It annoys a lot of American liberals that the word, “freedom” has achieved a kind of totemic status on the political right. Witness last week’s annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, or any Tea Party-oriented gathering. Only conservatives know what liberty is. Anybody that disagrees doesn’t understand freedom or is trying to destroy our freedom. Etc. Really grating.
But, it would be very inaccurate to say the Tea Party is the first American political movement to insist it alone understands the true meaning of freedom. A few years ago I read an interesting book called, The Story of American Freedom. The historian author believes that defining “freedom” has been the central animating struggle of U.S. history. That history, he says, is a more complex story than most of us assume. It has not been a simple, linear march towards greater and greater liberty, or even a story of a fixed set of freedoms being extended to new groups of Americans. Rather, he says, each American era sees its consensus on freedom’s meaning challenged. It gets defended, and a revised definition – usually more expansive, but not always – evolves. How can this be in a country that’s core values are supposed to be fixed in the Constitution and even universal?
Good topic idea, I thought, especially since the way our history works, if the Tea Party wins, their version of freedom becomes the right one. On Monday, I’ll just open up by listing some kinds of freedoms (like economic, religious, etc.) and tracing his basic argument of how freedom’s meaning has evolved. This will be short and with little detail since you all don’t need a history lecture. Then, in discussion we can apply it to our times and our political wars.
Discussion Questions –
- What are the different “types” of freedom: Political freedom, economic, religious, speech, privacy, family autonomy, etc.? How are they related?
- How has the definition of freedom changed throughout American history? How has the concept evolved in the last 4o years, as our politics has polarized along liberal/conservative lines?
- Liberal Freedom: What do you think is the current liberal definition of freedom? Your critique?
- Conservative freedom: Same.
- How do you think most regular Americans define freedom? Do they agree on its main components? How different is that from the definitions liberals and conservatives seem to have and wave around all of the time?
- A bit about the book I read that sparked this topic: The Story of American Freedom. A nasty but still useful conservative critique of it is here.
- Some Tea Party-ish views of freedom.
- A very thoughtful analysis of the conservative and liberal conceptions of freedom, although it favors the latter. Long, but a must-read.
- Fire-breathing, very liberal view of what freedom means and how much of it Americans have lost in recent years.
- What is Libertarianism?
- Two key concepts to understand: Positive liberty and negative liberty.
- Long but good optional read: Do we want to live in the Libertarians’ world? A skeptical but not totally hostile view of the philosophy.
NEXT WEEK: Do/Should International Organizations Have Power Over the U.S.?
I thought we’d try something a little different for a few weeks. Our next 4-5 meetings take on directly some of the major political themes that today’s conservatives sound. For me, there could be no other choice for the first topic than the “growing dependency” on government idea.
In case you didn’t know, the idea that Democrats in general – and Obama in particular – want to get Americans “hooked” on government is a major, major theme on the Right these days. One hears it over and over and over again on talk radio, conservative websites, and other media outlets. Dependency on government programs, they say, is rising, and the public only voted for Obama twice because he first promised and then delivered freebies to his voters. This meme has a powerful appeal to millions of Americans and seems to have become a core belief among conservatives. Poor people are no longer lazy, it seems; they’re seduced into dependency on the State. They are victims of liberalism.
It is easy – way too easy, speaking of seductive notions – just to dismiss it all as covert racism and willful blindness to seeing the worst recession since WWII and the fracturing of the job market for low-income Americans. One of my big goals for Civilized Conversation is to try to understand things most of us want to dismiss out of hand and to examine them on their merits. Could there be anything to this idea of growing dependency on government? What if the economy stays flat for years? Regardless of the merits of this notion, why is it so appealing to conservatives?
I’ll open our meeting by introducing the topic and summarizing the evidence for growing government dependency. Then, we can perhaps debate in a civilized fashion why so many of our countrymen believe in this.
Discussion Questions –
- What do they mean by a growing dependence on government? What evidence do they cite and how do they (or do they!) rebut the obvious counterarguments?
- Who really benefits from government? Do we really redistribute much? If so, why?
- Why does the dependency meme resonate so strongly with conservatives?
- Could there actually be a problem here? What if private sector jobs don’t come back? Will dependency advocates be right?
The argument -
- Yes, safety net spending is way up. But, the causes are mostly the unprecedented recession (temporary), and structural changes in our economy. It’s not some sudden growth in laziness.
- Does government redistribute wealth? Sure. But, it goes both ways and the federal government does not redistribute downward much!
- Of course the safety net redistributes. As social insurance, it is supposed to do that.
- Specific programs:
NEXT WEEK: Do Americans agree on what freedom means?
just a short intro post from me this week. But, that doesn’t mean Monday’s topic is not…well, the topic of everything. How do we determine which facts are true? What is a fact, anyway? And, who gets to say?
This one is Dean’s idea. Dean has advanced degrees in philosophy, so I’m looking forward to his take on “epistemology.” the study of how we determine what is true and what is not. In our discussion, we can apply the principles to politics, religion, or anything we want. Given that large percentages of Americans believe in some pretty weird things, and that our country seems to be dividing into warring camps of conservative/liberal, religious/non, and so, forth, I think it will be a pretty lively debate.
- What is epistemology? Far more detail here, from the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Knowledge in an Internet age:
- Are we just wired to believe whatever we want to believe, and what does that mean for our democracy in the Internet age? Recommended.
- IMO, the greatest epistemological advance in modern times: Stephen Colbert’s Truthiness.
Next Week – Are Americans becoming too dependent on government (a major, major, conservative belief!)
Two weeks ago, we had a pretty good meeting debating whether our two-party political system is a cause or an effect of our current paralysis. Dean and others thought the problem was that today’s politicians are less beholden to the public interest than in the past, while others (yo) said the paralysis is either the result of our extreme polarization or of one party’s refusal to compromise on anything, anytime
Monday is kind of a Part II meeting, but I changed the wording to encourage us to focus on something other than the system: The “solving” and the “problems” parts. I believe our political gridlock is far, far more fundamental than issue polarization. I think it’s a result of a basic disagreement about what our nation’s problems are and whether any e3ffort to resolve them that involves government is even appropriate. I’m not even sure we have a national consensus about the legitimate ends of politics anymore, much less its means.
I’ll explain more what I mean by this in my opening. Of course, there are other reasons to worry that our problems are particularly hard to solve these days that have less to do with the mismatch between polarization and the political system. For example, some of our big problems tend to be international in scope and thus partially outside of our ability to fix (terrorism, climate change). The Great Recession has made political cooperation harder, too. But, I hope you’ll allow me to talk about more inside-our-own-political-system origins of Washington gridlock. Frankly, I’ve never been more concerned about the functioning of American democracy, and my experience goes back 30+ years at this point.
Discussion Questions –
- Do Americans agree on what our big national problems are? If not, why not? Same questions for the solutions?
- Are elites more or less divided on these matters than the general public? Is there actually a silent majority on the big questions?
- If there is a rough consensus on problems and solutions, why are our political leaders not acting?
- If no consensus exists, even among regular people, then why not?
- Have we reached a point where we are sharply divided on the ends (goals) of politics and not just the means to those ends? If so, how did this happen – or is it really a new development at all (i.e., were we always sharply divided on basic questions)?
Links – [Lots of good ones!)
- The problem is our system itself, not polarization or extremism. It’s Madison’s fault. Recommended.
- [UPDATE: Yeah, okay, way too many links. But, read this one: The six big things we know about political polarization in America.]
- It’s the voters, all voters including regular people, not just elites.
- It’s especially conservative voters: Republican voters [link fixed] don’t want their leaders to compromise, a consistent polling result since 2010. Very important.
- It’s different worldviews: Left and Right in America do not share the same basic political-moral worldview.
- It’s safe districts: Few members of Congress fear losing to the other party enough to force cooperation with the other side.
- It’s NOT Fox or MSNBCs fault!
- It’s one side’s unprecedented radicalism, says this very harsh assessment of the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. Some of you won’t like this.
- Your contrarian must-reads:
- We are NOT gridlocked, or at least, there’s no reason to think it will last.
- The solution is to strengthen parties, not weaken them!
NEXT WEEK: How do we judge which facts are true? Dean helps us explore the basics of epistemology.
Believing in our imminent doom is not a fringe position in the United States. Roughly one-half of American Christians say they believe the Apocalypse will come in their lifetimes. People in other parts of the world believe this, too. But the U.S. is kind of ground zero (ha) for Apocalyptic fervor, and has been for centuries. (Note: I’m referring to the end of the world as described in Revelation. Other cultures have their own end of the world myths, but unless somebody knows a lot about them AND people want to discuss them, I’d like to keep focused on the variant of apocalyptic thought that drives millions of Americans).
Since this is such a secular group, I thought it would be fun to discuss why so many Americans seem to be comforted by the knowledge that the world will end – perhaps very soon – in fiery doom. Is it just that they all believe they will be among the saved, or are other things going on?
The articles below offer some opinions on that, and on Monday I’ll quickly regurgitate some of their views and then we can either break out the sackcloth, or maybe conduct a semi-structured inquiry into how many of us (and which of us) hold apocalyptic views, what it is they actually believe, and why.
The articles below clarify some of these questions and offer some answers. What do you think?
Discussion Questions –
- How many Americans believe in an impending apocalypse? What specifically do they believe?
- Where do they get these views from? What does the Book of Revelations actually predict?
- Not everybody shares the same exact apocalyptic beliefs. What are the major sub-varieties of apocalyptic belief? For example, what is the difference between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalism and why should we care?
- Why do people believe in all of this? Is it just that because the Bible says so? Or, are there important social and psychological motives that drive apocalyptic thinking?
- So what? How does having millions of citizens believing in our imminent doom affect our politics and society?
- What is the Book of Revelations actually about and what’s in it? (PBS Frontline)
- Why do people like to believe in this? (from Chronicle of Higher Ed.) A must-read.
- Because it’s psychologically comforting. (Scientific American)
- U.S. obsession with the Apocalypse has been growing in the last decade and it’s harming us. (Salon)
- [Update: Fear of Armageddon is a growth industry, sweeping pop culture in the last decade. Skim this to get the idea.]
- A long – one-hour! - radio show with a more sympathetic look at some of these true believers. Listen to this someday, it’s cool. (from NPR’s This American Life.)
NEXT WEEK: Can our political system still adapt to solve problems?
Sixty percent of Americans now say it’s time for a third party. Dean thought we should talk about why our system seems to be rigged for two parties only. I’m not sure I would call it rigged, but the obstacles to the emergence of a genuine third party (beyond some billionaire’s quixotic presidential bid, like Perot’s) are pretty large. I’ll ask Dean if he wants to give any opening remarks and then maybe say a thing or two about what the big obstacles are, according to (I think) the polysci crowd.
In light of the usual howls of laughter from the GOP over the proposals in Obama’s state of the union address, maybe it would be enlightening to discuss whether the two-party system is a part of the paralysis problem – or, as the last links below argue strongly, whether it’s one of our political parties that is broken instead. Please read these links if you don’t know what I mean.
Discussion Questions –
- Why is America’s two-party system so stable? Is it the Constitution? The way we structure elections? Money? Merely the weight of the two major parties’ long period of dominance?
- Could it be public opinion? The public says it wants a third party, but does it really? What big segment of the electorate is not being served by the two parties? To ask another way, what could a third party in America stand for that the other two major parties do not?
- Why have third-party presidential candidates in recent years (Perot, Nader) not ever sparked a genuine third party?
- What conditions would be necessary to form another major political party? Are we getting closer?
- Hypothetically, what do you think might happen if a third party sprang up that got, say, 20% of the presidential or Senate votes? Cui bono?
- ABCs of our 2-party system, a 2-parties for dummies kind of thing.
- There are major obstacles to a U.S. third party forming. Recommended.
- An expert dumps on the idea that a U.S. third party will emerge to save us. A good read.
- What if we had a multiparty system like, say, Germany’s?
- Our real problem is not a broken system. It’s that the Republican Party is broken and cannot function in opposition in a responsible way. This is not because it’s moved far to the right! (Although it is now farther right than in 100 years.) Any of these is a must-read.
NEXT WEEK: The Apocalypse. I mean, our discussion of it and why many people believe in it.
Next Tuesday, President Obama will deliver his sixth state of the union address. He is expected to focus on small steps the government can take to start restoring the widely-shared prosperity that our economy used to provide, before a tiny sliver began capturing all of the fruits of rising productivity. Three years after the Great Recession officially ended economic growth is back, stocks are back, corporate profits are back. But, employment, wage growth, and job security are not. Worse, this situation caps a 40-year trend of stalled median wages that doesn’t even take into account the millions of workers that, starting in about 2000, have dropped out of the labor force altogether.
We’ve talked about some of this before (here and here, for example). But, we’ve never focused a whole meeting on solutions. Maybe that’s because it’s so daunting to figure out ways to improve pay in private markets where most Americans make their livings. Or, maybe it’s because we don’t do solutions in this group. Anyway, Obama’s speech gives us a good opportunity to discuss whether and how to use public policy to raise wages.
Monday I’ll open a little longer than usual because I want to describe the problem clearly and explain enough details about what Obama is expected to propose that we can discuss them intelligently. I’ll also mention, but not rebut, the main arguments of those that argue that raising wages through government policy can’t possibly work without harming our overall economy. As you can see from the discussion questions below, this can be a kind of a theory of everything topic. My idea to avoid this by focusing on the Obama proposals, one by one. But, we can go big and do a government is benevolent / inherently useless discussion if you really want to.
Discussion Questions –
- What? Are low wages really such a problem for many Americans? Which ones? Low compared to what: To the economic value they produce? If so, why aren’t they paid accordingly? If not, are wages the problem or is it something else?
- Why/ Causes. Also, are these causes “natural” to a modern economy, to the workers themselves, or did we do this to ourselves?
- Solutions? What could be done - without reducing job growth or s screwing up economy and misallocating resources?
- SOTU Proposals? What will the president propose? How will he justify them?
- Objections? What are the main objections to these proposals (that don’t fit on ideological bumper stickers)?
Links – (A very broad topic. Read the topics that interest you.)
The Problem –
- [Update, Here's a must read, because I'm so furious researching this! Also, this: Corporate profits are at a post-War high directly because wage growth is near a post-War low.]
- Average Americans’ wages have been flat for 40 years – even as their productivity has skyrocketed. Recommended.
- One in four Americans working in low-wage jobs. Seven of ten of the most common jobs pays under $30,000. Recommended.
- More, in charts: An overworked and underpaid America.
- A conservative rebuttal: No, worker compensation has almost kept pace with their value, if one measure it right.
- I will rely a lot on this study of the problem.
- [SOTU proposals: I will post if details available before our meeting.]
- Minimum wage:
- An alternative to raising the minimum wage.
- Revive labor unions so workers have more bargaining power.
- No. Just focus on education. Better train mid-skill workers, like we discussed
- Mike is right! Getting back to full employment is the answer.
NEXT WEEK: A post-SOTU topic. The Good, Bad, and the Ugly Of a 2-Party Political System.
Our resident human rights expert (and Monday birthday boy!) Jim Z. will be handling Monday’s meeting. Some of his Amnesty International colleagues will be there, too. Actual experts!
My understanding, FWIW, is that arguably, more substantive attention has been paid to the problem of genocide in the 10 years since Rwanda than in the previous 90 years since the Armenian genocide. There has been an anti-genocide convention in international law for many decades, spurred by the Holocaust and WWII. But, since Rwanda in 1994, the international community has taken much more seriously its “responsibility to protect (R2P)” populations experiencing mass oppression. The International Criminal Court has been established and it and ad hoc courts have tried some perpetrators, including heads of state. Governments and non-governmental organizations monitor global hot spots that might turn into genocides. They make blockbuster movies about Rwanda and blood diamonds.
But, the practical and political limits to intervening to stop these crimes remain. What’s a genocide exactly and who decides? Who has a right and/or the responsibility to intervene? Where do human rights stand in relation to other powerful countries’ priorities? What if intervening to prevent genocide means backing one side over another in a civil war? How do we get out once we get it?
Jim will open us up by explaining a little bit about the U.N. genocide convention and related matters, focusing on Rwanda.
Discussion Questions –
- What are the basics of the Armenian and Rwandan genocides?
- What made them “genocides?” How is the term defined under international law? What does it include and exclude? How much ambiguity is there in the language of the covenant?
- What have we learned about preventing genocide in the last 10 or 100 years? What are the warning signs? Who’s monitoring?
- What can the international community actually do to prevent genocide? What have we learned from trying and not trying?
- When do and should other considerations keep us from acting?
- Wiki: What was the Armenian genocide? The Rwanda genocide? How is genocide defined?
- Per Jim: An interview with his colleague Alison des Forges on the Rwanda genocide.
- Who is at risk for genocide? People monitor this.
- [Late UPDATES:] South Sudan and the Central African Republic are careening towards potential genocides as we meet.]
- A critique of using genocide as the casus beli for intervening: It’s too vague a criteria and too high a threshold.
- Obama’s U.N. ambassador, a genocide expert, has tried to elevate the status of the responsibility to protect (R2P) in U.S. foreign policy.
- But, she may not be having much success.
NEXT WEEK: How to raise Americans’ wage levels? A pre- state of the Union meeting.
Dean’s idea for a topic hits us in all the sweet spots: Politics and public policy, science, law and the Constitution, ethics, and even culture. This would not have always been true. For decades, criminology was mainly sociological and political in focus. The causes and predictors of crime were all about structural factors like poverty, segregated neighborhoods, education, racism, and so forth, and how they linked to the personal cause of crime like poor parenting, abuse and trauma, role models, and so forth.
That’s changing, or at least expanding. A little cursory reading tells me that two new frontiers are being added to criminology.
- “Neurocriminology:” Using personalized biological information (brain scans, genetic markers, and other physical traits) to predict who is likely to commit crimes in the future and who isn’t likely. They’re working on it.
- “Predictive policing:” Using number crunching of huge amounts of data (including, eventually if not already, surveillance data about people’s daily lives) to guess where and when and who is about to commit a crime or violent act. They’re already doing some of this.
I’m not sure how close we are to this brave new world. Try the readings below. But, I know we can talk for two hours about the ramifications of it all. I’ll open us up by summarizing the state of play in both these areas, based on very limited reading. I’ll focus mainly on the biology stuff, since it’s way cooler. Then, I want to push us to think about the enormous implications if they are able one day to predict criminal behavior – or, more likely IMO, if they merely think they can and deploy these tools anyway.
Discussion Questions –
- Biological crime fighting: How close is science to being able to predict crime in individuals? Could they ever separate nature versus nurture causes for anyone but a small number of the most inherently violent, insane people?
- Let’s say they will be able to do this. What ethical, legal, and political issues would it raise? How will these tools be employed and what limits will be placed on them? Who will get a say in this and who won’t?
- Big Data crime fighting: How close are the number crunchers a to being able to predict crimes? Same legal, moral, ethical questions?
- Attempting to identify the “bad” people in society in advance has always been misused and gotten pretty ugly. Will it be different this time because it’s more “scientific? Could it be worse?
- [UPDATE: Read this one.] PBS’s NOVA discusses the perils of trying to predict violent crime using science.]
- At least one researcher [Saturday: Link fixed] is making extravagant claims about science’s ability to predict violent behavior in individuals.
- There are huge practical and ethical obstacles to doing this, obviously.
- How predictive policing works (how Big Data analysis is being used to predict crime and focus police resources).
- Relax. No one can predict individual criminal acts; it’s just about probability and a way to determine how much post-jail supervision ex-cons should receive. So far!
NEXT WEEK: The “problem from Hell:” Stopping genocide 100 years after Armenia: