Saturday, October 31, 2015
Once again I have been so busy writing columns that I have neglected to post them here. So here are pieces that have been published one place or another since August.
General David Petraeus recently told Congress that the United States is not doing enough in Syria. On the contrary, we have been doing too much.
There is no such thing as an ideal foreign policy. An ideal world would have a universal government with no need to conduct foreign relations. Unfortunately, recent American foreign policy fails to achieve even the lesser evils allowed by an imperfect world.
There is no such thing as an ideal foreign policy. An ideal world would have a universal government with no need to conduct foreign relations. Unfortunately, recent American foreign policy fails to achieve even the lesser evils allowed by an imperfect world.
Much of the problem results from Americans’ failure to understand that moral standards appropriate at the personal (or “micro”) level cannot be applied uncritically at the “macro” level in which governments operate.
America’s approach to Syria is a clear example of the problems caused by failure to understand this distinction. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presides over a civil war which has killed hundreds of thousands and driven crowds to flee. American policy is that Assad is an evil man and has to go. Russian and Iranian support for his regime is considered outrageous.
We need to reconsider. Assad’s forces face several rebel groups and the Islamic State. Wholesale atrocities, committed by all sides, will end only when the civil war ends. If rebel forces destroy Assad, war will continue while the various groups fight to see who would rule. So the fastest way to end the war would be victory by Assad’s loyalists
Whatever their reasons for supporting Assad, therefore, Russia and Iran are promoting more humane results than is the U.S. Our support for rebels prolongs the misery.
Assad, like Saddam Hussein, has done terrible things , so evaluated at the micro level he is indeed despicable. But remember the actual consequences of removing Hussein: chaos, large scale killings, the Islamic State. The average Iraqi would be better off today if Hussein remained in power.
When evaluating leaders remember, as Charles A. Beard noted, that “The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.” Even terrible leaders provide a valuable service if they can keep their people from beating each other’s brains out.
As the U.S. learned (or did we?) in Iraq, it is much easier to destroy bad governments than to replace them with better ones. Unless our national security absolutely requires it we should therefore refrain from overthrowing even terrible foreign leaders since the one thing worse for the people of a country than a bad government is no government at all.
Thomas Friedman argues that our planet is divided into areas of order and areas of disorder. Noting refugees pouring into Europe, he says “we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood, and we don’t want to choose either: build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations.”
We do have a third choice that could minimize expanding the world of disorder: stop military interventions to overthrow bad regimes, and stop supporting domestic insurrections..
When he met with Vladimir Putin, President Obama was unable to endorse Russia’s support for the Assad regime. Complete reversals of policy are politically embarrassing. But at least we could stop our current expensive and ineffective support for rebel groups. There are signs that we are doing this in fact, despite continuing rhetoric to the contrary.
Many recent commentaries about Syria have lamented the high price of our foreign inaction. But Syria is just one of many places where American inaction is the best possible action.
I always enjoy reading columns by Tim Nesbitt, former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He deals intelligently and honestly with the problems facing today’s working people: unemployment, low wages, and increasing economic inequality.
This said, I fear that Nesbitt’s focus on raising wages and fringe benefits has blinded him to a more promising way to reduce economic inequality.
Forcing low wages up is a poor strategy since increasing the price of anything (including labor) is hardly likely to increase demand for it. As Nesbitt is well aware, increasing the cost of labor encourages employers to outsource work to low wage countries and replace workers with machines.
Nesbitt correctly thinks unions need to do “more legislating than bargaining and … more political campaigning than workplace organizing.” But for what legislation should unions be campaigning? He gives mandated sick leave as an example. But Oregon’s recent sick leave mandate does not necessarily increase a worker’s annual income, and to the extent that it does it increases the cost of labor with all of the usual bad side effects. It does not reduce unemployment.
Alaska's oil dividend suggests a better way to reduce income inequality. Every Alaska resident receives a substantial and equal annual dividend from the oil-based trust fund. When the equal dividend is added to people’s unequal wages (or no wages at all for the unemployed) the net result is less inequality in total personal income.
Imagine a trust fund for the entire United States that could capture royalties from public assets such as oil and other minerals extracted from public lands, from leasing of rights to graze cattle on public lands, and from leasing rights to use radio and TV spectrum. When federal policy requires creation of new money, the new money should be created in the trust fund instead of being captured by private bankers or spent by the government. The trust fund might also include estate tax receipts.
The annual dividend from a federal trust fund would be much larger than the Alaskan dividend. And remember, it would be distributed equally to every man, woman, and child subject to the jurisdiction of our federal government. When added to unequal wages this would substantially reduce economic inequality between families, especially since each family would receive the dividend for each of its children. This reduction in inequality would come without the bad side effects of forcing wages above their natural level----the level at which we have no unemployment because the demand for labor equals its supply.
If the federal dividend were big enough, rather than working some people might choose to live simply and engage in other useful pursuits: caring for small children, volunteering with worthwhile causes as many retired people do now. The dividend would also provide security for people who lose their jobs.
I commend Tim Nesbitt for his concern for working people, for his insights into the problems facing labor unions, and for his conclusion that legislation is a more promising approach to reducing inequality than is collective bargaining with employers. But he needs to broaden his vision of the legislation which unions should be promoting and rise above an inhibiting obsession with increasing wages.
Disruptive new technologies are so …. disruptive! A recent example in New York City evokes well-deserved sympathy for taxi drivers who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a license only to have the market value of their licenses cut in half by the arrival of Uber.
Unfortunately for taxi operators, it is hard to stop progress when it is embraced by millions of customers who appreciate prompt and inexpensive service and thousands of drivers who appreciate being able to make money while retaining flexibility in scheduling work. Chalk up one more victory for smartphones!
It is important to note that the predicament of taxi drivers was caused, not just by opportunities created by smartphones, but also by grossly inadequate licensing laws that go back many decades.
The basic problem is that the licenses were sold to drivers by the city instead of being leased to them. This not only required drivers to put large amounts of money up front to buy licenses that were in effect capital assets, but it subjected them to the risk that the market value of those assets would, as capital assets not uncommonly do, take a big hit.
Of course it was also possible that the market value of a license would increase, which also often happens with capital assets. But there is no reason why such capital gains should be captured by private individuals who had nothing to do with creating them.
If, instead, the city had rented out licenses for limited periods of time, none of these problems would have developed. Taxi drivers could have paid annual rents for their licenses out of current cash flow instead of having to sink huge amounts up front. When the market value of licenses was halved by competition from Uber, the annual license rent could have been adjusted downward the next time the lease came up for renewal. If market value of licenses had increased, the increase could have been captured by the city in the form of higher rents, again the next time leases came up for renewal.
There is one further dimension we need to think about. Issuing a limited number of licenses in effect gives a monopoly over the taxi business to the people who have the licenses. Such a monopoly may well be in the general interest. But if we want to create the monopoly by means of genuine law (as distinguished from arbitrarily) the only possible legitimate owner of the monopoly would be the public, which consists of every man, woman, and child subject to the jurisdiction of the government. Although the government creates the monopoly it does not own the monopoly but only acts as a trustee for the public when it leases out the licenses.
The rents received by government as trustee should therefore not be spent by the government, which would be an abuse of its fiduciary duties as trustee for the public. Instead the money should be distributed in equal amounts to all members of the public as an annual social dividend. Such a system would resemble the oil dividend which goes to all Alaska residents.
Of course this is not how taxi licenses were handled in New York City, and sorting out the current mess in a way which does justice to taxi operators, people who travel around town, and the public will be difficult, if not impossible. That is what happens when you do something the wrong way to begin with. But maybe we can learn something from this experience and do things the right way the next time.
With a year and a half until the next presidential inauguration, Americans have already endured months of maneuvering by contenders to raise money, to get public attention, and to capture the nomination of one of the major political parties. There must be a better way to select presidents: more dignified, briefer, less dependent on big money, and more likely to produce competent chief executives for the world’s most powerful country.
Here is an example of a possible reform in pursuit of these goals, which I offer for your consideration and as a challenge for you to figure out a better reform:
First, only governors or ex-governors would be eligible to run for president. This would guarantee that presidents would come into office with chief executive experience. It would narrow the eligibility down to more manageable numbers and encourage people with presidential ambitions to seek to become governors and get some experience.
Second, presidential candidates would be picked by the respective party members in Congress. The Republican candidate would be chosen by the Republican senators and representatives meeting jointly, and the Democratic candidate by the Democratic senators and representatives.
Third, the presidential election would take place one month after the candidates have been selected. Election would be by popular plurality, and the Electoral College would be abolished.
Fourth, only current members of the U.S. Senate could become vice president, and the vice president would be elected by the House of Representatives. If the presidency is vacated, the vice president would not become president but would be acting president for a month or two while a new president is elected.
This reform, which would require amending the Constitution, would have important benefits. Campaigns would be short, reducing candidates’ need to raise huge amounts of money. Eliminating presidential primary elections would reduce still further the need to raise money while reducing the leverage of extremists in both parties. It would eliminate presidential nominating conventions, which have become boring and irritating spectacles. It would eliminate electing president and vice president in sometimes incongruous package deals.
Some people might object that this proposal prevents “third” party candidates from seeking the presidency. However third party candidates never win and sometimes help elect a major party nominee who is anathema to the very people who supported the minor party. One thinks of Ralph Nader’s role in the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. And of course if a third party gets some representation in Congress and among governors, it could nominate a presidential candidate.
Another obvious objection which might be raised is that this reform would be “undemocratic.” Eliminating presidential primaries and narrowing candidate eligibility would certainly reduce voter choices. But the true test of democracy is whether it maximizes public control over government actions.
The most important function of elections is to force leaders to consider public opinion and the electoral side effects of every decision they make. Incumbents are most likely to lose if votes against them are not divided among many candidates. Since the president will still be chosen by an election, public influence on his or her behavior will not be reduced and, with fewer candidates, may well be enhanced.
Again, readers who do not like my proposal should try to find a better one and present it for public discussion. My proposal is a “first word,” intended to promote public thought and discussion, not a last word. There must be a better way of selecting presidents. The question to be answered is: what is that better way?
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
No, I have not been on a writing binge the last two days. But I have put a lot of mostly published op-ed columns written in the last year and a half here on this blog. For the published ones, you can google to get the published versions. Enjoy!
I recently wrote a column maintaining that the recommended fine against a small bakery for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding is grossly and unjustly excessive. A number of letters and comments in the Oregonian, where my article appeared, have defended the fine. Some indignant readers even think the fine should be larger.
Something that seems to have been overlooked in recent discussions is the constitutional requirement that people not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. A fundamental part of due process of law requires “notice,” namely that people be clearly warned about what actions are illegal and what the maximum possible punishment will be. For example, signs limiting parking to people who have handicap permits state the maximum fine---so many hundred dollars--- that may be imposed on violators.
Clearly the owners of the Sweet Cakes bakery could not have known that their refusal to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple could be punished with a $150,000 fine (now reduced to “only” $135,000). A somewhat similar case in the state of Washington recently drew a $1,000 fine, and I am not sure that case had been decided yet when the Sweet Cakes incident occurred. I would bet that Sweet Cakes would have made the cake if they had known they might be fined even $1,000 for refusing.
And this brings up a related point. The deterrent effect of a fine is a function both of the magnitude of that fine and of the likelihood that it will be imposed. It may well be, for example, that a 90% chance of a $5 fine would deter far more littering than a 1% chance of a $1,000 fine. And the owners of Sweet Cakes already incurred a “fine” for refusing to sell the cake: the loss of the profit they would have made on the cake. This “fine” was automatically levied on them without any need for the government to do anything. It was 100% certain.
It is not as if government has nothing else to do than to prosecute this kind of case. St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian theologian, noted many centuries ago that it is impossible for government to outlaw all sins. He pointed out that government has limited enforcement capabilities and should not spread them too thin, neglecting to enforce more important laws which prosecuting less important ones. In cases like Sweet Cakes, where a small but 100% certain “fine” is automatically imposed on businesses which refuse to serve someone, it is particularly hard to justify an expensive tax-payer funded bureaucratic apparatus, particularly one which is free to impose huge additional fines without giving people the notice required by due process of law.
The problems facing members of racial minorities vastly outweigh those facing people trying to buy a cake for a same-sex marriage. Perhaps the state should concentrate its limited enforcement resources on enforcing duty-to-serve laws in the racial context and rely on the enlightened self-interest of bakeries to take care of the wedding cakes issue.
As I write these words an Oregon administrative law judge is hearing arguments about how much damages the owners of the now closed Sweet Cakes bakery must pay for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.
If the judge accepts the $150,000 fine proposed by state civil rights investigators, it will clearly be a gross injustice. As Pooh-Bah in the Mikado put it, “My object all sublime is to make the punishment fit the crime….” Can any reader believe that $150,000 fits this particular violation of the law? I do not know anything about the financial situation of the Sweet Cakes owners, but for most owners of a small business having to pay this much money would undoubtedly ruin them.
And how much damage did the bakery’s refusal to bake a cake actually cause the couple? Let’s assume that the value of the couple’s time is $100 an hour and that it took them two hours to locate another bakery which was willing to bake their cake. Perhaps they needed to drive around Portland burning $50 in gasoline in pursuit of the cake. Voila: Damages: $250.
All this is assuming that the law under which this case arose is valid, constitutional, and reasonable, which is doubtful. Duty-to-serve-everyone rules applying to innkeepers and restaurants are so reasonable that they existed under English common law centuries before antidiscrimination legislation was enacted in the U.S. Travelers, not least in the old days when transportation was very slow, were often at the mercy of a single local innkeeper or restaurant, and if arbitrarily refused service they might have nowhere to sleep or eat.
The more recent legislation under which the Sweet Cakes case arose considers a much wider range of businesses to be “places of public accommodation.” But as the Sweet Cakes case illustrates, there is a big difference between hotels and restaurants, on the one hand, and places which bake wedding cakes, on the other hand. Wedding cakes are ordered well in advance, so there is nothing like the time pressure confronting a traveler seeking a roof under which to sleep or a place to have dinner. And there are many places which produce wedding cakes and would be delighted to serve this couple; it is not a local monopoly.
Legislation going beyond the traditional duty-to-serve, requiring expensive government agencies and imposing potentially huge fines on places like Sweet Cakes, may therefore not be reasonably related to a legitimate public purpose and therefore may be unconstitutional.
The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “excessive fines” restricts only the federal government and therefore does not place limits on the government of Oregon. But the spirit of the Eighth Amendment makes it clear that to impose more than a very nominal fine on the owners of the now closed Sweet Cakes would be a manifest injustice.
The Catholic philosopher, St. Augustine, famously asked: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”
Augustine understood that the fundamental power of government, like that of a robber, is the power of the sword. More recently the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung updated the metaphor, noting that “All political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.”
True, government also wields the other two kinds of social power: the pen, and the purse. But its ability to buy pens and to fill its purse with money needed to induce people to do things is based on taxes. Taxes are collected at the point of the sword. We do not have telethons---the power of the pen--- asking us to send in donations to support government.
The fact that government rests on the power of the sword means that it is potentially dangerous. Government-as-bandit can single out individuals or particular groups and do terrible things to them. It can just kill them outright, as the Nazis did to Jews during the Holocaust. Or it can imprison or fine them or strip them of their property.
However government is still necessary if we don’t want to find ourselves in a Hobbesian free-for-all where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”. Legitimate government, government-as-legislator, must be able to deprive people of life, liberty, or property, but it cannot do so arbitrarily. It can inflict sanctions only on individuals who violate genuine laws, general rules of action which apply to anybody who takes the prohibited action. And of course rules which apply only to certain kinds of people are not general rules. Such rules, since they do not rise to the dignity of genuine laws, should therefore be called pseudolaws.
The requirement that government only inflict sanctions on people who have violated general rules of action gives everyone great protection from being treated arbitrarily. Legislators hesitate to enact obnoxious general rules if they, too, would be subject to the same rules.
An ideal government would be one where there are laws but no pseudolaws. The opposite of such an ideal government would be one in which there are no laws, but many pseudolaws. This is probably how the first governments originated, in the dim and murky past, as protection rackets run totally for the benefit of the racketeers.
The history of political progress since then has consisted of prolonged, intelligent resistance to government-as-bandit, resistance which has gradually moved us away from pseudolaws and towards societies governed only by genuine laws. We are not there yet, and some countries still have much further to go. But it is now possible to imagine the day when government-as-bandit will have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Perhaps the final blow against government-as-bandit will come when people in general engage in civil disobedience to pseudolaws. This will be feasible only in countries which are close to the goal. In countries which still have many pseudolaws, civil disobedience to them could destroy all order and thereby make bad situations even worse.
But in more advanced countries civil disobedience to pseudolaws could be helpful. And the usual fears that civil disobedience erodes respect for laws would not apply, since disobedience to pseudolaws hardly implies disrespect for genuine laws.
The United States has painted itself into an Obamacare corner. Obamacare has enough good elements that repealing it would harm millions of people. Keeping it in its present form will harm other millions and inflict serious economic damage. But it is impossible to reform Obamacare, since Republican politicians won’t support changes that prolong its longevity.
To escape this mess we need a magician who can pull a political rabbit out of their hat, and the best person to do this may be Hillary Rodham Clinton. If Mrs. Clinton decides to run in 2016, she should come out in favor of replacing Obamacare with a simple single-payer insurance system financed by general taxes.
The Clinton campaign should make this proposal its centerpiece and seek to persuade all voters, Democrats and Republicans, that Medicare-For All would be in their interest.
Such a campaign would have many advantages. For one thing, the claim would be true. Taxes would have to go up, but the increase for the average person would be more than offset by reductions in individual premiums, in money withheld from wages by employers in order to pay insurance premiums, and in co-pays and deductibles. Mrs. Clinton could point out that people should care more about what medical care costs them than about whether they are paying for it through taxes or by more convoluted and indirect means.
A single-payer system, unlike Obamacare, would cover everybody. Unlike Obamacare it would not force individuals and employers to make complicated choices between plans with different coverage, costs, and in-network doctors and hospitals. Unlike Obamacare it would not need to determine individuals’ continuing eligibility for subsidies, since the tax system would implicitly take care of this. Unlike Obamacare, Medicare-For-All would not motivate employers to reduce the number of full-time employees in order to avoid the mandate.
Politically, Hillary Clinton could appeal simultaneously to Republicans (by openly acknowledging Obamacare’s defects) and to Democrats who have soured on Mr. Obama and on Obamacare. She could capitalize on her expertise gained from her failed effort to design a national program during the first Clinton administration. She could admit learning from that experience that a national system must be simple and understandable.
If Hillary Clinton campaigns on a single-payer platform, the usual vested interests will attack her. But Americans have become suspicious enough of corporations (not least hospitals, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies) that she should be able to turn the tables on them by pointing out the inefficiencies of the current system, the bloated compensation to corporate executives, and deceptive marketing. Many doctors, who used to oppose single-payer insurance, have changed their minds because of frustration with the current system..
If Americans understand where their bread is really buttered, they will support a single-payer system. As a presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will command the national attention necessary to persuade people that such a system would truly be in their interest.
The campaign should be completely honest about the insurance issue. It should frankly admit that single-payer is no panacea and would have some drawbacks as well as advantages. But that is true of all policies, and the real question is how the advantages and disadvantages net out.
By making Medicare-For-All her central platform plank, Mrs. Clinton can help the U.S. escape from the Obamacare corner into which it has painted itself. Even if she loses the election, she will have increased national understanding and paved the way for eventual progress. Win or lose, she has an opportunity to make a real difference.
When I was in grade school, Oregon had no television and I listened a lot to the radio. One of my favorite programs always ended with someone asking about the hero of the series: “Who was that masked man?” The answer, of course, was “the Lone Ranger.”
I remembered this program recently when I noticed how many pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and Islamic State fighters are wearing masks so we cannot see their faces. And of course there is the masked fellow with a British accent who has been beheading western hostages for us to admire over the Internet. The implications of these masks only gradually began to sink in.
The usual distinction between killing people in war and murdering them has, in recent centuries, been that war is a collective endeavor engaged in by political bodies while murder is an individual activity. Under international law people in armies must wear identifiable uniforms to inform people under whose flag they are fighting. Captured soldiers are required only to answer questions about their name, rank, and serial number, and are not supposed to be killed or held personally responsible for the people they have killed in battle. Murderers, however, are deemed to act as individuals and can be punished for violating the law.
Under the modern laws of war combatants who do not wear a uniform can be treated as spies and executed if they are caught. As I recall, the German saboteurs who landed clandestinely in the eastern U.S. during World War II were executed because, of course, they were not wearing uniforms. And my father, not a military man, was required to wear a uniform in the early 1950s when engineering work at American military bases required him to fly from point to point in Japan. There was concern that if the plane blundered into North Korea, then at war with the United States, he could have been shot.
So who are the masked men fighting the Ukrainian government? How many are disgruntled Ukrainians and how many are Russian soldiers? Are the Russians in organized military units or are they are enthusiastic soldiers who have come in as individuals while on leave? The Putin regime came up with the latter version when body bags started showing up in Russia, though it has also tried valiantly to hush the facts up.
The fact that the rebels and Russians are wearing masks suggests that something fishy is going on. The masks and lack of uniforms probably represent an effort to avoid both the collective responsibility entailed in war and personal responsibility for private individual actions. I suppose the masks on ISIS fighters in the Middle East represent a similar attempt to have their cake and eat it too.
One of my favorite Frank and Ernest cartoons shows a lawyer talking to his jailed client: “Well, no wonder you got caught, Ernie…You’re not supposed to wear a mask when you shoplift.” I included this cartoon in my 1981 college textbook, along with a deadpan comment” “Lawyers can be excellent sources of good advice.”
I wish someone could give us equally good advice about what to do about the current battles where so many people are wearing masks but not uniforms.
Primary elections like we currently have in Oregon have two major problems:
1. Republican primaries are dominated by extreme conservatives and Democratic primaries by extreme liberals because extremists vote more often than moderates. In the general elections more moderate voters must choose between the resulting candidates. We end up with legislative bodies which are polarized and frequently deadlocked.
2. Primary elections tend to include candidates people do not know much about. Most learning about them comes from the media - which may be biased. Media based campaigning is expensive, so financial status may have undue influence.
Measure 90, on the Oregon ballot in November, could solve the first problem. It
eliminates separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans. All voters (including independents) would vote in a single primary election. The top two candidates in this election would fight it out in the general election, even if they are members of the same party.
In such a single primary, candidates would need to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Extremists in both parties would tend to cancel each other out as they do in general elections. Even in election districts heavily dominated by one of the major parties, general elections would become competitive because both candidates who win in the primary may come from the dominant party.
Unfortunately, Measure 90 would not solve the second problem with today’s primaries, voters’ lack of knowledge about the candidates. Nominees would still be selected on the basis of costly images, not on personal acquaintance. We could solve this second problem by completely eliminating primary elections and going back to having party leaders select candidates.
Unlike the extremists and their special interest supporters who dominate today’s primary elections, party leaders would evaluate possible candidates in terms of their ability to appeal to the majority of voters in the general election. And party leaders would not have to decide on candidates they know superficially only through image-mongery in the media; instead, they would nominate people they know personally and can evaluate on the basis of their actual qualities.
It is true that voters would still have to rely on the media when voting in general elections, but they would only need to learn about two candidates for each office and in any event there is no reasonable alternative if we are to have elections at all. Hopefully party leaders would have weeded out potential candidates who are only image and no substance when they decide who to nominate.
Unfortunately, any proposal to eliminate primary elections would be labeled “undemocratic” and rejected out of hand without serious consideration of the damage they are causing. A campaign to eliminate primaries might succeed in the long run, but it is not in the cards for today.
As a long-time student of political attitudes expressed on radio, TV, and in newspapers, I have recently been thinking about what I am seeing on the new social media. Many people are posting comments on Facebook claiming that America no longer has a free press. These claims, freely transmitted over the internet, would seem to contradict themselves. And they make me wonder if these people have any understanding of what life was like in a country that really did not have a free press: the Soviet Union prior to Gorbachev’s glasnost (free speech) and other reforms.
The Soviet government employed 80,000 people in the central censorship agency, Glavlit, and nothing could be published—not even a message on a book of matches--- without permission from this agency. It spent huge sums of money, and electricity, broadcasting jamming signals so Soviet citizens could not listen to shortwave radio stations like the Voice of America and the BBC. One had to have a license from the police to own a typewriter, which was obviously considered a dangerous weapon, and copy machines were rare and tightly controlled.
Boris Pasternak defied these controls when he smuggled the manuscript for his novel, Dr. Zhivago, out of the country in 1956 after Soviet authorities refused to allow publication, since they considered it hostile to their regime. Pasternak had been subjected to tremendous pressure not to do this, and after it was published abroad his situation became so intolerable that he briefly considered killing himself.
Meetings were held by the Writers Union in which dozens of his friends and colleagues were forced to denounce him in the most vicious terms. He was expelled from the Writers Union by a vote the leader of the meeting deemed unanimous even though one dissenter shouted “Not true! Not unanimously! I voted against!” (Ironically, the dissenter was the sister-in-law of the late dictator, Josef Stalin!)
Earlier in his life Pasternak had gotten in trouble for refusing to sign petitions demanding execution of “enemies of the state.” “Don’t yell at me,” he told some fellow writers at a public meeting. “But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.”
Then the controlled press got into the act. Letters denouncing Pasternak were published, along with articles reviewing Dr. Zhivago in the most negative possible way. Naturally no rebuttals were allowed. Some of the reviewers admitted that they had not read the book. Probably none of them had read it, since it hadn’t come out in Russian yet and copies in other languages could not be brought into the country.
Of course the Soviet editors who allowed these “reviews” to be published were under the thumb of the authorities and knew they would be fired (or worse) if they defied their orders, But the situation reminds me of one of my students at Adrian College, Tiffany B., who was one of the editors of the College World newspaper. There was a very controversial book, The Bell Curve, at the time, which was based on statistics in which the IQs of white Americans and black Americans were graphed with the distribution of the scores of the black people somewhat to the left (i.e. lower) of the distribution of the scores of white people. The interpretation of these facts in this book was very doubtful and drew lots of well-founded criticism.
One of our black students asked Tiffany if he could write review of it for the College World. She replied, as any good editor in a free country would have, “of course, but you have to read it first.”
Where was Tiffany B. when the Soviet Union needed her?
A liberal education enables us to see techniques in one realm that could solve problems in very different parts of life. Specialization has its own advantages, but people who are too specialized may overlook important opportunities.
Major problems today are caused by groups seeking to break away from various governments and to become independent countries or part of some other country. The Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, after what was billed as a secession movement, is a dramatic recent example. Other countries currently afflicted by secession movements include Canada, Ukraine, Spain, the United Kingdom, Iraq, China, and Russia itself, which has been fighting Chechen separatists.
Secession movements are a problem because there is no peaceful, orderly way to decide what to do about them. Once in a while two parts of a country can go their separate ways peacefully, as happened with Czechoslovakia in 1993. But the more normal departure of part of a country has come through violent revolution and civil war.
The American Constitution provides procedures by which states can be subdivided. It actually happened once, when West Virginia was split off from Virginia in 1861 and admitted as a state in 1863. By analogy, if we had a world government it could decide when to allow secession from member countries. But we have no world government and no immediate prospects for one.
Experience from a completely different ball park—American labor law--- suggests how secession questions could be adjudicated peacefully. Our labor law allows workers to vote whether to designate a union to be their sole bargaining agent. But firms may have different types of employees and it is therefore necessary to determine exactly which employees will be included in the bargaining unit to be represented. This determination cannot be made by voting. Exactly who will be included in the bargaining unit and thus in the electorate is determined by a “unit clarification proceeding” conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.
Decision about boundary changes between countries, like decisions about the membership of a collective bargaining unit, cannot be made democratically because challenged boundaries call into question just who could vote. What we therefore need is a world agency that can hear arguments by supporters and opponents of any proposed change and then render a decision, binding on all parties, allowing or denying the proposal. Such a unit clarification agency, having only this one power, would not be a full world government.
To establish this agency would require a multilateral treaty adhered to by all or nearly all countries. Each country would agree to be bound by decisions of the boundary clarification agency about its own borders and to respect its decisions regarding the borders of other countries.
Many countries contain very motley and troublesome assortments of cultures, languages, and histories, so the advantages to existing governments of delegating responsibility to determine their exact jurisdiction would be considerable.
Although a world government with general jurisdiction is politically impossible for now, a specialized world agency performing just one of the functions of such a government—determining the boundaries of national governments-- just might be possible.
Given that World War I (beginning exactly 100 years ago), World War II, and most current wars grew out of disputes about the boundaries of political systems, even a limited world agency could greatly decrease the danger of war, allow reduced military expenditures, and make the world a more decent place for all of us.
Has the time come for a world borders clarification agency?
During House debate DeFazio ridiculed current legal requirement that advertised fares must show the full amount, including taxes and fees, most prominently. “Talk about the nanny state,” he said. “Give me a break. What do they think, Americans are idiots?”
I do not recall DeFazio objecting to heavy-handed federal regulations in general, and unlike many rules the one currently in place is simple, easily complied with, and reasonable. In fact I would argue that similar rules requiring an honest total price should apply not only to airline tickets but also to car rentals, hotel rooms, and telephone and cellphone service.
Supporters of the DeFazio-Shuster legislation argued that advertising the full price of airline tickets is bad because it “can dampen demand for travel.” In other words, people will buy more tickets if deceived about the price. But there is no public interest in higher levels of travel, since if people travel less they will spend more on other things, boosting employment on those areas. But there is a major public interest in preventing false advertising and in helping people avoid overextending themselves financially.
Proponents also argue that DeFazio-Shuster will inform flyers about how much of the price they pay goes to taxes and fees. This is a legitimate goal, but could equally well be served by disclosing taxes and fees in a footnote. (Since proponents of DeFazio-Shuster argue that under their bill total costs must be disclosed in a footnote, they can hardly argue that people don’t read footnotes.)
Advertisers use all kinds of tricks to avoid disclosing the actual price of their wares. Cheap internet service is offered “for 12 months” (with an unstated but major price increase a year later), goods are offered inexpensively (with a humungous “shipping and handling” charge mentioned in very small type), adjustable rate mortgages sell to people who will be ruined when the adjustments (read increases) kick in. Those of us who try to know the real price before we buy something find it harder and harder to find out that real price. It is therefore hard to compare offers from different providers.
Let us hope that the Senate shoots this bill down. If necessary, perhaps some public-spirited senator will filibuster it. If the Senate goes along with the House, it would be a great occasion for President Obama to cast a veto.
When my wife and I go to Newport, our favorite place to stay is the Sylvia Beach Hotel. One of the many nice things about this hotel (in addition to its welcoming house cat) is the fact that its price list includes all taxes. This honesty may work to the Sylvia Beach’s disadvantage when people compare, but it is a real service since people from out of town or out of state cannot always know what the taxes are in a given city.
Would that all hotels, phone companies, and airlines were equally honest! But in an imperfect world, government regulations requiring honest bottom-line prices are the next best thing. I hope people in Rep DeFazio’s district will inundate him with mail demanding that he reconsider his position on his so-called Transparent Airfares Act.
My discovery of the “unimportance” of politics began when I was a student at Willamette University. Theodore Shay, a political science professor, observed that Republicans could take Portland only if telephone service could be knocked out on election day.
This was before mail-in voting came to Oregon. Shay’s prediction assumed that Portland’s outnumbered Republicans would turn out anyway, but that many Democrats would not vote unless poll-watchers phoned them a reminder.
Back then, I was a Republican and thought knocking out the Portland telephone exchange was a great idea! And I devised a simple way to do just that (not revealed here in the unlikely case the idea would still work).
My enthusiasm vanished, however, when I considered the side effects of turning off all telephone calls. People whose houses catch fire couldn’t call the fire department. People who suffer a heart attack or an accident couldn’t summon an ambulance. Suddenly a Republican victory seemed a lot less important.
As a political science student, and later a professor of political science, it took me years fully to realize the dangers of exaggerating the importance of politics. I considered politics important enough to devote my professional life to its study. And most people pay too little attention, often no attention at all, to public policy questions, not too much.
But for a small minority of people, politics is at the “core of their existence” (as Marxist Herbert Marcuse put it), they eat, breath, and sleep politics. According to Mao Tse-Tung, “Not having a correct political outlook is like having no soul.”
Exaggerating the importance of politics, fanatical minorities justify inflicting horrible atrocities on people because they think they can produce changes that will bring total bliss forever after. Exaggerated benefits outweigh any possible costs of getting them. Thus we see millions slaughtered by Communists, by Nazis, by religious extremists with a political agenda (the Inquisition, Zionists, Islamists). We see car bombs, shot-down airliners, the 9/11 attacks, Gulag Archipelagos, Holocausts. Today’s newscasts and papers are full of these atrocities: Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria ….
The common denominator here is that all these disasters were engineered by a minority of fanatics seeking political changes.
In order to restrain fanatics who grossly overestimate the importance of politics, it would help if the vast majority of people who now won’t pay any attention to the subject would spend an hour a week—better, an hour a day---informing themselves and learning how to engage in thinking about politics. (Capitalize these last words and we have a shameless plug for my 1981 college textbook, Thinking About Politics, available for free reading at my website.)
This would immunize them from manipulation by fanatics as well as by economic interests, help them do their own thinking instead of mouthing platitudes fed to them by demagogues, help them to know which side their bread is buttered on and to vote and act intelligently. After all, a few fanatics by themselves cannot cause much trouble. They need help from the multitudes they stir up.
Alfred Lord Tennyson may have exaggerated the importance of politics in his 1835 poem “Locksley Hall,” but he made a very important point when he hoped for a future when:
“The war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of men, the Federation of the world.
“There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.”
Paradoxically, for the “common sense of most” to prevail over political fanatics of all types, it will be necessary for many people to take more of an interest in politics.