Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Two posts for the price of one

Here's another post, with a couple of other thoughts.

1. Can a country be a democracy if the citizens of that country don't think it is? I mean, even if a country has elections, and meets the Schumpeterian minimalist criteria (competitive elections = democracy, more or less), but the people don't think the elections were competitive . . . I'm thinking here of Iraq. After the Time article that revealed that our government toyed with the idea of tampering with the Iraqi elections, and then dropped it, Iraqis are going to have huge doubts about the election, even if it is perfectly fair.

2. Doesn't it seem as if all this expectations spinning is like, say, derivative markets? It's a strategy enabling campaigns to hedge their bets; if they lose, they don't lose as badly, but if they win, they win a whole lot because they weren't expected to win. Our spin markets are quite well evolved. I'm impressed.

That's all. So maybe 1.5 posts for the price of one? Either way, I've gone from the blog-equivalent of a high end novelty store to a Walmart (but I'll probably go back to being a novelty store).

Is the United States a "delegative democracy"?

What is at stake in this election? Or, more appropriately, what isn't at stake? Perhaps one more thing to add to the list of what is:

The political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell describes the phenomenon of "delegative democracy," a flawed form of government that, while it features competitive elections, does not meet the criteria of an ideal liberal democracy. It is not responsive to the population, it concentrates power in the executive, and it can lead to dangerous policy mistakes. Here are excerpts from his description:

"What [the President of a delegative democracy] does in government does not need to bear any resemblance to what he said or promised during the electoral campaign--he has been authorized to govern as he sees fit." (Sounds famililar . . . will the American people re-elect George W. Bush and essentiall confirm that authorization?)

"Since this paternal figure has to take care of the whole nation, it is almost obvious that his support cannot come from a party; his political basis has to be a movement, the supposedly vibrant overcoming of the factionalism and conflicts that parties bring about." (Bears eery resemblance to the discourse of the Bush presidency and the discourse of his campaign--a movement of patriots to defend the country from immorality, terrorists, the French.)

"In this view other institutions--such as Congress and the Judiciary--are nuisances that come attached to the domestic and international advantages of being a democratically elected President." (Notice the number of executive orders the President has executed, the "fox in the henhouse" method of staffing Congressionally-required positions with people antithetical to the organizations' core philosophies, and the buckling of the courts to the President's handling of prisoners, at least until the minor set back that the President faced with forced trials for Gitmo prisoners.)

"[In a delegative deomocracy] if elections do not directly generate a clear-cut majority, that majority must be created for supporting the myth of legitimate delegation." (After seeing Vice President Gore undermine the efforts of African-American Congresspeople to challenge the election results . . . )

"DD [delegative democracy] has the additional advantage of allowing swift pollicy-making, but at the expense of a high likelihood of gross mistakes, of hazardous implementation, and of concentrating responsibility for the outcomes on the President." (Amazingly, the President has managed to avoid responsibility, mostly through misdirection, lying, feigning incompetence, and generally "being a good guy.")

Ultimately, O'Donnell argues that delegative democracies often come about during periods of social and economic crisis, and that they often exacerbate those crises. Furthermore, they damage democratic institutions. Granted, he is examining mostly Latin American democracies, and how they are not following a democratic teleology. But what happens when a supposedly liberal democracy begins to exhibit some of the characteristics of DD?

It will take a long time to make any determination abou the deterioration of American democracy. But as more events become signposts, as more patterns fit theories like O'Donnell's, the more it seems that our liberal democracy is breaking.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Two weeks, too weak

It's been two weaks since I last wrote. And I am not too weak to write, as the title might suggest. At least not physically. I've been busy, what with school starting up.

I just finished reading the New York Times Magazine article about the bloggers at the DNC. It was interesting stuff. Of course, all the bloggers getting the attention are topical, politically divisive (though often insightful), mostly liberal writers. There doesn't seem to be much demand in the blogosphere for ummm "thoughts" or "ideas" about things other than politics, which tends to cast a lot of doubt on my whole project here. Which, as the two week lag might show, has become a half-hearted one. I have been holding myself to a high standard; only write when I think I actually think I have something intellectually interesting to contribute. Ideally, some of the things I write are at least tangentially related to what's happening in the world (it's really impossible for them not to be, since they came out of my head, and I am fairly engaged).

Maybe it was the article I just finished reading, but I feel inspired to be a bit more divisive and topical. When you look at the New York Times map of where states stand in the election, four of the solidly blue states are Massachussetts, New York, Illinois, and California. That is no accident. Those three states also contain four major American metropolises (perhaps THE four major metropolises). Cities have become the centers of liberal politics around the country. Some world argue that is thanks to more minorities and impoverished within cities. And of course that has an affect. But more important, cities are the centers of economic growth, new ideas, innovation, the arts, and culture in our country. In the grand ideological divide between progressives and conservatives, cities are progressive headquarters because they are fundamentally about change, growth and dynamism. As Jane Jacobs has written (an economist I've cited before), cities are where new work is created. All the inefficiency of cities--high transportation costs, dense populations--serves the purpose of innovation.

Of course this observation has some ironic implications. Local Republicans, who are far more likely to also be suburbanites and dependent on the city for their economic well-being, resist efforts to bring suburban tax dollars to bear on urban problems. "Pro-business" Republicans cripple the economy's ability to create new businesses by preventing the dense communities of entrepreneurs and consumers (the city) from thriving. Tell this to Republicans, especially the fiscal conservatives that enjoy "the Republican lifestyle" and spout pseudo-economics, and they will talk about the macro-economy, federal tax rates, venture capital, interest rates. But how do you talk about the macro-economy without talking about the cities that make it vibrant?

Maybe we should not only weight states in the electoral college for their share of population, but also for their share of GDP. In that scenario, it would be Republicans running to the left instead of Democrats running to the right. The prosperity of the country--the prosperity of the metropolises that are centers for progressivism, free speech, the arts--has allowed winners to move into the suburbs (or stay there), where they begin to protect their high incomes, vote Republican. And the irony continues. That has always been a central irony of fiscal conservatives, especially ones who pride themselves on pulling themselves up. Once they've achieved, they close the door behind them based on the fact that they have achieved, they know what it takes, and they know it doesn't take taxing their wealth.

Maybe we don't need to re-weight the electoral college. Maybe we should just do away with it altogether. In that scenario, too, Republicans would have to start running to the left. And national policy would more accurately reflect the desires of the most number of people it affects, and by definition, it will assure the highest welfare for the nation. As long as the losers in redistributive schemes control national debate, the nation suffer. Once their grip slackens, redistributive policies that can increase the welfare of our country can come into being.

All of this oversimplification, all of these generalities, gives me pause. But it's the fad in blogging, and it's what everybody else is doing. Maybe one post that follows the trend won't make me a poser. And maybe being a blogger won't either. (Chuckle)

Monday, September 13, 2004

Jane Jacobs, Cities, the Internet . . . Not Presidential politics

It's been a long week. Seeing my girlfriend off to Ireland for a semester abroad, getting classes settled. I've watched Bush bounce, Kerry flounder and talk tough, the assault weapons ban pass into obsolescence (barring some last minute, James Bond-ish rescue operation), and the propsects of a happy November 3rd (and 2005-2008) decline. So I'm sick of talking Presidential politics right now. When I started this blog, I conceived of it as a place to discuss interesting things that might not be overtly political. So in pursuit of that goal . . .

Jane Jacobs, an economist, has written a great deal about thow cities grow and why large cities, despite their inefficiencies of transportation, high rents, crowding, and pollution, are still the centers of economic growth. Basically her theory, backed up by a body of empirical work, argues that cities allow vast economic growth when they retain diversified industries. Innovations in one industry spur innovations in others, employees form breakaway efforts that further divide labor, create new products and services, and increase the vigor of the economy. Cities that become "company towns," like Rochester, where I spent my teen years and which is dominated by Kodak and Xerox, tend to stagnate. Cities where growth is most vigorous are cities where new businesses are constantly being started, which means businesses are also constantly failing. There's an inefficiency built into the system--trial and error--but it has a huge return--economic progress. Cities sacrifice efficiency of production for development.

So, if that explanation seems to make sense . . . The proximity of businesses and industry that cities afford can be approximated by the internet and the information technology revolution. It has long been argued that the developments of the IT revolution have collapsed space and time; suddenly the global economic system seems more urban, with the potential for growth that spacial proximity has afforded city-based innovators. There are still senses in which knowledge and innovation remain local. If a great deal of innovation and information is being developed and traded in English, then English-speakers will be able to tap that resource. Of course, the nice thing about language is that it's not exclusive. Although you can only live in Chicago, you can speak and read English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, so that you can inhabit a number of spaces all at once.

All of this discussion is somewhat reductionist. Anthropologists and other acamedicians have written at much more length at the reduction of space and time, the overlapping of "ethnoscapes," "mediascapes," "technoscapes," "financescapes" and "ideoscapes" (Arjun Appadurai's "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy). Cities, as Jacobs explores them, are technoscapes, in which new techniques of production jump between industries, creating ever newer types of production, and new divisions of labor to go along with them. A global economy that can mimic the density of an urban technoscape, through exchange of information, cheap trade of goods (allowing engineers in one country to see what engineers in others have come up with), might allow innovation to occur anywhere in the world, and increase the chances of global prosperity.

Another way in which the internet and information revolution have changed how growth happens: value is created in the software industry by writing code to fit new functions. The resource of open source code is an obvious instance in which a product developed for one industry--one software solution--could be examined and reengineered to fill a function in another industry, or create a whole new set of software solutions.

Anyway. Ideas I've been thinking about. Not too much to get shrill about, but toss me what you got.

Monday, September 06, 2004

The one party country

How many more national elections will the Republican machine win before they become the national party? How many more elections before the democratic base, recognizing it cannot get any of its issues turned into policy, begins lobbying the Republican machine directly? Maybe it's a hopelessly wrong doomsday prediction, but my God . . .

Look at New York, California, and Massachusetts. Three liberal states with Republican governors. For good reason, liberals in those states have decided that allowing one party, in this case the Democratic party, to control the entire government is counterproductive (though in New York, it doesn't seem as though the government is especially well-working for all of its balance). Despite the fact that those three governors would be considered liberals in much of the Bible belt (a fact that perfectly represents the serious internal divisions that the Republicans have managed to suppress as they retain power), they are Republicans nonetheless, fiscal conservatives who check any free-spending impusles from the states' legislatures.

In the national government, one party now controls all three branches, as many have pointed out before. But that power will only deepen if the President is reelected. At least three Supreme Court Justices to nominate will place the Court firmly in the hands of conservative ideologues (fairwell to legalized abortion, hello to a country without civil rights in a constant war on terror). All signs point to the Republicans holding Congress as well, allowing them to further shape the country as they choose--and the political discourse of the country as well--which will almost certainly deepen their hold on power.

What has one party in power gotten us? An ineffective Congress that gave the President the power to make war on faulty intelligence that it was their duty to oversee and an absolutely massive fiscal deficit which will counteract the expansionary monetary policy of the Federal Reserve and reduce US exports for years to come, increasing our twin deficit mess. And of course there's Iraq. You all can read a trillion other words one way or the other on that issue, and either way, mistakes have been made.

The Republican party has in the past, though they hate the word, taken nuanced positions on issues. This is a party with a large contingent of (usually) intelligent, thinking moderates who believe in reproductive rights for women, who value science's contributioon in areas like stem cell research, and who don't think a "no tax and spend" strategy for running a government is responsible. Where are their voices? Drowned out in a polarized debate? Who knows. But take one look at the Republican platform and it's clear they had little say on what it includes.

In any case. Moderates in the Republican party haven't jumped ship because as long as their party remains in power, they know they'll get a few scraps thrown their way from the Neocon-Christian Conservative power mongers that run the party. How long before the Democratic base starts moving in the same direction?

(I'll accept "never" as answer, but can I be scared anyway?)

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

C.S. Lewis and Patriotism

For the record, I really wanted to call this post C.S. (F)Lew(h)is Coop, but I figured that stretching that far for a pun would be wrong. But just in case it isn't, I put it in the first line of the post.

So, in his classic book on love entitled, appropriately, The Four Loves, Lewis writes: "Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for 'their country' they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country's cause was just; but it was still their country's cause, not the cause of justice as such."

Part of me wants to flush that whole section down the toilet. It seems out of step with a great deal of moral philosophy written by men far more focused on the question of what constitutes a "just" war. Thinkers from Augustine to Michael Walzer have outlined why wars should never be based on patriotic self-interest. How else can one hope that her country's cause is just except if her country's cause is justice? Otherwise, must we not worry about self-interest shrouded in justice?

I believe that obscured self-interest is what worries Lewis in the first place, and that's why I don't think, in the end, think we should flush his thoughts away. The fact that Lewis leaves no real space for honest service to justice represents a powerful streak of realism in this idealistic Christian thinker. However, the real concern as it stands before us today, is the very option that Lewis supports. Many in our country today believe that our cause is just because we are seemingly the only ones strong enough to defend civilization as it ought to be defended. That belief, that only we are willing to make a stand, and that others see that it should be done but are too weak to deal with the consequences, is indeed an inflated sense of patriotism, a fervent mixture of religious and patriotic zeal. Of course Lewis warns against this, but when he guts the mission of serving justice that, even if occasionally flawed, drives men to a higher standard than patriotism by implying that it can never truly exist, he leaves us with few options.