Friday, March 31, 2017

Make America Happy Again

The United Nations (UN) decided that a better quality-of-life measure was needed for member nations than just economic data.  What they were after was something that would explain why citizens of a nation would reply in the affirmative if they were asked if they were satisfied with their lives or if they were happy (the two questions appear to be equivalent in results).  An organization named the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was formed to bring experts in various fields together to define the conditions that lead to “sustainable development.”  That is, development including economic as well as social factors that produce happiness and satisfaction.

Survey questions can determine the degree to which residents of a nation consider themselves to be happy or satisfied, but to understand the reasons why different nations produce different responses it is necessary to learn what causes the variations.  Experts have concluded that six factors can be used to quantify the variables that contribute to happiness and life satisfaction.  These factors can be determined by demographic and economic data combined with survey results.

Yearly surveys are used to quantify the factors important for happiness.  The values used in announcing the results are based on averages over a few years.  The recent report, World Happiness Report 2017, was based on data accumulated between 2014 and 2016.

“….countries in the top ten….have high values in all six of the key variables used to explain happiness differences among countries and through time – income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”

Income is determined from national per capita GDP, while perceptions of social support and corruption can be determined by survey questions.  Freedom is the freedom to make life choices as in “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”  Generosity is related to answers to the question “Have you donated money to a charity in the last month?” as correlated with per capita GDP information. 

Using these factors, the various countries can be ranked as to the happiness of their residents and some conclusions can be drawn about why country results are what they are.  This source presents the current top ten countries over time.

All of the countries are developed nations with strong economies.  It should be noted that all five of the countries considered Scandinavian make it into the top ten.  The United States came in at number 14.  What should we make of this ranking for our country?  The producers of the report thought certain countries and regions were important enough for detailed analysis. Separate chapters were included with the titles “Growth and Happiness in China, 1990-2015,” and “‘Waiting for Happiness’ in Africa.”  As for the United States, the authors concluded that a chapter was necessary to discuss the issue of “Restoring American Happiness.”

The chapter analyzing the United States and its happiness problem was produced by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

“Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General”

Sachs states the problem needing to be addressed.

“The central paradox of the modern American economy….is this: income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen. The situation has gotten worse in recent years: per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling.”

How severe is this decline in perceived happiness?  He compares the United States to other wealthy countries who are members of the OECD.

“While the US ranked third among the 23 OECD countries surveyed in 2007, it had fallen to 19th of the 34 OECD countries surveyed in 2016.”

That is a rather significant drop over a relatively few years.  The reason we made it to the 14th spot in the general survey is because the results are averaged over three years and residents of the United States claimed to be a lot happier in 2014 than in 2016.  This chart is provided.

Sachs points out that the United States focuses most on economic growth as if that would solve all of its problems.  Of the six factors tracked, the United States has improving scores associated with income and longevity, but the other four, all of which relate to social issues, are all declining.

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic
growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

Sachs then proceeds to analyze our social problems and make suggestions on how to ameliorate them and make us happier.  One can find his analysis here.  Rather than go over one more time the sorts of things that Democrats and Republicans have been disagreeing about for over a generation, let’s take another tack.

Consider that all the countries in the top ten in happiness have strong social support systems.  In particular, all five of the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland) make that list.  And all levy a large tax on their citizens.  And guess what they do with all that tax money—they provide an astonishing array of services.  Those services produce happiness in spite of the high tax. 

So we should ask ourselves a question.  If our government provided free, or at easily affordable costs, healthcare, childcare, education, an income floor if you lose your job, and a generous pension at retirement, would you be happier?  And don’t forget, you would also be guaranteed at least four weeks of vacation and more family leave than any one is likely to need.  It can be done.  The Scandinavian countries do it; their citizens pay their high taxes and have plenty of money left over to have some fun.

Believe the data.

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Global Warming Comes to Alaska

The climate is changing.  Most people can already recognize the fact by noticing the variation in season duration, temperature and precipitation levels, and intensity of weather patterns.  As the world warms, there is more energy and more moisture available to contribute to weather phenomena.  How that energy and moisture alters local climates is not easily predicted, but things are changing, and will continue to change.  For most, global warming has been a nuisance thus far, or a small excursion from norms.  However, there is one place where elevated temperatures present an already serious problem: Alaska. 

Why would the coldest state in the nation be most sensitive to temperature change?  The explanation is mainly due to what is referred to as Arctic Amplification.  From Wikipedia:

“The poles of the Earth are more sensitive to any change in the planet's climate than the rest of the planet. In the face of ongoing global warming, the poles are warming faster than lower latitudes. The primary cause of this phenomenon is ice-albedo feedback, whereby melting ice uncovers darker land or ocean beneath, which then absorbs more sunlight, causing more heating. The loss of the Arctic sea ice may represent a tipping point in global warming, when 'runaway' climate change starts, but on this point the science is not yet settled.”

Note the suggestion that global warming may have a “tipping point” when variation is no longer slow and gradual but can change dramatically in a few years or decades.  Such instances exist in the geological record.

One should pay attention to articles chronicling the inexorable loss of Arctic sea ice.  One should also realize that the sea ice is important to natives of Alaska who have long resided on the coast line.  The ice provides protection from severe storms that sweep in over the ocean.  As the ice retreats shorelines become subject to erosion by these storms and entire villages have been placed at risk of being swept away.  Rising temperatures have also caused melting of the permafrost layer in some areas.  Buildings and roads constructed on the assumption of having a firm basis are finding the earth is moving beneath them.  An article provided by the EPA contains a summary of the impacts on Alaska from continued warming and provides this background.

“Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased by approximately 3°F. This increase is more than twice the warming seen in the rest of the United States. Warming in the winter has increased by an average of 6°F and has led to changes in ecosystems, such as earlier breakup of river ice in the spring. As the climate continues to warm, average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 2 to 4°F by the middle of this century. Precipitation in Alaska is projected to increase during all seasons by the end of this century. Despite increased precipitation, the state is likely to become drier due to greater evaporation caused by warming temperatures and longer growing seasons.”

A more precise indication on how the mean temperature over the January to July period has varied over the years is provided here.

Note how dramatically high the temperature appeared in 2016.  Is this an exceptional aberration, or is it an indication that change has accelerated?  Stay tuned.

The Alaskan government is not in a position to be denying manmade climate change.  It is busy trying to figure out how it will be able to respond to all the damage that is being done.  An article from the Alaska Dispatch News by Yereth Rosen, Study: Climate change will be costly to Alaska's public infrastructure, provides an indication of the problems arising.

“Flood damage to roads is expected to be the climate-related factor racking up the most economic damage, with permafrost thaw and effects on buildings expected to be the second-costliest category, the study says.”

“Even though the most dramatic climate warming has been measured in Alaska's far-north Arctic, the state's Interior region and parts of the state's Southcentral region are likely to incur the biggest costs from climate-related damages. Within developed Southcentral Alaska, the Prince William Sound area is expected to bear the highest climate-related infrastructure costs.”

"’Both these regions are expected to have more rain in the future, which could result in more flooding, thus increasing the impacts on the many roads found in boroughs in that area. For Fairbanks North Star (Borough), permafrost thaw damage to buildings also adds considerably to the costs,’ lead author April Melvin said in an email.”

It is ironic that the state that benefited most from the consumption of fossil fuels is now the one suffering the most from that consumption.  Another article from the same paper, Walker renews call for budget reforms: 'Denial doesn't make the problem go away', indicates the fiscal problems faced by Alaska.

“[Governor] Walker is also proposing legislation this year to freeze the salaries of some state employees. But those proposals alone won't come close to eliminating Alaska's $3 billion deficit.”

“The state's budget, which has long been balanced with oil taxes and royalties, has been hammered by the two-year slump in prices and now uses savings to pay 70 cents of each dollar spent.”

“A recent, modest recovery in oil prices offers a dose of good news, Walker said. But current prices of roughly $50 a barrel would still need to double to solve the state's budget problem, he added, or the flow of oil in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline would have to triple.”

A recent article from Bloomberg Businessweek by Christopher Flavelle, Alaska’s Big Problem With Warmer Winters, provides further insight.  He focuses on the situation in Homer, a city of 5,000 situated on the Cook Inlet in Southern Alaska.

“From 1932 to 2017, the daily minimum temperature in Homer, a city on the eastern shore of the inlet, averaged 19F in February. Narrow that to the past 10 years and the average rises to 21F; for the past five years, 25F. Last February, Homer’s daily low averaged 30F—just two degrees colder than in Washington, D.C., 1,200 miles closer to the Equator.”

“As warmer winters arrive in Alaska, this city of 5,000 offers a glimpse of the challenges to come. Precipitation that used to fall as snow lands as rain, eroding the coastal bluffs and threatening the only road out of town. Less snow means less drinking water in Homer’s reservoir; it also means shallower, warmer streams, threatening the salmon that support Cook Inlet’s billion-dollar fishing industry.”

“Heavier storm surges are eating away at Homer’s sea wall, which no insurance company will cover and which the city says it couldn’t pay to replace. Warmer water has also increased toxic phytoplankton blooms that leach into oysters and clams. When eaten by humans, the toxins can cause amnesia, extreme diarrhea, paralysis, and death.”

Homer is luckier than some of the villages threatened by coast erosion that are requesting funds to cover the cost of moving further inland, but it must compete with them and others with severe problems for scarce funds.  This source provides an example of the damage being done and why moving is necessary.

Alaska was once enthused about preparing to deal with global warming.  Curiously, it was Sarah Palin who was then leading the way.

“Alaska was once at the vanguard of states trying to deal with global warming. In 2007, then-Governor Sarah Palin established a climate change subcabinet to study the effects of warmer weather and find policies to cope with them. Over three years, the legislature provided about $26 million in funding. But Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, disbanded the group in 2011. That year, Alaska withdrew from a federal program that provides funds for coastal management because of concern the program might restrict offshore oil extraction. Since then, lower oil prices, combined with dwindling production, have left the state with a budget crisis that’s among the worst in the U.S. Just when climate change is having real impact, Alaska has less and less capacity to deal with it.”

If one is at risk from global warming it is, perhaps, best to seriously consider the beliefs of the governor you elect (Alaska’s Governor Walker was elected as a Republican and has since switched to being an independent).

“Alaska remains the only state eligible for federal funding through the coastal protection program that doesn’t receive the money, because it hasn’t submitted a plan that addresses the issue.”

“Alaska is an extreme example of a national failure to prepare for climate change. Across the U.S., state funding for environmental projects, such as beach erosion control or upgraded sewage systems, peaked in 2007, even as capital expenditures have since risen 25 percent. States along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have resisted adopting the latest model building codes designed to protect residents against storms and other extreme weather. And when the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggested last year that states take more responsibility preparing for natural disasters, the National Governors Association balked.”

Flavelle points out that the states’ abdication of responsibility places the burden of responding to climate change on the federal government, now led by a man with uncertain motives and a seeming lack of interest in the issue.

“In the absence of state action, the federal government has taken over responsibility for dealing with climate change. That spending may be in doubt: President Donald Trump’s first budget request cuts many of those programs.”

Flavelle then finishes with this statement.

“If Alaska is a warning about America’s climate future, as Barack Obama argued in a 2015 visit, it portends not only the onset of erratic weather but also the struggle of governments to keep up. ‘We may seem small and remote to you,’ says Beth Kerttula, a former Alaska state representative and director of the National Ocean Council under Obama. ‘But if you don’t care about us, you better at least learn from us. Because you’re next’.”

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Race and Politics in the United States: The Revolutionary War

Thomas Jefferson produced this famous statement in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When he wrote it, and the other of our leaders approved it, it meant something totally different than it does when read today.  All countries must make decisions about who is to be included as “equal” citizens.  Are people of different ethnicity, race, religion, and gender, to be afforded the same rights and protections as the presumed “equal” citizens?  Modern nations continue to struggle with these issues today—perhaps none more than the United States.

When Jefferson wrote, the “men” who were created equal included only white Anglo-Saxon males.  Slavery for black Africans and their descendents and the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans were acceptable policies for peoples deemed “non-equal.”  Those decisions, made then, continue to haunt our nation to this day.

Several books have appeared recently that provide new insight into why we have struggled so long with issues of race.  They cover the period from Revolutionary times through the current era.  Let’s start at the beginning.

Annette Gordon-Reed produced an article for The New York Review of Books titled The Captive Aliens Who Remain Our Shame.  Her piece is a commentary on the issues raised in a book by Robert Parkinson: The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.  She provides these comments as an introduction.

“….for decades now, much of the historiography of the founding has presented a complex story, exploring the many ways in which the Revolution, and the people who made it, fell far short of sharing with all people the Spirit of 1776’s indictment of tyranny and calls for liberty and equality. A good number of the most famous revolutionaries enslaved people, and the ones who did not own slaves chose not to work actively against the institution—even when they recognized that slavery was a great injustice. Some of those same men, eager for westward expansion, talked of removal of Indians whose land would then be taken by white settlers.”

“People who may have been frustrated reading histories that failed to acknowledge how the past had worked upon their ancestors—or avoided reading them at all—feel part of a searching conversation. That inquiry almost invariably touches on the extent to which the past influences the present on matters of race, for there is every reason to believe that the basic contours of the country’s treacherous racial landscape were fashioned early on in our history.”

Everyone is familiar with the formalization of slavery as the law of the land in the Constitution of the United States and the many generations of slavery and suppression that followed.  What Parkinson has done is go back to an even earlier time to illuminate decisions and actions taken by our leaders that fomented fear and loathing of Africans slaves and Native Americans in order to make political gains.

“Parkinson writes with authority on military, political, social, and cultural history, reconstructing the story of this critical period as it actually unfolded, with everything happening at once. Instead of picking representative samples, he addresses what was happening across the breadth of the colonies. This makes for a long book, but scholars and readers interested in race and the Revolution will be grateful for all the detail. The Common Cause lays bare the patriots’ activities with such precision that it will be impossible to think seriously about the American Revolutionary War—or the revolutionaries—without reference to this book’s prodigious research, wholly unsentimental perspective, and bracing analysis.”

The problem that the leaders faced was thirteen separate colonies with thirteen different goals, priorities and plans.  How could one provide a means by which all could be convinced to work together?  These quotes are taken from Parkinson.

“Jealousies, rivalries, and even violent controversies alienated the colonies in the early 1770s. Border conflicts, religious disputes, and concerns about slavery drove them apart. The colonies were just as poised to attack one another as to join together on the eve of war. The near impossibility of getting the colonies to agree to oppose Great Britain with one voice meant compromises on the most divisive issues on the one hand, and creative storytelling on the other….”

“The leaders of that movement had to craft an appeal that simultaneously overcame some of those inherent fault lines and jealousies, neutralized their opponents’ claims, and made them the only true protectors of freedom. They needed to make what they called ‘the cause’ common.”

Our leaders realized that fear and loathing of “the other” has always been a good motivator to encourage men to work together.  Parkinson describes what they concluded was necessary.

“….to demonstrate that the British were strangers. Suspicious foreigners. To accomplish this vital, difficult task they embraced the most powerful weapons in the colonial arsenal: stereotypes, prejudices, expectations, and fears about violent Indians and Africans.”

Parkinson presents us with the conscious effort of our revered revolutionary leaders to create a myth that would assign a role for African blacks and Native Americans counter to revolutionary goals.  These peoples, along with Hessian mercenaries, were described as “proxies” for the English king who would be willing to fight with the British and kill for them.

“’Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington,’ Parkinson writes, ‘developed a myth about who was and was not a part of the Revolutionary movement; about who had an interest and who did not.’ Other esteemed advocates of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, joined the effort. According to Parkinson, these men chose to prosecute the American war for independence in a way that put race at the heart of the matter. They used—actually helped foment—racial prejudice as the principal means of creating unity across the thirteen colonies in order to prepare Americans to do battle with Great Britain. The base sentiments they promoted for ‘political expediency’ survived the fighting, and the ‘narrative’ that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated ‘white’ and ‘citizen’ ‘lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come’.”

At the time this myth was created and propagated, there were numerous blacks and Native Americans living within “white” communities.  A number joined the war effort on the side of the colonists, but this participation was not to be recorded because it was counter to the necessary narrative.  From Parkinson:

“Unless Americans watched the army march by, they had scarcely any idea that there were hundreds of African Americans and Indian soldiers serving under Washington’s command. Even though the Continental Army would be the most integrated army the United States would field until the Vietnam War, most Americans had little knowledge of their service in fighting for the common cause.”

The word was spread through newspapers that African blacks and Native Americans were the tools of the British and a threat to white lives.

“By ‘the summer of 1775,’ the ‘majority’ of the stories on the inside of colonial newspapers were about ‘the role African Americans and Indians might play in the burgeoning war.’ While historians have focused much attention on George Washington’s going to Cambridge to head the Continental Army, the real story of 1775, Parkinson says, was the ‘hundreds of smaller messages’ that were pushed through colonial newspapers about the threat that blacks and Indians, allegedly under the total control of the British, posed to patriot lives. These messages continued throughout the war.”

Revered leaders were not above blatant racial slandering.

“[Benjamin] Franklin made up stories about groups being used by the British—proxies—and worked with Lafayette to prepare a book (never published) with illustrations for ‘children and Posterity’ detailing British abuses of Americans. Of the twenty-six proposed illustrations—we have Franklin’s suggested twenty and Lafayette’s six in their own hands—many revolve around proxies. Lafayette suggested an illustration showing ‘prisoners being “Roasted for a great festival where the Canadian Indians are eating American flesh.”’ He also proposed a scene depicting ‘British officers’ taking the ‘opportunity of corrupting Negroes and Engaging them to desert from the house, to Robb, and even to Murder they [sic] Masters.’ Britain’s military mercenaries, the Hessians, were not depicted.”

The “otherness” of the white Hessians was insufficient to generate the fear and hatred that were required.

“Items about blacks acting as soldiers in the British army and of Indian massacres (often in retaliation for massacres committed by whites) were regularly reported, and some of the stories about the Indians’ depredations were hoaxes.”

“There was no sorting of African-Americans and Indians into ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Members of those groups could never be ‘good’ no matter what they did, because they could never be white. Things were different for the Hessian mercenaries, also hated as ‘proxies.’ Feared and reviled in the newspapers as ‘men monsters’ when they arrived in America, the tune about the Hessians changed during the war. After Washington soundly defeated them at the Battle of Trenton, these white men were gradually transformed into sympathetic victims of the British. Eventually they were offered permanent places—land—in the new country they had tried to prevent from coming into being. There would be no redemption for their fellow ‘proxies.’ Nor could the patriots undo what they had done in marking blacks and Indians ‘as alien’ and ‘unfit to fully belong as members of the new republic’.”

The racial history of the United States is more complex than most would suspect.  It is difficult to imagine an increase in racial reconciliation without greater understanding of how we arrived where we now reside.

Gordon-Reed provides this thought as a fitting end to this discussion.

“Americans today often speak of racial prejudice as a thing that simply exists—like air—with no nod to the actual work it takes to create and maintain systems based upon prejudice. Parkinson homes in on that work: what it took in the 1770s to stoke racial hostility and keep it in place.”

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Our Political Discord: Albert O. Hirschman and the Rhetoric of Reaction

It is natural to assume that the degree of political strife we are experiencing is uniquely troubling and leading us to some sort of catastrophe.  Troubling it is, and disaster may be just over the horizon, but unique it is not.  Wildly disparate colonies had to be united to win a revolutionary war and form a nation; we fought the Civil War to resolve issues related to slavery and reunite the nation; we had to send troops to the South to enforce the legal findings demanding the dismantlement of the Jim Crow regime.  One can argue that our current predicament is a continuation of a series of confrontations derived from our original sin of accepting slavery as a viable economic and social construct.  Firmly imprinted racial and social attitudes have become inflamed as internationalism and multiculturalism test our ability to accept change.

We survived and moved on from the previous disputes; can we expect the same to happen again?  Perhaps it is possible to gain insight by sampling the wisdom of people who have lived long lives and survived even greater conflicts than we can anticipate for ourselves.

Albert O. Hirschman (1915-2012) lived a remarkable life that spanned some of humanity’s darkest moments.  He survived and had a long and productive career as a working economist, yet he was also one of our most insightful political commentators.  Malcolm Gladwell produced an excellent review of his life for an article in The New Yorker: The Gift of Doubt: Albert O. Hirschman and the power of failure.  Hirschman’s short books on economics and politics, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States  (1970) and The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (1991), are brief but powerful expositions.  The former has been discussed here.  The latter is the present topic.

Hirschman was driven to understand the phenomenon associated with the rise of neoliberal economics and the associated conservative threats to what might be described as the “postwar welfare state” during the Reagan years.  Political polarization might not have progressed as far as it has today, but the seeds had already been planted.

“The unsettling experience of being shut off, not just from the opinions, but from the entire life experience of large numbers of one’s contemporaries is actually typical of modern democratic societies.  In these days of universal celebration of the democratic model, it may seem churlish to dwell on deficiencies in the functioning of the Western democracies….Among them there is one that can frequently be found in the more advanced democracies: the systematic lack of communication between groups of citizens, such as liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries.  The resulting separateness of these large groups from one another seems more worrisome to me than the isolation of anomic individuals in ‘mass society’ of which sociologists have made so much.”

Hirschman’s interest in this divide was aroused by studies he was asked to participate in that questioned where all this might lead in the context of the existing “welfare state.”  With pressure coming from the liberal side, there was the temptation to view illiberal thinkers as somehow lacking in proper cognitive capabilities.

“But this sort of head-on and allegedly in-depth attack seemed unpromising to me: it would widen the rift and lead, moreover, to an undue fascination with a demonized adversary.  Hence my decision to attempt a ‘cool’ examination of surface phenomena: discourse, arguments, rhetoric, historically and analytically considered.”

He organized his study around a framework provided by the English sociologist T. H. Marshall that categorized the progress of society as having successively overcome resistance to the attainment of individual rights, the right to vote, and the right to some minimal level of economic support.

“According to Marshall’s scheme, which conveniently allocated about a century to each of the three tasks, the eighteenth century witnessed the major battles for the institution of civil citizenship—from freedom of speech, thought, and religion to the right to even-handed justice and other aspects of individual freedom….In the course of the nineteenth century, it was the political aspect of citizenship, that is, the right of citizens to participate in the exercise of political power, that made major strides as the right to vote was extended to ever larger groups.  Finally, the rise of the Welfare State in the twentieth century extended the concept of citizenship to the social and economic sphere, by recognizing that minimal conditions of education, health, economic well-being, and security are basic to the life of a civilized being as well as to meaningful exercise of the civil and political attributes of citizenship.”

Hirschman went back over the history of these three periods and tallied the arguments used in reaction to these progressive initiatives.  He discovered that there was a definite pattern that emerged.

“In canvassing for the principle ways of criticizing, assaulting, and ridiculing the three successive ‘progressive’ thrusts of Marshall’s story, I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principle reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis.  According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.  The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent.’  Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous precious accomplishment.”

In the course of his study, Hirschman discovers, somewhat to his surprise, that liberals or progressives also have a standard set of arguments that they use to promote their ideas and counter reactionary arguments.  He provides the reader with this tabulation of typical arguments and counterarguments.

“The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.”

“Not to take the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.”

“The new reform will jeopardize the older one.”

“The new and old reforms will mutually reinforce each other.”

“The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics (‘laws’) of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.”

“The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already ‘on the march’; opposing them would be utterly futile.”

Hirschman warns us that arguments that are used over and over again should be viewed with suspicion.

“Once the existence of these pairs of arguments is demonstrated, the reactionary theses are downgraded, as it were: they, along with their progressive counterparts, become simply extreme statements in a series of imaginary, highly polarized debates.  In this manner they stand exposed as limiting cases, badly in need, under most circumstances, of being qualified, mitigated, or otherwise amended.”

One is tempted to think of democracy as a place where citizens come together and debate their ideas on how to move forward.  Ensuing from this debate emerges a compromise that all can live with.  Hirschman warns us that that is not how actual democracies work.  He must have been well aware of the “confirmation bias” that affects all human deliberation: the tendency to believe what supports an existing viewpoint, and the tendency to discount anything that is counter to an existing viewpoint.  This is something that we know intuitively from our own personal experiences, but which we often forget. 

People don’t debate political issues to gain understanding; they debate in order to win the argument.

“In the process it would emerge that discourse is shaped, not so much by fundamental personality traits, but simply by the imperatives of argument, almost regardless of the desires, character, or convictions of the participants.”

And what does history tell us about nations as divided as ours?  Have we become an outlier among democracies?

“Modern pluralistic regimes have typically come into being, it is increasingly recognized, not because of some preexisting wide consensus on ‘basic values,’ but rather because various groups that had been at each other’s throats for a prolonged period had to recognize their mutual inability to achieve dominance.  Tolerance and acceptance of pluralism resulted eventually from a standoff between bitterly hostile opposing groups.”

“Even in the most ‘advanced’ democracies, many debates are, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a ‘continuation of civil war with other means.’  Such debates, with each party on the lookout for arguments that kill, are only too familiar from democratic politics as usual.”

Hirschman’s final message to us is a warning that democracy is not a very stable construct.  The ideal of citizen groups having common goals but different means to attain them who debate and compromise is seldom attained.  What we refer to as democracy and its social advancements can be acquired, but they can also be lost.

“Is it not true that not just the last but each and every one of Marshall’s three progressive thrusts has been followed by ideological counterthrusts of extraordinary force?  And have not these counterthrusts been at the origin of convulsive social and political struggles often leading to setbacks for the intended progressive programs as well as to much human suffering and misery?”

“Once we contemplate this protracted and perilous seesawing of action and reaction, we come to appreciate more than ever the profound wisdom of Whitehead’s well-known observation, ‘The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur’.”

The lesson to be learned from Hirschman’s study is that in a country like ours, where ‘civil war is continued by other means,’ it is dangerous for one side of the battle to attain too much power.  Both contentious political parties have recognized this peril and, inadvertently or not, established a mechanism by which the minority party can exercise greater influence than pure numbers would allow.  Both parties have used this mechanism when they were in the minority and viewed it as a necessary means of controlling excessive ambitions on the part of the majority.

We are approaching a state where we are little better than savages assembling on a battlefield.  It is disconcerting that the only thing that might keep us from open warfare is the much-maligned filibuster rule in the Senate.  Beware the day when that rule is fully rescinded.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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