Friday, June 22, 2012

How Not to Talk About 'Government'

Doug Craig writes a blog, Climate of Change, on the website of the Redding Record Searchlight, highlighting what is the biggest single challenge facing us (and when I say ‘us’ in this case, I mean ‘humanity’ rather than ‘Californians’)—climate change.  One might think that when the stakes involved the future of our planet people might be able to find some common ground, but one would be, to say the least, quite mistaken.  The whitewash that will inevitably emerge from the conference now underway in Rio will be further confirmation, if such is needed, that we are a long way from taking meaningful steps to avert our onward march towards the planetary catastrophe that will be our lot if we fail to shake ourselves out of the mental stupor induced by having immersed ourselves for too long in a culture which demands few exercises—either moral, mental, or material—on the part of its members.

One of the issues that plagues the conversation about climate change also features in debates about rather less significant spheres of our politics (the ones which, inevitably, grab all the headlines).  That issue is how to talk about ‘Government’. 

I was reminded of this difficulty when reading one of Craig’s recent posts, a thoughtful piece about the culpability of corporations (their psychological profile, as it were, for the benefit of Mitt Romney and certain members of the Supreme Court) and the constructive role that they could play in combating climate change.

As a rule (though with notable exceptions), I find little that is edifying in the comments below blog posts, but mine wandering eyes strayed to a lengthy comment posted by someone called “Nick”.  It began as a garden variety rant: “Doug Craig continues to wag his finger sanctimoniously at ‘big oil’ and ‘big coal’, which no doubt have done immense environmental damage.  However one of the greatest single, and also least reported, environmental disasters of our times was not caused by either of these culprits”.  The culprit (the event in question being the degradation of the Aral Sea)?  You can probably guess.  “But now, because of policies enacted by a government, or successive governments...”, and the author of the comment described the catastrophe that befell the Sea.

While the rant didn’t cause me to re-consider my opinion of the majority of comments (the words ‘big oil’ and ‘big coal’ did not appear anywhere in the post), it did make me think about the line of logic (the descriptor is charitable, but for the sake of argument we can proceed with it) that “Nick” was pursuing.  First off, the comment didn’t have much to do with the wherewithal of corporations to act on the science rolling inexorably in on the subject of climate change.  And secondly, it used a mode of argumentation that just doesn’t make sense.

Limbering up my imagination, I’ll assume that the comment was designed to show that because one government, in one instance, had managed to foul up the ecology of an area, all governments are incompetent, all their efforts should be regarded with disdain, and therefore (this is even more of a leap, but my imagination is feeling sprightly this afternoon)...okay, I give up.

What this series of mental missteps stems from is in part a culture of political permissiveness which permits a priori ideological conceptions to trump the exercise of what the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot called “those little grey cells”, and also the general tendency to view “Government” as a kind of monolith, all off its apparatuses acting in splendid and philosophically consistent concert. 

Just as it would be manifestly illogical to judge the actions of the modern Greek government by the machinations of King Priam of Troy, or the political contortions of California Governor Jerry Brown by the efforts of Padre Junipero Serra, it is more than a little stupid to condemn some as-yet-undetermined action by some-as-yet-unconsolidated body of governments on the basis of the destruction of the Aral Sea by the Soviet Union and its successor states.

People also need to think a little bit more critically about how government works.  ‘Government’ is a complicated thing, comprised of different branches, and each of these branches pursuing different ends by different means.  These are frequently contradictory: we send Peace Corps volunteers to empower ordinary citizens around the world while our military-industrial complex mandates that another—and more powerful—wing of our government gives nigh-unqualified support to some of the most brutal regimes out there. 

Taken at its broadest, the same aggregation of institutions which manage our national and state parks (‘Government’ here assumes a rather avuncular mien) also spies on our citizens, engages in a global arms trade that would be criminalised in a just world, and abuses both executive authority and legislative privilege.  Does it make sense to condemn the same ‘Government’ which provides services to the needy and education funds to society at large for assassinating its own citizens and locking citizens of other countries up without trial?  Would it be too much to ask for a little more precision here?

Take the frequently articulated Republican Party line of logic (again, we’ll be charitable with our terminology): that ‘Government’ is exploitative, abusive, freedom-stealing, socialistic, fascist, liberal, Islamofascist, secularist, anti-American, and un-democratic in everything that it does...except, of course, when ‘Government’ is operating at its most powerful, intrusive, and spectacularly-violent iteration—that is, the waging of war and the construction of an unchecked national security apparatus. 

Let ‘Government’ try to put together a grouping of regulations to rein in some excess in order to achieve an aim of planetary health and global good, and it is pilloried for over-extending itself.  Let it legislative (every bit as vigorously) to engineer some futuristic-Frankensteinian monstrosity called “Corporate Personhood” at the expense of the public good, and it is applauded for showing restraint and staying in its place in relation to the real powers that be.

Debate, by all means, and vigorously.  But exercise those little grey cells while doing so, and we might actually get somewhere...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Election-Rigging Gone Wrong in California

California’s leading advocates of rational reform, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul (co-authors of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It), double-teamed California’s new “Top Two” or “Jungle” primary system, reminding us in the process that the election that occurred earlier this month was not a primary in any meaningful sense of the word.  Mathews and Paul have form, having written the best book out there on California’s democratic deficit and how we can solve it.

Paul provides perhaps the most accurate description of “Top Two”, although it’s probably a not a descriptor that will be appearing in family newspapers.  He points out that a ‘primary’ which excludes parties from participating in the general election is not a primary at all, but rather round-one of the general election.  “Millions of California voters”, Paul writes, “will be surprised come November to discover that they have only limited party choices—no minor party candidates, and in many legislative and congressional districts, only candidates from one of the major parties.  The big choices, they find, have been made in June, in the low-turnout first round”.  I wonder whether, in constitutional terms, it is even permissible to prevent parties from appearing on the general election ballot.  Proposition 14, the initiative responsible for this latest train-wreck on the part of California’s already mangled democracy, certainly warrants a legal challenge. 

A UC San Diego political scientist agrees that “Top Two” is not a primary, because, as others have been pointing out, a primary is about parties selecting their candidates for the general election.  He points to districts where members of one party or another have “lost the right to even make their case to the general election electorate”, and to those in which (when you tally up the percentages of all the candidates from each party) potentially swing-districts are now, through a quirk of the system, going to feature a run-off between members of the same party, voiding the very “competition” that “Top Two” proponents were supposedly promoting.  (The comments on the Fruits and Votes story, in a departure from the norm, actually feature an intelligent conversation about how to rationalise the voting system.) 

Fine, say defenders of irrational (and deliberately undemocratic) reform, this should teach people to pay more attention in June and it’s their own fault if they don’t turn up.  When your argument about a question of democracy involves “teaching people a lesson” instead of learning lessons, you’re in trouble, and this approach to the very serious problems of political alienation, voter non-participation, and civic disengagement is backwards, stupid, and somewhat malicious.

Mathews draws attention to other failings of “Top Two”, noting that it is highly unlikely that issues will feature prominently in the general election in races that pit members of the same party against one another.  Meaning that what we’ll get, instead of “moderation” or “centrism” (two of the most vacuous and oft-used words in our political lexicon), is a “bloodbath” in which the candidate who can most effectively go negative on his or her opponent will win.

You know your reform measure is in trouble when it falls afoul of the pen of LA Times columnist and moderate extraordinaire George Skelton.  Skelton would be a natural supporter of California’snewly-rigged system which is designed to send “moderates” or “centrists” to Sacramento.  Skelton not only calls the reform “screwy” for forcing candidates who won overall majorities in June to compete again in November, but quotes one of the measure’s supporters saying (sans irony) that “Democracy works best when decisions are made by the most people” (a strange thing to come from the mouth of someone who just openly rigged an election with an aim to giving “independent” voters an inflated voice. 

It’s always been my understanding that most June voters are at the wings of their parties (I won’t call them ‘extremists’, as is popular, both because ‘extremism’ is in the eye of the beholder and because in no sense is a broad political spectrum represented in the candidates who line up before us in the fall anyway).  I’m not sure why anyone would expect these voters to go for the most ‘moderate’ member of their was a series of primaries dominated by enthused Tea Parities which, after all, gave the fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party its 2010 victories.  Besides, the attempt to create a non-ideological legislature goes very strongly against the will of our highly-ideological electorate.  Reformers would be better off endorsing an electoral system in which election results actually matter.

It’s hard to draw any other conclusion than that California’s elections have not only been rigged, but rigged so spectacularly thoughtlessly that they’re highly unlikely to bring about the artificial state of affairs that the ‘riggers’ envisioned.  And that’s leaving aside the fact that proponents of Prop 14 grossly mis-diagnosed the state’s malady, meaning that even if Prop 14 produced columns of moderates marching in non-ideological lockstep with some brilliant (but as yet unveiled) centrist philosophy, it wouldn’t address the real problems: the state’s enormous democratic deficit; the disempowerment of our elected representatives by supermajority rules; the mismatch between the power that voters wield and the responsibility they take for that power; and the resulting gridlock.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Paul Krugman on the Greek Myths

Paul Krugman had a good article in Sunday’s New York Times in which he bursts the bubble of the austerity brigade by exposing some of the widely-circulated myths about Greece’s current crisis. 

To wit, Greeks don’t live the decadent, labour-free lives that hyperventilating commentators spin out of decades-old caricatures of southern Europeans: “[the Greeks] work longer hours than almost anyone else in Europe, and much longer hours than the Germans”, whose gimlet-eyed Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has become the embodiment of the austerity doctrine.  Moreover, Greece does not have “a runaway welfare state, as conservatives like to claim; social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, the standard measure of the size of the welfare state, is substantially lower in Greece than in, say, Sweden or Germany, countries that have so far weathered the European crisis pretty well”. 

Krugman argues, persuasively, that Greece’s crisis was brought on by the poor management of the Euro, and the eagerness of investors of all stripes in northern Europe to manipulate the country’s government debts, encouraging the very deficit spending against which they now inveigh from Brussels and Berlin. 

Europe’s powerful nations, primarily Germany and France, took the decision to export the risks associated with the rather mangled half-way house that is the existing Eurozone.  Krugman castigates the leaders of those nations for exacerbating the problem “by substituting moralizing for analysis”.  It’s all the worse because if they took their own little morality play seriously, they’d be the chief villains.

The current cry of those who are looking for a fairer and more rational answer to Europe’s conundrum than a punishingly, ideologically-driven austerity state, is realignment: to erect a fiscal union alongside the monetary union.  In theory, that makes sense: Europe probably needs to go the ‘whole hog’ if it wants to save the Euro.  Krugman echoes this argument, drawing the comparison between U.S. states which can rely on what are effectively spectacularly-sized bailouts from the central government in times of trouble, and individual European countries, which still lack a strong, unifying force capable of directing economic policy at the heart of the EU.

But what’s worrying about the drive to invest greater powers in existing or theoretical organs of the European Union is the distance of those organs from the people they purport to represent.  The cynic in me suspects that the EU has become far too much of an abstraction, and that its institutions are prohibitively rooted in solicitude for particular economic doctrines and deplorably removed from both the concerns and wishes of European citizens.

Localism is about more than parochialism of vision.  It is about—at least if we continue to prize the notions of democracy and accountability—functionality.  The EU in its current form is an unwieldy, undemocratic, and technocratic assemblage which is failing its people.  As a model for a functional democracy, it leaves much indeed to be desired.  And its leaders need to get a lot more serious about evaluating the viability and form of the European project if it’s going to go anywhere.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lusaka: Sights & Activities

Well, the truth, as even the Lonely Planet book has to admit, is that Lusaka is not a happening place in any conventional sense.  There are no spectacular palaces, overwhelming museums, resplendent cultural displays, particularly lively markets, or picturesque waterways to be found.  There are malls, which for affluent Zambians are apparently the place to go.  If you want to go to a cafe, your best bet is a mall, which for me defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise... 

But there are lovely (albeit dusty) tree-lined streets, disconcertingly serene in comparison to the byways in many other capitals on the continent.  There are, in many parts of town, sidewalks which, after Kampala, might as well be the Champs Elysees, so much space do the handful of pedestrians in the city have to gambol about their business.  Lusaka’s basic pleasantness and rather stodgy atmosphere makes it the perfect place to work.


There is, of course, the National Archives, a set of structures which are admittedly more functional than elegant.  The doors screech against the floor, my shoes squeak obnoxiously, there’s neither paper nor soap in the loo, and as the weather’s grown colder I’ve noticed a sharp air-current cutting through the library from somewhere.  But it’s well-organised, professionally-run, and the staff are infinitely friendlier (and more efficient and reliable) than their counterparts at the Library of Congress or the British Library who were born with over-sized chips on their shoulders.  They’re also considerably more human than the computer consoles through which you manage your documentary delivery at Kew.  I haven’t met anyone here who matches Richard Ambani’s inhumanly encyclopaedic knowledge of the Kenya National Archives, but they have good catalogues and an on-going digitisation process to make up for it. 

Digitisation will be a boon for future researchers, and not only because the process promises to make the historical record more accessible.  In too many archives and libraries that I’ve visited in East Africa, files are literally crumbling away year by year.  Kenya’s National Archives are situated in a rather grand colonial-era building on a busy road downtown.  This location, however, means that documents and researchers alike suffer from the hazards posed by the lack of a temperature-controlled environment, noise, movement, and pollution, all of which expose paper records to a substantial rate of decay.  The digitisation project in Zambia is sponsored by the Finnish Embassy, and seems worthy of emulation.


Generally, work for me at the archives follows a predictable pattern of turning up at nine, taking a five-minute lunch break just before one, and then stumbling it out, bleary-eyed but contented shortly after four.  But a couple of weeks ago I met a two siblings who’d come down to Lusaka to investigate a cousin’s inheritance right involving a chieftaincy, which shall go un-named.  It seems that their cousin is a claimant to a higher-ranking chieftaincy which would put him in running for a paramount chieftaincy in northern Zambia.  If they find the documentation they’re looking for, they will have to submit it to various levels of authority to determine whether the claim will go forward.  I know that a high percentage of users of the National Archives at Kew are there for genealogical purposes, but the stakes are presumably seldom as high as this! 


I’ve picked up some bad habits during the course of my research trip, particularly when it comes to traffic etiquette, and these are liable to get me killed upon my return to the U.S.  On Friday I found myself in the middle of the intersection at Church and Independence Roads, fumbling through my wallet for the correct change to buy some ‘talk-time’ from a vendor who was whistling impatiently as he scanned the cars roaring by on all sides, each passing vehicle potentially a lost-customer.  Enveloped in exhaust from a passing big-rig which passed so close that I could almost feel it, it was difficult to distinguish the 1,000 kwacha notes from the 10,000 ones that I needed to be able to get sufficient time to call my mother to let her know that I’m still in the land of the living and haven’t been eaten by lions—BEEP!—or abducted by pirates—HONK!—or—SQUEAL!—flattened by some irresponsible driver. 

The land-rovers and assorted SUVs that rumble around Lusaka seem a bit over the top at first glance, but when you consider that swathes of the country are practically under-water for months at a time after the rains, they make a bit more sense. 


I’ll spend part of my week-end sitting out-of-doors pining after a California summer, reading from my Mark Twain anthology.  But just now I’m going to retire indoors with a mug of tea to escape the cold and lick my wounds after my abortive attempt to make tortillas and gorditas using breakfast maize meal.  Something in the consistency was off, and I might have to wait to satisfy my cravings until late-August.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mr. Irresponsibility

California Governor Jerry Brown loves pointing the finger.  Sometimes it’s at Republicans for being intransigent.  Occasionally it’s at progressives for not seeing things his way.  But usually it’s a complementary finger directed at Jerry Brown himself, for being the “adult in the room” who administers tough love to the citizens of California who, time and again, have elected the man who can dodge responsibility like no other.

Brown’s latest?  To attack Democrats in the course of negotiations on the state budget for their fiscal irresponsibility in trying to protect what they regard as critical sections of the public welfare system.

For Brown to call anyone irresponsible is a laugh.

This is the Governor who basically refused to campaign during 2010, contenting himself with a few anti-Meg Whitman ads, and not deigning to explain to Californians how he would govern.  This is the Governor who refused to take responsibility for developing an approach to the budget crisis during the election cycle, instead sycophantically promising to give voters the say on any revenue.  In other words, Jerry Brown hasn’t ever been particularly interested in doing the job he’s elected to do.

Once Governor, he continued dragging his feet and putting off developing an approach to either our financial or democratic deficit.  He dabbled in negotiations with the Republican Party, which anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the last decade could have told him would be futile, and finally, earlier this year decided to make good on his promise to pass the buck to Californians and put a tax measure on the ballot.

But even in cooking-up a short-term fix to California’s problems, Brown is dodging the real problem.  His long career is primarily defined by a broad streak of political cowardice, which has always prevented him from doubling down on the state’s serious problems and from facing up to reality.  It became a truism amongst political commentators that Brown’s stint as Mayor of Oakland had grounded him in the process, and in one of his more notable Brown-isms during the 2010 campaign, Brown himself declared that “the process is the plan”.

That sounded good, because California’s existing process is almost uniquely dysfunctional, and badly needs overhauling.  But Brown has been steadfast in refusing to make eye contact with the oath-swearing, pledge-taking, die-in-the-last-ditch defenders of California’s most sacred and stupid cow, Proposition 13.  Prop 13 not only created a foolishly undifferentiated property tax system which created protections for ordinary homeowners and loopholes for the extraordinarily wealthy.  It also wrote the supermajority rules into California’s constitution.  The resulting state of affairs means that it takes two-thirds of the state legislature to raise revenue and a minority as small as 33%, given the growth in both population and complexity in California during the past decades, to shred our state’s social system.

Of course, the existence of Prop 13 is a testament not just to the cleverness of affluent real-estate interests which created a defining feature of California’s corporate welfare system while selling it as a populist measure to protect the little guy.  It’s also a testament to the laziness, inaction, and irresponsibility of the man who was then Governor—Jerry Brown. 

Some things don’t change.  In this—surely his ninth and last political life—Brown is starring as the hard-man, who calls out his own party for “fiscal irresponsibility” while putting his own ineptitude on display.  Now, as then, Brown’s approach is one totally devoid of moral and personal responsibility.  Rather than look out for the welfare of Californians at large, Brown looks after number-one. 

If Brown had an ounce of self-respect and an iota of sense of responsibility, he’d put the distracting budget wrangle on hold, not making further cuts to valuable services and institutions this year.  He’d explain to legislators and the public that there are bigger, deeper, structural problems in California’s politics, and that only by addressing these issues will we be able to properly define and pursue our priorities.  It is only once we’ve closed this democratic deficit that we will be able to go about our politics in a rational manner—one in which elections, and the decisions of voters matter; in which elections are fair, and better reflect voters’ viewpoints; and in which Californians themselves assume responsibility for the considerable role that they play in shaping the politics of our state.  That, focussing on the fundamentals of our politics so that we can then debate the needs of our society and then deal with the specifics of the budget, would be the honest thing to do.

But he’s Jerry Brown.

So he won’t.