Archive for the ‘philosophy’ category

Jim Leach’s Address to the Convention

September 9, 2008

For me, the most useful speech at the conventions was the short discussion by former Republican Representative Jim Leach of Iowa. He used a discussion of some of the best features of our political tradition as a background to his commitment to supporting Obama.

The full text of Jim Leach’s Speech to Democratic National Convention follows:

“As a Republican, I stand before you with deep respect for the history and traditions of my political party. But it is clear to all Americans that something is out of kilter in our great republic. In less than a decade America’s political and economic standing in the world has been diminished. Our nation’s extraordinary leadership in so many areas is simply not reflected in the partisan bickering and ideological politics of Washington. Seldom has the case for an inspiring new political ethic been more compelling. And seldom has an emerging leader so matched the needs of the moment.

“The platform of this transformative figure is a call for change. The change Barack Obama is advocating is far more than a break with today’s politics. It is a clarion call for renewal rooted in time-tested American values that tap Republican, as well as Democratic traditions.

“Perspective is difficult to bring to events of the day, but in sweeping terms, there have been four great debates in our history to which both parties have contributed. The first debate, led by Thomas Jefferson, the first Democrat to be elected president, centered on the question of whether a country could be established, based on The Rights of Man.

“The second debate, led by Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to be elected president, was about definitions—whether The Rights of Man applied to individuals who were neither pale nor male. It took almost two centuries of struggle, hallmarked by a civil war, the suffrage and abolitionist movements, the Harlem renaissance and a courageous civil rights leadership to bring meaning to the values embedded in the Declaration of Independence.

“The third debate, symbolized by the new deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the emphasis on individual initiative of Ronald Reagan, involves the question of opportunity, whether rights are fully meaningful if all citizens are not given a chance to succeed and provide for their families.

“The fourth debate, which acquired grim relevance with the dawn of the nuclear age, is the question of whether any rights are possible without peace and environmental security.

“The American progressive tradition reflected in these debates spans Democratic standard bearers from the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan to the Camelot statesman, John F. Kennedy. It includes Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, who built up the National Parks system and broke down corporate monopolies, and Dwight David Eisenhower, who ran on a pledge to end a war in Korea, brought a stop to European colonial intervention in the Middle East, quietly integrated the Washington, D.C., school system and not so quietly sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to squash segregation in public schools throughout the country.

“In models of international statecraft, progressive leadership includes Al Gore, who helped galvanize worldwide understanding of the most challenging environmental threat currently facing the planet, and our current president’s father, who led an internationally sanctioned coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

“In Congress, Democratic senators like Pat Moynihan and Mike Mansfield served in Republican administrations. On the Republican side, Arthur Vandenberg helped President Truman launch the Marshall Plan, and Everett Dirksen backed Lyndon Johnson’s landmark civil rights legislation.

“In troubled times, it was understood that country comes before party, that in perilous moments mutual concern for the national interest must be the only factor in political judgments. This does not mean that debate within and between the political parties should not be vibrant. Yet what frustrates so many citizens is the lack of bipartisanship in Washington and the way today’s Republican Party has broken with its conservative heritage.

“The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values. The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming. And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts.

“America has seldom faced more critical choices: whether we should maintain an occupational force for decades in a country and region that resents western intervention or elect a leader who, in a carefully structured way, will bring our troops home from Iraq as the heroes they are. Whether it is wise to continue to project power largely alone with flickering support around the world or elect a leader who will follow the model of General Eisenhower and this president’s father and lead in concert with allies.

“Whether it is prudent to borrow from future generations to pay for today’s reckless fiscal policies or elect a leader who will shore up our budgets and return to a strong dollar. Whether it is preferable to continue the policies that have weakened our position in the world, deepened our debt and widened social divisions or elect a leader who will emulate John F. Kennedy and relight a lamp of fairness at home and reassert an energizing mix of realism and idealism abroad.

“The portfolio of challenges passed on to the next president will be as daunting as any since the Great Depression and World War II. This is not a time for politics as usual or for run-of-the-mill politicians. Little is riskier to the national interest than more of the same. America needs new ideas, new energy and a new generation of leadership.

“Hence, I stand before you proud of my party’s contributions to American history but, as a citizen, proud as well of the good judgment of good people in this good party, in nominating a transcending candidate, an individual whom I am convinced will recapture the American dream and be a truly great president: the senator from Abraham Lincoln’s state—Barack Obama. Thank you.”

Would that we had more legislators like Jim Leach. One can only hope that in the near future he enters the pantheon of leaders that his speech adumbrates


Ignorance is no Defense

April 5, 2008

In a New York Times Op-ed (March 30) Kristof raises the critical issue of the remarkable ignorance of Americans. He points out that compared with the people of other developed countries Americans are ignorant as a people and the leaders they select relatively uninformed. He points to numerous studies, showing, for example, the remarkable percentage of people who do not believe in evolution, as well as the general ignorance of Americans of geography outside the USA. Large percentages believe in UFOs, and about 20% believe the sun orbits the earth. In President Bush we probably have the only leader of a modern state who still believes that on evolution “the facts are still out”. Such facts force us to address the question why we have a larger intellectual vacuum at many levels of society than other developed countries?

To effectively address the issue we need to first establish the extent and the nature of the deficit. (I suspect that further investigation would show that the deficit begins with parents and teachers, and is then passed on to the young.) Next, we need to compare the American educational system with the systems of countries that particularly excel us in this regard. By educational system, I mean much more than the classroom. It includes media of all kinds and how they are actually used by people at different economic and cultural levels at different stages of life.

This investigation should be based on and help initiate a larger comparative study of the cultures of developed countries. So many of our critical social and institutional problems could be seen more clearly and be more successfully addressed if the experience of other advanced countries could be incorporated into our agenda for change. To fail to do this would unfortunately reinforce the argument for our comparative intellectual incompetence.

Sex in an Enlightened Society

March 15, 2008

Elliot Spitzer has been caught in a media and federal web for arranging to meet a prostitute in a Washington hotel. He has now resigned as Governor of New York. This is only the latest in an endless series of political and social tragedies dating back to prehistory. Thinking about this “crime”, several points need to be made.

1. Most people have strong sexual desires from about age 12 to age 60. It is not possible to understand the strength of this desire in your neighbors (for eample, in men “normal” testosterone levels vary from 300 to 1000 units, with attendant effects on behavior)

2. These desires are hard for some people to satisfy within the confines of the social codes of their place and time. These vary widely. For example in Iranian Shiism, “Mut’ah” or “Sigheh” marriage is sanctioned. Some jurists insist that one can only have four sigheh marriages at a time; others disagree. Many societies have allowed sex before marriage, for example to prove fecundity.

3. Some will, inevitably, evade the codes of their social group on occasion.

4. Some societies make evasion a great crime; others understand and live with it. In older tyrannies, whether tribal or national, powerful men generally had access to a wide range of women (as we see in the Old Testament). Modern American and conservative islamic societies head the list of those who make sex outside marriage a major crime. (even in those islamic societies that allow sigheh).

5. “Prostitution” is the term used in our society for the form of evasion for which social or judicial punishment is most commonly exacted.

At this point we should stop and notice that keeping a mistress or having sex at the conclusion of a casual date are generally overlooked in many societies, including our own. Payments in kind seem to be generally accepted, but not in cash.

The Spitzer affair led to a number of op-eds in the NYTimes. Most of them argued that prostitution is not a victimless crime. The writers insist that laws against prostitution should be vigorously enforced, especially against the Johns. The argument is made on the basis that coercion is often involved. However, one prostitute offered an op-ed that said that if prostitution is conducted on a private referral basis, no one is hurt while all parties benefit.

It seems to me that coercion and mistreatment is what should be criminalized. Many service people are mistreated. Laws should perhaps be strengthened to cover coercion in the sex for hire business. Enforcement should be directed especially at the entrepreneurs who bring people across national boundaries for sex, or traffic in underage persons of either sex. If retail prostitution were decriminalized, it would be much easier to gather evidence against the brutality and coercion by pimps and johns that are the real problem.

In an enlightened society, the importance of sexual relations of any kind will be downplayed at the same time that laws will be developed and enforced against any forms of oppression and cruelty in the family or outside it, whether or not sex is involved. It is time to lift society above slavish acceptance of inherited dogmas, deal with people as they are, placing law and condemnation on the side of humanity instead of prejudice.

Existentialism, or the Missing Ingredient?

July 24, 2007

The other day I read about a popular Harvard professor who was still attached to the existentialists of the recent past, such as Sartre and Camus. Without knowing much about them, I too have thought that something like existentialism must be the life philosophy of the enlightened. Unfortunately, when I then went back and looked a little at what the existentialists had to say, I was not so enamored. What I think I like is the word and the bare bones of thought that go along with it.

I have long realized that rational, enlightenment thinking does not meet all the needs of real human beings. They need some basis on which to answer the larger questions, such as “Why”. Why are we here at all. What comes before and after us as individuals and a race of beings? If the world will someday end as a frozen blob or else a fiery sphere, why do we work so hard for good outcomes for ourselves or others in the short run that we are necessarily confined to?

To me, existentialism is the philosophy that meets these questions head on. The answer, basically, is that these are all unanswerable questions. All we can do is understand as much as we can about our own lives and those around us and make all we contact feel better about what they do and can do. We must all be heroes continuing into uncharted darkness. We must all arbitrarily shorten our grasp of time to what we can comprehend and to some degree affect.

I exist, you exist, our communities exist, and the world and everything in it exists. Let us live with this existence as best we can, and enhance existence according to our own lights.

Economics 101: A New Look

July 12, 2007

When I was a beginning “soft social scientist” around 1950, it was always assumed that there was only one “hard” social science — economics. The reasoning was simple. Economics dealt with real figures and it used mathematics to manipulate these figures. This had been the road to success of the natural sciences and it was assumed it would soon be that of all science. Psychology, political science, and sociology are still struggling with this assumption.

Meanwhile, over in economics, there seems to be something of a revolt. More and more economists are starting to reject dependence on “hard numbers” and on simplistic mathematical formulae. A long article in the New York Times (July 11) refers to some of these revolutionaries and their arguments. As one says, “Economics is often a triumph of theory over fact.” They are starting to notice that open markets and free trade are not always good, that the level playing field is never level, and the players may have quite different goals. They are noting that government regulation is not always bad, particularly when compared with absence of regulation.

Of course, one alternative to mainstream economics has been “behavioral economics”, which is rather closer to sociology. It has been a round for a good while, but seems to be having a renaissance.

I particularly noted that the conversion of some economists to the new thinking was based on studies of the actual effects of the minimum wage. It has been a basis tenet of standard economics that the minimum drives up costs for everyone and puts many people out of work. However, a recent study in New Jersey showed that an increase in the minimum wage actually resulted in a rise in employment. I was struck by this because when I was at the Hudson Institute in the 1960s, an institute heavily infused with the standard economics, I had occasion to look at studies of what happens when minimum wages were imposed or raised. Unlike what our speakers confidently asserted, I could not find a study that supported their opposition to the minimum wage. The vaunted association of minimum wage and unemployment was a good example of a triumph of theory over fact.

All this is becoming increasingly important as we struggle with the demands of globalization. On the one side are those who will profit from it (large corporations and some poor countries especially) and the economic fraternity that treats opponents like biologists treat the critics of evolution. On the other side are those who will clearly suffer in the short term and those who are not attracted to the vision of a thoroughly homogenized world. The economics of globalization needs at least a long hard look that goes far beyond the attractiveness of shifting production to the country with the greatest comparative advantage.

Wikipedia and Enlightenment

July 10, 2007

A recent New York Times magazine article on Wikipedia (Magazine, July 1) reminded me just how significant this encyclopedia is. It provides an instant access, free source of knowledge on almost anything (now over 1.8 million articles in the English section alone; it offers articles in 250 languages). Anyone can contribute, adding anything from a misplaced comma to an extensive research article with footnotes. The enterprise is run by a non-profit foundation, controlled by a small board. There are 30 “stewards” and 1200 administrators. The “admins” are the only ones who have the power to check content, remove articles or additions, and even permanently ban certain persons from access. Everyone involved seems to take their responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. The amount of work put in by all contributors, but especially the administrators, is mind boggling — and all for free. (I would think it would not hurt to develop a compensation policy, but this could weaken the monkish self-abnegation that seems to infect all involved.)

In spite of the way in which it is organized, and the lack of “recognized authorities” behind its articles, studies have shown that it is about as accurate per line as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another study here found that experts rated Wikipedia articles as more accurate that nonexperts unfamiliar with the material. My own experience is that it is often a waste of time to use the Internet for information on a topic. It is much easier to just go to Wikipedia and review their material. The great success of this “democratic” approach to knowledge compilation reminds one of the success of juries in most kinds of trials and of recent studies that have shown that a group of non-experts will come to decisions at least as useful as experts (which is not to say that in manifold ways, the contributors to Wikipedia are not themselves “experts”).

The project is guided by what are called the five pillars.

The first and more general pillar defines the enterprise as an encyclopedia, which is not a place for personal opinions or trivia. It is not a soapbox or a directory etc.

The second pillar sets the objective as “a neutral point of view”. The user or contributor is told that “verifiable, authoritative sources should be used whenever possible, especially on controversial topics. When a conflict arises as to which version is the most neutral, declare a cool-down period and tag the article as disputed; hammer out details on the talk page and follow dispute resolution”.

The third pillar is that it is free and entries can be changed by anyone. All revisions are kept, so that the article can be changed back to an earlier form if necessary. No copyrighted material is allowed.

The fourth pillar emphasizes the importance of good manners by all involved. There should be no editing wars. Good faith should be assumed on the part of all involved.

The fifth pillar is that there are no firm rules. People should be bold in editing and writing. Perfection is not required. They are reminded that all prior versions are kept, so there is no need to fear the destruction of good material.

What seemed truly remarkable to the writer of the NYT piece was the dedication of those involved to these principles. He particularly noted that in an age in which many social scientists and literary critics have concluded that it is naive to believe neutrality is possible or that there is “a truth”, he has found a community in which these values are treasured. Noting that most of those deeply involved in the project (including many admins) are in the 20-35 age group, and many are still in high school, he asks “Where did they learn these values?” What this suggests is that there are thousands of teachers throughout this country who are instilling in the young firmly held educational values in spite of the chaos that surrounds so much of modern life.

The Wikipedia phenomenon is one of the most hopeful signs of the possibility of a new age of enlightenment that I have come across.

Democracy Demands an Informed and Rational Public: Al Gore

May 31, 2007

In his new book, “The Assault on Reason”, Al Gore makes the case that our democracy is in trouble, and indeed our civilization is in trouble”, because of the decline in rational thought on all levels, especially in regard to public policy. He is not saying that we lack rational thinkers, but rather that the public is not actively involved in discussion of the issues of the day. His great example, is the attack on Iraq, where the media, even Congress, allowed the assumption that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 to go unquestioned. This has been such an egregious blindness to facts that even today, half of Americans believe that this is the reason we are in Iraq. A recent PBS discussion with National Guardsmen posted to Iraq would seem to confirm this interpretation of the state of public discussion.

Many have long noticed the massive decline in the role of reason in the public arena after the passing of the Founding Fathers. Even in 1858 at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the question of slavery, we had an attentive public that was willing in town after town to listen to carefully reasoned debates. In the debates one of them spoke for an hour, then the other candidate spoke for an hour and a half, and then the first speaker was allowed a half hour “rejoinder.” People traveled from neighboring states to listen, and major papers published full texts of the debates.

The difficulty I find with Gore’s thesis is that I do not know where it leads. Is there really a road back for the American public. It would make sense to allow no advertising on TV, or at least nothing under 30 minutes. But I cannot see this happening. Gore has faith that the internet will help bring us back. But I fear the internet drags us in all directions, with a tendency for the most absurd and outlandish to get the largest audience.

A couple of days ago, David Brooks had a long Op-Ed in the New York Times attacking Gore’s thesis from every angle. He tried to make him out to be some kind of inhuman monster who would replace the mixture of emotion and logical thought that we all work with by an inhuman and purely logical approach. It was a surprisingly sophomoric column (apologies to sophomores). I was glad to see that there was today (or yesterday) about seven letters in response, all good and all supporting Gore against this ridiculous attack.