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Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category

Ruled or Represented?

It’s Election Day in the United States. It’s a national civics lesson in which we celebrate democracy and the role of the people in governing themselves. In the United States, this civics lesson describes our form of government as a representative democracy. People vote for representatives. The person who gets the majority wins and is supposed to represent the interests of the voters. This is the form in which Americans “share in the rule,” the phrase Aristotle uses to describe what citizens do in political life to distinguish political life form master rule where the ruled do not participate in the rule but are entirely subject to rule. Both the sharing in the rule and the ruling for the sake of the ruled are markers, Aristotle tells us, of political rule in contrast to master rule. 

I remember debating in high school social studies whether elected representatives were supposed to act in accordance with the wishes of the people who elected them or if they were supposed to make their best judgment about what would be right having been elected on the supposition that they were not so much the holder of every position of those who voted for them but rather considered the best person at making the right judgments. Elected officials have even explained votes by saying they had to do what their constituents wanted even if they disagreed. This debate still seems within the domain of different perspectives of representative democracy.

A friend posted something on Facebook about how our rulers were deciding among themselves and I was struck by how very true that was. In a more emphatic sense than has been the case before, it seems that we are no longer appointing representatives, we are being ruled.

Some people might say it has long been that way, and they are not wrong. The American system has long tried to keep the people at some remove from the real decisions. Consider the Senate’s composition of two senators from each state no matter how small. This calculus led to our situation today in which 51 Republican Senators represent 143 million people while 49 Democratic Senators represent 182 million people. Gerrymandering is so severe that there is some fear that the Democrats will win a majority of votes for House seats while losing the House. We never did really support the One Person, One Vote principle. 

But that’s not the only reason that we are ruled rather than represented. Public choice theory is the idea that elected officials themselves could be considered and studied as economic actors, as having their own interests that drive their actions. While there is a lot of debate about public choice theory this definition is uncontroversial. In the summary of it at the beginning of this article in Forbes, the author cites the theory itself as if it is conventional wisdom and so clearly unrelated to say, promoting segregation. But I hold public choice theory at least in part responsible for our situation of being ruled. Public choice theory appeared to study a phenomenon that it was in fact producing by suggesting that elected officials needed to be self-interested rather than concerned with good representation. Coupled with the power of big money in electoral politics, elected officials became motivated to be invested in holding on to their seats and thus to vote the way the money was rather than in response to people. They had to associate with the people who give them money and became invested in the moneyed interests. 

I think one element in this is the way that elected officials–Democrats as much as anyone–act out of fear rather than out of courage and thoughtful commitment to what would serve the citizenry. They see midterm elections as occasions in which they have to pick up a tiny slice of voters who might swing their votes instead of seeing the opportunity in the wide swath of people who never vote because they know the rulers rule for themselves. They develop platforms that appeal to the middle, people stay home because they haven’t motivated anyone to vote, and then they blame the nonvoters, when they could be speaking to the concerns of the people who never vote.

Public choice theory led politicians themselves to stop thinking in terms of what was good for their constituents and literally encouraged them to think in terms of their own self-interests. They became rulers instead of representatives. They became invested in not sharing the rule, in not taking turns. 

If we want representatives, we need to eliminate the electoral college and change the composition algorithm of the Senate, both anti-democratic mechanisms to preserve the power of the few. But we also need to change the way that politicians think about their position away from public choice theory and toward civil service. For this shift to happen, they need to be disincentivized to think in terms of their own self-interest apart from the interests of those they rule. Economists create ideal systems and then study the world as if it fits in that system and try to explain it accordingly, all the while that system produces the incentives it needs for it to really work that way so that their studies would be accurate. Public choice theory is no different. 

Poverty and the Individualizing of #MeToo

I have been listening to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (the book website gives a pretty good overview of the book). Desmond followed I think 11 different people around Milwaukee in 2011 as they were evicted and tried to make do with very little money and an eviction on their record. The most striking revelation of the book is the perverse incentives that housing policies and laws create for landlords as well as tenants. For example, federal housing vouchers enable their holder to pay only a third of the rent, encouraging landlords to evict current occupants and jack up the rent to what is a good deal for the voucher holder but way above market value for the property, in effect making federal housing vouchers good for individuals but bad for poor people (public housing turns out to be much better than this privatizing move).

At the same time, I’ve been reading a number of things that have been written about the direction of the #metoo movement. Alecia Simmonds reviewed Linda Martín Alcoff’s book, Rape and Resistance, in the Australian Review of Books. Simmonds calls attention to questions Alcoff raises of the colonial history of juridical concepts of consent and property as they pertain to sexual violation and rape to ask how far they get us. Also this week I came across Ann Snitow’s piece, “Talking Back to the Patriarchy” in Dissent Magazine. She begins by averring that the #metoo movement is “simply marvelous.” But she goes on to articulate some worries. Generally, I find that the worries people raise (what about due process?!) tell us more about their investment in the status quo than real concerns about justice. But one line struck me in Snitow’s list of pressing worries: “fear of a misdirection of the eye toward individual “monsters” and away from the need for systemic change.” Indeed, this point seems most important.

The focus on individuals instead of systems is part of what allows #metoo to be for better off women. Even the systems that the women of Hollywood are trying to change seem far away from the systems of power non-celebrities work within and even further away from the systems of power that affect the poor.  Read more

If You’re Cringing at Facebook, You Should Also be Cringing at the Market

I recently learned of people who think that Facebook is listening to them through the microphones in their phones.  This weekend someone told me a story about how she was reading a book out in nature and then when she got back to her car, her phone was recommending the book she was reading to her.  Another person had a story of telling her business partner of a thing they needed to get, not on email but in person, and soon after gettings ads for it.  Everyone seems to have a story like this. People think Facebook must be listening to them, because it just seems like magic. The algorithms at Facebook, it turns out, collect information to predict your interests and your wants and your concerns to target ads to you for just what you want at just the right time that it makes people feel as if the only explanation is that they are listening to you.  But Facebook isn’t listening to you. As an article about six months ago in Wired argued, they don’t have to. You are giving them the information. They target ads to you the way that those mindreaders get people to say something through suggestive questions. Because we can’t see the algorithms and can’t tell how they work, we think, it must be magic. And for most of us, it feels creepy.

In this regard, Facebook is a lot like the market. We put information into the market by buying things at a certain price, by buying cheaper versions of the same thing or more expensive versions, by deciding to spend our money on travel and food rather than shoes or clothes, by leaving one job for another, by turning down jobs that don’t pay enough or taking jobs that are below our credentials, by renting the too small apartment for too much money, or passing up the small apartment when the rent is too high. We think we as individuals have made an agreement with the landlord, or with the people at Macy’s or our boss, not unlike the way we think that Facebook is listening to us. We think it is about individuals making decisions, but so much less freedom and choice is involved. The market collects the information to sell us the goods at the price point it expects we will buy and we buy it and we think we have made decisions, when the market has collected masses of information to give us what we want at the point we are willing to pay for it.

The magic of Facebook creeps us out. But this creepiness should be extended to the market as well, if not more. The collective cringe at Facebook’s capacity to target to us the things we didn’t even know we wanted should be extended to the market’s work of giving us the things we want at the point we are willing to pay for them. Instead of supposing that this is the happy magic of the market, we should find the magic cringe-worthy. The cringe at Facebook betrays the truth of the impersonal determination of our desires. What’s surprising is only that we don’t also cringe at the market. The cringe at Facebook is the recognition that we are getting played. If we think that’s less the case with the market it is only because its workings are even more opaque to the everyday worker and consumer than Facebook’s are.

Many people in response to the recent publicity of Facebook’s data becoming available to other vendors are calling for regulation of Facebook. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina offered guidelines this week on NPR for how Facebook could become a force for good community instead of for feeding consumption. Cathy O’Neill has similarly argued for how to make Facebook a place for community, beginning with making their algorithms more transparent. Facebook itself is rushing to show how they plan to better regulate themselves in the face of grossly underinformed U.S. Senators who were unable to grasp both the workings of Facebook and the implications of this current situation. But again this interest in regulation of Facebook, not unlike the move to regulate previous utilities like telephones, should point to a greater willingness to regulate the market. If we wish to regulate Facebook because we think that the algorithms cannot tell us what is good and might themselves need human input and human restraints, then it seems we should be able to see how the market similarly cannot tell us what is good and needs human inputs and human restraints.

Arguments against human interference in the market have worked by arguing that human beings can never have enough information to determine the best distribution. Only markets can. This situation seems to be exactly the case Facebook is in. They have the most information. And yet our response to that is to cringe. To the extent that you cringe at Facebook’s vast information about us and the decisions that follow from it, you should cringe at the notion that the market has more information that can better determine and organize our lives. This operation is not freedom from tyranny, it is the tyranny of market forces absent human engagement and deliberation.

The Robot in the Market Machine

News reports from yesterday’s sharp drop of the Dow point to the role of computer algorithms that sell stocks when they reach a certain point as one of the main sources of the drop.  This explanation would appear to be the logically absurd conclusion of a so-called free market economy.  Defenders of a free market economy maintain that the market can best distribute goods at the right prices when human beings each act for their own self-interest.  Will Roberts makes the case that this surrender of human decision-making to the market is why Marx argues that capitalism does not cultivate freedom.  In a market economy, human beings no longer deliberate collectively about what is best.  They each act for themselves and the market decides.  They lose the collective work of speaking together about how to direct the community. Read more

We Have Dreamers, Too: Trump and the Deceptive Appeal of the American Dream

In Trump’s State of the Union he tried to take back the “dreamers” language from recent immigrants, saying, “We have dreamers in this country, too.  You can’t forget our dreamers.”  He  went on to say:

I am extending an open hand to work with the members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed. My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream.

Trump restricts the American dream for citizens and restricts the duty of those in office to citizens, forgetting the immigrant history of those citizens.  The American dream language works almost identically to the America First language as I map out here.  It makes those who have been left out of the promise of prosperity feel none the less that the dream is for them if only the work hard enough.  And it makes them understand their poverty as a result of lack of hard work, not as a result of structural barriers to economic mobility.  It makes them think the Dream is possible, if only they can get there.

Immigrants who came to the United State as children and are appealing for a road to citizenship seized on the language of the dream and contend that the dream should be accessible to everyone.  By taking up this language, these immigrants have also reminded us that the American dream functions to exclude.  When Trump said, “We have dreamers in this country, too,” he ignores that those immigrants are in this country and divides the country between those who are supposedly “rightfully” a part and those who are not.  Such a move reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of the United States as “a country lost in the Dream,” in Between the World and Me (12).  Lost in the Dream, America cannot see itself.  Coates describes America’s investment in the Dream as undergirded by fear (34), and that seems precisely what is played on in the #AllLivesMatter kind of turn to “We have dreamers too.”  The way Trump’s appeal works is to trump those forgotten and excluded by being denied citizenship by foregrounding those forgotten and excluded who are already citizens but find the country no less invested in them.  Attesting to the investment in the forgotten poor produces the sense that they are the concern of the country’s elected officials even as a new tax law is passed that will put more of the tax burden on them than on those who are living the Dream.  Recognizing their fear of exclusion and acknowledging their rightful place in relation to the aspiration to the Dream while denying them any path toward the dream pits them against those made to appear unworthy of the Dream.  But neither are given access to the Dream.

Coates argues that Dream is oppressive to those for whom it is never even held out as a promise.  That oppression is of a whole different order than the oppression of those for whom it is held out as a promise (106).  The oppression for those for whom it is denied functions in the active forgetting of those to whom the Dream is denied, which it is why it is striking to see Trump so boldly assert that “our dreamers” can’t be forgotten, when everyone knows who the “our” is and who it is not.  As Coates writes in reference to the discussion he has with the mother of Prince Jones, a young Black man who was killed by police:

When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best–it forgot him.  The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.  They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.  I am convinced that Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free (143).

When Trump asks that we not forget our Dreamers, he invites us to continue to forget the conditions upon which that dream thrives, and he invites people to be more invested in their whiteness than their freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

The SOTU, or as I like to call it, STFU

I didn’t want to watch.  The tickets had typos (I know, this is the least of our worries).  But then I listened to David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism on Audible on the way into work today and remembered that things are not newly bad.  Things have been careening toward deficit-driven upward redistribution of wealth since at least the George W. Bush Administration.  We need to watch in order to bear witness.  In truth, I’m torn between giving Trump too much attention and doing my civic duty.  I decided to do my civic duty.

Before the address, I looked up “pre-game” reports and found that ABC called it Trump’s First “Must See TV” State of the Union and almost decided against watching again.  But here I am.  Girding my loins.  I switched to CBS.  Ok, I can’t talk about how creepy the thing is, how viscerally difficult it is to watch: Trump’s squint, his hand gestures, Paul Ryan’s self-satisfied smirk.  This cannot be my focus.  As I’ve been saying since more than year ago, these things are not what we need to concern ourselves with. Read more

Which America First?

Trump spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos yesterday (full transcript here) about “America First,” saying, “I believe in America.”   Trump seems to think it is obvious who he means by America, and many of his supporters think it is obvious too.  Yet, increasingly, the policies of “America First” do not support those who support it.  Last week, in an effort to protect American interests the Trump Administration slapped a tariff onto solar panels coming from China this week.  Though Trump fancies himself a “job creator,” this move will likely result in the loss of 23,000 American jobs.  Solar panel manufacturing will help FirstSolar, Tesla, Suniva, and SolarWorld, but manufacturing only makes up a small portion of the solar panel industry.  Most of the work is in installation.  Some analysts are even suggesting that foreign companies will see most of the benefit. Read more

I Marched, But Not for the Polls

When I started writing this post, I wasn’t going to go to the march.  But I started thinking about the post that went up yesterday about purity.  I realized you know, it is pretty easy to find lots of reasons not to do things and then be very consistent and kind of useless in terms of doing something in the world.  As my post yesterday suggested, purity in the politics might be the enemy of doing any g–d— thing at all.  Then I realized that some of my friends were going and that they had made posters that were not at all about winning at the polls, so I thought, maybe we can go, and be a part of shifting the conversation.  And you know what they say in organizing efforts, you gotta go where the people are.

I am wary of political organizing whose aim is not really to change the political order.  Any political organizing that is trying to motivate people to resist by voting is doing very little to really try to change the normal order of things.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t try to vote out Republicans in November.  They should.  However, I am not here for that effort if Democrats are just going to be a cleaned up version of militaristic imperialism and corporate underwriting.  Read more

Purity and Individualism

In my first or second year of graduate school, I was newly immersed in feminist theory and generally excited about seeing the world again through a feminist lens.  I had recently read Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market,” which analyzes the ways that customs around marriage and weddings contribute to viewing women as commodities.  A graduate student friend who was finishing the program got engaged around the same time I was reading this piece and her partner gave her a diamond ring, which she wore.  This friend was (and remains) something of a feminist hero to my young graduate student self so I asked her how she held together her feminist commitments and wearing a diamond ring.  She told me, I still have to live my life, I still have to live in this world. Read more

Border Walls, Immigration Policy, and Hannah Arendt

This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.”  The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well?  A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths?  I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.

First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled.  Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.  The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus.  The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border.  People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces. Read more