31 July 2014

Where does collective bargaining come from?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has predictably rejected a constitutional challenge to the law passed by Republican legislators and signed by Gov. Scott Walker that drastically curtailed public employees' collective-bargaining rights. The result was predictable not because the state's court is stacked with conservatives or Republican appointees, but because many observers, including many opposed to the law, accepted that there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining at either the state or federal level. In Wisconsin, the majority opinion states, "collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation." However, this remains an incomplete picture. The idea of collective bargaining didn't begin with politicians, after all, but with workers. What Wisconsin's public employees ought to remember is that while collective bargaining may not be guaranteed them by any constitution, it remains a legitimate goal of collective action. It may be up to partisan legislators to recognize or not recognize collective bargainers, but it is also up to workers to force the issue if they so choose. Collective bargaining is always as much a creation of collective will, at least, as it is a creation of legislative grace or the good will of private-sector employers. Wisconsin Republicans have told the public-employee unions that you can't take collective bargaining for granted anymore. As many others had to in the past, the unions will have to fight for it if they want it badly enough. They may hope to win the fight in the voting booth by electing a Democratic governor and legislature, but that is never workers' only option -- or else the court would be correct, after all.

29 July 2014

The social is political -- or is it?

In a long career that has made him a dean of American historians, Gordon S. Wood has read a lot about the Declaration of Independence, so you take notice when he writes in The New York Review of Books that "no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like" Danielle Allen's Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Wood, the author of The Creation of the American Republic and the Review's resident reviewer on Revolutionary subjects, is impressed by Allen's close textual analysis of the Declaration, even as he disagrees with many of her conclusions. He disagrees with one conclusion in particular: Allen's opinion that Jefferson and the other drafters of the Declaration intended Americans and "all men" to "pursue happiness by means of politics." Allen is a kind of idealist, or else she infers a Founding idealism. She writes that "Nature has given us an instinct for politics [that is] evidence that nature is organized to provide for our flourishing." As Wood reads her, Allen concludes that we will flourish as nature intended once every is equally empowered to participate in politics.

Since Allen is a social scientist rather than a historian, Wood has cause to tsk-tsk her lack of reading in the historiography of the intellectual origins of the Declaration and the Revolution. He may suspect that Allen didn't realize that she was strolling into a 50 year old intellectual battlefield. Since the 1960s, historians have debated the extent to which the Founders were influenced by "classical republicanism" or by a form of liberalism conducive to or influenced by the rise of capitalism. Classical or "civic" republicanism virtually required that citizens play a role in public life, i.e. in political deliberations, if only to be vigilant against schemes by individuals or factions to usurp power. the liberals or proto-liberals believed that citizens should cultivate their gardens, as Voltaire might have said, rather than devoting so much attention and energy to politics. Wood tries to clarify things by drawing a distinction between "politics" and "society." He argues that "Jefferson and many other revolutionaries in 1776 always put society ahead of government," the latter being no more than a "necessary evil" in service to society. The Founders -- and Wood extends this argument even to the more radical Thomas Paine -- would never have said that citizens can find personal fulfillment (or "happiness") in politics. If Allen finds such a message in the Declaration, she must be misreading it, or misunderstanding the intellectual language of the 18th century.

Wood and Allen aren't quite as far apart as his criticism suggests. He closes his review by noting that "Jefferson and Allen agree on one central point: Democracy requires that at some basic level everyone in a society must be considered the same." Where Jefferson and Allen differ, apparently, is what that imperative requires. This is where Wood's distinction between "politics" and "society" actually obfuscates things, as might any distinction drawn by anyone. Wood ascribes to the Founders the opinion that "government was a plunderer." It's tempting to generalize ahistorically, to infer from this that politics is plunder, but people like Jefferson and Paine obviously were denouncing the forms of government they had known before the American Revolution. Before the Founding, most of the models the Founders had for describing governments were negative: tyrannies or representative governments that succumbed to tyranny. Yet men like Jefferson could not experiment with creating new forms of government if they thought that all government and all politics was plunder. Once you reject the premise that all politics is plunder, the distinction between politics and society begins to dissolve. What is "society," anyway, once you start drawing distinctions? Commerce, presumably, or, more broadly, the "civil society" of voluntary institutions and organizations. These do not require "politics" because they depend on a "natural feeling of affability and benevolence." Yet for Allen, presumably, those same natural feelings are the foundation of politics. This does not compute if you see politics only as plunder,but that clearly isn't how Allen sees it, and it isn't necessarily how Jefferson or Paine (neither of whom were Framers) saw politics when they weren't focused on denouncing monarchies of their present or past. Now that I think of it, Wood pulled off a neat trick by transmuting Allen's "politics" into the "government" despised by some radical Founders. I don't think he meant it as a trick, but it exposes some of his own intellectual (if not ideological) biases. One such bias may be to insist on the society-government distinction. Not to do so, some might say, tends to the totalitarian, but that shouldn't deter us from questioning the basis of any separation of the social and political once we accept that politics is not automatically plunder or coercion or whatever might frighten Wood or Jefferson before him. But if Wood thinks there is something essentially political that is essentially antithetical to the social, so that Allen's political idealism is dangerous to liberal society, he should speak for himself instead of hiding behind Jefferson and Paine, so we can know where to take the conversation next.

28 July 2014

What is it good for?

Today is the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, formalized by the Austro-Hungarian Empire's declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia. To this day, historians dispute the shares of blame to be assigned the various belligerents. Shall we blame the Serbs for the conspiratorial nationalism that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and provoked Austria to punitive action? Shall we blame the Russians -- as I'm sure many would like to these days -- for going after Austria to protect their brother Slavs in Serbia? Typical Russian bullying, right? Or do we stay with the old standby and blame Germany for giving Austria a "blank check" to do with Serbia as they saw fit, for fighting Russia to save Serbia, for fighting Russia's ally France simultaneously, and for drawing Britain into the war by invading neutral Belgium to flank the French? With so many options it's probably better to draw general conclusions about European culture, or 20th century culture. Frederic Morton does this in the current Harper's. A longtime student of the buildup to war, Morton wonders, as many have for the past century, why the working masses of all these countries, and the socialist parties in some of them, followed their flags to the trenches in an uncritical patriotic frenzy? He contends that the jinogistic nationalism of August 1914 was a reaction to the atomization of traditional European society over the previous century, during the Industrial Revolution.

Millions had been torn from their hearths, from their folkways, from the haven of their communal bearings. Deprived of organic roots, they split into precarious, wary atoms. Each atom had only its own strength for support, and only strength stronger than that of all others can promise security....Seething in tenements or on guard in gated glitter, each atom must stay mobilized in offense or defense. Yet at the same time each atom -- that is, each vying shard -- longs for close company that will complete it. 

The call to war, Morton writes, was "a cry for exterior conflict that would relieve the internecine malaise troubling the land. A cry for the thrill of an all-encompassing, collaborative purpose....Thanks to a common enemy people could revive a commonality long lost, could rush forward arm in arm, could regain the village intimacy once enjoyed, by defending -- together! -- the imperiled nation."

War, then, appeals to a yearning for togetherness, but it follows that this yearning has limits, or else war would make no sense. The idea of togetherness with everyone on earth has had only limited appeal over the last 100 years. This, in theory, was the appeal of communism, but in practice -- in the forms of Bolshevism, Stalinism, Maoism -- communist revolutionaries have depended on appeals to fight a common enemy: the bourgeoisie, the imperialists, the counter-revolutionaries, and so on. If no enemies were apparent, they had to be made up, the people whipped up in enmity to them. The roots of all this, I suppose, are in our atavistic sense of scarcity and our feeling that there's not enough of anything on earth for everyone. The best way to secure your share is to purge others. Morton is probably on to something when he suggests that competing on a country-vs-country level alleviates the alienation people feel in their own countries under the pressure of an increasingly competitive economy. It's just too bad that, in order to look around you and feel that "we're all in this together," you have to look across the border and think, "but you're not!" Looking at the world today, it seems that very little has changed. If so, I doubt whether anyone will learn from today's anniversary -- but it's worth taking a chance.

24 July 2014

The NRA scenario becomes a reality, or: whatever happened to the Hippocratic Oath?

A good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. That seems to be the story in Darby PA as a psychiatrist pulled out a gun and opened fire on a patient who had just mortally wounded his caseworker. Whether the good doctor literally stopped the assailant is still open to question -- this report notes that the suspect was subsequently tackled by two other men, but his reported critical condition suggests that the doctor's aim was fairly true. There may be no substitute for hands-on physical restraint, however, unless your aim is very true. In any event, gun-rights supporters will crow that the doctor's courage and/or coolness under fire vindicates their advocacy of concealed weapons for regular folks. I guess I'm a fanatic, however, since I can't let the NRA have this one entirely. The idea of a doctor shooting a patient can't help seeming slightly wrong, no matter what the circumstances, what with "first do no harm" and all that tradition. But maybe this doctor takes a more holistic or more utilitarian approach to his oath, excising diseased human matter for the good of society as a whole. Of course, if he articulated it that way he might become a patient himself, but such are the contradictions of our complicated world.

Endangering civilians

Earlier this week the FAA banned American airlines from flying into or out of Tel Aviv, Israel, after a Hamas rocket landed within a mile of the city's airport. Last night the authority lifted the ban after studying the situation -- and after hearing loud complaints from pro-Israel politicians and opinionators in this country. Objectively speaking, it looks like Hamas has a far smaller chance of hitting a passenger plane, if they're even targeting one, with their rockets than the Russophile Ukrainian separatists had with their more sophisticated technology. The Malaysian airliner incident of last week has made aviation authorities very cautious, however. The problem with their approach, from a political standpoint, was that the flight ban could hurt Israel's economy if sustained, while any disruption of normal travel routines is seen as a "victory" for terrorists. I can't say whether pressure from pro-Israeli politicians contributed to the decision to lift the ban, but the whole story had a familiar ring to it. During Israel's punitive operations in Gaza, we've heard constantly that the Israelis have urged civilians by every means possible to evacuate areas likely to be bombed or attacked, while Hamas has exhorted those same civilians to stay where they are. For this, Hamas is accused of heartlessly endangering civilian lives simply so they can accuse Israel of committing atrocities, while the Hamas point of view, presumably, is that those civilians have a right to stay where they are without being bombed, even when rockets are fired at Israel from their neighborhoods. The situation with the FAA isn't exactly the same, since a third party rather than a belligerent was warning civilians away from danger. But one crucial detail is the same: one of the belligerents, or a lobby of foreign sympathizers -- the latter represented by Michael Bloomberg -- repudiated the warning and urged civilians not to take precautions. There may still be a meaningful difference in degree here, depending on the relative risk to an airline passenger compared to the risk to a Gaza city-dweller. Many may sincerely believe that there is no great risk of a Hamas rocket hitting the airport, much less an airplane. But it will still be fair to ask, should Hamas bring down or even damage a plane, who bears responsibility for the casualties. Supporters of Israel are adamant about holding Hamas responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza so long as Hamas appears to discourage civilian evacuations. By analogy, if political pressure led to the lifting of the flight ban, the politicians, foreign or domestic, should be held responsible if Hamas hits an American plane.

23 July 2014

Cuomo's law: 'I can't "interfere" with it, because it is mine.'

The New York Times lays the smack down on Governor Cuomo today with a long report on the short life of the Moreland Commission, created by Cuomo with much fanfare to investigate endemic corruption in campaign financing and state government. The Times reports that, in fact, the commission was little more than a tool to intimidate the state legislature, and was discouraged from investigating people close to Cuomo himself. It was shut down once it had served Cuomo's purposes, but before it could serve what many considered the state's purposes. Touted as an independent entity, it is now acknowledged by Cuomo himself to have been subject to his will all along. He makes this point, apparently, to dismiss complaints that he improperly interfered with its work. "It's my commission," the governor told one reporter, "I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me." The scare quotes around "interfere" seem to be his. Presumably it was always his prerogative to determine who should or should not be investigated. At one moment he declares that "you can't set up an investigations commission to extort the Legislature. At the same moment he admits that the threat of the commission gave him leverage with legislators to advance his policy agenda. "They thought it was really abusive," he says, but in the end "they gave us everything we couldn't get last year."

From one perspective, this is just strong leadership, proving Cuomo the sort of hardball player the Democratic party needs at the state and national level. I might agree with that except for the apparent hypocrisy of Cuomo's "interference," which suggests that his real target wasn't corruption but opposition. This sort of intimidation is the sort of thing we expect from a leader like Vladimir Putin, except that there's no presumption of innocence for Cuomo's opponents as there is, outside Russia, for Putin's. Apart from that, an investigating committee that acts, in effect, at the leader's pleasure, investigating those whom it's convenient or useful to investigate, and neglecting (or scrupulously ignoring) everything else, looks pretty authoritarian. Yet who doubts that Cuomo will be re-elected this November. Few will feel motivated to vote Republican to punish him, understandably, and few will have the imagination or courage to vote for Howie Hawkins, Zephyr Teachout or any other alternative on the left.  Teachout, who has called on Cuomo to resign after today's story, is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary after failing to wrest the Working Families nomination from him. That alone proves that anyone who says there's no alternative to Cuomo is, to say the least, wrong.

22 July 2014

The ambiguity of the state

The Affordable Care Act is in trouble again. A three-judge panel of a D. C. appeals court has ruled that the IRS can't give tax-credit subsidies to people in the 36 states where "Obamacare" is operated by the federal government. The reason is in the ACA itself. It authorizes the IRS to provide tax credits to people who acquire health insurance through "an exchange established by the state." The two-judge majority, ruling in favor of a set of libertarian litigants, interprets this language to mean "an exchange established by one of the states of the union." Therefore, when the IRS authorized tax credits for people who use exchanges regardless of state or federal origin, it went beyond its legal mandate.

This is another ha-ha moment for Obamacare foes. They've complained from the start that legislators approved the ACA without reading the entire massive text, and today's ruling appears to prove the foolishness of such an approach. From an early point, however, the government was aware of the "glitch" in the language, but by that time Republicans in the House of Representatives were blocking efforts to amend the ACA in a helpful way. It became simply a matter of time before partisan or ideological litigants found a like-minded court or panel -- though in the present case the Obama administration is expected to appeal so that the case is heard by the full court, which is supposed to have a liberal majority thanks to several Obama appointees. If the full court overturns today's ruling, in which the majority were George W. Bush appointees, it'll be role-reversal time; Republicans will complain about partisan bias in the court while Democrats will claim objective vindication of their policies.

One is tempted to say, "Only in America." Elsewhere, I'd like to think, "the state" would be synonymous with "the nation" or "the government in its entirety." Here, however, that sort of thing is "statism," while "states' rights" as against the federal government are still largely held sacred. The ambiguity of the word "state" is one of the pitfalls of federalism into which the ACA apparently has stumbled. It was dumb of the drafters not to realize this, but it's just as dumb of this country that such a "glitch" could have costly consequences for so many people.

21 July 2014

The moral calculus of human shields

In Gaza, the charge against the Hamas government is that it is allowing its own civilian population to be killed as part of a media strategy, in order to inflame world opinion against Israel. Whether by embedding rocket platforms in residential sites or place like hospitals, or by telling civilians not to evacuate certain areas, as Israeli propaganda leaflets reportedly warn them to do, Hamas stands accused of cynical indifference to the lives of its constituents. For Hamas and its sympathizers -- or, to be more accurate, sympathizers with the Palestinian people, the reasoning is just as simple: Israel drops the bombs, so they are the murderers of civilians. If Israelis and their sympathizers are so concerned with the civilians of Gaza, they can stop dropping bombs. Of course, Israel is never going to let Hamas fire rockets at them with impunity, but Hamas can argue that that's not their problem. The Hamas leadership may feel sincerely that their strategy should checkmate Israel, that Israel's professed humanitarian sentiment should stay their hand if the people of Gaza stand between the bombs and the rockets. For the rest of us, the question is whether there's an objective way to assign moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza. If Israel is bombing regardless of the presence of human shields, they are immediately responsible, but if the people are there because Hamas is telling them to stay, then Hamas has to share responsibility unless you want to argue that Israel has no right to defend itself against rocket attacks. If civilians in Gaza are actively volunteering to play human shields, then they share in the responsibility for their own deaths. The mistake is to attempt to calculate who the "real" bad guy is. That'll force you to go back in time. Israel is responsible because of military occupation and oppression; Palestinians are responsible because they've never convincingly renounced the objective of reclaiming all Palestine; Zionists are to blame for claiming any part of Palestine after Islam had claimed it all centuries ago; Arabs are to blame for rejecting the original partition deal of 1948 and attacking the Zionists, and then acting as if they still deserve  their part of the deal. One note plays consistently: the two sides will not share the land. One or the other must dominate; to be poor neighbors of a Jewish state is as abhorrent to one as it is to the other to be the "tolerated" subjects of an Islamic state. Why the world still looks for good guys and bad guys in Palestine increasingly baffles me. I lean toward a simpler calculus: if each side has any share of blame for violence, regardless of proportions, then both are equally to blame, and both should be shunned by the rest of the world. But if the world feels responsible for the dead civilians in Gaza, and for the smaller number of civilian casualties in Israel, then maybe it should take responsibility for the "Holy Land" by taking the rule of it away from Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Arabs alike.