Clearly, if American politics are any indication, no one knows.
Not being a political philosopher myself, much of philosophical the debate on justice, markets and freedom is foreign to me, though I’ve long been interested in the work of John Rawls and his monumental 1971 work “A Theory of Justice.”
Rawls explored the limits of distributive justice, that is, how goods, services and rights can be equitably pass around in a society to maximize benefits to both individuals and society. In a Rawlsian society, each individual has equal access to the same rights and opportunities as all others. Moreover, inequalities (assumed to be inevitable) are arranged such that they benefit the weakest members of society.
Nozick, penned the 1974 book “Anarchy, State and Utopia” (which I have not read) in response to Rawls’ work. He argued that goods and services can only be justly distributed through pure free exchange. The state then serves merely to facilitate exchange by protecting the rights of property.
Srinivasen rightly indicates that most large democracies are decidedly Rawlsian in construction, but that ideologies, particularly in the United States, are swinging toward Nozick (though people might argue that we are becoming more Randian than Nozickian).
Rawls and Nozick represent the two poles of mainstream Western political discourse: welfare liberalism and laissez-faire liberalism, respectively. (It’s hardly a wide ideological spectrum, but that’s the mainstream for you.) On the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian. Such creeping changes as the erosion of the welfare state, the privatization of the public sphere and increased protections for corporations go along with a moral worldview according to which the free market is the embodiment of justice. This rise in Nozickian thinking coincides with a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the United States over the past five decades — the top 1 percent of Americans saw their income multiply by 275 percent in the period from 1979 and 2007, while the middle 60 percent of Americans saw only a 40 percent increase.
Nozick’s libertarian position (like Rand), however, leads to some inevitable moral quandries. Is pure “free trade” always fair? Is the exploitation of workers facing few other employment options, and the resultant maximization of profit fair to society?
The problems with Nozick’s position is a problem inherent in neo-classical assumptions that supply and demand markets are based on perfect information between buyers and sellers. It is assumed that buyers know all prices and can make informed choices on purchases.
We know this not to be the case, which is exactly why health markets in the United States are so inefficient and prices so vastly inflated. If one is unconscious from a heart attack, does one really have time to shop around for the best deal possible? Our market approach to health care in the United States has created a system that is neither fair nor efficient.
But the issue here is one of morals. Is it acceptable that we allow for example, loan sharks to exploit the desperate conditions of poverty, or that we allow the poor to sell their organs (or even their daughters), or that we allow the Wal Marts of the world to pay absurdly low wages and offer few benefits, simply because they operate in unemployment-endemic areas of the country?
to concede that there is more to freedom than consent, that there is such a thing as nonviolent exploitation, that people shouldn’t be rewarded and punished for accidents of birth, that we have moral obligations that extend beyond those we contractually incur — this is to concede that the entire Nozickian edifice is structurally unsound. The proponent of free market morality has lost his foundations.
Clearly, there is no happy medium between equality and freedom. What one might call freedom, for example, from exploitation, will be seen as an imposition of the other to realize his or her economic dreams.
OK, gotta go.
I was perplexed when a recent essay from the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda mouthpiece XinHua News came running through my social meida feeds. The article in question, “Commentary: U.S. fiscal failure warrants a de-Americanized world,” which spouts a litany of transgressions that the United States has committed throughout the world, calls for an end to the “Pax Americana” and even suggests a new, international currency.
The essay is, of course, quite odd in that it conspicuously ignores China’s dangerous territorial disputes with Japan and overt threats to the sovereignty of Taiwan and the brutal occupation of Tibet. It’s glaring in its zeal to criticize America as a dangerous hegemon, but ignores China’s stated quest to become a broker of all things East Asian. It also fails to offer who would back this new, mythical international currency (can one *really* imagine the world seriously using the Chinese Yuan as a foreign reserve currency?).
The entire article sounds like a wishful hegemon-to-be poking at an existing hegemon, and bizarrely offers itself as a benign counter-factual aligned with the poor and downtrodden of the world.
Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place, according to which all nations, big or small, poor or rich, can have their key interests respected and protected on an equal footing.
Ignoring for the moment how uninterested China is in the having the world respect the key interests of Taiwan and Japan, are we really under the illusion that China cares whether the interests of Sub Saharan African countries are respected or not? Can we really take China’s call for democracy and regional understanding seriously when it fails to do either domestically?
The record of China in developing countries and its commitment to doing anything besides resource extraction, however, is decidedly mixed. Soccer stadiums and lavish dinners for African bureaucrats don’t feed people (except the fat African bureaucrats, of course).
Further, the article is laughable in the context of China’s own fiscal and political problems. China’s economy is export driven and follows the same model that Japan and South Korea did by encouraging household savings to fuel investment in public services through interest, while discouraging consumption. Though South Korea and Japan both moved on to consumption economies, it is unclear (at least to me) whether the Chinese Communist Party has the courage to take the political and social risks associated with such a move.
As another blogger pointed out, our disastrous Government shutdown and the public reaction to it are actually indicators that the US system works, and this fact hasn’t been lost on Chinese microbloggers. “Where are the riots?” Political violence, rioting and heavy handed responses are commonplace in China.
In the States, though the shutdown was devastating for public employees and an embarrassing waste of money and time, the effects of the political impasse were largely unfelt by the American populace (outside of some rising blood pressures). Though a repeat performance is infuriating (and inexcusable), it’s interesting to me that the long term effects are few. In fact, I would argue that, despite all of our ideological and social problems, the political system itself may have been strengthened, though it’s too early to tell.
If nothing else, we’ll see a few less Tea Party Republicans in Congress in November of 2014.
The purpose of this post is not to relieve the US of criticism. It deserves plenty. But critics need to be aware that China is not without major problems. Rage on the us all you want, but using China as a benchmark for the future of the United States is wholly unproductive.
I can’t help but thinking that the biggest winner of this shutdown debacle is the American right wing.
Major media outlets (that I read) are portraying the Tea Party minority and the greater Republican Party as mindless crazies, hell bent on getting their way, no matter how destructive the methods might be. To an extent, this is true, but one has to consider the larger picture.
The extreme American right hates government. They hate that money is taken from citizens and put to programs that benefit programs they don’t like which represent ideologies they don’t like. If the Tea Party were granted three wishes, they would use them all to completely shutter the entire US Government, outside of the military and those functions which preserve and enforce property rights.
The shutdown halted many of the programs that American right wingers hate most. Poor people were unable to access welfare benefits. The NSF and the NIH were shutdown which affected me personally as I am currently applying for grants from both. The EPA and the CDC were both shut down. In the latter case, disease monitoring ceased and lab testing for rare diseases, some of which are ONLY available at the CDC.
And here is where it all lies. Shuttering grant funding agencies and labs which exclusively provide testing services impacts us not merely in the short term. By demonstrating once that a shutdown is possible, and further showing that it can and will happen again in the near future, people who use lab testing services, for example, will begin to explore other options. Everyone wants a back up.
This is where the Tea Party wins. This particular section of American politics wishes that state services were privatized. In the case of labs and grant support, I think that researchers in 2013 are savvy enough that they might just get their wish. Since the US Government has shown that we can’t depend on it, we will naturally start looking to the private sector to provide support.
The trouble is that the private sector isn’t necessarily interested in providing costly and underutilized services to test for rare diseases. There is no profit in disease surveillance, and very few tangible, short term monetary rewards for doing things like malaria research or health problems of marginalized populations in the US. The private sector might step up to replace at least some of these services, but they’ll do it in a patchy, inefficient and very costly and indifferent manner.
True, there are some private foundations which support research (Gates would be an example) but their contribution and focus is limited compared to that of the NIH, NSF, HHS, CDC and a host of other government agencies which support research and monitoring.
So, while the Tea Party and the Republicans may have lost the poltical battle and may even lose a few seats in the mid terms next year and might not even get the executive in 2016, they’ve won the ideological battle simply by forcing Americans to look for options to government provided services.
In short, we lost and the world loses, too.
The United States of America has the worst health care system in the developed world. Though we develop some of the most advanced medical technologies, pharmaceuticals, procedures and research and despite the fact that we can claim some of the finest physicians in the world, our health system is expensive and mostly unavailable to the people most likely to become ill.
As a country, we have the worst health profile in the developed world falling behind all of our peers including Sweden, Germany, Japan, Italy, Turkey and even our totalitarian brothers in the north, Canada. We can even claim the embarrassing distinction of having an infant mortality rate higher than that of impoverished Cuba, despite being the wealthiest country that human history has ever seen.
It’s an absolute embarrassment. The inexplicable inability of a country as wealthy and powerful as the US to guarantee even basic protections of health to its citizens makes me incredibly ashamed to be an American.
Clearly, as Mr. Obama put it, a fraction of a single political party in a single house in a single branch of government doesn’t agree with me. In fact, their crass shutdown of the Federal Government in the name of nothing more than ideological insanity is an affront not only to Americans, but all of humanity. If we are a country that now values politics and control as more important than human health and life, then we have truly lost our way.
The irony is that the Affordable Care Act is only a modest improvement to a truly inhumane and awful health care system. It does not provide us with a Cuban or even a Canadian style system. It does not fully eliminate the possibility of household devastation given a calamitous health event. It does not erase the specter of medical debt that many low and middle class households face every day.
It sadly shies away from implementing rigid price controls as those in mighty Japan; prices controls which keep health care affordable, while still preserving a competitive and profitable health care technologies market.
It does not fully release us from a state of health care bondage that keeps Americans from starting new businesses or changing jobs; unlike powerful and economically vibrant Sweden, where even the most risky of start-ups are possible, due to a basic guarantee of health care.
It only barely offers a guarantee to the poor, who, while ensuring ample profits for the Wal Marts and the McDonalds by working for pennies, face the severest of health problems. The disproportionately poor health profiles of the poor are not free. By not providing sufficient care and wages, the Wal Marts and McDonalds of the world shift those expenses onto taxpayers, so that we effectively subsidize their enterprises. Worse yet, since we refuse to acknowledge it, we manage it inefficiently, raising costs for everyone.
Failure to provide health care to poor people (or anyone else) in an efficient and transparent manner wreaks havoc on our economy, robs governments of dollars that could be better assigned to upgrading our aging infrastructure and degrades the ability of our workforce to be productive. Yet, Republicans oppose it.
I can’t think of any rational reason outside that they might have secretly started smoking weed in their own quarters.
The Affordable Care Act falls far short of my vision of a truly inclusive and effective health care insurance scheme for America. Despite this, it is a milestone improvement to an embarrassingly poor “system.”
The government shutdown to protest the Affordable Care Act has simply left me more emotionally numb than even the attacks in Kenya. Sometimes, I try to convince myself that, under all the insane rhetoric, the American right wing is a rational beast and that they have legitimate concerns and offer reasonable solutions. If this ideological shutdown over providing negligible improvements to a failing system of health care in America is any indication, insanity has truly prevailed.
Today I’m reading the new reports on yesterday’s gun assault on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The numbers killed and injured keep rising. Last I checked, there’s around 50 dead and nearly 200 injured.
This was a horrible, inexcusable event. Al Shabab, a Somali terror/warlord group aligned with the collection of groups we refer to as Al Qaeda, has claimed that the massacre was in retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Somali Army to out Al Shabab from the territories it occupies. It is unclear how this strategy is to work, given that Kenya entered Somalia in response to a series of terror attacks by the group.
It is likely that As Shabab intend this as evidence of their continued existence and a way to obtain recognition from other groups that might support them. Admittedly, my knowledge of the complex dynamics of Islamic terror groups is lacking.
The shooting as Westgate was particularly depressing to me. I’ve spent time in Kenya, and grew rather fond of Nairobi this past summer. I have many Kenyan and Japanese friends and colleagues in the area.
In Africa, only certain people can go to upscale places like Westgate. On any given day in Westgate, Ya Ya Centre, or any of the other upscale malls, you might be sharing space with Kenyan politicians, a prize winning African literary figure, brave human rights and relief workers, corporate kings, diplomats from all around the world, and a host of others.It has already been announced that Ghanaian writer and former ambassador to the UN Kofi_Awoonor is among those killed.
It is really easy to be cynical about an upscale mall in a developing country from afar. I’m positive that disparaging comments have already been made, but I will not search for them.
Places like the Westgate Mall, however, are sanctuaries in a place like Nairobi. Though I only rarely visit malls in the United States, Westgate is a place where people like me can escape the stigma of “otherness” and constant objectification, be free of the constant touting and begging that unfortunately occurs far too often in Nairobi and be in a place where one doesn’t have to look over one’s shoulder at all moments. It may sound quite awful to hear a wealthy, educated and white American complain, but in Nairobi, sadly, all of these things are a given. It becomes extremely exhausting and places like the Westgate happily provide them (along with excellent bookstores).
The worst outcome of this shooting will be that security will become even more intense. The divisions between the wealthy and the poor will become ever clearer. On the one hand, a secured area creates safety, on the other, it creates awful divisions. Nowhere is this clearer than the United States, whose history is filled divisions.
I am wishing the best to all in Nairobi right now. I’m sure that everyone I know in Kenya knows one or more people that were in that mall yesterday.
In 1994, over the course of 100 days, members of the Hutu tribe waged a coordinated campaign to slaughter all of the Tutsi tribe within the borders of Rwanda. Nobody really knows how many people actually died, but it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed or approximately 20% of the Rwandan population.
America, weary from rocky military interventions in Haiti and Somalia stood by and did absolutely nothing material to stop it. The US military’s only role in the conflict was to evacuate its citizens.
The Clinton Administration issued a plea to the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (two warring factions) to “agree to a ceasefire and return to negotiations called for by Tanzania” and then suggested the the Rwandan military work to quell the violence.
Worse yet, to my memory, the American public failed to comprehend the serious nature of the conflict, viewing it as a foreign problem, a problem of Africa, and a problem of Africans. The internet existed then, but unfortunately, we can’t go back to read the comments on popular new sites. I am positive they would be incredibly revealing.
While Syria is not Rwanda, there are obvious parallels. Though Assad has willingly used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times, Americans, weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, have willingly turned a blind eye.
Americans, in the name of either peace or indifference, have essentially normalized the use of chemical weapons to retain political power for the worst governments on the planet. This is the scariest implication of the whole affair.
Figures like Assad do not respond to dialogue. Syria has been under sanctions for years to no effect. In fact, his rule has become vastly more violent under sanctions, rendering them useless.
People often fail to understand that dictators protect themselves and the people around them at the expense of their citizenry. Sanctions, which target the economy, only serve to punish the weak. Dictators, dealers in violence, will only respond to credible threats to their hold on power. For better or for worse, in the past decade, America has proven itself rather adept at removing governments it doesn’t like. Assad should take us seriously, but of course, our weak kneed electorate has turned us into an elaborate joke.
In principle, I am vehemently anti-war. However, sometimes a commitment to inaction is more unjust than a credible commitment to action. In this particular case, American indifference to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction to keep a toxic seat of power will have deep long term implications for generations to come.
I was also happy to see that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unapologetically kept up reports on the severity of the situation. Amnesty “neither condemned nor condoned military action” which, considering the source, sounded like an endorsement to keep it on the table.
While some are relieved to see that Russia and Syria have brought the issue to the negotiating table (presumably absolving the US of any responsibility), I am not.
Assad, with Russia’s support, has successfully turned the conversation his way, and has only entrenched himself further. He can happily continue the killing (now at a rate of 5,000 people per month) as he likes now that he’s successfully defused the American threat. It will set an excellent example for others like him though I think he learned the tactic from North Korea.
Kristoff referred to a great piece from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which pretty much sums up my views on the new “peace movement.”:
What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.
It seems that there is room for only one view on Syria, just as there was only room for one view on Iraq in 2003. Social media, I believe, has exacerbated the herd like nature of political views. The NSA need not work to create to create a uniform citizenry, the citizenry are quite adept at doing it to themselves. In contrast to 2008, though, the political tables have in some ways been turned.
I won’t say much about any of it, mostly since I have little time to respond to the one or two comments that will inevitably come. I am, however, drawn to a young Syrian blogger (tweeter?) named Edi, whose pictures (two of them) I post here. The situation clearly isn’t as simple as America believes.
I fear that America (and particularly the American left, who have it horribly wrong this time) is vastly underestimating the long term, worldwide consequences of American inaction in Syria.
That is all I will say on the matter (not that my opinion counts for anything).
Policy makers in the US and Europe seized on the paper as proof that cutting stimulus and social programs was a good idea, and proceeded to do so with abandon. Of course, right wingers wanted to cut money to social programs anyway, and would have done so regardless, but the paper was held out as scientific proof that it was a solid plan of action.
I won’t comment on how strange it was that Republicans were interested in science at all, given recent efforts to politicize the NSF and micromanage the grant decision process.
The trouble was that the results presented in RR were shown to be based on the selective use of data. Thomas Herndon, a 28-year-old graduate student, obtained the dataset from RR themselves and couldn’t reproduce the results.
In fact, he found that the only way to accurately reproduce the results in RR’s paper that showed that high debt restrained economic growth was to exclude important cases. When including the missing data, high debt was associated with consistently positive growth, though modestly slowed.
Originally, I took the view that this was a case of sloppy science. RR had a dataset, got some results which fit the narrative they were pushing and didn’t pursue the matter any further. Reading Herndon’s paper, however, I changed my mind.Herdon took the data and did what any analyst would do when starting exploratory analysis, he plotted it (see figure on the right). Debt to GDP ratios and growth are both continuous measures. We can do a simple scatterplot and see if there’s any evidence that would suggest that the two things are related.
To me, this is a pretty fuzzy result. Though the loess curve (an interpolation method to illustrate trend) suggest that there is *some* decline in growth overall, I’d still ding any intro stats student for trying to suggest that there’s any relationship at all. There is no way that RR, both trained PhD’s and likely having the help of a paid research assistant, didn’t produce such a plot.
Noting that the loess curve drops past approximately 120%, I calculated the median growth for each country represented. Only 7 countries have had debt to GDP ratios greater than 120% in the past 60+ years: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the United States. Out of these only two had (median) negative growth: Belgium (-.69%, effectively zero) and the United States (-10.94%), which has only had a debt to GDP greater than 120% one time. All other countries has positive growth under high debt, even beleaguered Japan. New Zealand can even claim a strong 9.8% growth under high debt. The US, then, is a major outlier, possibly bringing the entire curve down.
As this doesn’t fit their story, RR’s solution was to categorize debt to GDP ratios into five rough classifications, and calculate the mean growth within each group. This is a common trick to extract results from bad data. It’s highly tempting for researchers (and epidemiologists do it far too often), but a bad idea to present it without all the caveats and warnings that should go with it.
I’m not surprised that ideologues such as RR would be so keen to produce the result they did. After all, they published the popular economics work “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” where they try to suggest that budget policy of the US in 2013 should somehow be informed by the economy of 14th century Spain.
I am, however, surprised that reviewers let this pass. If I would have been a reviewer, I would have:
1) pointed out the problems of categorization, where data doesn’t require it
2) noted that categorizing the data (or even plotting it) tears out temporal correlation. For example, one data point from 2008 (stimulus) may be put in the high debt category, but another from 2007 (crash) in the low debt category. While budgets of one year may have little to do with the budget of another, the economy of one year is likely related to the economy of the previous year.
3) questioned the causal mechanisms behind debt and growth. This is obviously a deep question for economists (and not epidemiologists), but of particular import. When does the economy start to react to debt? I’m pretty sure that there is a lag effect as spending bills tend to space disbursements over the course of the fiscal year.
The RR debacle should be a lesson, not only to economists, but to all scientists. While we may always be under pressure to produce results and hope that those results fit and support whatever position we take, shoddy methods don’t get us off the hook. In RR’s case, I would call this fabrication. A good many studies are merely guilty of wishful thinking, but the chance always exists that someone will come out of the woodwork and expose our flaws. After all, that’s what science is all about.