Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Politics: Where Up is Down and Good is Bad

Last week, David Brooks began a two-part series on eight books that have had a major influence in his own life (a summer reading list of sorts, should you want to learn about the inner-workings of Brooks’ soul).

One of the books on his list is the American political classic All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. Brooks writes that King’s Men shows “the way good can come from bad, and bad can come from good,” and “asks if in politics you have to sell your soul in order to have the power to serve the poor.”

12 years ago, my senior year English teacher gave me King’s Men with an inscription that exclaimed, “Forewarned is Forearmed!” Reading the novel at the age of 18, I understood it from the perspective of an outsider to politics—someone who had been interested in the craft of governing from a young age, but whose experience with the daily give and take of compromise and contradiction was cabined to the four walls of our New England style town meetings, which to this day remain not particularly representative of how government works in big cities, state capitals, or the halls of Congress.
Senator Huey Long (D-LA) (aka "Willie Stark")

I picked up King’s Men again recently, now a self-styled “insider” of the political process, albeit one who is ever-wary of the obsession that comes with the incessant machinations people go through to inhabit the inner most circles of power (a means that all too often becomes the end—HT to Professor Roger Porter for this piece of wisdom).

The impetus to my second read was a discussion I overheard outside my office, but inside the NYC political world about the results of a report. The takeaway was that it was “good” that the data revealed gross inequities in city services because that narrative could generate press, which could, in turn, inure to the benefit of both the principal and the New Yorkers who were not being adequately served.

It immediately brought to find a passage from King’s Men in which Willie Stark is seeking to oust Dolph Pillsbury, the political boss of Mason County, Louisiana. Willie had little fortune upending Pillsbury’s regime until an accident on a fire escape at a local schoolhouse shoddily put together by a corrupt associate of Pillsbury’s changed the political environment forever.

[S]ome of the brickwork gave and the bolts and bars holding the contraption to the wall pulled loose and the whole thing fell away, spraying kids in all directions. Three kids were killed outright. They were the ones that hit the concrete walk. About a dozen were crippled up pretty seriously and several of those never were much good afterward.

It was a piece of luck for Willie.

Only in politics could an epic tragedy in which kids perish be accurately and coldly declared a “piece of luck” for a challenger. And yet, as Warren noted, such “luck” need not be actively exploited. “Willie didn’t try to cash in on the luck. He didn’t have to try. People got the point.”

Indeed, in politics, what challengers often need to win is to have misfortune befall a stronger candidate (frequently the incumbent)—misfortune that typically manifests in suffering for real people and their communities.

This is not a “problem” that requires solving, but is instead an intractable, if unnerving truth about democratic politics. There are only so many seats. What matters is not whether a challenger “takes advantage” of misfortune to rise to power, as Stark went on to do, but instead whether that challenger (a) understands the true nature of the tragedy and is not blind to the real suffering that enabled her rise; and (b) views the opportunity presented by fate as an opportunity to do good by the People, rather than by herself.

Politics takes thick skin—which is to say that you need to be able to take a punch, but also have the courage to throw one when the moment is right, sure in the belief that while aiming to win is anything but a selfless act, it is worth fighting for when motivated by the desire to serve and not be served.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Women, Family, and the Expectations of Leadership

“Women do almost as well as men today as long as they don’t have children.”

-- Professor Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University, 2010

In EEOC v. Bloomberg L.P., 778 F. Supp. 2d 458, 485-486 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), a major gender discrimination lawsuit, Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York declared, “[M]aking a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences…perhaps unfortunately, women tend to choose to attend to family obligations over work obligations thereafter more often than men in our society.  Work-related consequences follow.”

We see this pattern not only in the fast-paced, high-pressure world of financial journalism, but across a spectrum of jobs, including the highest leadership posts in our government. While the last three men nominated to the Supreme Court (Samuel Alito, John Roberts, and Stephen Breyer) have all been married (with seven children among them), the last three women (Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Harriet Miers) have all been single and without children.

As freelance writer Robin Marty noted, “When men are able to rise to high-powered positions, dominating the roles of CEO, upper level management, and yes, Supreme Court Justice and even President, all while at the same time being able to raise a family, but women can only pursue these options without being encumbered by children, there is still a major hurdle to overcome.”

Others, however, appear nonplussed by the sacrifices demanded by politics or business at its highest levels. As Kathryn S. Wylde, President of the Partnership for New York City, told the New York Times in the wake of Judge Preska’s historic ruling:

I am among the first generation of ‘liberated’ women professionals who took for granted we would have to sacrifice personal time and family life to achieve our professional goals. Younger women tend to assume ‘equality in the workplace,’ along with the notion that they can and should ‘have it all.’ I don’t think that is possible for men or women, and certainly not in the competitive environment of New York City.
Thus, before we can even figure out how to overcome the hurdle Marty described, we must first decide how or whether to characterize it as a hurdle in the first place. This effort requires us to examine the appropriate balance between professional duty to our community and our personal lives.

This week, Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, wrote in the Times Opinionator, “Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.”

On the one hand, it seems plain that people need and deserve to live enriching lives beyond the toils of our labor. If, as a great ancient philosopher once said, humans are “luminous beings” and not merely “crude matter”, it stands to reason that our professional passions are but a small part of our souls.

On the other, as Christina Rossetti wrote in her poem-turned-Christmas-carol In The Bleak Midwinter, each of us must do our part, particularly the “wise men” who have been granted opportunity to little credit of their own.

And yet, what Marino misses in his piece—and what so many people who view work and life as a “zero sum” game fail to understand—is how love, family, and personal fulfillment can and do enable professional success and should be viewed as assets rather than liabilities, particularly among leaders in business, politics, and law.

It’s no secret that finding internal peace and happiness in life is brutally difficult, even for those blessed with the material trappings of the developed world. Waving that quest off as if it is a distraction from our core functions is neither helpful nor realistic. Indeed, while some of us can dupe ourselves into thinking that somehow we can do the professional without regard to the personal, life eventually hits you upside the head and it becomes crystal clear that the foundation of success in any realm—the font from which all-else flows—is intimate human connection: familial, fraternal, romantic.

*   *   *   *   *   *

While it may be acceptable to expect professional athletes or master chess players to have an almost monastic devotion to their craft—the skill and dexterity needed to succeed at the highest level being almost directly tied to their hours of practice—political leaders are different animals.

Being a “political junkie” does not dovetail with being an effective representative. Sure, politicians need to have an understanding of the levers of power and should have a strong historical/procedural understanding of the body to which they are elected; but successful leadership in government requires so much more.

It requires an understanding of the diverse perspectives of your constituents, while simultaneously being confident in one’s own conception of First Principles. It requires a keen awareness of the values of the community and the emphasis placed on certain elements of life that may not at first glance appear to demand prioritization. And perhaps more than anything else, it requires empathy with the real problems of real people (as opposed to obsession with the political problems of political people).

In the spring of 2001, a friend who was graduating from Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School gave me a wallet-sized yearbook photo with a lovely message on the back, which I carry to this day. Well aware of my outsized ambitions, my friend took pains to urge me to “never close my mind to a family life.” It was an incredibly poignant piece of advice from someone one year my senior by the clock, but ages ahead in the consideration of what factors make a life worth living.

And yet, even as I recognize the prescience of her words, it is a challenge to beat back the uncertainty that comes from a political world that demands more of us than most are willing to give and, perhaps more importantly, more than it should demand if we want our representatives to have the perspective of a well-rounded existence that is so cherished by the polity at large.

Monday, May 19, 2014

From the Imperial City to the Outskirts of Empire

New York is the meeting place of the peoples, the only city where you can hardly find a typical American.

-- Djuna Barnes, Author (1892-1982)

The Great Library of Alexandria, founded around 300BC, was the locus point of the ancient world for philosophers, mathematicians, and scholars. At its height, the Library held 750,000 scrolls, which flowed into its shelves from the great empires of Greece, Egypt, and Babylon, and burgeoning civilizations as far away as India.

Alexandria, positioned at the crossroads of the developed world, soon became the world's intellectual capital and those who came to study understood that the knowledge amassed there was only as useful as it was widely disseminated—not only to the power centers of the old world, but to the small cities and towns on the periphery.

Two thousand years later, the United States is the closest thing we have to a global empire and the center of that empire is New York City. Just as the learned of Alexandria gravitated to the great political and cultural centers of the ancient world, so today many Americans flock to New York and other metropolises to ply their trade.

There is something deeply inspiring about this continued migration. As E.B. White famously wrote in Here is New York, while many native New Yorkers “take[] the city for granted,” there is another New York—the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something...that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”

And yet for all the romantic greatness of the immigrant/migrant story of New York, there is also an undercurrent of danger in its magnetism: the potential for a growing disconnect between the global power centers and the majority of the world’s population that lives in what a friend once described to me as “the outskirts of empire.”

As Thomas Edsall of the Times wrote last month in a column titled, “Will Liberal Cities Leave the Rest of America Behind?” many of the cities that are now on the leading edge of progressive politics in America have significant built-in advantages not available to most cities and towns on the “outskirts”:

[M]ajor research universities; financial and high-tech corporate centers; substantial and strong artistic and intellectual communities. Pittsburgh, for example, has Carnegie Mellon, metropolitan Boston has Harvard and M.I.T., Seattle has Microsoft and Amazon, and New York has its own varied, almost endless resources…These advantages are the exception, not the rule.

In the end, Edsall is left to ask, “whether the current left-leaning urban agenda is restricted to small elite of well-off municipalities with substantial resources.

It doesn’t help matters that the media is centered in and around these largely liberal metropolises. Indeed, for generations, the media has helped fuel more than a little navel-gazing in centers of empire; from the “New Yorker’s View of the World” to “Beltway Insiders” to Bostonians—whose very nickname for their City, “The Hub,” offers a glimpse into the psyche of the Gateway to New England.

This narcissistic tendency makes getting out of the bubbles and into the back roads of the empire all the more important. As Deborah Fallows, author of Dreaming in Chinese, wrote this weekend, “America is full of places with stories to tell, where generations had spent their lives building, losing and rebuilding, or where newcomers migrate, like pioneers, to strive toward their dreams.”

Of course, the need to assess the problems of the periphery need not blind us to the problems of the center of empire. Even Manhattan, which includes several of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, does not lack for significant social and economic ills. For all its wealth and power, the centers of the empire, like the outskirts, are not immune from poverty and suffering.

Nevertheless, just like the knowledge amassed and uncovered in Alexandria, New York’s progressive prosperity or Boston’s quest to become the City on a Hill mean little if their lessons are not spread beyond the walls of the metropolis to the rest of the country. For that to happen, people in cities and small towns have to focus more on what they have in common than by what separates them and avoid falling into the trap of believing that the future of American politics rural interests against urban needs.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Transparency and Tyranny of the Majority

Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind… It is plain that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most constructive purposes.

-- Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960)

In January 1776, a short pamphlet titled Common Sense hit the streets of Boston and other cities and towns throughout the New World, calling on people to take up arms against Britain in a fight for independence. Within months, it became one of the most widely read books in the colonies.

Given that its very content was treasonous, the pamphlet was published anonymously, with knowledge of its true author (the patriot Thomas Paine) remaining a secret into the spring of the year of Independence.

This week, NYC Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-East Side/Roosevelt Island) introduced a bill to create a centralized, public, online freedom of information law (FOIL) system in the City of New York. As reported in the Gotham Gazette, “Requests would be entered electronically and anyone would be able to see who is requesting what information from which agency.” Other cities—from Oakland to Chicago—already make names of FOIL requesters public. And indeed, in New York State, FOIL requests themselves are public documents subject to disclosure without redaction.

Nevertheless, Kallos’ bill is likely to raise questions about the intersection between government transparency and personal privacy. When should citizens be forced to disclose their communications with government? Are there circumstances in which anonymity is needed to avoid unwarranted harassment?

These questions continue to pose challenges, not just with regard to FOIL, but also in the context of campaign finance disclosure—as discussed by Globe columnist Scot Lehigh last week—and lobbying disclosure.

Indeed, New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which under a 2011 law is responsible for determining whether a particular advocacy organization should receive an exemption from disclosure if their donors faced “harm, threats, harassment, or reprisals” because of their support, has had to grapple with the implications of a subjective regime of anonymity.

Many groups across the political spectrum (from abortion rights groups to the conservative New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms) have sought exemptions, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is typically on the side of transparency (disclosure: NYCLU is a former employer).

While you could be forgiven for thinking that these groups are simply trying to protect their donor base, regardless of the actual threat posed, there are very real reasons to worry about the effects that full and complete disclosure of this kind would have on speech in America.

More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court first discussed the importance of anonymous speech in Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960), which struck down a Los Angeles ordinance forbidding the distribution of literature without the name and address of the individual(s) who prepared/distributed it. The Court opinion was framed by two major goals—to prevent retaliation against unpopular views and to encourage free and open dialogue. 

More recently, in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995), the Court reiterated the strong interest in anonymous speech:

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views…Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority… It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.

We may well believe that there is no good reason for corporations or deep-pocketed donors to be able to “hide in the shadows” or no good reason why an individual’s request of their government should be protected from public scrutiny, but America has a strong tradition of supporting anonymous speech on matters of public controversy.

As we continue the effort to improve the free flow of information and respond to the flood of money in politics unleashed by Citizens United and McCutcheon, we must not allow our desire to strengthen our democracy to undermine this essential bulwark of free and robust speech.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Breaking Down Richard Tisei’s 6-Point Jobs Plan for the 6th District

Richard Tisei, the Republican nominee for Congress in the 6th District of Massachusetts, recently unveiled a six-point jobs plan to spur economic development in Northeast Mass. While politicians always like to exaggerate their potential influence over local economies, Tisei’s plan is disappointing for its lack of creativity and its failure to take into account some of the greatest assets of Essex County and its surrounding communities.

That’s not to say that every element of Tisei’s plan is without merit. His emphasis on the need to better link economic development with workforce development is long overdue and greater flexibility for local economic development agencies to direct workforce dollars will better enable regions to create human capital that is responsive to industry need.

Unfortunately, that’s where Tisei’s good ideas end and the parade of protectionism and tax giveaways begins. From ginning up reasons to maintain defense spending that ballooned to over $700 billion in 2011 (more than the next 11 highest spending nations, combined—see chart) and targeting tax breaks at specific industries rather than at investment writ large, to the traditional GOP talking points of slashing corporate taxes (despite the fact that many corporations pay next to nothing in income tax) and environmental/financial regulations designed to maintain stability in the markets, Tisei’s plan does little to lay the groundwork for private sector growth.

A true jobs agenda for the 6th District takes advantage of Northeast Massachusetts’ historic strengths while also being aware of the trends of the 21st century global economy.

It means (1) building on the success of the Route 128 job corridor by providing federal support for the creation of sustainable, walkable communities that attract creative class workers.

It means (2) laying the foundation for growth (and spurring construction jobs in the process) by investing heavily in improved infrastructure—both modern energy grids and public transit, such as the long-proposed Blue Line extension to Central Square, Lynn.

It means (3) supporting mixed-use projects along the waterfront, like those ongoing in Haverhill, Gloucester, and communities throughout Essex County, which promise to create an “active” street life by leveraging our “working waterfront” and recognizing the importance of tourism to Essex County’s economy.

It means (4) making work pay by boosting the income of the 6th District’s poor and working class residents through an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

It means (5) looking ahead to the industries of tomorrow, especially renewable energy, rather than subsidizing the slow death of industries that have fled the U.S. as globalization has taken root. Instead, Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget—which stands as a midterm priority list for the GOP—slashes civilian research and development by $92 billion from the current baseline over the next decade.

Cities and towns throughout Northeast Mass. have historically relied on clean energy. For over 150 years, Lawrence has embraced hydroelectric power—from the Great Stone Dam in 1848 to the launch of a hydroelectric plant powering 7000 homes a year, in 1981. In Beverly, Salem, and Marblehead, windmills were grinding corn and bark as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.

With an immense coastline, a regulatory environment supportive of renewables, and countless students committed to investing their futures in the field, the 6th District is the perfect laboratory for the transformative energy technology of tomorrow. Our institutions of higher learning—from Gordon College in Wenham and Endicott College in Beverly to Salem State University in Salem, Northshore CC campuses throughout the region, and Merrimack College in North Andover—must be nodes of innovation.

Lastly, (6) with home prices increasingly out-of-reach in many towns in the District and long-term trend lines for Millennials showing a shifting preference for renting/apartment living, the federal government must reassess current tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the wealthy (such as the mortgage interest deduction) and boost tax credits for investment in smaller, more environmentally-efficient homes that permit greater density near transit hubs in places like Salem and Newburyport.

That’s a true 6-point plan for economic growth in the 6th District—one that puts private sector innovation at the core, not through tax giveaways and weakened regulation, but by boosting the human and physical infrastructure needed for long-term, sustainable development that can support middle class jobs.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Late Off the Blocks: Head Start and the Formative Years

In 1995, Betty Hart, a professor of Human Development at the University of Kansas, and Todd R. Risley, a professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska, published a study examining the difference in language heard by infants of varying socio-economic backgrounds.

The study found that the average low-income child heard just over 600 words per hour, less than half the average total of working class children (1251/hour), and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2153/hour). Using some rudimentary arithmetic, the researchers projected that wealthy kids heard about 30 million words by age 3, while poor kids heard only 10 million.

This divergent led to what the researchers described as an “even-widening gap” between poor and wealthy children, whereby the poor children not only “had smaller vocabularies than did children of the same age in professional families, but they were also adding words more slowly.”

More recent science also supports this conclusion. A 2013 study out of Stanford found that children in different socio-economic groups display dramatic differences in their vocabularies by 18 months.

Thus, it should come as little surprise that Head Start—the pioneering Great Society program designed to improve early learning for poor children—has had limited success in closing the achievement gap. As noted in a column by UC-Berkeley Professor David Kirp this weekend, despite recent improvements to the program, “a 2012 federal evaluation that used gold-standard methodology and concluded that children who participated in Head Start were not more successful in elementary school than others.

Kirp goes on to argue that one of the essential flaws in Head Start is that it only applies to poor students, in part because branding Head Start as a program for the poor weakens its political power, but more importantly because it concentrates the effects of poverty rather than allowing poor students to interact with and learn from their better educated peers. This interaction has been shown to help poor students narrow the vocabulary/literacy gap with their more well to do contemporaries without hurting the more privileged group.

While socioeconomic mixing in early childhood education can help to mitigate the effects of the “word gap”, we need to do more to narrow/eliminate the gap from emerging in the first place. This means placing a greater emphasis on the formative years 0-3, as well as providing new parents with the skills and tools they need to succeed. Simply put, Head Start is getting out of the proverbial blocks too late for many students to catch up.

Creating children may come naturally to humans, but parenting those children is anything but. And yet despite the incredible importance and difficulty of parenthood, government offers little in the way of supports for soon-to-be or new parents.

One program that has been effective in not only boosting pre-natal care but in improving parenting practices, is Early Head Start (EHS). Launched in 1995, EHS is designed to assist low-income women and families on a variety of childhood development/parenting mattes. A major study of the program in 2005 found that EHS children “performed better than did control children in cognitive and language development, displayed higher emotional engagement of the parent and sustained attention with play objects, and were lower in aggressive behavior. Compared with controls, Early Head Start parents were more emotionally supportive, provided more language and learning stimulation, read to their children more, and spanked less.”

[As previously noted in this space, Early Head Start or similar programs are perfect vehicles for Social Impact Bond financing.]

This conclusion isn’t surprising given that the vast majority of parents want to do well by their kids—they simply need the tools to do so.

Indeed, the fact that many parents do not read to their children as much as would be ideal is not a “choice” in the traditional sense of the term. Not only are many parents unaware of the benefits of frequent verbal interaction with infants, but they also may lack the resources needed to simply have books/newspapers in the home to read.  For instance, parents who are given books and “prescriptions for reading” by their children’s pediatricians have been found to be four times more likely to read and share books with their children.

This fall, New York City will introduce universal pre-K for the first time. It’s a huge step for equity and opportunity for our city’s youth and it is one of many bold ideas that Mayor de Blasio is putting into motion. But even as we navigate the challenges of pre-K, we should be planning for that next great leap forward in early childhood education—to the formative years where the gap first emerges—so that when the starting gun of life goes off, all children can get out of the blocks.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Facts and First Principles of American Foreign Aid

If our Founding Fathers wanted us to care about the rest of the world, they wouldn't have declared their independence from it.” 

-- Stephen Colbert

Last week, the Wall Street Journal released the results of a new poll on Americans view of foreign policy. As is often the case with foreign affairs, Americans seem to simultaneously desire tougher engagement and greater isolationism.

55 percent of those surveyed believed that “We need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America's willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles." Indeed, as applied to President Obama, 36 percent of respondents agreed that “He is too cautious and lets other countries control event,” compared to only 15 percent who claimed he is “too bold and forces issues with other countries.”

At the same time, 47 percent of Americans are calling for a “less active” foreign policy, with only 19 percent calling for a more active policy.

Isolationism has been a theme throughout American history, on both sides of the political spectrum. Even God Bless America seems to promote this view, its opening line referencing the storm clouds gathering “far across the sea.”

After over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan (one of which was launched/fought under ostensibly false pretenses) and the longest recession since the Depression, it’s understandable that many would seek strength through a retreat from global affairs.

And yet, the views of the majority of Americans are informed by a gross misunderstanding of what foreign aid is and how much of our budget it makes up. As shown in the chart at left from the Center for Global Development, the percentage of the federal budget going to foreign aid has declined significantly over the past half century.

Despite this clear trend, Americans consistently believe that the U.S. spends over one quarter of its entire budget on foreign aid (see chart from a recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation). Indeed, only four percent correctly stated that foreign aid makes up one percent or less of the federal budget.

Lest one think that the facts are irrelevant to the public’s consideration of foreign aid, consider that Kaiser found a dramatic shift in sentiment when Americans are told about the actual facts.

Armed with the facts, citizens change their views—a lesson policymakers could learn to emulate—and indeed, they are right to do so, not only because America has a duty to play a leadership role in combating global poverty, but because many elements of foreign aid have proven to be some of the most effective uses of government funds. 

In its 2014 annual letter, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation calculated that since 1980 alone, foreign aid has helped to save 100 million children at an average cost of about $5,000 per life: a bargain so good the only question is why we don’t do more.

As America continues to look back at our own Civil War at its 150th anniversary, I’m reminded of what John Stuart Mill wrote in The Contest in America in 1862:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse…A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.

While the battles of Baghdad and Kabul come to a close, the war on preventable disease and extreme poverty wage on. Are we willing to fight to end those scourges, if not with blood, than with treasure?

We ought to be, and not because there isn’t suffering in our own backyards that demands our concern and attention—there is—but rather because our lives and liberty are degraded by casting aside our gaze and pretending like our wealth is ours to hoard, rather than a tool to be used to bring justice, peace, and a modicum of dignity to all people, everywhere.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sterling and the Shrinking Scope of the Purely “Private” Sphere

“These days, the only way you can have a private conversation is to talk to yourself.”

-- “Susan_Gale” (Board of Wisdom)

Last month, BSB covered the saga of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich, who resigned after amid a torrent of criticism for his $1000 donation in support of California’s Proposition 8, a ballot measure that sought to ban same-sex marriage. At the time, there was considerable discussion about whether public pressure should be directed at an individual like Eich purely on account of his political beliefs.

More recently, a similar firestorm erupted in the National Basketball Association, as Donald Sterling, the octogenarian owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was recorded making deeply racist comments. The recording was captured by one of Sterling’s associates, V. Stiviano, who later gave it to a third party for “safe keeping” only to have the contents leaked to TMZ.

Recent reports indicate that the recording was made with consent from both Sterling and Stiviano (California is a “all-party” (or “two party”) consent state, whereas New York is a “one-party” state requiring only one individual to have consented to a recording).

While some have hailed Stiviano as a “hero”, others have questioned whether the real story—aside from the vile commentary unleashed by Sterling—is the nature of private communication in modern life.

NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar even went so far as to say, “Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way?”

ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock added:

If TMZ plans to make “pillow talk” public and the standard is set that “pillow talk” is actionable, it won't be long before a parade of athletes joins Sterling on Ignorance Island.

A right to privacy is at the very foundation of American freedoms. It's a core value. It's a mistake to undermine a core value because we don't like the way a billionaire exercises it. What happens when a disgruntled lover gives TMZ a tape of a millionaire athlete expressing a homophobic or anti-Semitic or anti-white perspective?

Lastly, Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby issued a cautionary warning, “[I]t isn’t only other people’s dirty laundry that the whole world can get a good look at. It is yours and mine, too. Once our privacy is gone, don’t count on getting it back.”

So what are we to make of this? At the outset, we need to define whether the decline in privacy is a problem in the first place. Presumably, we believe that a shrinking private sphere will lead to self-censorship and the decline in discourse that may at the time seem abhorrent but later becomes not only accepted, but embraced (countless ideas in history follow this trajectory, from Copernican heliocentrism to marriage equality).

At the same time, each of us as “public citizens” must be prepared to shoulder the consequences of our views. But which views? Perhaps those that we affirmatively choose to share with others. For instance, Brandon Eich contributed to a public campaign and was held to account in the marketplace. Donald Sterling did not make such an affirmative choice, though as most others have noted, given Sterling’s history of behavior, he garners little sympathy.

Beyond whether a communication was intended to be public or private, are there important lines to be drawn between politicians and public figures—who we expect to uphold a certain type of consistency across audiences—and private “everyday” Americans? The law already differentiates between these classes of persons in libel law, where public figures must prove “actual malice” to recover. See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).

Of course, this only begs the question of who constitutes a public figure. It’s easy to say that a billionaire NBA owner is a public figure—but what of the small business owner on the corner or the superintendent of a small regional school district?

None of these questions are easy to answer, but the Sterling story should generate conversation about the nature of privacy in the modern age—an issue that we’ve done little to address, other than using technology to provide a quick fix (here’s looking at you, Snapchat).

Furthermore, it acts as a reminder that each of us is aware that people say things they don’t mean (we’ve all done it) and that attaching permanent pariah status on another individual for thoughts shared with intimates behind closed doors is often unfair and short-sighted. A society built on open dialogue and second (and third) chances cannot function if there is no safe space to discuss controversial subjects in a constructive manner (again, Sterling’s do not remotely fit this description, but other controversial comments do).

Now I better log off and put pen to physical paper. After all, privacy isn’t dead yet.

Friday, May 2, 2014

More and Less: Justice and the Plight of the Poor

With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.”

-- Paul Bloom, “The Moral Life of Babies,” New York Times (9 May 2010)

This week, Annie Lowrey of the New York Times wrote a terrific, front-page story on how the poor in America have much greater access to material goods than in generations past, yet feel as if they are falling farther and farther beyond the middle class. As James Ziliak, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research, stated, “Without a doubt, the poor are far better off than they were at the dawn of the War on Poverty. But they have also drifted further away.”

If people are better off, why does it matter if they’ve “drifted away” from the middle and upper classes on a relative scale? If the rising tide lifts all ships, what difference does it make if some seas rise faster and taller than others?

As it turns out, it makes every difference in the world—and not just in America, but also across most societies in every corner of the globe. Why? Because rising inequality, no matter how improved the objective standard of living is for individuals across the board, offends something deep within us—an innate sense of fairness, justice, and opportunity.

As Paul Bloom wrote in 2010, “You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice.”

As a result, it should come as no surprise that people are frustrated—even enraged—by how an emphasis on conspicuous consumption has replaced a more fulfilling vision of the American Dream with a vacuous conception of liberty and success.

For far too long, American policymakers have focused on “expanding the pie”, as if GDP growth was gospel sent down from on high—the embodiment of our collective pursuit of happiness. As we’ve explored in this space, however, achieving happiness is a much more complicated task than economic growth. It requires a deep understanding of human nature; a critical examination of the true material needs (as opposed to wants) of individuals, and a commitment to investing in the foundational elements of true prosperity—the infrastructure of opportunity.

That infrastructure is physical—inter-city high-speed rail, urban mass transit, affordable housing, reliable water/gas delivery, clean power—and human—education from K-graduate school, social institutions, mobility (where health care attaches to you as a human rather than an employee), and substantive and procedural justice.

Erecting this infrastructure is a mission statement that acknowledges that government’s primary role is to lay the groundwork (including a robust social safety net) for people to life the lives they’ve imagined, but that the State must also take aggressive steps, as necessary, to allay levels of inequality that threaten to create a “gilded class” (if Thomas Piketty is right that, over time, the rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate of the economy, then individuals who start with capital are very likely to accumulate more) and undermine the citizenry’s belief in the very idea of Republican government.

While the incredible reduction in extreme poverty worldwide has brought billions of people the bare necessities of life, there remain 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. These individuals remain in desperate need of economic growth and actions to address inequality. As the Economist noted last year, “Growth alone does not guarantee less poverty. Income distribution matters, too.” Indeed, while two thirds of the fall in extreme poverty was the result of economic growth; one-third came from greater equality.

As the cartoon above implies, the world has enough—enough to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, enough to treat the sick and heal the injured. However, that bounty means little unless extreme poverty is eradicated in the developing world (an achievable goal by 2030) and unless the developed world creates an infrastructure of opportunity commensurate with our innate belief that all people deserve an equal chance to succeed.