Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Are you a liberal?

On some political questions I find myself agreeing with conservatives about goals but disagreeing about methods--on others it's the reverse. One example of the latter (agreeing with methods but disagreeing about goals) that comes to mind is that of freakishly overpaid executives. I read in a NYT article that the current CEO of Pfizer, whose stock price has fallen significantly, stands to receive close to $60 million in compensation next year. This is grossly immoral--but it's not something that should be legislated or punished. Instead, we should create a culture from the inside in which such an executive is ashamed to be paid that much when his lowest paid worker gets so much less.

The top tax bracket in America is 35% right now, much lower than in some other industrialized Western countries. That seems to me to be about right. (While I'm open to lower top tax rates, other parts of the system would have to be fixed first. Read this post and my response to it for more on that.)

The CEO of Whole Foods receives a salary of $342,000, 14 times the employee average; its lowest-paid workers make $13.15 an hour. Is that totally great? Yes. Should we try to legislate our way there? Probably not. I bet Whole Foods workers are healthier, more productive, and work there longer than at many other similar companies. If it's a profitable company others will follow suit.

Minimum wage is a tougher issue. I'll make this argument: if there should be a minimum wage, it should be higher than it is now: $5.15, and last raised in 1996. WTF?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Speaking truth to power?

Helen Thomas asked President Bush what his "real reason" for going to war was. Bold. Now, I'm not posting this to start another argument about the Iraq war. I'm posting it to demonstrate that the administration can't talk about Iraq without mentioning 9/11 or Al Qaeda. Does that mean anything to anyone? I couldn't believe that this exchange actually took place.

* * *

HELEN THOMAS: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

THE PRESIDENT: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect --

HELEN THOMAS: Everything --

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on for a second, please.

HELEN THOMAS: -- everything I've heard --

THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We -- when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq -- hold on for a second --

HELEN THOMAS: They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

THE PRESIDENT: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained --

HELEN THOMAS: I'm talking about Iraq --

THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That's where -- Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where they trained. That's where they plotted. That's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Books and Isms

We've had some great discussions lately touching on post-modernism, and I'd encourage everyone to check out the books that started this whole debacle. Mair would be rightly all up on if you said "Sociology is" without doing the reading, thinking and discussing to back up your pronouncement of the essence of a discipline, and there are grad students in ivory towers around the globe whose heads would explode if they read some of what passes for posting in the blogosophere. Don't be satisfied with some book by James W. Sire that devotes 3 pages to the godless scourge of post-modernism--go ad fontes, my friends.

My candidate for a good, first post-modernist is Pascal. He's easy to read, as is Nietzsche. Some of the 20th-century folks like Heidegger and his structuralist, hermeneutical and post-structuralist children are impossible--dark labyrinths of thought. Wittgenstein, who metamorphoses from a Bertrand Russell clone to a Norwegian gardener to an anti-foundationalist linguist, is not as hard as your Heideggers and Gadamers, but is not easy. He's also essential reading. Start with the Tractatus. Move on to the Philosophical Investigations. They're both short.

Derrida and Foucault get dragged in as well. Of Grammatology is the only Derrida I've read in its entirety, and it's tough and frustrating. I've not read anything but excerpts of Foucault. Lyotard's 1984 book The Postmodern Condition is short, difficult, and good.

Richard Rorty counts himself a pragmatist and disciple of John Dewey. (If you want to see redhurt's face fall off, tell him that John Dewey is the only person you like more than Hillary Clinton.) His earlier works, like Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and Consequences of Pragmatism, are hard; his later works, like his books of papers and Philosophy and Social Hope, are easy.

Let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tenured radicals, or something

I read this book yesterday. It was a silly book. My children will write books of this caliber at the age of 6.

After the introduction, Horowitz dives right in, profiling 101 of the most "dangerous" academics in America. Here's what the dust jacket says:

"We all know that left-wing radicals from the 1960s have hung around academia and hired people like themselves. But if you thought they were all harmless, antiquated hippies, you’d be wrong. Today’s radical academics aren’t the exception—they’re legion. And far from being harmless, they spew violent anti-Americanism, preach anti-Semitism, and cheer on the killing of American soldiers and civilians—all the while collecting tax dollars and tuition fees to indoctrinate our children."

Here's the thing. There's a real debate to be had here, about freedom of speech and expression, tenure, and Ward Churchill. But this book is merely a caricature of one side of the debate: that these professors, who probably average teaching about a class a year, really are radically disconnected from American society and that their colleges graduate legions of clones each year. Horowitz's main problem with each professor seems to be that they opposed the Iraq war. Sorry--that's not radical. The people in America who take geopolitics and policy and history and blogging seriously are pretty much split about the war, and the rest of the American public changes their minds about it on a regular basis-- the same people that voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. It's 2006. Teaching women's studies, opposing the Iraq war and having Marx on your syllabus is just not that radical, and it's certainly not dangerous. (A few of the professors do seem to have pretty insane views.)

AND, there's no list or index of the professors: you can't see that Howard Zinn is on page 141, or Alison Jaggar is on page 67. I bet someone has made one, but the book doesn't have one. Horowitz could at least stand by his own list.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Is it Constitutional? Four views.

I've done a lot of thinking about the " legislating from the bench" argument, which derives from the disagreement about whether the Constitution is a living document or not, which is really just two different ways of expressing how people think social change should come about. I don't know that I have a coherent position yet, but Lord knows that won't stop me from blogging.

A while back I thought to myself for the first time that many justices don't try to "get it right" when they adjudicate a case--they try to get it Constitutional. Is this what they should do? One extreme position might be that the court is a mechanism of social change that should be employed in any way possible. The other side--that the Constitution is fixed and should shape all legal decisions--isn't so extreme.

Trying to see what's Constitutional and leaving legislation up to the legislators--radical! I've come to respect the closely worded opinions of conservative justices who don't try to overreach--who say, I disagree with this decision, but it's clearly what's in the Constitution. If you want the law changed call your senator. I just can't decide if I agree with this or not.

But what philosophical view is that?

(1) Morality by fiat--the Constitution establishes what is right and wrong.

(2) Absolutism--the Constitution gets nearly everything right, so it's the best guide possible.

(3) Pragmatism--the Constitution is a decent way of doing law, and we need some way to decide cases while we continue to make new laws and get closer to being a just society.

(4) Local relativism*--the Constitution is all we have, so we might as well go with it.

I'd think that conservative justices mostly fall into category 2, but I realize that these categories don't map isomorphically onto the labels judges choose for themselves, which can include originalist, cautious liberal/cautious conservative, or moderate.

Well? John Roberts or John Stevens?

*Caveat on 4: I don't mean "relativism" in the full-fledged philosophical sense that nothing is right or wrong--I mean that 4 takes a very pessimistic view of what it's possible to know and how well it's possible to decide cases in general.