Russophobia or Measured Opposition?

Stephen Cohen and IR legend, John Mearsheimer recently did a fascinating Vice video purporting to debunk and challenge purportedly widespread opposition to Russia and Russian interference. I wanted to add my thoughts and respond to their arguments. While the premise of the video is purposefully inflammatory and cheeky (granted as Josh Zakharov put it, “Mearsheimer has made a career out of being spicy,”) their arguments are reasonable and sound—they merit debating. Despite the fact that Mearsheimer and Cohen are right on their broad foreign policy points, they fundamentally misunderstand and mischaracterize the domestic opposition to Russia in the status quo.

 

Mearsheimer & Cohen’s Argument

1) Critical Assumption: Russian foreign policy is best understood through the lens of offensive realism (more or less). Consequently, states seek to dominate and attain regional hegemony in order to ensure security. Thus, so-called Russian “aggression” in Crimea is actually driven by a sympathetic self-preservation. If Russia formed an alliance with or annexed Mexico and Canada, we would be threatened and we would expect the President to respond aggressively to those threats. In my opinion, a better example is the clear historical parallel to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviets (*cough* Russians) park missiles right next to us. We were, and would be scared—and reasonably so. Thus, the United States’ and EU’s attempts to court Ukraine and integrate it into the West was seen as really threatening.

3) Prevailing view in 2010: integrating Ukraine (militarily, diplomatically, ideationally, and economically) into the West is a major foreign policy goal of the United States and its Western Allies—through EU, via the Associative Agreement, and through NATO…you render Russia a weak regional actor. It may have ‘weakened’ Russia but it emboldened it. Weak regional actors lose out on the world stage and that comes with political consequences at home. Narrative of Putin defending Russia against the threatening West and United States is very good for maintaining the political support needed for a quasi-authoritarian/super-presidential regime.

4) The annex of Crimea secure Sevastopol and naval access to the Black Sea (plus affirms and plays into the narrative that Crimea was essentially Russian…plus ethnic Russians angry at the Kievan government which has been antagonistic to them, their language and their heritage will be open to Russian control/annexation). Moreover, Russian funded insurgency in the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) provides a new buffer between the West and Russia and weakens the Ukrainian state. Also, support for the Maidan is seen as destabilizing and threatening to Russia’s internal order, promoting dissent and political chaos. It certainly threatens the prevailing regime in Russia.

The argument hinges on how you understand and perceive Russia, on which narrative you subscribe to. Is Russia a) a threatened and vulnerable state that feels perpetually threatened by the West, the encroachment of NATO (bringing in the Baltic states, threatening sovereignty and Article 2(4) in Bosnia/Kosovo) or   b) a revanchist power trying to reclaim its imperial status that is inherently aggressive and expansionist?


Initial Perspective:

I honestly agree with and will grant Cohen and Mearsheimer their view of Russia (that of (a) above, because its fits the empirical reality more closely.

  • Russia has remained deeply suspicious of NATO. Moscow has always viewed NATO expansion as a step against Russia and a betrayal of the terms of the end of the cold war. Putin literally says exactly this in a speech to the Russian Foreign Service Corps.

    NATO made specific membership commitment to Georgia and Ukraine and worked with them to devise a path to membership and the Russian-Georgian War heightened this suspicion.

  • Russia’s believes that U.S. promotion of democracy and liberal values in post-Soviet states is a deliberate strategy to undermine the Russian Federation’s political structure.

The Euromaidan and “Color Revolutions” are seen as an existential threats, not just to themselves but also to the nations that border them. However, the Russian foreign policy establishment believes that “no major power walks alone.” In the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war, Russia declared its neighboring states a zone of Russia’s privileged interests. It sees these surrounding states as potential regional allies, quasi-imperial subjects, but most importantly, critical to Russia’s security.

  • Putin announced to the Foreign Ministry personnel in July 2014 that “the events in Ukraine are the concentrated expression of the policy of containing Russia.”

    Eurasian integration was intended to provide Russia with an added measure of security against perceived Western encroachment, as well as a political move to enhance Russia’s standing. Ukraine was the most important target of the integration policy. Finally, a publicized telephone call between two U.S. officials during that time period, evaluating potential composition of Ukrainian government, fueled Russian suspicions and confirmed this world view.

Further Responses

Even if we grant Cohen and Mearsheimer their basic premise, their understanding of Russia as a state and Putin as a leader, questions remain. First, as the interviewer brought up, there is a moral dimension. Shouldn’t it be the people of Ukraine who decide whether they align with Russia or with the West.

  • Possible rebuttal: that doesn’t remove responsibility from the U.S. or the EU for making the offer in the first place.

  • Rebuttal offered by Cohen and Mearsheimer in video: international political decisions are made by world leaders acting in the interest of the survival of their states, it is not made by the whim of the people, nor should it be.

Except, foreign policy (specifically in the case of the Ukraine Crisis) was made by the people, directly contradicting this claim. Ukrainian politicians were playing (or were at least subject to) a two-level game.When Yanukovych decided to align with Russia and accept their economic package (and reject the AA and DCFTA after indicating that he would accept them), the protests that ejected him from office and ultimately elevated Poroshenko decided Ukraine’s foreign policy. An act which triggered the invasion of Crimea.

  • Another rebuttal (presumably from Mearsheimer): Morality has no place in politics or foreign policy.

Then don’t be so moralizing. Your essential point is that the US made a poor strategic decision and Russia made a reasonable strategic response that the foreign policy establishment should have predicted. But the opposition to Russia is primarily moral. They would probably agree with your fundamental that power and interests drive politics, they would disagree with you as to whether we should take that lying down.

In other words, your descriptive claim is sound, your philosophical one is wanting.

One can also agree that the U.S. is responsible (at least, strategically) for Ukraine and the result of bad foreign policy decision-making…and still bear animus towards Russia (but not necessarily have that be directly reflected in their foreign policy.

  • Rebuttal: but opposition is so wrapped up in claims of interference and the encroachment of an expansionist power! This is dangerous and needs to be stopped.

This is probably only true for a select few members of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment. Maybe this is your audience, but it paints a disingenuous vision of opposition to Russia. Plus this is an interview with Vice, you really think the people who really disagree with you are watching Vice News every night?

The whole point of this piece and what justifies your appearance is your claim that Russophobia is rampant amongst the people and that this belief could be weaponized to justify strategically unwise conflict against the Russian Federation. Wait a second! I thought the people don’t make foreign policy! Which is it now… You’re (presumably) adopting a systems-level theory of politics to understand international relations and grand strategy, but your participation in this piece and concern for the state of public opinion verges on endorsing a liberal conception of international relations. After all, you (Mearsheimer) did do a similar thing, in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

  • Further rebuttal: though Realism adopts a billiard-ball/black box view of the state in the interests of theoretical parsimony, the notion of ‘domestic politics’ mattering is not in conflict or at odds with fundamental realist premises.

Then why endorse it in one case and not the other?! Decrying the very suggestion that peoples and populations have influence over foreign policy decision making in the first instance and implicitly endorsing it in the second instance is contradictory. At the very least it deserves expanding upon.

  • Further further rebuttal: the type of domestic structure matters. The U.S.’s political system functions dramatically different than the “Pluralism-by-Default” of Ukraine.

See the analysis of the domestic origins of the Ukraine crisis above. (Also, Cohen & Mearsheimer are certainly not making this argument…)

At the end of the day, your understanding of domestic opposition to Russia and Russian interference seems misguided. In my experience, many people may be very passionate about the issue of electoral interference but that passion rarely translates into an endorsement of an aggressive foreign policy abroad. Indeed, many of these #resistors were profoundly shaped by or came of political age during the Iraq War and remain fundamentally opposed to an assertive U.S Foreign Policy. Moreover, there are a plethora of reasons to be principally opposed to Russia without endorsing, say, regime change or war.

You can be angry about 1) Russian electoral interference (strategically, ambivalence and inaction corrodes the fundamental norms of our democracy) 2) General opposition to authoritarianism and injustice 3) Repression of LGBTQ+ peoples and other marginalized communities 4) murdering political opponents and 5) jailing and silencing journalists. 5) enshrining domestic violence as a “cultural tradition.” These are all very valid reasons for being less than happy with Russia and Putin’s regime that are completely separate from Russian foreign policy as traditionally understood.

 

I don’t know who the nominee is but I (probably) oppose them

Update: The nominee has been announced and it is big boy Brett Kavanaugh. And would you just look at that!  I was correct, I don’t support him!


There is a very silly TPUSA video going around decrying liberals for opposing Trump’s pick for nominee (even though they haven’t been nominated yet). In all honestly, the video does not really merit a response, so I have declined to link it here—though it does showcase how modern conservatism has become unmoored from any particular principles other than cultural anguish, resentment of liberals, and ardent nationalism—conservatism redefined as “owning-the-libs.” But, what really struck me about their line of questioning, other than the self-righteousness with which they approached it, was how foolish their argument was. Do I really need to know who exactly the nominee will be, to have an opinion about them, if I know that more likely than not, they will not share my political or philosophical priorities?

To start out with, I do not agree with the Senate Republican leadership or the President on a whole bunch of things. We have divergent visions for America, different notions of what the country is or what it ought to be. We have different conceptions of what is right and wrong, and radically different policy positions. It should not come as a surprise that we have different jurisprudential priorities as well, since they are, in part, informed by my political priorities. But wait! Isn’t the Supreme Court supposed to be nonpartisan, the process of nomination and confirmation devoid of the corrupting influence of politics? How dare I sully the vaunted Supreme Court with talk of interests and differing philosophies!

First and foremost, if the Supreme Court nomination process were really insulated from politics, in the status quo, Merrick Garland would be on the bench or Trump would not nominate a justice in an election year. McConnell wants staunch conservative on the bench to deliver on conservative priorities, I do not.

Also, moral and philosophical beliefs cannot be separated from the interpretation of the law. We often like imagine the law romantically, as this objective, easily accessible and understandable body of knowledge and rules, about which there is no disagreement. But this is a faulty conception of law. Ronald Dworkin pointed this out in his magnum opus Law’s Empire, explaining that not only do lawyers, legal scholars, and judges disagree about how to interpret the language of, say, a statute, but they also have deep, substantive disagreements about legal philosophy or legal pragmatics which informs their jurisprudence. Indeed, judges disagree about a whole plethora of issues such as:

1) Fundamental questions about legal philosophy, the nature of law, and what “law” (as a concept) is.

2) When should precedent be upheld? When should it be abrogated

3) How to interpret the language of a law.

4) How to resolve ambiguities when the interpretation of a law is unclear and the issue could be reasonably settled in one direction or another.

5) What the empirical facts or particularities of a case are…

6) Which laws are applicable at a given moment? What do you do when it is unclear how to apply the law to the case? How do you adapt older laws to changing circumstances?

So, Trump, McConnell and I disagree about what jurisprudence should look like because we have different answers to many of those questions and different political priorities. We have differing opinions on fundamental philosophical questions, pragmatic legal issues, and policy issues (it is worth noting that there is an added dimension to this because the empirical beliefs that inform different policy conclusions may cause a judge to rule differently in a given case).

This is a ridiculous point to drone on upon, because we also know who is on the short-list. Unless you’re a Susan Collins-esque voter, for whom there is an actual difference between, say,  Kavanaugh and Hardiman, you can make up your mind already. But, even if we didn’t have the short-list, even if we were left completely in the dark, I would still oppose the nomination. Because, very simply, Trump and the Senate GOP will chose a nominee who agrees with them and disagrees with me (on several grounds). Sure, I guess if they cloned RBG or Sotomayor and put them up for nomination I would support them, but we both know that’s not happening anytime soon.

 

 

Tl;dr: Trump and I disagree about politics and jurisprudence and his nominee will probably disagree with me as well. So stop being silly, TPUSA.

Norms in the Age of Trump: Civility, Family Separation and the Supreme Court

The Trump presidency (and campaign) has unleashed an assault on many of the norms that are central to American political life. Norms against literal dick-measuring contests during presidential elections, norms against electing candidates who brag about committing sexual assault, norms that stipulate that candidates release their tax returns, norms against inciting violence against protestors, and so on and so forth.

This has provoked backlash across the ideological spectrum. But some centrists, moderate democrats, and never-Trump conservatives, seem to be uniquely motivated by a concern with Trump’s disregard for the established norms of The Republic —rather than by a rejection of his policies (except insofar as his policies violate established public norms). Indeed, many of these critics, while ostensibly ‘liberal’, appear to be advancing a quintessentially conservative approach to politics: a Burkean insistence on the preservation of the political status quo (which, to be fair, is not necessarily very Burkean in and of itself) and an emphasis on a hyperreal-Sorkinesque notion of how politics “Should Be Done.”

These pundits, observers, and commentators have been awfully quick to unfairly equate Trump’s egregious violations of core democratic and moral norms with calls for nonviolent confrontation of Trump officials (a la Maxine Waters) and for democrats to play political hardball with the Supreme Court. These Very Serious People find the violation of these norms to be inherently appalling.

This is wrongheaded. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” isn’t a political philosophy or a sound strategy. While upholding certain core moral and political norms are imperative for the maintenance of any democratic system, other norms are tied to specific political dynamics—and consequently only properly function in a given set of social circumstances. Upholding these types of norms amidst changing or radically different circumstances is not noble, but foolish and ultimately counterproductive.

Certain violations of norms ought to be quickly repudiated with condemnation and public sanction.  It would have been inane, ridiculous and immoral to abandon the norm against sexual assault when Trump violated it. This line of questioning is relevant because the norms implicated in the debates surrounding Maxine Waters and the Supreme Court are wholly different from the norms against sexual assault in the way they function.

<> Some norms emerge as the crystallization or codification of prior deontological moral commitments or rules. Sexual assault is wrong independent of context. It emerges from prior values or social mores.

<> Other norms promote instrumentally beneficial or prosocial behavior. They are institutions which structure incentive systems or otherwise influence behavior to bring about desired ends. For example, the norm against writing policy without expert-input. Or liberal democratic norms that protect against democratic backsliding and authoritarianism (granted, political theorists are divided as to whether these norms flow from moral principles or are instrumentally beneficial). These norms usually promote behavior which is usually desirable independent of social context.

<>Finally, there are norms that promote instrumentally beneficial cooperative behavior in a certain circumstance or a certain context such as when there are collective action problems (n-person prisoner’s dilemmas, stag hunt games, etc). In the prisoner’s dilemma game, credible norm adherence can help a pareto efficient equilibrium obtain.

This taxonomy is, admittedly, reductive but ultimately illustrative of how, that norms differ in how they operate and how certain norms are reliant on the existence of certain circumstances to properly function. The central claim of this piece is that the norms invoked by the current political debate fall into the third category.

Certain norms are circumstance-dependent. In international treaty law, states can invoke the doctrine of clausula rebus sic stantibus[1], which allows states to terminate treaties if there is a fundamental change in the circumstances that constituted, “an essential basis of the consent of the parties to be bound by the treaty.”[2] Independent of whether you believe that international law is effective or relevant, international law was designed to enforce a system of informal and formal social agreements, making it an apt analog for the enforcement of domestic norms—in the domestic case, mechanisms to hold powerful public figures accountable are rare unless there is widespread social mobilization while, similarly, international law operates against the backdrop of a quasi-anarchic system in which enforcement rests sometimes solely on nations and leaders feeling normatively compelled to comply with international norms and rules. [3]

A core lesson about norm dynamics can be drawn from the way international law has been designed: things that don’t bend, break. Norms must be rigid enough in the short-term to ensure enforcement, but must be able to be flexible enough in long-term to remain effective amidst changing socio-political circumstances. The current outrage over Maxine Waters’ comments and suggestions that Democrats play dirty in the Senate fails to grasp the implication of this lesson. Circumstances, essential to the norm in question, have changed.

Undemocratic behavior or justified strategy. In the United States, many norms govern the legislative process, that, in general, promote win-win cooperative equilibria that make our democracy function better. In particular, norms that govern the selection of Supreme Court justices exist to preserve the legitimacy of the court by excising a degree of partisanship from the nomination process. If you dislike authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, this is generally a good thing. However, this desired outcome only obtains if both parties cooperate.

Adherence to this norm is, or rather was, sustained through electoral accountability and the threat of retaliation, setting an ultimately destructive precedent that will be used against you when you lose political power. In February 2016, Mitch McConnell decided that pursuing conservative objectives was more important than maintaining these principles, choosing to ignore President Obama’s nomination of  Merrick Garland. McConnell and his entourage of Senate Republicans justified their decision on the basis that 2016 an election year and that Obama was a lame-duck president. McConnell, in a stroke of political genius, used a 1992 speech made by Joe Biden, to appeal to an imaginary principle, the ‘Biden rule’ that stipulated that you cannot nominate a Supreme Court Justice in an election year. This, of course, is ridiculous given the historical frequency of  similar late-term Supreme Court nominations. But you’re fooling yourself if you ever believed that McConnell was earnestly committed to principle over politics. Massive demographic change threatened long-term Republican interests and an uncertain general election was beginning to take shape. Rather than concede to Garland and abandon conservative jurisprudential priorities for perhaps several decades, McConnell gambled on the election. And it paid off. While they had to dismantle Senate norms even further by triggering the ‘nuclear option’ on Supreme Court, Gorsuch’s elevation to the highest court on the land ultimately delivered exactly what McConnell had hoped it would.

With the recent resignation of Justice Kennedy, McConnell was granted a unique opportunity to establish conservative dominance over the court for the next couple of decades. Accordingly, McConnell has since announced his intention to confirm a nominee almost immediately in, you guessed it, an election year. In fact, the very fact that it is an election year, means that the President and the Senate Majority Leader can leverage the midterms to coax wishy-washy Republicans and vulnerable Democrats to vote to confirm Trump’s nominee lest they face the electoral consequences in November. McConnell played politics with the Court and won, big time.

Yet, Very Serious People, have urged Democrats to uphold the pretense of nonpartisan respectability in considering Trump’s presumptive nominee. They insist that Democrats uphold a norm in circumstances that no longer merit its adherence. Again, the purpose of this norm, is to ensure a cooperative equilibrium by making it electorally or politically costly to not cooperate. Unilaterally upholding the norm makes no sense for an individual actor as if they cooperated and their counterpart defected, they would lose the Court, as is happening in the status quo). To wit, the fundamental basis of consent in this case is mutual and reciprocal commitment.  A fundamental basis which has clearly changed. Republicans face a long-term political crisis and fear little backlash from feckless rule-worshipping Democrats. They have no need to fear retaliation (nothing to lose), every reason to take advantage of the situation given the changing political environment (and everything to gain). To boot, their electorate seems more interested in “trolling the libs” than caring about legislative norms.

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The norm against polluting the Supreme Court nomination process with partisan politics is as dead as the fake ‘Biden rule’ McConnell created in 2016 and killed this year. Democrats need to adopt a tit-for-tat strategy in order to re-establish it (or at least as to not get screwed as much as they are right now). Game theory wise, a tit-for-tat strategy is the best option as it is the most likely to generate long-run cooperative outcomes under conditions of strategic interaction—as Robert Axelrod’s 1984 magnum opus “Evolution of Cooperation” demonstrated. Democrats should not embrace a radical strategy of court-packing (eroding the legitimacy of the court would be bad for preventing authoritarianism and would have dire consequences in terms of adherence to the countless Supreme Court decisions that advance liberal priorities), but they should at least start playing real real dirty like their craftier Republican counterparts.

Incivility or Appropriate Response. Regarding those who cry “incivility!” at Maxine Waters, we see another case of norm-worship gone awry. The social norms that govern tolerance of differing ideas exist to promote the constructive discourse necessary for the existence of a pluralistic polity. Ideas and concepts have been crafted in a crucible of debate and contestation that are formed by social institutions like academia, civil society, and the media. Indeed, if we cannot willingly and freely engage with ideas and opinions that differ from our own, we cannot be certain in the rightness of our beliefs. This does not mean, however that there are no boundaries to legitimate debate.

The norms that govern discourse and how we ought to approach different opinions are premised on the existence of certain circumstances. They hold when participants in a dialogue engage with each other’s ideas in good faith, have a relatively equal ability to participate, advance reasonable positions, and refrain from denying personhood or dignity to others. In the latter case, such ideas and opinions that reject another individual’s standing to participate in a dialogue violate the very norms of discourse and free speech that would be extended to them. How can these norms encourage constructive dialogue if one perspective is inherently inimical to that dialogue?

If these conditions do not hold, it doesn’t mean that offending perspectives should be suppressed, for it might not be prudent to do so. It does mean, however that individuals should be able to reserve the right to not extend those norms of civility in those cases. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies has been butchered and misinterpreted throughout the recent brouhaha over free speech, but the argument he actually makes is quite insightful:

I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. (Note 4, Chapter 7)

Popper agrees with the major principles of international law in emphasizing the importance of the context to which a norm is tied. When those circumstances change, those perspectives are no longer entitled to the privileges of that norm but may be extended them anyway for instrumental reasons. In the case of Trump’s child separation policy (which prompted Waters call for non-violent confrontation), it is clear that the administration’s actions do not deserve our adherence to an ethic of tolerance. There has been a fundamental change in circumstances. The administration and its supporters were never interested in facilitating real dialogue. Policy, especially policy masterminded by Stephen Miller, is more reflective of a strong desire to “troll the libs,” that informed moral policymaking. Circumstances have changed. The social context is different—the injustice being perpetrated in the status quo is a supervening imperative.  It is perverse to maintain performative “civility” in the face of grossly immoral policy. It is a separate question entirely as to whether the confrontation of administration officials is wise or will accomplish the goals it seeks out to achieve, however the core notion that demonstrably immoral policy is not entitled to the full benefits of civility, rings true and clear.[4] For the record, this uncompromising incivil opposition to family-separation, ultimately forced the Trump administration’s hand—and they quickly switched from zealously defending  the policy (see Sessions, see Miller) to blaming Congress for it.

 

[1] Article 62, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Franck, Thomas M., The Power of Legitimacy among Nations. Oxford University Press, 1990.

[4] Obviously, this does not means all political norms ought to be abandoned.

Rational Fools and Foolish Rationalists

by Spencer Slagowitz || October 23rd, 2017

There is this hilarious critique by Amartya Sen of neoclassical economics which pokes fun at the assumption that individuals are rational and that they have stable, known, and reasonable preferences. It comes in the form of a joke: an economist comes across a man trying to cut off his fingers with a pair of scissors. What does the economist do? Naturally, he offers the man a pair of sharper scissors.

The example is supposed to illustrate a readily evident folly of economics, one which Sen, to his credit, has explored in great depth. Obviously, our gut reaction is to stop the man from cutting off his fingers. Obviously, It seems, cutting off his fingers will bring him only misery, and the man is mistaken to believe or act otherwise. The takeaway is that economics needs to contend with the fact that is painfully clear in our daily lives—that we are not perfectly rational or egoistic individuals. They treat consumer preferences as known and stable, they presume individual preferences reflect known utility-functions and accurate estimates of predicted well-being.

We are profoundly foolish, we don’t know what we want or what will make us happy (indeed, a good portion of our lives is arguably an attempt to figure that out by trial and error), and even if we did know what constitutes our well-being, we sure as hell don’t know how to get there. The assumption of rational egoism at the heart of classical and neoclassic economics and other “neo-utilitarian/rational choice” approaches (to quote John Ruggie) to social science is misleading. This critique of the much-maligned Economic Man (often stylized as Homo Economics) is as old as the discipline it targets.

Our preferences and behavior are shaped by socialization and social embeddedness, instrumental adherence to social norms, our sense of identity (which is itself a product of socialization but could be bracketed off as a separate phenomenon), intergenerationally inherited values and culture, the peculiarities of our psychology, a lack of information in the case of “bounded rationality” and so on and so forth.

I. Ideal Types and the Pragmatic Defense of Egoistic Rationality

The response to this charge by modern positive economics is just as clichéd. Obviously, no one thinks about the world in the way that economists imagine. But the assumption of egoistic rationalism is necessary on pragmatic grounds—as Paul Krugman puts it, “abstraction, strategic simplification, is the only way we can impose some intellectual order on the complexity of economic life. And the assumption of rational behavior has been a particularly fruitful simplification.”

This argument was Milton Friedman’s central insight in his famous 1966 treatise, The Methodology of Positive Economics. Friedman goes as far as saying that, “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense) [emphasis added].”

Friedman’s defense of the theoretical rational actor is strikingly similar to Max Weber’s justification for the use of “ideal types”—such as his three models of authority— to understand politics. In Weber’s schema, ideal types are “not a description of reality but [aim’ to give an unambiguous means of expression to such a description . . . An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct.” In this way, we can see Friedman as positing homo economicus as an ideal type, a lens to understand the world.

Yet, while a convincing defense of the methodology of positive approaches, ‘the Economic Man” qua ideal type sheds little light on the application of the same assumptions to normative approaches and economic policymaking. In assessing whether to give Sen’s wannabe amputee a sharper pair of scissors, being able to predict the man’s behavior does not tell us whether we ought to intervene or whether his underlying preferences are justified.

II. Bioethics and Amputation

Surprisingly, Bioethics, a discipline far removed from traditional economics, has a lot to say about the analogy chosen by Amartya Sen. In particular, the fact that Sen takes it for granted that the desire to cut off one’s fingers is irrational, that the imagined individual’s amputation will not bring him well-being.

This brings us to Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Body Integrity Identity Disorder denotes a phenomenon wherein individuals experience a mismatch between their physical body and the subjective experience of their own body. Unlike other forms of asomatognosia and similar conditions in which there is a discrepancy between a person’s body and body image, those with BIID do not deny the existence or ownership of the limb in question; the alienation they experience appears somatic in nature. Consequently, individuals with BIID have pursued amputation as way to resolve the tension between physical embodiment and subjective perception.

An important point is that it is not that they hold the false belief that their limb is not theirs (as is seen in the case of somatoparaphrenia or certain cases of depersonalization) but that they vividly experience a sense of disconnect. This contrasts with disorders like Anorexia Nervosa in which there is a discrepancy between body image and physical embodiment but the anorexic is not aware of It. Tim Bayne and Neil Levy in their article on this topic “Amputees by Choice” make a distinction between the somatic/phenomenal component (what we feel and experience) and the doxastic (what we think and how we reason) component of body image, explaining that BIID keeps the latter component of their self-image intact. That is, in the case of BIID, patients recognize that this desire for amputation is “fundamentally irrational”, that there is no basis in reason for this belief. Nevertheless the recognition that BIID defies rational explanation does not alter the reality of what they experience. Moreover. while the sample size is small, an overwhelming majority those that go through with the amputation report substantially improved levels of well-being.

This problematizes Sen’s account, because presents a plausible case in which the man on the street trying to cut his arm off is actually pursuing his conception of the good. In fact, it is not “readily obvious” or self-evident that amputation of a limb will lead to decreased well-being, that it is a wrong path on the pursuit of happiness. A further critique of Sen’s assumptions can be found in the hedonistic adaptability literature, which shows that (and this is a slightly reductive account) that lottery winners a few months after winning were just as happy as paralyzed accident victims after a similar time since their accident.

This need not present a conundrum for the ideational critique of rational assumption in economics. Both can be correct. Rational conceptions of the good diverge and differ radically in society. We do not necessarily know what is good for other people. There is substantial statistical convergence with respect to major sources of well-being that largely emerge out of a shared biology and genetics, but that does not mean that there is an objective and absolute conception of the good life that we can appeal to in all cases. Or that there is a universal roadmap can be used to guide other individuals towards genuine well-being. Yet, at the same time it is clear that humans are foolish, that much of our behavior and beliefs are beautifully irrational, shaped by external and internal forces well out of our immediate control.

The paternalistic account of well-being isn’t correct but neither is the classical liberal one. Indeed, these two perspectives can be understood well as “ideal types.”—providing contrasting lenses that we can use to understand “reality”, but not capturing the entire picture on their own.

Mission Accomplished Redux: Back 2 Iraq (and Syria)


BY SPENCER SLAGOWITZ || OCTOBER 23RD, 2017

Following the effective liberation of al-Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces (and the recapture of Hawija, ISIS’ last urban stronghold in Iraq, by government forces), many have been quick to proclaim total victory over the Islamic State, who once called the city its capital. ISIL has gone the way of the Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, and other caliphates: into the proverbial dustbin of history. Yet, what does that mean? Certainly, the recapture of Raqqa and ouster of ISIL forces (as well as the rapid decline in territory inflicted over the last few months), signals the death of ISIS as a geographically-inscribed, territory-controlling pseudo-polity. But ISIL is (or, was, rather) at the same time a pseudo-state, an insurgency, and a global terrorist organization. Indeed, in the popular American consciousness, ISIL tends to be seen as an international terrorist threat first, and a geopolitical actor second. Therefore, if the notion of “victory”, makes us complacent to the continued challenges we face in the region, we should abandon it altogether. The recapture of al-Raqqa is a blow struck to only one of the many faces of ISILS.

We should not have any illusions that the destruction of the Islamic State will dramatically impact their ability to enable, coordinate, and encourage terror attacks around the globe. Though, it bears mentioning, though, that (obviously) the recapture of Raqqa will not particularly do ISIL any favors. ISIL accrued so much support and managed to attract thousands of fighters to its cause because of its stupendously successful summer 2014 offensive. Truly, nothing succeeds like success. As sure as it is a proto-state, it is also a global terror brand. Why else would Boko Haram, embroiled in a conflict around 3,000 miles[1] from ISIL, affiliate themselves with ISIL if not for what ISIL symbolized and projected to the whole world. The loss of Raqqa is thus certainly bad for ISIS in this regard, and might impair its ability to inspire and carry out terror attacks. However, their dramatic loss of territory over the last two years or so unfortunately has not engendered a substantial decline in ISIL’s activity qua terrorist group. This casts doubt on the extent to which their military losses might translate into counterrorism gains. Moreover, it is likely that, as the Atlantic put in last March, “The Idea of ISIS will outlive the Caliphate.” Stripped of territory and even of prestige, ISIL might still live on in the hearts and minds of its fighters and most fervent devotees. As Jean-Marc Rickli of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy told The Independent, “for Isis to remain relevant they have to hit the headlines, so it will go after easier and softer targets…what we’re witnessing is an increase in the number of attacks in the West…the destruction of Isis in Syria and Iraq will probably increase this phenomenon, not only in the West but in Asia.” This is not to say that ISIS will grow stronger, but as Dan Byman put it, “there are many reasons not to buy fear mongers’ arguments that the Islamic State will win by losing. But a more lasting victory will require following up on the military campaign and resolving new problems that the Islamic State may attempt to exploit.”

Not only does the victory of the SDF in al-Raqqa have questionable impact on their threat as a terror organization, further complications abound like the reconstruction of cities absolutely decimated by the counter-offensive against ISIL. ISIL may not control it anymore, but Raqqa lies in absolute ruin. Moreover, many analysts have long predicted an increasingly empowered al-Qaeda benefiting greatly from ISIL’s decline. Others have more dire predictions: Christopher Meserole of Brookings maintains that, “we’ll likely witness either a resurgent al-Qaeda or a virulent Islamic State insurgency—or, in the worst-case scenario, both,” in an article in which he describes how al-Qaeda is actively recruiting ISIL fighters. To conclude briefly, we ought not be overeager sound the death knell of ISIL too early, especially if it will make us complacent towards emerging threats and challenges in the region.

 

[1] (and this is a very rough estimate)

On Political Discourse…

Recently, I engaged in a discussion (one might say, argument) with a friend about the current state of popular discourse (Hey! That’s the name of this site!). Due to its obvious relationship to the title of this blog and because the discussion was interesting enough to be blog worthy, I decided to reproduce it in a post. The exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and whatnot.

So, my friend starts out by lamenting a perceived decline in and opposition to public political discussion that he alleges is taking place, and aims to explain what caused the phenomenon. He writes:

“The criticism against, and waning tendency of, writing (substantive) political Facebook statuses is a compelling example of the strength of Arendt’s thesis with regards to the idea of modern man as principally a “laboring animal.”

Particularly among college kids at elite institutions, there is a pathological insistence that their daily lives and social projects being necessarily productive. (Which is to say, having some kind of *use-value: college resumé, academic performance, campus credibility). So as a consequence, then, we’ve seen a movement against engaging in substantive political discourse on social media Indeed, most online debates are quite unproductive (in that they don’t ~produce~ some kind of good other than genuine human contact and the use of our logos).

Thus, we, as strong aspirants of the meritocracy, think that our intellectual faculties and capacity for language ought to be dedicated to more pragmatic ends: writing cover letters, sending out large swaths of emails to every conceivable PE group, think tank, and opportunity factory in the world.

In a truly political sphere, the use of language (and discourse) is an End in and of itself because it helps us engage with each other. At the point where that principle is no longer operative, at the point where we can’t just write Facebook statuses because they interest us as such, sharing our viewpoint, how can we actually do politics again?”

It’s particularly interesting to note the allusion to  “use-value”, which is a central component of Marx’s critique of political economy, and indeed, it appears that my friend was advancing a sort of Western-Marxist critique of modern society. As he later writes:

I think Lefebvre has a lot to say about the collision between market economy and ordinary social relationships. And how capitalism has to justify itself even in the parts of our lives that, until modernity, has avoided the problem of labor.

It’s, in many ways, a classic leftist critique of modernity.  Instead of engaging in political discussion as a natural function of human behavior, the “demands of modern and, importantly, capitalist society (evidenced by the allusion to use value) pushes us to do “productive” tasks like academic performance and resumé writing in lieu of unproductive tasks like political discussion for its own sake. These “productive” tasks either crowd out unproductive tasks or the general ideology of capitalist instrumentalism discourages participation in ‘unproductive activities.’ (I likely butchered the theory, but the general argument is summarized there.)

However, I think this argument is wrong on numerous grounds.

Firstly, I don’t think there ever was a point in time where there was widespread discussion of politics for the sake of politics to the degree alluded to. I do not believe there has never been a time where the populace at large engaged in intellectual political discussion for the sake of that discussion. We can romanticize a pursuit for politics for its own sake, but insofar as it has been realized in a robust manner, it is hard to turn this into a criticism of capitalism qua ideology. Even at the height of Enlightenment salon culture, discussion only occurred between intellectual and cultural elite. During the era of Athenian/Macedonian hegemony, the romanticized description of  political discussion of the Greeks strikes me as ahistorical, and, in actuality, reserved to the elite in society.

However, amongst college students and those interested in intellectual inquiry there is constant discussion of politics, as is wont to occur in collegiate settings. So let us consider this argument in the context of this very specific subset of individuals. Has political discussion truly declined amongst our generation? I would first note that I’ve never seen more interest in politics and political discussion until now. Additionally, I challenge that interest in political discussion has meaningfully declined. Though anecdotal, I’ve never seen a point in time in which public discourse about politics (measured in Facebook posts and general remarks) has been so widespread. During the healthcare debate, everyone added their 2 cents, and Trump’s presidency has provoked more political discussions than I could count.

But I am sympathetic to the related claim that people are beginning to tire of political discussion, or that, at the very least, politician discussion could be less robust than it could have been in the counterfactual.

As a side note: I don’t think that this shift away from political discussion for the sake of political discussion is caused by a focus on “productive activities” qua economic production. The two are not mutually exclusive, really, and the vast majority of individuals that I know, aren’t spending the time that could be spent in the noble employ of discourse (as you describe it) on these “productive activities.” I would instead suggest that they are spending their time in dramatically unproductive ways. And it is undeniable that procrastination is rampant.

Regardless, to return to the idea that people are tiring of political discourse. If the cause is not the pursuit of productive activities that in turn crowds out opportunities for discussion, it could be the second causal mechanism: that since we’ve deemed these activities unproductive, we eschew them. But I think that’s wrong as well. You specify how “unproductive” discussion deters people from discussion. Political discussion does not change hears and minds and is not instrumental in reaching some sort of consensus on “the truth”, so we reject it. Yet, my friend conflates “productivity” in this case with use-value. If the argument is that discourse has declined because people do not find it productive, and you mistake what people mean by productivity in this regard. It is not that individuals lament that discussion does not produce some economic value but that it is generally unfulfilling and toxic. Perhaps though, one might point out that it is disappointing that we *must* justify discourse as producing some good, economic or otherwise. An argument might be that a cultural obsession with justifying everything according to some “rational” or consequentialist standard devalues activities like discourse which should instead be seen as a natural human activity. In later comments, my friend advances that engaging with eachother through political discussion should be an inherently-fulfilling enterprise. Yet, in the status quo, political discussion is seen as productive even if it does not prove instrumental towards acquiring some specific ends unrelated to engagement for the sake of engagement. Hostile discussion of emotionally loaded issues is psychologically draining and exhausting; instead of helping us to engage with each-other better and understand each-other, we engage with eachother worse. Instead of bridging social divisions , discourse worsens them. Instead of broadening our own horizons and making our thinking more rich, they are deleterious to our political thought prompting us to label potentially legitimate alternative views as antagonistic.

Lastly, as a general note of discussion, I think Richard Rorty and Alistair McIntyre are much more useful in talking about than Lefebvre or the Marxist tradition he represents for that matter. I don’t generally buy that we engage in an instrumentalist analysis (explicitly or implicitly) of political discussion, or even one that privileges economic goods above all else. Its inconsistent with the way I experience thinking about discussion and the behavior of others. While we often might put off discussion if we have a lot of work to do, with the remark, “I can’t, I have to do x, y, or z,” discussion is not consciously entered into amongst participants after reasoned analysis, it usually arises through exogenous provocation, a reaction to the days affairs provoked by a preexisting desire to talk about the topic at hand. Rather, I think Rorty and McIntyre’s related accounts of what has gone wrong with political discussion provides a better perspective. As I understand, they claim that as creatures/products of the enlightenment, we have been trained to accept that there are right answers to all of our political questions, and that political debate can be resolved one way or another. When we are unable to do so, we enter this deeply unsatisfying emotivist world in which we simply address arguments to each other that express our subjective beliefs, rather than making claims as to an objective truth applicable to all. This leads to a nihilistic outlook and general meaninglessness. While I won’t go as far to endorse their explanation of why this occurs (they believe that settling these debates satisfactorily is impossible because foundationalism is impossible). It is true, I believe, that we have certain expectations about arguments and discussion in society (most importantly, that disagreement will and can be resolved), and when those expectations are not fulfilled (for any reason, for example due to cognitive bias), it makes us deeply unsatisfied. Nevertheless, I think this only goes so far in explaining why we have political discussion. As noted previously, I believe discussion can be meaningful to us even if we don’t reach some sort of “truth” or consensus, so this is only part of the story, at most.

 

 

Bridging the Fundamental Moral Divide on Health Care

The name of this blog is Popular Discourse, so perhaps it is appropriate to talk about the current state of public discourse around healthcare. Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that following the resuscitation of the American Health Care Act (The GOP’s Obamacare replacement bill) and its subsequent passage in the House of Representatives, the Senate crafted (in much secrecy) its own bill. One that has been met with much outrage and a vociferous debate over the future of healthcare in this country.What is truly interesting about this public conservation is how, unlike many other political issues, where disagreement in driven primarily by difference in policy (how to accomplish certain goals, how to infer political priorities from broader shared values and how to weight those priorities), the health care debate is dominated by a profound disagreement on values. Nothing better showcases this phenomenon than the ideological clash between those who believe that healthcare is a right and those that believe healthcare is a privilege. The debate is characterized by participants angrily announcing their views at each other, asserting their respective claims. Both parties believe strongly in the indisputable rightness of their central claim, and in the incoherence of the other’s beliefs. So, what we’ve seen is a shouting match masquerading as a discussion: It’s conducted under the pretense of argument, it follows the communicative rituals and rules we use aiming to convince others, and we argue about health care as if there was an answer to this crucial political question that would appeal to the premises of both ideological factions. Though, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t actually expect that those who disagree with us will ever concede. We fail to recognize the central fact that, what makes this disagreement so fundamental, is that both sides are operating on completely different value systems.

A Theory of Fundamental Political Disagreements

It is this dynamic which prompted an incredibly poignant Huffington Post piece, aptly titled, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” The article’s subtitle further captures the contours of our current healthcare debate, “Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society.” This is a stunning but accurate observation, one with which I agree strongly.

We each have been raised in different environments, and within different institutions. Moreover, we each have had certain values and moral attitudes instilled in us. We have internalized them and have invested these moral concepts with inherent emotional worth. They, in turn, shape the moral emotions we feel and our behavior towards others. When the author laments how she “doesn’t know to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy,” she’s implicitly addressing how our internalized moral beliefs shape the literal contours of our world, the emotional phenomena we experience. However, simply because our account of moral emotions is subjectivist, does not mean we have to resign ourselves to an emotivist world of moral relativism. On the contrary, only by exploring the basis and structure of this philosophical disagreement can we actually have a serious conversation about what system of health care is desirable.  

To many, the idea that emotions are mutable and (somewhat) non-universal is alien. So it is probably worth it to flesh out this idea further, as it is central to my claim that our culture shapes our political values. As NPR’s Rebecca Hersher puts it, “emotions, the classic thinking goes, are innate, basic parts of our humanity. We are born with them, and when things happen to us, our emotions wash over us.” However, this view is flawed. We experience emotions as exogenous, we feel like  we have no control over. Sometimes we think of them as fixed reaction to a certain stimuli, yet as Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett puts it, in the same article, “But the problem with [the common wisdom] is that the data don’t support [it]. There’s a lot of evidence which challenges this view from every domain of science that’s ever studied it.” NPR’s phenomenal Invisibilia podcast expands upon this idea further, explaining that for every one of the complex emotions we’ve come to take as fixed in the West, there is a culture around the world which simply does not experience it. Additionally, there are emotions in other cultures which do not have Western equivalents. Parts of emotion are very clearly universal, but it is important to acknowledge how culturally and socially dependent they are. Man is both species and species-being.

This socially constructed character of emotion, and especially moral emotion, helps to articulate a theory of how fundamental political difference arise. Institutional and cultural differences lead to different moral emotions, attitudes, and behaviors and thus different philosophical views. This theory finds further support in the research of quasi-philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. According to Haidt’s social intuitionism, moral emotions precede moral judgements, meaning that moral judgements are primarily intuitive and reasoning is often (and completely unconsciously) a retroactive rationalization of those intuitions. To quote his seminal article,  “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail:A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”:

“The cognitive revolution had opened up  new  ways  of  thinking  about  morality  and moral development, and it was surely an advance to  think  about  moral  judgment  as  a  form  of information processing. But times have changed. Now  we  know  (again)  that  most  of  cognition occurs automatically and outside of consciousness (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999) and that people  cannot  tell  us  how  they  really  reached  a judgment  (Nisbett  &  Wilson,  1977)…The time may be right, therefore, to take another look at Hume’s perverse thesis: that moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning.”

Out of this moral theory, grew the Moral Foundations Theory, which aimed to, among other things, describe how social values and cultural differences drive political differences. In the Vox article, “Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how,” Haidt draws upon social psychology to explain how differences in regional culture determined support for different political candidates in the 2016 election. The results are illuminating and demonstrate how our particular cultures have a  direct bearing on our politics. This idea is supported by long-standing political science.  To quote one of my Comparative Political Systems textbooks, Thomas F Remington’s Politics in Russia, which puts it far better than I ever could:

“The patterns of behavior that influence how government operates are established through…channels of association…outside the government sphere…Citizens are less likely to cooperate in political cultures that harbor mistrust since they believe that combining for the common good is a sucker’s game…where people discount the common interest in favor of private benefit, government is likelier to be both more oppressive and more corrupt. Therefore in studying politics, we need to look both at people’s beliefs about government and at their expectations about social life more generally.”

I would claim that our moral beliefs about how to treat each other within our communities have a direct bearing on how we approach and think about political issues. It has special bearing on what teleological scheme we adopt (read: what goals we pursue). This, as many people will recognize, is pretty obvious. If you’ve been taught that it is good to help groups and individuals who have been marginalized, your politics will reflect it (you will feel bad when marginalized groups are mistreated). This is to suggest that the division we make between our mundane social interactions and politics, when we categorize them as different, is false.

This has a direct bearing on the specific issue of health care. Liberals and progressives believe that being a good person and member of society means having empathy for one another, caring for the disadvantaged, and striving for justice as fairness. While, on the other hand, conservatives (at least with regards to health care) privilege individual responsibility and autonomy, and thus believe that only negative rights deserve to be considered proper rights (à la Isaiah Berlin). As a consequence, liberals believe that it is prima facie unjust for someone to suffer because they could not afford health care. While, generally, conservative believe that health care ought to be treated like car insurance, that providing healthcare to the poor will engender lethargy and that the notion that health care is a right in anathema to the idea of ‘rights’ properly considered in the negative sense. These views are direct consequences of different starting positions.

Not All Values are Created Equal

Thus far I’ve advanced a theory of deep political disagreement: differences in culture and in upbringing result in differences in internalized moral emotions and attitudes. Which, in turn, have a direct bearing on the political values, we place a premium on. However, this definitely does not mean that we must surrender to the hopeless ennui of moral relativism. Certain cultural practices and social environments are better than others. For example, (and quite obviously) certain cultural norms have historically legitimized practices, which would be considered inhumane and horrendous by modern standards. Furthermore, I genuinely believe that we are best served by a society in which we have empathy for one another and community members strive for the common good. Not only does such an environment promote social trust and help facilitate collective action (and all the rewards we reap from that), insofar as we are embedded in dense social networks already, cultural practices which encourage social cooperation benefit all members of society; indeed, our welfare depends on both ourselves and on the structure of society as a whole.

Regardless of my personal views, we need to have this conversation over values, whether in the terms employed above or on different philosophical grounds. Simply acknowledging that we are divided as a nation, as a society, as an imagined community, does not help to fix that gap, one which grows every day. As detailed by Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, an incredible treatise on inequality among other topics, we have a tendency to to divide ourselves up socially and geographically into ideological tribes. As David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, puts it, “America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate.” We are becoming a less coherent nation, and to our detriment. But, perhaps acknowledging the deep roots of our philosophical polarization will help us resolve it, and help us have an honest conversation about what values we want our society to cherish and promote.

Disorganization in Trumplandia and Revisionist History with Professor Perry


BY SPENCER SLAGOWITZ || JUNE 27TH, 2017

Apparently, it is “Energy Week” at the White House. Another one of several themed weeks that have been instituted, despite their little substantive content.  Didn’t you know it was “Tech Week” last week, “Workforce Development Week” the week before, and “Infrastructure Week”, the one before that? Me neither.

The initiative, a misguided attempt to create order out of the chaos that perpetually emanates from the communications catastrophe that is the woefully disorganized Trump administration, has failed hilariously. So much so, that Politico dedicated an entire article to it. Unsurprisingly, the onus falls considerably on the President himself:

“White House officials acknowledge privately that their policy messages haven’t been able to compete with the flood of news about the Russia investigation — in part, because it’s nearly impossible to keep the president himself on message. Trump has continued to blast out missives about the Russia “witch hunt” and his myriad frustrations, including ongoing challenges to his travel ban, distracting from other events at the White House. The president talks about the Russia investigation more than any other topic, White House aides and advisers said.

Asked about potential themes for upcoming weeks, one senior Trump aide laughed and said, “Whatever he tweets.”

An ineffectual and disorderly communications process is representative of a broader trend at a White House overwhelmed by the demands of governance. For example, the early days of this administration have been defined by a phenomenally poor inter-agency coordination process (see this just today on the Syrian deterrence statement, and more criticisms here). An especially concerning phenomenon given that, while Trump flaunts his concern for foreign policy and justifies his radical policy agenda on specious national security grounds, coordination between disparate federal agencies and cabinet departments is central to U.S foreign policy process.

Furthermore, during the campaign, Trump leveraged his dubious business credentials to promise voters that he would replace an effete liberal elite drowning in bureaucracy and strangled by red tape, with business leadership from a businessman. Yet, the President has struggled to complete the first and most essential task of any administration: hiring the individuals who will actually form it.

According to a joint-project between the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, of the 560 key executive branch positions that the President must fill, only 46 have gone through the final step of being confirmed by the Senate. Sure, staffing the administrative state is a difficult endeavor fraught with petty political squabbling, but Obama had already confirmed nearly four times that number by a similar point in his presidency. And before you blame partisan obstruction, note that while the average confirmation time per nominee has been higher for Trump’s picks, it is only slightly so (43 days per nominee compared to 34 days for Obama’s nominees). Moreover, Trump’s nominees have been genuinely terrible (Ahem! Betsy DeVos, Andrew Puzder) and have, as a result, accumulated the most “no” votes of any nominees of any President since America’s founding. Most importantly, however, the Senate cannot be blamed for the nominees that the President has yet to select. Trump has not, to this date, nominated nearly 400 (396, to be exact) of those 560 posts. With 70% of key posts (and 85% of top science posts) without even as much as a nominee, the responsibility lies unequivocally and entirely with the White House.

It is among this environment of chaos and disorganization, that “Energy Week” emerged early this week. Its Master of Ceremonies (or at the very least, it’s spokesperson) was none other than erstwhile presidential candidate and head-of-the-agency-he-once-forgot-he-wanted-to-eliminate Energy Secretary Rick Perry. During a White House press briefing and in statements to the press earlier this week, Perry alleged and advanced all sorts of bizarre claims regarding clean energy and the “America First” energy plan. But, the most strange was his suggestion that the Obama administration had repeatedly claimed that the American people would have to sacrifice American jobs and economic vitality to protect  the environment.

As the Washington Examiner reported:

“This week will also reaffirm our commitment to clean energy,” Perry said. “The binary choice between being pro-economy and pro-environment that was perpetuated by the Obama administration, it set up a false argument,” he said. “We can do good for both, and we will.”

What was most remarkable is how central Perry makes this claim to his argument and messaging. (Especially, given how how radical the administration’s plan is. But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.)

However, when Perry claims that his plan recognizes that environmental protection and economic development are not mutually exclusive and specifically contrasts it to the Obama administration’s approach, I’m shocked. Not only because its mendacious with regards to the plan’s policy substance but also because the idea that ‘economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive’, was the central message of the very same Obama-era approach to energy policy which Perry decries.

Don’t take it from me, take it from our 44th President himself.

From a speech to the United Nations in 2009:

For these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet – famine and drought; disappearing coastal villages and the conflict that arises from scarce resources. Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet, because their survival depends on both. It will do little good to alleviate poverty if you can no longer harvest your crops or find drinkable water.

In a speech to Georgetown in 2013:

The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.

[later on in the speech]

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution.  Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices.  Invest.  Divest.  (Applause.)  Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.  And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.

Again, in a speech in front of the UN in 2014:

So, all told, these advances have helped create jobs, grow our economy, and drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly two decades — proving that there does not have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth.

Once more, in a statement on the Paris Climate Agreement and the conclusion of the COP21 negotiations:

Now, skeptics said these [climate] actions would kill jobs.  Instead, we’ve seen the longest streak of private-sector job creation in our history.  We’ve driven our economic output to all-time highs while driving our carbon pollution down to its lowest level in nearly two decades.  And then, with our historic joint announcement with China last year, we showed it was possible to bridge the old divides between developed and developing nations that had stymied global progress for so long.

Or maybe in this speech in Hawaii last year:

So there’s no conflict between a healthy economy and a healthy planet.  And that’s why I’ve committed, along with Canada and Mexico, to get 50 percent of U.S. electricity from clean sources by 2025.  And with many of our biggest businesses switching to clean energy, I’m absolutely confident that we can meet that goal.

Or finally in this January 2017 Science article, written post-presidency:

ECONOMIES GROW, EMISSIONS FALL

The United States is showing that GHG mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation.

Since 2008, the United States has experienced the first sustained period of rapid GHG emissions reductions and simultaneous economic growth on record. Specifically, CO2emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5% from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10%. In this same period, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost 11%, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy consumed declined by 8%, and CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP declined by 18% (2).

The importance of this trend cannot be understated. This “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living.

I rest my case.

However, while this bizarre case of revisionist history perplexes and stuns, in the context of a disorganized and ineffectual communications process, it makes sense as a gaffe. Think of all the unfourtunate mistakes Spicer racked up during his press briefings earlier this year. And with Spicer still pulling double duty as Press Secretary and Acting Communications Director, following the departure of Mike Dubke, and with a communications staff populated by the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it’s perfectly reasonable to interpret this as a messaging failure. In many ways, it’s really silly messaging. It is a statement that is easily refutable and discarded. Insofar as you make it the crux of how you frame your clean energy plan, opponents quite literally can A) Agree with you B) Tout the statements Obama said above as well as the decoupling argument C) Turn your argument on yourself.

But ultimately, when the only two explanations for such a statement is ineptitude and untruthfulness (ok, granted this is politics), it truly reveals how disastrous the first few months of the Trump presidency have been. One would think that communications would be the strong suit of this President, one who does not really rely on policy expertise or a robust substantive agenda to win political points. So if the Trump administration cannot slap together a decent communications operation, what does that say about the administrates ability to make policy, to govern, or to fulfill the responsibility of the executive branch?

Thoughts on rural decline, wage stagnation, white working class backlash, etc.


By Spencer Slagowitz || April 10th, 2017


We at Popular Discourse have not posted in a while, due to the demands of college and work, so to our one reader, we apologize (sorry mom!). Instead of the long formal articles we usually write, I decided to write down some of my current thinking vis a vis rural economic decline, its causes, and its consequences.


  1. Economic activity has shifted from rural america to urban population centers. (Urban population centers have higher productivity rates, urban Americans are beneficiaries of numerous external economies of scale and network externalities as a result of population density (attracts economic opportunity away from rural areas) cities were able to maintain steady growth during recession while rural areas floundered, economic activity of rural towns were centered around participation in a single industry—often those which the US either no longer has a comparative advantage in or those which have become heavily automized.
  2. However, labor mobility (especially amongst aging rural populations) is lower than expected. Migration is an automatic fiscal stabilizer, labor moves to adjust to asymmetric (regional) shocks. But instead of moving when times got rough, inhabitants of rural areas have seen economic activity slowly drown.
  3. Leading to the persistent wage stagnation we see in these areas and (speculatively) the symptoms such a decline in economic activity has produced.
    1. Opioid Abuse
    2. High-rates of suicide (See: Case-Deaton)
    3. Populist/demographic backlash
    4. Lack of dignity
    5. Feelings of being “left behind”
  4. Also see these books/resources as evidence of the symptomatic expression of rural decline…
    1. https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Matter-Kansas-Conservatives-America/dp/080507774X
    2. https://www.amazon.com/Strangers-Their-Own-Land-Mourning/dp/1620972255
    3. https://www.amazon.com/White-Trash-400-Year-History-America/dp/0670785970
    4. https://www.amazon.com/2-00-Day-Living-Nothing-America/dp/054481195X
    5. https://www.amazon.com/Evicted-Poverty-Profit-American-City/dp/0553447432
    6. https://www.amazon.com/Dreamland-True-Americas-Opiate-Epidemic-ebook/dp/B00U19DTS0/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
  5. It is not controversial to assert that we and our government bears some sort of moral obligation towards our fellow Americans. Nor is it controversial to suggest that when our nation’s economy leaves behind or ignores rural America, leaving growth to stagnate in those regions and devastating communities for reasons exogenous or out of the control of those very same communities, that there is an imperative to address this arrangement.
  6. Moreover (or perhaps, necessarily), the economic imperative to bring back economic activity to rural areas or to aid rural Americans to move to cities or other areas of high economic activity is incredibly powerful. The health of the macroeconomy as a whole would be improved by higher average wage rates for all americans, by increased aggregate demand, by increased productivity, by linking up rural workers with few opportunities with an increased variety of job and work opportunities. I don’t think this point needs further justification, moreover I think it is quite intuitive that increased economic growth in rural areas or increased economic growth generated by interregional migration helps the United States as a whole.
  7. This discussion has, in the news media and the pundit class, mostly focused on economic decline in rural areas and it’s consequences for the region and for the United States as a whole. But arguably, this same sort of decline and economic stagnation has been experienced by African-American communities in America for decades and to a much higher degree as a consequence of racism, the persistent poverty & mass-incarceration that has resulted from it, and the complex and pernicious interaction between economic and sociological factors that has trapped these communities in a vicious and repugnant cycle. The same moral and economic imperatives, that, according to the commentators and public intellectuals, compel us to address rural economic decline must also compel us towards addressing the persistent poverty and economic decline that has been driven by racism.

Delete Über? No, please.


BY SPENCER SLAGOWITZ || JANUARY 30TH, 2017

If you have been on the internet at all the last three days, you will be undoubtedly aware of the grassroots campaign (of sorts) to boycott the transportation network service, Über. Since Saturday, calls to #deleteÜber have grown in number and in fervor following the company’s ‘decision’ to not strike with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance  and a tweet sent by the company which was taken by many to be an effort to break the strike. If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, read these good overviews here and here. For those who support the boycott, “deleting Über” is a foregone conclusion, but the reality is invariably much more nuanced.

As I understand, people are angry with Über for four reasons:

  1. They believe that Über intended to break the strike or undermine the efforts of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
  2. Following this belief, many individuals believe that Über or at least CEO Travis Kalanick—who is on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum (an advisory body for business matters) along with Elon Musk—was collaborating with the Trump administration.
  3. Furthermore, activists allege that at minimum Über intended to immorally profit off the strike.
  4. Finally, people believe that Über ought to have protested with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, regardless of whether they intended to break the strike or take advantage of it to make money.

We’ll address each of these in turn, but ultimately I do not believe they hold up under close scrutiny.

Did Über intend to purposefully counteract strike through social media?

Many took a tweet posted by the company that stated “Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.” to, according to Vox, “suggest that  Über was trying to break up or counteract the strike and acting in support of…[the Muslim Ban].” By this interpretation, the announcement of Über’s availability, publicly undermined the strike and thereby attempted to break it. However, the tweet was posted at 7:36pm, more than a half an hour after the strike (which lasted from 6pm to 7pm) ended. The tweet could not have been attempting to break the strike because it had already ceased. Moreover, Über immediately backtracked, explaining that the post was not meant to undermine the protest (which had, again, already ended)—though its natural to be skeptical of the company.

Is Über and Kalanick in cahoots with the Trump Administration?

Let’s first preface this part by stating unequivocally that there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever to suggest that Kalanick and/or Über coordinated with the Trump Administration to break the strike (which, for the third time, HAD ALREADY ENDED). There are only circumstantial conjectures, which many have overstated. These conjectures rest on a single shaky foundation: Kalanick is on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. Thus, detractors allege, that means he was colluding with Trump. However, the Strategic and Policy Forum works with the Administration on business matters purely on advisory grounds. Other members of the board included Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. To imply that a business leader’s membership on a business advisory board with many other business leaders means that his company is coordinating with Trump is unfounded. One does not presuppose the other.

Not only is there no good reason to believe that Über coordinated with Trump to break the strike and support the ‘Muslim Ban,’ but there are also many reasons that contradict allegations of crony-esque coordination and support the null hypothesis in this case. Über and Kalanick, in both word and deed, oppose the Muslim Ban and have made a considerable to effort to help workers affected by it.

Conceivably, detractors could respond by suggesting that Uber and Kalanick do not actually oppose the ban, but are only doing so predicated on business interests.

Well, Kalanick sent the following letter to his employees on Saturday at 1:20 PM—4 hours and 40 minutes before the New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike and 6 hours before they posted the tweet that thrust them into a gauntlet of criticism and outrage. It is a letter that reflects the company’s unvarnished point of view before the scandal. So what does it say? Does it reveal Über’s nefarious support of the muslim ban? Does it expose Kalanick’s coordination with the Trump administration or words of praise for the decision? Not in the slightest.

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In the email Kalanick promises:

  1. Assistance for those impacted by the ban through immigration@uber.com
  2. To compensate, pro-bono, Über drivers who are unable to return to the U.S to get back to work.
  3. To bring up the issue of the Muslim ban and pressure the administration using the access granted to him through membership on Trump’s economic advisory group.

Moreover, Kalanick’s focus on the ethical implications the ban has on, indeed, thousands of innocent lives suggests his opposition is based on humanitarian concerns. This is reinforced by this statement released in the blog post on Sunday which detailed exactly what Über is doing and castigated the muslim ban as unjust.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-8-25-25-pm

Clearly in both word (public and private statements, that is) and deed (making a considerable effort to address those impacted by the ban even before the #deleteÜber craze, as well as promising to lobby the administration to revoke the ban), Über demonstrated a clear opposition to the ban and the Trump administration’s actions which preclude coordination and cast doubt on allegations of cronyism.

Did Über intend to profit off the strike?

If anything Über’s decision to suspend surge pricing demonstrates a willingness to avoid the appearance that they were taking advantage of the strike to make money. Under the conditions of a strike, the reduced availability of taxi cabs would boost demand for Übers and automatically set off the surge function. In this state of scarcity, Über can charge more because people are more willing to pay to travel. If Über truly meant to profit off the both the lack of taxi cabs and the influx of protestors and lawyers, it would have allowed the surge pricing function to operate as it is programmed. But Über has been continuously and rightfully criticized on this sort of practice in the past, especially in the cases of natural disasters. However, Über purposefully did not raise prices and at 7:36pm, let protesters and travelers alike know that they could travel back without having to pay exorbitant fees.

Should Über have participated in the strike in the first place? Was it a good idea?

Some might suggest that it doesn’t matter whether Über intended to take advantage of the strike, the important point is that they refused to join in the strike. So it begs the question, did Über bear a moral obligation to participate in the strike? Was the strike a good idea at all? Examining the protest critically, it appears that while incredibly well intentioned, it cannot be portrayed as a bold moral stand that Über should be punished for refusing to take part in, because it was ineffective, and ultimately counterproductive.

Firstly, striking in this manner does not put any pressure on the Trump administration or local authorities in any sort of capacity. Strikes are effective when they are leveraged against those who are impacted by them on the negotiating table. But how does a 1 hour strike disadvantage the Trump administration in the slightest?

Secondly, protest is an incredibly useful tool for its optics. Mass demonstration mobilizes the populace against the object of protest and encourages others to join in on the activism. It also continuously casts in doubt popular support for a policy and prevents a leader from claiming a popular mandate to support a policy like the muslim ban. However, the brevity of a one hour strike undermines its own symbolic value. Given the massive protests at JFK, the regional cab union strike would have been likely drowned out in the news cycle if not for the #deleteÜber scandal. Even if you believe there is a kantian moral imperative to strike in these cases: it is rule worship to follow the rule where the end is not served, like in this case.

Thirdly, this form of protest disadvantages innocent third parties completely unrelated to the “Muslim Ban”. The people who suffer as a result are those who are just trying to get home to their families after a long travel day, not the Trump administration, nor any of the parties involved or who are culpable. One cannot simply ignore the “double effect” produced by decision to strike. Given that JFK’s AirTrain shuttle had been closed by the Port Authority (until Governor Cuomo reversed the decision), if Über had joined in on the strike, travelers would have had little other option.

Lastly, most importantly, the strike is counterproductive insofar as it inconveniences those who went to the rally and makes it harder for them to find transport back home. Moreover, it disadvantages the lawyers who rushed to JFK to draft legal briefs, who ultimately were able to acquire a court order granting a stay on the ‘muslim ban’ by denying them transport too.

Ultimately, the era of Donald Trump demands disciplined and directed protest. We can no longer afford to waste protest capital on issues that do not materialize into results. Moreover, we ought not encourage protests that are both counterproductive, ineffective, and inconvenience innocent third parties. This era of progressive wilderness-wandering does not give us license to abandon our core commitments to the truth and evidence-based decision making. Über never intended to break the strike (or counteract it on social media), did not collaborate with the administration, and purposefully took measures to not profit from the strike. The #deleteÜber movement demonstrates that we cannot surrender our individual judgement to that of the crowd.

I say these things not because I am some corporate apologist nor because I am trying to equate trivial suffering of Über with the thousands of people and families who will be adversely affected by the ban—I say these things because in the age of Trump we must resist the urge to submit to the knee-jerk reaction of backlash when we have only little information on hand. Because, in the era of fake news and anti-intellectualism, we must prize evidence-driven policy making and truth, above all.