral dilemmas, and subsequent reflection, is able to progress.  

    For Kohlberg, the pre-conventional level of moral reasoning is most common in children, although his studies documented that many adults fail to progress beyond this level of reasoning in which the morality of any particular action is judged by its direct consequences, "Don't do X because you will be punished." Kohlberg's writings and studies conducted by adherents to his school of psychology have also documented that a substantial number of adults have not evolved in their moral reasoning beyond Stage 2, which is epitomized by pure ego-driven, self-interest, "What's in it for me?"
     Kohlberg contended that as adults progressed beyond an under-standing of morality rooted in preoccupation with the satisfaction of one's own needs, adults begin to comprehend broader principles based upon an understanding of the importance of reciprocity and our mutual obligations to one another.

     At Stage Five, Kohlberg argued, "Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, right action is a matter of personal values and opinions. The result is an emphasis upon the 'legal point of view,' but with an additional emphasis upon the possibility of changing the law in terms of rational considerations of social utility (rather than freezing it in terms of stage 4 'law and order'). Outside the legal realm, free agreement, and contract, is the binding element of obligation. The "official" morality of the American government and Constitution is at this stage."

    Finally, at Stage Six, Kant's categorical imperative becomes the overriding, operative principle. As Kohlberg defined that stage, "Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles that appeal to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity, and equality of the human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons. It is also at this stage that the full implications of empathy, as human quality, manifest themselves." 

    Adam Smith's recognition of the importance of empathy and Kohlberg's subsequent contributions to our understanding of moral reasoning provide valuable insights that elucidate much of what's wrong with what passes for discussions about American politics and economics today.  Hope Yen, in  article distributed by the Associated Press today (" Data show widening future struggle for Americans, 4 out of 5 have had problems"), reports that "four out of five US adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty, or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream."

     Yen traces the cause of this phenomenon to "an increasingly globalized economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs are the reasons for the trend, according to a recent Associated Press survey and other economic reports."

    Yen's article chronicles economic hardship that has risen among whites and their increasing pessimism "about their families' economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987. In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy 'poor.'" She quotes one Irene Salyers,age  52,''I think it's going to get worse."' Ms. Salyers is described as a resident of Buchanan County, Va., located in a declining coal region in Appalachia. Married and divorced three times, Yen reports that Ms. Salyers currently helps to run a fruit and vegetable stand with her current boyfriend, but, because the business doesn't generate much income, they live mostly off of government disability checks.

    Ms. Yen also quotes William Julius Wilson, of Harvard University, "It's time that America comes to understand that many of the nation's biggest disparities . . . are increasingly due to economic class position."

    Professor Wilson's concern is echoed by Paul Krugman in today's edition of The New York Times. In an op ed column entitled "Stranded by Sprawl," Krugman notes that " Detroit is a symbol of the old economy's decline. It's not just the derelict center; the metropolitan area as a whole lost population between 2000 and 2010, the worst performance among major cities. Atlanta, by contrast, epitomizes the rise of the Sun Belt; it gained more than a million people over the same period, roughly matching the performance of Dallas and Houston without the extra boost from oil" but that "in one important respect booming Atlanta looks just like Detroit gone bust: both are places where the American dream seems to be dying, where the children of the poor have great difficulty climbing the economic ladder. In fact, upward social mobility - the extent to which children manage to achieve a higher socioeconomic status than their parents - is even lower in Atlanta than it is in Detroit."

    Krugman observes that "Sprawl may be killing Horatio Alger," and he describes a new study from the Equality of Opportunity Project that confirms previous studies of social mobility -  "all such studies find that these days America, which still thinks of itself as the land of opportunity, actually has more of an inherited class system than other advanced nations."

    The existence and tolerance of widespread, increasing misery and rising economic inequality throughout the United States has been propelled by the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the loss of trillions of dollars of investments by Americans during the accompanying stock market meltdown, the housing foreclosure crisis, pervasive unemployment and underemployment among minorities, young men and women, and adults between the ages of 45 and 65 who have now been become "road kill." The existence of these phenomena must be viewed as profound moral issues that cry out for redress.

    How, other than as a most virulent form of cultural sociopathy - as an utter lack of empathy - can one explain the cruel, insensitive, counter-productive political, social and economic policies that are now insanely peddled by the GOP and its supporters as antidotes to what they characterize as moral rot and a lack of personal initiative by those who have been disadvantaged by economic circumstances largely beyond their control? 

     But what about the rest of us? How does one explain our insouciance in the face of so much suffering? Aren't our fates and those of our children inextricably linked to the fates of the millions of our neighbors now mired in economic hardship and despair? Isn't our failure to collecively demand a response by our government that is proportionate to the magnitude of the problems evidence that we, too, lack the moral fiber necessary to define ourselves as moral agents who are commited to social justice?    

    Portia's entreaty in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is well worth pondering for those who are uncertain whether empathy and its next of kin - mercy - are affectations or essential traits that define and reward us as fully developed, moral beings: 

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

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What's The Matter With Texas?

    In 2004, historian Thomas Franks chronicled the plight of his home state of Kansas. Formerly a moderate Republican state, Franks lamented the fact that so many residents had, over the course of the prior two decades, embraced an extremist, evangelical-tinged GOP agenda that emphasized opposition to  abortion rights, gay rights and government regulation of business while, at the same time, ignoring issues such as poverty and growing economic inequality. Franks concluded that, because many Kansans suffered from "false  consciousness," they were too often persuaded to vote against their own best economic interests.

    Even casual observers of current American politics understand that Kansas is not unique among the red states now dominated by the GOP. Consider the example of Texas. The Texas Medical Association reports that, among the 15,001,700 residents, 4,886,100 or 33% of the state's population lack basic medical insurance. Texas thus earns the dubious distinction of being first in the country on the misery index. In addition, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Texans living in poverty rose for a third consecutive year in 2011, adding more than 214,000 people to total 4.6 million or 18.5 per cent of the population, which was 3 percent higher than the nation as a whole.

    Why have these problems continued to fester? The explanation is at least three-fold. Texas has the second lowest number of adults who have earned a high school diploma, or roughly 80%. Texas is a right-to-work state in which it is virtually impossible for employees to unionize and to bargain collectively. Finally, most of the jobs created in Texas over the past decades have been low wage jobs such as call centers. On this last point, state law makers, kowtowing to specious concerns raised by the business lobby, have consistently refused to increase the state's minimum wage above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.   

    To counter the plethora of well-documented social and economic problems, the Texas legislature - overwhelmingly dominated by the GOP - and its intellectually-challenged governor have opted for a mean-spirited, legislative agenda that defies logic and is impossible to reconcile with the state's apotheosis of rugged individualism. That agenda, which strikes a responsive chord among those Texans who describe themselves a church-going, pro-life conservatives, decries government regulation of the economy, but simultaneously sanctions a state-sponsored invasion of the bedrooms of Texans and the wombs of its women. Oblivious to these contractions, Texas also leads all governmental units in the Western world in the number of prisoners it has executed, having put to death more than 500 people since 1976. 

       Perhaps, in part the schizophrenia of Texas politics is explained by its founding mythology. Davie Crockett, Stephen Austin and "remember the Alamo" still echo across the land. A few years ago, Dwight Hobbes in an opinion piece reminded us ("Debunking the myth of the Alamo," Insight News, March 02, 2008), that "Hollywood and schoolbooks put forth the propaganda that a brave band of freedom fighters stood their ground against the oppression of a ruthless tyrant; that Texas basically was rescued from Mexico."

    As Hobbes correctly observed, "Mexico owned Texas, plain and simple. For those of you in the slow section, that means Texas was Mexican land. The Texans living there were colonists who'd agreed to a contract with Mexico. And then they decided they didn't have to live up to their end of the deal; that they could just decide the land was theirs. These so-called revolutionaries were at odds with Mexico over the 'right' to steal Mexican territory (and, by the way, wanted to keep slavery, which Mexico's president Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had abolished). The only ones who could legitimately call themselves revolutionaries were Mexicans who lived in Texas and wanted to separate from Mexico - and about whom you seldom hear a word when it comes to remembering those who lost their lives at The Alamo." 

    Hobbes concluded that "By the time Texas became a state nine years later, it'd been appropriated and overrun by white folk who had no business being there in the first place. Just like every other square inch of space in America."

          Are Texans, because they have failed to come to grips with the lessons of their own history, as Santayana warned, forever condemned to relive it?  The narrative that describes the founding of Texas, much like that of the United States, has been largely built upon a facade of pieties and untruths. Sonorous platitudes about liberty and casting off the yoke of tyranny and oppression mask a long history of slave-holding, genocide against the Native Americans, and reckless selfishness, plundering, and lawlessness.

    Perhaps it was the British wit and writer, George Bernard Shaw, who, admittedly with a bit of sarcasm and overstatement, punctured that the cherished myths that Texans and so many other Americans believe reflect the values that we stand for. In 1921, Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor of The Nation magazine wrote Shaw a letter:

 "My Dear Mr. Shaw:

    "I understand a number of friends are wring to you and urging you to come to the United States. May I say how gratified we of The Nation would be should you come to us?"

George Bernard Shaw replied:

  "Dear Mr. Villard:

     "This conspiracy as been going on for years; but in vain is the  net spread in sight of the birds. I have no intention of going to prison with Debs or taking my wife to Texas, where the Ku Klux Klan snatches white women out of hotel verandas and tar and feathers them. If I were dependent upon martyrdom for a reputation, which happily I am not, I could go to Ireland. It is a less dangerous place; but then the voyage is shorter and much cheaper.
    " You are right in your impression that a number of persons are urging me to come to the United States. But why on earth do you call them my friends?"           
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When Do Governments Lose Legitimacy?

    The verdict concerning Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government is almost unanimous. The pundits, talking heads and the political class, by and large, agree that Morsi's administration, because it failed to be inclusive, and increasingly pandered to the Islamist agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, had lost its legitimacy.

    The conventional wisdom, exemplified by David Brooks of The New York Times in his July 5th column, argues the coup d'etat was necessary because the trappings of a democratic government - the process by which Morsi was elected - should not be confused with the substance of a democracy.  As Youssef Fahr put it in a letter to The Times on July 6th, "Egyptians do not accept that the outer trappings of democracy (the vote count) are a substitute for the essence of democracy: consensus, inclusion, compromise and respect."  


    Although the chattering class may now insist that President Morsi's administration lacked the substance of democracy, few can deny that he was legitimately elected by a  majority of the Egyptians who voted. The Egyptian election commission reportedthat Morsi won the run-off election in June of 2012 with 51.7 percent of the vote versus 48.3 for Shafiq with a voting turnout of 51 percent. Foreign observers described the election process for fair and open and saw no evidence of widespread voter intimidation or suppression.

    Compare that result with the current voting system of the United States. In the recent Supreme  Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), Chief  Justice Roberts, writing on behalf of his one vote majority, struck down § 5 of the Voting Rights Act that the Congress of the United States had repeatedly re-authorized since 1965, most recently in 2006 by an overwhelming majority of elected representatives and senators. To do so, he conjured up a heretofore undiscovered and non-existent legal fiction that he called "equal sovereignty."

    The effect of that remarkable fiction is to deny that voting is a fundamental right and that the substantive provisions of Article VI of the Constitution (the Supremacy Clause), the unenumerated rights provision of the Ninth Amendment, the due process and equal protection provisions of Fourteenth Amendment, and the guarantees contained in the Fifteenth Amendment against voting abridgement because of race do not preempt the rights of the individual states to regulate the machinery of election and to determine the qualifications of voters.

     As Robert's solemnly intoned, without a shred of supporting historic evidence,  "the Framers of the Constitutions intended the States to keep for themselves, as provided in the Tenth Amendment, the power to regulate elections," quoting Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U.S. 452, 461-462 (1991) and Sugarman v. Dougall, 413 U.S.  634, 647 (1974). Since none of this jurisprudence predates the Berger Court and the Nixon administration, one must assume that Roberts and his four colleagues decided to abandon the doctrine of "original intent" in order to reach their pre-determined conclusion.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin ...

     Roberts' assault upon "the trappings of democracy" must be viewed in the context of Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). In that infamous case,Justices Kennedy, Scalia, O'Connor, Thomas and Rehnquist, in a per curiam decision, voted to steal the 2000 presidential election and award it to George Bush. At the same time, the five justices denied equal protection of the laws to the citizens of the state of Florida and trammeled upon their rights to have every vote counted and to count.    

    Within two hours of  the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund reported that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that a voter identification law, which had previously been rejected by a federal court as the most discriminatory measure of its kind in the country, would "immediately" go into effect. "With today's decision, the state's voter ID law will take effect immediately," he said in a statement. "Redistricting maps many also take effect without approval from the federal government."  

    In North  Carolina, the lead sponsor of a proposed voter ID law in North Carolina said he would move ahead with the measure as a result of the ruling. At the same time, State Senator Tom Apodaca said he would move quickly to pass a voter ID law that he argued would bolster the integrity of the balloting process. Other state legislators in North Carolina also began talking about legislation to end to the state's early voting, Sunday voting, and same-day registration provisions.

    Nate Reeves, the Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi, claimed that pre-clearance requirements of § 5 of the Voting Rights Act  "unfairly applied to certain states and should be eliminated in recognition of the progress Mississippi has made over the past 48 years" while Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said he is moving forward immediately to implement Mississippi's voter ID law for primaries in June 2014.  

      Before the substance of a democracy can realized, the rights of all citizens to express their will through the ballot box, free from coercion and intimidation, the ability to determine the will of the voters, and obligation of the elected government to be responsive to the wishes of its citizens as expressed through the ballot box are essential prerequisites. But unless open and fair elections are the norm, in which all citizens are encouraged to vote and the right of every citizen to vote is ensured - unless the "trappings of democracy" exist in which voting is viewed as a fundamental right - these three essential prerequisites can never be satisfied.   

       The existing evidence suggests that the democratic process - "the trappings of democracy" - do not exist in the United States because the prerequisites have yet to be satisfied. But what about the "substance of democracy?" To rephrase Youssef Fahr's statement as a question,  "If Americans show little concern about 'the trappings of democracy,' do they not still insist upon the essence of democracy: consensus, inclusion, compromise and respect?" The answer to that question also appears to be an emphatic "No," or at very least, an indifferent yawn.

    In a democracy, the foremost obligation of a government is the duty to promote the public interest, subject to a recognition that the rights of dissenters and minorities must be protected. But those protections are never - and can never be - absolute since rights, in order to have meaning, require recognition and reciprocity and only have meaning within the context of a political community in which all citizens are stakeholders and participants. In addition, the  exercise of any right carries with it a reciprocal obligation in which each citizen acknowledges that he or she is a part of that broader political community and has a duty to respectfully engage in the civic discourse.   

     In the United States, a constitutional system of checks and balances, divided government, a gerrymandered House of Representatives, a profoundly dysfunctional, mal-apportioned and unrepresentative Senate, the presence of 14,826 registered lobbyists as of 2007, and the dispersal of political power among more than 87,525 units of local government across the United States guarantee unresponsive, unaccountable and opaque government.

      The existence of so many competing and overlapping spheres of political power creates a kind of modern-day feudalism which ensures that the influence of a few powerful and connected interests, usually monied, will be carefully considered and acknowledged while the ability of ordinary citizens to influence those political entities is negligible.

    The diffusion and distribution of power within the political system of the United States - which reflected the fears that the Founders shared with the English philosopher, John Locke, about the dangers of concentrated power - has today resulted in something profoundly different than what they anticipated.

    Historically, the liberal consensus emerged in England as a democratic force to challenge feudal privilege and the tyranny of kings. But in the United States, where all who have been born are held to be equal before the law and where the Constitution expressly prohibits the granting of any titles of nobility, our politics has created its own antithesis: rule by oligarchs and corporate plutocrats in which the rights of the some individuals are accorded greater protection than the rights of others.
    If Mohammed Morsi's government was illegitimate because it did not commit itself to the substance of democracy, how much the worse are we with a system of government that denies to its citizens both the process of democracy - the trappings - as well as the substance?

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