17 February 2019

The Untamed Amazon

Democrats in New York are divided over the meaning of Amazon's decision not to build offices in the Empire State. Executive Democrats -- Governor Cuomo and Mayor Di Blasio -- are angry at progressive legislators for wanting to renege on a deal that would have gifted Amazon with subsidies and tax breaks. They argue that the jobs Amazon would have created would have more than made up for the taxes Amazon wouldn't pay. The offending legislators seem to feel that an example needed to be made, and that a behemoth like Amazon has no business demanding tax breaks and subsidies. The truth, of course, is that seeking such breaks, thereby increasing profits, is the essence of business. Whether companies like Amazon have a fair claim to such treatment is an urgent question for debate, but the debate should be held at the right level. So long as states are permitted to compete for jobs by outdoing each other in sweetheart deals, there's no point in any one state taking a moralistic stance that can only prove self-defeating. Since the states are sovereign over their own taxes, the best that might be hoped for would be an interstate pact not to offer such abject incentives to corporations, but in the current political climate taxophibic Republican majorities in some states are unlikely to enter into any such pact. One needn't be a Marxist to conclude that the ultimate problem is the inordinate power a capitalist political culture, not to mention a federal political order, gives to corporations. But how do you convince people who resent the deals dealt to the likes of Amazon to do something about it if doing something means taking away some of the theoretical freedom we all seem to value so much? It would seem that the subsidies slavishly offered the great corporations is part of the price of freedom, albeit a less honorable part than others you hear about.

11 February 2019

'A vital piece of progressive organizational infrastructure' -- or not

In 2018 the Working Families Party of New York targeted members of the Independent Democratic Conference for destruction. The IDC was a group of Democratic state senators who rejected their party's legislative leadership and formed a coalition with the Republicans, giving the latter leadership of the Senate. The IDC had disbanded by primary season, but eight of its members remained in the upper house. The WFP endorsed primary challengers to all of them, and took credit when six of them lost. As a result, some Democrats now apparently feel that the WFP has grown too powerful, or so a coalition of liberal lobby groups are warning. They hope to preempt an attempt to end the practice of fusion voting, which allows candidates to receive endorsements from multiple parties and appear on multiple lines in the general election ballot.

Fusion voting allows small parties like the WFP to have some leverage when trying to steer the two major parties in more ideological directions. By endorsing Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Working Families gets enough votes to maintain its line on the state ballot. That allows them to threaten to run truly independent candidates if the Democratic establishment fails to meet their demands. Practice doesn't always live up to theory -- in the gubernatorial election before last, Andrew Cuomo called the WFP's bluff and got them to endorse him meekly without any extreme concessions -- but the risk of getting primaried has only grown greater for incumbents of both major parties since then. Without fusion voting, Working Families could still run someone to take progressive votes from a Democratic candidate, but the WFP's allies clearly fear that the first time they did so they'd lose their ballot line.

The party's supporters claim that it has "helped  Democrats win tough general election races up and down the ballot," but proof of that may be hard to come by.  Working Families is self-evidently less an independent party than a pressure group within the Democratic party. It can't be a decisive force in Democratic primaries, after all, if its base didn't consist of registered Democrats. That fact makes the WFP a charade rather than "a vital piece of Progressive organizational infrastructure in New York and the nation," as its friends claim. It's anyone's right to demand more progressive (or more conservative, or more radical, etc.) candidates, but it isn't necessarily anyone's right to  exploit another party's popularity in order to threaten it.  I can understand that politicians outside the establishment want shortcuts to influence and power; the WFP favors fusion voting for the same reason Donald Trump runs as a Republican. But if the entrenched power of the two major parties -- sadly a cultural as well as a political fact -- remains the real problem, schemes like fusion voting don't get to the heart of it. They're cosmetic only, offering only a facade of progress when more radical reform may be necessary. If the American political system makes more radical change impossible, insisting that you can't do away with the major parties' electoral advantages until you beat them in an election, maybe fusion voting and the ballot access it allows are understandable. Just the same, don't expect people to cry for you should you be forced, after boasting of your strength, to stand on your own two feet and prove how strong you really are.

06 February 2019

Democracy vs.Truth?

A new book by University of Pennsylvania professor Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth, describes what reviewer David A. Bell describes as an "epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding." The fault line divides citizens into categories we can define roughly as technocrats and -- sigh -- populists over the issue of, in Bell's paraphrase, "Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth?" On one side are arrogant elitists, would-be Platonic guardians and well-meaning experts whose expertise threatens to harden into privilege. On the other we find the advocates of "common sense," including Thomas Paine himself, who distrust abstract concepts and suspect expertise of obfuscation. Bell caricatures this view as, at worst, "a suspicion of and contempt for expertise in general, a dismissal of complexity and abstraction," but the description rings false. My suspicion is that few people are consistently one thing or the other on "epistemological" questions. The "populist" who is skeptical about man-made climate change in defiance of scientific expertise, for instance, might at the same time appeal to expertise on economic questions, believing businessmen the uniquely qualified experts. If right-wingers are inconsistent, leftists are most likely equally so, especially when they weigh the demography of expertise in their judgments. While Bell especially seems convinced that the left is more committed to truth than the right -- he applauds Rosenfeld's absolution of leftist postmodernism from blame for today's "post-truth" environment -- the real issue here is less how to detect lies but the implications of facts in political debates.

Not all political questions are decided by facts. Political decisions are often value judgments made on the assumption that the "common good," for instance, is neither an objective fact nor a revealed truth but whatever a consensus decides it is. In liberal democracies ideas of the common good are shaped by desires as well as necessities. Inevitably such ideas resist appeals for change determined by necessity if they come at too great a cost according to some hedonic calculus that prioritizes freedom above other goods. Political judgments in democracies are often moral judgments that have relatively little to do with facts. The real debate over global warming, for instance, isn't "Is it happening?" but "What are we going to do about it?" While some people will try to reject undesirable options by denying the circumstances that force the issue, their opposition is founded more on moral or ideological objections to certain options (i.e. "more government control") than on an absolute denial of the circumstances. If that example seems to betray bias on my part, other examples can be cited in which the right or the populists claim to have facts on their side, e.g. border security, while the left takes the stance of denial. The main point here is that stigmatizing or suppressing liars alone won't automatically convert all citizens into rational actors when democracy doesn't  require them to be.

If citizens in a democracy claim a right to an opinion on anything that affects them some inevitably will vote on the basis of neither fact nor ideological principle, but on the basis of "I don't like it." In the western world, we insist on an absolute right to "not like it" in spite of everything. Social media has exacerbated this only to the extent that it has created new areas where that right can be asserted and enforced against all comers. That such dislike doesn't have to justify itself with fact or reason is a problem predating our modern troubles, and neither the  "enhanced rules and regulations for communication" advocated by Rosenfeld nor Bell's proposal to "restrain the economic power of the companies that profit most directly from populist attacks on epistemological authority" promises to get to the heart of that problem. At a certain stage of democracy, perhaps nothing can.

05 February 2019

The Gray Area

The angry English prophet of muddling through life, John Gray, has published another book. Seven Types of Atheism, as described by Christopher Beha in the February 21 New York Review of Books, covers not only the "New Atheists" Gray has often criticized but also secular humanists, scientific rationalists, progressive ideologues (Marxist or otherwise), misotheists (who hate the idea and character of the Abrahamic god), materialists and skeptics. The last two categories are the most acceptable to Gray because they reject idealism and the overly-optimistic redemption narrative of Christian culture. They do not seek the elimination of religion from society, while those who do, Gray has argued before, simply substitute a secular or scientist myth of permanent progress for the Christian original and thus are no better. Indeed, Gray often argues that the New Atheists are worse, not only misunderstanding the true purpose of myth but failing to comprehend the importance of myth to coping with objectively futile existence. In place of religious or secular crusades Gray recommends a contemplative life, aspiring to an "inner freedom" indifferent to forms of government and other causes of worry or anger.

Beha clearly isn't happy with the political implications of what he calls Gray's quietism. He acknowledges that Gray allows for ameliorative political action, but observes that "motivating even these narrow but necessary acts often requires a grand vision of the possibilities for permanent change." People need to believe that positive change is irreversible, but Gray doesn't allow for that. He doesn't  quite endorse the old cyclical view of history, but he rejects the "whiggish" notion of inevitable progress. Gray's error -- if not Beha's-- , so it seems from this second-hand glance, is his assumption that modern political ideology  assumes that progress must be permanent. Since Macchiavelli's time, depending on who you read, political thinkers have been all too conscious of the cyclical nature of history but have tried to beat the system. Centuries of small-r republican theory have been dedicated to contriving a political order to prevent the sort of decadence the ancients believed to be inevitable. Marxist-Leninists have been similarly preoccupied with the danger of backsliding, arguably to an irrational degree in their zeal to root out counterrevolutionaries, capitalist-roaders etc. Their concerns are not really analogous to the scriptual monotheists' obsession with heresy. Modern liberalism of the sort identified with the Democratic party is perhaps more millenarian in this sense in its faith that a bureaucratic welfare state can become a perpetual-motion machine permitting all of us to be whatever we want to be without consequences. Political thinking in general has been more realistic in acknowledging a need for active participation by citizens in holding back decadence and corruption. I'm not ready to concede that this is merely some variant of evangelical zeal, as Gray may believe, simply because it works from the assumption that nothing we do is irreversible. If liberals like Beha acknowledged as much, they might have less reason to worry about what pessimists like Gray think.